I got myself in trouble the other night, just by talking. (Which is how I usually get myself in trouble. I must learn to keep my thoughts to myself.) It was an innocent conversation, in which I was retelling the tale of a moon that was red on a recent night when I was driving home. I may or may not have been kissing a boy, prior to driving home, with whom I may or may not have been a bit smitten. I remarked to my friend that my first thought, upon seeing the moon, was that it was blushing on my behalf.
That is how my brain works.
As I was driving home, blushing along with the moon, I was thinking about the art and literature that I love the most, and most of it comes from various Latin American cultures. Whether it is the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the recipes for love in Like Water For Chocolate, the haunting imagery of Jose Donoso or the enchanting characters of Marquez, I am drawn into the magical thinking of these writers. Had Pablo been in the car with me that night, he would have agreed that the moon was blushing, without question. What would be the point of a scientific explanation when a magical one can unite me with the cosmos and wrap me in a stratosphere of shared sensuality?
I said this to my friend, and all was fine. Until I suggested that the cultures of people that were carved with religions rooted in magical thinking tended to create both people and cultural artifacts that were magical in and of themselves. That people, individuals, raised by magical thinkers approach the world differently. (And that perhaps I ought to look for a man raised in such a culture, who would know that the moon was blushing.)
I was then called, essentially, a racist.
Getting a few obvious things out of the way before we dive into this…. Pretty much every religion prior to Christianity and its offshoots was rooted in magical thinking. All over the planet, people gave both human and magical qualities to everything from the weather to animal behavior and human illness. Their simplified goal was to provide explanation, comfort, and connect people to planet in a way that provided a functional framework to live harmoniously with nature. With the introduction of monotheistic and organized religions, the goal seemed to become more focused on controlling people rather than understanding the universe. (Insert increasing cynicism about acquisition of land and wealth for the church, tied to political….. well….) That change killed a lot of magic. In the “newer” worlds, our culture was largely borne of these monotheistic religions that had already begun forging (forcing) the sociopolitical shape of society to come. At best, these “new” religions were strong enough to completely usurp the exiting (pagan and Nordic, for instance) religions. In other parts of the world, however, the old – more magical – religions had already carved the cultural veins through which history, art, celebration and culture got their souls nourished. Existing culture was too strong to be snuffed. In these places, there is still magic. (Really, one has only to look at the USA, which was literally created by Puritans, to see the impact of religion on culture.)
This is not to suggest that people whose bloodlines flow from these cultures are a bunch of noble-savages with quaint traditions who decorate our dominant culture like souvenirs from a cultural theme-park. Simply that if one is told by their parents, grandparents and community that the moon can blush, they are going to be more likely to believe that the moon can blush. Just like someone who is told by their parents, grandparents and community that homosexuality will send you to hell for eternity is likely to believe that. They are both, scientifically speaking, equally ridiculous.
Religion, whether we want to believe it or not, shapes culture. Culture, whether we want to believe it or not, shapes people. We, whether we want to believe it or not, are shaped by the culture in which we are raised, and we look at others through our own cultural lens. To deny that makes no sense. It would be like suggesting that the steady application of heat was in no way related to the rising temperature of water.
I was trying to come up with an image to make this idea make sense, something to show what happens when the same path is trod time and time again. I thought of the Grand Canyon. It exists because rivers flowed through it, endlessly and wore down these great canyons. The rivers would rise and fall, change course here and there, which left beautiful nooks, crannies, valleys and caves. But, for the most part, it has been steadily shaped by a constant flow of similar impulses with consistent impact. Within the canyon there is incredible variety, individual spots that are as unique as the individual people within a cohesive culture, but the analogy still works. There is no nook in the canyon that does not owe its shape to the natural forces that carved it.
My friend, now, is increasingly agitated. She is not angry at me, and I know it. Like me, she finds such queries to be exciting, foreplay in their own way. But I am tired, and not in the mood. She is upset at the idea that one would look at her skin color (the exact color of melted sugar when it has become liquid and is starting to bubble, sweet and lightly browned, but not yet hard and unmanageable,) and think that they know anything about her.
That’s not what I mean, I assure her, not at all. I don’t think you can tell anything about a person based on their skin color, except maybe how likely they are to sunburn. I tell her that I was not suggesting I needed to find a nice brown boy, but that I wondered what it would be like to date a boy raised in a culture that embraced magic, music, lust, chaos rather than the order and logic that so permeates US culture, and is anathema to my weird little soul.
But, she implores me, those religions and cultures are long gone. Modernity, progress, the industrial revolution has taken all those ancient cultures away, they do not exist any more. The Anasazi are gone.
They are not. You can’t erase the imprint of culture anymore than the Grand Canyon can fill up and say, “that river don’t run through here no more.”
And it occurs to me that the globalization of everything may be obscuring the role of religion and culture in our lives. Like an eclipse. Yes, there was a time when people of different religions and skin colors lived lives segregated by distance and geography rather than income and misunderstanding. You knew them when you saw them because their language, clothing, rituals and beliefs were different. Those, after all, are what define a culture.
Culture has nothing to do with skin color, and increasingly less to do with geography. It has to do with an agreed upon (usually tacitly) system of communication that covers everything from language to behavior, rituals to expectations. It has nothing to do with intelligence, socioeconomic status or anything that you can learn in a class or buy in a store. It is taught to you – sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly – by the generations of people who came before you and taught you how to dress, what to expect form life, what kind of person to be, and the basic rules of how to understand the world around you.
In many cases it is directly informed by religion. But in almost all cases, religious beliefs – whether monotheistic, polytheistic, or some other mythology – started the ball rolling. When we choose a new culture, which we can do, we quickly adopt their language and rituals – whether that culture is Burning Man or Buddhism.
Earlier that evening, my friend and I had been discussing another boy that I have been smitten with for several months now. I told her there was no future with this boy. She asked why – I mean, she’s seen the pictures and heard the stories, the connection is obvious. I explained to her that he was raised Christian, conservative and in a very small town. He simply cannot see how to incorporate someone like me into his world view. It’s a cultural thing. It’s a shame, because he’s amazing and I can see it very easily, but I think the idea of me in his world – his conservative, Christian parents and friends – just makes no sense to him. And it’s fine. I don’t feel the need to change him, or this wonderful thing we have. It’s a cultural difference, it’s that simple. And that made sense to her.
But when the same idea – cultural threads that bind us can also divide us – was presented in the other way, and about a culture from which her own threads were woven, it was upsetting.
I think that’s because we all want to think that we are special. It is unbearable to think that each of us are nothing more than a data point that proves a larger social truth. Our existence, any impression we make, is at once irrelevant and proof of something that we cannot fight against.
The truth, of course, is that we are all unique. A culture is made up of a huge collection of data points, any one of which is unique as a snowflake. But when combined, is an avalanche of evidence that we are all designed by the same forces, and the results are fairly predictable.
Of course, we can all change, at any point. But not until we acknowledge the forces that made us. Bigots can give birth to civil rights leaders. Buddhists can give birth to war mongers. I am as waspy as they get, by cultural heritage, but was raised by magical thinkers and as such believe that the moon blushes with me when I discover, potentially, new love. My father is a gay, intellectual artist who was raised by conservative Christians in a small town in North East Missouri state. Anomalies happen, exceptions define the rules.
As we are now free to choose our own religions and communities, design our own families and live anywhere on the planet we choose, our cultures are changing. They are merging. But, the great spaces within us are carved into caverns by the cultural rivers that flow through us. Even the act of fighting against it is rooted in the force of culture.
This is why I studied anthropology and world religions. It was not so that I could recite the tenets of any one book, or the history of any one people, but to be able to look at the patterns and understand them. I think this is why I can see a future with the incredibly beautiful Christian boy, but I don’t think that he can. I was taught to look at the diversity of thought and beauty (and magic) in the world, and find the throughline. To me, it all works together to make something greater than the sum (and than some) of its parts. His world, however, is defined by the patterns that made him. Confined by the patterns that made it.
Yes, there is magical thinking everywhere. Italo Calvino’s Invisbile Cities are far North, Milan Kundera imbues hills with cleaving thighs and uses dogs as guides through our souls. Mark Helprin’s tales of winter are as magical as any Obscene Bird Of Night taking flight. Because, no matter how cohesive a culture is, it is still made up of individuals who shine light on an unseen facet, change it, and create a nook that is perfect for you to crawl into, as you forever raft waters that will take you to places that you never expected, even in a land that you call home. But I do know, from all the art, literature, music and history I can soak up, that those countries south of the border are filled with lust and spice and rhythms and magic that resonate in my soul. I don’t know why.
I don’t know who my next great love will be, where I will find another close friend. But I do know that I need to be with people who delight in my belief that the moon blushes, even if they see something altogether different. (But once, just once, I’d like to know what it’s like to watch the stars with someone who truly believes they are eyes, or a game of marbles, or air bubbles blown by space fish, or…..Or to kiss a boy, who, when I tell him the moon is blushing from his kiss, will respond, “I wonder what the moon will do when I…..”)