I Need A New Word for "The Universe"
Did you watch this video sketch Amy Schumer did last year on the subject of “The Universe?"
The YouTube description reads: "Bill Nye unveils new information that suggests that the universe has the ability to communicate directly with white women.” When it came out, I thought it was a perfect work of comedy. It was smart, true, mean to people that we all agree it’s ok to be mean to*, and it had Bill Nye in it. And also, I recognized myself in it, which is the secret ingredient to true laugh-out-loud comedic gold. Maybe I wasn’t using The Universe to explain why I couldn’t watch “New Girl,” exactly, but I was using it to mean “God.” A lot.
In New Orleans, where I met the best people I’ve ever known, I ran with a circle of people — mostly women — who were not afraid of the concept of magic. I had a friend who was a card-carrying dream therapist; my roommate Hannah regularly spent up to $45 to get her tarot cards read in the Quarter; dinner parties often included hours-long conversations about moons and tides and stars and how all those things were affecting our individual states of being on earth. I, however, was skeptical.
As a child, I was very into God. God was my Jonathan Taylor Thomas: I bought God books and magazines and wrote in a God diary. I went to church, where I understood nothing that was said except that there would be doughnuts afterwards. The way I was able to understand God — and I can’t blame my mother for this, because this is not what she taught me; I think it probably came from watching family programming on television — was that he (or He) was the answer key in the back of the puzzle book. There was no earthly question that could not be answered; in fact, all the really hard ones (“Why do we exist?” “What happens when you die?” “Who decides which humans will be fat and which ones will be skinny?”) had the same answer: GOD.
There is nothing more comforting than having an answer key and knowing that it is right. This is at the center of all religion: An explanation exists, and it is available to you, and as long as you believe in the explanation unconditionally, you will be safe. I picked Catholic God because that was the one at St. Claire's where my mother took me on Sundays. (And they had doughnuts! And Christmas! And a fun summer book fair!) But as I got older, I started feeling political. I joined the Gay-Straight Alliance; I passed out condoms outside health clinics with my school’s Activism Club. The leaders at St. Claire's — prairie-skirt-wearing women who knew what Catholic God liked and disliked, and what he (He?) required of me — explained that my politics weren't gelling with God. I had to make a choice. I was self-righteous (read: I was a teenager), and I decided to the church in the middle of my confirmation training.
I went from Catholicism to Unitarian Universalism. (My then-boyfriend’s parents, who took me to the UU church in the first place, said that Unitarians “believed in question marks.”) In college I decided to declare myself an atheist. Atheism was attractive to me because it allowed me to hold onto the belief that I knew everything and that all my answers were right.
And so in New Orleans, when the people I shared most of my time with talked about horoscopes and palms, I was skeptical. Hannah — who was (and, spoiler alert, still is) my best friend — told me that she felt I was being judgmental about her belief system. I didn’t say anything! I argued. Yes, she said, but I can tell you don’t believe in it.
I didn’t believe in it. I thought it was dumb. But on the other hand, my atheism was making me insane. It was hard to fall asleep because I had all these questions: Why did humans evolve egos? What good are they really doing us? How come everyone isn’t constantly terrified of death? What happened before the Big Bang? How can a person conceptualize the beginning of the universe? Doesn’t every beginning still have a before-that? What the fuck, Time?!
This came to a head in one particular moment — it was one of those disgusting, black-skied, hot-humid New Orleans afternoons where you couldn’t go outside without feeling like you were literally pressed against a million giant tongues in one huge hot (multi-tongued) mouth. Nevertheless, I had to get out of the house; I had been sitting inside reading a backlog of New Yorkers and I was stir-crazy. As I walked along the Bayou Saint John, The Questions started swirling in my ears. Sometimes they did that; usually I was able to squash them under worldly distractions, but this time it was just too hot, and The Questions suffocated me. Seriously: I felt like I was choking. I publicly sunk to my knees and folded onto my stomach and sobbed dry-faced into the mud. (Summer grass in New Orleans is always mud.) I couldn’t understand how to keep living.
Maybe I would have stayed there forever, but the pendulum between humidity and thunderstorm swung intemperately moments later. The thunderstorm was violent; aggressive. I was suddenly an ellipses away from being actually underwater. And certainly, this thunderstorm was merely a coincidence — not even an unexpected one, because the weather is 90 percent thunderstorms in August down there. But after I had gotten up, after I had run back to my house, after I had peeled off my yellow dress and collapsed in my underwear on the walnut bench on our porch to watch it pour, I decided that the rain had not been merely a coincidence. I decided — and the word “decided” is perhaps important here — that this was The Universe telling me to stop overthinking everything.
There is an episode of Radiolab — you may have heard it; it’s one of their most popular episodes of all time — called “A Very Lucky Wind,” in which the hosts break down crazy-sounding coincidences and explains how math and statistics can explain everything we may have considered to be “magic,” “fate,” “true luck,” “destiny,” “miracle.” In some ways, it is the atheist’s Bible in 30 minutes: Nothing is inexplicable; math and science are the only Lord.
Sunday I broke my sewing machine and went into a frenzy over it. I watched YouTube videos for six hours trying to figure out how to repair it, but eventually I had to concede that I didn’t have the tools for a DIY job, and I would have to take it in. Not only could I not patch my favorite shorts, I had wasted my entire day watching men explain sewing machine gears to no use or avail. I became distraught. Nothing was going to make me feel better.
And then Luke came home, and he’d had a bad day too, and he made us a salad. I suggested we go outside to eat in the gazebo behind our house; we went outside to eat in the gazebo behind our house. I drank wine and lay on my back, and then three different baby bunnies emerged from three separate pinpoints of the garden-park. (BABY BUNNIES — as in, they are smaller than your human fist.) The mom bunny came out and ran in a perfect triangle to nose-kiss (!!!!) each baby, and then the mom bunny came over to the gazebo where someone had happened to leave a carrot, and she sat there for 20 minutes and ate the carrot, like a bunny in a cartoon. Now, how could I be sad with this cartoon mom bunny and her red-potato-shaped baby bunnies swirling around us on a gorgeous, warm Chicago evening? Here is what I decided: THE UNIVERSE GAVE ME THE BUNNIES TO CHEER ME UP. No argument allowed.
My friend George did an artist talk for our writing class last week in which he said something along the lines of (and I will not be able to write it as eloquently here), I understand that this is not fate; that this is a normal coincidence. But I don’t understand why one is considered more incredible or important than the other. The statistician on the atheist’s Radiolab episode draws a similar conclusion. He says, “We love stories. They connect us; they give us insight into our own lives. It gives us a feeling that life is magical. Maybe we don’t have to call it magic to enjoy the experience."
I shouldn’t have dismissed Hannah’s tarot cards. Needing to be right all the time — needing to understand everything — that’s about short-term pleasure. Marveling and savoring are far more advanced moves in enjoyment; more difficult but ultimately more lasting.
And so what I need now is a new word or term for "The Universe." I don't want people to roll their eyes at me, scanning my outfit for Lulu Lemon insignia and making assumptions about my typical Whole Foods shopping cart. But I do want to go back to that whole "worshipping the question mark" thing that my high school boyfriend's UU parents told me about.
In some ways, my childhood self had it right: The answer to the hard questions was always God. Just, not God like in the Bible. God, like being ok with not knowing. God, like feeling joy and frustration and pain and not blaming yourself or believing that you are always in control of the way you feel. God, like cultivating gratitude not necessarily TO someone or something, but simply outward: This smell, this woman, this swallow's nest, this dried-out bone, this gut-feeling, is so beautiful that it is more than beautiful, and thank you. God, like exiting your ego and empathizing with the web of it all; holding the possibility that separation ("you" and "I" and "bunny") is an illusion. God, like question mark.
*Since then, I read this excellent piece by Jazmine Hughes that complicated the okay-ness of white people making jokes about the whiteness of white people. I’ll just say it’s worth the read.