Monday, November 30, 2015

Challenge Accepted! November Books

I'm almost to the finish line! Five books covered in November; five to go by the end of the year. Can I complete the challenge?!

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks (A book you started but never finished)

In college, I had to satisfy a social science credit by taking either sociology or psychology. Thinking Psych 101 would be interesting (lol, psyche!!!), I registered for 8am MWF Intro to Psychology. My professor was a perception specialist and spent the first three weeks or so talking about nothing but perception. I don't know what he talked about after that because I dropped the class and took sociology instead.

One thing I took away from that experience, aside from never ordering textbooks on eBay in case they don't arrive in time for the first test and you'll have to drop the course to avoid failing, was an interest in this book.  Professor Don't-Remember-His-Name recommended we all ready The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. I ordered the book for my father-in-law several years later, the recommendation to read still lingering in my mind, and read half of it. I don't recall finishing it.

So I ordered another copy last month and read it again, start to finish. It's a fascinating read, balancing out scientific and clinical commentary with unbelievable anecdotes, making it readable for even the least psychologically trained of us. If you're interested in truly bizarre psychological phenomena, you should get a lend of this book. It's much more exciting than Intro to Psyche.

The Gay Teen's Guide to Defeating a Siren: Book 1: The Seeker by Cody Wagner (A book set in high school)

Since the Self-Published Book Fair, I've gone on a big "buy self-published books!" kick. This book was written and self-published by a friend of a friend. I had no idea if it would be any good, but being a self-published author myself, I wanted to support the guy. Plus, I love the gays. I ordered the book on Amazon and read it in two days.

I loved it!

It's a humorous sci-fi-ish/fantasy-ish/not-realistic-ish book about a gay kid who accidentally comes out of the closet and gets sent to a "pray away the gay" camp. Little does he know the danger that awaits him there. The good thing is he has a superpower. He's gay.

Y'all, I freaking loved this book. I won't tell you anymore, lest I give too much away. I just have to say, go support a self-published author and order this book. It's not in any way offensive to religion (he manages to keep religion pretty well out of the book other than the fundamentalist preacher who insists his parents send him away to camp for healing), and it's not a "gay" book. It's just really fun. I can't wait for Book 2!

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story by Dan Harris (A book with a number in the title)

My friend (I think I can call her a friend - she's a woman I know professionally, with whom my company does business, and with whom I've really hit it off, so I think I can call her a friend... It's not like I'm not an over-analyzer or anything...) recommended this book to me. We actually recommend lots of books and movies to one another. She had just finished this one a few weeks ago when we met for lunch (a half business, half pleasure lunch - I think I speak for us both when I say it was half pleasure) and thought I'd really like it.

It's about Buddhist meditation.

And she was right. I ordered the book that evening, and once I started it, I finished it quickly. Dan Harris (of ABC's Nightline and Good Morning America fame) was once a hot-headed, drug-addicted asshole (his words, not mine) of a news reporter. He was given the religion beat by Peter Jennings, which he reluctantly accepted, being a life long agnostic and wholly uninterested in religion. It was on this beat that he discovered meditation first through self-help books and later by Buddhist practitioners. The book tells the story of how he became interested in meditation in spite of himself (and in spite of the raised eyebrows and dismissive comments of his colleagues and family) and eventually came to be a committed (secular) Buddhist yogi.

I have to admit, I was pretty taken in by his arguments. I always believed meditation and "clearing your mind" would be an open door invitation for the demons to step inside and start rearranging the furniture. With the fear of little evil imps no longer haunting my nightmares (and boy did they haunt my nightmares), the concept of mindfulness really struck a chord with me.

When I mentioned to Scott that I was reading a book about Buddhism and meditation, I expected an eye roll, but to my surprise, Scott was very supportive of the idea. He even said he thinks it would be great for me.

I'm thinking about it.

Coming Clean by Seth Haines (A book that scares you)

I wrote an extensive "review" of sorts of this book earlier this month. Click here to read.

The short version: I liked it a lot, even though I don't believe in a god. It is beautifully written, the imagery is sharp and emotive, the story line is at times heartbreaking, and the general experience of suffering is universal.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (A Pulitzer Prize-winning book)

I saw the movie as a Marlon Brando-obsessed teen (swoon), but I'd never read the book - or play, actually - though I've always wanted to. The play won the Pulitzer in 1948, thus checking off a bucket list item and a book challenge category.

As an adult, I definitely saw the play as much more convoluted than I did as a teen. As a teen I:
A) Couldn't understand why Stella stuck with Stanley
B) Hated Stanley (even if he was played by the sexy Brando)
C) Thought Blanche was batshit crazy.

Reading it now, all the nuance revealed itself me. All the complexity of characters - the good/bad/ugly of each. While on the surface, A, B, and C still basically held true, I saw the subdivisions to all. I sympathized with all three main characters, seeing their flaws but also seeing how and why they acted the way they did. I'd love to see this performed on stage some day. I'd also love to watch the movie again. (Mostly for Brando's bare chest but also for the story.)

To see what else I have read this year:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Coming Clean: An Unconventional Book Review of a Christian Book By a Non-Christian Reader

Dear Readers,

This is a little early. Normally I save my book reviews for the Reading Challenge monthly round-up, but I feel this particular book deserves its own post. Excerpted from the draft of the upcoming November book reviews, I bring you less of a book review and more of a personal response to Coming Clean.

Coming Clean by Seth Haines (A book that scares you)

Okay. So I'm really having to stretch here. Really. I've struggled with which book to read for this category all year. I don't want to read anything scary. Why would I do that to myself? I haven't enjoyed scaring myself since I was a teenager. I tried to pick up some truly scary books and had to put them down. I'm all for expanding my horizons, but I'm simply not the least bit interested in reading something scary.

So I'm doing a little creative interpretation.

This book wasn't one that scared me, but the thought of reading it did fill me with something close to dread. Maybe it was a little scary in that I wasn't sure I wanted to read it. Yet, I did want to read it, knowing what I know of the background.

I went to college with Seth's wife Amber (also an author). We were in multiple creative writing classes together. I've studied for tests and eaten meals in her house. I've met Seth, even though it was a long time ago. During the time I was in Scotland, I kept up with Amber's blog, so I remember a lot of this happening (from Amber's point of view). Their infant son was failing to thrive, and I wept with them from a million miles away, I prayed for her baby boy who was slipping away. When I heard that Seth had written this memoir - a diary of his first ninety days of sobriety from alcohol - I wanted to read it. I wanted to know his side.

But I also dreaded reading it, and I couldn't figure out why.

I knew I wasn't looking forward to the God slant of it all. Christianese still rubs me the wrong way. But why would that fill me with dread? Was I worried that this book might wrinkle the bedclothes of my finally comfortable atheism? Was I worried that after all this time, God would speak to me? (Too little, too late?) Was I afraid the fear of hell might rise up within me again, threatening me with its red flames and pitchforks, the laughter of Satan as his claws close around my wrists, and the crossed arms of God looking down, head shaking but not moving to rescue me?

As I started reading the book, several realizations took place. The first explanation for my dread came up almost immediately.  It was "too soon". I'm not as far removed from Christianity as I sometimes think I am. Sometimes, it's just too much, too soon, like a horrible break up. You think you're over it until you re-read your old love letters. I'm not far enough away from it yet to give it the disconnected but respectful deference I can give to other religions. If it were a book by a Muslim or a Jew or even a Mormon, I'd be okay. But this was too close to an almost-healed wound that appears scarred over on the surface but is still tender when pressed.

Very early in, I pinpointed another source of my dread. The fear of jealousy. The prickling feeling of "this guy experienced the silence of God, yet by the end of this book, I'm willing to bet God makes himself known to him." Would this book be a re-visitation of the old Why him and not me? Might there be a jealousy lingering deep down that this guy's faith did not get shaken beyond its breaking point? (To it, yes. But not beyond.)

Despite all these reservations I read the entire book and shared a few tears with him as one who's felt similar darkness. I know the silence of God. I know the doubt, the disillusionment, the pain, the need to numb. I've met the same cast of characters - played by different actors but reading from the same script - the "faith-healers" who make promises they can't keep, the churchgoers who place the fault on your faith (or lack thereof), the trite and glib assertions of "sovereignty" and "God's glory" and "never give you more than you can bear". I know the same theologies that grind against simple faith like tectonic plates and the systematic studies that box up life's complexities (sufferings, dichotomies, mysteries) with pretty Scriptural exegesis ribbons.

We are not that different, this Christian writer and this atheist writer. Not that different at all.

I'll admit here that nestled up with the potential jealousy and the dread and the still-tender wounds was a second-guessing, a head cocked to the other side, a furrowed brow. What I really didn't expect to get from this book was a genuine reconsideration of my own experience. Had I given up too soon? Did I commit the ultimate fail - the Give-Up that scores an F and detention in hell, instead of the Keep Going Despite Everything Rational that warrants an A and heavenly applause?

I wondered that with utmost sincerity - and again, dread. I've been through this before. I've gone there. I've questioned all these things to death and back. Is there something to this, after all this time?

I kept reading. I kept wondering. I questioned my (un)faith along with him questioning his (unsure)faith. The story went on, through the first month, second month, third month of his abstinence from alcohol and his doubt and his desperation to hear God and the silence and the anger and the needing to forgive and the "cave" as he called it where all the darkness hides, and I just couldn't help but think:  Why?

If there is a God and he is this God of the Bible, why on earth does he constantly make faith in him so bloody difficult? When Sunday School tells you to "just believe" and you will be saved, and Gospel preachers say, "you only need faith to be saved" and even the theologians insist "it is by grace and nothing of yourselves", then why would God make faith so impossible to achieve? If it's this gift that only God can give, why does he give it so freely to children and then withhold it so tightly from adults?

Why would he make this simple believing such an impossible mountain to climb, one we have to write books about to even remotely comprehend?

What good does it do to make climbing the mountain of faith so utterly difficult that so many of us eventually lose our grip and crash to the rocks below? What is the truth then, that it is by faith we are saved but by surmounting the insurmountable (the silence of God, the problem of pain, the inconsistencies of Scripture) that we finish the race, make the grade? Does that mean we must do more than just believe to be saved, that there is something we must do of ourselves - a desperate striving, perhaps, while a silent God stands back and observes, clipboard and checklist in hand?

I applaud Seth's journey, and I applaud his resolution. I truly mean that. I loved this book; I loved his writing style, his beautiful imagery, his perfect rendering of the ache of the faith crisis. If I'd read this book two or three years ago, would it have changed the direction of my journey? Maybe, maybe not. My dilemma came from the inconsistencies of Scripture, his from the problem of pain. Our dilemmas might not have crossed paths closely enough for his to affect mine. His denoument, though, is beautiful and enlightening, and I am so happy for him that his faith did not ultimately waiver, and that it is getting him through his struggle with alcohol.

I fear that might come across as patronizing, coming from one who decided that faith is an illusion and God a figment of our imagination. How do I explain that my joy for him is not patronizing at all but genuine?

For I believe he is on the right path. I also believe I am on the right path. I believe all of us who are doing our utmost to find truth and goodness and light and love in this brokenest of worlds are on the right path. I'd have dismissed that kind of talk once as highly new-agey and relativistic; I'd have called myself "deceived" with a sunken heart and a sorrowful sigh. I feel almost Buddhist saying it now. Om. 

I truly mean it though. I never rooted for atheism while reading this story. I hoped the truth would set him free. And unexpectedly with each turn of the page, as he baked bread to satisfy the hunger of his readers' doubts, tiny crumbs of respectful deference dropped onto my plate of cynicism towards Christianity. While the loaf in the end was not for me, the crumbs have given me a warm reminder of what it tasted like to live off that bread.

I remember that a person who lives off that bread is not delusional, any more than a person who does not live off it is deceived.

We are all on the same path.  We are all approaching truth, just from different angles. Call it Eastern and new-agey, call it whatever you want, but this is the truth that I found - most surprisingly - in this book.

It is a little scary. Going from an all-or-nothing faith (or unfaith) to something left of center is new to me. It's easy to say "you're wrong and I'm right"; to say "we all have fingers touching on the truth here" is harder and often more easily dismissed by everyone from all sides.

I made a good choice on a book that scared me. It did wrinkle the bedclothes of comfortable atheism, it did briefly rekindle the fear of hellfire, it did spark a moment or two of jealousy, it did reopen the wounds of once perceived silence and abandonment. In the end, however, after tearing through so many layers of doubt and pain and forgiveness and disappointment alongside the author, I kept returning to the conclusion that if God were real - and loving - he wouldn't make it next to impossible to believe in him. He wouldn't make it so difficult that only a select few - the strongest of the strong, the most emotionally intelligent - make it to the end. For people like Seth have emotional intelligence overflowing in buckets, but it's not only people like Seth whose sons fail to thrive or who suffer the silence of God or who question the childhood experiences of faith. Not everyone has the depth of introspection required to dig far enough into their own caves of darkness to find that one tiny seed of doubt and to root it out like a deeply embedded wart. "Childlike faith" shouldn't take a PhD to achieve. Faith shouldn't require books upon books to explain.

However. Just because it is not the path I am on does not mean it is the wrong path. There are many trails to the top of the mountain. To everyone trying to get there, I recommend exploring all of them. Including Seth's.

an atheist author and reader

P.S. Yes, I capitalize the G in God, just as I do the A in Allah or the Z in Zeus. This is grammatically correct, religiously respectful, and also incurably habitual.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Syrian Refugees Not Welcome in Arkansas

Today I feel sad. Today I feel helpless. Today I feel confused.

A little story. (Not the sad part.)

A colleague of mine who didn't realize that I'd actually lived in Scotland myself (and hadn't simply married a Scottish guy) was surprised when I said I'd move back to Scotland in a heartbeat if the economy here in America wasn't so amazing. She was genuinely shocked.

I said, "I know some people find that hard to believe." 

She responded, "I do. I do find that hard to believe."

I may be generalizing, but in my experience, it seems people who have never lived outside the US have no concept of how great we have it here. Yes, there are some major problems, but generally speaking, America is incredible. We have wealth, we have land, we have a stable government.  I also recognize there a myriad ways our nation could be improved. But regardless, at the risk of sounding 'Murican, we have a great nation.

People here complain about the economy, immigration, taxation, welfare, and just about everything. I don't blame anyone for that either. There are problems with all of these things that need to be fixed. However it seems that those who have never lived anywhere else have very little frame of reference to see how good we have it here.

Now, onto the sad part.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson spoke out today refusing to relocate any Syrian refugees in Arkansas. Aside from the point that legally he can't make that call, it just makes me sad. We have the space and the resources. Arkansas has a population to land ratio of 56 people per square mile.  Compare that to Scotland, where the population density is 167.5 people per square mile (and that's with 130 islands uninhabited). Compare that to the Netherlands where the population density (as of 2007) is a whopping 1258.5 people per square mile. We have the space.

The United Kingdom, which is about the size of Oregon, has said they can handle about 20,000 more Syrian refugees over the next five years. (And many British people believe that is nowhere near enough.)  Meanwhile Germany has said they will be able to accommodate 500,000 Syrian refugees every year for the next several years.  Germany's population density is roughly 609 people per square mile without the projected half a million refugees expected each year for the next several years.

The United States government has decided to relocate 10,000 Syrian refugees. Is that too many? Let's look at it this way. The US has 322,177,652 people (as of 8:16 pm Nov. 17, 2015, according to the United States Census Bureau population clock) living on 3,539,225 square miles of land. Currently that's 91 people per square mile. Should we add another 10,000 people, our population density will rise to... 91.

It's mathematically negligible. 

So we have plenty of space. Space clearly isn't the problem.

Security must be the problem. The US is worried about security and rightly so. Of course, obviously, our government wants to keep the country and its people safe. So to do just that it has created (and is constantly refining) a very robust vetting process for refugees - Syrian ones especially.

According to this article from CNN,
Several federal agencies, including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are involved in the process, which Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner recently called, "the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States."

These agencies use biographical and biometric information about applicants to conduct a background check and make sure applicants really are who they say they are.

The applicant is interviewed by a DHS officer with training in this screening process as well as specialized training for Syrian and Iraqi refugee cases.

And refugees from Syria actually go through another layer of screening, called the Syria Enhanced Review process.

"With the Syrian program, we've benefited from our years of experience in vetting Iraqi refugee applicants," a senior administration official recently told reporters. "And so the partnerships we have today and the security checks we have today really are more robust because of the experience that we've had since the beginning of large-scale Iraqi processing in 2007." (emphasis mine)
So Syrian refugees are among the most and best vetted of all foreign nationals entering the United States.

While I'd like to say, "we can never be too careful", something about that sticks in my throat. Is it possible actually to become so "careful" that we lose sight of the reality baring its cold, starving nakedness right before our eyes? Can we use national "security" in the same way we use a "security blanket" - a place we can hide our faces from the things that scare us or make us uncomfortable?

It also concerns me that we have targeted one particular race of people to exclude from our compassion and humanitarian care.  Is it right to refuse an entire demographic from relocation in our state or country based almost solely on their country (and religion) of origin? Are we equally scared of refugees from other war-torn nations? Are we pinpointing a people group because of their religion? (If these people were coming from predominantly Christian nations like Kenya or Croatia, would we feel as terrified of letting them in as we are of people from a Muslim one? It's an honest question.)

Furthermore, can we actually become so careful and so fearful that we lose our compassion and empathy for the human race? Can we seriously see images of dead toddlers and not want to do something significant about it? Can we see millions of people fleeing their homes to escape rape, murder, kidnappings, and starvation, risking everything just for the hope of reaching safety and not feel the desire to offer substantial help?

Can't we see that we are a country with significant wealth and land to share with those who have nothing - quite literally, nothing? Alongside our "most stringent security process", surely we can afford to show genuine humanitarian concern for those who are in most unfathomable need. Surely as one of the richest nations in the world we can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the poor. Surely.

Today I feel sad. Today I feel helpless. Today I feel confused by all the voices rallying against helping their fellow man (and woman and child). Today I feel small and powerless when looking up at the giants of governors and governments who make all the rules. I don't understand why we are so afraid. Today I feel I have nothing to say that hasn't already been said by countless others greater and more powerful than I.

But silence is acceptance. So instead of silence, I lift my small, insignificant voice as high over the crowds as I can to remind us all that we are a great nation with resources to spare. Please, can we do something that will cost us so little yet will affect the world so much? Please, can we confront our fears and bravely open our arms to welcome the children, the families, and yes, even the single men, into the safety of our abundance?

"To whom much was given, of him much will be required."

Monday, November 16, 2015

Work From Home

The best thing about working from home when you're sick, besides violently blowing your nose without having to apologize to anyone, is having a kitty sleep at your feet all day.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Hopped Up on Cold Meds

It's been unintentionally quiet on my blog this week (there goes NaBloPoMo), but my excuse is valid enough.

Last Sunday, I exhibited my book at my first book fair. The Central Arkansas Library System hosted a Self-Published and Small Press Book Fair, and I was one of about forty self-published authors touting titles. We were all invited to attend a few mini-sessions on topics such as Income Streams and Copyright Law before opening up our exhibits to the public.

I spent two very informative and exciting hours talking to strangers (mostly Christian) about my deeply personal journey away from God in fifteen-second sound bites. At first I found it very difficult to explain briefly what my book was about in words that made standing at my stall for those ten seconds mildly worth it. The author next to me, Meg Dendler, assured me that I'd find the words soon enough, and she was right. Before I knew it, I was using the right hooks, the right language, and the right level of ebullience to draw people into my story. I ended up selling ten books at the book fair - approximately nine more than I expected!

However, by the time I got home, my throat was killing me. I thought the scratchiness clawing away at the back of my throat and the thumping around my frontal lobes were merely the result of too much talking and excitement. I went to bed at 7pm and woke up the next morning feverish, breathless, coughy, snotty, and achy.  It clearly wasn't just over-exertion either; all three kids were suffering the same fates, and even Scott was feeling a little under the weather.

I stayed off work until Thursday. Thursday and Friday I felt reasonably okay at the office, but by home-time Friday afternoon, it all struck back again. I've spent all weekend sneezing, coughing, taking cold medicine and painkillers, and trying to find ways to breathe that don't lacerate my dry, inflamed throat.

Cake Rex - This is what book club
looks like. How could I miss this?
(I feel mildly guilty for hosting book club on Saturday regardless of my state of health. It's just that book club is among one of my Top Favorite Things In Life alongside "family", "reading", and "cake", and I just couldn't cancel. Karma paid me back for my selfishness though, with a night of fitful tossing and turning, hallucinatory fever, a runny nose I couldn't breathe through, and a sore throat so painful that I tried to stop breathing and die just to avoid any more dry air attacks to my throbbing windpipe.)

Tomorrow is Monday, and I really need to go into work. I want to believe I will magically be healed by 6am. Ideally, I should get to bed early tonight to help make this dream come true. I am so tired and desperate for a full night's sleep, yet I am dreading lying down flat and spending the next eight hours struggling to breathe while alternating hovering under the covers freezing cold and thrashing them off me while sweating hot.

Being sick SUCKS.

Oh yeah. And so that's why I haven't blogged much. That's my excuse.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Four Gift Rule

There's a meme going around about buying only four presents for your kids at Christmas: Something to wear, something to read, something they want and something they need.

My first response to this meme was, "Great. Another source of mompetition." I could imagine moms boasting about how little they spend on their kids at Christmas, how unmaterialistic their families are, how their kids don't EXPECT tons of presents like all the other spoiled brats in the Western Hemisphere.

I also recognized how this could be a great system for families on a budget or for families who genuinely and un-boastfully do practice simplicity and minimalism.

But it still annoyed me.

I even saw one comment that added to the mompetition wars that flaunted how incredibly goodly (and godly) she in particular is:  "We actually add one more category - something spiritual." I could practically hear the slot machine ding-ding-ding as she won that round of supermoming the rest of her opponents.


After my initial annoyance, I started thinking about the basic concept of the meme, and I kind of have to admit - I didn't hate it. In a self-loathing kind of way, I actually sort of liked it. I started thinking a lot about it and dang it, it wasn't a bad idea at all.

And even more self-loathingly, I also didn't hate the concept, albeit fairly pretentious, of "something spiritual". In fact - as I control the gagging - I was a little inspired.

Ugh. I know.

But true.

Since losing all faith in a supreme being, I have definitely "shut down" any spirituality that might have been lurking. For me, religion and spirituality have always been all or nothing. As an evangelical Christian, I believed in One God, One Jesus, One Faith (One Baptism, etc). It was all or nothing. You either believe whole-heartedly that Jesus is the only way to salvation or you are lost. (Hellbound.) God isn't interested in lukewarm believers! He'd rather you be hot or cold.  (Revelation 3:16 - "So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth." ESV) Evangelicalism leaves no room for wishy-washy, fluffy-wuffy, when-it's-convenient faith. So when I went from being hot (a devout follower of Christ), I bypassed the lukewarm and went straight to cold. None of that "I'm spiritual but not religious" mumbo-jumbo could suffice for me.

You're either hot or cold. It's all or nothing. You're one or the other. That's how I was brought up. I became the other. The cold. The nothing.

And truth be told, I'm cool with that. ("Cold" with that, perhaps?) I don't really miss "spirituality". I don't really feel I need it. Right now anyway. I will concede that perhaps that may change in the future.  A belief in a god is unlikely, but a yearning for spirituality, I suppose is within the realm of possibility. Just not any time soon.

My friend Devon asked me about this. If instead of settling into a sort of "liberal" Christianity, one that perhaps doesn't believe in hell or who accepts gays, I retaliated against my faith and went as far to the other extreme as possible. In answer to that, yes. Probably. Christianity has always been all or nothing for me. If one takes the Scriptures literally, those two are the only options. To take Scripture non-literally seems to devalue and discredit the whole thing. (Where does the literal end and the metaphorical begin? At creation? At the virgin birth? At Christ's diety?)  Perhaps if I'd never been so hot about my faith, I might have settled for lukewarm. But that's not really a viable option. (And it hardly matters at this point when I have zero belief in any god anymore anyway.)

But back to Christmas presents. (I kind of chased after a rabbit there for a minute.)

While I personally do not feel a pressing need to reconnect with my spiritual side, that does not mean my kids should be deprived of it. Perhaps "something spiritual" isn't all that pretentious after all.

(No. It's still pretentious.)

The question then is, what is "spiritual"?

If you do a quick Google search for "spiritual", the first several pages gives you all kinds of Christian links. A search for "spiritual gifts", once you sort out the quizzes to find out if you are discerning or a peacemaker, brings up hundreds of Bible retailers, Precious Moments figurines, inspirational Bible verse calendars, Christian jewelry, and home decor crosses.

I just have a hard time understanding what decorative crosses and Precious Moments actually do to bolster one's spirituality.

Spirituality has been very much equated with Christianity in the West, and to buy someone a spiritual gift is basically synonymous with kitschy ornaments and wall hangings that have some sort of vague Biblical reference. Even when I was a Christian, I wanted to know exactly how a pack of Testamints was going to do anything to improve my life other than promise me fresher breath. (In fact, those sort of things deeply offended me, as they should any devout believer. Chocolate crosses at Easter? Seriously?!)

To me, spirituality is about connecting with ones deepest self or connecting with nature or the universe or even a supreme being. If I want to give my kids an opportunity to connect with their spirituality (whether I believe in such a thing or not), I need to first pinpoint what that even looks like.

Choosing something to wear, something to read, something they want and something they need is easy.  A new outfit, a new book (or several - I'm not committed to just four gifts), a glance at their letters to Santa, and new packs of underwear doesn't take a whole lot of contemplation. But something spiritual requires a lot more thought. A lot more introspection too.

What would I consider spiritual? Putting aside my own skepticism, I have to wonder what I think would allow them to connect with themselves or with nature or with the universe or with a supreme being.

Not being a super spiritual person now, that's hard.

But I can think of a few things that could open one up to spirituality.

Art (and the opportunity to create art)
Music (and the opportunity to create music)
Nature walks and hikes
A telescope (for exploring the stars and planets)

Admittedly, packing "poetry" or "meditation" into a cardboard box and wrapping it in festive paper isn't really very practical. And trying to excite a six year old into spiritual rapture with a Mozart sonata or the works of John Donne would probably fail miserably.

But all children can start exploring spirituality with creation. Creating their own art, their own poetry, their own music, their own homegrown nature.

The tools for creation - paints, paper, an instrument - are things one can wrap up and put under the tree. These are a "something spiritual" that can be given to children as a holiday gift. And if choosing something that relates to a supreme being is important to you as well, encouraging your children to use these tools as a means of worship must be more spiritually satisfying to them than buying a white and pink Bible (that they are too young to read) or a gold cross necklace that is simply worn as an accessory.

I mean, if we're going to be so pretentious as to add a "something spiritual" to our list of Christmas presents, let's go all out then, shall we?

READERS: What do YOU consider spirituality to consist of, and what would a "something spiritual" look like under your Christmas tree?

Thursday, November 05, 2015

It's Been 8 Years...

I think the last time I actually blogged was 2007, but I'm standing in to make sure a blog is posted tonight for NaBloPoMo (I had to look it up, National Blog Posting Month). Lori is crashed out behind me, she had a long day!

Let's be honest, my name's at the top (and my old lyrics too) but this is Lori's blog. She's a much better writer than me, and, well... I'd never post this openly about my life and feelings. Absolute best case, you'd occasionally get some pictures of the kids if I was the sole author here. It's very strange for me that the people who follow Lori's blog or have read her book end up knowing a fair bit about my life too.

But I'm really grateful that Lori has kept this blog running over the years. Not just so that it's shared with those of you who keep up with our little family, but because it is going to be crazy awesome for the kids when they are older.

This blog has been running since before Lori and I started dating, and has 1665 (including this) published posts. Our Flickr account has almost 10,000 pictures, and that's just the highlights (we have a ton more on our file storage too).

So thanks, Lori. You're crafting an incredible gift for our family here. For our kids and for their kids, for me and the insight into you this gives me and for us in 30 years, when we're too old to remember the details properly.

On the other hand, the kids' friends are going to have unprecedented access to hilarious photos. For that I am truly sorry kids, blame your mother.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Regarding Artificial Intelligence... And Religion

About a year ago, I wrote the following but never published it. Since I don't have anything new to write about tonight, I'm posting this instead. It breaks one of the NaBloPoMo rules - no pre-written content - but och well. I'm practicing being unperfectionistic.

Last night, my hubby and I went out for a much needed date, just the two of us, no kids. Gotta thank the parents for babysitting! We went on a 'high school' date, aka, cheap and cheerful, Taco Bell for dinner and a dollar movie [dollar cinema now closed!]. We saw Johnny Depp's new(ish) movie, Transcendence.

I'm one of those people who after watching a sci-fi movie, especially on the big screen, comes out of the theater feeling all, well, sci-fi-y. I'm the same with horror; first time I saw Final Destination, I drove home certain that street lights were flickering ominously and death was prowling around me to get its due. So after leaving a film about artificial intelligence, I began imagining my brain was a computer, with an uploadable consciousness.

We put on one of our current favorite albums for the drive home, Quiet Company's We Are All Where We Belong, a brilliant 'coming-out atheist' album. My mind started to wander...

"I know this is going to sound so cheesy, but in a way, it's like our brains really are computers, and all it takes is a little virus to deprogram the whole thing."

My husband, not finding this as cheesy as I feared, agreed. (Which is good, considering my programming knowledge is very old and probably obsolete, not having worked with data and coding in ten years.  In other words, please excuse any errors that may now follow.)  I started talking about the moment I specifically got 'infected' with the virus; the moment it dawned on me that Jesus Christ might not actually ever be coming back. I remember that exact moment so distinctly. And seeing it from a computing point of view, I started to imagine the so-called virus corrupting my original programming, slowly at first but eventually wiping out the system completely.

The moment I first considered that Jesus was not coming back was like opening a corrupted file. Over the following weeks and months, the belief system I'd held my whole life began to fall apart. It all started to unravel, like a computer virus scanning all my files and wiping them out. After three years, the system was completely wiped, gone, deleted. The faith that had been my operating system had been destroyed.

But a virus isn't right. A virus corrupts. I don't feel like what happened to me corrupted me. "What else could it be then," I asked my techie husband. "A factory reset?"

"More like an upgrade," he responded. Our default setting, he argued, IS religion. We from infancy anthropomorphize everything; it's the only way we understand the world. We tend to think that the world thinks like us, that everything has meaning or reason. Our ancient ancestors saw the sun and believed it had a spirit and a will. We believe bad things happen for a reason. We imagine that the universe works in a humanly rational way. We want to make sense of why we are here, so we create divine beings to explain our existence, and we rely on this deity for order. Our factory settings kind of are religious.

It takes an upgrade, or perhaps a patch, to rise above that.

This, of course, is highly debatable, depending on what side of the 'program' you fall on. For religious people of all kinds, saying that religion is a factory setting is right! Of course, because God made us that way. God made us to need him. And as we go through life and discover this need for religion, we are pointed to God (or Ra or Allah or Brahma or whomever). To the religious, atheism (or agnosticism) is definitely a virus in the worst sense. A corruption to the system. Something in an email we don't want to open (so we don't open). We stay far away from viruses of doubt to ensure we keep the programs operating as they should, keep the system clean.

But to a non-believer, it's as I said earlier. It's an upgrade. It's taking a system that had faults to begin with and improving upon it. The original OS had some bugs, but there has been new software released that can improve the system's performance. However, you've got to open up that email with the instructions on how to compile the new or changed files to get the patch.

For me, maybe that moment I first realized Jesus may not be coming back like the Bible said he would, wasn't so much a virus that corrupted my system, but a source code modification. How it got there, I'm not sure (was it an executable file, begging the question, IS there a manufacturer someone releasing patches? Are we all actually existing in a virtual reality like The Matrix?), but however it was executed, I'm glad it was. It has definitely improved my system's performance.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

SPSP Book Fair This Weekend

This coming Sunday, I'll be exhibiting my new book (The Last Petal Falling) for the first time. The Arkansas Literary Festival and the Central Arkansas Library Systems (CALS) are hosting a Self-Published & Small Press Book Fair. Registered authors (like me!) and small presses will attend a few mini sessions on things like Income Streams and Copyrights before opening up our book fair to the public. To decorate my stand, I've got a black tablecloth and a few little flowers and vases, << that poster right there on its way from the printers, and a stack of books to sell. (I also ordered a Square reader for taking card payments, which is taking a ridiculously long time to get here. I hope it's here by this weekend.) If I can find the time, I'm also going to make some giveaway bookmarks. If I can find the time. If.

I'm really excited about promoting my book, but I'm also super nervous. It's a sensitive topic, and this is the Bible Belt. Scott asked me today what I'm going to say when people ask me what my book is about. That got me thinking. I really do need to have something polished to say when I'm asked that. Right now, when people ask, I get a little embarrassed and unsure of how to respond. I kind of just want to hand over the book and have them read the back. It would be so much easier that way.

So what's my book about? It's my loss of faith story. It takes the reader back through the religious experiences of my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood to the broken moment when my faith started to crumble. It tells the story of the three years I spent imploring God to renew my faith as it slowly slipped away, and the pain and despair that accompanied that loss. It's the story of a life built firmly on faith in God razed to the ground. It recounts the aftermath of losing my faith, and how I managed to breathe again as an atheist.

But none of that is really the 15-second attention grabber I need. How do I say briefly what this book is about?

I'll have to spend some time thinking about this. Talking succinctly about it is almost as hard as writing it was. I wish I had someone exhibiting with me to help me out! Someone else's perspective is always more convincing than the author's.

Maybe I can print out my Amazon and Goodreads reviews and have them scattered around the table...

Hmm, that's an idea! In fact, if you've read the book but haven't left a review of it yet, mind doing it this week?! I'll send you a bookmark. (If I make find the time to make them.)

Monday, November 02, 2015

5 Reasons I'm Still Supermom

SAHM: Stay-At-Home-Mum
WAHM: Work-At-Home-Mum
WOHM: Work-Outside-Home-Mum

I remember the days in the not so distant past when I was the kind of mummy who wore my babies in slings, breastfed beyond two years, practiced baby-led-weaning, and swore by co-sleeping and never CIO (crying it out). I was the kind of mummy who sat around with her friends drinking tea and talking about the best way to gently discipline without spanking, why attachment parenting is the best way to go, how to prepare the best home remedies for minor ailments, and where we could find fluoride-free toothpaste. I was the kind of mummy who did crafts with her kids, read them books before bedtime, made gorgeous bento box lunches to send with them to school, and took them on playdates to the park with other SAHMs and their kids for some good old fashioned Vitamin D.

I liked being that mummy. I admire that mummy. She was pretty all right.

Now I'm the kind of mummy who forgets to send back signed forms to the school, who runs out of clean uniforms before Friday because she hasn't done the laundry, and who packs pre-packaged food in disposable, non-environmentally friendly bags for lunch.  The mummy who lets them watch too much TV so she can catch a break and shouts way too much when they get unruly.

It's so easy to compare the SAHM me to the WOHM me and see the latter as inferior.  I idealize the former and remember her as certainly far more serene than she actually was, while criticizing the latter. Here's the deal: I need to give the current me some credit. I need to stop comparing and cut myself some slack.

So instead of dwelling on all the things I'm not doing so much anymore, it's time I look at the bright side of the new WOHM me.  Here are five things I am doing right as a mother:

1. I'm modeling feminist empowerment.
This in fact is what I've been doing all along. As a SAHM, I showed my kids that a woman can do whatever she believes is right for her life. I modeled positive feminist values by choosing to stay home with my kids, while my husband supported us, because it was what I (we) believed in.  As a WAHM later down the line, I showed my kids that a woman can start her own business and be creative in finding ways to make money and support her family. I showed them that a woman can both take care of household jobs and run a business and be fulfilled in all these activities. Now, as a WOHM, I am demonstrating that a woman can have a career and be a mother, that women can be as successful as men, and that if a woman wants to work outside the home, she should do so. A woman can do whatever is right for her at whatever stage of her life she is in.  Whether she is a SAHM, WAHM or WOHM, she can be successful and fulfilled in all she does.

(As a side note, Scott has also been modeling feminist values to our children by supporting and agreeing with my work choices all along the way. He shows our son how to respect a woman's capabilities and personal autonomy, while also showing our daughters how a man can and should respect a woman's capabilities and personal autonomy. My husband is a seriously awesome feminist.)

2. I'm not afraid to say I'm sorry.
When the kids act mean or rude, I expect them to apologize. When I act mean or rude, I apologize too. Often times my fuse can be short, and I react no better than a child. When I blow things out of proportion or throw a hissy fit, I am not afraid to say I'm sorry to my kids. I'm not perfect, and if my kids haven't already discovered this, they will soon enough. Teaching them to apologize by example is a life skill I am able to teach on a regular basis! It is not a sign of weakness for a parent to apologize to a child when the parent is in the wrong; it's a demonstration of maturity and humility.

(Side note. Scott is awesome about apologizing to the kids too. We also say we are sorry to each other in front of the kids anytime we have a fight. Apologies aren't just for children.)

3. I talk to them openly about social issues and current events.
We listen to NPR in the car nearly everywhere we go (and when it's not NPR, it's really good music, which is also something we're doing right), and our kids ask us often about the news they hear. We talk openly about the current events and social issues that are discussed. Whether it's a white police officer who shot a black man for no reason, a gay couple being refused a marriage license, the presidential debates, Syrian migrants, or religious freedom, we talk openly about it. We ask the kids to think these things through themselves and encourage them to come up with their own solutions and opinions. We do our best to make our kids aware of the larger world around them and to see themselves as activists who can make the world a better place. Between our three kids, we have a future President of the United States, a schoolteacher, and a Power Ranger. How more activist could they get?

4. I laugh with them.
All these "I I I"s should really be "We We We"s. Scott is 100% all of these things too. As a family, we make a point of being silly as often as possible. We're a bunch of sarcastic so-and-sos who tease the crap out of each other and play silly pranks on each other and make jokes about everything. Sometimes things have to be taken seriously, but we make a point of being lighthearted whenever we can. Life is short and laughter is free.

5. I read.
They say one of the best things you can do for a child's academic success is have books in the home. We are rebuilding our home library after selling everything, and we make it a priority to give the kids plenty of access to books for themselves. Besides just having books in the home, we aim to actively cultivate a love of reading in our kids. We may not have the same perfect routine we used to have of reading books every night before bed, but reading is still a huge part of our family life. My youngest loves being read to, my middle is discovering how exciting it is to sound out the words and read for herself, and my oldest is never further than arm's reach away from a novel twice the size of her. And besides just encouraging them to enjoy reading, I often have my nose in a book too. Without even trying, I am demonstrating a love for reading. I carry one (sometimes two) books with me everywhere I go, and I simply love to read. Actively instilling this in them as well as modeling it in myself is a parenting win. I may not cook organic meals, but I will read the crap out of some books then pass them on to a kid.

What is something YOU are doing right in your life? When the easiest thing to do is see all the things you're doing wrong, take a minute to jot down some of the things you are doing right, and share them here!

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Challenge Accepted! October Books

*Ahem. First post of NaBloPoMo.*

In order to complete my challenge for 2015, I needed to read 4 books each month October - December. I managed two last month.  Let's see if I can get through ten more books in the next two months!

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (A book set in a different country)

Well, it was set in England.

This was our book club book for this month. I've never read anything by Terry Pratchett, but now I know that needs to change in the future. And same with Neil Gaiman. I LOVED the British humor (humour), and I loved the irreverent tone of the novel.

A fallen angel-turned-demon (the serpent in the Garden of Eden) and an angel (one of the guardians of Eden welding a flaming sword) conspire several thousand years later to botch Armageddon. They rather like Earth and would rather not see it destroyed in a cosmic battle between good and evil. The only problem is, well, they are utterly incompetent. The race to stop the anti-Christ (a precocious blond eleven year old) begins.

I think this book might well have been offensive to me in days gone by, but I was thoroughly able to enjoy it now. I do wonder, however, how the rest of the book club will take it. It's pretty sacrilegious! But funny. Damned funny.

"Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum (A book with a color in the title)

I planned to read The Color Purple to satisfy this requirement, but I really wanted to read this and realized with the word "black" in it, it could check off a box too. Win-win. I came across this book in the book store while perusing the African-American Studies section - a tiny, one shelf section of Barnes & Noble, which shares its already incredibly limited space with LGBT Studies. Poor show, Barnes & Noble, poor show. On both counts.

The title grabbed my attention. It's a question I as a white person have always wondered.  It sure did seem like the black kids were always sitting together in high school (not that our school had any black kids, but I noticed it at Forensics tournaments around the state). Isn't that just proof that black people are as racist as white people? I wondered, in my teenage naivete.

Even as an adult, though, I've wondered if we're all trying so hard to be inclusive, why do we still segregate socially? So the book was added to my armload of purchases, and I started it as soon as I got home.

This book is a must-read for anyone who is aiming to become more racially conscious. Though some of it was stuff I already knew - sort of - most of it was extremely eye-opening for me. I knew I receive the benefits of white privilege whether I mean to or not, but I didn't realize to what extent until reading this book. I also knew that institutional racism is a serious issue, but this book highlighted to me how deeply it runs in American society. I knew that other races experience racism, not just African-Americans (and Latinos), but I never realized to what extent and how easily overlooked racism against other groups is, such as Asians and Native Americans.

Talking about race as a white person is hard, because we aren't used to doing it. We may not be actively "racist" but how often do we keep silent out of fear of saying the wrong thing or upsetting certain people? Keeping quiet about an issue that is literally costing black lives is contributing to the problem. I'm still no expert on what I can do as a white person to combat institutional racism, but this book has made a lot of things more clear to me and has given me a deeper understanding of how deeply ingrained racism is in our society. There is no quick fix for the problem, but this book answers a lot of questions, describes the process of developing one's identity (for all people but particularly people of color), and presents suggestions for how we can all be the change we want to see in the world. For me personally, it inspired new ways to discuss racism with my children. It's not enough to teach them to be "color blind" (an impossibility and a logical fallacy); we have teach our kids to be activists, to teach them what racism does to people and to show them real-life examples of racism destroying lives (Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, the list goes on far, far too long), so they will grow up to be a generation that actively pushes racism another few steps back towards the history books and away from the day-to-day experience of far too many of our fellow human beings.

This book has also inspired me to read more black authors and introduce more black historical figures to my kids (and myself) besides just the famous ones they'll learn about in school. Those figures are important, certainly, but until now, I've never noticed how whitewashed history is.  We know of only a handful of black historical figures, and the rest are white. This does a huge disservice to us all. It's my mission now to seek out the less well known non-white authors, activists, and historical figures to better educate myself and my kids. (Any suggestions would be welcome!)

To see what else I have read this year: