Old Words, New Thoughts

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. Four years ago, I went to an Ash Wednesday service at the church I was attending in Minnesota, and it sparked some interesting thoughts, which I wrote about at my old blog, here. Looking back, I think that service and the thoughts that followed marked a pretty major turning point in my spiritual journey. It was the moment when I realized that I no longer needed to believe in a higher power for my life to feel like it had meaning, that I was far more concerned with living my life well and leaving the world a little better for my presence than I was about any sort of afterlife.

Remember that dust you are, and to dust you will return. I sort of feel, as I ponder these words while finding myself called to a more earth-centered spiritual path, like I’m coming full-circle, returning to familiar words and rituals with new eyes. We are born of the earth, we return to the earth…we should treat the earth well during the time in between. And beyond that, the idea that we’re all made of the same stuff. Yesterday, I registered for the correspondence course from The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids in an effort to lend more structure to my exploration of earth-centered spirituality. I have found lately that while I have no interest in returning to organized religion, I’ve been missing spiritual practice. I’ve slowly been trying to integrate some spiritual practice back into my life, but I tend to do better with things like that when I have some sort of externally-imposed structure. This course feels like it strikes the right balance: structure, but no dogma.

I’m excited to see where this year takes me. It’s a fight, sometimes, to remain present in the present moment and not to obsess over the future, but I think if I can do it, there will be a lot to learn along the way.

Anonymous Mail

To the person who sent me anonymous mail this week:

It arrived in my mailbox on Tuesday: a small, thin envelope addressed to “A. J. Hanson”. Inside the envelope was an index card, filled front and back with bible verses.

You didn’t list your name or address anywhere on the envelope or card, and I don’t recognize your handwriting, but I have a few guesses about who you are. The fact that you addressed the card to “A.J.” offered a pretty big hint, because literally no one else in my life outside of my family has a problem calling me by my name. The card was postmarked from Minneapolis, which further narrows down the possibilities.

On the one hand, I’d like to believe that this was a well-intentioned gesture.

On the other hand, the fact that you neglected to attach your name to this note in any way makes me think that you had at least some inkling that I might not take it well.

For future reference: that’s an inkling you should listen to. Your gut tells you someone might find something you’re thinking about sending offensive? Maybe don’t send it.

Here’s the thing: I get that you take comfort in the scriptures of your religion, and that you want to share that comfort with everyone. I get that you probably feel personally responsible for the eternal destination of the souls of the people you know. I respect that this is a belief system that works for you.

But it doesn’t work for me, and hasn’t for a long time now. So when you send anonymous collections of verses about how Jesus loves me and is trying to win me back, I don’t feel comforted. I feel disrespected. I feel like my space is being invaded. I feel like the reality of how I move through the world is being invalidated. And I feel like I will never fucking escape from the disrespectful, invasive, and invalidating behavior of my family unless I move to a new home and don’t pass along a forwarding address.

Five months ago, I wrote to my family and asked for space. The only person to respond was my father, who said he would respect my request. That hasn’t happened. I find a note in my mailbox from him every couple of weeks, talking about how much he thinks of me and wants to come back to a place of greater communication. I recognize that he (and probably a lot of other people) believe this to be coming from a place of love.

I don’t feel loved. I feel harassed.

Unsurprisingly, I feel similarly harassed by anonymous messages trying to get me to come back to a faith that neither makes sense to me nor makes me feel welcome.

So next time you think you’re going to be a good Christian and anonymously send bible verses to the queer-as-fuck, transgender pagan of the family, please: just don’t. I respect that your faith works for you. Please let my soul be my own responsibility, and save us both a great deal of headache and frustration.

Sincerely,

Alyxander James

Drifting

I’m writing this Wednesday evening, and it’s already been a long week. Between humidity (and who knows what else) causing pain and multiple items of unexpected (and not particularly happy) news causing anxiety and an unusually high level of work drama causing frustration, I’m not in the best place right now.

On top of (and, maybe, because of) it all, I’ve been really struggling to focus. I feel like I’m drifting aimlessly through my universe right now. It’s not so much that I feel lacking in purpose…I just don’t have the energy to devote to moving in any particular direction right now.

I’ve been thinking more lately about belief, spirituality, and ethics. In some ways, I feel like I’m having a super understated existential crisis…there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering going through my brain, and I’m not panicking. There’s something immensely comforting about being able to articulate the basics of one’s beliefs in an organized manner, and that’s something that I feel like I’m currently missing. What I want to do is make a concentrated effort to work through and be super conscious of the belief system that’s shaping how I live my life. Because I’m so low-energy these days, that’s a challenge, but I’m gathering resources and thinking a lot about it, which seems like the place to start. Several years ago I gave myself permission to ask questions; now, I think I need to give myself permission to find answers. I’m not at all interested in organized religion, but I’m slowly identifying which pieces of religious life I miss and feel a need to recreate on my own terms. There aren’t many of them, but they’re there. Meditation and ritual are two things I am finding mean a lot to me and to my mental health, and I’ve been working toward finding ways of reincorporating them into my life, but so far it’s been pretty freeform, and (as much as I hate to admit it) I think I need a bit more structure there.

Complexity

Yesterday, I woke up at 5am, opened Facebook on my phone, and saw the news that an exceptionally lovely woman who volunteered with the youth group at the church I grew up in had passed away in the night. She was kind and joyful and too young to die, and while I’m now many years removed from that church, I found myself struck by a deep and complex grief.

Earlier in the week, I felt myself heading into a manic upswing. And mania doesn’t usually just go away because things get sad…it just finds different ways to process the negative emotions. Rather than the numb sorrow of depression, this sadness is sharp, acute, intense. Manic grief is, on its own, complex.

But added to that is the realization that there were a lot of adults in my formative years that I don’t necessarily agree with now that I’m an adult, and some of them probably wouldn’t want anything to do with me now (though the woman in question here would not fall into that latter category, so far as I know), but they kept me alive back then, when I was starting to wrestle with my own inner demons and darkness. It’s because of them that I could grow into the person I am today. Thinking about them is creating this weird mix of feelings of loss and nostalgia and gratitude and more loss.

I didn’t know this woman well, and aside from wishing each other happy birthday on Facebook, we hadn’t talked in years. Still, she left an impression that has stayed with me, and I can’t help but wish I could have said “thank you” one more time. If heaven exists, it is for people like her – if I can live my life with a fraction of the kindness and joy and grace that she did, I will have done well.

Three Things on My Mind

After last week’s monster post of gratitude, this week has been pretty quiet. So here’s a glimpse at what’s going on in my brain:

  1. I really, really want to get out of debt. I’ve managed to accumulate a fair bit of credit card debt in the past couple of years (due in large part to being underemployed for the first nine months we lived in Chicago, but in larger part to the fact that I like to spend money…it’s a problem). It’s been hanging over my head and I’m sick of it. So starting in October (because this month I have to worry about paying for the name change), I am going to begin aggressively paying down the balance on my credit card, with a goal of having the whole thing paid off by next October. It’s a big goal, and I’m going to have to seriously cut back on frivolous spending, but I think it’ll be worth it. I’m also going to try to start building my savings (which currently amounts to approximately $20).
  2. For the first time since college, I’m starting to think about and plan for my future. When I started college, I had this ridiculous five-year plan that involved getting both my BA and my MSW and becoming a social worker. For many reasons (including the fact that it just wasn’t a good plan for me), that all went up in flames…and I never really replaced my dreams with something new. It’s been years since I planned for much of anything more than six months out. But that’s starting to change. The future is more enticing than terrifying, and there are wonderful things on the horizon.
  3. I’ve been thinking about faith a lot lately. I was raised believing that salvation was this deeply personal, unshakable thing that had very little to do with one’s own merit or power. I personally can’t believe in a God who would send people to hell for asking questions (or worse, for dying oblivious to the existence of some “perfect” religion). I believe that grace extends to everyone, regardless of where they were on life’s journey when they reached their finish line. I may call myself “functionally agnostic”; I may not belong to a church. But that doesn’t mean I lack a spiritual life.

On Hurt and Helplessness and Something That Maybe Resembles Faith

I’ve been struggling to come up with something to write about for this week’s blog. The truth is that it hasn’t been the easiest week. Sad things have been happening at our church back in Minnesota, and a lot of people we really care about are hurting. And I wish there was something I could do or say to make it better, but there’s not. I feel helpless. And helplessness is not a feeling I deal with well.

The last time I attended a service at the church I grew up in, it was toward the end of my senior year of high school. I walked out just a handful of minutes into the sermon, after I listened to the pastor take a passage of scripture out of context, remove a piece of the middle of passage that further changed the meaning, and twist what remained to fit his message. Despite the fact that I went off to a small, conservative Bible college that fall, I could probably count the number of times I went to church while I was in college without using all of my fingers.

A few months after my partner and I started dating, something (I’m not really sure what it was, looking back) prompted us to look for a church together. I suggested we try the UCC near my apartment. I’d gone on my own a couple of times in college, and was impressed by how welcoming they were; I hadn’t gone back since because I just wasn’t ready to give church a try again at that point. We ended up finding a wonderful community at that church. Our experiences there slowly rebuilt my faith in the idea that church could be a nurturing place…a place of safety and acceptance. It was everything that church, in an ideal world, was supposed to be.

I guess that was ultimately the problem: this isn’t an ideal world. I’m not going to go into details because I don’t know or understand everything that has happened in recent months, but suffice it to say that things that have happened in the past week have gone a long way in destroying that rebuilt faith in church as a safe space. I’ve been rather abruptly brought back to the reality that there are people who claim the same religion I can’t quite let go of who think that not only is there not currently a place for me in their places of worship, but that there shouldn’t be space for me there. Those people probably exist in every denomination of every major faith…even in the ones that are normally seen as progressive. And that hurts.

Even though I have more-or-less been functionally agnostic for several years now, I have always been at least nominally Christian, and there are large pieces of the Christian faith that I want to be able to hang onto. But even though it goes against everything I personally believe about God or Christ, it’s hard for me to kick the notion that Christianity doesn’t want me around. It makes me wonder whether all the time and effort I’ve put into wrestling with what and why and how I believe has been worth it, really.

Because, see, I want to believe in a God who creates people in the image of the Divine, and that this means that all people have value simply because they are human, and humanity reflects the boundless possibility of the Universe. I want to believe in a God who is love incarnate. I want to believe in a God who is bigger than I can comprehend.

But the God I see in religious settings looks an awful lot like a bigger, meaner, more condemning version of the people who think my existence is a mistake, that my “lifestyle choices” mean that I’m bound for eternal damnation. And I just can’t believe that the power behind the universe is a bully. I won’t believe that.

If someone’s faith is reassuring them that they’re right and everyone else is wrong, that they have a place at the party when it’s all said and done and the people they don’t like will burn forever…I want to say I feel sorry for them. Because that would be the decent thing to feel.

But mostly, they make me angry.