Next to of course God, America, I…

Excerpt from How To Love Yourself and the Human Race in 17 Days or Less

(otherwise known as my graduate thesis)

(February, 2012)

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth” – e.e.cummings

The first time I see Grand Canyon, I don’t really even see it. I catch a brief glimpse of it from the shuttle-bus’s window. All the same, my heart drops down into my stomach and I grip the seat beneath me. I have never seen anything so enormous up close, not even through a bus window.

The Park Service teases you, of course. They have to. The magnificence of the Canyon demands some sort of fan-fare, and since it would be impractical for them to blindfold every one of the roughly thirteen thousand tourists that arrive every day, lead them to a vista, and reveal, they instead built the main hub, the place the shuttle takes you to first, quite a distance away from the Canyon’s edge, so that there is an anticipation-building walk of several yards before you stare into its depths.

When I am freed from the shuttle bus and may approach it for myself, I am behind three coffee-colored women in bright saris. One pink, one yellow, one lime green. They cling to each other and giggle as they walk to it. I don’t know who these women are or where they come from. I don’t know if they are American or foreign, or if such distinctions should matter. I do know when they see Grand Canyon for the first time because all three of them raise their arms in the air, tilt their palms to heaven, and begin shouting, “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” God is great! God is great!

Our post 9-11 culture has taught us to fear such Islam-isms, especially in crowded tourist areas, but as I watch them run toward the canyon as if running into the arms of Allah Himself, I know that their Allah is the jovial sort. When He looks at America, He sees the Grand Canyon, not our unethical CEOs.

They laugh, a silver tinkling sound like clear rushing water. It envelops me like the visible wind in a Disney movie, and soon I am laughing, too. I look off to my right and could almost swear I see an adorable little blue bird wink at me. My excitement grows and I increase my pace, ready to see it for myself, already.

When I see it, it paralyzes me. All the air is sucked out of my lungs and the word breathtaking is made real to me at last. I stand, rooted to the cement trail the Park Service has built along the Canyon’s edge to help stave off the erosion that several thousand pairs of treading feet per day must inevitably cause. My heart drops back into my stomach and my head spins. Vertigo, the mischievous friend I always greet at the top of great heights, returns to me.

It is so big.

It is so beautiful.

In this moment, I am so certain that there is a God, a genuine, artistic God who loves us, that when I get back home and take Post-Colonial Lit, which could also be called Genocide from Around the World and the Literary Traditions it Inspires, I will try so desperately to remember this feeling, this certainty. Facing the canyon, I forget how ugly the world can be, how blind God can seem.

Here, God is an artist, and land is His medium. Rock formations every hue of the most glorious sunset you’ve ever seen rise and fall throughout the gorge of the canyon itself, some of them peaking up into perfect pyramids, some of them flattening out into plateaus that would be the most righteous place in the world to assume the Lotus position and meditate about life for a while. It is a mile down to the river below, which is only visible from certain areas, and anywhere from seven to fourteen miles to the other side, as the crow flies. People have to drive one hundred and fifty miles out of their way to see both rims, usually. It is a craggy, textured masterpiece. Your eyes can drink and drink of it and never see it all, or get their fill. It is a view that never gets old, but when the wind blows hard enough, you know seeing it could literally be the death of you.

Later, reading the many informational plaques the Park Service has scattered about for my learning convenience, I will learn that this piece took Him something like two hundred and fifty million years to complete, and if you look closely, imperfections are noticeable.
They are called Unconformities. Missing spaces in the geologic record of the Canyon, with the largest gap standing at one billion years. (Called the Great Unconformity.) Using a lot of scientific names that bounce of the brain like rubber balls and numbers far too large for any of us to comprehend (one billion, seventeen hundred million, five hundred million), the plaques will tell you that the grey layer of rocks at the bottom of the canyon were formed x hundred million years ago and the red layer on top of it x million years ago. They will tell you there were intervening eras which have left no trace in the canyon. They blame erosion for the missing records, but still, it makes you think.

I prefer to think of them as brush strokes made too quickly, the artist in some kind of hurry. He probably just wanted to get to the fun parts at the top, the craggy pyramids and plateaus, and who can blame Him? Those are the parts people pay to see, anyway. This explanation makes my head hurt less than trying to imagine how a billion years just disappeared off the books. Of course, there’s evidence they took place elsewhere, fossils and rocks from other parts of the world. They’re just missing from this account.

There is definitely a leave-you-guessing air about the scientific information scattered about the park. The Park Service knows the precarious line it must walk between science and religion. On the one hand, Grand Canyon is one of the most well preserved and thoroughly studied examples of the geological history of the earth available. On the other, it has always been a holy place. American Indians have been worshipping it for several thousand years, and now it has become something of a pilgrimage site of India-Indians, too, thanks to several dead white men with wry senses of humor.

Many of the rock formations do, curiously, resemble temples of worship from around the ancient world, most notably India. Therefore, they were all given names with slightly religious connotations. There is Vishnu Temple and Shiva Temple and Krishna Shrine. There is also the Temple of Osiris and the Temple of Isis and The Temple of Ra. There’s Zororaster Temple, just for the philosophy and religion majors in the audience. Even that bastion of science within the Park, a round brick building where most of the geologic information is found complete with dioramas and illustrations, is called Shrine of the Ages. I don’t know if a lot of Egyptians or ancient Aryans (the Mediterranean kind, not the Nazi kind) come to visit the canyon, but I do know that more and more Indians flock here every year to have their photos taken with the temples named after their gods.

I, too, am pleasantly surprised to see Vishnu here. He’s all over the place. Besides Vishnu Temple, one of the most prominent pinnacles found in the Canyon, there are the Vishnu Basement Rocks lining the bottom of the Canyon, some of the oldest rocks in the world. You see, Vishnu is my God, too.

Theoretically, Hindus live with their faith. When they choose a god or several of them from their impressive pantheon (over a million strong and counting), they invite the god into their home in the form of an idol or picture. They wake the god in the morning, feed it breakfast, sing to it, pray to it, and leave the radio on so it will be entertained throughout the day. When they return home, they greet the idol, feed it supper, sing to it, and pray to it again. Before they sleep, they tuck the idol into a tiny bed made just for it. Faith is a living thing to Hindus. It is not put on and taken off every Sunday, but practiced every day, every minute, every second. Accepting faith in a god is a commitment like marriage, or childbirth. Of course, nobody is this perfect. The Hindu system has attempted to perfect the art of truly living with ones’ divinity, with fairly typical results. Hindus put on and take of their faith as it is convenient, just like everybody else, but I like to imagine they feel guiltier about it, what with God sitting over in the corner watching all the time. Likewise, I have an altar to Vishnu in my room and His visage is tacked to my doorway. I kiss His feet before I exit and when I return, or I try to remember to. When something good happens to me and I am at home, I rush to Vishnu, kiss His feet, and thank Him. When something good happens to me and I am not at home, I kiss my palm and offer it to Heaven. I chant Om Namah Shivaya and whisper thank you, Lord over and over.

It’s a little weird, I guess, especially for a southern American white girl who’s never been to India, hasn’t even read the Vedas properly, and can literally never be Hindu, as Hindu means of India. I know white people like Julia Roberts and Elizabeth Gilbert get made fun of for saying they’re Hindu spiritualists, but I assure you, I didn’t ask for this. No, Vishnu showed up unannounced in my Eastern Religious Traditions class and tapped me on the shoulder.

“You and me, kid. We’re going places,” He said.

“What? Okay. Should… should I bow or something? Should I be bowing right now?”

“Nah. But if you build It, I will come.”

“I’ve never actually seen Field of Dreams. You want me to build a baseball field in my back yard? I don’t have a back yard. I live in a dorm.”

“No. An altar. Build me an altar. Geez. I’m not going to be spelling everything out for you like this from now on.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

My eyes snapped open, Vishnu was gone and the professor was talking animatedly about Buddhism, clearly his religion of choice. Nobody was looking at me strangely or seemed to have noticed that a God had just been in their presence, or that I had been sleeping in class, which was probably for the best, really.

Later that day, I printed out a picture of Vishnu and set up a small altar to Him in my room, much to my conservative Christian roommate’s chagrin. She never said anything about it, because I was the stronger personality. All battles against me were losing ones. I tried to be innocuous about my new faith, to never discuss it unless she asked, to observe my rituals of prayer, meditation, and attending to the visage of Vishnu when she was out of the room. I wouldn’t want her confronting me with her religion, either, and she didn’t. But her nose would wrinkle when she looked at the altar and I’m sure she spent many fervent moments praying for my immortal soul. I think Vishnu kept trying to tell her I was covered in that respect, but she wouldn’t have listened even if she could hear Him.

Meanwhile, back at the canyon, everywhere I look, people are praying to it, from the Allahu Akbar women earlier, to Christians with their hands clasped in front of their faces, to Hindus literally singing its praises. Science and religion rub up against each other here. They lay sleeping together in this corner of America, like a cat and dog who have learned to get along, at least on this day. I imagine there are days when these forces do fight, even here, all tooth and claw and flying fur. But today, we all of us coexist. Just like the bumper sticker.

When I turn on CNN in my motel room later, I will be reminded how acerbic the atmosphere between the religious and non-religious of this country has supposedly become. Of course, when the news talks about religion, they mean Christian and Atheist. Random young adults wandering around worshipping foreign blue gods do not enter into the equation. Neither do the hundreds of other options available to Americans.

This is the story as the major news outlets see it: (Fundamentalist) Christians want to ban gay marriage. Atheists want to remove all mention of God from society. Christians ignore entire swaths of the Bible in favor of one or two obscure and poorly translated verses. Atheists ignore the religion of our Founding Fathers, and Christians behave as if the religion practiced by our ancestors should still be affecting policy today. Atheists ask why we don’t just go back to sacrificing bulls and virgins, then. Christians say because Jesus, that’s why. Every once in a while there will be a passing mention of some other religion, usually Islam, and usually in foreboding, terrifying terms. But typically, when an American says “religion” what s/he means is “Protestant Christianity.” One thing is for certain, there is very little grey area, and never the twain shall meet. It must serve someone’s interest to tell this story, over and over again, every day until we all believe it and snarl at each other in our waking thoughts.

I see a different story at the Grand Canyon. A hundred different cultures and religions are represented here, and everybody is pretty much okay with that. If I could choose a version of America for people to see, it would be this one. Here, the much-talked-about melting pot is clearly visible, as thirteen thousand different people with thirteen thousand different stories, points of view, way of dress, and cultural orientation coexist more-or-less peacefully. The only people who seem to be upset with each other are families who have clearly spent too many hours crammed into a mini-van with one another.

Tourists exchange cameras in perfect trust, taking group photos of each other for nothing more than a thank you and a shared experience. Muslims will greet you with a hearty Asalaam Alaikum, and the Hindu will reply with Namaste. Catholics, brown and white alike, pass their thumbs over rosary beads as they stare out into the Canyon, their lips ever-moving in silent litany. Five or six different strangers chime out Bless you when I sneeze, and if there are any agnostics or atheists sneering at God here today, they are quiet about it. They worship instead the rocks and the very scientific tale they tell. Pressure, time, and water banging together until this magnificent piece was carved and made real, the life’s work of Northern Arizona itself.
Here, the stories on CNN and FOX news are but small annoyances, like tiny mosquitos buzzing around the back porch of America.

Everything seems small compared to the Canyon.

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