I shove my filthy hands into the soil and claw out roots and weeds, savouring the mess. A waft of mulch, half-dead weeds, decomposed worms and God knows what sweetens the air. Soon this muddle will be in order: scooped out flowerbeds surrounded by clipped squares of lawn which I will lay down on this blessed ground for my Chinese customers here in North Shore, Auckland. The sweet smelling stocks, pansies and aloes I have already selected, upright in their little bags of compost nearby. May they be garlands thrown over necks of earth. I grab the spade. Each shovelful, from the breath sucked into my lungs as I thrust the spade into the ground to the thump of the tufts and grit tossed over my shoulder, is another stanza in a hymn to life.
Life! Ah, this sacred soil singing off the top of my upturned spade, swirling like psalms in the late afternoon breeze. Swig water, gulp down the silence. Stand upright, stretch out my back, breathe in the still, pouring waterfall of the moment. The wintry sun and wind sandpapers my face; sweat is sweet acid on my neck and in my eyes. Light and stone and the glow of the wind on the spade near my boots. Shortly the flowers will nod in their new berths in the beds in front of me. Images of fertility and offerings crowd my mind. “This is my new religion, the oldest in the world,” I think. “It’s so right, so intuitive to worship nature, the stars, the horizon, all powers beyond my comprehension.”
I think of the religion I turned away from, Christianity, and — speaking only for myself — the shame it often filled me with. Regrettably, I have learned to distrust religion and many religious people, but not the earth beneath me, and she invites me to sense her warmth and immensity as I squat with clods of earth in my hands. I kneel into her, into a divine woman whose age you can never know, who spreads herself around me.
The earth is present. Always.
I trust the fruitlets of earth in my hands and, mothered inside them, the seed they have which I know can and will erupt in blossoms without my will, without my interference.
Interference! Christopher Hitchens smirks in his grave. Too much of religion is interference.
“Did you sleep with Gina?” Brian, one of the pastors of a charismatic church in Johannesburg asked me for about the third time during a counselling session because I was struggling so much with anxiety. This was back in the Nineties. “Well we did kiss and hug,” I muttered evasively. Brian leaned forward, gimlet eyes cutting through the veils of deceit and sin. “Did you make love to her?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “Briefly.” As if that made any difference. I had sinned. He gave me one final sharp look, nodded, then leaned back to clasp his hands, showing his pastoral love and unflinching lack of judgment in the matter of my intimate relationship with Gina, another member of his flock. I did not need to give him permission to enquire into my personal life. He was an emissary of God and my sex life was limp and surrendered in his hands. Hallelujah.
Crushed, humiliated, I sat there feeling like a child under the scrutiny of a distant father or intimidating headmaster. Even then, I felt — only a little bit — that Brian had no business asking about my personal relationship with Gina. The sex itself had been awkward … yet pretty good, a great relief for both of us, and with some practice we … can’t think that. Not allowed to.
For me, and I would imagine, for a lot of people in over-religious South Africa and other Bible belt countries, sex is an area of huge shame and confusion. We were taught from an early age not to be proud of our bodies, to not learn to live at peace with that deep well of pleasure, to explore the sense of magic and connection consenting sex gives one with others.
Shame? Unlike appropriate, well-practiced sex, there is no magic to shame. The realisation that sex starts with the first “casual” glance, say, across a restaurant or, inescapably, across the pews, is not part of our awareness. Those looks of mine and the ones I received from many women when in my twenties and thirties were often furtive (thankfully, not always). The gates clanged to and walls went up immediately. Shame grew like nightshade.
Fortunately, I did not last that much longer in my affair with Christianity. However, as it was part of my upbringing the result is that, to this day, I have a confused relationship with my body, specifically my genitals. This relationship reminds me of a very bad hand break I had some two years ago (and yes I get the masturbatory connection). For several months my arm was in a cast, and after three operations my hand became fully functional. But the skin on the side of my wrist still sends confused signals and weird tingles. And so does my relationship with my sexual parts and women.
Religion broke me. It took away my primal magic. To quote from “Self is Magic“: “Perceiving magic of any kind requires that we don’t fully understand how something has happened” — which is how we want it. We don’t have to understand. One moment the magician’s hand is empty and the next — whoosh! — a dove is flying up from his fingers. The delight is in not knowing how magic is done and keeping it that way, not interfering.
If I look at women, a part of me “knows” I am a sinful, horny pervert. Yet my appraisal is not one of so-called lust. I have only been taught to believe that. They are looks of wonder at women with their mysterious eyes and breasts, their movements somehow more fluid than men’s, their faces and hands often gentle as ponds at dawn. The looks of wonder are what make us all so human (in the best sense of the term), and grants us the possibility of being truly alive.
So, unsurprisingly, given the density of religious traditions available, South Africa and Pakistan have cultures of rape, anti-rape (the latter with an unfortunate but necessary characteristic of vehemence) and other forms of sexual abuse seldom encountered — apparently — anywhere else. We have been taught not to think and be with our bodies, with their “thrownness” into the world like spadefuls of earth. For our sexuality was and is always already here, before we decided to be ashamed of it. Sexuality is as present, as certain as our flesh or the lungs we breathe through. This initial startlement Heideggarians might call Befindlichkeit. William Richardson translates this as “already-having-found-oneself-there-ness“.
I need to tune into this being-already-hereness. We are so like musical instruments. In a short space of heated time, Gina and I, instead of being awkward, could have been playing each other, in and out of bed, like finely tuned violins. Instead we broke up, ashamed of ourselves, unable to communicate with each other. Both of us continued to suffer with anxiety and depression because of our lack of tunedness. Brian nodded at all of this sagely, clasped his hands, gave directions.
How do we stop this shaming through religion and other forms of fanaticism? How do we become more fully alive? Today, as I go about my gardening work creating flowerbeds, weeding out gardens, raking paths and lawns, flinging pungent piles of garden waste and shit onto the back of trailers, I murmur a rosary of questions like these, not so much out of bitterness or regret, but in amazement.
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