I am an atheist, and this is a story about love.
The hypocrisy of invoking God’s name is not lost on me but in my defence, I didn’t choose heresy any more than a child born and raised in a Christian household chooses Christ. My non-religious parents reluctantly sent me to a Catholic High School (it’s a long story) and in the Summer before school started, I decided to scrub up on my God skills lest there was a pop quiz on the first day. Genesis started out OK, though I found the storytelling lacklustre and the characters unlikeable, but when I got to the floods of Exodus, I slammed the stupid book shut and shook my head in disbelief. At school, I was mostly a compliant and studious child, except in mandatory religion class. It was here that I asserted a stance of argumentative hell-raiser and soon discovered that not believing in God meant not believing in Hell which meant screw you, Miss.
“But Miss, how can you believe that God loves you when he drowned everyone! Even the animals! The ANIMALS, Miss! I’m sorry, but a guy who drowns animals can’t be trusted.”
Perhaps it was that one amazing RE teacher in Year 10, the ubiquitousness of Christianity in Australia, but His non-existence hasn’t precluded God’s presence in my life - quite the opposite. I actually felt God keenly during my childhood, before I found out he drowned everyone. I’ve grown into more of Nietzsche style of non-believer in that I feel a divine force that’s neither masculine nor feminine, that is both within me and also everywhere. I don’t know. Whatever. I like it. And I haven’t drowned anyone yet.
I have felt this divine force often, particularly during childhood and early adulthood, when my experience of a situation became inexplicably heightened. These would be experiences of little or no spectacle, the kind to be forgotten quickly were it not for an involuntary, gravitational lingering in my mind. I have recorded some of these experiences with such precision that I doubt I could ever forget them, and there exists a catalogue of entries in my God vault, gathering dust as I await their true meaning to become obvious with time and maturity. These moments have visited me less frequently in adulthood, but I’d like to go through that catalogue one day and try to figure out exactly what it was they (or He or She or It) were teaching me at that moment. The most important one, however, was this:
It was 1992, so I was 11. I had gone with my aunt, uncle and cousins to a holiday house at a tiny little place called Tunnel Bend on the Howqua River. The house was an asbestos shack, deep in the bush. From the back porch ran a blackberry-lined track that led to the river, meandered past an outdoor badminton court, and came out onto a stony beach. The river had an undulating current with rips that carried small children off without warning, planting them 50 metres downstream before they’d finished their sentences. My cousins and I were all strong swimmers, so we were often left to our own devices at the river’s edge, equipped with blow-up mattresses we would use to catch rips and race each other to a designated tree upstream. The spot earned its name, Tunnel Bend, as it was a river that travelled around a bend to a man-made tunnel, cut from the earth during the Gold Rush. A little way up from our beach, the river diverted through the tunnel, and came right back around where it started. The only rule our parents imposed was that we would travel along the river in pairs, and my cousin Owen and I were perpetual partners in adventure. Owen got the gene that turned his skin a shade of deep caramel the minute the sun came out, and I got the gene that simmered until it exploded with freckles. Together, we would jump on our mattresses, paddle downstream or catch a rogue rip, then drag ourselves and our makeshift vessels through the dark tunnel. As we clambered over boulders slippery with moss, and trying not to trip on the uneven rock pools, we’d call ‘Marco!’ ‘Polo!’ to keep track of each other. Then we’d resume paddling on the other side, arriving back on our little beach. We made the journey through the tunnel countless times each day and sometimes, we would follow the river further upstream and pitch a nice spot to spend the day.
We had all set out one mild morning – not hot, I remember that – to a spot that had a nice stretch of beach, where the current wasn’t too strong so the smaller kids could swim. We didn’t drive or walk, we all got on our mattresses and floated there. I shared a mattress with Owen, and my uncle kayaked along beside us.
We got to the spot and splashed around a while, but it was a cold (and without the rips, a bit boring) so I jumped out of the water, wrapped myself in a towel and sat with my sister on the shore. My cousins and uncle were still out in the water but my aunt, who wasn’t inclined to swim, was sitting nearby fully clothed. Had she managed to float all the way up the river without getting her clothes wet? Or had she followed a blackberry track here? In retrospect, I can’t be sure. But one thing is important: she was wearing jeans, and shoes and a jumper. Before I knew what was happening, a frantic splash broke the peace and my aunt was in the water – in her jeans and her shoes and her jumper. I heard her yell something and I leaped to my feet, looking out to the water where I could see the four boys swimming and my aunt flailing, but for a split second, I couldn’t see my uncle. Barely a second passed before his kayak flipped up out of the water but my aunt was still swimming desperately, locked in a world that was separate to ours, a world in which her husband was drowning. For one electric moment, we all froze and watched her. Then she looked up, saw my uncle’s confused face, treaded water for a moment, before wading back to the shore. My uncle followed.
“I saw you go under,” she said. “I thought you were drowning.”
She was drenched and sheepish but to me, in that moment, she was God. A woman leaping to action to save her drowning husband who, it turns out, wasn’t drowning at all. She didn’t care that it wasn’t a particularly warm day and she had no other clothes. She didn’t care that he might just be practicing his rolls. She jumped in the river! In her jeans! In her shoes! In her jumper! She didn’t waste a moment to consider the probable reality, she was only concerned with the heartbreak of an unlikely alternative.
“This,” said God. “Pay attention to this.”
I was 11 years old. I loved my family and they loved me, but I didn’t know anything about love. I had partaken in the usual role-play of kindergarten weddings, but it would be another four years before Leonardo Di Caprio’s Romeo would awaken in me those first stirrings of a yet unknown world of love and loss and desire. I had no context with which to process this moment, but my naive little mind, yet to experience true love or deep loss, clung to something it didn’t understand except to know it was important. Standing still on that river bed, Heaven opened up and shone a spotlight on twelve seconds of an otherwise unmemorable day.
That moment has played and re-played in my head many times. Throughout my teens, when love was confusing, it was a riddle I couldn’t solve. It would be years before I began to see its relevance: that moment taught me how to recognise when someone loved me. It also taught me how to recognise when someone maybe didn’t. And although I spent far too many years playing it cool for fear of being devastated or consumed, that moment taught me to leap into love without fear of being wrong or looking silly. That even when you are wrong or you do look silly, you are still magnificent - you are God - in your capacity to love. Most importantly, it taught me that women are not the passive objects of love; we are capable of loving with the same ferociousness and foolishness as men.
That moment, in its ordinariness and its brilliance, taught me how to love.
I’m not too proud to say it: I owe you one, God. If you really are out there, and that really was you, it was a pretty cool trick.