My Father’s Atheism

My father did not believe in God, but he was not without belief. His atheism was a kind of religion, and he brought full fervor to it. My father’s articles of faith were that there was no God, particularly not the God of the Jews. Anyone who believed in God was worse than wrong—a believer was a child. Scorn dripped from my father’s lips when he said the word “child.” It seemed to me, child that I was, that being a child was just bad as believing in God.
Since God was never described or investigated, we just took it on faith that God was not for us. But since I had no idea what God was, I was not completely spiritually crippled. I had a strong love of nature combined with a firm sense of ethics—both from my father. I also had mystical experiences of oneness and connection that I simply found pleasurable when I was young. These things were just part of my inner world, like being able to make things happen in my dreams or ALMOST seeing the wings of flower fairies. I had nightly hypnogogic experiences of glittering colored lights and dots before I fell sleep. Sometimes I saw beautiful dancers in pink tutus. My friend Laurel and I lay on a hillside and fell asleep, promising to appear in each other’s dreams. We did. I took this all in stride—it was a natural part of my world to know and accept that there were other worlds than the ordinary one.
My father also hated what he called “mysticism.” In retrospect, I think he was using the word correctly; he hated the experience in which a person felt at one with something larger. It is obvious that my father himself was given to spontaneous bouts of connection, particularly inspired by art and music. He once confessed to me, when he was quite old, that when he was alone he’d dance naked in celebration to Beethoven and Mozart. He once ran out of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, dazzled and overwhelmed by the painting. “Those paintings were going to grab my soul,” he confided, sitting panting on the museum steps.
His character was surely at odds with his beliefs. He forbade us from going to synagogue, and from prayer, even of the private sort. I once came upon my little sister praying and was as shocked and terrified as if I’d found her torturing a kitten. This was forbidden territory.
I did go to synagogue for the bat-mitvahs of friends, and the slightly pathetic attempts at “boy-girl” parties that ensued. I was “allowed” to attend church with a friend because she was black, and her church a bastion of civil rights activity. Although this church was quite alien to me culturally—it had a gospel choir, fiery preaching, and iconic church lady hats—I felt instantly relaxed there. This feeling continued for me as I eventually went to synagogue, studied with Hassids, married a Zen monk, and went with friends to disparate settings from Catholic monasteries to Christian Science services to Quaker meetings.
It turned out, I liked religion. I studied Hebrew and koans and prayer. I have never found a particular path I could dedicate myself wholeheartedly to—perhaps this is part of my father’s legacy. But when it comes to check the box, I say I believe in God. Actually, there is little about belief here. I experience God.
I also experienced my father. In a world without God, he, my father, reigned supreme. This was, shockingly for the feminist thinker he was, a kind of absolute patriarchy. But I also did not believe in my father. Doubt has proved no problem to me. Doubt, such as doubt in my father’s total authority, helps me as I return to my struggle to be free.

What Do You Know How To Do?

Hi friends and readers-
I’m thinking of doing a series of interviews with people about what they know how to do. Can you cook, drive on snow, calm people down, play the drums, create a ruckus, write a haiku, organize grassroots, buy a becoming hat, say no, or…
If you are interested–send me your expertise and a note at and I’ll send you a mini-interview.

I’m reblogging below at bit of an interview in the same spirit, with my friend Kath, done several years ago in Iceland.


Question: Kath, you are in search of a good desert. What is your usual process in a foreign land?

“My process is to ask the opinion of whoever happens to be at hand, a local. And if possible I try to get them to tell me why this their first choice and then I assess their standards. Also, hit and miss. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Remember all those times I ordered the wrong thing in China? I would just pay for the meal, mortified, leave, go someplace else, and try again.”

What have you tried so far?

“They have a lot of blond desserts and not that much chocolate.A nice sort of softish cookie with marzipan in it, I had a chocolate muffin but it was really a cupcake (it wasn’t bad) and now I’ve just bought some soft shortbread stuff with rhubard and also oatcakes. So we’ll see. I don’t think these are going to be the end of my searching,but I like the oat cookies!”

Question: off the topic of dessert, what is the U.S.’s best export?

“Bob Dylan–you are so struck it makes you gasp hearing how great he sounds coming out of the speakers at the Samkaup (local store) or the boom box at the gym in Iceland.”

You Are Invited! Collected Works, Sept 16 at 6 pm

Miriam Sagan & Isabel Winson-Sagan – Swimming to Reykjavik
Start: 09/16/2014 6:00 pm

Reading and Slide Show

Swimming in Reykjavik is an exploration of Iceland by Mother and Daughter team Miriam Sagan and Isabel Winson-Sagan. The two visit Iceland in the dark of winter solstice looking for the northern lights and collaborate artistically, creating an e-book and a broadside. Miriam contributes poetry while her daughter contributes the photography.
Miriam will also give a short reading from the haiku conversation of A Dream that Is Not A Dream, in which she responds to Elizabeth Searle Lamb’s last haiku in the tradition of “entering each other’s minds.

We hope to see you!

Preview Icelandic E-Book: Photograph by Isabel Winson-Sagan and Poem by Miriam Sagan


Swimming in Reykjavik

I traveled a long way
to sit and knit in bed
beneath a white comforter.

raindrops on the window
obscured the red corrugated roof
the dark blue facade
trimmed in burgundy.

light of the north
filled the art deco hall
that houses
enormous swimming pools.

dreamlike, we were almost alone
except for the bossy attendant
and a lifeguard
giving a small boy
a swimming lesson.

on the roof, a violent wind–
hot water rushing
down the staircase
warmed our feet
and a man with a hairy back
soaked in a hot pot Celsius.

the knitting yarn was gayly
green and orange
not from Icelandic sheep–
let’s be honest–
but from Hobby Lobby
at home.

each stitch made meaning
out of the whitecaps on the harbor,
showed how the sea
makes a pass at the land
like a too bold
pick-up in a bar.

you were still sleeping
in a nap
that trailed all the way
from North America.
I traveled a long way
to have you look
like a child again
and ask me for an apple.

Here’s the link to Amazon Kindle for SWIMMING TO REYKJAVIK

Icelandic E-Book Is Out! Enter the Creative Womb of Darkness with Mother and Daughter Team of Poet and Photographer

Poet Miriam Sagan and artist Isabel Winson-Sagan went to Iceland to experience the Arctic night near winter solstice in early 2014. They shared experiences such as searching for the northern lights and swimming in thermal pools, and responded in words and images. These photographs and poems were produced during the trip, and edited and shared later. Together, they express an elemental experience where such forces as celestial bodies, light and darkness, weather, and the points of the compass are embodied.
It is not that usual for a mother and daughter to collaborate, but our experience has deepened our understanding of both place and of each other–two women of different generations and sensibilities. From SIM guest house for international artists to the Hotel Fron to the sky viewing pavilion of the Northern Lights Inn–Iceland proved not only hospitable but inspirational.

Here’s the link to Amazon Kindle for SWIMMING TO REYKJAVIK

Poems in which I knit and Isabel naps, photos of volcanoes and laundry, darkness is our creative womb and where are the northern lights?

The e-book is also FREE at free at

Not the Northern Lights

Isabel and I were in Iceland close to winter solstice. We tried to see the northern lights two nights in a row from a hotel that was even called The Northern Lights, which has a beautiful viewing pavilion.
The near by power plant, which spews steam (and whose backwash is the basis for the incredible Blue Lagoon hot springs) was lit up with colored lights.
I was convinced this was an art piece, a la Dan Flavin. But the ever savvy-about-art Iz said no, it was decorative.
Turns out, she was correct. The lights are just during the holiday season, when of course night is longest.
Didn’t see the aurora borealis there–although we did see it from the plane over Greenland. But it was still fabulous to gaze for so long at the Arctic night sky, and follow the moon, in the company of international visitors also sitting and gazing.

Unesco City of Literature

Northern Saga
Rush hour, complete darkness–
transatlantic flight to Keflavik–
jet-lagged in a high cold wind
I grab a taxi, discuss
destination, time, a price in krona
I pretend to convert in my head.
The driver asks me
Well, what Icelandic sagas have you been reading?
Oh, I say, pleased with myself
to have an answer
“Saga of the Greenlanders” and “Eric The Red.”
But I have not impressed the man
and he is disappointed,
“You should really read Laxdaela about Gudrun,
Women are just minor characters in Greenlanders.”
 “But the woman Far-Voyager
there went to Newfoundland,
became an anchorite, met the pope…”
“In Italy,” he agrees, “a very long journey
in those days,” then reiterates
“You should read Laxdaela.”
Towards the city,
high rise offices
lit-up cubicles full of those
who drink coffee and concentrate
over luminous screen,
words that appear and then are gone–
and he drops me
half a block
from Hotel Fron.

Here I am, earlier this winter, at Keflavik airport in Iceland.
Isabel took this shot.
Reykjavik is a Unesco City of Literature, and not just because there are poems on the airport walls.