Conversion Story, Part II • 8 May 2007

As I was saying, I keep practicing astanga because it gives me a body. In a layered, dynamic way that makes me curious and more alive. It’s a low-maintenance thread of ecstasy one can pick up and run with for years, without a dealer or tryst-schedules or the baggage of a charismatic religion. (Ecstasy may seem precisely the wrong word for embodied presence, but Milan Kundera makes a nice case for the term.)

I grew up in a prairie on the eastern slope of the northern Rocky Mountains—on a ranch in rural Montana. My mom was and is a therapist for people labeled emotionally disturbed (but strange and violent pathologies do sometimes grow out in the empty country—this is the world where Matthew Shepard died strapped to a fencepost), my dad a preacher. We were off every grid from plumbing to television, but—even in the idyllic years before meth—never bored.

Rather, I learned early to find transcendent experiences by generating natural rushes in the out-of-doors: my dad was a sometime wilderness guide and our family were serious climbers, skiers and cyclists. I loved to go into the miles of contiguous cow pastures and run, sometimes for hours. My dad, whose hyperactive, mongrel Irish constitution I mirror, had a tendency to shout in joy to God in the middle of some empty snowfield in the Beartooth mountains or atop a peak miles from any sign of civilization except a USGS seal, but for me the ecstasy of running around outside had no connection to Christianity. [And I didn’t understand until later that, for my dad, God only revealed himself (sic) where there was no sign of society, which for him symbolizes only corruption, shallowness, commodification.]

Though I shared in my dad’s corny gratitude for natural beauty, and relationships, and being alive, “God” was something that scared me and made me think on my supposed sins. Being intensely alive was a way to get out of that God, who mostly showed up at church camp and late at night in my basement bedroom.

Where God was really upon me—in church—I wasn’t one for expressive charismatic devotion (or displays of piety)—so I didn’t give my folks’ communities much by way to measure my spiritual commitment. But I did show a strong will, uncommon bookishness, a penchant for logical argument, and a bit too much curiosity—all qualities that signaled “Godly leadership” in someone of a different sex, but the stirrings of Satan in mine. By early adolescence, as the culture wars heated up nationally and white-peoples’ evangelical-ism became apocalyptically politicized and fearful of “spiritual warfare” lying just below the surface of daily life, their congregants and friends started letting me know that I was an outsider, and alienation from that whole lifeworld reinforced itself bit by bit.

Very afraid of becoming a prairie wife, and with some stupid luck on a compulsory pre-SAT (administered in part so the military recruiters would know where to assign people?), I broke out of the ranch’s split-rail fence as a charity case to a school near Portland, Oregon. I studied philosophy, and added a journalism degree with the intention of becoming a foreign correspondent like Graham Greene (he was a fitting illusion for that time in my life). I took a year of Hebrew, enough to read the Old Testament with the greatest awkwardness, and enough to see a difference between the bullshit of Leviticus and the beautiful truth of Ecclesiastes, and to start to get suspicious of the Apostle Paul and his come-lately religion-making projects. I found my friends and an eventual spouse among the artists and contemplatives outside the college’s Greek mainstream, worked in a winery-brewery and later a newspaper, for the little that the scholarship didn’t cover, and drank hard enough to engage semi-meaningfully with Hegel and do those Montana origins proud. More interestingly for today’s question, I took long bikerides and runs out into the wine country as a matter of course, without asking why I did it any more than I reflected on the runs in the back pasture… while my delicate, creative, chain-smoking friends shook their heads at my non-beatnick ways.

My parents told me to join an evangelical church in town and I nearly did, but then realized I’d be faking it. So I told them I wouldn’t, in language so strong I still regret it a decade on; and for the next four years the little relationship we had was angry and resentful. This severed my last connections with “legitimate” spiritual practice for several years, though I was finding a lot that was transcendent in the human spirit and in the collective effervescence of humans gathered together in, well, solidarity.

This is because I went away to Central America, both in college, and on a postgrad Fulbright, and was born again politically amid studies of US-funded insurgencies and absorbing what was left of the cultures of solidarity in El Salvador and Nicaragua (Cuba, not so much). Liberation theology was instrumental and fuzzy at the edges, but it was an emotional match and goddam were the marimba music and the mural-covered houses of worship evocative….