United We Stand?

It was early November in 2001, two months after 9/11, when I went down to the end of the cul-de-sac to meet the new neighbors. We had just moved into San Ramon a few months earlier ourselves, a semi-upscale San Francisco suburb in the east bay. It promised good public schools, and gave the impression of a safe, friendly environment in which to raise our children. That afternoon several of the local residents were hanging out at the end of the block with the new neighbors, sharing beers and casual conversation, watching their children play together in the street. I joined them, introduced myself, and my [then] one year old daughter and three-year-old son, who both ran off to play with the other kids.
 
The new neighbors asked me about my children, their ages, where we had moved from, and the like. Then the woman asked me to repeat my last name.
 
When I told her again she said, “Oh, you’re the Jewish couple then? I heard that there was a Jewish family that had moved in recently.”
 
It was clear that she was tickled by the idea of living near Jews. Unlike L.A., or New York, the Bay area has little Jewish population to speak of. Suddenly, the three other couples standing there plugged into our conversation. Though our last name was often mistaken for Jewish, it’s derivation was German, and isn’t always a Jewish moniker. The woman’s assumption was ignorant, but typical, especially in an area where Jews were such a novelty.
 
“Actually, we’re Atheist. We don’t practice any religion.” I tried to sound casual.
 
Blank stares. Total silence. It was like I had just said that we were registered child molesters. My words hung like lead in the dead air until one of the neighbors we’d previously met broke the silence.
 
“You know,” she tried to sound casual too. “I heard this broadcast on NPR the other day about Atheists. They’re actually very non-violent, friendly people. The Atheist on the air pointed out that you never hear of Atheists blowing up buildings.”
 
The vacuum that followed her comment made it clear that the new neighbors would have preferred we were practicing Jews, or Mormons, or even Muslims at that point. “You mean you don’t participate in the holidays?” the new neighbor asked, mystified. “Not even Christmas?”
 
“No. Not even Christmas.”
 
“Well, Christmas isn’t a religious holiday.” As absurd as her comment was, I hear it all the time. I refrained from reminding her that Christmas celebrated the birth of Christ, the very foundation of Christianity.
 
“We have five nights of winter presents which compensates quite nicely,” I explained. “And we celebrate birthday’s, special occasions, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and so forth.”
 
She bobbed her head up and down, but I could tell I’d already lost her. I was the anti-Christ, the infidel, the soulless she was so afraid of. And though her fear was unwarranted, there isn’t a religious person I can recall that I didn’t get the same bounce from when I revealed I was an atheist. No God? No values. It’s common wisdom, right?
 
I didn’t set out to set myself apart. My brief stint in Sunday school was forced upon me until I was 13, when my parents had to acquiesce to my unshakeable conviction that there was no God. My mother spent the next 30 years convinced that I would come back to religion when I grew up, got married, had kids. But the certainty of a godless universe, one ruled by entropy, not empathy, still resonates with me. The values I question are those that focus on an afterlife instead of on the life at hand, and the contributions we each can make to insure the survival of our race.
 
At the start of every December several of the families in the cul-de-sac adorned their front lawns with small cement statues of The Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. They are subtly placed, though clearly visible in clumps of bushes and at the base of towering Redwoods. Christmas lights go up early, and stayed up well into the new year.
 
Since that first encounter, the new couple has gone out of their way to avoid our family. To date, she and her children ignore us, even my kids casual waves in passing. They do not acknowledge us at the store, in restaurants. The other neighbors do not include our family in their neighborhood parties, nor have they asked my husband to join their Sunday golf group.
 
When we moved here, I didn’t stop to consider the religious leanings of the community. As an atheist, in a monotheistic society, wherever I live I’m on the fringe. I am deeply saddened that my children are being ostracized because of our beliefs. In allowing them to define their own spirituality, I fear I have inadvertently set them up for rejection, condemned them to the fringes, which is a very lonely place to live. But I do not foresee bringing religion into my home. I cannot teach them what I do not believe.
 
This last holiday season, in a brief lapse of reason, I thought of throwing a Hanukkah party and inviting the neighborhood. If they needed us to be something, we could pretend to be Jewish. But, the thing is, I am proud of who we are and our spiritual choices. And I am proud to be an American, where we are free to practice any religion, or none at all.

Trickle Down Polarization

gun_control_means_nothing_to_my_studentsMy father is a fervent Republican. My mother was a Democrat. Once saw him put his fist through the solid maple cabinet an inch from my mother’s head because her vote was going to cancel his in the second Reagan election. Though he never hit her, connected anyway, he often shouted, slammed things, threw things, at me, even, when he encountered resistance (reason) when espousing his conservative views.

My father doesn’t believe Global Warming is real, or caused by us in any way (absolving himself of conserving resources).

My father believes all non-believers, atheists and agnostics are dangerous fools—to be converted.

My father distrusts all Muslims.

My father believes in trickle down economics, (though it’s been proven again and again not to work).

My father doesn’t believe in gun control. “If they come for me, like they did our ancestors in Germany, I’ll stop them at the door.” He quotes the NRA with fervor! “Take away what kind of guns we get to own, and you chip away at the foundation of the 2nd Amendment.”

I remind him he can’t stop a tank with an AK-47. I implore him to examine history, and context—that the right to bear arms our forefathers were talking about were pistols and shotguns that took three minutes to load and didn’t fire straight or would blow up in your face. Automatic assault weapons were neither considered, nor anticipated when the 2nd Amendment was written.

He scoffs. As his daughter, and a women, I am clueless.

As a mother of a 10 year old and a 13 year old, I am horrified, not only by what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, and other schools since this first writing, but everywhere else, every time an assault weapon is uses against our own because the NRA wants to keep making money. And our government, ostensibly “by the people, for the people,” is paid-off to let them. At least, one very specific part of our congress, and five members of our Supreme Court: the Republicans.

Grew up on the Valley side of the Hollywood Hills, and went to school with writers, producers, directors kids, all fairly to extremely liberal. My father was the outlier in our neighborhood, and among my parents colleagues and friends. The Great Divide between the Republicans and Democrats, fueled by Regan pushing religion, conservatism, and then ignited by Bush Jr’s administration didn’t exist yet. My parents lived together in relative peace, except around election times.

We have become a polarized nation, and this serves no one here. Down to the personal level, it has divided me from my family, my siblings, like my father—fervent Republicans. My sister, disgusted we’re raising our kids without religion, decided she’d had enough of my liberal leanings and checked out of our life. My brother forwards emails from his born-again Christian community to everyone he knows that Obama is a Jew-hating Muslim who believes it’s okay to kill babies. His ignorance is only compounded by his blind faith.

The chasm in our morality, our philosophies, is so diametrically opposed at this point, the rare times I talk with my father our dialog turn sours quickly, then invariably moves to contentious. Told him time and again I won’t discuss politics with him, but he insists on little digs, like, “Do you care about your kids?” since I voted for Obama. He has not spoken with my children in seven years now, or acknowledged them in any way, not birthdays, no calls, ever, and virtually never inquires about them when I call him, which I always do because he doesn’t call me.

Truth is, it’s getting harder and harder to call him. Almost a decade after my mom’s death, my dad is now in an elder care facility two states away, on the bottom floor of a three story building where the first floor is elderly who are…capable. Second floor is the dementia ward. Third floor is check out. Forever.

Living as he does must be nightmarish, especially compared to the vital life he once lived, where his vote and opinion mattered for years to come, instead of being barely acknowledged, and only for elections.

Regardless of his current circumstances, my father is undaunted by age or illness in his quest to spread conservative ideology. He’s a true believer, as are most vocal Republicans, because believing is easier than thinking. Being told what is right and wrong, good or bad, is simpler than considering the complexities of our behavior, and our obligations to each other and the world we inhabit.

My father, sister and brother believe woman should not have the right of choice with their own bodies.

My family believes gays should not have the legal, nor moral right to marry. They think homosexuality is a mental illness.

My family espouses they believe in “less government”—preaching the Republican’s canonical tagline, but wants to restrict women’s choice and limit our birth control resources; control who gets to marry; limits medical treatment to citizens who can afford care; allows corporations, like the NRA to lie, cheat, steal, and allow the mass murder of our children, for more and more money.

Been wondering when it’s time to say good-bye to family, even before they die. The little connection I retain with my brother and father seems…over. My kids have no relationship with either—their choice to abandon my family, not ours. We have virtually no common ground, share little time that isn’t contentious, and only via email or text. So, really, what’s the point? We clearly don’t serve each other in any way, anymore. Harsh? You bet. Ugly? Yeah. Profoundly saddened we’ve come to this impasse. Hurts. A lot, knowing there are people out there who still think like my family does. And I’m shamed by them.

The polarization of our nation doesn’t only affect our government’s inability to function, but, sadly, trickles down to corrupt our trust in each other as well. Our nation is fundamentally fractured now. Our polarized ideologies are destroying friendships, and families, like never before, or perhaps akin to the Civil War.