The world is green, grass in full fall five o’clock shadow, and I stand in the middle of it. My hands cradle two pecans. There are more barely hidden in the verdant whiskers. Nearby, I may have a pile of them or a bowl full. Now, I have only the two—perfect brown ellipses flecked with black. The nuts warm quickly in my touch, the dust of their abandoned husks bitter and drying as alum. I hold the pecans. We are poetry, a song of praise. This is my first conscious memory.
I am two years old.
And I am sacred.
I descend from generations of Catholics, numerous as rosary beads. My grandparents are devout beyond the expectation of prayer and Sunday mass. The One True Church is chosen for me, and I sit in one of its domiciles surrounded by echoes and incense but anxious to go outside.
Beyond the cathedral steps is the largest, oldest living thing I’ve ever seen. Almost 500 years old, it is Magnificence and Beauty. The oak tree waits for me, for my hands on its bark, for my entranced orbit around its trunk. I will learn the words axis mundi decades later, and I will know exactly where that is.
For now, the tree holds the space between the cathedral and the school building where I attend catechism. In the classroom, I’m told of the indelibility of original sin, the importance of pleasing the Lord, and the stories of a great ark, burning bush, giant whale, and woman who turns to salt.
But before I’m called away, I stand on the fluorescent-lit sidewalk within a footstep of the darkness, a leap away through moonlight into a canopy of leaves. At the ancient oak’s roots is where I want to be.
I am a pagan.
Requisite catechism classes and first confession complete, I wear the white dress my grandmother made for this first communion. I walk down the aisle with the other children to the pews—boys sent left, girls sent right. The veil’s haze blurs my sight. I kneel. I mutter what I’ve learned by rote, and I feel I’m doing something wrong. I don’t belong here. I’ve told no one I don’t believe what I’ve been taught in catechism, by example, through osmosis. I push this feeling down, hard, and it stays. The wafer on my tongue transmutes into caulk.
I am a bad girl.
We move to another parish, with a modern building and no oak tree. The priests are younger, as well as the families. The circumstances are different, but the doctrine isn’t. I barely contain the danger of what I know, what I feel, but I can’t speak of it.
So I sit in the bright sanctuary where the acoustics are balanced and the pews are unworn, with the unacceptable thoughts I’ve formed on my own. I am only twelve, but I don’t believe birth control, sex before marriage, or homosexuality is wrong. I don’t believe in hell, purgatory, limbo, or heaven. I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin or resurrected from the dead. I don’t believe that Catholicism is theOneTrueChurch, that people of other religions—or none at all—are damned, or that the pope is infallible.
I am an apostate.
I meet with a confirmation counselor, a middle-aged woman who does most of the talking about the solemn sacrament. My feet dangle from the edge of the wingback chair. I sip the Coke she serves me. Knowing I can’t endure an act of hypocrisy, I tell the woman I’m not ready to do this yet. I don’t know her, or trust her, so I summon up the most neutral excuse I can imagine. “I need more time to think about this commitment,” I say. Perhaps I come across as mature, or at least respectful. Several weeks later, after much sulking and silence, after several red-faced insistences upon my obedience, I am allowed to quit.
I am a disappointment.
I’m not prepared for the difficult growth from the tendrils of doubt into the gripping vines of uncertainty. Our Father who art in Heaven has been imposed upon me, but I have no guide to take his place. I want to be an atheist—desperately—but all I can achieve is an embittered agnosticism. My rage at God, if God exists, is complicated. I don’t want to be this way, but I am, and if my will alone can’t make me a believer, then was I fearfully and wonderfully made not to be one?
At fourteen, I begin a search for answers beginning in philosophy, psychology, and natural science. In college, I learn of a time when God was a woman, or at least not only a man. I behold the Venus of Willendorf and the Minoan snake goddess, who seem familiar to me, like someone I’ve forgotten. I read the names of the dead goddesses and their myths, invoking the Feminine in the place where the rigid, judgmental Masculine banged his hairy white fist. I encounter Joseph Campbell, the venerable sage, who reveals the common motifs of mythology and religion from all over the world throughout time. He teaches me that human beings have always assigned stories to the Great Ineffable.
I am a scholar.
During the first years I practice yoga, I acknowledge the envy I have of my grandmothers. What is it like to believe as they do, to have trust in a faith, to have prayers and rituals that hold meaning? What does it feel like to have a relationship with the Divine that isn’t constantly in question? And if there’s doubt, how does one carry its weight, the pressure that perhaps there is, in fact, nothing after all but the spooky action of matter and energy?
As I enter Eastern territory—where Hinduism and Buddhism speak to me—I also return to the Earth. I read and think about the span of human wisdom, but it is only in stillness with Nature that I discover any truth. I ache for a return to something I think I once knew, something that belonged to me, something that was stolen and buried.
Then I find peace in my knowledge that the Divine force takes many forms. Each is a fragment of the whole, a glimpse through which the person perceives according to his or her understanding. My grandmother finds comfort in the Blessed Virgin Mary. My sister’s Hindu friend has a shrine to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. My Buddhist friend sits in meditation, sometimes in the presence of Tara, the bodhisattva of compassion and action.
I reach for the ancient oak, a flower, the song of a bird. When I hold these things, I am connected to the Divine in the purest state I comprehend.
I am a seeker of what cannot be taught or found, but instead known and felt by my individual human soul.