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.


  1. It's so clear that you are a very elloquent even in something that rubs you as raw as this topic. My hope is that Dan's family will realize what kind of person you really are. You know well that my thoughts on organized religion are much like yours, so I also get frustrated with the divide. Ultimately, both your morals and the morals that are fundamental to Christianity are rooted in the same principles of compassion, kindness, and understanding. My hope is that will lead to some common ground. *hug*

  2. Just found your blog via Gmail status. Thanks for putting it there.
    I come from the other side of that religion chasm, as well you know, and will be very interested in seeing the rest of your thoughts on it. It's frustrating from all sides. I second Moon; hopefully there can be a bridge across the divide.

  3. Such a well written post! Having come from a similar background as yours, I had the same reaction to my daughter's dad's family. Living under their roof while I was pregnant was one of the hardest, most frustrating things I have ever experienced, including one time where my ex's dad prayed for my unborn child (I almost lost it).

    Though out of the wreckage of our relationship, I still remain close to his parents, despite our differences in belief.

    I hope Dan's family (I remember them being very intense as well) embraces you and your family with the same graciousness Jesus himself displayed.

  4. P.S. I tagged you for an award on my blog :)

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