Finding God in My Community

We drove across the Golden Gate Bridge talking about boys. A storm had come and gone; there was a rainbow overhead and a rainbow tunnel in front of us. “When we get to the other side of the rainbow,” my friend told me, “we’re only going to talk about God.” Both the real and painted rainbows were beckoning me: here’s your spiritual path, unfurling ahead of you.

I never talk about God. I never think about God. I have no relationship with God whatsoever. I don’t reject the notion outright like an atheist would do — that would be giving too much power to the idea. I don’t embrace it like someone who identifies with a particular religion or even considers themselves spiritual. I simply don’t consider it either way.

But recently I’ve had to start considering it. After years of crippling depression, numbing my pain with drugs and alcohol, I got sober. It transformed me. The depression has melted away: shapes are sharper, colors are brighter. When someone asks me what sobriety feels like, I tell them it’s like finally getting glasses after a long period of not knowing you needed them. Everything’s more in focus.

To keep substances at a distance, I joined Alcoholics Anonymous. I started going to AA because it’s cathartic to talk about my inner demons and reassuring to stand in a circle holding hands with other addicts. I kept going back because it worked. And one of the cornerstone components of AA is to establish some sort of relationship — any sort of relationship — with a higher power. Step Three, clear as an empty shot glass twinkling on a bar corner: “Become fully ready to turn your will and your life over to the care of God as you understand Him.”

That’s why I enlisted a particularly spiritual friend to take me on a journey over the rainbow to contemplate what this whole God thing might mean. That soggy afternoon, emerging on the other side of the tunnel, Marin County mountains lime green from the recent storm, she asked me if I had ever experienced anything like a higher power before. I thought about it.

When I was a kid I went to Catholic school for, as my parents would insist to anyone who would ask, the quality education and nothing else. We celebrated holidays at home with presents and presence and little else, a nod to my father’s Jewish roots and my mother’s Episcopalian childhood, but God never made an appearance either way. “Remember, it’s just brainwashing,” they would tell me when I asked them about the Bible stories we learned about in Religion class at school. I memorized the prayers for fun because I was good at memorizing things. I made the sign of the cross on my body like my peers did. I told myself it was all a good story, feeling sorry for my friends who were getting brainwashed.

Sometimes, late at night, I would ask God for stuff. I imagined some dude up in the sky who would give me things if I was polite enough, much like sitting on the lap of a mall Santa Claus. “God,” I would say, “please make sure Michael asks me to be his date to the carnival. Please don’t let me fight with my brother tomorrow. Oh, and God? I really want a new outfit for my American Girl doll.” If I felt like I needed something badly enough, I’d sometimes recite the Our Father prayer quickly under my breath, never stopping to consider what the words actually meant.

A few years later, I switched schools, and for the rest of my life, God scarcely came up. “I’m agnostic,” I’d shrug if someone asked. “I mean, I guess there must be something out there, but I’m not sure what it is.”

Did I ever pause to consider what that Something might be? Once as a teenager I fell off a waterfall and saw a flash of light behind my eyes as my body tumbled to the rocks below. When I realized I hadn’t broken any bones or even twisted an ankle, I got up and brushed myself off and laughed about it with my friends hanging out on the riverbank. Did I see God when I hiked up Tank Hill for the first time and peered down at the 360-degree view of San Francisco below? Or when I had really, really, really good sex? Or when I got my dream job at The Huffington Post? Those instances all just felt like me, stumbling through my existence, asking zero questions. Chance moments glued down one at a time to form the mosaic of my life.

At the same time, I’d dabbled in unlocking a deeper connection with nature. As our car snaked its way up Mount Tam, I told my friend about the time I took acid and went to Muir Woods and lost myself under the canopy of redwoods. The time I took acid and wandered through Golden Gate Park to the ocean, sequoia branches forming a halo around me until I was released into the sea. The time I took acid in Panama and couldn’t stop noticing patterns: the patterns of freckles on my hands matched the patterns of seagulls flocking on the shore matched patterns of constellations in the sky. The patterns on the rocks I collected in a mason jar that afternoon were among the most beautiful designs I’d ever seen. Resplendent in their intricacy. Then I sobered up and they were just a pile of rocks again.

My friend assured me it was possible to explore the mysteries of the natural world without the help of psychedelics. And doing so might bring me closer to forming a relationship with my own version of God. All I had to do was pause and pay attention to my surroundings. Cultivate a sense of awe and wonder at the beautiful, brilliant nonsense of it all. Awe at a jagged oak leaf or the fiery belly of a tree trunk lying on its side. Awe at the persistent flow of water in one direction and the way the flowers poking through the grass on the side of the road commanded attention, like little technicolor soldiers. Where did it all come from? We might never know the answer, but we can bask in its power. Awe makes you feel tiny in the face of it all, my friend explained, but gratitude connects you back to everything around you. Reminds you that your body and being is also a part of that beautiful, brilliant nonsense.

We pulled off the road and onto the base of a trailhead. The wind whipped my hair into my mouth and it started to drizzle again. The trail was still soaked through. I tiptoed my way in, shivering, and began observing everything around me. I tried to feel awe and gratitude for the river, so steady and cold. For the redwoods, so tall and unforgiving. For the rocks, crosshatched with iridescent moss. For the leaves sprinkled like confetti along the trail. I stopped to meditate at the river’s edge. I breathed. Everything smelled green. I didn’t know what the smells meant because I didn’t make them myself. The smells of a perfectly-formed ecosystem coalescing in that drizzly forest. I felt held. I felt safe.

As we emerged from the trail, I continued to feel held. I felt like I was part of a community. That harmonious ecosystem, meticulously designed down to the last worm and twig, was a part of me. Maybe that very community could form the backbone of my understanding of God. To exist in community with my surroundings. To exist in community with nature. To exist in community with my friends and family and loved ones. To exist in community inside the rooms of AA. Community: Quite literally, a power greater than myself.

Community has been keeping me sober. Community will continue to hold me as I progress along my journey. Mindfully cultivating a sense of community with the natural world will only serve to strengthen my sense of community with other people. I can be simultaneously in awe of it and grateful for it. I can practice devotion to it. I can release myself from the vortex of my own thoughts and extend outward into it. Give back to it. Whether it’s trees, the universe, or a handful of addicts in a church basement.

My friend and I drove back out through the rainbow tunnel and across the bridge and started talking about boys again. A community of two. Or maybe a community of three. Maybe this time, God was along for the ride.