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Moving to Front Royal: The Reign of the Stink Bug

Our not so trusty Honda Pilot

The kids and I moved five days after they started in their new schools on August 15, 2015. The move itself was crazy, and done in small and large parts. I began house hunting in a town called Linden, a suburb of Front Royal. A wonderful realtor named Sue Laurence from Re/Max helped us through the entire process. A word about Sue: she was the first person I met in Front Royal, and she’s a special lady. I’ve known and worked with a few realtors. Jim Souvagis was great–he helped us in Northern Virginia. Another lady helped us sell our last home, but she wasn’t like Sue from Front Royal. Sue is one of those genuinely kind humans who treat you well no matter your situation. She was kind to my kids, all of whom are quite outspoken, and who together form a tight triumvirate of friendly yet boisterous noisiness.

Anyway, Sue met us with a smile and treated me as well as a woman could ask to be treated. We viewed several cabin-style homes and eventually settled on a plan to build a new house. The lot I put an offer on had one of those crane-your-neck out the side of a back window views of a tiny lake. After putting down an offer and then talking more with my bank, I realized I wouldn’t qualify for a loan until our house in Northern Virginia sold. And it wasn’t selling, or would it sell for another three months. It looked like I could lose my entire deposit–but I was lucky. The sellers countered with a request that I increase the escrow amount, so this gave me a way out of the contract.

Nonetheless, I had nowhere to move the kids; I had no home, other than the old one that wouldn’t sell. I was in a fix here, and it seemed impassable. I had already signed the kids up for school in Front Royal. I was committed and obdurately set on getting them into their new schools by the start of the year. I didn’t want to put them through the hell of a midyear transition. But still “she persisted,” as the slogan on one of my t-shirts says. School was starting in a week. I had nowhere to live. I couldn’t buy a house, not yet. I’d have to rent.

Sue at this point worked an actual miracle. She knew a guy of Indian descent—an engineer who lived alone in a tiny chalet in the neighborhood I would later buy a house in, but I’ll leave out the name for the sake of my family’s privacy. Sue knew the engineer because she had represented him on his own house purchase. Anyway, this man was about to take a three-month sabbatical, and he would, Sue thought, be happy to rent the chalet out to me while he was pursuing his spiritual enlightenment.

Two days later, we viewed the chalet, and the kids and I fell in love with it. It’s almost impossible to describe the serenity and peace this chalet breathed with its every last molecule. The inside, mind you, was stripped down. The kitchen could’ve been out of a traveler’s mobile home. There was only 1200 square feet, with one bedroom downstairs and two more upstairs. But it didn’t matter. When you stood on the deck and looked outward, you saw over top ash and maples a stunning palette of mountain splendor. The house itself was near the top of the tallest peak in Front Royal, and at night, explained the engineer, the lights of the valley glittered like several thousand dots of brightly-colored candy. A breeze rushed through the wrap-around porch, and you could see for miles in all directions. We could be safe here, and like one of the characters in my book The Unlikely Prophet, when you scanned the horizon, you could spot danger before it got close enough to hurt you.

I found the money to pay the security deposit and the first month’s rent, which was modest. For a week, the kids attended school via a long commute from our old home, and I spent the days hiking Skyline drive and writing in the library while they got accustomed to their new teachers. I also dealt with another not small emergency. The SUV I had purchased nine days earlier collapsed in a loud, thunking unbearable clunk—which is the sound a vehicle makes when its transmission dies. I spent days trying to figure out a better option. The teachers at the elementary school thought I was of woman of substantial means, because I kept driving different cars, including a zippy but tiny blue Mini Cooper. But finally, with a steadfast friend at my side during the three hour negotiation process, I leased a Mazda CX-5. The credit manager took one look at my desperate face after he explained that divorce destroys everyone’s credit, including to my shock my own, and gave me a good interest rate. He “vouched” for me, which was a kindness I would encounter many more times in my journey as a single mom.

Speaking of kindness, the engineer left the chalet furnished, so we didn’t have to undergo an expensive and difficult move. Instead, we borrowed a dear neighbor’s minivan and moved some of our possessions into the chalet. The drive up the mountain to our new home took us on roads that twisted around steep hillsides, and I soon learned the intricacies of driving on nine-degrees grades that took you on S-curves. That first night, we stood on the porch and watched the sun glide down over the edge of our world and then disappear, and each one of us smiled.

Then we began to explore our mountain. I got settled into my writing routine, which consisted of typing on my iMac in the front living area while thirstily gazing out through wall-to-wall windows at the restive landscape that surrounded me. Patches of strawberries and blackberries weaved themselves into the ravine that collided with the back edge of our property. Ash trees and tall grasses, wildflowers and honeysuckle fanned out along the slope below. If you stood on the edge of the porch, especially when the fog rolled in, you felt like you were standing at the stern of a ship gazing out at edge of the world.

When I wasn’t writing or trying to figure out how to pay bills I couldn’t pay, I was wrapped up ever so tightly in the world of my children, just as they were tied to me. We grew closer and closer as the hot days of August gave way to the still steamy days of September. At night, the wind would blow in through our doors and windows, and when we slept, we dreamed to a chorus of crickets that hummed and blurted out ditties none of us understood. In the mornings, we stumbled out the front door, took a look at a sky that would never lose its hint of magic and fairy dust, and settled into the Mazda for a ride on streets that had names that evoked forests and mountain peaks.

In the afternoons, we walked and talked about life, about school, about all the tiny but telling matters that occupy a mother and her three children. The effect of moving to Front Royal was immediate. We saw good augurs everywhere. My daughter made friends the very first day—friends who remain close a few years later. My middle child not only wasn’t ostracized for his long hair but met two other long-haired boys on the first day. And my youngest drew the longest stick in the lottery of teachers: he was assigned to an energetic, positive, just completely wonderful male teacher. The kids, in other words, were flourishing, which was not something that could have been said about their experiences in what is lauded to be one of the best school systems in the country: Fairfax County. To this day, all three Phoenix children are happy here in Warren County.

Meanwhile, we got our first taste of mountain living. I quickly learned it takes strength, fortitude and courage to put down roots in a world where deer and bear and other critters truly own the land you live on. When you drive down the mountain, you had better go slow on the hairpin turns lest you run over wild turkey, a fox, or God help everyone, a skunk. Deer walk up to you and stare at you, which isn’t a bad thing, but bears come onto your porch and snatch apple pies out of your kitchen windows up here on our mountain. More troubling, however, are the creatures who co-inhabit your home with you.

It started with the stink bugs. Also known as the brown marmorated stink bug, these stinky buggers “invade homes in the fall. Thousands can invade a single home. In fact, in one home more than 26,000 stinkbugs were found.”

These beasts entered our chalet by fitting under the wood siding. And they came in through the windows. They trotted in under the doorframes. They fell from the very sky into our front room via the chimney. Any opening big enough to fit through brought in more of them, and our chalet was a holey thing. It lacked weather-stripping and other sophistications you get accustomed to when you live in a suburb. And we didn’t have A/C, so the windows were always open.

Some nights, we’d spend hours hunting the mottled grayish-brown monsters. My daughter retreated to her bedroom often in a panic—only to find a stink bug grinning at her from under her pillow. One night, we had our first and only fight while living in the chalet. It went like this.

“Madeline, you need to practice your clarinet.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“There’s stink bugs in my room, I’m not going.”

“Come on, you need to go practice,” I said.

“Hell no, I’m not going.”

“But you need to sleep tonight too.”

“Not going.”

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

“Not going,” she said.

“Come on, come upstairs with me,” I said.

“No way.”

“Come on, this won’t kill you.”

“Will too, they’re evil.”

“They’re ugly yes, but they don’t harm anyone.”

“Will too.”

“How?”

“Psychological torment,” she said.

This argument went on for quite some time. Like an hour. It grew heated. I yelled, she yelled. Finally I vanquished all stink bugs as well as any sign of any other bug, insect, beetle or living creature in her room. I got Jim to scan the hallway, Ben to survey the upstairs bathroom. Madeline entered her bedroom, and broke out her clarinet. But it wasn’t over. She never did get over the beastly brown monsters.

My sons were stalwart. And I remained brave—until one landed on my upper thigh in the dead of night. I jumped at least ten feet in the air in uncontained shock . . . and then I killed it. And we killed an entire dust buster in a misbegotten attempt to vacuum up the little serenity-robbers. After a month or two, I attained a new Zen state which admittedly resembled more a defeated resignation to our cohabitation.

And that’s when the ladybugs came.

Stay tuned for the next blog for more on life in Front Royal—and the menacing attack of the “Coccinellidae,” or the plural “Coccinellids,” which is the species more popularly known as the ladybug.

 




Front Royal: Why I Moved West

Two years ago and two months, I moved with my three children to Front Royal, Virginia. For you Jersey natives who go by exits, that’s exit 13 off Route 66, which runs from DC all the way to its end point thirteen miles west of Front Royal. If you’re looking at a map, this is also where I-66 intersects with I-81 North and South. I-81 also has a story of its own: it runs from its northern terminus at the tip of New York, just shy of the Canadian border, to its southern end point in Dandridge Tennessee. As Wikipedia explains, “Interstate 81 largely traces the paths created down the length of the Appalachian Mountains by migrating animals, American Indians, and early settlers. It also follows a major corridor for troop movements during the Civil War.”

I could have settled anywhere in Virginia, but something deep inside me told me to head due west. I picked Front Royal as our new home when my marriage was coming to a grinding end. That last year, when things got hairy at our home in Northern Virginia, my kids and I (especially the corner kids) would leave for an adventure. Sometimes we headed south to Fountainhead Park for a hike along the Occoquan River, but usually we went west. Like early settlers, we were searching for something akin to freedom, and when we went west, we took an exit that read: I-66 West—Front Royal. It might sound too simple, but I basically chose a new home based on a feeling it gave me when I drove in its direction.

While driving west, I felt safe inside. The kids and I would journey through Front Royal until we arrived at the northern tip of the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia. We’d drive along the twisting road called “Skyline Drive,” where the speed limit is 35, until we reached a good hiking spot. By the way, as an aside, Skyline Drive was built during the Depression, when the government initiated a working program called the Civilian Conservation Corps to put the unemployed to work. The CCC was a beautiful project in the sense that it gave the men working under it a means to maintain their own homes and families.

Anyway, we’d drive to the northern entrance of Skyline drive and stop at the gate to speak with a ranger. I bought an Interagency Annual pass for $80 that allows you to visit more than 2,000 federal parks an unlimited number of times over the year. We use the heck out of our Annual Pass(es). Anyway, I’d talk to the ranger for a couple minutes, and then we’d head north on Skyline Drive. I’ve always been a fast-lane kind of driver, but driving fast and driving on Skyline Drive don’t mesh. It’s one of those inconsistencies that life throws at you to teach you a lesson. In my case, the lesson is patience. Once we were inside the park, we’d drive at an impossibly slow speed because of the trailers and out-of-towners who meander along as if every drive were a Sunday drive.

You can hike almost anywhere you want in the Shenandoahs, but we have found some special spots. Our favorite hike back then was at mile 19.4, where several trails extend out on Hogback Mountain. As Hiking Upwards states, “The Hogback Mountain hike, with its spectacular views west towards the Massanutten ranges, is located in an area of the SNP that has several beautiful hikes including Piney Branch and Little Devil Stairs. With just over 1,200ft of vertical gain and 7.5 miles, this is a pleasant moderate day hike.”

If you wanted to look up the trail names (which include the beautifully titled “Little Devils Stair Trail”) you can go here. The parking lot for Hogback is full in the summer and fall, but pretty deserted in November and through the winter. Once you park, you can choose a direction or route. Instead of following a loop, I always go on down and backs because I have the tendency to get lost. Growing up, my children accepted my version of getting lost. I’d giggle and say, “we’re taking a ‘longcut’ kids.” That works great when you’re driving your SUV, but it’s not so great when your “childers” have to hike your longcut.

So I go with the safest way of hiking for me: a down and back. This term simply refers to a hike where you go aways and then turn and come back the other way. Hogback isn’t easy, but it’s deceptive, because you go down a big hill for an hour and you’re happy. Then you turn around and realize, “Oh man, we’re going uphill until we reach the car.” Or if you turn the phrase around you come up with: “we won’t reach the car unless we make it back up that hill.”

Back up the Hill

As we walked and talked down then back up Hogback, we’d plan for our future. I need to take a longcut right now around a hard subject. My divorce.

I’ve been almost spectral-quiet about the divorce. And I’ll probably remain that way. Like a lot of women who went through the sort of thing I did, I am still scared of getting in trouble. I also don’t think it’s fair to use my platform to say whatever I want to say about my ex-husband. This goes at odds with my usual way of speaking, which is to be honest and straightforward, and to speak about the most personal matters without fear. So I’ve been paralyzed a bit, at least on this blog, for over two years now. Yet I feel like I’ve worked it out in my writing. My characters are free to tell my story, sort of, but it’s fictional there and it feels safe. And I’ve finally came to a place where I realize my need to speak freely is more important than my need to speak freely about every aspect of my life, and that one aspect I need to keep private for my family’s sake is the saga of my divorce.

So (I hope) that’s all I’ll ever say directly about why I left.

All of that is a long aside, and I want to end on a happy note.

It’s been almost three years now, and these visits to Hogback took me to a place where I felt safe enough to figure out my next steps. It’s also where I found my new home—off exit 13, in the small town of Front Royal. In the upcoming days, I’m going to write about how we settled here. There will be stories about stinkbugs and ladybugs, mice invasions and mouse family holocausts. I’ll talk about adapting to a smaller, more modest lifestyle in a place where ironically enough the distance between my neighbors is much larger than it used to be. And I’ll talk about how people help one another feel at home in my new home: Front Royal.

Please grab a chair and make yourselves at home. With me. In my new home that’s far, far away from the old hell I used to write about when this blog was titled, “Running from Hell with El.” Because now, I’m walking Home, and I’m walking there with friends and family always at my side.

We all need a place we call home, and now, that place for us is Front Royal.




When the Legal System Fails: The DAPL Protests Part 2

. . . I read all of this with interest, and at first I found myself thinking, “Well, maybe the tribe didn’t follow the right procedures, I wonder what that means about the rightness of their protest itself.” But then I recalled my own work as a member of a community, fighting for safer walking trails and lowered speed limits on a road that passed in front of my children’s school. Basically, the citizens of my community banded together to petition for a lowered speed limit, flashing safety lights and a school speed zone, and for reasons complex and frankly silly, the state highway officials as well as the school board opposed passing our safety measures. For years, different people fought to get these safety measures passed, and the issue really came to a head when a child died crossing the street. Still, the state and the school board said, “No” to increased safety measures on our parkway.

Part Two

So we took it to our local political officials as well as to the governor of our state. A local politician formed a committee that included a few citizens, the school’s PTA president, as well as officials from the school board and the state highway safety folks. We would meet once a month, and we’d barter, negotiate, argue . . . but it looked like nothing would get done. Eventually, we came up with an odd but effective tactic to get our school zone sign and our flashing lights. The school wanted to get a hundred million dollar renovation approved by the County. Knowing the way county government land use law works, one citizen suggested that we appear before the zoning board and announce our conditional opposition to the renovation absent the approval of increased safety measures. A few of us in fact showed up at the zoning board, and we made a fifteen-minute presentation. Our measures got approved on the spot.

In other words, we did an end-around the county. We weren’t being heard, even though we were talking and talking and talking. We never stopped talking, mind you, but we went to a different governmental actor, and we found a way to get the complex strands of American democracy to work in our favor. We got a democratic body to strong-arm another arm of government to give us the safety measures we wanted.

When I survey what’s going on with the Tribe and the DAPL, I see a similar tactic being used. The Tribe didn’t think it could get anywhere with the Army Corps or with the pipeline company. Sure, the Tribe tried to use the legal system and the existing governmental processes to oppose the pipeline, and it certainly could be argued that they could have tried harder or used different legal tactics to oppose construction. But my sense from studying the case is that the Tribe (like so many other tribes and like so many citizens) has been down this road before, and it hasn’t been heard.

Indeed, the judge in the D.C. court case recognized just how little Native Americans have been served by our democratic and legal processes:

“Since the founding of this nation, the United States’ relationship with the Indian tribes has been contentious and tragic. America’s expansionist impulse in its formative years led to the removal and relocation of many tribes, often by treaty but also by force.” Cobell v. Norton, 240 F.3d 1081, 1086 (D.C. Cir. 2001). Id. at 1.

The American legal and political system, in other words, has not been a particularly just one as far as tribal rights are concerned. Anything but, in far too many cases.

I think the Tribe recognized the real politics at hand. At the heart of its protest has been an effort to garner awareness and use the resulting outrage as leverage to impel democratically elected politicians to take up the tribe’s cause. In other words, the legal challenge itself was irrelevant, and so too were early negotiations with the Army Corps or the pipeline company. The Tribe knew the results were stacked against it; the Tribe also knew that it could obtain better results through appeals to the people of our nation. Indeed, this worked, at least initially: President Obama ordered a temporary halt to pipeline construction the same day the D.C. court ruled against the tribe.

“Construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time,” said a joint statement from the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army. “We request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”

It could be said that the Tribe is not really concerned about sacred or historically relevant cultural sites, but is using that as a convenient excuse to oppose the pipeline. But it could and should also be said that the Tribe is really trying to save our nation’s water supply. If this is true, the way the legal and regulatory system is set up precludes the Tribe from effectively fighting the pipeline.

By NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, in our legal system, you must have “standing”, or an actual legal interest in whatever you’re objecting to or protesting. Since the Tribe’s water supply may not be directly impacted by the pipeline, the Tribe lacks a legal interest in wherever the pipeline is being built. I find this argument to be true in some ways, but it misses the point of what it means to be a Native American. From an early age, Native Americans are taught that it is their duty to protect our land and our water. They are taught that the land has life as well as life-giving spirit.

The rest of us Americans are taught to “think globally, but act locally.” Most of the time, we don’t get involved in the political system unless our own property or our families are threatened by a proposed or ongoing public measure. It’s only when a pipeline or a well or a manufacturing plant or some other externality-creating monstrosity is about to be built in our backyard that we take to the courts or the local and state governmental bodies. We are the consummate self-interested actors. We don’t get involved unless we are interested in and have an interest in a problem.

The Tribe is thinking and acting both locally and globally. The Tribe sees that the pipeline is being built near its water supply, but also realizes that the pipeline will pass by or through or under major rivers like the Missouri. The Tribe sees that the pipeline thus could harm other communities or other bodies of water that exist outside the tribe’s land. And it also sees that the energy companies cannot be trusted to comply with safety measures that will keep the water supply alive and healthy. The Tribe doesn’t trust the government to enforce its own laws on the environment; after all, what has our government shown Native Americans as far as its willingness to obey its own laws and treaties?

The Tribe is protesting more than desecrations to its own land. It is seeking to protect all life, both within and outside its borders. The Tribe says that “Water is life,” and this would sound like a cliché were it not the simple truth. We cannot go more than three days without water and live. And as the citizens of Flint Michigan can tell you, our nation cannot destroy its citizens’ water supply without the citizens suffering deleterious health consequences.

Sometimes I think we as a nation have become actually addicted to oil. When I bring up the issue of saving the water, logical people ask me, “Well, if we stop producing and transporting oil and using it for our energy needs, then what? How will we power our cars, our houses, our other energy needs?” I always shake my head and answer honestly. I don’t know. But I know that the current processes we are using to produce energy are damaging the environment. And I know that we need to re-think energy. We need to figure out a better way to produce and use energy, because the way we’re doing it now is hurting Mother Earth. We need her. We need to protect her.

11-09-fotofluege-cux-allg-25a

Oil Field Mittelplate in the North Sea By Ralf Roletschek [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

I know. We need our cars. We need our houses heated. Clean energy is too expensive, too hard to produce . . . oil and coal are cheap. I get it. The economics of the environment are complex. Simply saying we need clean energy doesn’t get us the clean or cleaner fuel we need. But do we need to get the fuel the way we’re getting it to live? Is this the best way? Or is there a better way?

The Tribe says we’re hurting the land. The Tribe says that building another massive oil pipeline is going to hurt our water. The real question is not whether we can live without oil, says the Tribe. It’s whether we can live without water. I think both questions need to be answered. But first, we need to listen to others when they ask the questions.

If you don’t think we can live without cheap oil, I challenge you to re-think your premises. Is there a better way? Can we spend less on other things, and spend more on the development of clean energy? Can we dedicate less of our GNP to other foreign entanglements and domestic items, and more to developing clean energy? And is what we’re doing to our land and water worth the long-term costs to its health—and by logical connection, since we depend on our water, to our health?

 

 

 

 

 

 




Shame is Not a Good Teacher

Shame is one of the worst emotions we can teach our children to feel. It’s difficult to wade through spirituality without finding shame, though. We see the hint of it, the strong suggestion of it, throughout Christian schooling as well as throughout the Bible. We see it in the story of David and Bathsheba, for example. We also see it embedded in the teachings of Paul in the New Testament. Far too many preachers and ministers take these stories or these scriptures and use the stories to make us feel terrible, and this isn’t a proper or the best use of the Bible.

The great Christian writer and teacher, C.S. Lewis, wrote about this in a 1952 letter. He wrote:

“It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our ancestors too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.” Letter November 8th 1952

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7049156

By Scan of photograph by Arthur Strong, 1947 Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7049156

We need more love-based, gentle teachings like those espoused by C.S. Lewis. We need to guide our children to the best path without using the weapons of shame and fear as our artillery against their spirit. When we focus on sinning and the blood of Jesus, we often cause pain and suffering in the exact people we’re trying to help. Basically, we are taught to feel shame when we “sin,” and then we are taught that Jesus died for or sins, and that in turn makes us feel even more ashamed for the mistakes we make as young men and women. Instead of feeling relieved, we feel sad and ashamed, and we carry that sadness and shame out of church into our daily lives. But aside from pain, what does feeling shame really give us?

It’s true that Jesus was crucified. It’s true that David made a big mistake by sleeping with Bathsheba. It’s also true we all make mistakes, both as children and as adults. Taking responsibility for our errors, for the hurts we cause others, can help us make better decisions in the future. But shame mires us in pain—and when we heap the death of Jesus on top of this pain, we end up suffering.

When we hold the image of a suffering man on the cross in our minds while we think about our actions, we end up replaying all our mistakes in a dread-inducing atmosphere. We get mired in sacrificial blood so to speak, rather than moving on to the real task of becoming the best people we can be. Carrying the cross is really not our job, but in effect that’s what we do when we obsess over concepts like sinning and sacrifice.

If we hold onto our mistakes and to the notion that every mistake we’ve made dirties us, we create a sort of hell on earth for ourselves. When we fear dying because we are afraid of what we will face after death because of the mistakes we make when we’re down here in our human shells, we end up afraid of living; we end up afraid of life. Priests and preachers should help guide us, but too many of them use fear as their cudgel.

For example, my children once attended a traditional Methodist church without me. And the kids listened to a lecture from the minister about how your sins down here on earth caused you to suffer judgment back Home. The minister gave a sermon in which he asked the members of the congregation to picture a stack of index cards laid out on a table. Imagine that you’ve died and have gone Home. You go up and even before you visit with your family and your friends, you go before a board or a council and you undergo a life review—all of which is accurate. We do go before a board and go over the good and the bad decisions we made throughout our lifetime, but in reality, the focus is much more positive than negative.

But the minister wanted the focus to be about sinning, so he said, “Jesus is waiting for you, and he will point out all your sins, and then he will show you all the same cards, but with blood smeared all over them. HIS blood. See, he gave up his blood so that all the awful things you do on earth won’t keep you from getting to heaven, but if you don’t atone now, you will have to explain yourselves to Jesus.”

When my kids told me this part of the sermon, I exclaimed, “No! This is fear-based, shame-engendering nonsense. Sure you’re not supposed to hurt others while you’re down here. You’re not allowed to rape or murder, you shouldn’t steal or tell lies to hurt others . . . but no one is waiting for you with blood-crusted index cards. The teaching back Home is much more positive. The aim isn’t to scare you or make you miserable; the goal is to emphasize areas where you did well, where you helped and served others, and to teach you places where you could have done better—all with the intent of helping you learn to do better, to become the best souls you can become.”

My children were a little confused, so we talked about it some more. They asked me what sort of mistakes could result in your getting punished after death, and of course I mentioned that killing, raping or sexually abusing others could get you punished, and as soon as I said that, my eldest asked about sex. About whether having sex could get you in trouble.

I shook my head and said, “Sex is not something to fear. Overall, it’s a positive and lovely thing that brings us joy, particularly when we experience it with someone we’re in love with and who we respect. We live in physical bodies. When religion emphasizes fear of our physicality, of what it causes us to do or to be or to enjoy, this is not good for us. Our bodies are built for certain things, and among those is sexual pleasure. It’s part of our human nature.”

the_kiss

By own photo of the sculpture of Rodin – own photo in the Rodin Museum, Paris, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4145510

“So should priests not be celibate?” My daughter asked.

I shrugged. “Celibacy has been touted as a virtuous accomplishment. In fact, it can also be a perversion of nature. Even though we are animals, and sex is one of the single most important instincts nature has given us, and perhaps the strongest of all of our instincts. It’s impossible to be human without embracing our sexuality, and true happiness and contentment are the rewards of a strong, loving relationship; this includes a sexual relationship.”

“So are you saying we shouldn’t be celibate? That it’s wrong for us to be deprived of sex? I thought you also taught that it’s okay to fast sometimes, Mom,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s good to fast, yeah,” I agreed. “But that’s not the point of celibacy. The point of celibacy is to find purity through deprivation, and fasting is another type of deprivation, but it reminds us that we are able to overcome our instincts, at least for a little while. No one can exist forever without eating, and I don’t know that it’s good to try to exist without satisfying our physical needs.”

“Might make it easier,” my son chipped in, “ Not to have to eat. Then you wouldn’t have to cook, and we wouldn’t be led by our donkey souls into eating so much junk food.”

I chuckled and nodded. “Well, that brings up an interesting point. Hunger is easy for us to understand. When people are starving, their morals quickly evaporate, and they take to stealing, fighting, and rioting to get food. Our bodies tell our brains that we’re in trouble, that we’ll die if we don’t get food soon, and the primitive part of our brains turn loose our most primitive emotions.”

“So are you saying we go crazy if we try not to have sex once we’re adults?” My daughter was trying not to smile.

“Not exactly, no. Maybe celibacy is fine for some people, I dunno. But in general, sex is perhaps our strongest instinct, because it represents how we express our love physically. We need to be able to express our love. We really need it, at least once we’re grown up and mature enough to handle all the emotions that come with it. So sexuality is a very strong instinct, and it’s tied into love. The way it’s taught though is like it’s a bad instinct. Sex is perhaps our strongest instinct, and yet it is to be ignored, restrained from or used as a weapon against us?”

How have you been taught about sexuality?

How would you teach your children differently?


David by Michelangelo; Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna (Own Source, Wikipedia)

David by Michelangelo; Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna (Own Source, Wikipedia).

When I say that we should use gentle, love-based teachings to guide our children and help them make good choices about their sexuality, I’m not saying anything goes. I don’t think we should teach our kids to simply do whatever they wish to do. We should teach our kids to value their bodies. We should teach our kids how to say no, either to other kids, or to adults who don’t respect proper boundaries. We should teach our children how to stay safe, and how to respect the safety and well-being of others.

Indeed, we have a duty to teach our sons in particular that “No” means “No,” and that a women’s body is hers alone to assert control and dominion over. We should teach our children that experiencing sexuality without love and commitment is something that will often leave them feeling empty and unfulfilled. We should teach them that sex is an adult act with adult consequences, such as pregnancy and disease. And we should help guide our children on a path that emphasizes discernment and the other side of free will: consequences.

Everything we do, after all, has consequences. But making the best choices occurs when we are unafraid and not laden with shame or dread. We should accept ourselves as well as seek responsibility for our actions, but we should not fear judgment or carry our mistakes as burdens. We should not feel ashamed, because shame is not a kind or a good teacher.




The Non-Perils of Tolerance

I am an interfaith minister who preaches a doctrine of love, tolerance and peace, and usually my route is an easy one. I believe that all altars, followed in good faith, lead souls Home. I embrace the teachings of the prophets from the major (and sometimes minor, or less popular) faith traditions. Jesus was the Son and the Savior, but believing in him as our Savior is not the sole route to paradise. Living like Jesus (or following the path that he and other prophets, saints, and spiritual leaders have followed) is what matters, both for this life and for life afterwards.

I am also the mother of three children, and church for us will soon consist of worship services I lead in Front Royal, but for now, church is mostly what I teach at home. I don’t limit my teachings to Sunday mornings, but I do read from the scriptures and teach from the Word on Sundays. Most of the time, we work on the Bible, but I also teach from eastern scriptures. Sometimes we will read from the Mahabharata (the Hindu holy works); sometimes from Rumi (a Sufi mystic from thirteen-century Turkey); sometimes we will delve into poetry from Walt Whitman. In other words, our church embraces all well-intentioned routes to finding God.

Paris_-_Bibl._Mazarine_-_ms._0924,_f_150v

http://idlespeculations-terryprest.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-apostles-creed.html

So what happens when my daughter says, “Hey Mom, Dad wants to take us to church with his new girlfriend? And he says we gotta pack our church clothes?”

The honest answer for us at least was somewhat humorous. The kids and I looked at one another, each with a bit of apprehension and perhaps a tad of annoyance. “Church clothes?” My daughter said.

“Church clothes?” My middle child said.

“Huh?” My youngest child said.

It took us a while, but we found some clothing that was more or less church-appropriate. Our scavenging was not without a few remarks about the lack of guidance in the Apostle’s Creed regarding church attire (a train of thought that I may have started). But we got it figured out, and I also had a chance to go over the Apostle’s Creed with my children.[1]

To be clear, as a servant of God I do accept the main tenets of this creed. I don’t believe in the supremacy of the Holy Catholic Church. I don’t think it’s necessary to accept the pope or the catechism to be okay with God. I’m also not quite sure about the phrase, “he will judge the living and the dead” as applied to Jesus, for I do not think that Jesus is co-equal to God. Jesus was God’s Son, and he obeys his Father’s orders, but does he wield the staff at Home? I was thinking through these doctrinal matters as we searched for “proper” church attire.

And then my daughter piped up, “Mom, is it okay for us to go to his church, or his girlfriend’s church?”

A funny thing happened inside me. I hesitated. I had to think about it. I didn’t immediately say a loving, fearless, “Well, yes,” because I didn’t feel it. I felt uncertain. I pictured in my mind several different churches at once, and some of what I saw was good; some was not so good; some was innocuous but uninspiring. The worst of what I saw was an intolerant, fear-instilling Baptist preacher commenting on the sins of gays. The best was a Methodist minister reminding his flock at Christmas time that “we can’t take it with us,” so we should not focus on earthly material gain. But mostly I saw a little girl sitting in a pew reading a Bible instead of listening to church announcements. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, anytime someone gets curious about the Word, one more soul is hearing God’s call.

As I was thinking, my daughter said, “What if they teach things we don’t believe? What if they say it’s sinful to be gay or what if—”

“—I don’t think any minister in Northern Virginia is gonna go there,” I said.

“Better not,” she said. “I couldn’t stand it when they went off on that during Bible study last year.”

I issued a quiet nod and remarked, “If they were to refer to that same passage in Romans, you could remind them of what?”

My daughter’s face screwed up in concentration. “Doesn’t Paul say you’re not supposed to judge anyone else’s sins, because we all sin?”

“Yep.”

“Okay,” she said, “But you don’t really think homosexuality is a sin.”

I nodded again. “Yeah, but you don’t need to argue that every time. You can always peacefully remind someone that the very same thing they’re using in the Bible to condemn others says you shouldn’t condemn or judge anyone, seems like a better way to change their minds right? More peaceful.

I smiled at my daughter, who was shrugging and shaking her head. “I don’t feel so peaceful when people say mean things at church,” she said. “In fact, I feel like kicking them.”

“Not good,” I chuckled.

“But Mom, they’re hateful.”

“Who’s hateful?”

My daughter stopped and thought about it, and then she said, “Mom, you teach a different way, and it’s never hateful. Will it be okay?”

“You mean, will it be okay to go to church, maybe hear what some other folks have to say? Or do you mean, will it be okay if they say some things you don’t agree with, maybe some things I don’t agree with either, do you mean will you be okay if you sit still and listen?”

My daughter was trying to roll her eyes at the direction my question was going, but her curiosity was piqued. “So would you go, if you were invited?”

512px-Westboro-church1

Photo by Americasroof, Wikipedia

I smiled and then laughed. “Well, I don’t think I’ll be invited . . . but . . .”

We both chuckled, and then I continued my line of thought. “I always go to worship services if I’m invited, if I’m able of course. There are probably a few churches I wouldn’t go to, like Westboro Baptist—”

“—They’re the ones who protest at funerals, like when soldiers are killed, they protest against gays?”

“Yeah, that’s the ones. I wouldn’t go to their church because for sure they’re spewing hateful stuff, for sure. But the vast majority of Christian churches are good, they teach some fear-based stuff sometimes, that’s not good, but mostly they share the Word and they do their best to help people.”

“—Mom,” my youngest son interposed, “Are Catholics also Christians?”

“Yeah, Catholics are Christians, so are Protestants, so long as you follow the Apostle’s Creed you’re Christian.” I glanced at my daughter, who appeared thoughtful. She didn’t say anything, so I continued talking. “You should never be afraid to hear other people’s opinions, whether they’re right or wrong, accurate or completely off-base, you need to assume that they’re trying their best to get it right, especially when you’re going somewhere to worship God, even if you don’t love the service, even if you don’t feel totally comfortable, you can see a different way of worshiping him, and while you’re there, you can talk to Him yourself or you can think about Home, it’s never a bad thing to think about Home, it’s never a bad thing to see how someone else thinks about Home.”

“Mom?” It was my youngest son again. “Are we Christian?”

I rubbed his head. “We are all whatever we choose to be, I for one follow the teachings of Jesus, and I think he is God’s Son and the Savior, I just don’t think Jesus and the Father are the same. I guess this makes us nondenominational Christian, because most denominational—”

“—What’s denominational?” My middle child now was listening in.

“Oh, it’s a specific church, like Lutheran, Methodist, that’s what you all were baptized in, Baptist, Episcopalian . . .” I paused and waited for my middle child to nod at me. “So most Christians who belong to these denominations, they follow what they call the Trinity, but when I read what Jesus said, I think all along he said he was the Son, and he was obeying the Father, he was ‘doing the will of Him who sent him,’ but it’s okay to disagree with folks on this issue, it doesn’t make them bad or us better or them good and us worse, it’s just a different interpretation.”

My youngest son bounced away. He was done asking questions. But my daughter was still a little stuck. “It doesn’t matter who’s right? What does the Apostle’s Creed say?”

“You mean about the trinity or about gays?”

“Trinity, I know they’re wrong about gays,” she said with a winsome smile.

“It says nothing, it says the Father and the Son, treats them as separate, but a billion Christians think they’re the same, it’s just what is taught to kids when they’re young. But it doesn’t matter, trinity or no trinity, one God or Father and Son, it doesn’t hurt people if they’re wrong about some doctrines, what matters is that they’re well-intentioned, and the same goes for people who actually deny that Jesus was the Son, who say he was just a man—”

“—But you are sure he was God’s Son, and you’re adamant about it, right Mom?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” I poured a glass of water and checked the time. It was Thursday morning and I wanted to take the kids to the mountains for the afternoon, so I needed to wrap it up. “The thing is, it’s important to be accurate, but it’s not so important to be right.” I smiled because I was repeating some advice a close friend had once given me. At the time, I had thought being right was incredibly important, but I had realized that being right is only important to those of us who have too much pride. I still struggled with this, and that was probably the gist of the issue for my daughter too.

Sure enough, she said aloud, “But aren’t you right, I mean about doctrines like the trinity?”

I lifted both hands and smiled. “Doesn’t matter.”

“Why not?”

What matters is how you love and how much you give. What matters is using your abilities to serve others. Those things matter so much more than being right. It’s really important to just do your best, and that applies to ministers and to preachers as well. I don’t sit here and judge other ministers. I don’t want it to be about figuring out who’s right and who’s wrong. As long as ministers are trying to help people get Home, that’s good. Whatever the faith, whatever the dogma, whatever the creed is, so long as it’s based on love and is taught with love, it’s good.”

438663_Bible

Image from www.christianbooks.com

______

A few days later, my daughter called me. It was Sunday afternoon, so I asked how church had been.

“It wasn’t bad, actually, it was really cute, Ben sat and read the Bible the entire time, I think he got as far as Leviticus.”

“Awww,” I smiled into the phone. “That’s what I used to always do in church, I’d get bored and then I’d start reading the Bible, always loved it.”

“Yep, he says he wants a new Bible, a blue one.”

“Blue?”

“Yeah, that’s what he said, Mom.”

I grinned and added, “Tell him I’ll find a blue one.”

__________

[1] I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.



Hot/Crazy Matrix: Pop Culture and Souls

I generally don’t write about popular culture because what’s now popular in culture doesn’t resonate with my sensibilities. I’m more interested in the Kingdom of Heaven than which celebrity is getting run over the coals in the tabloids, or who divorced who, or who said what, or who got into what scandal or even in what’s playing at the movies. But I’m here on earth now. And I have three children who are beginning to use social media. My daughter often comes to me with questions about what she reads. So perhaps that’s why I’m delving into something as apparently picayune as the so-called “Hot/Crazy Matrix.”

For those of you who like me had never heard of this, the Hot Crazy Matrix is the standard men should use to decide whether their girlfriend is too crazy to handle. If she is “hot” or very pretty, she can have a high quotient of crazy. But if she’s not pretty, she must have a very low corresponding crazy quotient.

The other day, I was talking about this with a good friend of mine. We were asking one another if we were suitably hot to justify our craziness. We chuckled at first, then we both groaned. Neither one of us is particularly crazy. But as my friend said, “We’re both women. We cry. We cry when we’re angry. We cry when we yell, we cry when we get yelled at . . .” and I interrupted and said, “Yep, and when we’re happy, and when we’re tired . . .” and we both chuckled.

She added, “And these emotions can be confusing for our men.”

I laughed and then looked out the window and watched the rainwater run down the glass pane. “I wish I was younger sometimes, just so I could be hot again, but I was also hurt so much more easily.”

She agreed, and we kept talking, and later, I asked my daughter if she had heard of the Hot/Crazy Matrix.

“Isn’t that what Facebook started out as?” My daughter glanced at the book she was reading and made a face. “Didn’t some guys make a book of faces and didn’t they go and rank women based on how hot they are? Mom, did you know that one of the popular girls told Alice she was ugly today and would never have a boyfriend? I told her off, it’s the same thing, it’s all about how a woman looks isn’t it?”

“Ugh,” I said. “What girl said that?”

“A popular girl, of course.” My daughter raised an eyebrow and then we both sighed. “She’s really hot. And she has a boyfriend.”

“And you told her off?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

“Mom, isn’t there another website now, called Hot or Not?” My daughter grabbed my cell phone and clicked on the web browser.

“Ugh, I don’t think I want to see it,” I said.

My youngest son swept in behind my daughter. “You’re looking at hot girls? I wanna see.”

“No,” we both said.

“What?” Ben tried to look over Maddie’s shoulder. “I like sexy ladies.”

I grabbed the phone from Maddie and put it in my pocket. Then I thought about how to talk to them both about it. My other son had also wandered into the kitchen (which is in fact the site for most of our conversations). I wanted to explain what love means, and what endures, as opposed to what doesn’t endure. I thought about a lot of things. I thought about another one of my friends, the writer Natalie Owens, said to me over private message in regards to this issue: “Popular culture is a way to control people and create desensitized citizens lacking respect and compassion.”

I agree with that characterization, but I needed to keep it simple. Easier for a boy to digest. And for a girl too. So I said, “You know how important it is to have love right?” I checked on my kids and they all nodded.

So I continued, “It’s hard to find it. It’s such a simple thing, love is, but to find someone you can share your life with, you need to look for what’s not gonna change in them. Looks change. Views change. Interests change. But there is something that is never gonna change in a person you’re with.”

“Their souls?” Maddie gave me one of her surprised smiles, the ones she gives when she understands something complex or sounds smart.

I smiled back. “Yep. That’s what we need to focus on. When the man we’re with is unkind or cold or distant or harsh or busy, we gotta feel for what really matters. Quite simply, is their soul one that brings us to life? Does our heart leap a little when they enter the room? Do we feel a deep attraction to the piece of them that doesn’t change over time or years or depending upon what shell they’re in? Does it feel like we can talk to them until forever and a day passes? Do they feel comfortable and exciting—or as another friend put it, do they feel like a spiritual being in a physical body that reminds us of Home? Does their being jive with us? Do they resonate or vibrate or feel right?”

“But Mom, what does this have to do with the Hot/Crazy Matrix?” Maddie sent a pointed look to my pocket, where my cell phone was lodged.

I shook my head. “Well, just as I need to think about the soul of the man I’m dating, he needs to think of my soul too. So no matter how emotional I get, how, I dunno, men wanna call it being crazy whenever a woman is vulnerable or expresses a need or—”

“—But Mom,” Maddie said, “That woman in Gone Girl was definitely crazy. She was hot too, and she seemed to get away with being crazy because she was so hot. That’s how she was able to kill the one guy and scare her husband into doing what she wanted him to do.”

“True! But not many women are truly psychopaths like she was, are they?”

Maddie shook her head.

“Just because a woman is needy sometimes, or emotional, or vulnerable, or has expectations, or carps, or criticizes, or wants too much from the man she’s with doesn’t make her crazy or bad. And when we put tags or definitions or stereotypes on everyone it keeps us from focusing on the bigger picture.”

“In other words, it dehumanizes women?”

“Yeah,” I said. “And it dehumanizes men too.” I paused and patted down a stray strand on Ben’s head. “It keeps them from focusing on more than how sexy a woman is, and it keeps him from really trying to understand her behavior.”

Ben grinned and said, “I still think Adele is beautiful.”

“So do I!” I chuckled and listened with one ear as Ben talked about how Adele was the most beautiful mom ever . . . and continued to cogitate on the deeper meaning or importance of the phenomenon known as the Hot/Crazy Matrix. Sure, I can be quick to speak out against anything that dehumanizes women, but to my way of thinking, the Matrix dehumanizes men too. It encourages them to look on the surface for what really lies within. It gives them yet one more method for categorizing, defining, representing . . . that which is really beyond easy comprehension.

Are some women crazy? If you want to apply a scientific test to it, you’ll see that a certain percentage of women suffer from mental illness. You’ll find the same percentage applies to men, though, so if you’re looking to understand a woman’s behavior by assigning all their behavior to whether it’s sexy or crazy, you’re drawing both too wide and too narrow a band of understanding around these behaviors. In other words, you’re not seeing the penumbras of color that fan out when you get to know another human being.

Understanding others is important. And categories can help . . . except when they cause you to ignore deeper truths. If you’re in a relationship, look for the essence of the soul you’re attached to, and that essence lies in how their soul connects to your soul. Do they feel comfortable? Do they feel familiar? Do they love you? Do you love them? Are you better with them or without them in your life? Do you feel more complete because of them—or less? Do you both love and respect them? And yes, can you look past their surface flaws?

These are hard questions to answer sometimes, and if you’re having trouble answering the question, that’s a sign that you might be with the wrong man or woman. But it’s a question worth answering—because we all deserve to experience deep and lasting love.

As far as the Hot/Crazy Matrix . . . I would subject this relic of modern popular culture to the same analysis. Is such a Matrix good for us? Does applying it to the people in our lives make us happier or less happy? Does it make us wiser, better souls to think in terms of whether the woman we love is hot or crazy? Is it fair to call all women some degree of crazy? Does it help us find happiness to subject others to easy tags and categories? Do we want others to subject us to the same type of thought—in other words, does the Hot/Crazy Matrix follow the Golden Rule? Or is applying this Matrix not the way we would want someone to view or treat us? In other words, if you’re a man now and you were to reincarnate as a woman in the next life, how would you feel about the Matrix? Would you like it? Or would it hurt you?

 

 




Why I Dislike Santa

I love Christmas. I love the celebration of the winter solstice and the auguring in of a new year; I love to honor the last official appearance of God’s son in the world as a human boy; I love to hunt for the perfect Christmas tree; I love to teach the children about giving and sharing and making the world better for the less fortunate, which is becoming something akin to a family tradition for us. I love the smell of pine and I love the gathering of families and I love the promise (or in some years the delicious appearance) of snow falling in a glittering purple night sky. I love the winter season and I love Christmas for all that it is and all that it helps us to be. When, that is, we become better souls because of it. When, in other words, we give an extra twenty or we pay a family’s electricity bill or we smile at a stranger or we slow down and hold the door open for someone holding heavy bags or we buy a toy for a kid in need—this, to me, is the essence of what makes Christmas so good.

I just touched though on what often betrays the best of Christmas—this buying of presents. For even when it’s done with charitable intent, it’s still the one thing that unites all America. Christmas in America is about spending money. For inextricably tied to Christmas in modern day secular culture is the reign of the great symbol for mass consumer culture: Santa Claus. And I dislike everything about Santa.

Why?

  1. Adoring Santa Claus leads us to place the focus on spending money rather than on connecting with our inner selves or with things and matters of eternal value. We worship getting and spending and we become, as the Bhagavad Gita teaches, our deepest desires, or we become that which we desire most. If we spend all of our time chasing things down on Amazon, if we traipse up and down crowded malls staring into beautifully stocked windows, we end up wanting all of THAT. It’s unavoidable. We become what we desire most and we desire most what we focus our time and energy on acquiring or becoming. If we’re shopping, we in fact become what we’re shopping for . . . whereas if we are worshiping or meditating and seeking the divine, we become THAT—that union with the best in us and the best that come OF us. To reach our higher selves, we need to disconnect from our lower selves, or the ones that crave after the material bits and pieces of our fleeting physical world.

    From http://business.simon.com/leasing/orland-square-mall

     

     

  2. Santa Claus is a false idol. When we teach our children to worship him, to write him adoring letters asking for STUFF, we teach them to honor a purely imaginary entity, and they’re not even taught to honor this entity. They’re taught to fear him and ask him for favors. They’re taught, “He sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake” as if they’re in the throes of some stalker/all-powerful, omniscient entity. They’re taught to behave and be good boys and girls so this all-powerful, scary but kind and plump entity will bring them toys. Just ugh.
  3. We lie to our kids from early childhood about Santa. When it’s time to teach them about the real God and his son, as well as angels and prophets, why should our children believe us? After all, it’s impossible to see God or angels with the human eye. God can only be seen or felt with our souls, and yet we’ve flimflammed our kids into thinking that they can’t really trust their intuition or their senses—after all, Santa does not exist, but all adults say he’s real—which leaves children with the choice of trusting themselves or trusting what more powerful adults allege to be true. In other words, trust us because we’re older, and don’t trust your own intuition is what we are telling children to believe when we insist they believe in Santa Claus.To truly see God and to actually communicate with angels requires that we teach kids to do the exact opposite of what we teach them to do with Santa, because you can only hear or see God if you trust yourself. Seeing with soulvision or via human intuition takes practice and the first step in practicing is trusting yourself and your teachers to help you see what is and isn’t real. Santa’s not real, but adults say he is. So who should a child trust? Obviously, a child can’t trust his or her own judgment in the case of Santa. What about God? Should a child blindly believe in God just because you say God exists? But you LIE! Why should a child believe you if you lie to him or her?

  1. God is real. Santa is not. But we tell kids they’re both real and we celebrate the coming of Santa the same time we celebrate the last coming of God’s son—and then we try to teach children about God? No wonder religion is so impossible to teach or comprehend in the modern era. We’re confusing the heck out of our children and out of ourselves too for that matter. When a child looks us in the eye and asks if Santa’s real and we lie and say “Yes Santa’s real,” we also lie to ourselves—we say to ourselves that it’s a “good lie” because we’re using the lie to propagate a nice myth for our children. We tell ourselves it’s a white lie just in keeping with having a white Christmas, but I say that’s pure nonsense. Why is it not better to say, “No Santa is not real, adults make up nice stories to amuse you, but Mom and I (Dad and I) get you presents we think would bring you joy . . . but the real focus should be on what Christmas really means, and truly what it’s about is celebrating the birthday of God’s son, Jesus. Why not tell them THIS?
  2. Santa brings us stress. When we run around spending and consuming, we make ourselves miserable. We also make our children miserable. They become selfish. Their motivation is dulled even as their need for physical baubles and plastic toys is sharpened. They get stuff, and none of it is meaningful . . . so they become even more fixated on getting more, because they feel empty after they open one present, especially with ten more waiting, and this need begets more need, and none of this is any good for the soul of your child.
  3. Santa promises to give kids more, but this promise results in them receiving much less than is their due. Each time they contemplate Santa or see a Santa decoration, or even a Christmas tree light somewhere, a Pavlonian like response goes off in their brains, and they think not about God but about getting something from Santa. Our children get obsessed with compiling, getting, comparing, consuming, taking . . . and this brings out the ugliest side of their human nature, not the best side. Even worse, we threaten the kids. We say, “Behave, be good, or you will get nothing and Santa will be mad at you,” so we start building up shame and fear of punishment, of authority in their hearts, one leaden deadening brick at a time. All of this fear of Santa resembles the fear orthodoxy breeds in churches. We shouldn’t try to shame our kids into behaving, nor should we resort to bribery. Our children are infinitely better than this. So are we.
  4. The symbol of Santa makes us competitive and jealous. We realize other children get more, and we want more too. It’s just human. We all do it. We all want not so much to have more, but not for others to have too much more than we have. The more our neighbors have, the more we want, and nothing brings this ugly emotion out more viciously than “Santa brought me this” envy.

    Nativity tree2011” by Jeff WeeseFlickr: Nativity. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Santa Claus is easy. Everyone follows this tradition. It’s actually hard to say “No, I don’t worship or propagate this myth,” but it’s not really THAT hard to be truthful, to go a different route, to stick to what’s true and to diverge from the norm. After all, it’s been said that normal is just a dryer setting, and in the case of Santa Claus, normal also seems to me to reek of conformity to a certain form of insanity. You don’t have to hurt your children or your friends by telling the truth about Santa. You can say with grace and class, “Well, some people like this tradition and they follow it and that’s wonderful, but the truth is THIS,” and then you tell them you go a different route. No one sane is going to disparage you if you don’t teach kids that a strange man is appearing on their rooftop with reindeer carrying bags of toys.

I hope this gives you something to think about. I am grateful for the true spirit of Christmas, which I’ve seen abounding all around me in this beautiful town of Front Royal I’m now so fortunate to be living in, as a single mother of three. Over the last week especially, as I’ve recovered from a serious car accident, I’ve been treated with kindness and generosity and compassion by hospital workers, tow truck drivers, rental car agencies, mechanics, service center employees, and by souls online who’ve wished me a speedy recovery. THIS is Christmas and it’s why I love it so much. Christmas is about giving and loving in my home. What is it to you?




The Church Who Turned a Hungry Family Away

There is a sickness overtaking the modern American church. One of my friends actually has a tattoo of a dilapidated structure. When you look at the tattoo, you can see what’s wrong with the church from the sketch itself. The church is obviously teetering on its foundations—vast foundations, overladen with fancy artwork, expensive sculptures, and stuffed coffers.

I pictured this tattoo this morning when I got up and thought about this story I’d heard last night. There’s this lady in the American south, and I’m gonna leave the name of what state she lives in out of this story just in case she ever reads it, because I don’t wanna embarrass her. She and her family have fallen on hard times. Her husband works at a company that periodically lays off its employees, who are cruelly labeled as “independent contractors,” which really is a lark and a fraud, but this is Twenty-First Century America and most big corporations are living embodiments of the Scrooge . . . so anyway, her husband got laid off temporarily. And because of the way government and business share the same bedroll (after the corporation submits legal bribes from its payroll), the husband can’t collect unemployment . . . and by the time he finds a new job, he’s gonna get rehired again, based on past practices at least.

This family was making less than $1,500 a month, and now the primary wage earner’s been laid off. So the family’s in a pickle. This is a proud family. A good man, a good woman, two young kids too young to understand why their mom’s crying when she looks in the pantry and sees only a sack of old potatoes, maybe some two-week old bread, I dunno, maybe some butter. I haven’t been by their house or anything, but I know what desperation and an empty pantry feels like.

This family doesn’t go to church, not regularly, so for real, they’re like so many Americans. They don’t get much from the modern stand up and sit down, mumble some words and shake hands with the family behind you, but deep down they view church as what it was meant to be: a place of refuge, a source of hope and healing, a safe place where you can go when you can’t go anywhere else to get help.

So the mother walks down to the local church. She doesn’t drive because they can only afford to have one car, and her husband needs it. She also doesn’t want him to know she’s asking the church for help.

 

She gets there. A woman tells her to fill out some forms, and she’s thinking, forms, why? I just need some food. But she does what she’s told because we’ve all gotten used to doing what we’re told when we walk through the door of the ubiquitous American institution . . . there’s signs for everything and doors for everyone, but there’s no heart in these signs or these doors . . . I am roaming off topic again, sorry.

So she’s filling out these forms and trying so damn hard not to cry, and she’s wishing the lady would just see her pantry and how hungry she is, because she’s not eating. No mother would eat when there’s barely enough to feed her children . . . and none of the questions really are making much sense (why does a church sound like a creditor or an unemployment office? she’s asking herself), but she answers honestly and she tries not to bite her fingernails because coming to the church was a Hail Mary, and now she’s too scared to even think of Mary while she scribbles symbols on a white form.

I’ll skip ahead, you got other things to read and think about today. The intake clerk looks down over her glasses and says, “Your husband makes too much income to qualify for assistance.”

This is a true story. It’s why my friend has a tattoo of a broken church. This church supposedly represents God, but let me tell you, God never would turn away a hungry mother with two hungry children. No church should ever turn away those in need.

And this my friends, in a little more than 750 words, is why we’re building our own church. It’s really simple after all. Those who claim to serve God need to serve others, always. A church that won’t serve is no real church at all, and I’m not talking about meeting IRS requirements for grabbing tax-free treatment under Section 501(c)(3) of the Tax Code. I’m talking about satisfying a better, more loving master: the Lord who stands at the foundation of any real church. That Lord believes those who serve Him serve all others first.




Release! Wave Rising, Sequel to Best-selling Ripple

After two grueling years, I’m finally releasing the sequel to the best-selling Ripple. Wave Rising is a classic love story, abounding with hope and packed with healing. Like the other books I’m working on, it tries to entertain readers while also bringing spirituality back into religion. I’m a newly single mom with three kids, so if you grab a copy, the four dollars you spend will help us very much.

So what can you expect from Wave Rising? Reviewer Brie Grubbs writes this about it:

Phoebe Thompson was introduced to us in “Ripple” as a shattered, broken young woman, suffering the pain and confusion of being made a victim by someone she trusted. No child should ever have to go through that, but Phoebe’s story in Ripple gave girls like her hope- whether they were 13 or 30, victims or survivors.

Wave Rising

Wave Rising

The continuance of her story in “Wave Rising” gives us more than hope. It lights a fire within the soul to do precisely what Phoebe has done- take a horrible act and turn it into something that changes lives. And changing lives is precisely what E.L. [Phoenix] is doing. She addresses an issue that is still taboo, and smashes through the stigmas attached. Her words give a broken girl wings, and watching her soar- despite setbacks and hardships- is incredible.
Beautifully written, heart breakingly real, and scarily accurate, Wave Rising is a portrayal of how some stories like Phoebe’s turn out. The lucky ones, the strong ones, take the pain and turn it into wings, and their stories give those of us without them, and without a voice, hope that someday, we too can fly.

Wave is available on Amazon now. It will be available on all the other outlets sometime this week, and I’ll be publishing the paperback copy as soon as we make some final revisions to the cover.

Speaking of those revisions, I do have a new last name now, which reflects some of the grueling personal issues I’ve been experiencing. It took me years to be as strong in my own personal life as my characters are in their lives–indeed, it took me years to grow wings of my own. I believe there’s a gag order on what else I can say, or one’s been threatened. That of course is the nature of abuse: we’re either directly threatened all the time, or so used to being threatened on a constant basis by men who tell you that “abuse is the most over-used word in the English language” that we shrink back from saying what we really mean. I look forward to helping create a world where women can stop fearing to speak, to live, to love, and to rise to their full potential. But I for one am no longer living in fear.

The other thing I am gonna go ahead and say is this. I did break free. But in some respects my wings are still a bit weak. For now, I am not receiving any child support. As I explained to one of my friends this morning, I came from Phoebe’s side of the tracks. This is the first time I’ve experienced financial hardship of any real sort, and I’m actually grateful for some of these sorts of tribulations, because they’re making me a better soul, more about to serve and understand those I serve.

There is one thing you can really do that will help my children and I: please buy my book, and tell your friends it’s a good read. And if you’re able to leave a review, I promise you that review will help me very much. Reviews sell books, and each book I sell helps my children and I out so very much.

 




Health Update and Request for Ripple Reviews

Hello friends. I hope the sun is shining on your Saturday with as much light and brilliance as it is shining on mine. It’s been an overwhelming week for me and for my family. We spent the greater part of the week in specialists’ offices and holding my son tight as we search for answers. While we still don’t have a diagnosis for what’s causing our son’s high blood pressure, our hopes our high and our faith is firm. We will find a cause and then a cure. In the meantime, I thank God every morning for another day, for me, for him, for all of us.

Your prayers and kind thoughts mean more to me than I can adequately express here. Please keep lifting my family up, and please know just how much we appreciate it. Truly, we are so grateful for your love and support.

As you may or may not know, Ripple’s planned release date is Monday, 1/21. I thought about delaying it, but right now, working is keeping me sane and helping me get my mind off my worries. With my family behind me, I’m going ahead and releasing Ripple on time. It’s true to my nature and true to what the characters in this novel would do were they in my shoes. No matter the circumstances, life must be lived, rather than set aside. And in living, and working, we can find relief from our difficulties.

Front and Back Cover

To those of you who were kind enough to advance read Ripple, I would be so very grateful if you could write an honest review on Amazon and/orGoodreads. And I do mean honest, with the gentle caveat that the more stars you give it, the more likely it is to end up in the hands of other readers.

I’d also like to send out a huge thank-you to Renée Schuls-Jacobson, who sent me a note late last night and single-handedly turned my Amazon blurb into a much better end product. My name may be on the title, but the writing of this first novel has been one I could not have done alone.

Here are the links to Amazon and Goodreads.

Amazon

Goodreads

And finally, to buy an autographed copy of Ripple, I think you can click on this link: Buy Autographed Copy of Ripple

And again, thank you all so very much for your support, and especially for your prayers and kind thoughts concerning my son.




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