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Creek Running North

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July 31, 2005

Cemetery stories

The cemetery is carved out of acres of cropland in southeastern Wisconsin, and it dates back to the first German settlement in the area. Some of the weathered, leaning stones are as much as 150 years old. They tell of women dying in childbirth, couples growing old together, and a great many children who never grew up. The second incarnation of the church, built in 1880, still stands. When we go inside to escape the heat and look around, it's shadowy and cool, with plain white plaster walls framed in with lovingly fitted and polished wood.

We stand baking in our funeral clothes under the hot sun, watching as the Lutheran pastor takes a handful of the red-brown earth piled beside the grave and pours it on the gleaming casket. It's a powerful bit of ritual, that symbolic burial-a little hiccup of indrawn breath runs around the gathered group, as the indisputable facts of death and decay sink home. That some people in the crowd find comfort in the pastor's words about heaven and eternal life is clear. That I don't is also clear to me, now.

I find myself liking Pastor Dean-he seems kind and a little gawky, and he obviously knew and liked the lady we're burying today. He speaks of her with affection and sadness, and he speaks of his god with the same affection. The god he believes in is welcoming and loving, and there's this sense that his god is the sort who might sit down and have a beer with you.

When my grandfather died, my unchurched grandmother scrambled for an officiant for his funeral, and landed somehow on an evangelical minister out of the phone book. The burial was in an old cemetery on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, full of headstones bearing my own last name. We sat on the edge of our folding chairs, filling with rising anger and astonishment as the minister used the opportunity to exhort us to find Jeezus so that we might have eternal life, and spoke hardly a word about PawPaw. Now there's a joke in my family that PawPaw's religion was his tomatoes and the Cardinals, and it's true that in the summer you could reliably find him either out in the garden cussing at the caterpillars, or sitting at the kitchen table with a cold beer (and a cigarette, before the emphysema that killed him was diagnosed) and the old radio tuned to the game. PawPaw wasn't a church-going man, and none of us ever knew what his private philosophies were. All his history and his stories-his farmhouse childhood, his service in the war, his years of factory work to support his family, his delight in his grandchildren, his tomatoes-it was all irrelevant to the god-squawker in front of us. I'm still mad thinking about it.

I could never believe in a god as puny and immoral as the god-squawker's god, and while Pastor Dean's god seems like a nice fellow, I don't believe in him either. Or any god, anymore, for that matter, and there are still times when I regret that. I've lost my faith, and most of the time I'm ok with it. But atheism is a new pair of shoes for me, and they don't fit quite perfectly yet. I don't need religion to feel part of something, because I'm part of the whole of life on this planet. That's plenty, I think, and if it's not, well, that's a big universe out there. There's wonder and mystery enough in it to satiate the hungriest soul. I don't need religion to base my ethics in-anyone who does has a screw loose, in my opinion. But sometimes, I admit, I miss the comfort of believing in life after death. How can you tell someone that it's going to be ok, when the person they loved has dissolved, faded away like melting snow?

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Comments

Beautifully done, Stephanie, and my condolences if the person who died was someone close to you.

You filled in admirably for Chris.

If you donít mind, though, a few things you wrote toward the end touched a cord, and Iíd like to respond. I certainly donít have a problem with atheists. You have every right to believe, or not believe, in God - whatever God ďis.Ē As far as Iím concerned, itís a personal matter. In fact, thereís only one group I find truly offensive, and those are the people who feel compelled to tell me what I should believe. More often than not, these folks are Christians, most likely evangelicals. But there are also Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc., who feel they same way; as if they, and they alone, have a direct path to the truth. To be quite frank, I find these people not only offensive, but a little sad. What arrogance, to say that their way is the only way to salvation, or God, or whatever.

But I also find the same thing true of some atheists, and I put them in the exact same category. Not you - you certainly werenít standing up on your soapbox, preaching against the stupidity of grasping for meaning where there is none - but of some. Theyíve decided, for reasons I can only guess at, that there is nothing more to existence than what they can discern with their five limited senses. They see no meaning in life, they detect no purpose beyond their own narrow self-interest, and they love to shout from the rooftops that those of us who do believe in something more are self-delusional fools.

Honestly, I find this line of reasoning just as arrogant, and just as offensive, as the crap that some religious evangelicals like to spew.

So without telling you what to think, or judging the fact that you donít believe in God or an afterlife, Iíd like to offer something for you to consider. My personal experiences - and Iím not talking about something I read in a book, or something Iíve been told, but rather things that have happened repeatedly in my life, as well as the lives of people very close to me - have convinced me that there are realities beyond this one, and that there is an existence after our bodies ďdissolve.Ē I have no doubt of that. None. I donít think it would be possible for a person to experience the same things Iíve experienced and still think otherwise.

Yet itís always possible that Iím a liar, or a fool, or insane, or that I canít distinguish between reality and fantasy, and consequently, I donít suggest that you take my word for anything. Believe what you choose to believe, and live your life in the way you think you should. But keep in mind that none of us - not me, not you, not the religious evangelicals or the anti-religious evangelicals - have the final world. Ultimately, things are as they are, and believing, or not, doesnít change the essence of reality.

If nothing else, perhaps you can find solace, and some form of comfort, in the fact that that at least one person out here feels he has good reason to believe differently than you.

Posted by: tost at July 31, 2005 06:35 PM
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tost, thank you for your kind words and your thoughtful response. The person who died was the grandmother of my dearest friend in all the world. She was in end-stage Alzheimer's when she died, and most of her loved ones had been mourning her for years as her memories and contact with them slipped away. Her death at the age of 83 (made much easier by hospice, which her daughter and her physician grandson worked hard to get her into-and if anyone thinks it's easy to decide to sign someone you love up for hospice, think again) was as gentle, peaceful, and expected as you could hope it to be, under the circumstances. I didn't know her-I met her only once near the end. She smiled nearly the whole time-a genuine, though mostly disconnected smile. She looked longingly at her grandchildren, as if something in her knew they were desperately important to her, but she couldn't quite figure out why, and they didn't turn away from her gaze even to hide their grief.

I think that evangelists of every stripe are obnoxious, and, frequently, evil. I've know some Communists, and any number of Objectivists, who could rival my grandmother's god-squawker. You're entirely correct that atheists can be like that. I've encountered them. Arrogance and self-righteousness know no boundaries. No ideology, religious or not, ever justifies ignoring another's humanity or individuality.

Yet itís always possible that Iím a liar, or a fool, or insane, or that I canít distinguish between reality and fantasy, and consequently, I donít suggest that you take my word for anything.
I don't chalk personal spiritual experiences up to insanity or lies. I don't chalk them up to anything-I'm not qualified to judge. It's an experience. What meaning it has only you can determine. It's not applicable to me, but neither is it up to me to determine what it means to you. Many people who I know, love, and trust have had spiritual experiences. For some of them, those experiences have provided a sense of well-being and a great deal of comfort. I wouldn't be able to take that away from them if I tried, and I see no reason to try.

You say: But keep in mind that none of us - not me, not you, not the religious evangelicals or the anti-religious evangelicals - have the final world. Ultimately, things are as they are, and believing, or not, doesnít change the essence of reality.
It's not in me to try to believe-I don't really understand how one might do that anyway-but I put my faith in reality, whatever that is. My dearest friend in all the world once asked me a question that changed my whole life. "Is there," he asked, "a way the world is?" There is. No one can know the whole thing, but the world is not subjective, even if our experience is. What is, is.

Posted by: Stephanie at July 31, 2005 07:25 PM
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I can't say that I'm surprised, but that was well said, all of it. A few more thoughts:

I liked your friend's question, and your answer. And I agree that no one can ever know the whole thing. Although I don't think it's foolish to try, as long as we go in knowing that we won't ever reach our objective. To quote a teacher of mine, "It's the journey that's important, not the destination."

On a similar note, there's a question I use myself (though not nearly as much as I should) that was passed down to me from a far different culture than our own. It's simple, but still profound. Whenever something happens - good, bad, indifferent, it matters not - I try to look at the experience and ask myself, "What is this teaching me?" In essence, I always have a choice - will I continue to learn, to question, to grow, or will I choose to stagnate? This question makes it a little harder to be passive as I walk through life.

One last thing. A day or so ago I wrote a bit about awareness, and an exercise designed to enhance it. One of the best ways to learn more about the world we inhabit is so obvious as to be almost criminal - simply pay attention. Yet we rarely do. Ask yourself a few questions. Which way was the wind blowing the last time you were outside? What's the current phase of the moon? Where's the closest bird nest? The closest mouse track? The closest rabbit chew? Someone who's truly aware could answer all these questions, and a thousand more, without even thinking about it.

Of course that's way beyond me right now, and probably always will be. I suspect that awareness and enlightenment tend to walk hand and hand. But even though I may never get close to either, I take solace in the fact that I'm on a path of my own choosing.

Posted by: tost at July 31, 2005 10:01 PM
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tost, sometimes I lose patience with you.

If
they love to shout from the rooftops that those of us who do believe in something more are self-delusional fools

maybe it's because they see lies like this told about themselves -- MYself! --:

They see no meaning in life, they detect no purpose beyond their own narrow self-interest

and it's first, a crock and second, attempted mind-reading, a very poor way of arguing.

"Meaning" is smaller than "life." Life needs nothing so mean as meaning; it's beyond meaning, and when I make my life mean something, it's the meaning I give it.

"Narrow self-interest"?? Hey, I've saved a few lives, eased a few pains with my own hands; seen a few people into birth and death; made a few gardens, given some of them (and words, and other work) away; even, if letters are to be believed, changed a mind or two. I could go on for paragraphs, but I wonder how you, so sure of what I see, could measure up.

And I'm no saint. I rub elbows all the time with joyous rational people who've done more, no spooky experiences necessary.

Many of whom -- me included, just by the way -- can tell you, using merely their limited senses, where the nearest mouse track, rabbit chew, carpenter bee nest, robin's song perch, orb-weaver's web, hawks' nest is, and the phase of the moon, and not only which way the wind was blowing a few minutes ago but the way it usually blows in almost any place, and what sort of weather it makes likely. It's not that hard, really.

Posted by: Ron Sullivan at July 31, 2005 10:30 PM
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Stephanie, yes, I've had similar feelings about what to tell people. I've had similar experiences in the last few years -- I''ve gone to a lot of funerals and memorials lately, including my mother-in-law's. Sitting through the eulogy there was interesting. It was done by a Baptist minister, hough she was Church of Christ. He turned out to be a good enough person, at least as far as we saw him in that short time, that keeping a straight face through the godstuff was an easy courtesy.

Maybe that was because he neither evangelized at us nor pretended to know more about her than he did. And he literally went quite a few extra miles, and refused payment for that. Within his own framework, he did us a deal of good, and he was certainly generous.

I swear it's the goodness that makes a person good, not the religion. Rather like religious music, now I think of it.

Posted by: Ron Sullivan at July 31, 2005 10:39 PM
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tost: I try to look at the experience and ask myself, "What is this teaching me?"
It's a good question, and it's a darn good way to try to live your life. But just because there's learning going on, doesn't mean that something is teaching us.

Which way was the wind blowing the last time you were outside? What's the current phase of the moon? Where's the closest bird nest? The closest mouse track? The closest rabbit chew? Someone who's truly aware could answer all these questions, and a thousand more, without even thinking about it.
The wind was blowing from the west the last time I was outside-I stood up into it to dry off while weeding yesterday afternoon. The other night, the moon was waning, so it's probably new by now, or close to it. The closest bird nest is the one the sparrows built in our porch roof. They're done with it for the year, because no one complains to me anymore when I get the hose out. Unfortunately, the closest mouse track is in our back porch, in some flour somebody spilled. Somebody with floppy ears was nibbling on the leaf lettuce in my herb garden the other day. There are Japanese beetles in my zinnias and basil (and soon they will have predators-I went and bought some preying mantid egg cases, which I've been wanting to do just so I could watch them, but I haven't had anything for the mantids to eat before this) and my lavender is budding a second time. There's tiny new growth at the base of the Russian sage I transplanted a month ago (which makes me happy, because I wasn't sure how well the transplant had gone), and the violas in the pots on the front porch have made babies. A gorgeous blue wildflower has landed in my dill-it looks like it's in the toadflax family, but I don't recognize it. And any gardener worth her salt would know at least this much about her environment.

"Meaning" is smaller than "life." Life needs nothing so mean as meaning; it's beyond meaning, and when I make my life mean something, it's the meaning I give it.

I swear it's the goodness that makes a person good, not the religion.

Ron-All I can do is nod in agreement-you've said it perfectly.

Posted by: Stephanie at August 1, 2005 05:43 AM
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This isn't logical.

"Is there," he asked, "a way the world is?" There is. No one can know the whole thing, but the world is not subjective, even if our experience is. What is, is.

Posted by: Stephanie at July 31, 2005 07:25

The way the world "is" could be subjective. It could be subjective to you, or to me, or to God. Or to my cat. Which dreamed it? And your belief systems actually prove that, as much as anything can be proved. Because YOU are living in a different world than great great great gran. You live in a world dominated by the germ theory of disease, you've dispensed with devils. You live in a world of "eco-system" and "web of life", you aren't "granted dominion" over it.

It worries me so much when people who share a lot of my values don't see themselves as evangelists, don't see themselves as having belief systems to transmit. They are smug in the idea that "reality" will bear them out. Well, my fear is that science can disappear from such complacency. When no one "believes" in peer review, or replicable results, or testing assumptions, there will be no scientists...how many long dark ages will we wait for a new renaissance?

The people who walked the earth under a sun which revolved around them lived in a different reality. People died to give us an opportunity to walk in this one.

Posted by: B, at August 1, 2005 06:53 AM
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B: Perhaps I didn't make that clear enough. Our experience of the world is extremely subjective. We see it through a number of filters-cultural, historical, personal, and instinctual. Every generation and every culture transmits these filters to the next generation, every new generation modifies them to incorporate new information and experience. For any one person to see outside all of their filters is simply not possible. In that way, there are indeed multiple realities, because each of us sees the world through a unique set of filters.

The toolbox of science-testing, replicable results, peer review, falsifiable theories-is the very best we can do to strip away the filters and see the world beyond. Not perfect, but better by far than anything else we've tried.

As illustrated by the fact that treating diseases as if the germ theory is true produces much better results than treating them on the devil theory, or the humour theory.

What my friend's question was getting at was: Is there a real, concrete reality beyond the filters? Or is it all filters, (as is common belief in the circles I'd been running with for years and was starting to question)? When I honestly answered that I thought there was, I had to rethink a great number of my assumptions.

Am I making any more sense this time? I'm struggling a bit to find words to explain myself.

Your point about evangelism is well taken, though I think I'd like to find another word:) The creationists and IDers are proof that there's a lot of work to be done on that front.

Posted by: Stephanie at August 1, 2005 08:59 AM
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I agree with you, Stephanie -- there is plenty enough mystery to inspire wonder in anybody willing to ask the next question that any and every answer begs. And because existence is so strange, maybe life after death isn't completely out the realm of possibility. I tend to doubt it, though. And though I enjoy saying "I told you so" more than is seemly, I am perfectly content to wait to find out if I'm right or wrong on that.

Posted by: Brian at August 1, 2005 10:29 AM
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Stephanie - Iím afraid you may have misinterpreted my question about ďWhat is this teaching me?Ē I didnít mean to imply that Iím asking for spiritual help, or Godís help, in figuring things out. (Although I sure wouldnít turn it down.) Rather, itís more along the lines of, ďI just stuck my hand in the fire and burned myself. What did I learn? Thatís right - donít stick my hand in the fire next time.Ē If I keep asking these questions constantly, I find that I donít repeat my mistakes quite as frequently.

Not that this is a spiritual question, per se, but then I donít look at things from a spiritual/ non-spiritual perspective. I donít see any point in trying to separate the two.

Anyway, I apologize if I wasnít as clear as I meant to be.


Ron - I'm sorry if you lost your patience with me. I hope you find it.

As for the rest, I have to agree with Stephanie. She wrote, ďYou're entirely correct that atheists can be like that. I've encountered them. Arrogance and self-righteousness know no boundaries.Ē

Now if you choose to place yourself in that category, thatís your decision. But I sure didnít do it. So please donít put words in my mouth, or accuse me of lying. It comes across as irrational.

Oh, and regarding the awareness aspect - I don't agree when you say it's not that hard. Then again, some people have an unusual talent for these kinds of things. Maybe you're a natural.

Why donít you try this simple awareness test. (Iím sure you realize that basic awareness extends way past what we can discern with our eyes.)

Take a ride out to a park or a wooded area tonight. Leave your bike or car and walk off a couple hundred yards into the thickest woods you can find, away from any trail. Find a spot you like, then sit down and get a good feel for the place. After you feel comfortable, leave something - a fanny pack, for example - then walk back to your car or bike, paying close attention as you go, getting a sense for everything around you. (You can even count your steps, though I wouldnít recommend it.)

When youíre back at your ride, use a bandana to blindfold yourself. Then shut your eyes, just to be sure, and walk out out to your pack. When you get to the exact spot where you left it, sit down. If youíre awareness is reasonably good, youíll be able to reach out and grab your fanny pack with your blindfold still on.

Simple, right?

I can tell you one thing for sure. I know dozens of men and women who can do this exercise, well.... I guess the term Iím looking for would be ďblindfolded.Ē

Let me know how it goes.


Posted by: tost at August 1, 2005 01:47 PM
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I hate funerals. My experience of them has nearly been 100 percent as yours, a preacher taking the opportunity to sermonize and win souls. Even to the extent of making altar calls for converts. And I've been to many funerals where the person was not of any faith but the family was and used it as an opportunity to rather restore that person into the faith fold, now that they couldn't argue about it.

My sympathies on your experience at your grandfather's funeral. He should have been remembered at it. A terrible feeling to have a completely irrelevant and even distasteful memoriale served up at such a significant event.

Posted by: Idyllopus at August 1, 2005 06:23 PM
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tost: Stephanie - Iím afraid you may have misinterpreted my question about ďWhat is this teaching me?Ē I didnít mean to imply that Iím asking for spiritual help, or Godís help, in figuring things out. (Although I sure wouldnít turn it down.) Rather, itís more along the lines of, ďI just stuck my hand in the fire and burned myself. What did I learn? Thatís right - donít stick my hand in the fire next time.Ē If I keep asking these questions constantly, I find that I donít repeat my mistakes quite as frequently.
I think that I interpreted what you said as it's not that you're asking for help from God (as you define God), but that God is trying to teach you something. Very different things.
As for the rest, I have to agree with Stephanie. She wrote, ďYou're entirely correct that atheists can be like that. I've encountered them. Arrogance and self-righteousness know no boundaries.Ē
Yes, but I think that paragraph needs to be taken in its entirety: I think that evangelists of every stripe are obnoxious, and, frequently, evil. I've know some Communists, and any number of Objectivists, who could rival my grandmother's god-squawker. You're entirely correct that atheists can be like that. I've encountered them. Arrogance and self-righteousness know no boundaries. No ideology, religious or not, ever justifies ignoring another's humanity or individuality. I'm certainly not singling out atheists, and I think I made that clear.

Posted by: Stephanie at August 1, 2005 07:34 PM
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Idyllopus: Thank you. I'm so sorry about your experiences. It's still unbelievable to me that anybody would use that opportunity to evangelize. People are always more important. There's a reason for the funeral ritual-it's to acknowledge and celebrate a life, and the meaning it had for the people who loved the person. It's to recognize the reality of death. Anyone who takes those things away from the mourners is deeply immoral. That's why I liked Pastor Dean, even though I don't share his beliefs. He knew my friend's grandmother, he celebrated her life and he mourned her death. He was real, and he cared.

Posted by: Stephanie at August 1, 2005 07:50 PM
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"Yes, but I think that paragraph needs to be taken in its entirety:" & "I'm certainly not singling out atheists, and I think I made that clear."

I agree. The paragraph does need to be taken in the context of your entire comment, and you definitely didn't single out atheists.

Nor did I. But this isn't the first time that Ron has gotten her knickers in a twist over something Iíve written, and it probably wonít be the last.

I wouldnít worry too much about it. Youíve done an excellent job over the last few days.

Posted by: tost at August 1, 2005 11:03 PM
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How can you tell someone that it's going to be ok, when the person they loved has dissolved, faded away like melting snow?

You tell them it's going to be OK, because if it's OK they can go on. And they will go on. It won't be OK, but they will go on. What you're saying isn't really "it will be bearable" but "you will bear it" - as we do.

tost, there's one thing I'm still not clear about - did she start it or did you start it? (Smiley goes here.)

Posted by: Phil E at August 2, 2005 01:59 AM
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Phil E: You tell them it's going to be OK, because if it's OK they can go on. And they will go on. It won't be OK, but they will go on. What you're saying isn't really "it will be bearable" but "you will bear it" - as we do.

Wisely said.

Posted by: Stephanie at August 2, 2005 08:54 AM
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stephanie---great piece and good discussion.

tost---i don't know about an afterlife existence. my own experience leads me to strongly suspect that consciousness is non-local, which may therefore include afterlife. i love your fanny pack in the woods exercise!

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at August 2, 2005 09:48 AM
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Phil - Cat's got my tongue.

DPR - Consciousness is funny stuff. The common perspective is obviously that itís local, or personal, or whatever you want to call it. But Iíve heard a very persuasive argument that our thoughts, which many of us tend to think of as our very essence, are merely a meniscus, a thin veneer of individuality floating on top of a vast collective consciousness.

Which leads to an interesting question. What if we really arenít our thoughts? What if our essence is something far different, with our mind being like our hands or our eyes, just another tool at our disposal to use in this particular time and place?

As for the fanny pack - the exercise works, obviously, or I wouldnít have brought it up. The biggest problem that most people have with this kind of thing is that itís intuitive rather than rational. If you try to think about it, as in ďI believe itís only another 28 paces.Ē or ďIíve got to keep the sun on my left cheek. ď or whatever, youíre screwed. There are actually a couple different techniques that afford excellent results, although I prefer the simplest one. It revolves around the concept of ďpresence.Ē In a nutshell, everything has a unique presence, a feel, thatís different than everything else around it. If we can turn off the running monologue in our heads and simply open ourselves up to the feel of the fanny pack, we can walk right to it.

Not that itís always easy - our minds donít like to shut off, and we still have to sort out that one whispered presence from so many others - but it does work.

You can actually do the same thing without the pack, but you need to have a really good feel for the area youíre trying to find while youíre blindfolded.


Posted by: tost at August 2, 2005 09:52 PM
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