Greetings from Your Newly Northern Friendly Neighborhood Atheist

Bless me, WordPress, for I have sinned. It’s been a year since my last blog post.

We live in Portland now. Our little house is big enough for us and our cats and it sits on a tree-crowded corner of a verdant, safe, funky-in-the-best-way neighborhood. Kids run up and down our street playing riotously joyful games and selling lemonade. We are in the process of trying to make one of our own to add to the clamor. We have built vegetable beds in the back yard (a back yard!!! We’d heard of back yards in San Francisco, but no one we knew had ever seen one) and are watching seedlings grow into salads. I have a fabulous and rewarding job for which I am paid, if not handsomely, then at least adequately enough for the things we want. Every weekend we hang out with my sister and her husband and kids, who are happy and healthy and destined for greatness. As I write this, my husband is making us pancakes with blackberries from the produce cart down the street. Life, she is sweet.

And I miss Glide.

As the weeks and months turn into a year, I become more and more acutely aware of it. I pick apart the longing to try to understand the building blocks of what I’m missing. The people, of course. Beloved friends who I hardly get to speak to anymore, whose faces I once got to see shining with joyful noise every Sunday. Pastors Karen Oliveto and Don Guest, inspiring mentors and cheerleaders who continually reminded me that being there was not in the least bit strange, because once we got past the semantics we were all talking about the same thing, really. And the music. Being one voice in a massive sea of voices, lifting up those big soaring open harmonies that lifted everyone else. The bootie-shaking, rock solid celebration of gospel. And the opportunity to serve. Knowing I was part of a machine that fed, clothed, healed and housed thousands of human beings. Climbing down into the steam and laughter of the cafeteria at the grim crack of dawn and shedding all pretension, maddening self-absorption, anxiety-addled need to make it all about me, picking up a tray of food and delivering it to a hungry woman and her children. Chapping my fingers in bleachy water wiping down the table after a man finishes the only meal he will eat that day. And acceptance. The feeling that whatever broke in me and flooded into tears, whatever shame of the past, whatever cringing hidden need I might battle in the wounded heart of night, I would still be embraced and encouraged and loved. Loved. And celebrated.

And still get to be an atheist.

Last night my husband and I were sifting through all these things, trying to distill and define the formula of Glide in the fantasy that we could somehow find or recreate it here in Stumptown. We found ourselves comparing religion and rock & roll, examining the similarities and differences between them. What we came to was this: Religion provides frequent ecstatic experiences that are shared by a large group of people and creates a context for transcendence. So does rock & roll. We humans search for this, seem to need it quite desperately. But where religion gets tricky is that it requires conformity, insists upon an in-group and an out-group, defines who is acceptable and who is most emphatically not. Rock & roll solves that problem by accepting absolutely anyone, anything, any behavior – the more transgressive the better. It turns the ecstatic and transcendent into a frenetic, explosive expression of self-hood, me-ness, an identity supernova in which all our dirty bits are reified, deified, idolized. Where rock & roll falls short is that it is a completely self-feeding vocation; we get to experience and celebrate our selves but there’s no element of plugging all that energy back into a connected humanity. We need that, too. Without it we become lonely and self-destructive. We long for something bigger than ourselves. Service puts us back into the network of life.

Glide does all of these things – ecstatic transcendence, complete acceptance and plugging in to service – and does them beautifully. It is a magical equation that I am desperate to find again.

I’ve been wanting to go back to writing but I haven’t been an atheist in church for nearly a year and so haven’t had anything to say. And although I am peaceful and content in my life right now, the lack of community is a constant low-level ache that I am hardly aware of until I pass a church and remember what it felt like to be a part of that weekly embrace. And at that moment I feel deeply alone, because I am so sure that there will be no place for me there. I do not believe.

I find myself going back to the angry atheist podcasts, the documentaries about creationism and anti-gay religious groups. I know from experience now that this is a way of staunching the loneliness, a way of wrapping myself in safe certainties about in-groups and out-groups. I am more like the angry atheists than I am like the creationists and anti-gay people. Therefore in order to feel less alone I have to re-position myself so that I can judge Them for what they do to Us. And oh, I just get so disappointed with myself. I know where this goes. It goes away from music, community, service and acceptance. But I don’t know where to find those things here.

Around 1am last night as my husband and I chewed on all these weighty issues I started to form an idea. An experiment. An exercise in blogging. I will visit communities and write about them. Churches, atheist and humanist groups, volunteer organizations. If I stage it as an experiment in my head perhaps I will be able to observe more clearly and judge less harshly. And if I’m really honest with myself, an experiment gives me the excuse to look for what I’m missing.

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