Spine Intact – As Long as I Have Your Attention

 

(Of course, I realize that I may not, but then

you wouldn’t be reading this page anyway, would you?)

 

 

 

I have written here mostly about my experiences as a paperback pulp writer, so I suppose it may seem odd to some that I have ventured in the same book to write about spiritual matters. And I certainly know that you cannot mention God or religion without stirring up a hornets’ nest. Nevertheless, I could hardly tell you about what I did or why without telling you who I am. And in the end we are what we believe.

My agnostic and even atheistic friends are fond of pointing out that, as there is no way of proving any Divine presence, I must accept it solely on the basis of faith. The answer to that is, of course, that they can no more prove the non-existence of such a Divinity and so must base their position on faith just as I do.

I can’t help but think that my position is the wiser one since if I am mistaken my only penalty will be oblivion; but if it should happen that I am ultimately called before some Heavenly tribunal to explain my life (and what an embarrassment that would be!) I will at least have my faith to offer as Exhibit A. Pascal more elegantly suggests that you make a bet with yourself that God exists. If he does, you win. And if he doesn’t, you win as well, since you have given yourself in the course of your life something to keep you warm against le silence effrayant de ces espaces inconnues—the dreadful silence of the unknown void. I don’t see how I could put it any better than that.

Anyway, as it happens, I don’t believe literally in any Heavenly tribunal, nor in some white bearded patriarch on a throne upstairs flicking off occasional thunderbolts for the sheer fun of disconcerting humankind.

If you didn’t already know, God started out as a She. To the earliest of our ancestors woman was seen as the giver of life, since she clearly gave birth. In the beginning no one realized the connection between the sex act and the birth, so the male’s role in the scheme of things was not so very great. As a result, these were matrilineal societies in which property passed from mother to daughter.

It was woman, too, who “invented” agriculture, so she was also the giver of food, and since agriculture meant that families and tribes could now stay in one place and feed themselves, she became the patron of the hearth and home as well.

The Goddess was worshipped throughout the ancient world—from the Mediterranean to India to Australia and all points in between—for thousands of years under hundreds of different names—Nana, Innana, Isis, Ishtar, Ishara, Hawthor—but represented in surprisingly similar physical form, mostly what today we would call obese. The point here was not how she would look in a string bikini but woman as the symbol of abundance.

It was not until late in the Bronze Age that men began to realize their role in the act of procreation. By that time agriculture had resulted in the creation of settlements and towns. The new importance of owning or controlling the land shifted the role of the male from that of hunter-gatherer—where speed and wits count—to fighter and defender, where what matters most is brute strength—power.

Power corrupts. It surely wasn’t long before some of the boys started thinking that, if they could control their lands and their towns, shouldn’t they be able to control their households and their women as well? And no doubt they wanted to get their share of that family property while they were at it, property that had increased and become more valuable as they had settled into more stationary lives, with actual homes, furnishings, carts, farmlands, domestic animals.

Now, if Wayne Caveman suddenly announces to his mate “I own you. You obey,” Lorena Caveman might just bop him on the head with a gourd from her garden and go on about her business. And guess who’s sleeping on the living room rock tonight.

If, on the other hand, the priests—a new, male breed of them and bigger and stronger than the old priestesses—back Joe up with the threat of stonings and burning at the stake, it becomes a different matter.

It is ironic when you think that once men gathered under the hawthorn fig tree sacred to the Goddess and ate of the fruit as symbolic of her body; and a few thousand years later the Hebrew scribes were writing of a naughty, naughty woman sweet talking an altogether innocent man into eating fruit off a tree and thus bringing ruination down upon their heads. Hmm. How the mighty have fallen. Well, if you want to change the order of things, it’s a good idea to enlist the help of religion. In no time at all, God was history’s first sex change.

Incidentally, the last great temple to the Goddess was the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Of course, St. Paul made the conversion of the Ephesians a cornerstone of his ministry, with the result that ultimately the temple was destroyed and all traces of the Goddess vanished.

Or did they? It wasn’t so very many years later that the Christian writers announced the Ephesus was the very place to which Mary retired for her twilight years. It’s so nice to have a dame about the house, don’t you think?

But I don’t honestly see God or Goddess in a literal physical form modeled after our own. I do believe that there is an intelligence that permeates the universe and that perhaps even is the universe.

We cannot hope to grasp the infinite with our finite consciousness but it seems to me that there is another consciousness that is universal and into which we can tap. The clearest evidence of that is, I believe, the fact that the greatest thinkers throughout history, people so separated by time and space that they could not have consciously compared notes with one another, seem time and again to come up with the very same ideas.

For example, there is hardly any religion or school of philosophy that does not include some form of the Golden Rule. It appears in both the Old and New Testaments, in Buddhism, Islam and the writings of Confucius. It is offered in the Vedas and the works of the Greek Philosophers and probably written in hieroglyphics in one or two Egyptian temples. Because it is so generally agreed upon, we group it with those ideas that we regard as “universal truths,” and if it were the sum total of your moral code it probably would do the job just fine, as all those different wise men realized—independently.

It is possible, one supposes, that these universal truths, this oneness of thought, is nothing more than coincidence, but such a cosmic coincidence seems to me far more incredible than to believe that all of those thinkers drew their inspiration from some common source. A source, then, unlimited by time or distance. Omnipresent in other words, and omniscient as well, which would at least imply omnipotency—and which is probably as good a definition as we are likely to come up with for God or Goddess.

It is not just those great thinkers, either. When you and another person share the same feeling, idea, sense of things, you are surely dipping into the same well, are you not? When the great Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco arouses in your breast the same longing that Verdi felt for another place, another time, a better world—when you gaze at a fragment of pottery from ancient Mesopotamia and you feel the same thrill of beauty that the potter felt as he fashioned it thousands of years before—when you read a line of verse and your eyes sting with the poet’s tears—then at such times the miles and the centuries fall away and for a fleeting moment you and the artist are one, a part of something greater than yourselves. A something that knows no separation, neither of personality nor of time nor of space. And what is that something, if not the very soul of the universe? If not God?

 

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Much of what is written herein is about the past and less about the future. But I must again emphasize that even when I write about history or about “known facts” they are only my version, my opinion, of those facts.

I have said often “I am fond of reality, I’m just not sure this is it.” Which is another way of saying that our “reality” may not be so real as we think it is. It is likely that what we perceive as our “body of knowledge” is in fact only a body of opinion. There was a time, after all, when the world’s greatest thinkers believed—and believed they had proved—that the world was flat.

It seems to me that it is best to take with a grain of salt those things that are regarded as certain and at the same time to keep an open mind toward those things believed to be impossible. It has often happened that both beliefs were incorrect.

There is a common perception that it is easier to read the past than it is to read the future but the opposite may well be true. We view the past through such a veil of emotion and bias—not only those we held at the time but all those we have held throughout the time since—that it is surprising that we see it at all clearly and not at all surprising that people see it differently.

A time of stress or unhappiness quite commonly causes us to look back fondly on a past time that in fact, when we were in it, was no less stressful or unhappy. The past, as it turns out, is too often what we want it to be rather than what it was, and what it was is open to myriad interpretations. Opinions, in other words.

Of course, the seers notwithstanding, it is impossible to exactly predict the future. But the future is not something that is handed to us tomorrow morning all tied up neatly in a box, like a Christmas gift. In a sense, your future is your present, only more so. Whatever your future will be you are shaping it in this very moment. If you want to know your future, take a look at where you are today and the direction in which you are headed. If you hold something up to the light, it is no great trick to predict where its shadow will fall and the shape that shadow will have.

The real trick, of course, would be to cast no shadow—which is to say, to become the light. That, I believe, is the true goal of all spiritual endeavor. It is those places within ourselves that have not been illuminated that cast the shadows, after all.

The fact is, you cannot have a past or a future except at the expense of the present and the cost is probably too high. It has been said that the past is a cancelled check and the future a promissory note—only the present is hard cash. We live in the present moment; it is all the direct experience of life we can ever have. Every moment that you spend remembering your past or dreaming of your future is a moment lost from your present life.

That is not to say that you should never remember. I have certainly had fun remembering the things I have related in this book, or at least remembering what I think I remember. To study the past can be a path to wisdom. And our dreams for the future can be stars that guide us along that path. But you would not want to find yourself nearing the end of your life, would you, and look back over your shoulder to see behind you only a trail of wasted moments? You might want to make some of them count. As many as possible, I should think.

Despite all our efforts at control, the control we have over ourselves is tenuous and mostly illusory. We are driven by needs and urges that even the wisest can but little comprehend. To think that we have control over our lives is nothing more than hubris. We are none of us wise enough to know how to live our lives.

It is here, then, that faith becomes the most helpful. If we can believe that, however poorly we grasp it, we are a part of a larger life, and that this larger life is a part of a purpose, it is far less frightening to relax and, in the sixties phrase, “go with the flow.” Without such faith that letting go is, I think, altogether too scary.

 

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As I have said repeatedly, however, these are only things as I see them and by now you are all too aware that I have no claim to any particular wisdom. When everything is said and done, you get to sort all this out for yourself; and, though this may surprise you, I hope that some of the conclusions you reach are different from mine.

Ultimately the point of writing, as of all art, is to stir, to prod the consciousness. If you are disagreeing with me you are thinking for yourself and if I have had any part in inducing you to think, then I have done my job as a writer as well as can be hoped.

Just don’t expect me to bail you out when you get hauled before the tribunal. I shall have my hands plenty full trying to explain that divorce business back in Dayton, Ohio.

Where are those Pulitzer people when you need them?

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