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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong

If you’ve been checking in here at Forest for the Trees, you know that I am a devout atheist. Today, while walking to the subway, I asked myself  how I could be so sure that there’s nothing. In a world of such obvious uncertainty, where did I get my certitude? THen I had the realization that it makes me feel good. And I think it’s why I believe so deeply in art, that it exists in the face of nothing. We need to make food, clothes, shelter, movies. But art, poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture, music. It comes into the world like a child, unbidden.  Some people believe that they create to honor god, or glorify god. When I look at a Blake I get that. But I’ve also had a similar experience walking through Serra’s tilted walls.

I have no fucking idea what I’m talking about. But what I’m curious about tonight, a rain-filled night, is whether writing has a spiritual component for you and what that’s like.

79 Responses

  1. Well, it always comes up in my work. I even have Him talk in my first book but it is very irreverent. Raised Catholic, I am very flexible in my personal dogma. But I have had too much weird stuff happen to me that is inexplicable to discount the “Mystery”. That isn’t even all god-related– just spooky sometimes.

    I’ve been hanging around here awhile, and I never noticed any raging atheism.

    The smiley in the gray edge of your blog is tiny and permanent tonight. See what I mean?

  2. when you hit that zone and you’re chugging along without any concept of time or how many words you’ve put down or where your children are…that has a spiritual element for me.

    sometimes i wake up in the middle of the night with an entire scene or character or story or even just a line and i have to get it down because i know if i don’t do it right then, at 3:57 a.m., i’ll lose it. that feels spiritual to me too.

    and then there are those passages you read days/weeks/months/years after you’ve written them and think, “…i can’t believe i wrote that!” b/c you love it so much.

    if there was an altar that promised to make these instances happen more often, i’d kneel to pray on it every day.

    • This will most likely read 3:59 by the time I hit “post” but trust me, it was 3:57 when I read yours. That’s spiritual to me.

  3. I don’t think my writing has a spiritual component, and yet as soon as I write that… I’m not so sure. When I’m really on a roll it feels like the writing is coming through me, rather than from me, so is that what you mean by spiritual? It’s not what I consider spiritual. I’m not an atheist but a confused, skeptical some-time believer in something bigger than myself but not a guy in the sky kind of thing. I believe in magic. And poetry and art. And nature. Ummm… does that answer the question?

  4. Oh lord, Betsy, writing as spiritual? This is the unspeakably beautiful thing about being an atheist that believers don’t seem to get. It reminds me of the time I told my mother (a Catholic) that I was catching a plane at “some godless hour”.”If you don’t believe in God,” she teased, “How can an hour be godless?”. I didn’t miss a beat. “When you don’t beleive in God,” I quipped. “All the hours are godless.” But the irony is that all the hours are “godfull” I guess you could say. As an atheist nothing I do has any special spiritual significance, therefore everything is spiritual. I get very cross when believers accuse me of not being spiritual. What could be more spiritual than living INSIDE the only god you know (the universe)?

  5. Yes! Yes! Yes!
    When i write something, and it comes out well, it feels like connecting the dots. So many dots. A couple dozen, then hundreds, then millions. And it goes back in time and into the future too. Towards other human thoughts, other human experiences. And that is very spiritual to me.

  6. Don’t say you have no idea what you’re fucking talking about. It’s what all of us Athiests say to assuage what we’re about to say next.

    This afternoon, I had a pedicure (while my puppy was being snip-snipped) and the woman next to me was reading THE FUN OF DYING: Find Out What Really Happens. It ruined my afternoon. Before I even saw the title, I could tell by the typeface it was some kind of religious bullshit. I kept eyeing her — while our mechanical high-back chairs massaged us and the young gals massaged our feet with lavender lotions — and she had a smile the whole time. I hated her on site. (did I just say that out loud?)

    First, this is a book that sells. Shit. And second, I was way more worried about my 6 month old labrador retriever wearing a cone around her head for the next 2 weeks.

    Call me crazy.

    But that said, I gave a eulogy last week at my grandfather’s funeral where I talked about him being with grandma and Jack Buck now, in heaven, and I could hardly puke it out. I hope no one noticed. But grandpa would have liked it and it wasn’t about me.


    THE FUN OF DYING. Seriously??!!??!!

    • Teri, you always give me something to think about!

      If that woman purchased TFOD, she’s probably getting such books through a faith-based store that has limited inventory & that author has an agent (if there was one) who probably wouldn’t consider 9/10th of the WIPs mentioned in this site. I want to believe that group is operating on a parallel track that clears some space for the rest of “us”. Let’s hope!

      Eulogies are tricky exercises: I attended the funeral of a friend who was a magician and the solemn ritual his fellow magicians performed for the congregation was quite a contrast to the preacher’s prayers. It certainly demonstrated the complexity of a person’s beliefs and how that complexity is acknowledged after death. If your grandfather believed in heaven and you were able to acknowledge that belief, I think you showed a loving appreciation for all facets of your grandfather’s life.

      Re the cone-of-destruction: all I can say is make sure you have some touch-up paint or stain for the door frames. My dog managed to scrape off paint and wood from every frame when she wore her cone.

      • Thanks, Karen, but re-reading my initial comments I sound harsher than I meant to.

        Which comes from my feeling that the God-people have carte blanche to talk talk talk, and yet I find myself qualifying anything I might say lest I offend them or start a fight I’m not looking to have. Gee, mirror mirror, is that a hang up I see? *sigh*

    • Teri, your comment in particular has attracted my attention for some reason, although I’d love to start a conversation with everyone here. I’m just wondering, why’d you think you had to mouth some pious sentiment you didn’t believe?

      I almost went on at length here about the near carnival-like atmosphere that attends some deaths in my religion (you can visit my blog, whose most recent post you inspired, to see what I mean). It might piss you off, but thanks for the prompt.

      I’ll say this, though: Steve Jobs last words were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” Doesn’t that sound like fun?

    • I love the eulogy story. It reminds me that a year or so ago a friend with whom I’ve shared many conversations on deep theological subjects gave birth to a baby boy with multiple heart defects, who needed open-heart surgery when he was just a week old. She asked me to baptize him before the surgery. Now, I know, and she knows that I know, that neither of us believe for a minute the theology behind infant baptism, that unbaptized children will go to hell (or purgatory, or wherever) when they die. Nor do either of us believe that such actions “change God’s mind” any more than prayer. But there was something about her needing that sacrament at that moment that speaks to something that transcends intellect and nothingness. I think what we say around death–even timely, “good death”–has the same transcendent quality.

  7. Lately, I’ve realized that most of my characters want to connect, to find a place where they belong and maybe one or two people with whom to belong.

    Some don’t know it, won’t admit it, or are too profoundly damaged to understand that other people have a choice about this..Some of them get it right despite themselves.

    But it’s that connection, that feeling of knowing someone cares enough to catch you when you fall and that you care enough to catch them . . .that’s home. And home is the most centered thing one can experience, however you get there.

  8. Today I got two Christmas letters. You know what I’m talking about, right? Even though Facebook has obliterated the need for the annual summary, those Here’sWhatHappenedToMeThisYear reductions in very small font so they can fit on one piece of holiday stationery keep a-coming.

    I always look forward to Susan’s. Susan was the biggest party girl I knew back in the coke-sniffing 80’s. Now she’s an obese respiratory therapist who loves Jesus. She loves Jesus a lot. I always feel very unholy when I read her let’s put the Christ back in Christmas letters, but I crave the irony, the schadenfreude and the soap opera of them. Every year she gets fatter (as her holiday-sweater-clad likeness that accompanies the letter reveals) and every year she has some perilous disaster–someone in her family overdosed, she broke a limb, she lost her job–and yet, her letters are always filled with blessings and love.

    The other letter was from my yoga-practicing Buddhist friend. More disasters. More blessings. More love.

    I don’t send holiday letters. I am trying to work up the energy to send cards this year. Alas, I am a shitty card writer. I scribble off vapid bullshit in illegible handwriting and off it goes. Where I feel like I’m my realest self is in a character’s voice. I like to think that’s “spiritual” — it certainly feels greater than. It would be great if I could just outsource the Christmas card thing to Sisi. Maybe that’s what I’ll do… I might even have her send a Christmas letter…

    • We received a Christmas letter last year that read:

      Dear friends and family: I’m perfect! My husband is perfect! And you know what, our 3 adorable kids (see photos!) are perfect too! Merry Christmas.

      Loved it.

      • Perfect. The Christmas letters/cards that I save in the ornament box so I can read them the following year are like that: infused deeply with the personality and voice of the giver.

  9. When I was younger and knew more, I sometimes thought I was writing for the mind of God. Nowadays I don’t know anything and even less about God, but I know writing is my junk and I refuse to kick it. I mainline it now and the tracks show up on my job performance and in my bank account.

    When I’m in the zone and something bigger than me is flowing through me and out my hands to instantiate before me as something transcending my self-perceived limitations, there’s a sort of a spiritual feeling I get.

    We need to make art, we crazy monkeys, we psychotic apes, we images of the gods we have created to shield ourselves from the madness of knowing too much about our profound, depthless ignorance. We’ve been needing it at least since we wandered the tundra, spearing mastodons and carving a Venus at every Willendorf. That’s why we make it. What’s anyone’s god have to do with that? (That’s neither a rhetorical nor a trick question, and though it may be on the test, I certainly don’t know the answer.)

  10. Religion is a way many people choose to make sense of the world. It’s a system of unquestioned answers–sometimes literally chiseled in stone.

    Art is another way of making sense of the world, but there are no guaranteed answers. That makes it seem like a lesser form until you realize the harsh truth that there either are no answers…or that you might not like the ones you find. But through art you might like some of the ones you find, and how to deal with the ones you don’t (or at least, through reading and writing, some company in your disappointment). Is that spiritual? I have no idea. But I like it.

  11. No spirit here, just words and rain

  12. I’m not altogether sure about God, but I am sure about energy, whether it’s the quantifiable kind or not. And one of those ephemeral types of energy sure does feel spiritual. And it’s that feeling of “pulling down” from this lovely energy field and I know exactly what to write. When in that flow, what I do write is always right. That feeling when those words descend into my mind almost pre-written is it’s own divinity, whether from God or not.

    Now that I’m thinking about it, it’s not unlike when it’s late at night and you’re drunk as shizzle and that right and perfect idea descends into your brain to drunk dial that ex-boyfriend Right Now. But with writing it comes with rather less of a hangover and absolutely no pucker of shame, thank God!

  13. Art is no consolation for the fact that we have to die, but it helps pass the time.

  14. Wow. I just posted and then read what Tetman and Linda P. et al, posted about words coming through you rather than of you. I didn’t know it was a common thing and I thank you for posting. Makes me feel less alone–less a tree falling with no one to hear. Lordy! Maybe I do need a writing group.


  15. Each time I sit down to write I want to cry because it is one of my biggest acts of surrendering. Right now I am writing a memoir on my spiritual journey from growing up Catholic to partaking in my culture’s rituals in Santería to becoming Muslim. There is a longing in my writing for spiritual nourishment. I will never truly understand my Creator and all of creation; I am just in awe and grateful to be part of it.

  16. God totally gets me.

  17. I’m a pantheist – “Goddess” is in everything for me, and therefore infuses my writing with a peculiar thing that I guess I would call spirit. My art and my writing make me feel connected to something big and unfathomable – and like Socrates – gives me a little immortality. Whether there is such a thing as “real” immortality is a mystery to me, but leaving art behind is real. An act of creation. Beauty.

  18. As Aleister Crowley said, “I’m an atheist, thank God.” He also said, “The only God is Man.” Betsy, we’ve discussed this before, you and I, but many people don’t realize that there’s something that doesn’t fit neatly into the organized religion type thing, that there’s a possibility for finding what there is (if anything) inside yourself. Some of my favorite writers are atheists, and all my work is spiritual to some degree; but that spirituality can always be interpreted in the realm of the psychological. Does my protagonist truly find God or is he just crazy? This question fascinates me.

  19. Jung said something to the effect that religion is what man creates to mask the awe and wonder of authentic religious experience, that bit of sand buried at the center of the pearl of pretty bullsit that’s built up around it for thousands of years by the priests, rabbis, mullahs, etc.

    Every time a dog jumps up and barks at a sound I’m incapable of hearing I’m reminded that there’s likely all sorts of crap going on that lies outside the perceptive abilities of both me and the dog. We’re limited creatures. The universe is vast. Most of it is a mystery. God? No God? Human graspings after fact and reason.

    I do a lot of spontaneous free writing with headphones on listening to instrumental music, weird John Zorn type stuff usually, and reading what I’ve written afterwards often have no idea where it came from. It’s often so unlike what I write when I sit down with the intention to write something in particular. Everything is energy. Energy is everything. There’s really only one thing, it’s called everything.

  20. Last night I was waiting with a half a dozen other photo groupies for the “religious” group to end their meeting so we could start ours. At 8pm sharp the door swung open and two silver haired women started out. “We’re so sorry!” they sang out, in unison. “But we were celebrating God!” The taller one, who was in her 70’s and had on a wool cloche hat and bright lipstick, stopped in front of me and with piercing blue eyes asked, “Is zere anyzing more important?.” I couldn’t place her accent but she was clearly not from this world. I smiled because, as a writer friend pointed out yesterday, you never know when someone might show up again in your life, but really she gave me the willies. I didn’t think it was a good time to tell her I didn’t believe. The other woman was being pulled by an adorable wheaten who, upon seeing us, became instantly riled. At one point, the sweet little thing, whose hair was matted down because of the heavy rain, grabbed his owner’s leg with his paw as if to say, “Mom, I’m scared. Hold me.” He reminded me so much of a child.

    I’m sorry. What was the question?

  21. Nothing is finer than being elevated by art. But the spiritual component in my own work? Other than feeling like a driven monk sometimes, I feel it rarely pushes through into my work, I’m scribbling and peddling mostly.

  22. For some reason this post brought tears to my eyes, so I’m going to have to say yes.

  23. I write because stories in my head must come out otherwise they drive me insane. If there is a higher power all tangled up in that craziness, well, what can I say…..someone other than God help us all…..probably not the most eloquent answer…..but honest.

  24. I think song writing might be spiritual — not only hymns, but any song that takes listeners outside themselves.

    I am not a song writer, alas, and my own writing has no spiritual component unless you count lifting my spirits. Writing makes me happy.

  25. As a fellow devout atheist, I share your joys just as you describe them…all art, all of nature, in the face of nothing

  26. You make me laugh. I love your honesty. Writing is spiritual devotion for me. I’m lousy at it. I’m not disciplined. But I believe in my heart that when I sit down to work and actually work, God smiles. Not because of my prose or miraculous sentences, but because I showed up. I think God likes people who simply show up.

  27. I believe in God. I believe he sent Jesus to walk with us. Like you, I have wondered how art came to be. Why did that guy pick up that charcoal stick and draw on that cave wall, and not just him, people in caves in all corners of the world? Native Americans, Chinese, Africans, all creating stories to be told for generations. In the same way you wonder where that came from, I wondered where the idea of God came from. If God doesn’t exist, how would anyone dream him up? If God just a crutch we concocted before we became “smart,” then what is art? I believe in both.

  28. I believe in love and that has gotten me in a whole bunch of trouble over the years. Some good times, too. My daughter asked me this morning why God made bad people. Kid’s asking some tough questions as she approaches 6 years old. I said something like, maybe it’s about giving the good people in the world something to do. Lame, I know, but we were rushing around trying to jumpstart the day and I couldn’t come up with anything better. Good. Evil. Something to write about, I guess. Where it all comes from I have no idea, but, like many other correspondents today, sometimes when I sit down to write, things I wasn’t expecting come out and that is as close to a spiritual connection as I get outside of love (and maybe a good day skiing or sitting on a mountaintop).

  29. I love the adjective devout for atheist.

    Stating you’re sure there’s nothing can’t be correct, you’re sure of what you see, you believe in a future enough to keep on moving. Atheism is a calculated rejection of a particular notion of the supernatural, but belief in us, in humanity, in self, in something, should remain.

    Life is full of spirit. Anything we do with life is spiritual. Breaking rocks is spiritual, as is humdrum, as is Michelangelo. Our writing is much better when we add spirit to it. Dos Passos’ USA would’ve been a pain to get through if not for his spirit. I can’t find spirit in Joyce. I’m pretty sure I read you because of the spirit in your writing. Keep up the holy work.

  30. According to my dictionary, spiritual has two definitions:

    spiritual |ˈspiri ch oōəl|
    1 of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things : I’m responsible for his spiritual welfare | the spiritual values of life.
    • (of a person) not concerned with material values or pursuits.
    2 of or relating to religion or religious belief : Iran’s spiritual leader.

    And so, yes, according to the first definition, writing has a spiritual component for me.

  31. It’s impossible to separate God from any part of my life. Writing included. That being said, I don’t blog or write ABOUT God…other than incidentally. But neither do I write stuff that would be rude to Him!!

  32. Why does belief in God always have to elbow its way into discussions of about what motivates us? Reading through these postings I was able to quickly discern a few things: That you are all very good at observation. That you all think deeply about things most people don’t waste a second on. That you feel things more intensely than most. That you see the sacred in art and nature. That you have an overpowering compulsion to communicate what you see and feel to others. That God or no God – some things are just awesome.

  33. All art comes from something – the materials do not just spontaneously generate, authors and poets create their writings. It is hard to be certain about nothing as one cannot prove a negative without going through all the options – an impossible task.

    I write and God is a big part of what I write. At one point I stood in the atheistic camp, the agnostic camp, and many occult and new age groups, none of them helped me where I needed it the most in healing from the abuse I received as a child by so called Christian parents. I ultimately realized it wasn’t religion or denomination I wanted either, but an authentic relationship with my Creator. I found that and, instead of the bandaids I was putting on myself through the many paths I took, I found real healing and salvation.

    I also want to say that the pagans I first met saved my life, gave me unconditional love and taught me many things that I still carry with me. Most pagans and witches I know are very moralistic, care very much to help others, and are very loving. Without them, I would not be alive to even consider God.

  34. I saw a documentary recently about the Chauvet Cave in France, where 30,000 years ago, someone–or several someones–painted a series of murals along the undulating surface of the cave walls. The most striking thing about the paintings is how stylish they are, how modern, even amongst the calcified skulls of cave bears and ibex. It must have been a magical place, lit only by torchlight, still with the stink of animal dung in the air.

    The yearning for connection and meaning is part of who we are as a species. I don’t know about spirituality and I’m decidedly agnostic, but sometimes a phrase or paragraph develops an almost sculptural curve that feels beautiful, like the line of the bison’s horn on the cave wall, or a murmuration of starlings flowing like ink across a pale sky.

    “Art, poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture, music. It comes into the world like a child, unbidden.”

    Yes it does.

  35. AS a not-so-devout believer, I am interested in why atheism makes you feel good. Is it that organised religion has filled people so full of guilt that it feels better not to believe in God? Or is it more peaceful to imagine nothing after death?

  36. Hell, yes.

    The doubt, the moments of pure wonder, the tears, the sense you are a giant satellite dish picking up all the joy, pain, confusion, awe of someone/something else. The absolute belief that this is what you must do while feeling completely lost and unsure of this belief at the same time. Not wanting to talk about it with just anyone because how can they really get it and will they think you are nuts? The buzz in your ears, heart, hands, gut when you are in it. The emptiness when you are not.

    If art isn’t faith I don’t know what is.

  37. Heaven, that invisible sky, a state or place of complete happiness attained by the good after death—the abode of God and his angels. Blessed. Any place of great beauty or state of great happiness. God. Somewhere, out there, if I look the right way, the land and the sky become landscape. Unity of form. Trained to draw, to unite the patches, make interconnections, to record scarred territory, worn by weather and settlement, the earth’s face, or my own, my first and last home. In a ghost country. Finding a way out of the blind present into what survives, what goes on and on becoming. Art.

  38. I grew up in a born-again, speaking-in-tongues religious family and in that environment there were answers to all of life’s difficult questions. I no longer adhere to those religious beliefs and I write in order to explore those difficult questions. I find freedom in the fact that really there are no easy answers. That exploration is as close to spirituality as I have ever come. More spiritual than speaking in tongues.

  39. What a great question and a gorgeous delicious cornucopia of responses! I grew up as a secular Jewish atheist crossed with Mayflower WASP Unitarians, and shocked all of my family in my mid-twenties by coming out as a Christian. It especially gives them the willies when I use the C-word, and I always have to say “not *that* kind of Christian!” and explain to them that for me it’s all about economic justice, our expectations of what gives life being confounded, a lot of eating and drinking with unlikely people, and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. I live in the spiritual-but-not-religious-and-especially-not-Christian center of the universe and so never am the one who’s allowed to talk-talk-talk about my faith in polite company. Quite the contrary. But Portland is all about spirituality linked to creativity and that spirit nurtures my writing and grounds me. Back when we all put manuscripts in the mailbox, I felt the greatest rush of creative energy and faith and spirit all melded into one, that moment at the mailbox, letting go of a poem over which I’d slaved and sweated and dreamed, and feeling certain that some goodness was released into the universe through that act. I wish hitting “Post” felt the same way, but it doesn’t.

  40. Let’s just say none of us think we are strong as we can be in an impossible situation. WHERE does that come from?

  41. There is no god in my universe. There may be one in yours.

    For me, religion is a group delusion. It started as a way to explain natural phenomena by ascribing the then-inexplicable to a larger cause. It turned into a way to provide an uber-Daddy for the frightened masses.

    When it’s over, we’re all worm farms. Living your life with an eye to a post-mortem maybe is a great way to wake up one day and realize you’ve wasted your time.

  42. Sharon Olds on God:

    Love in Blood Time

    When I saw my blood on your leg, the drops so
    dark and clear, that real arterial red,
    I could not even think about death, you
    stood there smiling at me,
    you squatted in the tub on your long haunches
    and washed it away.
    The large hard bud of your sex in my mouth,
    the dark petals of my sex in your mouth,
    I could feel death going farther and farther away,
    forgetting me, losing my address, his
    palm forgetting the curve of my cheek in his hand.
    Then when we lay in the small glow of the
    lamp and I saw your lower lip
    glazed with light like liquid fire
    I looked at you and I tell you I knew you were God
    and I was God and we lay in our bed
    on the dark cloud, and somewhere down there
    was the earth, and somehow all we did, the
    blood, the pink stippling of the head, the
    pearl fluid out of the slit, the
    goodness of all we did would somehow get
    down there, it would find its flowering in the world.

  43. “And remember when I moved in you
    The holy dove was moving too
    And every breath we drew was Hallelujah”

    — Leonard Cohen

    • And another part of that as far as writing/words/god:

      There’s a blaze of light in every word;
      It doesn’t matter which you heard;
      the holy or the broken Hallelujah

  44. I have to say, the older I get the more I lean towards atheism and away from agnosticism. I find it more comforting, thinking that it is all random and chaos, rather than that some entity is doing all this on purpose.

  45. Boy, this blog is a long ass beautiful poem. If I do say so myself. I no longer have any Belief whatsoever, if fact, I don’t even know what the word belief means. To believe. Whatever. I Do think I know some stuff in this totally fucking unexplainable life I live in, and a spiritual component has nothing to do with it. Spirit is just some word some Nun shoved down your throat to control you. It’s really that simple.Life is far more fascinating and lively than that. I’ll bet you everything that I have to everything that you have that I’m right.

  46. I believe that there is something bigger than myself that is miraculous. Sometimes, I anthropomorphize whatever that is. Other times, I think that I have built my own pacifier in that process, and the world is a random mess of molecules banging into one another, so I should just get over myself and the romantic notion of the ultimate omniscient narrator of the universe.

    Have you ever held a hummingbird in your hands? I have, on several occasions. Once, after the little guy got his bearings and flew off, there was a tiny hummingbird feather in my hand. It struck me then, as I looked at the brilliant engineering required to allow a hummingbird to fly, the delicate precision of those tiny strands of fluff, that there is a force and an intelligence that far surpasses my own.

    So, I have no fucking idea what I’m talking about, either. But I know that reading the line “But what I’m curious about tonight, a rain-filled night, is whether writing has a spiritual component for you and what that’s like” created a thrum in my chest that prompted me to want to connect. That’s spiritual, to me…

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