Last week I returned from a two week sojourn in the desert. Everything shifts around inside when I am in that landscape, and I have been gently allowing the ballast that balances me to settle into its new positions. Luckily I found the perfect companion for that subtle transition: Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything, by Barbara Ehrenreich.
Ehrenreich is a longtime hero of mine, a tireless advocate for humanitarian causes and most especially for those living at the fringe—she took several months out of her life to live and work as a minimum wage earner before writing about the absurd poverty of that life in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. She can be relied on for consistently brilliant writing full of insightful—and often very necessary—jabs at issues that are important but often overlooked. Living With a Wild God is quintessential Ehrenreich but with a twist, one that swings in very close to the magpie’s nest of my own handcrafted reality, a collection of sinewy bits that have held true over a lifetime and are still deemed durable.
This book is a very personal account that plumbs Ehrenreich’s formative childhood and adolescence. Most particularly it is about an experience she had when she was 17 that was so inexplicably outside her cast iron atheist, “science can explain everything” upbringing that she buried it as a secret.
Over time however the events of her life worked it to the surface. When things were going well she could “handle a world without transcendence.” But when things began to fall apart, “the repressed began its inevitable return.” The frost heaves of 50 years forced her to come to terms with that experience and the implications of what happened to her on that day so long ago.
After a night of sleeping in her car while on a road trip with friends near Death Valley, Ehrenreich took an early morning walk by herself. Suddenly the world flamed into life. “Something poured into me and I poured out into it.”
Many of us would celebrate this unexpected revelation of the oneness of life, but Ehrenreich greeted the whole encounter with disdain. For her evidence-based scientific mind (she went on to get her PhD in cellular immunology), this was an aberration, something to be buried and forgotten. At that point in her life, she was unwilling and incapable of embracing anything that even remotely suggested a mystical experience.
But her older self eventually comes to see it in a different light. As is her nature, she sought for understanding by researching similar experiences. She discovers that encounters like these are more common than she had ever imagined. While many flatly dismiss these occurrences as a chemical imbalance in the brain or a form of mental illness, an older and wiser Ehrenreich does not find this to be an adequate explanation.
What nudged her into a more expansive view of what that experience could have been was her midlife immersion in nature. Describing an exquisite sunset seen from her home in the Florida Keys, she writes:
I came to think of it as the Presence, what scientists call an “emergent quality,” something greater than the sum of all the parts—the birds and cloudscapes and glittering Milky Way—that begins to feel like a single living, breathing Other. There was nothing mystical about this Presence, or so I told myself. It was just a matter of being alert enough to put things together, to catch the drift. And when it succeeded in gathering itself together out of all the bits and pieces—from the glasslike calm of the water at dawn to the earsplitting afternoon thunder—-there was a sense of great freedom and uplift, whether on my part or on its.
She goes on to quote author Howard Bloom:
We have vastly underrated the cosmos that gave us birth. We have understated her achievements, her capacities, and her creativity. We’ve set aside will, purpose and persistence in a magic enclosure and have claimed that [they] do not belong to nature, they belong solely to us human beings.
Ehrenreich then adds this thought: “We have, in other words, made ourselves far lonelier than we have any reason to be.”
The values I was taught in my childhood were completely different from Ehrenreich’s. I came from a very confined and narrow religious tradition, full of constraints and limitations about how to live and what was possible. But underneath the restrictiveness was a foundation of numinousness. Mystical experiences were revered, and touching into the ineffable was sought after. While the via creativa was not encompassed in my religious upbringing, the numinousness at its core spilled over into my life as an artist. Uncertainty, ineffability, mystery, trust in the unseen and an easy comfort with what cannot be measured—all essential requirements for my process-driven kind of art making—are concepts that I learned from my religious heritage. While I found no reason to carry any of the theological trappings into my adult life, those fundamental qualities are hobbled into my magpie’s nest.
Ehrenreich’s family traditions were completely different, but we both have ended up with a similar view. Her final paragraph is a lovely tribute to her own journey and closely aligns with my way of seeing things:
Ah, you say, this is all in your mind. And you are right to be skeptical: I expect no less. It is in my mind, which I have acknowledged from the beginning is a less than perfect instrument. But this is what appears to be the purpose of my mind, and no doubt yours as well, its designated function beyond all the mundane calculations: To condense all of the chaos and mystery of the world into a palpable Other or Others, not necessarily because we love it, and certainly not out of any intention to “worship” it. But because ultimately we may have no choice in this matter. I have the impression, growing out of the experiences chronicled here, that it may be seeking us out.