Pastor’s Picks For Dealing With People Like Me

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.

 

 

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Time For Change

June 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

For about six years now, I have been writing about the books I read here at The Synchronistic Reader, and my blog on a previous site. I’ve enjoyed the experience, and grown a lot from the gift of getting to process books through writing, and interacting with you, the readers.

In the past several months, however, the format has begun to feel stale for me, and I’m realizing that it’s time to make some changes in my life and re-prioritize. The blog takes up a large portion of my time, and I feel that I need to use that time wisely towards finishing my current book project, and shifting towards freelance journalism to promote that book.

I’m also feeling drawn to move past the straight memoir format into other styles of writing. I’ve noticed that through the years, I’ve told some of the same stories more than once. It’s time to stretch my writing chops and share the stories of other people, maybe even some fictional characters eventually.

I will be using this site as a way to keep all of you updated with news, upcoming publications, and random musings. Thank you so much for being a part of The Synchronistic Reader, and I hope that you’ll stick around for the upcoming ride.

In the meantime, enjoy The Book Experience Project over at Knotted Tree Press – a foray into the influences behind writing my memoir, No End Of The Bed

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C.S. Lewis Verses Sigmund Freud

May 17, 2014 § 4 Comments

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In the book The Question of God – C.S. Lewis And Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, And The Meaning Of Life by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., it is obvious that the author takes the side of Lewis with his mention of a lifelong fascination for the transformative aspects of faith. He presents Freud as a floundering pessimist, while it appears that post-conversion Lewis has all the answers. Nicholi’s title suggests that Lewis and Freud actually did debate, when in reality they may have never met, and Lewis wrote his points against Freud several years after Freud’s death.

The two men share some common themes – both based their atheism on a pessimistic worldview and lived in a time when there was less evidence to support a godless existence. The main difference between the two men is that Freud was a Jew and C.S. Lewis grew up as a Protestant. Protestantism never left the core of Lewis, and his friends (including Tolkien) hounded him through his atheistic years, discussing issues of faith late into the night. His peers played a major role in his conversion.

I’ve always questioned why an Atheist would become a Christian. In reading this book, I realized how limited the range of knowledge was just a hundred years ago. Lewis never actually believed that God did not exist. He only wished it. He had as much faith in that as a Christian has for the existence of God.

According to Freud’s theories, this wish correlates with the strained relationship Lewis had with his father resulting in a desire against authority figures. It’s no surprise that after the death of his father in 1929, Lewis converted to Christianity just two years later in 1931. Perhaps his unresolved issues led to a wish for a sense of authority over his life. Strangely enough, my father also converted just shortly after his father’s death, leading me to believe that this might be a common reaction to the loss of a parent.

“The very idea of an ‘idealized Superman’ in the sky – to use Freud’s phrase – is ‘so patently infantile and so foreign to reality, that … it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never rise above this view of life (Nicholi, 36).”

I haven’t lost either of my parents, so it’s hard for me to understand the need to find an imaginary replacement figure. But I will always remember, as clear as though it’s happening in the present, the months after my mom lost her mother. I was only nine years old, but somehow, from that time forward I began to feel that I was the mother and she was the child. It was a strange flip-flop that confused me and left me feeling overwhelmed.

To pre-conversion Lewis, since God allowed terrible things to happen, it seemed better that God not exist at all. This is an extremely weak argument, having more to do with the character of God rather than whether or not he exists. In the end, Lewis felt that his own knowledge of good and evil proved God’s existence. But does it?

In religious thinking there is the belief that morals are something separate from us. We don’t know how to behave unless God shows us how. Except that we do behave as long as our needs are met. It’s the same with all primates (because, yes we are primates) and all other species of animals.

As long as food, sex, and land isn’t hoarded by alphas, and as long as the population doesn’t get out of hand, there is no need to commit crimes or start wars. A friend just told me a story of an anthropologist who married a Venezuelan woman from a far-flung tribe in the jungle. They had a child together, but six years later, she couldn’t take it here anymore, and she went back to her village. She felt isolated in the States, and she missed the close-knit community and tight network of support in her village. Togetherness was the root of her happiness.

“‘The idea of a universal moral law as proposed by philosophers is in conflict with reason.’ He writes that ‘ethics are not based on a moral world order but on the inescapable exigencies of human cohabitation (Nicholi, 60).'”

Values differ between cultures according to the needs of the community. A culture that subsists on nomadic hunting and gathering would be disturbed by our obsessive need to hoard property and our lack of community within a massive population. However, according to Lewis, there is a universal moral order that does not change much from culture to culture. This imperialist attitude reflects his own shortsightedness and lack of education on the outside world. A master on the literature of Western Civilization, the stories he loved to read didn’t exactly fill in the gaps on world cultures.

Nicholi relays the change in Lewis post-conversion: “It happened when he was thirty-one years old. The change revolutionized his life, infused his mind with purpose and meaning, and dramatically increased his productivity; it also radically altered his values, his image of himself, and his relationships to others. This experience not only turned Lewis around, but turned him outward – from a focus on himself to a focus on others (Nicholi, 77).”

New Christians exhibit the changes of a person who is in love – but since the love object is imaginary and apparently all-powerful, the experience is heightened by fear, unworthiness, and the joy of escaping everyday reality.

When my mom first converted, no one outside the church really wanted to deal with her. She wrote her Catholic father that he would go to hell unless he converted. She answered every phone call with, “Hello, Jesus loves you!” and posted a yellow sign in the back window of her minivan that said, “Smile if Jesus Loves You!” It was all very in your face, and her siblings still struggle to forgive her for her actions. I’m amazed that my parent’s marriage survived through the eight or so years that my dad wasn’t a Christian.

Today, my mom is much more mellow, but still likes to put in her two cents. Nature is not at work – no, it’s always a miracle. And to her, an Atheist could never win a debate against a Christian. She is enmeshed in faith, and is happy with the blinders that block out the rest of the world. I love her, but it’s always bothered me that this faith, or the way that she chooses to live, keeps her locked in a fantasy. Overall, this has been my experience of churchgoers (and I lived among thousands of Christians in numerous denominations through the first half of my life).

Though Freud had many insights into psychology and is known as the father of psychology, he wasn’t the greatest example of a human being. He had a difficult life, faced life-threatening anti-Semitism, and partially because of this his ideas were met with a lack of acceptance. There was war and many deaths of loved ones. He suffered from depression, and found that small doses of cocaine lifted his spirits.

Nicholi uses Freud’s struggles to show that his life was a failure without the comfort of faith. But why should a Jew convert to Christianity in the first place? And why is Christianity the only faith given here as an example?

According to the Christian faith, it’s the only religion that transforms the believer from the inside out. I’ve never seen this to be the case. Instead I’ve seen people trying desperately hard to be good even though their impulses are testing them otherwise – the emphasis on avoiding “evil” makes the “dark side” ever more enticing. I never encounter this sort of obsession with non-believers, and everyone is much more relaxed and well adjusted.

To post-conversion Christians, just as in a relationship, that initial feeling of being in love evolves into a more stable steady love. The lover still behaves, but hidden away from the people who judge the most is a sea of inner desires. To share how you really feel is to run the risk of losing family and the community at large. The more that is hidden, the more it grows, becoming distorted and almost impossible to get a handle on. I don’t know of a Christian who hasn’t gone through some form of inner battle, and the best survivors are those that are control freaks. There is not much there in the way of pure honesty, especially regarding the self. In fact, when I first left the church, I was on a high of honesty for years, not caring how much I shocked people. It was just so freeing to be completely honest.

Throughout my years as a Christian, C.S. Lewis was the ultimate intellectual authority on Christianity. He brought issues concerning faith to the forefront of his stories and discussions. He took his beliefs beyond theology, and made it seem more like philosophy. Unfortunately his arguments don’t hold up since there was no room for facts. He was the perfect candidate for Christianity precisely because he was easily swayed by the emotions he felt through great pieces of literature.

He was always a Protestant – the fifteen or so years that he rejected it were not as much rejection as a wish against and avoidance of what he felt to be true. In his words, “God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself… (Nicholi, 105).” Once again, our feelings, experiences, and morals are seen as something apart from ourselves and separate from nature.

“… Lewis wrote in a letter to a friend that ‘Christ promises forgiveness of sins. But what is that to those who, since they do not know the law of nature, do not know that they have sinned (Nicholi, 73)?”

What exactly is this law of nature and why wouldn’t natural beings that are of nature be privy to it? Putting nature into submission of a purported law is silly and egotistical. Lewis is not much next to the extreme power of nature. The fact that he was mortal is the first clue in this. Nature had little regard for him, and has little regard for all of us. Nature and religion are two very different things. Religion is a manipulation for order. Nature is a balance between supply and demand. The truth is, there would be fewer problems in nature if there were less of us living on the planet.

I think it’s very difficult for most Christians to understand that Agnostic Atheism is not necessarily a pessimistic worldview. I know that it is for some, but for me personally, I don’t feel that way at all. I feel that it’s the most realistic worldview there is. I have an ultimate respect for the grandness of nature, and the fragility of existence. I have no desire to exist forever as a spirit, or reside in an uneventful place like heaven – I’ve been in many beautiful mansions, and all they are is lonely. I feel empathy for other beings because I see that we are all as one. Since I love myself, I know how to love other people. It’s not that hard to figure out. And as for God, I’ve never seen any evidence of his existence, and it’s certain that I never will. That’s not to say that I don’t think there might be other beings in the universe. Wherever and whoever they are, they are nothing like the controlling egomaniac that humans have fashioned for themselves.

It is obvious that earth is a place meant for growing, and not things that are made out of magic. Ancient people groups had no way of understanding existence without the assistance of myth to soothe the masses. I find it unbelievable that people are still choosing to live that same way today. Faith is presented as a comfort, but compared with what is actually written in the Bible, it should be sending believers into a tailspin of fear and frenzy.

I wouldn’t wish a belief in God on anyone. Far from being “perfect” – he’s presented as jealous, insane, bloodthirsty, ready to ask his followers to commit genocide on the drop of a hat. The concept of God and what he demands is in total rejection of all that we naturally are. To believe in a being that is so contrary to us as a species is to make life much more difficult and full of conflict than it ever has to be.   The idea of God can make anyone go crazy – and it has on occasions too numerous to count. All you have to do is mention the date “9/11” and religious extremism presents itself loud and clear. Extremism has been a dominating force for centuries.

I’ve been told that I should question why I write about religion, and whether or not it’s honorable to cause people to question what they believe. I see nothing wrong and everything right with asking people to stop believing and start seeing with their own two eyes. For one thing, rational thinkers make for rational societies. Losing faith and analyzing it for what it really is was a painful and necessary process for me. Without that, I would have never found my own wellbeing. I like to spread that happiness.

Overall, though, I think that most of the readers who enjoy these posts are people who think as I do. I find it difficult and painful to read books that speak from the opposite point of view. For this fact, reading The Question Of God was not easy. Freud certainly had his hang-ups, but I didn’t enjoy how the author constantly pitted him against Lewis, presenting one man as the winner and the other as the loser. And all the while, Freud’s theories rang loud and true for me. Not to mention, they are the groundwork for which the author has based his life career on as a professor of psychiatry.

 

Suburban Malaise

February 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

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When I bought Darcey Steinke’s novel Jesus Saves at a warehouse sale, I hoped that her words would speak directly to me, and they did. It’s a rare thing to find that sense of total communion with another writer. Set in a suburban malaise, Jesus Saves is about two girls. Sandy Patrick, who has been kidnapped, and Ginger, who suffers disillusionment at the crossroads between her struggling pastor father and a boyfriend intent on obliterating his own life.

Sandy Patrick escapes her brutal conditions into an imaginary world with a bear and a butterfly and a white unicorn that comes to try and save her. She protects her mind from trauma by staying far away in the land of make-believe, but in the meantime, her body is falling apart.

“The powerful scent shrunk her tiny as a figurine left under a doll house bed. He wouldn’t need the van now; he could carry her in a velvet flute case, or in his pocket, like a Barbie doll, her tiny toes brushing his leather belt, her head resting against a copper penny warmed by his groin (Steinke, 64).”

For the characters who haven’t been kidnapped by the man referred to as the troll, there is a different sort of prison. Grown women who dress like children; department stores with rooms made up of facades; fast food; and mega-church pastors who tell feel-good stories about television, sports, and success.

The shiny veneer of suburban life masks the constant sense that there is a troll lurking behind every little girl’s back. And in the avoidance, blood and gore pervade around make-believe land. Pretend becomes the only savior until the game is over. No one seems to know how to fight back. No one but Ginger, who refuses to buy into the trap – whether it’s in church or in fairytales or suburban facades.

“On Sundays, the wafers on the sterling plate and the wine in the medieval-style goblet took on an aura and import, became what they called holy, but backstage their glamour was diminished, no more important now than saltine crackers and Boone’s Farm wine. Holiness was like that, you could never trap it or examine its uncanny elements (Steinke, 75).”

When I was nine years old, we moved from a suburb of Chicago to Woodinville, Washington. Compared to our 1960’s era ranch house in the Midwest – which was nestled between the train tracks and the highway – our brand new house in the Northwest seemed like a mansion. It’s two and a half stories high with four bathrooms, a twenty-foot foyer and a pond with lush forest in the back. The house was part of a new development where all of the homes looked rather similar with small variations on layout and finish.

The community surrounded an older house tucked behind high hedges at the end of a dirt road just down from us. Attached to the corners of metal link fencing were surveillance cameras, which seemed completely bizarre in such a low-key neighborhood full of people going to jobs at Microsoft.

I only remember going down that road once in all the time Mr. Anderson lived there. A seven-year old girl at the end of our street made an attempt and received a nasty letter to her parents. In it, he demanded that they never allow her to walk down that road again, or else. But he didn’t own the road, and there was another house across from his.

Sometimes we heard shots ring out. The old couple across the street, who served us tea and displayed their knick knacks in glass cases, told us that one time Mr. Anderson’s bullet barely missed the head of an old guy eating breakfast in the nook of his kitchen. I pictured the nook as being exactly the same as ours, except maybe facing to the east instead of west. I saw the window shatter, and imagined the bullet lodged in the man’s wall – the shock on his face, the realization as he inspected the damage. There was talk of banning gunfire in the neighborhood. But I don’t remember if anything ever came of it.

I didn’t like the world of people when I was young. I enjoyed sitting in the forest at the back of the pond, hidden by one hundred-year old stumps and nurse logs, stroking my Dutch rabbit while smoking rolled up bits of newspaper. Life seemed real in the forest, in a way that it never did in school or inside the sterile house where I was under pressure to do certain things and act a certain way. The forest was the only place where I was allowed to be myself, and simply be. The rabbit listened to my diatribes against humanity for hours. Sometimes she made snorting sounds like a pig. Even though she hated people just as much as I did – truly dangerous with her sharp buckteeth – she felt safe with her soft chin and tickly whiskers nestled between my chin and collarbone.

One day I was walking along the deer trails alone, further out than I normally go. I saw Mr. Anderson in the distance with his rifle strapped across his shoulder. He was large and frightening and seemed more like a shadow than a person because I never saw his face. I sensed that he was coming right towards me. I turned and started to walk as fast as I could back to the clearing. His steps grew louder and faster as twigs broke beneath his boots.

When I made it back, I turned to look, but he was nowhere to be seen – like the mirage he always was. He represented the wild danger of what this place once was – a last frontier. Our suburban houses were whitewash over pine trees, cougars, coyotes, old farmsteads, and the Native American tribes that I still felt in the ground and the remaining trees. The present and the past were so at odds with each other that Mr. Anderson finally moved away – hopefully into the mountains where his breed was the norm. We could all breathe easier after the troll left.

They clear-cut the forest when I was seventeen. Men climbed the trees like monkeys, and chainsaws roared for hours. They left it raw and ripped to shreds. The only thing left was muddy tracks from the trucks that hauled the trees away. Wildlife destroyed, coves and crannies and a century of growth – since the last forest fire – gone. There was a strange law that said after a clear-cut, you had to wait seven years to build a new development. But seven years came and went, and no one ever built a thing. The government came to the rescue, purchased the land and made it a forest preserve with nature trails. So now you can walk muddy trails, gazing at nondescript saplings that all look the same for miles. It’s been about eighteen years, and I’ve enjoyed watching nature take the land back.

If I was the bear, I’d head for the Cascade Mountains like Mr. Anderson should have. But the bear still hangs around and catches salmon in a nearby creek, and balances his enormous weight on the railings of back decks, stealing bird food.

“The bear sighed as if he were made out of caramel, a quivering baritone that intermingled with the prickly static moving in and out of the troll’s lungs (Steinke, 117).”

I went the opposite direction. I’m rarely ever in a place where the air feels wet and naked and the quiet hangs over you like a shroud. Somehow, I ended up right back next to a freeway in the city.

My mother drove by and saw an ambulance in front of my building and called me when she got home. “Are you okay?” Her voice wavered and I could hear the urgency in her voice. She’d worried for the last twenty miles and forty-five minutes.

“Mom, you’re so suburban. There are ambulances here all the time. At the halfway building across the way, there’s an ambulance almost every day.”

I live in a mass of humanity, and in masses, people are dying all the time. If not dying, they’re falling, breaking bones, having a stroke, or threatening to commit suicide. One man in our building had a stroke, didn’t realize it, and was so out of sorts that he only ate ice cream for a week and lost a ridiculous amount of weight.

I’m not afraid of death. I like to be reminded that life is short because it makes me work harder and love stronger. There’s only one shot to give life everything that I have, and playing it safe is just another way of being half-dead. I’m inspired by people that are fighters – the ones that never give up. Like my ninety-year old neighbor who still walks up steep hills even though her knees are bad and her bones are literally falling apart. The only reason why she’s still going is because she’s too stubborn to give up. I don’t think she gives trolls a second thought, and when you’re old, it seems, your value to trolls decreases.

If I have a child, we might read books about magical bears and hookah smoking caterpillars and flying ponies. But I won’t shelter them from reality. I’ll teach them to be strong, fully present, and ready for any twist in circumstance. I won’t sugarcoat the facts or lead them to believe that life is easy. When I was young, I thought I could map my whole life out, but it doesn’t work like that. I’m glad that it doesn’t.

Dodging trolls has made me stronger, and no matter where I go, the world is always like the forest. You have to stay alert, allow yourself to be fully tapped into your intuition, and listen for the sound of crunching leaves. In the midst of that, the world is also so beautiful that at times it’s too much to handle. A gift that could be snatched away at any moment. All we have to do in the meantime is be alive in the best way that we know how – work hard, love strong, give all.

Lessons On Conquest

January 16, 2014 § 5 Comments

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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.

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January 8, 2014 § 2 Comments

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Letting Go

January 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I have strayed far away from my roots in poetry. Neglected the vague for the purely visceral. Yet there is nothing vague about the poems by Sharon Olds in Stag’s Leap, or any of her other previous works. I’m pleased that she won the Pulitzer Prize for this release. She truly deserves it.

Stag’s Leap confronts the shreds of her life as she moves through the process of a divorce. Olds never hides behind her words. Instead, she uses them to strip herself bare to us. Embraced by her raw vulnerability, we find ourselves. We find parts that we didn’t know existed. She is teaching us our human condition. This is how poetry achieves relevance in a world that seeks to distract us from our inner core.

I’ve heard that the most difficult aspect of divorce is losing two combined minds. My husband, Michael, is a natural people person. He’s taken over all the social aspects of our life that I tend to lack the energy for. At work, people naturally trust him, and he feels fulfilled by solving their problems and dealing with confrontation. As for me, this sort of work gives me a lot of anxiety. I run the internal workings – the daily chores at the building we run, the budget, the groceries, the smooth flow of our home, most of the cooking, and random work that provides extra income. While I work hard to write almost every morning, I spend the afternoons doing my share to contribute.

Our balance doesn’t always work perfectly. There is often a lot of pressure for me to bring in more money, but I’m doing the best I can for now and trying to figure out how I can do better. Michael’s lack of balance comes from neglect around our apartment. He doesn’t realize that all of the piles of things he leaves undone end up being finished by me. Instead of contributing to my efforts, he multiplies the amount of cleaning that I do. Those small issues, however, rate low next to the chaos we experience without the other bridging the gaps.

“… When he loved me, I looked
out at the world as if from inside
a profound dwelling, like a burrow, or a well. I’d gaze
up, at noon, and see Orion
shining… (Unspeakable, Olds, 4).”

In marriage, a cocoon is woven. For years, we fought against it, held it back, and kept going out every night as though we were still single. Little by little, we began to find that the rest of the world really annoyed us. Why should we waste our time on excess baggage when our favorite person was right at home?

Our social life went from quantity to quality. At first there was imbalance – spending a lot of time with people I didn’t choose, who didn’t choose me either – Michael’s friends. I appreciate our differences, but when I talk about the things I love, their eyes glaze over. It shifted when we began to cultivate friendships as a duo – finding people who enrich our interests and vice versa. Now I can appreciate all of the people in our lives because my needs are being met.

I still look at my husband and think, ‘Who is this person that I’ve chosen to spend my life with, and how did this happen?’ It’s still a mystery to me. We are completely opposite and yet exactly the same – a complete contradiction. In the beginning I thought we’d never run out of things to talk about. That’s still true, as long as we keep living our separate lives, coming home with fresh energy to share. To be happy as a duo, you first have to be happy as a solo.

Michael is certain that we will never get divorced. I say, that if we ever separate, there’s no point in getting a divorce, because I will never marry again. If that were ever to happen, I’d probably end up right back with him. His ridiculous quirks, daily dramas, sensitivity, and jokes – I’ve become so accustomed to all of him that I’ve forgotten what life looks like without his presence.

There is the other running scenario, further in the future. The one where, being sixteen years older than I am, he passes away, and I’m a widow with a lot of life left to live. He’s certain that I’ll move to Paris, start smoking cigarettes, and surround myself with young protégés. I don’t know what I’ll do, but maybe I would move away. Even though Seattle is my home, there would be too many memories to live with.

When someone dies, someone who feels like your right hand, you’ve got to find whatever method you can to not die right along with them. Some people think it’s romantic when a spouse dies a week after the loss of their partner. I personally, find that to be depressing and the sign of a life turned too far inward. The only way to move forward is to rebuild your life completely.

I used to fear coming to this point in our relationship, when one of us has to say goodbye. I’m no longer afraid. I trust in my abilities of reinvention. I’ve spent enough time alone to know what it’s like, and I don’t really mind solitude. The thing that helped me let go of the fear was a documentary that follows several older women in London. Some of them have been without their partner for over twenty years. They haven’t succumbed to stereotypes of age, they’re not afraid of starting over, and they live passionate, exciting lives. Their style is a way of life. In short, they show us that growing old can be very beautiful, opening us up to new facets of life.

Unfortunately, the full-length documentary has been removed, but here is a taster and a link to purchase the full-length film.

http://www.wellparkproductions.com/filmography/fashion.html

“So the men are gone,
and I’m back with Mom. I always feared this would happen,
I thought it would be pure horror
but it’s just home, Mom’s house… (Telling My Mother, Olds, 10).”

We are lucky to find our best friends and lovers. Their presence makes pesky details less abrasive. They distract us with pure joy at having someone who really understands. They often present the challenge of ‘how do we grow with each other?’ The comfort of their arms is like a sedative, the struggle to retain the self, sometimes immense. Yet they are the only true source for our personal growth. Through them, we expand beyond ourselves.

“… I am glad not to have lost him
entirely, but to see him moved
at the whim of the sky, like a man in the wind,
drawn as if on a barge resting on
updrafts, mild downdrops, he is like
an icon, he is like a fantasy… (Slowly He Starts, Olds, 74)”

In our culture, we are taught to avoid grief, to pop a pill and be done with it. But you can never get to the happy well-balanced place unless you work through your full range of emotions. Masking a feeling only prolongs the ache. Separations, death – these are not experiences to be afraid of. They are a time to search the self, and begin again. As long as you are alive, there is time for new beginnings. Even at the point when you feel lucky to have made it this far. In fact, I feel that way already.

As the years pass and Sharon Olds moves through the steps of letting go, we realize, her ex-husband remains mapped onto her body and through her mind. He no longer exists in the way he did before he left her. But his presence is permanent. Distant, but always a part of her – joined through their children and their thirty years together.

“… We fulfilled something in each other –
I believed in him, he believed in me, then we
grew, and grew, I grieved him, he grieved me,
I completed with him, he completed with me, we
made whole cloth together, we succeeded,
we perfected what lay between him and me,
I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me,
I did not leave him, he did not leave me,
I freed him, he freed me (What Left?, Olds, 89).”

Have you experienced the loss of a partner through separation or death? How did you cope, what did you learn in the process, and how did you come out on the other side? What was the positive that came out of the negative? Please share below.

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