Category Archives: Atheism

Big and Bigger

On to our final stop, Shaftsbury, via Sherborne.  I love its Wiki description:

Sherborne is a market town and civil parish in north west Dorset, in South West England. It is sited on the River Yeo, on the edge of the Blackmore Vale, 6 miles east of Yeovil. The A30 road, which connects London to Penzance, runs through the town.

Sherborne has a famous Abbey, the exterior too big to capture in a photo, but here is the interior.

A man was singing snippets of songs to test out the acoustics, which were great.  In fact, the elderley woman giving him and his wife a tour declared,  “Aren’t they orgasmic!” and this word rippled throughout the church.

This gate is carved out of wood.

There was the usual tomb of a dead 16th Century couple who may have founded or rebuilt or otherwise bankrolled the abbey; I don’t recall their names and sadly few other visitors will, even though the final resting place they splashed out on is so magnificent.

There was this more modest tomb containing six people, including children who died at 50 weeks and three years and someone’s 16-year-old wife.  You wonder if anyone in town lived to a ripe old age, which back then would have been about 40.

There was this splendid fellow on a monument out front, and a beautiful wrought-iron gate which was marred by a modern sign posted next to it which said, “No Dogs, No Cycling, No Ball Games.”  This was according to the Ecclesiastical Court Jurisdiction Act of 1860 and meant to protect “this consecrated ground.”

There are thousands of churches and abbeys and minsters and cathedrals in the UK.  Fewer than five percent of English people attend church.  The figure is almost nine percent in Scotland, but still much lower than the 38% of Americans who attend church on a weekly basis.

I’m an atheist Jew who loves old churches.  You don’t need to be a fervent believer in Jesus to feel uplifted—if not orgasmic—by soaring vaulted ceilings, stained glass, and all the history embodied—literally—in tombs.  I always drop some coins in the donation box.

Sherborne itself was a pretty town, with some well-preserved half-timber buildings.

And a gorgeous building that I believe was formerly some kind of monks’ residence, now converted into luxury flats, complete with signs that warned, “Private Property, No Entrance.”

And adjacent to the parking lot, this classic scene:

There are two Sherborne castles—“old” and “new.”  We stopped in the National Trust office to ask directions and walked off clutching maps.  We were soon leaving town on a narrow road with no sidewalk.  One sign early on pointed to the castle, then there were no more. We walked and walked.  A high wall on one side of the road prevented us from seeing what might be on the other side and the road had curve after curve which prevented us from seeing what was ahead.  It was high noon on a hot day.  We stopped in a shady spot for a rest.

“Do we keep walking?” I asked.

“It could be just around the next bend,” Lynn replied.  “Or we could be completely lost, as usual.”

“Yep.  I’m hungry.  Let’s give up and go to that historic pub the National Trust lady told us about.”

“Okay … but if we can’t find a castle don’t get your hopes up about finding a pub.”

We managed to follow the directions and find two other pubs.  No one had ever heard “Sherborne’s Oldest Pub” promoted in the tourist office and on the map.  Every English town has a pub called The George; we had lunch there.  I had a steak and kidney pie with a pint and Lynn had a fish pie with a ginger ale.

Next stop: the Cerne Giant.  Trigger warning: If you are offended by penises, stop reading now.  Although, if you are offended by penises you are probably already offended just by me writing the word penis.

Here he is, cut into the turf and filled with chalk.  Saxon god?  Political satire?  Teen prank?  The story is unknown but most agree he dates to the 17th Century.

Lalibela

I was breathless as I tried to keep up with my guide, Tesfaye, as he hopped from boulder to boulder up a steep “path” to Lalibela, where we would go back in time 800 years.

I realize I haven’t actually said yet exactly what Lalibela is.  It’s a complex of Ethiopian Orthodox churches that were carved out of stone during the 12th and 13th centuries at the behest of the Emperor Lalibela.  It would be the latest in my world tour of ancient sites I had unintentionally visited over the last two years.  Others included Petra, in Jordan; the Tarxian temples in Malta, Tikal, in Guatemala; and Stonehenge, which I’ll get around to writing about eventually.  During my Latin American phase 10 years ago, I went to Machu Picchu and loads of pyramids and temples in Mexico and El Salvador whose names I can’t recall.  Prior to that I had been to Israel, where you practically trip over an ancient site every time you turn around.

I don’t believe in god and I struggle with the concept of a higher power.  I am constantly thinking about death and seeking some kind of meaning or purpose to living.  I’ve written before about how I find life worth living when I interact with children, am out in nature, or am appreciating the beauty of art, architecture, a garden, classical music, etc.

I have also experienced meaning at ancient sites.  Not all, but some.  I spent two full days in Petra, hiking in its silent, barren wilderness.  And I felt profoundly moved.  This will probably sound really “woo woo,” as my Native American relatives would say, but I felt a connection to the people who had lived there.  Not like I sensed their ghosts, exactly.  But I felt awe that they had built this place and it was still intact, and people like me were still here wondering about them.

I had my most moving experience at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which like Petra is around 2,000 years old. There a multitude of faiths represented, people in costumes that looked like they were straight out of Hollywood central casting—Jews, Muslims, Druse, Christians of every denomination—nuns, monks, imams, Hasidim, people wearing turbans, yarmulkes, tall conical hats, and fezzes.  I was on a tour with 175 other Jews from Minnesota.  We were herded to the wall and I tucked a prayer for my son, Vince, inside one of the cracks.  I believed in God back then.  Vince was on the lam with drug and legal problems, and I was desperate for anyone or anything to help him.  I closed my eyes and leaned in to pray, and I felt a tremendous physical sensation like a “whoosh”—as if a vortex of everyone who had prayed there over the millennia were carrying my request upward.

Then I heard someone calling my name: “Anne, Anne, we’ve got to go.”

It was our tour guide, Moshe.  “Can’t I have a few more minutes?”

“It’s been 20 minutes!” he replied.

Twenty minutes!  It had felt like five.

Other places have been “meh” experiences or just interesting for their historical significance.  I think it must have more to do with my own state of mind than anything else.

My colleague who had urged me to visit Lalibela had said she found it deeply moving, much more so than Petra.  So I wondered how it would be for me.

After about 15 bureaucratic steps involving buying a ticket then having it inspected and stamped by three people, Tesfaye and I were in.  And it was amazing.

Tesfaye told me that the churches were built in the 3rd to 5th Centuries, which conflicted by about a thousand years with what I see on Wikipedia.  He also told me that most Ethiopians were Jewish back then, which doesn’t square with the Emperor, a Christian, building all these Christian churches.  Then there was the part about the Portuguese visiting Ethiopia in the 17th Century to try to convert them, and that 800,000 people visit Petra each year while only 25,000 visit Lalibela.  Not sure about any of that.

In fact, he talked so much that there was no space to feel moved.

Boeren Bonenstoofschotel on Schoenlappervinlinder

Greetings from Eton, England.  Tonight I will sleep in my 11th bed in a month.  I’ve spent the last 10 days in the southwest of England—in Cornwall, Devon, and Dorset—where the internet connections were not much better than in Ethiopia.  So I’m going back to write about some of the places I visited almost a month ago, and now that I’ve got a good connection I’ll write forward and eventually join up with the present, in Eton.

After three whirlwind days in Copenhagen and being forced to buy a second plane ticket thanks to Expedia, I arrived in the land of long words, the Netherlands.  I was so happy to see my old friend Ingrid waiting in the arrivals hall.

Ingrid and I met in 1986 at a Volunteers for Peace “work camp” in London.  I’ve written before about how she visited me in the US twice and I visited her in the Netherlands twice, including being a bridesmaid in her wedding.  The last time I saw Ingrid in person was after her son was born, about 11 years ago.  Of course we are friends on Facebook but it’s not the same.

By the time we got out of the airport parking ramp and onto the highway headed to Utrecht, where she lives, we were talking about whether god exists, the meaning of suffering, and how humanists can be as inhumane as anyone. Our conversations continued like this for the next six days.  Don’t get me wrong; we also talked about hairstyles, houses, families, health, and jobs, but I can talk to most people about those things.  It is so good to have a friend you can talk to about the big questions.

Plus, she fed me Boeren Bonenstoofschotel, a Dutch folk food, from what I understand.

The street Ingrid and her family live on is called Schoenlappervinlinder, which is named for a butterfly.  By the time you’ve pronounced the word, the butterfly would be long gone.

Here are some photos of a typical Dutch side-by-side house in what Ingrid referred to as a “suburb” of Utrecht, which felt pretty urban by American standards.

The house was similar to many American homes with the exception of exceptionally steep stairs leading from one floor to another.  They all shrugged when I exclaimed over how steep they were.  There was a bike shed in the back yard to accommodate the four family bikes that they use to go to work, school, and most everywhere else except to the grocery for a big shopping load.  The attic which served as my room had home-painted Mondrian thanks to Ingrid’s husband Chris, and more English language books on the bookshelves than most American homes.

Speaking of grocery shopping, I got to go with Chris and Ingrid to a Jumbo, which is a mid level grocery chain.  The Dutch love sweets.  Stroop koeken/waffle are typically Dutch cookie or waffle “sandwiches” filled with sugar syrup.  There is every other imaginable form of cookie, cake, and candy, plus lots of breakfast sweets stuff, like sprinkles for toast and an entire Nutella section.

Eggs and milk were not refrigerated.  I guess in the US we refrigerate both because it makes them seem fresher, but it’s not necessary.  If that’s true, what a waste of energy!  If it’s not true, then there should be lot of people retching their guts out every day in the Netherlands.

We have an image in the US of how everyone in Europe eats artisanal, organic, free range food.  There is plenty of it, but they also eat junk, just like us:

This item in the deli case, “FiletAmericain Naturel,” turned out to be Steak Tartare.  Ironically, I believe you can’t buy it in the US.

Then there were the cheeses.  The Dutch love cheese at least as much as sweets, and there must have been 500 different kinds on offer. I could have taken photos of cheese all day.

Finally, this was in the magazine section.  It’s a mag for gay men, and in an American grocery—if it was even allowed—it would have a colored plastic sleeve to hide the content, a la Penthouse and Playboy.

Bible Bangers and Tummy Troubles

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

One of the missionaries had followed me into the store.

“Are you from here?” he asked.

Do I look like I’m from here? I thought, but responded no.

“Do you have a few minutes to hear God’s holy word?”

No,” I said firmly. “I’m busy buying mouse glue.  Besides, I’m Jewish.”

He pulled back as though I had said, “I drink the blood of Christian children,” which in his mind was likely synonymous with “Jewish.”

“Well, Christ bless you and have a blessed day,” he said as he handed me this card and hurried off to save other souls.

The back has more judgmental drivel, and their contact info, but I’m not going to share that.  This kind of thing really pisses me off.  Aren’t there any sinners to save in Iowa?  Sure there are, but Iowa is cold, so here they were, probably with all their expenses paid by their congregation, proselytizing in the sunshine.

I walked around the neighborhoods of Havana and Harlem.  This is a typical street scene.

There were churches on every corner, so again, why the need for missionaries from the US?  Here is Epworth Methodist.

The housing stock varied from run-down shacks that seemed inhabitable, to perfectly-maintained villas.

I loved the name of this restaurant, “Always Hungry.” I wasn’t sure if I would want to eat there, but it was good to know they had a pay phone outside in case I needed one.

There were a number of “fast food” restaurants; this is Wen Quan Chen Fast Foods:

And another Chinese restaurant, Fu We Kitchen:

I liked this combination of services—Frank’s banisters and tombstones:

I wonder how much longer this place will stay in business now that we are making it so difficult for anyone to enter the US:

Our group rendezvoused at the van and drove back to the spot where we had watched birds, but after much searching we couldn’t find Trudy’s shoe.

We stopped to get gas and a man was sitting between the pumps ladling something out of a 10-gallon plastic drum into empty glass bottles.  Other customers were snapping up the bottles so I called out the window, “Whatcha got there?”

“It’s Irish mess!” he answered enthusiastically.  “It’s a mess o’ seaweed and spices.  Very refreshing, and only 50 cents.”

Mark pulled a handful of coins out of his pocket and I said in a low voice, “Think about the water.”  He slipped the coins back in his pocket.  We had all started having tummy troubles.

“I don’t understand it,” said Mark.  Jeanie supplied drinking water in a five-gallon jug in the lodge for $1 per liter. We had all assumed it was purified.

I thought about it and asked Mark, “Have you ever seen a truck delivering new bottles of water?”

He paused thoughtfully. “No, now that you mention it.”

“So they just refill the same five-gallon jug from the tap in the kitchen, I’m guessing.  We might as well fill our bottles directly from the tap.  That’d be free.”

After lunch, we were off to Cockscomb Basin.  As we drove down the long entry driveway, something big and black slithered quickly across the road.  When we arrived at the preserve, which had a well-funded interpretive center, we immediately identified the critter as a Jaguarundi. This was promising; we were all excited about what else we might see here.

In the office, Mark was having a hard time convincing the guy at the desk to let us in because we didn’t have a reservation or a local guide.  I think the contents of the jar were meant as a warning of what could go wrong if we wandered through on our own.

I’m not sure how Mark got us in and I don’t need to know, but we were soon hiking through the jungle on our way to Victoria Peak—at 3,675 feet the second-highest mountain in Belize.  Doyle’s Peak is the highest, but it only beats Victoria by 13 feet.  I had no sense of how high 3,675 feet was and I’m glad I didn’t or I might have skipped it.

Synagogue of the Virgin Mary

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Have you ever been in the London Eye? If not, it’s a super sized ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames with a bird’s eye view of Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament and much more. 

Imagine, being in the Eye, watching yesterday’s terrorist attack unfold. The confusion, the fear, maybe some twisted excitement, the plain-old inconvenience of being stuck up there until thd police gave the all clear. 

Will this attack hurt London’s tourist economy? I doubt it. No matter how many of these incidents happen, most of us have the capacity to believe it won’t happen to us.  And statistically, it won’t, so keep on traveling.  

Day Two in Toledo. Today we would visit the Synagogue of the Virgin Mary and the Mosque of Christ the Light.

“I can just hear the Christians saying, ‘There, we showed ‘em!’ as they nailed up the new signs,” I said.

The so-called synagogue which hadn’t been a synagogue in hundreds of years was just steps from our hotel.  The website, which I won’t link to here, makes it look like you could spend days there.  It was lovely, but there wasn’t much to it:

There was a nun in the back of the now-church, and she sort of floated through the place and out a side door.  We followed her, since there was nothing else to see in the main building, and she went into a small out building which we entered to our regret.

You know how you walk into a place and immediately wish you hadn’t? The nun was there, seated behind a table piled with books and pamphlets and art prints.  The walls were hung with drawings.  The nun was ecstatic, in the original sense of the word, “involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I was raised in a Catholic family but never felt Catholic. I explored various religions and somehow knew I was Jewish immediately upon beginning to study Judaism.  So I’ve been Jewish since I was 18, which is a long time ago.  I’m also an atheist, which, conveniently, isn’t incompatible with being Jewish.

All this is background to saying that—having been schooled by nuns for 14 years— when I saw this nun I knew her type.  In fact, she was a dead ringer for Sister Mara, my 8th grade teacher.  I recognized the glassy-eyes, the never failing smile, and most of all, the enthusiasm to share what she had discovered with others, whether they were interested or not.

Fervently religious, or mentally ill? They are often intertwined, regardless of the faith.  None of this was triggering Lynn, who has neither Catholic or Jewish baggage.

The art, pamphlets, and books were all by and about some guy—possibly still alive and living in a monastery or cave in the mountains—who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism after having a vision.  He was an artist, a poet, and (naturally) a visionary, the nun told me breathlessly in Español muy rapido.

The art reminded me of Peter Max (example below), which made me wonder if her visionary also took drugs, but it was executed like my three-year-old nephew’s drawings, which feature people with pumpkin heads and tooth-pick legs.

It was better than I am making it sound.  I wish I had taken a photo to show you but I didn’t want to demonstrate too much enthusiasm.  The nun had moved on to how Israel was wrapped up in the vision, so it was time to break in and say, “Thank you very much, it’s been fascinating.”

Even the tiniest tourist attraction in Spain has a gift shop, and the ex-synagogue one had this on display:

As usual, the non-Jewish author had used a photo of an Orthodox Jew at the Western Wall, instead of a picture of me, a much more typical Jew.

Fa la la la felon

It’s Christmas Eve and I thought I’d share this post my son, Vince, wrote from prison two years ago.  If you’re feeling lonely today, write a letter to a prisoner, then contact your local Department of Corrections or a nonprofit prisoner support organization on Tuesday to find out how you can send it.  Half of prisoners never get a visitor, and many never get any mail.  Vince is doing great now.  In fact today he’s on his way to San Diego to spend Christmas with his aunt and uncle and cousins.  If you’re interested in following his adventures, he blogs at Fixing Broken.

I haven’t written any blog posts in nearly a week. My job keeps me busy, and I’ll say that there is a little more effort involved in the actual writing vs. typing a blog, from my point of view, anyway.

My co-blogger, aka Mom, came to visit me today. Like everybody else, she had a good laugh at my prison-issue glasses. But then we sat down and talked for two hours. We could have talked for two more and time would have flown by just as quickly. It was really nice to see a familiar face. We spoke on topics ranging from family health to sign-language-interpreting gorillas. It will probably be my only visit during my whole tenure as a prisoner, and it was a good one.

Last night I started reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I only made it through 40 pages and I had to get to sleep but so far I’m interested. I’m sure once I leave prison I’ll go back to reading zero books. My mind is impossible to control so I’m easily distracted. Sometimes I can’t get through a page without daydreaming. I’ll catch myself. And do it again minutes later. Brain. Bad brain.

I haven’t been sick in years. Years! I am in the middle of a terrible cold, and I don’t like it. I have been told several times over the years that, despite my claims, I am not a doctor. Even if I were, there’s little I can do to suppress the effects of the virus. So I’ll do the standard: rest, drink plenty of fluids, and complain.

I’m not at all religious but I went to a Christmas program for something to do, and I had a blast. There were six or seven musicians, all in their 70s or 80s, from some denomination whose name I cannot recall. Each played a different instrument ranging from accordion to piano to guitar. They had 50 grown men, drug dealers, pimps, and armed robbers, singing Twelve Days of Christmas and even doing the chicken dance. That was the best. We were all laughing. And we all needed that.

I think it may have been the first time in a while that some of the guys smiled.  Which will usually, unfortunately, later, lead to crying.  Quietly, so your cellmate doesn’t hear.  We will be thinking of our friends, families, and why we can’t be with them this holiday season.  I am one of the lucky ones.  I won’t be locked up next year.  Some will.  Some will be forever.  And although they are here permanently for a reason, it will still hurt.  They may not show it, but they will surely feel it.

Tsouris, Tikkun Olam, Teshuvah

Another week, another shooting of an unarmed black man by police.  Three, actually: in Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charlotte, North Carolina.  The kid shot in Columbus was carrying a BB gun; you can understand why that could put a cop on edge.  The cop who shot the man in Tulsa has been charged with manslaughter.  That seems just, except it’s a female cop.   She may be guilty, but I think some of the officers involved in previous shootings (all men) were as well, and most were never charged.   Is a woman seen as easier to prosecute?  No one can agree whether the guy in Charlotte was carrying a gun or a book.  A book.  I think even I could tell a book from a gun.  It’ll be interesting to watch these investigations unfold.

It is emerging that no one who should be collecting statistics on police shootings has been doing so.  The best source seems to be the Washington Post.  Its running list illustrates something similar to the situation I’ve written about in our prisons.

Of the 1,500 people killed by police between January 2015 and July 11 of this year, 49% have been white while 25% were black.  Whites comprise 62% of the US population and blacks are 13%.  Does that mean blacks commit more crime, or that they are singled out and treated differently by police?  That’s impossible to know unless all the white people who have committed crimes and gotten away with them step up and admit it.

There were also two terrorist incidents this week.  You probably heard about the man who planted four bombs in New York and New Jersey.  The police managed to take him alive, even though he actually had a gun and was firing at them.  Hmm.  Ahmad Rahami was born in Afghanistan, came to the US when he was seven, and was apparently radicalized after visiting Afghanistan.

In St. Cloud, Minnesota, where my son Vince was incarcerated for six months, a man attacked nine people with a knife. Dahir Aden was a Somali born in Kenya and also came to the US when he was seven.  He was apparently radicalized by online ISIS propaganda.

People were injured but no one died in either episode except Aden.  To paraphrase a blog post Vince wrote about the St. Cloud attack, we needn’t live in fear of terrorist attacks, because these guys are incompetent.  The ones who should live in fear are African American men.

So much tsouris in the world.  That’s Yiddish for suffering.

As I’ve written before, Vince and I have been getting involved in Jewish Community Action’s campaign to reform the criminal justice system, including mass incarceration.  On Monday night we’ll attend a phone bank event where we’ll call ex offenders to make sure they know they may be eligible to vote and to tell them how to register if they are eligible.  Vince may not be able to vote, but he can help others to do so.

Next Thursday, we will speak at a JCA event hosted at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture.  A CVT psychotherapist will talk about the psychological effects of imprisonment.  A CVT volunteer physical therapist will speak about the physical effects, and Vince will talk about the fallout on relationships.  If you are local, please join us for either or both or other events.

So much tsouris.   I feel my share of despair and helplessness, but doing something helps.  I’ve been estranged from organized Judaism since Vince’s troubles began, when our rabbis were less than supportive.  Lately, I’ve felt pulled back toward the community by my involvement in JCA.  That’s because the essence of Judaism is tikkun olam, or healing the world.  Doing something to right injustice, even if progress is slow.

Last week I took a big step and went to my old synagogue because I heard there was a new prayer book that acknowledges doubters and atheists.  I went to a study session with one of the (new) rabbis was a dead ringer for my aunt.  I don’t believe in signs, but this did make me feel like I was literally returning to the family.