Monthly Archives: August 2012

Should atheists come out of the closet?

Americans don’t like atheists. In 7 states, holding public office is prohibited if you are an atheist. People don’t want their kids marrying atheists. They don’t want them to watch their kids. The Boy Scouts of America hold the position that “an atheist or agnostic is not an appropriate role model.” According to an article published by the Brookings Institute, while “…most Americans say they would not mind if a close family member married someone of a different race, fully 70 percent would object to a wedding with an atheist.”

I happen to be an atheist, so sometimes that shit hurts my feelings. While the connotations of the word “atheist” are varied and generally quite negative, all the word actually means is that I don’t believe in God. That’s it. It doesn’t mean I hate religious people or that I hate America or that I worship Satan. It doesn’t mean that I am not capable of being a decent, productive, ethical person, or that I am incapable of being a good mother or valuable member of society. I am not afraid that a god will punish me, but that doesn’t make me want to start raping and stealing from people.

I was a Cub Scout leader and recently left for several reasons, one of the central ones being their discriminatory practices towards gays and atheists. The pack that I left was full of kind, compassionate people who are in fact taking a stand against the national BSA’s policies on homosexuality. Would they take the same stand on behalf of atheists? Sadly–and I would rejoice if I were wrong–I am inclined to believe that they would not. As much as homosexuals are hated, studies show that atheists are hated more, or at the very least that it is more socially acceptable to hate atheists.

Not that it is a contest. The reason I bring up homosexuality is that I see a parallel between the two. When a gay person comes out of the closet, there can be a variety of reactions. There can be rejection and shock. But there can also be acceptance and tolerance. When people begin to realize that gays are people who they know and love and respect, not just stereotypical, leather-clad constructs of their imaginations, change occurs. Too gradually, yes, but it does occur.

I am open about being an atheist, and I think other atheists should be, too. Of course it isn’t anyone else’s business, but that’s not the point. The point is, our friends and neighbors and family members need to realize that we, the people they (hopefully) love and respect, are capable of all of that we are and do without a belief in god. “Coming out of the closet” like this might be a very scary thing to do in certain communities, but I think it is nevertheless important. In fact, I think this might be one of the best ways to chip away at the mistrust and hatred. And nothing prevents people from continuing to pray over our condemned souls as they brush their teeth before bed.

What do you think? Should atheists come out of the closet? Do you think it would have an impact?

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(I know I look angry here. That’s just how my face looks.)

We don’t look exactly alike, but when I saw this photograph of my grandmother several weeks ago, I was startled by the resemblance. Part of my surprise came from the fact that I’d never seen a photo of her so young. All of the photographs of her at my dad’s house, she’s seemingly forty to fifty years old, no matter the age of her children. She just had one of those faces that seemed to spend so much time in one decade. Now, she’s 95, spending her days reading newspapers in an assisted living facility. She doesn’t remember any of us. When my father tells her how old she is, she puts her hands up to her cheeks and forms an exaggerated “O” with her mouth, a Macaulay Culkin-esque gesture of extreme surprise.

In this photo, Grandma is probably somewhere around 18-20 years old. Years ago, she used to tell me how ugly she was, how ugly her mother told her she was, how her mother used to dress her up and put makeup on her and place her on a chair out on the front porch and hope someone would see her and want to marry her. No one did. My grandmother’s parents were from Sicily, but she had been born in Ohio. My grandfather and his parents were from Sicily, too. That is no coincidence. You see, my grandparents were first cousins. Their mothers were worried about them. My grandfather was a womanizer. My grandmother would be an old maid. The solution? Arranged marriage!

As you might guess, that didn’t turn out so well, though they did remain married until my grandfather died in 1991. My grandfather was an abusive alcoholic. He slept with many other women and did little to conceal it.  My grandmother accepted this, and she grew hard and mean and abusive herself as the years progressed.

Old-school Italians, at least the ones I grew up around, are not kind to their women. Their women stay inside and spend hours kneading dough and allowing it to rise and baking it into bread and serving it with sauce and noodles and pig ears and feet and kielbasa. They stand and sit and stand and sit, retrieving forks and napkins and coffee and ice, and finally eat their meals when they are cold.  The men move to the other room and the children move outside, leaving the aftermath, which the women dutifully clean. The men grunt and smoke and curse and watch t.v. They compare cars and sons. They beat their women if they talk too much.

After my grandfather died, my grandmother had a minor stroke. Her life had been centered around him for over fifty years. A couple of years later, she was visiting his grave and saw a man visiting his wife’s grave. They went to coffee and became girlfriend and boyfriend and eventually moved in together. He is dead now, too, and it is just my grandma again. As she has lost her memory, her edges have softened. She doesn’t remember any of us, but she is happier than I ever remember her being.

My father is Italian-American and my stepmother came from Mexico. Neither of these cultures, in my experience, is kind to their women. Though I was not placed on a porch, I was raised to know my place. I was hit for talking too much. I was told no man would ever love me. And I believed that for a little while. I might have spent a life filled with despair and hardness, like my grandmother did. But I rejected all of that, because I was able to. I had options that my grandmother never had.

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Fight Club

I informed a handful of friends I would be out of town for a few days attending to “unfinished business” at Fight Club. My oldest daughter gave me this unsolicited workshop, ostensibly to encourage a measure of confidence I had instilled in her, but never quite solidified in myself. After I received confirmation of my registration with “Target Focus Training” (Fight Club really is a better moniker, so I have appropriated it), I didn’t read the TFT emails or visit their website. Whatever I need to learn, I vowed to be open to learning when I got to Las Vegas. Knowing what I would be getting into might precipitate fear, so I opted not to look.

I am actually glad I went in blind.

I have long held a custom of learning something new every summer, consciously putting myself into an arena where I have no skill or expertise. I tell myself this is a necessary practice in empathy, so that I am perennially in sync with those students for whom the material I present is a foreign language or culture. To that end, I have, obtained a motorcycle license, backpacked through the Sierras, kickboxed, traveled abroad, and immersed myself in yoga, anatomy, and other practical arts.

Fight Club topped them all.

By the end of a long weekend of absorbing mental and physical defense moves, with a room full of mostly male ex-military and law enforcement students, I allowed a 250 pound man to lift me from behind (my arms pressed to my thighs, feet dangling), throw me down and sit on my hips, holding down my forearms, simulating bludgeoning my face, while attempting rape. I practiced methods of shifting my arms in ways that would challenge his balance just enough to aggressively flip him with my hips, and knee him violently in the groin. He got rougher and I got rougher. I practiced until my body ached in rebellion, but I could execute the moves with confidence.

My teachers called themselves by their first names to remove the barrier of hierarchy. This was one of many strategies to treat us as equals on our paths to self-reliance. As extreme as some of the material undoubtedly was, never once did I find their words or actions demeaning or demoralizing. These men encouraged me to fight back in ways I didn’t know I had inside of me, and they did so with confidence and applause. After our session, the 250 pound man high-fived me and whispered “destroy the fucker,” and I actually smiled.

I hope I never have to use any of these techniques and I don’t know how effective they would be against someone with real intent to harm. But I do know that with every flip of this giant man, I said one more fuck you to my past, and walked one more step of defiance away from identifying as a victim. For that alone, I say thank you to TFT and to my daughter, who recognized that when it comes to empowerment, sometimes words just aren’t enough.

the screamer

Ben and Ryan write a comic book series together. Ben is Art Man, who draws what he needs in a pinch. Elliott is The Screamer, who screams so loud he disables his enemies. It is an inside joke. Sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s not. The boy has screamed more than most other boys I know since he was about 14 months old to his present age, almost 5 and 1/2. It used to be for hours and hours, literally 6 to 8 hours per day, and I would dream of escape to the grocery store, the appropriate hum of the lights, the cereal boxes organized just so, my fellow shoppers avoiding eye contact, the soft “hello” of the checker, everything so civilized and sane.

This boy has come far, and he no longer screams for hours each day. Mostly, the screams are whines now, and he has more words and I can understand him more and more, so less frustration. Still, there are days where he will scream an hour straight, where he will strip his clothes from his body, throw his tiny orange sandals at my face, rip my hair. Sometimes I blame it on the autism. Sometimes I blame my parenting. I am extremely ashamed of this, but sometimes I wonder if he simply doesn’t like me, or if he will one day be a terrible person.

We are not supposed to think these sorts of things. I hate that I sometimes think these sorts of things.

He sometimes screams so much that I just go numb. I can feel the people in the museum or on the street or in the store staring at us–he writhing in my arms, wrenching his body away from mine, eyes filled with tears of rage, me, juggling his unpredictable limbs, attempting to both ignore him and prevent him from injuring himself. He recovers quickly, as if it didn’t happen. He skips away and plays with bubbles, and laughs, too loudly, the tears still in his eyes. I don’t know if I recover. I think each round takes a little something from me. But it doesn’t matter. We move forward.

This morning, he comes into my room and touches my face with that delicate hand of his, with those long, slender fingers. He says, “Good morning, Mommy.” He politely asks me for juice, for Chex, for vitamins. Eye contact is still difficult for him, even with me. It is there, it is improving, but it is fleeting. I ask him for a hug and he kind of touches his forehead to my rib cage. Most hugs are elbows and leans and fidgets. Occasionally, when he is very tired or very sad, I get that melting into your body hug that I crave.

Of course, I am grateful that he even lets me touch him, as he didn’t used to. Of course, I am grateful for all of his strides, for his intelligence, for his humor, for everything that he has given to me. Of course, I know he is not a terrible person. He is just a boy who sometimes struggles just as I sometimes struggle. There is no lesson here. As I have said, we move forward. I hope the screaming stops soon.

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