A novel about the absurdity of religion, changes in life, retirement and death. Read on:
Amidst the hustle and bustle of miscellaneous children, all squabbling, laughing and jostling, we always set up at our own staff table next to the till. The noise level was usually high and not ameliorated by the television in the corner tuned to MTV (to induce the students in by providing a teen-orientated environment so they didn’t slink off down the road to the supermarket to stock up on doughnuts and pop). You got used to it but it made conversation difficult.
Rod was of Greek derivation, black hair and a cheerful easy disposition. He was a historian, involved and passionate. ‘History should always be taught in the morning,’ he’d say. ‘Before anything else happens.’ Rod was also, rather quietly, a religious man – a bit of a church going Roman Catholic. I would rib him about not being Greek Orthodox which he’d take in good heart. The thing about him was that he knew the history of the church, the power struggles, changes of dogma and absurdities, yet he still believed. Rod would enjoy a good debate over historical figures or religious persecution. At times it was a bit like a sword fight with each of us coming up with contentious bits and pieces to spark the other off, repel an attack or counter an argument. I learnt a lot from Rod.
‘So Rod, what I don’t understand is how come you’re still religious?’ I started the morning’s proceedings with a direct thrust as I plonked my bowl of soup on the table. ‘You know all the crap that been going on and you’re still going to church.’
He grinned. ‘It’s faith’. He was munching his way through a plate of fruit. That seemed to be all he ate which was probably why he was so skinny.
‘Bullshit Rod,’ I countered. ‘It’s indoctrination. You know that. They got you as a kid and crammed all that stuff in so it set all those neuronal pathways up. You were brought up to believe and now you can’t get it out of your head. That’s brain washing.’
Rod’s grin was infectious. He always took it in good nature. ‘That may be true but people are people and faith is beyond understanding.’
‘So,’ I said, meeting his gaze and deciding to go for the jugular from the off, ‘you really believe the gospels are gospel?’
‘Well no,’ Rod replied in my easy-going disarming manner, ‘not really. Lots of people were involved in producing them. Generations of word of mouth. They are bound to have become corrupted over time, but you’ve got to admit that there’s a lot of good stuff in there.’
‘That doesn’t make it the word of god,’ I countered, carefully spooning the delicious soup into my mouth, taking care to avoid drips. A Headteacher had to set an example. We were on show.
‘Possible not,’ Rod persisted. ‘But you can still get a lot of stuff out of it.’
‘That’s not the point, is it?’ I persisted. ‘Many people claim that every single word is the word of god.’
‘Well………….’ The thing about Rod was that he was always passionate but too polite to be extreme.
‘Come on Rod,’ I said with feigned exasperation, the spoon poised between bowl and mouth, ‘there are a whole bunch of these ‘Born Again’ maniacs that really do believe that every word written in that book is the absolute word of god. They don’t think of it being passed down word of mouth through generations before being committed to written words. They believe that it all has to be taken literally.’
‘Some do,’ Rod conceded with a smile, waving a banana in my direction. ‘But that’s just them.’
‘But you know that the gospels were all written long after Jesus was dead,’ I continued, pushing him, ‘you know they are not to be taken literally, yet you still believe.’ I spooned the soup into my mouth while I waited for a reply.
Rod nodded. ‘I know. I know. And long after all the disciples were dead. I know. We don’t even really know who wrote them.’
‘That’s precisely what confuses me,’ I said, pausing in my eating. ‘You know that and you still believe.’
He chuckled. ‘god works in mysterious ways……………. Some would say that god wrote it through them.’
‘I can’t believe you’re saying that,’ I responded, shaking my head sadly. ‘These unknown guys write down what John and Paul said, and probably George and Ringo too, long after they were dead ………. Some sort of posthumous, poorly remembered, garbled stories, passed down through a series of Chinese whispers; a sort of collective Folk memory of events from decades before. And we’re expected to believe they were not, poorly misremembered, embellished, adorned and exaggerated. That somehow these farfetched tall tales were written up, literally as the word of god.’
‘Probably god tweaked their memories and provoked truth,’ Rod suggested with a wicked twinkle.
‘Quite probably,’ I conceded with a triumphant smile. ‘So why, when he was doing this tweaking….. Didn’t he get them to agree? Why are those gospels so inconsistent? It’s not because they were written down by a bunch of illiterate hill farmers from the Stone Age in some Middle Eastern backwater of the Roman Empire, is it? People used to an oral tradition where stories were embellished and exaggerated to make for better interest?’
‘I don’t know what you’re insinuating,’ Rod shrugged with an even wider grin. ‘You are not really inferring that the gospels are not the word of god, are you? People have been burned at the stake for less than that.’
‘I think that’s the problem!’ I remarked, spooning up the last of my soup.
On the long drive back home through the familiar countryside I often allowed my mind to go onto autopilot. Seemingly you are safer in this mode, so the scientists tell us. Your subconscious mind drives better than your conscious self. I had decisions to make. There was much to ruminate on. The uninhibited optimism of my youth had dissipated into a nasty taste of realism. The world could be a shitty place. But that shit had not impacted me too much. Even so, I knew it had changed me.
I was struggling with a decision. It was haunting my days. It felt like now was the time. Life, death, mainly life.
‘Sometimes when you top a rise you find yourself in the clear,’ I found muttered to myself as I looked back on my life. I had arrived at one of those crossroads. Change was imminent. I continued to review the way my life had developed in confines of my head. It felt as if that young idealist I had been was still alive in my mind. ‘At the summit of a ridge your view is unimpeded. You look back and can see everything laid out before you like some tapestry. You can see yourself,’ I thought. I was doing that and I did not like what I was seeing. That youth I glimpsed in the distance seemed to be a different person to the man I’d become. I wasn’t sure what he would have made of me if he was really here and could say.
‘In those early years, there you are in the foothills chasing rainbows, discovering colours. Life is good.’ I reflected. ‘Each new discovery is as bright as the next and you are lost in the wonder of it. There will be no end to these discoveries. They are all marvellous. Yet, back then, I thought that behind everything there was a mystical essence of mysterious droplets and the white light from which everything was created. I saw life as a journey, an excitement, an adventure. The excitement of it was overwhelming. My purpose was clear; I needed to find the magic droplets and the source of the one light, then all will be revealed and the rainbow will be mine forever.’ I chuckled as I drove. What a naïve idealistic young man I had been. I really had thought that there was a mystical quest. As I grew I had come to realise that it was no more than a childish dream. There was no white light. The mystical had been subverted by the power-struggle of organised religion.
The hedgerows and fields drifted past in an unseen haze. I was in my head; thoughts and memories collided as my mind restlessly sought resolution. Somehow my early dreams and present-day situation had become intertwined. As I neared the end they were coming to the fore. Perhaps there was time to return to those ideals? Perhaps I now had the means? But it meant giving up so much.
I remembered back to the years gone by, lost in memories.
‘You set off on your voyage as if you were the first. You ponder and decipher. You investigate. And with every breath there is magic. You tread the rising ground through the foothills up the well-trodden paths and marvel at the truths revealed by those that went before. For a period of time it all makes sense. The revelations keep coming leaving you ecstatic. This is the Arthurian quest, the reason the Sufi’s dance and why the hermit’s caves are always full. You glimpse Buddha smiling under my Bodhi tree as he contemplates infinity. Christ and Mohammed smile upon you. The colours are bright and dance through you, for you are full of light and your one eye sees through the Maya of our earthly existence into the realities beyond. These are reassuring, ecstatic discoveries. For in this one life you are here to learn the lessons, progress and achieve nirvana, to enter heaven and seek god in everything. You are alive. Infinity is wondrous. Life is endless possibility and the grail is there for the taking. You meditate on this. There is godhead within you and without you. Your mind likes these puzzles and delights in its understanding’. It was as if my younger self was talking to me, attempting to get me to share those early revelations. I’d enjoyed launching into those puzzles, seeking the ultimate truth.
‘Across the globe the temples, cathedrals and pyramids are testament to the power of the quest. The holy books are cryptically revealing. There are many routes up the mountain to the source of light and one must gather droplets of wisdom on the way’ I found myself smiling as the hedges and fields whizzed by unnoticed and all the old memories surfaced. My younger self enjoyed the idea of solving all those underlying questions. There had to be purpose and pattern. It was satisfying to seek that meaning. I smiled at the naivety of it.
It was human nature to wrestle with those eternal questions and satisfying to think that they would be answered in some future, higher reality. It was human nature, nothing more. People craved answers and sought security in the face of death. But some people grew up. I’d grown up.
‘But from the top of that rise you can see that the rainbow was the product of the rain’ I smiled to myself as I reflected on the past. ‘Reality is more mundane. The splendours of love, children and family take your attention from the light. Then there is the necessity of work; for all must be fed, clothed and prepared for their journeys in the mundane life of every day. You see the thoughtless ritual and slavish adherence to the word, the vicious sneer and intolerant hatred. The rainbow becomes entombed in the mist.
As a mature man I understood more clearly.
‘There was no quest. There was no journey. All the discoveries and wonders were products of the human mind which delights in solving riddles. That is our preordained pattern, instilled in our very DNA. That’s what has enabled us to prosper and survive; that and our intrinsic viciousness.’ I mused over the vagaries of life. Maturity and life’s lessons could have a sobering effect on the heady views of idealism. The history of religion strewn with callous burnings, beheadings, and indescribable torture, all in the name of god, could throw a different light on any rainbow. Nothing changed with human nature down through the ages. Modern technology merely enabled greater scale. Communication became better through the sharing of knowledge, first through the printing press then the internet. Technology enables more devious means of conducting torture and creating terror for the furtherment of the cause. I now knew that. My younger self had been oblivious to the power struggles, the manipulations. He had taken everything, so innocently trustingly, on face value.
Religious leaders set their Fatwa’s against writers and artists for blasphemy. Every atrocity was a punctuation mark. Tolerance had its limits. One could not tolerate intolerance. There was a time when one had to take a stance.
My mind was flitting, thinking, remembering.
This was a time of change.
The realisation: Religion – it is all politics.
The car seemingly guided itself down the country lanes, negotiating traffic and bends. My eyes watched without involving my conscious mind. My hands guided the wheels. My foot controlled the speed. All carried out with no vestige of memory.
‘The riddles are still there’, I thought.
‘The riddles are still important: what is life? What should we do with our life? Where are we going? What is this thing called death? Is there a reason for everything?’ I found myself nodding to myself. The questions were still valid. There were still philosophies to investigate. It was just that the answers that the great books and holy men had come up with did not hold any water. They appeared now as the naïve ramblings of a nascent culture emerging from primitive prehistory, trying to come to terms with its own ignorance. Their knowledge and explanations had been superseded. There was a great lack of understanding of how anything worked and everything was suffused with superstitious fear. Now we had science and greater understanding. Much of what our forefathers believed looks childish.’
‘And your heart says there is a reason and your mind knows there is not,’ and my smile grew wider.
‘From the top of that ridge you can see your life spread out before you like the patchwork of fields. Those were the years when we delighted in each other, when we were in love and surrounded with rainbows. Those were the years when we delighted in our babies and wanted for nothing more. Those were the years when we threaded our way through our jobs and sought to bring light into the minds of those we taught. Those were the colours we were chasing. That was the journey we were on. That was the quest. These are the friends we gathered on the way. These were the interests we absorbed ourselves into. This was all the purpose of our lives,’ it was satisfying to look back on and I now acknowledged it. Back then it had seemed better to believe in the mystery than confront reality. Reality is harsh. We are not psychologically equipped to deal with it.
‘From this lowly summit that has taken me sixty years to climb I can see how the babies turned into men and women, the job into a career and the quest into hobbies and holidays abroad. The colours are nowhere near as bright as they once seemed and the riddles are pointless. Even some of the friends have died along the way or got lost upon their own voyages.’
The lustre has gone,’ I felt defeated by it. This was not the early vision of the life I had thought I would be living. I was struggling to come to terms with this new reality and find a fulfilling way forward.
I had a life and a desire to live it to the full.
I had an opportunity. I should grasp it.
‘The world is no longer full of friends we haven’t found yet,’ I mused sadly. ‘Now it seems full of hostile bigots who are looking to impose their perspectives on anyone too weak to resist.’
‘From this ridge I can take pleasure in the survival of relationship, in the brilliance of our children, in a career that reached strange unsought heights’. Yet that was not how it felt.
‘This is the place I will stand to survey my achievements, assess my progress and reset my targets,’ I thought to myself.
I was in the time of change. A time of uncertainty.
‘This is a clearing on a lonesome hillside from which I can look all around, though my sight is obscured by mist and cloud and miscellaneous mountains I can still see lots of things clearly,’ I said to myself, full of newfound confidence.
‘I have had a life. I have seen and done more than most men could dream. I have loved and been loved. My life is not full of great tragedy. I have been successful and lucky.’
‘So let me now take stock.’ I knew there were big decisions to be made. I stopped the car in a layby overlooking the green hills of England as if in a trance. Evaluating. Assessing. I had much to think about.
‘My four children are healthy, successful and vital. They enjoy life and have so far brought me two grandchildren to love. They and their partners are family. My friends are dear and scattered over the planet so that we rarely meet but when we do it is warm and life affirming.’ I felt good. ‘My father died thirty years ago. I miss him but he had a good life if a little short. I am already two years older than he lived. Reaching the age of his death was a milestone. My mother is now old, frail and dying. But that is as it should be. She has lived a long and interesting life. She tells me that she cannot wait to get over the other side to meet her mother, to be renewed, healed and see the places she would have loved to have seen while she was here. She has not set her sights too high. She is thinking of places like China, Japan and India. She has no ambition to go spectrally sightseeing through time or sample the atmospheric wonders of Jupiter or Andromeda. Perhaps she is after saving them up for future lives,’ I found myself chuckling at Mum’s quaint view of death. She was certainly a character.
‘My two sisters, their partners and families are all well and prospering, though my youngest sister suffered tragedy with her first husband’s death from cancer at the age of twenty three. She has been the unluckiest. Likewise Liz’s two brothers, partners and families are riding the crests. We are not a family torn apart with grief. We have had our traumas but in general it has been smooth. There was much to be thankful for.’
My mind was running through a checklist.
‘As for me, well I am rude of health. My relationship has survived its ups and downs for 40 odd years and shortly we will be celebrating our fortieth wedding anniversary. I am not sure which one we will be celebrating. It could be the Buddhist ceremony, the register office vowels or the pagan gathering of clans. They happened on different days. I wrote forty years ago that the only thing that bound us together was love. That is all there ever has been. This fortieth celebration will not be the same wild, unplanned, festival of friends that our first one had been. I have already explained that the colours have somewhat faded. I suppose that this is where I remark about the depth of feeling replacing the brightness of the beginning.’ I pursed my lips in reflection, assessing life so far. It was good.
‘Liz says that the fact that our relationship lasted for forty years is down to a miracle.’ I chuckled again.
‘I am not so sure,’ I thought to myself. ‘It is different now from what it used to be. It is based on so much more shared experience. It has strength and resilience. There is depth, love and respect. We have journeyed long together as lovers and companions. That is something that has more value than most things.’
‘Then there is my career’ my mind went into a side-stall of disbelief. All those years ago when I was peering into the future at all those possibilities and wannabees, and here was the reality, a world away from anything my fevered teenage brain would have foreseen. Impossible. I had become my father in so many ways. All the things I’d rebelled against and I’d gone full circle. How did those ideals stack up now?’
‘I have had a thirty six year career. Oh, I never intended that. Career was a dirty word. My father had a career. He worked for the newspapers. He commuted in to Fleet Street and put in my time. He was successful. He worked for the man, brought home his pay and brought up his family in suburbia. He had little more pretentions than that. He found his life satisfying. He had risen from a working class background to take his place in the middle classes. His aspirations had been met. Of course, we did, after his death, discover the peccadilloes of his regular Saturday afternoons out on the town with the boys. He’d had his dash of seasoning. But I think he was eminently satisfied with what looked to me all those years ago a boring humdrum existence.
That had not been right for me. I wanted so much more. I wanted everything. I was greedy. A career was synonymous with a straitjacket. I desired the freedom to breath. I wanted freedom to explore. I wanted a quest. I wanted a bohemian lifestyle of discovery,’ I remembered those dreams and passions fondly. I smiled and snorted. They were the dreams that were going to drive me forward and change the world. Some world changing. We have to be content with a smaller canvas.
‘I ended up with a thirty six year successful career; which only goes to prove that you don’t always get what you strive for. My wondrous career was now coming to an end, that was the reality. That freedom of opportunity was beckoning. I could have the time to do some of those things I’d promised myself as an eighteen year old – except the reality was a little scary. I was now too old to do much of that stuff and I did not have long enough, but I had enough time left to do some of it.
‘I am standing in a clearing created by the chopping down of numerous trees, such as the writing of my resignation letter.’ I had written that letter and it was sitting in the drawer of my desk at work. All that remained was to decide when to deliver it.