|pagan_babe (pagan_babe) wrote in the_deep,|
@ 2011-05-28 17:47:00
Meeting of the Minds
Normally Judy really disliked Starbucks, but she found herself dying for a caffeine fix after visiting one of the bigger bookstores in New Orleans, so she pulled her car into the lot and resigned herself to drinking their tea. Next time, she would bring a thermos of her own stuff, but for today she would grin and bear it.
There were only a few customers inside, it being the middle of the day, and she ordered a cup of iced mint tea before going to one of the plush chairs and taking a seat. There was an array of magazines, but most of them were out of date, so she just picked up a section of that day’s
newspaper and opened it up to the crossword puzzle. Now if she could only find a pencil. The
blonde cast a slightly baleful eye on her purse, then started digging around. One of the days she was going to buy something practical, but that day was not today.
One thing Dr. Alfred Thomas loved most about the late spring and summer months was the fact
that he didn’t have to work. His work in academia, teaching religious studies at Tulane University,afforded him a lot of time off in the years he didn’t burden himself with teaching summer courses, and he took great pains to use that time to great effect.
Just six months removed from the death of his wife Martha, Alfred considered teaching a course
or two over the summer, just to keep himself occupied. But he decided against it, choosing instead to take a two-week vacation to Paris in early July. Martha had always wanted to see Paris, and Alfred regretted that she wouldn’t be able to accompany him.
Still, the vacation should be nice.
Alfred loved spending his off-campus time in coffee shops. Whether it was the nearest Starbucks or local fare, he enjoyed surrounding himself with young people outside the campus setting. Seeing them hard at work, or observing their conversations -- if not participating himself -- proved fascinating for the professor.
Today, though, he was content to sit back with a warm mug of black coffee, browsing over his father’s copy of the King James Bible. The pages were faded and torn, red highlighter marking paragraphs at random. Alfred wanted to add some new wrinkles to his lectures in the fall, and these notes were helping.
Victory! Judy finally managed to find a stub of pencil in the very bottom of her pocketbook and pulled it out with an expression of triumph. Sometimes it was the little things that mattered. Setting the bag aside, she folded the newspaper into a manageable square and pulled it into her
lap. The ice in her tea hadn’t even started to melt yet, which was good.
She only noticed the older gent because of the Bible, which was definitely unusual reading material for a Starbucks, or anywhere that wasn’t a church really. She took a sip from her cup, taking care not to spill any on her blouse, then went back to her crossword. How to start a conversation without seeming like a nosy busybody? The bookseller toyed with one of her
earrings. At least they were only a couple of chairs apart, that way she wouldn’t have to raise her voice.
“What’s a seven-letter word for mammoth?”
For a second, Alfred wasn’t sure he heard the woman quite right. His eyeballs peeled themselves from the yellowed pages of his Bible, before the rest of the professor’s wrinkled face followed. His hairline had receded years ago; were Alfred weary of such things, he could always buy a hat. He guessed the woman was asking him, because she was looking in his direction. Alfred closed the Bible and set it down in front of him, taking a slow sip of his coffee to buy some more time. Steam rose from the mug.
“I’m sorry?” he asked, tipping his head to the side.
“A seven letter word for mammoth,” Judy said patiently. He looked about sixty, maybe a shade older, but there was no white collar around his neck so that ruled out priest. Not that she had any personal beef with men of the cloth. Now that she was pushing forty, she had come to realize that everyone had their own way of dealing with the divine, and all that mattered was that everyone had the right to walk their own path.
“I’m a sucker for crosswords but I always get stuck right at the beginning,” she added, holding up the newspaper as if in demonstration. “You look like you read a lot, though, so I thought I’d ask you.”
Offering a polite smile and chuckling a little--he’d always been embarrassed whenever someone considered him an intellectual-- Alfred paused for another sip of coffee. His brain racked itself fora few moments, before stumbling upon an obvious answer of sorts.
“Well,” he offered, “‘mammoth’ is seven letters. There’s also ‘massive,’ ‘immense’ or ‘titanic.’ Do you have any of the letters?”
“Not yet,” the blonde replied. “Maybe if I started someplace else I can get some of the letters, though. ‘Massive,’ ‘immense’ and ‘titanic’, huh? That’s easy enough to remember.”
Judy picked up her teacup and had another sip of the cool liquid, then set it down on the napkin she’d gotten up at the counter. “Nice Bible,” she remarked, gesturing at the closed book on the table. “Looks like an heirloom, actually. Did you inherit it from someone?
His smile broadened a little; Alfred always enjoyed talking about the late Ronald Thomas. “It was my father’s,” he said. “He was a preacher in Waco for many years.”
Ironically, Alfred never read his father’s Bible because of his beliefs. Ronald always knew and understood that. Amazingly, when Alfred revealed to his father as a teenager that he thought he was atheist, the preacher was supportive. Alfred’s mother Janice took the news far harder.
Ronald often joked of the irony, even on his deathbed.
“Well, that’s nice. Guess it was a family tradition to hand down the old Bible from generation to generation.” He seemed like a cheerful sort, not all dour like most religious types. Judy could feel herself warming up to the man despite the presence of the book in front of him. At least he didn’t seem like the type to lecture her about how she was going to hell.
“Let me guess.” She touched one finger to the side of her head while the other hand fooled with one of her dangly earrings. “You’re not a priest but you might be a theology professor. Either that or comparative religion. I have a thing for faces, and yours seems like it would be at home in a college classroom, am I right?”
Sitting up a little straighter, Alfred thought he felt himself blush. “Professor it is,” he said, extending his arms to either side of himself. “Been teaching religious studies at Tulane for...” He paused, glancing at the ceiling as he did the math in his head. “...almost a year now.”
Scooting the chair across from him away from the table, Alfred nodded in that direction and extended a hand. “By all means, why don’t you join me?”
The professor wasn’t the biggest social butterfly in the world, but he was no hermit, either. The other two professors in his department were so fond of their small, windowless offices that Alfred jokingly called them Dr. Dracula and Professor Lestat on occasion. Alfred enjoyed talking with people, even if he wasn’t the most outgoing person in the world.
“I’m Alfred,” he introduced, extending his right hand.
“Judy.” The bookseller offered her left hand after gathering up her purse and newspaper and shifting over to the chair next to Alfred’s. She did manage to spill some of her tea on the trip over, but she wiped it up with her napkin before setting the cup back down. “Hopefully I didn’t get any on you,” she remarked with a smirk as she claimed her new seat.
“So, religious studies,” she said once she’d made herself comfortable. “Wow, that sounds...involved. Must be difficult in this day and age to get younger people interested in a class like that. I know it’s hard enough getting them to listen about non-Christian religious stuff, it must be even more difficult to get them to pay attention to regular dogma. Do you have trouble filling seats or do you have to turn them away at the door?”
“There’s more interest than you’d think,” Alfred admitted after he’d shaken Judy’s hand. “Every now and then I’ll have a student back out because they thought my class would be something else entirely, or their own beliefs don’t allow them to listen to what I have to say about whatever particular religion offends them, but mostly my students love the material.”
Alfred’s lectures hardly ever favored one spiritual path over another; he always tried his best to stick to the facts as the various texts provided and allow his students to come to their own conclusions. In a way, Alfred figured his life as an atheist made him particularly qualified to speak of the various religions in such a way, despite the stereotype that all atheists were angry toward religion.
“My classes aren’t so much about conversion or...affirming someone’s beliefs,” he explained, motioning his hands as he spoke. “It’s very much a nuts-and-bolts, here’s the history, here’s the facts kind of class.”
“So you don’t preach?” Judy asked, her voice mildly teasing. “Sorry to ask, it’s just that I know a little bit about Tulane, and it seems like they’d make room for it if that was what you wanted to do. Obviously the students might not like it, or at least you’d have a different type backing out, but it seems like a captive audience thing to me.”
The blonde paused, took a drink of tea. They put too much ice in their cups, the stuff was getting watery. Next time, she’d definitely bring her own stock. “I’m being judge-y, aren’t I? Sorry, it’s just that I’ve been a pagan for a long time now, and the only religious types I meet want to rain fire and brimstone down on me, especially considering what I do for a living. It tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth.”
Another pause, then; “I believe everyone should walk their own path.”
“As do I,” Alfred agreed. “And you’ll get none of that fire and brimstone from me. Us atheists don’t use that sort of thing to make our arguments.”
The professor leaned forward in his seat, glancing at their surroundings before returning his gaze to Judy. A twinkle formed in his eye the way it always did when he was in the midst of a potentially riveting conversation. Let others have their drinks and their dances and their music; Alfred preferred a good conversation over all of them.
“I don’t look at religion as an organizational thing,” he said. “Yes, you have your churches and your synagogues and your mosques and your covens and all of that other stuff...but at the end of the day, whatever higher power you believe in--if you believe in any at all--is right here.”
Alfred tapped his hand over his chest. “The church might tell you that there are standards for belief, but I’ve never understood the idea of someone being a bad Christian simply because they don’t believe in one thing or another.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” the blonde said, lifting one hand in an imitation of a traffic cop. “You’re anatheist? Like for real, no fooling? Huh. Now there’s something I thought I’d never see. Why the Bible, then? I mean, I know you said it was from your dad and all, but it seems a bit strange for you to be reading it in public if you don’t...um...believe.”
Now she was a little embarrassed, one of those rare occasions when her mouth ran away from her brain and straight into potential awkwardness. And maybe privately she considered it a little lonely to not believe in anything, but she kept that carefully to herself. No sense judging the man if he was comfortable with himself, and he had at least fifteen years on her in age, maybe twenty. Clearly, he knew what he was doing.
“Just let me know if I talk too much, all right?”
“Nonsense,” he answered with a wry smile. “I enjoy hearing what others have to say. The most boring lectures I’ve ever seen are the ones where the professor does all the talking.”
Alfred couldn’t help but laugh; at the start of every semester, he was up-front with his students about his atheism. The responses always ran the gamut between laughter, disbelief, acceptance, awe and anger. He supposed it was ironic, on some level, for an atheist to teach others about religion, but what was that old saying?
“Well,” he joked, “those who can’t do, teach. Right?”
Picking up the Bible and feeling its heft in his palm, the smile on Alfred’s face faded. “I don’t have to believe the words written in this book to know they have meaning,” he countered. “To know that some people find them quite powerful.
“When I was a child,” he continued, “I read this book, cover to cover, five times by the time I was 13. Not because I was looking for any meaning, or because I wanted to know the answers to life’s mysteries, but because I liked the stories.”
Setting down the Bible again, Alfred’s smile returned. “Reading these pages myself, they were just stories. But hearing my dad read them to people every Sunday morning? That’s when I discovered the power this book has--how wonderful or dangerous this book could be, depending on who read it.”
Judy had just been listening, her chin resting in her palm as she propped her elbow on the arm of her chair. “That’s really beautiful,” she offered once Alfred was finished speaking. “When I was a kid, my mom used to drag me to church whether I liked it or not. I guess it kind of colored my view of religion from a young age, but as I got older I realized that I really was connected to the universe in a meaningful way, that all I had to do was find that meaning and then live it.”
There was a silence between them as she reached for her cup again, and when she put the beverage down she broke it to say, “My parents were as understanding as they could be, I guess, even if they didn’t totally agree with me. My mother still questions me about it now and then. I guess maybe she hopes I’ve changed my mind.” The blonde chuckled and shook her head. “I love her, but I have to do this my own way, y’know? Understanding myself took a while, I feel like I can’t just toss that aside because she doesn’t agree with it.”
“No one should have to do that,” Alfred replied, shaking his head. “Religion, in its purest form, isn’t about making other people happy or subjecting your beliefs to some arbitrary litmus test. It’s about what you feel in your heart, what connects you to this world in a deeply spiritual way.”
If Alfred were being completely honest with himself, he enjoyed speaking with followers of faiths other than Christianity more than anything; he supposed it was because the Judeo-Christian faiths were so ingrained into this country that finding pagans or Buddhists or Hinduists was a bit of a rarity.
It was becoming more common among the college-aged populace, but it was still a relative rarity.
“Some of us connect to God, whatever name we give it,” he added. “Others connect more with nature. Others...well, I always say one can be spiritual without being religious. You should see how many confused stares I get when I drop that little nugget in class.”
“I’ll bet,” Judy replied with a soft giggle. “It must be like telling them you can have light without hitting a switch or something. I now have this image of them sitting with their heads cocked to the side, like dogs watching television.”
In her experience, the real trouble was just getting younger people to listen to anything that differed from their worldview. She knew she had been like that in high school and partly in college, but then she’d found her own truth. The difficult part was, not dragging people along by their noses to get them to follow the same path.
“I guess I’m more connected to the Goddess,” she told Alfred. “It just feels like She’s been steering me along for a while now, so I have to trust that whatever plan has been set in motion, it’ll get me where I’m going, wherever that may be. I don’t have a map, I just know I’m going somewhere.”
Taking another sip of his coffee, which had begun to cool, Alfred took in Judy’s words. His eyes squinted the way they usually did when he was deep in thought, and the professor reached down into his gray shoulder bag before producing an open pack of Twizzlers. He placed the pack on the table, pulling out two pieces and biting into the first one.
“Help yourself,” he grinned. When he began talking again, the pieces of candy waved with his hands as they moved.
“There’s so much...indoctrination when it comes to religion,” he argued. “Between church and parents--and the kids who go to these religious private schools--I’ve had my share of students who I just look at and think, ‘Why did you enroll for this class?’”
Halfway through his first Twizzler, Alfred cocked his head to the side. “What drew you toward paganism, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Normally the bookseller liked licorice better, but to be polite she picked up the piece of candy and bit into it. “I was looking for something, even if I didn’t know what it was at the time,” she responded. “A different path, if not a better one, than the one my parents were on. To tell the truth I spent most of my teenage years feeling as if I were lost, and while part of that was just being a teenager, it started to get more specific as I got older.”
Judy’s round shoulders went up and down in an ‘I don’t know’ shrug before she added, “Part of it was just learning to accept myself, and becoming a pagan really helped out with that. I never knew why I couldn’t look like a model when I was younger, and a lot of that just drifted away when realized that we’re all beautiful in our own way, even if we don’t think so. Sometimes especially when we don’t think so.”
Her tea was really watery when she took another drink of it, and she made a face before setting the cup aside. At least she’d almost finished it, gotten her money’s worth. “‘Course, the being able to walk around naked at events had its upside too. You get a lot less self-conscious about your body when everyone’s is on display.”
Alfred chuckled at the image. “We find life’s blessings where we can,” he offered, cringing at the realization that his inner philosopher crept out for a moment.
His first two strings of candy gone, the professor grabbed two more out of the bag. He’d been hooked on Twizzlers for as long as he could remember; his dentist gave up trying to talk him out of eating them over 20 years ago. If Alfred had any vices, his addiction to Twizzlers was the closest he’d get.
“That’s one of the beauties of religion,” he added. “It allows us to feel like we better understand the world’s mysteries and complexities, almost like it helps us explain what we otherwise cannot know.“There’s a certain comfort in that, I would imagine.”
“There completely is,” Judy replied with a firm nod. “One of the reasons we turn towards God - or whoever - is because we feel small. If we know there’s someone out there holding an umbrella over our heads, that feeling of comfort, of being loved, is pretty huge. I know it was for me.”
The blonde had long since given up any pretense of being interested in the crossword in favor of the conversation, and she asked, “So do you live in New Orleans? It seems like it’d be convenient what with the school being so close and all.”
“I have a place a few blocks from campus, actually,” Alfred said. “Sometimes in the spring I’ll walk to work instead of drive.”
Truth be told, New Orleans was a bit of a culture shock--not because of the local customs, but because Alfred wasn’t used to living in such a large city. He did technically live in Washington, D.C. during his stint with the Smithsonian before he got into teaching, but the professor had been traveling the globe so frequently that it almost didn’t count.
Having spent his entire life prior to the Smithsonian job in various parts of Texas, but never approaching one of the large metropolitan areas, living in a city like New Orleans had taken some getting used to.
“This definitely isn’t home,” he chuckled, biting into another Twizzler.
“I live in Honfleur just down the road a little ways, but I’m originally from Atlanta,” Judy said. “I moved down here after my aunt died and left me her house, and now I run a business out of it. Best Kept Secrets? Mostly I sell books, but I’ve branched out into a couple of other things as well. Honfleur’s a nice little town, have you ever made the drive down there?” The first Twizzler was almost gone, and she polished it off with a flourish before adding, “If you haven’t, you should give it a try. They even have a place where you can go to see live alligators.”
“Can’t say I have,” Alfred admitted with a sheepish grin. He hadn’t really gotten out much. Not that he was much of a wanderer; unless it was for work, he rarely ever traveled. Not that going to Honfleur would really constitute traveling, but still.
Fishing another piece of candy from the bag, Alfred paused to sip his coffee. It was almost room temperature now, and the mixture of red licorice and coffee was proving less than pleasant.
“I love bookstores,” he added. “Especially the smaller, independent ones. They’re usually so full of life and character.”
“Well, I don’t know about life, but my place has plenty of character,” the bookseller said with a grin. “You should come down sometime and take a look around. Maybe you’ll find something interesting for one of your classes. I’m sure your students would love to hear about the wonders of paganism and its effect on the world around it.” Her tea was down to the dregs, and she drained her cup before going back into her purse. The card she produced was somewhat bent, and she smoothed it out on her skirt-covered thigh before handing it to the professor.
“Store hours and the phone number are printed there,” she said. “Just pop on down and check it out. I think you’ll really find in interesting.”
Taking the business card, Alfred studied it for a moment before stuffing it into the breast pocket in his sky blue button-down. He gave Judy another warm smile before munching on another Twizzler.
“My most popular lectures are often on paganism,” he said. “I don’t know whether it’s a genuine curiosity about that particular faith or some students thinking it’s like they’ve seen in pop culture, but attendance is always up when I bring up paganism.”
He chuckled, closing the bag of Twizzlers and stuffing it back in his bag. “Well, until everyone realizes you can’t actually conjure a fireball out of nothing. Then they lose a little interest.
“I’d love to come by your store. I’m constantly searching for new sources of material. There’s only so many ways you can teach the Bible or the Koran.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to say that she sold those kinds of books too, but he might start thinking she was some kind of kook. So instead she said, “Well, you come on down whenever you have time, I’d love to see more faces in my place. Who knows, you might just become one of my best customers.” She gave Alfred a pat on the shoulder, then started to gather up her
“And this has been lovely, but I need to be getting back home. Traffic from the city is always a nightmare, so I try not to be on the roads after five o’clock. I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening, Alfred.”