The Religions of America

There is a comforting rhythm to living on the beach. The surf pounding, the tide coming in and going out, the wind constantly making it’s point, and the birds racing about chattering about their business. I suppose this is why so many people stay here. It embraces us, and shields us from responsibility.

However, it is impossible to build anything sustainable here. On the beach nature is too powerful. The ocean’s waves will put down anything we put up, and the wind constantly challenges every thought. We all start here, but some give up and go inland. No one on the beach knows what happens to those people; they don’t ever come back.

The wind shifted and became stronger, carrying a damp, heavy air. The waves became choppy and dark. I had been on the beach long enough to know that people would lose their homes soon: our lives move with the waves and the wind. I decide to head inland, to see what has become of the others. To see if they have been able to build something more balanced and sustainable.

The journey started brisk and exciting, but then time and effort ground me to despair. I had no idea how long I had been walking. My only compass was the uphill grade and the receding noise of the coast. The sound of surf, wind, and birds had been replaced by footsteps, breathing, and a heartbeat. I was mesmerized by the beauty of it; my very own surf and wind, letting me get to know the chatter of my own thoughts.

I saw the first people across a cool lake. I made my way around, along the shore, to see what they were up to. There was a large group of sullen faces sitting peacefully, but crestfallen, on a grassy slope, watching a fanatic standing out on the water. As I got closer I saw that the fanatic was standing on the old wooden foundation of a building on a dock that was burned down to the water’s level. He was wet and yelling out a tirade of words that no one understood. The sullen faces sat on the slope, completely enthralled by his actions and energy, but no one moved. They seemed afraid of his voice. There was a stack of boards on the shore. I grabbed a board and teetered my way across of what remained of the wooden walkway just under the water. Once out on the water, I saw the structure more clearly and thought that the floor joists should be lower in the water so the next time the building was burned, at least the floor would remain. As I arrived the fanatic stopped yelling and grabbed the other end of the board I was carrying. Without speaking, we both set to nailing the board into position just bellow the waters surface, as I had thought, so the top of the floor would be just above it. When we finished and stood up, there was another young man standing with a board. He saw what I did and followed along. The fanatic didn’t miss a beat. He grabbed one end of the board and they set to putting it into place. I looked up to see a few other young men making their way out onto the water and I felt in the way. I retreated back to shore and stood on the slope to watch as they worked. Most of the others stayed seated, not fully convinced (they had the look of people who been let down too many times), but enough people got involved that a little progress was visible. After a short time I was drawn away by the desire to hear my own rhythms again. It wasn’t long before the entire scene was behind me and gone.

Before I knew it, I was entering a large town. I never thought that such a thing could exist. There were houses and buildings, with streets and parks. The people were happy and busy as they went about their day. Someone noticed me as a newcomer and I was politely escorted to a large white house. It was nice, perfectly maintained with elegant gardens. I was brought into the main oval office of their leader. The office was crowded as many people bustled about with their duties and routines. Some to help the leader and other stood as security. Everyone had a role to play, and everyone seemed focused and intent, proud to play that role well. There was a group of children lined up, with their parents watching, as the leader pinned medals onto their shirts. The children were so proud, and their parents more. The leader, in his fine clothes, and his disciplined assistants, returned to his large desk for the next step in this business dance. During this break I was able to talk to the children. In the conversation I asked if they wanted to be the leader one day, and they said yes. The leader heard this and he, and all his assistant shot me a look of anger. I did not understand. I felt threatened. The parents noticed this as well and became agitated. The security guards began to move and words turned into pushes, then pushes into punches. I was groping to understand what was happening when it occurred to me. This town was built from two structures; one of abstract power and one of material achievement. It was the job of the people of power to manage the people of achievement, and they did this with medals and awards. But, the achievers were not supposed to know this. I had accidentally messed that up with a single question. I wanted to shrink away from guilt. The violence grew as more people came into the office. In the mayhem I saw the security people discretely take the leader behind a curtain on one wall of the office. I quietly followed along. Behind it was a hidden doorway.

It was an ancient stone passageway that no one had been in before. It went down for a long, long way. There was a group of us traveling down, but one by one, I passed these people as they slowly lost courage. I focused on the sound of my footsteps, my heart beating, and my breathing. I do not know how long I had been leading the group, but I became aware that they all were quite a distance behind me. Eventually, I entered a huge cavern. It was immense. So large that I could not see any of the other three walls. It was filled with cultural artifacts. Statues and books. Egyptian, Greek, and Roman trinkets of all sorts. It was very interesting to walk through the mass of items in such a huge space. The rest of the group was so far behind me, that I was well out of sight towards the center of the cavern when they entered. I could hear their exclamations of how this discovery will afford them new powers and achievements. They all expressed excitement at how this would improve their own positions in one way or another. I walked on quietly.

At the other end of the cavern the ground became rough and dangerous. I carefully climbed up a difficult slope and saw a wall that looked a little peculiar to me. At the wall I found that it was not a wall at all, but a curtain hiding another chamber. I went through and found a very large room, not nearly as large as the cavern, but big enough to cause wonder. It was full of gold, silver, and jewels. The shiny objects were all piled to the ceiling in mounds like a mountain range. There was a path that wound through it all, the river valley below, but the floor was completely covered and I was walking on a layer of gold coins and trinkets I had no idea how deep. At the center of the room I stood and marveled at the sheer volume of it all. I settled myself and was at peace, simply taking in the glimmer and shine. Then, something caught my eye. A distortion in the shimmer. There was something moving that I couldn’t quite see. I tried to focus on anything but the shimmering gold and jewels. I tried to focus on nothing at all. Once, and then again, then a little more frequently, I caught glimpses of some people moving around. They were like ghosts. I did not know if it was my focus, or their fear, but I was finally able to see three individuals scurrying around the gold. They were afraid, paranoid, and I found that it was what made them visible to me. They were afraid that others would find their gold since I had found it. I didn’t think anyone would, but I wasn’t going to tell them that. I knew their paranoia would do the damage they feared from me. They had no control over it. Their paranoia was their wind and surf. At the back of the room there was another passage. This one was going up. I left them there with their panic growing about how they were going to protect their wealth.

I found myself walking to my rhythm up a riverside trail at the bottom of a red desert canyon. It was beautiful and peaceful. The river was strong and the walls were high. I wanted to go to the top and see what there was to see, but the trail only went along the river. After a long while, I came to a fork in the trail. An old friend of mine from back at the beach was there camping and waiting. Long ago he had left the beach looking for wealth and power. I was glad to see him, but it turned out that he could not see me. I tried to talk to him, but found he could not hear me either. I knew that I would take the trail going up the side of the canyon and he would continue up the river. He was only waiting for someone to join him. Then it occurred to me that he probably didn’t even see the trail going up. We had gotten to this place by different paths and with different intentions. I went up the trail a little ways and set up camp so I could keep an eye on him while he waited. Days passed before someone he knew finally showed up. He was very excited to finally have a companion. They spent some time catching up and then gathered their things to head off up the river. I watched them go, a little happy and sad. Then set off in my own direction, with the sound of my own footsteps, my own heartbeat, and my own breathing.