Thoughts about Religion as a Multicultural Mama

What is God?  What is life?  Why are we here, on this planet, at this time?  What does it mean to be human?  Is there accountability in this life or the next?  How do I connect with the divine?  What is religion and will it help me do so?  These are a few of the questions I have thought about over the years.  I have always felt a spiritual connection to the universe and for much of my life have grappled with the age old questions that inspired religions.  Now I have a curious child who is beginning to ask the big questions and I am trying to figure out how best to teach him.

Religion In Parenting
How do I teach my child about the divine when I am uncomfortable with our religious options?
My Religion Story

I was raised in a secular household that focused on the complexity of big questions rather than any specific answer.  It was full of love, support and exploration, and I would not change my childhood for any other.  I had a wonderful childhood.  My parents’ religious upbringing were Catholic, Presbyterian, and Mormon.  My extended family on both sides were deeply religious, good people, but I often didn’t know how to talk to them, as there was a part of their life that made no sense to me.

At some point around 5th or 6th grade, I realized that I just knew that there did indeed exist a divine force.  I began searching for answers in the various religions and spiritual traditions that I had available to me.  At the time I happened to live on a street with at least ten different churches.  I began attending services at the various options to see what fit.  My clearest memories are of the Catholic Church, the ritual satisfied some part of what I was looking for and I went back many times.  I never reached out for more instruction; at that time it was enough for me to be there.

My parents were incredibly supportive through all this experimentation on my part.  In junior high I started attending an evangelical big box church because a friend had invited me.  I didn’t get much spiritually from the experience even though most of the people were very earnest.  Unfortunately they were trying to teach us a very prescribed version of the truth with no subtlety or room for hard questions.  That just didn’t work for me and I couldn’t respect the idea that there was only one right answer and that this church, or any church, had the One True Way.  I felt like I was being told not to think.

At that church I experienced for the first time the hypocrisy and theatre that can be involved in religion.  I looked up once when we were all supposed to have our heads bowed in prayer while the pastor asked for people to raise their hands if they had opened their hearts to Jesus that day.  He acknowledged several, and yet no one in the congregation had a raised hand.  I completely stopped taking it seriously after that, but I had a lot of fun socially, really enjoyed the pageantry and singing for the holiday programs, and learned to ski.

Throughout high school and college I continued to try to find a religious community that supported intellectual thought in addition to the social support and spiritual experiences.  I tried Baha’i, nearly every stripe of Christianity, Buddhism, and got seriously into Wicca for several years.  I read books, oh so many books.  I joined online forums and real life communities.

Some churches that were accepting of differences had no real direction, and others that seemed to have clear ideas were often so intolerant as to be intolerable.  Wicca helped me find that connection to the divine for a long time, but it seemed that most people were there because they had had horrible experiences with the more traditional churches and were essentially on the rebound.  I wanted a community of people moving toward something rather than away.

My last year or so of University I joined a Catholic RCIA program on campus and experienced for the first time an environment that inspired deeply intellectual and passionate discussions about religion and spirituality.  My RCIA instructor was writing a book on ethics for engineers and we would talk for hours about the whys behind the catechism, the nature of good and evil, God and the church.  I was hooked, then later baptized and confirmed into the Catholic church and haven’t really regretted it in the intervening years.

After moving to a much more conservative area after college I lost the intellectualism and philosophical stimulation.  I have not had anyone to really talk with about religion since.  There were bible study groups, but they were only interested in getting the ‘right’ answer.  No one wanted to think about it much and resented my attempts.  I still consider myself Catholic, but am not active as I once was.

My husband is a cradle Catholic who has been disillusioned by local church politics and we eventually had a son.  Now my son is of an age to ask questions about God and where people go when they die and I am struggling to answer him.

I still hold onto the conviction that grew inside me when I was a girl that there is a force, another dimension, God, gods, an Over Soul, something bigger and connected to the universe that we humans can tap into sometimes.  The Jesus story was a key part of my original conversion, but most of the time does not resonate with me much.  Is there really a Heaven, a Hell, Purgatory, reincarnation, etc.?  I don’t know and frankly don’t find that question very compelling anymore.  I am much more interested in how to make a real connection with the divine from here on Earth, in this life.  These days I get most of that connection through the rituals of yoga, although the Mass does still speak to me.

Religion and Parenting

My son is asking questions that I don’t know how to answer about religion.  Part of me wants him to find his own answers, as I did.  Another part of me wants to share with him the sense of connection that I have found in religion.  The ritual of the Mass takes me to that space, and yet, some of the values taught in church are not what I want him to learn.

This is my real struggle and I have answered his questions as best I could, though I find myself saying a whole lot of “I don’t know, what do you think?”  The problem with that is that he does not have the tools to make informed, thought out, deep, decisions.  How is it possible to give him those tools without pushing an answer on him?  If I take him to church it is like I telling him that this is what he should believe.  If I do not, am I not doing the same thing in the other direction?

I would like to invite a respectful conversation.  I am hoping to find interesting people with differing views who can have a really deep conversation without judgment or rancor.  Especially these days with so much division in the world.  This is my story, what are your thoughts?

The Election’s Aftermath And The Way Forward

I went to bed on Tuesday evening with still a faint glimmer of hope that the election results would turn around and prevent Trump’s election.  I saw the writing on the wall, but held on to that faint hope.  When I woke, I checked first thing and saw the results.  Since then I have been obsessively reading everything in reaction, all the think-pieces, all the click-bait, everything to try to make some sense of where we go from here.

I have not been inspired to join the protests because our system worked.  There is a certain amount of gaming of the system at the congressional level with gerrymandered districts, but that doesn’t come into play nearly as much in a presidential election.  And, although Clinton won the popular vote, just under half of Americans voted for Trump.  They also voted for Republican Congress and Senate candidates.  Now some of those people voted for him holding their noses, maybe a lot of them.  They were presented with two candidates that they did not like and chose the one most aligned with what they think is important.  My Facebook feed was filled with people complaining about the choice presented to them.  If they most often vote Republican, then they probably broke right with this choice as well.

To be clear, Mr. Trump is anathema to all I hold dear.  His rhetoric, if he is able to enact any of it, will diminish us as a country and cause real, irreparable damage to many people.  There are people who have kept xenophobic, racist, homophobic ideas hidden from public view for years who now see his rise to power as permission to bring those views out into the light of day.  Some of those people will now feel permission to act out against anyone who looks like whoever they are afraid of.  Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has poured gasoline on those embers.

Some portion of the half of the country who voted for Mr. Trump are fervent supporters who think he will save their way of life.  Another portion are single issue voters, for whom gun rights or abortion or some other concern overwhelms all other considerations.  I believe that is a short sighted way of choosing the person who represents the United States to the world, but it is not uncommon on both the left and the right.  Yet another portion are folks who saw a choice between two unpalatable candidates and chose who they thought would be the lesser of two evils.

If you look at the map of where people voted for whom, drilled down to counties, it is clear that the divide in our country is most clearly seen in the difference between city and country.  Throughout that swath of red in the middle of the country there were many pockets of blue, and they were all in and around cities.

2016 Presidential Election Votes by County
2016 Presidential Election Votes by County

Why is that?  Some of it is that when you live cheek by jowl with many different types of people, you are forced to see their humanity.  They are good and not so good just like you and yours.  More telling is that the struggles and fears of people who live in the country are different than the struggles and fears of people who live in the city.

I happen to live in a strange mixture of both.  I live near a major metropolitan area, but far enough away that the culture here is distinct.  My congressional district has a Republican representative, although there have been Democrats in the past and the Democratic challenger came close to unseating him this time, although my county is light red on the map above. I live surrounded by agriculture and the folks who live and work in the fields.  I understand the cries of farmers who just want to get on with their work without so much interference from big government.  I see that some of those regulations push small farmers out of business and favor large corporations with the resources to deal with the regulations.  On the other hand I respect the need to protect the people who work for the farmers and the consumers of their products.

Now we have a situation to deal with where the presidency, the House of Representatives and the Senate are all under Republican control.  They will have the power to enact legislation that we have been staving off for years.  There will most likely be a regression in our civil rights and the most vulnerable among us will be hurt.  So what do we do?   Do we protest in the streets?  Perhaps that will be useful, if only by keeping apathy from setting in.

I have to admit that I was not active this political season and really didn’t know what I could have done, living in California where there was never any question that Hillary would win.  Hillary didn’t exactly inspire me, but I was afraid of what the Donald could do if elected.  Like many people, I just couldn’t believe that there were enough people who would really choose him.  This has been a wake-up call for me, and I believe, for many others.  I am newly committed to act in the political sphere.  I have been silent, not wishing to deal with the high emotions generated by political opinion.  I take responsibility for my inaction and vow to do better moving forward.

Since Tuesday I have struggled with the question of what to do, in what way can I, a small voice in the wilderness, actually have an effect.  Here are some of my ideas: I will support organizations that fight for the rights of vulnerable people, I will become active in the political process both locally and on a larger stage.  I will work to make sure that the state legislature is Democratic for the next census so that the congressional districts are not drawn to favor Republicans.  This is what the Republicans did in 2010 and we can see the effect.

I will speak out, but I will do so in such a way as to invite a conversation.  I am hoping to open minds and bring people together.  I will educate by meeting people where they are and listening to their concerns.  I think that is the only way affect real and lasting change.  I will not hate.  I will not fall into the trap of demonizing the other.  It feels good, it feels righteous, but all it does is promote more hate, more fear.  I was struck by an interview I heard on NPR this week with Antoine Leiris, who wrote a book after his wife was killed in the Paris attack in 2014.  “You will not have my hate” is the most powerful idea I have come across this week.  It transfers clearly to this situation.  I see a lot of hate coming from the left by people who are suddenly confronted with their own vulnerability, who are desperately afraid that this country will turn against them and that their allies will sit silently while bad things happen.  I understand that fear, I feel it for my family, and for myself.  The trends are not going in the right direction.

I have watched, in my personal sphere, the social and political divide grow deeper and deeper.  The Black Lives Matter movement has sparked truly ugly reactions from otherwise reasonable people.  There is a lack of ability to imagine what someone from another group is going through.  People see the protests, and the inconvenience, and the disruption but not the reasons people are taking to the streets.  They see people angry with police, and don’t stop to think about the years of persistent prejudice and the system stacked against a person of color in our society.  They think that because they can go their whole life without knowing someone who has been arrested, and if they are arrested it is because they did something to deserve it, that the same dynamic is true everywhere and for everyone.

This election has placed in sharp relief the division in our society.  We must find a way to come together, or we will be torn apart.  We must be powerful advocates for the most vulnerable of our society, but advocate does not necessarily mean adversary.  Now I am not saying that an adversarial approach be verboten, I am just saying that we need to be careful to use that approach judiciously and where it might actually do some good.  I have admired the strategists from the right for many years, they are focused and take a long view.  The Democratic coalition has always been more inclusive, and as such, not nearly as focused, with priorities going in many different directions.

Perhaps this is the wake-up call we need to truly come together and act with purpose.  I hope that the current anger does not turn into despair and apathy.  “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  My greatest fear is that we will slump into silence and apathy, and promise, for myself and my little corner of the world, to act.  I implore everyone out there to do the same, figure out a plan for yourself and what is most important to you, and act.  Rage, but don’t just lash out.  Rage with purpose and a plan.


Food and Interconnectivity

I touched on the subject of the interaction of emotion with food in a previous post, but I thought it really deserved a more thoughtful look.  Food is connected to emotion in a very powerful way.  Sometimes the act of preparing food a particular way becomes a statement of identity.  Food can be an act of love or a bone of contention.  It has been both in my life.  Many of our most difficult marital negotiations have centered around food, who prepares it, what gets prepared, choices about taste and nutrition, etc.

My mother in law expressed love for her family through food.  She was an amazing cook who could recreate a dish after tasting it once, and often her version was better.  She lived on three or four hours of sleep per night for much of her adult life so that she could be sure that her family ate well, in addition to all the other obligations of raising nine children, working and keeping house.

By the time my husband came around, he is the baby of the family, she was suffering from a serious heart condition and could no longer work in the fields.  It didn’t stop her from doing all of the other things expected of a woman of her time and culture.  She thought it absolutely necessary to have the ability to feed anyone who came to her home at the drop of a hat and spent a lot of time making sure that she could.  Life and food and love were completely intertwined.  Because of this, my husband grew up equating food with love in a very deep way.

For mi suegra, was both a point of pride and an act of love to always feed her crew.  Financial hardships dictated that sometimes that meant bean tacos, but she was amazingly creative with the resources that she had.  She also had cooperative reciprocal relationships in the community that had been cultivated over the years.  She was known as “la abuelita” (little grandmother) in the community because she acted like a surrogate grandma to anyone younger than her.  When I came to live with her, we would regularly deliver food to her friends, and regularly receive food from them.  This is tomato season, and we would often open our front door to buckets of tomatoes left anonymously.  We would then can one to two hundred quarts of tomatoes for use the rest of the year and the salsa made from those tomatoes would go to others as well. The community takes care of its own, especially the elders.  It is an incredibly tight knit community with food playing a major role in the currency of communal exchange.

This is somewhat true in all cultures, more true in the more rural areas of the U.S. where my extended family lives than where I grew up.  I was in a major metropolitan area and mutual support in the practicalities of life was much less pronounced in the community I knew.  My parents moved states away from their families as young adults, so those natural networks didn’t exist either.

For me, food has always been a source of fuel or sensory experience.  I enjoy the subtle differences in flavor and texture found in good food.  I really like to eat.  On the other hand I can ignore my body’s cues for food if I am doing something more interesting and can resent the time it takes out of my day.  I could be riding bikes with my child or building something or writing or reading or any number of other, much more compelling activities.  I enjoy the zen of a cooking project, but would give it up in an instant if I could afford help.  I would hire a cook long before a housekeeper or gardener.  If I could be free of the daily obligation of feeding other people I totally would.

I take some pride in being able to carry on the tradition of the food of my mother in law.  She taught me many dishes and I can replicate them faithfully.  I can follow a recipe successfully, and even modify it, but I cannot look at a bunch of disparate ingredients and come up with something yummy.  That TV show Chopped would not be for me.  I am not a particularly creative cook, but I learned her techniques for those dishes and my versions rival any others I have encountered.  It is kind of cool to be the white girl who can make versions of Mexican dishes that are really appreciated in the Mexican community.

In the community of la abuelita, a concerted effort is made by all to keep those connections alive, often with food.  Each time food is exchanged, there is a reciprocal obligation created.  Most of the time it is a direct one to one reciprocity, but often it also works on the pay it forward principle.  If you are known to give into the community, then the community also supports you.  Those exchanges aren’t always food, often people would show up to help with a garden, or to fix a fence, or give rides, or anything else that needed doing.

Since la abuelita  has passed away, we have allowed ourselves to slowly drift away from those communal connections.  Part of that stems from the fact that many of those connections were with older folks who have since passed on, but a shameful part is that we no longer have la abuelita to push us to keep those connections alive.  The hustle and business of daily life gets in the way and we have not been good about making an effort to stay connected outside of the family.  We also don’t cook that good traditional food nearly as often, so have fewer opportunities to share.  However, I have to admit that we cooked tamales just last week, had more than we could possibly eat, meant to take some to a couple of people, and never did.  I just put the last of them in the garbage last night and I feel so guilty, that was a lot of work and an opportunity for connection that I just threw away.



Organized Activities, The Goldilocks Dilemma in Parenting

In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks finds the Bear’s porridge too hot, too cold, or just right.  Just as in the iconic children’s story, many parenting questions come down to finding the “just right” balance for your child.  Today I am thinking about formal, organized activities.  Childhood for my son is not as fluid as I remember mine being.  I remember that I often had an activity such as gymnastics or dance, but I don’t think I ever did more than one at a time.  I spent a lot of hours in independent play, either alone or with friends.

I really struggle with deciding how much is too much, how much is too little, and what is just right for my son.  He is currently in soccer, karate and music lessons every week.  There are other things he does occasionally and more structured activities and clubs he could join through school.  Each week he has just one school day and one weekend day without an appointment .  Plus he must practice the music and deal with any school obligations daily.  Each activity was chosen for very good reasons and there are always more things that we could do, other activities that seem really cool.  We often have to decline invitations because he has something already in that time slot.

So I worry that I am over-scheduling him, that his childhood will be too busy to really be childhood.  I worry that he does not have enough time to just play.  We spent most of last Sunday building a truly massive Lego structure as a base so that Lego Batman could defend himself against the Power Rangers Zords.  It was intricate and he had a fully developed story for the lead up to the battle.  He had a plan and we made it happen.  I haven’t taken the time to just play for hours with him in way too long.  I am often with him, shuttling him here and there and everywhere, and we do have great car conversations as we are rushing from place to place.  We are so busy at various activities that home life is suffering as well.  We are out and about so much that when we are home we are just as busy, taking care of food or laundry or any of the other myriad things that always need to be done, so that he very rarely gets my undivided attention.  He asked again for Lego-mania several times during a hectic weekend, so finally last night we got in an hour before bedtime.  It showed me how much he craves doing something with just Mama and no distractions.

On the other hand, none of the grown-ups in his life are particularly active.  We are all older than most of the parents of kids his age and much less bouncy than we used to be.  In addition, we live in a little bit of a rough neighborhood.  There is just enough going on that I cannot in good conscience tell him to go outside and play unsupervised as I used to do as a child.  He could go into the backyard I suppose, but we never got him into the habit of it since there were hazards there as well and it is not an inspiring place to play.  I have started to try to encourage that, but he has no desire to be out there by himself, so unless I am out there with him he doesn’t get outside time.  The upshot is that without formalized activities, he wold not get enough physical activity.  Most of those formal activities are scheduled in the evening so that parents can be off work, but they are thirty to forty-five minutes from home so that we get home only in time to eat and sleep in a rush.  For me, I put him to bed, often fall asleep doing so  because I am so tired, then get up to finish chores and end up going to bed too late because I got just enough of a nap to make it difficult to go to bed when I should.  He isn’t getting enough sleep either, which is very worrisome, although we are improving on that front.

When I was growing up, we would spend hours wandering the neighborhood with friends, at various houses or parks.  There were kids I could play with on our street or  I could just hang out with my sister.  I got as much social interaction as I wanted in a very natural way.  On the other hand, my son is an only child and all of his friends live a town away so that social interactions must happen through either formal activities or play dates which are their own scheduling hassle.  There are few children on our street and they are not let out to play either.

That old way of life has closed down at least in this area, the whole society is afraid and a parent who lets her child wander is considered dangerously negligent.  I could buck that trend, with difficulty, except that I am also infected with that fear to let him out on his own.  My husband is even more protective than I am.  I want him to grow into a strong, independent person and I know that he has to be able to make his own mistakes in order to do so, but I don’t know how much independence to give him or when to do so.  What is too much, what is too little, and what is just right at this stage in his development?  Will the benefits he gets from the music or sports or anything else outweigh the cost in time?  Time is so precious and childhood time more so.  What is the best use of his time to help him become a well rounded, creative, independent, good person?  For us, when soccer season ends, I am going to try to resist the temptation to fill that time slot with more activities and to instead prioritize those few hours at home, so that evenings can be a time that we can enjoy as a family.

How about your family?  How do you balance formal activities with free play?  How about social interactions, is school enough, or does your child have neighborhood friends to play with?  Does your child roam free?  What is “just right” for your family?




The Goldilocks Dilemma in Parenting - How much is too much?
The Goldilocks Dilemma in Parenting – How much is too much?

Thoughts on 9-11

This year is the fifteenth anniversary of 9-11 and most of my grown up life has happened in the shadow of that event.  On that day, America changed and we are just now really seeing those changes come home to roost.

I remember hearing about the first plane hitting the tower on the radio as I was driving to set up a charity event that morning.  We weren’t sure what had really happened, if it was just some random tragedy or what.  Then we arrived to the venue and began setting up as usual.  We were isolated in that bubble, going about our normal activities.  No one else came past the time we were expecting to see the event organizers, so we called the office and learned about the second plane and all of those implications.  We had to wait another hour before the event organizers finally called off the event.  It was an odd sort of limbo, where we knew there was something momentous happening in the world, but were cut off from it.  We then struck our equipment and headed back to the office.

My boss set up a TV and we were glued to that TV for the rest of the day.  I remember those initial images, before the more graphic ones were censored.  I remember seeing bodies falling, I remember watching the planes crash into the towers over and over again.  I remember the Pentagon and the other plane taken over and crashed by its passengers.  I remember that day with the same emotional force as the day my grandmother died.  It is seared in my memory, branded on my soul.

Immediately afterward I felt the need for revenge and a fierce patriotism.  How dared anyone attack us.  I fully supported bombing Afghanistan to smithereens.  I didn’t care who got killed, no one could attack us like that and get away with it.  They had poked the sleeping dragon and could very well deal with the consequences.  Our entire country went a little crazy in the wake of 9-11 and I was no different.

I came to earth rather quickly when evidence of that craziness manifested itself here at home.  When the USA Patriot Act passed and someone finally read the contents; when a list of songs banned from the radio came out because they were old war protest songs or mentioned New York and that would be too much for our delicate sensibilities; when the war expanded to Iraq for no clear reason; the political establishment was using the tragedy to consolidate power.

In the immediate wake of the attack, our entire country came together as one.  It didn’t matter what your racial or ethnic background, what your normal politics, we all felt attacked and there was an incredible amount of support within communities.  Later, that began to disintegrate and it seems like our collective anger, once denied its proper outlet, turned inward.

It is only after this time that the racial tensions began to escalate to the point where today we have a presidential candidate who can say horrible things about entire groups of people and not only get away with it, actually gain popularity because of it.  Yes, before 9-11 we had OJ Simpson and Rodney King and some places scattered throughout where the police forces were notorious.  However, and perhaps I was living in a bubble, but I didn’t see the deep, widespread racial hatred that manifests itself today.  That was something we read about in school and deplored.

I knew that there was prejudice and I knew that there was work to be done to reach equality.  I don’t want to discount those struggles in any way.  My husband experienced direct and blatant racism growing up in a small rural town.  For example, he was told by his high school counselor that his career options were the frozen food factory or the military.  Understand, he was an All American athlete and an A student and this person had no cognitive disconnect saying that.  This kind of thing happened often where he had to prove himself again and again in excess of what other kids had to do in order to gain the same respect.  So I am not saying that prejudice and racism didn’t exist, I know that it did.

What I am trying to express is that those thoughts, words, and actions were not socially acceptable in the larger society.  Speaking about fantasies of violence against any minority group, let alone any such actions, were almost universally deplored and were seen as the lunatic fringe.  Since 9-11 it has become OK to talk about hurting, kicking out, taking wholesale actions against entire groups of people.  I am a student of history and am very much reminded of the times our country has turned ugly.  I am reminded of the Japanese interment camps, of the Trail of Tears, and even of “No Irish Need Apply.”

I am frightened that we are sliding into another dark time in our country, one where horrible things will be done in the name of patriotism.  We have allowed so many freedoms to be stripped away and so many privacy violations in the name of security.  How far is too far?  At what point will our republic eat itself alive and devolve into an authoritarian regime?  It may not be as far off as one hopes.

I saw a meme today with a picture of the Twin Towers and the caption, “Never Forget. Never Forgive.”  I was deeply saddened by that caption, and more than a little frightened.  If we never forgive, we can never recover, we can never thrive.  If we never forgive we will perpetually be seeking revenge and perpetually be fueling the hatred that spawns acts of violence.  Our great country, and I do truly believe it is a wonderful and great country despite my concerns, could very easily follow the path of other nations that have chosen hatred and fear and have suffered immensely because of that choice.  I am specifically thinking of France, but also of Israel among others.

I am generally an optimistic person and I have great hope that we as a country will rise to respond in healing ways to the challenges of our time.  I am hoping that because the challenges are great, we will be able to come together to meet those challenges and to move toward healing rather than division.  It is a major reason I have become motivated to create this space in a little corner of the internet.  I am hoping to become a part of the solution, to promote understanding of the other, so that our differences don’t overshadow our shared humanity.  It has been fifteen years since a few fanatics changed the course of history on a sunny fall morning.  I hope, as we move farther from that fateful day and face decisions that will define who we are, that we can choose to see the humanity and the struggles of those whose culture is different from our own rather than just the otherness.


911 Tribute in Light Photo by Chris Schiffner (@ChrisSchiffner)
911 Tribute in Light
Photo by Chris Schiffner (@ChrisSchiffner)

911 Tribute in Light Photo by Chris Schiffner (@ChrisSchiffner)