Illustration by Popularium
“Grandma, how do you know all that?”
It is my first time having a New York City bagel, and I am perched on a park bench next to my grandmother, who tells me the complete backstory of every person who walks by.
“Well, I don’t. But it’s fun. People interest me, honey. I believe in people.”
I am in ninth grade when she shares this, and people seem like a nice thing to believe in. I like that she believes in them. I want to believe in them as well.
For four years I have been searching for something to believe in. I am growing up in a home where prayer only happens when keys go missing. Where church is for weddings. And yet God is somehow always ever-present.
And, though I can’t say that the familial belief in God is imparted to me, for a long time I want to believe and that desire keeps me innocent. Childlike. Safe. But in fifth grade my hopes are dashed by my particularly blunt friend Matt.
We’re sitting at lunch together.
I ask him, “What do you think Santa will bring you this year?”
He looks at me with concern and replies, “Santa’s not real.”
And everything breaks.
Bokononism: To live by the foma — the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.
In the back of my mind I hear the sound of glass shattering and await Stone Cold Steve Austin’s descent down an imaginary ramp. And just like that it hits me — if Santa isn’t real, there really is no point in trying to believe in God anymore.
This particular moment pushes me out the door down the long road I now call my spiritual journey. There is no religious text I won’t read: The Bible, The Torah, The Quran, The Dao, The Notebook. I devour philosophy and begin to carve out my own system of belief. I draw from Wu Tang, from Kanye, from Pikachu, from anywhere I can. With each quote added to my book of aphorisms I hear my grandmother’s voice: “I believe in people.”
Karass: A group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial links are not evident.
Could that be it? Could it be that simple? Probably not.
Humanitarianism comes naturally to me, as it had to Kurt Vonnegut. On that trip to the city with my grandmother I purchase a used copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. I instantly fall in love with his words, his theories, and his mind. Four years later, when asked to do an author study, he is the only one I consider.
Because of this choice, I learn more about life in one year of English class than in my prior 17 years. With each book I read I understand more about the world, and no book adds more to that knowledge than Cat’s Cradle.
Cat’s Cradle is about many things, but it’s prevailingly about religion and metafiction. The two are combined beautifully in this poem from the Books of Bokonon:
I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense,
So we could all be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies,
So they all fit nice,
And I made this sad world,
Even writing this, I smile. I hear that glass break again with a Stone Cold Stunner to my belief system. I recall that Bokononism is a lie, certainly, but maybe it is a very good lie.
Wampeter: the central theme or purpose of a karass. A karass generally has one wampeter that it revolves around.
I’m at my grandmother’s funeral. Her friend is speaking.
“One thing I always loved about Linda was how supportive she was, you know? I felt… I felt like she truly believed in me, and I’m sure that’s something everyone in this room, and more people outside of it, felt too.”
It is possible that an Irish funeral is the only one where you will hear thunderous applause. But I cannot raise my hands to clap, or else I would. Because at this moment I am unstuck from time.
It is 2012 and I am in New York City. My grandmother is telling me every detail about every life around me. These assumptions are never judgements; even the people who are feeling poorly are all going to be okay. They are all good people and they all are capable of good deeds.
I push back a little bit on my timeline, and I look into Matt’s eyes as he destroys my belief in Santa and, unknowingly, in God. He shows no malice. Then I fast forward through the long and winding road of my spiritual journey and I find myself in bed, only a few nights before my grandmother’s death, flipping back through Cat’s Cradle and dog-earing every page containing an aphorism that I enjoy.
Then, with a whoosh and a shatter of glass, I am back at my grandmother’s funeral watching her friend relinquish the microphone.
A few times in my life I have felt as though I were part of a karrass. That’s one of those beautiful lies we Bokononists tell ourselves, that we are bonded together with the people we meet for a spiritual purpose. In that room, at that funeral, whether I am part of it or not, I see my grandmother’s karrass come to life. She was a wampeter and she was the center of her karrass while she was alive.
When we get home that night I gather a list of my friends, then I make a list of my karrass. I make a spiritual Venn diagram, and call a congregation of anyone in the middle where the two intersect.
In the dingy attic that I call my bedroom, I look upon a handful of my closest friends. Like Aragorn before attacking Mordor, I deliver a speech, the speech I wish I had given at my grandmother’s funeral. I tell them this:
“I believe in people. I believe in the bond between them. I believe that all of us are in this room together for a greater purpose, one that may not come to fruition in our lifetimes, but one that will — someday — come to fruition. And I have lied to you, and you have lied as well. These lies are what make life real, and the greatest lie I will tell any of you is this: I believe in people.”
I haven’t felt the same since that time in the attic.
I know now that when asking for a God, I am asking for a grander purpose. When a wampeter passes, the role moves on to someone or something else. The lie I tell myself every day is that if my grandmother’s wampetership did not move on fully to me, I must at least do it justice in this transitory period, before passing it on to another. I must tell another lie.
Foma: harmless untruths; lies that, if used correctly, can be valuable.
And so it goes.