Friday, November 21, 2014

Fiction and the Mockingjay in Real Life

I have loved fiction for as long as I have had the mind to love anything, and as a child, they molded my morals and priorities. Telling stories and hearing them or reading them is about communicating more than just cognitive information. Stories imprint upon us emotionally, taking hold of something in our minds and changing us in some small way forever.

Quantitative facts are analyzed. The realness of them is of upmost importance, and that the realness be proven, a requirement for their claim. Facts, data, and science are tangible, their truths made plain in the scrutinizing light of reason, and we accept them because they insist we must. And those things would exist whether we chose to see them or not.

A story, however, must be seen or heard in order to be true, and the truth of fiction is often different from one person to the next. A story begs a relationship with its audience to be what it is and belongs as much to its audience as to its creator in the telling. And fiction, especially, seeps easily into the memory-filled crevices of our minds, because it isn’t real, after all. So, what could it hurt?

As an atheist, I know full well the power of fiction. Even now, fiction holds sway over the actions of most people in the world, compelling them to kindness and cruelty alike. Religious texts are stories. The realness of them is debatable to some, but the realness of the story isn’t why they are so compelling. They are compelling because aspects of the story and of the characters in the story are entirely emotional in nature. Guilt, love, contentment, security, fear, and joy all play crucial parts in these tales and modern fiction is no different.

We know for certain that many stories aren’t real. We know because these stories have authors, directors, or special effects coordinators to dazzle us with lies. We pay money to be lied to, and I’m not even referencing homeopathic medicine, religion, or any other pseudoscience. I’m talking about things that everyone knows for sure are fiction and leave no room for delusions of being real in any way. I’m talking about movies, books, video games, live theatre, or any other form of fictional narrative art. To assert that fiction isn’t important because it isn’t real is utterly ignorant. Once again setting aside “debatable fiction,” I was struck this morning by how relevant modern fiction has become to the very real struggles of so many people.

“Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One” and the entire “Hunger Games” series is based on the struggles of fictional oppressed people in a fictional oppressive government. I’ve read the books and have yet to see any but the first movie, but I’ve been following the hype and excitement of audiences throughout their releases. And it isn’t just American audiences that are devouring these stories. International audiences love them, too. Just how well the movies are produced, directed, and casted is, of course, important. But I think that the story is what really gets people. People being oppressed by their government? Who could identify with that?

The first thing that comes to mind is what has been happening in Ferguson, Mo. The deaths of many, many young black men at the hands of police officers frightened into action by racism or motivated to malicious violence by the same provoked an entire city into mobilized outrage. All it took was for one more black man to fall victim to the swiftly dragging undertow of systemic racism for this to happen. For years, this kind of racism went largely unnoticed by unoppressed people. For years, the mistreatment of young black men at the hands of armed police officers was either ignored or accepted on the understanding that these men deserved their fate, that they must have been up to no good, or why else would our just and fair police force be targeting them with such impunity?

It has taken too long for the unoppressed to realize that arming people with lethal weapons and the authority to use them against a population, often without the means to defend itself in name or body, isn’t justice. And so what began as a nonviolent but emotionally charged, protest has escalated into a full blown “state of emergency” with even more armed authority figures being called in to “keep the peace.” Likening this to the narrative presented by the “Hunger Games” movies is not a stretch, but the narrative of Ferguson, Mo. is still being written.

However, there are other protests happening in other places of the world that have been directly inspired by the “Hunger Games” movies. In Thailand, PM Prayuth Chan-ocha has declared indefinite martial law. The Thai military took over the government on May 22 and has been forcibly quashing protests of their actions to include arresting people giving the infamous three fingered salute from The Hunger Games. Reading about this literally gave me goosebumps. Theater chains in Thailand have cancelled showings of Mockingjay to avoid trouble. Students arranging free showings of the Hunger Games movies have been arrested, and Prayuth has said that anyone showing the salute was “endangering their future.”

You can read more about the events in Thailand here:

Protesters in Thailand are gathering strength and courage from something someone made up. The director of Mockingjay, Francis Lawrence, has addressed the issue by asserting, "My goal is not for kids to be out there doing things that are getting them arrested." However, the story has become larger than his directorial efforts. The audience has claimed the story, and it is now as much theirs as anyone else’s. The creators of the story can do nothing to stop this.

Our fiction, what we read, what we write, and what is written, reflect the times in which we live. History may be written by those in power, but our stories tell the truths behind what happened and why. I used to feel guilty about reading more fiction than non-fiction. Admittedly, I do read more news and non-fiction than I used to, but the stories are really what nourishes me and keeps me going. Our stories motivate us, and the facts that surround us give us some sense of direction and purpose.

Every person has at least one story inside of them. Some people have many. But the continued progress of our culture and of humanity relies on our ability to tell these stories and on those stories being heard. The more I listen, the more I am able to understand just how important these things are. Whether you read books, watch movies, or go to shows, know that you are taking part in a great cultural phenomenon that has been a tradition for as long as humanity has thrived. In as much as I’m addressing you, I am also reminding myself to never stop valuing the tale or the telling, or to feel idle in doing either. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My Big Fat Journey

Fat acceptance.

It has taken me a long time to be able to look at those two words together, two words that have recently become a movement, and to feel comfortable with them. After all, isn’t being fat unacceptable? I was raised with this notion and became an adult with this notion. I have toiled endlessly under this notion and have failed just as endlessly under the idea that being fat is inherently bad.

I am not entirely sure when I became aware I was fat, but I know that I’ve been fat for my entire life. I can remember looking at a picture of a two year old me when I was about five and noticing the roundness in my face. One of my aunts was discussing the nature of my size with my grandmother, insisting that I was “just healthy”. Family members would examine my plump little physique when I would do handstands or back bend-overs, remarking on the likelihood that I had lost weight as my abdomen stretched, only to be disproven when I was upright once more and still chubby.

That's me in the middle when I was eight. As you can see, I am a sweaty, dirty, chubby kid. Also, my mother is responsible for that hair cut. 

I rode my bike, played outside, climbed trees, swam, and did all the things that other kids did. However, I did it with a little more mass. I still like to think of myself as possessing my own special kind of gravity, and I wish I could go back and tell my elementary school self that I was okay just the way I was. But even if I could, I don’t know if I could have listened.

Starting in third grade, other kids at school commented on my size. The blatant comments of kids at school and veiled remarks adults thought were out of earshot coalesced into understanding, and I was fat. It was hard for me to understand exactly why I was fat since I saw other kids eat far more than I did and remain thin, but I knew that this was at least one part of the fatness equation, so I began to curtail my portions at school. Some days, I would just eat an apple. I thought that if kids didn’t see me eating, then they wouldn’t make fun of me. Teachers would see how little I ate and insist I eat more, and so I battled through lunch, sometimes eating more and sometimes less depending on my stealth and resolve.

Puberty came for me early, and by the time I was eleven, I had even more fat in different places as well as all the fun of fluctuating hormones. The bullying intensified and I was picked on nearly every day at the bus stop and on the bus as well as in classes. The kids shamed me for being fat, for being smart, or just for being…alive. My eating habits fluctuated up and down depending on how much I was being teased and how much support and acceptance I could find in my friends and family.

Raised a good Christian girl, I was taught by the Bible to turn the other cheek, and I did. I thought God was testing me and that if I could just be strong enough, one day, the other kids would stop picking on me, or, miracle of miracles, that I might actually get to be thin. I thought, maybe, God was testing my willpower and that I just had to fast like Jesus did, and my blighted body would melt into svelte perfection. The fasting technique was pretty difficult to execute, however, and so I would eat and not eat, on and off. I enjoyed walking and being alone after school, and the woods around my house became my sanctuary against temptation on my fasting days and just my sanctuary of peace and relative silence on my non-fasting days. I did not get any thinner.

I excelled at school academically, a teacher’s pet in several classes. Socially, I floundered. I was able to make a few friends, but as the gap between my intellectual achievements and my “coolness” widened, the list of people that would talk to me or interact with me became shorter and shorter. I watched as fat boys were able to retain popularity and acceptance and was utterly flummoxed as to my own failures. Other fat girls existed, but they didn’t talk to me. I didn’t talk to them. Some of them were mean, and I was afraid of being picked on further, and some of them floated through the hallways as invisibly as I did.

Highschool had its ups and downs…and downs and downs. I discovered theater and really loved working on the tech crew. I sang in three different choirs, two of them by audition. I maintained a 4.25 GPA my freshmen year. I also discovered real eating disorders and the joys of having food hurled at me by bullies at lunch. My academics and extracurricular activities were wonderful, and I loved them, but these joys weren’t quite enough to bolster my still failing social endeavors and my friends weren’t the kind to stand up for me when the tougher, meaner kids picked on me. I think I was just awkward enough that it was acceptable for me to be picked on, and of course being fat. If you’re fat, then people have to pick on you so that you’ll get better.

So, I dabbled in using my parent’s NordicTrack, fasting, and forcibly vomiting whenever I consumed more than a glass of skim milk or hot tea. I really don’t know how I was able to keep up with everything going on my life, although I do remember all the times I barely made it up the stairs because of how dizzy I felt. However, I was getting thinner. People even started to notice. I was miserable, but I was thinner. Hurray! Because that really is the most important part of being a teenager. Unfortunately, I was still too fat and too awkward for the bullies to resist.

I gave up on my crazy eating and non-eating habits over the following summer, got a job, a tan, and all of my chub back despite riding my bicycle the 7 miles to work and home again. Not long into my sophomore year of highschool, the pressure of being an academic and extracurricular overachiever combined with the incessant bullying became too much and I stopped going to school. It was all a great shock to my parents, my family, and my friends. As soon as I could, I dropped out of highschool, got an almost perfect score for my GED, and catapulted myself into adulthood.

My entire childhood, I was bullied for being fat, and for my entire childhood, I tried desperately not to be fat. Once I entered the adult world, the fat stigma became more subtle. People seemed to care a bit less and say a bit less about it to my face, and this was fine by me. However, I knew that I was still less valuable as a fat girl, so my fight against it continued.
I was terrified of learning to drive and put it off until I was twenty and pregnant with my son. Until this time, I rode my bike everywhere I wanted to go. I had well-muscled legs, but still enough pudge that I could barely get away with buying clothes in the “normal” section of most stores, unless those stores were pretentious perfume-pits like Guess or Hollister, in which case there was absolutely no hope for my size 16 ass.

I learned to pretend to not notice that I was fat, but to still expect less respect than my thinner coworkers. I was what they call a “good fattie”. I exercised and dieted. I knew my place in the world was below all the men and thinner women, for the most part, and that being a “good fattie” meant accepting that and just being grateful for what accolades I could gather. I dutifully spoke of my fat as some great sin I would one day shed along with my other friends who were far less fat than I but still bemoaning their undesirable lipids. They made-believe I wasn’t fatter than them, and so did I. They evenly politely insisted that I wasn’t at all fat if I made mention of it, as is proper.

I squeezed into “normal” sizes for a while and played my part as best I knew it while still trying to build some semblance of self-confidence. I dated men that made references to my “pretty face” as an asset that could counterbalance the fat on my body, and I was happy for the compliment. I laughed along with my boyfriends and their friends when they compared me to the Pillsbury Doughboy. I learned laughing along meant getting along, and that was as good as I thought I deserved.

After giving birth to a surrogate baby (It was wonderful and fulfilling and another story for another time), I found myself in the plus size section…and single and stripped of resources that I spent on keeping what I thought were friends and a loyal significant other happy. Being fat means having to generally be funnier, more tolerant of bullshit, and more generous if you are to have any friends at all. However, my postpartum fatness exceeded the price tag I could afford, and I found myself once again with only a handful of real friends and a flabby body I couldn’t escape.

One more time, I drank deeply of depression. I filled myself up with it in such a manner that I couldn’t manage eating. I didn’t even really have to try to lose the baby weight. It fell off of me as I maneuvered through the haze of working and just existing. People told me how good I looked and asked me what I had done. “I’m anxious and sad,” I would reply with a chuckle. What else could I say? Thank you? The depression of being duped by people I trusted combined with the hormonal cliff dive of postpartum recovery robbed me of wanting to eat anything at all. It was so amazingly bizarre to receive compliments on how I looked at the expense of feeling so terrible.

Throughout this abysmal postpartum hell, I had been talking to my friend, Mark Nebo. We had been friends for a few years, but not particularly close. After I decided to open myself up for dating, along with revising my standards for treatment in the process, Mark asked me out on a date. He picked me up from my parents’ house and paid for everything, just like I was a real person and not a fat person that has to barter her way through these situations because of being less valuable than someone with a smaller waistline.

I married Mark. I gained about ten pounds or so back before I did, and although I attempted to get back on the dieting and exercise rollercoaster, and Mark along with me, we both decided that dieting sucks. Mark also hates exercise.

Me on my wedding day with beer, because beer is just another thing Mark and I love that isn't conducive to being thin.    

Since being with someone that has accepted me, just as I am, I have learned to be able to do the same. I started to realize that being happy was vastly more important than being thin and that I am, in fact, just as valuable as anyone else. I started to think of beauty and fashion differently. I read articles and blogs written by other fat women, and I looked at images of fat women with pretty hair and make-up and beautiful form-fitting clothes hugging their voluptuous bodies.

At first, I accepted fatness with conditions. “Curves” were okay, but “lumps” were not. Hourglass figures were good, but apple-shaped bodies were still to be shunned. However, I worked through that, as well. I started to look at myself in the mirror. I saw all of myself as a whole, instead of just seeing the pieces I thought were fine. As I have aged, grown, matured, and created life, my body has changed. It will continue to change. I realized that I could no longer condition my happiness and self-acceptance on how fat I was or how my body looked. I realized that I would be waiting forever to allow myself to have something that I’ve deserved to have my entire life.

I like to exercise and to use my muscles. I like to do things that are physical in nature, but no amount of exercise has ever shaped me into what society deems acceptable. I have discovered that weight loss is possible for me, but that the price for such a feat has been far too much for too little. I have decided that being thinner isn’t worth what I would have to sacrifice to get it, and that decision is enough for me.

Northern Michigan with my two fur babies. Please notice how my being fat has literally no effect on my ability to do things. In fact, being fat might have been a boon in this much snow. 

In my arguments for fat acceptance, I have heard people respond with appeals to health. In all of my fatness, in all of my life, I have been perfectly healthy in body. My physicals are all fine and my bloodwork is perfect. My blood pressure and heart rates are at healthy levels. I don’t believe in God anymore, so I know that this isn’t just some strange miracle that I manage health with being fat.

However, even if I weren’t healthy, shaming in the name of health is cruel. If you need further proof, please reread all of the bullying and criticism I endured because of my fatness and decide if you think it had a positive outcome. Shaming does nothing to help anyone, and if you think being fat is the only measure of health, you are utterly wrong. Most people do things that are “unhealthy”. Some people drink, smoke, or eat food that isn’t healthy. Some people think less of themselves and become mentally unwell because society tells them they are the “wrong” size.

Christopher Hitchens flaunted his love for drinking and smoking, but from what I have seen, the world at large remembers mostly what he said, not whether or not he lead a vice-free lifestyle. If a person is smart, or kind, or incredibly hard-working, but also fat, especially if that person is a woman, I do not understand why this can devalue her accomplishments and her person so greatly when the same is not true for others who could be scrutinized in the name of health. So, the argument to reject fat acceptance in the name of health seems pretty illogical, all things considered.

So then, what is wrong with fat acceptance? Once you disprove a concern for health as a reason, there isn’t much left that makes any sense. Being fat doesn’t make me less funny, smart, beautiful, productive, caring, or creative. The worst thing being fat makes me is, maybe, less sexually attractive to some people, and for every person passing me up for my fat, there is another person that likes the extra cuddle mass or just doesn’t care that much about whether the person they are sexing is fat or not. Accepting fat people doesn’t take away from the value of other people any more than allowing gay people to get married delegitimizes the marriages of heterosexual people.

It took me awhile, but once I realized these truths, I was able to finally let go of the notion that fat is bad. It was like becoming an atheist all over again. All of the hurtful nonsense that had been holding me back fell away, and I was able to just love what life had to offer unabashedly and without shame.

I know that other people still believe that being fat is bad, and I know that other people might try to proselytize with their guilt-ridden drivel in regards to my personal relationship with fat, but that way of thinking has done nothing but hurt me in the past, and it makes no sense to me, now.
However my body changes in the future, and whatever I may decide to do with it, it will not be motivated by shame, guilt, or any other negativity. In accepting my fat, I have accepted myself and the full potential of what I deserve and what we all deserve, no matter our size or shape. 

This sums up my general opinion of fat-shaming.  

*If you have any doubts as to my fatness, or are tempted to believe I am one of the lucky fatties that only have fat in rounded, bubbly arrangements, I invite you to check out my previous blog post where I have laid bare (literally) all that is my glorious fat body. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Let's all break the internet!

I know it's been awhile since I've posted, so I really wanted to make this one count.

At almost seven months pregnant, I felt inspired by Kim Kardashian's recent photo shoot in and my wonderful husband, Mark Nebo, decided to support me by participating, as well.

Really, this is about my hard fought battle with my own body image as well as recognizing other people's struggles with the same issue. There is a conflict, I believe, to not only accept ourselves, but to accept each other, as well.

I invite you to do both and to share your own stories and pictures with me at @secularsunshine on twitter.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

What Did David Silverman Actually Say?

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, has recently been featured in an article on The Raw Story, in which he first asserted that, "Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked".

Although it would seem the vast majority of Conservatives are Christian, it is arguable that not all them are, and that some may even be atheists. Silverman confirms that conservative atheists exist and even goes so far as to call himself "fiscally conservative". He also said "that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives."

Silverman also brought up various social concerns that many Conservatives have, citing theocratic tendencies for those concerns with, perhaps, one exception:

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

That one quote has sparked quite a bit of unrest in the secular community. I've read several incredibly concerned comments and articles about this quote, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned, too. However, I have decided to reserve judgment until a clarification has been made.

What Silverman said, exactly, is that "there is a secular argument against abortion". Let's define "secular".

  [sek-yuh-ler]   adjective
1. of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.            
2. not pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to sacred ): secular music. 
3. (of education, a school, etc.) concerned with nonreligious subjects.
4. (of members of the clergy) not belonging to a religious order; not bound by monastic vows (opposed to regular ).
5. occurring or celebrated once in an age or century: the secular games of Rome.

Nowhere in this definition is mentioned morality, science, logic, or reason. It is preferable that these things would go hand in hand, but that just isn't always the case. Not all atheists are humanists, and not all atheists are skeptics. It is vastly unfortunate that a trait I thought would really help to separate the wheat from the chaff doesn't quite do the job. There are immoral and bigoted atheists. There are atheists who believe, firmly, in the existence of Big Foot, atheists that don't vaccinate their children, atheists that believe in homeopathy, and even atheist misogynists.

If you really want to understand the secular argument against abortion, feel free to peruse that organization's website. I was pleasantly surprised to see a quasi pro-woman perspective or two when it came to rape and sex education, but they qualify as certifiably misogynistic. They hold that a fertilized egg is a person and worthy of certain rights, namely life. They dismiss the rights of the woman as secondary and claim a moral high ground in defending embryonic and fetal personhood. Being ignorant and/or misogynistic while being secular is very possible, if incredibly sad and infuriating.

I have established that a secular reason against abortion does, in fact, exist. I assert that it is a terrible one fueled by a misguided desire to defend the "helpless" and treat women as second class citizens. It is my hope that Silverman was referencing these reasons as merely existing, and couldn't dismiss all the opponents of abortion as religious because of it. Saying that something is real is not the same as saying that it is good or justified, and I can't, in good conscience, react with condemnation for what he said without some kind of clarification. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Common Miscarriage

I've certainly taken more than a brief hiatus from writing much over the past few months, and every time I thought to write anything, I kept coming back to the same sore subject. It seemed too personal a thing to write and too full of a sort of hurt I was sure nobody would really understand.

And even when it  happens to other people, nobody talks about it. Not really. It is hushed up and glossed over, and I thought that was how it was supposed to be. My sad story, and many others like it, are common. They are more common than many people realize, and it wasn't until I read of someone else's experiences that I realized it was worth telling.

There is very little comfort to be had when a pregnancy goes awry.

My brother and his wife told the family that they were pregnant exactly two weeks before my husband and I discovered we were pregnant. My entire family was elated, as this would be my brother's first child, and my husband's first child. My mother was over the moon with the idea of having two grandbabies at almost exactly the same time. It was going to be yellow ducks, and tiny socks, bright sunrises, and little people discovering the world in tandem while all the big people watched them. It was going to be just perfect.

I was out of town on business when my brother called me to let me know that they had lost the baby. He was crushed, and I was crushed for him. I felt guilty because I had just announced my own pregnancy, and I felt so much sorrow for him. I realized how common it was, that about twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and that it could just as easily have been me. I remember hoping the best for him and his wife, and feeling impotent to do much else.

Two weeks later, I was six weeks along and at my first doctor's appointment with an excited husband, who had taken the day off work to accompany me. I have a ten year old son, and so I had been through this before. However, it felt so very good to be happy about our pregnancy, and so different now, at the age of thirty, instead of being frightened and alone at nineteen. It felt so different and so joyful with someone I trusted there next to me being just as excited as I was. The doctor wasn't able to hear a heartbeat this early, but there was a faint flicker on the ultrasound and a promising little blob. They printed out pictures, and we sent messages to our parents. We basked in the gestational glow of imagined firsts.

Over the next two weeks, I spotted lightly and worried heavily. My morning sickness was coming and going irregularly and I had the looming sense of wrongness that I kept telling myself was in my head. If I could just get through the first trimester, I would be okay. I would travel for work, and friends at conventions would smile at my rotund shape as mine and my husband's hopes grew to fruition. I tried not to dwell on either of these thoughts as I passed through peaks and valleys of optimism and anxiety.

I had another ultrasound to discern a more definite heartbeat when I was eight weeks along, and the morning of my appointment, I discovered a telling black clot when I went to the bathroom. There was a moment of panic before  leaden resolve settled into my stomach. I won't say I didn't hope. I hoped. I went to my appointment alone and I hoped.

The ultrasound confirmed my worry. There was no heartbeat. I tried not to cry and I held out for two and a half seconds before the wave of despair crashed on me as I sit there in my paper gown. The doctor was very comforting, as was the nurse. They let me slip out of the office quietly, and I did. That is how it goes, I guess. Heartbroken mothers-to-be slipping out quietly and crying their many tears in the car. I hadn't yet begun to actually miscarry, but I had another business trip in a little more than a week and couldn't afford to wait, so we scheduled a D&C, and I got down to wrapping my head around what was happening.

My husband came home early. I told him via email because he can't get calls in the office, and he shed his tears in the car, too. I told everyone what had happened via phone and facebook, and then I took to the mommy boards.

For an atheist, it is enraging to read of so many other mothers giving condolences in the form of celestial images of tiny angels and the will of a supposedly loving deity. I can't even begin to describe the anger I felt at reading all of the misbegotten "meant to be". It felt hollow and bitter, like my seemingly blighted uterus. I turned away from the boards online and read sympathy messages on facebook. They were all very well-meaning, and I know that, but I think I learned more about what not to say to a grieving person in those moments than I ever have before.

1. "You'll get pregnant, again."
Will I? And if I do, what then? In the wake of a miscarriage, recalling how hope turns so easily to grief just reminds me that there are no guarantees.

2. A pregnant women suggesting that I'll be just fine.

3. Asking me if there is something medically wrong with me.
Assuring people that my plumbing is probably just fine over and over again to parents, friends, and acquaintances was incredibly strange, especially when people who knew me told me that they regarded me as very "fertile". It made me feel like livestock.

4. Suggesting how long to wait, or not to wait, to try to get pregnant again.
I'm still carrying my dead fetus. Can we just deal with the feelings I am having right now?

5. "At least you know you can get pregnant."
Brilliant. Yes. Proof. Eureka! I feel so much better. Not.
Pointing out the accomplishments of my body, as far as gestation goes, is not going to help, because this pregnancy has just ended in a gut-wrenching failure.

I do understand how it feels to want to say the right thing. I had been consoling my brother over his own loss just weeks before. I know how hard it can be, to want to say something that helps, but unsolicited advice, questions, or generalized statements about what may or may not happen are all hard pills to swallow at a time like this. I don't hold on to any resentment or negativity toward people that unwittingly said something that stung at a hard time. I just want us all to get better, together.

I waited for the day of my D&C, lamenting the loss of this pregnancy and reliving all of the hopes I had. The day of my procedure, I unabashedly asked for all of the drugs, which helped take the edge off both before and after the procedure. I even asked my doctor for a small supply of anti-anxiety medicine to help me get through the next week or two at the insistence of my husband, who knows my dysfunction as well as I do and is less embarrassed of it.

I awoke to the sound of my very rad anesthesiologist talking to the nurse about video games, and in my semi-lucid state I was sure it was Skyrim because he mentioned dragons.  I went with it and blurted out something regarding the ineffectiveness of boob armor and babbled on as the nurse fetched my husband. It wasn't a bad day, actually, thanks largely to the pre-op relaxation drug they gave me. The hubby ushered me to the pharmacy, where I complimented every single person I saw on one article of clothing or another, and then home. Nestled into a nest of blankets on the couch, I napped into reality.

The next two days were agony, but not emotional agony. I had months for that. There was some kind of complication involving my pain meds. It seemed like my entire G.I. tract was swelling and roiling about inside of me while my uterus began to contract painfully back down to normal. After the second day, I could no longer stand it and went back to see the doctor, who prescribed something different and gave me some antibiotics. I don't know what did it, but I felt better the next day and improved well enough over the next week to make my convention.

The months that followed were very hard for me. When you are pregnant, and then become not pregnant, hormones dropping can cause feelings of deep melancholy, also known as baby blues or postpartum depression. When you have a baby, nursing and even just proximity to your baby releases calming hormones. I remember holding Johnny when he was little, and even in the whirlwind clusterfuck that was my life way back when, I felt so happy. There was no biological solace to be had, this time.

The depression settled in for the Fall and stayed for the holidays, and I coped well enough. Every day, waiting to stop bleeding, and then waiting for my cycle to start back up again, I was reminded that my body could malfunction at any time. I thought, if I could just get pregnant again, I would feel better. And we tried. We tried through two erratic and untimely cycles. All those empty consolations rang in my ears and the depression sat in anew when my period came early and then late. My rhythm was off. I was living in a body that was a wretched reminder of failure.

The holidays came, and I was reminded again. My beloved bump was absent amidst all of the people that had been so happy about the possibility. We went out of town and visited my husband's family. I greeted one of his sisters, swollen with her own baby and due in just a few months, and knocked back all the beer I had insisted we bring as small children stampeded about and a new baby fussed and cooed. It should have been happy, but it was agonizing, and I felt guilty for being miserable while in the company of people I love and seldom see. I cried all the way back to where we were staying, glad that my son was passed out in the back seat. It was an hour long ride, and when we got back, I slipped quietly into the house, like I had slipped quietly out of the OB's office a few months before.

That had been the beginning of the end of the worst of it, but the worst of it had lasted months, and in that time, I often wondered about other moms. I couldn't bring myself to look online for fear of seeing further invocations of a silly god. I thought, maybe, I was just more sad, for some reason. Not only was my fetus gone, but perhaps a piece of my sanity was gone with it, and other moms bore this sorrow more gracefully than I. It is most certainly a sad topic, and yet so common that I think it isn't discussed because it could happen to literally anyone, and nobody wants to be reminded that luck is a fickle mistress. So many of us, living in developed nations, are partial to our bliss and our ignorance.

After the holidays were over, after I had faced my entire family and many of my friends empty and sullen, the dire urgency to become pregnant again dissipated, and I was able to enjoy my life without counting down the days to the beginning of my next cycle. I took up hunting deer, having practiced with my bow while we were out of town, shifting my aspiration from one of creating life to one of taking it. Sitting out in the snow covered woods allowed me to clear my head and fully process my thoughts without an emotional filter. Silent and still, the forest forgot I was there, and I felt myself becoming smaller and smaller until my sadness became a trivial thing in a beautiful place where creatures ate other creatures to survive.

It is still like that, now. I read the news and see people being forced out of their homes by flooding and violence. Small tasks and large goals take up my time. My son is almost as tall as I am and he loves me, even before I've had my coffee. I realize how lucky I am, and at the same time, I can remember when my luck ran dry. All the well wishes in the world aren't enough to defy biology. I wish I could say that I'm not sad about it, anymore, but I don't think this is a sadness that goes away, and it is odd to me that so many other women might also carry this sadness and never really speak of it.

The irony of having an uncomplicated unintended pregnancy and losing an intended one is not lost on me. The catch twenty-two of having babies young, when your body can best hold them, and having them when you are older and more stable is also not lost on me. Being a mother is a beautiful, terrible experience, but so is living, and I wouldn't change either of those things. I'm hoping that I am able to become pregnant again, but I know anything and nothing is possible, and that even if it does happen, that it will never be the same. I will always worry just a little bit more because I know that life isn't a promise at all. It is a chance.

It is a chance that I will have to take. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Decomposition of Humanity in an Urban Neighborhood

My family lives in a low income housing neighborhood. Some of the houses on our street are rented, and some of them are owned. We own our house. My husband purchased it when he was single, the housing market took a dump, and here we are. This isn't where we will be forever, but it is where we live for now, and living here has given me a unique perspective on racial and socioeconomic stereotypes, the reality of crime in low income areas, and how it feels to be "othered". My family isn't better than any of the other families, but it is different. My neighborhood is mostly black, and I know of only a few families that aren't black among easily a hundred of other families. We are the minority, here, and the experience has been eye-opening.

There are townhouses and apartment complexes. There are playgrounds and basketball courts. There are good neighbors and not so good neighbors. I am immensely thankful for the good neighbors, and find myself still thankful that the bad neighbors and/or their visitors aren't as bad as they could be. My family and I have everything we need and plenty of what we want. We work hard, but our compensation is fair. Many of my neighbors don't have enough of what they need or want. Some of them work harder than we do and have less. What has been made abundantly clear to me is that life isn't fair, and that people generally try to do the best that they can, even if that best seems extremely wanting to someone as privileged as me.

I understand that privilege, and though I may become angry when my son or I is spoken to rudely, I still try to be patient. I am responsible for being a good neighbor, no matter what other people may say or do. I am responsible for being mindful of my chances in life and how very good they have been. I it is my duty, as a human, to use my privilege to try to make my neighborhood better and to try to be patient, tolerant, and kind. I have to tell myself that every day. And on one very, very bad day and the weeks to follow, I learned just how important that patience really is.

Mark and I were one week out from having taken our nuptials in his home state of Michigan. Our house was still littered with boxes from the wedding, boxes from my parents' house, and in general disarray from a week of neglect. There was dust and dog fur covering everything. It was a Saturday, and we needed to go see my parents to collect up the rest of our wedding stuff, as well as liking the idea of just being able to spend some quiet time with them. Hurricane Sandy was on its way up the coast, and it was a little windy, but other than that, we didn't see any reason not to make the 75 minute trip to Annapolis. After giving our german shepherd a good scratch behind the ears, Mark, Johnny, and I hopped into the car, and off we went.

We went out to an early dinner, read our wedding cards, and reminisced about what we thought was the best decision either of us had ever made. Mom and Dad were happy and Dad's jokes were spot-on. On our way home, we laughed and listened to music. I told Mark that we should take Roscoe, our german shepherd, for a walk. Pulling up into our driveway, all seemed right with the world. One of our neighbors walked out of her front door and waved at us. She seemed a little distressed, and I thought she was going to talk to us about the coming storm. The wind had kicked up a bit by this time and I wasn't sure what to expect with all the hype that the hurricane was getting on the news. The three of us got out of the car and approached her.

" lord...this is so hard."

I had no idea what she could have possibly been talking about, but she could be a little over the top sometimes, so I thought she might still be on about the storm.

"They shot Roscoe." Mark and I blinked, unable to take in what she had just told us.

"What?", Mark asked, incredulous. I could feel my heart beat faster, the lump rising up in my throat as I hoped that she meant anything but what she just said.

"The police. They shot him. Right there." She pointed to a rusty splatter on the road behind our driveway that we hadn't noticed until this moment. "He shot him right there in the street."  

"Is he...", Mark trailed off for a moment, and I felt the shape of my nine-year old filling my arms. I gulped back the gelatinous mass of emotion rising from my gut.

"Is he dead?", Mark finished, somewhat matter-of-factly, his face seemingly made of stone as he looked to our now quivering neighbor.

"Yeah...he's dead. They took him away. It just happened this morning."

There it was. We didn't understand how it happened, but the local police shot and killed our dog. Roscoe wasn't just our dog. He was our friend and our guardian. He scared some of the neighbors and barked at anyone that walked in front of our house, but the neighborhood was a little rough, anyway, and he made us feel safe. He never hurt anyone, and he was nothing but loving to his family and people that approached him with a friendly demeanor. Our good neighbors knew him and appreciated him for the steadfast companion that he was. He was a good dog.

Johnny had his head buried in my chest and was sobbing. It was all I could do to not utterly lose my own composure.

"I'm so sorry," our neighbor said. "I saw him. He ran back in the house after. He lay right there on your couch. I looked in and I saw him. I said good-bye to him and I blew him a kiss. Poor baby..."

She looked down at Johnny who was trembling as I rubbed his back and soaking my shirt in his tears, then to me, then to Mark. We were speechless.

"I had to take a xanax, after. It was so terrible," she continued. The silence wasn't just awkward, it was painful.

"I wonder how he could have gotten out," Mark mused quietly.

Mark and I decided to go into the house and try to figure out what happened in the midst of our despair, neither of us showing much emotion at the moment. Our neighbor asked if Johnny would like to stay with her while we called the police and examined our entryways. She had a son a little older than Johnny, and he was watching cartoons. Johnny reluctantly parted from me and was soon distracted by Spongebob Squarepants.

We checked the downstairs windows from the outside and found them to be secure. Upon opening the front door, we found that it didn't require a key. It swung open easily. We didn't even need to turn the knob. A gentle push revealed a scene from something out of a nightmare.

The first thing we noticed was the blood. There was so much of it, everywhere. Our couch was covered in it, with one large, dark, ominous spot spreading out from where we knew Roscoe liked to lay the most. The dining room floor, by the sliding glass door in the back of the house was also covered. A dark, dried up crimson pool spread out from under the table like a rug, and there were tracks of it everywhere.

I finally let go and heaved a sob. Mark and I stood in our house, having been married only a week before, and beheld the wreckage. Not only was there blood everywhere, but the general disarray that existed previously had been overturned into complete chaos. Our boxes looked like they had been pushed around, and some of our electronics were missing. We went upstairs and found the rest of our house thusly ransacked with more items missing, including Mark's handgun.

Johnny stayed with his dad for a few nights, and Mark and I stayed with a friend. In the previous void that were our emotions, we spent the night inundated and consumed with grief, fear, betrayal, anger and just flat out empty sadness. Hurricane Sandy sideswiped us as we cried and lay sleepless, moving north and wreaking havoc on the Atlantic coast while we attempted to make sense of it all. In our own little bubble of personal tragedy, we weren't thinking much of the thousands that would be experiencing their own at the hands of something even more vicious than human misunderstandings and disparity.

We spoke to the police that day and the next. Roscoe was out of the house not long after we left, and one of the neighbors had called to complain about the scary dog running loose. We still aren't exactly sure what happened. We think that we must have forgotten to close the door completely and then the wind blew it open. Once our noble defender was out of the picture, or maybe before, while he was joy-riding around the neighborhood, our door was wide open, and the theft was a crime of opportunity. We will never know for certain, but we are still faced with the fact that someone living close to use stole our belongings, including a dangerous handgun, and our local police misunderstood the excited or perhaps even agitated barking of our dog as an attack. 

It would be enough to make anyone bitter, and we were. It frightened us. We were terrified by the fact that a powerful weapon designed to kill was in the hands of someone that probably didn't respect it. We were angered by the fact that our house was intruded upon in broad daylight and that the police ignored the pleas of our neighbors to not shoot our dog. But, we didn't take to the streets with a gun and shake down any suspicious people that we happened upon, and we didn't launch a media attack against the police, either.

We did take the streets, however. We talked to everyone. We let everyone know what happened, and that we knew that whoever had our gun lived in this neighborhood. I talked to parents at the bus stop. I stopped and talked to gathered groups of people on the sidewalk. I told everyone that I saw.

Mark and I cleaned up the house, and we started to get our lives back to normal. We were still grieved by the loss of our dog, but we started looking to rescue another one. We filled our home back up with love and with laughter. Not even a week after the incident, Mark was leaving for work and found one of our Playstation units set very nicely between our cars in the driveway. Apparently, someone that we spoke to must have seen something. The gun hasn't turned up, yet, and the sound of a dozen odd gunshots rang out through the night air that month at various times. But, there were no injuries reported. I know, because I started attending monthly neighborhood crime meetings. I made sure the police knew my face.

I am wary of some of the people in my neighborhood. More specifically, I am wary of the ones that I don't personally know. I am wary of the man on the sidewalk that won't look me in the eye when I smile and wave at him on a morning walk. I am cautious. But, I still smile, and I still wave. I still hope for the best, and when someone looks like they are hiding something, I give them a wide berth. I have my local police phone number saved in my cell phone, and when I see something that I believe warrants attention, I call them. Even when I become angry by the memory of how impotent and afraid I felt after finding my home bloodied and violated, I don't turn to vigilante justice. I turn to my neighbors and my community. I use my voice, and I make sure that I am heard by everyone, and I encourage them to use their voices, too.

Terrible things happen to people every day in neighborhoods just like mine, and people lose more than their family pets and their belongings. They lose their humanity. They are brought up in circumstances outside of their control, and they become stereotypes and statistics for other people to shake their head at.

It just may have been a boy in a hoodie that reclaimed some small piece of our property and saw it safely back to us. It may have been a boy in a hoodie that stood up for us in private to a group of scared young kids. It might have happened that way. I'll never know for sure. But I do know that talking to that boy in a hoodie, to that suspicious character, has served to shed more light on his true nature than pointing fingers at him.
A boy in a hoodie isn't going to bite you for saying hello. The kids in this neighborhood are just kids, and they are still human, and still worth reaching out to. The people here are not their disadvantages or their crimes or social transgressions, and nothing is going to get better until the people that can do better reach into these communities with both hands. My neighborhood needs good examples, mentors, and acceptance. They've been pushed into a dark corner of town and left to their own devices, separated from the good, upstanding citizens who sneer at their baggy pants.

And why would anyone want to be a part of something that looks down on them? Why wouldn't they grow to resent the people that would judge and ignore them? It is time for that to change. It is passed time. It is time for those of us with more resources, power, and education to be among them, instead of above them. It is time for us to know them, as fellow humans, and to stop treating their setbacks as symptoms of their deviancy and start treating their setbacks as a symptom of our own apathy. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

11 Reasons Why Atheists Love Their Pets

I love my pets, and I feel a very definite need to have at least one animal in my house. Currently, I have one cat, two large dogs, and one fish, and I very much enjoy the presence of them all. Each one has something different to offer and each one has different requirements for proper care. My house is never completely clean, and I am still wondering how to tackle all of the chewed furniture, wall molding, and window sills. I have replaced several items in my house because of one or more animal chewing, clawing, or defecating on them. I accidentally ingest fur regularly, and I have to take an allergy pill every day or my face swells up like a balloon. And yet, I wouldn't give them up.

It seems that many people in the secular community share my love of animals, so I compiled a list of reasons why atheists, in particular, love their furry, scaly, feathery, creepy, crawly companions.

1. Animals will never, ever tell you that you are going to hell.
The complete lack of judgment makes their company instantly appealing. You can work on your Muhammad portraits while eating Doritos, watching porn, and lighting your workspace with six hundred and sixty six burning Bibles. Fido doesn't care.

2. Animals are atheists, too!
They don't need forgiveness and hate fasting. Naps are a completely appropriate replacement for prayer.

3. We like having live-in reminders of evolution.
Isn't it interesting how much paws look like hands and fins look like wings? And why is it that fish and reptiles are cold-blooded and have scales? Why does the parakeet look more like a tyrannosaurus than my boa constrictor? In daily observations of our animals, we can see just how much we have in common with them and how much in common they may have with each other.

4. Interacting with animals improves our communication skills and conflict resolution.
You can't just politely ask your cat to stop swatting everything off of your dresser. You have to understand the creatures you live with and play by their rules to achieve the desired result. "Bad" behaviors and "good" behaviors are sometimes innate and sometimes require tenacity, patience, and acceptance. Pets remind us that the world doesn't work on our terms, and sometimes, we have to become creative with our solutions.

5. Every day is full of surprises.
You never know what you are going to see, hear, or smell, and you never know if it is going to be adorable or catastrophic, or a sadistic twist of the two, like finding your german shepherd and kitten curled up together in a bed of shredded upholstery.

6. Sharing a living space with animals allows us to demonstrate a blatant disregard for superstitions.
There is an actual belief that black dogs and black cats are somehow related to witches and vampires, as well as the well-known ability of cats to suck the breath from babies. And then, of course, keeping snakes is rather dangerous. They are full of terrible suggestions, I'm told, and very persuasive.

7. We want to help care for our fellow earthlings.
The exchange of trust and companionship makes all the work worthwhile. Forming relationships with animals other than humans and expecting nothing in exchange aside from the pleasure of their company is rewarding.

8. Communing with your animals makes more sense than communing with an invisible entity.
Prayers or pettings? Both have been shown to help with stress, but atheists prefer something more tangible. Petting our dogs, cats, snakes, squirrels, ducks, turtles, or whatever else we may have is one of the ways we relax and recover.

9. They ward off unwanted visitors.
Jehovah's witness knocking at your door? If you don't have a dog to bark at them, then perhaps you and your pet scorpion, Stabby, could hazard a greeting.

10. Love from pets is absolutely and completely unconditional.
They don't love you as long as you follow a list of rules, or as long as you pet them five times a day while facing toward their food bowl. Affection from a pet is genuine and completely free of pretense or obligation.

11. Enthusiasm for our pets helps us to connect to the rest of the non-secular world.
Who doesn't love kittens and puppies? No matter who you are or what you believe, the good and well-intended people of the world are easily identified as ones who care for those who cannot care for themselves, including animals.  

Photo credit for scorpion: