Everything gets so small

Jessica Yu in conversation with Amelia
Nicholas A. Tonelli/flickr

Amelia and I meet in the belly of an underground restaurant, with huge plaster walls rendered in medieval red and sprays of gold.

“Nice overalls,” Amelia says.

I’d donned long, black overalls that morning so I could forget about my body while I worked.

“If I wore something like that, my uncle would probably tell me I looked like a lesbian but I think you look real cute in them.”

The conversation turns to sex, sexuality, asexuality and extended families. Amelia tells me she’s only ever felt physical attraction to others and not love. She doesn’t like being touched. She might be asexual and does that sound weird? I tell her I don’t think that she should feel weird about that. She tells me about her Jewish cousins who aren’t allowed to touch each other till they marry. I lack the ability to interrupt an interesting conversation with another agenda so we keep talking. Eventually, she asks me if I’d like to start the interview. I ask her how she would define her religious – or not – identity.

“The simple label I would use is atheist … but … I usually explain that for me, nature and chance sort of cover spiritual function that God would for most people.

By chance I just mean that a lot of people talk about a bigger plan but, for me, Chance kind of covers that. But … I don’t think of Chance as having a consciousness, it’s not good or bad, it’s as apathetic as a rock. Is that weird?”

“No, I don’t think it sounds weird. You sound like you’ve thought a lot about this.”

“I have thought a lot about this. God was kind of vague in my childhood. My mum was raised as a Catholic but she recently became an atheist, one day she thought ‘Oh my God. It’s all bullshit. It’s all sexist bullshit.’ She calls herself a born again atheist. And my dad grew up in a Protestant home but he’s a geologist. So he always was focused on the scientific method: where you draw conclusions from what you have presented to you.

“But my kindergarten years were spent in the Steiner system so there were both vague Christian elements and pagan elements to my education. We danced around in silken cloths and flower garlands for the winter solstice but we also had a nativity scene during Christmas. In Steiner, we were told that rainbows were magic slides that babies came from.

“I remember once when I was ten, my little brother asked my mum what rainbows were and I jumped in and said that they were refractions of light and she took me aside and said: ‘don’t ruin the magic for him.’ But for me the magic was the science.

“When I decided I was an atheist, I was ten. My Jewish cousins ironically gave me a book called A history of time. It was the first time that I had encountered a secular history of earth. I could see where all the dinosaurs and fossils fit in. It was such a cool book. It had a timeline from the formation of the planet. I followed it forward and backwards in time till I’d read every little bit of text in this book. Something in my kid brain just triggered after I’d encountered this explanation at 10 and I thought, “I guess there never was a God after all.” All of a sudden God had just gone ‘poof.’ A new explanation had supplanted an old explanation for me.”

“I came to the decision about nature and chance much, much later. In my mid-teens, I started going hiking. Being in nature by myself really calmed me. Seeing animals, seeing plants, seeing that my shitty little teenage problems didn’t really matter in the face of the majesty of the universe … it really calmed me and really helped when I was in a bad mood. That was sort of when nature became my temple. If things went badly I knew I could watch the peregrine falcons raising their babies.

“There’s this one cliff on this one hike near my house where you can stand on the edge and see an abandoned quarry below you and you can see the You Yangs off in the distance and the city off in the distance. And it’s just … standing on the edge of that cliff just sort of dwarfs everything, it’s like gazing off into space. Everything gets so small. You see the quarry getting overrun by nature, humanity totally wrecked it and its only been abandoned for 12 years and already its filled up with water and animals. All the native creatures go there to drink. The bush at the top is a really beautiful piece of land. It’s not huge on biodiversity like a rainforest but it still surprises me even now, you know, when I see a flower that I’ve never seen before.”

“What kind of animals do you see?”

“I see kangaroos, swamp wallabies, lizards. Only once did I see a snake. Heaps of insects, a turtle once, koalas, native orchids, bats, feral cats. Lots of parrots. And the falcons of course.”

The conversation turns to high school.

“Back when I was in high school it used to really bother me when someone was religious. I used to want to tell them: ‘it’s a trick!’ But I didn’t kick up a stink about it. In high school, my best friend, Anna, was a Christian. We only had an argument about it once. When this girl on camp in a tent was crushed by a branch and died. And so the year level split into two and there were people who were saying, 12 year olds, how could there be a god that would allow this? None of us actually knew this dead girl but it started off a year wide philosophical debate. And I wish I had stood up for Anna but the other side’s argument made sense to me. How could that be allowed to happen if someone was in control of the universe, you know?

“I don’t care as much anymore, though. For one, thing it doesn’t matter. As long as no one’s bothering or hurting anyone, I don’t really see that much problem with it. And having since found out that Anna’s mum is dying … I can see why she needs that solace. I feel like it would be nice to believe somebody’s in control of the universe. But it’s a bit of a logic puzzle for me because I can’t match up all knowing, all powerful and benevolent to fit together given the state of the universe.”