Friday, November 30, 2012

Son of Atheist Christmas

A long time ago, I fretted about how I would teach my child about religion, or how I would give him a strong foundation in religion upon which he could build or against which he could rebel. Eventually, I accepted that I couldn't really think it into a neat package or plan for how those conversations would develop as he got older.

Now, though, some of those conversations have begun to happen. Yesterday, when taking out the trash, I noticed a small orange tabby cat wobbling around in a panic in our back yard. She tried to escape me, but couldn't move very well. She clearly couldn't make it over the fence. I tried to reassure her, and then went inside to summon the big guns: my wife. She has a history of taking care of cats, including strays. We theorized that this poor kitty had a broken leg, or a dislocated hip, that accounted for her terribly wobbly walk, caught her, put her in a cat carrier, and took her to the vet. It was a family affair, with all 3 of us going, including Thumper. He was very sweet, speaking soothingly and reassuring her, "It's OK, kitty," as we drove.

It turned out that the poor kitty had no chip, had no tags, and had FIV. Her wobbly walk was neurological, not physical, resulting from the ravages of the disease. With our own kitties to consider, we could not take her in. With no way to identify an owner, we couldn't send her home. And of course we couldn't just send her back out into the neighborhood to die slowly and painfully on her own. So we talked about it. Thumper decided that she needed a name, so he dubbed her "Emerson." Then we euthanized her.

Thumper had many questions, some of which went back to the death of our last two kitties, Puck and Tasha. I'm not quite as bad these days as I was in 2010, when I apparently felt like I was undercover here in the religious suburbs, but still, these conversations make me a little uncomfortable. I want him to be able to talk about it, though, so I did my best to answer honestly.

He wanted to know about Heaven, and whether Emerson would be alive again there. He wanted to know what it looked like. I fell back on the "some people believe" version of the story, but didn't commit to anything related to "I believe..." He seemed satisfied and didn't push the conversation much beyond that point.

Today, though, he asked me if anyone could count to infinity. I said, no, no one could count to infinity because it's endless. No matter what number you could count to, no matter how big that number was, infinity would be more. He said, "But God could count to infinity, right? Because He's special." So I asked him, "Buddy, it seems like you have a lot of questions about God, and Heaven, and Jesus. I don't really know the answers, but if you want to go to church or to Sunday school and learn more about this stuff, I'd be happy to go with you." He said, "No thanks." His Mama piped in with finding books about different religions and learning more about the variety of things that people believe about God. He was still uninterested. So I tried to make it more personal, mentioning a friend of his whose family is very religious, and I told him that we could check out their church with them. Maybe he could go to Sunday school with his friend.

No, he was still not interested.

So maybe I was right that without Belief, I can't help him find Belief. But I feel good that we've left the conversation open and have shown a willingness to talk about it and to help him find other resources for learning if he wants to. I suspect that no matter what we do, it'll be wrong in one way or another, but we're trying, and I hope that means a lot in the end.

Atheist Christmas

An old friend of my wife has fretted publicly on Facebook last year and this about the largely secular nature of Christmas for many people who still use the names and traditions that are rooted more in the religious history of Catholics and Protestants. She seems to think that if the winter holiday is going to divorce itself from the religious one, it should at least have a different name from the one that is supposed to celebrate the birth of the Christ, the Redeemer of Mankind.

I'm surprised by the vehemence of her (I think) agnostic grumblings about the contamination of a religious holiday by non-religious, and admittedly commercial attitudes. For me, though, there is no cognitive dissonance in the secularization of a religious tradition. Christmas can be different for everyone, even if we all call it the same name.

For you, it may be a deeply felt religious experience during which you contemplate the grace of God in sending a piece of His divine Self to earth in order to live in a flawed human body, to give his Son the opportunity to choose to live and suffer and die, to subject Him to fear and pain and selfishness and doubt, thus letting His ultimate rejection of those in favor of self-sacrifice and the fathomless depth of His love redeem humanity from its sinful nature.

Wow, that was kind of a convoluted sentence.

For me, it may be about spending time with well-loved family and friends and contemplating the idea that we are all connected, we humans. It is a time to to remember that we can let go of petty disagreements, selfish considerations, and all of the other things that separate us and push us to be cruel and narrow in our focus.

But we can all still call it Christmas, can't we? We can all still listen to songs that are sometimes about Santa and the hopeful, anticipatory joy of children and sometimes about the reverence for the divine love rained down upon us by a loving and forgiving Creator. We can think about what gifts or kindnesses we can give to those that matter to us most as well as the gifts or kindnesses we can give to those that we have never met.

Anyway. Happy Winter Solstice. Or Merry Christmas. Or, you know, any of a long list of names and celebrations that we as humans have stuck here in the middle of winter, which is admittedly not such a harsh and unforgiving time here in Central Texas. I wish you and yours and all of us love and joy. Let me know if you need anything. 'ppreciate 'cha!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Body and the Blood

So I decided to do Finslippy's "The Practice of Writing." The eleventh prompt is about forgetting perfection, because it’s impossible. Forget safe and publishable and go for wild. Have fun. The prompt was our choice of the Higgs boson, the Marshall Plan, or transubstantiation. I had to look up the Higgs boson.

I wasn’t never one for going to church. Not ever. I went a couple of times when I was a kid, you know, just to see what all the fuss was about, and we ate sweet Hawaiian bread and drank tiny little cups of grape juice carried around in a fancy brass and velvet thing, but they didn’t believe it. There wasn’t no passion in it. Not in the songs, neither. They was just dancing a slow dance with each other, but Jesus wasn’t there in that room. I know. I’d have felt Him. I know that now.

But I found the thing. I found it now. It was a lot of long years in my life, long years full of falseness and pain, but I found it now. It took studying. I had to work to find it, to find Him, but now I did and things is different. That’s Jesus I’m talking about. I got Jesus in me now, and things won’t never be the same again. Not for me. I got Jesus in me.

Did you know He fed 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish? Did you know that? It’s a documented fact. That’s the bread of Jesus. That’s what He’s capable of. He can feed the whole world. He can heal the whole world. And I got him in me.

I couldn’t get it at first, with the bread and the wine and all. I couldn’t get it. But I met a man one night when I was low, and I mean low. You don’t know how bad things got. That’s when I met him. I think Jesus put him there for me. Special, just for me.

We talked a lot. We talked. I told him how low I was, and I mean low. He talked about church, and I said, ‘No, I done all that already.’ And he said, ‘No, but you ain’t done this church!’ He said, ‘They do it right in this church. They got things in this church those other ones don’t have!’ And I said, ‘What kind of things?’ and he said, ‘Come see!’ and I did.

Now I know he didn’t mean things like things you can touch, though they had those too. They had fancy robes. They had smoke burning in these big bells on chains. They had a giant building with ceilings so high you could practically see the angels swirling around up there.

But those weren’t the things he was talking about. He was talking about other things. Procedures. That’s what they had special, secret ways of doing things passed straight down directly from those first men who saw Jesus and sat down with him and saw him feed those 5000 with 5 loaves of bread. Those other churches, they got it wrong. They didn’t know the special procedures. They thought it was a story like, like they didn’t even believe it was true. Parables, they called them, stories. Not history. Not gospel truth! That Hawaiian bread and grape juice wasn’t the Body and the Blood! Because they didn’t believe it! They didn’t know how to make it real!

But now I been to the right place. It took me a long time before they’d give it to me. I had to work real hard for a long time. I wasn’t low no more. Because I knew the real truth. And I wanted it in me. And now I got Him. He’s inside me. Him, that could walk on the top of the water. Him, that could feed the world and heal the world. I got Him inside me now. Don’t you see? Don’t you see there’s nothing I can’t do now? There’s nothing!

Getting Away

So I decided to do Finslippy's "The Practice of Writing." The tenth prompt is about just writing. I’ve not been good about keeping up a daily practice, but I’m trying. She suggests we just start anywhere and not worry about structure, or what the ultimate story or themes will be. Just write and work on putting it together later. For this prompt, she gave us a sentence from The Trick of It by Michael Frayn, and told us to "transcribe the sentence, then continue the story. Just write what you imagine comes next. Don't over-think this."

I was carrying a wire basket with the papers and a loaf of bread and a box of eggs and a large pack of toilet rolls, and I opened my mouth to say something to her, I can’t remember what – I think something slightly impatient about her slowness – and somehow the words changed in my mouth.

"Let’s go to Ottawa," I said, surprising even myself.

She snorted and raised an eyebrow. "Ottawa? What’s in Ottawa?"

"I don’t know. It just sounds exotic. I’ve never been there. We should leave the country more often. I hear it changes your perspective."

"Does your perspective need changing?" She was still behind me. Now she stopped altogether.

"I don’t know," I said. My fingertips were turning numb. I tried to shift the basket to my other hand, but it was awkward. "Maybe." Why couldn’t she carry the toilet paper?

She started walking again, still maddeningly slow. "I just think 'Ottawa' was a strange thing to say. I don’t even know where that is. North? South? East? West? My grasp of Canadian geography is pretty fuzzy." She was quiet for a moment, then: "Is that one of the ones where weed is legal?"

"I don’t know. No. I think that’s Montreal. Look it doesn’t have to be Ottawa, it just popped into my mind. It could be anywhere. What about Vegas?"

"That’s not leaving the country," she said, and skipped lightly ahead three steps to catch up. She took the basket from my hand and stretched up to kiss my neck. "Ottawa’s fine," she said. "Ottawa’s perfect."

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


So I decided to do Finslippy's "The Practice of Writing." The ninth prompt is about reading, reading a lot, to see how other writers solve problems. She suggests we transcribe writing we like whenever we’re feeling stuck. At the very least, it will get the hands moving.  Then "use the passage you've chosen to transcribe as inspiration…"
I’m transcribing part of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" from the collection of short stories by Raymond Carver, Where I’m Calling From.

“What about the old couple?” Laura said. “You didn’t finish that story you started.”
                Laura was having a hard time lighting her cigarette. Her matches kept going out.
                The sunshine inside the room was different now, changing, getting thinner. But the leaves outside the window were still shimmering, and I stared at the pattern they made on the panes and on the Formica counter. They weren’t the same patterns, of course.
                “What about the old couple?” I said.
                “Older but wiser,” Terri said.
                Mel stared at her.
                Terri said, “Go on with your story, hon. I was only kidding. Then what happened?”
                “Terri, sometimes,” Mel said.
                “Please, Mel,” Terri said. “Don’t always be so serious, sweetie. Can’t you take a joke?”
                “Where’s the joke?” Mel said.
                He held his glass and gazed steadily at his wife.
                “What happened?” Laura said.
                Mel fastened his eyes on Laura. He said, “Laura, if I didn’t have Terri and if I didn’t love her so much, and if Nick wasn’t my best friend, I’d fall in love with you. I’d carry you off, honey,” he said.
                “Tell your story,” Terri said. “Then we’ll go to that new place, okay?”
                “Okay,” Mel said. “Where was I?” he said. He stared at the table and then he began again.
                “I dropped in to see each of them every day, sometimes twice a day if I was up doing other calls anyway. Casts and bandages, head to foot, the both of them. You know, you’ve seen it in the movies. That’s just the way they looked, just like in the movies. Little eye-holes and nose-holes and mouth-holes. And she had to have her legs slung up on top of it. Well, the husband was very depressed for the longest while. Even after he found out that his wife was going to pull through, he was still very depressed. Not about the accident, though. I mean, the accident was one thing, but it wasn’t everything. I’d get up to his mouth-hole, you know, and he’d say no, it wasn’t the accident exactly but it was because he couldn’t see her through his eye-holes. He said that was what was making him feel so bad. Can you imagine? I’m telling you, the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.”
                Mel looked around the table and shook his head at what he was going to say.
                “I mean, it was killing the old fart just because he couldn’t look at the fucking woman.”
                We all looked at Mel.
                “Do you see what I’m saying?” he said.

Maybe we were a little drunk by then. I know it was hard keeping things in focus. The light was draining out of the room, going back through the window where it had come from. Yet nobody made a move to get up from the table to turn on the overhead light.
                “Listen,” Mel said. “Let’s finish this fucking gin. There’s about enough left here for one shooter all around. Then let’s go eat. Let’s go to the new place.”
”What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver

I love that Carver doesn’t worry about his dialog attributions. Everybody “said”. Period. He’s so bold about it, he even repeats it in places where it’s not necessary, as in “He said, ‘Laura, if I didn’t have Terri and if I didn’t love her so much, and if Nick wasn’t my best friend, I’d fall in love with you. I’d carry you off, honey,’ he said.” I love his tiny, unimportant details that add so much to characterization, the little objects that people fidget with, how Laura’s having trouble with her matches. His characters, their dialog, the movements of their eyes and what they notice, are so real without much embellishment at all. He’s brilliant. So here’s my attempt at a Carverish scene:

                “I’m not saying he was right,” Joel said. He winced and shifted in his chair. “But with a woman like that…”
                “Woman like that, hell,” Doreen said.
                Joel said, “I’m just saying. With a woman like that, you have to wonder.”
                Doreen said, “You think she doesn’t have the same rights as anybody else?” She was sitting straight as a board. “You wouldn’t have done anything any different than him.” Her ash was getting long. The huge, plastic ashtray sat right in the middle of the table. It was the same color orange as her hair. She stared at him.
                “I’m not saying I know what I’d do in a situation like that,” Joel said. “I’m just saying I sure as hell wouldn’t have done that.” The ash from her cigarette finally fell into the laces of his shoe. Neither one of them looked at it.
                I looked out the window. I didn’t say anything. One of those charter buses went by, one of those  huge double-deckers. It could be going anywhere. It could be from anywhere. I couldn’t see inside.
                Doreen said, “Without the love of a good woman, you don’t know what you’d  do.” Too late, she tapped her cigarette. “You’d probably be in jail by now,” she said.
                Joel winced and shifted again, his leg straight out like a rifle barrel. He didn’t say anything. Doreen took another drag and blew it out noisily. She crushed out the butt.
                “Mexico,” I said. “I bet it was going to Mexico.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


So I decided to do Finslippy's "The Practice of Writing." The eighth prompt is again about the primitive fight-or-flight part of the brain, how its function is to protect us from risk, and how it can be a useful tool because it points us to exactly the kinds of risks we need to take. "Write about another time you've tapped into your courage." And yes, I’m trying to do two a day to catch up from slacking last week.

Empty in his head and his heart, he could think of nothing to do. He felt scraped clean, like a pumpkin. She was gone.

He walked to the store 2 miles away because he had nowhere else to go. His feet moved. He had no idea how long he’d been walking. Every white car was her coming home. He bought milk. He didn’t need milk. He trudged home again.

It was his fault. It was her fault. He couldn’t think of how it might have been different. He sat in the dark in an empty house, staring.

He dozed. The night warped and elongated into impossible shapes. The sun came up, and the light came on: he could choose. This was his choice. All he lacked was knowledge of what he wanted. Did he want for this to be the end, or did he not? He picked up the phone.

Nothing was fixed right away, but they agreed to one thing: just be nice. Be nice to each other. Everything else followed.

The Evolution of a Dream

So I decided to do Finslippy's "The Practice of Writing." The seventh prompt was about the ways that fear manifests itself when one sits down to write. "What childhood nightmare do you remember?"

In 1977, or possibly 1978, when I was 5 or 6 years old, I saw King Kong. Looking back on it now, it was a silly movie with unconvincing special effects, but then, I watched in wide-eyed wonder and dread. The foreboding of the empty native village; the anticipation of the trembling trees as the yet-unseen monster approached; the shuddering revulsion as the snake’s jaws are torn apart; the horror of being crushed by that massive foot; the terror of falling from great heights; each of these things affected me deeply. I had to keep watching, but I didn’t want to see.

From then on, I had a recurring nightmare that I, my brother, and my childhood neighbor Tommy were chased relentlessly through a city landscape by that giant ape. Everywhere we hid, he found us. Wherever we fled, he pursued. In the end, there was nowhere left for us to go but into the sea, swimming farther and farther from shore, hoping only to get to deep enough waters that he would no longer be able to stand. I swam on hopelessly, knowing that I would drown.

The last time I remember dreaming of King Kong was in my early 20’s. That means for something like 16 or 17 years, that movie haunted me, with ever-decreasing frequency. At first, I’d dream it regularly, and I’d wake each time sweating, heart pounding. Later, it would come to me only once or twice a year, and I’d wake bemused, thinking, "Oh, there’s that silly dream again. Strange. "

As a teen, I finally saw the movie again, and its magic mutated into something else entirely. The ape was clearly a guy in a suit. Charles Grodin was cartoonish. The snake was completely ridiculous. The relationship between the ape and Jessica Lange was laughable, and even disturbing. Instead of terror and wonder, I watched in a kind of hormonal haze, hoping at each moment that the wet, white dress would slip just a little farther down, until finally it all but disintegrates as she runs into the arms of Jeff Bridges and we’re treated to a side view of her bare breast pressed into his chest. Now, we both leered, Kong and I. And thus the terrors of childhood transformed into the fantasies of adolescence.
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