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It was a whole year before I knew that I was mourning my mother.

I mean, yes, I didn’t update this blog. But I was busy.

And I grappled with fears of death, and sadness, and despair, but those things have hung around me before. I was stressed.

And I didn’t cry for her, not really. Still haven’t, not really. Not like with my dad.

But I was mourning her and missing her. I kept starting to call her and tell her what Nathan had done. I kept starting to think, oh, we haven’t visited her in a while, I bet she misses us.

And then I’d remember.

But I couldn’t see it, until the summer ended, and it was like a light turned back on.

It’s been so different from losing my dad, so much quieter and less dramatic. Because I’m an adult with my own family, because I didn’t live close, because she was a non-dramatic person. A quiet talker most of the time, unless she was laughing.

Like me. It isn’t until I missed her that I saw so much of what she gave me.

My mom had a harsh voice, a lot like mine, rough and not all that good for singing. She had a raucous laugh too, that she gave me.

I don’t have her nose, but my son’s looks more like it every day.

She gave me her hazel-y green eyes. Her thin, straight hair. Most of my body is like hers, in fact, except for her tiny feet. I didn’t get those.

She gave me the power of being still, and the desire to move around and clean things whenever I’m talking.

She gave me her sudden spells of sadness and depression.

She gave me her deep intense love for her family even when we are all awkward and standoffish with each other.

She gave me her toughness, or her ability to pretend to be tough, to be no-nonsense, to endure.

She gave me her restless longing to travel.

She gave me her eye for color and proportion, but not her deft hands that could sew and cook and paint and polish.

She did not give me her green thumb, or her dislike of reading, or her head for numbers.

She did not give me her courage in crowds, to overwhelm others with her friendliness until they smiled and laughed too.

She did not give me her blond hair, or her love of jewelry and girly things. My lack of that made her roll her eyes more than once.

And while I would have liked her vivacity and her way with plants, I can’t complain. Because she also gave me the things I needed by working hard, for years, often at jobs she disliked. Because she showed me two things; that women are as smart and capable as men, and that there’s still a lot of prejudice out there holding them back. She didn’t know she was giving me that last part, I don’t think, though she was proud of her ability to earn money and excel. And her pride taught me to be proud of it too.

She left me some material things too. Pictures. Old emails in my account. Christmas decorations. A denim shirt. Some earrings I still wear, and some rings I don’t. A quilt and some other things that were her mother’s, and her grandmother’s

A rose from her casket that I dried and then mixed with the old rose petals I had from my dad’s funeral, from a rose on his casket, nearly 20 years ago. It’s amazing how long it takes them to disintegrate.

When I open the old teapot I keep them in, there’s still a sweet smell.

I miss you Mom. Maybe I just miss you too much to cry right now. But I do.

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My mother died, three weeks ago.

My mother died, and it was not a good death. She was only 68; she had been in a lot of pain. Her marriage was troubled, her relationship with her kids was troubled (though the love never went away).  She had lost almost everything in the economic collapse, her savings and her business and her house, and she and her husband had a place to live with my brother, but well, she was sick. Sicker than we knew, or for me at least, were ready to deal with.

She never said “I’m going to die” maybe because she didn’t want to think that either. Or didn’t want to make us sad. But I think she must have felt death was close. Maybe even wanted it. Because the pain was bad, arthritis, lupus, infections that led to hospitalizations, small illnesses that would not heal, a heart compromised to 30% by disease and damage. Medications that made her feel bad from side effects. So many foods she couldn’t eat, or didn’t want to eat because she couldn’t taste much anymore. Loss of independence, loss of dignity. Stress. And depression, a family curse which had always pursued her, finally caught up with her; she wasn’t able to move fast enough to get away from it anymore. Which is  how I think she had escaped it so long.

Because before she was sick, she never slowed down. We moved maybe 10 times when I was growing up, not because we had to, but because she and my Dad were seekers, restless, looking for more–money, room, security. Challenges, maybe.  They raised us four, but after we left, barely slowed down. Until he died when I was 20, and then it was Mom all alone.

But she kept going, traveling, living, doing exactly what she wanted. Always working, always with a plan. Sharp, unafraid to learn things, like how to use computers to build a business, open a Web site, find another husband, even. She was full of surprises. She was a tough customer, and a survivor.

And she had secrets; she did not talk, except in fragments, about bad times, though we know she had them. A first marriage before my Dad, that ended in pain, that she would never discuss, though it gave me my brother and sister that I can’t imagine being without.  Problems with she and Dad, too, money and in their relationship, and struggles when his heart began to fail. We all knew little scraps here and there, me least of all because I was the youngest, but she kept her secrets pretty close to her heart, even when they hurt her.

I wish she hadn’t done that, because I think all those hurts made it harder for her to keep going. I think she could have used a therapist, someone outside who wouldn’t judge or worry, to listen to her hurts. I would have been glad to listen to her, if she could bring herself to tell me what was in her heart.  But that wasn’t an easy thing for her, and as she began to get sicker, she couldn’t take the energy to take care of herself in that way. She wondered at the way I exposed my life online, and I think she was intrigued as well as alarmed; but it was not a path she was ready to walk down. And then her body began to fail, one system after another.

And we all felt so helpless, and that’s the worst; we watched it all happen, but didn’t know enough soon enough or have resources enough to stop it.

I’m angry about that, in a way I wasn’t about my Dad; maybe because that was nearly 20 years ago, maybe because he was sicker longer than my mom was. Maybe because I know more, about the things that wear women down, especially. The lack of opportunities for women that she faced in her career; the blatant sexism that ensured that she was never paid as much as the men who did the same work she did. I remember her telling me how angry that made her, in a tight, resigned voice, years after it happened. The horrible way she was treated by early bosses, when she desperately needed the work.

What she gave me, and what I tried to tell her that she gave me, was invaluable, though; the understanding that work is something women do, too. She always worked, and she always loved us, and so I never felt the conflict over whether work was ok for a mom or a wife to do. She wasn’t perfect at either, but she did her best under a stress I only appreciate now that I have a child and a job of my own.  I never doubted that I would grow up and work and have kids if I wanted to, that I could do those things, because she showed me that it was possible.

I can’t write all about my mom in one blog post, or in one year of them. I need time to remember her the way she deserves, not as a saint but as herself, the person I will always love and always miss and always measure myself against.

When my Dad died, one weird but comforting thing for me was the way I would dream about him, and in my dream, never remember that he had died. He was just there, just like he’d always been. Last night, I dreamed about Mom in that way for the first time. Just there, just herself, alive and right where she belonged.

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Note: if you are seeing weird slashes in the text, it’s not typos, the blog software’s acting up. I will fix if I can–emjb

One of the reasons I read Slacktivist as much as I do is that he shares my upbringing, in the strange side-world of Christian separatist evangelism; church camps, re-dedications, witnessing to total strangers, and being “protected” from the secular world.  (Fred came through his experience with a bit more gracefulness than I did, I think, but I don’t begrudge him that.)

But this post touched off a swirl of memories for me, and sent me skipping along across the Internet to try and put some of the stranger bits of my fundamentalist past back together.

The first and most important thing to remember is that, when it came to music, everything was suspect. Not just Madonna in her lingerie, but neon-colored clothing. Not just heavy-metal bands with demons on their album covers, but harmless pop-groups like Mister Mister.

Everything. Was. Suspect.

The math went something like this: Doesn’t explicitly say Jesus is the answer in the song=Not Christian=Possibly Leading to Demonic Influences.

Sometimes, even that wasn’t enough; my dad agonized over whether “rock beats” and electric guitars (but not electric pianos, for some reason) were inherently evil, meaning, even if you sang songs glorifying God on them, the fact that they had a quick danceable beat might mean you were tempted to think impure thoughts.

I know now that much of this was leftover John Bircher, White Panic crap, fear of the “Negroes” and their hypnotic beats impurifying the youth of America, but back then, I was possessed of enough logic to argue with my dad about that last part. “A guitar is an instrument; it cannot be good or evil, Dad!”(/me tosses permed 80s hair, stomps out).

But that minor rebellion aside, I mostly tried to live inside the  restrictions; I did feel guilt when I watched MTV (on the sly, one finger on the remote button to turn it to the news), and mostly accepted that popular music was bad for me.  But I was hungry for music of my own, and developed a burning hatred early on for the Sandi Patti and Amy Grant dreck that was shoved down my throat. Maybe because, before my dad plunged back into religion when I was 10, I grew up listening to funk and disco and country on the radio and on tapes and 8-tracks. I used to spin my parents’ old Herb Alpert and Statler Brothers LPs on the giant stereo console (oh I wish I had that now!) and I had my own collection, Grease and Kenny Rogers and the Nutcracker Suite, and some Disney showtunes. Hooked on Classics was one of my favorites for a summer. Also some Beatles, my sister’s Saturday Night Fever 2-LP set.

Suddenly having to switch to all Maranatha and Amy Grant was too strict a reduction in diet, even for a good Christian girl like me. So I looked for loopholes.

Flipping in despair through the tapes at Joshua’s Christian Stores, (an approved source), I found some buried treasures; Second Chapter of Acts, (some of) Randy Stonehill (more about him in a minute), even an old Debby Boone tape (not this one, but that’s all I could find online–bland as she was in public, that girl could sing and she did some interesting things with hymns.)

My other way of skirting the rules was to judge that my dad would be less prone to censor music from the 50s and 60s, when Life was Perfect (so he said).  So I got to know the  playlist of the local oldies station,  which taught me to love the Gladys Knight version of “Heard it Through the Grapevine” as well as Aretha Franklin’s brassy insistence on getting what she wanted from her man.  Doo-wop and early rock and a few hippie songs.

Anything, anything, to get me away from Amy Grant, or, God help me, Carmen.

And then I grew up, and moved out, and eventually married a musician with a prog-rock fetish, among other weird tastes, and began to see even more of what I’d been missing. (And what I hadn’t, considering my high school class picked a Whitesnake tune as our class song.)  And ever since, I’ve been climbing gleefully through the genres, scouring for new artists and expanding on my abiding love of soul and early R&B, indulging my disco nostalgia, my old-country nostalgia, and deciding that though I like some Cure, I was never in much danger of becoming a Goth kid.

And then recently I came across blip.fm and twt.fm, and was finally able to re-hear some of the things I loved as a repressed Christian kid, that survived my transition to an agnostic adult, and to share them with you.

The first is this truly, awe-inspiringly strange song, “Cosmic Cowboy” by Barry McGuire, notable not for its excellence, but for its feeling of ecstasy, of weird hippy-dippy tripping on the whole Jesus thing, which later, more cynical Christian artists just didn’t have. Like Second Chapter of Acts, McGuire was doing something that was, however cheese-ily produced, original. There just isn’t anything else out there like it.

Second is a Randy Stonehill track, Christmas at Denny’s, which is possibly the most melodramatic thing I have ever heard, and more interestingly, doesn’t ever mention Jesus once; it’s a straight-up, go for broke, over the top country blues song. I don’t know that he really hits what he’s aiming for, but for a Christian album, wallowing in despair in this way was, at the least, unusual.

And then I loved Kim Hill all through college, on the strength of two albums which had some dark, strange songs, like this one, “Snakes in the Grass”.

None of these artists are super impressive next to the other things going on in the late 80s and early 90s, REM and Nirvana and Insert Your Favorite Band here; they could be a little weird or niche, but the Nashville Christian music establishment, and the customer base it served, didn’t tolerate too much that might be considered dark or disturbing. I hear things have loosened up a little since, but I have so much else to listen to these days that I haven’t gone back to check.

There is just so much, that’s so full of life and joy, and anger, and pain, and power, out there in Secular Music Land. That was the biggest lie the scaremongers told us in church, that real feeling and emotion, and pain didn’t exist outside of approved music, that they were all about (bad kinds of) sex, shallow, meaningless, and corrupt.

And when you set it up that way, then no wonder you have to “shelter” kids from outside, because once they realize that life isn’t confined to the sacred approved space, they’ll leave, and they might never return.

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Golden Calf

False economy is a term that means, basically, being too cheap costs more in the long run. Buy a cheaply made car and pay more for repairs later. Buy shoddy clothes and have to replace them more often.

But when I’m confronted with the resistance to using public money for public goods that comes up so often when talking to hard-core conservatives, it becomes even more clear that they operate under a false-economy philosophy. Skimp on education now, pay for jails later. Refuse to fund sex education and contraception, pay for more moms on welfare and kids locked into poverty…and more STDs. Refuse to fund mass transit and pay in increased pollution, highway maintenence, and unsustainable sprawl. Refuse to invest in intelligence and diplomacy, and start wars that cost us in trillions of dollars and thousands of lost lives. And then blame all the bad results on others; on democrats, or sexually active teens, or black people, or Saddam Hussein. Anyone but us.

I’m told this sort of thing is common in politics, where pandering trumps strategy, and winning elections trumps any idea of working for the long-term good of the American people. But while I can see the logic of that explanation, it doesn’t really work either, because even a Senator or House member will probably have children, and grandchildren, to inherit the country they leave behind, to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water. Even riches won’t protect you from those things indefinitely.

Which is why I think the Republicans who are left (more seem to retire every day) have succumbed to a sort of madness, have forgotten that what they do affects the ones they love, and untold others, for generations, have told themselves that ideology trumps reality, that if they just pray harder to the almighty market to save them, all will be well. That America can never fail, therefore there is no risk to doing anything they wish. They’ve made a god of free markets and patriotism and shut their eyes and their minds to what is actually happening around them.  And their gods have failed them, but they dare not admit it.

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Focus

In learning to narrow my focus this year, I am also learning how much power that distraction has.

Distraction is not a negative, inherently speaking. When you’re in pain or caught in a mental crazy spiral, it’s an absolute blessing. Distractions interrupt a current, and if a particular current isn’t doing you any good, then distractions let you halt the feedback and walk away for a while.

But then, some currents are just slow, or tedious, or frightening to us, and then we panic and hit the distraction button instead of working through them.  In learning to deal with some parts of life (money, child-raising, working a job I don’t love) I can easily get myself into trouble by keeping myself unfocused and distracted. I’m having a bit of that now, at my job, where I haven’t focused myself because I don’t want to be bothered. It’s not fun work, it’s tedious sometimes, and I have very little control over how much of it I get and what form it comes to me in. I can’t streamline or schedule my work into a form where I don’t have to give it too much attention. Every new project is starting from scratch, and I resent that, so I resist working as quickly or efficiently as I should. And end up nearly missing deadlines.

I did the same with money till recently, ignored it until I got pink-tinted notices, then paid it off in a panic before ignoring it again.

And this kind of thing is stupid, and wastes my time, and encourages bad habits, and costs me money.  Which is why I’m trying not to do it any more, but I’m still fighting myself.

It’s not that I want to give up the part of me that knows I could do more interesting work, and want to, when I have the chance. Or that someday I’d like to pay my bills quickly because I had plenty of money to do so, so it would be nothing I was scared of. It’s just that my resentment and avoidance doesn’t get me to those places any faster. Accepting that at the moment, this is where I’m at, hurts my pride. I want to be somewhere better, more interesting, more fun, more rewarding.

Some religious writers talk about living in the moment as though it were about peaceful acceptance, and I see that, but sometimes the moment is not a peaceful one. Sometimes it’s a battle. Sometimes to get to that peace, you’re going to have to grab yourself by the shoulders firmly and say yes, I know this isn’t what you want to do, but not doing it hurts more.

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Tree or Fire?

As my husband and his friends cursed and shivered and tried to get our damn New Year’s bonfire to light (some of the firecrackers we were using to set it off were apparently duds) I talked to another friend about what we thought it meant. What does it mean when you tie firecrackers and newspaper to a supposedly dried-out old Christmas tree, set it on fire, then watch in disbelief while it mostly refuses to burn?
We decided there are two possible interpretations:
  1. Negative. Like our attempts to burn the tree, all our attempts at success this year will fizzle and disappoint. Comparisons to the Fed’s frantic approach to fixing the economy inevitably come to mind.
  2. Positive. Like the tree, we will resist firecrackers, burning newspaper, and even a splash of gasoline thrown at us in desperation. Battered and scorched, we’ll survive midnight to greet the dawn.
I guess we’ll have to wait 12 more months to find out which one applies.

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Suspension of Disbelief

It is nearly impossible, when I’m challenged, to explain why I still believe in anything you could call spiritual or religious, especially when I’ve had to pare down that belief to almost nothing but a “still small voice.” This blog is part of my attempt to name whatever I can, however small, that is true.

And of course, lots of people that I love and admire would tell me that my persistent belief is not true, is not anything but a wishful thought, or twist in my mental state; a coping mechanism. That’s certainly possible. I’ve spent a lot of time with that thought, wondering if this connection, this unnameable thing that persists inside me, is in fact just some chemical misfire in the brain. One that a lot of humans share, apparently. Which still doesn’t mean it’s anything but a misfire, a delusion, an error.

Certainly the stories of actual religion are easy enough to scoff at; virgin births and reincarnation, gods setting the sun in the sky, giants and angels and all the rest. Or just the idea that any deity would create a world so filled with suffering, or let a good world become this world. That there would be any excuse for the unspeakable things that happen to innocent people every day.

I don’t have an answer. I see the desolation and I feel the strength of an argument that says, this is a world without a god, without anything but chaos, and whatever good we can make is all up to us. And we are only here for a short while, and then it’s done, and nothing will remain of what we are or were.

I can feel that, I can even accept that. I can’t rejoice in it, but the truth is what it is. And maybe that is the truth.

But the something else, the thing I can’t name, the thing that is so close to my heart that it resists definition, persists. I don’t understand it. It’s like a hunger. It’s like a secret. It’s like joy. It’s like a dance. It flares up in the presence of compassion, in the presence of hope.

It is a small thing, and a true thing, but that is all I know about it, other than this; it is very very strong, and it does not ever die completely. And when I read some few other people, people who believe or sort of believe, I recognize it in what they say.

I call myself agnostic because I can’t build a religion on that, though I recognize it in bits of other religions. I don’t know that it’s God, I don’t know anything, whatsoever.  I want to be honest, because there is far too much deception and lies built around belief or religion or Eternal Truth or what-the-heck-ever you call it, and if I’m honest I have to say: I don’t know anything, at all, with certainty.

There is a bit in one of Douglas Adams’ books about how to fly that seems to apply here:

There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

Very often, life feels that way to me; I have to go forward, make my plans, do my job, etc. etc., but occasionally I get the feeling that if  I am distracted enough, that if things are just right, something might happen. I might fly, or a miracle might occur, or may be occuring without my noticing it. All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. The mystery of hope in hopelessness, of faith itself even when you’ve had to reject religion altogether. Of life when you are surrounded by death. I don’t understand, but I’m drawn, I’m pulled in, I can’t stop trying to check if the feeling is still there, like a pilot light on the stove, I look, and it’s still burning.

But now I’m over explaining, and that’s not helpful, so I’ll leave it there.  I would recommend that everyone read Douglas Adams, though, starting with The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the first two sequels. He knew more about life, the universe, and everything than any preacher I ever listened to. I don’t think he had anything you can call belief, but he seemed to understand and feel compassion for humanity and its foibles and connect it to the absurdity of existence in a way that was wise even when it was sad and cynical. I recognize something in him too.

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