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Sunday, January 2, 2022

Interfaith relationships

 One of the most common things people message me out of the blue to ask about is interfaith relationships. I guess when they're looking for advice, I'm the person they think is most likely to have the answer.

My first response (which I don't say) is generally, "What makes you think I'm any GOOD at it?" I don't have many marriage rules but one of the ones I do have is, never set your marriage up as a model for anybody. Everybody I know who does that ends up having a humiliatingly public divorce. And besides, it's embarrassing.

But I do have some rather general advice I tend to offer, and I think it's as good as any. I read a book once, In Faith and In Doubt, hoping it would have something helpful to say, only to find it was mostly about atheists marrying progressive Christians or Jews. The only thing they had to say about marrying more conservative religious people was "well, our book isn't meant for that, it probably won't work out anyway." THANKS THAT'S REALLY HELFPUL.

There are two kinds of advice I can offer. Advice before you get married and advice for after.

Should I marry somebody with different beliefs?

I can't answer that for you, obviously. But there are a few questions worth considering.

First, are you both people who prefer not to talk about religion, or both people who love to talk to religion, even with people you disagree with? Either way is fine. Where you get hung up is when one person loves their religion and wants to talk about it a lot, and the other is upset by the reminder you don't agree. Or when one or both of you find religion an important topic you'd want to talk about with the people closest to you, but also can't stand to talk about it with people you disagree with. Either of those is going to be a big problem. Religion is fine as a thing people don't really bring up. Not so great as a thing you desperately want to talk about, but it's a big fight whenever you do.

Second, how out-there are the beliefs we're talking about? Not just in terms of ideas. I imagine most people aren't that threatened if you believe in aliens or something, but what about practice? Here are a few beliefs and practices that can be a red flag if only one partner believes in them:

  • no birth control
  • male headship
  • no meat
  • no medical care / limits on medical care
  • clergy get a say in family decisions
  • children must be raised in the religion
  • everyone not in the religion goes to hell
Rules like this tend to affect both partners. So you can't just say "well you don't use birth control and I will." And I highly don't recommend going with, "well, let's hope it never comes up." It'll come up.

I think you can sometimes have a happy marriage while disagreeing on things like this, but whenever a belief will affect the other partner, I think it's really important to discuss what you'll do about it before you get married. For instance, if he believes in male headship but she does not, it's worth getting clear that he doesn't actually expect her to obey him since that's not her belief.

Of course as your resident nonbeliever, I'm here to point out that your faith does not give you the right to dictate how another person behaves. You can't say, "Well, I have a belief against meat, and you don't have any beliefs about meat, therefore mine takes precedence and no meat can ever be allowed in our house." I don't believe that "my religion teaches it" should be any stronger (or weaker) an argument than "I really want it." You do really want it, because you really want to be loyal to your religion! And the argument that you really want it, sincerely (and not just because your church is making you) is generally the argument that will play best with a nonbelieving spouse anyway.

In general, I don't think different beliefs are a reason not to get married. Not even if your whole family says it's absolutely unthinkable to. But you should respect their beliefs, and respect them for having them. You should not believe they are deluded, brainwashed, or willfully rejecting God. If you believe that about somebody, you don't really respect them and you shouldn't marry them.

Once you're married or in a long-term relationship


So let's say you're already in the relationship you're in, and your partner announces they are joining a new church or has left the church you shared. These are generally the more difficult situations, because none of this stuff was gone over ahead of time. It feels like you went into the marriage expecting one thing and got something completely different.

Well, it happens. People change throughout life; part of the scary part of marriage is that you will be married, not just to the person you said vows to, but the person they grow to become over the next twenty or fifty years.

But the person you married did not (and could not) promise not to change for you. No matter what church you married in, they have to follow their conscience. So try to understand this change in light of your respect and love for them. What good thing about them led them to this change? Is it their intellectual curiosity, their spiritual side, their conscientiousness? Whatever it is, it probably existed in them when you got married, and you probably loved it then. Your marriage has a better chance of weathering this change if you can respect and love the qualities they have that led them to join or leave a religion.

I say "chance" because let's be completely honest here: a lot of marriages do not survive a change in religion. Sometimes, a church itself tries to break one up because one spouse left! Sometimes, both partners have to accept that their life paths have diverged too much to stay together. I think it's always best to honestly talk about the possibility of divorce. Is that something you've thought about? Is it something they've thought about? What are the reasons you don't want that to happen? Are they on board to stick with something that's more of a challenge than they signed up for?

Another thing to discuss, as above, is whether or not religion is something you still enjoy talking about. Are you up for hearing all about their spiritual journey, or would you rather you both quietly just believed other things? Do they agree with you on that? Is there a compromise where you talk about it a little bit but try not to argue?

I want to very adamantly stress that it is never your job to convert your spouse. I learned that as a Catholic and I still believe in it now. Each person's spiritual journey is a path they have to walk in perfect freedom. Other people in their life can try to guide them on it, but you're their spouse. It's impossible for them to take your advice in the same light they take anyone else's. It feels like pressure. If you want, you can offer to talk about your beliefs any time they'd like. But talk about them as your beliefs. Don't bring out your apologetics stuff. Offer to set them up with another person to have those conversations if they want to. But make it clear that you're committed to them as they are now, not in the hope they'll someday change their mind.

Making decisions together


There are tons of decisions you make as a couple, and religion affects a lot of them. For instance, what are you doing for Christmas? Can the kids do Sunday morning soccer? What will you eat? How many children will you have?

In general, the tip in the first part still stands: the fact that your religion calls for something is not a trump card. Just say you really really want it. You believe that it is important, so you should be willing to compromise on other things to get it. If you're in the habit of wanting the last word on everything, you don't have much relationship capital left to argue for church on Sundays.

Try to be fair. If you want to go to church by yourself on Sundays, your spouse should get some kidfree time to do what they want on Saturdays. If you want to instruct the kids in your faith, it's fair that they should get to explain to the kids why they believe differently. If you want a kosher menu, offer to cook it. Never make your religion a burden on somebody else.

Where having children is concerned, I strongly believe it's important that both parents agree before having a child. If one says yes and the other says no, the answer is no. Why? Because a child will be a massive undertaking for both parents.

Birth control is the decision of the person whose body it is--even the Catholic Church admits this. But I would add that, despite what the church says, it's a lot healthier to make that decision together. Try to come to an actual agreement, not a deadlock. Never ever pressure your spouse to put something in their body they don't want to. Never ever pressure your spouse to have unprotected sex (or any sex) if they don't want to.

Raising children


Whether or not to raise the children in a faith is one of the biggest decisions you'll ever make as a couple. Personally, I don't believe children have a faith, because they aren't yet in a position to judge what they believe. My kids change their minds about it all the time. I gave permission for them to be baptized Catholic and chrismated Orthodox, so they count as far as the church cares, but in my view they are just children. The religion(s) they choose as adults will matter a lot more.

You can make any compromises you want to. Ours goes something like this: the kids go to church, unless there's a plague afoot or they intensely don't want to. John says prayers with them and answers their questions according to his beliefs. I answer their questions according to my beliefs. I teach them a bit about various religions, and ask them if they have any guesses about God. I tell them their guesses about God are as valid as anybody else's, because nobody knows for sure.

If at some point one of the kids takes a strong dislike to church, we'll have to re-evaluate. On the one hand, I strongly believe in respecting a child's wishes when possible. (Especially because you never know what's given them such a strong aversion to something.) On the other, I'm also aware that dragging a child kicking and screaming into a church is a surefire way of making an atheist adult. This is generally my argument to John for why we shouldn't do it--his best bet for these kids growing up religious is to make it something they get to do, not something they have to do.

And if one of our children is gay or trans, I will support them immediately and request that John do the same. His faith is against it, but I think his conscience is for it, so we'll just have to see what happens. I know that my belief in supporting a child's identity is every bit as strong as any person's religious faith, so I'll go to bat for that where I didn't for other stuff. I feel like when you are willing to compromise about most issues, it makes it mean a lot more when you dig your heels in on specific things that matter to you.

To sum up


Respect and compromise go a long way in any marriage, doubly so in an interfaith one. Respect that your spouse's religion is a part of them, and that, even though you don't agree, you know it comes from a good place. Compromise on everything you can, to win agreement on those things that are truly vital to you. Never assume that your religion is a trump card your spouse is obliged to defer to--even if they shared it when they married you. Treat religious and non-religious beliefs as equal.

Only talk about religion if you both are comfortable with it. If you sense your spouse is upset by discussing areas where you disagree, drop the issue before it gets heated. Be ready to explain, but never try to convert them.

And if you can't agree on important decisions, you can't respect their beliefs as a part of them, they don't respect you in turn, or you can't stand being married to someone who believes differently . . . it's okay to break up. Just remember that, if you have kids, you will still need to be an expert on interfaith dialogue to be a good coparent.

I hope that helps. All of these ideas are things I've personally learned, but remember: I'm not perfect at this either. An interfaith marriage is playing on hard level. As long as you keep what you love about your partner at the forefront of your mind, I think you can get through a lot of mistakes and arguments.

Friday, December 31, 2021

The turning of the year

 It's time for the annual re-assessment of life, where we look at where we've been and where we're going, and make any course corrections necessary.

But it could hardly come at a worse time. I don't want to think about 2021. I also don't want to think about 2022. I want to hide under my covers and eat Christmas chocolate.

My resolutions for 2021 were:

Things I would like to have happen, COVID willing and the crick don't rise:
  • I want my COVID vaccine.
  • I want to go to WorldCon, the convention where the Hugo Awards are happening.
  • I want to relearn how to spend time with people. And hug them. I'm gonna hug so many people.
  • I want to spend as much time as possible this summer outside. In the pool if at all possible. I finally have pool-age kids and we missed a whole summer.
  • I'd like to sign my kids up for ballet, gymnastics, or martial arts next fall.
  • I'd like to take a long break from writing, because of burnout, but then write something completely new in November.
  • If I run through my agent list and still don't have an agent, I'm submitting my novel to indie presses. The publishing industry is consolidating too much and sometimes small is better.
  • Pick up some freelance writing contracts maybe.
It's going to be a sad year if most of this stuff has to be canceled. Please stay home till you get vaccinated so we can have a real summer this year.


That last line just walked on my grave. Yikes.

Anyway, I did get a lot of this done. I got vaccinated. I went to WorldCon. I signed up the kids for ballet and taekwondo. I finished one novel and started another. I sent books to indie presses and got some very nice rejections.

I did not hug very many people. I did not spend much time in pools because we moved and the pools here cost a million dollars. I made so much money at my writing job that I didn't bother looking for more contracts. Basically, my limit on my current job is only the time I have to spend on it.

The year just feels very static. Sure, I moved 40 miles and got everyone signed up for new schools and battled with Child Find for three months and took a cross-country trip. And still. I feel like nothing is any different from last year, and all I wanted was for things to be different from last year.

In a pandemic, when you're vaccinated, and when no new vaccine-resistant variant is sending the COVID numbers to new records, you can hang out with your friends. That is a good and pleasant thing to do.

But if what you were hoping was to make new friends, relearn how to exist in public, maybe join some activities . . . you can't do that. Nothing is happening. There's some zoom stuff, if you want to confront your social awkwardness while receiving not even one molecule of dopamine for your trouble. But none of the activities I would like to participate in are happening.

I did try. After we moved, I met some internet friends I now live closer to than before. I met my boss. I met lots of people at WorldCon, and signed up for a writers' group that currently meets on zoom but which I could theoretically attend in person someday, if life ever changes.

But in general, post-move, I am less social than ever. The two families we used to hang out with, we still see, but it now takes an hour each way to get there and it's no wonder we're doing it a lot less.

I am getting out of the house more, thanks to having to drive Jackie to preschool every day, and getting a little better about existing in public with a mask on and not having a total meltdown. I "smile with my eyes" at people and perhaps they can tell, I dunno. I talk to the neighbors sometimes. I'm trying, dangit. But I feel intensely lonely a lot, more than I did last year. There's nothing so lonely as being in a crowd but not knowing a soul, and that's how this new town feels to me.

In the face of all this, it's just hard to make any kind of plans. Lord knows what Greek letter we'll be on this time next year. Perhaps we'll be into futhark runes by then. I certainly can't imagine I'll be hugging people barefaced. Heck, I can't even watch a movie without feeling vaguely uncomfortable seeing how close everybody is standing. Even once the danger is gone, we'll all have some major trauma to unpack.

So what can I reasonably, and with a straight face, aim for in the year to come?

The word that is coming to me for the year is something self-care-ish. Maybe NURTURE. I want to actually take care of myself, which does not mean hiding under the covers eating chocolate. I would like to eat actual lunches and ride my exercise bike more than once a month. I need to make myself go outside, because it always helps me feel better. Maybe I should get back to meditating and writing in my journal.

I just know that I have a lot of recovering to do already, and the new year may very well bring me more things to recover from. So I can only do that by treating myself as a person who matters, who maybe needs to be coaxed out from under the bed and reminded to try the stuff that helps her feel better.

Other resolutions/hopes/wishes include:

  • Go on a vacation. Probably not anywhere far away. I just really need to take at least a weekend in a place closer to nature than this place. A week would be better. I want few responsibilities and spotty internet and a stack of books. I usually am not very pro-vacation because I believe in building a life you don't need to take a vacation from. But I failed on that goal, so I just need to take a dang vacation like everyone else.
  • Submit the next book to agents. It's ready to go and I'm starting tomorrow. This book has been a real struggle to write and it's hard to say if it's any good. If I get an agent with it, I'm going to laugh and laugh and laugh.
  • I'd like to look into taking some classes at the community college in the fall. By then, all four kids should be in school full time. (This is the third year I have said this.) I will at last have time for something I want to do. And the thought of being in a classroom again makes me feel happy. I like learning. I'd also like to meet people there.
  • I have already found a pool I would like to purchase a membership for in the summer. I didn't last year because I only found out about it 2/3 through the summer, and the price is for the whole season. But I think I can afford to do it if I get the whole season out of it. And it's outdoor. Our closest pool is indoor and it's just a shame to do that in the summer--as well as a COVID risk.
  • Finish my solar sailing trilogy and keep looking for a small publisher for it. I believe hardest in this book, of any of them. If I get through my entire long list of possible publishers--right down to the newest and sketchiest--and still can't sell it, I think I might self-publish. I just need people to read this thing! I know it's good. I don't know what is wrong with the industry that nobody has given me a million dollars for it. 2020 was probably a bad year to query book 1 of it, but I can't undo that.
  • Keep writing and submitting short stories. I sold one this past year, did I tell you that? So next year, if I sell one more story at pro rates, I'll be eligible to join the Science Fiction Writers of America. That's definitely a big career goal for me.
  • I want to make sure to take my boat out a lot in the coming year. This will be a challenge, because not all of the kids like to go in it, and I do need John to pick me up or drop me off. So I can only do it on days he's home. But still. I have a boat! I want to do lots of boating. Preferably without tearing giant holes in it this time. But if I do . . . I have stuff to patch it now.
That is a lot of goals, I'd better stop there to cut down on the amount of tragic laughing 2022 Sheila has to do.




Mostly, I just want to make it a year that makes me happy. I am not resolving to keep the house cleaner or be nicer to my kids or cook better dinners. I already work hard on those things and if I poured any more energy into them, it would have to be taken from other things important to me like occasionally sitting down and cracking a book. I might try to spend less time on social media, to find out if that makes me happier or not. But in general, it does make me happy because that's where all my friends are, so I'm not going to set a whole goal about that or anything.

Basically, I just want to have a year where I take care of myself without forgetting what I owe to other people. I owe my children the most, and have no intention of neglecting them. And I owe it to the vulnerable to not spread COVID around like glitter at a Pride march. But I am going to still take care of myself as best I can. It's been a hard . . . *checks notes* eight years or so. I'm due for it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

A damp, drizzly November in my soul

 Around here, November isn't drizzly. It starts with the leaves finally peaking, and ends with bitter winds and bare gray branches.

But I find it depressing. Everything nice about the entire outdoors slowly fades away, and it's just cold and dismal for the next three months.

That's why NaNoWriMo goes so well in November. The only month that would be better is January. January has the advantage of a) thirty-one days, and b) no holidays to throw off your routine. But at any rate there's no reason to go outside and very little joy you don't imagine for yourself, so it's a great time to write a novel.

My NaNoWriMo has been a mixed success. That is, I did write 50,000 words. But they resemble a finished novel even less than usual. At least 10,000 words will have to be discarded because of plot changes I made midstream. I guess I'm still glad I did it, because writing one's way to a story still leaves you with more ideas than you had at the beginning, but good golly, I wish I could have ideas ahead of time like a good outliner.

In other news, Jackie got her placement from the school district. You know what they did? You know what this incredibly exhausting, difficult to deal with Child Find team came up with? They put her at a preschool exactly like the one she was at before, three days a week, 2.75 hours a day. A private preschool. Which they pay for because it is her official placement (yay) but which could not be her old preschool because it's not in the same county (ugh). There is a lady there from the district who is supposed to play with Jackie and help her gain social skills. So I agreed to it, because it saves us $280 a month, and because this aide could theoretically do some good.

But this place is further away, and it's all new people, and Jackie hates it. I was considering not switching her over at all if she minded, and she swore she wanted to do it, so I committed . . . and THEN she decided she hated it. OH MY GOD JACKIE. So every time she goes, she behaves well, everyone tells me she was great, and then she whines the whole way home that she hated it and hates everyone there. I don't know what to do with this information. I gave away her spot at the other place!

Meanwhile, because it is further away, I spend approximately an hour and a half every day driving her to and from it, with the dubious reward of two hours without her to "get things done." (I.e. collapse on the couch and stare into the middle distance and hate myself for not accomplishing more. Leaving the house REALLY exhausts me, doubly so when there are lots of left turns and traffic.)

I just had hoped they would put her into the public preschool which is basically across the road from us, and which also has a bus which could pick her up. I cannot fathom why they didn't. Because they were trying to keep her in the situation she had? Because the public preschool was full? Because they hate me? I don't know. But it's really exhausting. And still, despite all this talk about how gifted she is, this place is academically like every other preschool. They sing songs and color pictures and build things out of marshmallows and toothpicks. She is ready and willing to learn to read (so long as it's not from me) but this school is doing nothing for her in that regard.



Her behavior is, in general, much better when she is in school regularly. So we've got that going for us. But she's had kind of a rough couple of weeks so it's still a struggle. I'm just so tired.

The older kids love their schools and are doing well in them. Michael is in robotics club. Miriam has a new best friend she goes on and on about. Marko is trying to teach himself Anglo-Saxon, which I find amusing because I also had an Anglo-Saxon phase after my Quenya phase. I don't choose his rabbit holes, but they still end up being a lot of the same rabbit holes I went down as a kid, so it's just really fun to watch.

I resolved, this year, to try to be a Regular Mom and sign up my kids for activities. Especially now that they're fully vaccinated. So next week they start in ballet (Miriam and Marko) and taekwondo (Michael) and we'll see how they like that. I do not like the idea of spending Saturday morning driving them places, but *loud sigh* I do love my children. Besides, they mostly spend Saturdays playing video games and fighting with each other. This is sure to be an improvement.

I still don't love living here. Especially with all the pretty leaves gone, I'm basically living in a gray suburban wasteland for the foreseeable future. But the immediate grief of it has faded, and I'm focusing on other things. This mammoth weaving project I started over a year ago. My novel. Planning for a science fiction conference I'm going to next month.




What I really need is to meet people. I've seen several people at various stores that I thought "heyyy now there is a person I find interesting! We could be pals! See, there are cool people here!" But I don't know where these people hang out when they are not grocery shopping. Where do you find cool people? Especially in a pandemic when everything is canceled? 

My plan was to meet people at NaNoWriMo write-ins, a thing I never did in the old town because there were none closer than half an hour away. But this year they are all virtual. I'm sorry, writing a novel on my laptop with zoom on is just like writing normally but with performance anxiety. It is not a social occasion and you can't convince me it is.

So uh go get your vaccines so we can beat this thing and I can develop a social life for the first time in literally years! Please!

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Seattle trip

 As you might have guessed from the last post, I just got back from a trip. My work is based in the Seattle area, and my boss has been wanting me to come out and work in person for a few days, and with life somewhat settled I figured it was a good time to make plans.

Traveling is really rough and exhausting for me, but I gotta say, it's a heck of a lot easier to do without kids than with them. I flew out by myself, stayed in a hotel by myself, and worked in an office for whole normal-people days.

I'm not what you would call a flexible or adventurous person, but I did okay for myself. The biggest challenge was probably the acquisition of tea. Coffee, you see, has way too much caffeine (and I dislike it) and decaf coffee does not have enough. But airports and hotels do not always have tea.

Day 1: Peet's Coffee sells tea. Win! It's scaldingly hot and they don't leave much room for milk and I didn't have time to properly steep it or let it cool down. Burned my mouth. Two stars.

Day 2: Tea bag brought from home brewed in hotel room coffee maker. No milk. No sugar. Ghastly. Half a star.

Day 3-4: Tea provided by work especially for me. Did I feel bad that my boss went to the store specifically to get me a better chair, black tea, and whole milk? Yes. Did I feel bad enough to tell her not to? No. No I did not. The tea was excellent. In the afternoons I had rooibos chai. Five stars for all of the office teas.

Day 5: Rushing at the airport, no time to find if ANYONE in Seattle will sell you decent tea. But I had the clever idea of buying iced tea at a newsstand. Iced tea is actually really good. Between the copious sugar and the caffeine you can feel the dopamine slotting into your neurons. Four stars.

While I was out there, I couldn't see my parents because they have moved. Idaho is on the way if you drive, but not at all on the way if you fly. But I did get to see my aunt, my cousin, and my dear friend from high school and college.


My aunt and cousin are absolutely amazing people. I love them so much. My cousin and I have been best friends since we were tiny and it really felt like no time had passed at all since then. Our lives have taken very different paths, yet somehow I feel like we ended up in very similar places.

For extra wonderfulness, we got to take a little walk. It was raining. I did not care.


We also went for pho. Pho is a thing that one must eat in Seattle, and I never had.

The next day I had no plans after work so I ate supermarket salad in my hotel room and soaked in the hot tub. Hot tubs are kind of boring by yourself. You can read, but then your arms are cold!

The day after that, my friend Sarah picked me up and fed me dinner at her house. She has built such a beautiful life for herself and seems happy. We both agreed we need to call each other more!

The last day, I didn't have plans and didn't want to make any. I lay in my extremely soft bed and read a novel I wrote two years ago and cried. Then I watched Community and laughed a lot. It's just an amazing thing to have like five hours of time to myself and no responsibilities. Highly recommend.


I missed my kids a lot. The first day I felt awful, being so far away and in an unfamiliar place. I felt guilty for having left and stupid for thinking I had any reason worth coming that far for. I gradually got used to it, but I was still very happy to go home and get back to them.

I had been needing a change, because everything had been feeling very hard and exhausting. So having a week that was very different from a usual week was badly needed. I felt more like my old, pre-kids self: less stressed, more emotionally labile (as evidenced by bawling over a book I have read at least ten times before), more creative. I still feel that way.

I feel like, with the level of stress in my life and the rather fragile personality I have, I need to do more things like this. Well, maybe not flying across the country and being deprived of tea! But a retreat. A few days in a hotel once a year, maybe, or even at a retreat house. Just time when I can stop keeping track of ten million things to do and just focus on feeling feelings and maybe writing.

It helps that John managed everything just fine and the kids had no major issues. They missed me, but they didn't fall to pieces over it.

Makes me think they're old enough for me to slowly incorporate more non-them things into my life. Which is a really good feeling, even while at the same time feeling reassured that, in general, I prefer the life I live. I officially do not like working eight hours a day, eight hours is f o r e v e r. I don't like not being with my kids for very long. I don't get any special thrill from being an adult with no responsibilities in a big city. Coming home felt good, even though I have no particular love for this house yet.

I think I've actually made the right choices for my life, maybe. It's a thing I've spent a lot of worry on lately but a little skip down the road not traveled made me perfectly happy to get back on this one. I just need to keep a few of the good things more present in my life: time with other people I love (even if it's on the phone); quiet time all by myself; and of course beauty. If I can do that, I think I will be a lot happier with my life.

Some reflections composed on an airplane

Ugliness comes in a thousand colors: cold, white, antiseptic ugliness; dull gray-brown winter ugliness; the grungy, cheap, crumbling ugliness of a city's fraying edges.

But beauty also glitters in a thousand places, some of them very small and hard to notice. The tiny chip in a featureless wall that tells you other people have been here before you, with their stories and their mistakes. Green moss growing under slush, long after the other green things have died or gone to sleep. An old woman's face crinkling with joy behind the counter of a dirty shop.



Seeing beauty when it surrounds you, beside a forest stream or on a starry night, is easy. Seeing beauty in the places that leave you hungriest for it is hard. The delicate feathers of the soul, whose task is feeling out beauty, shrivel up and tuck themselves away under the onslaught of so much ugliness. It hurts to leave them still bare and questing. You harden the outside of yourself as if to face a hard vacuum. You know it will crush you if you leave yourself open.

But if you do, you’ll never see beauty. You might not even feel that part of your soul slowly dying for lack of light. So I leave myself open. I’m not sure I have a choice.





Those of us who leave ourselves open to beauty suffer. We feel all the pain, we are worn away and exhausted from ugliness. Every day it hurts us, living in the world as it is, so battered and bruised and grimy. It feels we can't live among all this ugliness. It feels we will wither up and die of beauty-hunger.

But we find it. We find it, those of us who can't stop questing hard every moment of our lives, who reach out with the delicate parts of our souls, in hope that can't die because it never stops being hungry. A flash of light off a puddle. The swish of tires in the rain. The spark leaping from eye to eye, from soul to soul, as two of us recognize what is divine in each other, no matter how briefly.


There is more pain in this life than pleasure. More ugliness than beauty. Hunger gnaws so much harder than food has ever brought joy.

But in those moments when beauty flames out--tears prick our eyes, the heart leaps upward, and we know it's worth it. The hunger, the quest, the finding, the losing again. Life, in all its ugliness. Just for these moments, if for nothing else.



Tuesday, September 28, 2021

How we're doing lately

It's been a while since I've posted, so what's up with us?

Really, not a whole lot. Jackie has started preschool at her tiny but inexpensive co-op. It's three days a week, three hours a day, which amounts to about seven hours of Jackie-free time a day. I desperately need more, because I am exhausted and have this job I'm theoretically supposed to be doing? But she seems to feel it's the right amount.

She likes school and behaves flawlessly at it. I got to volunteer there yesterday, and it was funny watching other kids jump around and shout out and she just . . . sits there very nicely with her hands in her lap. When asked a question, she answers in a barely audible voice. When other kids try to talk to her, she mostly ignores them.

It was an odd experience. I have spent the past several months trying to convince the school district she needs help (about which more later), and honestly she doesn't look like she does. She suddenly displays a level of maturity none of the other kids do, and which she certainly doesn't show at home.

But she also doesn't interact the way the other kids do. She tells me she can't talk to the other kids. But she also says she likes playing by herself.

If I'd known I'd find a preschool I could afford, and she'd do so well there, I wouldn't have spent all this time fighting the special ed system. She's really fine. Sure, she doesn't socialize, but she's in an environment with lots of opportunities to learn and will hopefully pick it up a little bit. She's certainly better at talking to people than Marko was at the same age.

But I have done all that work, and Jackie got assessed. It was much more rigorous than her autism diagnosis, which happened in a short session a couple hours long. This time, I was interviewed several times and she went to four different assessments and somebody watched her at school. The results were mostly glowing, all about her far-above-average intelligence and thoughtfulness. But, coupled with the stuff I told them about her behavior at home, and the reality that she does not play with peers, they agreed to declare her eligible on the grounds of developmental delay. They said using the autism criteria would be harder, since we didn't have much school-related data, whereas developmental delay just required her to need help in one area.

I don't know yet what services, if any, they will provide. They might let her into public preschool. That would be nice for me, because it's free and because I'd have more time to work and clean the house. But it would be hard for her, because she's pretty well settled into the preschool she has. Alternatively, they might only put her in a social skills playgroup. That's more work for me, but might be helpful for her. And, of course, she would have an IEP when she starts kindergarten, and we could put things in there like sensory breaks, which she definitely needs.




Meantime, while the school district and I argue about her needs, she just keeps growing. She is gaining skills all the time. She can sound out short words. She can count to a hundred. She is getting better at communicating her needs, and she's eating more. She watches way too much TV. Every day she has me print out a coloring page of an LOL Surprise doll (or two), colors them, cuts them out, and makes them talk to each other. She and Miriam have a complicated Barbie game they play a lot. I gave her a sticker chart and she's now motivated to brush her teeth and let me brush her hair every day to get stickers.

Everyone else is doing fine. Marko in particular loves his school. Apparently he does still melt down pretty regularly at school, but the special ed people take him for a little walk and he cools down. There's one special ed teacher he absolutely adores. He's in this guy's Life Skills class and apparently life skills means playing Dungeons and Dragons and making podcasts. But there's a lot of social skills in activities like that.

Michael and Miriam aren't as enthused about their school. I feel bad, because they had friends at their old school and don't yet at their new one. But they do play with their classmates and recess and mostly come home happy.

I'm struggling a bit. I feel like I'm juggling way too many things: work, the kids' school, special ed stuff, housework, and writing. This was supposed to be the year things got easier, but they sure haven't yet.

What helps me is spending time in nature. There are lots of parks near here and they're very good, despite not being in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sometimes I hike while Jackie is at school.

I started daydreaming of boating Bull Run Creek, because allegedly it's possible to do. John, out of the blue, got me an inflatable raft. So last weekend I took the kids and we took the trip.

I can report that Bull Run Creek is not, in fact, exactly navigable. Sometimes it's too shallow, sometimes there are logjams, sometimes a branch pokes a hole in your boat. But despite that, we did in fact manage it. It was mostly very peaceful, sometimes exciting enough even to please Michael, and in general a lovely experience. But next time I'll try the lower section that might be a little less intense.





Well, after I patch the hole in my boat. 

September's writing goal was to finish a novel I started two years ago. It's about a colony on an alien planet, intended to explore themes of ecology and colonialism, but actually focusing mostly on my main character's feelings about being a stay-at-home mom and about her religious disagreements with her husband. Stuff just SURFACES, okay?

Anyway, I finished the draft today. It felt like pulling teeth most of the time I was writing it. The plot got way too complicated. I lost faith in it six or seven times. Because of that, I really can't tell you if it's any good. There are lots of feelings in it anyway?

I entered it into a contest, because the prize is getting professionally mentored and edited by somebody who knows what they're doing and that's what I desperately need. I don't feel like it has much chance of winning, but I may as well, right?

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Human spaces are not Aesthetic

 Today I drove 75 minutes each way to see a friend who used to live near me. The drive wasn't bad, but I got to thinking about how much better I feel once the highway passes into the mountains and I can't see buildings from the road anymore. Nature is always beautiful; it always feels right.

But buildings and parking lots generally do not. They make me feel depressed, grody, angsty, or ill. Neon signs. Gray concrete. Featureless warehouses. Power lines clogging up the sky. Ugh. Hate it.

Of course developed areas don't have to be like that at all. There are cities people go to purely to look at. 


There are residential neighborhoods with mature landscaping and cute little porches. There are main streets with cute little shops and trees by benches. It can be done!

And yet, largely, in this country . . . we don't. We have:

  • cities with impressive skylines, that are gray and trashy up close
  • industrial zones where everything is low and flat and oppressive, specializing in loading docks and dumpsters
  • giant shopping centers that are mostly one vast concrete desert surrounded by glowing signs
  • strip malls, just rows upon rows of grody little pawnshops and tobacconists
  • housing developments formed by completely bulldozing a piece of woods, leveling it out, and cramming it full of giant identical boxes
  • crumbling apartments that overlook parking lots
There are nice places, but they're all pretty expensive. Much of the DC area (see: the part I don't live in) is like that. You can see that, at least, an effort was made to keep the shopping areas looking somewhat pleasant, to line the streets with trees, to make all the houses look slightly different. Things are also kept up, which makes a world of difference. Houses there cost $700,000 on up, so the people there can afford to keep things nice.

But all of that costs money, and we don't all have money, so we have to live in ugly places. My neighborhood itself is . . . fine, I guess. The townhouses are all identical, but there are green spaces with trees in them. And some people have bushes in their postage stamp yards. 

We also have woods and a creek, hidden behind the playground. When I found that, my morale about living here got at least 30% better.

Beyond my actual neighborhood, you can go two ways. West, there are winding residential neighborhoods for a good ten minutes. The yards have lovely mature landscaping. The houses, though, are also mature. They're a little ratty. Mostly I like this drive. I grew up in a neighborhood like that, a little old and ratty but filled with huge old trees and character.

The other direction, there's a big busy road, where you can choose north or south. North it turns into a highway, and you can get to a shiny, fancy town that can afford to make an effort. South, where I go more often, it just gets grodier and grodier. Car dealerships. Ratty old shops for tires or whatever. No trees or hills, just one dismal looking business after another.

And I find myself wondering: is this how it has to be? Because of the lack of money, because this is where the working class lives, because of population density? Is there any way to make this road not feel soul-sucking to drive on, to feel like the drive out into the mountains feels?

If I could do a few things, I would plant more trees. Just more trees everywhere. They feed my soul. Bushes too, and grassy patches. I'd bury the power lines underground. Maybe find a place to park all those cars that isn't massive expanses of asphalt. This town has tons of creeks and little artificial ponds (as a flood measure); if those were actually visible more often, it would be really nice.

I'm not sure any of this will ever happen. But I do feel that beauty is a human right. That we shouldn't have to be rich to afford it. And also, that we should be able to live more densely (because it saves gas, preserves wilderness, makes population growth workable) without having to feel like bees in a hive.

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