This is a topic I try to avoid.
This is what my mind did just now, to arrive at it: OK, let’s see…what have we got…did bras, don’t have enough belt pictures yet to write a post about how much I love belts, Bear will kill me if I write another post about our relationship, food could be good, but I’m full…a post about how cute my cat is? No? OK…then God.
But reader AT asked me about belief and spirituality, and I’m gonna answer, damnit. Because that’s the kind of person I am (a person who occasionally answers questions).
I don’t believe in God. It bothers my mom. It bothers a lot of people, actually, who don’t even know me.
I don’t believe in God, but it’s not because I never tried.
When I was a kid, my best friend was born again. It happened very suddenly. One day, no one was talking about God, and the next, she was telling me that I was going to go to hell, because I was Jewish. My parents were going to go to hell. I remember her words. “It’s a rocky road to hell.” I don’t remember the context. I just remember thinking of ice cream. And also being offended. There was no way she was right. I was pretty sure I knew just about as much as she did about the world, and pretty sure someone had been telling her lies.
But she swore that there was gold dust on her hands, at her bible camp. God had done that. And that sounded really cool.
So one night, alone in my room, I decided to find God. I closed my eyes tight. I sat on the edge of my bed, and I welcomed God into my heart and my bedroom. For a second, I thought maybe it was working. I could almost, almost imagine a bluish purple gaseous cloud, floating through the door. I prayed with all my might…”Let it be God!” and then I opened my eyes and there was nothing, and I was pretty sure it was just my imagination again, like the wolves in my closet. Or the demon face on the back of the bathroom door. Or the fairies I really, really wanted to live in the garden.
I left God alone after that. I went to synagogue and Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah and none of those things had anything to do with believing in God. They had to do with learning beautiful music and chanting from the Torah and being a part of a people whose stories twined back endlessly into the mysterious depths of history. I loved my people’s ancient traditions. I loved being Jewish. Being Jewish made me feel proud and special and like I was part of something important. Being Jewish meant carrying the secrets of the ages around in my genes and in my songs, and having a family much, much bigger than the one made up of my immediate relatives. It also involved bagels with lox and cream cheese. And pastrami.
My life was full of magic, anyway, which seemed to be the thing that my friend got from God. Alone in the woods out back, I could imagine that I was in another world. I was an elfin warrior princess. At any moment, a silvery portal might open in front of me, and I might step through it.
I started leading services at my synagogue when I was fifteen, and I never stopped. I sang in Hebrew in front of the congregation. I was terrified and trembling with excitement and always on the edge of breaking through into something overwhelmingly good. Sometimes, all I could think about was my breath– was I breathing enough? The last note sounded forced, my voice was too tight. Sometimes I was too scared to enjoy myself– I was waiting to miss a word, to forget the melody. And then sometimes I just sang, and I looked out at all the faces looking back, and I came so close to losing myself for a moment. It was as though my voice was a string, pulling together the past and the present. It was sacred. It was much more than I could understand.
I think you can call that spirituality. I think you can call me, standing alone in the dark on the bima (the alter), long after the congregants had gone home, looking up at the glow of the ner tamid (the eternal light that always burns above the ark, where the torah scroll is kept), spiritual. But I didn’t want to call it, or myself, anything. It felt like connectedness. But I didn’t bother to name it.
(the Torah, inside the half open ark)
I have two degrees in religion. I look around, and I see religion everywhere. I want to know why people need it so much, and, of course, I have plenty of theories. But on a personal level, I think I can’t leave religion and belief alone because I don’t believe. And because I’m religious anyway. And because I don’t really know what spirituality means.
People ask me how I am possible-- how can you be one without the other? But any other way wouldn’t make sense for me. It’d be lying. And religion is about more than God, even if God is situated firmly at its center. The way I see it, religion can be community, shared history, values, goals, daycare, summer camp, simplifying a complicated world, larger than life personalities, life events, therapy, and charity. God can be part of all of that, or God can be something else entirely. It depends who you are and who you ask.
And I’m far from alone. Even in the most dedicated, fervent religious communities, people question God’s existence. Or struggle to believe. Or find a way to believe that tickles the edges of humanism, or a vaguer spirituality.
My mom says that I probably can believe in God, if I just rearrange my definitions. But I don’t want to. I am perfectly willing to live in a world without a god, as open-ended and frightening as that can be. I am willing to admit that I don’t have answers. That maybe none of us can possibly have the answers. That even God would not be enough of an answer for me.
As a kid, I loved astronomy. I used to pour over text books that explained neutron stars and the Doppler effect and the formation of nebulae. I loved the sense of being poised on the edge of the whole inexplicable universe. My mind would roll into the darkness, faster and faster, until it suddenly stopped at the lip of eternity, where all that can exist is the question “What was here before?” Teetering over the gaping abyss of this question felt like the ultimate human experience. It was horrible. It was awe-inspiring. It was basic and also unapproachably complex.
I have never felt that anything could fill that void.
But it is a void I don’t want filled. I love that life is spectacularly mysterious. I love not knowing. And while some people can feel this way and also believe in God, I can’t.
I don’t know what I am now, in terms of all of this. I am sensitive, I guess. Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the huge gorgeous messiness of the world, just from standing in the park, looking at the east river. Actually, I get like that a lot. Walking down the street. Riding NJ Transit. I feel sometimes like I am thrummingly alive– strung tightly, humming with potential. Sometimes I feel thrilled by my smallness, by the enormous intricacy of life on this planet. Often, I’m just pissed off because one of my rubber gloves fell in the sink and has gunk from the drain in it now and I have to wash it out and it’s gross.
Honestly, I don’t think about where I fall on the spectrum of religion and spirituality very much. I don’t know what most of my friends believe, because it doesn’t come up a lot. I just know I’d like to see more mountains in the distance. I just know I love to fly in planes and see how the world comes together. I am terrified and in love with how fragile life is.
And I know for some reason that what we call all of it shouldn’t really matter.
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OK, since I opened this whole thing up: do you believe in God?
Unroast: Today I love the way I look in a black turtleneck.
P.S. For Valentine’s, Bear and I ended up watching Voyager, after eating his romantic dinner. I forgot how awesome that show is!!
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