Category Archives: personal

That’s Why They Call It The Present

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Artwork by Jeffree Lerner

I meet a lot of people in my line of work. The nature of childcare is of course that children have a habit of growing up, and even in my room, which covers nearly the first twelve blistering months of childhood, it seems that as soon as you and the brand-new human get used to each other’s presence, it’s time for them to move on to the next room and the next stage of life. After seven years I’ve learned not to get too attached, because it isn’t about me. These little wobbly-legged individuals likely won’t even remember my face past the one-year-old room, not unless their parents keep that memory alive as they pass by every morning and wave at me through the window. And I’m okay with that. Life isn’t a layover, it’s an odyssey; it’s constant motion, perpetual change, as we shed the parts of ourselves that somehow no longer exist. That’s the definition of growing up, and that’s what I deal with every day as an infant teacher, as my babies take on new challenges and leave behind the things that no longer serve them. I kiss and hug and send them on their way, because that’s what’s expected, that’s normal, and that’s how the whole world works.

Adults, however. . . I’m not so good at saying goodbye to them.

I’ve said goodbye to my fair share of adults, probably as many as I have children. And every time it happens, every damn time, I always catch myself thinking, this time, it’s going to be better. This is the one I’m going to get right.

Of course I’m always wrong, because it never gets easier. In fact it gets more difficult the more I have to endure, as I recognize in myself the patterns of guilt and avoidance that follow each and every one of these partings. Sometimes my reactions are self-inflicted: I can’t be hurt if I’m the one doing the hurting, can I? Part of this I think comes from experience, because like I’ve said, lately, goodbyes have become the default mode of my life. Why try to keep something alive when it’s clear the other party has no desire to uphold their end of the agreement? It’s destructive, and it’s counterproductive, but that doesn’t make it any less real. And every time it happens, I’m always struck by how callous my heart has become in the face of such repeated abuse, and how tender the wounds are still, even years after the fact.

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I’ve kept busy these past three years.

I’ve written a novel I’m proud of, even if it’s not exactly finished. I have entered a level of craft that I never thought could be mine to achieve, and all I did was keep writing, keep reading, keep staring at the tiny letters on laptop and giving myself eyestrain.

I have stubbornly clung to the one thing in my life I know for sure, that I love this, even when I hate it. I love the feeling of \ words in my head as they form themselves on the page, like clay on an armature, over the course of many drafts fashioning themselves into what they were always supposed to be.

I’ve said goodbye to more people than I thought would. It still hurts to think about them, and the rejection their silence signifies.

I’ve learned a thing or two about a thing or two. I feel knowledge–if not yet wisdom–simmering inside of me. I’ve taken up meditation, which the artwork at the top of the page is supposed to remind me to do, and it helps me see every ache and flaw and accept them for what they are.

And I’ve met people. Lots of people. But not enough. One thing’s for certain: it’s time for me to get a handle on this hello thing. Maybe hellos are the only way to counteract this many goodbyes. Maybe the secret to life is to fill it with so much you never miss the stuff that spills out over the top–or leaks out the bottom, corrosively, leaving holes that you struggle to patch.

I’ve spent the past four years trying to patch holes. Maybe, instead of focusing on what I’ve lost, it’s time to focus on what I’ve gained, which is every glorious and terrible moment of a life lived as honestly as I can, bravely, with little regret.

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

–Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

Back in the thick of my deconversion, my husband and I watched Donnie Darko, one of my first rated-R movies and needless to say a truly transformative experience. As I huddled on the couch sobbing for the titular character–as well as for all the children dying of starvation and all the children who have ever died of starvation and of course maybe a little for myself–I tried to reconcile my sense of justice with a world where people do not have their every wish come true. What is the purpose of all this shit if we aren’t rewarded with bliss for all eternity?

My husband, who had already gone through this whole rigmarole–and by himself, for I was no help as he privately lost his faith–calmly assured me that I was being ridiculous. And I know that now, of course, but at the time it was truly a conundrum. Why do we put up with everything we put up with, if all we get are a few moments where things might not suck as much as usual–and that’s only if we’re lucky? It was possibly the biggest thing that held me back from accepting what part of me knew was true, this stubborn adhesion to a sense of Universal Fairness. And it’s still something that bothers me, though I have a lot more perspective now on why that is. At the time it served as veritable proof that there had to be a loving creator up there somewhere, invisibly working his magic on a special, chosen few. Now I know that the universe isn’t unjust, it’s just indifferent. Some questions don’t have answers, and some problems don’t have solutions, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Meaning is something that is ascribed, and human brains are oh-so-good at ascribing it to almost everything we come in contact with. And while that can lead us to believe in some very silly things, it also allows us to live in ways that, well, mean something.

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

–Stanley Kubrick, interviewed by Eric Nordern, Playboy (September 1968); later published in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews (2001)

I don’t mean for this blog to turn into some kind of atheist/humanist/heathen manifesto. Writing is and always be the main focus of whatever I put here, but the fact that I’ve changed since its inception is unavoidable; any summary of the past few years of my life would be incomplete without it. Furthermore, having grown up with a Christian Fundamentalist perspective, this change affects and colors my everything. It’s probably why so many people I love want little to do with me, though most of that comes from having grown up in a high-control religion, with strict rules governing how ex-members should be treated. I knew and prepared myself for this, but then again nothing can prepare yourself for the ongoing loss of the living.

Still, I’m okay. I’m still writing and I’m still growing, and it turns out I have a lot to say. In the words of Shannon Hoon, of the wonderful 90’s band Blind Melon, I know we can’t all stay here forever, so I wanna write my words on the face of today (before they paint it).

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Penn Jillette Took Pictures Up My Nose and Other Life-Defining Moments

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Penn Jillette (left), me (bottom center) and cohorts

About a month ago I got back from a road trip to Las Vegas, more than 60 hours in the car over the course of eight days and one of the greatest experiences of my life. While there, I had the pleasure of seeing Penn & Teller perform at the Rio Hotel and Casino, something I wholeheartedly recommend everyone try at least once. As is their custom, after the show they hung out in the lobby of the theater and took pictures with everyone willing to brave the crowds. As my friends and I waited for our turn, trying to come up with something coherent to say that would do justice to the ninety minutes of talent and hard work we had just witnessed, my husband suggested to me, “Why not tell them Bullshit! saved your life?”

This would not be an exaggeration, not really, not when you put it together with the writings of Richard Dawkins, Steven Hassan, and Christopher Hitchens, the BBC Two specials by Louis Theroux, and the various television shows by mentalist Darren Brown. Not to mention the efforts of my husband, tireless crusader for truth and justice, who never gave up on me even when I spouted crazy cult psychobabble like some kind of animatronic Jesus doll.

Bullshit!, of course, is Penn & Teller’s myth-debunking show on Showtime, which helps people think critically about everything from psychics to recycling. And it was just one blow in a series of well-calculated strokes that slowly chipped away my horribly blockaded mind.

My first reaction to my husband’s suggestion, and admittedly my first reaction to anything, was, “I can’t do that.” That’s what growing up in a high-control religious group does to you. It makes you feel like you have no control. It makes you glad you have no control, thankful someone else has figured it out for you. And that’s how I spent the first 27 years of my life, instantly skeptical of anything that presented me a choice more complicated than which knee-length skirt to pair with which high-cut sweater. Almost a year later, I’m still struggling with that.

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I left this blog for a while because I was frozen in fear of the choice I was presented: examine the greatest paradigm shift of my life by writing about it in something more public than a locked folder on my hard drive, or cower in fear of what might happen if the wrong people chanced upon anything negative I said about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the religious group my parents raised me in. In typical fashion, I pushed it all away, abandoning the blog and my best outlet for self-reflection. Now, I think I’m ready to go ahead with it, and part of this is because of what I ended up saying to Penn Jillette after he took pictures up my nose.

I chickened out with Teller. We had the privilege of getting a picture with him first, and all of us were so tingly with proximity all we could manage were giggles. When we had our picture and scampered away, I said breathlessly, “I touched him. I touched the fringe of his garment and his power flowed out of him and into me.” The perfect balance of blasphemy and truth to send us over to the crowd gathered around Penn, because now I was going to do it. I was going to tell him that Bullshit! saved my life.

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Penn is a huge man, six and a half feet tall. His thumb is no less huge, and it planted itself square on the shutter button and took at least a dozen pictures of us, quite a few of them an inch away from my face. Giggling, jittery and euphoric, I looked Penn as close in the eye as I could and said, “I just want you to know, Bullshit! saved my life.”

There. I did it. Declared myself to one of my heroes. My work here was done.

“Oh, really?” he said. “How is that?”

Shit. Now what? In hindsight, my plan didn’t take into account that he might actually say something back. But this was Penn Jillette. Of course he was going to say something!

“It helped me get out of a cult,” I said, bold as heck now. “All of us. We were all in it.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” he said, with the saddest, most sincere voice I’d ever heard from him. This giant, this expert in deception and truth, was sorry for us!

“No, it’s fine!” I said. “I just wanted to say thank you!”

And we tore out of there as fast as we could, scrolling through the pictures he took, our laughter echoing back up the hallway. Did that really just happen?

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I guess it did. The more people I tell, the less ashamed I am. Not that I’m ashamed of learning how to think, how to examine my beliefs and hold them up to the same rigorous standards I expected of the people I used to try to convert as a proselytizing Christian minister, or even of being identified as an atheist. I guess I’ve been ashamed of what the people I used to be close to would say about me if they really knew the extent of my unbelief. Because, if they did, they would call me the worst kind of person, the kind who abandons god and all his “promises” in exchange for a life of arrogant hedonism. They’ll say I’ve become “mentally diseased,” and even though I know it’s a lie, I guess I thought that by keeping my mouth shut, I could preserve whatever memory of me they may have.

But now I realize that’s out of my control. What’s worse, it’s playing by their rules. I’ve played by those rules my entire life, and to tell you the truth, I’m sick of them. I have no loyalty to a religious organization, but by keeping silent about the truths I’ve learned and the harm it’s done to innocent people, I’m still in the game. I don’t want to live in fear anymore. I want to be proud of who I am and the progress I’ve made, and I want to help people who are in the same position I was only a year ago. I can’t do that by pretending I don’t have an opinion. So, if I have to use scary words like cult to convey the gravity of the situation, I will. In my experience, that word gets the point across just fine.

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So I suppose it’s time I made a confession. I was raised in a cult, but I’m doing better now. I’m tempted to say that I’m an atheist, goddammit, but I think I’ll just say I’m an atheist, life is beautiful, and leave it at that.

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“Doubt Truth to Be a Liar”

I’ve been in a funk lately. Here’s why.

Psychologists use the term “schema” to describe the result of collecting information, analyzing it, and creating a view of the world based on that analysis. A kind of rule book of how things are. These schemata play a part in every decision made, every judgment cast, and every new piece of information we take in for the rest of our lives. It’s a term closely tied to child development–in fact, it was introduced by Jean Piaget, the king of child development himself.

My job as a teacher requires me to observe children under two, record their actions, and ultimate try to guide them by manipulating the information they take in. I give them a bucket of water, they explore the physical properties, I supply the language necessary to categorize them, and then teach them how to clean up. They hit another child and steal his toy, I show them the child’s tears and explain that their actions resulted in someone else’s pain. Everything is a brave new world when you’re brand new to it. Schemata form by the moment. They’re dependent on the environment encountered and the child’s interaction with it. Childhood is, in effect, a 20-year-long experiment in brain development.

Here’s the thing about schemata. They can be very difficult to shake. Another term psychologists like to throw around is “cognitive dissonance.” This occurs when new information presents itself in contradiction to established schemata. The resulting dissonance can be so unpleasant that the individual will go to great lengths to reduce it while maintaining the fundamentals of the established schema, resulting in massively flawed rationalizations. That’s why certain worldviews, like racism, are so hard to dislodge from someone’s psyche.

Last week I endured a viewing of the excellent but brutal Twelve Years a Slave. From our modern, enlightened viewpoint, the white slaveholders in this movie are incomprehensible. Can they not see that their actions have no true basis, are damaging, are fundamentally wrong? We can see it, why can’t they? Our schemata are different. The majority of people in this society are not raised to view entire segments of humans as inferior based on skin color. Though discrimination of course still exists, in both racism and class discrimination, modern enlightened people are not taught that slavery is a god-given right to a select group to subjugate another. So we watch characters behave in intolerable ways and wonder, “How can they be so cruel?” It’s obvious to us.

Benedict Cumberbatch & Chiwetel Ejiofor in Twelve Years a Slave

The most interesting character, in my view, is William Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Ford is the slave owner who buys main character Solomon Northrup right off the boat, putting him to work on his plantation in Louisiana. Ford quickly discerns the intellectual and artistic capabilities of Northrup and displays a certain amount of kindness toward both his physical and emotional well being, defending him against less compassionate overseers. However, when the time comes for him to make a choice that brings his entire worldview into question, he ultimately fails, and with apparent great inner turmoil. Rather than siding with an individual who had already proven his worth, he chooses to uphold society’s proscribed roles for both of them. You can see the conflict in Cumberbatch’s exquisite acting and in the details of the set dressing, as Ford guards his beloved slave with a shotgun and explains how he has no choice but to sell him to a cruel new master, Northrup’s bloodied head rests on a delicate lace pillow. Ford is so close to doing what he most likely knows in his heart is right, but societal pressures prevent him from overturning his deeply-entrenched schemata. In the end, Northrup is sold, and Ford no longer has to defend his actions to anyone.

All this is by way of illustration. My funk has nothing to do with racism, but it’s an apt analogy, because good people have fallen victim to such lies. Contrary to what people like to think, there were even good Nazis (I keep meaning to watch Schindler’s List). Good people can be taken by lies. They can believe them with every part of their being, and they will die for them. And that’s what scares me, because the people who get taken are much more normal and intelligent than you might think.

Needless to say I am going through a change. It’s been long in coming. Almost my entire life has been dedicated to a single purpose, and over the past seven years or so, in reflection I recognize myself trying to make sense of it. It’s not until your mid-twenties, after all, that your prefrontal cortex fully develops. This is the part of your brain responsible for “executive functions,” which, according to Wikipedia:

differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes).

Last week I turned 27. Instead of joining the 27 Club, I’m instead learning to think for myself. My schemata have proved to be based on logical fallacies and, in many cases, wishful thinking. It’s all good and well to teach children to obey their parents, but to obey unquestioningly? That’s insulting the intelligence of the child. A child can easily learn why it’s best not to play with fire by playing with it and getting burned. Parents try to avoid that by teaching children to keep their hands off. One method, involving instilling unquestioning obedience, usually results in children testing their parents’ command and playing with fire anyway. Others are more successful. Teaching children how to reason on matters, explaining the facts to them, and helping them form conclusions is more beneficial to the child. After all, the unquestioning child, instead of rebelling against the parent’s wishes, may grow up to fear fire, never learning to discriminate between safe and unsafe use and therefore miss out on the benefits it has to offer.

I am reaching the point in my life where I’m putting what I was taught to the test and discovering where it does not hold up. It is a long and exhausting process, full of disappointment. At times I feel betrayed, but mostly I feel free. Not necessarily free to do whatever I want, like the child who breaks away from mother in a toy store and runs wild, but free to not to be afraid of things that have terrified me my entire life. People are not bad; I do not have to be afraid of them. I can form friendships using good judgment that will benefit us both, unconditionally. I no longer have to turn people away because they don’t subscribe to a particular belief system. I’m free to form connections, share information, and experience love in a way I never could before. 

A little more about that information. It’s the free exchange of information that got me out of this funk. I am grateful to so many people who directly and indirectly were able to remove the scales from my eyes and help me to see reason. If you want more specific information, I encourage you to look at Steven Hassan’s BITE model of mind control. The organization I grew up in hits on all four categories in profound ways.

My goal here is not to write a diatribe against my former belief system. There were many positives to growing up as I did. Other people are working actively to expose the fallacies and are doing much better than I ever could. It is not in me to dwell on so much negativity, although I must admit my first reaction to finding out the truth was anger.

Besides, if I get too deep into the specifics of what’s happening to me, people who read this blog and who currently hold my previous beliefs can get me and my loved ones into serious trouble. I don’t want to cause trouble for my loved ones. I don’t want to force upon them an impossible choice, namely, choosing between me and their beliefs. For my part, I want us all to get along. I want us all to be able to form our own beliefs without fear of reprisal, criticism, or ostracism. If the wrong people gather enough evidence of my “change of heart,” I will be ostracized from the social group I have been in my entire life, and my own family with be restricted from associating with me. I do not want to do that to them, but at the same time, even though they are as much taken by the destructive beliefs as I was, the choice will ultimately be theirs. Believe what others tell them is true, or endeavor to decide that for themselves. And accept the consequences of their actions, just as I have to accept the consequences of mine.

I’ve probably said too much. I have tried to hold back, but my love of truth prevents me.

One final thought about the title of this post. In Shakespeare’s day, “doubt” had the alternative meaning of “suspect.” The line can thus be interpreted to mean “suspect truth to possibly be untrue.” Do not just take someone’s word for it, or the word of a group of people, even every person you know. They can be wrong. Prove it to yourself. Keep testing, keep proving what it is you believe, and never stop.

Alternatively, read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. He possibly says it better than me.

2+2≠5

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