I had a dream last night. I don’t remember a lot of it.
I had gone on some sort of trip with my children, and we were on a college campus. I can’t remember if it was supposed to be my college (I just wrapped up my MFA program) or if it was just a place we were visiting. For some reason Anthony Hopkins was performing Shakespeare in the quad, though he often broke character and improvised with the crowd. The energy was very akin to when he was playing Loki pretending to be Odin in Thor: Ragnarok. There was a playful silliness that you don’t associate with Mr. Hopkins.
Something happened. I can’t remember what anymore, but something happened that broke my son’s heart. I think it had to do with not being able to do something that the other students were doing. My son is newly 23, but he falls on the moderate to severe end of the Autism Spectrum, so that sort of thing happens a lot. He doesn’t have a college experience, and never will. The closest he’ll ever come is the time he spent in VOICE and Project SEARCH (life skills programs that teach developmentally disabled students job skills, how to cook for themselves, how to shop for themselves, and so on). He was so happy there. It’s a shame it couldn’t go on for longer.
Anyway, back to the dream. My son gets upset and takes off, and my daughter and I are chasing after him. We followed him through halls and dorms, and to a place where a river met the sea. And he was just there, crying in front of the river as it blocked his path, unable to reach the sea.
I can’t remember why it was so important, and I can’t remember what all we said or how we comforted him, all I remember is holding him and saying, “I’ll find you another ocean” as he cried in my arms. I woke up just after, my heart heavy, and have been unable to completely shake the sadness from my dream as I’ve gone about my day.
What had stuck with me, though, is the surety that I will never stop finding places where my son can be himself. I will never stop inviting all of my friends to his birthday parties so that he has people there celebrating him. I will keep buying him whatever absurd thing makes him happy and I don’t care if people think he’s “too old” for his Pokémon fixation (though I know people twice his age still obsessed with the IP, so the world can calm down). I will carve out a place in this world where he is loved and cherished and do my best to find a way he can do anything his heart longs for.
This piece was written in February of this year, and I’ve been debating what to do with it. I considered sending it in to literary magazines, but I also didn’t really want to work on it any more (I know, sounds awful, but there’s a lot of emotion in this piece, and coming back to it was extra work). Some of the feelings in this piece have shifted (the house is no longer half under construction, we’re starting to settle in, things are getting better), but a lot of them are the same. Still don’t like it here very much. Still feel my heart ache when I think about our old home. Still don’t know when or if we’ll ever make it back to the PNW.
“I’m looking for lucky money envelopes? The red ones. For the Lunar New Year.” When the woman stares back at me blankly, I sigh. “Chinese New Year?”
And suddenly the woman at Hallmark knows what I’m after. She leads me to the tiny (four slots, two rows) section, and explains that another woman came in and cleared out their greeting cards but left four packs of the money envelopes.
I hate this place.
Well, no, that’s not entirely fair. I hate living in this place. I liked it just fine when I was visiting a couple times a year and could just laugh at how backwards it could be for such a large city, how deluded the city council was about the area being “metropolitan,” and how it was so removed from everything I’d come to love about my home near Seattle. My home that…is now someone else’s home.
So here’s the deal. In the summer of 2020, amid the pandemic, my husband and I decided that we would sell our house, which had more than doubled in value since purchase, and move back to Colorado. We didn’t really want to leave Washington, but the sale of the house could be life changing. And there’s the matter of my step-father. Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease. I recognize him less every time I see him. My mother is his primary caregiver. I want to help. I want to be there in the end. I want my kids to have some more time with their grandfather while he still knows their names.
We told ourselves that it wouldn’t be too bad as we reached out to a realtor and made plans to move in the late summer of 2021. Might even be fun. We still had friends there. Neither of us could get out of Colorado fast enough back in the early 00s, but it’s been years. Thirteen years is enough time to grow, yeah? Colorado has that new governor that isn’t a complete disaster. They voted blue in the last national election. It’ll be fine, right?
The first month, almost every day, I stood somewhere in the new house and cried because it wasn’t my charming old mid-century modern, set in the middle of a lush lot in the far back corner of a very private, wooded cul de sac. We were in that house for seven years, the longest I have lived anywhere in my adult life, and honestly I thought it was the house we were going to spend the rest of our lives in. Sure, it needed some hefty renovation (which we couldn’t afford), but the location and the lot couldn’t have gotten better, shy of being able to afford a place right on the water. This 1970s split-level ranch, on the arid plain, where all my neighbors can see everything I do, doesn’t fill my heart like that last house did. By the end of the first month I wasn’t crying anymore, but I do look around and sigh, and wonder if I have room to plant trees. Something to block out the nosy boomers on all sides and bring some of that old neighborhood charm to this generic suburb. I know this house has potential, but right now it feels like a poor trade for what we had.
I’ve also been fighting a hard case of FOMO since we arrived as I keep up with friends back in Washington and see what all they’re doing. I’ve found some small ways around this. There were streaming options for many of the live holiday shows that all came back this past year. I kept my job at the Seattle Erotic Art Festival since it’s all zoom meetings and emails now anyway. I even flew out for the festival in October, though I sobbed like a child as I hugged everyone and said goodbye before heading to the airport.
Yes, we still have friends in Colorado, but a lot of my Colorado friends have younger children or are pregnant, and not terribly interested in museum trips or cocktail nights. My kids are grown(ish), I’m not interested in parks and playdates. The ones that don’t have kids have careers. My best friend moved from Colorado to California in January of 2020, transferring departments in her international company (she’s hoping to transfer to Seoul in 3-5 years). I pointed out that I had been trying to get her to move west for 13 years, and that her timing sucked.
But you know what the worst part is? As strange as it may sound, the worst part is the shopping. Like standing in front of the woman at Hallmark who doesn’t understand what Lunar New Year means, and whose store only carries three different hóngbāo, one of which has a turtle on it despite it being the Year of the Tiger. Or when I roam downtown, and find that my old favorite places didn’t survive the pandemic, and the shops and restaurants that have popped up to fill the empty storefronts are distressingly suburban and generic.
Grocery shopping has become a weirdly emotional experience. I traded QFC for King Soopers – both are Kroger stores, so the basics are similar. That helps. The basics aren’t what break my heart, though. It’s when I ran out of garam masala, and couldn’t find it anywhere, even after going to four different stores. It’s not finding my favorite ramen (Ichiban Tonkatsu), and you can forget finding fishcake (the local Asian market way down south has one variety, and it’s not great). I stood in the produce department of King Soopers last night, dejected, because I couldn’t find golden shiitakes, which every QFC within 10 miles of my old house had. There is not a Scandinavian food store in the city, nor does there seem to be one in the state, and if I want Beauvais pickles, I have to order them from the shop I went to in Seattle and have them shipped to my house.
My preferred brands just don’t exist out here. No one carries Darigold sour cream. No one has Ellenos greek yogurt. No one has Franz bread. And every time I stand in the grocery store and reach for the most acceptable substitute, something in my brain says, “You left the place you loved and you may never make it back.” Dozens of times over the span of an hour. By the time I get back in the car, I am exhausted and fighting tears.
Look, I don’t regret moving back. Well, all right, I regret it a little, but for the most part I still think it was the right thing to do. My children are happy. They’re close to their cousins and their grandparents, got new, bigger rooms with new furniture, and are slowly making new friends. My husband and I aren’t happy yet, but I know there’s the potential to get there as more things work themselves out and we get used to this place. The adjustment period has been rough for different reasons – work, school, the repairs the new house needed that still aren’t done, half our lives still sitting in the boxes that are currently behind me – and the persistent unsettled feeling makes that adjustment harder. That doesn’t mean it will be rough forever, though, and objectively things should get better soon.
I just never thought it would hurt so much. I never thought going grocery shopping would feel so much like emotional labor. I didn’t think it would feel like a knife in the heart every time I look out at my dead, brown desert brush backyard and remember the lush forest I left. Washington is where my children grew up, where my husband and I got married, where I came into who I was as an adult out of the shadow of my family and the expectations built in my youth. Where I made friends who wanted to talk about what the future looked like instead of what we all did in high school. It feels like a piece of myself is still sitting in my old house, tucked away on the top shelf in the bedroom closet, or down in the office basement where I used to sit on the couch with my laptop as my husband was at his desk, or on one of the high shelves in the kitchen that I couldn’t reach without a stool where I spent hours cooking and laughing with my kids. And I just don’t think I can get that piece back.
I was recently talking to my sister-in-law. One of those late, 2 a.m. talks where you both should have gone to bed hours ago. I said something to her that stuck with me. Something about my life, and my goals. I’m going to share, but some background first.
When I was a little girl, all I wanted to be when I grew up was a famous performer. Now, I never said it so succinctly. I wanted to be a ballerina. No, wait, a pop star. No, wait, a Broadway star. No, wait, an actress in Hollywood, but also still a ballerina, and maybe still a pop star. I loved to perform. My mother put me in a “creative movement” class when I was 4 – somewhere there’s a picture of little baby me in my pink satin leotard with a bandolier of scarves that I wore for my first recital. Thus began a lifelong obsession. I was in every choir, in every school and church play, I took tumbling and ballet and jazz dancing (though I stuck with ballet the longest). My siblings and I used to stage performances for our family. My friends and I would play games that were essentially singing contests. When I went to college (the first time), it was to study Vocal Performance. This was the dream. Even after I left college (re: was kicked out because I stopped going to classes due to depression following my first major break up), this was still the dream.
I wanted the stage. Nothing in the world feels like being on stage. The adrenaline, the tingle in your skin as you take your place and wait for the curtain to draw up and the lights to come on. The long nights practicing with a cast that becomes almost a family for the production run. Hearing your voice soar through an auditorium, knowing that everyone is listening to you. There is absolutely nothing like it. And when the concert ends, when the curtains fall on closing night, you feel accomplished and exhilarated and heartbroken that it’s over, but you know you can do it again.
And then I got pregnant. I was barely 20 when I married the man involved (an ill advised union to put it politely), and gave birth to my son in January of 2000. I still thought, for a little while, that this was only temporary. That I would get back to the stage. I found some solace in other creative pursuits – I started writing more. I had been writing since my freshman year of high school, off and on, but it was a thing I did with friends, I had no real aspirations there. Not even a year later I got pregnant again (I am apparently hella fertile). Had a little girl. Then I found out that my son was on the autism spectrum, and I mean the end where people weren’t sure if he would ever be able to write his own name or communicate without pictures. I tried getting a part time job, but my ex couldn’t handle being alone with my son. I got a divorce, and my ex stomped off in a pout with no contact information left behind. Obviously I’m glossing over a lot here, but we’re highlighting the significant life decisions.
I went to one audition when my children were still young, shortly after I had filed for divorce and my ex had disappeared. It was for The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a paying gig at the Fine Arts Center. I’d had paying gigs before the children were born, though not many. I botched the audition. I wasn’t warmed up enough, it had been too long since I had done…anything. And that’s when I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t chase this dream and be a mother to my children. Maybe others could, but I couldn’t. I would have to give up one, and since giving up the children wasn’t an option, I had to give up the stage.
And that was it, for a long time. Oh, sure, my friends and I had pipe dreams about owning our own clubs or starting up a gaming café or whatever else got us excited at the time. But my dream, what I wanted to do with my life – that was just gone. I was a mom, and that took most of my time. I held a variety of jobs, though lost a lot of them. Even worked at Intel for a little while, but problems with consistent affordable child care saw that blow up in my face. I ended up working for my mother at her laundry business, because who else was going to let me bring my kids with me when I needed to? Later on I also worked for my future in-laws at their shop selling bumper stickers and buttons for the liberally minded. Paycheck to paycheck, frequently in debt and juggling bills, home alone at night and utterly exhausted. Friends came by for game night. Sometimes we went out. I couldn’t envision a future other than survival. Quite frankly, there wasn’t one at the time.
Things got better. I fell in love with someone who was worth it. We became one big family. Slowly, over time, it got better. I went back to school – it was hard to find work that paid enough to be worth the child care with just a high school diploma, so I applied for grants and financial aid and started taking classes again. I started writing again. Then an interesting thing happened – people other than my parents started telling me it was good. Professors praised my tone and my style. Every article I submitted to the school paper got printed. I started submitting short pieces to literary magazines and anthologies, and saw them published. It took 8 years, but I got my BA in English – Professional and Creative Writing. After a year off, I went back for an MFA (still working on that). I started working regularly as a freelance writer.
So back to the conversation with my sister-in-law. I told her that I realized, at some point in the last year or so, that writing is the new dream. Specifically, writing a novel, getting it edited and polished and submitted to an agent or publishing house. It’s an attainable dream in many ways, though you wouldn’t know it from the way people talk about it. Not very many people in my personal circle are terribly supportive of this endeavor. Most of my friends don’t take it seriously – they’re all doctors and lawyers, or married to software engineers, and when I try to talk about my writing they treat it like a hobby. My family says I’m a great writer, but they think I should be writing about my kids or my experiences, they’re not interested in my fiction. Some of the people closest to me have said some well meaning but horribly disparaging things since I started to focus on this seriously.
The thing is, though – and this is the point I made that night, that hit me like an epiphany – I can’t give this up. It took me a long time to find another dream. I can’t just let go of this one because people think I should be doing something else. My husband understands, and supports me in this. I thank the stars he does. I’m 41 years old, my children are technically adults (though my son will require some level of supervision and care for the rest of his life), it’s been a long road but things have continued to get better. I need to see this out. I need to try. If I fall on my face, if I’m wrong and no one wants my stories, then fine I’m wrong, but I need to take this time and put in the work and put myself out there. No, it’s not the most stable profession. No, it doesn’t come with PTO or benefits or a 401K. But it’s the only dream I have left.
That may sound strange coming from someone who left the church, but seriously, I love Christmas. It is my second favorite holiday of the year (with the first being Halloween, naturally). The weekend after Thanksgiving all the autumn decor goes away and the tree comes out. My husband rolls his eyes and gets out of my way. The kids help decorate the main tree according to whatever theme I’ve picked for the year (yes, I have enough ornaments to choose different themes), and then we have a second, smaller tree that goes in the family room that they get to decorate with whatever’s leftover. We don’t really have a lot of outdoor decor, but that’s in part because our house is in the back corner of a weird little cul de sac and surrounded by bushes and trees. You can’t see our house from the street, so we keep it light. Though I do have the most adorable tinsel narwhal. He lives on our porch.
Recently, The Southern Jew put out a reflection on the perpetuation of Christian culture by former Christians and non-Christians through the celebration of Christmas. I found the write up to be interesting enough to start following them on Facebook, although they did make the point that the only reason they created the FB page was to share the write up, because so many people had asked to share it and they didn’t want their personal information out in the world. They have since deleted the page, and I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that it’s because they received angry pushback from the internet, because we have an overabundance of trolls these days. So, sadly, I cannot direct you to or quote what they discussed, but we’re going to talk a little about the gist of it.
They spoke about the monster that is commercial Christmas, and touched on how originally Hanukkah was not that big of a holiday in the Jewish community, but has been inflated over the years to compete with Christmas. The author asked for a little accountability from non-believers who continued to participate in Christmas, and therefore continued to perpetuate this beast of a holiday that (in the US at least) is admittedly a corporate monster and a little out of control. The clinging to Christmas also perpetuates the image that the US is a Christian nation, for all that many people celebrate Christmas secularly. So I wanted to talk about why I, as an apostate, continue to celebrate Christmas.
Tradition plays a big role in it. I was raised a Methodist, with a lot of Catholic and European influences in my childhood. Christmas Eve dinner is a big deal, and was often the one of the few times of year we broke out traditional Polish foods that my grandparents loved. There’s actually a funny story about how, after my grandmother passed, my mother finally confessed she didn’t like śledź w śmietanie (pickled herring in sour cream) and I was just beside myself for, like, an hour. It was always about food and family, however. We attended candlelight services on Christmas Eve when I was younger, but they tended to be short things that were just a nice time to see my friends from Sunday school (or the preacher’s son who had a crush on me – it was not reciprocated, but he was a nice enough friend). And then we got to go home and open a gift – just one, and not a big one – with the rest waiting for Christmas morning. By high school we were barely still attending church (and would stop before my junior year), but dinner and family time were still very important parts of the holiday.
Also, let’s not overlook the vast importance of the lights and decorations. Christmas is beautiful – sparkling lights, trees full of glass baubles and shimmering tinsel, glittering displays in a rainbow of colors. It is gloriously amazing. And for someone who continues to struggle with seasonal depression, Christmas is an intense uplift during a dark and gray time of year. I really need something this bright and happy in February to get me through the rest of the rainy season (don’t say Valentine’s Day, it’s forever tainted by bad movies and societal expectations). And the food! So much amazing food is paraded before us during this time of year, and it’s fun to look up recipes and try new things. I bought a Cranberry White Chocolate tart from Trophy Cupcakes this year. It’s the most gorgeous thing that has ever graced my holiday table, and it was delicious. I also made a twist on the Eton Mess, using chocolate meringues and cherries in a sauce to give it a Black Forest gateau feel and flavor. Not as beautiful, but super tasty.
These parts of the holiday that have so much significance to me, that are so important to me, were never about religion. They’re about family, about festiveness, about finding something beautiful and bright during a dark time. When I started my own family, I originally tried to shift the celebration to the solstice. After all, I spent a while dabbling with Wicca, and while it didn’t stick for many of the same reasons I left the church, I do still retain a number of pagan sympathies and beliefs. But here’s the thing – I was a single mother, with no money, and most of my children’s presents and certainly the big festive dinners all happened at relatives’ houses. On Christmas Eve or Christmas. What little I had the bandwidth to scramble together on 12/20 couldn’t hold a candle to what my family could do on 12/24, and I was already so exhausted it didn’t feel worth it to keep trying.
Things changed, I remarried, the financial situation dramatically improved, but by that point my children’s formative years had been spent celebrating Christmas. Their Christmas is entirely about family and togetherness, and Santa, with no religious overtones. Which, considering all Christmas decor comes from pagan traditions, and it’s only celebrated in December because early Christianity needed a holiday to compete with Saturnalia, kind of works out. Then again, our family donates to food banks and buys presents for kids whose families are struggling, and arguably those are the most Christ-like things you can do during the holiday. Definitely more Christ-like than screaming about Starbucks cups.
So, do we perpetuate Christian culture with our secular celebrations? Yeah, a bit. And right now I don’t have an alternative. Christian traditions are very accessible. I’d give Hanukkah a go if I didn’t think my Jewish friends would find it super rude of me (it would really just be an excuse for gelt, latkes, and sufganiyot). Now that my children are almost grown and we’re no longer dependent on my extended family for all holiday cheer, maybe we can start to shift back towards solstice again. It won’t get rid of the tree or the lights, though, so I feel like it doesn’t really matter. I will still be perceived as celebrating Christmas whether I am or not.
Perhaps the answer is just to continue to push the narrative that Christmas has evolved into a secular holiday, and make that more widely pronounced and understood. It will always have religious meaning and connotations for Christians, as it should, but quite frankly they stole the holiday and all its trappings from other religions to begin with, so maybe I’m just taking it back.
As a writer, I often plumb the depths of my soul and regurgitate it out onto the internet to share with strangers and the three family members who might look at my blog once a year. I have been letting the dust settle on my personal blog for a while as I worked on creative pursuits (more on that another day), but I haven’t had much I really wanted to dig up and examine about myself. Then, gentle reader, 2020 happened. In all its bewildering, excruciating glory. The pandemic, the election, the absolutely bat shit insanity of the evangelical church, all these factors have aligned to cause me to reflect on a topic that I am typically more private about.
I am an apostate. I typically describe myself as agnostic, but I am also an apostate. This lends me a certain perspective. So here is the start of my little project. I’m calling it American Apostate, because I’m an American, and apostasy in America is a strange thing that is both not considered of great consequence and yet simultaneously holds the potential to be very alienating. The chances of my being killed for my apostasy are minimal, but not completely nonexistent. Of course, I am also a “West Coast Liberal Elite” or whatever the favored term is these days, so it’s not a danger I’m exposed to. Regardless, I intend to write a short series of essays on my reflections of the state of the union as a former Christian.
Before we get started, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. So what is apostasy? Let’s ask Mirriam-Webster.
1: an act of refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith 2: abandonment of a previous loyalty
Now, what makes me choose the word apostate? Well, for starters, because I like to use words that have meaning. I know, all words have meaning, but hear me out. Just calling myself an agnostic or a non-believer or a non-Christian does not convey my experience of this journey the way calling myself an apostate does. I was baptized. I grew up going to church in your Sunday best. I was in every weird Christmas pageant. I sang in the choir during the Christmas cantata every year once I was old enough for them to let me. I was a wise man and a shepherd in the live nativity on different years. I believed, whole heartedly, until I did not. I spent a year convinced I was damned because I had begun to doubt.
When I was doing my initial research for the project and looking up how the church defined and presented apostasy, I stumbled across Dr. Michael J. Kruger of the Reformed Theological Seminary. I’m not linking to them, because Dr. Kruger is a sanctimonious gentleman who thinks he’s special because he got his PhD from the University of Edinburgh. Something that he says several times is that apostates “seem” to be Christian, and implies that an apostate intentionally deceives those around them and leads them astray. “Apostates are not people who were Christians and then stop being Christians. Apostates were never Christians to begin with and only later did it become apparent that they weren’t Christians.”
Respectfully, Dr. Kruger, kindly stop talking out of your ass. I didn’t spend my life deceiving my family and friends and those around me. This feels akin to when your friend breaks off a toxic relationship and is all, “I never loved them!” and you’re sitting off to the side like, “No, you did, but I appreciate why you need to say that right now.” Christians like Dr. Kruger hold to the belief that we deceived them, because a true child of the Lord would never turn their back on the faith. This, of course, is paradoxical to the teachings that we are all children of God, regardless of belief, but we’ll get to the church and its paradoxes on a different day. Or days. There are a lot of them.
“They were never Christians!” No, we were. I was. And you need to make your peace with that just like I had to.
And so this writing experiment begins. I don’t know how far it will go right now, but I’ve got at least three subjects I am eager to expound upon. I imagine the first of these will find its way up here before that most popular of retail holidays descends.
Happy New Year! So, this is not an Inspirobot quote (don’t worry, more are coming). I downloaded WordSwag, which is an app that you use to make quote images on Instagram. I actually downloaded it for my little gamer side project, The Cartographer’s Guild, because we have an Instagram now and should really be doing something with it. This is my first image experiment.
So, “nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy” is a Polish saying that means “not my circus, not my monkey” which is basically saying that’s not my business, and so that’s not my problem. The saying became pretty popular recently, honestly not sure why, and it has a special place in my heart because I am half Polish. As in my mother is a first generation American. That’s not important right now.
What is important is that I have really come to embrace this saying as I’ve gotten older. And I don’t mean from a larger, social responsibility standpoint. I don’t think that just because my children are out of public school, we should stop funding public schools, or other nonsense along those lines. I understand that we are trying to have a society here, and that means promoting the greater good, which often means supporting things that don’t directly benefit me. And I am fine with that.
But on a personal level, I have been learning when to step away for my own health and well being. And so my goal for the new year is to realize when it’s not my circus, and to put the monkey down before it starts flinging poo.
Once upon a time, in an internet far, far away, there was an impressionable young writer who was told that someone with her skill and occasionally delightful way with words should probably have a blog or a personal website of some sort. And so, emboldened by the words of people who were not writers, the girl set forth and with hope in her heart, created her first personal website. It sank into the swamp – metaphorically, the swamp here being the cavernous maw that is the internet. And so she created another, and that too sank into the metaphorical swamp. Then she created a third, which caught on fire, fell over, and then sank into the swamp (still a metaphor). But the fourth one…also sank into the swamp. And here ends this lovely Monty Python reference.
However many tries later, here we are. This time the site has my name on it, and so therefore can follow me to my grave – it’s tethered now, no more sinking into obscurity if it doesn’t work out. That’s all right, though. There’s something to be said for taking ownership of your projects, however they may or may not turn out.
So then. Cross your fingers, toss the salt over your shoulder, run clockwise around a church three times, burn some incense, and wish on a star. Because here we go.