The Drive Back, Part 1

Hours after the snowstorm ended on Thursday night, I shoveled myself out and packed the dog and a few days’ worth of clothing in the car for a drive down a slush-covered I-95. I had appointments in Pennsylvania over the weekend, to help out my family. I wouldn’t be making social calls, wouldn’t be navigating the web of backroads that connected one house to another to another. Or so I thought. I found myself on those roads anyway, remembering the landmarks in the bends ahead. Here was the creepy tuxedo statue, nestled under a tree in somebody’s roadside yard, which I’d pass every day when I was a warehouse picker for a summer. My boyfriend in the passenger seat, my brother in the backseat when he too was hired at the warehouse, we would all point and shout “creepy statue!” and pretend to scream in fright at the white granite face and black painted buttons. Past that, there was the picnic grove where my cousins and I, taking a break from the hot dogs and grab bags at the family reunion, would try to fling each other off the metal playground carousel tucked at the edge of the woods. But after nearly a decade away from these roads, I need my GPS to get around. I can recall exactly how they feel, the shape of them, what happened as I once traveled them, but I don’t remember how they connect, how I got from one place to the other. I’m trained now for different paths.

I used to drive a bright blue Ford Contour along these roads, years ago. During the ten-minute drive to my aunt’s house off Mountain Road, my mom, sitting in the passenger seat as required by law, would admonish me to slow down, telling how a motorist had just died in the yellow- and black-arrowed bend around which we were presently traveling. Her speed warnings would repeat in my head for years after the words “learner’s permit” were removed from my laminated card and I could drive alone with just the sound of my music. I learned to add 5 to 10 to the number posted on the white signs, and 10 or 15 to the yellow signs, as long as I could do so without shifting in my seat. Every once in a while, there would be a name in the newspaper, or spilling from the mouth of my mom or brother or friends, that I could match to a photo in my high school yearbook.

When I lived in Philadelphia and returned home on weekends or during school breaks, I drove up the interstate, noting the crooked, uneven black lines of tar standing out against the faded blue-grey, illuminated only by headlight on the stretch between Quakertown and Allentown. The series of ramps near Lansdale were wider, and newer, smooth beige concrete lit by overhead casts of orange light. It was a different county. Off my exit and back on the rural roads, I would pump the Contour’s brakes when tackling the sharp turn off Best Station Road, the one where my boyfriend’s brother rolled his car and somehow managed to walk away from the wreck. The wreath of plastic flowers on the telephone pole wasn’t for him, nor was it for my brother’s friend whose Celica was totaled there a couple years later. Elsewhere, wreaths were hung on telephone poles on Mountain Road for recent high school graduates I didn’t know. Teddy bears were piled at the foot of trees along Rextown Road and Spring Valley Road, laminated photos of familiar faces tacked onto the bark.

By the time I drove a series of rental cars from Chicago – the Dodge Caliber and the ugly HHR that took us overnight across the Midwest – a close friend had pointed out how many young people die in the area, comparing it to Stephen King’s Derry. I thought it was the same in the neighboring school districts, in Palmerton and Northwestern and probably even in affluent Parkland. But in the twice-yearly visits back, I started noticing the roadside memorials, and the Facebook posts on the walls of those whose profile photos would never be changed, because they would never look any different. Posts that didn’t mention the gunshots or needles or ropes or violent illnesses that we spoke in low voices in living rooms. After the rental cars had been returned to their lot by the airport, and I was back in my south side apartment, I conceived ideas for short stories featuring a small town hiding ancient, malevolent forces sleeping in the quarries. Maybe there was something to it.

Around the time that the black Camry was driven down from Connecticut, fingers bare on the trip down but shiny new rings clacking against the steering wheel by the time we headed back east across the Delaware Water Gap, I found myself peering outside into the darkness behind my mom’s garage, marveling at the pitch-black and holding back the dog on her leash. Nearly 20 years of living near this darkness, and the handful of recent years spent among the sodium lights of the city had completely erased my ease. Once, I could walk by night to the riverside. Now I couldn’t venture beyond the anemic half-circle of blue by the old garage. This place didn’t belong to me any more, but Connecticut didn’t belong to me, either, and when my grandmother asked when I was coming home, the four walls of my latest apartment were conjured rather than the houses on drives, roads, routes, places that had once been rural roads cutting through farmland. I wrote about being an outsider among New England affluence. When I wrote about rural Pennsylvania, I consulted Wikipedia for names, dates, street names, quarry numbers, hoping to convey the area with facts that I had never learned in school. Facts of a place that I had always intended to leave, even before “nod out” and “Xanax” and “track marks” entered my vocabulary, and before I had returned to gather little folded pieces of paper with poems and dates under pixelated photos and the names of funeral homes on the back. When I drove there, I noticed the ancient cars piled alongside garages or laying next to bruised mailboxes, the rusted garbage piled next to back doors, the faded yellow-white “POSTED” signs stapled to trees, the eagle bumper stickers, the perpetually barking dogs, the shuttered wooden storefronts, the cracked paint, the dilapidated rabbit hutches and chicken coops in backyards, the ochre stalks of dead corn and wild grasses in cold, wet fields.

The enveloping dark of our homelands were more pronounced with Frankencar, the grizzled, short-lived, oil-thirsty Corolla. It worked fine on the semi-lit southern portion of Route 15 – called the Merritt by Connecticut natives who learned of the road from their parents, instead of from their new smartphone’s GPS as I did – and it managed its way up the landscaped driveway to our apartment when we moved to the suburbs. But in PA, its yellowed headlights could never illuminate the woods encircling the backroads where we tested its squishy brakes. I noticed that the yellow lines were dimmer here than in Connecticut, and the roads sun-bleached, and the combination would cause the lines to bleed at night, especially when there was rain or snow. My friend’s hypothesis about the increased death rate here could be explained, in part, by the utterly shitty roads. Once, these had been just roads to me: no modifiers, no adjectives. They were simply roads. Living in Chicago and then Connecticut, with overhead lights at regular intervals and regular maintenance and a website to report potholes, had changed my definition of normal roads. It had changed my definition of normal everything.

Trading in Frankencar for the much safer, slightly newer Prius barely improved our ability to drive the backroads. There are rural roads in Connecticut, sure, but they feel wider, safer. Normal. They match the color of the smoothly paved canal trail where I sometimes run. There are more houses along them, and vineyards and CSAs and private schools. In Pennsylvania, though, I mutter curses at those narrow roads between swaths of woods and tracts of farmland, wondering how anything could possibly fit between the chute afforded me by the paint. My tires cross the double yellow lines around the bends, and I swerve into slush to accommodate the F-350s rumbling toward me. After sunset, I can barely make out the faded lines. And I notice that other drivers notice my front plate, a blue and white state-issued number where in Pennsylvania there is only a bumper, or sometimes an airbrushed beach scene. The shape of my red hybrid stands out when I get gas at Turkey Hill.

Relatives will tell me that a place is on Schoenersville Road or Airport Road, or Tilghman where it crosses with Route 22, or is on 15th Street near the market, and I will stare blankly as they rattle off names and intersections. I’ve been to these places, once, or twice, or ten times, but my connections to them are severed. They are no longer mine, and I am no longer of this place anymore, if I ever was. My hair is different, my glasses and clothes are different. My car is different. My religion is different, my opinion of the city is different, my voter registration is different. My thoughts on home ownership and meat consumption and cable are different. Even my sweatpants are different. Sometimes I like to pull up to the gas pump with Tupac or Jeezy blaring as I step out of the Prius, just to prove a point.

This past weekend, I offered to drive my mom and aunt to a new brewing company / restaurant in Tannersville that they liked, nearly an hour away. As a kid I only went there a handful of times, never enough to memorize the roads, so I did what I always do and used my smartphone’s GPS. My mom kept mentioning a back road, and when she pointed ahead from the backseat and said “you’re going to take a left here” I quietly followed the straight blue lines on Google Maps. At the restaurant, drinking coffee to wake me up from the nachos and the single beer that I had consumed, I mentioned my friend’s idea about death in the area. My mom and aunt began counting them off: the car accidents, the motorcycle accidents, the overdoses and the suicides. Relatives and family friends, people I knew and people I didn’t. The day before, a man had been struck and killed on the two-mile stretch between the town and my mom’s house. I thought about how, if you didn’t live in the town, you had to drive to – and then drive from – every bar, restaurant, and state store. You had to drive to work, to play, to the grocery store, to church, to your grandmothers and aunts and in-laws on those crumbling backroads. I thought of how many people I’d seen, my parents’ age, waving off entreaties to stay in the pop-up camper, and driving home after a night of drinking. About the close, erratic lines on Kunkletown Road, Route 248, and those endless tributaries running through New Tripoli.

The beer had worn off by the time we were back in the Prius, but I gripped the steering wheel in nervousness as I followed some of my mom’s directions, wishing I had forced the GPS to take me to 209 instead of trying to navigate these bumpy, narrow, completely alien stretches of asphalt that were piled with slush and barely discernible even with my brights on. It was a struggle to make the numbers on my dashboard match the numbers on the white and black signs on the side of the road. When I hit a familiar stretch I was only partially relieved, knowing I was close to home but still unnerved by the curves and stop signs and headlights coming towards me as the last light of day disappeared and left us in darkness. The next day I would follow the GPS to the Wilmington suburb where I would pick up my husband, then I’d follow it to the highways that would take us back to Connecticut. I didn’t need the GPS to get through New York and to the Merritt. It’s a groove worn into my memory, as those backroads once were.


Context, and flaws in education.

Lately, I’ve been catching up on all the back-issues of The Atlantic that have been sitting around my apartment. I made some good progress this past week during jury service, when I waited in the courthouse for several hours before being told I could go home (I can promise that my non-selection had nothing to do with my other reading material, the copy of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that was in my handbag), and now I have finally gotten to the June issue. I just finished reading the article on Richard Spencer, a.k.a. that white supremacist who got punched in the face in January, and I had some thoughts as I read about how he attached himself to his extremist worldviews.

His path to white supremacy might have started in some juvenile urge to rebel, to agitate against mainstream values: i.e., tolerance, unity, diversity, equity, and the other social ideals that we see encoded in children’s movies, school policy handbooks, political rhetoric, TED talks, and ‘Coexist’ bumper stickers. The way kids rebel in a mostly liberal environment? They become conservative. They read Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, and other philosophers and theorists that provide an alternative to the mainstream liberal-leaning values.

The problem doesn’t lie in studying these ideas, or even entertaining them as viable. It lies in taking them at their face value without turning a critical eye to them, and without understanding their historical and cultural context. Was political theorist X, who writes about an essential national spirit, are they writing from a time and place where people are just learning to see themselves as a member of a newly formed state instead of just a farmer from a certain valley? Is writer Y, whose worlds are a place where people are inherently evil, writing in the wake of a major war or a national tragedy? Is religious leader Z’s strongly-worded speech decrying literalist interpretations of law arising because literalist interpretations are causing injustice and suffering around them? Does this guy over here seriously think the Irish should eat their babies? You can delve into a text as deeply as you want, know its arguments back and forth, and it makes you sound very erudite and impressive, but you’re completely missing the picture if you don’t understand why the argument is being made in the first place. I think this is how something like Richard Spencer happens – not him specifically, his body language lets you know that he knows exactly what he’s doing* – but how incredible, insane theories can appear sane and credible. (It can work in reverse too, making legitimate theories appear the opposite.) And I think it results from our educational systems not doing more to encourage critical thinking, and more specifically, encouraging exploration of context.

I’ll explain this in a roundabout way through my own experiences. As a college student taking English courses, I learned that there are all sorts of different approaches you can take to evaluate a piece of literature (by “evaluate” I don’t mean how much you liked it, but studying how it works and appraising its merit and meaning). You can approach it as a source of biographical information, as a historical document, as a moral teaching tool, as something that causes a reaction in the reader, as something that is inherently contradictory and should be picked apart. For fun, let’s use, How the Grinch Stole Christmas as an example. Depending which approach you fancy, you could examine why Theodore Geisel/Dr. Seuss might have written it at that period of his life and use the book to learn more about him as a person, or ask yourself what elements make it a heartwarming story without caring about the author’s intentions at all, or you can problematize whether Cindy Lou Who perpetuates stereotypes of women as innocent and childlike as opposed to the male Grinch’s aggression, or read it as a story of religious epiphany and conversion, or as a criticism of capitalism, or as a response to aggressive marketing of Christmas at the time of its publication, or compare the message to that of other books that came out in 1957, or compare it to later iterations of the Grinch, or… can you tell I have fun with this? There are almost endless paths to take when you look critically at a work of literature, and the hallmark of a great work is that it lends itself to so many rich and varied approaches.**

I was particularly enamored of the type of criticism that evaluates the text’s inherent value; the only tool you require is the text itself. You appreciate its internal logic, its language and prosody, its symbols and imagery, and how well it works as a self-contained work of art, instead of needing to have a background in subject areas like history and philosophy and psychology to appreciate it. It’s the approach that I most easily grasped, and this was how I was primarily taught in school to approach literature through close readings. From a teacher’s perspective, it’s also probably the easiest method to teach. In Honors English we acknowledged that some intellectual movements influenced each other, but by and large we examined fiction and poetry based on its own merits. We didn’t spend much time examining the connections across literature and into other disciplines like history and economics, about who might have reacted against whom and why. My history classes didn’t examine those connections, either. We read textbooks dryly listing one event after another, dates and names continuing in an endless march. Even though I took notes as best as I could, I didn’t realize the cause and effect, the interconnectedness of history, until it presented itself on the photocopied multiple choice test, almost as an accusation. “Why did Britain send such-and-such a ship over to this place?” Why didn’t we cover this in the review session?

My single history course in college wasn’t much better either: no research paper, but a collection of terms whose definitions were to be memorized, dates that were to be paired to events by graphite lines, proper nouns in long-dead languages that were to be assigned to amorphous shapes on a map. Again, time flowed forward like a river, names and places surfacing briefly before being pulled back under by the current as other names and places arose from the depths to replace them. I didn’t learn how to see the strings connecting them, how one name tugged another upwards, and another, even as it faded out of sight. How there was a different-colored string connecting this name over here. How one single string could connect so many ideas, even though it changed color so many times and was barely visible to begin with. So I ignored the strings, and more than one literature instructor noticed this weakness of mine. If I had dedicated more time squinting to finally see those strings, if I had given myself a better foundation in history, perhaps I would have had a chance at being a literature scholar. At the very least, I would be able to better understand what Tolstoy is saying about late 19th century Russian identity in the 900-some pages of Anna Karenina, instead of waiting for Levin to stop whining so we can get back to plot and character development.

To be sure, my personal inability to identify historical context isn’t at all due to my college instructors. I don’t necessarily think it’s due to my high school teachers either. I had good teachers, and I had bad teachers, as everyone does, regardless of their school district’s test scores or tax base. Some teachers were fairly fresh from pedagogical training, others had first learned a teaching philosophy that had long since passed out of vogue. Some methods that didn’t work for me worked well for other students. I think the aims of the curriculum might have been a bigger issue.

I’m not an expert on the history and development of education, but it comes up when you’re in college long enough and take courses in book history (okay, so I lied, I did take a couple more history courses) and learn that hundreds of years ago, we were studying Greek classics as a method of developing moral character. We avoided teaching subjects that we thought would lead to moral decay, and outlawed books that might pervert our sensibilities. At some point we decided to offer education to everyone, and when Sputnik was launched, we brought a renewed focus on science and mathematics to our curriculum. Now STEM is the big thing, and I host science programs at work for elementary school students and wonder how to integrate coding and computer technology into my offerings. It seems that our curricula are now more focused on preparing young adults for the workforce and to be good citizens than it is to breed thinkers. We measure student outcomes with multiple choice tests based in retention of “facts,” such as the glossy, clean rendition of American history that I received that made me think we had gotten rid of institutionalized racism with the Civil Rights movement, and that the founding fathers were basically infallible, and that our current system of government is the best. There are heroes and there are villains in this constructed narrative, and constructed it is. History in any form is not truly a fact-based field, but is our attempt to get as close to the truth as possible. Even science and mathematics are only fact-based to the best of our human ability, and our facts sometimes change. Of course, we need some sort of framework if we want to grow our knowledge, so we decide on some basic facts. Gravity pulls us downwards, so now let’s come up with equations for mass and acceleration. Two plus two equals four, so let’s make a multiplication table. Democracy is the highest form of government, so let’s view non-democratic countries as “developing” and help them achieve this form of government by stepping in when they experience political destabilization, or view them as enemies when they reject democracy. We also separate our disciplines, further obfuscating those strings I was talking about. You take History class, or English, or Economics, or Biology, or CAD. And then you learn the associated facts and develop the skills. As if history and English don’t inform one another, or science and literature and economics and design somehow aren’t affecting one other’s trajectories.

The joint effect of the focus on measurable and marketable knowledge and skills, and the way we rend apart our disciplines, discourages us from developing intangible skills that are just as important, if not moreso. Like seeing context. Like having the ability to question one’s sources. “That’s what college is for,” some might say. But I disagree. I think everyone, regardless if they’re going to be a bioengineer or an auto mechanic or a CEO for a financial advising company or a picker at an Amazon warehouse should have some critical skills. They don’t have to be mastered – not everyone has to geek out and apply feminist criticism to children’s books – but critical thinking skills make for better citizens, better workers, and most importantly, better and more empowered human beings.

On a hiking trip in rural New York this past summer, I had a conversation with an older gentlemen who was out hiking for the day. He showed me his map and guidebook that he had borrowed from his public library, and we talked about how awesome libraries are. But when I told him what my husband does for a living, he waved his hand and said, “like we need another historian.” This came after he said he expressed admiration for “that black guy” – no, not Obama. Ben Carson.

But we do need historians. Especially right now, in 2017. Does the general population need the specifics of high-level historical research? I would say no, we won’t all benefit from reading my husband’s dissertation. I probably won’t read it and I live with the guy. But we do need people like him who are skilled in understanding structures, who can see the strings better than anyone, and who can explain how they work. Historians, philosophers, and others with high levels of liberal arts education can identify characteristics of political and cultural movements, can analyze policies and how and why authorities use language the way they do, and hypothesize outcomes. They are well-equipped to explain how our country is moving towards authoritarianism, and what we can do to reverse it. We desperately need people with the intangible skills that are developed through study of history, and literature, and the other humanities.

And we need the general public to trust them. As the gentlemen in New York demonstrated to me, we have a problem with active distrust of education. This is convenient to authority figures who are adept at manipulation. If we focus your educational system on workforce preparation, as our current policymakers do, our bioengineers and warehouse packers lose access to those intangible critical skills that help us realize when we are being played. Political rhetoric in this last election has constructed a wall between the highly educated, who tend to be left-leaning, and the right-leaning blue collar workers. Educational attainment has become a partisan issue. But that makes every single one of us more vulnerable. When we distrust those who can look critically, and we haven’t been taught how to do it ourselves, we are vulnerable to those that know how to subtly, strategically cause emotional reactions in us and make us feel victimized. We become more vulnerable to social injustices like Spencer’s white supremacy, which can sound reasonable when you disregard the knowledge of those who have studied how white supremacy has played out through history, and you have somebody telling you that this is the way to make you no longer feel like a victim. And when you disregard that knowledge of how white supremacy works, you also disregard the knowledge of what white supremacy has ultimately led to.


* I am trying to choose my words carefully so as not to inject too much of my own emotion into the way I’m writing about Spencer. His tactic relies on people like me to react strongly and emotionally to his statements, which makes me appear unhinged and, as a result, makes me look like the irrational party and thus adds credibility to his worldview among those who don’t agree with me. Read another blog post, and you can probably guess how I really feel about somebody who was fired from conservative publications for his extremist views.

** Literature is one of many humanities disciplines that can be approached in multiple ways. In history, you can look at a primary document such as a list of people who didn’t pay their taxes, and from that you can infer not just who didn’t pay their taxes, but with some outside research, you can infer if a country was funding highly unpopular wars that people didn’t want to pay for, or if it was trying to make things difficult for women or religious minorities or immigrants or certain social classes, or if it was bankrupt and putting the burden on its citizens, if its infrastructures were too big or too disorganized, if other countries had similar tax policies, if an individual tax collector was manipulating the system for his or her own gain, etc.

How I Catholic

Last week, I found out that my priests were arrested. When I found out the details, I was excited. At one point during the week I burst out the news to some coworkers, one of whom promptly asked if it was for child molestation. I was taken aback.

My two priests were arrested for protesting the scheduled deportation of an undocumented mother and father living locally, as well as protesting the general ICE deportations. My priests were among 30-some people, including other clergy, who blocked the doors to the Immigration Court in Hartford and were arrested for disorderly conduct and trespassing. This fits in with the social teachings I started learning about a year ago in RCIA (adult confirmation), and goes along with the thoughts of moral leaders within the church like the Jesuit writer Fr. James Martin and my homeboy Pope Francis. My church stands for active pursuit of social justice, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have found an intellectually-focused, progressive, self-examining faith community that isn’t afraid of action and change.

But it’s not the church that most lapsed Catholics remember, full of Latin words and intimidating sexless women, dark booths and aching knees, nor is it the church of many practicing Catholics. I thankfully haven’t heard anyone quoting certain decontextualized passages of Leviticus, but in other parishes I’ve heard prayers for aborted fetuses instead of prayers for compassion and grace for women facing tough decisions, read theological works that claimed only men should be priests to better reflect Jesus while simultaneously claiming that the divine has no gender, and I even once heard a priest utter the ridiculous phrase “postmodern decadence.”

And likewise, my faith and how I do Catholicism probably looks a little different from how people would assume I would do Catholicism. Coming to it as a 30-year-old, learning the teachings with a fully formed critical mind and with adult concerns and questions, is a markedly different experience than receiving it in childhood as a truth. I consciously made the decision to accept the inherent conflicts that are bound to show up when you have a 2000 year old institution. I also feel empowered enough to try resolving those conflicts from within the faith, within my community.

But that’s the faith speaking generally to refer to the church, not my own personal faith, which might be where I differ the most from cradle Catholics and others who were raised with the faith they follow as an adult. I can’t say for sure, since I don’t stand in front of church doors waiting to ask churchgoers very personal questions about their spiritual life, but I’m guessing I differ. Somewhere in the RCIA process, I was asked what being a Christian would mean if tomorrow we found out that Jesus didn’t exist, or he wasn’t divine, or if any foundational ideas were proven wrong beyond a doubt. This isn’t a hypothetical question, either. As someone who has struggled with the actual ~faith~ aspect which requires a suspension of empirical evidence, this is a practical question. For me faith isn’t blind, or stupid, or simple. Faith is hard. Being someone in an era of widespread literacy and public education and easy access to information, someone who values facts and knowledge, who reads scientific research and who likes reasonable explanations, faith is the antithesis, requiring me to accept impossible ideas without seeing the mechanism, to step into the unknown and the unknowable. Faith requires you to accept the very real possibility that you might be completely and utterly wrong. To accept the risk of being a fool. Or worse. People in the past have lost more than their pride in defense of beliefs they can’t prove.

And so, I constantly struggle with personal faith. In practice, I view myself as an existentialist Catholic. My husband describes himself this way too, as well as some other adult converts I’ve met who work in academia. If J.C. wasn’t divine, didn’t exist, if there’s no afterlife, if God doesn’t care about humans, even if God didn’t exist which is the one single thing of which I’m absolutely certain – there are still truths in Christianity. Love. Compassion. Dignity for the poor. Using what little time you have on Earth and in this consciousness to make somebody else’s time a little better. If God doesn’t exist, then these really are the only truths we have. Without a God to dispense justice or to comfort or offer grace, it becomes that much more essential that we offer them to each other and we fight for justice on the one battlefield we know we have.

Of course, I often fail miserably at these things, as humans do. I’m not writing this to give the impression that I always get it right in execution. (Cue the famous Catholic guilt.) What I get from being part of a faith community, especially the particular brand of Catholicism I’ve found, is it answers that question of what it all means if the foundation is wrong. If it’s wrong, I’m a fool, but I’m still doing the right thing, or at least attempting to. I say “at least” as though the effort alone matters and it’s all going to be okay in the end, but in a world with no God it’s not all okay. If the foundation is wrong, then there’s no God to clean up the mess you’ve left behind in the wake of your good intentions.

At the same time, attempting and failing is still doing something. I see how in some expressions of Christianity, particularly in Protestant expressions that rely solely on faith as the redemptive component instead of a combination of faith and action, God can be reduced in the popular mind to this parent role, this figure that makes it all better, and it can easily engender complacency. God will handle it all. This, of course, isn’t to say it happens in all Protestant expressions, or even any denomination in particular, but it’s one of the major theological differences between Catholicism and Protestantism and why the church split in the first place. And when I started going to Catholic services in my community I quickly noticed that the homilies, unlike the feel-good sermons I’d heard many times in rural Pennsylvania, shook me up, made me uncomfortable, caused me to examine how I could do a better job. If my priests are going out and getting arrested to prevent a family from being split up, I should be willing to do the same, and I should be doing it now. Thoughts and prayers and entreaties to God aren’t going to stop injustice. But we can, even in the absence of God.

If my prayers aren’t being heard and the divine isn’t interceding after all, it’s still helping me to relieve a burden and to proceed with a clearer, more focused mind. If the soul-stirrings I sometimes feel are not, as I believe, the result of momentary contact with the divine, proven to me by the fact that I’ve been wired to feel that strange and spectacular stirring in the first place, if it really is simply neurons firing off in a regular biological process, it’s still wonderful that those feelings exist. If there is no afterlife where suffering dissipates and we will somehow be one with God (which is as far as I’ve been able to articulate my thoughts on the afterlife), then we will simply cease to exist and won’t be around to be sad about it. And then we have to turn to each other for relief.

Which is how I try to Catholic anyway. Live as if there is no God.

I’m Liberal, I’m Religious, I’m Here.

I got a subscription to The Atlantic in the wake of the 2016 election to support high-quality independent journalism and all that, and though I love reading things in print, the magazines have been sitting under my coffee table until the last week or so when I decided to play catch-up. And, as inevitably happens lately when I start consuming media, the newly religious part of me heaved a long, exasperated sigh at yet another mischaracterization. And, not for the first time, I decided to reach out and write something. Is this going to be a thing forever? I think this is going to be a thing forever.

I just read Peter Beinhart’s “Breaking Faith” article in the April 2017 issue, and I wanted to comment. Beinhart seems preoccupied with voter “discontent,” so much so that he seems to ignore where the presidential candidates stood on the basic political spectrum. Republicans presented a far-right candidate in 2016, one whose rhetoric did happen to clash against the messages of love, acceptance, and forgiveness that are preached weekly from many pulpits in the U.S. Hillary Clinton was just left enough of center to get Millennial liberals like me begrudgingly on board, but Bernie Sanders’ politics represented the changes that we really wanted to see – the changes that the Democratic party has been too afraid to put forward, and that the party didn’t have to risk putting forward in 2016 when the opposition was so far to the right. We didn’t necessarily agree with his Sanders’ populist rhetoric, but we wanted his policies.

And so did liberal faith communities, like the Catholic church I recently joined. You don’t hear much about these faith communities – and certainly, positing the appeal of organized religion to “the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition” only marginalize these voices further – but they exist, and their social teachings align more with Sanders’ vision of America than with any other vision that was presented by candidates in 2016. For many in my faith community, our discontent doesn’t stem from personal economic loss, or from anxiety over the erosion of some construct of tradition. Instead, our discontent comes from the presence of income disparity, poverty, homophobia, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, lack of access to health services, and other injustices that continue to exist in this country, injustices that are in direct contrast with our most important value: love. Sanders seemed the most committed of all the candidates to the eradication of injustice and thus to the spread of love.

Sanders is a revolutionary voice, but he’s not the only one. Pope Francis is another controversial, outspoken leader working towards equality. You’d probably find a correlation between Catholics who strongly support Pope Francis and those who strongly support Sanders. And didn’t that Jesus guy hold some pretty radical beliefs about equality, too?

I want people to know that I exist, that “liberal” and “religious” are not diametrically opposed, and in my opinion shouldn’t be opposed. That my journey to faith made me more liberal. That my faith is completely intertwined with every aspect of my life, like my work, my economic decisions, even my politics. Especially my politics.

The religious right does not have a monopoly on religion, but the use of the term “religious right” in liberal-leaning circles has essentially made “religious” a synonym for “right.” Or for “textual literalist,” or “traditionalist,” or “anti-abortion,” or “anti-gay marriage,” or a number of other things that do not describe me or my views, or the views of many of those in my faith community.

My community includes health professionals who are happy about the availability of reliable birth control in high-poverty countries, and parents who are fighting for their LGBT sons and daughters to be not only acknowledged, but expressly welcomed by church hierarchy. My priest openly speaks about how the Church needs to start including women and gave an impassioned homily about it on Mother’s Day. My husband, who has been reading Dorothy Day and getting interested in the radical-sounding Catholic Worker movement, has recently started identifying himself as a “Catholic leftist” because the term “liberal Catholic” isn’t left-leaning enough for him. This is the left, and it is the religious left. We exist.

Coming Out Catholic

“My Soul Longs for You, O God” is the title of the first chapter in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults, a copy of which I received when I went to meet with my parish’s priest last February, after declaring I wanted to officially join the Catholic church. It was a fitting beginning to the book, and also a fitting beginning to my journey over the past year. It will culminate in my official initiation into the Roman Catholic faith, just over a month from now during the Easter Vigil.

My decision to become Catholic has been a decade in the making, really, from the time I left the homogeneity of rural Pennsylvania. Had I stayed there, and had I not stayed with my semi-Catholic boyfriend who became my fully-Catholic husband, I might have eventually become Lutheran, and if I’d moved somewhere else I just as easily could have become Unitarian. It could still happen, sometime in the future. Around my mid-twenties, I concluded that Christianity was probably the best fit for me, and that every denomination within Christianity has its positives and its drawbacks. But it would be impossible to explore every single aspect of every single denomination, and every individual community within that denomination, and anyway, none of those were going to be completely perfect. My job wasn’t to find the perfect denomination or the perfect community, but to find one that was a good fit. It happened that I found a good fit in a liberal Catholic parish in New Haven.

As I hope I’ve accurately painted in my posts so far, I’ve been a skeptic for most of my life – or maybe an empiricist is a better word. I like proof. I like evidence. I see evidence of God in the existence of the universe, but not evidence of a personal God with whom one can communicate and have a relationship, as they spoke about in Sunday school. The History Channel documentaries on Jesus Christ offer no evidence of his divinity, and neither does the Bible, which, though possibly divinely inspired, is a creation of man and not a creation of the divine and does not stand in for fact. When I feel pulled toward God, which has happened on occasion, or an urge to go to church or to pray, I tend to look for a psychological or biological reason instead of a divine reason. Genuine faith is a struggle for me, and when all around me growing up were Protestant churches who put faith in Christ above all else, it’s no wonder I didn’t see a place for myself among them.

A couple years ago when my husband was living abroad, and I was working two jobs and not attending any worship services, and I generally felt like my life was on hold, I had a conversation with my mom about spirituality and religion. She had been going through her own spiritual awakening and had lots of new ideas. I realized in talking to her that my convictions – the few I’d had – had atrophied. I’d been curious about faith at one point, and had had good discussions with my faithful friends, but as I tried articulating my beliefs at that moment, I realized I had fewer beliefs than ever. My conception of the afterlife had never been static, and I had none then – we just died, and that was that. I didn’t entertain the notion that God listened to, or cared about, human problems. Our lives probably had no meaning and no judgment aside from what we grafted onto it. Nihilism, existentialism, near-atheism, whatever this was, it was far from the vibrant and lively spiritual world I’d once glimpsed and reached for. It was boring. It was lame, as Einstein said. And it was not what I wanted to believe in.

The really great thing about these types of non-belief, though, is that in the absence of a caring God, the individual bears the immense, ultimate, and urgent responsibility of justice, of shaping the world and enacting good. Of being the change. That’s how I saw myself, trying through my jobs at public libraries and in my daily interactions with others to ease their suffering, bring them a smile, sometimes even make their day. My insignificant life would end, as everyone’s insignificant life would end, but they are significant to us while we’re here, and if I could make somebody else’s life a little better, then I would have been a successful human being with a meaning to my life. I would have liked to have the weekly reminder of Mass to push me into those good intentions throughout the week, and to start getting some spirituality back, but I wasn’t in the right place to get dressed on my single day off, to drive to New Haven and look for parking, to sit alone, or to put the effort into looking for conversations and friendships at the post-Mass coffee hour. I couldn’t even get myself to social meetups that I found online, and I frequently cracked dark jokes at work about how I could barely take care of myself. So I let myself do my public service job, and I let it be good enough for the moment. There’s only so much that we’re capable of doing.

Though spiritually and emotionally I wasn’t in the best place, I was doing well materially and physically. We traded in the beat-up, oil-guzzling used Corolla for a much nicer, more reliable used Prius. Our apartment was small, but we could afford it, as well as some nicer furnishings. I worked six days a week, but they were good jobs, and I had good health insurance for the first time since I was an undergrad. I was making headway on my student loans. My fears of having to leave Connecticut to move in with my mom in Pennsylvania while my husband lived abroad did not come to fruition, and I could support myself in his absence. I could afford a gym membership. I had the physical ability to use the gym membership. I felt blessed. “Lucky” wasn’t the most accurate word, “blessed” was, and sometimes I would offer up a whispered “thank you” as I drove to work.

When my husband returned and I got a full-time job that allowed me to have two days off a week, I resolved to dedicate one of those mornings to weekly Mass attendance. It was the Christmas season, the time of anticipation and “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and raising candles in my grandmother’s darkened church while singing the low, droning harmony to “Silent Night.” I attended that Christmas Eve service, which I’d attended more years than not over the last decade, but I didn’t feel that connection I’d felt in the past. After dropping my grandmother at her home, my husband and I drove in the midnight cold to the Catholic church in town, searching unsuccessfully under the orange sodium lights for a posting of the Christmas morning schedule. Next year, we told ourselves, we’d attend the Catholic service. When we took a trip to the city in January, we attended Mass at a little church in Harlem, where my husband’s former priest from Chicago was now located. And when my husband went abroad for a couple weeks and I didn’t go to Mass, I genuinely missed it. He came back, and I’ve attended services nearly every week since then, volunteering my time to service projects here and there and joining RCIA in September, my husband acting as my sponsor.

My choice of denomination has puzzled and maybe even dismayed some of my relatives. After all, in my part of rural Pennsylvania, the Catholic church is the one with all the rituals, the one with strict nuns and hours-long Latin masses, with cover-ups of child molesting priests, anxiety-inducing confessions, hundreds of years of corruption, and regressive perspectives on sexuality and gender, where the church serves the church itself and not the community. I agree with half these criticisms. And I’ve spent the last few years trying to dispel the other half of criticisms by educating others on the reforms of Vatican II, the massive diversity within the umbrella of the church, and my own positive experiences with the church, its members, and the meaning I find in the rituals.

My church is not perfect. Roman Catholic institutions, leaders, and laypeople have traumatized and abused children, shackled adults in unhappy marriages, and facilitated gay conversion programs. They dig in their heels on issues that should no longer be issues in 2017, sometimes simply because they want to differentiate themselves from Protestants. It’s a 2000 year old institution, and it’s had plenty of time to screw up. But it also has a long history of doing social good, running some of the biggest charities in the world, feeding and sheltering those without basic needs, advocating for those without a voice, spreading the message of love and compassion, and offering a spiritual balm to millions. Pope Francis embodies and exemplifies the love that is central to the faith in a way that, to my knowledge, is unprecedented among popes, and he receives heavy criticism from the most conservative elements in the church. My own parish runs a weekly soup kitchen, sponsors a refugee family from Syria, and runs service trips to needy communities in Nicaragua and France. To echo my religion professor over a decade ago, this is the flawed, imperfect, beautiful story of all of Christianity, of men and women striving in their own flawed, imperfect, beautiful way to make this world better, to reach for a perfection we may never grasp.

Roman Catholicism, in particular, is how I choose to strive. It challenges me in ways that I didn’t feel challenged within Protestant churches. The feel-good homilies back in Pennsylvania didn’t shake me up, didn’t call upon me to step outside my comfort zones and act daily the way my priest’s homilies call me to act. I know somebody who attends Catholic services who was at one point, and possibly still is, an atheist, but who sees, as I do, the power of the church’s call to action, and the power of belonging to a community of others who are working towards the same goals. This particular faith calls upon me to think as well, to look at the Bible within a historical and literary context instead of taking passages at face value, to use my English major critical reading skills to interpret and to identify allegory and to get to the deeper truth. It calls upon me to do, and it has shown me the immense agency I have as an individual, both within the church and out in broader society. It has shown me how I can work towards justice, love, compassion, all those things I value as a human being even without affirmation from a religious doctrine, but more powerfully with the support of that doctrine. And my doctrine isn’t for everyone, for sure. There are many ways to be a good, loving, kind, compassionate, and just human being. The Roman Catholic faith is simply my own path, the one that shows me how to realize my own potential for goodness.

I’m taking shuffling, timid steps toward faith, too, and reconciling my compulsive need for proof with my desire to truly believe. My need for proof, at its core, is fear of being wrong. Falling back on proof, on what my senses can observe and measure, is safe, and it requires minimal risk. It’s not going to damage my Freudian ego. It’s what I, a first-generation college graduate, a professional, a nerd, have used as a basis for most of my decisions. It’s insurance against being wrong. Faith, on the other hand, is risky. It’s illogical. It’s difficult. It could be wrong, and it could make one look like a fool. Faith acknowledges, “this guy sounds crazy, and there’s no way at all to prove this is for real.” But faith then takes a deep breath and says, “I’m giving myself over to it anyway,” and steps forward into uncertainty. I want to believe that God hears the prayers that I am offering more and more easily as each day goes by. I want to fully believe that the thing I sometimes feel rising within me is the Holy Spirit, to not become preoccupied with the biochemical mechanism behind that feeling, and to instead allow the simple fact that I have been designed with the ability to feel those biochemical mechanisms be proof enough of the divine working in me. I want to be okay with not knowing all the answers, with Christ being both man and God, with His presence in the Eucharist. I want the image of the woman on the tilma I saw in Mexico City to be a miracle. I want there to be truth in the old book. I want to be like the blind men I read about in the book of Matthew, who answer “Yes, Lord” when Christ asks, “Do you believe that I can do this?” and are healed according to their faith. I want to be humbled before God’s grace, and have my good actions directed, disciple-like, by my devotion to Christ. I want to let my light shine.

Rural Religion 2: The Desert

There’s an old joke that those who decide to major in psychology in college are looking to fix their own psychological problems. Similarly, I took up a religion minor because I was looking for religion.

Looking at my undergraduate transcripts, I took courses in Buddhism and religions of the Far East, Islam and Judaism, religion in contemporary literature, and philosophical approaches to God, in addition to the community college’s intro to philosophy and the comparative religion class. It’s almost as if I had a phobia of Christianity, the religion with which I grew up, and the very basis for the university I was attending. Instead, I wrote papers on the role of Satan in Islam and Judaism, and became familiar with the story of Job and the very few times the adversary is mentioned in the Qur’an. I visited a reformed synagogue and a mosque in the suburban-looking parts of Philadelphia. I remember taking my shoes off and listening to the white-bearded soft-spoken imam, who had an English last name and said he was from Pittsburgh, talk about his faith to the class. He said we could have some Hershey kisses on our way out, and when my professor asked if there was any significance to the chocolate, the imam looked surprised and exclaimed simply, “Everybody loves chocolate!” After we left, I thought about returning to the mosque on my own time. But I never did.

Nor did I return to the Lutheran church where I’d sung in the choir and played in the orchestra. I was in choir and jazz band at college, so with my musical niche filled, I no longer had a reason to attend. Some of the rituals there had resonated with me, but not the constant references to Christ, the human-god whose divinity could not be proven, or to a God that can intercede in our daily human lives and to which we can pray and will be heard. To me, God was the unseen, incomprehensible force that somehow created the universe, gravity, life, and made sure we all didn’t collapse in on ourselves. I never really doubted that. But since I was old enough to do so, I doubted that God really cared about us humans. Our cosmic insignificance, after all, was staggering. I saw no reason for such imperfect, destructive beings as humans to deserve any attention from such a powerful being. So I slept in Sunday mornings when I was home, and when I went back to campus I had dinner ready for my roommates when they returned from Mass.

Once, though, I was feeling a little off, like some part of me was missing. It wouldn’t be the first time I experienced this feeling. And it felt like going to Mass was the right thing to do. So I went to Mass, to the red-carpeted chapel in the basement of the building where business classes were held. I saw students, usually confident and popular during the day, rising from their wooden chairs with bowed heads, reciting “I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.” I saw them gather together at the altar, reverentially, looking for some sort of healing. And though I couldn’t go up to the altar and partake, just being there and observing made me feel as if whatever turbulence was in me had been temporarily calmed.

I started asking questions of my religious friends, who obliged my inquiries about faith versus good works, papal infallibility, and transubstantiation. I noticed that a particularly devout friend, was quick to point out alternative, sympathetic explanations for other friends’ seemingly selfish behaviors. I heard of how the students loved the chaplain, the Christian Brothers who taught Spanish after living in rural Latin America, the priest who taught philosophy.

But it didn’t come to anything. When we graduated and moved to Chicago, I enjoyed Sunday mornings when my husband went to Mass and I had the apartment to myself at an hour where I wanted nothing more than time alone, and quiet. Sometimes, on the occasions when he asked me if I wanted to go with him and I inevitably said no, he gave me a look, a little half-smile trying to cover up sadness as he simply said “okay” and put on his coat. He started staying at church longer, and I started having more time in the mornings for myself. Then when the night before Easter came near, I agreed to go to Mass and watch him initiated officially into the church. I remember walking alone up to the church, in newer, smaller clothing to fit a newer, smaller body that I still hadn’t quite accepted as my own, unsure if my skirt was too short, or if I belonged there among the brown and black faces, if I was intruding on a ritual meant only for them. But the man next to me shook my hand and said “Peace be with you” just as everyone had done at the Lutheran church in rural Pennsylvania and at the Mass at college, and the priest joked with my husband when he called him up in front of the church to be baptized and receive the Eucharist. Though I had to work on Easter, I made a fancy salad and chilled soup for two before I went in to my afternoon shift, and I filled the rice cooker and salad spinner with fake grass, Cadbury eggs, pineapple rings, painted eggs, Peeps, and socks.

We got engaged shortly after that, and when we moved to New Haven we started attending Mass semi-regularly at the chapel around the corner from us. My fiance/husband wanted a church wedding, and I liked the priest that guided us through the pre-wedding counseling, even though I felt that some parts of the process weren’t needed for a couple that had been together for eight years, three of which were spent living under the same roof. I agreed to raise any children in the Catholic faith, happy to give them the same opportunity I’d had: knowledge of religion, open conversation, and the completely freedom to accept or reject. Thinking of how I connected to the rituals at the church, and how I felt welcome at the coffee hours after the services, I made the comment I might eventually become Catholic anyway. I arranged to have off on Sundays at my retail job, partially due to the hassle of the reduced bus schedule, but it also allowed me to go to Mass.

However, when the library job required me to work every Saturday, I had to give my Sundays back to retail. I started spending Mass checking the time on my phone for the moment when I could duck out, as quietly as possible, and catch the bus. It was not ideal, to say the least, and it didn’t last long before I gave up on trying to catch half the service and spent my Sunday mornings getting ready for work.

The wedding came and went, as did the honeymoon, as did Christmas, where the three days I could get off from my two jobs went by way too quickly for me to see enough of my family in Pennsylvania. I quit doing the ESL volunteer work I had done in the fall, since I could no longer fit it into my schedule, and ultimately, because I couldn’t overcome the nagging feeling that I was an utterly poor teacher. I extended my loan deferments. I edited the desperation out of my cover letters as best as I could. I counted calories and ran in the dark. I researched the ACA tax penalties for not having health insurance, and sent terse emails of neglected maintenance issues to the property management company. I lugged groceries down the sidewalk alone after work, once having a paper bag fall apart while crossing a four-lane road to get to the bus shelter, scurrying to the sidewalk and watching helplessly as cars swerved to avoid my leaking half-gallon of soymilk. On nights when work was particularly stressful, I made a few cocktails.

And something was creeping in, some emptiness that I didn’t want to quite call “depression” – it didn’t have that sagging feeling of my teenage years – but for which I had no other name. I felt like I had lost something, but I didn’t even know what it was. Sometimes, I would buy a potted plant at the grocery store that made me smile on rough days, though I felt guilty for spending the $4 on little roses and daffodils that would eventually die. And moreover, that little flower wouldn’t fill up that hole in myself that I tried to ignore. Eventually, my facade fell in a frightening, self-destructive private moment where I had to acknowledge that something was wrong with me. And that I didn’t know how to fix it.

The feeling stayed with me, usually a little thing barely visible in the corners, sometimes completely silent, and sometimes causing me to just suddenly throw up my hands and say “it’s all fucked anyway” and do something self-destructive for the next few hours, or the rest of the day. It followed me when I changed apartments, changed jobs, got a car, got a better car, hit all those success markers for which I’d strived and thought would make it go away. It stayed with me when my husband was living abroad for nearly a year and I came home every night to an empty apartment in the dead of winter. It stayed with me on Sunday mornings, the only morning I had when I usually didn’t have to get ready to work at one of my two jobs, or when my husband who worked from home would go to church and I would have some precious alone time at my most productive hours of the day. It was there when I took a solo trip to Pennsylvania and ran a few miles along a route on the Appalachian Trail I’d always wanted to follow and never did when I lived there, my mind on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her transformative hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s still there today, usually quiet, sometimes not.

Rural Religion

I took a speech class at community college when I was nineteen, and during one class around this time of year, I noticed the teacher had a huge black smudge right on her face. I spent the class wriggling uncomfortably, debating if I should raise my hand and call attention to it, or just let it go. Nobody else was saying anything, but they had to have seen it. All I could think of during class was the smudge. All I could see was the smudge. She didn’t seem to have any clue it was there. And as class wrapped up, I mentioned it to a classmate, incredulous that we all just let her continue with an hourlong class without a single word.

And that’s how I learned about Ash Wednesday.

Growing up, most churches were mainline Protestant denominations: Lutheran, UCC, Methodist, an occasional Baptist or Presbyterian church. I went to Girl Scout meetings in their basements. Genealogy books that list my ancestors mention Reformed churches and Union congregations with German names. My Sunday school was UCC, and I have early memories of being picked up by my parents in the old brown trailer that predated the construction of a new wing of the church. For years, my grandmother coaxed me into uncomfortable nylons and dresses, and I went to the trailer and started the morning singing songs about Zacchaeus, about where the foolish man and the wise man built their houses, about Jesus loving the little children of the world, and begrudgingly repeating “This Little Light of Mine,” hating the melody and the fact that the little kids loved it so much. When I learned to read music, I would sometimes get permission to take the Wee Sing Bible Songs book home and attempt to play them on whatever instrument was at hand.

All the preschool and elementary classes were held in the trailer, tables separated by thin curtains with the youngest kids at the back of the trailer. As I moved closer to the door through the years, learning Bible stories and stories about being nice to others photocopied from workbooks, I could see a poster with a graphic of the earth from space, and part of John 3:16 trailing off: “For God so loved the world…” Sometimes I would stay for the church service, sitting next to my grandmother in the second-last row, making origami animals or drawing crude comics featuring one of the childless younger adults who sat in the last row, especially the one who looked like the long-haired redhead character in the Doonesbury comics. I would put the dollar my grandmother gave me into the collection plate and sing from the hymnal tucked into the wooden holder in front of me. I’d come up for the occasional children’s sermon, where a friend’s grandmother would tell a story with colorful felt people and animals, smoothing the felt pieces down as she placed them on the felt board, or the pastor would tell a story and then line us up to place his warm hands on our heads for a blessing. Once or twice, around Easter, the children’s sermon featured a lamb that we got to stroke. Sometimes, I would sit still while trays of crouton-sized cubes of bread and little red glasses of wine and grape juice were passed, then trays to collect the emptied glasses. I remember once watching my grandmother prepare for communion on a late Saturday afternoon, pouring out the bread cubes from their plastic bags, and the sweet, Niagara grape smell of the wine when she decanted some for the pastor to use.

When I was six or seven years old, I was recruited to play the virgin Mary in a Christmas play, which required wearing an oversized blue robe over my head and body and holding a baby doll while kneeling next to a boy in a brown robe. I was a shy kid at that age, and I dipped my head down so low, my grandmother exclaimed afterwards that nobody could see my face. I would later play a mother going to cut down a Christmas tree with her family, intentionally matching a green turtleneck to brown corduroy pants for the performance, and I had a line or two in an Easter play.

When I was 10 or so, my grandmother took my brother and me on a bus trip to see the story of Noah at Sight and Sound Theatre in Lancaster. Before pulling out of the church parking lot, I answered a trivia question of some sort and won a Good News Bible, and, voracious reader that I was, I cracked it open immediately. Over the next few days I would read familiar stories, creation and the fall of Adam and Eve, and the flood, and the dove that came after the flood. Then I reached the story of Noah, post-flood, drunk and naked in his tent, and how his son Ham saw him and his other two sons covered his nakedness, and Noah awoke to curse Ham’s son and all his progeny. With many questions in my mind, I set down the Bible. I didn’t reach for it again for nearly 20 years.

I’d had doubts before, for sure. As a little kid I could take in that Abraham had lived hundreds of years, but it seemed unlikely as I got older. The Earth couldn’t have been created in six days, either, and it didn’t coincide with what I learned in science class. I prodded my teachers with questions about whether things in the Bible had really happened. I asked for explanations for the post-flood story of Noah, and I couldn’t get an answer. I asked why there was evil in the world. I asked how, if we were really made in God’s image, we humans could do such horrible things to one another. I thought about how the pastor, the religious leader of the church, had told racist jokes at holiday dinners. My parents’ reply to my stream of questions, and the holes I found: that’s why they didn’t go to church. I knew they didn’t pray, because I had suggested it to them when they’d separated for a few months and they told me it wouldn’t do anything. When I said I didn’t think I believed in a literal hell, my father said that hell was what we were living here on earth. My mom taught me the word “agnostic.” I liked it.

I had two friends, siblings, whose grandparents were friends with my grandparents and who went to another school district. We would swim together in my grandmother’s pool in the summer, play with my brother’s Tonka trucks in the mountain of sand placed next to the volleyball court in the picnic grove, and eat turkey barbecue – simple shredded meat in juices held warm in crockpots – unadorned on hamburger rolls. The girl and I traded complaints about being made to go to Sunday school, our doubts over what we were being taught, and about the other kids in our class with whom we didn’t get along. We both went to an information session one summer on the confirmation process, learning about choosing a mentor and what the process meant. My friend wasn’t given a choice in whether to go forward, but I was. I decided not to continue on with confirmation. When marching band came along in the fall, the late-night bus trips back from competitions prevented me from staying over at my grandmother’s house and going to Sunday school the next morning to see my friend. It meant the end of my religious education.

In school, I knew of two Jewish kids and a handful of practicing Catholics, who you could identify by their pale skin and freckles. In the World War II units in school, we learned that Catholics and Gypsies were among those killed by Germans in addition to Jews. Judaism and Catholicism were both different religions compared to mine, both an other. I, like many people I see on Facebook and the comments section of YouTube, learned to confuse the term “Christian” with “Protestant,” so in the semantics that followed, it was easy to fall into the assumption that Catholics were not Christians.

There was a discussion once, when I was young, and I asked which religion I could be when I grew up. I ran through the ones I knew. Baptist, I asked? Yes. Jehovah’s Witness, like the older ladies that came to our door and my mom invited in for tea when she had time? Yes. Amish? Yes. Jewish? Yes. Muslim, I asked, thinking of the Quran my mom had bought and started reading? Eh… sure. As long as I didn’t become Catholic. When I asked why not, my father mumbled something about them gambling in their church basements. (Later that summer I put tickets in a raffle at a church picnic and played basket bingo with my grandmother.)

Around the time that child sexual abuse by clergy was in the news, I overheard that Catholic priests wouldn’t make housecalls or leave their churches to visit the sick, not even to deliver rites to the dying. Or that they would charge lots of money for it, and any other services. Friends attested that nuns teaching in Catholic school were strict, like in the movies. Family members told stories of being excommunicated for marriages, or shown records of their monetary contributions to the church in the past year when they requested services. In my community college history class, I learned about Martin Luther’s theses, the indulgences, and the Great Schism. In a comparative religion class I took as an elective, I learned about transubstantiation. I went to Rome with yet another class and visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and wondering at the arches and the marble floors and the Pieta and Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment, I remember somebody remarking how much money it would have cost to construct it… and how many mouths could have been fed with that money.

This was all in contrast to Protestant expressions of Christianity, such as the Lutheran church of my maternal grandparents. After my parents divorced, my mom took us to their Christmas Eve services once or twice, and with encouragement from my maternal grandmother, I joined their orchestra and later their weekly adult choir as a musical outlet during my time at community college. I’d always liked the music at church services, and I had given performances at local churches with the vocal ensemble in high school. There was something in the Lutheran services that I liked, too. I liked the reverence for the bread and wine, and how everyone stood up and went in line to receive it in the front of the church, instead of staying seated. I liked that the Nicene Creed was recited every time, even if I didn’t believe all of it. And I loved the late-night Christmas eve service, where they would turn off the lights and we would light candles and sing “Silent Night.”

But the faith just wasn’t there. And there were so many choices, too. I had no doubts that there was a god, a force of some sort that had created the universe and kept it all from falling apart. Comparative religion class had introduced me to new ideas, too, like that the force, the divine, was in all of us. There were concepts in Judaism and Islam that I liked, and the idea of nonattachment in Buddhism stuck with me. Deism came up too, the Enlightenment-era idea that God exists but is not involved in human lives. That sounded most in line with what I could empirically observe about the world.

I was struck, though, by how our instructor, a very knowledgeable adjunct, a Jewish lady with frizzy hair and a warm personality, described the Bible. She had started the semester by writing the word “ineffable” on the whiteboard and talking about its definition, and we kept coming back to the idea of the ineffable. When we discussed the Bible in the Christianity section of the class, she described it as a book written by man, an earnest attempt to capture the truth, to give words to the ineffable. It wasn’t perfect, but the effort, and its very imperfection was, in her words, “beautiful.”

I had to agree.