Thursday, August 25, 2016

September Shopping Challenge 2016

Hello, my name is Lori, and I'm a shopaholic.

I love shopping, any kind, anywhere. Grocery stores, big box stores, boutiques, bookstores, malls, Amazon. My sister-in-law even took me into a tractor store once, where I discovered how badly I wanted to buy a chicken coop. When I have had a stressful day, my therapy is retail therapy. It's a weakness, a flaw, a sin, but I am hopeless. Every pay period I vow to do better, then a new pair of shoes calls to me or Terry Gross reviews an author of a new book or Facebook tries to sell me a Bernie Sanders action figure. (I have almost bought that so many times.)

In 2013, I started the September Shopping Challenge to help me learn to curb my spending and control my budget. We had just moved back to America, Scott had just started his new job, and we were at the start of trying to rebuild our lives. We had no furniture, no car, no books or toys, just the suitcases-worth of belongings we'd brought over from Scotland. I started the challenge to help me manage spending in those early, stressful days.

I did the challenge again in 2014 as a refresher course in budgeting but skipped 2015. This year - 2016 - I am going to attempt the challenge again, because my shopaholic tendencies of late have been getting the better of me.

Each year, I come up with new SCC rules to help guide me through the month and to outline areas I need help with my habits.  They usually involve only going shopping once a week and making lists and sticking to pre-planned menus, schedules and budgets. Then I add any other rules or exceptions that I feel are needed to make the month successful.

You can read about the origination of the September Shopping Challenge, the first year executive summary, and the second year's game plan for a little more background. Here are some helpful lists. If after reading this, you think you'd like to join me in this challenge, leave a comment (with your blog if you plan to blog about it!) and we'll keep each other motivated.  How does that sound?! (Ridiculously fun, y'all, for real. We could start a Facebook group and everything.)

This year, I have outlined the following rules.

1. Grocery shopping. We get paid every other Thursday, so the weekend is usually the best time to get the shopping done; however, usually by Wednesday, our kids (and my husband) have managed to eat everything in the house, so waiting until Saturday is almost always impossible. So in September, I will allow myself two grocery days a fortnight: Thursday (or Friday) after work and then Saturday or Sunday.  The in-between week will have one grocery day allowed for picking up any necessities we're running low on - milk, cereal, bread. Not brownies. No, Lori, brownies do not count.

2. Budgeting. We have a pretty well organized budget as it is, but we always try to leave a cushion which ends up being treated as free play money, not the cushion it ought to be. This September, that cushion will be filled with fluff and will remain fluffy. (Cushions, fluff, you get the metaphor. Give me a break. It's 9:30 pm, and I'm tired.) Regarding the budget, I will also make one other adjustment which I hope will become a permanent one. Knowing that we have that cushion money, every paycheck before I've had time to sit down and pay the bills and allocate the funds to the appropriate accounts (we have several actual accounts, like we're a family business or something), I have a bad habit of doing a little pre-budget spending. That might be getting pizza for dinner that night, ordering a book from Amazon I've been dying to read or buying something new for the kids.  My goal for this month is to do that little bit of spending AFTER paying bills and allocating funds.  That way I have a better method of tracking which fund or account that money came from. Was it from my personal spending money? Grocery fund? It needs to come out of something other than the cushion fluff.

3. Spending money.  Now that Scott and I are both working, we pay ourselves an "allowance" that is totally our own business. Scott does with his spending money whatever he likes and I do the same. The only problem is, I put the grocery money in the same account as my spending money, which often means the two get hopelessly intertwined. Some weeks I end up using my fun money on groceries or kids' needs, and others I end up taking a little out of the grocery fund to cover something for myself. This month, I'm going to keep a transaction record to keep the two separate.

4. No spend days.  This is the hardest part for me. I like to spend money. I like to shop. If I need to get away from life, I like to go to the book store and wander the aisles for hours. (And it's humanly impossible to leave a book store without a book or four.)  Online shopping has made this even worse. Why, just today, I was at a Women In Networking luncheon where the speaker, Emily Reeves Dean, was talking about her book that she self-published, and me being a big supporter of local authors and self-publishers, ordered her book from Amazon. Just sitting there, sipping my iced tea, I spent $11.99. So through the month of September, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday will be firm No Spend Days.  Thursday or Friday and Saturday or Sunday will be grocery days, but only two of them, not three or four. The other two remaining days will be No Spend Days too.  If I want to spend my fun money, I will wait until one of the shopping days. The benefit of this is that I do not make tiny little purchases throughout the week that add up. If it's something I want badly, I'll still want it at the end of the week. If by the end of the week I don't want it anymore, then it wasn't worth buying to start with.

5. Exceptions. There will be one exception to all of this. Scott and I allow ourselves one evening a week to eat out unplanned.  This is usually on a day where work was exceptionally draining and neither of us want to cook. Lolly's soccer season starts back up in September too, so it might come on a night when we have soccer practice and did not get dinner beforehand. I will continue having this exception. It's needed for my well-being. It may fall on a No Spend Day, but that is okay, because this is the exception and comes out of one of our personal spending allowances. Either Scott will treat me or I'll treat him (and the kids, of course.)

So that's this year's September Shopping Challenge plan. Create your own plan or budget for the month and see what kind of savings you can make or good habits you can form! It'll be fun, I promise! (And by fun, I mean torture-but-worth-it-in-the-end.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Last First First Day of School

Last week, all three of my kids started school. Fifi went into fourth grade, Lolly into second, and little Baby Jaguar - not a baby anymore - started Pre-K.

All three kids went into the same school building at the same time for the first time. For two years they will all be in the same building for the only time in their lives. Fifi will head off to Middle School, and from then on they'll all be off doing different things for the rest of their childhoods.

I remember Fifi's first day of P1 (the equivalent of first grade). It was different than when she went into Nursery (two years equivalent to Pre-K and Kindergarten). She was starting all-day school in a uniform like a real pupil. I cried a little. It was a big deal.

I remember Lolly's first day of Kindergarten. She did NOT want to go to Kindergarten, but I managed to convince her to try at least one day of it. And of course she loved it. I didn't cry. I was happy to see her excited and willing to stay.

Last Monday, Jaguar started Pre-K. It is like Nursery but much more formal. He doesn't wear a uniform, but it's all day and we pack his lunch and he gets a folder that we have to sign each night. Because it's not Kindergarten I didn't think I'd be that emotional about it. But then he went into class the first day. There were tables and chairs and backpack hooks and a place to put his signed folder every morning, and I realized, this was it. This was Jaguar starting school. This was the beginning of the routine he'll follow for the next fourteen years. 

He was so grown up. He wasn't shy. He was impressed by the toys and the alphabet rug and the other kids. He hastily gave me a hug and a kiss, and then I was extraneous. I said a feeble goodbye to the teacher, and Scott put his arm around me, seeing the tears spring in my eyes.

It was my last very first first-day-of-school. From now on, this is our family's routine. Kids to school each morning until Fifi graduates high school. No extra daycare stops. For this year and next we'll drop them off at the same school each morning, but the following year, they will all split up again. Lolly and Jaguar will be in school together, until Lolly catches up with Fifi, just in time for Fifi to head off to Junior High. They will chase each other through the school system until college.

All three of my kids are in school now. Jaguar was only a baby yesterday. Come to think of it, they all were just babies.

"Nothing is as far away as one minute ago."

Time passes too fast.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hate and Fear and Death and Anger

With all the hate and fear and death and anger in the world right now, I am finding it hard to breathe lightly. Deep in my gut I feel sickened and exhausted and helpless. The American political climate is volatile, at its eruption point. Fear is being shoveled down our throats, and animosity is poisoning our veins. People are being shot by police, and police are being shot in return. Racism is killing black people, and white people are fighting over who's fault that is. Transgender people are being harassed over bathrooms. Whole religions are taking the blame for the acts of a belligerent few. Personal freedoms of who to love or who to worship are being yanked from some to assuage others. From Baltimore to San Bernardino to Baton Rouge to Falcon Heights to Nice to Munich to Orlando to Dallas, people are being murdered on the regular, sometimes en masse and each time unprovoked.

I believe in optimism. I believe in goodness, and I believe in love. But the hurricane of hate and fear and death and anger twisting all around me is suffocating.  How can I possibly see an American future where racism is obliterated from the bottom to the top, and from the top to the bottom, when half the country still refuses to see it exists? How can I believe that love will conquer hate when hate has become so palatable and carefree that it is openly preached from podiums and pulpits? How can I teach my children to be the change they want to see in the world when the world doesn't want to be changed or even see a need for it?

I recognize that I am a middle-class, married-to-a-man white woman. I cannot pretend to understand the daily concerns and experiences of black people, Muslims, gay and transgender people, undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers or police officers. As an atheist and a woman, I can relate to certain levels of the discrimination but nothing comparable to those who are being threatened with banishment and deportation, who wake up wondering if they will be attacked in a bathroom today, who say "I love you" every time they leave the house in case it is the last time. I cannot relate to that enough to insist "I know what it's like". I don't.

I may not personally experience the hate and fear and anger and death meted upon so many of my fellow mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, but I see it. Not all of it, but I catch glimpses and glimmers. And they knock the breath out of me. Too often I am a silent observer. I am an observer who does not want to be silent but does not have the words or the platform to say anything or make a difference. I open my mouth to speak, but my own personal fear, my own survival instincts, catch the words in my throat and choke them out. My guilt and ignorance hold my frustration with the world's injustice against me, accusing me of being a part of the problem, and I am rendered silent again. Then I'm reminded that silence is a privilege, and I am hurled back into frustration.

I believe there is good in the world, and I believe in being the change I want to see in the world, but truth be told, both of these beliefs are ephemeral. They are American apple pies in the sky. They are nebulous puffy clouds that shade me from the glaring reality that I do not actually know if there really is good in the world, and I do not believe I can change anything.

This weekend I finished reading two books I've been working on for months. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay is a wonderful book, mixing humor and critical thought into multiple essays surrounding topics of oppression and inequality for women, for people of color, for people who are not thin, for anyone who does not fit the perfect standards American society holds us to. While I was able to laugh during some chapters, I had to pause and remember to breathe during others. I had to look square in the eye many truths about my perceptions as a white woman that I had not realized needed challenging. I was reminded that the inequality I face as a woman can be frustrating but not as frustrating as the challenges for women who heap inequality upon inequality. Inequality is not binary. The more disadvantages bestowed upon a person for his or her gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, hometown, education level - the list goes on - the more discrimination a person is bound to suffer. Sexism isn't experienced by me the same way it is experienced by a black woman or a lesbian woman or a black lesbian woman. The book opened my eyes to the sexism experienced by all types of women, not just women who look like me. I too am a bad feminist.

I also finished Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I started this book back in February but only finished it today, because it was the hardest book I have ever read. Reading it was like loading concrete blocks onto my chest, one page after another. It is one thing to "know" that black parents have to teach their black sons and daughters how to behave extra good during certain encounters; it is an entirely different thing to read the intensely honest and intimate letter written by a father to his son about the struggle to preserve the black body from destruction. No other book I've read that openly or begrudgingly let me observe a black experience, not Disgruntled or God Help the Child or Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, though each of those affected me in profound ways, changed me the way this one did. The hate and anger and death and fear twisting all around us are real dangers to our brothers and sisters of color. Yet we continue to tell them they are either imagining things or they need to sort themselves out by themselves, as if we as a country and a history and a society never did a thing to cause this peril to their bodies.

I am crushed under the inevitability of all the hate and anger and death and fear in our world. It feels like change is not going to come. I do not know what to do about it or how to help. I cannot change the minds of those around me who refuse to see the problems. I am such a small, insignificant fish in a fathomless ocean.

I want to believe in optimism, goodness and love. I want to believe that I can be the change. I want to believe in the story of the starfish, that it matters to walk along the shore and throw starfish back into the ocean, one at a time. I need to believe that the small tangible things I do might matter in the long run - the donations to charities, the volunteer hours, the lessons taught to my children. So small though. Too small.

I also want to know more. I want to be educated in areas I know little or nothing about. I want to read books that tell me truths it hurts to hear.  I want to be challenged and humbled and pushed into action. I want to understand. I don't want to be silent, but I do want to listen. I want to implore others to listen. I want all of us to close our mouths, open our eyes and lean in close to hear what our Muslim neighbors, our gay and transgender neighbors, our black, Hispanic and Native American neighbors, our uniformed neighbors have to say about their experiences and believe them. No "but what about"s or "but I"s or "but you"s.

I want all this hate and death and anger and fear to stop. I know I cannot stop it. I know I cannot escape it. I cannot simply turn off the radio, shut down Facebook, walk away from conversations, and slip under my covers just to make myself more comfortable again. If my fellow mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters do not get the luxury of switching off the TV to find comfort, I will not exercise my ability to do so. I will never fully understand what it feels like to be the target of all this hate and fear and death and anger, but I will continue to face these every day with them. I will continue to immerse myself as much as I can into their worlds through books and relationships and news stories and causes. I will listen when I ought to listen and try to speak when I ought to speak. I will push myself to continue believing in goodness and love, for my children and for my world, however small my influence on it may be. I cannot, I must not let the hate and fear and death and anger win.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Letters to My Past Self - Part 2

In 2013, I wrote letters to my past self, giving myself the advice I wish I'd been able to give myself when I was 16, 18, 20 (but certainly would have ignored). Mostly it was regarding boys, though some pertained to studying harder and making better financial choices . (Was getting a nose ring and losing your college tuition money from Mom and Dad worth it?) (Yes, kind of.)

I have some more things I'd like to tell past me.

Dear Lori (24),

Don't let anyone tell you to put that baby down more or stop being so obsessive over organic homemade baby food or that using cloth nappies is a waste of your time. This is your time to figure out motherhood on your own, and even though two babies later you will find that putting that baby down more will make life easier and that your baby will still be healthy and thrive if you feed her baby food from a jar* and that cloth nappies are fantastic for the environment and your wallet but holy hell they are a lot of smelly work and it's okay to sometimes reach for the disposable, right now you do exactly what you feel is right and be proud of each decision you make. I stand behind you and all first time mums in all your idealistic and ambitious plans. I'm proud of you.

Lori (34, mother of three)
*That is, when you don't have time to do baby led weaning, of course. I know you'd hate it if I didn't make that distinction.


Dear Lori (29),

Speaking of ambition, let's get one thing straight. You never stopped being ambitious. You never lost yourself. Your brain never turned to mush. You must not keep thinking this about yourself.

You left college with a fantastic job for a recent grad, and at the ripe young age of 22 you went through the entire process of immigration all on your own. You moved abroad. You managed to blag your way into another great job in a field you had no experience in. You kicked serious ass at that job (though your work ethic could probably have been a little better).  You were ambitious, and you knew it.

Then you got pregnant and decided with Scott to become a stay at home mum. And that's where your confidence began to shake.

You stayed out of the traditional workforce for nine years. You believed you had nothing to offer the world other than being a good mum. You believed you were only marginally smart. You stopped believing in yourself. You looked at your friends and saw them as successful, while viewing yourself as barely contributing to society.


Girl, let's look at it from my perspective now.

You left the traditional workforce to become the most kick ass mother you could possibly be. You researched every single mothering topic known to womankind. You made conscientious decisions about everything. You did things very differently from what was expected of you, but you did it with confidence, because you were informed and ambitious about mothering.

You were AMBITIOUS about mothering. If you were going to be a stay at home mum, you were going to be the best damn stay at home mum you could be. Ambition isn't just for the workplace. (Shout out to all the ambitious stay at home mums out there. I know for a fact how hard y'all work your asses off.)

Here's something else you may not be realizing.  You weren't just a stay at home mum. You were an entrepreneur, a fundraiser and an active volunteer in your community.

You started four businesses while you were "just a mum". One was successful enough to make a living off of (Wee Honey Bee Childminding), one was as successful as you intended it to be (IntoBento), one scraped by but at least kept breaking even and gave you a lot of joy (TinyTalk), and the one that didn't work (Lori Borealis), you had the sense to drop early.  Ambitious! 

You trained as a breastfeeding peer helper with a national breastfeeding charity. You and your fellow peer helpers started your own local charity and did some really awesome things, including designing a campaign that the NHS of Greater Glasgow and Clyde still uses. You girls started a texting support service for breastfeeding mothers. You had annual general meetings, because you were a real non-profit. You got real speakers in to talk at your AGMs, because you were a real non-profit. You had a non-profit status bank account, because you were a real non-profit. Stop minimizing what you're doing. You and your friends were AMAZING and AMBITIOUS. Mummy brain? Not you ladies. So stop putting yourself down and thinking what you are doing is "nothing special".  Stop thinking you aren't really contributing much to society other than being a pretty good mum. I'd like to retroactively send all of you women a medal of honor. (Honour, rather.)

Um, also, don't forget you wrote and published a book?

Basically, what I'm saying is, stop putting yourself down and thinking you've "lost yourself" and you have "no ambition" and you "aren't smart".  You have always been ambitious in everything you've ever done.  Your priorities changed (and rightly so), but your drive didn't.

And I only JUST realized this very recently myself, so no fault to you for not seeing it whilst in the thick of it.

Lori (34 and still ambitious)


Dear Lori (31),

Your life is about to change in every way. I think you know this. I mean, obviously you know you are leaving your home in Scotland to go back to your home in Arkansas. That's going to change your life drastically. (And I should really go ahead and prep you for this - you won't be moving to Fayetteville when you get there. Scott's going to find a job in Little Rock in a matter of weeks, and you're going to live in Nowheresville for two years. I think it's best I just tell you this now.)  But things are about to change so much more.  Who you are, who you've always seen yourself as, is about to do a complete 180.  You sense this, but you aren't ready to accept it.

You're about to lose your faith.

It's going to destroy you.

I'm not gonna lie about that.

But I swear to you, it's only temporary. That darkness you feel right now is only temporary. I know there's nothing I can say to lighten the load you carry on your shoulders right now. I know there's nothing that can soften the blows you feel every time you pray and hear nothing from God.  I know those tears are going to fall and that they have to fall. Like a mother watching her child go through her first heart break, I feel powerless for you, knowing that things are going to get better but that you can't see that right now. I know this is something you have to go through to get to the other side, but it hurts me to see it and remember it for you.  So I guess all I can say is do everything you can to keep your faith alive. Pray with all your strength. Speak to anyone you trust about this. Write about it, talk about it, paint about it, run and exercise about it.  Because you need to know later that you did everything you could to hold onto that faith, and if God couldn't do the rest, well then, that's that.

The pain of silence and abandonment will pass, and when they do, you will find joy again. Joy unspeakable. Joy in the world as it is, not as it's written to be. You will find strength in yourself you never knew you had even though it was yours all along. You will find love and trust and freedom in ways you never believed could be found in a life without a god. 

But for now, there's no sense in telling you this, because there is no way you can believe it. So just keep doing what you're doing, because you're doing everything right.

I'm sorry you're going through this. Your whole life has been one as a caterpillar, and now you are being torn apart and squished and reshaped and it hurts so incredibly bad. But just wait.

Lori (34 and you would never believe what I call myself now...)


Dear Lori (32),

Don't be too bummed about the Scottish referendum.  In a couple of years, there will be this thing called "Brexit"...

Lori (34 with a Scotland tattoo)

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Juggling vs Balancing

Tomorrow is my one year workiversary.

This day last year, as I prepared freezer meals and ironed my clothes for my first day at work, I asked some pressing questions about outside-the-home working mums and how they managed all the tasks still required to keep a home running smoothly. Being the perfectionist I am, I needed to know how they could leave the circus but still keep all the juggling balls in the air. After one full year of gainful, outside-the-home employment, I can finally answer those questions.

They can't.

Or maybe "they" can, but I can't. Or maybe I could, but I haven't figured out how yet.

Who takes the car in for oil changes? How do you keep up with the laundry? How does dinner get made every night after you've been working all day?

No one. You can't. It doesn't.

Those are the answers I've discovered anyway. Supermoms out there, please beg to differ. Then give me all your tips. Then give me your housekeeper's and nanny's phone numbers, because I don't believe you.

This is the great, ground-breaking wisdom I have discovered after a year.  Wait for it - this is going to blow your mind:

Some things - a lot of things - have to be let go.

*Cue Elsa in a blue dress making an ice castle*

I hate it, but I'm accepting it. My left-side brain, my obsessive nature, my perfectionist tendencies torment me constantly about the lack of organization in my home, but this is reality. One of our kids is still small. The other two are getting old enough to reliably help me and Scott out. Anyway, it's only for a short time, really. People may judge our yard for its tall weeds and our couch for its pile of (clean) laundry and our floors for the Cheerios stuck to it, but this is life right now. It's not forever, but it is what it is right now.

Sure I could expend energy keeping the house spic-n-span every night, and Scott could expend energy mowing the grass and cooking dinner.  Or... I could keep myself sane by taking an hour to go the gym while Scott takes an hour on Reddit. We could come straight home from work every single night and cook and clean until bedtime, or we could order a pizza every now and then and play with the kids.What's most important right now?

After a year, I'd say that I've settled into my new routine pretty okay. It's not perfect, it's not what I know it could be or exactly how I want it to be, but I'm accepting it for what it is. I know eventually I'll get there (or hire a housekeeper), so for now I'm learning to balance. Balance - isn't that my theme for this year? Balancing instead of juggling all the balls I hold in my hands. And balancing sometimes requires setting a few things down for a few minutes to steady yourself.

Maybe some day in the future I'll reach the perfection I long for, but for now, I'm okay with life being a little messy and a lot imperfect. Or at least, I'm learning to accept it being that way.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hopelessness in the Wake of the Deadliest Mass Shooting In US History

I usually try to stay pretty positive here. Even when discussing controversial topics, I try to stay away from undo negativity. I want to be a voice of hope and optimism.

But today I feel no hope and no optimism.

As you are probably aware, last night America suffered it's most deadliest mass shooting in US history. I was surprised, actually, that this was the worst mass shooting. After Aurora and Sandy Hook and San Bernardino, you start to lose track of the numbers. Along side other massacres, like the Boston Marathon and Oklahoma City, the death toll just adds up and eventually, you don't know how many people died in the latest mass murder incident.

That is unspeakably depressing.

What is even more depressing is this is just another massacre in a long, seemingly never-ending line of US mass murders. Nothing is ever going to change, is it? If the mass shooting of Christians in a prayer meeting doesn't change anything, do you think the mass shooting of gay people will? If the mass shooting of children in an elementary school doesn't change anything, do you think the mass shooting of gay people will?

I don't even know where to start. There are so many things to say about this latest incident. All kinds of incoherent thoughts are running through my head that don't add up to any real point, just more depression and loss of hope.

I predict the only thing to come of this will be more religious intolerance. There will be right wing rhetoric about combating terrorism and left wing rhetoric about stricter gun laws. It's what we do in the wake of a mass killing, we shout out buzzwords passionately but briefly - RACISM!  MENTAL HEALTH! TERRORISM! MUSLIMS! GUN CONTROL! and then move on without changing a single damn thing.

In this instance, the LGBTQ community (my community) was targeted in the middle of National Pride Month. For a few days, there will be brief conversation about LGBTQ intolerance. Not much, though, since the shooter was allegedly an ISIS sympathizer, so the bigger conversation will be about terrorism. If we're lucky, we'll hear some lip service paid to loving the gay community (but in many cases this lip service will be ruined by a call to pray for their lost souls as well).  People will shut up momentarily about the transgender bathroom issue. But nothing will change in the long run. People will change their Facebook profile pictures, politicians will argue about the root problem and how to fix it, tragedies around the world will be brought up to show that none of us really care about human rights issues unless they are on our doorstep, and then we will move on and forget about this most deadliest mass shooting in US history until the next one occurs. Then we will rinse and repeat.

This can only happen so many times with no fundamental change in our laws or attitudes before we lose any hope that America will ever come together and agree on a plan to stop these senseless killings. Nothing ever changes, and this time won't be any different.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Ask An Atheist: Identity Crisis

I was asked another question on Facebook by B.  B. and I have known each other since 9th grade, so she knew me when I was a Christian. She asked:
Why do you think that being an atheist has become such a big part of your self identity?
I think this is a really valid question, one I'm especially interested in writing about. This is something I've thought long and hard on for almost two years, so I'll give these two main reasons.

1. Because my identity HAS completely changed. "My identity is in Christ." How many times have we evangelicals heard or used this phrase? For me, I used it all the time. My significance was found in Christ. My identity was in Christ. My purpose and reason for being was Christ. My whole life, especially my adult life, was centered around Christ. If I ever felt that something else was taking that place, I repented, ashamed. I was nowhere near perfect, I counted myself as one of the worst, most unworthy people to call myself a Christian, but I longed to be like Christ in all I did and all I was. I truly wanted my identity to be in him. I wanted the world to know that I was a follower of Jesus. I normally made it known very early on in a new friendship with someone that I was a Christian. I wanted to shine my light everywhere I went.

I was never asked why my faith was such a big part of my identity.

I'm not making that point to criticize the question; it is a really great, thoughtful, important question. But there is an element in the question that implies it shouldn't be. Atheism shouldn't be that important to me, even though faith absolutely can and should be.

So why has being an atheist become such a big part of my identity? Because it literally altered my entire identity. One thing as small as believing in a god or not quite literally altered my entire sense of self.

That Christian label that I'd worn for as long as I could remember was ripped off. And it left behind almost nothing. Without my faith, I didn't know who I was or who I could even be anymore. Would I become a selfish, terrible, mean, unkind person without God?  What am I, if not a follower of Christ? What is left of me worth salvaging if I don't have my faith anymore?  It wasn't until I had a moment of clarity, when I realized that I didn't have to believe in a god to be the same person I always was, that I started to rediscover myself. I realized that I still was and always had been and always could be a good person. I hadn't been the worthless, sinful, depraved person I'd believed myself to be my whole life; that was what religion had taught me. Religion had taught me I was a sinner in need of a savior; atheism taught me that I have worth, that I create my own destiny, that I am a good person because I choose to be, not because a deity saved me from my evil instincts.  "Luckily I held out long enough to see that everybody really makes their own destiny. It's a beautiful thing, it's just you and me, exactly where we belong, and there's nothing inherently wrong with us." (Quite Company)

*I fully realize that every Christian reading that will think that is a tragically arrogant, "deceived", lie-of-the-devil, heart-breaking thing to say, and no amount of arguing will convince them otherwise. I just have to accept that is what they/you will think. I thought it once too. I know.

I could no longer go around with a lingering Christian label. It wasn't enough to just rip the label off. It had to be replaced with something new. My identity had fundamentally changed. That's a big deal.

2. Because the stigma needs to end. When I finally admitted to myself I no longer believed in God, I was uncomfortable with the term "atheist". It had always been a very negative word to me, one I acquainted with loudmouth, obnoxious jerks who just want to make religious people feel stupid all the time. I tried labeling myself something less offensive: agnostic, humanist, non-religious.  But really, atheist pretty much summed it up.

As I began meeting other atheists and started experiencing life as an atheist in a very Christian society, I began to realize just how toxic the stigma on atheists is. We are the least trusted group in America. A Gallup poll showed that more Americans would vote for a Muslim or a gay person for President than an atheist. Why? What is it about simply not believing in a religion that makes us so threatening and unlikable? All the atheists I was getting to know via a Facebook group for non-believing mothers were extremely kind, thoughtful, generous, and intelligent. So how is it that the term atheist inspires such disgust?

I decided to be one small but audible voice that would speak for atheists.  We are not all disrespectful and militant. I'm aware that my embracing atheism makes many people uncomfortable. I'm not blind to that, and I do hate that it has to be that way. But does it have to be that way? Why should it make people uncomfortable? It shouldn't. If I converted to Catholicism or Mormonism, would my speaking about it cause them the same level of discomfort? Not anywhere near to the same degree. So my atheism has become a part of my identity in part to help end the stigma that comes with the word.  I can be your token atheist friend, if that's what it takes. My generation having had that "token gay friend" is actually a huge reason why LGBT rights have come as far as they have in the past few years. Knowing someone personally is often what changes people's preconceived notions. Maybe the social tide can turn a little if everyone had a token atheist friend. In another generation, maybe just knowing a friendly atheist will bring an end to the stigma.

*I fully expect some people to think, "Well, you aren't that respectful - you sort of shove your atheism down our throats." To that I'd have to ask, "Really? Do I? Or do I just talk about atheism in the same very personal way you talk about your faith?" If simply talking about one's own faith is not shoving it down my throat, then my talking about my lack of faith is not shoving it down anyone else's. If posting Christian articles or praising God on Facebook or writing blogs about how Jesus has changed your life is acceptable, then so should anything else equally non-confrontational. I'd have to challenge the person who thinks I shove my atheism down their throat to recall a time when I've insulted anyone for their faith or tried to turn them into an atheist. (Conversely, I've had plenty of reconversion attempts made on me.) I'm just sayin'. If you don't like what I say, don't read it. I won't be offended, promise.

Final thought. I do sometimes feel uncomfortable with this "identity". I recognize it is not politically or professionally astute. I sometimes worry I could lose my job. I worry about my kids being bullied at school for not going to church and having atheist parents. There is a lot to lose to being an atheist here in the Bible Belt. Quite a staggering number of people have confided in me since my "coming out" that they are closet atheists, unafraid to tell their families, friends, or even spouses, that they do not believe. Somehow that makes it all the more important to me to keep speaking up. Maybe I'll lose my job (I hope not) or my friends or even some family members (I really hope not), but if it also results in a change of opinion or attitude in a some people, then maybe at least some good would come of it. The more of us willing to come out, the more people will accept us, because they will know us.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ask An Atheist: Pascal's Wager

I've been asked many times before, "But what if you're wrong?" I admit, if I'm wrong, and there is a god, and he is the God of the Bible, then that would really suck.

However. The chances of that are so incredibly slim, I'd be just as safe putting my faith in Ra the sun god or Aslan the lion or the angel Moroni.

Even so, to point a fine theological point on it, if the Bible is true, then the essence of this question isn't about Pascal's Wager (if you're wrong, you lose nothing; if you're right, you gain everything) but the nature of faith. In my book, I wrote a chapter addressing this very topic. Bolding is to emphasize the point here.

Pascal’s Wager Part 2:
Esau I Have Hated

My fear of hell was diminishing. It had mostly disappeared, except that every now and then, fear still momentarily struck my heart. I am literally playing with fire, I’d think. I’d get a sense that I better repent quickly just in case it all turned out to be true after all.

What I will lose if I wager wrongly! There is an eternity of suffering waiting for me should I wager against God and be wrong. What do I lose by following God and there is no God? Very little. What do I lose by not following God should there be a God? Everything. On these little occasions, I panicked about how I had played my cards, as the fear of hell crept back up on me.

Pascal’s Wager almost makes some sense, except the wager overlooks two important issues. First, it assumes that the only God worth wagering on is the Christian God, ignoring the possibility that a different religion might be the right one. Still, that issue aside, the second thing it overlooks is that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Yet faith is a gift from God, it is not of ourselves (Ephesians 2:8). Therefore, I cannot please God without faith if he does not choose to give it to me. I could wager that God was real and keep following him as I had been doing for the past three years, but I would not be saved, for anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists (Hebrews 11:6). Pascal’s Wager is useless without faith.

Anyone who believes seriously that the Bible is God's inerrant word would have to agree that "believing" in God solely on the off-chance that he is real is not true faith at all. They would also have to agree that faith cannot be faked.

But they would also have to acknowledge that faith is a gift from God - it does not come from within ourselves. To be saved one must have genuine faith, and to have genuine faith, it must be given to one by God himself. Ergo, if God does not give you faith, you cannot be saved, end of story.

Try to insert "free will" into that wherever you like, but it really can't alter the Biblical "facts". One could try to believe on one's own, but unless God grants you faith, you're up a creek without a paddle, as they say.

"You could at least try, though. God would answer a sincere request for faith." I've heard that too. I believed that once. I hoped for that outcome for three years. Oddly enough, once the innate belief in God started to diminish, God mysteriously stopped answering my sincere request for faith.

So, to conclude my thoughts on the fatal flaws Pascal's Wager, I'll give you the rest of that chapter above.

Sadly, it was fear, not love, that sporadically warned me to reconsider God. God’s love had been gone from my life for a long time. Abandonment and silence echoed in the cavern where love once dwelled. But fear could still make me draw in a sharp breath, as it sliced through my heart like a paper cut. When I paid this fear some attention, it gathered like a thundercloud inside my head and struck my conscience with forks of lightning. I asked myself, Do you really want to bet your life on this and end up languishing in excruciating damnation for your sinful pride, your worldly “wisdom”, your pitiful human understanding, for all eternity?

Fear is a powerful tool. Yet if God’s plan for restoring my faith was fear-mongering, I was even less inclined to believe he was the God of Love I once knew – or thought – him to be. If it were the love of God striking my heart, drawing me to him, there would be something in it worth carefully considering. However, the fact that only the fear remained seemed psychologically obvious. It was neither God himself, nor his Holy Spirit, calling me back, but thirty years of theological manipulation. Hell is the scariest and most effective tool for keeping the righteous in check. Heaven’s promise pales in its alluring.

The revoked love of God in my life and the dubious possibility of heaven were not enough to draw me back to faith. The fear of hell and the almost certainty of God’s wrath, however, left me quaking. With the cards of my still unfinished life lying on the table, I could still change how I placed my bets. Yet if the God of the Bible is the one true God, my bets don’t matter in the slightest. God chooses whom he loves and whom he hates. He chose Jacob but hated Esau (Malachi 1:2-3).The cards on the table were never mine to choose from.

And we call this agape.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Ask An Atheist: Where do your morals come from?

With "Ask An Atheist" day coming up (the third Thursday in April, according to the Secular Student Alliance), I'm offering to give an answer to any questions anyone might have this week about atheists. This question came from D. on Facebook:
My question. In response to statement 2 ["I have not lost my morals"]. If there is no God, where does your basis of morality come from? Why do you need to be moral other than to follow the laws of the land, and not be convicted of a crime. And where does the basis of the laws of the land come from, except from the 10 commandments which were given by God himself?
To answer this question, I must go very far back in time - approximately 40,000 - 100,000 years ago or so. The following may be hard to swallow for anyone who does not understand or accept human evolution. But if you want to know where my basis for morality comes from, you must read on.

When humans first started doing humanish things, like making tools and drawing cave paintings, we were not much different than the other animals living around us. We were, around this time, give or take a few thousand years, learning to live together in tribes and trying to create meaning and reason out of what we were experiencing and observing. We know this, because there is evidence that we were burying our dead in ceremonies. The pressure to survive was great, but our brains were developing the ability to think past survival instincts. Like many other developed mammals, we were developing characteristics that we still see today in nature - one of which was altruism.

We were beginning to understand that if we care for our young, they will grow up to be useful to our group. We were developing a tendency to pair-bond (monogamous mating). We were discovering that when you treat members of your tribe well, they won't try to kill you. We were beginning to understand that in order to survive, we must work as a team, hunting and gathering for food, and protecting each other from other bands of humans. And as survival became the tiniest bit more certain, and the constant fight to stay alive would every once in a while give way to moments of leisure, we were then able to wonder and think and notice that we felt something which would one day would be called "empathy".

While altruism and even empathy can be seen in other animals, human development of these traits was exceptional.  Through caring for our young, banding together with our tribes, and protecting our families against outside threats, relationships developed, and learning how to be better at relationships actually caused our brains to develop even further. We developed the ability to feel someone else's pain - whether it be sympathy for the cry of our offspring or the pleasure of bonding with another human or the sadness of a death within the tribe. We had no issue killing other people from other tribes, who had no relevance to us, but within our own groups, we were learning to do good to one another.

So where does the basis of our morality come from? It comes from the very empathy and altruism that brought our species alive and well into recordable history. It has become ingrained in us, it is part of our fabric, maybe even our DNA.

*Psst. If you believe humans were created by the God of the Bible, rather than evolved, you can start here, because the Bible starts here.

As our brains further developed and we began forming larger societies, we began making rules. These rules kept us alive, kept us from killing each other.  A side-effect of rule-making was increased safety and leisure. With leisure comes thinking and wondering.  We began to wonder what we are. We began to wonder why we are here.  Societies developed into cultures, and cultures developed religions.  Some societies looked at the sun, which gave both life-saving warmth and life-taking heat, which caused food to grow or could cause it to die, and those people believed the sun was the reason we are here, and they worshiped it. Other societies found other natural phenomena to be the answer for why we are here. And then some societies began thinking even more "out of the box". Perhaps there is an invisible force that put us here, and we should worship it. They called it "God".

We'd already learned that rules keep us safe, so it easily followed that those rules were actually God's rules. And if God's rules keep us safe, God must want us to be safe. We had learned that we keep our offspring and fellow tribesmen safe, because we care about them - maybe even love them - so perhaps God keeps us safe with rules because he loves us too. And so forth and so on. As we evaluated our own experiences, we personified the idea of a person-like God.

At this point, we have a basic code of morality, which consisted of basics like "don't kill people" - because killing people destroyed our chances of survival. As early as our written record can show, we had other laws and rules of morality such as "do not steal" - because stealing seemed to have bad side-effects for our society. (It often led back to that whole trying-not-to-get-killed thing.)  But we did other things that later generations would find highly immoral. We stoned people for doing bad things. We cut off people's hands for stealing. We raped and pillaged other societies in order to have their land and belongings. Because "do not steal" only really mattered within the tribe. We had no problem stealing from other tribes, because their survival meant nothing to us. So while we had a basic underlying basis of "morality", the specifics of what was considered moral was very different from what we have today. The specifics would go on to change again and again and again from generation to generation.

So, while at first we were happy mutilating, punishing, and killing people for various reasons,we continued to progress and started rethinking some of our previous behaviors. We made new laws about not raping and pillaging. We began making peace treaties with other tribes, because it actually turned out to be advantageous for both parties to do so. But if a tribe wasn't worth anything to us, we still did horrible things to them. We even wrote these things into laws. (For instance, if a tribe did not believe in the same god as you, it was okay to kill every man, woman, and child in that tribe and take all of their things.) We considered ourselves living morally.

I'm going to fast forward now out of the ancient era and into the 1700-1800s. It's easier to think of morality in real terms when we bring it into our own recent history. During this time period, we believed it was perfectly fine to steal Africans from their land and force them to work for us. We beat them, raped them, mutilated them, starved them, traded them, worked them literally to death, and felt no remorse for it. It wasn't "immoral" to us at that point. And our religions didn't stop us - in fact, our religions saw no problem with ownership of other human beings, as long as there were one or two caveats, which were conveniently ignored.  We thought ourselves quite moral and God-fearing even as we tore the flesh off other human beings.

We, however, continued to progress (slowly) and eventually, slavery was considered immoral, and we stopped owning people - at least in a literal, lawful sense. But we still refused to give those Africans we'd stolen from their homes in the first place an equal place in our society, because it wasn't advantageous to do so. Their lives were still threatened by us every single day, but we weren't concerned, because we had done the moral thing by abolishing slavery. We considered ourselves very moral people at that time.

Fast forward to today. What was considered moral only a few decades ago is now considered barbaric and completely unacceptable for an enlightened society. A few decades ago, we lynched black people. A few decades ago, we chemically castrated homosexuals. Today those practices are utterly deplorable. However, many currently still think that interracial marriages or same-sex marriages are immoral, and have no place in a "moral" society like ours.  Give us only a few more decades, though and stopping people from marrying for either of these reasons will seem as deplorable as Jim Crow seems to us now.

The bottom line is this: Morality simply is not consistent. Morality is relative. It just is. There are moral laws that we have been abiding by for as long as we have human record - do not kill, do not steal, do not lie - because they have helped ensure our survival and a peaceful and just society. But the nuances are forever changing. Whether you believe the world is billions of years old or only thousands, there is still more than enough evidence in human history to prove that moral laws are constantly changing. Even evangelical Christians today will admit that many of the Biblical laws are obsolete (mixed fabrics, anyone? Tattoos? Marrying outside your tribe? Long hair for women?).  The Ten Commandments itself is largely made not of actual moral laws but religious ones - do not serve false gods, do not put other gods before God, keep the Sabbath.  These are not universal moral codes, like do not murder and do not steal; they do not constitute what is universally agreed upon as morality. Let us not forget that all ancient societies had moral codes; Judaism was not unique in that. The Assyrians, the Hittites, the Greeks, the Egyptians, all had laws dictating what was moral and good. Even societies that did not worship gods had moral codes.

To sum up, God is not the reason we have morals. If anything, morals are the reason we have God. Our morals, as human beings, come from thousands and thousands of years worth of experience, empathy-building, and rule-abiding. Why do I not go around doing terrible things if I have no god to stop me? Because I have empathy and an understanding of cause-and-effect. I do not want to hurt other people. I do not want to hurt myself. And furthermore, as a 21st century human living in the developed world, I am so safe and so unconcerned with my personal survival that I get to spend copious amounts of time thinking and wondering and imagining what a world without rules and empathy would look like, and I do not want any part of a world like that.

I do not need a god-figure to scare me out of doing evil. I have figured out, thanks to the billions of humans before me, that doing good is far better for me, my loved ones, and my society than doing harm. The specifics of my morals, however, may always change - and I certainly hope they do, for the better.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

If you could choose one word to sum up your life, what would it be?

A few weeks ago I attended a Women In Networking lunch where author Erin Wood spoke of her book Scars. She first shared with us her varied background, which included having been a high-flying lawyer for many years. The WIN coordinator asked her to sum up her background in one word, and I wish I could remember what she answered (because it was a great answer), but the reason I cannot is because ever since that moment, that question has been churning around in my brain. If I could sum up my life in one word, what would it be?

I feel I too have had quite a varied background. I have worked in a fundraising department of a university, and as a newsletter and magazine writer/editor in a high school. I've been a self-employed baby sign language teacher and a self-employed childminder. I co-founded a breastfeeding charity and volunteered as a breastfeeding peer supporter. I used to speak a lot in church ("five minute spots" we called them) where I shared my faith, and then years later I ended up writing a book about my journey away from faith. Now I work for a non-profit in Communications and am getting more involved with a charity that supports homeless LGBT young people. It all seems rather eclectic, but I feel there is one theme that runs through most of what I do.

Voices. Being one, listening to them.

I have always felt the need to speak up when others cannot, to lend a voice to those still trying to find the words.  In a very literal sense, I did this through teaching babies to sign to their carers, giving them the chance to communicate before they were able to speak. I felt a such a thrill every time a baby did his or her first sign. I remember with pride the first time my daughter signed "cat", indicating she wanted to pet the neighbor's tabby on the way to the car. (Otherwise, I'd have thought she was squirming out of my arms just to be obstinate.) Every time a baby signed "milk" or "food", or even better, something specific like "dog" or "bath", the power and joy of communication was being fostered in that tiny human being.

I was not always so good at listening to voices until I became a breastfeeding supporter. During our training, we learned to just listen. Sometimes all someone needs is a chance for their own voice to be heard. My voice cannot always speak for yours. As a breastfeeding supporter I spent a lot of time just listening, asking questions that allowed the other person to find the words that would eventually empower them. Only after listening could we then become good advocates. As breastfeeding advocates, my peers and I learned how to speak up for breastfeeding mums in a wider space - through interviews, press releases, campaigns, newsletters, and creating support groups.  We  aimed to bring greater public awareness and education to our community regarding the rights of breastfeeding mothers and babies and the health benefits breastfeeding provides. Our goal was to make our community a more acceptable place for mothers to freely feed their babies. Many breastfeeding mums (first time mums especially) find breastfeeding in public daunting; we wanted to build their confidence by surrounding them with support and changing local attitudes. We listened to their voices, and then we spoke on their behalf.

(We also aimed to bridge the sometimes grisly gap between breastfeeding mums and bottle-feeding mums. We started a Baby Cafe that encouraged ALL mums to come together and share their stories with each other, normalizing breastfeeding and destigmatizing bottle-feeding in those kinds of groups.)

When I came out as an atheist, I did so publicly, to be a voice for those who were secretly also questioning their faith or still needing to keep their non-belief under wraps. I know many Christians (and believers from other religions) question their beliefs but are terrified of the consequences should they reject it. Having been a devout Christian myself my whole life, I had experienced that terror myself when I began to doubt.  I wanted to assure those people that someone else has been in their shoes and knows how it feels.  Writing a deeply personal memoir about my experiences cost me a lot personally, but it allowed me to share my words. lend my voice, in a way that could help others find theirs. Now, every private message or email I get that thanks me for putting myself out there makes my vulnerability worth it. Just knowing that I've made someone else feel not so alone is all the reward I need. Just knowing that I've been able to help someone put their own thoughts and feelings into words is indescribably valuable.

I also wanted to bridge a gap between believers and non-believers that is so often too wide for anyone to cross. I wanted to give a voice to non-believers, but I also wanted to be a voice for believers too. Believers are often mocked for their "indoctrination"; I wanted to show that many times, religious people are not actually mindless, brainwashed zombies but intelligent people who have thoroughly thought through their beliefs. (I was always a critical thinker myself as a Christian, though my questions eventually led me to a different conclusion.)

In every aspect of my life, I've realized, there has an element of being a voice for someone who needs one, or sometimes not a voice but an ear to listen to their voices. Voices matter. Your voice matters, everyone's matters. If my eulogy reads, "She listened when I needed to talk, and she spoke for me when I couldn't", that would be legacy enough for me.

If you had to describe your life in one word or a few words, what would it be?