Rhodies and Realities


I’m wrecked. I’ve only just now recovered the use of both nostrils after a mild but annoying cold, and then a certain manufacturer of a certain famous cell phone announced a change that has led to my day job getting busier by a factor of 10. I should be researching and writing. Instead, I’ve been spending time trying to coddle my poor brain.

This is good news for those of you who either like a flower challenge, or who like to listen to me ramble. We’re having both.

Rhododendron bud

It’s about rhododendron season. I remember reading one of those little filler snippets in a Reader’s Digest once, where a woman was talking about sending her husband home to clean the place up while she went to the grocery store after they’d invited their pastor for dinner on short notice. When she got back, the house was still a mess, but her husband was busy ensuring the leaves of their potted rhododendron were sparkling clean.

Dunno why, but that left me with the impression that rhodies were just boring houseplants with nothing but thick green leaves. I’d never knowingly seen one in bloom before. When I moved up here, I discovered that they grew up into great big bushy bushes used in landscaping seemingly everywhere, but not until after blooming season, which meant I now thought of them as boring indoor/outdoor plants with nothing but thick green leaves.

Then they bloomed.

Rhodies in bloom.

And then I understood why people plant these absolutely everywhere. They’re not only hardy, they riot with color every spring. For months, as the different varieties go off, the whole city seems like it’s exploding with tropical hues. Then they go back to being big boring bushes with thick green leaves, but one looks on them fondly, knowing what they’ve got in store.

I’m going somewhere with this. A bit of a metaphor. Because, you see, life as an atheist has been like this.

Back when I was religious, then “spiritual,” I thought life as an atheist was like rhododendrons: boring. Why would anyone want that life? How could anyone stand it? This uniform shade without even any interesting variations. Have you looked at rhodie leaves? They’re not exactly filled with intrigue. They’re sort of nice. I supposed atheists’ lives could be sort of nice. But I believed they must be pretty miserable folks, living a life where there weren’t any bursts of color, no mystery, no magic.

(Interrupt extended metaphor to provide first photo of the weirdest fucking rhododendron I’ve ever seen.)

Weird Possible Rhodie I

(I mean, honestly. I’m pretty sure it’s a rhodie, based on the leaves, but wtf is up with these flowers? I’m used to rhodie flowers being enormous bursts of yum. Even the varieties with smaller flowers have fairly large petals. I’ve never seen a rhodie with clusters of bell-shaped flowers. Is this a rhodie? Or is it just a bush that wants to be like a rhodie and only managed to mimic the leaves?)

After a brief flirtation with a fundamentalist church, I fell out of church-going Christianity because of the rampant idiocy, but clung to the idea of God a while longer. I believed there must be some sort of God, up there, and while his followers annoyed the fuck out of me, I figured he must be all right. Loving father and all that, right? And I didn’t want to piss him off by doing the wrong thing, like believing in false gods. I didn’t pray much. I didn’t go to church. But I listened to the squishy folks like Khalil Gibran and Karen Armstrong and got the warm fuzzies for a while. But there came a time when absence of evidence started looking an awful lot like evidence of absence. So many people all saying what God was and what he/she/it wanted, but they all had different answers while proclaiming they had The Truth. And none of it fit with this vague sense of what I thought so powerful thing as a god – the god – must be.

Weird Possible Rhodie II

For the most part, it didn’t matter, but I wanted the truth. And I wasn’t getting it in the monotheisms. So I decided I’d best go investigate these other religions, which had been presented as myths. Not just reading about them, filching some of their ideas for my stories, enjoying their philosophies, but taking them seriously as a possible path to the divine. I prayed my last prayer. I told God I was going to head down that path. All he had to do, if it was the wrong thing to do, was show me a sign, and I’d come skedaddling back.

Then I walked.

Weird Possible Rhodie III

I will admit that I had an immense amount of fun in those years. I played at being a Buddhist for a bit, and a Taoist. I dabbled in goddesses. Some of them were awesome, but it didn’t feel quite right: the divine wasn’t gendered, I was pretty certain, but I liked the more masculine manifestations. I didn’t much like being female back then. I’ve always been a tomboy, aside from occasional forays into total girl stuff, and I felt more drawn to the masculine gods. I fell in with Odin for a while. I ended up calling myself a Zen Buddhist/Taoist/Odinist for a while, and that felt so right. I could call on the girls when I felt like it. I could have whole pantheons, but those were my big three. Perhaps it’s a telling sign that two of them were more philosophy than religion (I never much liked the varieties of Buddhism filled with gods, nor the side of Taoism that is obsessed with magic powers and immortality. And Odin – dude, this is a god who sacrificed himself for knowledge. Way awesome). I didn’t worship. I didn’t pray, really. I did a desultory bit of divination, read the stories, absorbed the philosophies, and was quite happy living a life in which some patriarchal fuckwit wasn’t watching my every move, deeming me unworthy of love at every turn while still claiming to love me.

(Segue number two, in which I discover that the weirdest fucking rhodies ever have cousins with white flowers.)

Weird Possible Rhodie IV

But somewhere along the way, I lost all the gods and goddesses. I can’t pinpoint exactly where it happened. I just walked down the ramp that leads to agnosticism, and it sloped so gently I didn’t even know I was coming down from Valhalla. Everything I’d seen that seemed supernatural had a perfectly natural explanation. I’d never found really real magic. Science left no gaps big enough for something more than a microscopic god to fit in. I think I may have passed through Deism on the way, but eventually, I let go of all that. I’d grown the fuck up.

Weird Possible Rhodie V

Did the world become drab and boring? A bit. Yes, I regretted not being able to believe, for a while. Magic’s so sparkly. It’s just not real. And that made me vaguely sad. I was also stuck in Phoenix, Arizona in a shit job, with a shit-for-brains President, and there was no sweeping mythology that could make me feel that this had some magnificent purpose. But it’s not like life didn’t have its moments. There was the research and writing. There were concerts and other outings with friends. There were books. There were movies. There was my homicidal cat, and the pit bull puppy next door, and my wild and wonderful Mexican neighbors. There were orange blossoms in spring. You want magic? Go to Phoenix in March, when the orange trees bloom, and just for a while the city doesn’t smell like hot asphalt and diesel and pollution. Just for a while, it smells glorious.

There. There was magic. Ordinary, everyday, simple magic.

Weird Possible Rhodie VI

Then I got the hell out of Phoenix, and moved up here. The jobs didn’t really get any better. They’re still call centers, and call centers aren’t exactly the most enjoyable places to work, but it could be worse. It could be fast food. And there were new friends, and new adventures, and spectacular geology, and the Sound, and my homicidal cat still, and writing and research, and sun and rain, and a growing fascination with science that made the old myths seem rather dull by comparison.

And somewhere in there, I became an atheist without realizing it. I ran into atheists who were joyful in their atheism. I saw them bursting like rhodies, their lives full of spectacular color, and gloriously free of superstition. Perfect? No. What is? Magical? Yes. Real magic. The magic of the universe, and the world, and the remarkable fact that bipedal naked apes can figure out so damned much about it. True stuff, real stuff, stuff far stranger and more intriguing that what these made-up religions ever invented. Atheists, I discovered, could still appreciate the beauties of nature. They still loved art and poetry and music. They just didn’t have whole swaths of human accomplishment roped off because God Might Get Pissed and Condemn You to Hell.

Weird Possible Rhodie VII

But for some stupid reason, I didn’t realize I was an atheist until I scored so low on the God Delusion Index that a light went bing and I realized that, while I’d been calling myself an agnostic, I’d really been an atheist for quite a long time.

I was as wrong about atheism as I had been about rhodies. It wasn’t dull, it was gorgeous. All of those things I was afraid of – that the world wouldn’t seem so wonderful without the divine, that I’d be alone, that I’d fear death without the belief that death wasn’t the end, that without the possibility of the divine lurking around somewhere, life would be nothing but despair and ultimately empty – none of those things came to pass. Atheism actually helped me overcome my fear of death. No religion ever managed that. Atheism unlocked the universe. That takes care of all the rest. It’s hard to sit around being a sadsack and feeling all empty when you’ve got the whole of science to fill up on. It’s hard to be alone when you know every living thing is, in actual fact, related to you. And then you’ve got art and music and literature and culture to top things off.

Life isn’t perfect. Of course not. Nor was it when I believed. Nothing is perfect, but that doesn’t fuss me so much anymore. The thing about being an atheist is, you don’t expect things to be perfect. And you work to make them better rather than wondering why they aren’t already perfect. That’s outstanding, that is. It doesn’t do me many favors in corporate culture, because I can’t just meekly accept the things that suck, but I’m fortunate in having managers who don’t mind me getting righteously pissed off when we could be doing better and pushing to make sure we try. Same thing with life. It isn’t perfect. It has some features that suck leper donkey dick. And it’s infuriating. But instead of swallowing the anger, instead of meekly accepting that it’s all part of a greater plan, I can turn that anger into a positive force to change the world.

I love the world so much more now that I know it’s not the flawed creation of a rat bastard of a god. Its imperfections are no longer upsetting. They don’t throw me into doubt and despair. They’re just part of it, the way it is, and some bits of it can be changed because humans are good at that sort o’ thing, and some bits of it are just going to suck without it being anybody’s fault, but we have ways to compensate, so we’re okay.

And as for mystery, which I didn’t used to think I could live without: there are mysteries. There are always mysteries. For instance, I have no idea what’s up with that possible rhodie with the bell-shaped flowers. It surprised me. It’s a surprising mystery, and once it’s solved, there will always be another.

There will always be blossoms against a spring sky, shining in the sun.

Fruit tree blossoms against the sky

That’s how I see life as an atheist now: like the rhodies, unexpectedly and fantastically beautiful. And even when it’s not in full bloom, even when it looks dull and thick and rather boring, I know it’s just a matter of time before that beauty bursts out again.

Comments

  1. rq says

    Your mystery plants look to be: Japanese andromeda (also known as lily-of-the-valley bush) – Pieris japonica. (http://www.karensgardentips.com/plant-profiles-how-to-grow/plant-profile-andromeda-pieris-japonica/)
    The red one could be the ‘Passion’ or ‘Valentine’ cultivar and the white one the ‘Karonema’ or ‘Debutante’ or some other, although none that I found had the red-tipped leaves, so it’s probably some other highly specific cultivar… The opportunities seem endless!

    Not only are they extremely decorative, they are also deer- and frost-proof. :) Definitely magic involved here.

  2. Adrian says

    Yes, I agree with rq, Pieris cultivars.
    However Dana, you were nearly correct, both Pieris and Rhododendron are members of the Heath family, the Ericacaea.
    There are over 1000 species of Rhodie and many more cultivars. The most amazing are the tree Rhodies that can grow up to 30ft and are covered with red flowers in spring, an amazing sight.

    • dcortesi says

      …most amazing are the tree Rhodies that can grow up to 30ft and are covered with red flowers in spring…

      Uh-huh, case in point which is actually in New Zealand but I’ve seen similar in our Pacific NW.

      • Adrian says

        Yes just like that.
        I saw them lining a mountain track with the Himalayas as a back-drop. Breathtaking.

  3. Adrian says

    Ugh, for some reason FTB is chewing up my comments.
    That was a beautiful post, Dana. Coming from a social CofE family myself. religion was never important to me and I was an atheist by default so I never understood what all the fuss was about. As my father was a colour chemist I was always encouraged to think for myself and never thought about gods and magic.

  4. says

    Beautiful post, Dana. This is my favorite line:

    “But there came a time when absence of evidence started looking an awful lot like evidence of absence.”

  5. Trebuchet says

    You’ve just beaten all of PZ’s “Why I am an atheist” guest posts put together. Absolutely lovely.

    I’m glad someone identified the andromeda. I knew it wasn’t a rhodie but spaced out on what it actually was even though we’ve got a couple. Mind don’t look as good as that, however!

    Rhodie season is a mixed blessing for us because it coincides with Scotch Broom season. My wife is dreadfully allergic to the broom and we sometimes have to go miles out of our way to avoid particularly bad patches. It’s a noxious, invasive, wish-it-would-go-away weed.

    Be sure to get out in the woods and look at the wild rhodies. They’re pretty much all the same pale pink-purple but they got there all by themselves. I kind of like them better than the cultivated ones.

  6. says

    Atheism actually helped me overcome my fear of death.

    There is a certain peace of mind that comes with accepting things as they are.

    • says

      Yup. I’m struggling with “accepting things as they are”, myself, but I’ve had those moments of contentment, where everything is “just right”, and now that I know what I’m reaching for, it feels, all at once, both more attainable and further out of reach. But I’m learning and growing and reining in my temper and mellowing out and just… enjoying life in the moment.

      Letting go is some seriously hard work, man.

  7. hotshoe says

    I know you’ve got a lifetime’s worth of sights to see in the PNW, but if you’re in the mood for a trip to CA, you’d surely love the Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve on the Sonoma County coast. Pretty near to Fort Ross, which is where the San Andreas fault comes ashore again after its brief immersion in the Pacific north of San Francisco. Let me know, and I’ll meet you there.