Duck & Cover, Heaven & HellJanuary 21st, 2009 at 20:07
I was in fourth grade in 1963 during the Cuban Missile Crisis when there was apparently a real possibility of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Somewhere in that timeframe I became aware of this possibility, probably as a result of TV news coverage and a couple “Duck & Cover” exercises led by my teacher in my elementary school classroom. For those of you too young to remember these exercises, you were spared a fearful experience of powerlessness and contemplation of the abyss. For me, it was my first confrontation with my own mortality, possibilities for an afterlife and the existence of god.
During the 1950s and into the 1960s, in classrooms throughout the country, teachers instructed their young students something to the effect that, if there was the brilliant flash of a nuclear bomb explosion, students should immediately duck under their desks and cover their faces with their hands. This would supposedly give you some small modicum of protection from the immediate effects of the blast. Whether or not this technique would provide any real help if there ever was an actual nuclear apocalypse, who knows, but it sure scared the crap out of me and my classmates and gave us a new fear to live with every day.
So I can recall thinking about it while I walked home from school. It was pretty easy for me to let my imagination run wild imagining the blue sky rent by a flash brighter than the sun. Would I be killed instantly or have enough time to realize that this was the end of everything before I died. And then my imagination would invariably drift to what would happen after I died?
So was there a god? Would I go to heaven? Was there a hell and was I in danger of going there instead?
Honestly, I had no evidence at that point that a god or the “God” actually existed at some transcendent level. I had never sensed the presence of or been spoken to by he/she/it. I had never had the yearning for this ubiquitous deity to be present and a guide for my life. I had the love of my parents, teachers, my friends’ parents and other adults in my life. But I knew at that point that I lived in a world where most people believed in this entity in some form or another. I was not theologically sophisticated enough at age eight to even consider the divinity within kind of god-consciousness.
My brother and I would later lampoon this anxiety with our “Steam Bath” game, repeatedly dying in a make-believe malfunctioning appliance where you sit inside the metal box with a hole for only your head to protrude while the rest of your enclosed body is cleansed by the hot steam.
I don’t recall ever asking my parents about god and whether they believed. Maybe I was embarrassed to even admit that I was possibly a non-believer and flirting with being damned to hell forever. Later in my teenage, when my mom was going through the traumatic period after she and my dad divorced, she confided in me that she believed in god, even talked to god (though I don’t recall her relating that god responded in kind) but was totally opposed to organized religion, which in her mind, was the source of most of the war and hate on Earth. I think my dad in some vague way believed in some sort of god, but he was pretty inscrutable on these sort of topics. If I only had him alive and in front of me one more time I would ask him directly. My mom shared with me much later that my dad had shared with her on a couple of occasions that he sometimes felt so out of place in the world that he wondered if he in fact was (seriously) some sort of alien from outer space.
It was in my later teen years, wandering the familiar streets of Ann Arbor on my own, including at times under the influence of Marijuana, that I began to sense a possible magical level of life beyond the world of our senses. From time to time I would have brief transcendent epiphanies when I would see someone throw back their head and laugh heartily or when I’d see a loving look between adult and child. I got in the habit during that period to have little ditties come to my head and I would sing them over and over like mantras as I walked my beloved treed streets. One I remember went, “Everything’s got magic… In its own way… Cool the rational logic… Hey hey”.
So developing this magical sense, my atheism or agnosticism, however you might characterize my theological position, has never felt like a position antagonistic to someone who believed in deities or even the one God. I in fact have often talked myself about Mother Nature (sometimes framed instead as Gaia) as if she really existed. Certainly if she was in fact a deity, she would be one closer to my feminist pedigree (more on that later).