The World at Midday

Person walking on the road in the snow during midday; the sky is gray and overcast, the street is rimmed with trees with every branch covered in snow.I spent Christmas Eve with my mom last month for the first time in years. It was unexpected; she was happy and well.

All through the drive to my aunt’s house—Dad at the wheel, Mom turning the music up—my sister and I watched the lights and thought about extraordinary transformations. How anything is possible, though it rarely seems so.

Being with my whole family felt like an amazing gift, like the world had opened up and made itself entirely new.

I keep thinking about how to say things I can’t say. The problem’s not inappropriateness or offense; it’s entrée. Square peg in a round hole and all that, subjects that don’t come up or don’t make sense in the time people have to offer them. Subjects no one wants.

A couple of days after Christmas, my mom was in the hospital for a week after she burned herself with cigarettes, and then she came home and made chili. These things happen.

The day I learned that my mom had been hospitalized, snow fell in icy dendrites. The wind came from the east. The world might have ended; the sun was nowhere to be found. How easily we find ourselves abandoned. [Read more…]

Making Contact: A Christian-Atheist Friendship, Part 2

shadow-friends-by-monika-on-flickrAn introduction: Decades ago, in the faraway land of Orange County, California, two young women made contact. Jen and I shared a number of classes but traveled in different social circles. I was scary nerdy awkward—E.T. and Laura Ingalls’ lovechild, and she was scary sexy cool—black eyeliner, skateboards, and bands I couldn’t pronounce. Only in the past few years have we developed a deeper relationship, sharing our lives with one another on Facebook.

Recently, during an intense chat about religion, science, and philosophy, Jen told me that the movie Contact—a 1997 sci-fi flick based on Carl Sagan’s novel that engages the intersection of science and faith—is the key to understanding her spiritual struggles.

Maybe we can write something about it together, she said, comparing our points of view as a Christian and an atheist. Well, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Yesterday’s post featured Jen’s letter to me, using Contact as a central theme. Today I respond.

Jen,

If someone told me thirty years ago that one day I’d be writing you a letter about God, a letter that virtually anyone in the world could access on a pocket-sized screen with the click of a button, I would have called it science fiction.

And today, as we write to one another about aliens, science, and spaceships—the stuff of Contact—I realize how quickly those thirty years have gone. [Read more…]

Making Contact: A Christian-Atheist Friendship, Part 1

star-formation-region-ngc-2035-by-the-european-southern-observatory-on-flickrAn introduction from Tania Runyan:

Decades ago, in the faraway land of Orange County, California, two young women made contact. Jen and I shared a number of classes but traveled in different social circles. I was scary nerdy awkward—E.T. and Laura Ingalls’ lovechild, and she was scary sexy cool—black eyeliner, skateboards, and bands I couldn’t pronounce. Only in the past few years have we developed a deeper relationship, sharing our lives with one another on Facebook.

Recently, during an intense chat about religion, science, and philosophy, Jen told me that the movie Contact—a 1997 sci-fi flick based on Carl Sagan’s novel that engages the intersection of science and faith—is the key to understanding her spiritual struggles.

Maybe we can write something about it together, she said, comparing our points of view as a Christian and an atheist. Well, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Today’s post features Jen’s letter to me, using Contact as a central theme.

Contact features Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway, an athiest research scientist, who has devoted her career to making contact with extraterrestrial life. She and theologian Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) are drawn to one another in their passion for seeking the truth, despite their differences. When Ellie receives a message from the star Vega, millionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), who has anonymously funded her research, deciphers blueprints for a transporter to the distant star. With challenges from her self-serving supervisor, Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), and support from blind fellow astronomer Kent (William Fichtner), Ellie prepares for an astounding, yet controversial, trip.

My response follows tomorrow.

Tania,

I often imagine you luxuriating in your cozy home workplace or snoozing in an airplane on your way to a workshop, a convention, or a scarf sale. Always a scarf; never a church. I imagine this from my dank living room—a space I share with dog hair, flung afterschool socks, and a constant TV hum. Always a TV; never a church.

You revel in the community of God and grace. I search for connection in activism and apathy. You love a deity. I love controversy. You are a woman of scripture and wine. I am a woman of Facebook and whine. That part of us so alien to the other is the beauty of our similarity: “In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”

You are the Palmer Joss to my Ellie Arroway. We’ve made contact.

To watch Contact is to bear witness to my spiritual struggle. As Ellie travels a wormhole between our sun and distant Vega, I too travel between the pain of my Catholic upbringing and the atheistic reality that I have spent a lifetime constructing. It’s a lonely reality, devoid of hope for an afterlife, for reunion with loved ones, for any post-death reward.

If only I had the world’s wealth of support. If only I could discover a hidden second machine untouched by Western fanaticism. If only they’d let me float freely—no harness, no bolts, no stiff straps. If only they’d send a poet to document my strange spiritual journey.

But they have.

Like Palmer and Ellie’s post-lovemaking pillow talk, you and I connect secretly and sincerely—as humans, not as spiritual opposites. Your private empathy quells my fight. Your humor and worry are familiar.

But I wonder: Do you delight in the fall of religious and scientific leaders as I do? Do you understand the sounds of the universe as I do? Can you understand that I am as willing to die for my nonbelief as you are for your faith? Can we, as Palmer and Ellie have, find common ground in our profound regard for transcendence?

Can we together decipher the Big Message from the Beyond—whatever shape our Beyonds take?

You and your scarves, your coffee selfies, and your Facebook tags are rewriting my alien schema. You speak to me in primes—the simplest complexity of a universal language.

A truth that eludes us both is the blueprint for our friendship.

Ellie’s grueling search for the primer—the connective tissue between the alien language and human understanding—is feverish and frustrating. She is unable to unlock the relationship between the equations of Earthly science and the fuller dimension that comes only from considering the transcendental—in this case, alien knowledge and promise.

Oh, how I envy her moment of revelation—a moment, unfortunately, handed to her from Hadden, an eccentric man who floats in the sky.

This is my issue: I don’t want a floating man to provide my ultimate answers. I will find the primer, I promise myself. I will discover these new dimensions on my own.

As Ellie prepares to launch—an obvious rebirth—she loses contact with her reality: with NASA scientists, her roots; with blind Kent, her hopes; with wise Palmer, her support. She is alone, afraid. Her life’s work teeters on the precipice of validation, yet her doubt shakes her. We see her breathless, eyes closed, chanting, “I’m okay to go…okay to go.” But is she really okay?

Am I really okay?

The moment she truly breaks free from her human harness, she reaches out and grasps Palmer’s gift—a gift of direction that she has until this moment rejected. It’s a quietly gorgeous moment in which the mundane and the unknown come softly together. Hers is a rebirth into beautiful confusion, of reconnecting with the awe of a child’s innocent wonder.

For over thirty-five years, I’ve searched for a wormhole to fling me between the majesty of the universe, the comfort of scientific logic, and the peace of spiritual community. I’ve tried so many –isms: atheism, apatheism, humanism, Buddhism. None yet has truly transported me to a place of understanding and connection. And so I turn to science. To ancient philosophy. To the literature of those both lost and found.

And now, to you.

When Ellie lands in the Vegan system, she remains safely in a bubble of awe, humility, and hope. She can see the place she has never touched in all her years of study and rejection.

Is our Facebook friendship my alien bubble, or is it my wormhole? And are you my compassionate alien?

Because of you and your acceptance; because of your humor, compassion, and success; because you ease my existential frustrations—you are at once my Kent, my Hadden, and my Palmer. Essentially, you are my Contact.

What I’ll find out about myself through our union, I’m not sure. How I’ll grasp the compass you’ve given me, I can’t yet imagine. The only thing I’m confident in:

I’m okay to go.

Jen

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Jennifer Hawk is an atypical Southern California native, an edgy mother, and a former professor of English. She has left the academy in pursuit of less formal, more tangible discourse. Her publications include poetry, short stories, and scholarly work. This is her first blog post and her first joint writing project.

The above image is by The European Southern Observatory, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Meeting Islam in Interfaith Friendships

dining-table-by-rik-wouters-via-wikimediaIn 1993 my husband George Dardess began visiting our local Islamic Center: first to learn Arabic so that he could read the Qur’an, then cementing friendships with his teacher there and with the imam. So when the events of September 11, 2001 hit, George was in a position to join with members of the Center in presenting programs on Islam to the public.

Our Islamic Center’s brave response to 9/11 was to open itself to the larger community—to invite Christians and others to learn about Islam, to observe the communal prayers, to ask questions. At the programs George, as a Christian, would dialogue with a Muslim on a topic like Jesus in the Qur’an, or Mary in the Qur’an, or the real meaning of jihad.

I accompanied George to the programs, which were often preceded by a potluck dinner, and it’s there that I met my first Muslim friend, Yasmin. [Read more…]

Hea i ka Haku

david-salafia-office-still-life-on-flickrOn day two we fired the harpist.

“The music is really very lovely,” the nurse had explained, as if we’d never heard a harp before. My sister and I sat facing each other in plastic chairs on either side of a hospital bed. We watched the nurse smear Vaseline on our mother’s lips. Our mother’s eyes were closed, and she continued the loud, gurgled breathing that began after she lost consciousness from her second stroke one floor below us in the emergency room.

“She’s played for several patients and the families are always so grateful. I’ll give her a call and let you know when she’s available.”

We thanked the nurse. We watched her peel off her purple latex gloves, flip open the garbage pail with one foot, and drop the gloves in the can. “No problem,” she said, and left, pulling the door closed behind her.

I turned to my sister, “No harpist.”

“No harpist,” she agreed.

The first stroke hit my mom at home. My sister had stopped by to say hello to her and noticed the right side of her face drooping. And her language was strange, although not in the usual way, not funny, but garbled. [Read more…]