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.

Cathedral of experience 


Here we are in a traffic jam outside Prague. This vacation has amazing aspects of many flavors and sizes. The chance to spend time with beloved family members, the chance to pick up scraps of a new language. The sights, sounds, and scents of an ancient city. And the opportunity to see what remains the same across societies. Like traffic jams.
I have been to Prague several times now to visit my dear sister and each time it is the same. I am overwhelmed by the multiple and varied experiences from seeing people I love to climbing cobblestoned streets up to St. Vitus Cathedral.
On this visit I have been granted an extra treat. Since the last visit my lovely niece has acquired a boyfriend. This delightful young man–Tommy Jay–just completed his bachelors degree and I was privileged to read his dissertation on documentation of art.
One third of the body of the dissertation was dedicated to performance art. At its core, performance art is the public manipulation of a bit of a person’s life in order to explore and illuminate human nature. Documentation of performance art is NOT the art itself. However, in order for performance art to leave a mark larger than the lives of the performer and her immediate audience, documentation is vital.
I texted Tommy this morning. “I want to blog about my experience in Prague but I am in sensory overload. I cannot select just one subject.” And his reply was that if I wanted good documentation of my vacation I would have needed to start writing before I started packing.
His statement touched on many important concepts. Suddenly my connection as a traveler and writer to every travel writer and every diarist on a journey was illuminated. Also made clear was the hidden and subtle nature of experience–a string of discrete events bound together only by my consciousness. Then there is a sense of loss. I understand now that I could have written an entire book just about this trip–the nature of anticipation, the days I spent planning for and looking forward to leaving, the nature of my relationship with my sister…I could have teased the themes apart and woven them together again.
Zen philosophy’s stance is that only the present moment is real. From this perspective, every moment is woven of a universe of thought and ideas. Every moment is its own work of art.