Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sacred Places

As the daughter of two atheist-leaning agnostics, I grew up largely ignorant of organized religion. As a family, we were not at all tied to religious holiday traditions, church or temple-going, or any form of worship.  My mother would simply put it:  "I believe somewhere, somehow, there is a high power. And that power wants us to do good in the world."

I've always believed in that: doing good in the world, but thanks to many welcoming friends I have also been able to attend a patchwork of religious events, ranging from services in the Episcopalian, Catholic, Unitarian, and reform Jewish traditions, to a Bat Mitzvah and an LDS baptism.  I have attended talks by the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel, and read books touching on a religious spirit by Anne Morrow Lindberg and Ursula Goodenough (who, coincidentally, is a cell biology professor I had at Wash U).  There have been many times when the words of the pastor, priest, author, rabbi, or religious leader have touched me and rung true, and I am sure that whatever recognizable religious beliefs that I, as an atheist-leaning agnostic myself, hold within me have been instructed by those experiences. I am grateful.

When I was a teenager, wrestling with the ideas of my own beliefs, there was one place I felt completely at home with God. I always thought of this place when I needed some quiet within. I would imagine myself in a field, a wide open space, where I could run and run and dance and spin under a starry night sky. A place where I would feel close to infinity, close to the endlessness of our universe, so quiet that I could hear the harmonies of all living souls, interwoven and beautiful.  I still think of that place, and remember the feeling of flight. Of joy.

Now that I am older, I know there are two "real" places I can go to experience the same elevation of spirit:  one place for me is looking down the double barrels of a powerful microscope, marveling at the tiniest of all things: the beating undulations of a paramecium's cilia, waving in a delicate dance, the developing muscle cells of a zebrafish embryo allowing it to writhe and squirm for the first time, as if to say in delight, "I am alive! I am alive!", the formation of cell membranes around grasshopper embryo nuclei floating in a sea of protective and nourishing yolk. I have spent hours in a darkened room, alone with the fluorescently stained mitochondria of neurons, silently watching as they yield up the secrets of what they do and where they go. Hours more, looking at the wing vein patterns of Drosophila, celebrating how a single fertilized egg can give rise to such intricacy and majesty. And lucky I get to see it all unfold, in that quiet, dark place, and in so doing, ask hushed, respectful questions of Nature. And, on rare and wonderful occasions, get an answer.

My other sacred place is the California coast: the wild and rough coastline from Monterey Bay, around the tip of Pacific Grove, along Carmel Bay, to Point Lobos. We hiked the rocky coastline trails here recently, from shady Cypress groves to pinnacles of rock that looked out to the sea, the wind whipping our hair, the gulls crying forlornly, the seals on their rock barking in spirited cacaphony.

Sea Lions were on this same rock when I visited 19 years ago!

We saw the tiniest of distant whale spouts. Harbor seals sunning themselves on the sand. Brown pelicans stretched their wings while perched on a sheltered outcropping below us, while a sea otter bobbed on its back, diving and playing with the seaweed.

Harbor seals

In recognition of my affection of tiny things, we poked around in the tide pools along Monterey Bay, finding snails and colorful anemone awaiting their engulfment by the waves again.

The expansive and the microscopic, are all here, united and interwoven in a fabulous fabric of the wild and free. This is a magical place.  A place where even a tired, old cynic as I can now be at times can find space in the spirit to take flight.

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