Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Virgo, Skeptic Rising

There are two kinds of people in the world: believers and skeptics. George Bernard Shaw said: "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.

Sober or not, I fall pretty comfortably into the skeptical category, though I'm not quite as jaded as my mother. She can't even watch a magician without saying: "It's a trick."

"Of course it's a trick," my dad says, "but the illusion is fun."

"It's just a trick," says my mother.

Her sister, my aunt, reads her horoscope pretty regularly. When my mother says that she doesn't believe in horoscopes, my aunt says: "Of course you don't. You're a Capricorn."

On the Zodiacal chart, I'm Virgo, often described as: perfectionistic, anxious, hardworking, self-sacrificing, reliable, logical, observant, helpful, precise, interfering. I am all of those things.

Virgo is also described as cold, fussy, inflexible, introverted, fastidious, health conscious, fit, and emotionally secretive. I am none of those things.

If I am sitting in a doctor's office and if there is no good celebrity gossip to read, I will glance at my horoscope. Sometimes I agree, somethings I don't. But do I believe? No. Nor do I believe a single word that tarot card reader told me at that party last summer.

In fact, the older I get, the less I believe in much of anything. The folly of youth seems to be to believe that things will simultaneously change completely (for the better) and yet never change. Experience shows that fashion and technology change, but that human nature does not.

The belief systems of the world's religions have never seemed particularly helpful to me. I worry enough about this lifetime to spend much energy worrying about the next. I'd like to believe, as many ancient cultures do, that everything has a spirit, but I don't really care whether a rock has an inner life and I don't want to have to worry about the soul of that mosquito I just snuffed. One of the big reasons that Judaism appeals to me is that it offers more questions than answers. That seems right. Answers are elusive, maybe even irrelevant. It's the questions that count.

On the other hand, some things aren't even worth questioning. They just … are. And despite a pervasive skepticism, I do believe in a few unbelievable things. Like most parents, I know for a fact that my babies are miracles. Life itself — the spark of it — is miraculous, even if it is just a random accident rather than divine design.

Part of this miracle that it is finite. Our lives are limited and unpredictable, and most belief systems seem to stem from our need to answer the answerable: where do we come from, how long will we be here, where do we go? I don't believe that anyone really knows, at least not for sure.

I don't believe in ghosts, either, but I do know that my grandmother came to say goodbye to me when she passed away 12 years ago. She was in Michigan when she died, and I was at home in bed in Chicago. She came to my room and told me not to worry, that everything was fine and that she loved me. I saw her standing there, by the door. She didn't speak, yet I heard her clear as day. My inner skeptic didn't even question it.

You don't have to believe me. It doesn't matter whether you do or not. If you need proof, however, I did wake my husband to tell him. He patted my hand and told me to go back to sleep. When my mother called at 6:30 in the morning to tell me the news, my husband was wide-eyed and my mother had no idea what I meant when I told her I already knew.

This week, my father's sister passed away. I was lucky to get to visit her one last time a few weeks ago. As sick as she was, it was still a shock to hear that she had died so soon after our visit. I'm glad I got to see her in person, because she did not visit me when she died.

I've been lucky — my direct experience with death has been limited primarily to elderly relatives who have lived long lives. Perhaps that is why I haven't looked for further explanations.

I know people who have experienced traumatic or unexpected loss — through illness, accident or senseless violence. They often seem to want answers, or at least reasons. I have one friend who lost so many family members in such a short time, that when they moved to a new town, the first thing her son wanted to see was the cemetery. I have another friend who lost her dear husband of more than 60 years, but talks to him regularly … and he talks back. I have no doubt that she hears him.

My friend and fellow writer Shari Brady recently wrote about her belief in the paranormal, and how she uses it as inspiration for her fiction. In many ways, I think fiction writers are all trying to work out our control issues. Through writing, we have the power of life and death. Even better, we can write an entire life and then change it in rewrite.

Maybe it's a Virgo thing, since there have been many famous Virgo writers including (to name just a few): William Rice Burroughs, Taylor Caldwell, Agatha Christie, Craig Claiborne, Eldridge Cleaver, George Fenimore Cooper, Roald Dahl, Robertson Davies, Theodore Dreiser, Johann von Goethe, O. Henry, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ken Kesey, Stephen King, D. H. Lawrence, H.L. Menken, William Saroyan, Mary Godwin Shelley, Edith Sitwell, Upton Sinclair, Leo Tolstoy, H.G. Wells, William Carlos Williams and Richard Wright.

And lest we forget that other Virgo writer, Robert Benchley, who capsulized the whole two kinds of people belief system in his Law of Distinction:

"There are two kinds of people in the world, 
those who believe there are two kinds of people
and those who don't."

My Aunt Phyllis was a Libra. Although I don't know if she followed her horoscope, I do know she held deep religious convictions and I hope they brought her comfort. I also know she was loved and will be missed.

Please share your own beliefs or close encounters with the other side here.

Image credit: Virgo by ~Miss--Dee at deviantart.com.


Beverly Patt said...

I do feel sometimes that God is giving me a laugh or ribbing me a little. And though I've never been 'visited' from the 'other side' I'm open to the possibility (ahem, ahem, deceased ones!)

Unknown said...

Nice post, Susan. Sorry about the loss of your aunt.

SSheilah said...

Thanks for another great post!

When I was a teenager we lived in a large old house with a tiny graveyard out back. At night we'd here the steps creaking in order, downstairs to up, but no one would be there. Closed, latched doors would open when everyone in the family was already in the room. These are probably just signs of an old house settling, but in my family it was accepted that Betsy, buried in the back yard, had come to call.

Unknown said...

Susan, this is such a thought-provoking post! I agree with you about the questions. I do feel that it isn't acknowledged often enough that we humans don't really know much, when it comes down to it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sue-It was good to see this week even under the circumstances. If anyone thinks you're crazy about Grandma's visit let them know that I am just as crazy. Only Jane knows that I too experienced my Mother's coming to me but I've been a believer ever since. Your fellow traveler in nutsville-Uncle Greg

Anonymous said...

>>I think fiction writers are all trying to work out our control issues. Through writing, we have the power of life and death.

I think you're right, and also right that it's the questions, not the answers, that matter most in life. So fiction is a fine line between creating answers and honoring the questions.

Susan Bearman said...

Bev — a good laugh is hard to come by; a divine laugh must be a true miracle.

Linda — thank you for you kind words.

SSheilah — I love that you were all comfortable enough with your ghost to give her a name. We live in an old house now, and it creeks and moans plenty, but we haven't encountered any poltergeists.

Victoria — I could use a few more answers right about now.

Greg — I didn't know. I can't wait to hear about your encounter with Grandma.

Kelly — I'm learning more and more that writing is all about asking questions. What if? Then what? And now I'm even working on: Who done it? Good luck with your writing.

Doreen McGettigan said...

I used to make coffee for my 26 year old brother every morning (he and his wife lived across the street, she did not make coffee). My brother was murdered in a random road rage attack. He came to me 3 times; but I'll just tell you about one. The morning of the funeral I saw him sitting on the bottom edge of the bed, felt him tickling my feet and telling me to please get up and make coffee..

Alexandra said...

I'm neither faithful nor skeptical. Or maybe I'm the ultimate skeptic: I believe nothing completely, including disbelief. I am not willing to make any definitive statements about what exists or has meaning and what doesn't. I am ignorant. We are all ignorant. Or at least I think we are. ;)

To me, believing one outlandish thing (dead relative visited you) makes it impossible to completely reject other outlandish things. As unlikely as it seems to the most hardened skeptic that such a thing actually happened, let's still assume it did. So, it happened. Now it's really damn unlikely that what happened to you is the only sort of "mystical" thing that ever happens. Your experience is one of the rare, special true ones. That sounds a million times more outlandish to me than saying no such experiences EVER happen.

I know you weren't saying that -- I'm just on a tangent. Thanks for listening.

Susan Bearman said...

Doreen — I'm so sorry for your loss. It must be terribly hard given the traumatic, violent circumstances of your brother's death. Thank you for sharing your story.

Alexandra — I think you're right. You can't believe a thing for yourself (even a bizarre, once-in-a-lifetime experience) and then scoff at other's beliefs. I guess I believe there are times in life where perhaps we are more sensitive to the intangible, the things that lie under the surface of our known world. Lately I've been thinking that's where creative ideas come from, that same level of sensitivity. Thanks for stopping by.

Alexandra said...

"Lately I've been thinking that's where creative ideas come from, that same level of sensitivity."

You should read The Midnight Disease by Alice Weaver Flaherty. It's 1/2 neuroscience text and 1/2 memoir, and it's all about the biology of what drives writers. She talks about the sensation of the muse, hypergraphia, writer's block, creativity, and many other things. I know it sounds odd -- like it takes away the magic from these beautiful things. That's the exact opposite of what it really does. Flaherty manages to traverse the gray area between biology and the unpredictable, transcendent things that biology can result in. It's one of the most beautiful texts I've ever had the good fortune to encounter.

Susan Bearman said...

Alexandra — thanks for the recommendation. I'll be sure to check it out and recommend it to my daughter, as well, since that kind of synergy between biology and creativity is her favorite subject.

Kathy said...

I love your back and forth between skeptic and believer. I am the same way. I am not a person of absolutes - there is not much that I can say I am absolutely sure of but then again, there is so much that I am open to. In my post call "wonder" on my blog www.dreamforyourlife.com I tell about a recent experience that I had. It seemed as if I saw the aura of some trees. I feel a little silly saying that... but like you say, it doesn't really matter if anybody else believes me. It was an experience that left me with a feeling of wonder. I like what you said about Judaism and questioning. I like being in a place of questioning... its like being in that place of wonder. I attend a Unitarian church. Although I hesitate to call myself a Unitarian (or any other religion) I do respect their insatiable desire to question everything. Where some religions discourage questioning, the Unitarians encourage it. I love that. As far as other "paranormal" experiences that I have had, I get the sense that what is happening with my dream experiences may fall into that category. It seems that I have this inner life where I am interacting with various archetypal figures (some of it is posted on my blog). It is fascinating!!! I love the wonder of it all. Oh yea, one more paranormal experience.... I went for a walk once and thought to myself.... I wonder if I will see a snake -- this is not something that I have ever seen on this walk, not something that I had ever even thought about -- and then about one minute later, there was a snake right in the middle of the path. I almost stepped on it!! I love your blog! I look forward to keeping up with it. -Kathy

Susan Bearman said...

Kathy — we had a speaker at our writers' workshop who said that every great work of fiction began with: "I wonder …" Thanks for stopping by.

mbdc said...

I, like you, have fun reading my horoscope, though I don't really believe in it. I have had times where I thought the horoscope matched me to a tee, which sort of swayed my belief in it, but most of the time I think that they're too general to really mean much.

As far as religion goes, I do believe there is SOMETHING greater, though I can't be sure exactly what it is. Honestly, I don't think it is for us to know, nor is it something we should force on other people.

I don't really believe in ghosts, persay, but I do think that we are inhabited by a soul that leaves our body and goes elsewhere upon our death. I, like many people, have had a feeling that someone who has passed is right here with me. I don't think that they stick around to cause trouble and mayhem, but will stop in to comfort or protect us. I once had a near-death experience that was very similar to a lot of them that you hear, the light at the end a large voice speaking to me...telling me it wasn't my time yet. I don't know if it was just a hallucination or what, but it did definitely throw me for a loop!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the rec of The Midnight Disease--sounds fascinating. I'm going to check it out!

Tania said...


so pleased to have found kindred here. Fiction and control--makes me think about what I'm doing with poems...something I've loved is thinking I know where I'm heading, and then launching off at the end...one useful notion from grad school had to do with where you ended in a poem, and I loved the idea of opening a door and falling into some other universe, just as believable as the one you started in and hauling the reader along in tow.

Which leads to the paranormal--surrounding us it seems despite our gradations of disbelief. Dreams have also been surreal proof for me (in their intensity) of the "much more", but after reiki training "seeing" upon waking from dream brought some visitors, startling at first. Too busy raising my kids to play with that for now, but maybe later.

Thanks for your commments at Feral Mom. I'll be back. Thanks Susan.

Susan Bearman said...

Tanya — thanks for stopping by 2KoP. I'm not familiar with reiki training. I do think fiction is like falling into another universe. I think it's something I need to work on as a writer. I write realistic fiction, but I still need to make my fictional world a world that readers want to fall into.

mbdc — Seems we're on the same wavelength. My own personal religious experiences, though few and far between, have felt extremely personal to me — something that I couldn't begin to explain to anyone else or hope that they would understand. Spirituality seems like a very private thing to me. I think I believe in something, too, but I'm not quite sure what.

I also believe that our bodies and souls are separate entities. Not sure if the soul lives beyond the body, but I do know that a dead body no longer has a soul.

Life In A Skillet said...

Susan, this post went up the day of my older boy's 18th birthday. I'll never forget the night after he was born - we were still in the hospital - I woke up, certain I heard him cry. I wandered out of my room down the hall, which was strangely deserted, looking for the nursery. When I did, sure enough, he was in there crying. It was such an odd and overwhelming sense of connection - my first clue of the miracle of motherhood. I couldn't have actually heard him from so far away and didn't think I knew what he sounded like anyway, yet - but as you say, some things just are.

Susan Bearman said...

Maggie — That whole mother-child bond thing has a completely other-worldly feel to it, doesn't it? And it's not just biological; adoptive and foster mothers develop those intricate bonds with their children, too. Who's to say who or what weaves those bonds, or what connects us as human beings?