I had a little flood in my basement last week. After the carpet cleaner left and it was finally time to put everything back in the basement where it belonged, I took the time to do a little organizing. That’s when I found this. It was in an old novel. Apparently I was using it as a bookmark.
I won’t lie; I got some dollar signs in my eyes. Not like I found a Picasso in the attic kind of dollar signs, but still. It crossed my mind that this might help pay for the new sump pump.
Unfortunately, I looked it up and – if it were in pristine condition – it might be worth $1. (Sad trombone sound goes here.) If I want to cover the pump I will need to find another 1,499 of them.
Last Thursday (April 18th) was “National Ask an Atheist Day.” I did not know that was a thing until I ended up getting sucked into a Facebook conversation started by an atheist friend of mine who was soliciting questions.
Most of the questions were some version of “how can you prove that there is no god?” I was reminded that the way most people define atheism is wildly different than the way that I define it. I know that language evolves and words come to stand for something far beyond their original definitions. That is a natural phenomenon of language. But the words “atheist” and “agnostic” do have simple meanings, and that is important to me.
Here is the origin of the word “atheist:”
And here is “agnostic:”
An atheist is without god. An agnostic is without knowledge. That is it. The way I define my atheism is very much in line with the basic components of the word, and not all the other things that people want to put on top of that simple absence of belief. I live without a belief in a god. That is, I do not accept any version of a god that has been presented to me and therefore I do not worship one. Do I know for certain that there is no god or anything that might take the place of a creator? No, I don’t. I accept that I don’t know, therefore I consider myself both atheist and agnostic.
Most of the atheists I know describe themselves this way. And most of us don’t want to tell you that you are wrong to believe in something we don’t accept or that you are backward for keeping your traditions. I understand that atheism isn’t for everyone, just as Mormonism definitely wasn’t for me. I would love to be a live-and-let-live atheist. But then someone inevitably wants to teach creationism in science class and I can’t just ‘let live’ anymore, because I consider that an encroachment on the separation of church and state. But that’s a whole other conversation.
I was reading the thread with interest and not weighing in, but then I lost my self-control. I really need to get out more. I don’t get enough human interaction working at home and I have been making Facebook debates my substitute. I’m going to get myself into trouble.
The question was something like, “If you know that the word ‘atheist’ offends people, why wouldn’t you call yourself an agnostic instead? And if I lack belief in a god but believe in a higher power or force in the universe greater than myself, am I an atheist?”
This is what I wrote in response:
I know the word atheist is loaded and most people define it differently than I do (simply without belief in a god). I think of it like the word “feminist.” It’s loaded with controversy but its meaning is simple. I guess I would say, in answer to your question, I’m an atheist feminist living in Utah. I have accepted that my basic beliefs are offensive to the general population.
As for the second question, this is how I think about it: I am confident there are forces in the universe that we will never understand. We are so limited in our scope and ability to comprehend, that I am confident that we will never know enough to understand the questions to ask, let alone the answers that are out there. (Which is why I love the Douglas Adams answer to life, the universe and everything turning out to be 42.) But let’s just say for a second that we could, and it turns out that the answer is a physical law or a set of physical laws that guides the universe, and we all go, “Oh! Now it makes sense!” And then my bishop from my childhood jumps up and points and me and says “See! I was right! I told you there was something!” Then I would turn to him and say, “Excuse me, but is it a bearded magic man who cares a whole lot about whether or not I masturbate? No? Okay, then fuck off.”
I didn’t tell him that, yes, by my definition, he is an atheist. I kept this to myself because it was clear that word was inherently pejorative to him. Nor did I tell him that most of the people I meet who consider themselves agnostic are actually atheist by my definition. I don’t tell my ‘agnostic’ friends that, either. They seem to think that agnosticism is a politer form of atheism. Or rather, a refusal to take a side. The Switzerland of dogmas. My atheist friends think of themselves as agnostic, but my agnostic friends think of themselves as people who just don’t care and would like to talk about something else, now. But they are living without a god. They are atheists, too.
That’s okay. I hold fast that words have meanings and those meanings are important. But I also want the right to define myself and what I believe. I can give others that right as well.
My man is making dinner.
Me: Why is there dough on the tape measure?
Matt: The recipe says the biscuits should be 1/4 inch thick and 2 1/2 inches across.
I allowed myself to be drawn into another family’s facebook fight last week. I knew it was a bad idea, but I couldn’t help myself. And anyway it has been so long – I think I just needed to be reminded that you aren’t going to change anyone’s opinion. Not on the topic of homosexuality. And not on facebook.
A little background…
When I was a kid, my Mormon bishop was unequivocal about homosexuality. It was a choice, and it was a bad choice. This was the message I got from everyone in my community. But in the last few years, I have noticed a distinct evolution in the way Mormon’s talk about our LGBT brothers and sisters. Suddenly, there was a different tone. It is still bad, of course. But they seemed to get that it wasn’t a choice. I think the word I have heard most is that it is an “affliction.” As in, “Have you heard? Her son is afflicted with same sex attraction.”
In the beginning I thought that just the fact that they were moving on the issue was good, because it showed progress. But I quickly decided that was wrong. In fact, I’ve decided that the new stance is as or more toxic. They still believe you have a choice. If not a choice in who you love and are attracted to, then you have a choice in what you do about it.
This is best explained by the Josh and Lolly phenomenon. Josh and Lolly Weed are a couple who came out several years ago as “mixed attracted” for lack of a better term. They wrote a long blog post that went viral and gave a lot of people in the church hope that even if their child suffered from this condition that they could still live a “normal” life, centered around a person of the opposite sex, their children and their church. And the Saints rejoiced.
But then, a few months ago, the Weeds wrote another post announcing that they were wrong. It wasn’t working, and they are divorcing.
As a result, in the Utah parlance, people are flipping the freak out.
Last week a woman I know through a writing group posted this blog post written by one such flipper outer titled “Actually, the Mormon Position on Gay Marriage is Stronger Than You Think. I read the title and knew that I was clicking on danger but as I said already… yeah. It was a slow work day. The post has since been removed, but here is the gist: So it didn’t work out for the Weeds. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work! You don’t have to be attracted to a person to love them, you just have to endure the times when you aren’t ‘feeling it’ until you develop that deeper truer Fiddler on the Roof kind of love. Then he cites his experience of enduring his wife’s postpartum depression without filing for divorce as proof that this can be done.
It was stupid and my general response was a big eyeroll and an “Oh yeah… I forgot about the enthusiasm with which these people will turn themselves into cognitive knots out of desperation to not have to admit they were wrong.” Then I started looking through the comments that were being posted and I saw that another person from the writing group, a young and out gay man, returned missionary and current student in good standing at BYU, was trying to have a discussion with the poster’s inlaws, cousins, and other hard believing friends.
“Oh God,” I thought. “Calvin needs some cover fire.”
So I weighed in and said some pro LGBT stuff, basically stating that I know many LGBT folks in life-long partnerships that are as full of love, sacrifice and commitment as any other couple I have ever met. Sometimes I think that the one helpful thing one can do in these circumstances is remind everyone that they are talking about real people. Here is an example of a comment that I got in response.
A homosexual relationship cannot meet the purposes for eternal marriage. Being in love longterm by itself means very little in the scope of eternal purposes for marriage. But in reality, there are relatively few homosexual relationships that are longterm anyway. The media has been very successful in painting a certain picture of homosexual family bliss, but the reality is much much more often promiscuity, damaged people, disease, and misery.
So I said:
I think we worry too much about the afterlife and deciphering God’s plan. I would rather focus my energy on doing the most with this life and caring for my family and loved ones, who are not the promiscuous damaged and diseased people you may think they are. But even if they were, I believe that the Jesus Christ I have read about would pull them in closer and not shun them, IMHO.
That same God loving lady responded with:
It is one of the most successful tools of the adversary, to convince people that disapproval of a sin is equal to hating the sinner. It has become a most powerful lie.
Oh my mistake. I thought you just wrote off an entire community as diseased and damaged people, which sounds a lot like hating the sinner to me, but whatever. I don’t know how we got to this place where it is far worse to call someone bigoted than to be bigoted, but that seems to be the way of it.
I lost an entire day on this thread. I stopped commenting, but I kept reading. Calvin was fighting a good fight, but he was getting ganged up on and no one wanted to hear what he had to say. I was proud of him, but was hurting me to watch. Finally, around midnight, I couldn’t take it anymore. I fired this off in the comments (please forgive the run on sentences – it was late and I was feeling feisty):
Calvin, I should PM you… but I’m going to just say this publicly because as we say in Utah County “what the heck.” If the article’s data is correct and 40% of millennial Mormons are struggling with their faith over social issues, then the church is in a crisis. As has been stated in this thread many times over, there is a clear choice. Accept all on faith and stay, or find that is not possible and leave (where I find myself). You have somehow made another choice. The bravest choice. You have your testimony of The Heavenly Father and you have what you know to your bones to be true about yourself… in your own heart. Clearly, the dissonance is painful for you, and yet you stay and fight for an answer. It seems to me that those of us who want the church to survive in the future might look to you and your choice and say “how do we resolve this together?” Not to lecture or to call you wicked or to say your choices are to remain celibate and die alone, without knowing love or affection, OR to leave… Here is the thing. I have what I want. I have a Supreme Court decision ruling on my side. The fact that the future of the church weighs in the balance of the next generation, and it seems they are split… a person who has been fighting this fight since the 90s might see that as icing on the cake, and there may be days where I do. But you aren’t me. You have taken the braver path. You are staying to fight the brave fight. There will be many people who will tell you to sit down and listen. Those people want to validate their own decisions. What they don’t understand is that they are validating my decision, with every young person they call wicked and push away. On my basest most broken level I want that. I want the church to fail for everyone the way it failed for me. I want my decisions to be validated. But I have – even now – an elevated level, where I see that this church has the power to help people find meaning in this world. And that part of me wants to tell you to never be discouraged. Keep seeking. Keep asking questions. Keep challenging the accepted views. Sooner or later, for the sake of the future, they will sit down and listen.
If not, the Unitarians are lovely and they don’t care if you wear jeans to church. Just sayin’.
Calvin and I ended up taking the conversation over to private message and had a long chat about all of this. It was really good to decompress and to ease some of the frustration by preaching to the choir instead of to the gargoyles. The next time I saw him I gave him a big hug and I felt like I had adopted a new nephew. I know I didn’t budge any minds on that thread; we all left as self-certain as we began. If I managed to give Calvin a little encouragement, then maybe it wasn’t a lost day after all.
Did I mean it? Do I hope he stays and fights this fight? Not really. It was killing me just watching him stand up to some strangers on facebook. The actual church? I can’t even imagine. If I could make his decisions for him, I would get him out of that church and introduce him to some truly compassionate people. But that’s the whole point. I don’t want anyone making decisions for each other. I want us all to have the space and empowerment to find our own paths, wherever they may lead.
At The Desert Pearl Hotel in Springdale, Utah
Ethan (age 5): The sink in our room is so short! I had to bend over to use it!!!
Me: What sink? What are you talking about?
Ethan: The one in the bathroom.
Me: Right next to the toilet?
Me: That is not a sink. It’s a bidet.
Ethan: What’s that?
Matt: It’s European.
Me: Only it’s for when you’re-a-poopin’.
Matt: It’s a sink for your bum.
(Photo: Zion National Park – Mt. Carmel Highway Scenic Drive)
I like to think of myself as a reader. Not so much that I’m “well read.” I’ve read some classics and a lot of nonfiction in the last few years. I have also read some highly entertaining novels that few would list as “literature.” I’m rambling… My point is that I like to think of myself as someone who reads a lot of different genres and forms. But I have a dirty little secret. I hate poetry.
Maybe you are thinking that isn’t so uncommon. A lot of people dislike poetry. I, however, have discovered I have a completely irrational hatred of poetry that I do not completely understand. I know it is judgey but nearly all poets make me roll my eyes. I think as a writer I feel like poets should make the time and effort to write a story that might relate to someone besides themselves. I suppose a poet’s response might be that I’m too inefficient to express myself in a poem; I need an multi-page composition. And I would defend myself. With a classically structured persuasive essay.
A few years ago I was talked into going to a poetry reading at the King’s English Bookstore here in Salt Lake City. I went with a friend and once we arrived I saw that they had an open box of wine, which is my favorite flavor. Open, that is.
I thought, “Okay… I can do this. It is poetry, but it isn’t bourgie poetry. It’s box wine poetry.”
I was fine (bored, but fine) until the second poet got up to read from his recently published collection. You are already picturing him, probably. He was wearing a sports jacket, jeans, and a stringy pony tail. In the third or fourth poem he recited the line, “The spider scuttled out from beneath the ice cube…” and I had to bite my hand to keep from yelling, “No it didn’t and fuck you for saying that it did!!!”
‘Where the hell did that come from?’ I asked myself, taking a sniff of my boxed chardonnay to search for clues. What about this poor cliché of a man had invited the full furnace of my rage, without any discernible prelude?
I elbowed my friend and we slipped out the side door and went to dinner at the Lebanese restaurant next door. ‘Maybe I was hurt very badly in a past life by a mediocre poet,’ I hypothesized as we crunched through the snow between the two sidewalks. ‘Or maybe I was a spider who was unsuspectingly crushed by ice.’
We will never know.
at a social gathering
trying not to cling
Releasing Matt’s arm
I take a deep breath and wander
deeper in the house
Determined to learn
from the mistakes of my past:
don’t drink all the wine!
What is the most time
I can hide in the toilet
before eyebrows raise?
Do I look social
crossing the room with purpose
looking for “someone”?
the table of finger foods
not sure what to do
It’s called ‘finger food’
but do I use a napkin?
What’s the proper way?
And then what happens?
If I put it in my mouth
I will get a question
From someone or other.
I’ll stand there, mouth full of cheese…
happens every time.
Better to slip it
quickly into my pocket
for later, alone.
Time to venture off;
initiate a friendship…
thank God, there’s a dog!
Check the time, dear Christ!
How can that be possible?
It’s six forty five.
Cross the room again:
bathroom appetizer time.
It’ll be a long night.
I went to Seattle for a few days to visit my sister Andrea and meet my brand new nephew who arrived too soon – at just 25 weeks – over the New Year’s weekend. I flew up to help out while her hubby was traveling for work. Mostly I went to give my five year old nephew some attention. Also I talked Andrea’s ear off. (I really need to call her more.) I also cooked a little. I loaded the dishwasher once. I barely helped at all, truth be told. I always think I’ll be more helpful when I’m projecting the future in my mind then when I get into the future and see what reality allows.
Still it was a great trip. Frog (my new nephew’s nickname) is so tiny! Just 2.7 lbs when I left, but growing a bit every day. I was watching him fight against his breathing mask and squirming to get his arms and legs free of the swaddling wraps and I was amazed. He is so little and he looks so fragile – like a pink baby bird that fell from a nest – but he is fierce! He can lift his head already, and he can voice his displeasure. It made me happy. I don’t want him to wear himself out, but I can’t describe the joy I felt watching him fight. I’ve been so worried about this kiddo for weeks but now that I’ve seen him, I’m reassured. He is a warrior and he is firmly in this world.
My other nephew, the kindergartner, is really struggling with the changes. He seems angry. He’s not listening or asking for things with politeness or patience. He is demanding things with a force that suggests his wants and needs are consuming him. I’m not sure he gets what is wrong exactly, but there is a level on which he is aware. He even commented on the fact that there are suddenly a number of photos of his brother on his mom’s phone. “Why are there so many pictures of Frog on here?” he asked like a jealous boyfriend. Like, “Who is this guy and what does he mean to you?”
Oof. Just wait until the little one actually gets sprung from the NICU and comes home! Then the real pain will begin.
On one hand my heart is breaking for him because it is hard to see him hurting. But on the other hand, the one where I’m looking at it from the perspective of a second sibling, I’m less sympathetic. “What? You don’t get to have your parents all to yourself? What would that be like?” [insert eye roll]
I’m told that when I came home from the hospital my older sister tried to smother me with a diaper. She was wearing it at the time, just so you understand.
He is such a sweet kid and I believe he will be fine once he has had time – lots of time – to adjust. He’s so funny. I’m not sure how to describe him except to say that he has a dynamic inner life. He is so imaginative and precocious. He spent one entire day of my visit dressed as Yoda. Not for any special occasion. He just loves Yoda. When I arrived he presented me with a drawing he did for me at school. It’s a portrait of me. “What’s this red part?” I asked.
“It’s a bloody thumb.”
“Of course it is, kiddo. Of course it is.”
What I wouldn’t give to spend some time in that kid’s head. Frog is going to have the best playmate in the world. Maybe not soon, you know. But in a little while.