It was because I had to drive to work to pick up more than I can carry by bike or bus that I happened to listen to Science Friday. I love this show but for all kinds of reasons I don’t often find myself listening to NPR at noon on Fridays. Host Ira Flatow was interviewing Author Michael Pollan about his latest book, This is Your Mind on Plants. I tuned in as Pollan was emphasizing how little we know about consciousness, and how psychoactive substances may help us better understand this state of being. True to my own distracted brain, I thought about those times when I am self-aware of my own consciousness.
It’s a good thing I can still listen to the recording, because my brain started spinning as Flatow and Pullan continued on. I thought back to when I first remember being conscious of me. I have profound memories being a kid and knowing I was sharing my private space with something else invisible to my eyes. As a young child trying to understand this sensation, I synthesized an explanation for this feeling of presence. I imagined it to be an invisible tiny spaceship hovering in the upper corner of the room: perhaps it was a hybrid between 1960s television Roger Ramjet and the Jetsons? Although I was baptized and raised in the Episcopal Church, even singing in the church choir during these years of my childhood, none of what I had been exposed to in church provided answers for this sensation I felt. The presence, though, was a comfort and my child’s brain told me I needed to say aloud what was in my thoughts so whoever was in that spaceship could understand what I felt; what I was about. My habit of talking aloud when alone has its roots in these long ago moments. And it continued long after the years when I knew whatever I felt in presence not to be a spaceship carrying E.T.
This blog didn’t start out as something about Mother’s Day, yet now I circle back to Mom as I ponder her spiritual beliefs. Although she died 14 months ago, I hold in my hands her memoir detailing 300 pages about her life she felt important to preserve. She may have once considered some of it secret, yet when she finally finished pulling it all together in her eighth decade, she no longer felt that way. Mom understood the power of releasing our own stories, when we are ready. Even though I’ve read her memoir before, each time I reread its passages I see it with fresh eyes. And today, as I remember the spaceship of my past, I honor what a gift it is read about her spiritual quest on this Mother’s Day morning.
Our mom was raised as a Presbyterian, converting to Episcopalian in practice after marrying Dad in her NE Portland Piedmont Presbyterian Church. When I was a child she began to lose her faith–though I didn’t know that then. Mom straddled traditional Christianity and Al-Anon’s “Higher Power” message while being introduced to the world of Eastern philosophy, meditation and mind-body healing. In those days of the 1960s, she struggled with priests and therapists who neither seemed to understand or recognize alcoholism’s effect on a spouse. When she filed for divorce in 1969, and Dad moved to an apartment in Portland for six months, I was in the 4th grade – the age when I most clearly remember the “spaceship” in my room. It was the same year my most favorite teacher took maternity leave. Until today I’ve never put it all together. After that Dad temporarily found sobriety and moved back home, but it wasn’t until their divorce a decade later when he found lasting recovery.
Two years after our parents’ separation we moved from Wilsonville to LaGrande for our short time in Northeastern Oregon, and I was exposed to other ideas about religion and spirituality. As I was introduced to a more conservative church youth group than what I knew before, our mom entered her own next awakening as she was introduced to the teachings of Edgar Cayce and the Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE). Us kids adored going to family camp at Seabeck, Washington, and were introduced to what we might today call New Age or New Thought. For me, some of this answered questions of things I had felt as a kid. The spaceship morphed into a spirit guide. A presence that still, though, largely due to habit, needed me to sometimes say aloud what I felt in my heart. And a decade later as a college student, upon the death of my grandmother Whowho, I began to feel her as that spirit, my spirit guide. At that time our mom furthered her own journey as she moved to San Francisco to enroll in a doctorate program in East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. That is her story, not mine, but one I have written bits about before (see: Event at midlife).
Others are more schooled than I on all things paranormal and spiritual: from Angels to Ancestors to Animal Spirits and more. And perhaps the psychologists around me might point out the interesting overlap between psychosis and spiritual experience. Others might insist that it is simply “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.” I, however, am satisfied to continue my journey accepting what I perceive but not feeling compelled to figure it all out. I’m comfortable living in the “who knows” and remain open to listening to whatever belief someone wants to take the time to explain.
Like Einstein once say, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” What I do know is that kindness matters and there are many paths. As Michael Pollan and others have professed: there is so much we don’t understand. Perhaps we lead our kindest and healthiest journey when we remain open to all that we really don’t know.
What about you? Did you ever feel what I did as a child? How did you determine what it all meant?