September 30, 2016

Build Your Own Religion

The last several examples of my childhood writing were from the many Steno notebooks I kept through high school and into college, so let's mix things up and check out some schoolwork.

As mentioned in an earlier entry, I got my first Macintosh during high school, and amazingly, most of the work written on that computer still survives. Yes, for 25 years, I've preserved my documents across computers and operating system upgrades so I can subject you to them today. In order to give you a full understanding of my sacrifice before you express your gratitude, I'll mention that a couple of years ago I realized I was on the verge of losing the ability to open files created in obsolete word processing programs, and I tediously converted them one at a time to a readable format. You're welcome.

Anyway, as mentioned in a different earlier entry, I thought a lot about religion and my lack of it during my teen years, so it's not surprising I took a class in World Religions as a senior. (Another important factor was that one of my favorite teachers taught this elective.) The class gave me an opportunity to submit some creative writing, though I'm not sure how many of the assignments were intended to take the form of stories.

In a previous class, I'd hit upon the idea of writing imagined dialogues with historical figures, and rejecting the usual essay structure earned praise from that teacher, so I milked the format again for a paper entitled "Hinduism Evaluation":

Lisa entered the temple in search of answers. "What is real?" she asked Krishna.

"Brahman is real," responded Krishna.

"But what is Brahman?" Lisa asked.

"Brahman is infinite," said Krishna. "Brahman is sat, chit, and ananda; that is to say being, awareness, and bliss. And Brahman is infinite in all these things."

"So Brahman is everything?"

"No. Brahman is not everything. Anything you can conceive is not Brahman."

"So then what is Brahman?"

Krishna pointed at a stone. "Neti," he said. "Not this. Brahman is not this stone." He pointed at a piece of wood. "Neti." He continued in this manner until Lisa motioned him to stop.

And so on, with Krishna explaining all the principles of Hinduism that I was presumably supposed to demonstrate familiarity with. I remembered none of it, so reading this paper was quite enlightening, as it were.

I don't recall the assignment for a file labeled "Build Your Own Religion". I'll speculate that at the end of the course, we were asked to construct a set of beliefs that a culture might develop. Whatever the expectation, I resorted to the power of fiction again and turned in this story:

One Who Dared To Question

[Note: It must be understood that words such as "spouse", "widow", and "All-Spirit" are merely the best English equivalents of terms which can be only roughly translated.]

In the beginning there was light and dark, sun and moon, earth and water, wind and rain, winter and summer, plants and animals.

There were people. They lived among the trees in huts made of branches and leaves. They drank water from the stream, gathered roots and berries, and hunted deer and rabbit with spears. They made tools from sticks and sharpened stones, cooked meat over open fires, and wore skins to keep warm in cold weather. They spoke to one another in words and drew pictures on stones.

Children were born and grew up in their parents' huts. They were taught the history and culture of the tribe by the widows. They learned from their parents and from the other parents how to gather, hunt, and cook. When children grew into men and women, they chose spouses and moved into huts with their partners. Soon, new children were born. Adults died, and sometimes children did, too. The tribe grew ever larger, and its members thanked the All-Spirit daily for their prosperity.

Owwoo was named for the sound the of the wolves howling at the full moon. She was born fourteen summers ago, at night, during a full moon. Owwoo's birth heralded good fortune for herself and for the tribe: each summertime birth foretold a more successful gathering season, and one born under the full moon was destined to bear many children. Owwoo began bleeding last fall, and her flow, too, coincided with the full moon, like that of her mother. Yes, said the widows to one another, Owwoo would bring times of much fertility to the tribe.

Now that Owwoo's body had changed, she was a woman, and it was time for her to move out of her parents' hut. Today was the day that she had decided to ask her closest friend Kaar to be her spouse. She had played with Kaar since they were very young, and lately they had talked together often about their futures, the tribal customs, and the All-Spirit.

Owwoo was a little nervous about talking to Kaar today. He was not like her other friends. He did not accept all of the customs and rituals of the tribe. Strangest of all, he had confided to Owwoo that he did not believe in the All-Spirit.

Owwoo thought back to that shocking conversation:

"But what do you mean?" she asked.

"I don't think that there is such a thing as the All-Spirit," Kaar responded firmly.

"Do you think the widows are lying?"

"Owwoo, what makes someone a widow?"

Owwoo regarded Kaar with a strange look. "A widow is someone whose spouse has died, of course."

"Why do you think that having a spouse die makes someone wiser?"

"Kaar, you are scaring me. What's wrong with you?"

"Just answer me." Kaar refused to meet Owwoo's stare.

"The All-Spirit takes away the spouse to the Beyond as a messenger who can communicate only with the spouse on Earth," Owwoo recited what she had been taught. "Later, the living spouse goes to the Beyond, and the two are rejoined in eternal happiness. You know that as well as I do."

"I know what we've been taught. But how do we know it's true? What about children who die?" Kaar saw the pained look on Owwoo's face and softened his tone. "Do you really think that Kirrik died because Lorra killed that deer?"

Kirrik's death was the only blot on the record of Owwoo's family. Two winters ago, Owwoo's little sister had fallen through the ice on the frozen stream and been carried away by the current. While the death of an adult was a sacred occasion and brought honor to the spouse, the death of a child was punishment for a wrong committed by a parent. In this case, the widows said that the All-Spirit was taking compensation for the pregnant deer Owwoo's father had killed the previous spring. To kill a pregnant or nursing animal was a great wrong, for it meant the useless and unnecessary death of the younger animal.

Owwoo had been very close to her younger sister. For a time, she had hated her father for his stupid error that had caused Kirrik's death. "That's what the widows said," she whispered, knowing that Kaar would not accept this answer.

Kaar was moved by Owwoo's sorrow. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have mentioned it. Let's not talk about it anymore."

The conversation ended for the day, but many more discussions on the nature of the All-Spirit followed.

This morning, as on every other morning, Owwoo gave silent thanks to the All-Spirit before she ate the morning meal with her parents and her seven younger siblings. Her parents went off to perform their tribal duties, and the children went to the clearing where the widows taught. Soon, I will no longer learn daily from the widows, Owwoo thought as she listened to a widow recite the hunting prayers. She glanced at Kaar, who sat next to her tying two blades of grass together.

When the sun was high in the sky, the children dispersed. "Let's go talk," Owwoo said to Kaar. They walked to their favorite stone on the edge of the stream.

"Kaar," she began. "We're hardly children anymore." She watched him for a response. He was studying a line in the rock. So often lately, he didn't look at her when they spoke. "Kaar, would you like to be my spouse?"

He looked up, finally. "Yes, Owwoo, I would like that very much. But I cannot."

"Why not? Has someone else already asked you?" This did not seem possible, for she was Kaar's closest friend, and besides, all intentions of becoming spouses were promptly announced to the tribe.

"No, Owwoo. I am leaving."


"I cannot live in this tribe anymore. I do not accept the customs or the beliefs. I am not happy."

"But where can you go?"

"I will find another tribe."

"What do you mean?" Owwoo asked. It seemed as though this was all she ever said to Kaar these days. "There is no other tribe."

"The widows only tell us that so we will not leave. I know that there must be other tribes. It is only that we have not found them. Surely the enormous forest contains more people than just us."

Owwoo begged him to stay. "Do not be foolish. You will die alone," she told him again and again. But Kaar would not listen.

"I will miss you very much, Owwoo. You are my only true friend."

The next morning, he was gone. The widows said that he had been taken away by the All-Spirit because his mother was lazy and did not do her share of tribal duties.

The one assignment that definitely called for a story was the creation myth we were asked to write. I had prior experience in composing myths, but I had to be different again and take the exercise in an unconventional, Douglas Adams-inspired direction:

The Universe According To An Armchair Cynic

Before, there was Something Else. We don't know anything about it, so we fear it. Or sometimes we ignore it. Just so long as it stays out of our backyard.

After, there was the Universe. We don't know how it got here, but we have a lot of different theories. And we disagree over them, and fight over them, and sometimes kill over them. But hey, when we're right, we're right.

An event must have taken place. It was probably a really big deal, like an explosion or a divine intervention. But maybe it began with something very small. There had to be something there to start it. Like a single atom in a great sea of we-don't-know-what.

If the atom was around for long enough, it would have to do something. And there's not a whole lot an atom can do. So one day, in a fit of ennui, Atom split.

Eons later, scientists figured out that by splitting atoms they could make weapons and kill a lot of people, but when our hero started it all, he didn't really have any particular goal in mind. He was just bored.

So Atom split, and that's when things started happening. There were no physics textbooks back then, and no theories or laws. So stuff happened that will probably never happen again, in the vast otherness of Something Else.

And thus the Universe was created, with all its galaxies and solar systems and planets and other assorted chunks of rock. And every once in a while, more often than we might think, life blooms briefly on one of these planets. We're not that special.

It's pretty much the same every time. A certain combination of molecules in the primordial soup, or dust, or what-have-you spontaneously generates life. Anything can happen if you wait long enough. Species develop and die off, until one especially precocious life form discovers a way to eliminate everything on the planet. Easy come, easy go.

The favorite method of extermination involves atom-splitting. Funny how the event that started the Universe is also used to end life. Maybe we're not the point of the Universe at all, just a rash that flares up now and again.


Calamine lotion, anyone?

Before we end, here's a brief excerpt from a slightly more traditional World Religions essay about ways that different religions provide their followers with order and ritual:

I follow many rituals which I have created to give order to my otherwise chaotic life. These have no religious connections in that they have nothing to do with the worship of a divine power, but they are comforting nonetheless, and I become distressed if they are disrupted. My rituals are especially centered around waking up and getting ready for bed, perhaps because if there is anything I worship, it is sleep.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kaitlyn Greenidge in the New York Times contemplates the question of Who Gets to Write What?: "Imagine the better, stronger fiction that could be produced if writers took this challenge to stretch and grow one's imagination, to afford the same depth of humanity and interest and nuance to characters who look like them as characters who don't, to take those stories seriously and actually think about power when writing -- how much further fiction could go as an art."


Christopher Gronlund said...

I have great respect for how much you wrote when younger. And while yes, it's the writing of a young writer, there's always something more to it that impresses me.

Also, I've not had a cup of coffee, and I initially read Brahman as Batman, which really changes things...

Lisa Eckstein said...

Thanks, Christopher! And who knows, maybe Krishna does have a lot to teach us about Batman!

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