150731-emptyvesselI was only three years old, so I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing the day Kennedy was assassinated, but I damn sure remember that I was in Asheville drinking a glass of apple-carrot-beet juice when I first encountered the dress.

A text had arrived from a friend asking simply, “What color is the dress?”, to which I’d replied “What dress are you talking about?” and the answer came in the form of a link to an article about a photo of a navy blue dress that not everyone sees the same. Nor was this a matter of one person seeing periwinkle and another seeing cornflower. This was blue vs. orange, diametrically opposite sides of the color wheel.

Ridiculous, I thought. Sure, some people have vision disorders, but this is a hoax and I’ll prove it. I centered the photo on my smartphone screen and held it up to a stranger seated at the next table. “Excuse me,” I said. “What color is the dress?” She replied without hesitation.


I’m pretty sure that I remained outwardly calm. I hope I did, anyway. I hope that I chuckled in an offhanded way that conveyed, “Of course it’s orange. Sorry for the interruption.” But inside I was standing on my chair and shouting, flecks of spittle flying from the corners of my mouth, “Orange?! Orange?! What the hell is wrong with you?! Orange?!!”

The next several minutes are a blur. I must have approached half a dozen other patrons, holding my phone in front of me, stiff-armed, like a man with a crucifix in a room full of vampires.

“Yellow,” came one response. “Kind of orange-red,” came another. To the woman who said, “Blue, I guess,” I barked “Thank you!!” so loudly it’s a wonder I wasn’t asked to leave, but I was drowning in a slurry of shattered paradigm and her confirmation was like a precious gulp of air.

A recent conversation with two avowed atheists reminded me of that day. I’ve heard plenty of people claim to have proven the Big Negative, so such avowals no longer shock, but there was, as there always is, the slightly dizzying sensation of being in a parallel dimension.

“It’s raining,” I observe.
“No it isn’t,” he says.
“But the water falling from the clouds …”
“Isn’t. It never was. It never will be.”

And how do you respond to that? All the evidence on the table, all in plain view, labels facing up. I say, “potato,” you say, “there’s no such thing.”

My own truth – the rain, the potato – is this: We’re all spiritual beings, connected to each other, to the planet and to the infinite in some profoundly positive way. But I put no finer point on it than that.

Attempts to parse the spiritual seem to me as hopeless as trying to hear the color 7. With your nose.

So by some people’s definition, I’m an atheist, too. Fair enough. To them, the term “spiritual atheist”, which if I had to wear a label is the one I’d choose, is nothing but an offensive quibble. Again, fair enough. A skunk by any other name.

But I don’t believe that to reject theism is to leap from the spiritual highway headlong into an abyss, which is why I asked my conversation partners to clarify their atheism. They were creatives, after all, and I expect creatives to at least acknowledge the possibility of something beyond the liminal, to feel the lure of the edge.

“Do you mean to say,” I asked, indicating my head, “that everything a person is exists inside here – the beginning, the middle and the end of it? That’s what your intuition tells you? That’s your truth?”

“Yes,” one said, and the other nodded, as calmly and confidently as that woman in the juice bar had told me the dress was orange.

Which I’ve come to find out it actually is, by the way. To her. Not because it isn’t navy blue to me, but because her rods and her cones respond to light differently than mine do. Our realities aren’t mutually-exclusive after all. Whew!

Could it be, then, that some of us really are biological robots? Could it be that, for them, consciousness really is an epiphenomenon of chemical activity in the brain? That they really are riding a rock through infinite space en route to nowhere for no reason?

I guess, but these people … they seem so … so human.