Tag Archives: religion

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.

Hillbilly Elegy and Cultural Identity

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Yesterday I nursed a cold and finished the audiobook of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. My husband walked in on occasion during the course of the book, and he often punctuated  the narration with a loud “yup.” As somebody who came from a culturally working-class background and found himself at Yale getting an advanced degree, they have a lot in common, and Vance’s experiences often rang true to him. I feel the cultural distance myself, too, within the Yale social circle, though I’m not immersed in it at work like he is. I remember being at a professor’s (insanely nice) house once and overhearing him ask another student, “Do you have any working-class friends?” I wanted to wave my hand frantically and point to myself and my husband.

Like Vance, my husband and I can also point to potentially traumatic experiences that affect more children with limited economic means than children in middle-class and higher families. I can easily check off at least three of those ACEs about maybe four, and I think Vance checked off six.

I was hoping that Vance would spend a lot more time talking about how his identity changed because of Yale, if he had to give up parts of his hillbilly identity in order to advance himself, consciously or unconsciously. He did tell how he lied about his Yale enrollment to a woman in Ohio with a Yale sweatshirt because he didn’t want to identify with her presumed class, and about how he learned to navigate the hiring process and how it’s structured in a way that it screens out those who aren’t already part of upper middle class culture. And how he would get calls from home about his drug-addicted mom, reminders of where he came from. And how he realized he had a quick, violent temper and an inability to express his emotions due to his volatile home life, and he worked to change that. But I want to know if he stuffed the more inconsequential parts of his origins down, like his personal tastes. Did he unabashedly talked about country music, or Cracker Barrel, or ask Yale friends if they wanted to shoot at beer cans on the weekend? Did he intentionally turn that part of himself off and shed it from his identity, or reserve it for trips back to Ohio and Kentucky? How aware was he of his cultural markers? He doesn’t indicate if he gave any of these parts of himself up, or what it felt like to decide to shed them or keep them. More on that in a minute.

Many of his phrases – skewering “lazy” people who took advantage of government assistance, defaulting to church as a force of social organization, talking about the decay of tradition without defining “tradition” – show that he remains entrenched in politically conservative modes, presumably which he got from his conservative relatives.* I found myself wondering if his harsh criticism of welfare recipients or a coworker who was taking 40-minute bathroom breaks (which to me is an indication that somebody is shooting up) was misdirected anger from his own opiate-addicted mother, or if it’s willful blindness to the way that addictions affect the addicts’ behavior and ability to function. He acknowledged that current psychological thought views addiction as a mental illness, but he doesn’t seem to extend his own personal sympathy toward addicts. Moreover, I don’t think that widespread addiction is something that you fix by giving people more church. I say that as a churchgoer.

He opines that we use government to fix issues that it can’t resolve, that it increases learned helplessness among groups like the working-class whites of his childhood. In his mind, hillbilly culture itself, its violent tendencies and family instability, is something that has to be fixed from the inside by hillbillies themselves. I admit that I have a tendency nowadays to look at governmental solutions. And it’s true that some people take advantage of the safety nets that government provides. But I think the stakes are too high for us to remove those nets and hope that our economically disadvantaged populations are going to toughen up and straighten out their cultures on their own.

Payday loans might have helped Vance pay his rent on time and avoid late fees that one time that he used it, but overall, I think payday loans do more harm to our society than good when low-income families get into the habit of using them. People are going to abuse WIC, but if abolishing WIC means there are kids that go hungry, I’d rather accept the abuse. Some people are doing a terrible job of parenting due to ignorance or drug abuse or other reasons, but if the schools ignore the shortcomings of those families and push their scheduled curriculum forward without trying to take up the slack, then those kids fail, and the school has failed those kids just as badly as their parents. It’s not right. And it would be great if we had social institutions instead of government institutions that would take up the slack, but we don’t, and it’s going to hurt a lot of people if we just take those government institutions away before the social ones are strong enough, or varied enough, or can survive, let alone thrive, in the mobile population we currently have.

Vance seemed to think that churches would be the best social organization structure, pointing to studies that regular attendees report higher levels of happiness than non-attendees. But Vance himself pointed out that the teachings of some churches can be destructive and turn people inward, and I don’t think that theological agreement with a group of other people should be a prerequisite for inclusion in social safety nets. It’s awesome if you can find that group, but I wouldn’t want to force people into a box. Political parties could be a better organizing structure, or looser community action groups centered around certain broad principles and ideas. Maybe it’s a relatively new, or American, or even individually-focused or selfish, idea that the beliefs and practices of faiths matter more than the benefits of social organization, but I’m okay with that being the new status quo if it means we have more sincere expressions of faith. (Similarly, I think that extending marriage to gay couples revitalizes the institution. If marriage is truly a special union that commits two people to each other, then straight couples have been diminishing its significance for decades by marrying because of unplanned pregnancies, because it seems like the thing to do in their long-term relationship, or for any other number of wrong reasons.)

 


 

And now for something completely different. Like Vance, I come from a rural, working-class background, and I have moved up in the socioeconomic ladder. Though my current income level and most of my cultural affiliations mark me as securely middle class, I do actively reject some markers that, to me, signify the middle class and upper middle class. I am well aware of them. Here’s a partial list:

  • Apple products. I have a Samsung Galaxy phone, no tablet, and a Chromebook.
  • Lululemon. I do spend money on Nike activewear because I find it comfortable, and sometimes on sale items at Athleta, a lesser-known activewear brand under the Gap umbrella.
  • Home ownership.
  • Buying brand new cars.
  • Urban Outfitters. (More a rejection of hipster culture than anything.)
  • Victoria’s Secret, PINK, Abercrombie. The exception: VS has awesome pantyhose.
  • Starbucks. I make 96% of my coffee at home, and sometimes I go to Dunkin Donuts.
  • “Fancy” restaurants. I prefer pub settings, and I tend to balk at the price of restaurant entrees when I can make something delicious at home for a fraction of the cost.
  • Brunch. See above re: cost.
  • Purebred dogs from a breeder. Shelter mutts are my go-to.
  • Skiing. Always seemed so expensive, and what rich kids did on break.
  • Country clubs. See above re: rich kids.

There are middle- and upper middle-class things that I do embrace, though:

  • Consumer Reports. They helped me pick my coffee maker as well as my…
  • Toyota Prius. Reliable, not wasteful of fossil fuels, and affordable to maintain.
  • News sources: New York Times, The Atlantic, NPR, Slate
  • Podcasts. Goes hand in hand with the news.
  • Audiobooks. Goes hand in hand with podcasts, but it really took off because my job gives me access.
  • Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, J. Crew. With blessings from my mom, the cast of What Not to Wear, numerous fashion bloggers, and my employee discount when I worked at BR, I happily spent money on building a good quality wardrobe.
  • Craft breweries and local breweries. My husband and I got married at a brewery.
  • Art films and foreign films.
  • HBO Now, Netflix, Amazon Prime. Cheaper than cable.
  • Travel abroad. My husband is way more into it than I am, but I’ve visited five countries aside from the U.S., none of which had English as an official language.
  • Whole Foods. They have good quality products that are oftentimes cheaper than regular stores. For example, house brand organic yogurt is $3.39 per 32 oz tub at WF, and it’s $4.39 for Stonyfield at Stop & Shop.
  • Organic products, to an extent. Processed organic products often have less  ingredients and taste better, and I notice a taste difference with some produce.
  • CSA membership.

Of course, I could do the same with rural Pennsylvania / working-class things. I’ve sort of done that before in my Raised Rural posts, without collecting them together in a list.

It’s pretty telling what I reject and embrace. Intellectually, I identify way more with populations that are more educated. It isn’t a surprise given my education level, my social circles, and my job, which encourages and rewards curiosity. Economically, though, I appear to be frugal and concerned with my bottom line and balancing quality and cost – maybe even too preoccupied with it. Without a doubt, this comes from growing up with little to no disposable income. I don’t stress about it like I used to, when I would create spreadsheets with store brand prices between several stores and think about how my mom’s grocery shopping involved both Giant and Shop-Rite. But it’s not something I want to totally give up. Besides, the more money I save on yogurt, the more there is for travel and books.

 

*ADDITION 2/8: I encountered that, too, and 2017-Lauren doesn’t believe in them. 2003-Lauren was hearing a lot of outrage in rural Pennsylvania about “welfare queens” and abuse of the system and was more bothered by it, and 2007-Lauren believed that America was a true meritocracy and that social, cultural, and economic issues could be overcome. 2017-Lauren knows more about how the decks are stacked and is also much more compassionate. No version of Lauren believed in the virtue of  old “tradition,” seeing it as way too constraining to historically marginalized populations.