“To: God Love: Rose” was the first piece of art I remember making. It was comprised of my favorite cat sticker, which I had been saving until I found the right vessel to adorn, along with a few heart stickers I don’t think I cared much about because I had a whole sheet of them, which God probably knew, so I was generous with them, as an offering. I drew swirls around the cat, to indicate to God that this was my ultimate sacrifice, my Isaac-waiting-on-a-lamb. I also remember including a small drawing of a house, in addition to a rudimentary depiction of myself, albeit with longer hair: I did, however, make sure to use yellow marker because I was much blonder back then, just in case God got me mixed up with someone else.
My fervently religious babysitter Maria used to tell me that sharing was important, that Jesus said when you have two you should give one away – something I think I consciously ignored because she talked about Jesus more than I was comfortable with (adults looked over my religious contention and instead called this “selfishness”). One day when I was about ten we held a theological summit on the issue, from which we determined that when we talked about Jesus we would talk about him in the context of Just Being a Really Nice Guy without any imposing messianic undertones.
Maria believed in black magic. She also told me that I was special and I was probably a prophet, which meant that I could talk to God and he would talk back to me, but we would have to see until I got my period to know for sure. I was thrilled at this prediction, mostly because of the favors God might do for me if it turned out to be true: I made a note to myself to not ask for much during my impending adolescence so he could get me into Stanford University when I would be seventeen. I painted vivid canvasses of Rose Foran, ten-year-old prophet, in my head, which were a melange of symbolism gleaned from illustrated versions of the Old Testament as well as a more fantastical set of mental images I took from the books I read about dragons and mythical elves.
I believed in God until I stopped believing in God, either suddenly or in a thoughtless pale. The realization landed concretely in my awareness in what should have been the most spiritual moment of my life – my bat mitzvah – where I stood in front of a congregation and chanted a passage from the Torah that was rather banal, about laws relating to pilgrimage and sacrifice while the Jews were wandering in the desert. I couldn’t help but think back to the sacrifice of my cat sticker and feel a visceral missing of that pulling to God, of which I sadly – or maybe not so sadly – could no longer conceive.
I was only half-expecting him to be there but I was disappointed when he didn’t turn up – even though in retrospect I’m not sure what kind of sensation of knowing I anticipated: perhaps it was the booming voice of Morgan Freeman coming from the heavens or a slight, aging man with tortoise-shell glasses who would be sitting in the back row, nodding at me during the Shma –I always peek out at the crowd even though you’re supposed to say it with eyes closed, in intense contemplation – who would then disappear suddenly in a flash of white light.
But the service was unremarkable, spiritually at least, and I quietly concluded that I gave my best shot at believing: I was thirteen after all – a woman by Biblical standards – I menstruated and shaved my legs on occasion and wore white cotton training bras from the Gap. As per Maria’s prediction, this should have been the time when I finally heard back from God: when I would receive instruction as Moses did about how I should proceed in life as a Special Person, but I was left waiting in cosmic silence.
I decided this conviction would be left unexpressed for as long as possible, the way I hold certain feelings in a simmering cauldron in an elaborately-concealed corner so they can ruminate for a bit, so I can let them gestate in tranquility until they are ready to meet my acceptance, fully formed.
But when I was fourteen, on the way home from a swim meet, I told Maria that I didn’t believe in God anymore – the first time I had ever set my feelings to language. She pulled over to the side of the road in a fury I don’t think I had ever before seen in her – as if I told her I had spent the afternoon freebasing heroin or selling my body to pay for snacks at my middle school’s vending machine. She said that at that moment she saw the devil in me, that he had taken me over because he knew I was special, and, at that very moment, she wasn’t sure if she loved me anymore.
As absurd as my relationship with Maria might appear, at least with these paltry descriptions – it seemed at the time, to her at least, as if the fate of humanity rested on my believing. Granted, these were delusions that even a mature fourteen-year-old couldn’t persuade otherwise, but they still lodged a profound sense of guilt where her promises of prophecy used to be.
In the years following my minivan confession, I was consumed with the prospect of my own inevitable expiration, angry at my helpless doubts, cognizant of the fact that my budding anxiety issues would have been significantly mitigated if I put faith in a benevolent force greater than me. The day I admitted my reluctant belief (or lack thereof) I stopped sleeping soundly, needing to listen to the radio throughout the night – the reassuring sounds of human voices – in order to quell my rolling terror of feeling so alone in the world.
But then one day I found God again in a backstreet in the Old City of Jerusalem when I gave a lost Russian girl directions in Hebrew, a language I knew previously in both its ancient and modern incarnations, once ever-present in my consciousness like songs that meander in the back of your mind when you do the dishes.
My comprehension of Hebrew is akin to a sensation in which, after being kidnapped as an infant, you hear your mother tongue being whispered in your ear only in your deepest sleep. It’s a vague understanding I’ve been able to maintain despite large gaps of silence, with my sloppy utterances that take on a lubricated delivery only when I order falafel or a strong cup of coffee.
The girl seemed disoriented and intimidated by the pushy vendors of the quilted bazaar, and said that her parents back in Moscow would be horrified if they knew she was walking alone in a strange land, especially “among so many men.” I told her I would help her get back to the Jaffa Gate, and she embraced me like I’ve never been hugged before – as if perhaps I was a divine gift resulting from her frantic prayers.
Along the way back to the Jaffa Gate we wandered through a technicolor morass of slow-moving tourists and half-hearted catcalls and young soldiers with M-16s held closely to their abdomens. Hardened children carried behemoth carts filled with their parents’ wares, and they did not say thank you or smile when I helped recover scattered boxes as they toppled to the cobblestone.
The Russian girl said to me in broken Hebrew that she admired how I seemed to convey to them an element of sternness while expressing kindness in my eyes – a generous translation – to which I replied (an equally generous translation) that hopefully someday it might make me a half-decent mother.
We arrived, finally, at Jaffa Gate – a route that I now know by heart from anywhere in the Old City, as I’ve been lost in its darkest corners too many times, alone, in unfriendly hours of the night. She hugged me again, and said “todah rabah…” until she ran out of breath, which at that moment meant so much more than “thank you,” just as my “bevakasha” meant universes beyond “you’re welcome.”
It was in the pervading smile that stuck to my face, filling the rest of my day with warmth even in the cool breeze of the Jerusalem night, that I felt something close to my memory of God pulling at me again.
It is said that learning to be happy is mostly about managing expectations, and I think that it was from the same logic I re-learned to believe in God: not as a grandiose production or whatever crazy vision of a teenage prophet Maria had of me somewhere in between her black magic and Catholic convictions, or even within the confines of religion itself.
God speaks to me in my unwavering amusement with the world, and I believe in God because even though I can’t sing I have a nice chanting voice and I can’t write poetry but I can create trembling melodies in prose.
I think I hear notes of God in the way that I feel when I wake up to see sunlight dancing on my jasmine plant, and somewhere in the depths of my whirling cynicism I have this child-like feeling that God likes to see me smile, which might be the very definition of faith itself.