The One About Religion–Part Three

Man, this is taking forever. Who would have thunk that my views on religion took up so much space? I hope someone is reading. Maybe it’s just good for me to get it all out anyway, even if nobody is reading. This part gets weird, so just go with it, okay?

So where was I? Ah, yes, college. Learning to be comfortable with a God that didn’t really do anything. Just sat back and watched the creation move forward. I was not alone in my quest of understanding. One of my friends (we’ll call her Crazy H) was also going through this quest. She studied many religions including many new age theories. She loved crystals and healing and mediation. We would sometimes talk about our different views on religion and she questioned my spirituality. I was surprised by that. My spirituality was fine, wasn’t it?

I decided to think about my spirituality. I was not happy with my inner person and I am glad I took the time to reflect on who she was. Over the years, I have changed the person inside and, in general, I am happier with me. How did I get there? I stopped. I listened. I looked. I discovered that I needed the quiet of the night to find my spirit.

She was always there, just hiding. I found her in the hum of the buildings on campus. She hid in the starlight above the Earth and Space Sciences’ dome. The gentle rush of the waves on Long Island Sound brought her to me. She was hiding in nature. I discovered that my soul felt calmer in these spots. Standing on the edge of the sea cliff, watching the moonlight dazzle off the water as it washed over the rocky North Shore, I could find my soul. She wanted to be braver, to be a person of action, to be able to feel comfortable with making decisions and acting on them. While laying on the rooftop of ESS, she would say “See that? That star? Yeah, go grab it. You don’t have to be a PhD in astronomy. You can find your own way. You only have you to answer to.”

Slowly, carefully, I found her and plucked her out of the noise. I cleaned her up and listened, really listened to her. My spirituality was there inside me all along. I found some confidence and moved forward. I was graduating and not sure what to do, but she gave me to courage to ask for a research job at the university. And I got it. And I started taking classes. And slowly, carefully, I worked my way up to earning a Master’s of Science with thesis. I found my spirit and let the strength within help me move forward. This was the spirit I had not found as a child. She didn’t want to be told what to do, she wanted to stretch and learn. She wanted to dip her toe in the waters, but not make too many waves.

I was the first person to earn a MS with thesis from the astronomy department. In general, the MS was a booby prize. Thanks for playing, but you failed the qualifying exam, so instead of staying for a PhD, here’s a nice shiny MS. Bye! And don’t let the door hit you on the way out! Instead, I decided to stay with the person I was in love with (Dr. Jay), I declined admission to a very well known PhD program, and wrote a proposal for a thesis, lost all of the data in a disk crash disaster and wrote up ANOTHER thesis.

During this time, my love for Dr. Jay solidified and grew roots. My feelings towards God, on the beach, with the Baracardi Breezer, remained aloof. Jay was not upset with my religious feelings and I was not upset with his. We spoke once about the m word. If it happened, he could raise the kids Jewish. Fine by me. And that was that. It was important to him, not me.

I think I would have stayed happily agnostic for a while if not for 2 things: Aunt Renee’s death and Corey’s death. From these two events, I shifted away from the realm of religion and into atheism.

For Susan

Life isn’t fair.

I swear I say that phrase every single day. Yes, your sister got 1cc more cupcake than you did. Life isn’t fair. Get over it.

But tonight, I am angry and sad. Because life isn’t fair. Today, Susan Niebur of Toddler Planet, AKA WhyMommy, passed away from cancer.

I forget how I found her blog. I think I was looking for some other science geeks to read and I stumbled onto her blog. Or maybe she stumbled on mine. I am not sure. She had worked in planetary sciences and was working at NASA at the point I met her. She had 2 young sons, one just born. I loved her choice of “WhyMommy” for a moniker, since that is what she expected to hear as her sons grew up. “Why, Mommy? Why does the moon glow? Why is the sky blue?”

We wrote back and forth a bit. Then, shortly after we met on-line, she was upset that her son was only nursing on one side. She saw a doctor, fearing a breast infection. Instead, it was irritable breast cancer (IBC). The breast cancer without a lump. She was scared, who wouldn’t be, but started to include her treatment and disease as part of her blog.

For the past 5 years, I have continued reading, and commenting. I have watched her boys grow, but not grow up enough. It hit me a bit ago that this day was coming. We all know that we are going to die. It’s part of life. We just don’t know when. We hope and expect it will be when it’s the right time. When we’ve done all we’re going to have done in life and be ready to move on. But, life isn’t fair. Sometimes, we do know when the day is coming. Susan knew it was sooner than later.

In the last year or two, Susan became Catholic. I find this slightly ironic to mention as this post is in the middle of my posts on religion, but I also could see that this was the right thing for her. She was finding the peace she needed to accept her life and the things she would miss. Her sons becoming adults, the questions she wanted, the fight to have more females in planetary sciences end, the life she and her husband had planned.

This is hard to write. I think of all of the things that I don’t want to miss. I see my own mortality in Susan. I can only hope that I have the calming words that Susan had in her writings when it is my time to leave. I hope I can express my emotions as clearly as she did.

I am really going to miss Susan. She had a way of reporting how she was feeling, mentally and physically and then turning around and being genuinely concerned about you. She never seemed to be put out by her children’s needs. And I mean that in a mom sense. Yeah, we all get frustrated with our kids, but when she wrote, she made it clear that she knew her time with them was measured and she was going to get all of the love into them she could.

Despite our love for astronomy, I think my connection to Susan was more of an observer of life. I was lucky to share in her observations, insights and opinions. I have learned to listen to my children more and pay more attention to the big things, and let the little ones go. I’m not perfect and neither was Susan, but I learned so much from her.

Thank you, Susan. For sharing. For letting us into your world. Even though we never met in person, I have always felt like I’ve been your friend.
We will all miss you.

The One About Religion – Part Two

I’m realizing this will be far more than a 2 part story. I’ll just keep going.

There is a time and a place for everything, and it is called college. I left the rural Western New York town where I grew up and moved to Stony Brook, Long Island. It was a 500+ miles trip across my home state and I was quite scared. Most of my friends had stayed close to home and here I was, going to the only State University of New York (SUNY) with an astronomy major. There are only 4 universities in the SUNY system, so this was one of the big 4.

By the time my first week was done, I had several firsts crossed off my list:

  • First Asians (Chinese, Thai and Cambodian) friends
  • First Subcontentials met (Paki & Indian!)
  • First Stereotypical Staten Islander (my room mate) friend
  • First Jewish person met!
  • First Muslim person met!
  • First Buddhist person met!

It was amazing the sudden diversity that I was experiencing. I had never seen such a diverse place! In fact, I was still frightened to meet the African-American girls on our floor. That is how sheltered I had been. My town isn’t bad, it’s just, well, not very diverse. I once saw that our town had 700 African-Americans. Where? Where they hell were they? Oh, right! The county’s maximum security prison was in our town. Really. That is how white my town was (I am hoping it has changed).

I became very close friends with a friend from Upstate (Kingston) New York who was Hindi and her family had come from India. I met Salman, a fellow astronomy major, who was from Karachi and spoke both fluent English and Urdu. I was exposed to new cultures that forced me to try new things and I finally realized that the African-American girls on my floor were just people like me. We grew up in different areas and we all had different histories, but that was okay.

Part of my first 4 years at Stony Brook introduced me to other religions. I started to see if anything could move that spirit within. We had to take several core courses and for me, those were the boring humanity and English classes. One that I managed to find was the history of religions. THAT was an interesting class. From the Mesopotamian cultures to the Biblical times to the more recent evolution in Christianity, the class covered many religions. What bothered me most were the students who openly mocked the religions that weren’t theirs. The whole point of a religion is that you have faith in your spiritual leader, right? So, you have faith and believe you’re right, but so does everybody else. You all can’t be right. Someone has to be making a mistake here or all religions are equally acceptable. This realization that there may be more than one right God and religion made me stop and think.

I spent those first four years in Stony Brook thinking and growing up. At one point, I was invited by a friend to the kosher dining hall. Food was great, I got to hear about Judaism, and learned. I went to a Baptist meeting, and listened. I listened to Salman, I listened to Lata about her Hindu religion. I watched the stars a lot. I drove down to Orient Point, and Montauk when I had a car and sat that the ends of the forks thinking. I started to call myself agnostic. I was not willing to accept that there was a cosmic being who wanted everyone to worship him a certain way and all others would be sent to hell. I couldn’t reconcile that any one religion could be right with all of the wisdom I was learning from people around me. All of the things I was learning and experiencing were from people of different religions.

I have written before about my early depression. It really came to the foreground in college (too much thinking?). I questioned free will and God’s role in free will. The phrase “it’s God’s will” or “God always has a plan” had often bothered me. It lead me to a place where I felt out of control. Would there really be a point to life if God controls everything? Why try new things if I don’t have the will to control my own destiny? Eventually, I got to the point where I decided God can’t get involved in everyone’s life. It was the only way that I could retain some semblance of control over life.

My view of God became one of an old man on the beach. Sitting back, watching the waves roll in and out. To many things to handle. God just watches, downing a Barcardi Breezer, and not playing and invoking his will into people’s lives. And for a while, I took control of life. I started to break away from the current binds of religion and just let it be.
(Part three coming in a few days)