Tea & Tomes

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Hi there, readers. It’s been a while. And one of the main reasons it’s been a while is that I’ve stopped traveling for the time being and picked up the biggest project I’ve tackled yet.

It’s called Tea and Tomes, and it’s a bookstore and writer’s residence I’m building with a few friends in New Orleans. We’re renovating an old shotgun double that’s been abandoned since Katrina, and building something beautiful: a cozy used bookstore and tea shop that we’ll be using to host writing groups, readings, and community events. In addition, we’re going to be hosting several writers at a time in a writer’s residency program. Writers who get accepted will be able to stay for a month for free in New Orleans, sleeping on cots among the stacks, having all day to focus on their writing, and having all night to explore one of the most beautiful and culturally rich cities in America.

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We currently have a half-dozen volunteers, wanderers and artists all, helping us work on the place. However, there are some things, like wiring, plumbing, gas, and AC, that we just can’t handle ourselves — and that, it turns out, is expensive. So, to make sure this project gets built the way it’s meant to (and to get my volunteers and I hot water, insulation, and heat for the cold winter months), we’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign to help defray the costs of construction.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, share this link, and consider giving a little to help make this dream a reality: http://www.gofundme.com/tomes

Thanks for your help.

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Edinburgh

The pirate walking down the street at two in the morning on an empty Edinburgh night was called Joel. He broke into a wide grin as he saw us. I, from my corner of a doorway, looked at him, analytically. Judging his value by the cut of his clothes, his stance, the way he talked, the way he moved. Already wondering what Shreya thought of him, already wondering how I compared. How he might see me. How he might fit in to my story. A web of thoughts to keep me safe.

“You’re my couchsurfers?” he said. “Excellent!” Australian accent. Long gray coat that billowed behind him in a striking way I was sure he was aware of. Long hair and a beard that made him look like Jesus with a headband. Bright, intelligent eyes, and graceful, agile hands that danced in rhythm to his conversation.

He worked at a hostel, it turned out, and we were going to be sleeping in the staff dormitory. He led us back through the streets and I let him and Shreya take the lead. They were already deep in conversation and I was happy to fade into the background, to observe from a safe distance.

His liveliness, his animation, made me uncomfortable at first, and the thought that he might be acting like this to impress Shreya made me want to dislike him. But it was impossible to dislike Joel. He was clever, with a love of a well-turned phrase and such a genuine delight in his own puns that it was impossible not to laugh. And he didn’t let me keep my distance, didn’t let me remove myself from the conversation; by the time we passed out onto the road across Waverly Park with the castle lit up above the old city on our right, he’d drawn me into talking too.

“So what do you write?” he asked.

“Not much,” I said. “Mostly science fiction.” I thought of this as understatement, a trick I had then to protect my self image. If no one knows the extent of what it is you’re trying to do, no one can judge you for failing to achieve it.

“I like to tell myself I’m a writer,” he said, “I even have a typewriter to prove it.” And he laughed, and because it was such a true laugh, we laughed with him.

Up the hill on the other side of Waverly, back down the other side, and the city came alive, bars on the tail end of business, drunks roving the street in stumbling gaggles, a line of Irish footballers pissing against a brick wall while singing fight songs.

“This,” Joel said, with the air of a magician moonlighting as a tour guide, “is the Cowgate. A more wretched hive of drunkeness and depravity, you will never find.” He laughed again. “I love it.”

To the right, past a red-lit old church converted into a nightclub called ‘Sin’, stop just before the bridge, and Joel banged his fist on a faded door set back in the shadows from the street. “Anyone home!” He was rummaging through his pockets for a key when the door slammed open and a bearded face with lowering eyebrows glared out. Regarded us for a moment.

“Oh, hi Joel. Thought you were a drunk taking a piss on the doorstep.” He held out a hand. “Damian.”

I shook it. He had a strong handshake. The old cowboys back home would have approved. “Tim,” I said.

“Come on in.” It was warm and comfortably dingy, with a tv in the corner playing staticky soap operas and a trio of Spaniards passing a joint on the couch. Damian picked up a mug and an ashtray. “Drink? Smoke?”

I felt the tensions in me, the discomfort, ease, just a little. “Sure,” I said. “That sounds great.”

It was late, and Shreya excused herself to go to bed. Joel had to work in the morning, so he followed shortly afterwards. Damian and I sat over tea and coffee, shooting the shit to start with. Then we started to talk religion.

Damian was an atheist. And so I talked, and kept talking, the story of my leaving my university and my faith coming out with less guidance than it usually did, less hedging, less presentation. And as I did, a fist somewhere deep inside me began to unclench. When I got to the kicker, the bit about the the faith and reason paper and the expulsion that followed it, I sat back and had to roll a cigarette to keep my fingers from shaking.

He considered me for a long moment, then laughed. “That’s fucking awesome.”

I started to laugh too, tension going out of my back like it was melting, and lit my cigarette.

“How long are you here for?” he asked.

“A month.”

I was wrong about that. That night as I lay in bed, just before sleep, I think I knew it. Edinburgh was already starting to feel a little bit like home.

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Safely at a Distance

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[You may have noticed the several-month gap between this post and the last. To my few remaining long-time readers, I apologize. To all of you new readers who got here via my guest post on Wine and Marble, or its repost at Love, Joy, Feminism, welcome! I’ve been working through a lot of the issues addressed in that post and haven’t, until now, felt that I had the context to write this story. I do now, and so, it’s time to move forward.]

Something had changed since my first visit to Scotland, at the beginning of the trip that culminated in the loss of my faith. During that time, everything was raw and personal and real. I was looking for answers and fundamentally open to them, talking with equal curiosity to priests and atheists, Mormon missionaries and Bedouin nomads. Everything mattered to me, and the stone was harder, the nights colder, the sun brighter, the smiles warmer; the anger of the anarchists in Athens lanced into my soul, and the oppression of the Kurds in Eastern Turkey filled me with compassion.

Coming back and writing the paper that got me expelled felt like the truest thing I’d ever done. It had finality to it. There, I thought, was the pivot on which my life would turn.

And yet, the world faded. Sounds became less sharp. Anarchism, equality, and freedom were not things to fight for, but to dissect at a comfortable intellectual distance. The passion leaked out of me through cuts I didn’t know I had.

Though I didn’t know it then, I had lost my purpose, lost the context for my life. The evangelical world was the only community I had ever known, and I had rejected it, and now, I was alone. I was lonely. I wanted to be loved the way I had been in my first year at PHC, at church, in bible studies as a teenager. I wanted to be accepted, and I no longer was. I told myself that I was a rebel, a nonconformist! and prided myself on it, but my pride was full of holes and built on sand.

I retreated into arrogance and separation. A veil fell across my eyes and across my voice and I no longer spoke the truth or listened to it. Every word was calculated, every action intended to project a message that said I have worth, I am valuable, I am respectable, please accept me while assuming that acceptance was impossible. I looked at anarchists as naive, at missionaries as gullible fools, at the Bedouin as primitive misogynists, at priests as the shills of a corporate religion.

None of them had the right to judge me.

So when I stepped off the bus in Edinburgh at two in the morning I hunched myself into a doorway and lit a cigarette and drew my knees up against my chest, lost in my own thoughts, with a pit in my stomach about meeting our couchsurfing host, thinking that maybe I’d rather just get a hostel somewhere, where I could escape if the questions got too personal, if my fragile persona felt too threatened. The memory of my excitement at my first trip, the passion of it, briefly crossed my mind and I suppressed it, leaving me with only a blind conviction in my own maturity and a lingering sense of unease.

Instead I looked at the stones, safe in their impersonality, and admired the beauty of the architecture. Shreya, shivering next to her bag on the sidewalk, was a world away. I had a crush on her. I liked her. I wanted her to like me, too, and so she was the last person I could trust.

Best to stay at a distance.

Then, the sounds of boots on cobblestone. I looked up, and down a dark and narrow street, silhouetted against the light of a dim streetlamp, came a pirate.

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The Shell Cracks

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What can I say about this first meeting? It was a beginning and an end for me, though I didn’t realize any of its significance at the time. At the time, I thought I had grown into myself, fully and finally, and that my trip around the world was just an interesting adventure and this meeting was just another interesting diversion along the way.

There is a girl standing in the sun across the busy London street, talking on her phone in front of the Shakespeare Pub. Her skin is the color of coffee and cream, her hair long and black, curling at the ends. She’s small and slim, with high cheekbones, and she’s shielding extraordinarily dark eyes against the sun as she watches the crowds. I realize, with a start, that this is Shreya.

She sees me at almost the same moment and smiles, waving. She hangs up as I cross the street, and we stand and look at each other for a long moment before she holds out a hand. “Hi,” she says.

I take it. “Hi,” I say.

“It’s so good to finally meet you,” she says. Her voice is deeper than I’d imagined, with an educated Indian accent, every vowel and consonant precisely enunciated. It strikes me; I’ve seen her picture before, but this is the first time I’ve heard her voice.

“Come on,” she says, nodding into the pub, “let’s get something to drink.”

We go inside and order something ice cold and full of fruit. As Shreya sits down across the table from me, I feel a sense of unreality; this person on the other side of hundreds of emails and online conversations, on the other side of the world, is solid, and right beside me.

“Wow,” she finally says, and laughs. “I can’t believe I’m finally here.”

I cast around for some response that will be clever and suave and wordly and stumble into a nervous “How was your flight?”

“It was fine,” she says, and looks out at the busy London traffic with a wry shake of the head. “It’s so strange,” she says. “I’ve been living in an organic collective for the last month. We grow all of our own food, and there are no cars.” She fixes me with a serious gaze, thin eyebrows drawn together over dark eyes. “It’s very wonderful. You know?”

I swallow. “Sounds like it.” I feel a sense of frustration–why are my thoughts so sluggish and disconnected? The collective she describes is just the sort of place I want to learn more about. Is the only response I can muster really, it sounds like it? Irritated, I brush my self-consciousness aside and allow my curiosity to draw me out of my nervousness. “What kind of food?”

As we talk, I relax, and she loses some of her serious veneer, laughing more often, cracking jokes in the casual way we always did online after we got to know each other. She’s as interesting in person as she is in our letters, and within a few minutes of talking I’m engaged enough in the conversation to lose some of my awkwardness. We talk about feminism in India, about philosophy, and about cats; she’s a fan, and a shameful addict of the online variety. With several hours to wait before our bus to Edinburgh, we walk out into London, across the Thames, through the park. The sky is a high clear blue, and the sun is pleasantly warm in the way it only can be in places where the status quo is rain. In the center of a sprawling grass field is a marble Buddhist shrine with a child playing on the steps, and Shreya laughs as she watches her. Her laugh is as musical as her voice, and I find myself smiling to hear it. “She’s so beautiful,” she exclaims, waving to the young mother the girl runs to.

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We talk and talk. I am enjoying myself immensely, but inside, even as I try to ignore it, to deny its very existence, I’m checking her against a thousand different points, comparing her against the idealized image I have in my mind. I do not consciously think that I am attracted to her or that I hope she might be attracted to me. That kind of self awareness is beyond me. Instead I temporize, I tell myself that I am looking for human potential and competence, I am looking to spend time only with people who I respect and that this is what I am judging her for. It’s easy for me to lie to myself this way. I look for the same things in women that I do in men, after all, so why should my interest have anything to do with her beautiful eyes or her playful laugh? No, I look for intelligence, independence, competence, mastery, people who will challenge me and teach me in their particular areas of expertise. All academic of course. She does well, and my ideal vision of her grows stronger. I think, this is a woman who is always strong, always passionate, always active in the world, never passive. I think, this is a woman who couldn’t be otherwise.

We find a patch of grass on the bank of the Thames and sit down to watch the city sprawl across the river. The muddy water churns and glitters in the wake of slow fat river barges plowing their way up from the Channel, and fishing lines dangle like spiderwebs from the high stone bridge. Everything is perfect, and I would like to sit here in this spot all day taking in this new city with this new and interesting girl. But we have a bus to catch, an appointment with Edinburgh to keep. I take a breath and check my phone. “It’s time,” I say, and she nods. The shadows of the city lengthen as we cross the bridge and plunge back into the busy urban sprawl around Victoria station.

Our bus, puffing exhaust in a last patch of sunlight, is cramped, smelly, and hot. We have to go all the way to the back before we find a place to sit, and when we do, it’s directly over the rumbling engines. The heat rises up in waves off of the floor.

We continue to talk as we roll north into the English countryside. Hours pass and as the sun sinks, the bus slowly empties and we sink into a companionable drowsy silence. An hour or two south of Newcastle the sun finally sets and Shreya nods off, leaning her head on my shoulder to sleep.

My body tenses under the weight of this unexpected contact, and my mind grasps desperately for the correct interpretation, the appropriate response. It’s a small thing, a friend leaning on your shoulder as they nap across miles of uneventful distance between here and there. For me it is a thing that exists almost without context; the little I have been taught tells me that this kind of intimate gesture on her part calls for a definite and direct response.

The religion of my childhood and young adulthood taught that social interaction between genders is dangerous and must be regulated. The rigidity of interpretation that my religion allowed was such that any kind of touch between a boy and a girl beyond a simple hug automatically developed romantic undertones. But I am no longer religious. I no longer believe in these rigid interpretations and rules.

I grew up in Montana, where concepts of personal space fit with the sprawling scale of the landscape; friends stand in loose groups, a few feet between each other. Men are expected to be stoic, unemotional, distaining the comfort of human touch. But I am no longer just a boy from Montana, I am a traveler in search of new horizons and the world out here is different, wider and more intimate all at the same time.

I tell myself the truth: that a kindly girl who thinks I am safe and a friend has chosen to use my shoulder to sleep on. It is a gesture of trust, but not sexuality. Slowly, carefully, and with great concentration I relax my muscles, one at a time, and try not think about anything but the rolling scenery outside my window. Still, this cocktail of suppressed craving for touch and my lingering notions of strict social rules plays with my emotions as the miles fall away, making me happy, flustered, nervous, all at once, while Shreya sleeps on beside me, oblivious to it all.

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The Tide

And so the story begins again. Not a sequence of places, photographs, and detached historical anecdotes, but the real story. The story that is making me me. The story that is as close to truth as anything I’ve written.

There is something about the hulk of a container ship that matches the vastness of the ocean around it. I stand at the bow, watching the gray waves roll, smelling the salt of the north Atlantic. It’s cold, and quiet in the way only the deep sea can be. I’m thinking about a girl. She’s very beautiful, very smart, and I’ve never met her in my life.

Her name is Shreya, and she wrote to me in the summer of 2009 after reading my blog. She’s a writer too, and we’ve sent countless letters back and forth over the two years since. I can see from her letters that she is passionate. Every sentence, every word, is personal to her. Every line is a quest in search of the universal. Her’s is the call of a single voice pleading for understanding, and maybe, also, the voice of a generation of Indian women asking for more from the world then they have ever been given, asking only what it is every persons birthright to receive. She has written to me in burning pages alight with intellectualism. Her words, my responses; over the two years of our correspondence I’ve become fascinated with her. She’s Indian, feminist, outspoken, eloquent. Until recently my fascination was safe, at a distance: she lived in Calcutta, I moved between Virginia and Montana, half a world away.

Now, I’m going to meet her. She’s got a literary scholarship for a month-long seminar at the University of Edinburgh. She tells me this by email.

“You should come and visit me,” she says. “You’ll be in Europe too, then, right?”

From the lofty intellectual tower where I stood then I would not have been able to name the feelings that filled me when confronted by this idea. I would have said, “I was all a buzz” or, “I felt jittery.” Looking back, I can say more. The thought of meeting Shreya in real life fills me with anticipation and maybe a little anxiety. It’s like a dream asking me to meet up in the real world. I feel potential, I feel excitement, and I feel the secret unnamed fear that hides at the begining of unknown and undiscovered paths. What I feel at the idea of meeting her is perhaps best described as a feeling of frantic, alarming, uncomfortable, joy.

“Yeah,” I say, “I will.”

So we make plans to meet at the beginning of August, 2011, in London. Thinking about it, standing at the bow of the Hanjin Palermo somewhere in the north Atlantic, I am terrified. Why did I think this would be a good idea? What exactly have I gotten myself into? I feel comfortable with certain kinds of risk — intellectual risk, physical risk. I enjoy it, it doesn’t even cause me a tremor. But this is different. This is emotional risk. I’ve seen her picture, on Facebook and on various writer’s bios, but I don’t really know what she’s like outside of our written conversation. I’ve never even heard her voice.

Attraction flickers in me, but is immediately repressed by my mind, working overtime, thinking of a thousand possible approaches and a million possible outcomes. The actual Shreya, who I’ve grown to like as a friend, becomes just a backdrop to these mindgames. Shreya, the girl that I know from letters, is the source, but around and on top of what I know of her my mind begins to construct a fantastic romantic ideal that grows bigger as I move slowly accross the sea. Along with my constructed ideal, I am inventing, for my comfort, countless theoretical obstacles in order to make her unreachable. In order to keep me safe.

I am an introvert, repressed by my religious upbringing. But these attributes, though perhaps obvious to outsiders, remain stubbornly out of my vision because I am also arrogant and blind. I have created a self-aggrandizing fiction where mine is the right way to be. Anything that conflicts with this notion is not ignored; I can no longer ignore things when I don’t want them to be true. Instead I intellectualize, recategorize and redefine in order to preserve the idea that I am whole, complete, and perfect just as I am. In my very few romantic relationships, that block in my mind held me back, kept me from connecting, focused me on only myself rather than the new thing that a tangle of two people can make. Other girls I’d been attracted to, I’d kept at a distance, building the same kinds of blocks that I was now building with Shreya even before we actually met each other face to face.

Not that I knew any of this, then. Instead I’m thinking in terms of keeping my options open, being realistic, any explanation I can come up with to sidestep what I’m really doing, which is being afraid.

On the fourteenth of July, we make port at Antwerp and disembark. I spend a week there, under a gray drizzle of rain, enjoying getting back into European life. I’ve started writing a young adult book, longhand so far since my laptop’s getting repaired.

Then, Bruges. It’s a beautiful town, with dark cobblestone buildings and canals criss-crossing it, the old medieval wall lined with windmills and grassy parks. Swans are everywhere, the result of a Rennaissance-era political punishment where Maximilian of Austria’s assistant, Peter of the Long Neck, was murdered by the citizens, and Maximilian saddled them with caring for creatures that would remind them of Peter in perpetuity. I’m distracted, unable to engage in the same way I did on my first trip, when every moment was a discovery and every new experience took my breath away. My meeting with Shreya is now less than a week away.

Still, the hostel I am staying at in Bruges is a good one and the ever-changing array of travelers offers a chance to get out of my head a little. One night I meet a very attractive girl from New Zealand. Caitlyn is a writer, and from the little work she shows me, a good one. I have never been able to engage with women on a flirtatious level and the idea of doing so makes me nervous and uncomfortable. Instead I rely on the concept that people should meet me on my own intellectual ground. Caitlyn is articulate, and interesting, and engaged to be married in just a few weeks. We talk all through the night and I am enchanted. Still, somehow, I’m relieved that she was unavailable. When she’s gone, I notice that relief and wonder about it. Am I so afraid of connection that this meeting represents a threat to me rather then an opportunity? Again, my mind devolves into hypotheticals, a sort of faux-introspection that is endless and self-focused but doesn’t ever scratch the surface of what’s actually going on inside me.

I spend two days in London before Shreya arrives, just waiting, anxious, excited, wondering. I try to explain it all away, telling myself it’s natural, that it’s just who I am. But my meeting with Caitlyn keeps cropping up, and I circle over and over around some barely grasped connection. I wonder — despite all of my attempts to avoid the question — is there something wrong with what my mind is doing?

Then the day of Shreya’s arrival comes, and I pack my bag. We’re getting on a bus to Edinburgh a few hours after her arrival, so I head down to Victoria Coach Station in order to confront my fear, greet my ideal, meet with and talk to a good and respected friend.

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Past is Prologue: Part 4

The most crucial stage in any young apostate’s story comes in the months following deconversion. The initial act of coming out as non-religious is exciting, full of the kind of adrenaline that makes the world bright and clear, that rattles your nerve and makes you feel alive. This settles into a steady revolutionary glow, the simple happiness of nonconformity and rebellion against tradition.

But, like the chemistry of any relationship, that fades too, and you are forced to confront reality. Humans by and large need community, acceptance, and consensus in order to believe anything. If you remain in your original religious environemnt, community and consensus will not be found, and your new identity will begin to crumble. These days, the apostate will seek solace on the internet, browsing atheist forums and watching videos of George Carlin and Ricky Gervais til the early hours of the morning. But at the end of the day, the internet is just voices in the dark, unable to provide the kind of personal engagement we need to believe and to belong.

Because no matter what we rationalists claim, giving up faith is not a simple matter of evidence and logic. Apostasy is also the rejection of an identity, often a core identity, an act equivalent to renouncing your citizenship, or deciding to never speak of Joss Whedon again. It is casting yourself loose from old social ties in the hope that someone, somewhere will catch you.

It hurt, and I was scared. I’ve learned since that the one thing I’m afraid of most is being afraid, so I hid, from the pain and from the fear. I buried myself behind walls of intellectualism. I pretended that the pain and fear were irrational, that they didn’t exist at all. I fancied myself a rare true rational soul in a world of emotion-driven and irrational people, failing to realize that ignoring one’s own emotional state is as irrational as is ignoring any other empirical evidence.

And yet the pain got through. I lost myself in countless religious arguments, feeling the need to prove myself over and over again to people who would never believe that my viewpoint was valid. I watched the hell out of George Carlin and Ricky Gervais. And despite the fact that my family and most of my friends accepted my change, I still felt harried, felt like I no longer belonged.

I needed space and anonymity, an environment where I could introduce myself as a nonbeliever and be accepted as one, without spending hours explaining how and why I’d changed. I don’t know if I realized that consciously, but I came up with a solution nevertheless: a plan, hatched six or seven months after leaving PHC, to travel around the world without flying. Consciously, I thought it would be a grand adventure. Unconsciously, it was an excuse to get away, and stay away, until I was ready to come back.

I rented an apartment in my hometown in Montana to drum up the work I’d need to make it all the way, and divided my time between that, old friends, and reading. The structures of my old mind continued to collapse, leaving nothing behind but dust.

I was entering the deep woods, and though the clear paths were already fading, the only way I saw was forward. In June of 2011, I boarded a container ship bound for Antwerp. Steaming out of the Charleston harbor, dolphins leaping in our wake, I felt a crack in the emotional impassivity I’d cultivated, felt some of that that old shivering excitement. The wind was stiff and salty, and everything was changing.

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Past is Prologue: Part 3

Remove the foundation and the building must crumble. I could feel it going within the first week of my arrival back at PHC. New students and their families swarmed across the campus, as idealistic, faithful, and naive as I had been three years earlier. Daily chapel, which had been a chore before I left, became a lie: I would sit silently in the back corner while my fellow students sang, unable to participate, a sick pit in the bottom of my stomach.

I no longer knew what I wanted from my life, but the dread of another year of playing pretend was increasingly unbearable. I quietly withdrew from my classes, getting as much money back as I could. Then, one late night, I wrote an essay. In their last two years at PHC, students are required to write a “Faith and Reason” paper, a personal understanding of how rational thought and religious faith can work together. In my essay, I wrote that the honest application of reason to the world I saw made it impossible to continue to believe. Faith and reason, I wrote, could become mutually exclusive. They had for me, and I had chosen reason.

There’s a peculiar feeling I get when I write something I know to be true. My hands shake, my head buzzes, and my throat goes dry. Maybe it’s because true things come from a deeper place than the surface, or maybe it’s just because true things are dangerous. At three in the morning, staring at my heretical Faith and Reason essay, I felt that shake, that buzz, and knew this was a turning point. Publishing it would mean making my private change public to the world, would mean telling my friends and family, the vast majority of whom were Christian, that I no longer fit.

I made a decision then that has remained a central part of my approach to the world ever since. I had been hedging my bets, keeping my options open. I spent so much time maintaining my bridges that I never found the time to actually cross one.

If I wanted to move forward, I had to burn those bridges. I had to make graduation from PHC, and a life of pretending to a faith I could not hold, impossible.

I published the post. By the next day, I had over seventy comments, some sad, some aggressive, most concerned and prayerful, a few, from non-religious friends I’d made while traveling, enthusiastically supportive.

A week after that, my boss in the PHC tech department called me in and asked me to collect my things. He and my fellow co-workers regretted having to let me go—we’d all genuinely enjoyed working together—but PHC had a statement of faith, and denying that faith ment expulsion.

And just like that, I was cut free, no longer a student, no longer employed.

Messages continued to stream in. One condescendingly informed me that my reasons for leaving had been addressed in full by various theologians, and gave me a book list to read. Another agonized that Satan was winning the war for my soul. My mother called and said that, while my decision made her very sad, she still loved me and always would. One wedding even came of it, the result of an all-night prayer vigil turned romance; my apostasy is currently responsible for at least one brand new human that I’m aware of.

The emotion was too much. I was pulled between congratulations, condemnation, disappointment, encouragement, sadness, worry. I felt numb, like the world was going mute around me. I retreated into my apartment, where, surrounded by my books, I continued to read and learn and analyze. The decision to question my faith now blossomed to encompass and undermine every cornerstone of who I was, a process of deconstruction that would reach its zenith three years later, in the port city of Brighton, England.

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Past is Prologue: Part 2

I’m sitting on a musty old train rattling south from Paris to Florence. A priest in a black robe is sitting across from me. “It was God,” he says, “who brought us together.”

The priest is spry, in his late middle age, Australian. There’s a glint in his eye, and a friendly argumentativeness that came from a previous life as a lawyer. He’s on his way home to the Vatican; I’m on my way to Corsica, to do some hiking. It’s a long trip. We talk about politics, and we talk about religion. I’m still protestant, so he’s trying to convert me.

“If you accept the authority of the Bible,” he says, “you have to accept the authority of the Church. Scriptural canon was decided by church fathers — scripture can have no authority unless the men who chose it did too.”

Studying history in a religious school meant that I had studied Church history, but always from the perspective of the modern American evangelical church. We saw ourselves as the spiritual successors to the first-century Christian churches of the east Roman empire, not operating under any one authority, but allied as part of the body of Christ. The unified hierarchy of Catholicism was anathema to the ground-up democratic impulse of the American church, and I’d never seriously considered it.

I leave the priest in Florence, after he makes me promise to visit him when I get to Rome, but I think about my conversation with him for a long time after that. Something bothers me about what he said, and at least part of it is due to a nagging suspicion that he’s right.

When I was a child, the world was a simple place. Heathens controlled much of it: the Muslims in the middle east, the atheists in Europe, the communists in China and Russia. The church, my church, was the scrappy underdog in a global spiritual war that raged through the whole of human history. We were the candle in the dark, the city on the hill, the last glimmer of light in a dark and turbulent world. The story of the human race was one of villains and heroes, of good fighting evil, and I was on the side of the good. The grown-ups I knew scoffed at notions of moral relativism, of gray areas, and of multiple viewpoints; history, as they were so fond of pointing out, was His-story. America, despite the attempts of the liberal intellectual elite, was the world’s last bastion of Christian values and freedoms, and the Evangelical church was going to take it back.

And now here was a priest who believed that the Catholic church was that last bastion, with better reason than any I’d heard in an evangelical church. How could that be possible? I knew from my own studies that the history of Catholicism was rife with war, corruption, and division, and that orthodoxy was often decided by which faction had the biggest army. It all looked like the work of men fighting for power; could these all too human conflicts really be the work of a God larger than time itself?

God grant me wisdom, and the opening of my eyes.

I’m in Belfast, in an upper-floor apartment down by the wharf. Two separatists are talking to each other in Irish while a loyalist makes fun of them from the couch. My host is neither; he’s part of northern Ireland’s green party, and he supports independence both from Britain and from Ireland proper. Despite the political divisions, all four are good friends.

“It’s not as much an issue with people our age,” the loyalist admits, “but you meet an older bloke in the pub, and the first thing he’ll ask you is, are you Catholic or Protestant?”

“Why does that matter?”

“Because if you’re Catholic,” he says, “you’re separatist. And if you’re Protestant, you’re a loyalist.”

I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart when I was four years old, again at five, and twice at six. I guess I wanted to make sure it would stick. I grew up thinking I’d had a choice then, that I could have just as freely decided to be a godless heathen. I must have had a choice. If I hadn’t, what was the point? I could accept pain and suffering as the result of human free will, our decision to sin rather than follow God’s plan. Even natural disasters, like the great earthquake that broke Voltaire’s faith in a just God, could be traced back to the sins of Adam and Eve. But to work, the choice to obey or disobey had to be truly free, truly individual; surely that choice couldn’t simply be an accident of birth? So I had faith. Faith like a child, that I was free to choose, and that I had chosen correctly.

But here in Belfast, religious faith was political identity. It was impossible to be Catholic and support English rule, or be Protestant and support independence. How could religious choice be free if choosing meant picking sides in a fight Christ had nothing to do with?

God grant me wisdom, and the opening of my eyes.

In a run-down hotel in the desert in northern Syria, an old bedouin man is showing me how to tie a keffiyeh, a checkered head scarf, while a dozen or so others drink tea, smoke, and make laughing comments in Arabic.

“Like this,” the old bedouin says, wrapping the keffiyeh in a loose turban, “Bedouin. Like this; city arab. Like this, Yassir Arafat.” He wraps it tighter, pulling one loose end across my face so only my eyes are visible. “Like this: Shahid.”

“Shahid?” The word sounds vaguely familiar.

“Yes,” he says. “You go Israel, and …” he mimes aiming an AK-47 and pulling the trigger.

Then I get it. In Arabic, shahid means ‘martyr.’ To most Americans, it means ‘terrorist.’

They say that God is in the details, but it is in the details that God seems most absent. If you know only the broadest outlines of history, it’s easy to add a Christian interpretation to it: Rome rose because God needed it to spread Christianity, and Islam rose because Satan wanted to stop it. The Crusades were just another proxy war in that eternal campaign, as would be the war for American independence, the second World War, and the Cold War. The Israeli state is on God’s side, because God gave the land to Israel.

But in the details, Christian kills Christian, Muslim kills Muslim, and every atrocity the world has ever seen can be attributed to greed, to hunger, to vengeance, to fear, and to blind devotion. In the details, the grand narrative of Good and Evil fades to one of a few sparks of humanity in a sea of petty desire. That multitude of everyday evils is all the more terrifying for its normality; the holocaust was everyday racism writ large, the crusades everyday greed, the horrors of the first World War everyday blind, unquestioning obedience.

In the details, the land on which Palestinian Arabs have lived for nearly two thousand years was torn from their control by the British Empire and handed over to the Jews emigrating from Europe. The Palestinians were left without control over their identity, without representation in the Israeli government, and at the mercy of powers beyond their control. The ancient pagan gods took sides in human conflicts, but how could the Creator who breathed life into the entire human species favor one nation over another?

God grant me wisdom, and the opening of my eyes.

I’m sitting at a taverna in the Exarcheia district of Athens. The buildings here are covered in graffiti condemning the 2008 police shooting of a young unarmed boy, an event that kicked off the first riots of an unrest that has continued ever since. The beauty of the paintings stands in stark contrast with the ugliness of the moment they remember.

“My grandmother,” says the girl sitting across from me, “smuggled anti-fascist newspapers under the Nazis. She would put them in the basket of her bicycle and ride past the soldiers every day. None of them thought to stop a twelve-year-old girl for questioning.” The girl stubs out her cigarette and lights another. “My father was in the university when the fascist tanks smashed through the gates.”

“And you?” I ask.

She shrugs. “I’m only myself,” she says. “What can I do?”

My religion taught me that God has a plan for the world, that He appoints kings and sets authority in its place. Obedience, obedience, obedience: we are sheep, the Bible tells us, who need a shepherd. One might interpret this as a command to distance ourselves from a sinful world, but all this seemed awfully convenient for the Roman emperors under which the Christian new testament was codified. If all authority is divinely appointed, who were the Greeks to resist the Nazis? Who were the Irish to want freedom from British rule? For that matter, who were we Americans, upstart colony that we were, to start a war over taxation without representation? I wanted to tell the girl that she should do something, could do something. But who was I?

God grant me wisdom, and the opening of my eyes.

“They burned our fields, our houses … they moved us to the cities, where the Turkish police could watch us more easily.” I’m talking to a Kurd, in a small town in eastern Turkey. His eyes have deep lines under them, and he takes a long, sad drag on a cigarette, then leans forward, confidentially. “I have a radio under the shop,” he says, “for Kurdish news. The Turkish army, it tries to block it, but it can’t.”

I take a sip of my tea. “You can’t listen to Kurdish radio?”

He shrugs. “The Turks, they have a Kurdish station. But it is only histories of Ataturk, in Kurdish!” He tells me more. Over the past few decades, leading Kurds, or even those who just speak out, have vanished. In the past, Kurds have been killed for their desire for independence, and today, the Kurdish political party is banned from Turkey’s parliament. I ask the man how to say “I love Kurdistan” in Kurdish.

Ez hezdikim Kurdistanim,” he says. “But you must be careful. It is illegal to say in Turkey.”

The shop’s door open, and a portly man in a police uniform walks in.

“My friend!” the shop owner says, full of false good cheer. “Can I help you?”

“Just looking,” the policeman says. All the police in eastern Turkey are Turkish, not Kurdish. The shop owner goes to get more tea, and the cop sits down next to me. “What is he telling you?” he asks me, in a low voice.

“Just asking about carpets,” I say.

The cop wanders out, and the shop owner brings me a new glass of tea. “He’s gone?” I nod.

The shop owner smiles, and pats me on the shoulder. “Fuck him,” he says.

The most terrifying thing history has to teach is that evil, true evil, is as everyday as breathing. The Nazis were, for the most part, normal men and women. Just, like the bombers who opened their bay doors over Hiroshima, following orders. People aren’t evil; people are obedient. People believe what they’re told. If a charismatic, popular leader like Ataturk decides to nationalize the Turkish people, committing atrocities against the Kurds and Armenians in the process, the people raise no objection, for they have faith: faith like a child, that they are free to choose, and that they have chosen correctly. Evil is not some grand scheme on the part of an immortal fallen angel. Evil is the accident that occurs when human greed and human stupidity collide.

But for all that, we can sometimes be brilliant. In the midst of vast inequality, a teacher in Roman Palestine tells his followers, “give everything you have to the poor, and follow me,” and the world changes. In British India, an old man takes salt from the sea, and the world changes. On a bus in Alabama, a black woman on a bus says no, and the world changes. In the midst of a cultural struggle between two empires, a man sets foot on the moon, and we, as a species, catch our breath and glimpse something bigger than politics and the fear of war. If our greatest evils are human, so are our greatest victories.

I ask myself: where is God in Kurdistan?

Grant me wisdom, and the opening of my eyes.

I am in an apartment full of light. A warm mediterranean breeze blows in through the open doors, carrying the sounds of a local theater performing in the courtyard below. For months now, I have been asking questions, framing them as ever more desperate pleas to a silent God. Instead of His answer, there is only the clamor of a thousand human voices, all claiming to be His representative on earth. God is Love, says one; God is Just, says another. God forgives, God punishes, God builds up, God tears down, God giveth and God taketh away. God is on the side of the English and the Irish, on the side of the Turks and the Kurds, on the side of the Israelis and the Palestinians, the reason to kill and the reason to stop killing. The God of these humans is many things, but above all he is Convenient.

I close my eyes and lean on the wall. Where is the God that can make sense of the whole of human history? Where is the God for whom that history is an eyeblink? Where is the God of galaxies and supernovas, of black holes and continental drift? Where is the God whose truth is universal, whose love is free to all? God, I ask, where are you?

The answer is silence. And, in that moment, my eyes open. God didn’t make us in his image; we made him in ours. We made a God so we could fight for him, so we could kill for him, so we could speak for him. We made a God to forgive us of our sins and forgive us our trespasses. We made a God to hold our hands in the dark. We are children made tiny by a universe beyond our comprehension, made insignificant by time measured in the lifetimes of stars. The answer is silence, because Truth is silent; as soon as it is spoken, it becomes fragmented, subjective, human.

There is no God but the universe, and no one is its prophet.

I step out onto the sunlit balcony and take a deep breath. The weight of my doubts, my fears, my guilt, lifts, and I am light. I am no longer a soul fallen from paradise, or one of the elect in a doomed world. I am simply and merely human. I am free. I look up at a perfect blue Aegean sky, and make my last prayer to the silence: Thank you.

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Past is Prologue: Part I

A man in the Outer Hebrides asked me why I traveled. I shrugged. “Adventure, I suppose.”

He shook his head. “That’s not what I mean,” he said. “What are you looking for?”

I said something that sounded nice but wasn’t true in any true way. I’ve been thinking about that question ever since. How did this journey begin? I left the States last July, in a container ship bound for Antwerp. I left Montana two months before that. A journey is a story, a segment of life with a narrative arc. Its beginning is up to the storyteller.

The story of this trip begins in rural Montana. I was nineteen, idealistic, fascinated with life, and very religious. I wanted to write. I wanted to change the world. I’d done very well on my standardized tests, and I had invitations from schools all over the country, including some that would have let me get my degree without ever having to work or take out a loan. Despite that, one school stood out from the others: Patrick Henry College, a tiny Christian liberal arts school near Washington, D.C.. It advertised itself as an evangelical alternative to the liberal Ivy League schools, with classes in Greek, Latin, philosophy, history, and political theory, and it catered to home-schoolers like myself. Ambassadors from the school attended home schooling conferences all over the country, and at a conference in Idaho one of them told me that PHC’s stated goal was to train the nation’s next generation of leaders.

A thrill ran through me. I’d secretly fantasized about writing brilliant essays that would show people the truth of God’s love, the meaninglessness of atheism, and the way forward from a war-torn twentieth century. If any school was going to give me the training I needed, PHC was it.

I told my parents and my church that I’d made my decision. My high school Greek teacher slapped me on the back, telling me that I could help push back the liberal agenda, and an old woman at church called it “going to West Point for God’s Army.” I was full of pride, ambition, and nervous excitement. On the cross-country flight, my first alone, I felt like the future was laid open in front of me.

The PHC campus was built on a green spread of land surrounded by rich fields and D.C.s ever-expanding suburban area. Its buildings were red brick and whitewash, with names like “Monticello” and “Founder’s Hall.” A full-length portrait of Patrick Henry adorned one wall of the main building’s entrance, and the cafeteria was full of students wearing modest dresses, high-belted pants, even a few suits. There was none of the party atmosphere I’d heard about at other schools, just dedication, vision, and faith. I was immediately entranced.

My first semester only served to confirm my opinion. I made friends and had conversations about philosophy and literature I couldn’t even have dreamed of back in rural Montana. Back home, kids talked about getting to the top of a construction crew or becoming a manager at McDonalds; here, they wanted to write books, serve on the Supreme Court, run for President. George Bush had mentioned the university by name, and several students served as aides in the White House. What we were doing, I thought, was nothing short of revolutionary, and the camaraderie that seemed to create was intoxicating.

I decided on a degree in literature. Classes presented secular thought through a Christian lens; we asked if Jesus could be seen as Nietszche’s ubermensch, if there were Christian themes in Hemingway, and if the Athenian god of Socrates could be the God of the Bible. I was exposed to more new thought in that first year than I had been in the entire rest of my life, and I devoured all of it.

The glow faded a little as the months wore on, of course. Some of the political students, the ones who wanted to be President, had a tendency to parrot talking points rather than discuss issues, and nearly all of the other literature students seemed to want to be writers more than they actually wanted to write. I ignored that, assuming the same would be true in any university, maybe more so. Life settled into a comfortable routine. I woke up every morning at six to write for two hours on a science fiction mystery novel I wanted to publish, went to chapel, where we’d pray and sing and read scripture (attendance was mandatory), then go to classes until evening, when I’d head to the local coffee shop to draw or read or study. On Saturdays, I’d sometimes go hiking on the nearby Appalachian Trail, and on Sundays I’d go to church. I went home for Christmas, and though it was great seeing friends and family back in Montana, I looked forward to coming back to PHC.

In February, a new coffee shop opened up in town, and the path of my life shifted. A good friend of mine got a job as a barista there, and so I switched allegiances; the coffee was better, and I had a bit of a crush on her. I was talking to her one day about the book I was writing, in which an artificial intelligence takes over a spaceship. She was nodding along gamely, then said that actually a friend of hers had just been telling her about AI, and I should meet him. She shouted across the shop to an older student sitting and reading in a corner. “Stewart!”

He gave us a flat look. “What?”

“Tim was just talking about AI being used as a terrorist weapon.”

Stewart’s face lit up. “Oh, yeah!” he said. “Seriously, with all the crazy AIs in movies? Why couldn’t a government do that on purpose?”

He came over and I outlined the plot of my book, which moved on to world-building whole science fiction scenarios. When the coffee shop closed, we moved outside and talked for another few hours. We met pretty regularly after that. Stewart was a philosopher. He could read Latin and cite obscure German thinkers, had a soft spot for controversial thinkers like Marx and Thomas Payne, and enjoyed causing trouble in conservative classes by defending things like socialism and reincarnation. He had a sixth sense for bullshit, too — one of the would-be presidents would be talking, Stewart would give him a look, and the president would trail off with a nervous laugh. That look said more than you’re not making sense; it also said, you should know better.

It was Stewart who first seriously made me question PHC. Late one night in one of the dorms he told me about the Purge. It had happened the spring before I arrived, he said. Several professors had been fired for placing too much value on secular thought. One of the kids had complained to the administration, and the administration had sided with the offended student.

I objected, defensive. PHC was supposed to be a bastion of learning, wasn’t it? Surely there was more to the story than that. If Christianity was really True, couldn’t it stand up to a little merely human philosophy?

Stewart laughed. There was a strain of real classical education in PHC, he said, but it was under fire. The founder, a lawyer by the name of Mike Farris, had envisioned the school as a sort of training camp for conservative politicians and pundits. The reason the likes of Fox News and George Bush were so enthusiastic about PHC wasn’t because it provided a rigorous intellectual environment for young Christians, but because it served as a well-oiled cog in the Republican political machine.

I’d heard such claims before, but hadn’t listened. Now, it troubled me. My talks with Stewart were starting to change how I thought. He had a tendency to challenge preconceptions, to question things most of my fellow students simply took for granted, and to engage with ways of thinking contrary with our own. I looked up to him, and we were becoming good friends. Part of that friendship was learning to think critically.

Over the summer, Stewart and I decided to get an apartment. This was actually seen as a questionable move by many; off-campus students had a reputation for breaking the rules, for not living up to that straight-laced, clean-faced ethos that had so impressed me about the university in my first days there. PHC didn’t allow alcohol, smoking, or sex — not just on the campus, but by any student anywhere during the school year. Moving out of the dorms was, in a sense, choosing to live outside of the parental overview of the school’s administration.

In class, I was growing dissatisfied with the literature track. There were only three professors, and only one of those was mildly competent. The others showed a genuine lack of understanding for anything that deviated from the Christian worldview; we read Siddhartha, Herman Hesse’s depiction of Buddhism, and my professor told us right up front that he couldn’t even conceive how anyone could believe that “all is one.” A student raised his hand and mentioned that the Christian idea of the trinity is that three is one; the professor shook his head, shrugged, and said “That’s different.”

I was no longer at ease; I was becoming what I’d known in my first year as a “cynical upperclassman.” I worked on the school’s IT staff, having failed to publish my novel, and went to class, but otherwise I was disengaging. I never went to chapel, and only rarely attended the school’s social events. Most of my time was spent in our apartment, where we had walls of books, no television, and dinner parties every week with other off-campus students. Many of them were older than me, and some were outright critical not only of the school, but of the Christian community as a whole. These criticisms bothered me and intrigued me in equal parts; I remember reading articles and watching videos late at night, asking questions that only felt right to ask in the dark. They seemed wrong, somehow, like Thomas asking to touch the wounds of Christ, but my ability to resist them was weakening.

Unhappy with literature, I switched to history. The professors were much better, and for a moment that gave me a glimmer of hope and a renewed respect for the school. One of my favorites was a reservist Marine chaplain who loved, like Stewart, to cause trouble. He was in charge of teaching the introductory history classes to freshmen, and would often bring up the anti-religious sentiments of founding fathers like Jefferson and Franklin, the terrors of the Inquisition, and the moral gray areas of historical narratives that were usually, in the Christian view, black and white.

He challenged me to think. And then he was fired. PHC had hired a celebrity apologist whose preferred method of dealing with a non-Christian belief was to ridicule it for five minutes, then dismiss it. My professor objected, saying there was more truth to be had than just what was found in the Bible, and that the faculty had a responsibility to engage with secular thought, even where they ultimately disagreed with it. He was told to pack his things.

Though I was still a Christian, and still politically conservative, my faith in PHC was gone. I continued to learn, but started reading more on my own. Late night talks with my roommates and classes with professors like the chaplain had ingrained in me a need for the truth I could no longer deny. I remember a hot afternoon in beginning of my third school year — I was reading Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek when a summer thunderstorm rolled in. The rain pounded down in a sudden rush, the thunder crashed, and I had a glimpse — just a glimpse — of the incomprehensible vastness of the world I lived in. I was overcome, and something inside me broke. God, I prayed, I can’t do this anymore. If you’re out there, you know the whole truth, and you won’t object to me trying to find out what it means. Help me. Grant me wisdom, open my eyes, and give me the courage to follow the truth, wherever it leads.

That prayer became a mantra, and the world changed. Something in the sermons at my church rang hollow, and I stopped going. Republican rhetoric seemed calculated and self-serving, and my school’s administration seemed authoritarian, overly parental, bent on creating obedient, unquestioning copies of itself. I needed space.

“I’m going to go somewhere,” I told my roommates. “Take the whole summer.”

Stewart thought about it and nodded. “Do it,” he said.

At a writing convention as a teenager, a literary agent had told me that his favorite city in the world was Damascus, the capital of Syria. That name had resonated with me, and lain dormant throughout my university years. Now, it came back. I looked at tickets, then decided it’d be more interesting to fly to Ireland and get to Syria overland. I took the next semester off to work and save.

I don’t know if the weight of that last week before leaving was real or if I’ve added it in my memory, but my goodbyes had a solemnity to them. Driving to the airport in May of 2009, I was still a Christian, still conservative, and still fully intending to finish my history degree at PHC.

All of that was about to change.

 

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To Care

A girl I knew in Edinburgh told me about a conversation she’d had with a mutual friend. “I like Tim,” the friend had said, “but it’s a pity he doesn’t have any passion.”

I laughed, but it bothered me. Passion? I had passion. I’d spent hundreds of hours writing, hundreds of hours reading books of history and philosophy and science. What was that, if not passion? There were issues I cared about, if never enough to do anything about them, people I loved, if never enough to stay around.

I tried to bury the question in my mind, lest it disturb my calm, but the girl wasn’t the sort of person to let buried things lie. She talked, passionately, about emotion, about feeling, about human experience. How she could look at a painting or hear a song and cry, how she could exult at a friend’s love story, how she could lose someone she cared about more than anyone in the world and still choose to keep feeling.

I’m passionate in a different way, I thought. But I never talked about anything the way she did.

I left Edinburgh, and we went our separate ways. I still felt content, but sometimes, when I allowed myself to think about it, I would wonder if maybe that emotional steadiness wasn’t really more of an emotional flatline.

So I began to pay more attention. Travel is, if anything, a series of introductions. Every few days you’re a new person to someone else, and every few days you have to describe yourself again; an interesting exercise, if you’ve never tried it. In my steady, analytical, emotionless way, I began to notice a pattern: religion.

I was raised as an evangelical Christian. I attended a religious university. In my third year there, I renounced my faith. I was expelled and fired from my position on the school’s IT staff. I received emails from some friends saying they were praying that Satan would lose the battle for my soul. One hinted that I was possessed. Another approached me in tears and asked me to reconsider. Most simply broke contact. Back in Montana, my mother tried to hide the pain my decisions caused her, reiterated her love for me, and tried her best to get me to come back. In her mind, I was choosing not to spend the rest of eternity in heaven with her, my father, my brother, and my sisters. I was choosing the dark, and it terrified her.

It should have devastated me, but instead I detected no more than a few minor tremors in that emotional flatline. I bolstered my position with rationality and philosophy, lost myself in words and histories. Irrationally, I thought myself rational: if my decision is right, I said, than I shouldn’t feel wrong.

And yet, in conversation after conversation, hostel after hostel, the topic came up again. Sometimes I’d get drunk and rail about the harms religion causes, sometimes I’d talk, snidely, about the atrocities committed by the Christian emperor Constantine, falsely assuming that one can dismiss personal faith by means of impersonal history. Other times, I’d talk about my trip, assuming that I was only in it for the challenge of circling the world without flying, assuming that my journey and my loss of faith were unrelated.

Throughout, I sent letters back and forth with the girl I’d met in Edinburgh, rambling missives that took hours to write. She demanded more of me than simple intellect and description. She wanted to know me, the me that was beneath the carefully constructed arguments and intellectual positions. She drew things out of me that made my hands shake over the keyboard, things I nearly erased more than once before sending. More and more, what I’d taken for contentment and emotional stability looked like deep-seated denial, of compulsive insulation from any pain I might feel or cause in others. And more and more, what I’d taken for a purely geographical quest for adventure looked like running away.

The truth has become uncomfortably clear: I am a coward. I pushed the boundaries of my intellectual and physical comfort, thinking that doing so made me brave, but shielded myself from any of the emotional consequences. I maintained a careful distance from everyone who ever tried to be close to me, and thought that to think accurately was all the meaning I would ever need.

I’m a king in a castle, so afraid of a breach in the walls that I’ve just built more and more and more until I can’t even see out, let alone find my way. Left to my own devices, I would most likely keep on as I have been until I no longer believed there was a world to see at all, that emotion was weakness and that a flatline was happiness.

Fortunately, I haven’t been left to my own. Late night hostel conversations, rainy-day introspections, and book-long letters with a girl I met in Edinburgh are all doing their work. I’ve stopped building my walls, and started looking for ways to knock them down. The flatline is showing signs of activity. I’m sometimes unhappy, sometimes angry, but sometimes happy, sometimes excited, sometimes entranced.

And maybe, just maybe, I’m beginning to understand what it means to be passionate: I’m starting to care.

 

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