Undefinable: Atheism, Writing, & Stuff What Be Sacred
So, please to be sitting down when you read the next sentence:
My pro-choice/ atheist/ feminist/ queer self is currently applying to live in a convent for a year. Yes, in order to spend a good 12 months living in an intentional community, working for social justice, and cracking “The Real World: Motherhouse” jokes–I’m officially attempting to get me to a nunnery. The memoir that will undoubtedly come of this risk remains to be written, but my application essay — (in which I grapple with the question, “How do you define spirituality?” as someone who doesn’t do “spirituality” or “definitions”) — is now available beneath the cut for your perusing. Enjoy.
“A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.” –Karl Kraus
The last religious service I attended took place at the Fox Theater. For two hours, familiar hymns erupted from a shining grand piano, rocketed across the hall, and lingered in my nervous system, reverberating. I leaned forward, shocked at the stillness of those around me, swept into the cantor’s piercing soprano,–her expressions of suffering, redemption, and doubt. A writer always, I scribbled furious notes to myself and felt poetry form in the periphery of my mind. The effect of the night was intangible, difficult to place. Yet, I experienced peace in the face of that indefinable quality, a strangely certain comfort with the mystery.
All codes abandoned: the service was a Tori Amos concert, the first time I managed to see—live –the songwriter whose albums I had played religiously for years. A thoroughly secular event. Yet I came to it, searching, like a pilgrim, and carrying the faith of a long-time follower. As she sang, I scribbled down the playlist, noted the improvised variations of familiar themes, gathered new scripture for later use. My love for music has always relied primarily on a love of lyric; to paraphrase slam poet Alix Olson, I became a writer because I was a folksinger who could not play guitar. And I fell for Tori Amos, as a teenager, not – primarily – for her carnal piano riffs or curling vocal melodies, but for her poetry. Loaded with metaphor, organic, obtuse, the lyrics from those albums became my first language, the language (to borrow from another lyricist) that kept me alive. Far from straightforward, Amos’ songs—which rest on lines like “racing turtles, the grapefruit is winning” and “the lord of the flies was diagnosed as sound”–demanded audience involvement. They required interpretation; I required space for projection. I listened to music like I read books, collecting material and projecting into it, searching for meaning.
In a very real sense, writing and listening have both been pilgrims’ journeys for me. I search for the meaning I can make from my experience, while searching for the meaningful connections between that experience and another’s. I search for words to express, equally, what I’ve found and what I’ve lost.
Among what I’ve lost: two roommates – friends – neither twenty at the time of her death. Two friends I claimed as blood when we—hospitalized as teenagers—collectively battled the same illness. Two friends who died—at seventeen and nineteen, respectively—from the same illness I survived.
In the wake of the first rupture—the death of my friend Tracy—I desperately sought meaning. I sought it, perhaps habitually, in God. I’d never been much in the way of religion, but I’d certainly had the desire—often urgent—to believe. I had, at varying times, devoured self-help texts, blasted Christian rock, video-taped Touched by An Angel, attended friends’ church youth groups, and prayed. After Tracy’s death, I fell back on these abandoned threads of near-belief, hoping they would hold. I traipsed the woods – miles to go before I sleep – and searched for a way of surviving. I read On Death and Dying. I lit candles. Tied fabric to tree limbs. Ached.
Tracy’s death became (and becomes now, again) what I could not allow it to be: a story, and worse, a story with an ending. I begged my brain for the relief I imagined religion would offer. If I could know that she was okay, that she was, that she continued – somewhere, somehow – to be, then perhaps I could do the unbearable: continue myself.
My search for a way to cope overturned a great deal of religion. The paths I’d tried reappeared but seemed to lead nowhere. I stumbled back onto “to everything there is a season,” brushed against God’s mysterious ways, but remained distant, cold. My search for meaning fell short of the ultimate belief in it. I could not align myself with the certainty of faith in God and in God’s plan. I could not align myself with any plan that could incorporate Tracy’s death, explain it; the mere suggestion slammed against me, violent. In the panic that followed, I found a sudden rage and its epiphany: I could not bear this through “God” – who would take the most senseless moment of my life and call it planned. Order, for the first time, felt like a betrayal. If this was logical, meant to be, planned, I could not survive it. But if it were chaos, unplanned, impossible for me and any other being to make order of, there could be some relief. I had never understood atheism—how could you do that to yourself? believe in nothing? – but suddenly it clicked. Atheism, at its root, is not a belief in nothing. It’s a belief in something other than god. A belief in life, a commitment to the incarnate, so powerful and loyal and deeply colored that it makes God unnecessary. A commitment to meaning in the here-and-now that makes God counter-intuitive.
Like all stories, this one has only unfolded in retrospect. If I had been able to revise my image of God, this story might end differently. I might have revised God into a being who knew the pain and wrong of my friend’s death and was powerless to stop it. I could – maybe—have borne belief in that. But the God I’d always known—the man in the sky with the beard, the robes, the sandals—that God was omnipotent. His name translated to Higher Power, and I was saved by chance. We parted ways. Without that notion of God, Tracy’s death could be unordained, unnecessary. It could be awful. Life could be complicated and the good that came from her death – the reconnection with a mutual friend, the sense that I could survive anything, having survived this—did not have to justify the wrong.
Writing is a meaning-making project, and I tell and live this story differently than others would. Had she lived to grieve my loss, Tracy herself might have been among those for whom loss secures and restores faith. I can’t pretend that my atheism necessarily results from this loss, and I bristle a bit at the implications: that I lost God because I lost her, that my disbelief is somehow her doing.
But Tracy – in life and in loss – did not deprive me of my belief. She inspired it. The loss of God has not been a loss for me, really; it’s been an opening. The space between lines, where the uncertain, penciled-in “God” so long failed to fully serve has become once more a blank page to explore as I see fit. I haven’t lost the desire to make meaning. I still constantly unravel my own experiences. I reflect, discuss, dissect, rebuild. I feel personally celebrated when the right song on the radio brings my sister to the graduation she cannot attend, feel seen full-circle when a snack popular at the hospital appears—during my final week at Fontbonne—in the vending machines. My niece, born years after my roommates’ deaths to a brother who never met them, inexplicably bears a name that fuses their two. The synchronicity does not escape me; it helps to seal the cracks that I still carry. In spite of myself, my belief continues even as it quits.
I give up heaven, but still believe in Tracy. I tangibly experience her in ways a belief in nothing can’t explain. Unable to explain it myself, I fall back on poetry, on the lyric that leaves room for the unspeakable:
She is where you are, Tori improvised that night at the Fox. She knows the maps and veins of your city. She goes through your heart.
Or, as I explained it to a friend, in the weeks that followed her death: the threads that are golden don’t break easily.
Somehow, I too have managed not to break—or not to break entirely. And in the broken spaces in myself, I have found room to write, to plant, to build. I have found fuses into which others can extend, connect. I believe in that connection with all sincerity. I am not a nonbeliever; I just put deep faith in human beings. I put deep faith and words and actions, in the sentences we build to make stories from our separate lives. I call myself a heathen and get mocked by those who know me. My commitment to justice, to service, to compassion and connection cannot co-exist with what they know that word to mean. Still, similarly, I cannot call my new faith God. God for me is still too fully defined, and I live as I write: searching for definitions not yet clarified. God strikes me as an answer, when the question feels most genuine. Rainer Maria Rilke insisted his young correspondent “live the questions.” I demand (and allow) the same from myself. I live and write in search of understanding I cannot yet articulate. Maybe that’s why – of all the questions I could have answered in this essay, I picked the one I could not. (How do you define spirituality…?) Of all the programs I can fully explain my attraction to, I picked the one I could not.
I no longer worship religiously, and I no longer worship Tori Amos. I find new ways to practice my beliefs, new sounds to decipher, new meanings to make. I still collect words, curl into other’s voices, practice raising my own. I still attempt to make good from the raw material of panic, pain, and suffering. Informed by nature and culture, I reach outward and inward for truth.
The last time I prayed, I did so splayed on the carpet of my unfurnished apartment. Bent over a yellow legal pad, I wrote feverish dialogue between the layers of myself, poking at my own awareness until it broke open, the relief of revelation bringing tears. It’s a process I return to often, although I do not often consider it prayer. But I seek understanding, within and without; to borrow from a favorite movie, I communicate with life. I seek the surrounding, the meaning and the mystery, — the black ink, the open page.