Monday, June 29, 2009

On Family: His, Mine, Ours

I spent last weekend up in the mountains outside of Westcliff with Dan's family. This was the big meet; I'd had the chance to get to know one of his sisters (JaNyce) and her boys a few weeks ago, and I had of course met his mother back when we were kids, but I'd never met his oldest sister or her family, and I hadn't seen his parents in probably ten years, aside from perhaps a passing hello at Elly and Branden's wedding a few years ago. I certainly hadn't met them since Dan broke the news to them that we were planning to move in together. I should mention that to his deeply religious Baptist parents, this was not happy news, and has sparked several long e-mails from his mother along with their insistence that we read books and watch videos to "educate" us on the evils and pitfalls of living together outside of marriage.

Our families couldn't be more different. I am the product of a military brat who was in college during Woodstock and participated in that era whole-heartedly, from peace protests to dumpster-diving after Bob Dylan memorabilia, who grew into a man of the live and let live variety and eventually married my mother, a hard-partying child of the seventies who is fiercely independent, a bleeding heart liberal who tends to think that everyone on the conservative side is ignorant at best and evil at worst. Neither grew up in a traditional family; I never knew my paternal grandmother, but I get the impression that she was a very savvy, spunky lady, and my maternal grandmother had the cojones to divorce her cheating, alcoholic husband in an era when divorce was nearly unheard of, and move her family across the country to start over. My parents married after living together for a year; my mom was 24, my dad 37.

Religiously, my dad is a (very) lapsed Catholic, my mom an (equally lapsed) Lutheran; they've both dabbled in religious ideologies with elements of Buddhism and metaphysics, and while they always encouraged my sister and I to read, explore, ask questions, and formulate our beliefs, we rarely went to church and my mom always made clear her distaste for organized religion. Both consider themselves people of faith; both believe that the Bible is a book worth reading, and that Jesus was a man worth admiring. Both think that the Bible is a human book written by human hands, far from infallible, but beautiful and valuable just the same. Both think that Jesus was a good man, a spiritually advanced man, a divinely inspired teacher, and no more (or less) the son of God than anyone else. Neither of them has ever been satisfied with the common explanations and justifications for a supposedly all-knowing, all-loving God who is portrayed by most religions as petty and impotent. As a child and teenager my beliefs were shaped by books like The Chronicles of Narnia (yes, I am entirely aware that they are Christian in nature), Stranger in A Strange Land, Illusions, and books by Mary Summer Rain.

My parents are good people. They love my sister and I very much, and tried to teach us to be independent and smart, generous and compassionate, honest and fair. They made some mistakes along the way; neither of them is perfect. But they did the best they could with what they had, and in all I look back on my childhood with mainly good memories and heaps of admiration for what my parents accomplished. And all of this without the threat of an angry God looming over us. Incidentally, they were both thrilled at the news that I had found a man who I felt ready to start my life with. They will be equally thrilled when we decide to get married.

Dan's family are good people, too. They did their best to include me all weekend, with everything from helping to pitch tents to being included in jokes and swapping stories about our lives and especially about Dan. JaNyce's two boys were very excited to pick flowers for me, and if occasionally someone couldn't remember my name, well, I occasionally struggled with some of theirs, too. But it was incredibly disconcerting, and even a little uncomfortable, for me to find myself among people for whom religion is such a central part of their lives. His parents married before they were 21, because they were finding it difficult to resist the physical temptation represented by the other.

I grok faith; I "get" believing in something bigger than yourself, in wanting to believe that there is a reason behind the madness in this world, that there is some kind of grand plan. I "get" wanting to gather with other people who believe as you do to share in that faith. I do not, however, grok religion. My thoughts on religion will almost certainly come up in a later blog post, so I won't go into detail about it now. As it pertains to Dan and I though, it's like I feel this huge, gaping chasm between his family and I, and that chasm is this fundamental difference in belief systems. It shows up in little places; my awkwardness when his mother and sister said grace over our lunch, a little discomfort when his dad held an impromptu (though quite lovely) church service before Dan and I left in the morning, furious tongue-biting on my part when topics such as gay marriage, women preachers, and the King James version of the Bible as being "the most accurate" version came up. There has always been an incredible amount of intellectual debate in my family - we are all well-educated, well-read, and rarely all agree on any given topic, and as such we have animated discussions on most any subject we please. And we always come out on the other side of these discussions still friends; we often still don't agree, but we come out knowing not only a little more about the topic at hand, but also a little more about each other. It makes me sad to know that I will never have that kind of closeness with Dan's family. And the heart of that is religion.

That tenseness isn't going to get better with time. I will never come around to their way of thinking, and especially as Dan and I start building our own family, I fear that that chasm is only going to get wider. I sincerely hope not; there is an abundance of love in his family, and I don't want myself or, more importantly, our kids to be cut off from it, even partially. It makes me sad that something that has its roots in something as beautiful as the Christian faith can be come such a source of divisiveness.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

On Time: Everything changes, and yet so much stays the same.

I've been reflecting about time a lot lately. The spark for my development of this blog was perusing some of my old livejournal posts, and deciding that I didn't want to be "represented" on the internet, if you will, by that collection of emo ramblings. The journal was started during another time of transition for me, but while both then and now have in common the themes of self-discovery and self-definition, reading those posts is almost like reading the thoughts of a totally different person. The girl of those days was untried; she was reckless; she was self-destructive. She was unashamedly promiscuous, and a heavy drinker who rarely slept and even more rarely thought more than a few days ahead. This was the girl who killed her car by neglecting to put oil in it; who repeatedly failed entire semesters of college because she couldn't be bothered to go to class; who always yearned after unattainable (and totally unsuitable) men; who routinely bounced checks and ignored bills; who had to go to jail for playing the "maybe if I ignore it it'll go away" game with an underage consumption ticket.

I don't even know who that person is anymore. In those days, I thought I wanted to be a graphic designer, I was still carrying a torch, and I had no idea where my life was heading. If someone had told me then who I'd be about to move in with I'dve laughed in their face. Now I'm a good student, who may actually graduate some time in the next year with a degree in something I've always been fascinated by, moving in with someone I love with an intensity I didn't know was possible, who actually takes care of me and treats me not just well, but like I am something truly precious to him. I'm stable, I'm responsible, and I've begun building a life that I think I'll be proud to look back on. But it's a life that the girl of that livejournal would never have pictured.

Really, the truth is, it doesn't take traveling back even five years to spin my head in terms of time. This time last year, I'd just come back from Fibark, and was embarking on what would turn out to be a pretty intense summer for me. Lots of things about it were great - I spent a ton of time out hiking, and lots of time laying out by the pool. I was in the best shape I've been in in years, with a fabulous tan and a generally positive outlook. But I also made some stupid decisions, let myself get swept up in an incredibly unhealthy situation, and did a pretty good job of alienating everyone important in my life (though not permanently, thankfully). For a while there, I wasn't me; not only was I not me, I wasn't someone that I liked very much. And I'd probably be a lot more bitter about it, except that without the lessons I learned last summer, I wouldn't be who I am today. More importantly, I would never have let go of the fixation I had on unhealthy, unstable, unattainable men, and fallen in love.

The biggest change in my life is definitely Dan. Really, most of the change in my life (new man, new apartment, new outlook) is centered around him, and our relationship, our commitment to each other. It started out totally unexpectedly, but I really couldn't be happier. We've gotten so serious so quickly, and it's incredibly scary, especially for a confirmed commitment-phobe like me, but I've never felt so sure about anything in my life. And if I hadn't gone through what I went through last summer, if I hadn't spent so much time hanging out with Dan, talking to him, crying on his shoulder, getting closer to him than I ever had been before, if those steps hadn't been taken then we may not have ever wound up together, and that would have been tragic. And so while I don't relish the memory of all of the emotional turmoil, confusion, and pain that I went through, I can't be bitter.

Something else that got me reflecting about time happened to me this week. Dan and I spent the afternoon and evening in the hospital with Elly and Branden a few days ago. Even though as emergency surgeries go, an appendectomy is fairly routine, it was still pretty scary to go through. But it's times of crisis like that that really bring home how lucky we are as a group of friends. I mean, sure, we're always bringing in new blood, but it's rare to have such a close group of friends that lasts over such an incredible span of time. Dan, Elly, and Branden know me as well or better than even my own family (which is saying something, because I'm pretty close to the fam, too). We've been through so much together. So when something awful happens, it's a little less scary because we have this incredible support system. If we can get through what we've all already gone through together, we can face anything. It's easy to forget how blessed we are to have each other during the day-to-day minutia of our lives, but we truly are.

More than a decade ago, when Branden and I first became friends, when through him I met Dan and Elly (and Fletch and Christina and others who aren't around so much any more), when through me he met Sarah, and the core of our group was formed, we all figured we'd be friends forever, just like any group of friends does at that age. What's truly incredible is that we were right. We've grown up, we've changed, our lives have taken turns that none of us would ever have predicted in a million years, we've fought and reconciled and moved away and come back and now as we are all taking the steps into real adulthood we're closer than ever.

I think that's pretty cool.

On Blogging: Why the emo?

In the past, I've tended to only write online when I was feeling particularly emo, depressed, cranky, pissy, or otherwise unhappy. I've had my livejournal for five years (almost exactly, in fact) and while looking back at it is both enlightening and entertaining, it's also depressing and more than a little embarassing. It doesn't exactly showcase my proudest moments, and while I suppose it does offer a snapshot of a few pieces of my journey, it's most certainly not an accurate reflection of my life.

So, inspired by an amazing single mom, a vivacious bohemian butterfly, and a practical, big-hearted atheist, I'm starting fresh. I'm embarking on an exciting, scary new chapter of my life, and I think it's worth writing about. And while I don't promise that I'll never be cranky, whiny, bitchy, or unhappy, I hope to be far more likely to share an abundance of wonder, contentment, satisfaction, and joy.

That's my hope.