My husband was in the Marines for four years. When he was nineteen he did a tour of combat in Fallujah, Iraq. He’s told me stories about his time there – the bombs, the room-clearing, the bullets whipping past his head, his loss of hearing for months afterward and his need to be alone for even longer – and I always ask him the same question, “How did you make it out alive?” His eyes glaze over and I can see him withdraw to that place, the place he had to make for himself to separate his memories from his present reality.
“I don’t know.” He says.
“But I’m glad I did.”
He was nineteen.
He finds feathers, my husband. In strange places. We’ll be in the woods, taking the dog for a walk and he’ll pluck something from the ground and twirl it between his fingers.
“Look. A feather.”
At first I thought this habit was cute. How adorable: he likes feathers. A grown man. But lately I’ve begun to think of it as something more profound.
I never pick up feathers when I see them. Actually, I rarely see them. To me they are trash, potentially disease infested refuse. They’re gross. I feel uncomfortable touching the hard tip of the quill where it connects to the bird’s body. I feel like I’m violating its owner somehow. Aviary intimacy is not something I’m comfortable with.
But my husband is different. He’s a feather magnet. It’s like he has some kind of feather-seeking tracking device that pulls him to every shedding bird within a two-mile radius.
We have a collection of feathers in our house. I’m going to frame some of them soon and will be sure to post a picture.
(Here it is.)
The reason I’m going to frame them is this: my husband survived Fallujah, Iraq when he was nineteen years old and now he picks up feathers and brings them home to show me.
What other reason could I possibly need?
I stopped believing in God when I was twenty-three. I was raised Catholic. It’s a beautiful religion, full of history and tradition if not a bit too much pomp and circumstance. I wrote a letter to my priest when I was twenty-three telling him that I could no longer belong to the church. I’m not sure if that’s the proper protocol. Did I excommunicate myself? Can I do that? In the letter I explained that there were too many discrepancies between my inner voice and the voice of the church. I thanked him for his years of service to me and wished him the best in my former parish.
He never wrote back.
I stopped believing in god because I couldn’t see it (I’m staying gender neutral here and refusing to anthropomorphize), couldn’t feel it and felt utterly duped by the notion of it even existing. To my rational mind, all the stories I was taught growing up about miracles and prayer and salvation started to sound like a record skipping. Didn’t every civilization have these kinds of stories? What kind of merit did they have, then? I suddenly remembered when I was in high school, laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of the Greek gods we learned about in history class. Really? They believed this shit?
My hypocrisy creeped up on me. What made any belief different than those goofy ancient picture books with merman Poseidon, hourglass Venus, and eagle-metamorphosizing Zeus? It wasn’t a question of whose gods were better – Modern Christianity vs. Ancient Mediterranean: cage fight of the centuries! – but rather a question of the entire existence of all of them.
What made any religion more or less worthy of mockery? Weren’t they all really just a bunch of fairy stories wrapped up to conceal deeply meaningful truths? And did we really need the fairy stories to get to those truths? Were there even truths?
I had hit an intellectual snag. It was at this point that I threw out the entire concept of a believable mythology and of god with it. I became an atheist. (“Gasp!” Woman faints, baby cries, dogs howl, ominous thunder crashes.)
I feel it’s important to say that my life has not been more empty, more lost, or more plagued since eliminating the concept of god from it. If anything, I’ve become a stronger, warmer and more guided version of myself. I don’t think any of these are the result of atheism but rather the result of growing older which happened to coincide with atheism. Even so, I’ve got to point out that never once did I burst into flames or crawl on my belly and lament in the darkness. Shadow spirits do not haunt me. (At least I don’t think they do – I suppose if they did they’d probably be pretty sneaky about it.)
My rational conclusion about god still stands.
And yet, the idea of god comes back to me, even so.
Why? Because my husband brings home feathers.
I started seeing a psychic months ago. She’s amazing. We are now more girlfriends than patron and client. Since spending time with her, I’ve begun to question whether or not my five-senses were really an adequate judge of the nature of the universe. I feel this doubt is pretty scientifically sound, too. There are plenty of biology transcending phenomenon that are indiscernible to our meager senses – all you need to understand this is open up a quantum physics text book. That shit’ll blow your hair back.
I couldn’t rationally explain why or how she knew that my purpose in life was to create art and foster dogs, that my deceased grandmother loved with painful ferocity, or that our purchase of a house was going to hit about twelve-thousand snags during Mercury Retrograde – a delightful little peach of a time that, looking back, explains a great deal of life’s chaos.
I know. I hear what you’re saying. I’m a skeptic, too. Just knowing a few things about a person does not prove the existence of some higher metaphysical power. Anyone with the slightest bit of skill or a shit load of luck could have guessed these things about me, about anyone.
But there was more to it than that. There’s always more to it than that.
What was said to me touched me deeply in a profound and lasting way. I couldn’t shake the feeling of elation that stayed with me for days after my first, second and third readings, nor could I ignore the incredible draw pulling me to the world of the metaphysical that has yet to waver. Even if psychics are all a hoax, I was touched. I was compelled. I emerged from my readings as a lighter, freer, more grounded version of myself.
Suddenly, religion started to make sense again.
And it occurred to me: that’s why people do it, that’s why they believe. Not because they can prove it. Shit, they don’t even care! You could scientifically draw out, line by line, a mathematical proof for the non-existence of god and it wouldn’t shake a truly religious person’s faith one itty bit. You wouldn’t even be a fly buzzing in their ear. You know why? Because it doesn’t matter. Belief comes from a place so deep and untouchable that even reason itself cannot overcome it. People only ever believe because they feel – not because their belief was the least ridiculous of the options played out in front of them but because it was the only option, ever. That’s what unites all religious men and women. They’re wild and bold enough to trust in a feeling. Who gives a shit what their respective mythologies say: in their truest, most genuine form, men and women of faith are answering to a stir within the bellies of their souls. Science needs proof to stand on. It needs neatness and tidiness. It needs vacuums and exponents. Religion? It just throws a big FU, somersaulting mid-air with guns blazing. And it lands on its feet every time. Fancy that.
I don’t know how my husband survived Fallujah. Was it some divine protective force? Was it luck? Was it statistical probability? Was it his own cunning made manifest in the months of training he received prior to shipping out? Does it matter? He’s here. And he brings me feathers.
I read online somewhere that Michael the Archangel, the eternal soldier, is known as the patron saint of warriors. He guides and guards them in their darkest hours of battle. There are a few ways a person can tell if he or she is being protected by Michael. One of those ways is that he leaves them feathers.
I’m going to frame those feathers tomorrow. Because I believe in angels, now? Maybe. But more importantly, because my husband brought them home.