Ashlyn Oakes

I.

I sit in a pew of Langhorne Presbyterian Church between my little brother and my father, who squawks with the suburban Pennsylvanian congregation: Woooorld without ennnnd, Aaaamen, Aaaamen. Per custom, using the LPC-provided dulled-down mini-pencil and today’s Order of Worship brochure, I doodle a crucifix made of various unholy items: pistols, cigarettes, penises. Underneath, I scribble a sacrilegious limerick.

There once was a narcissist preacher
They thought him a God and a teacher
His megalomania
Reached Pennsylvania
And doomed us to celebrate Easter.

Pastor Bill looks with disdain upon my fall from grace as he preaches. Just a year ago, he laid a hand on my 14-year-old head at my youth group’s confirmation ceremony after I delivered a Statement of Faith that I genuinely believed:

The thing that moves me most about coming to know Christ is that I don’t have to die, nor do I have to live in fear. To be taught that all I must do in return is love God and live according to his will, gives me the strength to do just that, because Jesus has saved me from the unthinkable measures of an eternity without him. I don’t have to live alone.

(Cute, right? But also sad.) The appeal of faith isn’t about craving to believe in a second life. It’s wild to me that people want another one of those — was this one not rough enough for you? — so desperately that they live every day in fear of one sort of afterlife and hunger for another. Lip-syncing hymns with my family, I consider that I would be bored in Heaven and I would be bored in Hell. The appeal of faith is about fear of being alone.

My mother sits to the other side of my brother. She makes me stop doodling only to stand up for hymns — she understands. Born in Mexico City, she grew up a default-Catholic; their scheme is to end up at least believing in God, if not believing that Jesus is magic. Since my birth, she’s flown me down to receive my Catholic sacraments in the same chapel as every relative has before me: Parroquía de la Santa Cruz. I’ve told my mother I don’t believe in God. In Spanish, she stammers, Pues, tienes que creer en algo: Well, you have to believe in something.

My father glances at my defiled church pamphlet and furrows his brow in his forefinger and thumb. I’m breaking the tradition of Christian martyrdom that defines the Hannush lineage; “Hannush” translates from Arabic to “follower of John.” My grandfather wrote in his unpublished but printed-and-leatherbound autobiography, That You May Have Life and Have It Abundantly (what?), about uncles slain before his eyes in Turkey before it was Turkey, forefathers chased off their land before the Ottoman Empire was the Ottoman Empire. Less than 20 years after my grandfather moved the family to Beirut, a civil war: shellings, prayers, living on moldy bread (the price of Christianity). My grandmother tells stories of Muslim militants raiding public buses and asking for IDs, which included religion; she would pretend to be preoccupied with her three rowdy teenage sons, making sure to say my uncle’s name — Yasser! Yasser! — with extra emphasis, so that our family might be mistaken for Muslim. My father, the oldest of them, escaped the fray when he was accepted to an American university at age 16. Now, in our pew, my father sighs a how-dare-you sigh as I move to shade my crucifix doodle. I am tanking my role as the first child of two first children; my little brother, two years my junior, looks at my illustration and giggles.

My grandmother, foaming at the mouth with pride, reminds me of my Statement of Faith in almost every conversation. “Monica, habibti, you have every reason to be happy, because you believe in God.” And I think, Damnit, Tata — I don’t believe in God. Homilies sound dead to me, holes in the logic, I don’t understand, I should understand, someone make me understand. But I slowly and politely nod my head. Wouldn’t that be nice? Believing in God?

II.

I’m making the hourlong drive on I-95 to visit a new friend from Yale. I’ve slept four hours — the average amount the Drs. Hannush have slept nightly as long as I’ve been alive. I try to prop open my red eyes by blasting my favorite song of the moment, Azealia Banks’ “212” — I WAS IN THE TWO-ONE-TWO / WHAT’S YOUR DICK LIKE HOMIE, WHAT’RE YOU INTO?! — to no avail. The cochlear ducts of my inner ears detect my white Honda CR-V driving on a tilt along the grassy highway median, with the long, narrow median-forest inches to my left. Frenzied, I crank my wheel clockwise and my car spins in the middle of those four lanes.

Mid-revolution, I spot a sedan approaching from my left. In the blank calm of imminent death, I think at 87 miles per hour: Ah. This is how I die. I’m cool with this setup. I’ve lived a pretty alright life. This meets all of my criteria for a satisfactory death: quick, painless, unexpected. None of the guilt of suicide or decay of age. Unselfish, sober, blameless.

I’m a mammal with programmed reflexes, so I think up a way to stop spinning: the trees. A witness describes my entry into the median-forest: “It’s like you were pullin’ into a driveway of all the twiggiest trees. A couple’a inches to the left and BOOM, yer dead.” I exit the car with a stupid serenity. I have no scratches on my body, but the car is tangled in twigs that crunch under my feet as I join the small, awestruck crowd. I do not call my mother, I do not call my father, I do not think to call AAA, which we totally have. No — some rando towing company receives a call from the police and wrecks my little Honda while tearing it out of the trees. When I finally call my mother, she does not ask whether I’m okay, but rather, why I didn’t call her sooner. I try to apologize, she sputters, I don’t want to hear your voice. She knows I hate it when she speaks to me in English.

When I get home, I log onto Tumblr (Tumblr!) and write — of all things — a sonnet, the first I’ve written since eighth grade. The title: “Who Writes a Sonnet When They Crash Their Car?”

I spun, I spun, I thought, what would they do —
for every revolution, one more flash
of black, salt water, flowers — but I knew
I stood a chance to see beyond the crash.
No flames. No wounds. Just spectators and lights.
One red instead of blood, one blue for all
the faces I’d see later on that night.
My knees shook as I failed and failed to call.
They say your life flashes before your eyes,
but all I saw were trees, and cars, and sky.
This is what brings men closer to their gods —
there must have been a reason to survive.
If “Christmas miracles,” so sickly sweet,
exist, then one has now happened to me.

(Forgive that final couplet — my sonnet skills are rusty.) I return to school, where I willingly go to Mass with my very Catholic boyfriend. I put technical effort into my hymn-singing — breathing with my diaphragm, opening my sinuses, fixating on the vowels — and zone out into the giant backlit crucifix.

The mild faith that sprang from the crash is only akin to my Statement-of-Faith confidence in that I suspect someone might be looking out for me metaphysically. But to triumph over death means different things at 14 and at 20. At 14, triumph over death meant absence of death; at 20, triumph over death means absence of fear. At 20, I know more about God; Her likeness is best approximated by any artist on Spotify’s “Independent Ladies — R&B: The Women” playlist. She has dethroned the white-bearded God of yore.

If She deliberately kept me alive when all temporal circumstances said I should have died, She will kill me when I am meant to be eliminated.

III.

At 22, I’m the youngest in a circle of 30 people gathered on the dirt floor of an open-air temple around a bonfire in Tepoztlán. I’m here with my Mexicousins; they’ve done this before. The object of the game: take four shots of a psychedelic tea made from sacred forest plants, see God, vomit, cry, exorcise our demons, and leave reborn.

My first shot of Ayahuasca has worn off after a lame, low-double-digit number of minutes spent in a trip where the embers floated up and became tiny seahorses with lion heads. Everyone has lined up for their second shot — but man, that taste was so, so vile. Like cafeteria coffee that turns into sour milk that turns into cocaine. I resolve to stick out an entire night of rudimentary-polyphonic guitar. Usually, I’m that chick who’s down for another shot, tab, line, toke. But at this party, I’m the sober girl on the sidelines. I’d wanted at least one adventure during spring break of my junior year. No Corona-logo bikinis or beer funnels in Fort Lauderdale for me — just Hi-Def constellations, a forest chorus and Ayahuasca from an unwashed shot glass.

For a few minutes, I attempt a performance for myself where I physically pull my thoughts out of my chest and send them through the ground to the fire where they float up in embers and vanish. This does not work. The longer I lie awake, the less I believe in the spirit to whom the shaman sings, in his tricorner crown-hat with its tall red shamanly plume. I am a slowly disintegrating sack of flesh lying on some fibers on top of some dirt, and the sky is just a sky that goes on forever, and everything around me is a chemical reaction. Science and God are not mutually exclusive. But one feels real and one does not.

This is not my Langhorne teenage atheism; here, I no longer find God ridiculous. I’m jealous of believers. But I simply cannot think of anything I have encountered in this universe that has shown enough consistency to be believed in. Since age 15, I’ve lived on the tipping point between atheism and Diet Agnosticism Lite. But this ceremony is flicking me into a spiritual vacuum. The sun rises and the shaman’s son hails it with a conch. The shaman passes around a bumpy gourd, the way we used a talking stick in kindergarten, for each participant to offer a few thoughts on the experience. People tear up with joy as they speak; they can’t find the words to describe their gratitude for their shared belief, for their gods. They choke on faith. As soon as I receive the gourd, I pass it on without a word. I choke on frustration. I’d die to trade their silence for mine.