When I teach circus in schools, we always stay with a host family. The host family is always right wing heavy-duty Christian, because those tend to be the people with four extra bedrooms and high-school aged kids. We don’t talk politics or religion in the host house. We don’t rat on their daughter when she comes out to us, terrified her mother will throw her out, refuse to pay for college. We bite our tongues when “the transgenders” come up.
This family has taken us in at the last minute. They feed us baked salmon and remember who is vegan. We use their washing machine. We have our own bedrooms in a house on the lake. We are white and cisgender and we coach their children.
EBT—food stamps—comes up around the table. Their fourteen-year-old son has never heard it called EBT, and as I start to explain, he breaks in.
“It sounds like somebody stealing someone else’s money!”
I know it’s been drilled into him. I know he’s never been out of the upper Midwest. I still can’t help it. I say, “It sounds so Christian when you put it like that.”
In my world, “Conservative” is another name for “self-centered moralistic prig.”
I met Mark in Alaska, home of the legitimate gun-toters, at the Seward Fourth of July Festival. He was at the NRA booth. He ran the NRA booth. He ran the Alaska NRA. He also had a great sense of humor and sparkling blue eyes. I was fascinated—I’d never met a gun nut I liked this much.
He thought he knew what he was getting. A loud circus girl, making edgy jokes about whip-cracking and fire-eating, personality to the edges of the earth. He was surprised to meet a fellow small-business owner who wouldn’t sleep with him on the first date and didn’t smoke—anything.
This was before Obamacare, before I could go to the doctor or the therapist, when Planned Parenthood was all I had and they don’t dispense depression meds.
Something political came on the car radio, and Mark said, “Liberals are so selfish.”
I was deeply confused. Weren’t the Democrats the party of health care and education and fair wages?
“But they want everyone else to pay for it.”
“Well,” I pointed out, “You can pay taxes in advance and have people able to see the doctor, or you can pay much more for insurance while people go to the emergency room at great expense, as their last resort. But there isn’t any ‘not paying.’ That’s not actually an option, unless we want to be the country that lets people die on the streets.”
“People should learn to take care of themselves.”
Conversation moved on. We went to dinner. Italian. I paid my own check.
Mark said, laughing, “Hey, this is supposed to be a date!”
I said, “People should take care of themselves.”
In my world, “atheist” is another name for “smart, but kind of an asshole.” “Agnostic” means “can’t be bothered.” “Pagan” means “I never grew out of it.”
My world is smug and sharp and self-satisfied. My world has the luxury of living overseas, of seeing BBC News instead of Fox, Al-Jazeera instead of MSNBC. My home-country news comes from NPR and Samantha Bee and John Oliver. My politics come free of religion.
I remind myself of the Christ-like Christians I know, both of them. I salute my Ganesha icon (“cultural appropriator”) and leave him fresh oranges and flowers. I know everything will resolve in dust, that we are all temporary, anger is not worthwhile. I can only bring my own selfish self, fight daily for compassion and kindness, profess uncertainty in the face of vigorous faith.
Inside I know. Inside I remember standing at the stone railing in Church of Our Lady, looking at the Madonna, the only Michelangelo statue to leave Italy during his lifetime. It was November and winter had come early, snow had fallen but the leaves still burned on the branches. I remember the frigid air, the sound of monks—or a recording of monks—chanting. I remember how my hands froze to the rail and lightning went through me, how in that moment I knew, knew that I would know until my dying day, that God was here. For me. No matter what He was wearing when He showed up.
There was a poem in the church:
You, citizen of this town
Or pilgrim from far away
Looking for some tranquility
Here you may become silent
At the well of all beauty and life
No-one is a stranger
In this ancient temple
Where God is a loving father
Waiting only for you.
I know it still. I hear it in the words of frightened Christians, in the speeches of angry Republicans, in the mouths of people I think are not like me. But I, too, fear the Other. I, too, protect my soft underbelly and grasp with hard fingers, all of us pulling toward ourselves while God waits, patiently, until we come.
I'm a very bad Buddhist.