“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”—Seneca the Younger 4 b.c.- 65 a.d.
As I sat down to write this I pondered the efficacy of calling myself an atheist. Or, for that matter, calling myself a tree-hugger. Even my favorite trees have not got more than an occasional hug from me. I’ve leaned against them, fallen asleep under them and photographed them. I reach up to touch a low hanging branch of the big ’ol American Elm—a tree I have know for over 40 years—when I am on its path in my corner of Central Park. I wave at the London Plane across from the elm. I love how the branches of each are within easy reach of both, kinda like The Mister and me. There are moments in my walks in the park that I can almost hear any one of its woody perennials say: “Stop. Look at us for a while. You’ll feel better for it.”
I could say I’m agnostic because I am a sucker for fairy stories. But everything, even what the great goddesses have purportedly done, has not all been for the good. As The Mister says: “It’s Nature, innit?”
Polytheism is too much of a mouthful and way too many gods and goddesses to remember, much less believe in. Agnosticism sounds too much like fence straddling, not something I am prone to if I can help it. The other names for it—disbeliever, nonbeliever, unbeliever; doubter, skeptic, secularist, empiricist; heathen, heretic, infidel, pagan—well, they’re all a bit harsh. I’d rather not have the option of a deathbed conversion, because, you know, just in case? I’d rather not go slinking from this world terrified of the next. I’d rather not be terrified in this world.
The dangers in religious leadership seem reasonably well placed for consideration, and, as well in the blind patriotism that insists a country rules supreme over other nations by virtue of a so-called democracy we export but don’t necessarily manufacture at home any longer. Combine those two factions and we are in very dangerous territory indeed. We have created a schoolyard bully who prays before the beatings.
Having been brought up in the Lutheran church after being kidnapped from the Catholics by my manic depressive mother I knew God early on. For a long time I thought our pastor was God. He was a big man with a fiery allegiance to condemning anything that was fun. My mother, bless her contrarian soul, campaigned for dances for the young people. They battled. She got her wish, kind of, and was allowed to host a night of square dancing in the church basement. This was in Astoria in the early 60s. This was for a congregation of fathers who stealthily and steadily escaped from the Sunday sermon, returning from the corner bar in the nick of time to pass around the offering baskets. This was for a congregation of teens like me who had already discovered the freewheeling Catholic schoolgirls who had much better dances with live bands and cute priests and beehive hairdos and dark corners to neck with guys. And calling our Lutheran dance night a hoedown did little to further my mother’s cause.
I sang in the church choir until I discovered sex. I started early, but it was the thing to do when you were a project girl. The kinds of boys we dated were returning Viet Nam vets. They left the neighborhood weedy and funny and bashful. They left with nicknames like Mouse and came back demanding to be called Massimo. They came home wanting sex. They came home beefy and mean and confrontational, unless they came home in a box. Those guys were quiet. Possibly this is the first time I seriously questioned the ‘God thing’ as I had started calling it. “What’s with this God thing if he let Barry Axelrod get killed?” “What’s with this God thing if he let Johnny Stebbins throw himself in front of a train because he was ‘different’? What’s with this God thing if Aunt Mercy makes my cousins’ lives miserable because they were ‘different’? I didn’t reject God so much then as I just started ignoring him.
It was harder to ignore the others in my family like Aunt Mercy who were Born Again Christians and who carried themselves as some kind of arbiters of taste and do-gooded-ness. Phrases like “Generosity of Spirit” flung about like coins among the poor. My little family of reprobates was looked on with pity.
I probably first began to notice trees when we bundled into Uncle Frank’s turquoise and cream Chevy Bel Air and got out of the projects for a day. I squidged into the back seat, an angry hair’s breadth from my sister. She steamed like most people breathed. My dad cracked jokes and beer cans. My mother flirted with the back of my uncle’s head and my aunt’s jaw locked in gritted determination to ignore her sister-in-law who somehow was responsible for making our family lesser. My dad’s sisters hated her; the kind of hate that comes from people who consider themselves to be god-fearing and therefore much better able to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad.
Rear window rolled down, my chin resting on the door, I’d hang onto the furry ball at the end of a thickly braided velvety strap we used to call spaghetti-and-meatball. In 1955 it was our version of seat belts. I stuck my nose out and watched the world go by, taken further and further from treeless courtyards in housing projects to a little park in New Jersey. I thought my cousins’ family was the closest thing to an Ozzie and Harriet existence, until I knew what I could never again ignore. By the time both my cousins died long before their obstinate mother, I was already a confirmed atheist.
The family picnics were fraught with shadows, both real and long and driven by the sun and deeply internal and riven from a much darker place. I escaped into the trees with my closest cousin for those blissful hours of separation I shall never forget. In the sweet moldy smell of trampled earth under leafy canopies I found a kind of respite. I say kind of because I didn’t know what that was at the time. We climbed trees. Trees were very nearly unheard of in city housing and what there were of them in the projects were things to fear. Climbing any one of them would bring swift retribution from a housing cop. In a park in New Jersey there were no such restrictions. My father and my uncles dozed under them in beery fatigue. My sister stomped around them, again and again with silent, broody resentment. My cousin and I imagined a nest free of criticism, blame, and secrets high in those protective branches.
I got a taste for trees and never lost it. There were lots of hikes on the Adirondack trail that could be accessed by public transport. Later, when there was a car available I ventured, with friends, to enchanting areas where there were great monuments of natural beauty with names like Lemon Squeezer. I drew trees. I painted trees. I made woodcuts of trees. The Mister and I have spent many wonderful past times in our travels walking among trees.
When young women burned their bras I made a brief foray into the idea that God could be a woman. That didn’t last long. I had the same questions for Her as I’d had for Him. Neither gave me a satisfactory answer.
I was—still am for the most part—an earnest reader. I read indiscriminately until my tastes developed and I made reading a kind of religion. I learned generosity of spirit from writers and philosophers. I understood more about humanity from nearly every book I’d read than I had ever got from a bible. I had a choice, they told me, and I made it. I did not want to be distracted from the issues of the real world. Poverty is not a holy thing, as is stated in the bible and abortion is not the greatest destroyer of peace, even though Mother Theresa said it was. No fundamental religion, as far as I can tell, embraces the idea of the possibility of multiple gods and the rights of others to pursue those beliefs, or better yet, not to pursue them. I’d seen a quote somewhere that sums up my take on all this: “You are basically killing each other to see who has got the better imaginary friend.”
I’ve grown into my skin, confident of my choices for the most part. Refusing to fear any god has helped me to see the utter senselessness of being motivated by fear in making my choices. How I make and keep friends is derived from those choices. There is great joy to be found among like minds and especially among friends who unabashedly love trees, whether they believe in a god or not, and who believe in personal choice.
Oh, and that big ’ol wooden crucifix suspended from the rafters of ye olde church? That was once a tree.