|Oct/Nov 2004 Nonfiction|
I went a year and a half as a religion student using the word theology before I realized I didn't really know how to define it. Religion students like to throw around the word theology. If you are a religion student, it is assumed you know what theology means. Theology is the study of the nature of the divine. Cognitively, this makes sense, and I was satisfied. Then I wasn't.
Here is something you should know: theology is all about context. How a person perceives the divine is shaped by questions she asks about religion, church, faith, salvation, the afterlife, anything, really, that is related to religion, which is most everything. How you see the nature of the divine (or god), then, begins by searching for answers to those questions that trouble you. If you are concerned about god being referred to with masculine pronouns such as he, him, and his, then you will most likely begin to look at the gendered nature of god. If the church is demanding money in exchange for the forgiveness of sins (this should sound familiar), then you will be concerned about the nature of the divine's judgment. Theology is not purely academic; it is acutely personal.
Theology became truly important to me only when I slowly began to remove myself from my Lutheran Christian faith. Inch by inch I was moving to the door, when something finally made me swing around and leave. It was one phrase, one simple phrase. During a Sunday church service, one commemorating Martin Luther himself, the pastor said, "Good ole Luther." My mind stopped and began orbiting around the phrase "Good ole Luther" over and over again. That was it. I was finished. I didn't care about Luther; fuck Luther and his white male perception of god. I was leaving. When I left, I did look back, and all I saw were men, men since the very beginning, and I knew I did not belong, that I had never belonged.
I was on my own then, but not empty-handed, but I brought along so much stuff to sort through, to look at, to see what any of it meant to me. I wonder if I would have been better off with little to take along. Just beginning to look takes years. Then, you decide you need to do something, to start somewhere. I wanted to know about god, the gods I have seen and the divine I see or have yet to see. Because I knew I could never reinvent the wheel, I finally decided to allow myself to use a way of thinking about theology formulated by a white male. John Wesley is the creator of the Wesley Quadrilateral, which consists of traditions (You went to church, right?), reason (God's nature has to agree with human logic), scripture (Literacy is optional), and experience (The unexplainable does matter). Assuming Wesley knew anything at all, these four things are influential in forming a person's view of god, her theology. According to Wesley, traditions, reason, scripture, and experience are where people look to understand god. It was the best I could do, and I needed to do something. If I had to, I would take that structure and make it my own.
Right now, though, this is not about me, and it is not about you. First come the flowers, the marigolds.
Hardly a culture exists that doesn't, in some way, have an intense relationship with flowers. Europe's long history is also a long relationship with flowers, a relationship of love and a relationship of frustration. The flowers are too numerous and their relationships too complicated to talk about here. Suffice to say no flower belongs solely to one culture. You can find marigolds in France, in India, in China, and all over the world, and each place has its own view and uses of marigolds. Even inside any particular culture, there is no one way of seeing marigolds. How you see the marigold depends on you. How I see the marigold depends on me.
But some things are certain, and that's where to begin.
Marigolds have a muddled and mysterious history. For centuries they were popular in Europe, and they grew profusely along the west African coast. Their orange and yellow and red blooms could reach from anywhere between eighteen inches and three feet in height. The French loved petite yellow marigolds, now known as French marigolds. Marigolds, though, do not originate in Europe, nor do they originate in Africa, a once popular belief. Marigolds' origins are South and Central America. Spanish conquerors returned to Europe with the flower, and it flourished. Even though they were desired for their exotic appearance, marigolds quickly became domestically grown. Marigolds, if they are known for anything, are known for being "hardy." While they do have their own ideal growing conditions, they are able to survive fluctuations in the weather and minor amateur gardening mishaps.
Not only this, but they also have long been symbolic of protection and safety because of their constancy and cheerful colors. Yet marigolds do have their faults. In folklore, these flowers also symbolize sorrow, grief, anxiousness, and jealousy. According to one legend, the first marigold was a young woman who went crazy when another won the heart of her love. The more tangible reality doesn't fair any better for marigolds. They have a pungent smell that may repel insects and rodents. Sadly, this smell too often repels humans as well. Yet so alluring are their blossoms that scientists have found a way to grow marigolds that have less pungent scents or no scent at all. The small scent sacks under these scentless marigolds' leaves either don't work or are gone all together.
Upon reading about this scientific development, I felt betrayed. If we can't even love and accept a beautiful marigold with its flaws, what hope do I have in this world?
There are many kinds of marigolds; many of them have been altered by human science. Some of these flowers belong to the same genus, others break off and resemble buttercups more than the tight-petaled flowers my father grew as a border around his garden. Marsh marigolds often resemble buttercups. Looking for an image of these marigolds, I was gravely disappointed when all I found were images of large petal flowers. I was searching for the red marsh marigolds, the ones the old English man who wrote the book on flowers told me grew in dank marshes, the ones he said were the blood of the Aztecs' murdered and sacrificed upon the arrival of the Spanish. What I found were happy faces growing from bubbling creeks.
Marigolds are not domestic. They are not tame. They are closely connected with ancient gods, from decorations during religious festivals to legends. One German legend inherited from Greece tells of a maiden, Caltha (from the Greek kalathos, or cup), who became enamored with the sun god. She dedicated her whole life to seeing him, even spending the night awake to be the first to glimpse his morning rays. Eventually she starved her body, and her spirit dissolved in the sun's light. The first marigold grew where she had stood for so long, a cup being filled by the sun's rays. Marigolds also light the way home for loved ones lost, adorning graves and altars in Mexico on All Souls Day as bridges between this life and the afterlife. At the same time, shops sell artwork of skeletons come to life, playing guitars, dancing together, and wearing marigolds. Marigolds are lovers, mirrors, and beacons; they could set the world on fire.
Every flower has something to say. Whole dictionaries have been dedicated to explaining what flowers say, this being especially important when flowers are gifts. For me, though, marigolds are not gifts whose meanings I feel compelled to discover. Instead, they are already present in my memory's images, their golden faces glowing. I don't know what they mean for me, what they are saying to me, calmly demanding me to hear.
But I need to start somewhere, and the one antique-looking book I found on the language of flowers is where I choose to begin. It tells me marigolds symbolize many of the things I mentioned above, but they also convey two important messages. The first is a question. What is wrong with you? Marigolds shine light on our darkest feelings of hurt and loneliness, even as their own flaws lose them adoration.
The second message is quite different, but arguably is made all the more important by the first. It connects the images, the lore, the history, the symbolism, the skeletons, the graves, the sun gods, the god and goddess celebrations. Marigolds convey a pensive and winning grace. They incite dreams, hopes, deep and uplifting thoughts. They are a resolution of the feared and the desired. The second message is a forceful and definitive statement. You are my divinity.
It's the garden I remember best. We left it behind to move to a new, smaller town by the time I was nine. In my memory it rests in solitude, a misty oasis of my childhood. Over two hundred feet long and a hundred feet wide, it took up one-fourth of the lawn my father kept wild and trimmed in all the right places, and all of it was green. The house sat on a slight slope, the green lawn tumbled down on either side, with a wonderland of deciduous forest on the east and a gray knapweed desert on the west. A skeletal swing set, round tan poles and bars with brown and yellow stripes, stood firm and indifferent in a five by eight sand box, bordered by oily old railroad ties. The other, square sand box, bordered by the same kind of railroad ties, shared a small portion of border with the northeast side of the garden. And there I always see the marigolds.
At any given time, provided it wasn't during Montana's cold, snow-laden winters, my father grew potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, carrots, squash, and snow peas in his garden. I see the rows of green vines snaking through chicken wire held up by steel stakes, cold and gray with sharp red tops. I unearthed the dark pink orbs of radishes and later watched my mother soak them in clear cold water that reflected the dusky evening light. My father dug up potatoes, brown and misshapen, with white tumors that stared out at me. I see green. I see white and brown. I see dark pink, and I even see violet. But, most of all, I see orange.
Or gold. After all, marigolds are what I see. I see them dominating half of that huge garden my father planted and cared for. Their green stems are dark, their leaves sharp with spiny edges. Their orange and golden petals, in a variety of shades, packed together tightly, creating an intricate pinwheel. They root in neat rows, inches between them. Among them I see my maternal grandmother wearing a violet, nearly diaphanous dress, smiling, holding Jeffrey and my hands.
My mother was really the one who wore the violet dress. The dress was so pastel it was almost white. She made it, her own wedding dress. I wasn't there, and wouldn't be for seven more years, so I only saw it years later, pulled from a classic suitcase that was covered with a paper pattern of orange and yellow marigolds.
She, my mom, came to visit me halfway through my senior year in college. Before she came, she made a list of things she needed to bring to my brother and me. My brother requested a pair of pants. I asked to see the suitcase that stored her wedding dress. The overnight suitcase had a brown border on the sides, and the center that would typically have been a tan-colored textured fabric, my mother had long ago covered with contact paper, printed with orange and yellow flowers.
The suitcase itself my mother had owned since she was a child. "I used it on the weekends I went to visit my father. I could fit a weekend's worth of clothes in here. Can you believe it?" My maternal grandparents had divorced in the 1950s; my mom and her sister, my Aunt Ellen, lived with Elsie, my grandma and visited their father every other weekend. They traveled from the Minnesota city, from Elsie, to the Minnesota farm, to Johnny. Back and forth, again and again.
As husband and wife, Elsie and Johnny washed dishes side-by-side. Until Johnny's mother commented, "That's woman's work." My mother says the divorce was Johnny's mother's fault (I have never heard her referred to as my great-grandmother. There was nothing great about her.) Elsie blames Johnny.
Elsie Iva, my grandmother, was abandoned as a child by her father after her mother died. She lived in Iowa with her father's sister, a woman who did not have any children because (insert the laughter of my mother and grandmother here) she refused to have sex, a dirty sinful act. Life was not pleasant for Elsie; instead of playing violin, her dream, she worked on the farm and left school after the eighth grade. Elsie, sometimes, would sneak out of the house and go dance the Charleston all night. I see her wearing gold.
It was not easy being an all-woman household in the 1950s, especially when divorce was involved, which it was. Elsie worked hard to keep her daughters fed and clothed. My mom and my aunt attended a Missouri Synod Lutheran school in their Minnesota town and regularly went to church. However, they were by no means part of the community. This became perfectly clear the day the pastor came to my grandmother's apartment to inform her that my mom and my aunt were no longer welcome in his house or to be friends with his children. My mom and my aunt were markedly different, tainted by divorce, rejected because no man was there to take care of them. No man, that is, except the god and savior they worshiped, whose community had already shunned them. My mother, my aunt, and my grandmother were rejects.
Decades later, my grandmother is married for a third time to a man who even hell will not accept in the afterlife, and he controls her life. My aunt is bitter. She attends a Methodist church, and in general is glad her mother is married so she does not have to take care of her. My mom just had knee surgery, constantly remodels her house or others' houses, and cries when she feels like it. She practices forgiveness, creativity, love, and wisdom. What I have learned from her has allowed me to live, to carry us forward, to believe.
God = rejecter, esoteric Minnesotan white male
My Mother = Everlasting wisdom and love
Not that believing is easy or kind. My mother raised my brother and me in a much more liberal Lutheran church, but I worry that I will inherit my aunt's bitterness instead of my mother's wisdom. In many ways I have. But my story is different. Even as I inherited my mother's stories of a religion's rejection, I was accepted. Growing up I participated as the quintessential Lutheran girl. I sat on church committees, statewide church youth committees, and involved myself in any number of church community activities. My whole family, my mom, my dad, and my brother, Jeffrey, all became part of the community, and we were accepted. Sort of.
When I left for college, my father became the president of the church council, and my mother sat on the council as well. What my father did on the council is irrelevant. His ideas were respected and accepted, but he didn't do much of anything interesting either. For the two years that my mother sat on the council as altar coordinator, she called me at least once a week frustrated and on the verge of tears. It didn't matter what idea she had presented, a new scheduling technique or a new storage space for the altar robes, her ideas were categorically rejected, even if they were in her realm of knowledge and authority. Others regularly worked around her, did her job the way they wanted to see it done. Why? My mom says the reason is the never-ending resistance to change that exists in every human being. I am not so kind.
The culmination of my mom's frustrations landed on one incident: the ushers' stand, that bulky piece of wood sitting just outside of any church's sanctuary. The one in my parents' church was built by someone's male relative, now dead, and it houses every piece of junk that any kid played with during services, inter-faith volleyball trophies (May God see our victory in the glorious game that is volleyball as a sign of our unending dedication to His will), and last and least of all, the ushers' tools of duty. The stand was a disorganized mess. Having been blocked from most every one of her other duties, my mother worked on replacing the stand. She didn't go clandestine at first. She presented the idea, offered to design and even pay for it, and my family is by no means even close to wealthy.
I can see the men and the women in the council meeting swaying in their seats, shaking their heads. Their minds were made up before my mother said anything. It didn't matter; my mother went ahead with her plan, moving the old usher's stand, putting it into use displaying equal exchange coffee in a very visible fellowship room. Then she set the new usher's stand, beautiful stained wood with more than enough room to house any crap the congregation dragged in, in place. The outcry was loud enough that my mother went back one night and replaced the old ushers' stand and brought the new one home. She had had enough.
This story says one thing to me: this religious community that my family has belonged to cares more about some dead male than my very much alive mother. One seemingly small incident encompassed all that was wrong with how my mother was treated for her whole life, as an outsider whose only valued contribution was her attendance.
I have inherited the tradition of being rejected within a religious community. I have grown up with the ever-present knowledge that even though I might belong, my mother did not. The community accepted me well enough, as it did my father. My mother and my little brother were often chastised for behavior that did not conform, my mother's above pushes for change, my brother for not being the charming darling that was me (for which I will always apologize, since those who punished him for not being me will not). But, the truth is, my father and I are simply good at conforming. We thrive on being praised for doing what is expected of us. My mother and brother have survived without such praise and will continue to do so.
What does this say about how I perceive the divine? I have decided to make a choice, one that I have only now realized I have been delaying. My first option is to continue the status quo as a good Lutheran and Christian young woman. My second option is to leave, to simply go one step farther than my grandmother, my aunt and my mother. They all chose to remain Christian, Lutheran even, just in a less stringent form. I want to leave, leave all I can. Some things I will carry with me, some I'll let go along the way. Other things I have already left long behind. So far I have only chosen a handful of people to tell of my exodus from Lutheranism, but consider this, these words, as my decision made, further decisions to be made along the way.
My family knows. My father and brother don't really care. Religion and faith rarely rest on the front of their minds. My father is more concerned about who will clean out the church's rain gutters than his daughter leaving that church, and Jeffrey has long ago learned his sister will do whatever the hell she wants. My mother worries. Her worry, though, is more for how I will be perceived by the religious community I left behind. At times when we talk about my faith, she smiles shyly. She has told me her relationship with God has little to do with the religious community to which she belongs. "Church is just the God box, Alice, not God Himself." I don't want the god whose image is formed by the people in that box. I don't want Him. I won't have Him. Believing in Him means rejecting all that my mother represents. Believing in Him means rejecting the wisdom and the love that gives me the hope to keep moving forward.
I don't know how my mother really sees god, the divine; my guess is that her faith is buried away deep, faraway from those who might reject it. If every step I take brings me closer to the divinity and faith that carried my mother this far, I will keep walking through valleys of fire until they become fields of marigolds.
If I were to give you a pot of marigolds, their gold in full bloom, we, both of us, automatically would assume there was a reason for my gift to you. Does a person offer flowers to someone else for no reason at all? No. Even if it is a "just because" gift, the person, the lover, the friend has a motive, even if it is the seemingly unselfish desire to see the receiver's smile illuminated and large. No, flowers are never "just because," and they are more than "the usual." They occupy a middle ground where they can mean one thing to the giver and another to the receiver. And, still, the flower, even as it represents two different things to two different people, carries its own history and numerous meanings. I am never just giving you a pot of marigolds; I am giving you a multitude of voices.
From that multitude, you will most likely hear only one or two meanings, probably the ones you want to hear, or the ones you need to hear. You would logically deduce the reason for the gift. If a loved one recently passed away, it would be fair to say I gave you the marigolds for comfort, for remembered joy, for hope. If a recent death does not exist, well, what the marigolds tell you will depend on what you see and what you know, about me, about us, and about marigolds.
Reason, then, can only go so far. What is logical, and what is not, changes. Once people thought it perfectly logical that a ship could sail off the edge of the earth. Even now, with "facts," pieces of information we can all agree upon, we argue about what is the logical interpretation and application of those facts. Logic, reason, has a diversity of interpretations, even as it changes over time.
So, for once, set logic aside; it will only take you so far before it changes again. Say "thank you" to me for the beautiful pot of marigolds. I am being kind, because I like you, even as my emotions toward you are confused. You frustrate me even as I long to be near you. We hear different messages and know logic cannot reconcile us, even as we seek the same thing. On our separate ways, we will collide with and hold each other as we follow our longings for the divine. I will weave you a crown of marigolds, and you will weave one for me. We will see each other from afar, wearing halos of longing and know that we are still searching, still hoping.
When it comes to god, I don't see the same thing as the Lutheran community in which I was raised. For awhile I thought I understood what they saw in the large wooden cross hanging over the altar. I felt I believed in the same thing. They said, "Hallowed be thy name," and I said, "Yes, hallowed be thy name." They said, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." "Yes," I said, "thy will be done, here as it is up there, amen. Amen."
It is a beautiful prayer, but it is not my voice. It holds no hope for me, and I would venture to say it never did. While saying this prayer, I was always more concerned with the logistics of whether or not to bow my head or close my eyes, how I appeared to others. It was the familiarity of the ritual that compelled me to recite the words; the prayer was one more step in the familiar worship service. Yet I was reciting someone else's desires, someone else's longings. After all, to whose god was I saying this prayer? I was paying lip service to someone else's vision of the divine.
My faith, my believing, though, was not whisked away with the realization that my vision of the divine did not fit with the community's. I did not come to the understanding that religion is nothing but the imagination filling a desire to be whole. If the desire is real, there is a reason to believe. I believe that is logical.
And still, one thing in my former Christian faith that I did not find logical was that big wooden cross. Jesus died for my sins; he sacrificed himself. I think I never quite understood this, even when I was at the unwavering height of my faith. I found no words, though, to explain my confusion. I went along with the idea that blood was necessary for my salvation. I cherished the Eucharist, the act of sharing the (theoretically) same blessed loaf of bread and the (theoretically) same blessed wine with the community during the weekly Sunday worship service. The Eucharist is symbolic of a feast shared among believers who recognize Jesus as dying so humanity could receive salvation.
Lutherans are old fashioned, closer in faith to Catholics than, sadly, either would like to believe. Lutheran doctrine still believes in transubstantiation; the bread and wine are not just symbolic of body and blood, they become the body and blood in the sense that Jesus is truly present in them. Yes, we ate bread and wine that had the presence of our savior. But as I began to put words to my discomfort with my Christian faith, what the pastor said to us as we received the bread and the wine and what I heard became different. He (so rarely she) said to us, "This is the body of Christ given for you; This is the blood of Christ shed for you, Amen." I heard, "Here is the body and blood of a man murdered for you. All I am worth is violence."
That savior, Jesus or Christ or whatever you call him, is no longer my savior. His blood for my soul. His death for my life. If that is an offer, I don't accept. I do not believe that there exists an evil entity whose sole interest is to tear me away from god, and who demands violence as my ransom. If there were anyone alienating me from that god, it would be me and all my human imperfections to which a man being violently murdered is not the answer. I am told that in his resurrection, Jesus conquered death. Though I wonder about death, it does not particularly scare me; it is something out of my control anyway. What scares me is forever existing, in whatever numerous lives I might have here or elsewhere, and never feeling whole.
And no, Jesus as liberating radical and proponent of love instead of sacrificial lamb does not equal god to me either. Though I admire his ideas, ideas do not equal god for me, just as the violent murder and resurrection of a man does not. Neither one addresses my questions about the divine, and if we shape our theology through the questions we ask, it is only logical I ask my questions as I search for the divine that will fulfill this longing aching within me. Logic can only recognize that the ache exists and therefore needs to be addressed. That ache to be complete is my question, and what I am longing for defies logic.
Marigolds cannot read, and it is fair to say that we have problems reading marigolds. Since that is the case, we must give marigolds credit for knowing where to look in order to answer their longing for existence. They certainly don't sit placidly, kissing the ground in resigned knowledge that they will soon be limp and dead. Marigolds' stems stretch to the sky, their golden blooms open in supplication always, like their ancestor Caltha. They don't look for answers in dusty pages filled with words. Instead their answers come from the sun, whose image they reflect back in silent gratitude and knowledge of what is true. It is really that simple for marigolds.
We, on the other hand, like to complicate matters. This is not a bad thing, but while marigolds just naturally turn to the sun, humans steep themselves in mystery. Give us revelation! We need a grand revealing of truth to satisfy our desire to know the nature of the divine so that we might be complete. That revelation, for Christians anyway, is a heavy book sitting on the shelf. As a teenager, I owned at least three bibles. I really only ever read one of them, the one geared toward students in high school, who need some background explanation but not enough to blow their minds out of their murky adolescent waters. Only in my senior year in high school, when the rest-of-my-life-future was approaching, did I begin to take the words in the bible to heart. I was stressed about money, actually, and I followed a short bible study about how god provides. It calmed my heart like nothing else.
The bible has not calmed or inspired me for a long time now. Some would probably argue that being a religion student has alienated me from the revealed truth of god. If those people could see my face, they would see boredom. Their literal interpretation of the bible bores me to death, and when I come to death, I don't want to meet their god. My relationship with the bible, and yes it is a relationship, is not disgust. It is just confused. I see revelation in those words, but I do not see the inspired word of god. The bible does not make anything clear, it just reveals more mystery. The mystery is what keeps me reading; it is what keeps me searching.
And my search does not remain inside the covers of the bible. How could it? As human beings, we have a hard enough time relating to people across our own borders. How do I defy centuries in order to relate to a first century man? The divine might be timeless (depending on your theology), but words are not. Like everything else, they change with time. In the bible verses where I once read safety and assurance, I now read paternalistic assumptions of my role in the world. At one time people read The Revelation to John, the last book in the bible, as coded encouragement to subvert the Roman Empire. Now people read the same book and predict the end of the world. Words are not constant to us the way the sun is to marigolds.
What has kept me from leaving the bible behind are the thousands of other stories that lie behind, around, and even hidden within it. Right now my newest heroine is Norea, who destroyed Noah's ark out of rage. This is a story that does not appear in the bible but has been a part of Jewish legend, further interpreted by Gnostic religion, another unique ancient eastern belief. It is one Gnostic version of Norea's story that intrigues me most. Norea (her Hebrew name is Nammah) is born to Eve as a helper to all humanity; it is Norea who will give all future generations the divine spark that will be the source of their salvation. Before Norea knows this, though, she displays an abundance of attitude and power. She wants to board Noah's ark, and when he refuses, her breath sets it aflame. Some accounts have Noah rebuilding the ark over and over again, only to have Norea set it on fire each time.
While Noah's ark is typically believed to be the saving act of a loving god, Gnosticism sees it differently. In Gnosticism, the creator god of the Old Testament is evil, and the material world is a prison. Yet there exists one ultimate, incorruptible divine. In order to escape the material prison that is the world, one must understand that the cosmos were not created by a good, loving god, but an envious, ignorant one. Salvation depends on a person having this knowledge, and having this knowledge turns on a person's divine spark like a light switch, compelling her to recognize the one incorruptible divine. Because the scripture in the bible essentially tells the story of the evil creator god, Gnostics had to recast the stories told therein, the creation story of Genesis being the most important. Gnostics turned everything in the story upside down, what scholars call inversion. The creator god becomes evil, and, best of all, Eve eating the fruit from the tree becomes good. Yes! Good! She ate the fruit and gave it to Adam, and they no longer lived in the ignorance the evil creator god chose to keep them. Eve is a savior! Norea is a savior!
Scholars have no idea whether or not Gnosticism was friendly to everyday women, though. Like the rest of the ancient world, probably not. And, Gnosticism is terribly esoteric, a quality of which I personally do not approve. But, to read of women, even mythic ones, shaping the world and wielding power, sets my thoughts and hopes on fire. I am not Gnostic and do not want to be, but, if you are a woman, you do not have to want to be Gnostic to smile at the thought of Eve saving the world.
My still limited and still growing study of religious texts compels me to keep reading, but it does not dictate my religious beliefs. I read, and in reading, enter the mystery for awhile. The Gnostic stories are complicated, drowning in mystery, and they set off sparks inside me, and it makes me think that I too could set the world on fire.
I would never want someone else to explain how I have experienced the divine. As I see it, it is the one thing I can rightly claim as my own. Marigolds have their own stories to tell, and I have mine. But, how do I begin to express to you what I have seen and heard and felt, and even more, what I have not? Where do we begin to understand each other's journey? The longing, the flowers, is where we will start. We will come together, remove our crowns and set them between us. They will ask us their question, and we will begin to understand each other and ourselves.
What is wrong with you?
Where should I begin? So many things. When I was in the fifth grade I began to see a therapist. I couldn't sleep through the night. "You have never been able to sleep, ever since you were born; you never even took naps," my mother told me. I began to be increasingly obsessive compulsive as well. I washed my hands constantly, until it looked like I was wearing red gloves. My mother took me to a dermatologist, who gave me lotion that stung my skin and made it slick with chemicals that meant I couldn't touch my face. The lotion didn't help. Eventually my mother resorted to the trick most women had used for decades. At night she would cake petroleum jelly or bag balm over my hands, then cover them with cotton socks. I would fall asleep, if it were a good night, feeling the fuzz inside the socks on my greasy fingers.
My mom also arranged for me to see a therapist when I was in middle school and in high school. This did one important thing for me. When I needed to, I knew how to ask for help. I began seeing a psychologist two months into my first semester of college. From there, my mental health has always been at the forefront of my mind. When you are susceptible to depression, obsessive compulsiveness, and obsessive thoughts, you can become acutely aware of how your mind is working, to the point that that awareness becomes second nature. Not an hour passes that I don't see my red, dry hands, or think of the objects I've touched that could have contaminated them. My depression is harder to see, even for me, but needless to say, I have allowed myself to feel isolated and without hope. The obsessive thoughts are something I am too afraid of to describe here (you would find them ridiculous, but they scare me deeply.). There is nothing worse than feeling you can't control your own mind.
Yes, I am medicated. I have gone off my medication and chosen to begin taking it again. You would not have noticed a change in me, but my whole world changed. I am one of the few fortunate who takes medication with no serious repercussions, except for expense. A friend once said to me in response to his own experience with medication for depression, "I never knew life could be this fuckin' good." He is not describing living drugged-up; he is describing just being able to live. I never knew what it felt like to be able to let go of worry or stress until I began taking medication. My life was no longer so heavy, but for a long time before I decided to accept my psychologist's advice to take medication, I worried I would lose something, not my personality but a deeply rooted awareness of the divine in my life and the longing I had for that awareness. I worried that my awareness of the divine depended on my deficiencies, on what was wrong with me.
The kind of awareness I am speaking of is not a near-death experience, revelation in the middle of a church service, or just plain goodness in the world. It is much more mundane than that; it is the way I perceive the world. I am a mystic and have a mystical sense of our world. No, I do not tell the future, talk to spirits, or hallucinate. I am not that definition of mystic. Rather, I experience the divine in our world through experiences that are not of my own control and cannot be explained (effectively) through the five senses.
The first mystical experience that I remember took place when I was in high school. I was by no means a social teenager, and rather than meeting a friend for coffee or a movie, I took walks. Living in Montana facilitates this inclination, especially living in the mountains. I would walk to the top of the hill our neighborhood was situated on, where a power-line tract gave me a clear view of the mountains that tower above our small town. I already had an affinity for these mountains and considered them part of my own personal ritual. I would walk to where the view was clear, whisper a prayer to the rocky peaks, and walk home once I felt satisfied with my time there. On my walk home, I would take a short cut down the hill, through an undeveloped lot covered with Oregon grape bushes, wild roses, service berries, and all kinds of undergrowth. The particular day of my experience was cloudy and cool. As I took the shortcut across the undeveloped lot, the clouds moved in such a way that you could see their shadows moving across the land, and the sun appeared.
I cannot tell you what happened next because I don't know what happened next. All I remember is color, illuminated green, and nothingness. I remember nothingness. How do you remember nothingness? I have no idea, but that day I knew nothingness. When I stepped into the shade of the trees at the bottom of the trail, I looked back and I knew something had happened. I knew, I knew, I knew.
A couple of years later, I told this story to my religion mentor. After I told her, she looked me straight in the eye, smiled, and said, "You are a mystic."
I liked the sound of it, even though I was not completely sure what being a mystic meant. I am still learning what being a mystic means, but it is something I am, regardless of my flaws. My flaws do not change my longing for the divine to make me complete. That is what I know now. I knew from the moment my first experience ended that I had touched something deeper than myself. That something deeper I call the divine.
You are my divinity.
Continuing my journey for that something deeper, the divine, has been my struggle for a while now. Leaving the faith I was raised in and believed in through all those formative years of adolescence did not feel freeing; it felt devastating. I had had at least one more mystical experience and had no way of interpreting it into my life. What is the divine if it is no longer the Christian/Lutheran god in which I once believed? Where there once was meaning, I told myself there was none, and I could not yet begin to think about redefining what had once meant something to me. I was in spiritual limbo, frustrated and stressed.
My religion mentor once explained "being grounded" to me. She said it means letting myself be open to what is greater than me, greater than us. To be grounded is to look past your cognitive and emotional states, to set them aside, to look beyond them. It assumes that we are more than our world lets on, that underneath our material and emotional lives we survive with a living connection to what is greater than us. There is the source of my longing: not emptiness, but an undeniable fullness that consumes my world and makes me one and nothing with it. From there I begin to believe. I begin to take my first steps on a journey to my divine, and yes, my path is covered with marigolds.
On my way, I will most certainly fall, stumble, regrettably hurt others, and be hurt myself, but this is not about the so many things that make me flawed. This is about the courage to begin to believe that there is something to believe in. It is all about being forceful, humble, hopeful, and spiritual, and being willing to be those things. For a long time, I have not been willing. I have side-stepped my way around my journey and have denied that I even have a journey. I did not see a way to understand, any signs to direct me, anyplace to begin.
Then I had to see, and what I saw was golden and radiant with longing. It
asked me to begin, asked me to hold all those things I knew in my arms and
begin to walk. Yes, I said, I will walk. And even as I walk, carrying my traditions,
my reason, my scripture, my experience, and so much more with me, I am not
alone. My brother is here, my father too. My aunt, my grandmother, and my
mom, my goddesses, are all here, walking with me, walking the best they can,
and letting me do my best, too. There are many of us on this path, each of
us on a journey. And my journey is my own, each step my own, and the divine
all around me.
Goody, Jack. The Culture of Flowers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Lehner, Ernst, Johanna Lehner. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants, and Trees. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1960.
Breazeale, Kathlyn. Personal interview. 25 April 2004.
Skinner, Charles M. Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants: In All Ages and In All Climes. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1925.