February 27, 2016 § 7 Comments
As I watch my father fighting for his life, I feel so clearly now, the roots of myself in the warmth of his skeletal hand. His hands have always been beautiful to me. As a child, I loved the way those hands expressed a sense of his anatomy in the way the tendons and the veins stood out beneath his olive skin. Now those hands have shrunk to half the size, his fingers swinging like branches of a graceful tree, from arms that are deflated and covered in scars and sores from being poked by needles. Tubes descend and rise with his movements, from his chest, from his index finger, from his nose.
I’ve written many times about our debates over his religion, and my lack thereof. I miss those debates very much. And I miss my father’s cooking. He loved to spend entire days cooking meals for our Sunday dinner. He now watches cooking shows from his hospital bed in the ICU as a sort of hope for the future. That one day, he’ll be able to eat again, rather than have nutrients pumped through a tube. He’s been suffering from Ulcerative Colitis for a little over a year. His care was not handled properly, and by last November, he was down to 105 pounds and spent Thanksgiving in the hospital. Then three weeks ago, his colon burst, and he had emergency surgery to remove it. Since then, he’s had E.Coli; fluid in his lungs; a lung perforation that leaks air around his heart; and now an abscess in his unused stomach, which can’t be operated on because his lungs are too weak.
This has been going on for so many months now, that I feel I’ve made peace with whichever way this goes. But when I heard the news yesterday about the air around his heart, I experienced an anxiety attack that kept my hands from working, made me dizzy, and sent weakness into my knees. My mom has been experiencing this continually, but it was the first time that I felt it too.
Growing up, my dad and I had a volatile relationship. I now see that this was because we are exactly alike. We are both stubborn, and equally tenacious. We struggled against the iron will of the other. At that time, he was also very distant, both physically and emotionally. He worked long hours, and came home exhausted. He traveled for business constantly. It wasn’t until he retired that we all got to experience what a wonderful person my father really is. My parents spent a year living in Italy just before that, and it changed him in many ways. He transferred all of his technical engineering skills into a passion for food and the process of creating beautiful culinary experiences for friends and family.
When my father is in the hospital, I pick up the reins, and I do my best to fill his role. I cook the meals that make my family smile, I do my best to keep my mother calm, I instruct her on all the things my father always did—like the banking, and the computer issues, and the organizing of their lives. I feel all of the pressure that he carried for us for so many years. A lot. It is heavy. And when I am alone, I realize how hard I’ve worked to be strong for everyone, and I see that I am depleted and weak.
Thankfully, my sister just flew in recently, and she is staying with my mother so that I no longer have to fill that role. I don’t have a great deal in common with my mother and sister, but we are all getting to know each other in new ways. It’s my father who is so much of what I am. In the same way that he always has, I spend my days analyzing information and solving problems. I am very much in my head. I have to remind myself to be social. I’m not the warmest person in the world. It takes some effort. All of my pleasure comes from art and expression. Without that, I lose my sense of self. So I guard it carefully, and I fight in order to do it everyday. My father is not an intellectual, but he understands art and design. He has the same appreciation for film and music. There is an affinity there that I am lucky to have.
However, there are also the parts of me that my father will probably never understand. He will most likely never comprehend why I am an Atheist, and because of this, our worldviews are quite different. He does not understand the sort of wife that I am to my husband, in a relationship of equals, with different opinions and views than my spouse. My work ethic is not fully perceived by him, as it is not for most people who don’t understand the amount of effort it takes to write books and make art on a daily basis. Yet, he has a great appreciation for my talent, especially in regards to visual art.
I’ve seen my father go through many changes in the past four months. As his body became more toxic before surgery, I saw the negative side of my dad that I hadn’t seen in years. He was angry constantly, and prone to panicky moments. Almost every topic of conversation stressed him out. Yet, the day after his colon was removed, along with all of the toxins it had released; the dad that I know and love was back again. A few days later he told me that I’m his baby, and such a sweetheart. Words so uncharacteristic for him.
In the midst of my panic attack, I considered what my life would be without my father. If he doesn’t make it, I will no longer have that complicated person who I most relate to. And yet, he would still live on through my family. All I have to do is look down at my hands to see his hands. My sister, and my nieces—we all have traits of his.
Yet, he says he’s going to get better. He submits to every treatment in order to do so. He tells us not to worry. But of course, we do. We wake up on the hour, and check our phones for missed calls from the hospital.
In this place that lies on the balance of life and death, it is hard to be fully invested in life. But life goes on. He’s been in the ICU for exactly a month now. I have an art show coming up, and a book to finish, and piles of research to get through in the process. And without all of this, my mind would never have a break from the processing of what we are all going through.
Life is at once a rhythm, and also a series of unexpected things. Roles reverse, or change completely. The lessons we need to learn are not by our choosing, yet they are necessary in order to find our sense of empathy. Struggles have their importance. They refine us and bring us closer together. They show us what we most value, and the takeaway is to spend our lives learning to be fully embodied within that and aware of the brevity of life.
December 24, 2015 § 3 Comments
My parents had some talks with their pastor about my views, and I’m wondering what they told him. I’m an Atheist—that dreaded word that no Fundamentalist Christian wants to hear in regards to their offspring. On top of that, I am writing a book about my views, and even worse, delving into the history of how religions grew, which reveals that ideology is as fragile as a house of cards.
My partner and I love to debate with my parents every time I uncover some new piece of research. I get excited about my project and love to share what I’m working on. Michael, on the other hand, struggles to understand why my parents believe. He has a high opinion of them, which doesn’t match up with his low opinion of their bizarre faith. In response to our queries, my parents offer up quotes, though we keep hoping for words that come straight from their own thoughts. It never happens. Instead, they run through the usual church-approved clichés of Pascal’s Wager, the fiction of science, and “don’t believe everything you read,” which can easily be used against their literal belief in the Bible.
So Pastor Lee gave my parent’s some guidance on how to counter my arguments with “evidence.” This led to two books by Josh McDowell—77 Faqs About God And The Bible: Your Toughest Questions Answered and The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. Though I wasn’t interested in borrowing the books, somehow I was sent home with them anyway.
McDowell’s bio reads like the usual bag of tricks lifted straight from the pocket of C.S. Lewis. He was a 19 year-old agnostic who wanted to prove faith wrong. With five more years to go before his frontal lobe was fully developed, he found evidence for faith. From there he attended all manner of Christian universities to become the big-time Christian author that he is now. He has 115 books to his name, many of them co-authored. That’s at a rate of about 3 books a year.
The first book I was given, 77 Faqs About God And The Bible: Your Toughest Questions Answered, had me at the title. It’s important to note the spelling chosen here—not Facts but Faqs—either way it’s ridiculous. Each chapter begins as an apologetics question followed by an “answer.” But that’s the problem—there are no answers to be found. There are opinions, suppositions, feelings, but nothing founded on fact or even research.
My favorite example is, “Does God have a gender?” According to McDowell, God does not have a gender based on the scripture where Jesus refers to his followers as a brood of chicks that he wants to protect like a mother hen. Therefore God is both paternal and maternal.
McDowell is missing the big picture. This is mainly because I’m sure he’s part of the crowd that believes the world is only 5,000 years old. The invention of patriarchal Abrahamic religion—which evolved from the Indo-European religion of the Storm God—was a direct attack against Goddess-centered beliefs and matriarchal societies. Over the course of thousands of years, beginning in the Neolithic period, women slowly began to lose their rights as the god of war succeeded the gods of agriculture. Eventually women went from being landowners and traders to becoming the property of men.
Gods always have a gender. Man is the author of the current god, and that god is most certainly male. He began as the Father God, and within Christianity, he is the father and son in one. It is now forgotten that the Mother Goddess birthed him, and that she was once the head of the trinity. The mysterious Holy Spirit now holds her place at the table.
Lets move on to McDowell’s magnum opus, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. In this book he claims that since all ancient cultures have a story about a massive flood, the story of Noah must be true. McDowell missed the course on metaphor. I’m sure there was a massive flood at one time, and this natural disaster spawned many legends. Legends grow, and legends evolve. Every culture had a different hero in the tale and a different version of the story. These cultures thrived on myth—the spoken word tales were both an entertainment and a cautionary tale. Ideas spread throughout the globe in the same way they do today—just a lot more slowly. The beliefs of Ancient Mexico share similarities with the beliefs of Ancient Egypt. It is absolutely incredible that distance makes no difference in the spread of legends and beliefs. This does not make the Bible factual. It is not meant to be—it is a religious book after all, and nothing about religion is based on facts. It’s based on politics, power, and control wielded through the weaponry of fables.
McDowell also shares that since several historical sources mention the existence of Jesus (Josephus for example) the story of his life must be true. Existence and story, however, are two different things. All you need to do is read a celebrity gossip magazine to understand this truth. What people say and what really happened are two different things. None of McDowell’s sources verify claims to a virgin birth or a resurrection—claims that were also made around all other savior gods in history, some who “lived” thousands of years before Jesus, displaying all the same signs of divinity that he apparently did.
Reading McDowell’s vague allusions brought up some anger issues that I thought I had fully worked through three years prior. For every Atheist argument, McDowell claimed that the research—which was directly quoted from the Bible—was taken out of context. This was all he could come up with. Perhaps what McDowell is really saying is that it’s taken out of the context of being in an obsessive relationship with a violent and jealous god whose misdeeds are ignored in order to fantasize that he’s all-loving and all-forgiving. Since I am no longer in a relationship with an imaginary deity, I can see the contradictions clearly, and in truth believers see them as well, they simply choose to ignore them.
Emotionally, those two books brought up all my fears about being trapped in stupid. My nightmares came back—the ones where I can’t escape Christian high school and I can never get out or grow up or have my own views. At least this time, I had the strength to say, “I don’t belong here.” After about a week, I wrote my feelings down, and the dreams went away.
The problem with McDowell’s books is that they only make sense to believers, which is of course his target audience. Christians say that those who don’t believe are sinners, but I say that not believing is the ethical choice. Growing up, I always knew it was wrong that we looked at outsiders as fallen people who couldn’t help themselves. I always knew it was wrong that as a female I was less than. I knew it was wrong when I was told not to ask questions. Looking back, I can’t imagine how my superiors actually succeeded in getting me to believe that the Bible was true. Sure, I wondered why stories like that didn’t still happen today. Religion is a game of pretend—seek and you shall find smoke and mirrors.
My parents are never going to let go of the hope that I will come back to God. Though we communicate our feelings and views openly, it still feels like I’m barely ever heard. My mother used to condemn people for their superstitions. She didn’t realize that she was at all superstitious, but that’s what religion is. I wish that they could see it. Maybe it’s just enough that religion ends with me.
March 19, 2015 § 1 Comment
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter in-law against mother in-law (Luke 12:50–53).”
It’s been fifteen years since I first came out to my family as a non-believer in Evangelical Christianity. From my current vantage point, I see now the evolution of not only myself, but of how my family has dealt with the situation. We’ve all changed in the process, and who we are today has little resemblance to who we all were when I was twenty-one years old.
At that young age there was the added pressure of two parents struggling to let go of their youngest daughter as I entered adulthood. With that letting go came a release of control. Because I’d spent my entire youth living in secret, I suddenly was not the person that anyone had thought I was. In fact, I was what I had feared all along. I was exactly what I had repressed. And more than that, I realized, it wasn’t a bad thing. I was learning how to be happy. What was bad was the amount of rejection I experienced – not only losing 99% of my all-Christian friends, but also being threatened with losing my family for being what my father termed as “a whore.” Lately I’ve been re-appropriating that slur to mean, “a female that cannot be controlled.”
We all got off to a rocky start. All I knew at that point was that the church was not for me. Within those confines I was suffocated, depressed, bored, and dead inside. I realize now that this is because I was and am rooted in creative expression. The artist needs diversity in order to breathe. The artist needs questions. Flat answers that defy all logic are merely roadblocks. The constant question, rather, is conducive to taking what is faulty, and transforming it in order to make it better. I saw clearly that the church does not do what it says it will. The church is for charlatans and blind followers who are told that if they question, they are heretics and outsiders. This keeps people in a place of fear and is a form of Fascism.
I am currently writing a book on religion from the point of view of the insider who became the outsider. Because my husband critiques my chapters in our writers group every week, my words are at the forefront of his mind at family dinners. He struggles to understand why and how my family believes what they do, so he asks questions. It’s gotten to the point where we talk about religion every single time we’re with them. The elephant in the room is now our go-to.
Though it’s awkward, though I sometimes feel offended, and my mother often gets emotional, it appears that we’re traveling through some necessary therapy. Reaching towards middle age, I have come to the point where I need to be respected as an adult within the construct of my family. I will no longer allow them to undermine me. By my side is my warrior husband who never backs down. I doubt we would all be so open without Michael’s curiosity and his need to defend me.
Michael has had little experience with the faithful. He still feels shocked that when asked, my parents relayed that we will go to hell without Jesus in our lives. All along, I had told him that this was the case, but he couldn’t believe it until he heard it directly from them. He told my father that he now understands when my dad says, “We worry about you.” And of course, they pray everyday that we will be with them at family dinners for eternity – as though life continues on as normal in “paradise.”
It would be morally incorrect of me to believe in something that I know is inherently false. Not only false, but the single cause of more abuse, tortures, deaths, genocides, conquests, and fear than anything else in the history of civilization. My father and sister have said, “If I believe and it isn’t true, then I’m wrong and there’s no harm done. If I believe and it is true, then I go to heaven.” But at what cost? The message is love but the giving is conditional. “The Other” is demonized for being under the sway of Satan – therefore outsiders can’t be trusted.
My sister and I are now finally opening up to each other. Though we grew up in the same family, we had completely different experiences of the same exact events. Our roles were such that we were treated very differently – she was and is the much older sister who can do no wrong in the eyes of my parents, while I am the stubborn younger sister who brayed at every perceived injustice. She will do whatever it takes to achieve harmony, while I prefer to tell it like it is to get to the core of the truth in a person. Our personalities created divergence in cause and effect. She and her family have been on the mission field in Papua New Guinea for close to twenty years. I thought that I could live with her silence on into the future, but now that she is finally talking, I see that we have reached a place that is necessary and important. It’s allowing me to let go of the anger that I feel when her idea of “harmony” equals not allowing anyone to know what she really feels.
Though it’s good to understand where all of us within the family are coming from, I’m not sure where it all leads. On the one hand, talking openly brings me closer to them, on the other there’s only so much we can say before hitting our heads against a wall. I find their beliefs in an antiquated mythology to be embarrassing – embarrassing that anyone could possibly believe what they do. On their end, they will never accept my views until my views become their own – an impossibility. If you return faulty merchandise, you don’t go back to the store to buy it all over again.
The perceived need for a Savior did not begin with Christianity. There are at least sixteen crucified and resurrected Saviors, which predate Jesus. Most of which are said to have been born of a virgin on December 25th. They all share variations on the exact same story including time spent in the desert withstanding temptations; turning water to wine; riding in a procession on a donkey; sacrificed to save humans from their errors, and resurrected to bring eternal life. These stories stem from Egyptian beliefs to Greek and Roman Paganism to Hinduism and Buddhism. Jesus is much less a Jewish story than a Pagan one. In the transfer of the telling from the Jews to the Gentiles, Jesus took on the traditional Pagan narrative. The story would have gained little traction without the details of deity come to save us.
Instead of being saved by religion, the modern narrative has shown that we need to be saved from religion. Though civilization is evolving fast, the faithful threaten to devolve our communities at every chance. One of the most important ethics for Millenials is the issue of equality. Western culture is moving beyond the place of women as property. “Good versus evil” is merely code for “us versus them” or tribalistic instincts. And though the church has always been the last to accede in the acceptance and freedoms of minorities and differing cultures, our attempts at democracy have shown that with respect, we can all co-exist and learn from each other. Faith, however, often gets in the way of this with the problem of, “My belief is the only way, and everyone else is an infidel.”
The God of the Bible has a faulty sense of ethics more akin to a gang leader, and hardly seems perfect at all. He requests that people commit atrocities in order to prove loyalty to him, and by the book of Revelation, it is clear that Satan is a mere puppet rather than a mighty foe. God admits that creating earth was a mistake – he wants a do-over. His codes pale in comparison to what we now know as right and wrong. He is faulty, and it is obvious that his author is man.
As a young Christian, I used to berate myself for being an “over-analyzer.” I thought this was a bad thing – mainly because it threatened to disrupt my faith. I’m happy now that it did. Analyzing is what I do best. I love research and games of connect-the-dots. I love the story of how religions grew, and the politics behind why they grew. It’s a fascinating story – rife with myth, clichés, and superstitions. Though we can now understand much of our world through scientific terms, there will always be questions about what lies beyond, and why are we here? These are good questions and an expansive space to exist within. All answers are counterfeit and meant to lead to more questions. We are merely tiny breaths in time. We are what the earth is – things that grow. Our growth is shaped by individuals, but driven by passing generations. The truth is that it’s the people who ask questions that shape the world we live in. Some have died for it. But in the process they cleared the way for more asking. No one grows by staying in line, they grow by exploring.
It’s clear that the largest hurdle most families face is a lack of communication. We hear it in reminders not to talk about politics or religion at family dinners. Many people don’t see a way of discussing it without becoming heated and upset. But until those issues are discussed, there can be no movement towards mutual respect. How can we see through the eyes of the other until we are given a chance to understand their motives and views? It’s not about coming to a place where everyone can be on the same page – it’s about understanding our differences.
By making my views clear to my family, they can come to the conclusion that I am not simply a “fallen soul” or a “rebellious person.” They can see that I have actually thought these ideas out, and that I have reasoning behind the different direction my life has taken. Our open communication is important in the respect that it can break clichés. I wish however, that their side of the story would break clichés as well. They recite words that I have heard since I was a small child. But it’s still fair to make an attempt at breaking through that version to get to the heart of our true stories. I’m doing my best to get to know them beyond their recitations.
I still exist within that role of the child they couldn’t keep in line. My words never come out as clearly with my parents as with other people. This really frustrates Michael. It’s exhausting for me to exist within the place where my parents think and the place where I think as well. I know their thoughts exactly because I used to think the same way. This can be vocally stunting, because I don’t want to hurt them. There’s a fine balance between being oneself and respecting the feelings of others. My mother was incredulous when I told her that I try my best to respect her faith, as though this should be a given. They think that I am deceived, while I think that they are deceived. Perhaps we are two sides of the same coin. But perhaps not. Faith is static and fights to never be challenged by new information. I welcome openness and fresh thought.
All of this makes me wonder how our story will unfold. Will we continue in this vein, or will the talks on religion come to an end with the end of writing my book? I watch them, with their hopes that I will come around, and cringe over their pain. I want to be understood but know that I never will be – my husband fills that gap. As a family, we all come to terms with this through focusing on our common features instead. I have my father’s personality, while Michael is very much like my mom. We all joke over our similarities. Half the table orders one thing and the other half orders another. We all love each other and have a strong bond of friendship – simply being related is no guarantee of that. I know for sure that I am luckier than most.
January 16, 2014 § 5 Comments
Tonight, my sister’s family is boarding a plane that will lead them back to Wewak, Papua New Guinea. They have been doing their work there for eighteen years, and on this furlough, they were home longer than they have ever been – a year and a half – due to a new policy of needing full financial support before returning.
They are Wycliffe Bible Translators – trained in linguistics to use the blueprint of the Roman alphabet to produce a written language for a small village known as Pouye. This is one language of the 1,000 languages in PNG, out of the 6,000 languages in the world.
At the start, my sister and brother in-law learned to speak Pouye, then determined which letters are used in the language. After this map, they comprised the written language, taking into account cultural differences. Then they began the process of teaching the people to read and write, and of course, instilling them with their faith.
I could tell numerous stories about their time there, but I’ll never know what it’s really like to live the way they do. Each time they are preparing to go back, I keep hoping that they won’t go. And each time they come home, I watch patiently as they go through culture shock. It literally takes them a full year to reacclimate and catch up to all that they have missed.
Because my nieces are often so isolated, I didn’t really think that my oldest niece, Cynthia, would become a full-on teenager. But it’s happened – she’s fifteen and begging for a new phone every year. In that phase where she’s not fully present, rapt over social media, selfies, and games on her phone. Half young woman, half slightly awkward – but next time I see her, she’ll be eighteen, and that last half will probably be gone.
I was so amused, this time around, that the girls are at the age where they’re developing their own opinions. Mom and Dad are no longer the ultimate end-all be-all. They had journals of secrets and a complex magic club. Cynthia told us, “There are more pros than cons to the witch doctors where we live.” Being a super herbalist healer myself – due to years of no medical insurance – I had to agree. Though you wouldn’t want to be the unfortunate tourist who purchased the wrong kind of wooden statue – the one with a hex on it to keep the tourists out. The only way to reverse the hex, she told us, is by burning the token.
I’m trying to hold it together as I think about all of the memories I have with my nieces. All the times they spent the night and we ate ice cream and pizza, made paintings with watercolor and gouache, went to the museum where Cynthia pointed out the blonde voodoo doll that looks just like Leah, shopped at my herbal store where we bought pestles and mortars, toured a historic boat that functions as a hotel, went to the zoo, or the park. There is so much more I wish we could have done.
Since Cynthia is in high school, when they get back she’ll be going to a boarding school at a mission base on the other side of PNG. It makes me feel a little uneasy that she’ll be so far away from her family. Being the youngest sister myself, I relate a great deal to Leah. She often feels like the underdog, though she is talented and witty with an incredible imagination. My older sister left home when I was twelve, and now Cynthia is leaving when Leah is almost twelve as well. I keep seeing history repeat itself.
Being apart, they will change a great deal. Leah will come into her own and feel less overshadowed, but she’ll also feel lonely without her sister. Cynthia will become more independent, focused on making her own decisions, forming her own thoughts through her love of writing and art.
If this is the last term for my sister and brother-in-law, I also wonder what the next phase of their lives will be. What will they do? Will they teach? My sister has shown that she can acclimate, and has been working as an assistant Spanish teacher. But my brother-in-law seems more uncertain of his place outside of missionary life. He is known there as a leader, but here, he hasn’t had the opportunity to establish himself in that way. It seems important that he find his footing here in the states, eventually.
All four of them have kept moving so constantly that gypsy life is ingrained in them. They all fear the idea of staying in one place for more than a year. In that constant movement, there is little chance for a complete life to take root. I only say this, because for a long time, I lived that way as well. It’s the “Hello, Goodbye” lifestyle. We’re never able to completely work out our issues because there is never enough time together.
I get nervous being one on one with my sister. I attempted to have lunch with her once – the second time we were alone together since she got married. Her silence makes me want to fill the air with words. I wonder if she expects me to ask her questions, but I don’t know what questions to ask, and I prefer that she fill in the blanks without my prodding. She told me that I talked too much. I am an open book, and she is a closed one – she knows me so much better than I will ever know her. I have no idea how to solve her mystery.
There are many things we never say. We never bring up the fact that I didn’t become the Super-Christian that she so wanted me to be (including the time that she tried to send me to a rehab camp in Texas for straying Christians). They’ve read some of my writing, but no one ever brings it up. And we never discuss that I have mixed feelings about what they do for a living.
In Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond, the course of our evolutionary development is traced through the conquest and spread of civilization. His book offers a total education in how human society functions through the game of winners and losers. At one point he asks, “Why was proselytizing religion (Christianity and Islam) a driving force for colonization and conquest among Europeans and West Asians but not among Chinese (Diamond, 419)?”
As countries, empires, languages, and people groups have come and gone, China has remained Chinese, with an unchanging language and power structure for longer than almost anywhere. It is an insular large land mass, and though as a culture they have made leaps and bounds in technology and invention, an absolute leader has always stalled the process, causing a sort of catch-up game hundreds of years later.
In Europe, however, there are many small countries with open communication. If one leader is not buying a concept, another one will. If the concept is successful, the other leaders have to adopt it or risk getting swallowed up by the more successful country. This model pertains not only to countries but to corporations, organizations, governments, and religion.
Christianity is a conquest religion. First come the missionaries, then comes the government. The big businesses are drawn by untapped resources and cheap labor, which leads to total cultural take-over.
In the past eighteen years, a lot has changed in Papua New Guinea. Its resources have encouraged development – and if you want to rent a home there, $4,000 a month is on the low-end. I wouldn’t be surprised if land gets bought up right from under the feet of the natives. It’s the same old story.
In the 1970’s, the highlanders had been farming with stone tools for thousands of years while those in the swamp areas existed on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Before humans ever arrived, large mammals existed there, but since then, there has been so little protein, that cannibalism existed until modern Australians threatened the human-eaters with guns. Society there developed in utter isolation from the original Asian population that first founded it (certain people groups that looked much different back then than they do today).
“… difficulties of terrain, combined with the state of intermittent warfare that characterized relations between New Guinea bands or villages, account for traditional New Guinea’s linguistic, cultural, and political fragmentation (Diamond, 306).”
This fragmentation and geographic isolation kept New Guinea from developing as a civilization, though until three thousand years ago, it was actually more advanced than Australia, the islands of Bismarck, and the Solomon Archipelagoes.
To most Papua New Guineans, technology is “white man’s magic.” Western medicine and an encouragement to decrease warfare has improved the population. Is it patronizing to ask that a culture remain untouched so that we can enjoy the Stone Age from afar? Is it patronizing to take over? Rather than answers, there is the inevitable progression of globalization.
Quickly, the old traditions disappear, replaced with our customs, our food, our business, our religions. The first thing they are given to read is the Bible. Not their own stories, but the stories of a once tiny tribal religion that began in the Fertile Crescent – a place so raped of its natural resources that it is now only a dessert.
Within my family, there are eight different people with differing life experiences, belief systems, and lifestyles among three different generations. Maybe all of that difference keeps us balanced. When we come together, it can be a challenge. There is always an awkward moment, or the thing that someone says that makes me angry. In a sense, we understand more fully who we are when confronted with the opposite point of view. It seems to work for us – the small groups with mostly open communication that create innovation – kind of like Europe, or Microsoft, or Capitalism. In all of that difference, we find success.
October 19, 2013 § 3 Comments
My mother’s grandparents came through Ellis Island, on their way from what was then Czechoslovakia, headed towards a small farm town in Indiana. I don’t know why they left their home in Bohemia, or what led them to the Midwest. I don’t know what they did before they arrived there. But as culture and language stick together, my grandpa and grandma made a Czech partnership, and used their common language to keep secrets from their five kids.
They are now both deceased for many years. I always thought they were sort of strange. Even though my grandma was nice to me and fed me too many sweets and took my sister and I to the park, I had nightmares that she was abusive (which she actually was to her own children, but I didn’t know that yet).
My grandpa never talked much. He just smoked his pipe and played cards and carved nifty wooden sculptures. When he did talk, his voice was muffled and deep; in my memory it sounds like an obstructed baritone whistle.
I just finished reading My Antonia by Willa Cather. I didn’t realize that the entire subject of the book would be about people just like my Bohemian immigrant ancestors. I’d never thought about what they must have gone through in their first years on fresh land. The fact that I balked when my grandpa said that as a child he had to use an outhouse in the freezing cold must have given me some inclination of the difficult upbringing he had, and the struggles they endured on the farm.
“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” That’s pretty much what happened with Grandpa after he returned from World War II. He didn’t make the final cut to play for the White Sox, so he became a furniture builder, and ditched the farm for good.
“‘Show him the spiced plums, mother. Americans don’t have those,’ said one of the older boys. ‘Mother uses them to make kolaches,’ he added (Cather, 160).”
Kolaches. I’ve eaten them all of my life, but I never knew how they were spelled. It seemed like a revelation to first see that word on the page in Willa Cather’s book. A small round fluffy pastry cookie topped with jam and sprinkled with powdered sugar. My mom makes kolaches better than anyone, and my favorite flavor is apricot.
I don’t know how to make kolaches. Neither do I know her recipe for bread dumplings and pork roast with caraway seeds. Or even hoska – that braided egg bread with maraschino cherries tucked in the crevices. I don’t have any of these traditions, and when my mother is gone, they’ll be lost unless I do something about it. Food is all I have left of that culture.
In the book, Antonia has a special spirit that stays with the narrator all of his life, haunting him, though he leaves Nebraska and becomes a lawyer on the East Coast. Some of the other European women that he grew up with go on to find success and independence. But Antonia does not.
“She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things (Cather, 167).”
Antonia has a vitality that never leaves her and a fierce courage to never give up on the difficulties of farming, even though her husband would rather live in the city. Thanks to the orchard skills he picked up in Florida, though, they have the best fruit trees around.
“The crabs hung on the branches as thick as beads on a string, purple-red, with a thin silvery glaze over them (Cather, 162).”
My life began in a crab apple tree in a suburb outside of Chicago. It cradled me. I spent long periods of time in its knots and branches. Eventually, I perched up so high that none of the boys running around the neighborhood could see that I was watching them.
My mother hated that tree. The driveway was light grey cement, and the crab apples left pinkish brown stains after they fell. Up in the branches, my sister dared me to eat a crab apple. It was very sour and left a waxy texture on my teeth. I wondered what anyone would use them for.
Since we left that house and moved to Seattle, I haven’t seen a crab apple tree since. It only exists in that pure time of life that I can barely remember, that time where my grandmother was still alive. She died three months before we moved. All of the events that occurred that year marked the end of my innocence. That’s a story I’ve told before.
Willa Cather reminded me of all of this. She gave me pride in how strong those immigrant women of the Midwest were. They didn’t live by anyone else’s standards. They became warriors of survival, and if necessary, ditched the dress to plow the fields. There was no complacency, or settling for someone else’s will. My mother’s family story had seemed pretty boring to me before. Not now.
Next Sunday night, at family dinner, I’m going to ask for my mother’s recipes, that were her mother’s recipes, and so on and so forth. I wonder just how far back those kitchen secrets go. I’m going to ask more questions. And one of these years, I’ll take a trip to Prague. My mother loves it there.
October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
Through the entire decade of my twenties, I was in denial about being a member of the female sex. I loved men so much, that I wanted to be one. All around me, I saw that women were the victims – while men had all the fun, women just got angry.
I had some of the best times of my life in open relationships, and also some of the worst. But the most important part of that experience was taking ownership of myself. By being around men who were staunch in their independence and sense of self, I became a stronger person. And somehow, I found the way to a different definition of what a woman can be than the one I’d grown up with.
In those first years out of college, there were no examples of female strength – only jealousy and haughty glares; or the Christian girls who stopped returning my phone calls though we’d been best friends. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I finally found the women who became my true sisters. They were in tune with their bodies. They were tough in the face of assholes, and soft in the privacy of our intimate conversations. Rather than threatened by each other, we were inspired by each other’s beauty. We felt more powerful as a group than we did separately. In fact, whenever we were together, magical things occurred; the planets aligned for us; we magnetized strange experiences; we became bonded for life, like family.
But I still didn’t embrace my body as a woman. My body as some fertile place of procreation scared me half to death. If another woman’s cycle threw mine off, I felt as though she’d just one-upped me. I knew nothing at all about how female reproduction really worked. It was something I avoided. I could barely admit that I too experienced all the symptoms of a cycle, even if my friends talked freely about it and gloried in being in tune with the moon. I couldn’t shake the embarrassment my mother had raised me with, around the female sex.
In the beginning, sex brought me to life. I had zero embarrassment or awkwardness around that. It woke up all my senses, and inspired reams of Whitman-esque poetry. I loved the adventure of sleeping with near-strangers or random friends. I loved enjoying whoever was right in front of me. Taking in their personhood like a story I could wrap my brain around. We wove our lives through each other, asking for nothing in return. What we gave in those nights was just enough.
I was hanging with a pile of sexy rocker-types. We drank a lot. Our culture revolved around it. You play gigs in bars, make connections in bars, see all of your friends in bars. In my twenties, I thought I would always go on living like every day was a party. I couldn’t imagine changing. I loved my life. It was one big adventure. It felt like I was living in a movie. But then, Michael came along.
In Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch relates how it felt meeting the man of her life, and also her third husband.
“He treated this thing I’d done – this DUI – the dead baby – the failed marriages – the rehab – the little scars at my collar bone – my vodka – my scarred as shit past and body – as chapters of a book he wanted to hold in his hands and finish (Yuknavitch, 239).”
At first, it seemed with Michael, that we’d go on living the way we both always had. But the thing was, if we kept living that way, we’d be torn apart. The more we drank, the more we fought. Our old lives didn’t work when it came to being a unit.
I was alone in bed one morning, so hung-over that I may have been delirious. A little boy walked into the room, sat on the bed, and said, “I love you Mommy. I’m going to save your life.”
Immediately, I started crying. I thought if I talked to him, it would keep him from disappearing. I desperately wanted him to stay. But within seconds, he was gone. And yet, he wasn’t. It feels like he’s been with me ever since.
Not long after, I went cold turkey off the alcohol for eight months, so the painful hole in my stomach lining could heal. I started to live differently. Suddenly, I felt crystal clear. I began to wake up early so that I could write. Being productive now meant so much more than being entertained. I realized that in all those years of drinking, I had buried the pain I’d experienced from growing up in the church, and now I needed to deal with it. I began to explore, searching for some basis of truth.
I saw the nighttime world in a completely different way – boring, pathetic, where people acted dumb and got into stupid fights and slept with all the wrong people. It was still fun for them, and I appreciate all phases of life, but it was no longer for me.
It might seem ludicrous that a little boy vision could change my life. The thing is, my husband is infertile. When we first started dating, he told me it was from a childhood disease that he struggled with. That was only half true. A few years later, his friends spilled the beans that he also had a vasectomy. He was too embarrassed to admit it to me because an ex-girlfriend had pressured him into it. It was humiliating to have his friends tell me an intimate detail that was so important to our lives together. I couldn’t believe that he lied to me, and it took months for me to forgive him.
We talked about reversing his vasectomy, but the success rate is not that high, especially since he had such a low count to begin with. There is a high risk of childhood disease in his family, and he left that abusive family behind at the age of fifteen. His life became a story with the potential for happiness, while the past now only exists as literature. Michael is an excellent writer.
He started joking that we should use one of his friends as a sperm donor. Something I’ve learned in our relationship, is that jokes often become a reality. One day, I asked over brunch, “I wonder how much it costs to use a real sperm donor?”
“Lets find out.”
Immediately, I dove into obsessive research, and eventually found an excellent cryobank. They supply clients with medical records, interviews, baby photos, personality tests, and interests.
The search had to go on hold for many months until August arrived. When I saw our donor’s baby photo, I knew he was the right one. Michael was more impressed by the donor interview, where the lady conducting could hardly contain her attraction, and our donor sounded so mature for a twenty-something. Once we picked him, I began an exploration on reproduction, and how to plan conception for the exact day.
So far, we’ve done two rounds, and I’m in the process of waiting to find out the results of our last try. It’s proven much more stressful and all-consuming than I imagined. Going in, it seems like it should be easy, but the body works on its own time. Five-day windows are a gamble, and once the sperm arrives in a dry ice canister, it only has five days left before it thaws. As we learn more, I feel relaxed that it’s all going to work out in the end. I have an excellent Naturopath who is helping me every step of the way.
This entire year has been a learning process. I worked in an art studio with a group of empowered women from their thirties to sixties. They began to shift my perception of what it means to be a woman. The female artists I know are the strongest, most honest women I have ever met. They are fully present within themselves.
One actually admitted that she regrets motherhood; others revel in it; still others regret never having a child; some can’t imagine ever wanting one. All of them find their center through art. Continuing the cycle of humanity is not enough. You also need to leave the mark of what life itself means to you, to expand on the process in your own special way.
Just a few years ago, I thought I wasn’t capable of being a mother. There was no stability in my life. As a creative person, it’s difficult to find that balance, or any sort of financial safety zone. And then, I willingly gave up the thought of a baby to be with Michael.
There is something about a baby. I feel as though I won’t be able to fully embrace my own sex without that experience. And yet, I respect and admire all of the friends who choose not to have a child.
Something inside me asks, is it possible that I can share in that experience of being a mother? Does my body really work? Do I have all the right parts to make a baby happen? Am I really as healthy as I think I am?
It’s a funny thing that humans are always amazed by their ability to reproduce. You don’t see a cow in a pasture with a look of shock and awe on its face that a calf just came out of its uterus. It grooms the calf like it’s just another day, and eats the placenta to keep the prey away.
Even though I’ve become a little bit stodgy in my mid-thirties, I still feel like I’m a kid. Or maybe I am losing the remains of kid-dom, so I long for a baby to bring those fresh eyes back into focus.
At some point, you realize that life will go on being the same. I work hard and play hard. No great shakes. I’m ready for the big shake-up. I’m ready for change and growth and challenge. I think a child will even wake up my creativity in new ways that I am unable to see in the present.
“His argument against all my fluttering resistance? One sentence. One sentence up against the mass of my crappy life mess. ‘I can see the mother in you. There is more to your story than you think (Yuknavitch, 240).'”
By the way, The Chronology of Water is an excellent book. Lidia Yuknavitch is fearless in her honesty and is a courageous literary soul. I’ve met her twice at readings, and her energy invigorates me every time. She is not at all the broken woman she writes of in her memoir. Her experiences have made her a wise woman, and a brilliant writer. It’s the struggles that make us stronger.
March 25, 2013 § 2 Comments
As women, especially, we carry our mothers within us. We carry our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers and so on. Beginning life through their looking glass, we interpret from their experience. As adults, we hopefully bring something new to the equation.
In The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd shares how she went from being the good Southern Baptist wife, to an awakening of the anti-female language in the church and the traditional roles she had fallen into without question, causing her to become the many breasted woman. She takes a precarious journey towards finding her own true voice, fearing that she will lose her husband or that her kids will be too shaken. But what results instead is a total awakening that greatly improves her relationships and her life.
I go back and forth between two worlds on a consistent basis. Living in downtown Seattle I am surrounded by strong-willed, independent, mature, and passionate women. They hold themselves tall. They’re never looking at the floor, but straight out into what they can learn and how they can grow. They earn respect from their peers, and are active in their community.
Being around them long enough, I can forget that there is another world, the one that I come from, where women live beneath a patriarchal religion that tells them they are unclean and not worthy; the downfall of humanity beginning with Eve who tempted Adam with an apple; a Bible with so few mentions of women, that as a girl I clung to the stories of Ruth and Esther for dear life.
It’s a struggle to still see this mindset in my family members. I am often held to the same standards as the mothers who went before me, even though my husband and I do not share the same value system as my family. Trying to gain their respect as an independent human being, apart from my husband, is difficult. I often feel that for them, a husband is the replacement of your father, and my decisions are like a child’s whims that need to be reined in.
My mother was raised in the fifties and sixties in the Midwest. The negative messages she received about being a woman were manifold. She began to believe that she was dirty, ill equipped to handle life, unintelligent, not worthy of a college education the way her three brothers were. She says that her greatest achievement is having given birth to my sister and I, and raising us well. My mother did the best that she knew how. Though within her, I always sense an untapped potential – creative talents lying inert, a lack of belief in her value. She wonders out loud, “I’m already sixty something, and what have I done with my life?”
She was always with us, always there when we got home from school. But as then, and even now, there is a sense that she is often absent. Maybe it is the trait that my sister and I both share with my mother – we all have a tendency to get lost somewhere up in our heads. My nieces also share this trait, with their wild use of the imagination and sudden bursts of wit. With this up-in-your-headness, there is the danger of retreating from a fully functioning life. All of us women in the family are artists whether we express that or not. Maybe the problem lies in wondering whether our expression is valid or valuable.
In Sue Monk Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident Daughter – A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine, she writes, “I like the way Clarissa Pinkola Estes says it: ‘When a woman is exhorted to be compliant, cooperative, and quiet, to not make upset or go against the old guard, she is pressed into living a most unnatural life – a life that is self blinding… without innovation. The world-wide issue for women is that under such conditions they are not only silenced, they are put to sleep. Their concerns, their viewpoints, their own truths are vaporized (Monk Kidd, 21).'”
I want to know my mother from before I was born. In photos she looks mischievous and carefree. She wears dark eyeliner, with funky 1960’s hairstyles, and mod clothing. She plays the piano, or munches an ice cube in old film footage at the racetrack with my dad. In photos, they goof off with their Old English sheepdog, Big Boy. They are young and beautiful, and life is rich with possibility. She worked for the telephone company, and he was an engineer. On the weekends they took random road-trips, not sure where they’d end up.
As a child, her mother was bipolar and overwhelmed by raising five kids. Grandma preferred her three sons to the two daughters. She never really liked women that much, and she also wasn’t very happy with her emotionally distant husband. But she did love fashion, expressing herself, and working in retail.
On my father’s side, my history of mothers only exists in photographs. His mother died of cancer when she was my age. In photos, she is always laughing with friends. She looks like the center of the universe. Her face is a strangely familiar territory of my eyes, and my sister’s lips. So many aspects of her have been passed down to us, but what they were (outside of photos), we’ll never know. I cling to these images – a grandmother, only visible in stills of black and white. I build up stories around her that only make her more beautiful, more daring, more carefree.
I quickly flip past the photos near the end of her life. She is washing dishes, with my dad (a toddler) playing at her feet. The lines beneath her eyes have turned purple, her shoulders slump towards the sink, exhaustion is written all over her failing body. I choose to forget this, though it lingers in my subconscious, and I wonder if like her, I could possibly die young.
My history of mothers didn’t have the opportunities that I do. Through everything that I do in my life, I celebrate them. I celebrate my right to speak, to write honestly and openly, and leave a record of myself that goes beyond old photographs found in a shoebox. So much of what my mothers really felt, was never spoken.
As I think about opening my life to the possibility of motherhood, I understand the importance of a line of mothers. I see the magnitude of knowing, before I take that step, my own value as a self. It’s painful to me when my mother writes off her life as not being very important. All I can really do is make up for it, everyday, with how I live my own life.
When she lost her mother, I was nine years old. Mom lost her luster as a distant perfect goddess, always washing dishes at the sink. She became a human being. Our family was split down the middle at the time, mid-move from Chicago to Seattle. She and I were still in the old house. She was afraid, scared, hiding boos in the back of the refrigerator (she never drank). Every night we stayed somewhere else, or a friend stayed with us.
Suddenly, it seemed that I was becoming the mother. I resented her for it. I didn’t know how to control my anger. That was when mom began to say that I reminded her of her mother. I was scared that like grandma, I was bipolar too, and maybe diabetic. No one really painted a positive image of grandma, though she was always nice to my sister and I. And it was my aggression that brought up the comparison.
“Most of my life I’d run from anger as something that good daughters and gracious ladies did not exhibit. Perhaps the thing most denied to women is anger. ‘Forbidden anger, women could find no voice in which to publicly complain; they took refuge in depression,’ writes Carolyn Heilbrun. Her words came true for me. Without the ability to allow or the means to adequately express the anger, I began to slide into periods of depression (Monk Kidd, 74).”
You could say that depression runs in my family, but I broke out of a habit that descended down through the women for generations. It was a long, painful process, letting go of that mindset and way of being. But then one day I woke up, fully in charge of my own life, fully capable, and fully expressive. The sluggish, then raging, suicidal thoughts were completely gone. I cracked the code. The answer was within me all along. As long as I face life with no fear, give what I have to offer, and value my gifts, I am happy. It’s a simple equation. But there was nothing simple about how long it took, and difficult it was, to figure it all out.
In life, there is always what we are, and what we were. They live together simultaneously. Some people catch up to who we are now, and some never do. But we all manage to learn from each other. Though my parents raised me, their daughters have raised them as well. My family speaks a different language through an opposite worldview, but we can still connect with laughter, good food, and the stories of our interconnected lives. Everyday, we grow in awareness of ourselves in relation to each other.