Life is bigger
And you, you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I've said too much
I set it up
That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it
Oh no I've said too much
I haven't said enough
—“Losing my Religion,” REM
As a tenth grader in high school I reformed myself. Mornings on the school bus or during Math class; afternoons while babysitting or at a friend’s house; late nights as the house settled, I fought my urge to pray. Each time “Our Father” snuck into my brain, I snapped a rubber band worn tight around my wrist. The quick pain filled my heart with pride. Snap. A dreamer, lover, free bird. Snap. I’d be no one’s little Christian girl.
This New Year, it was all over Facebook, the memes telling 2016 not to let the door kick it in the ass. Good riddance, many said (and I chimed in) to a year of lost faith in political leaders and lost cultural lights, the year Trump was elected and Leonard Cohen died. For me, personally, 2016 was also the year of lost faith in my agnosticism, in the choices I made years ago to dismiss God, Church, faith and prayer—an unsettling, painful year of looking back.
I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran. For all of my childhood and into my teen years, I believed most of what I learned in Sunday School and in our nightly home devotions. Around the age of 13 or 14, my consciousness evolved, as suggested by the emerging quotation marks in my diaries around words I must have started disbelieving were my own: “salvation,” “sin,” “good,” “devotion.” Soon after being confirmed at age sixteen, I consciously hardened myself against my parents’ conservative church, soured by its shaming heavenly Father, all-seeing extension of Mom and Dad (or maybe just Dad), and its gender inequality—no female pastors or “altar boys” —(until four years later when my younger sister broke the latter ceiling to become an altar girl.) My own rebellion was passive aggressive if serious. Outwardly, I went to church with my family—was a “good girl,” a compliant one, but secretly I fought my addiction to God. This took discipline. I didn’t fall away from religion; I consciously, nervously, climbed step-by-step down from its emphasis on the father up above.
“You should burn in hell,” my daughter shouted at me once this fall, her eyes small with rage when I criticized (perhaps unfairly) her study habits. My daughter is fourteen (the equivalent of sixteen or seventeen when I was a child, so they tell me). She has been raised as a “none”—someone with no organized religion or church to call home and has called herself an atheist, so I was as shocked to know Hell lived in her consciousness as I was to know she had a flashing desire to see me in it. I began to wish we’d given her a God—not because I kidded myself religion would help with her behavior, but because perhaps God could take my place to bear the brunt of her rebellion. Now I know better than to invade my first born’s privacy by writing too much about her—(one way I’m losing my authority as she becomes an adolescent); suffice it to say: she’s impatient, reactive, and strong-willed, while I’m a brooder, a second-guesser and a sap. Much of my 2016 was spent worrying about my increasing lack of firmness.
All this fall, I couldn’t, for example, take away her iPhone at night or at least not for more than one night at a time. All the best parents do it, and I coveted the comforting darkness I imagined falling over the woven baskets cradling their shut-down technology. In our house, as the days shortened and the shadows lengthened, I would watch my daughter’s white face glowing in the light of her BFF. Her eyes filled with disgust at my suggestions that maybe she would sleep better and study more easily if…and then I’d falter. What did I have to offer her in exchange for the nightly comfort of YouTube gurus and her peers? Not “heaven.”
Instead, after bedtime, I’d walk past her room, picking up clothes dropped outside her door, shutting off lights, vowing to finally read Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as I clenched my teeth against the ping of incoming texts, the hiss of snapchat. Again and again the question: Who am I to judge? Later, through the vents, the many nights when my husband traveled, she would hear the minor keys of Madmen’s theme song from the reruns I played to combat insomnia. Mornings, I sought the authority I lacked in books such as Lisa Damour’s Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. I enlisted the advice of teachers, counselors, my more assertive husband and friends. Sometimes they helped. Other times, my mothering seemed a floundering novel, the kind with multiple characters that filled the same function and filled it poorly because something was missing in the book’s plot, orientation, spirit.
My own mother, now deceased, was creative and frequently kind, but also pretty removed from my inner life. I didn’t inflict my defiance of religion on her. My life-long Republican father and I have always been close, but during my high school rebellion against church, and again in my PC grad school days, we seldom talked. Since my mother’s death, however, my Dad and I have forged a mostly positive relationship through daily calls, one our different moral takes on the election season tested but did not interrupt. We had tense moments. He shut down each time I mentioned “The Bern” in positive (perhaps passive aggressive) tones. I flinched each time he said, “God bless” when I confessed my fears about our country, or when he offered prayers for me and my family after I’d intimated conflicts with my daughter. I suspected he imagined my being liberal made my brain porous, that I was won over by sweet symbolism—a bird on Bernie’s podium, a daughter’s unexpected hug. I imagined (perhaps unfairly) him thinking God was on his side. The thought of Dad literally praying for me—“Dear God, please bring my daughter an agent; please make my grand-daughter get all As”—made me cringe. In down times I take comfort from being a speck in the connected universe and, if there is a God who answers prayers, I’d be frightened if my tiny ones—or my father’s—had priority. Is there even such a thing as big prayers?
One advantage of an ugly election year? By late October, I didn’t feel as righteous either in my vague spirituality or liberal politics—and Dad didn’t feel righteous in his hard line Christian conservatism either. Our mutual humbling made it easier to compromise.
“The Democrats may be out of touch in some ways,” I admitted, while he confessed an intensifying moral queasiness with Republican anti-immigration stances and “attitudes” towards women. Even though we assumed he wouldn’t win, we were both afraid of Trump. “I read somewhere,” I told Dad, “that some Hillary non-supporter read her emails…the emails…and ended up thinking maybe she was caring, principled, you know, human after all…”
“Send me something good about her,” he sighed, “in case I have to vote for her.” I texted my sister about “the breakthrough!” but didn’t follow up with pro-Hillary fodder for our father. Instead, I changed the topic in our next conversation, revisiting old reruns: Downton Abby’s Mary (my Dad’s fave) vs. Edith (mine) or the twists and turns of House of Cards. I was afraid to look more closely at my candidate, just as I was afraid to read my daughter’s texts. I was afraid that if I found something untoward I wouldn’t have good answers—and no one I knew would have better ones.
As 2016 and the election cycle wound down, with no escape fantasies either of an afterlife or the perfect savior of a candidate, I was consciously sick of my canary-in-a-coal-mine, indecisiveness in politics and parenthood. I solicited Facebook friends for suggestions of progressive worship places, resolving to work my way through their list on a search for a spiritual community that could help me grapple with ambiguity, and, to be frank, with my deep need for spiritual guidance. I was surprised no one made me feel sheepish about what I saw as a retrograde quest.
A Sunday morning right before the election found me and my friend Colleen, a snarky, irreverent, unlikely partner in church, sitting in a Quaker circle. We were welcomed by a pamphlet to “listen to God; to know and be known by God; to grow in our faith; to be changed; to support each other; to help one another do what God asks us to do.”
After twenty minutes of communal silence, one woman rose and mourned her retirement. Another emoted anxiously about the political climate among other things. One spoke about the expectations of finding truth that we all bring to these meetings. Each seemed, more or less, the “we of me.” Around and between the sudden speeches (and the stomachs rumbling, the papers rustling), quiet deepened. Lightly circling my wrist with my fingers, I wondered if my daughter were home alone in her room right then, hating me. Maybe not. Probably not. Just as easily she could be out with friends—dancing and laughing, snapping pictures of themselves with their heads thrown back, thick hair swinging, eyes half-closed exposing darkly shadowed lids; her not giving me, or her father, a thought.
On Election Eve, my husband was on a business trip in New York, my son was asleep in bed, my daughter and I were alone. I agreed to let her stay up with me to watch the results, but as state after state turned red, I couldn’t face it. While my daughter blocked gloating Trump supporters on snapchat, I switched to Cheers reruns, convincing myself (as my husband had texted me earlier in the evening) that the picture would change—it had to—once all the results were in. Over and over again throughout the night, the Cheers theme song played.
“Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got…” Punctuating my fitful sleep was my daughter’s voice. “He’s winning, Mom, he won.” Was it two in the morning when she told me that a guy friend had snap chatted her to say, “Great, now I’ll get deported and you’ll get raped?” Too harsh, too jaded, too aware for teens at any hour. I began to wake up. “At least I’m too fat for Trump to want to grope me,” she told me she’d messaged back. Entirely too much.
The next day I woke up, still stunned that Trump’s win was not a bad dream, but with the Cheers theme song on my inner sound track replaced by Gloria Naylor’s, “I will Survive.” I told my daughter, yes, she did have to go to school—and on time. Was this only two months ago? Since then her rebellious spirit, previously only shown at home, erupted in a public incident. She got in trouble, the type I’d need poetry to distill since I won’t share the plot of her story. Bottom line: I learned my daughter, like many teens, is more than capable of lying to me, and probably to herself.
Since then, I’ve found the guts to confiscate her phone at will, twice for two weeks at a time (and it’s only January). Her phone is in my purse right now. I’ve grounded her twice and I check her room ostentatiously, leaving her drawers wide open and her half-done homework on her bed. From time to time, she startles me with a hug and won’t let go easily as if claiming our connection even though we don’t have the right words to give each other during this time of change. We do things together, rather than talk. We went with others to the Women’s March on Washington inaugural weekend and plan to march again. In four years, she’ll be able to vote; I want her to be ready. I hope by then she’ll have earned my trust and I’ll have earned more wisdom. In the meantime I hold my head up.
“It may be your job to defy me,” I tell her, when she swears and needles about my restrictions, pointing out my many mistakes. “But for now it’s my job to stop you, my job to keep you safe.” The stakes are high. If I win, she wins. I vow with all I have I’m going to win.
Colleen and I got busy with the holidays, were just making noise about “starting up again” on our spiritual quest, when, unexpectedly, her husband died. Here/Gone, her whole world spinning. Even, or especially, as a “none,” I know enough to hold my friend up until the spinning stops.
My spiritual search had just begun at the Quaker church; still I wonder if God knows how that quiet Sunday an image bloomed in my heart (is blooming still): Daughter, dreamer, lover, free bird. Closest I’d come to prayer in thirty years.