By Laree Taula
I had spent my whole life searching for answers, the meaning of life. How do you know what is really true? I decided I would search for the truth, I would hunt for it relentlessly, and I would not give up until I had found the answer.
Is there such a thing as absolute truth? Or is it relative, whatever you choose to believe?
I remember at eight years old I had a guilty thought, “What if none of what I had been taught about God was true? Maybe it was just one big fairy tale to keep the world in order.” I quickly got rid of this thought. How could I doubt that God existed?
Another test came when I became a teenager and started formulating my own world views. My parents’ world views seemed totally out of touch with reality. To me, Christianity seemed to be full of rules and totally boring. It seemed like much more fun out there, being free to do whatever you wanted.
I was banned from listening to ‘ungodly’ music, alcohol was prohibited in our house and if my dad thought there was too much swearing or a sex scene on TV, he would immediately turn it off. I remember being so annoyed when he turned off the movie Pretty Woman starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere right when the kissing started. We had to fast forward through lots of it and by the end, I had no idea what the movie was about.
The things I was banned from doing became all the more enticing. Like water building up behind a damn, I eventually let loose. Pregnant at 16, I was a novice in a world undiscovered. Not in a million years did I ever think that these so called rules might have been put in place to protect me and help bring me peace and happiness.
I remember my darkest days were after I’d spent five or so hours debating with an atheist about the existence of God. I was 17 and he was 36. By this stage, I had given birth to my daughter and broken up with her father.
Dave was a tall, blue eyed blonde body builder who had been married three times, been in trouble with the law for car conversion, drugs etc and had even owned an escort agency at one stage. He’d been a stripper (was still on call) and was very liberal as far as thinking nothing of threesomes and reading pornography. “The stories are really interesting,” he would say. He was well-traveled, both in terms of seeing the world but also ‘astral travel’. “It’s really cool,” he would say, “You don’t need a passport and it costs you nothing.”
He came from a wealthy family in Auckland whose house was on an official scenic route in an affluent suburb called Mission Bay. His father was an engineer for BP oil. Dave was one of six kids who were all adopted and of varying nationalities. He said he was the black sheep of the family but still his mother’s favourite. He allegedly had a mensor IQ, was top in the country for Chemistry and Biology in the sixth form, and had got his Grade A mechanical apprenticeship in the space of a year instead of three years like most people. He had a manager’s job at Kings Auto Hire Centre which specialised in construction machinery.
He must have loved his audience of wide-eyed teenagers who hung on his every word. Dave definitely was the man about town and said the Police referred to him as the Mafia and to watch what we said on the phone as all the phones were tapped. It was clear he liked to blow his own trumpet, but I was totally in awe of him. He seemed so intelligent and knowing about many topics.
I had come to know Dave through Stephanie, who lived with him as a boarder. Mum phoned me while I was staying in Auckland looking after a nephew and niece, to say her and dad were separating and that it was better if I found somewhere else to live because things weren’t good at home. I had already had a major falling out with dad before I’d left so this was the final deciding factor to leave home for good. Stephanie mentioned my situation to Dave and he said that I was welcome to live them for a while until I found somewhere else to live.
Dave soon morphed into a father figure/boyfriend. It then became too comfortable to leave and I was frightened about the prospect of living alone when Natasha was only 8 months old.
During the 18 months that I lived in my new home, Dave’s beliefs slowly started to chip away at my faith. This 36-year-old man had all the intelligent answers to refute my naive claims of the divine. I had always had a strong faith though even I didn’t obey all the Ten Commandments. In my parent’s eyes however, I had seriously rebelled and gone off the rails. To top it off, I had a child at 16 years old. I knew I was a huge disappointment to them, not only morally but also because it interfered with the high hopes they had held for my education and future.
Dave said he believed in the spirit world but believed that when we died, our soul’s developmental stage would dictate which spiritual plane we would go to in our next life. He said there were seven planes. The highest being equivalent to heaven, when we leave a physical body forever and live in a place like nirvana. The lowest plane being in the body of a cat, rat or possibly spider. He did not believe an actual hell existed.
“How do you know this for sure?” I asked.
“Because I have seen the planes,” he answered. “When you astral travel, you can jump between them.”
My world caved in at the thought that none of what I had been taught in Sunday school and church for all those years was true. I’d been duped I was no longer a unique individual to be reunited with my creator when I died, the loving arms of Jesus welcoming me home.
No, I was an accumulated soul made up of many other lives before me, to be returned to some sort of spiritual galaxy highway depending on what aura I had or how good I was in this life. If I sinned too much, I might come back as a cat, a rat or even a spider. It was like we were all on some sort of apprenticeship for the next incarnation. The thing that made me feel most weird was that I wasn’t unique, I had probably been someone before. Goodness knows who I would have been in a previous life, maybe I was a 16th century witch burned at the stake. Maybe those dreams I’d had as a child being buried alive or put on a stretching machine were flash-backs from a previous life?
I started to look at people and wonder which plane they were on, how many lives they’d had prior and what colour their aura might be. I started to see people as either innately evil or innately good depending on the feeling I got about them. The world became more frightening as all these alien souls of varying stages of development, entrapped inside human bodies and animals, surrounded me. It made me more fearful and less trusting of people. Eye contact also started to become uncomfortable.
Dave did tell me that very few people had a black aura but when he did see one, he would walk on the other side of the pavement. He said most murderers had a black aura. The way he described them is that he would feel an instant chill upon sighting them.
The stories he told me about astral travel were captivating, especially the ones where he sat on the wing of an aeroplane. He and his friend even saw a girl next door getting undressed in her bedroom, not because they’d peeped through the window, but because they had astral traveled to her bedroom.
To prove their point, they knocked on her door and asked her if she had a tattoo on her left bum cheek. She confirmed this to be true and was amazed they knew this without her ever exposing herself to them.
He said he got out of practising astral travel in the end because he encountered the ‘dark side’. Another time one of his friends didn’t wake up for days because he’d got lost in the cosmos. They’d taken some trippy drugs so didn’t want to take him to the hospital.
“When you get involved in anything in the spirit realm, you have to be very careful,” he said. “Make sure you ask someone to help you who is experienced.”
He warned. “What I do know for sure, is that there is good and evil. There is a good side and a bad side.”
One winter’s evening as we sat warming ourselves next to the fire with a hot cup of tea, Dave said, “If I was in court for something illegal and you had to testify, would you lie for me?”
I could tell this was an extremely important question for him. I looked at him and knew what he was asking of me.
I thought about it truthfully and finally I said, “No, I would not lie for you.” I knew I could not put my hand on a Bible, swear under oath, and lie.
Even the fire that was ablaze in front of us dared not make a sound in that moment of truth.
One day while washing my face in the bathroom, I wiped the flannel away and found myself looking at my reflection. I fell into a trance as I stared at my face. All of a sudden a strange sensation came over my entire body, like suddenly I felt removed from myself and like someone else was looking back at me. “I’m me”, I thought. “I’m Laree”. How weird. “Who am I?” “What am I?” and, “What the heck am I doing here?”
I looked at my hands and fingers, then back at my face again and into my eyes. My stare just looked right back at me. I didn’t like this feeling so blinked a few times and shook myself out of it.
I thought about the concept of good and evil. What was it exactly? Was it that everyone has varying degrees of both good and evil in them?
So how do we differentiate good from evil? And how do we know what amount of evil is permissible and excusable, let alone recognisable? What about an evil that is disguised? A clever deceptive blend. For example, if you want to poison someone, you don’t give them pure poison, you mask it in something acceptable and nice. How many of us are consuming poison completely unaware?
That gives me a comprehension of Genesis, the first book in the BibleBible when it says, God told Eve not to eat from the tree of good and evil. He didn’t say don’t eat from the tree of evil.
Perhaps it is a matter of personal discernment such as not blindly following the widest path that most people unquestioningly go down, or not believing all that glistens must be gold. That sometimes what is not apparent or obvious may be your greatest treasure.
So how do you seek the narrow path that we hear leads to eternal life if there is such a thing, and how do you find it?
During those dark months that I did no longer trust what I had been taught to believe about the Bible, I decided what Dave said was true, “We come into this world alone and we leave alone.” “Look after number one, yourself, because nobody else will.”
They were stone cold, lonely and relentless words. They sounded like the doors of a concrete tomb slammed shut, never to be opened again. Alone.
So he would give me a puff on his joint and share his fruit burst lollies that would provide colour to my darkness, and I would sit there and think, “We are all alone in this pointless existence known as life.”
I had grown to love Dave a lot. But I didn’t know what kind of love it was, or whether it was a deep attachment. It was very hard to walk away, but I knew I had to.
The world had become a wilderness. I continued to search here, run there, and look everywhere. All with the same inconclusive empty result. What was the point of all of this?
Two years later I was sitting in a Paris café at 20 years old. I had taken a three day excursion from London where I had arrived with Natasha only a few months earlier, to start an OE with friends and a new boyfriend. I had managed to get a job waitressing in a restaurant under an illegal IRD number.
I began writing a postcard to my mother telling her about my travels and job. I felt excitement as the dazzling lights of the Eiffel Tower were to be seen from the café window while a French waiter swept the entrance.
Then I dropped my pen, looked into the dark Paris night and beyond into my future and decided to pray to God.
“Please God, steer me on the right path. May your will be done in my life.”
The very next day I found myself detained by a customs’ official, a motherly but stern brunette woman in her 40s. I had just arrived at Heathrow Airport in London.
“Are you working in London?” she asked, after glancing at the tourist visa in my passport.
“No,” I answered. I lied.
“Do you have a job back in New Zealand?”
“No, I resigned to take an extended holiday,” I answered. I told the truth.
“When is your return flight?” she asked.
“I haven’t booked it yet,” I answered. Again, the truth.
She questioned me over and over and made a phone call to my friends in London. They confirmed my story. They lied for me.
I knew I was caught in a trap. A web of lies I had spun for myself, but totally justified by me in my mind.
Finally, I burst into tears. “I’m not going to claim any benefits. Why can’t I stay here? I’m a Commonwealth citizen. We have the same Queen. Why do you let so many Nigerians live here and not me?”
“If you did not have a dependent, you would have qualified for a two-year work permit, but unfortunately those with dependents are not eligible for this type of working visa,” answered the customs’ official.
You are not being deported, it is called, ‘Refused leave to enter’, which means you can return at any time. We should be returning you to Paris where you boarded your flight, but we understand you have no family or means of income there. You also have a dependent here in the U.K so we will give you a week’s grace to get things sorted with your return flight home to New Zealand.
“Can I please fly back to Australia?” I asked. I couldn’t bear to go back to New Zealand that soon after fare-welling everyone and selling everything I owned. Besides, the economy in New Zealand wasn’t great at that time and the wages were very low.
“Yes, Australia will be fine,” said the customs’ official.
I ended up sitting on the plane next to an excitable couple who had been saving and planning their big overseas trip for months. They were now finally embarking on an adventure of a life time. What a shame for them to be seated next to an inconsolable blubbering teenage mother with a small child.
I can still see the world atlas sitting on my lap as large tear dollops blotted the colourful graphics. As each hour passed by I imagined myself being transported from one side of the world to the other, against my will. My dreams mercilessly taken away like liquid gold being poured down a sink before my eyes.
Three year old Tash sat next to me either peacefully sleeping, happily chatting, or contentedly drawing. I sat in awe of her innocence and a measure of strength that came in those moments of knowing that I was her mother and her life was in my hands. Then I ate her leftovers and thought how comforting food could be at times.
This was my reality. I had chosen to have a child at the age of 16 and I had made a decision to end things with her father when she was three months old, for reasons I had justified to myself at the time. Everything I was experiencing was a consequence of my own choices.
The experience forced me to realise that when you make choices, you have to have the courage to see them through. My priority was to raise Tash. Not live the life of a carefree young person on their OE in London.
“One day I would go back,” I told myself.
When I arrived at Sydney airport, my aunty and uncle greeted me. They had always been my favourite aunty and uncle and I was hopeful they would suggest I stayed with them. They were Christians but in my eyes, cool Christians.
“Why don’t you see if you can find a job and stay for a while? You can live with us and I’ll mind Tash for you,” said my Aunty.
My heart leapt for joy. ‘Where there is sorrow, joy cometh in the morning. I felt hope, like a thousand buds in spring bursting through their bulbs.
Within a couple of days I had work lined up doing secretarial work earning nearly three times what I had been earning in New Zealand. Things were looking up.
My initial hope slowly turned to a despondency and somewhat disappointment in this sprawling large Australian suburb. I had envisaged my aunty and uncle lived in a trendy cosmopolitan area just out of Sydney with buzzy cafes and restaurants nearby. And I thought it would be multi-cultural, all of which I had heard Sydney was well known for.
No, I had come to a sprawling suburb of 800,000 predominantly white Australians known as Novocastrians. The suburb was called Newcastle, two hours north of Sydney. Its inhabitants all seemed to wear similar clothes. Just about every male I saw wore a country style flannelette shirt and most of the girls wore tights with a long baggy top. They also put the word “but” at the end of every sentence: “I’m going to the shop but”. I’d think “but what?”
The biggest attraction was going to the mall with Wendy’s ice-cream and other chain stores, packed with either fat looking country bumpkins or bottle blondes in tight jeans (nothing in-between).
One night I was taken to a local bar. It was good to get out, but I temporarily doubted that when a country and western song came on the sound system. It was as if the whole bar had line dancing as a compulsory subject at school, because everyone except me started line dancing, perfectly in sync.
I also noticed peoples’ conversations at work and dinner parties consisted of what renovations they were currently doing to their house, what colour curtains they were putting up, and what team the Newcastle Knights (rugby league team) were playing next. A common question would be, “Are you going to watch the footie on Sunday?”
What I couldn’t quite quantify or process was that although they lived in a place with a beautiful climate, beaches, strong economy, good jobs, nice homes, something huge was missing. Like a spiritual void, a hollowness. It was as though I was in the twilight zone. Everyone was happy, except me. I felt so bad feeling this way, especially as they were such lovely people.
I could not continue to lie on this shallow finely-powdered gold for too long. I was of the deep ocean kind.
“I can understand why you don’t want to live in New Zealand anymore,” someone said to me at morning tea one day.
The movie ‘Once Were Warriors’ had just been released at the movies in Australia. It was a raw R18 set in New Zealand’s most notorious town for poverty, crime and social problems.
Other interesting questions were: “Do they have oranges in New Zealand?”
New Zealand during this time was also not performing well on the international sports stage. I felt I didn’t have much to feel proud about in the way my country was perceived by Australians and didn’t have the confidence to articulate its strengths such as its astounding beauty and of course snow-capped mountains, something Australia did not have.
My soul’s increasing despondency might have contributed to an unusual physiological reaction of my face turning bright red whenever anyone spoke to me. This would be accompanied by a rapid heartbeat, a tight throat, and nervous speech. The more I feared this panic attack happening, the worse it got. Even with brown skin, I knew my facial flushes were very noticeable and I could see people felt nervous for me. I started to fear anyone speaking to me and tried to avoid it at all costs. I even got a book out from the library about how to deal with panic attacks. It made me feel less alone but it didn’t cure me.
My Aunty and Uncle only had a three bedroom home and so helped me organise the rental of a caravan which they put in their back lawn for Tash and I to sleep in. We lived an hour’s drive in a car from where I worked but two hours by bus, so every morning I would leave the house at 5.30am in the pitch darkness to catch two buses. I would arrive home that evening in the dark.
There was no email at that time and overseas phone calls were astronomical so I would spend every possible spare moment, including lunch breaks, furiously writing letters to friends and family at the morning tea table. This also helped avoid people talking to me.
There were no two ways about it, I was desperately homesick. Here I was, a solo mum, Kiwi, living in a suburban spiritual dessert. Lying wide awake each night in the caravan to the sound of Tash’s light breathing I would ask myself through the dull ache in my chest, “How on earth did I end up in this situation?” “What does my future entail?”
All I knew is that I had to keep going and as best I could and to be strong. Whatever it took I would give Tash the best life possible life. Safe, secure and loved.
My desire for the truth grew in intensity. I remembered the Bible verse that God had made us in his own image.
It made me wonder if the saying ‘When you can no longer look in the mirror,’ is describing a state whereby the things you think you have done are so shameful and despicable that you can no longer look at yourself in the mirror. Maybe it is then we cannot find God at all when we see our reflection. Only our sad miserable selves.
Is this why in the story of Adam and Eve, when they disobeyed God and hid from him, they all of a sudden covered their private parts? They had become conscious of their nakedness as something unclean and could not face God. There was now something that came between them and God. Is it true that people can run away from themselves and their own divine calling?
What is truth?
I decided that even if I traveled to every corner of the world, and turned every stone, and met every person that walked the face of the earth, I wouldn’t be any closer to finding God.
Is there such a thing as God? If so, where is he or it?
I didn’t want to believe there was nothing. That the world was one big accident and I just happened to be in it. That my birth and death and life in between meant absolutely nothing.
[Epiphany] “Then God must be the good within all of us. Not something to be found externally.”
Like sparks from a flame, we all originate from one single life force. This visual revelation brought warmth and life to my body.
“We are the sparks and God is the flame.”
When we are born we are a spark, an individual, but we belong to one source and this one source is what makes humanity one spiritual family. If we think of every human as a separate soul, we become cut off from the universal source of truth. We try to keep our own light aflame but eventually we get snuffed out.
It is in the heart of every woman and man to know the truth. But we are rational human beings with a brain and need proof of the truth.
I thought of it this way. Once we get past a certain age, we no longer believe in Santa Claus even though it is a nice story. No amount of convincing is going to change our mind that there is such thing as Santa Claus.
But actually, there was once a man named St Nicholas who gave children gifts at Christmas time. He did actually once exist and his tradition lives on today. Santa Claus, otherwise known as Father Christmas, is symbolic of what the original St Nicholas did and represented. That is, generosity and kindness, especially to children.
Likewise, people want proof of God and there are lot of reasons to say, “There is no such thing as God.”
I’ve even asked God to give me a sign or a clue that he’s real. A few times actually I’ve said, “Please God, can you just appear for a second or move something in the room!”
But imagine if God did appear in the sky sitting on a cloud smoking a cigar saying, “Hi guys it’s me, God, I’m just appearing so you believe I’m real.” How long do you think it would it take us to doubt what we saw? 100 years down the track, people would be arguing whether it did really happen so God would need to appear lots of times to lots of people. Or let’s say he sat on the cloud the whole time. He’d be about as familiar as the moon.
I always had an issue praying to Jesus and not God. To me Jesus was a man that was now dead.
Someone said to me, “Why do I need to pray to Jesus when I can just go straight to God?” Some people feel close to God when they see a sunrise, a baby born or listening to music. How many times have you seen a mountain, lake or sunset and stopped still, in awe of its beauty?
Jesus said in the gospels, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one can get to the father but through me.”
A powerful statement that cost him his life.
I love the stories about how Jesus treated women in a time that they were downtrodden in a male dominated society and had very little rights. There is a beautiful story about a woman who entered a house where Jesus was talking with religious people. They protested at her arriving, accusing her of being a sinful woman, not fit to talk to Jesus. These religious people judged her, concealing their own iniquities, because we know it is impossible to be perfect.
This women knelt at Jesus’ feet and wept as her accusers judged her. Tears fell on his feet and she dried his feet with her long hair.
Jesus said, “Because she has been forgiven much she loves much.”
He then said to her, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.”
Jesus similarly demonstrated this same love for a woman who poured a jar of expensive oil on his head leading up to his crucifixion. She was accused by one of Jesus’ disciples for wastage when she could have sold the oil in exchange for money. Her accuser was the same man that betrayed Jesus for a few pieces of silver and handed him over to be crucified.
Jesus said, “This woman has shown me great love. You will always have money, but you won’t always have me.”
As Jesus finally lay nailed to the cross he cried out, “Forgive them Lord, for they do not know what they do.”
At the foot of the cross were his mother Mary, and follower, Mary Magdalene. The paradox here is that one woman gave birth to him as a virgin. The other had been formerly referred to as a prostitute or scarlet women.
Jesus intercedes for us, defends us and justifies us of all wrong doing. By his blood we are set free. He defeated death and sin when he rose on the third day.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, Jesus, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish, but hath everlasting life.
To know the father, is to know the son, and finally, to know the holy spirit. This is the mystery of the trinity.
I understand the holy spirit as an ever present, unconditionally loving, enduring helper that lives inside of me. That lives inside of everyone. The spirit of truth. Sometimes I don’t listen to the holy spirit. There are so many distractions and noises that take us away from the truth. Quite often I learn by trial and error. I sometimes do the same thing over and over again like a silly child and am filled with guilt, remorse and regret. We all have our battles. Life is full of challenges.
I am the clay, God is the sculptor. I am being continually shaped. Sometimes I co-operate. Life continues to spin. The cycle of life.
When I leave this earth, I cannot wait to be reunited with my creator, the loving arms of Jesus welcoming me home.