Category Archives: Atheism

The Slog

This is the third of three posts, the first and second are here. If you started reading this blog for the prison theme you may be wondering, what does any of this have to do with Vince going to prison? I don’t know if it does—you tell me.

And so I informed people of my decision, which I had known from the moment I’d found out I was pregnant again: I would give the baby up for adoption.

I told Judy, the Catholic Charities social worker, and her eyes lighted up. “I do have a few reservations,” I told her about what I had learned about adopted people in my Abnormal Psychology class. Judy laughed lightly and handed me a clipboard with forms. While I was signing them she said, “We have to trust that God knows what’s best for us. Even if it’s painful—especially if it’s painful, we just have to put ourselves in God’s loving hands.” I thought this was muddled but made a mental note to try to pray in my spare time.

I told my college advisor. “My due date is right before finals but I promise there won’t be any interruptions in my attendance.” She looked a little stunned and said, “We’ll understand if you need to take some time off.”

“No, no—that won’t be necessary,” I cut her off. I didn’t want them to cut me any slack. I would graduate on time. The whole point of this plan was to do what was best for all three of us, so I needed to graduate and get a job.

The other point of the plan was to keep it all hush-hush. I would stay away from the family, my friends, and the whole neighborhood where they all lived. If my grandma called and asked if she could visit me, I would make an excuse to keep her away. It would only be for six months, right? It wasn’t as extreme as the case of Margie, a girl I knew in high school, who went through her whole pregnancy and adoption while living in her family’s house. None of them ever talked about it. Now that was weird.

So there Vince and I sat, alone, on his first birthday. I had called The Creep and invited him but he had “some really important business” to take care of. In other words, a drug deal. I only saw him once again in the ensuing 36 years.

V 1st Bday

I did what you’re supposed to do for a baby’s first birthday. I made a cake with one candle and let him eat it with his fingers and smear it all over the place. And I cried…and cried.

Then I stiffened myself and plunged my feelings way down into the deep freeze and didn’t feel anything again for a year. That’s the thing about avoiding negative feelings—it makes you unable to experience positive ones, either.

Life went on as before. I trudged through the snow to the daycare, studied furiously, and cleaned the house as though I was in boot camp. As happened during my first pregnancy, perverts tried to pick me up at the bus stop, in stores, in the elevator of my building.

The student who had pressured me to have an abortion was disappointed when I told him I was going the adoption route. “That’s…I’m sorry, but that’s just selfish,” he said. “That poor kid,” he said, staring at my belly.

Sometimes students I didn’t know would try to strike up a conversation.

“When’s your baby due?” they would ask brightly.

“April,” I would respond flatly, giving them fair warning that proceeding with the conversation would be a mistake.

“Do you want a boy or a girl?”

“I don’t really care, since I’m giving it up for adoption.”

This would result in sputtering and something like, “You’re so brave—good luck!” as they backed their way out of the room as fast as possible. I hated that line—“You’re so brave.”

Now that I had set my course I didn’t second guess it, but if you had asked me I might have said I was just being practical.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Today is the third day of Hannukah, a minor Jewish holiday that has morphed into more than it was ever meant to be because of its proximity to Christmas.

And that’s fine with me.

Hanukkah, which is spelled many different ways, marks the miracle that took place in what remained of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees (Jews) rebelled against the Greeks, who destroyed the temple.  This was 200-some years before the first Christmas.  Got that?

The story goes that the temple was purified with an oil lamp which miraculously burned for eight days even though there was only enough oil for one.

Most Jews, even the atheists like me, own an eight-branched candelabra called a Menorah which they dig out once a year for Chanukka.  Where I live, Jews comprise only one percent of the population, and so I have to drive across town to the one store that carries Hanuka supplies.

It’s a challenging time of year for families where part of the family is Jewish and another is Christian.  I say, why not enjoy both?  My tradition with Vince has been to wrap eight gifts and let him choose one each day.  Every year he gets a $2 bill, a pair of socks, a bag of Lemonheads, a couple other jokey little things, a thoughtfully chosen book that he’ll never read, and then a “real” gift like a Target gift certificate.

So we lighted the first candle on Monday night, and Vince got his $2.  I opened his present to me and it was an LED light bulb.  Clever!  Perfect for the festival of lights.

As I drive home in the dark from work, I am loving the Christmas displays on the big houses along my route.  Some are garish, some are tasteful, but they are lights–that’s what matters.

LightsLights2Lights3Lights 4

I’ve been meeting friends for happy hours in the most beautifully-decorated watering holes, like the lobby bar of the Commodore Hotel.  I organize a family outing or get together of some sort every year.  Last year the female relations got dressed up and went to Anthony Scornavacco Antiques and Heimie’s Haberdashery, which is located where my grandfather’s haberdashery was before he lost it during the Great Depression.

This year, I’ve invited my nieces and nephews over for a Cousins Cookie Baking Party.  Yep, we’ll make Hanukkah hedgehogs, gingerbread men/women and perhaps some transgendered persons or hedgehogs, and there will be some kind of dairy-free cookie for the vegans.

hedgehogs

Obviously I’m doing everything I can to make the short cold days of December more bearable.  I thought I was doing pretty well.  But then I got an email from the Rabbi who is the chaplain for Minnesota prisons.  She had contacted me shortly after Vince’s release to offer various kinds of support to him.  I don’t know if he responded to her, and I don’t need to know.

She was just writing to wish me a Happy Hanukkah and to say she was thinking of us and hoped we were doing well.  I was at work, at my desk with dozens of people around, and I got all choked up.  Why?  Because she was kind.  It’s always kindness that gets to me, not meanness.

She didn’t have to contact me, after three months.  By doing so, she acknowledged that our situation is challenging.  She offered to help in whatever way she could, but just knowing that someone was thinking of me and Vince was enough.  I’m starting to tear up again now, just thinking about it, so if there is someone you are thinking about but you haven’t told them, think about doing so today.

A Crazy Idea?

I woke up in the dark at 5:40 am and wished I still believed in God.  Fourteen people dead at a center for developmentally disabled people in California.  I wished there was a higher power to whom I could appeal for help.  Help for us all.  For a moment, I thought I could feel something, then … nah … wishful thinking.

It’s up to us, people.  What “it” involves is a matter of dispute.

Someone asked on Facebook, “will this turn out to be a mentally-ill person?  Someone with extreme ideology?  A workplace grudge?”

There’s still a lot unknown, but it looks like it could be all three.  And I’m curious to learn if post-partum depression played a role in this latest incident, where a young mother dropped off her baby then went on a shooting rampage which she knew would result in her death or life in prison.

Here’s the liberal argument I hear: “Why do we label the white attackers mentally ill but the Muslim ones terrorists?”  I think what is really being expressed, by the conservative “side”, is that white attackers are deranged while Muslims are evil.

I’d like to flip that around and suggest that instead of considering every horrendous act an act of murder terrorism, we consider it an act of mental illness.  Hear me out.

I’m not a mental health clinician, but I have worked at two mental health clinics, where I have observed that mentally ill people often have religious fixations.  They think they are Jesus, they hallucinate angels, they hear demons telling them to do bad things.

A number of members of my family have suffered from Bipolar Disorder.  One was convinced that the Catholic Church had a conspiracy that had something to do with the numbers on the clock.

Anne, haven’t you noticed?  The numbers on the clock—there are 12 of them!  It’s so obvious that the Catholic Church is behind it.”

“Behind what?” I would ask.

He could never explain to my satisfaction what the numbers on the clock had to do with the Pope and the Catholic Church, but I would hear him out, hoping he wouldn’t call his parents next and burden them with his ranting.

If mentally ill people can have wacko Catholic theories, why wouldn’t they have wacko Muslim theories?

I was in the Middle East for work in February.  We were in Bethlehem on a long lunch break between meetings.  My two Palestinian colleagues and I were smoking shishas while my colleague from Minnesota gagged.

I had arrived in Amman the day ISIS released a video of them burning to death the Jordanian pilot they had captured.  The streets were packed with people waving the Jordanian flag and shouting.  They were angry, and I didn’t blame them.  I wish Americans got angry about wrong doing and demonstrated more often.

Omar turned to me.  “Tell us, what do you think about ISIS—these people who do such things?  We really want to know what Americans think.”

I had been thinking about this a lot.  “I think there’s an element of mental illness involved.  Who is it that most often gets schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses?  Young men.  Who is it that is almost always behind violence?  I’m sorry, but it’s men.  And then you get them in a group—call it group think or herd mentality or whatever—and fire them up with ideological rhetoric, and put an AK47 in their hands…”

My Minnesota colleague disagreed.  She asserted that poverty and hopelessness were to blame.

Of course those are factors.  But I’ve been poor and hopeless, and I’ve never even shoplifted.  Millions of people around the world are desperately poor and they don’t kill people.  Many members of ISIS and Al Queda are not poor—they’ve got engineering degrees and come from middle class families.

If we do assume that mental illness is behind sadistic killings by ISIS or mass shootings in California and Connecticut, this does not mean the murderers are not responsible for their actions.  It does mean we can have hope, at least in the US, because there are effective means to identify and manage mental illness.

Jew Be a Verb

ANNE

A story line throughout the third season of Orange is the New Black is the character Cindy’s conversion to Judaism.

The corporation that runs the prison is cutting costs by purchasing brown, lumpy slop in giant bags that they pass off as food. One prisoner figures out that the frozen kosher meals are pretty good, and soon a group of prisoners are claiming to be Jewesses in order to eat kosher.

When the prison notices the uptick in kosher requests, it sends in a rabbi to suss out who is a genuine Jew. Cindy, who is Black, begins to read up on Judaism. At first she just wants to pass so she can keep eating kosher. But then something grabs her, and as she studies she becomes serious about converting to Judaism, and well, this is one of the few happy endings in the series. It wouldn’t be a happy ending to born again Christians, and we Jews aren’t in to converting people, but I am moved when anyone finds meaning.

I heard in this scene many of the same things that led me to Judaism. Like Cindy, I was raised in a faith in which pretty much Everything was A Sin, and fear and guilt ruled the day. You didn’t ask questions, you did what you were told by the men who ran the show, some of whom were molesting your friends. If you sinned, you went to this same man to ask forgiveness and it was granted by him and after I mumbled three Hail Marys.

I think there’s a perception that Judasim is just like Christianity, except without Jesus. It’s not.

In liberal Judaism, which includes the vast majority of Jews in the world, there is no hell and little emphasis on sin. The idea is to do the right thing today, because it’s the right thing—not to avoid hell. If you screw up, it’s your responsibility to make amends to whoever you have hurt and to make your peace with God, if you even believe in god, because a lot of Jews are atheists. Confused? Well in Judaism it’s your responsibility to study, ask questions, and wrestle with all the big issues to figure out what makes sense for you. No one tells you what to think or do. Rabbis, who include women and gays and lesbians, are teachers and have no authority to forgive you.

Judaism doesn’t prosthelytize. We don’t care if you agree with us or not; we don’t care if you are a Christian or a Buddhist or a pagan. Just don’t try to convert us, thanks.

Instead of using the word charity, we talk about justice. It’s not an option, and it’s not about writing a check. It’s about doing, fighting, and pursuing justice. These principles are one reason why I’ve been able to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from all sides.

Of course there are plenty of Lutherans and Catholics and pagans and agnostics who are also motivated by social justice.

There’s more, but like Cindy, the main thing that attracted me to Judasim was an inexplicably strong feeling of recognition. Like Cindy said, “I feel like I found my people.”

After I had studied for several years with a Rabbi and a group of fellow seekers and yes, learned elemental Hebrew, I converted—which is a five-minute ceremony. My mother attended the Friday night service in which this took place. Just before we left for synagogue, she said, “I guess it makes sense, you converting to Judaism, since your father’s family was Jewish.”

What!? She had known I was studying all along. She didn’t have any details, and since my dad died 47 years ago and we’re not close to his family, and I have no time or patience for family tree research, it will just remain a question mark.

When I told a rabbi this story once, she said that she hears stories like this often, and that there is a theory that all the Jewish souls lost in the Holocaust have sought refuge in the people who are converting, whether they’re in prison (Cindy) or are unwed teenage moms living in subsidized housing (me, nearly 40 years ago).

It’s Been A Good Run

VINCE

For personal reasons, I have made the decision to move on from this blog and start out on my own.  I have no idea where or when I will start back up, but I do promise to make it soon.  I just need to figure out how to start a blog, and then start it.  I think first I will write in my journal for a while, then begin again independently.  Obviously I will keep everybody posted (pun intended) on when and where you can find my new blog. And in the mean time, you can follow me on Facebook.  Vincent Maertz is my name if you don’t already know.

Thank you for all of your support over the last 17 months. It has meant a lot to me that people actually like reading what I write.  Your comments have not gone unnoticed.  You can look forward to reading more about the next phase of my life as soon as I find a new format, and build up a little material.  Until then, be good.

Vincent Maertz

A Break from Breaking Free

ANNE

Vince says he’s hit a wall with the blogging, and I need more than 10 minutes notice to come up with new material.  After over a year of blogging and nearly 200 posts, I’d say we’ve earned a break.

We’ll be back.  If you haven’t yet binge read the thing from the beginning, start here and click on the right-pointing arrow at the bottom of each post to proceed.  Feel free to share with others, and thanks for reading.

 

Scattered thoughts of a recovering addict

VINCE

I’m staring at the screen and nothing is coming to my mind.  I’ve started a few paragraphs and then erased them.  It’s almost 10pm and I’m very tired.  get up at 6:30 to get ready for the day by drinking coffee and making my lunch for work, then head out at 7:30 to catch the bus then the train for my ride in.

Yesterday the first thing I did at work was smash my foot under a very heavy (we guessed 3 maybe 4 hundred pounds) spring loaded loading dock ramp because the truck I  was going to unload supplies from was filled to capacity and when I pulled up the ramp from the floor and it went where it was supposed to but I couldn’t move.  I tried to move my other foot as it smashed down but there wasn’t room so I actually had to step on the ramp itself adding my weight to the pressure.  I have not experienced that much pain for as long as I can remember.  At that point I thought for sure that I had broken it.  I felt the urge to throw up from the pain, something I have never experienced. I got my foot from under the foot-wrecker and took a few limps around the production floor.  It was the seeing spots kind of pain.  I didn’t want to look like an idiot so I went back to work trying to hide the limp as best I could.  I told my friend about it and he was quite sympathetic to my injury.  Fortunately for me the pain dissipated within a few hours and when I got home and pulled off my socks I still had all five little piggies.  There was blood around my big toe and the one next to it (does that toe have a name?) and a little purple bruising but that was it. That’s the whole story.

Starting to build any kind of relationship while on I.S.R., especially the one I’d like to have with Ms. Toaster, is difficult.  My life is so restricted right now that the times I do get to go anywhere it’s for a specific reason.  I get to see her at meetings, and if I go out for shopping or during my exercise time.  Tomorrow I’m going to run with her, I think that’s a very healthy way to be alone with her, but again, it’s only for an hour and she’s not yet allowed to be a visitor at home.  On the flip side, I think it’s a good thing to not be together every waking moment in the beginning of a relationship.  Not that I would get sick of her, but it adds the elements of anticipation and excitement in seeing each other, if only briefly, every other day or so.  The other day she came to meet me after work just to walk me to the bus stop.  I thought that was nice.  I mean, she walked from her place and back just to see me for maybe 20 minutes.  It made me feel good.  Somebody desires my company, something I haven’t thought in years.  Thank you, Ms. Toaster.  I can’t wait to see you tomorrow.

Alright folks, that’s all for tonight.  I’m tired and I’m going to bed.  Thank you to all of my followers and readers for your feedback and comments.  If I don’t reply, it’s because I don’t know how.  I will figure that out someday.  Goodnight everybody.