We spoke with Sarah Vos about looking at sunlight through leaves, accepting life as magnificent, viewing faith through a psychological lens and how to draw a tree.
I think the struggles we face in childhood and adolescence often must be dealt with over and over again. I have experienced feelings of dealing and letting go.
We asked Sarah what comes to mind when she considers these parts of a tree.
Foundation, growth, the aliveness of trees and plants, how the roots can adapt towards their environment and grow towards water.
Secure and steady. I was just reading about “tree therapy.” Apparently, Japan’s government has spent millions of dollars promoting and experimenting in “forest bathing.” I love walking in the forest and often stop — even in the city — to just touch the bark of a tree or even literally wrap my arms around it.
I’m horrible at drawing, but when I was in second grade, our student teacher taught us how to draw trees. I have always drawn them in this very same way since. You draw two lines (the trunk) with a V in the middle, and then from each side of the V you draw more branches — as many as you wish. Each branch turns into two more branches.
The way the sunlight looks when you look up through the leaves.
Present in all of us.
We’re in an era where many long-unquestioned societal institutions are being questioned or threatened. I wonder if hypocritical organized religion will meet a similar fate. You had an especially tough time with it growing up — specifically, being expelled from your rural Wisconsin church. Can you explain what happened, and how you came to terms with this event as an adult?
I think we have seen the world turn its back on organized religion in a lot of ways over the last few years. I’m looking at a statistic right now from an article called “Nones on the Rise” from Pew Research Center that says that a third of adults under 30 “have no religious affiliation compared with one-in-10 who are 65 and older” — and this statistic is from 2012. Having grown up as an Orthodox Christian in the ’90s and early ’00s, I felt as though I was in the minority for my beliefs. It’s interesting to me that many secularists today feel the same way.
At the same time, whether you ascribe to a religious affiliation or not, it’s hard to deny the influence of Christianity and beliefs that go back as far as the idea of the fall of man thousands of years ago. I had a hard time with many of these beliefs while growing up, in part due to a strong inner belief that we are not born sinful, that we are not apart from God (or transcendence or eternity) and a strong inner feeling that viewing things in pairs of opposites (right/wrong, man/woman, alive/dead) is not the whole truth but rather one plane of the reality we find ourselves in. My own spirituality currently involves exploring ways we can transcend this dualistic way of thinking.
Outside of these innate differences I felt with Christianity growing up and the struggle I faced in fear of admitting them, there were more concrete struggles that my family went through relating to the church we grew up in. We were asked to leave when I was 15 years old; this also meant leaving the house I grew up in. A lot was involved in the reason for our departure. There were certainly politics involved, as my dad was one of two pastors at the church. Two of my brothers also were struggling with mental illness, and the stigma involved with that was and is real. It’s been difficult to talk about, but I feel strongly in wanting to help remove that stigma. Talking about it and helping to inform others is a great step.
I think the struggles we face in childhood and adolescence often must be dealt with over and over again. I have experienced feelings of dealing and letting go, only to find myself struggling with the same issues again later in time. The message in Dead Horses’ music is one of hope. I want to make clear that this is not a washed-out or commercialized idea of hope, but a choice in the way one sees the world and one’s place in the world. The first noble truth in Buddhism is that suffering exists. Accepting this about life is what it means to accept life, and choosing hope is seeing the whole thing — the sorrow, the hurt, the sense of temporality — as magnificent.
The mental gymnastics involved in painting the current president as some sort of man of God is pretty Twilight Zone to me. I don’t think I would need to explain this to even someone with the thinnest idea of what Jesus stood for. Why do you think faith, which should be such a personal thing, leads so many to fall for obvious bait-and-switches from our leaders?
That’s a great question. One of the most significant functions of religion is to answer questions about morality. When I was growing up, my family always supported the Republican candidate because he was pro-life, and that one moral issue seemed to outshine any other issues, whether they were regarding morality or anything else. Faith certainly is a personal thing, but religion also brings a function of cohesiveness to society; it brings people together. The danger is when individuals give up their own right to think and feel and be intuitive for themselves. This reminds me of one of my favorite John Steinbeck quotes.
“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.”
Do you feel an urge to cut to the core of evangelistic insanity and find what wisdom may have been obfuscated, or is it better to throw the program out and be a nice person?
Personally, I feel there is so much to learn from all the religions of the world. They tell us a story about who we are and where we came from. When I first came to terms with my own disbelief in many of the religious teachings that were taught to me, I walked away with no intention of really looking back or exploring spirituality any further. As time has passed, I’ve realized that the initial “turning away” was actually just another step in my own spiritual journey. I’ve been exploring different religions and mythologies and reexamining Bible stories that used to cause me a lot of distress, even as a child.
Last winter, I read a book by Carl Jung called Answer to Job. Most people know Jung in relation to the field of analytical psychology, but he also did a lot of work in other fields such as religion studies. In the book, he reexamines the story of Job and suggests that God’s encounter with Job compelled him to become man. It was fascinating to look at the story through the lens of psychology rather than literal interpretation loaded with dogmatic motivation.
I remember coming to the conclusion very early on that it is impossible to “know” anything. My friends and even adults would sort of laugh at that.
What’s your view of philosophy? Is it like running on a useless hamster wheel of the unknowable aspects of being alive, or has it proved helpful in your thinking?
Philosophy means “love of wisdom.” In that sense, I think it’s very helpful. It’s brought both distress and joy to my life. As a child, I found myself exploring philosophy in my own head without really knowing what I was doing. I remember very early on coming to the conclusion that it is impossible to “know” anything. My friends and even adults would sort of laugh at that. In college, I was honestly too afraid to delve very deeply into or take classes on philosophy even though it attracted me. I tend to take things very, very seriously, which can make studying philosophy pretty difficult, I think.
Do you feel that there are forces out there that make our current absurdity the “new normal?” How does that rationalization of complete insanity work?
I was just talking to a friend who has been traveling abroad for the last six weeks. She was traveling with some folks from different countries, and expressed surprise at how some of them were pro-Trump. I asked her what their reasoning was, and she replied that they appreciated that Trump is “shaking things up.” Honestly, I find that rationalization as near offensive, as it seems to deem less important issues like fighting bigotry and racism, supporting environmentalism, supporting refugees from around the globe, improving foreign policy, etc. etc. in the name of “shaking things up.”
Please tell me the last beautiful thing you saw, read or thought about. What was it? Will you experience it again?
I just opened a letter from my sister with a couple of pictures of my two-year-old niece. She brings me a lot of joy! I think children are an abundant source of that — joy. I’m also reading a wonderful book by Joseph Campbell called The Power of Myth. It’s based on a several-hours-long interview between Campbell and Bill Moyer. There is so much great stuff in this book!
One example is a a letter written by Chief Seattle in 1852 in reply to the U.S. government, which was trying to buy tribal land. The way he describes the land and our connection to it is very, very beautiful. The way he writes with such respect for the “White Man,” and with such inclusiveness is very humbling. And the wisdom he shows in talking about the future being the “end of living and the beginning of survival” is incredible.
“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy out land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man, all belong to the same family.
The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.
The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give to the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.
If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.
Will you teach our children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the songs of the earth.
This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
One thing we know: our god is also your god. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.
Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tanned? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! and what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
When the last Red Man has vanished with his wilderness and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?
We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, if we sell you or land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it, Preserve the land for all children and love it, as God loves us all.
As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know: there is only one God. No man, be he Red Man or White Man, can be apart. We are brothers after all.”
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: June 28, 2018
Total questions: 6
Word count: 2305
Reading time: Eight minutes
adolescence, affiliation, bathing, blood, branches, Buddhism, Carl Jung, childhood, church, cohesion, conclusion, danger, Dead Horses, dealing, dogma, eagle, experience, forest, function, heartbeat, horse, impossible, individual, interpretation, job, Joseph Campbell, journey, literal, living, Milwaukee, motivation, newborn, noble, offense, opposite, philosophy, prairie, preservation, rationalization, religion, roots, Sarah Vos, significant, sky, strand, survival, trunk, truth, universe, web, wilderness, Wisconsin, wisdom
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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