Last summer, in San Francisco, I spent an afternoon with a minister named Michael. Michael was a fortyish white guy with appealingly grey hair. He had that aura of robust health that people without vices retain into middle age. In a bright café in the gentrified Tenderloin, Michael spoke to me in chipper tones about his ministry. For a few years he had been running a church out of a rented room in a music school; before that, his wife had followed him on missionary trips to Thailand, and Alaska. Michael had the aggressive confidence of an actor hosting an infomercial; everything he said sounded like he had practiced it beforehand, in a mirror. But he hesitated when I asked how he had become a Christian. “I mean, I wasn’t even looking for God, really,” he said, and his eyes lowered to the voice recorder on the table between us. I spoke to Michael for over an hour that day, but this was the only moment during our interview that his demeanor dropped its studied enthusiasm. It was clear he was speaking off script: he sounded unsure, confessional. “It was like God just barged in. It was something that I couldn’t ignore.”
That past Sunday, this hadn’t come up. During his sermon he spoke about the need to seek out belief, to cling to it. A handful of parishioners sat drowsily in their stacking chairs, looking bored. At the time, it had seemed clear to me that Michael was a hack. He projected a rubbery false confidence and lacked charisma. The whole performance had the painful, nervous quality of a middle-school talent show. I pitied him.
But in the café, when Michael told me about the experience of a God he couldn’t ignore, I caught myself nodding. It’s been years since I believed in God, but when I did, this is how I tried to explain it to people: that it wasn’t a knowledge you had to try to cultivate or cling to, that instead it invaded your brain, that it made itself too obvious to deny. “I just want other people to feel what I got to feel,” Michael said, staring into his espresso. “I want to bless this city.”
The first time I came to San Francisco was on a family vacation when I was a kid. My parents rented a house somewhere in Marin County, and drove into the city with my brother and me for long walks up and down the hills. My parents’ marriage disintegrated that summer, and though I understood exactly nothing about it at the time, the whole trip was suffused with that atmosphere of tense ominousness that is specific to unhappy couples. This may be why, on our long walks though the city, I lagged behind my parents. One of the only clear memories I have of that trip is of walking alone, some 30 or 50 paces behind my family, when a pretty teenage junkie reached out and grabbed my forearm from the spot where she’d been sitting on the concrete. “Hey! Hey! Little virgin lady!” She shook my arm like a rubber chicken and then let go, trembling with laughter, and collapsed back onto her boyfriend’s shoulder. I was maybe seven.
At the time, virgins were becoming important to me. Somewhere along the line I had become an intensely religious kid, in a way that went well beyond the tenor of my upbringing. My mother was a Catholic, and at the church she took us to every Sunday I would genuflect ostentatiously and sit rapt in the pew. I memorized psalms and the lives of the saints, and took to carrying a cheap plastic rosary in my jeans pocket, next to my lunch money. In the school cafeteria I would whisper grace with my hands folded on the plastic table before I would open my lunchbox.
Nominally, I was into Jesus. But my real fascination was with the Virgin Mary—not just a saint but a special saint, special even to God, and a woman, too. Mary had given birth to the baby Jesus when she was just 14, an age that was close enough to my own to seem real. God looked out for her. Her mom was past menopause when Mary was born, so her very birth was a miracle. In some scriptures, when Mary was giving birth to Jesus, she and Joseph happened upon a date tree right as her contractions started, and the dates made her pains go away. I would talk to Mary in my head at night when I tried to fall asleep. I asked her to protect me from sins, though it was still unclear to me what those were. I prayed that she would make me a saint, like her.
Believing in God can feel like having an imaginary friend, or like keeping a secret, or like being in a club. But as a kid, when I believed most strongly and most purely, it felt like being recruited into a conspiracy. Everything I saw became a signal, a piece of evidence: from the days when I’d see some printer paper or a girl’s sweater that was the same color blue that I imagined Mary’s veil to be, to the way that my father’s bedroom closet kept that slightly sour smell of a man’s body even months after he left. It wasn’t so much that I was looking for belief. It was more like God wouldn’t leave me alone.
By the time I next went to San Francisco, I hadn’t been to church in years. At that point I was grown up, and living in New York. For all of the usual and boring reasons, I felt very uncertain about my life there, and there came a point where I needed to escape. This is the kind of circumstance that makes California appealing. (I always wonder what real Californians do when they want to run away; what place offers them the promise that California extends to everyone else? Where do they fantasize about, where do they threaten to move to? It’s certainly not New York.) I quit my job, sublet my room to a pair of German tourists, and left to spend the summer in San Francisco.
When I got there I installed myself in a cheap room in the distant Outer Sunset, a neighborhood so sleepy and devoid of young people that I felt certain I would not meet anyone the entire time I stayed there. I expected that I would spend the summer feeling lonely in the productive, monastic way that I thought I needed. Instead I met a beautiful and charismatic woman almost immediately, and fell in love with her.
The Outer Sunset is on San Francisco’s far west edge. It’s far away from the trendy neighborhoods and main commercial strips, and consists mostly of drab, single-story residential buildings, painted in dusty pastel colors. If people go there, they go for Ocean Beach. A strip of soft white sand along an almost perfectly straight coastline, it is remarkably free of cigarette butts or crumpled old McDonald’s bags, and it has a view of the Pacific where the sunsets are ridiculous. The woman and I used to bring her blue blanket there in the evenings and surreptitiously hold our beer bottles underneath it, out of sight of the stern park rangers who patrolled the beach in matching white windbreakers. “If they see us with beer they’ll make us share it,” the woman said one of our first nights there. She spoke with the kind of delighted mischief that little kids have when they want to tell you a secret.
On the beach, I told her about my old religion, about seeing God everywhere, like a secret code. She told me about getting sober. Early on, she’d been one of those precocious adolescent alcoholics. Arrests, etc. She’d first encountered religion in A.A., but thought addict Christianity was phony, conspicuously imprecise. “I stopped going to church after a while,” she said. “They call it ‘submitting to a higher power,’ but what you’re really supposed to do is cultivate a fear of yourself, and then worship that.”
One night, a fog rolled in. The beach got cold and emptied out. We watched the people marching towards the pavement, carrying plastic folding chairs and surfboards under their arms. When they were gone, we pulled up the blue blanket and climbed into the dunes to fuck. I remember watching her above me, the blanket draped over her head. This image stuck in my head for years before I understood why I found it so striking: with the fabric falling over her hair, she had looked like she was wearing a veil.
Sometime in the years after my parents took us to San Francisco, it became clear that my father was an addict. This isn’t the kind of thing that people speak frankly about to children, but as a kid my brother and I learned to decode adult euphemisms. In the parlance of addiction and self-help, it’s considered useful to receive lessons in your own frailty, to “hit rock bottom.” The idea is that we can only be liberated once we come to understand our own weakness. But the lessons in weakness that my father received during those years are ones that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I am still looking for the beauty in them.
Later, my father became interested in Buddhism. He took to meditating in a lotus position on the floor, and practiced a ceremonial kind of calligraphy on scrolls that he would hang around his house. He was still in and out of different rehab clinics. A few years ago he moved into a house near a monastery upstate, and devoted most of his time to studying there.
A.A. and N.A. have an approach to addiction that implies a degree of ontological determinism: once you are an addict you are always an addict, always shaped by your addiction, always to consider yourself in recovery. So when my father tells me that he’s sober now, I know that I am supposed to take this with a grain of salt. But in his first years at the monastery he gained weight, and the tremor left his hands. He doesn’t exactly look healthy, but his voice regained some of its old confidence. He meditates for hours every day, and constantly signs up for classes and work shifts at the monastery. Honestly, for years the whole thing creeped me out. It’s hard not to think that he’s just become addicted to something else.
In Buddhist study, students are asked to meditate upon individual questions or paradoxes, called koans. In theory, the koans are supposed to progress, getting more and more confounding as a student comes closer to enlightenment. But my father has been meditating on the same koan for over a decade. The question is this: the Buddha says that all things have Buddha nature. A student goes to his teacher and asks, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” His teacher, who we are made to understand his very smart and not wrong, says, “No.” It is my father’s job, in his Buddhist practice, to reconcile this. He can’t do it.
When my dad first told me this story, I had a hard time suppressing my laughter. It seemed stupid and silly for a grown man to devote himself to this sort of question. There’s a cartoonlike childishness to the allegory; the dog, wag. But I want happiness for my father, and this question is something he has invested very seriously in. It might be its paradox that is keeping him alive.
Once, at dinner, my father recounted something that a monk had said to him. “The real trick to happiness is realizing that your pleasures don’t mean anything. They’re not leading you anywhere.” I can get the wisdom of this idea, and I can understand the value of what it’s done for my dad. But this is where my understanding ends. Any god that demands you renounce your joys is one that I can’t get behind; among other reasons, it’s why I would be a terrible Buddhist. When I was a Christian, what I liked best about God was the pleasure he gave me, the delight in seeing his intention everywhere, the power of knowing that I could escape into him. There was a smug, secret joyousness to the faith I had then. I loved having the power to turn on my happiness.
Even before I’d ever done drugs or drank or fucked someone who was bad for me, I knew this power was dangerous. The kinds of joy you get from these things are short lived and magnetizing: you can wind up needing and pursuing them even if you don’t expect to. This is why, I think, there is something of a discipline to both religious faith and drug addiction: to maintain either of them you have to ritualize your own frustration, like a kid at a piano practicing her scales. You have to continually hold out hope, see yourself disappointed, and offer your hope up again.
In Crack Wars, Avitall Ronell called this phenomenon of ritualized failure, “floating amid fragments of residual transcendency.” I think that’s pretty spot on. I’ve tried to discipline myself out of this habit, tried to learn to enjoy something and then give it up. I’ve renounced drugs, people, God. It’s never really worked, at least not for long. When I think of the sweetest parts of my life, like the charismatic woman with the blanket over her head at the beach, the idea that my pleasures have no meaning is one that I find difficult to accept.
I don’t remember exactly when I stopped believing in God. As I grew up, I got tired of wrestling with the questions of suffering and evil and unfairness; I got the sense that being the kind of person I wanted to be would preclude me from believing in God the way I used to. But honestly, I think that part of it was because the high wore off; religion no longer made me feel the way I wanted to feel. But I never stopped missing my belief in God, and I never stopped sympathizing with the idea that it’s almost reasonable that there must be one. The author Marilynn Robinson has said that she feels her faith in God reaffirmed every time she picks up a copy of Scientific American. I get it. After all, the basic claim of a lot of belief is that the world is too beautiful to be an accident.
In the years when I most fiercely believed, there was no consolation that I lacked, no threat or hurt that could terminate my happiness. If you have never believed, try to imagine the joy of knowing this secret: that every minor or ecstatic pleasure, every small or grandly beautiful thing, is all part of one plan, one vast conspiracy with the sole aim of making you know that you are not alone.
How did people without religion cope without it? How did they face the drab mundanity of a world without God? I’m still not sure, even now that I’m one of them. Back when I had religion, I used to pity these people. They seemed like suckers. When you really believe, it means that the thought of God always has the power to pull the chord on the window blinds, and spill brightness onto everything. I have tried to think of this capacity as something other than God, but it loses its power when you have to call it by another name. If faith and hopefulness are addictions, at what point do you have to admit that you have a problem? How dangerous is it to let your desires become a god that you can’t help but believe in? I know better, now, and it’s not even exactly what I believe, but I still fight the urge to call every hopeful feeling “God.”
Eventually I stopped going to the beach with the charismatic woman. I left the Outer Sunset and went back to New York, and for a while I was living with a man there. In the mornings I would pull my laptop onto my knees to work while he snored hairily next to me. This man was a committed atheist; the kind who will argue with you about it. Whenever someone mentioned religion, he would become defensive. So when I felt the oceanic feeling, the sense of something warm and outside of me that still occasionally invades my senses, I would never mention it to him. Still, there were times with him—when we were driving or fucking or shopping for groceries—when a peacefulness would come over me, and something like certainty felt breathingly close.
Photo by Polaroid SF.