Counting on my Fingers

IMG_0352I count the months off on my fingers, like a small child waiting for a birthday. It’s not that I can’t mentally figure the time from early February to sometime in May. I can. There is something in feeling the months, each with a finger to itself, and as each month goes by, needing one less finger to make the count. It’s closer, I tell myself, as I click off only three.

In three months, spring will have fully arrived. In three months, seeds in the garden will be thinking of sprouting, the ones bringing hardy greens at least. In three months, the crocuses, the tulips, and the daffodils will have come and gone, or at least mostly gone. In three months, there will be dirt to turn over, weeds to pull, and grass to mow. In three months, I’ll be the parent of a seventeen year old, a high school senior. And in three months, plus a few weeks, I’ll be sharing this home with my partner.

It will be here before I blink. That’s how time goes now, in blinks and changes. Children grow up when you look away for a moment. Trees you planted just last spring, or so it seems, have leaves above the second-story bedroom window. But even at this age, when waiting for something so anticipated, so desired, the blink-and-change trick doesn’t seem to work so well. I’m reduced to counting on my fingers, waiting for the morning when I wake up with my beloved beside me, knowing that we have not just the day, or, more often, just a hours to drink up every detail each other’s faces, exchange a week’s worth of minutiae, and express a love so large it brings me to tears.

I’m irritated at my impatience and embarrassed by my inability to wait with equanimity. I’m anxious, even, that I’m missing part of the present, these last three months with just my children. They’re certainly not counting with the same impatience as I, or possibly counting with some concern about change or maybe (most likely) not counting at all. As much as they like him, watching a parent remarry results in mixed emotions, something I know from experience. I’ve no doubt their count and associated emotions are far different from mine.

And then it comes to me. I feel guilt at my impatience. These boys are settled with this change that comes in three fingers, but I know we have hard work and likely some challenging times ahead of us. It’s inevitable, the struggles that happen when families change size and shape. My memories of my father’s remarriage when I was seventeen are ones of profoundly extreme emotions. I was delighted to see him happy and partnered, a condition that suits him, and yet his dating and newfound love were awkward for me to watch, the way it is for all teens seeing their parents fall in love when they themselves are dabbling in the same strong emotion. It was also disorienting, the changes in the years before and after his second marriage. It was exhausting, moving from mom, dad, and me; to dad and me; to dad, stepmom, step-sister and me in just a span of two years, all while trying to figure out myself my world of teen relationships. It produced a slew of emotions that left me wrung out and desperate for stability. And, at the same time, his remarriage offered some of that stability, that sense of family, the happy kind.

It wasn’t that easy, of course, and we all blundered at points. I’d been, to some extent, impatient back then, wanting to be part of that new family because it seemed so normal and whole, wanting to belong to something before I left for college, needing to find my place in new family before I was only a summer and Christmas visitor in a house that wasn’t mine. It wasn’t, I found, that easy. Family doesn’t occur instantly, even when all involved want to be a family. Love doesn’t conquer all, it seems, and that year, the last one I spent at home, was hard in ways different from the ways the preceding two had been hard. When I look back, I recall very few bad moments but far more loneliness and loss than I’d known at any point earlier. Forming family isn’t easy.

And yet I’m so impatient now. It’s selfish, that impatience to share, in the same day, a morning coffee and an evening meal with my partner, with the time between dinner and the next coffee beginning with good night and not goodbye. I’m uncomfortable with that selfishness, especially knowing that no matter our intentions and efforts, this will be hard for my children, this change that they both say is fine and desirable, and, if they are like I was at seventeen, this change they also don’t entirely want and find somewhat disturbing. Wanting it, at least in my experience, feels like betrayal of the family you had before the new family. It betrays the vows made the first time, the ones that brought you into being, the ones that crumbled not because of you but while you watched. It betrays what you find after that, the profound intimacy between a solo parent and his or her children, an intimacy borne out of enduring pain of loss and some shift in relationships that shouldn’t likely occur but do. No matter how tightly boundaries are held, children become confidants and companions and take somewhat different roles when the parent number drops from two to one.

So remarriage shifts the roles again. A good deal of this shift is a relief, as part of being a child of a parent who’s experienced loss is seeing parental pain and having no power to fix it. Enter the new spouse, someone who, you learn later, can’t fix hurt either but can relieve some of your burden of noticing parental pain and feeling helpless. It’s no one’s fault, this pain borne to kids after divorce or death. It’s just part of the package, the helpless responsibility tinged with points of worry. I’ve parented this way, solo with short breaks each week, for nearly six years, and we have some sort of rhythm, the three of us. We have countless inside phrases and jokes along with ways of being, three to the house, one adult and two boys. And my children, especially my older, likely know this helplessness and sense of responsibility. They are, I imagine, of mixed minds about what happens in May.

Yes, it’s some guilt I feel as this deeply desired change approaches. I’ve this sense of betraying them and somehow negating what we’ve built these past six years while knowing neither are true. It’s more than countered by the joy of entering partnership with the man I love, a man who loves me fully and deeply while appreciating my children for who they are and respecting that our enthusiasm may not be mirrored by them. But it’s there, paired with my remembering of my own experience with my dad’s remarriage and the emotional challenges that surprised me in the year that followed.

Perhaps that’s where the tears come from, the tears that sometimes fall after our goodbyes as a weekend visit ends. (Distance compounded by snow prohibit more than weekend visits this winter.) They’re not perhaps as much about the missing (although, oh, I do so miss him through the week) as from the guilt over my impatience that the missing end sooner than it will.

But still I count on my fingers. Three months plus a bit. There are walls to paint, furniture to move, a kitchen to rearrange, and a new being to welcome. And there is so much more. I’m confident my partner and I are approaching this new road with sufficient love, friendship, and compassion to weather what will come our way. I’m certain we’ll blunder as we adjust to shared space and shifting roles. I’m hoping we find a sense of family, the four of us together, and a feeling that change can be good even when it is hard.

So I count on my fingers again.

One. Two. Three. Go.

Fragmented

Mom. Homeschooling parent. Physician Assistant. Teacher. Friend. Companion. Housecleaner. Ombudsman. Taxi driver. Cook. Handy(wo)man. Obtainer of All Things Needed. Finder of What is Misplaced, Gardener. Problem solver.

I feel fragmented.

Perhaps it’s the change in weather. The days are shorter. Many are cold and wet. It’s dark when I used to take my walks, the walks that assured me time to regroup and recoup.

Perhaps it’s the season. Holidays loom large. I’m starting to flounder with these days needing preparation: shopping, cooking, decorations, plans. Thanksgiving, just a month away, and this year the kind of Thanksgiving that doesn’t include my boys, a reminder that divorce splits families for good. They are, after all, what I’m most thankful for. And Christmas. With my Christianity gone, I’m struggling with the celebration we continue to do, which I say is for the boys but is really for all of us, ritual we need and want while wondering what means what.

Perhaps it’s struggles of my younger. He’s having a hard time, what with oncoming puberty stacked atop his Aspergers and plenty of anxiety on the side. I’ve been pulled in closer as support and stability, jobs a mom expects, yet to a level not anticipated at this age. And to see a child in such a state of hurt… It pulls me in and under, leaving me gasping for breath and wondering where that oxygen mask is. I can’t put it on if I can’t find it.

Perhaps it’s time, cut in too many tiny pieces to do anything but play Scrabble online, check Facebook, read the shortest articles in the New York Times (days after it comes), answer another question about another math problem, watch my younger closely –again or still — for signs of stress, check my email, and make lists of things that will never get done.

I like my jobs, both paid and unpaid. I feel generally competent at them, and I enjoy the interaction with my children, other people’s children, and the adults whom make up my friends and co-workers. I feel respected professionally, cared for by friends, and often appreciated by my children.  I’m less enamored with the tasks that keep us in food, clothing, and a relatively clean house, of course. But each task is entirely manageable. Together, they seem impossible. 

It’s not just the tasks at hand. It’s all the ones that need attention but aren’t getting it, little and big. The call to the university my older son likes, the one to schedule a day-long visit complete with classes. The presentation for church that will happen in just over two weeks whether it’s written or not. The writing that just isn’t happening because I’m never sure when I’ll be interrupted or because I can’t maintain concentration for more than a few minutes. The books on my nightstand that go unread because I can’t pay attention to them, either. The book that I’m trying to assemble, the one that requires a few hours — or even just an hour — each day of undivided attention I just don’t seem to be able to find.

I’m in pieces. I’m not depressed or anxious or otherwise suffering from existential despair. I’m just in pieces. And most of the pieces are good in themselves. While it’s a hard job, homeschooling my sons is a choice I’m glad to have made, to have continued to make, year after year. I enjoy (most parts) of my relationships with them, and while the stakes seem astronomically high when homeschooling an eleventh grader on the cusp of full-time college, it’s overall a good ride to share.

My professional endeavors — medicine and teaching/editing — feed me deeply. Some of that food is straight ego-stroking — the patient who tells me I am the one who truly listens to her or the young student who stops me mid-class to thank me for teaching him to write, noting he really likes our time together. But some of the professional satisfaction is the challenges of the work itself. Both require close attention to the person I’m with at the time. Both require dropping my own agenda at points, attuning to the patient or student and letting the rest drop away.

The personal encounters — those with my friends and fiancé — feed and sustain me when I’m struggling the most. But even these meetings seem smashed between What Comes Next — classes, cleaning, cooking, calming, driving duty, bills, calls, and chaos management. Too often, they are the punctuation marks more than the paragraphs in my daily essay. This fragmentation (repaired somewhat come next spring, when my dearest companion becomes my spouse) is perhaps the most painful. I love my children, and I enjoy and appreciate their company. But a homeschooling mom in her forties who also teaches the children of others starts to get a bit twitchy when days go by without substantive contact with those over the age of 30. I want conversation about things other than Minecraft, computers, comma placement, and tropical fish. (The last is interesting for a while, until the lists of fish are repeated.)  I love my children, and my older is learning to be a somewhat empathetic listener who actually asks how I am and listens for the answer. But still…

So tonight I’m writing, (almost) alone in my home, enjoying the peace sustained attention brings. The presentation/sermon is nearly done, needing only an hour or so of polishing and (likely) shortening. This cathartic piece, almost complete, reminds me of the threads upon which the beads of my life rest connect what can seem broken and unbound.  When I can connect those pieces and roles, seeing them as cohesive wholes and not tiny pieces of me, I’m more settled and more likely to find the time to finish the book, edit the essays, or even veg in front of a show (scandalous!). This sense of quiet and wholeness may not last even another half-hour, but for now, it is here. So I sit with it, feel the connections, and just breathe.

What I’m Thinking

IMG_0600“What are you thinking?” you asked, breaking our silence.

My mind had wandered during the previous minutes of mental solitude. Close enough to feel each other’s breath, eye to eye, my mind had time traveled forward and backward through time.

We are not children nor even young adults. We’re in the middle of life, or, more likely, a bit past the middle.  Still, we let out only occasional groans and grimaces when sitting too oddly for too long. Our hair still has more color than grey, although the ratio is moving in only one direction. Our faces are gently lined,  more from smiling than from tears, although we’ve both been washed in sorrow and concerns enough to know deep sadness.

“I was thinking about growing old with you,” I replied.

My right eye caught your right eye, holding contact briefly before I returned my gaze to a picture of my sons from either ten years or a lifetime ago. Given the changes from then to now, it could be either. Ten years back I was married to my children’s father, sure I’d grow old with him. My older son went to school each day, and I was certain his brother would do the same, so I’d return to work part-time like people do. I was Catholic, or at least still Christian, praying for peace, for my children, for my world, and somewhat certain that someone was listening.

Aside from those two boys and this house, very little seems the same. The boys’ father is a million miles away, or six block, depending on your math.  I’m at home, working two tiny part-time jobs, educating my children, and trying to build a writer’s life. My supplications are cries to a universe that isn’t going hear or answer, but I can’t stop making them when the going gets tough.

And then there is you.

I’m thinking about growing old with you. I am hoping to know you when our hair turns white and our faces are etched with decades more love and laughter and, because this is life, sorrow. My father says all marriages end. Whether by divorce or death, they end. He’s not generally the gloomy type, but the Eeyore-esque comment reminds me of the impermanence of our day-to-day lives as well as our very existence as well. Marriage ends. Life ends. And still, I think about growing old with you.

The boys. My eye shifts to their picture. Young boys don’t grow grey and wrinkly in ten years. Instead they grow adult teeth, larger and smellier bodies, fears and anxieties, and more ingrained ways of being in the world. These boys endured the pains of parents arguing, a mother crying, a father leaving, and a new family quickly reforming. I’ve been their rock through these changes, albeit a rock that sometimes yells and weeps and makes countless mistakes in the most important job she could ever hold. Growing old with you, even a year older, is not a journey we’ll make without passengers. They’re willing passengers, but this is not the journey they’d have chosen. But that’s the lot of children, to be passengers on their parent’s journeys.

My boys. The loves of my life. At my lowest times, the reasons I get out of bed in the morning. Most days, the source of my smiles and laughter. They are also often the nidus of my worry, these boys who’ve suffered through the mistakes of their parents. I want to grow old with you, and I want my boys to be okay along the way. Supplication to the universe brings the usual deafening silence followed by a whisper from my depths that they are stronger than I know, that loving you does not betray them.

And you. You’ve had your own seasons of darkness and pain, and you’ve had your own loss. It’s etched into you (as  greatest loves and losses are for all of us), evident only sometimes, but indelibly stamped on your being. My loss is etched on me, too, but it’s less pure, my fading scar of sadness mixed with anger and tinged with resentment. Yours seems all sadness, all love. And that’s sometimes my undoing. It is never far from my mind that I’d not know your love but for those losses, yours and mine. I ascribe no purpose to either of our losses nor divine plan for our uniting. It’s how life moves, I suppose. We live, we love, we suffer, we lose, and when we can bear the thought of repeating the cycle, we start again, accumulating what wisdom we can from what we’ve loved and lost.

You. Me. My boys.  I dare to think about growing old with you. I let my heart wander decades down the road, wondering at the gift of your presence over time while sitting with the truth that all unions end because our lives are finite, and that endings can be messy. I don’t know the path from here to there. I don’t know how our two passengers will fare as we walk together. What I don’t know astounds me.

So I meet your eye again. I don’t find answers, but I do find courage, compassion, and love. I find commitment and honesty. I find pain and sorrow, joy and hope. I find the willingness to forgive and humility to admit mistakes. I find wisdom and trust. I find room for my two fellow passengers. I find a partner with whom to share this journey.

That’s what I’m thinking.

Beach Grass and the Shifting Sands

2013-09-14 13.56.42The beach grass set me thinking. My dear friend and companion waded into Lake Michigan, an expanse of water with no visible opposite shore, which allows the watcher to lose oneself in the watching. Waves lapping his ankles, he watched the water. It was a moment too private to join, and my own thoughts needed a privacy of their own, so I investigated the flip side of the shoreline, where sand meets flora.

Beach grass, specifically Ammophilia breviligulta, covers the shifting, unsettled sands of the shores of the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a deceptively sturdy grass that prefers the physical stresses of wind and water to the peace it would find just a bit further inland. I’d grown up seeing the grass but giving it little thought. On public beaches it’s often behind a rope of fence, accompanied by a sign telling visitors to stay off, since the grass slows the erosion of the sand, and thousands of feet trampling it would quickly undo this valiant dune preservation act. Because of the signs, or because for the last sixteen years, my beach-going has been filled with carrying young children and their belongings and keeping my eyes water-ward, counting heads and wondering if more sunscreen needed to be applied. It’s not been the type of beach-going that allowed for botanical study or metaphorical musings.

This trip allowed for both. Intermittent conversation on our walk down the shoreline permitted plenty of time for the privacy of thought, and his look out encouraged my look in. The grass struck me as absurd. Sure, grass reduces erosion. Roots hold soil into place, thus preserving the substrate and the plant itself. It’s mutualism of a sort, with both benefiting each other. But this grass, so scattered, seemed woefully insufficient for the job of holding tons of sand in place. Sure, it’s a sturdy blade, but it’s hardly a densely packed plant, like the grass of a prairie. How could this work?

Closer inspection revealed a web of roots just below the surface of the plants on flat ground and above ground in the wind-worn spots. Thick and tangled and deeply fixed, these roots told a story of strength and permanence that the blades had not revealed. I pushed at pockets of sand around the roots, watching the sand flow a bit then stop when contained by a knot of roots. Again and again I pushed and watched. Burying my hands into the sand, I felt the depth of these roots, holding blades to land and sand to shore with a silent and hidden ferocity.2013-09-14 13.58.29

Breviligulata can tolerate being buried under three feet of sand with no ill effects. Instead of killing the plant, burial encourages the rhizomes (runners, by which the plant propagates itself) to reach upward. Being buried alive make the plant stronger and increases growth. And those delicate appearing blades? They are well-adapted to the wind and drying conditions of dune life, managing to stay sturdy in conditions where other plants would perish. Strength under stress above and below ground. More than strength. Growth.

Watching the sand run and stop in the tangle of roots, feeling the strength of the  blades and roots between my fingers, I thought about my kids. While parents are hopefully always their kids’ strength and stability source, that job comes to center during upheaval and trauma. When life runs evenly, this is a largely unconscious job, since the mere presence of a relatively sane and kind figure in the normal breezes of life is enough to center most children. But when the winds pick up and blow the sand beneath their feet, the work of steadying a child becomes a full-time preoccupation. During the too-many years of the disintegration of my marriage and changes on their other home front, the sands shifted, and my children needed overt stabilization from me.

I realized I was their beach grass. I did it overtly, keeping existing routines in place and creating new ones for our changed family. I did it silently, sleeping next to children weary of change. And like the beach grass, when I, too, was covered in sand and sorrow, three feet under, I survived, and so did they. The ground held, or most of it did. And I, like the beach grass, grew stronger, reaching vertically from the roots that held the ground in place.

I don’t know how the beach grass feels about it, but being a constant source of stability is straining. I mean, I manage the sane and kind part fairly well, but since those hardest years, I find myself on guard for storms and wondering when I can let some sand shift under their growing feet. Sure, some shifts on its own. Friends move away. Scores on tests aren’t as hoped. Big brothers grow into grown-up interests, and little brothers approach the hormonal storms of puberty. Through it all, I’ve tried to remain steady, keeping routines in place and bringing a deep stability to our family system.

But a mom can shift the sands, too, working more, encouraging independence, and even finding love beyond her offspring. I’ve introduced change with hesitant steps, often fearing the reactions of kids who do not like one grain of sand to move. So while watching the grass sway and the sand stay still, I contemplated the changes ahead and the sands that would most likely skid out of place as a result.

2013-09-14 13.56.33Feeling the catch in my throat telling me tears were coming, I returned my eyes to the water. My dear companion reached down to the water and watched it run through his fingers before returning to the shore. The catch relaxed, and I felt the stabilizing presence he offers to me, his roots meeting my roots as we move forward together. We’ve both been buried, and we’ve both come out stronger. My boys, too, have begun to grow their own deep roots and can more often stabilize themselves. So the winds will blow. I’m betting we’ve enough beach grass among us to hold our ground in place.

Intensely Passionate and Passionately Intense

112Yesterday, tears sprang to my eyes when I caught my younger son’s profile. He’s days from being twelve, and it’s a rare day that I don’t wipe a tear while glancing at the curve of his still-childlike cheeks or while sneaking an illicit sniff of his not-yet-teen neck. It’s intoxicating, his last months or (oh, please!) years of childhood. I savor each snuggle as if it is possibly the last for at least a while. (Because as the mom of a 16-year-old, I know that one will be the last, or at least the last before they become as rare as an uninterrupted phone call.)

Yesterday’s tears were the norm for me. No, I’m not depressed. The existential angst that hovered so close in the winter blew away by April. Now washed in the warmth of summer, I tend to see the world in less dark, foreboding terms, and hope becomes a closer companion. But still, the tears spring forth at their own whim. It’s not depression. Sometimes it is sadness, sometimes joy, sometimes just the rush of emotion that comes with change. It’s a bit unpredictable and sometimes unnerving. And it is wholly me.

When describing me to one of his friends, my dear friend referred to me as intense. Whether the raised eyebrow was seen or simply heard through the silence on the phone, I don’t recall, but he has since switched to the adjective ‘passionate,’ which seems to be taken by others as ‘intense, but in a good way.’ My mother’s word for it was ‘dramatic,’ although I imagine many parents of girls say that at some point or another. And while it wasn’t the word used in my youth about me, I’d add ‘sensitive’ to the list.  I just can’t recall a time where I didn’t feel like every nerve was exposed.

Intense. Passionate. Sensitive. The interior life behind what can sometimes be a jarring outer appearance is simply what I’ve had from the start. Having children brought it up a notch. Transitioning to parenting and homeschooling solo amped it up a bit more. (I am chronically overwhelmed by the amazing responsibility of shepherding my young.) Being in the forty-somethings kicked it all a bit higher.

But the baseline was high. As a child, I found my emotions and imagination often overcoming me. Send to my room for a relatively minor offense (Okay, talking back. My mouth has always been my nemesis.), I’d work myself to frantic tears, sure I was unloved and unwanted and terribly misunderstood, despite no objective evidence to back that up. Dramatic? Perhaps on the outside. But the interior experience was excruciatingly painful.

By my teens, my intensity centered around debate with others outside of my home. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to add that this habit of defending my position with vigor and passion was not always well appreciated by others. And honestly, I didn’t do it well. It likely cost me some friendships while cooling some others.

Come graduate school, I found I could sink some of that energy into my studies. Since then, academics and facts have proved refuge when the emotional temperature rises too high. I don’t mean I escape the tears that threaten to fall when queen anne’s lace waves in a field, taking me back to summer camp by looking up statistics on the spread of this year’s flu epidemic. I mean, that wouldn’t help. But in general, having an object of intense intellectual pursuit — writing, teaching, medicine, whatever — somehow brings me some overarching peace. I know that when I’m floundering — when I’m not focused on something larger — I find far more tears and emotional wanderings at the small stuff.

115So I anchor my passion in passion, find a bit of respite from my intensity in intensely pursing something else. Ironic? Perhaps. Escapism? No. Even fully focused, or at least as fully focused homeschooling mom working a few jobs and flying solo can be, my emotions spring up without bidding and often when inconvenient. But there is some tempering effect to being strongly mentally engaged.

I’ve also become better at weathering the emotions and intensity. As a child and even into adulthood, those tugs at the heart could be all-consuming, and trying to fight them only made them stronger. Only in the past handful of years have I learned to accept these intensities as legitimate and even positive parts of me. On the emotional end, that means letting the feeling come and fully acknowledging it. I name it. Fear. Love. Sadness. Joy. Hope. Hope dashed. Whatever it is, naming it starts me down a better road, for fighting the feelings (and tears) rarely helps and often makes me feel powerless and weak.

After naming it, I do best when I just let it flow. It generally passes on its own in short time when unimpeded by my clumsy attempts to stop a waterfall of emotion with my bare hands. I try not to judge it. Tearing up at a tender moment on The West Wing? Let it go. My son’s unlikely to notice, and if he does, he’s likely to just remember that mom does that sometimes. Angst building after an encounter with my ex? Naming the anger starts me down a better path than trying to pretend all is well. My desire to lash out with my too-sharp tongue wanes quickly when I can just remind myself that anger in itself never killed the one who was angry.

It’s helped to be walking closely with a dear friend with a deep emotional life and a naturally calm exterior. While the strength and height of my reactions may surprise him at times, he knows what it is to feel deeply and accepts my innate intensity, tears and all. I’m not sure the tenderness between us lightens my emotional load, however. My sensitivity and intensity have gained another nidus of focus. One more person to love adds a thousand more opportunities for unbidden tears of love, joy, wonder, sadness, and general intensity. It seems worth that price.

Given over forty years of intensity and passion rest behind me, I’m sure that whatever years remain will be paved with the same. I’d not change it if I could, despite the fatigue that level of intensity can bring, for it is in the intense passion of living and loving that I find my raison d’être. While I have my moments of less-than-graceful responses to the movements of my heart and mind, overall, I’m learning to live with my intensity, to form friendship with it even. It is a good part of what makes me feel intensely alive and reminds me of how deeply I can love. So I’m intensely passionate. Or passionately intense. And that’s okay.

Conflict Acceptance

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Oh, to land this gently during conflict, without sending petals dropping to the ground but yet having spoken my heart.

I’m a bit conflict-avoidant. Not avoidant of what I perceive as low-risk conflict. I rather enjoy debates about a host of issues and semantic questions. That’s mental stimulation that keeps me thinking and searching for more information while honing my argumentative skills. Not the hostile kind of argument. The persuasive sort requiring a blend of quick wit, precise vocabulary, and the ability to reason. Ethos, logos, and pathos. Those are the conflicts that feed by brain, hone my debate skills, and stir my blood.

I don’t like the kind of conflict that makes me sweat, my heart race, and my stomach to flip. I doubt many people do, although I understand that some people like adrenaline rushes, like the kind that come from bungee jumping or climbing to the top of the monkey bars. Those rushes just make me feel sick. It’s not just the physiological effects of conflict bother me. It scares me and just doesn’t fit well with my general tendency to want people not to hate me or just not to talk about me with nasty words behind my back. Cowardly? Maybe.

But conflict happens. Sometimes it’s heat-of-the-moment conflict, the kind more likely to occur with the ones you love the most. In the perceived safety of family, it’s easy to behave badly. I know. I’ve done it. Today. And earlier this week. Other times, it’s conflict with a bit more distance, the kind that occurs over the meeting table at work or church or in an online discussion with friends or acquaintances.  It’s reasonable and even preferable to avoid the low-stakes squabbles that can open rifts in these communities or our own homes. But sometimes, introducing conflict — or even potential conflict — is necessary for growth, change, and even deeper love.

In my over forty years on this journey of life, I’ve been in conflict with more people than I care to count. Too many times, the conflict was a waste of emotion and time while being damaging to the relationship and to myself. Too often I’ve sacrificed my principles in the heat of a conflict-turned-argument (and not the fun kind). In no particular order, I’ve misassigned blame, name-called, brought up old wrongs,  argued from misunderstanding another, and committed a thousand other disagreement sins. Oh, I can go on and on and on… And every time — every single time — the process shreds me. The adrenaline that carried me through my diatribe leaves me sick and sad, shameful of my loss of control and ready to slink under a rock.

I do get it right sometimes. Most of the time, I can raise my concerns in a peaceful, productive way. I tend to forget about these non-events where I say what I need to say in a way that respects the other’s dignity and worth since they don’t leave me either giddy with success nor depleted and sick of my own voice. But they happen. And that’s where I’m stuck. Why does it work so well sometimes, my ability to enter conflict — or perceived conflict? Why other times does it utterly fail?

A recent explosion at someone I love set me thinking about this. Or more precisely, our conversation after my return to sanity set me thinking. It’s far to easy for me to ignore the build up to serious conflict. While I’m generally fairly emotionally attuned to others, I’m not always so attuned with my own heart. Conflict bothers me. Perceived conflict, genuine conflict, the idea of conflict. It all undoes me. So I’ve become pretty skilled at denying I’m starting to feel it. That works at times. Most differences, after all, don’t matter and don’t really need mentioning.

At some points, though, in some circumstances, it rushes up though, unbidden and unwelcome, surprising me and, likely, whomever is suddenly in the role of opponent. And I’m off. Now, this only happens with those to whom are closest to me, the very people I want least to be in conflict with. And that’s likely the key. I’d rather pass off those first nudges of irritation as misplaced since, after all, this is someone I love. How could I be irritated? Or more to the point, how could I ever tell them that I’m irritated?

When I explode at my children — the very people whom I love the most — it sometimes is borne out of this lack of awareness. More often, it’s borne out of fear. These are the beings whom I brought into the world, and they are my responsibility. While I’m not vain enough to think how they turn out is under my control, I’m also aware that what happens as they grow has at least something to do with how they are raised, and I’m the one doing the bulk of the raising. And educating. That all weighs heavily on my shoulders, especially as my older reaches for 16. What if I’ve done it wrong? How many poor choices did I make? Why didn’t I do this…or not do that? And in that questioning whirling upstairs, something small can suddenly seem very big. Fear over the future and my own competence can make a normal tween or teen issue loom large. Kaboom.

If awareness if the first step, I’ve been standing on it firmly for a while. The next is increasing my awareness of that building of tension, the feeling I push down because it isn’t an “appropriate” feeling. My dear friend reminds me that, in any relationship, conflict is inevitable. We are just simply too different from each other to avoid it. Well, that blows my first choice — just ignoring those differences or trying to accommodate them all on my own. It seems a wiser path would be acknowledging those issues earlier. Rats.

Despite my disappointment about the inevitability of conflict between humans with differing minds and hearts, I know he’s right. Even when I don’t enter a conflict, I’m dragged down by the unpleasant sensation of feeling upset about a situation while feeling that I’m a rat of a friend/coworker/relative for just having the feeling. While I’m often called assertive, I find it hard to be so in these close situations, at least when I feel out of sorts about something between me and the other. I’ve committed to trying, and while its unlikely anyone will burst into flames if I raise a small concern, the whole idea of disagreeing about something personal that matters brings a sheen to my forehead.

And so I’ll try. I doubt I’m alone in my desire to avoid gut-wrenching (or just briefly awkward) conflict, and I’d love to hear with others about how they manage this with aplomb and peace, or just without wanting take to bed. And if you’re avoiding and exploding too, share that. I’d like to know I’m not alone in that less-than-healthy trend. And if we disagree? Hey, I hear that’s just what happens sometimes. I’m sure we can handle it.

Namaste

On Being a Compassionate People

DSCN1000A few weeks back, my younger son was having a hard time. He was anxious for reasons he couldn’t entirely identify, and when anxious, he acts irritable and stubborn with frequent outbursts. I know this about him. I have known if for years. I know that under that prickly, grouchy exterior is a kid who is worried, scared, and simply out of sorts. But two weeks back, as he became more prickly and grouchy, I responded with stubborn adherence to rules and withdrawal of computer privileges. Not surprisingly, this increased his anxiety, making him more prickly and grouchy. I suppose on some level I knew he was in distress, that he was worried or concerned about something, but I was focused on only my desire to have less opposition and conflict in the house and more sense of  control over the workings of our family.

In short, I felt his distress but overrode it with my own discomfort. Yes, I eventually broke through that override and comforted my son, working with him to find the source of his distress, the very process of which brought his anxiety down several notches. It was then that I expressed what Merriam-Webster calls compassion: Sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

As humans, we are at out best when we are compassionate. Compassion occurs when we recognize and then respond to our shared situation of being human, namely being prone to suffering. We all suffer. We all watch others suffer. And, like it or not, we all contribute to the suffering of others. When my son was lashing out and melting down because he was suffering, I added to his suffering initially out of lack of awareness followed by a desire to maintain control of the status quo.  I didn’t act with malice. But I added to his suffering by reacting to his behavior without thought the cause. When I found compassion, his suffering decreased simply by the acting on my desire to alleviate his suffering. He knows as well as I that I can’t rid him of his anxiety, and yet knowing I would want to makes a difference.

I belong to a faith tradition that operates from a place of compassion. According to our second principle, Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships.” Compassionate people are whom we proclaim to be. Not compassionate to just some. To everyone.

Compassion can come easily. It is easy feel compassion for the injured child, the oppressed worker, and the abused woman. We generally express this compassion at a distance, with words, signatures, and financial contributions, hopefully also finding opportunities to work with our hands to ameliorate some of the suffering this world metes on its weakest and most disadvantaged. This is, however, the easy sort of compassion. While the world’s problems can bring us to despair, question the purpose of our lives, they can also bring us to our compassionate selves.

Compassion finds its voice in the UUA-sponsored Standing on the Side of Love campaign, “an interfaith public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression”. “Standing on the Side of Compassion” doesn’t roll of the tongue so easily, but the sentiment is the same. This organization advocates for those who are suffering at the hands of others for simply being themselves, whether GBLT, immigrants, or the otherwise oppressed. Immigrate rights and GBLT rights are close to the hearts of many Unitarian Universalists, receiving time from the pulpit, discussion from pews, and action from congregations. This sort of organized compassion also comes fairly easily, with these issues resonating with UUs, since they speak to fundamental equity principles we as those of a liberal religion find compelling, important, and immediate. In short, we see them and feel them and feel for those oppressed.

Compassion is harder when it’s more personal, especially when we feel injustice has been done to us. When we feel a sense of being the victim, we’re apt to struggle with the very human responses of anger, hurt, and even vengeance. To some degree, this is what I experienced with my son. It was easy to take his irritability and stubbornness as intentional actions to subvert my authority as the adult of the house. It was easy to forget that, like all of us, he wants to be good, to do right, and to be thought well of. Behaviors come from somewhere, and objectionable behaviors are no exception. Few people desire to be mean, thoughtless, hurtful, careless, or just annoying.  We do, however, become just that when we’re afraid, tired, overwhelmed, or simply because we’ve always done them and don’t know how to do otherwise.  All of us fall into that. It’s human

So back to compassion with those who sit closest to us, those in our homes and most imitate communities — our families, our workplaces, our churches, and our friendship circles. If these behaviors that look so intentional and therefore, well, mean and hateful, really come from fear, fatigue, and full plates, then what we are seeing in “bad behavior” is someone suffering. And the recognition of suffering calls for the desire to alleviate (and often first to understand the cause of) that suffering.  Therefore, we’re called to compassion in the face of bad behavior.

This is hard. Hurts can run deep if not addressed swiftly, and it can be hard to feel compassion for the person who seems to wrong you over and over. Towards its end, my marriage suffered, among other ailments, a loss of compassion. I imagine that’s true of many ended love relationships, although I don’t think it is a mandatory part of the finale. I’d like to have been able, during those failing years, to have been more compassionate to my now-ex-husband. Not because it would have saved the marriage but simply because I’d likely alleviated some of both of our suffering.

Holding grudges and refusing to look at the causes behind a person’s suffering cause more suffering. When we deny the suffering of others, we deny the other the chance to be seen as simply a fallible human. When we compound that suffering with our actions, often on the grounds that they’ve wrongs us so we can wrong them, we increase the suffering for all parties. When I’m looking at suffering with a sneer and a swear, I suffer, too. I lose some of the tender part of humanity that accepts that none of us behave perfectly. I gain a gritty, tough exterior that places more distance between me and the other person, thus dampening my ability to see the person as a suffering human.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean being a marshmallow or doormat. It doesn’t mean allowing injustice to continue or wrongs to go unanswered. My compassionate response to my son’s underlying compassion didn’t reverse the consequence we have for tantrums, but it did make it less likely that the next tantrum would come, simply because the true cause — his suffering — was somewhat reduced simply by my caring. No, in the adult world it isn’t all that easy. Sometimes, as in my marriage, divorce is the most compassionate answer. Often, it means having challenging conversations and risking feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable. Consequences can come along with compassion, but we must take great care to let the compassion lead us to those consequences, with our eyes wide open to the process by which we hand down those consequences.

My younger son’s anxiety has lessened as of late. It’s not gone, but he is more comfortable.  During our rediscovered peace, I’m better able to listen to his words and actions, noting when the anxiety rises a bit. Knowing I’m attuned, he’s better able to check himself and ask for assistance, knowing a compassionate response complete with hugs, advice, and sometimes firm reminders are available from someone who understands that he, like all humans, suffers and who wants to reduce just a bit of his suffering.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s acting more compassionate himself.

Dreaming a Little Dream

Hocking HillsI can’t stop reading over the job announcement. These arrive regularly, advertising positions in Michigan for Physician Assistants in a myriad of positions. Surgery. Dermatology. ER. Oncology. Primary care. I don’t even open most of them. Parenting two kids who appreciate that they live just half a mile away from their father and close to all the people and places they’ve known since birth makes thoughts of relocation a nonstarter. Oh, and there’s that homeschooling part where I teach, coach, and drive from dawn until well after dusk. That’s not compatible with 12 hour shifts no matter where the location, never mind one in Ironwood, a town of under 6,000 people in the most northwestern parts of the Upper Peninsula.

But I can’t stop reading the announcement. It spent a week on the stairs, my mail-holding spot, followed by a week on my desk before being pinned to the cork board in the kitchen. It’s not the fine salary, primary care work, flexible hours, and benefits that would ease my mind that keep it in sight. It’s not for a desire of the pace of a small town in the rural northern part of the lower 48.  As I moved the letter from one place to another, rereading it and sharing it with a few friends, I wondered why I was so obsessed with a job that I couldn’t take in a place I couldn’t inhabit until my youngest is grown.

And then the answer came. It offered me permission to dream. That letter lets me wonder about roads not taken yet and all the possibilities that lay ahead. It reminds me that those roads and possibilities aren’t closed for good but just waiting until later. At a point where I feel mired in responsibility for the two people I love beyond all reason, this announcement  offers what has long felt illicit — a daydream where I’m not mom first and me when there is time.

I’ve been told I’m lousy at dreaming. It’s true. I can’t get lost in the what ifs and lose myself in possibilities or impossibilities. A short jaunt down the daydream road is detoured by concerns about finances, timing, the feelings of others, and uncertainty. Especially those dreams that touch the edges of reality. Those are the hardest to leave as dreams to either be realized or just enjoyed in theory only. Those are the most prone to my prodding, probing, analyzing mind.

It seems that sucks the fun out of dreaming. Okay, I can see that. If you’re musing along, thinking about what might be, reality isn’t your best friend. Whether that be fantasizing about the writing the book that’s brewing in the barrier between consciousness and unconsciousness or sketching plans for the house overlooking the shore of Lake Whatever, reality isn’t welcome. And yet I can’t chase it away. I wonder about if the book would ever be published or purchased. I worry that I have nothing to say than anyone would ever read. I do the math on the land plus materials while realizing that I like a more urban setting and despise driving in lake effect snow (or any snow). Reality bumps its big nose into the dream, shoving it into the closet or simply sending it crashing to the floor, breaking it into a hundred different pieces.

So I stink at dreaming.  I don’t know if I’ve always been this way or if it’s a product of responsibility for children and a home. I can remember dreaming with my once-husband. He’d buy a couple of lottery tickets a few times a year, tickets to dreaming about what we’d do. It was a far better investment than tickets to the movies or dinner out. For a few dollars, we’d dream about the house we’d build, the trips we’d take, jobs we’d change, the mortgages of family we’d pay off, of the giving we could do. For an hour, reality stayed away. Everything was open and change was possible. I can’t recall us bringing up what we knew money wouldn’t change — that all stayed away for a time, irrelevant and unwelcome to the dream state. We had other (non lottery-based) dreams, too, but time has erased them from my memory.

And now for too many years, I can’t access that freedom to dream, at least for myself.  I can dream for my children. I dream of them happy and gainfully employed, loving partner at their side, perhaps with grandchildren decades from now. I dream of them immersing themselves in what they love, passionate and persistent with, ironically dreams of their own. Perhaps it’s the undeniable truth that I have no say in the outcome of their lives (aside from loving and educating them now) that makes this dreaming possible. It happens beyond me, after they leave my reach.

So why now? Why does this job announcement live on my cork board  carried to the kitchen table to be read and reread? Why do I find myself wondering about a house in the woods or high on a hill, surrounded by trees and space. Why do I think through the ten twelve-hour shifts a month in the walk-in clinic, with plenty of days to write, teach writing, or do something else that occupies the wordy part of my brain? Why do I think about the view outside my dreamed-window, watching snow pile deeper and deeper, with a fire in the stove and music in the background?

Perhaps it’s the sheer impossibility of it that makes it dream-fodder. I’m planted for now, close to friends and close to the father of my boys. I don’t really know that I’d like living remotely, urban/suburban person I’ve always been. That may be the magic of the dream. It takes me out of myself, letting me be whomever I might like to be. I can imagine that I like that rural life, that snow, the potential for solitude and freedom of schedule while doing two jobs I enjoy. With no real possibility of making that move in the next many years, I’m free to dream what might be someday without feeling reality intrude.

So I’m working at it. I’m dreaming a bit, here and there, reminding myself to stay in the dream and exclude all the evaluation and concerns. The job announcement flits between my desk and cork board, not so much because that job is my dream but because it reminds me I can let my thoughts go to what might be without that being an evaluative statement on what is. With some practice, I might not need the paper reminder to drop concerns about finances, logistics, and general problems while allowing my heart and mind to wander to Ironwood and beyond.

Christmas Presence

My boys, 2002.

The holidays surround me. No, the tree isn’t up. Holiday cards aren’t coming or going. No candles grace the table, neither Advent nor Hanukkah, although one season has begun and the other approaches in a few days.  Only older son’s efforts give physical evidence of the season, with lights hanging in most of the first floor, paper snowflakes filling the dining area, and paper chains wrapping the crown molding.  And I have been doing a bit of shopping, making my closet an off-limits place.

Physical manifestations or not, once December begins, I start to think. For years, I wondered just what I believed. Was Jesus the son of God? Was he a historical figure who led a movement of compassion and social justice? Was he an idealized conglomeration of social actors in his time? I don’t know. Jesus — divine, human, or mythological — has a powerful message that resonates today as well as it did two thousand years back. Belief aside, that message continues to impact the thoughts and actions of many. I suppose that’s worth a celebration.

With the theological questions put aside, this year I’ve found my thoughts drifting backwards through the last fifteen years. My older son’s first Christmas at seven months of age was a commercial delight. As the first grandchild on both sides, he was celebrated in full retail fashion. I can’t recall what his father and I bought him, but I remain amazed at the appallingly large pile of presents from grandparents for a child who didn’t care about anything more than paper to crinkle and lights to watch. What I do remember, thanks in part to video watched countless times, is that child a week later, pulling up on every piece of furniture, laughing while the Barenaked Ladies sang “If I Had a Million Dollars” while his father popped out from behind the ottoman. That first Christmas with him was love and promise incarnate. He was the best gift I’d ever received.

As my older grew, so did his appreciation of the holiday. The second year, it was all about the lights. “Ights, ights! Pitty ights!” came the cry from the backseat as we drove our toddler through the Hines Drive Light Show on a snowy December evening. His face beamed with excitement — all those lights, those pretty lights seemed to be in place just for him. For the first time, we started taking detours from trips after dark, seeking out the “pitty ights,” a habit persisting for years to come.

A year later, the lights still delighted, but presents had gained more attention, although one or two would still have done. That Christmas was the first that kept his father and I up late as we arranged and rearranged wooden train track on a board, carefully figuring how to make the most of the space. I’m not sure who was most excited as his Dad and I carried the display into the living room at the end of a long round of present opening. We all had a fine time for years to come, designing track and running trains. Gifts of tunnels and bridges with plenty of new engines were under the tree each season.

A year later, I was pregnant with my younger and feeling rather queasy as we travelled to Wisconsin to spend the season with my mother. The night of December 24th, the day after we arrived, my critically ill stepfather died, having smiled his last smile at my older and knowing that another grandchild was on the way, his fourth. It was a solemn season, with Christmas Day plans unchanged only because of my older’s presence. Again, he was our present, our life in the midst of death. Our family was a gift to my mother, who would from then on travel to Michigan for the season instead of staying home.

The next year, my younger joined us. Less outgoing than his (introverted) brother, he spend the jangly, crowded season’s celebrations in a sling or at my breast. Comfort often eluded him, and the busy gatherings that fill this time of year often still bring him stress mixed in with the pleasure. While little else from that holiday season comes to mind, I can still feel the weight of his body in that sling and the rocking and patting that was part of the ritual that kept him somewhat together. My older son enjoyed the noise and crowd while my younger and I often retreated into quieter spots.

The years blur after that. Children grew. Toys and books multiplied, an embarrassment of plastic, wood, and paper filled the living room on Christmas morning. Even after we left the Catholic and then the Episcopal church, the Advent candles remained, joined by Hanukkah candles and traditions when my mother converted to Judaism. Fatigued by the present deluge, we put the reigns on at home, following the adage, “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.” Other traditions remained unchanged from my childhood — stockings first, coffee cake second, presents (taking turns) followed. A real tree replaced the artificial one, and one parent on Christmas morning replaced two. My mother continued to visit.

I’m not sure why Christmas past is so present this year. Perhaps once the tree is up and decorated, my mind will stay put in Christmas 2012. As the boys grow older, their excitement softens into enthusiasm. While this makes the waiting for Christmas morning easier, it reminds me that more changes are coming. Requests for gifts have changed, with my older’s list including a solid state drive, a mechanical keyboard, and a long list of computer related paraphernalia. His brother’s list remains more comforting — historical costumes and books still have a place among the tech accessories. I find myself missing pouring over train track adaptors and roundhouses.

My relationship with the holiday remains uneasy. It’s mine to celebrate by tradition alone, and I can’t shed the sense of a season stolen, now that my faith is gone. Perhaps that tradition is enough, as long as within it we continue to look beyond the lights, presents, and  coffee cake to the reminder that loving each other is humanity at its best.

May your holiday season be filled with love and peace.

Here’s the collection of past musings on the season, a chronicle of belief changed and the struggle the holidays presented.

 

 

On Raising an Atheist (and an Agnostic): Part II

The steps behind the Unitarian Church of Charleston (SC) sum it up nicely.

Last week, I mused about my younger son’s atheism and my older son’s agnosticism, both which came to light after years of my own questioning and movements into and out of churches. (Here’s On Raising an Atheist: Part I.) I can see that piece may be seen as a cautionary tale to the parent wanting to foster theism. Perhaps it is. This installment, however, I think could inform a parent raising children of any belief system, at least any open to the idea that others can be moral, ethical people even if they hold different beliefs. As a strong proponent of a free and meaningful spiritual search for each individual, I’m fine with my children’s choices, which may be temporal or permanent. Either way is fine with me.

But.

Yes, there’s a but. It’s where I focus attention when we discuss atheistic and agnostic views, where my energy into their religious education goes. My “but” goes like this: those labels tell me what you don’t believe and nothing about what you do. Without a sense of what one then does hold sacred, important, or true, those are labels of negation (atheism) and uncertainty (agnosticism).  There’s nothing wrong with either, but to me, left alone, they are immature and incomplete.

So fostering this deeper thought is part of the work of raising the atheist and agnostic, including myself. What do you believe? I pose this question quite often to my boys, generally receiving a list of what my younger does NOT believe (God, creationism, etc) and silence from my pondering older. I often answer my own question aloud, noting that I believe in social justice, love, peace, compassion, loving kindness, marriage equity, equal rights in general, and the mystery that is our universe. I believe in honesty and integrity, hard work, and the ability of humans to change and grow. I believe in the sacredness of the world but not of any one nation. I believe we are all one in some ineffable way and that there is more in this universe we can ever comprehend, although the act of trying touches the sacred.

I never make it through the whole list without interruptions. “There is no God!” my younger exhorts. “Why would anyone think so? No one can prove there is one, so there just isn’t!”

My usual retort goes something like this, “And you can’t prove there isn’t one.” Witty, huh? Such is theological musing with my ten-year old.

The last time we conversed, he gave a bit of ground. “I believe in science,” he said. That, I told him, was a start.

My older remains silent for these spirited discussions, and I’d guess that has more to do with staying out of the fray than lack of serious thought on the subject. He’s in a Unitarian Universalist Coming of Age class dedicated to supporting that process. (Think confirmation without confirming a preordained belief.) He’s worked for weeks in class on a statement of faith and values –which is perfectly doable without a deity. No, I haven’t read it, but I have some inklings about what he holds valuable and sacred based on what causes him to cheer (Obama’s statement of support of marriage equality) and slump (intolerance of any sort).

Supporting the development of a personal belief structure in a child without a catechism upon which to rely takes more than benign neglect. It takes, I believe, both an education in the religious teachings of the world and in the gritty, sometimes scary and sometimes beautiful world in which we live. Teaching children the language of the sacred and the religions of the world offers context to what they will see and hear throughout their lives.  It also offers them choice — the choice to embrace the path that leads them to the truth as they understand it. Informing children (in age-appropriate ways) of the ways of our physical world, from a sound grounding in cosmology, Earth science, evolutionary biology, and environmental science to a culturally diverse accounting of our planet’s sordid history, poverty, and human rights abuses — this is the education that leads them to establish their values and worldview. Topped with accounts of the world’s peacemakers and civil rights workers, there is a message to spread that good people working hard can make necessary change in a messy world.

I’ve yet to see my children suffer at the hand of theists for their beliefs or lack thereof, but I’m not naive to think that will not happen. Statistics indicate that about 16% worldwide and 3 -9% in the US identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or non-believers. These are slippery statistics, since nonbelievers also may identify with other philosophical or faith traditions, like Taoism, Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism, or something else.  Others still identify with a theist tradition although reject the notion of a divine actor. There’s overlap, but the message is clear. As agnostics and atheists, we are a minority. And to many evangelicals in this country, Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise, we’re morally suspect and in mortal danger. So far, we’ve been surrounded with gentle, accepting folks of a variety of religious beliefs, many deeply held, including some nonbelievers, who hold just as tightly to their worldview. It’s likely many we’re with don’t know what we believe. Some don’t care. Others likely assume we’re Christian, the assumed norm in this nation. I’m open to the conversation and encourage my children to be the same, but it generally just doesn’t come up.

And this may be the toughest point about raising and atheist or agnostic. Do I teach my children to avoid the subject and give vague answers when discussions about the religious arise. No, but I’m not sure I’ve explicitly taught them how to handle those situations either. Our participation in the Universalist Unitarian tradition admittedly makes this less of an issue. We go to church. They go to religious education. They’re relatively well-versed in the seven principles (which aren’t doctrine or creed but really provide a fine framework for living life, regardless of belief). I’ve largely focused on reminding my younger to speak respectfully to others and avoid his more inflammatory statements about what he thinks about the presence of a god. He’s generally taken this charge seriously, although he’s prone to spout anti-theist rhetoric to those he deems likely to think like him, meaning family and a few close friends.  We’re working on this balance between speaking one’s truth while not being overtly offensive to others.  Evangelicals of all beliefs (atheists included) struggle with this, although most of them are not still ten and struggling neurologically with understanding  that the internal milieu of others might differ from one’s own.

Perhaps a better title for these posts would have been “On Raising  a Respectful and Responsible Atheist (or Agnostic) Who Appreciates the Role of Religion in the World and Can Articulate What Values and Beliefs He Has, Not Just Speak Against Others.” That’s a bit unwieldy, however, and still likely missing something.  I’ll stick with the original and continue to encourage my children to articulate their beliefs and values that accompany their atheism and agnosticism. I’ll teach them paths to peace from all the world religions and open their eyes to the real need to work for that peace today. Whether they remain agnostic or atheistic or not, whether they remain within the Unitarian Universalist church or not, this education will serve them well.

Peace.