Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Journey of the Mind

Last week I wrote about my relationship with the book Atlas Shrugged and the ideas of Ayn Rand. At one point in an early draft of that post, I referred to my decades of being a church lady as "a detour on a very long sidetrack."  Immediately, both my mind and my heart objected to that characterization of a period in my life that was very fertile. I deleted the sentence and took the post in different direction. Subsequently, I have spent some time considering the various phases of my intellectual journey.

This requires backing up to the genesis of my passion for ideas and for books. My dad had only a high school diploma, but he was very well read, and was a total history freak. When I was young, his favorite historic periods were the Civil War and the American westward expansion. My parents had friends who were similarly avid readers of history. The two couples got together once a week for dinner. The conversation would range widely but, would inevitably end up in discussions about history. In that environment, it should not be surprising that the first chapter book I ever read was a biography of Geronimo. In my family, we not only read about and discussed history, we visited it. We took long trips across the country visiting museums and battlefields. My dad would describe the battles as if he were watching them play out in front of us. The message was: history is not just boring books about dead white guys. History matters. What is more, well-written history books can be as exciting as good fiction. [On which see my post on the biography of Quanah Parker.]

In junior high, I was introduced to philosophy by my science teacher. [See last week's post.] I was also introduced (by an English teacher) to the Great Books series, and endeavored to read as many of them as I could. Books and ideas engrossed me. I got very into reading journals and autobiography: Anne Frank; Meriwether Lewis; Francis Parkman. I enjoyed reading history in the first person. I then discovered historical fiction, which was really fun.

In high school I got religion. My family was Catholic and I had always gone to church, but during that period I started going to non-denominational services and participating in bible study groups, mostly with Protestants. I found much of Protestant theology and praxis baffling. I stuck with Catholicism where it seemed to me it didn't matter what you actually believed, as long as you kept it to yourself and could recite the responses at Mass without losing your place in the missal. Pope John Paul made it very clear that you were supposed to actually believe it, so I became *gasp* a fallen-away Catholic.

In college, I spent more time in coffee shops and bars talking about literature and politics than I spent in class.  I hung out with the literary people. We were such a bunch of intellectual snobs and frauds, but our conversations were interesting, to us anyway.

After college, I got into Psychosynthesis in a big way. I also dabbled in what we now call New Age ideas and meditation. Intellectually, I gravitated towards Buddhism, but I could never have made it as a Buddhist on account of my two-pack-a-day cigarette habit (which I have given up) and my love for both cheap wine and good Scotch (which I have not given up).

In my thirties, I returned to the Church. This time I tried the Episcopal church. It seemed a good place for me.  I was too Catholic to be a proper Protestant, but there was no way I could go back to the Catholic church.  I spent almost two decades immersing myself in church work and studying theology. I actually read the Bible all the way through, along with an enormous number of theology books. I volunteered, served on committees, sang in the choir, and taught Sunday School. At one point, I was a paid staffer for two different churches at the same time. I loved the ritual of the services. I despised Anglican chant, but you can't have everything. The people were mostly nice, decent folks -- except for the really dysfunctional ones who are such assholes no organization would let them get away with such bad behavior except for "nice" church people. I loved mucking around in theology books, letting theologians take me to intellectual places I never dreamed of. I kept looking for the religious system that I could truly embrace. Some came close, but, at the end of the day, when the lights were out and it was just me and my Conscience, I knew I didn't belong there. I fought it. I prayed about it. I begged God for faith, knowing all the while I already had faith -- it just wasn't the kind of faith that Christianity required.  Eventually, I gave up, surrendering to the impossibility of ever being at home in any kind of a church.

I refuse to consider that period of my life to be a detour or a waste of even one second. In many ways it was the incubator for the person I was to become. I learned how to think like a theologian. By throwing myself over and over and over again at the impenetrable wall of my resistance to the teachings of prophets and religious thinkers, I learned what I actually believe. I also learned about the philosophical and religious underpinnings of Western Civilization. I believe no one can truly understand Western Civilization without having immersed oneself for a time in the Bible and the history of Christianity. I have come to think of Christianity as not a way of life, but as a potential launch pad toward a new way of living and thinking. A core tenet of my personal belief system is that is exactly what Christianity (or any religion) should be. That is why, while I don't practice it any more, I still revere the Christian traditions and writings. I look back (mostly) with fondness at my time in the Church.

After that, I switched from theology to psychology. I got way into Jung, thanks to Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I spent a few years alternating between reading psychology and history. Unlike my dad, my favorite historical period was the American Revolution and the early years of the republic.  When has there ever been a period in history when so many brilliant people lived at the same time?  From my early thirties until I was approaching fifty, I read very little fiction. I read mostly big, heavy books packed with dense (and sometimes altogether opaque) ideas, along with biographies of a lot of dead white guys whose commitments to big ideas (theirs and others') changed the world. (Hamilton. Jefferson. Adams. Washington. Franklin. Madison. To mention just a few of my personal faves.)

In my late 40's, I rediscovered fiction. At that point, the dream that I had been trying to kill since childhood resurrected itself: the dream of being a writer.  I quit dreaming about it and started writing. I don't write intellectual fiction like Ayn Rand.  I'm more of a simple story-teller. I write stories that I'd like to read: stories about nice people doing their best to live and love in a world that too often works against them.

My mind's journey has meandered through the works of the great writers (and some not-so-great) of our civilization. It was not a focused journey following any particular syllabus. I took the time to drink deeply from each of the wells of history, philosophy, psychology and theology. In the case of theology, I lingered for years by the waters of Babylon. I may have rejected some of the most important tenets of the religion, but I found much to nourish and delight me as well. In theologians I found kindred spirits: people who grapple with the really big questions. In the end, each of us has to find our own answers to the questions, but my time with them was invaluable.

I don't regret one book I read on my journey, or one conversation about ideas of any kind, or one lost weekend spent devouring some new author's work through sleepless nights. Every book I've ever read has taught me something (often it may have been the opposite of what the author intended). I cherish the fact that I have spent so much of my life immersed in the works of so many important thinkers.

Others may look at the exterior of my life and see someone hopelessly boring: eyes constantly stuck on  a book or fingers pounding away at a computer. What they don't know is my mind and my heart have been on a lifelong odyssey of adventure through the history and culture of Western Civilization. It has been a wild and wonderful ride -- and it ain't over.

It's nice, however, to take a rest stop and look back over the circuitous path I have traveled, feeling grateful for the teachers, writers, mentors and spirit guides who urged me on and protected me.

I have no idea what may lie ahead, but I hope it will continue to involve words grappling to express ideas that fill books of all sorts -- both mine and the works of many others.

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