Many years ago when I was a boy, I began to wonder about God. My mom said she believed and I guess she did. But it was half-assed by most standards. Our church attendance was sporadic. My prayers all involved me asking for things that came from Kmart or maybe Kiddie City. The thing I thought most, whenever I thought of a supreme being, was being watched.
He is watching my every move, I’d tell myself. And yet, in times of trouble or in times of need, it wasn’t like he sent some solid assistance my way or anything. If I went down on my BMX bike in a skid of loose gravel and glass bits and cigarette butts and dog piss, no rescuer came rushing out of the town ether to help me up, gauze the gash. It was as if I was being watched by an all-seeing eye who basically either kind of enjoyed watching his creations getting banged up by life, or he just plain didn’t give a country fart what the hell happened to us.
Maybe he watched me because he was trying simply to decide if he wanted to kill me or not.
Whatever the reason, from a young age, I began to wonder. Life came at me hard and fast. Nothing was ever easy. Born into absolutely nothing but a pair of dirty sneakers and some cold slaps of up-the-block pizza, I soon found out that being alive wasn’t always some kind of big blessing like people like to pretend it is.
People always seemed dumb to me. Like, not that smart and also sort of gross.
The more I sat in the pews at church on occasion, or in the bleachers at the football game, or the more I stood standing up at the deli waiting for my cheesesteak to be ready on hot summer days in the early 1980’s- when all I really stood for was: riding my bike fast down the 9th Ave. hill and not dying/ eating shit food that tasted good/ baseball cards/ playing baseball/ whacking off in the bathroom when my mom was at work/ listening to Springsteen and Mellencamp and Genesis and Hank Williams Jr/ and sleeping in my bunk bed beneath my brother, who was better than me on the guitar but who could not beat me with his fists: the purest, most genuine reasons for living anyone could ever muster up: the more I began to feel down in my bones that everything was kind of hogwash.
And that almost everyone in my town, and in all the towns down the road that I had seen so far in my 13 years, they were all super fucked up in the head.
It never ends if you let it.
The church. The god. The nation state. The government. The loot. The laws. The crimes. The lessons. The voices. The system. The opposition. Them. Us. You. It. Look at them all. One filter after another that started coming down onto your opening scene the precise moment you were born. Your new fresh eyes saw a pure and natural thing called life for a split second there. You recognized it as light and oxygen and motion and instantly you fell in love with the idea of staying here/ of sticking around if at all possible to experience the sensations of being alive. Alive, you wanted, in a world in which you will remain but for an instant, comparatively, before you vanish, ultimately, into some unknowable ether that operates beyond the very filters that also blocked out the one true sun for your Mom and Dad on their very first days as well.
It never ends, I say to myself.
It never ends, I’m telling you.
Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
- Douglas Adams
For a couple of years I was an acolyte at my church where I grew up. Being an acolyte in the Protestant Church was pretty much the same as being an altar boy in the Catholic Church as far as I can tell. Except no one ever tried to rub their old grey nuts on me in the name of Jesus.
Aside from that it was the old drill. Walk down the aisle like you are important. Go left when the pastor goes right. Light the candles in order the way you were told. Blah, blah, blah. I fucking hated it. I guess I was doing it for my mom, but I don’t know why.
I think a lot of people end up all smeared in religion because they feel like they have to do it for their parents. From the very beginning, of course, God People want to convince their own kids that God is real and God is wonderful and God will help you and one day you will die and God will bring you to his paradise and he will let you reunite with all the people you want to reunite with and that will be that.
You will live on forever in the kingdom of eternal joy.
All because… I don’t know… what?
Because your parents said so? Because your parents know what’s up?
I used to sit up there in the special pews raised above the rest of the congregation and I would look down and see the people sitting out there and I would wonder how soon it was after they were born that their own folks had started talking so much God to them.
I would see Mrs. Heffentreyer, the sweetest elderly lady, always smiling, always watching the pastor with such interest and I would always wonder why she was so convinced that this bald, serious man with a long sharp nose and a tight condescending air about him was her direct pipeline to Heaven. It was too easy, too convenient in a way, as much cancelation of mystery as any freshly dead old woman could ever hope to discover. Special Angel, that was the promise. Do what I tell you and you will be one of God’s Special Angels. Alongside pretty much everyone else who had ever lived and died.
In my bed at night, I would sometimes pray and I would feel nice about it too. I’d talk to God and ask him to make me like Superman (Christopher Reeves before the wheelchair). Sometimes if my brother wasn’t in bed yet, I would say these prayers out loud in my McDonald’s cheeseburger breath. Tiny raw onion cloudlettes popping at my lips/ the taste of those beautiful thin pickles on the wind rising up from my guts.
God, I would say, gently, so he knew I was asking for something but also so that he understood that I wasn’t one of these conmen like everyone else. I was aware that I wasn’t the only one trying to get in on that hot praying action and so I was hungry to let God know that I was good for my end of the bargain.
God, if you turn me into, like, a Superman guy, I will never call my mom a fat shit behind her back ever again.
That was the level of bargaining I was throwing down. In exchange for not talking ultra trash on my own mother, a crime which could arguably be grounds for Hell, I was only asking for an array of superpowers to be zapped into my porky boy boobs body. Then, once the deal was done, I wouldn’t have to say anything nasty about my mom whenever I was pissed at her for whatever stupid reason I could come up with, because I could FLY RIGHT TROUGH THE LIVING ROOM WALL anytime I wanted to.
In the middle of watching Real People, if she was like, ‘No, Serge, you don’t need another bowl of Heavenly Hash! It’s almost time for bed!, then I could be like: Oh yeah?! Well, how about this right here, Mom?! And then I could just soar up through the ceiling and then right through the upstairs bedroom ceiling and then up through the attic ceiling and out into the Sunday evening sky, plaster and dust raining down onto her sitting there in her nightgown in the only recliner we had/ the grey one with the fake wood shifter bar that could take you back into Recline Nation.
I mean, that’s kind of all of it for me. The prayer thing. I know. I know that’s weird. I know you are supposed to pray for good things to happen to other people and all. Like sick people, you could try to get them better. But then again, why would God even care about you asking for that, you know? I was always wondering about these little holes in the stories that everyone was being told. They add up, and kind of quickly if you think about it.
Superman powers. Heal the unwell. Take so-and-so’s brother-in-law’s skull and smash it the fuck to smithereens on the curb outside the tap room because that dirty SOB owes me $1000 and he’s still out there gambling on football and winning and never paying me back. Peace on Earth. A bike for Christmas. I want that dark haired nightshift chick at 7-11 to jump my meat.
Make my mom see again?
Help me get into community college?
Stop this guy from raping me every damn night?
Praying began to smell like burning toast to me a long, long time ago.
I just did it because everyone else was doing it.
I just did it because what did I have to lose?
I never became Superman.
In fact, I’m pretty sure I became the opposite.
Fear is all that matters. For most of us, we are guided by a belief system that is rooted in two things: peer pressure and fear. If you don’t praise the right God in the neighborhood, you can expect to be stared at/ frowned upon/ possibly ostracized/ and maybe even attacked physically due to the overwhelming consensus that is in favor of hurting your stupid face with a lead pipe and some burnt matches after they figure out that you are different.
And yeah, I know. You aren’t that way. You have always supported everyone’s right to worship whoever they want. You believe in freedom! You believe in ‘To Each His Own’!
But also, way down deep in the teeny tiny dark back room of that gelatinous orb you call a soul, there is a wee little candle flame flickering in a relentless draft. And down there in all of that buried consciousness, there is a tiny version of you. A miniature of yourself huddled, leaning in, protecting that loneliest fire dot. With your tender palms, trying desperately to retain the faint light and the weak warmth, you snarl at the sudden gusts that seem to come out of nowhere. Out of the walls even! And it is there, in that most unknown strata of your very existence, that Tiny You reads a book in that light. A book that confides in you a so-called truth. A truth that reveals to you a so-called promise. A promise that firmly assures you of fresh clean slate. A new dawn. A rising sun. Waking up with your mouth tasting like a camel’s bunghole BUT to the old-timey scent of Pap-Pap’s World Famous Bacon Pancakes burning slightly on his old black encrusted cast iron pan! What the what??!!
This must be the good life! Eternity World! Oh snap!
But just as you are reading of the wonders of the great kindness that your chosen God will offer to you in return for your, I don’t know, allegiance? Just as you hit that bit you are reminded, by a deep voice (white guy for you probably….which, well….) that all of this can be yours for a small price?
You must always, ALWAYS snicker and chuckle beneath your breath at those who worship under a different flag or banner or church steeple or whatever. You MUST! Down deep, you see, you MUST know that you are standing in the right line! On the right squad! Aligned, you are, with the keepers of the right ideas about anything and everything, so don’t blow this, good brothers and sisters!
Frown upon the resistant! Cast your aspersions beneath your breath!
For one is either with us or against us! There is no middle ground! There is no ‘slightly different approach to things’ for Christ’s sake!
There is YOU and there is ME and there is what your parents taught you and what mine taught me and there is everyone else mucking about down in the goose shit on the banks of the one true river called _____ (just fill in your religion here).
Amish. Taliban. Appalachian Snake Shakers. Jewish. Presbyterian. Sun God worshippers. Jehovah’s Witness. Mormon. Catholic. Unitarian. Mennonite. Tom Cruise Religion. Episcopalian. Church of Satan. Church of the WWF. Shaker. Quaker. Midnight Cheesesteaker.
I have no clue what any of this means.
It means a lot to a lot of you though, I do know that.
But not me.
It isn’t a contest, it’s something different. Its two galaxies at once. Two radically different versions of a life being lived. Two extremely varied versions of your time on Earth. And two extremely varied versions of mine.
Me? I’m fine. I don’t believe in anything except the wind rattling the window panes in the night. The mosquito sizzling up in my bbq’s heat. My panting and her panting after we just collided orgasms. Again. The deer in the headlights and it’s spring and it’s dark and it’s morning and Conway Twitty is on the radio. I Don’t Know a Thing About Love. The kids thumping down the steps for popcorn and ice cream. The dogs clacking around on the fake wood floor at 5am when they hear me pissing in the bathroom, knowing that breakfast is soon. A hundred vultures in the high hemlocks down the road/ their silhouettes against the late winter sunset. A Springsteen shirt on a stranger in the Sheetz. A new paragraph in The Painted Bird, blowing my mind, again and again.
A first sip of cheap wine and a little chunk of supermarket cheese.
The body and blood for you.
Or for me, actually.
The raccoons by the crick washing their hands. Moonlight serenade. Bats in the sky. Coyotes moving quiet, like ghosts, through the silvery woods. Owls calling one another. Shooting star. Passing jet. So far away.
All I ever needed was what was, not what I wished was. Running so scared for so long now, hoss. Think about it. I let go. This is it. I will cease to exist before long. My memories will die with me. My legacy will linger, dust in my kids’ eyes, on Arle’s lips for a time. But then they too will fade. Wash away with time. In rain. Stuck to tears. Rattled loose and dropped to the kitchen floor by a fit of good laughter. The last of my essence might be stepped on by a dog.
Then one day, I will be entirely forgotten. As I should be. As we all should be. It is so savagely beautiful, I think, this coming out of nowhere and this heading into nothing.
That’s what I believe.
All of that is what I worship.
I believe the simplest explanation is, there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization that there probably is no heaven and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that, I am extremely grateful.
- Stephen Hawking
Death makes the living go mad. The stillness. The sense of inexplicable loss. The flesh going cool and then cold. The eyes drying, the pupil dilating, the distant stare of one who no longer sees here in exchange for seeing there.
The wicked smells of the dying.
The overpowering stenches of the dead.
Once upon a time, people grappled to explain such a harsh insistence as death. They wandered the hills and the valleys, the jungles and the deserts, searching so diligently for the reason. For the why. The dead must have a purpose, they assured themselves. This instant when all realized animation is lost forever, it must have some reason. Some next frame, some tomorrow for certain, because what is all of this if there is nothing next. Days move in succession. Nights are strung along, one after the other, and they never cease. They are a constant. A certainty. Like the daylight, there comes the darkness. And like the darkness, there comes the day.
A smile lost hurts so much.
A familiar voice, without it we struggle.
The hand in our hand, and then just our hand alone.
It is too much to take.
It is beyond the realm of our understanding.
We must make a deal with the unknown.
We must ease our endless pain.
We must cease the finality of death and turn it on it’s goddamn ass.
And so they did.
And so it was.
And so/ you know.
Why should it matter though, right? Why should a poor unaccomplished jackass like me stand around blowing all of this self-righteous hooey into your clean face? Am I right?
What is the point of doubting someone’s god or heaven if it makes them feel good about being alive? If believing that our Earthly experience is only the beginning of a forever trip that will reunite us with our dead loved ones forever and ever upon our own death, what’s so wrong with that, you know?
I can’t really answer that.
It’s not like I’m the spokesman for atheists or anything. No one cares about me. No one reads my shit and says to themselves, now THERE’S a guy I’d walk down to church to listen to on Sunday morning! My thoughts are simply my own. And within them, I find the charming barbarity that I just can’t shake. But in order to see the world how I now see it, you would have to do what I have begun doing.
And that is this.
I see sadness as lines of poetry attached to my tale. I do not master it, nor do I understand where it comes from most of the time. But I know it is vital to my time here. My life.
The same with hurt. Heartbreak and pain, they owe me nothing. What crushing sensations I have known on their behalf, I now stand grateful for. Without the feelings of magnificent loss and monumental rejection. Without ever tasting my own tears, repeatedly, because I was pushed back and held down and made to suffer by an un-patterned universe that is as random as it is tragic as it is gorgeous and shining and inspiring, what possible sense of myself could I ever claim to know?
How can a human not revel in the intricate ebbs and flows of a single tiny moment? How can a true living thing ever understand that each simple ray of sun is life. And that a kid’s booger is life. And that a thunderstorm at the baseball game is life. And that the first couple plops of the first couple drops on the goose-bump skin of your temporary arms is packed with more life in that one momentary sensation than everything that has ever happened in the history of anything leading up to now.
And now that too is past.
And now that moment as well.
And standing here, just the two of us in this fleeting instant, think of all that might have been noticed had we ever simply bowed our heads as the coming storm blew hot dog wrappers and Diet Pepsi cans by us like leaves, bowed our heads just enough to feel the whipping grains of diamond dirt plunging into our eyes like swords in the hands of all the micro warriors riding stallions of dust.
The promise, the only one we ever needed to hear, we have refused at every turn. The promise of this very second. The promise of right here, right now.
A laugh. A curse. A bark. A sigh.
A song. A meal. A call. A cry.
A life. A death. The east. The west.
The sun means work and the moon means rest.
Heaven is the gunk down in a kid’s fingernail.
Scrape it out with a a toothpick before it’s too late.
Scrape it out and put it on your fingertip and hold it up to that evening sky. See it like some monolith standing alone on the horizon. Hear the birds chirping your name. Drag the wind, whiff the long night rising again. Sense your feet beneath you; detect the way they roll with the land. You are a remarkable freak of nature, do you know that? You weren’t ever even supposed to be born.
Listen. Listen to me. I’m trying to tell you something because I just want you to perceive this if only for these next couple seconds.
Take a kid’s booger gunk and put it on your tongue.
Just do it.
Do what I’m telling you. You’ll see. You have to believe me here. You have to have faith.
Get the kid boogie down in you, fast as you can, but savor it too.
The body of Kid for you.
You are in Heaven.
You have been all along.
Thanks so much for reading Thunder Pie today. I hope you liked this, even if our beliefs differ. Perhaps, especially if they do. Share some thoughts in the comments?
I would love to hear your take on all of this.
Have a great week.
Edited by Arle Bielanko
Photographs: Library of Congress
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Your heart's desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.
- Cormac McCarthy
This one hits close to home for me. Raised (steeped) in fundamentalist religion from the moment I was born up until I was brave enough to set it all down (after becoming a mother). I couldn’t raise my little one in the painful traditions that I was raised in; I was taught very young to hate myself in the name of Jesus and I still work everyday to cope with the effects of that and other insidious aspects of religion. So, in my experience, that is “what’s wrong” with people believing it. Not so much that they think that there’s life after - to each their own - but that they make life so painful for so many people (children) in the meantime, under the guise of doing something of utmost importance. Something that cannot be questioned, or else.
Somewhere along my deconstruction journey, I landed on the belief that the concept of sin is a trauma response- there’s a lot of complex trauma in this life and instead of having a multilayered view on the causes of the pain/harm, it was painted over with the concept of inherent sin. “People aren’t struggling to cope due to fractured systems that exploit and harm families and incidentally hurt people along the way, they’re just born sinful.” It still makes my skin crawl. It’s been my focus over the past several years to understand life as best I can through a completely different lens; one where I believe that behavior is simply a result of needs that have or haven’t been met. A world full of grey rather than black and white. One where myself and others are deserving of true compassion, because we’re just here to experience, not to judge each other. Even despite the harm I experienced, there are beautiful aspects of the religious experience - I just don’t think the doctrine is responsible for that. I think the beauty comes from humans in community, and that can occur outside of the realm of religiosity.
Thanks for sharing this, Serge.
It is my belief that the origin of all religions and all philosophies is rooted in the attempt to answer one question: "What does it all Mean?" And the terrible fear that the answer is: "Nothing at all."