Confessions of a part-time atheist

Image courtesy of US Geological Survey. This is the summit road about two miles from where I lived at the time of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

My relationship to the concept of God is as old as I am. Religion seeped through the walls of my mother’s abdomen and into the womb before I was born. Religion is my mother’s voice echoing through amniotic fluid as she stood in church and sang hymns. It is the voice of the preacher cast from the pulpit to fill the sanctuary.

Bit by bit, memories began to imprint themselves on my consciousness following my birth. Along with that time I burned my finger on the iron, I recall sitting on the couch with my mother for our daily devotions. A prayer, a Bible story, a hymn.

Upon second consideration, burning my finger on the iron also formed a religious feeling in me. My mother left her ironing in the living room, needing to run to another room. She looked me directly in the eye and said, “Don’t touch the iron.” As soon as her back disappeared down the hall, the urge to touch that iron became unbearably strong. With my first feeling of guilt even preceding the action, I stretched out a forefinger and pressed it to the bottom of the iron.

Predictable events followed my contact with that surface. Pain, shock, dismay, regret. Along with these came a sense of betrayal. Why hadn’t she told me it would burn me? Surely if she had told me that, I wouldn’t have touched it.
The primary lesson I learned from touching the iron is that I should obey my mother because the natural consequences of not doing so could be painful. In addition, it became clear as water that mom knew things I didn’t.

There is no doubt in a child’s mind, no opportunity to consider and weigh before believing. Just so, I sucked up a belief in God and Christian theology year by year throughout my childhood. The belief, natural as air, made anyone who didn’t believe as we did seem foreign and evil.

On October 17, 1989, Redwood Estates, California–I was 16 years old–I lay in bed with severe chest pain wondering if it would kill me. I hid in the recesses of my mind, curled against the pain, reality receding before the sharp stabs radiating through my chest. Without further warning, something struck my bedroom like Godzilla sweeping his claws through a high-rise. A fractional moment of disorientation cleared when my bedroom kept shaking. An earthquake, I understood. Survival instinct took over. I dodged my flying dresser and ran for the exit.

The house survived the quake mostly intact–unlike many in our mountain community. Physically, I was also fine. But as I stood in the street outside our house and braced against the frequent aftershocks, I knew the quake had changed something elemental in my personality. I longed to be able to fly. In those days I often dreamed I could fly. Now in surreal but waking life, I wanted to be in a dream where I could fly. I couldn’t tolerate the feeling of standing on ground I couldn’t trust.

There are elements of “reality” we humans depend upon so completely we aren’t even aware we are dependent. One is the stability of the ground. Another is inhaling and having air available. A third is the pull of gravity.
The existence of God and the correctness of Christianity were like earth and air for me–unquestioned to the point of not understanding there might be a question.

My later teenage years consisted of earth-shattering events which fractured my beliefs–creating landslides of uncertainty, periods where I would doubt every element of reality.

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Fifteen years later…


I wrote my first short story at eight years old. We had a small flock of Muscovy ducks– remarkably ugly and graceless animals. The drakes engaged in an odd behavior where they gathered in a circle, heads facing in, and hissed and bobbed their heads at each other. In my short story, these drakes were members of a secret cabal which absorbed all the news of the world every morning and ruled the world with their combined knowledge.

Enchanted with my idea but disappointed with its poor execution, I laid writing aside until thirteen years old. At that point, I realized no profession drew me like becoming an author. I drafted novel plots galore but could not figure out, again, how to satisfyingly execute my visions. Through my twenties I continued to dream of being an author. Life kept intervening–distracting me with incidentals like college, marriage, children, drama, poverty…

On the occasion of my twenty-eighth birthday, two things happened to change my perspective on writing. The first was that I turned twenty-eight. “Two years until I’m thirty,” I thought, “and I haven’t written a thing.” In concert with that realization, my brother gave me a birthday present. Stephen King’s book On Writing inspired me as no other writing guide before or since has. His gentle, wise, direct advice showed me the way into producing a novel.

Two of the things he said stay with me to this day. “Writers write,” he wrote. “If you write, you’re a writer.” And to paraphrase his corollary: Don’t set out to write the Great American Novel. Set out to write a certain number of bad words every day.

At twenty-eight years old, armed with the knowledge of my impending thirties and Stephen King’s kind advice, I wrote my first novel.

Fifteen years later, I’ve published Sage Courage, available on Amazon as we speak. Give it a browse and let me know what you think.

The haunted house – Part II

One of the small doors which led from my bedroom into the storage space beyond the curtain wall had been left hanging open about three inches. Again, a foreboding presence pressed fear into me, imprinting it on my brain like a brand on a calf’s skin. I could never decide whether to stare at that blank line of darkness or to look away, pretending it wasn’t there, so I alternated techniques. Staring at the space invited more fear. Looking away simply moved the fear into my imagination.

The fear and dread never abated over the years I slept in the attic. They grew worse with time until they seeped into my dreams, leaving me with nightmares I couldn’t distinguish after a while from the reality of living in that dark room.

Possessed things–animals and humans both–entered my dreams and stalked me relentlessly with their slack jaws and empty eyes. There were times I got so tired of fighting that I longed to just lie down and let them take me. Dreams of haunted buildings became fixtures of my sleep.

Many times I woke up only to see clumps of clothes on my floor and illuminated by moonlight or starlight transformed into dead animals slowing being reanimated. Sometimes I dreamed I woke up and, relieved, would begin to get out of bed only to find my nightmares being reiterated in what otherwise looked like “normal” life. I fought to wake up. I failed.

Meanwhile, Sunny developed night terrors. At unpredictable intervals she would sit bolt upright in bed and emit prolonged, blood-curdling screams.

Without understanding how, I knew the terror emanated from behind one of the curtained-off walls–the western one. I even knew in what portion of that dark area the evil dwelled. I dreamed of it–saw foul power oozing from that area and attacking me and my family.

For a suspenseful read, you can purchase my novel Sage Courage in print or ebook at Amazon.com.

The haunted house – Part I

The farm house stood mostly straight but the wind blew right through the north walls during the bitter, humid Ozark winters. We arrived at the twenty acre farm when I was six. The parents started remodeling the rotted-through, creaking place from the first day.

My brother Steve and I went up the bare stairs to explore. My sister, Sunny, was only two years old and stayed with mom. The attic reeked of disuse. Its unfinished walls and ceiling were dusted with cobwebs and someone had tacked sheets of styrofoam to the ceiling joists. Several of these styrofoam rectangles had come partially untacked and leaned down into the room.

Another owner had built curtain walls so the slope of the roof line ended abruptly at about four feet, leaving long, triangular spaces running invisible beyond the scope of the living space.

We stared around. I tried to put a brave face on it as I wanted my own bedroom but it didn’t work. After thirty seconds or so, my brother and I simultaneously felt a threatening presence billowing into the room. We screamed and bolted for the stairs, not stopping even when we got to the main floor, not stopping until we found mom and touched her like she were home base.

Mom shook her head and assured us there was nothing to fear. Dad, the handiest handy man around, finished the stud walls and ceiling with Sheetrock and tape and mud and the bare plywood floor got covered with carpeting. I watched the furnishings being carted up the stairs with dread and explained to my mother I was fine sleeping in the living room. This was not an effective ploy. That night, after dark, we went upstairs. Mom tucked us in and prayed with us.

The attic was not wired for electricity so an extension cord ran from the lamp, across the room, and down the stairs to an outlet on the main floor. Mom left and I waited in rigid silence until the light went out when she unplugged the extension cord. There would be no relief until morning.

For a good read, you can purchase my novel Sage Courage in print or ebook at Amazon.com.