Nonfiction from Kristen M. Ploetz
“The number one thing that’s most similar among the different pilgrims on these different journeys in these different faiths is they’re all searching. It’s that they no longer want to just passively accept the religion, they want to be active in deciding what they believe.”
–Nicola Menzie, The Christian Post
JERUSALEM. Mecca. Char Dham. Lumbini. Billions have descended upon these ancient holy sites for more than a thousand years. Profoundly meaningful, they remain destinations for the legion faithful generation after generation. Devout travelers come by their journeys honestly and with good intentions—they wish to seek, confirm, and see. It might be the promise of validation that beckons, or a catalyst for renewing latent or damaged belief. It is a distant call, no longer to be ignored.
But I’m not a believer. These pilgrimages are not mine to claim. They are arbitrary and insufficient to me. They would not ratify the reason and innate empathy that have long guided me along the planes of morality and mortality.
It doesn’t mean I do not wish for some place similar. A place to affirm my own convictions. A place to gather with others who share them.
And yet what migration exists with commensurate significance and lure? What set of coordinates threads its way through the ages, a place invisibly binding us nonbelievers together with parallel camaraderie and appreciation for our very existence? Where does an atheist go to find some center of explanation about all that was and is?
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I am in my daughter’s bedroom. She extends her open palm toward me. A cracked geode wobbles on the pale skin of my budding collector. A relic from a souvenir shop three summers ago, memories of that mountain trip now faded to sepia tones in my mind. Perhaps I do not have to go far to fulfill my journey after all. Right before me, stark truth reveals itself in the juxtaposition of old rock and young flesh: crystalline beauty borne from mere minerals and water that once seeped into clandestine pockets of earth touches the tender girl who once grew inside me in similar fashion. Their existence is simultaneously mysterious and enlightening.
Something from nothing.
Everything from something.
I could just as easily set off on my pilgrimage within the brittle yellow pages of a dusty botany book. Tracing my fingers over the branches of taxonomy trees, I double back from Anthophyta to Coniferophyta to Ginkgophyta and the remaining phyla linking back to the origin of life. My own yard bears witness to these wondrous, uneven steps back in time. The tulips planted in the front lawn. An errant spruce cone blown in from the neighbor’s tree. The dwarf Gingko and elegant maidenhair ferns mingling along the granite foundation of our humble Cape. Velvety, verdant moss that hides on the damp, northern corners of my cedar planting beds. Evolution’s end game all played out in plants on my tiny urban lot.
Or I might amble one city block before I’m at the birthplace of the dandelion sprouting to life from a crack in the sidewalk, a slight stem forcing its way through a break in the cement. The bright yellow flower draws sustenance from the duff of pulverized leaves and city dust tightly settled in between the slabs. Raindrops touch down between rushed feet and open umbrellas, pelting the jagged green leaves spread wide in a circle around the tiny fringed sun. Its presence is against all odds, and yet it endures. Just like us. Soon it will wither to feathery wisps, ready to begin another rotation along the circle of life. Just like us.
I fear I have not gone far enough. A journey of some distance feels essential for the kind of quest I want to fulfill.
I could head due east until I reach the cold, rocky shore of the Atlantic, a fitting place to reflect upon the miracle that is life itself. The salty shrine churns at my feet, broken bits of scallop and razor clam tumble against my toes. Silica and stone sparkle, worn down to the tiniest of grains after millennia of water, wind, and tide. Shallow waves glitter and foam in the midday sun. A limp strand of rockweed undulates in the current alongside me. So much more takes place unseen below the shimmering surface. I think about the masses who have walked along this line of low tide, finding similar solace as they look out toward the horizon. To the tide’s lunar accomplice, invisible and almighty, I offer boundless gratitude and awe.
Perhaps I should follow the migration of the Ruby-throated hummingbird. Year after year these featherweight wonders return to lesser latitudes, an epic journey once imprinted during the Pleistocene yet ensures survival today. When called by some enigmatic force, they go. Tiny wings beat for thousands of miles powered only by luck and might. Weary upon arrival, they are soon replenished with all that they need, with all they seek in these welcoming climes. Only after some unseen prompt will they return home, restored and recharged to live their fast little lives.
There are myriad destinations to consider. Faraway sunsets of uninhabited islands where circadian rhythms and the advent of solstices remain pure and endure unfettered by modern life. Or the plumose maps charted within the complex pattern of the Great Potoo’s feathers silently still and camouflaged upon the bark of Neotropical trees. The poles might offer some great clues with their wandering magnetic fields, or a long gaze at the brilliance offered by their glowing, evanescent aurora. If I embark on a quest for trilobite fossils my fingers could glide over the ancient relief of long ago while I contemplate how it all connects to right now. Is the answer found in the cycles of the everyday, of water, seed, and life itself? I’ve considered the cosmos, but how might one get there other than through the lens of a cheap telescope trying to elbow its way past the light pollution that drowns out whatever great messages might exist. Total, unattainable darkness might reveal a deeper truth and provide more answers instead.
Perhaps I’ve already been where I need to go. I recall the vast span of time piled under my rubber soles as I walked the shore of Lake Champlain, littered with 500 million year old stones of Iberville shale threaded with white quartz. It is why I return year after year. It is a calling of sorts. I recall the sulfur stench of Costa Rican fumaroles, reminding me of the liquid core far below my feet, one that trembles and reshapes life as it sees fit. I have not been back, but it has stayed with me forever.
For me, each of these end points has the proven capacity for tears and a quickened heartbeat, for knees dropped down with lips pressed against traces of our ancient past. I revere in measure equal to those who reflect at sacred sites of birth and prayer.
And yet they are not enough.
I can go far beyond my own front door, but closer to what, exactly? Is it the end or the beginning? It is both, of course. It is an ever-widening circle of life and mystery, ineffable odds born of big bangs and bone and breath.
Of course, other people who have arrived with similar intentions are missing from these places. These are not sites made from men and women, both then or now. Humanity is the glaring omission and the failed itinerary on these makeshift journeys I conjure in my mind. I need others to fill the deep gap of feeling alone and in the quiet minority of a different point of view, one that has so many inputs but none of which are divined. I long for the presence of others in close and contemporaneous proximity while I stand there among them and look out and within. But there is to be no shared veneration en masse. It renders me envious—perhaps the only time—of my faithful friends and family, those who have a well worn path to follow with others if they choose.
For now at least, I must try to find satisfaction in my solo journeys and worship alone at the altar of our natural world, the one built from the cosmos and chaos. I must embrace this solitude and accept the meager answers offered by beauty and chance. I must trust that I am not alone.
Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former land use attorney living in Massachusetts. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) with Hypertext Magazine, Swarm Literary Journal, The Hopper, Gravel, Cognoscenti, Washington Post, The Healing Muse, NYT Motherlode, The Humanist, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. You can find her on the web (www.kristenploetz.com) and Twitter (@KristenPloetz).