He has written a new book that explores the nuances between faith and doubt, where art and life trump the ugly theologies of an angry God and the atheist vision of a cold, meaningless universe. It’s called Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to Create Beauty, Give Love and Find Peace. His premise? Only when we abandon our hunt for certainty do we become free to create beauty, give love and find peace. I have certainly found that to be true in my own life. He has allowed me to post an excerpt from the book with my readers today. Enjoy!
Picking up my grandchildren Lucy (5) and Jack (3) from kindergarten and preschool has evolved into a happy ritual. I prepare snacks for them to eat on the way home, usually sliced apples or cheese and crackers for Jack and a banana or black olives and sliced tomatoes for Lucy. The twenty-minute drive home often includes a stop to watch the 1:09 p.m. Newburyport to Boston train hurtle under the bridge on Route 1A. Jack loves trains! When we wave, the driver sounds his bell and blows his horn and Jack shouts, “Hi Joe!” He knows the driver’s name from his many visits with Genie to the Newburyport station to watch the trains.
One day just after returning from preschool the grandchildren were in the kitchen painting on butcher paper when a friend phoned. I’ll call him “Sam.” Sam is a successful movie producer in Hollywood whom I worked with when I was directing movies in the 1980s. Although I quit the movie business in the early 1990s after I wrote Portofino, and it was published to rave reviews, thus offering me a passport to a little artistic satisfaction and vindication at last (!), Sam and I are still close friends. We’ve bickered over our philosophical differences and exchanged visits and insults for years.
Sam asked what I was doing. “I just picked up the grandkids,” I said, and without thinking, added, “I love hanging out with the other young mothers at preschool.”
Sam paused as he processed my words. “The other young mothers?” he said and laughed. “The OTHER young mothers?”
I laughed too, though my remark made sense to me. When I pick up Lucy and Jack, I’m one of the few men and the only grandfather at the preschool. Because Lucy’s kindergarten ends half an hour after Jack’s preschool, Jack and I have time to play in the hall or outside in the schoolyard while the moms and a few dads come and go.
At first, the mothers couldn’t figure me out. Why was this old guy hanging around? Why was he unshaved with unkempt hair, torn jeans and paint all over his clothes? Should someone call the police?
After seeing me every day for a year, the moms know me. Some know I’m a writer and artist, so the paint-spattered look is accepted. One mom checked me out online and discovered I’ve been interviewed by Oprah and by Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. Even a minor celebrity is accorded some eccentric artist slack, at least in the arts-friendly Boston area. I could show up in my bathrobe and slippers and no one would mind. I’m just one of the gang, albeit somewhat of a “character.”
The mothers and I discuss one child’s cold and how fast the rest of us are likely to catch it. We commiserate about the latest pink eye blight. We talk about one child who wakes up in the night and celebrate the quantum leap another little girl made with her drawing skills after discovering chalk pastels. We note who is pregnant with her second or third child and share strategies for helping a little boy who is scared of pooping because he’s sure something is “down there” in the toilet. We congratulate one mom for finally getting a job with health insurance benefits and commiserate with another about the challenging childcare schedule of a night shift nurse.
Some of the mothers are stay-at-home parents while others hurry away from the office at lunchtime to meet their child, deliver her to the babysitter and race back to work. Some have told me about problems with teenage stepchildren, previous marriages, divorces and their struggles to fit into New England after moving from a “friendlier part of the country.” Some moms arrive in old cars while others drive new SUVs. No matter what we drive or earn, or if we’re married, black, brown or white, single, gay, heterosexual or divorced, when we get down on our knees at eye-level with our babies as they run into our arms, we understand each other perfectly.
The child we’re meeting touches the core of our being. Every mom delights in the pint-sized human shouting, “Hi, Mommy!”
The shouted greeting that makes my heart skip is “Hi, Ba!”
Our shared experience of vulnerability erases the age and gender differences between the young mothers and me. We share a fearful solidarity; call it the flip side of love. If anything awful were to happen to the child clambering into our arms, the universe, as we know it, would end.