Shortly before I first left Kentucky for New Mexico, my mother told me, “Women are born without histories, so go out and invent yourself.” I was eighteen and ready to “invent myself”; although whatever that meant I didn’t know at the time. I wanted to live in America, but in a place that was wholly different than what I thought of as “American.” I narrowed my choices down to New Mexico and Hawaii and flipped a coin.
I moved without knowing which city hosted the capitol or how to spell the city name where I would be living. I practiced writing it out many times. The trickiest thing about spelling Albuquerque was that so many people pronounced it “Alburquerque,” a surname closer to the original Arabic spelling, meaning a place of apricots. Sure enough, if there wasn’t a late freeze, Albuquerque had an overabundance of apricots.
People from elsewhere often asked about the magic and mystery associated with New Mexico, which really comes from the intense sun, very hot summers, and consistent state of dehydration. During the day, when most people are at the height of rationality, people in the high desert operate under dream logic, seeing faces in cliffs and gods and devils on mesas. It’s a striking and unsettling landscape. In addition to that, New Mexico’s land is remarkably diverse—with over 4,500 species living there, it’s the fourth most diverse state in the union. There are even jaguars still eking out an endangered existence in the south. But it’s also a land that is set aside by the national government to be sacrificed as a violence laboratory: a testing site for atomic bombs and a disposal site for nuclear waste. This contrast is unique and terrifying.
After six years, I missed the rain and green landscapes, so I relocated to Spokane, Washington. When I was there, I started to miss the cultural diversity that New Mexico has. Even though Washington and Kentucky are very similar, very “American,” I think that I actually suffered from culture shock.
Three things I noticed right away: sprinklers were turned on in the middle of the day, during it’s hottest temperature, and often watered more asphalt than greenery, which felt as an affront to all of the water conservation and caution I had known. A Mexican restaurant I dined at was not Mexican at all, but Costa Rican, and as such, the food was not spicy, and a dollop of mayonnaise intruded tacos where sour cream should have been. The third thing I noticed: people of the Inland Northwest were remarkably not diverse.
In Spokane, the people were white. Some were Aryan nation white supremacists, and most were overbearing about proselytizing. This culture was, in essence, my native culture: white and conditioned into Christianity. However, I’m not Christian. I am a fairly standard atheist, though I don’t like that term because it’s often pejorative and seems to imply that someone is looking for a fight, and I am not. Nor do I like the term agnostic, because it implies that there is some spiritual search and that at any moment, one may be converted with just the right argument or tragedy. These, at least, appear to be the colloquial understandings, what the folk believe if not a standard American Heritage or OED definition. I have not found a better word, though.
My relationship with Christianity is complicated and very confusing for other people, Christians and atheists alike, because I am culturally Christian. My mother did her best to understand various other spiritualties, Buddhism and aliens and iris readings and what-have-you New Agery, and tried to instill these in me. However, because of the place I was raised, spirituality became one of those things like how the children of immigrants learn the language of the street in a process of assimilation. On the playground, I was beaten up as a child for talking about how everything, such as the cedars and the field mice and the stones, was alive and we shared the same, one soul. Every childhood friend witnessed me at least once to try to save my soul from the waiting eternity of hellfire and brimstone. I went to churches to maintain friendships; went to church camp because it was the only kind offered aside from conservation camp, which regimented hunting and canoeing but which one was only allowed to attend once in a lifetime. Everything involved prayer—each meeting before work, each team huddle before a game. When I ate with friends, we had to say grace before every meal, and I still pause sometimes before eating, reflexively thinking that someone will say thanks or the Lord’s Prayer.
I can use church language because I am accustomed to that set of words. Some words, though, like “joyous,” sting me to the core. Another thing that stings is when someone says something about Jesus having given up on him or her. One of the hallmarks of a religion that emphasizes a personal relationship with its deity is that this deity can personally avoid, offend, forsake. Something meant to comfort people, this idea of one-on-one time with Jesus, can just as easily make people feel so abandoned and alone. But on the flip side, it’s brilliant—someone else is in control, someone wants to know you intimately, and they are on your side. I force myself to keep quiet because I do not want to disrespect people, ever, by disagreeing with their belief system.
In Spokane, I found staying silent increasingly difficult. One of my first nights there, I went out to a bar with a new friend. A man approached us and sat down without asking if he could join us. He sipped from his beer, making eye contact with me, then said, “You’re a dangerous girl, huh?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I was of average height and weight, fair and freckled, with hazel eyes and long, brown hair. I wore a T-shirt without any symbols on it and off-brand jeans. To my knowledge, nothing was less harmless than a twenty-four year old white girl from the country.
“You’ve got that wild hair. I bet you don’t brush it, huh? Long, hippie hair.”
Hippies are, of course, one of the most offensive things a red-county Christian can imagine. They promise marijuana, pixie-like promiscuity, and weird New Age speak about flower remedies and how everything shares the one same soul. While one can get away with that in the high deserts of New Mexico, where everyone is too thirsty and too busy scraping by, profiting a little off Southwestern tourists, who, let’s face it, are hippies come to the “Land of Enchantment” to learn about alternate spiritualties, shrink in a sweat lodge, and hear about how chamomile flowers can help you quit smoking.
I was offended. Not only did I have to brush my hair to keep it from tangling, especially in that drizzly climate. Not only did I recently have cut a necklace out of a dreadlock that formed within four hours. Not only did no one care about my hair in Albuquerque—“That hot?” they’d ask. “I suppose,” I’d say, “but it keeps my neck from turning red.”—not only all that, but my hair was now a two-pound mane, a sign of sexual selection, an affront to Christian family values, a symbol of returning to the culture war I matured in.
That man—who left our table shortly after accusing me—was only the first blow.
People around me started talking about their churches again. For six years I’d spent Sundays hiking, barbequing, hula-hooping, cleaning, star-gazing, and suddenly I found myself back in pews, gritting my jaws as I attempted to be polite. If you do not join in, or at least pretend, in Kentucky, you are persecuted. They used to mark people in my hometown to drive them out: the police would memorize your car and license plate and pull you over every time you were driving. The cops nearly ran over one “bad seed,” pinning a teenager to a brick wall with their squad car, which resulted in him losing both legs. Decent young atheists fled to North Carolina or Florida when we were in high school.
These churches in Spokane were different than Kentucky ones, primarily because they tended to be Lutheran church-planters rather than established Southern Baptists. By church planters, I mean that they would rent an empty space in a strip mall and try to appeal to a certain kind of congregation. It was okay to have tattoos and gauged piercings and wear leather to the strip mall church. Once they brought in enough people, and the congregation grew, they’d train a new pastor, rent a new building, and send half of the congregation to the next strip mall over. In this way, they multiplied and churches were everywhere—I was even invited to one that met in my neighborhood park, though my attention was divided between looking for four-leaf clovers and listening to a young, trying-hard-to-be hip pastor attempt to nail down Ruth’s subservience.
One Sunday, a young man who wanted to date—no, marry, according to the plans he set forth on the third date—me insisted that I start going to his strip mall church with him. I walked through the sliding glass doors with reluctance, eyeing the Thai restaurant and gin distillery storefronts on either side, daydreaming of alternatives. The new pastor was working through a series on the Ten Commandments and this week, he fleshed out ideas on what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain. He moved away from condemning the congregation on saying goddamn and OMG toward an idea that God is a brand, and when one wears the God brand (or the crucifix logo), one should behave in certain ways. One needs to talk the talk and walk the walk. Otherwise, calling oneself a Christian is a way of breaking this commandment.
I’d never heard anyone contextualize the commandment in this way, and I found it an interesting spin, perhaps something we could discuss over a gin and tonic after we were allowed to spill back into the parking lot. But I looked over and the young man who wanted me to bear him little Lutherans was gone. I waited until everyone took Communion, wondering what had become of my date. College girls were talking about backyard chickens and victory gardens. One guy was soliciting funds for a mission trip to Portland, where he planned to couchsurf with friends and generally hang without doing any activity that sounded remotely like community service. I felt like I was living a Garrison Keillor nightmare, in a place that time had tried and failed to improve. I edged to the parking lot and waited.
People trickled out and eventually he was among them. He was sorry, he said, he’d grown sleepy and went in some storeroom to nap during the service. I wished I had known of that option. I said I wasn’t going to come back to church, that I would be supportive, but Christianity wasn’t for me, that to me, it wasn’t worth it to believe in something that in spite of being all-powerful and all knowing can’t love you as unconditionally as a mother can.
He looked at me as though I were an imposter. “But you talk about God all the time.”
It occurred to me that he was right, that while I do not believe in Jesus, I do talk about God. It wasn’t really in a Christian sense—I recognize that the New Age people I know, myself included, will talk about the Universe, energies, karma, vibrations, essences, Eastern religions, etc. and the way they talk about them is basically how some talk about God. I just wasn’t using that particular noun. When I say something about the Universe, I can often say “God” instead and it means the same thing. Hell, sometimes I even anthropomorphize the Universe, and give it whims. After a couple years in Spokane, I had began speaking about having “good luck” and having “white trash luck,” which is pretty much the same thing as saying, “I am blessed” or, “God’s plan is mysterious.”
And I belt out folk songs with feeling, even though they often contain Christian themes and lyrics.
I had been trying to go unnoticed in Spokane, to avoid strange hair encounters impregnated with meaning and conflict, to avoid talking about the one same soul, my New Mexico New Age fancies on the preciousness of life. I never said I was atheist because I disliked the term, because the two conversations one should avoid are politics and religion, and in places such as Spokane, those are one and the same. I wondered if he was right; if I had misled him. But then he said, “I used to be the same way. Jonah and the whale. All those kids’ stories sound pretty silly if you think about them literally. But you’ll understand it later; you’ll come around.”
I knew I wouldn’t come around. I was born into someone else’s history, plodding along as naked and laughable as when I first arrived with rough-hewn smile and splintered selfhood. “Don’t think about the problem,” my mother would have said, “think about the solution.” Go out and invent yourself.
Amaris Ketcham is a honorary Kentucky Colonel and regular contributor to the arts and literature blog, Bark. She is still inventing herself.