Sunday, December 31, 2017

40 Questions - Year 13 (and 12)

Image source: Adobe Stock

2016 was the kind of a year I did not want to talk about. While I'd been answering these 40 questions for eleven years straight, last year I couldn't bring myself to do this. I started, but didn't get very far, and ended up leaving it in draft form for the entire year. I just wasn't ready at this point last year to talk about my pending divorce or all the crappiness that surrounded 2016.

This year though has been such a transformative year that I really want to go ahead and give this another bash. I don't know how many more years I'll want to answer these same questions, but it's been a really fun way to document each year of the past decade or so, so here we go. The year 2017 - the year everything changed.

1. What did you do in 2017 that you’d never done before?
This summer I went backpacking for the first time. I never thought I was the outdoorsy type, aside from enjoying a good camping weekend. But I fell in love with the idea of backpacking, and after that first trip, I became hooked. It was an amazing experience, and now I look for every opportunity to get out with my backpack as much as possible.

Backpacking with David (and sort of Allen)

Running for the photographers.

I joined the Rotary Club.

I got my first COLOR tattoo.

My "unicone" tattoo for Lolly.

But quite possibly the most AMAZING thing I did in 2017 that I'd never done before was see Tripping Daisy live in concert! Tripping Daisy was my favorite band in high school, and I never got to see them live before they broke up. Until May. It was out of this world. I got lost in just living.

Blown away.

2. Did you keep your New Years’ resolutions and will you make more for next year?
My New Year's resolution last year was simply to survive. And I did. So there.

This year, rather than a resolution per se I've been compiling a Bucket List/To Do list. On this list I'd like to accomplish or do the following fifteen things in 2018:

1. Save [undisclosed amount of money].
2. Get more involved in the community by joining a board.
3. Read 12 books (a book a month).
4. Visit a new city.
5. Visit the beach.
6. Finally put Meatloaf & a Rosary (my book of poetry) into print.
7. Send 36 letters/cards/parcels to various friends and relatives. (I'll be 36 this year.)
8. Publish at least 36 blog posts.
9. Take kids on a trip or vacation.
10. Lose 15-20 pounds. (Starting keto on Jan 2!)
11. [Unspoken Bucket List Item] - like an Unspoken Prayer Request only cheekier.
12. Spend the night in a haunted hotel.
13. Practice a couple "no spend" months.
14. Run another race (maybe a 10k instead of half marathon this time).
15. Volunteer my time for a new organization.

Some of these aren't traditional "bucket list" items, in that they may not be things I've never done before, but they're things I'd like to do next year. Generic resolution-wise though, I just want to spend less money, lose some weight, and make the most of this new year.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
My friend Kate from book club had a baby, but I'm such a bad friend, I can't remember if it was 2017 or 2016. He's still pretty little though so I'm going to guess 2017. My sis-in-law Rebekkah is due a baby in January 2018, though, and I'm super excited to meet the next mini McFarlane!

It occurred to me last year while trying to answer these questions that I'm starting to get to an age where this isn't going to be so prevalent anymore. Most of my friends are nearing the end of our childbearing years. Oh my god that means I'm getting old.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
Last year (in my attempt to answer these questions): Oh, you mean besides every icon of childhood imaginable? No.

Ha! Yeah, 2016 was brutal. This year, the only funeral I attended was for our Red Cross chapter's previous executive director (my predecessor) Candy Carey. She passed away in April quite unexpectedly, and that was hard for everyone. She'd been the ED in this area for 20-something years.

5. What places did you visit?
I feel like I'm trying to cover two years here. In 2016, I went to Tacoma, New Orleans, Denver and several places in Oklahoma. In 2017, I went to Dallas to see Tripping Daisy, Washington DC for Red Cross training, Ft Myers, FL, to respond to Hurricane Irma, and I've spent a significant amount of time in Mississippi (more on that later).

A crappy shot of Bourbon Street.
Tripping Daisy in Dallas

6. What would you like to have in 2018 that you lacked in 2017?
Well, in 2015, I said I wanted balance. Moving into 2017, I needed that in so many more ways than I realized then. I needed work/life balance, me/others balance, and mental/emotional balance.  And I think I achieved that for the most part in 2017.

What I lacked in 2017 though was a forward plan. My goal this year was just to survive as a newly single woman and single mom. What I need next year is to figure out my next steps. I don't need to just survive in 2018 - I need to thrive.

7. What date from 2016/2017 will remain etched upon your memory?
I give in- I'm answering for two years from now on.

Oct 10, 2016 is when I started my new job as Communications Director for the Red Cross. That was life changing (in more ways than one). However, April 24, 2017 is the day I became the Executive Director for my Red Cross chapter. So that was a big deal, also life changing.

But January 28, 2017 will forever be remembered as one of the hardest of my life. It's the day Scott officially moved out. That brings tears to my eyes even right now as I write it.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
2016: New job.
2017: New job.

9. What was your biggest failure?
2016: (And I quote the draft from last year that I never published:) Everything. (Aw, Last Year Me, that's not true!)

2017: Let's be honest - what I was referring to previously was the failure to keep my marriage together. And I guess in practical terms, that's probably the most obvious answer to this question. But is moving on and making a decision that is ultimately better for both of us a failure, or has it been a success that we have remained such good friends and such good co-parents to our wee ones? I think it's all in how you look at it. Getting divorced is one of the ultimate "failures" in our society. But maybe that's the wrong way of looking at it. Maybe we've succeeded in adulting.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
I don't recall any visits to the ER, so I'm going to say no. I was in a car accident in August '17, but the injuries were minor.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
I bought a new car (which has been hit now twice, so it might actually be cursed) and most recently I bought a self-cleaning cat litter box. Which I'm thinking might have been the best thing I've bought my whole entire life.

New car/ old car

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
2016: I wrote, "I thought Bernie Sanders did pretty well this year."

2017: My kids. They have been stars throughout this whole huge life transition. Their lives have been utterly turned upside down, yet they have been the most awesome, resilient and optimistic humans I know. I am so grateful to Scott for joining me in creating a united front and an environment for them that has allowed them to work through this mess in their own way. They are the real superstars this year.

13. What regrets do you have about the past year?
Well... I mean, yes, I regret that my marriage did not last. But positive things have come of it. So beyond that, I'd say it's been a year of learning, healing, growing and reflecting. I could focus on regrets, but I just don't want to. Regrets get us nowhere.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Books. Clothes. Petrol. (Petrol because I drove to Mississippi a lot this year. And that's because...)

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
I started dating someone this summer that has pretty much stolen my heart. He lives in Mississippi though, which really, really, really sucks, but from the very earliest days we both couldn't help but feel the distance was (and still is) worth it. And I'm really, really, really excited about this new person in my life. This relationship was unexpected and unsoughtafter but has been a very joyful and meaningful turn of events for me. I'm immensely happy.

The Boyfriend
16. What song/album will always remind you of 2016/2017?
2016: Hamilton the Broadway musical and The Hamilton Mixtape.
2017: Band of Horses Why Are You Ok album.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
2016 (and I quote:)
happier or sadder? Sadder. I am hating these questions this year.
thinner or fatter? The tiniest bit thinner.
richer or poorer? Richer, which is nice.

happier or sadder? Sadder at the start of the year. Happier at the end.
thinner or fatter? So much fatter. *weeps*
richer or poorer? Poorer, way poorer after dropping down to a single income. Ouch. But doing fine regardless.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Writing and reading, both years. Backpacking/camping (two of my trips got cancelled this year, meaning I didn't get to do nearly as much as I wanted). Nor did I exercise as much as I wanted to (and needed to). But that's life!

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
This year has been so busy that I have no idea what I could've actually cut out. There was really no time for doing anything that I wish I'd done less of!

20. How did you spend Christmas?
In 2016, I spent Christmas with my family as always. It was an emotional Christmas for me and Scott especially, but we spent it together.

Christmas 2016

We decided early on that for the time being, we would continue to spend holidays together as a nuclear family, so in 2017, I spent Christmas with my family same as before. Only this year, Scott came over to my house early on Christmas morning for kids to open the presents I got them. Then we went to his house to open his presents. That afternoon we all went to my dad's to celebrate with them. This past Saturday before Christmas, we also all spent the day with my mom for an early Christmas celebration. Scott and I are still a family. Just a different kind of family.

(I didn't think to get a picture of all three kids together this year - I barely took any pictures at all - but because my kids are hella cute:)



21. Who did you spend the most time on the phone with?
Hmm, it's a toss up. On the weeks when the kids are at Scott's house, I talk to the kids on the phone every night at 7pm. (And he talks to them every night that I have them.) But those are short conversations where they are mostly distracted with whatever toy they are currently playing or fighting over, so as far as hours accrued, I probably spent the most time on the phone with The Mississippi Boyfriend.

Another contender for most time on the phone is one of my colleagues whom I tend to call while on long drives for travel. And earlier in the year I spent a lot of time on the phone with Heather from Scotland. It's hard to say who I've spent the most time on the phone with! But it's probably The Boyfriend (who does have a name by the way).

22. What's your best memory from 2016/2017?
I'm having a hard time thinking about this one. Lots of good little moments but one "best" memory from either year is alluding me. Definitely my backpacking trips and the moment I ran across the finish line of the half marathon were big. Deploying to Florida for Hurricane Irma relief was big. There was the night I took the three kids to the KARK TV station to finish the telethon that raised money for flooding in Pocahontas, AR, and they got to meet the governor and first lady of Arkansas. But surely the biggest one was seeing Tripping Daisy live. That was almost two decades in waiting. (Have I mentioned yet how awesome that was?)

Red Cross deployment to Florida with my APAT partner Colin.
The Honorable Asa Hutchinson, First Lady Susan Hutchinson
and the Magnificent Fifi, Lolly and Jaguar. With Mediocre Mum.

Tim Delaughter! Bryan Wakeland! Mark Pirro!

23. How have you seen yourself grow as a person this year?
I'm glad I kept the draft from last year, because this is meaningful and as true in 2015 as in 2016 as in 2017: I think I should copy some of what I put last year, because it's still true, and I'm still growing this way:  "I've learned that in order for anything to ever get better, we are going to have to actually do something about it. I can't sit back and hope someone else does something, but I myself must take action... I think we all have our part to play in the big stuff, but even in the small things - keeping a friend's kids so they can get out, donating money or time to tornado relief, bringing someone groceries when they are sick, writing a little note to encourage someone.  All the little things that take so little of me but give so much to someone else."

Working for the Red Cross has given me a way to do that every single day, but it's also given me the means to do it in other smaller ways.  Like Dr. Seuss said, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

In 2017 in particular, I've seen myself grow as a self-sufficient person. Someone who doesn't need another person to "complete" her. I've always been independent, but not having a partner in life anymore to help me accomplish all the day-in-day-out tasks or helping me make large decisions has forced me to grow even more independent. Decisions I make now are mine solely, and I'm solely responsible for them. I've grown in self-confidence, and most importantly, I've come to accept that who I am is enough for me. I don't need another person to get me through life. Other people are a wonderful support but are not my foundation. I build and stand on my own foundation.

24. What was your favorite TV program(s)?
2016: Stranger ThingsHouse of Cards. (What we didn't know then. Sigh.)
2017: Who has time for TV?

26. What was the best book(s) you read? What books would you like to read in the next year?
Hands down, The Poisonwood Bible was the best book I read in 2017. It's up there with Silence as far as books that have had a huge impact on me. As for next year, I have a stack of books a mountain high. Where do I start?? As I write this, I'm being recommended The Book of Strange New Things which sounds like The Poisonwood Bible in outer space. (Thanks, Brian!)

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?
It's easy for 2016 - Hamilton. There was also the What's Inside: Songs from Waitress soundtrack. But this past year, I don't know that anything new was really discovered. 

28. What did you want and get?
2016: I really wanted the Red Cross job, and I got it. :)
2017: The other Red Cross job.

Red Cross shelter in Ft Myers, FL
29. What did you want and not get?
A vacation with my kids. Maybe next year.

30. What were your favorite films of this year?
Of the movies I saw in the cinema, would it be ridiculous to admit I loved Annabelle: Creation? Because it was immensely fun to watch. And honestly Coco was remarkable. Perhaps my favorite of all though - and mock all you want - was Bad Moms because I relate so hard. I cried and yes, it's a comedy.

Speaking of crying, it's not a film, but I also went to see Gift of the Magi at the Arkansas Repertory Theater, and I cried like a baby through that too.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
2016: I don't think I did anything for my birthday this year. Sad.

2017: I went to dinner with a group of my girlfriends at Star of India. I had wanted to karaoke for my birthday, but that time of year was just too dismal for me. Celebrating was kind of the last thing I wanted to do.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
You know what? In spite of what a tough year this has been, I can't think of anything that would have made this year more satisfying. It was a year for healing, and it accomplished just that, and then some. I'm immensely satisfied with my life and how this year progressed. It was hard, y'all - the hardest year of my life. But it was, to be corny as hell, like entering a cocoon, getting liquefied and utterly mangled, and emerging with new wings.

("That's poetic! That's pathetic." Whatevs. It's true.)

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2016/2017?
2016: Pantsuits. (At work.)
2017: Sweatpants. (Not at work.)

Suit up!
34. What kept you sane?
My job. In fact, credit for this goes to my dear friend Nigel in Colorado. Last December, I went to Denver for a Divisional meeting where I met Nigel and a number of other Red Cross communications directors in our Division (nine states). I confided in Nigel what was happening with my marriage. She gave me the best advice, and this advice got me through the first half of 2017. She said the only way to survive in my new job with this happening was to leave my baggage at the front door of the office before I walked in everyday and pick it back up when I walk out. Easier said than done, I know, but I took that image with me every day. I would often cry the entire drive into work, but when I parked my car, I wiped my eyes, applied a bit of fresh makeup, and walked into the office, leaving my personal life in the car. I would focus and concentrate hard all day on my work, refusing myself a free second to think about what was going on outside my job. When the day was done, I got back in my car and cried the whole way home. I did this for the first several months after Scott moved out. My job gave me a needed distraction and a focus and a purpose. It kept me going, even on my darkest, most sinister days. I even remember driving back from Fayetteville one day in a Red Cross car, thinking how easy it would be to end it all by driving off the edge of the road into the ravine - except I was in a Red Cross car and didn't want to destroy something that was there to help people in time of need. (I was severely depressed and illogical. Don't blame me for having odd priorities during that dark time.)

Raising money for flooding relief via KARK telethon.
That's me with Aaron Nolan and Arkansas AG Lesley Rutledge.

35. Which holiday or special occasion meant the most to you?
I have two. And they are weird.

The first was Valentine's Day, my first Valentine's Day as a single woman. Scott brought me flowers in spite of our separation. I knew then that we were going to get through this civilly and as friends.

The second was Christmas this year. I spent the weekend before Christmas on a mini vacation with The Boyfriend, and it was magical. No matter what happens with us in the future, we both agree that's a weekend we never want to forget. Our relationship may last or it may not, but after an extremely hard year for both of us, I feel like this Christmas gave us both hope that our lives are going to be okay.

(The Boyfriend's name, by the way, is Neil.)

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
2016: All of them. And now that we are approaching a President Trump, I can no longer stomach politics. I used to listen to NPR all the time - it was my alarm in the morning, what I listened to on the way to and from work and during lunch breaks. Now I just cannae.

2017: All of them. Still. I just can't even.

37. Who did you miss?
2016: My Scottish friends, especially Heather. I could've used having her nearby this year.
2017: Same.

38. Who was the best new person (people) you met?
2016: I like my new coworkers. They are the only new people I met that I can think of, but I've only known them for a few months. (Katrina, Brian, Dave, Stephanie - the list could go on and on and on so to avoid missing anyone I'll stop there.)

2017: I made some great new friends this year. Taylor and Jeremy - especially Jeremy and his lovely and hilarious daughter Pengwen (not her real name), and of course The Boyfriend, along with the guys who come along with him, Brian and Marvin (their real names). I also continue to meet incredible people through work, such as all the members of my Board of Directors (I could name you all but I'll settle with naming a few - Eric, Adrienne, Joe, Jeff, Monica) and new coworkers like Steve and Llahoma. I've met some really wonderful people this year.

My buddy Jeremy.

My Kehlers.
39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2016/2017.
Let's just stick with 2017 here.

Conflict does not have be synonymous with war. Scott and I had two options for handling our conflict this year - allow it to result in devastation or growth. I imagine a nuclear wasteland where most failed marriages end up. Everything's black and burnt and destroyed, there is hate and death and agony. But there's also a winter garden where we determined we'd plant our failed marriage. The grass was brown and withered, but there was potential for new life. A spring could come where new flowers blossomed, and where hope and healing could push through the soil out of the struggle. There were a few frosts early on that threatened to choke out the new life we hoped to grow, but as summer approached, we began to see the fruits of the labor we put into keeping our conflict mutually constructive. Like that cheesy butterfly analogy earlier: conflict can also result in beauty and transformation. It doesn't have to result in mass destruction.

To those of you who don't know what to make of the relationship Scott and I now have, think on this a little. We've got three amazing children who need two parents who love each other. We may not want to be married anymore, but we shared twelve years together and share the responsibility of raising three kids in the most fertile soil we can. So yes, we will always care for each other and love each other, even if we aren't married to each other and end up falling in love with other people. Conflict doesn't have to be synonymous with war.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year?
"Everything Changes" - Sara Bareilles, What's Inside: Songs from Waitress

Everything changes.
My heart's at the wheel now
nd all my mistakes, they make sense
when I turn them around.
Everything changes ...

I didn't know,
but now I see s
ometimes what is, is meant to be ...
My blurry lines, my messy life come into focus
and in time maybe I can heal and I can breathe
'cause I can feel myself believe
that everything changes.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Advent Thoughts: Part-Time Christmas

For the past I don't know how many years - pause - actually thanks to my blog I can track it back to 2009...

So for the past eight years, I have celebrated Christmas with an Advent Activity Calendar for my kids. Each day leading up to Christmas, instead of chocolate, they pull out a note "from the elves" with an activity for the day. In early years, we did all kind of arts and crafts together to prepare for the holiday, though in recent years the activity lists have gotten a little - I hate to call it lazy but - perhaps less time-consuming? 

(I also used to blog about it. I named the blog project DeBloAdMo, riffing off of NaBloPoMo. However, just as I was always bad about daily blogging during November's National Blog Post Month, I was equally bad at daily blogging my December Blog Advent Month.)

Last Christmas, for the eighth year in a row, we put out the Advent Activity Calendar, but it was an awful month for me and Scott. We chose really easy, low-maintenance activities, and even still we ended up not doing half of them. Part of that was the busyness and excessive travel of the early days of my new job; much was due to the struggles he and I were facing as our marriage crumbled. I didn't even blog about it once, apparently. 

Some people eschew anything that brings back difficult memories. It would've been easier to leave my tree ornaments in the box and buy new ones. It would be easier to do away with old traditions and start new ones that don't remind me of the past. But the pains - and pleasures - of the past make us who we are. They are a part of our tapestry. I don't want to forget any part of my life, not like I could if I wanted to, regardless of where I am now. As I journey on through life, I want to learn from my mistakes, bask in the moments that filled me with joy and respect the obstacles I've faced that have led me to where I am now.

So in keeping with a tradition I have loved, the Advent Activity Calendar went out again this year. It was different this time, and a little weird. I only have the kids every other week, meaning the Advent calendar is only half-filled. It made planning activities easier, but it also feels like it's only Christmas part-time. The tiny empty pockets are kind of sad. (I've been trying not to look at them and see myself missing half my children's lives in those empty little pockets.) 

The feelings of being a part-time parent are difficult to describe. There are pluses and minuses. I would be totally lying if I didn't say I really enjoy having some time to myself. I like having a quiet house, and I love being able to clean a room and it stay clean for a whole week. I enjoy having some free time again to do whatever I want. The freedom is pretty awesome, but I recognize this isn't how it's meant to be. I hate feeling like I'm missing out on time with my children. I hate that they are making memories every other week without me, and making memories without their dad on my weeks. The house gets too quiet sometimes, and I find myself wandering around at a loss for what to do and missing the delight of seeing life through those three pairs of child-sized eyes. It's an indescribable feeling, enjoying being alone and hating being alone.  If I think about it too hard, well, I just get upset over the whole thing.

But ever the optimist, I look at the bright side. When the kids come back to my house after a week away, I am excited to see them again. My patience tank is full. My appreciation for their little quirks is in full swing. My tolerance for their messes is higher, knowing that I'll just clean everything up in a week, and it'll be okay. I am energized and rested and ready to be their mummy full time and to the best of my ability. That's got to be a good thing! And when the week is up, and I'm starting to feel the strain and stress and frustration of being a single mum, they go to a rested, patient, excited-to-see-them daddy. So despite only getting half the month of December with them leading up to Christmas, I've been able to have a lot more fun with them this year, especially with our activity calendar.

Here's what the elves had lined up for this 2017 Advent season:
5 – Drive through Sherwood Forest to look at Christmas lights.
6 – Check email message from Santa. 
7 – Eat dinner by candlelight. 
8 – Drink hot chocolate with marshmallows. 
9 – Cut out snowflakes and hang them around the house.
10 – Choose toys to donate and go see a Christmas movie at the cinema.
11 – Have a sleepover after school with Mimi and Poppi.

19 – Make reindeer food.
20 – Eat Christmas pancakes in pajamas for dinner.
21 – Film a Christmas video for family and friends in Scotland.
22 – Wrap presents to put under the tree.
23 – Make gingerbread men for the Christmas tree.
24 – Go to a carol service, then put out snacks and reindeer food for Santa’s sleigh team!!

Our first week was a lot of fun. The kids were bouncing in their seats and singing "All I Want For Christmas" at the top of their lungs as we drove through the Christmas lights display at Sherwood Forest. Jaguar still believed his email message was actually from Santa (even though Santa pronounced his name wrong) and had the most magical sparkle in his eye as Santa talked directly to him. We enjoyed hot chocolate with gigantic marshmallows for breakfast. (Bad idea, folks, bad idea right before school - they were so hyper!) We went to see Coco together - not a Christmas movie, but one we all LOVED. And last night they spent the night with their grandparents (a total cop-out since I had to travel for work that day, but still looked on as a mid-school-week adventure). 

Confession: We forgot to light the candles for dinner on the 7th. And we have yet to cut out the paper snowflakes. Both of these oversights will be remedied. And as for the toy donation, my youngest refused to part with ANYTHING, so one of the benefits of part-time parenting is I have all week to sort through their toys for them, and they will never notice anything has left the building.

Yes, it feels sad to have those empty pockets, representing little days and precious memories I'm missing out on. In an ideal world, sure, all the pockets would be full. But we make of the world what we choose to make it, and we're making it the best we can for ourselves and for our children. I'm thankful my kids get their daddy as much as they do. I'm happy I get them as much as I do. I'm glad that he and I get along well enough that the kids still get both of us together fairly regularly. The twenty-four days leading up to Christmas this year may be split in half, but Christmas day will be whole, as all five of us open presents together, first at my house then at their dad's, in our new different-kind-of-family way. We know that our new different-kind-of-family will likely morph and grow over the years, that new traditions will develop and some old traditions will fade away. One day all of those pockets will be empty, come to think of it, as the kids grow up and abandon their childhood games. So I'm grateful for the time I have with our kids, grateful for the time they have with their dad, and I'm grateful for the time I get to recharge my own batteries every other week.

It feels like in closing I should say something about when life gives you lemons, but instead, since it's Christmas, let me just say that when life gives you broken eggs, you gotta look on the bright side and make eggnog. 

Though it doesn't hurt to double the rum.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Ask An Atheist: Managing Relationships With Religious Loved Ones

A couple of days ago, I received this private message from a friend:
Remember the part of your blog "Ask an Atheist"? We have a question. [My husband] and I are skeptical, but my daughter is a full blown atheist. How did you keep your deeply religious parents from torturing you? My mother is relentless and cruel! Help!
Not an easy question to tackle sensitively. Immediately three or four ways to respond popped into my head, and I asked if I could answer her question via blog post, since there was no way I'd be able to squeeze it all into a text. It's not officially National Ask An Atheist Day, but I'll answer the question regardless.

Finding a photo for this topic was tough, so here's a religious family.
The first thing I have to do is set an understanding. I did not come from a secular background. I wasn't raised to be an atheist. I was raised in the church, and I devoted the vast majority of my life to faith in Christ. For anyone reading this, it's important to know that I intimately understand the perspective of our religious family members. As a devout believer myself, I used to lie in bed at night and plead to God with all my strength that all three of my children would be saved. The possibility that any one of them might grow up to reject our faith was so overwhelming and terrifying to me, that those prayers were often wet with tears. The threat of hell was so real that I simply could not bear imagining it for my children. In fact, just the thought that any of them might not be saved was sheer agony; it made my chest ache with anguish and fear.

So understand that everything I say from here on comes from a place of personally knowing how some religious parents feel.

Notice I said "some parents", because this is not necessarily the sole reason parents (and other loved ones) can be so upset when children or grandchildren question or even reject the family faith. There are other reasons for negative reactions from religious family members, such as bringing shame on the family, feeling their "tribe" has been rejected, feeling they are being rebelled against, or even feeling judged for their beliefs by the unbelieving individual. I don't want to go too deeply into all the reasons believing family members might be so bothered by unbelieving ones, but if you want to analyze this topic more deeply, there are others who have explored this subject in greater depth.

Let me also add a disclaimer - not all believers hound unbelieving loved ones. Many are live-and-let-live or simply keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves. Some do not stress about hell or care about family pride or feel a person's rejection of their faith is a rejection of them. So for those people, this post isn't about them. They're doing it right already. Thank you.

So assuming that the push back we atheists, agnostics and skeptics receive is based on any of those reasons above, we automatically are at a disadvantage. If it comes from a place of fear for our souls, there is nothing we can do to take that fear away. If it comes from a place of shaming the family by not towing the line, we cannot take that embarrassment away. In a society where religion (particularly Christianity) is not just the norm but the expectation, the onus ends up being on us to manage and mitigate these negative feelings that our unbelief produces in our loved ones, because somehow we are the ones who have done something "wrong".

For me personally, my parents are deeply religious, but I'd never say they "torture" me or are "cruel" to me. They can, however, feel relentless. My parents genuinely believe I'm going to hell, and this is a source of extreme anguish for them. Once again, let me reiterate that I really do get it. Yet, as firmly as they know I'm going to hell, I just as firmly know that there is no such place. Therefore it feels like the responsibility of managing their emotions always falls on me, because I'm the one who isn't emotionally distressed. Having been on both sides of the matter, I can see it from their perspective. They, however, cannot see it from mine. In fact, never at all does it seem they stop to think how their relentless proselytizing might affect my emotions or our relationship, because they cannot see that far. They see only my eternity in hell, and that clouds out every other possible perspective. Therefore, it's up to me, who has been on both sides, to respond in one of two ways - I can either scoff at their constant attempts at drawing me back in or I can empathize with them. I always choose the latter, but believe me, it's not fun and it's not fair.

It's not fair, because it drives a wedge between us, every single time, and they can't see it. They can't see that every comment, every dig, every attempt at making me see it their way is another brick laid in the wall that separates us. Christians (and others) in general don't seem to see how much we nonbelievers are expected to consider their feelings first, show respect for their beliefs and walk on eggshells to avoid hurting or offending them, when none of that consideration or respect is given to us. For family members who are embarrassed by what we've done to their reputation, it might be even more difficult. It's one thing for me to empathize with their fear of my going to hell, but it's a lot harder to empathize with those who just wish we'd shut up and stop bruising the family pride. Every time we sense that their disapproval of us is based on the disapproval they receive (or perceive to receive) from others, another brick is laid in that wall between us.

Nevertheless, that's where most of us are, so what can we do to handle it?

I can only speak from experience, and my answers aren't great. They aren't all what I'd call healthy solutions, but in the lose-lose situation that many of us find ourselves in, we sometimes can only make do with the best options we have.

First, I avoid the subject like the plague. Normally, avoidance is not what I'd recommend, but in this case, if it's necessary to keep that wall from getting too tall or wide, I will hold my tongue. It pains me to keep feelings to myself and avoid honest discussions, but it pains me more to feel rejection, especially from the people I love the most. I hate superficiality, but I hate disapproval more. For in every "you need to come back to the Lord" or "God is trying to get your attention" or "you know, if you just turned to Jesus ...", what I hear is rejection and disapproval. I have to sort through those feelings each time to remember they are being said with some kind of good intentions (usually). That these kinds of comments inadvertently (or deliberately) imply a dismissal of my well-thought and hard-fought conclusions about the world is never, seemingly, a concern for the other party. But that's what they are, so to avoid facing their disapproval of my (lack of) beliefs, I resort to steering clear of the subject at all costs.

However, there are times when I have to put my foot down and ask them to stop. At the end of the day, I'm a grown-ass woman, and I do not have to be put down for what I believe or don't believe. (And neither should they, for that matter). There have been a small handful of times when the attacks have been out of order and beyond what I am willing to tolerate, and I've had to tell people to stop. If your religious family members are taking it to a level that you do not feel you (or your child) ought to be subjected to, then put your foot down and don't tolerate it anymore. If people are truly being relentless and cruel, you have every right to draw the line and set some boundaries. And you have every right to demand that the boundaries be respected. Trust me, this is also something I don't like to do. Talk about building a wall! But if a wall is needed to protect yourself, then build it.

If you're in a situation where open conversation is encouraged and you don't need to avoid the subject, then you are in an enviable situation. Where appropriate, openly discuss your differences in beliefs. Trying to get them to see things from your perspective might do wonders. A thought experiment I used to practice as a Christian was to put myself in the shoes of someone who believed something completely opposite to my beliefs in order to empathize with them as people who believed just as strongly in their faith as I believed in mine. I had ulterior motives of course; this is how I imagined trying to save the souls of people in other countries where I went on mission trips to. It was a good experiment though; to fully understand how to relate to people with different beliefs, I had to first understand that undervaluing, diminishing or dismissing their beliefs would only drive a wedge between us. If Christians and members of other faiths could first recognize that by dismissing or mischaracterizing atheists, agnostics and skeptics they are driving a wedge further between us, the lines of communication would open up so much wider and our relationships would be much more satisfying and meaningful.

I'll say it again though - it's almost always been my experience that in handling religious family members' feelings and remarks, it's up to us to be the relationship managers. Though we're put at a disadvantage, though we're the ones who have to defend our positions, though the burden of proof is placed on us, though our feelings aren't part of the equation, we are the ones who have to manage the conversations and relationships to keep them on a level we are comfortable and satisfied with. We have to decide when to speak and when to be silent, when to defend and when to ignore, and when and where we draw the lines. We have to decide how much empathy we extend and how much criticism we tolerate, and conversely, we have to decide when enough's enough and what we will not put up with.

I hate the way that previous paragraph sounds. It may come across as egregiously pompous and self-righteous to say that, but it is the truth. (Unless, of course, you are the one putting them on the defensive all the time, telling them that they are wrong and foolish, in which case stop or at least change tactics, because that's exactly what we don't want others doing to us.)

*To my friend specifically*

If your parents are being cruel to your daughter, then put a stop to it. If it comes to it, give them an ultimatum. Let them know that she has a right to her own beliefs and that you both as her parents will defend her autonomy. Furthermore, remind them that you have the right to question things also and they need to respect your autonomy as well. If their concerns come from a place of good intentions, acknowledge that you realize this and that you appreciate their concern but that hounding you or your daughter will only drive a wedge between you and hinder your relationship. If they truly want to see her or you return to their brand of the faith, they need to lay off and simply love you both unconditionally. If what they believe is true in the end, then it would be God, not them, that would convince you of it. The nagging, the condescension, the disapproval, even the well-intended remarks will not do it. They only strain the relationship, and I'm willing to assume that that is not what any of you want. Stay strong, my friend. And tell that daughter of yours I'm always looking for a babysitter.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

This Too Is Gonna Pass

"If you can keep it together, just keep it together, you're fine, 
because one way or another, for better or for worse, this too is gonna pass."
-Quiet Company "On Ex-Husbands & Wives"

I love holidays, all holidays. Despite how commercialized they've all become, they all give me a thrill, and I love celebrating them. All year long - Valentine's Day, Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) - I look forward to participating in whatever traditional, cheesy festivities accompany each upcoming holiday.

This year, however, has been a year full of really hard holidays, for it was the first year of celebrating each holiday without a husband. 

I haven't talked much about my divorce here. For nearly the entirety of this blog's existence, it was Scott-and-Lori. Scott and I started dating only months after I started blogging in 2003, and he's been a main character ever since. Moving it away from was a weird transition, and I haven't really known where to go with it since. (Thus the "in flux" bit.) A lot has happened in our lives this year that didn't feel appropriate to share publicly, and especially not here, where our relationship has been hosted for its entire existence.

But it's been almost a year (in fact, it's been pretty much exactly a year since the break-up started, though it wasn't made public until a few months later) and at some point me and my blog have to move on.

Last year, Scott and I celebrated Christmas and New Year together, but by the end of January, Scott had moved out, and come February I was faced with my first annual holiday without him. 

This was my first Valentine's Day as a single woman in thirteen years. I tried to act grossed out by all the pink and red hearts and balloons and flowers splattered across every shopping center like a murdered cupid, but deep down it was a deeply painful season. Scott, knowing how much I love holidays, especially Valentine's, brought me flowers that afternoon, despite the rawness and ugliness of everything going on at the time. It was a gesture that foreshadowed the sensitivity and graciousness with which we would strive to handle this whole separation and divorce thing in the months (and presumably years) to come. 

We decided around Memorial Day that until further notice, we would just celebrate holidays together as a family, and that's how we've done it since. Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween, and most recently Thanksgiving have all been shared with the kids and with each other. It's been the single most important thing for us that the kids feel secure and safe, and while there's always the risk of the kids harboring hope that we'll get back together, we feel keeping a close co-parenting, family-of-a-different-kind relationship has got to be better for them than separating our entire lives and never crossing paths with each other. We're still a family and always will be one. Just a different kind of family.

But of all the holidays we've survived this year, Christmas is without a doubt going to be the hardest. It's a time of year oozing with memories, mostly wonderful but now bittersweet at best. As has always been the tradition, I put up our Christmas tree yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, and not surprisingly, it produced a lot of emotions.

We don't have a "pretty" Christmas tree. We don't have matching baubles or sprigs of holly or fancy bows. We have a vast array of mismatched ornaments that each carry with them some kind of sentimental value. We have ornaments from our very first Christmas together, multiple "baby's first" ornaments, ornaments that were gifts from various loved ones, Lolly's birthday ornaments (with a birthday a week before Christmas, it became a tradition early on to give out ornaments as party favors every year) and the annual selections for each member of the family that we choose every year based on what the kids (and sometimes the grown-ups) are interested in. There are memories attached to just about every single thing we hang on the tree.

I knew decorating the tree this year was going to be difficult, so I braced myself for an onslaught of emotions when I opened the red plastic Christmas decorations tub. Even still, there was no way to be totally prepared for the intensity of feels that came with handling each ornament and recalling the associated memories. Perhaps the saddest one was the ornament labeled "McFarlanes 2016" - a gingerbread family with all of our names etched on them.

I remember receiving that gift last year (from my mother, I believe) and feeling a rush of regret - no one really knew what we were going through yet, and as I looked at this ornament, I recalled thinking how sad it was that quite possibly by next year we wouldn't be that family anymore. And sure enough, we aren't.

It's hard to explain the feelings that all of this year's holidays have brought, especially this season. How do I adequately explain all the mixed emotions that I've felt, especially when I barely understand them myself? 

It would be natural for one to assume that I wish my marriage hadn't fallen apart, but the truth is I don't feel our decision to end our marriage was wrong. I don't think Scott thinks so either. We don't long to be back together, but there is still this feeling of ... regret? failure? a dream lost? grief? 

We never intended our marriage to end this way. We thought we'd be together forever. We believed in marriage, we believed in everlasting love. To not achieve that goal feels like a massive failure. Furthermore, we have a family that we never intended to split up. Breaking up our family is the biggest failure I can conceive of committing. I look back on everything we did wrong and wonder if we could've done something sooner to salvage the relationship. But the reality is, people change. Neither of us are the same people we were when we said I Do. We did a good job of trying to grow together and change together, but in the end it wasn't enough. Calling it quits when we did meant we could go on as co-parents and friends, but it still feels like we failed. Honestly, it mostly feels like *I* failed. For the truth of the matter is, it was me that messed everything up and brought the marriage to its end. 

Yet for all the regrets and mistakes, I still believe we've made the right choice. I try not to speak for Scott anymore, but I think it's safe to say we're both happier now, even though there's still a lot of sadness too. Divorce causes a slough of emotions, both sad and happy. It would be an incomplete picture to only paint one part of that. So yes, this year has been a hard one for me. But the year has also been a good one. A really good one in many ways, while also being extremely painful in others. Blue skies and gray skies. How do you explain those mixed emotions and mixed experiences coherently? I'm still not sure I understand it myself.

Writing about it has been rather off-limits, even though the limits are mostly self-imposed. It's still raw sometimes, and I haven't felt comfortable publicly sharing things so deeply personal. Yet I love blogging, and while I've written many things for my own eyes only, not blogging about about the things that are most real in my life has felt like cutting off an appendage. So this coming year, while I will still probably keep many things to myself, I've decided it's time to allow myself to blog about my life again. It'll be difficult to sort through what is shareable and what is not, but at some point I've got to be able to move on and write again.

In the meantime, I've got one last holiday season to get through as a first time single woman and mother. With it will come tears and regrets just like with the other holidays, but this particular time of year will be harder than all the rest. What's comforting though is I'm not going through it alone. Scott and I may not be a couple anymore, but we are still a family, and we've committed to continue doing this life thing as friends. With the support of our families and friends, we will do just fine, even when life is at its hardest.