The following is a chapter from The Rucksack Letters. Order your copy now!
I believe in nothing, everything is sacred. I believe in everything, nothing is sacred.
-Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
July 15, 2001 – Tampa, Florida
I’m remembering my younger days – remembering the times I had it all figured out. Around the time I was fifteen years of age, tender fate and a beguiling young goddess named Jennifer led me to the altar of the Baptist church. Mom and Dad had raised me in the shadow of the Lutherans. Weekends at church as bookends to a week of Christian school left me with a comfortable, yet sheltered, youth.
I was never the model of an obedient child, but rebellion was rare. I smoked my first cigarette when I was twelve, a stolen sin ended in red-faced gagging. I smoked my second cigarette when I was nineteen. I keep telling myself that I’ll smoke my last one today, but today never seems to end. I didn’t like it as a youth because everyone around me agreed that Jesus wouldn’t look too favorably on it. Now I understand why.
I drank my first beer when I was thirteen; peer pressure brought me freedom later sacrificed to porcelain gods. I drank my second beer when I was twenty. I lost count after that. This was the second of the unpardonable sins I made for myself under the influence of the church. A limit put upon me, I had to have a time of rebellion, pushing the limits of the law, stretching my freedom until it held me captive once again.
I served fifteen to twenty in a baptismal prison. At the time, though, it was a shelter. It wasn’t until I left that I understood. I got heavily involved in the youth group at my church, and all of my influences were filtered through the set of beliefs I was given. My thoughts and personal philosophies were not my own but were the beliefs that were handed to me as tradition and dogma. I was who they were, and they accepted me because I was a reflection of them. It’s easy to love your neighbor when he agrees with you.
The five-year revolution spun my way again at twenty, just short of the dealer’s black jack. What I knew was not what I saw. The beliefs that I had formed caused a skewed view of the reality of life facing me. How could a loving God send people to hell? How could an omnipotent God, knowing that the majority of us would suffer for eternity, not come up with a better plan? How could I, being created in His image, be born into natural sin? I wondered if the apostle Paul doubted his faith as often as I did. I remembered the story of his encounter with the booming voice from heaven and scales upon his eyes. I coveted how unquestionably God had revealed himself to others.
At twenty-five, in a barren tundra at the end of the world, I begged for such a miracle, to know for sure who my God was and why I was here. I was working at a cannery in the village of Ekuk, just south of Dillingham, Alaska, when my faith and beliefs clashed, and I called God out. I felt that I had been led there for financial success, to take part in the fantastical fishing industry, as many had taken off to chase the gold rush years earlier. It was the worst fishing season in eighteen years.
Instead of working four hours a day of overtime as I hoped for, I was lucky to get four hours at all. This gave me ample time to disseminate the gospels and discover why I believed what I believed. I remember standing in a field about 200 yards from the cannery, having an open argument with God – an act which would seem insane in downtown Manhattan but is quite normal in the middle of nowhere. I wanted a sign. I wanted God to show me that what I believed in, what I had based my life upon, was real. I heard only the soft breeze through bending reeds, which thinking back, should have been enough.
But I wanted more.
Moses’ bush burned, and mine only bent. An open field with one small spark – physical or spiritual – can become a raging fire. At the time, I couldn’t see it, but my field of faith was smoldering. I cursed all I had known and began my search anew, trusting in only myself to discover life’s mysteries.
I smoked my first joint a month later. It’s still burning.
After Alaska, I found myself back in normal society, struggling with the same problems with new eyes that were still a bit nearsighted. I chased a dream of working in film and putting myself out for hire as a cameraman, or property master, or any job I could get in the industry. Completely unfocused, I managed to finish school and pursue work, not yet clear on how to actually pursue a career.
The end of this cycle found me in Wilmington, North Carolina, a tattered man in a shambled house, warmed by candlelight and stolen blankets. Family and friends worried that I might not make it through the cycle, fearing that they would – under the same circumstances – take their own lives. I had reached the bottom where I had nothing I wanted and few things I thought I needed. But I was okay. I made it through. I reached the bottom and turned around.
I see life as a journey, not meant to be as fast as our society has made it. Descent into despair should be more often likened to spelunking than falling into a pit. Reaching the bottom is having spent too much time shrouded in darkness, stumbling and searching in darkened caverns for that which is hidden. There are many who reach this end, the lack of light in their searches having depleted their energies. They have either adapted to their darkness, have learned to love it, or have let it destroy them.
Dark as it may be, the cave does provide shelter. It has proven itself as protection. Living in the cave gave the illusion of safety, as the cold darkness hid the chains that bound me. But there are few who will strive to escape it and go fully into the light.
When I reached the bottom, when I had taken all that I could, I retraced my steps through paths already taken, my eyes adjusted to allow more light into the crevices of my jagged ways, and I went toward the light. I’m amazed at how much more clearly I can see things on the way out.
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