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.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

I...think I might be autistic after all?

 I have known I'm not quite like most people for years and years. For a while I identified as "highly sensitive," then as "probably sensory processing disorder." Whether any of this fits into the autism spectrum is a harder question. The autism spectrum is broad, not just in severity but in actual traits. These days, you don't need to fill out every trait for a diagnosis, just a certain number. The result of this is that you have autistic people that are far more different from each other than they are from neurotypical people.

I don't love this. Treating these disparate conditions as one thing means that my children, when I say they are autistic, are always assessed based on the most classic symptoms and then told they "must not have it that bad" and therefore don't need help. Jackie's speech has been tested and found normal twice, and it may disqualify her from special ed preschool this year. Because autism includes language delays and she has none. The teachers don't seem to be very knowledgeable about the other things autism can entail, like emotional dysregulation, lack of adaptability, need to be in control, difficulty playing with other kids. I like to think that in the future, autism will just be the broad umbrella, and we can have "type 1" for verbal delays and spatial genius, "type 2" for typical speech but spatial problems, "type 3" for social and emotional issues without the other things, etc.

But we're not there yet, and in the meantime I'm left finding a lot of autism stuff relatable and other stuff completely alien. There are autistic people who don't know how they're feeling (alexithymia) and I analyze to death everything I'm feeling. There are autistic people who are uncomfortable with things that aren't black and white, whereas I see so much nuance in everything I can't complete a personality quiz. Would I rather be in a garden or in a city? Well, wouldn't that depend on the mood I was in? Do people think of me as the life of the party? I don't know, I suppose I would have to ask everyone I know.

So I think I'm going to write a post listing out things that have made me think I may be autistic, or a little autistic, or on the trailing edge of the spectrum, or whatever I feel like I can get away with without being too inaccurate. Really, I would like a professional to tell me, but getting diagnosed as an adult, especially as a woman, is incredibly difficult. Not many people do it, and you pretty much have to do all the digging through your life and your brain yourself. There's no blood test or brain scanner or even convenient puzzle you can get graded on. (Perhaps there would be, if autism were one thing instead of like a dozen things.)

The reason I've always resisted describing myself as autistic is that I don't feel that I'm disabled. All the definitions of autism include that it has to be disabling, it has to interfere with your normal functioning. I do pretty okay for myself, so it just doesn't seem right to claim an identity belonging to people who need significant help. But I do feel that autism can't be about what you can't do. It's about the way your brain works, the things you need, the things that bother you. If you have the things you need, if your environment works well with your brain, you're not disabled, according to the social model of disability. And isn't that the goal for every autistic person, to have everything they need to accomplish what they want?

I'm realizing more and more, as I read stories of autistic adults, that I have had so many things they didn't have. I had a supportive childhood that didn't demand of me much that I wasn't able to do. I have chosen small, manageable social spheres. I have never lived alone. I have only once in my life had a job that wasn't handed to me based on connections. Most of those have not been full time. This works great for me, but it doesn't tell you anything about what I would have been able to manage with a less than optimal environment, if I didn't have so many privileges. 


The first thing is my emotional regulation. I have always seemed to have more feelings than everyone else. As a kid I cried all the time, loudly. My mom once told me the reason nobody had any sympathy when I cried was because I just opened my mouth and bawled instead of trying to cry like a lady. I remember being confused. If I had control of what I was doing, I wouldn't be crying!

In the fourth grade the teacher nicknamed me "The Perpetual Frown" because I cried at school so much. (Bugger off, Mr. Wells.) In the fifth grade, my teacher took me into the coat room to ask if there was something wrong at home, if something was bothering me. I told her my uncle had died, which was true if several years out of date. I just felt like I had to have some excuse or she'd never leave me alone. Later, she dismissed me for lunch early and kept everyone else back. I assumed they were in trouble. In reality, she had told everyone they had to be nice to me because I was having a tough time and had no friends. Thanks for the thought, Mrs. Pfahl, but you might have predicted somebody would tell me everything.

In boarding school it was worse (because of the psychological abuse, obvs). I cried and cried. I learned to cry quietly, but I still cried all the time. I remember once I was expecting to get to sit down and eat dinner only to get pulled into the kitchen at the last minute to wash dishes instead. I sobbed and sobbed. I felt like my heart would break.

It was called, at the time, "emotional immaturity." I was told I would someday gain the ability to manage my feelings the way everyone else did, that I would be able to control them somehow. And I did stop crying all the time, after boarding school. At first it was mainly severe depression, but after that I felt like my feelings did settle down somewhat. It felt like there was a space between the inside of me and the outside, that I didn't have to let things out if I didn't want to. Or sometimes, I couldn't let things out at all. I don't really laugh when I'm alone. I usually can't cry even if I want to. But if I'm startled, I'll let out a reaction I didn't intend, sometimes a larger one than appropriate. Thanks to Zoom, I now know that I look extremely angry when I'm trying not to cry. That's not my favorite thing in the world.


I don't like the word rigidity. It sounds very negative, which is of course how it's perceived. I'd rather say that I love the things I'm used to, that they make me comforted and happy. You know how, after a long journey, you see the lights of your house getting closer and feel glad? I feel that about all my familiar things. I don't always think about how important they are, but this move has brought home to me how badly I function without them. It made me angry that the couch wasn't how it used to be. I had trouble drinking water because my favorite cup was lost in a box somewhere.

When I was younger, I was a lot more adventurous. My life was already very familiar so I felt willing to branch out. I think that's true of autistic people in general. Routines are comforting; if things are good, you don't need the same degree of comfort and are willing to be flexible. When you're having a hard time, though, every little change is going to be a big issue.

Sensory processing

The diagnostic guidelines barely touch on sensory processing, but to me they're almost the heart of autism. If you sense things differently, you'll react all kinds of different ways. And the sensory side of autism is the thing I relate to the most; I know I have serious sensory issues.

I'm hypersensitive to a broad array of things: textures, noises, smells. Some of them are very easy to explain, like loud noises or crowds. A lot of people don't like those, though most of them seem a little better at putting up with them. Others are just weird, like I get goosebumps all over my body if I even think about touching velvet, and my entire day was ruined once by King George's song in Hamilton. It just feels unsatisfying somehow? Like you have to keep singing it forever to get to a resolving chord but there is none. Ten years ago I loved pop music because it was devoid of those progressions. Now they're everywhere and I hate them so much.

I have two sets of clothes: the aspirational stuff I bought because it looked nice and I imagined being a person who would wear that, and the stuff I actually wear. The set of things I can wear keeps shrinking and shrinking. I basically live in cotton t-shirts (NOT cotton blend, UGH) and my gray elastic-waist shorts. I'm becoming intolerant to my only pair of non-ratty jeans because they slide down, but I also can't wear high-rise jeans because they make me feel smothered. I can't wear anything tight, especially on the armholes. I usually can't wear hats or scarves. It takes me about a month of winter to get used to wearing coats, and I sometimes try to get away with a light hoodie (pure cotton. no fleece lining) till it's below freezing. I don't just like being comfortable, I'm actively miserable when I'm not. I wouldn't even wear heels to my own wedding.

It takes me a second to process things. If I'm walking along the road, I walk slowly and look at everything. If I can't do that, I have very little notion what I saw or where we've been, and I end up feeling stressed. When I was a kid, I tried various sports, but I just can't keep my eye on the ball. It goes too fast. I got hit in the head with balls way too many times. I can't play any video game with a first-person camera; I have no idea where I am. I can't listen to audiobooks. Watching TV, I miss about half of what is said unless I put the subtitles on. Walking around the house, I constantly bump myself on things. I'm scared to go downstairs holding a laundry basket because I can't see my feet.

This is the part that severely limits what I can do. Things I can't do, or find so unpleasant that I never do, include: concerts, fairs, movies in the theater, going multiple places in the same day. When we were showing the house and had to be out all day, I was miserable. I have never liked going to work. Only now that I have a job from home, I'm discovering I don't dread going to work or collapse in an exhausted heap when I get home. Teaching is especially exhausting; I don't think I could ever go back to it. In college, both times I tried to add one (one!) extracurricular on top of my classes, I got sick and had to quit.

Executive function

These days, the internet is full of stuff about executive function, to the point that I'd almost wonder if anyone is actually good at it. Except that my husband is; he's like my executive function doula. He knows when the bills are due and when the car needs to be inspected and he never, ever loses his keys.

That's, uh . . . not me. It took me two years once to call the dentist after my tooth started hurting. I carry tons of to-dos around inside my head all day, because I can never manage to write them down. I drop balls all the time. It was my biggest flaw as a teacher, forgetting who had missed a day and whose parents wanted me to call them back. I didn't plan my lessons, I winged them all. In school, homework sheets exploded out of my backpack, but were somehow never there when it was time to turn them in. When our notebooks were collected for a grade, my literature notes were just a title and some doodles. I leaned hard on raw intelligence to succeed in school despite never knowing there were tests coming up and writing all the papers the day before. But once you're an adult, raw intelligence doesn't count for very much. You have to actually remember what day yearbook money is due.

I'm getting better at this, because I have to, but it's still one of the biggest challenges of my life. I constantly miss work meetings I am supposed to zoom into; my boss is luckily tolerant of it. I was supposed to call the elementary school after two-thirty on Monday; it's Wednesday, and though I remember it now, I wouldn't lay odds on me remembering after 2:30.

My current job is so great. It might take me an hour to get in the zone to do anything, but once I'm there I pound out an article in a couple hours. I might, however, forget to eat. When working on a novel, I used to go five hours or longer without a break. I don't have trouble with focus if no one interrupts me. I have a lot of trouble switching from one task to another. Sometimes dinner is late because I was doing a puzzle, and I knew it was time, but I had to fit one more piece, and one more piece, WHAT, it's six pm.

Social skills

This is the thing that always gave me pause. I can't be autistic because I function really well socially. Don't I?

Well, I admittedly didn't in school, but that was because I was homeschooled. Everyone somehow picked up on me being different and was mean to me. Complaints I remember: that I talked to myself, that I talked like the robot voice of a talking car, that I dressed funny, that my hair was messy, that I smelled bad. These are all, admittedly, common autistic things.

One time all the cool kids decided to be nice to me and invite me to play Truth or Dare. I assumed that I had finally been there long enough that I was going to be accepted, and joined right in. Turned out they just wanted to quiz me about stuff like who I liked, so they could torment me about it. Was that a lack of social awareness?

In high school everyone was nice to me, because it was the rules. I knew I was not one of the coolest people, that the consecrated had decided I wasn't "leader-type," and I'd been told more than once I talked too much, hogged the conversation, was too loud. Other girls found me funny and happy and charming, but a little weird. The consecrated made it their mission to make me normal, including a lot of explicit teaching about hygiene and hair and fashion and conversational turn-taking.

College was great for me socially. You'll never find a denser concentration of weirdos obsessed with all the same things I was at the time. I had so many friends. I couldn't stay up late like they could, but I always had someone to hang out when I wanted to.

I have not really made friends since then. My friends are all my old college friends, or people I didn't hang out much with at college but at least knew. I keep trying to make other friends, but it never seems to work for very long. I have tons and tons of online friends. In person is so much harder, not least because of my other challenges. Hanging out with kids is a very hard sensory experience; you're juggling attending to the kids and attending to the other person, and switching my attention like that exhausts me and makes me itchy. Hanging out without kids involves a lot of advance planning and executive function. I say, "I'll check with my husband and see if he can watch the kids that day," and then I don't.

I don't know if I make eye contact right. I do look at people's eyes briefly and then look away. Isn't that what most people do? I remember getting in trouble for disrespect when I made eye contact with a teacher who was chewing me out for something else, and getting yelled at by a girl who said I "had a staring problem." So I guess I'm a little afraid of looking at people too long. I remember one spiritual director always looked straight in my eyes and it was the very worst thing in the world.

I'm bad at turn-taking in conversations. I spend a lot of effort trying not to talk too much, but dead space makes me anxious so I tend to leap in and fill it. I know I used to just talk a mile a minute and people couldn't get a word in. In groups of more than two, I really struggle. The gaps you could jump into are so tiny and gone so fast. And they change topics all the time! I hate having something interesting to say, but it's about something three topics ago because the conversation wandered. I want to talk a subject to death before moving onto the next.

A lot of the things autistic people say on this, I don't relate to. I very much like small talk, at least small doses of it with strangers. I'm always anxious in public, and if a kindly stranger tells me that I have a lot of children, it cheers me up somehow. Like oh! this person is being friendly with me! I guess I can survive this after all! I hate mask wearing because nobody smiles at me. I am not blunt. I lean hard on etiquette and social scripts; if you ask me how I'm doing, I would sooner die than say anything other than some version of "oh, doing all right, how are you?" Saying things that might upset people is very hard for me. I read a lot into what people say, and I would ten million times rather hint that I could use a hand than ask.

This part is the hardest for me to accept. Am I still a weirdo, and it's just that people are too nice to point it out now? Am I missing something everyone else is getting? I spend a lot of effort understanding people and trying to fit in. I don't want to admit I'm not good at it.


As a kid, I used to chew on my hair. So my mom cut my hair, and then I chewed my nails. Then I got braces and I didn't have a fidget. In boarding school being fidgety was very much frowned upon. I don't think I really stim anymore. I do sometimes play with my eyelashes or sway back and forth when I'm reading. But this is one that isn't really such a big noticeable thing with me. Whereas Marko is so fidgety that he can be chewing on a random piece of plastic, pulling on his hair, and dancing around the room at the same time.

When I'm very stressed, though, like at the grocery store, I've started shaking my hands at the wrists, like I'm limbering up to play piano. It seems to shed a little of the stress somehow. I'm not really doing it intentionally, but I could stop if I wanted.

So am I or not?

I really don't know. This feels like a lot of reasons I am, when I lay it out like that. But getting a diagnosis sounds like an insurmountable burden. How would I find someone who even assesses adults? Would I have to call them? Get childcare? Make an appointment? And what if then they were like all the people I've dealt with for my kids, who say "well, they're smart, they're doing fine" and I hear "why are you wasting my time?"

I suppose what I should do is just be gentle with myself. Try to understand myself and give myself space for my needs. I do a lot of that already, which is why I don't feel like I'm suffering. I don't put myself through things I know I won't like. I don't commit to things I know I would flake on. I build a lot of down time into every day. I just need to try, as best I can, not to be ashamed of myself for needing to do that. Sometimes I feel really bad about the things I can't do, the things I've failed to do. I don't need a word for what I am to know I'm not choosing to struggle with things.

But would that be easier if I just said, hey, I probably have autism? If I joined autism groups and said, yeah, that's me?

You, the five or six people who still read this thing, know me pretty well. What do you think?

Friday, July 9, 2021

Well, we moved.

Our move to Big Town is behind us. It was a painfully stressful week or so. Packing our things. Hiring movers. Getting six people, two cats, and two cars to the new place. Directing movers, in an empty house. Getting stickers for our cars so we would be allowed to park at our new house. Weathering many, many tears from the children. Waiting till they weren't looking so I could shed some tears of my own while still pretending that This Is So Great, Aren't We Having Fun? in the hopes that they would play along.

I'm not going to lie to you, though. This whole thing has not been much fun. And even now that the most stressful part is behind us, I'm not super jazzed about these changes. I guess I was hoping that all I dreaded was the transition, and once we were a little used to it here it would all be find. Instead I'm seeing more and more ways that this place is just not as good as what we had.

In a small town, we could afford a large house with a large yard. And much of what we did for fun was free. Here, we are in a townhouse with no yard to speak of, and everything I try to drag the kids to is stressful and expensive. Of course it doesn't help that it's the most miserable month to live in Virginia, where even in Small Town we would be hunkering down with crayons and playdough rather than attempting the kind of summer fun I remember from my childhood. (Not that even the Pacific Northwest is still cool enough in summer to go outside every day, anymore. There's a lot of heavy "you can never go home" feelings around right now.)

I don't know anybody here, yet. I don't even speak the same language as half the people here. I was hoping to introduce the kids to diversity. Instead they shriek, "I can't play with the neighbor kids because they TALK FUNNY and I HATE people who talk funny!" I know that this mostly has to do with missing home, but it also makes me worry. Fear of the unfamiliar is natural, but it's also where racism comes from and I am not sure how to combat it. Especially in my culturally-alienated but legitimately Hispanic children.

I thought moving here would make me closer to things and give me more options. But it's actually significantly further to the next grocery store than our old house was. Closer to Aldi, I'll admit, and that's my favorite, but even if we want to just run out for a couple things, it's still ten minutes. There are more restaurants, but they're all more expensive. There are more pools, but I still haven't found an outdoor one that's open on weekdays, and the indoor one near us gives me a headache and costs $25 for the massive bunch of us. There are parks but none of them are the sort of shady/ splashy/ uncrowded parks we had back home.

The roads around here are either grungy or massive and busy. Or both. I hate wires that crisscross over the road, and huge parking lots, and places without trees. There is a part of town that's more scenic, and we don't live in it because it's even more not-cheap than where we do live. Driving north is pretty nice, because we pass through a large regional park. Though there is no entrance to that park from our end, only from the county on the other side. I wonder who made that decision, and why.

The new house is newer than our old one, less broken. It has central air, and I'm certainly not complaining about that. I did dream of buying a house with fewer stairs, though, and this one does not fit my hopes.

I put friction tape because I'm terrified of slipping, but I've still slipped on them twice.

The kitchen is pretty. Of course I'm the rube who doesn't like gas stoves. There weren't enough cabinets, which was the tragedy of my existence for a few days. I felt near tears even going in the kitchen because it was all scattered with dutch ovens and ice cream makers that I had no possible place for. But we got an IKEA cabinet to put along the side wall and now everything fits. It makes me feel marginally better about my life.

New cabinet not shown in this one. The hatch into the living/dining room is cool though.

The view off the back deck is quite acceptable. This green patch doesn't really belong to anyone but the HOA, so it's not like having a yard, but if I can just coax the children to have adventures in there with me it might be a little bit the same.

I don't care for the view out the front. It is a parking lot and there's no getting around that. But the kids can scooter there so they use it more than the back. We've managed to play with the neighbor kids some, the ones who are younger than my kids and don't speak English. It turns out you don't really need to talk much to scooter. Their dad seems to be the social center of the block and talks to everybody. I am so thankful for him.

He's the one who tipped me off this creek spot. The whole time I've lived in Virginia, creek spots have been precious; if you know a spot, you spend your whole summer there if you can. This one is within walking distance of our house, on the other side of the HOA, and three out of four kids loved it.

Problem: it was covered with trash. The whole woods behind are apparently a general party zone for everyone in the area, and there aren't any trash cans. It's the tragedy of the commons in action. If it belongs to everyone, it belongs to no one, and no one seems to be responsible for cleaning it up.

WELL, while we were there, and I was feeling morose about the garbage situation (which was much larger than I had the slightest hope of cleaning up), a guy showed up to tell us it actually did belong to someone, which is the HOA (if I understood him right). So there will now be RULES. And a cleanup day. And maybe paved paths.

I like the idea of cleaning it up. I didn't much like this guy's insinuation that the problem was Hispanic people from outside the neighborhood coming in and drinking there. First because most everyone here is Hispanic, in or out of the neighborhood, but that isn't super relevant when it comes to finding out who's littering. Second because who really cares if the people from the neighboring apartment complex hang out at the same creek; nature should belong to everyone and it's honestly more fun the more kids there are to play with. Third because I don't care if people drink so long as they throw their bottles away. Fourth because his solution was unsightly no-trespassing signs and fences that are hostile to walkers. It would be much easier to get there from our house if there weren't so many fences, but I understood from talking to him that making it impossible to walk around was a goal. That people who walk from one neighborhood to another are a problem, and it's better to make it impossible for people in this neighborhood to get around without burning gas than it is to let apartment-dwellers get to our creek.

I am just feeling really demoralized about our future here. Maybe I'll feel different when the kids start school, especially if they find more friends here than they did back in Small Town. (What if they don't??) Maybe I'll feel different when I finally find a way to meet people (if I ever get that brave). Maybe I'll feel different if I start taking classes at the local community college, a thing I mean to do if I am never not overwhelmed and stressed all the time.

But I keep thinking, what if I don't? I'm a hermit at heart; maybe what was best for me was to have a little space to be a hermit in. I can't believe I had two friends and a school in walking distance and a splash pad that was eight minutes away and free, and I gave that up seeking . . . what? Friends? Opportunities? Happiness? I had those things available to me at the old place, but I couldn't access them because I was scared and bad at leaving the house. Which I still am, just in a smaller house.

I hope things get better soon. They kind of have to.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

How to leave the Catholic Church

I've been intrigued by Steve Skojec's last few posts. I disagree with him on most things, to be sure, but where it comes to the Legion of Christ and the traditionalist movement, he gets it. Both groups are high demand and abusive, and he knows that personally.

He certainly sounds to me like he's thinking of leaving the church altogether. In general, I approve: it's not just fringe movements that can be abusive, and as long as you're in the church, you're always going to find more of those anyway. But I also worry a little bit for him. A life inside the church doesn't prepare you very well for a life outside. If he goes dashing outside the church without rethinking a heck of a lot of first principles, he'll run after the next nutty person he sees who promises him the complete ideological purity that attracted him into his first two cults.

That's true of anybody who leaves a church, so I thought I'd write a little how-to guide.

How to Leave the Church

1. Stand up from the pew

2. Go through the doors, they're at the back

3. Run and don't stop

I kid, I kid. It isn't hard to leave the church, once you've made up your mind it's the right thing to do. You simply stop showing up, and if they call you, tell them nobody by that name lives at your number anymore. It's not like leaving the Mormons. They really aren't going to try to stop you. They will, of course, insist that you are  still Catholic, per canon law, and count you in any numbers they keep track of. But you can leave them counting those beans, because you're not there anymore.

But what do you do next?

1. Take a break from religion.

You know how, when you get out of a bad relationship, any subsequent relationship looks so good by comparison? "Wow," an abuse survivor raves to her friends, "he doesn't beat me at all! I had no idea guys could be this good!" And the friends look at the guy and are like . . . "Okay but he still forgot your birthday and expects you to clean up after him, are you sure this isn't a rebound?"

If Steve jumps ship straight into Orthodoxy (as I suspect he will, the trad-to-Orthodox pipeline is well traveled) he'll be so amazed it isn't as toxic as a traditionalist parish that he'll boast about it to anyone who will listen. But that doesn't mean it will be healthy. With a long break (months, maybe a year) without going to church at all, he'll be better able to weigh whether a new church is actually bringing goodness into his life or simply less badness.

Of course you can still pray during this break time, study theology, call yourself a Christian. But a person needs to decompress a little from church. I think the enforced decompression of the pandemic has gotten a lot of people realizing how little they were getting from their churches, how perfectly capable they are of worshiping at home. The churches they return to will be the ones that actually offer something other than obligation.

2. Dig down to first principles. 

Steve sees something wrong with the church, which should be adequate proof he has a moral code apart from the church. If you can judge the church and find it wanting, then there's something in you that knows right and wrong apart from the church telling you so. What is that compass telling you?

Steve knows it's wrong for the priest not to baptize his child. But why? Is it because of the first principle "Nobody says no to me, Steve Skojec"? Probably it's more some sense of fairness. The feeling that everyone deserves to get the things they absolutely need. How could Steve extend that outward to more things? If his child deserves baptism, do all children deserve food? What does it mean to deserve something, and how can we obtain for everyone what they deserve?

I highly recommend reading some moral philosophy, or, if you're not up to homework, watching The Good Place. You don't have to have a perfectly spelled-out moral philosophy, but it's good to have some general principles to guide you.

3. No, further down than that.

It's too easy to become exactly the same brand of person you were before, sans church membership. To keep the same politics, the same biases, the same ingroup. People like Jordan Peterson, whom Steve Skojec likes so much, promise to let you do that. Here's a non-religious defense for all the same things you thought before!

The world does not need more repackaged, atheist patriarchy, homophobia, or hierarchies. You don't need to do evo-psych to work out why the same moral code you had before is scientific. It doesn't actually work that way. It's like when Aquinas tried to make Aristotle prove the church was right about everything. If the church is wrong about some things, what else could it be wrong about? Maybe it was wrong about gay marriage, or monarchy.

It's easier to keep mostly the same opinions you had before. If the church taught you to be constantly afraid, constantly angry, about "how the world is going," it will be hard to change your point of view. But Steve believes, as I believe, that one has a responsibility to know the truth. What if all of that was fear tactics? What if the way you vote, the things you promote, or the condemnations you've pronounced have done harm? Reconsider everything. 

Take your time. You don't have to have it all worked out right away. Catholics will demand, "So are you contracepting now? What do you think about abortion?" It's okay to say, "I'm still working all that out." In fact, that's almost the only answer you can say that won't get you attacked with either, "Here's why you're wrong," or "If you agree with the church on that, you should just be Catholic again!"

4. Don't look backwards

You know how Lot's wife was turned to a pillar of salt for looking over her shoulder? That's a terrible story, the bible is messed up. Anyway, there's an impulse after leaving the church to keep obsessing over it. You study the theology you already know, in order to reassure yourself that you weren't making up the problems. You keep talking with Catholic people, maybe arguing with them to get some kind of closure, a point where they admit you did the right thing by leaving. (You will not get this.) You can even make an entire living, like Rod Dreher does, out of criticizing the church you're no longer a part of.

It's one thing to do this for a little while. Maybe it's even healthy. But if it's been a year and you're still mostly surrounded by Catholics, reading Catholic blogs, coming up with ever more airtight refutations of Catholic teaching . . . it might be time to move on a little bit. That history is always going to be a part of you; you don't have to pretend otherwise. But it can be like picking at a scab a little bit. Leaving the church is painful, and constantly putting yourself back into that mindset keeps that pain going. 

Find some non-Catholic friends, both ex-Catholics and never-Catholics. (The former get you so well. The latter remind you that you have to have something else to talk about besides that.) Have new interests and hobbies. Get, eventually, to a point where having been Catholic is just one thing about you. (I'm not going to claim I'm fully there.)

5. Replace those things that actually helped you.

When I first left the church, I tried to replace all of it: the prayers, the holidays, the songs. The church was just such a big part of my life, I felt like I needed all of that. These days I don't do so much of that. Many of the things I used to do, I found I didn't really need, so they fell by the wayside.

You have to ask yourself, what have you been relying on the church for? For good reason,* the church doesn't encourage you to think about what you're getting out of it, but it's very likely you did get something out of it. A way to self-improvement, some daily or weekly meditative time, a coping mechanism for anxiety, an opportunity to do charitable work, a community of like-minded people. Where can you get those things? It doesn't have to all be in the same place.

(*it's because if you actually kept a tally, you'd see you give much more than you get, and very often you get nothing)

There's one thing, though, that you shouldn't replace. Don't replace one all-inclusive, package vacation to truth with another. The church claimed to have all truth so you never needed to go elsewhere. Don't find some other organization or guru and eat up everything they say. Don't fall for ideologies that claim to explain everything. Everything is not privilege vs. oppression. Everything is not order vs. chaos. Everything is complicated. Listen to a variety of people, read different sources, keep thinking.

The church taught you to doubt yourself and seek an outside arbiter of truth. It's not wrong that your reason is fallible. But if your reason is fallible at finding the truth, it's even worse at picking authorities that can find the truth for you. Everyone else's reason is fallible too. The best safety measure against all of that is to double-check other people's claims of truth against your own reason.

6. Heal emotionally.

When you're newly out of the church, you're recovering from two traumas. One of them is leaving the church, and the other is the time you spent in it. Depending on how it went for you, those may be more or less severe.

Your time in the church might have loaded you down with:

  • Terror of hell
  • Conviction that you are not a good person
  • Fear of the outside world
  • Guilt for small things
  • Fear of enjoying yourself in any way, and guilt when you do
  • Sexual dysfunction or shame
These aren't things that will leave you all at once. As a result, when you leave the church you may find yourself feeling worse at first. You might have rationally worked out that there is no hell, but when it's 1 am and you can't sleep, you might still feel afraid of it. This isn't a sign that you did the wrong thing necessarily; it's just that you were taught to be afraid of certain things and that lesson went deeper than reason.

Meanwhile, leaving the church can cause problems like:
  • Social rejection by your community
  • Existential angst or fear
  • Worry about doing the right thing
  • Grief at losing God
  • Panic that this life might be all there is
  • Regret at how you've spent your life this far
I hit many of these things very hard. I worried all the time that one of my children would die and it would be my fault and they wouldn't go to heaven because there wasn't one. I cried because Jesus had been my best friend. I lay awake at night because I was afraid I would go to sleep and not wake up, and never have a chance to do anything different with my life.

You see why it's so tempting to jump into the first religion or ideology that presents a soothing answer. I'm not saying you shouldn't, at some point, find one. But it should be after you've done a little healing on these things, so you're not just trying to fill a church-shaped hole.

I can't get you through any of this with a blog post. It takes time and emotional processing. It might take therapy. But I will tell you it gets better. You're living each day without whatever pain the church was causing--which, as you go on, you'll realize was more than you thought. And you find new ways to cope with the different pains of human existence, things the church once answered for you.

I hope that helps.

Friday, May 28, 2021

The soul of a house

 I don't know where I got the idea of the lifelong family home. It certainly wasn't from my family. My father and three out of four of my grandparents were in the military, so although we didn't move that often, I always understood a house is a base of operations where you live for a while before moving to the next place. When I was a kid, I always wanted to move.

Maybe it was It's a Wonderful Life. You know how Mary wishes on a broken window that she could someday live in that drafty old house, and then she does? She makes a home of it, somehow, painting while the kids are in their playpen and putting up with the banister end coming off all the time. Which gives the impression that it is affordable and possible to buy a big house and fill it with children if you're just not picky about banister ends. We got awfully close to buying one of those for our first home, till the inspector said "no, the back of the house is literally sliding off, you cannot possibly." What a buzzkill, that guy.

Anyway, here's the dream. You buy a house when your first child is a baby, or before. (Already the millennials in the room are shaking their heads at me.) It's in a good neighborhood, with a nice yard. Or maybe it's out in the country, but still close to work.

It's not a perfect house. It's probably inconveniently laid out and the paint is a little chipped. And that's when you start. Over the years you build onto it or knock out that inconvenient wall, probably by yourself. The gardens develop thick soil from years of planting. You put in an apple seedling, and by the time your kids are teenagers they're harvesting apples.

You know how the Velveteen Rabbit becomes real when all his fur gets loved off? That's what happens to houses. There's a doorway somewhere with marks showing all your kids' heights at different ages. There's a door that doesn't close right because a kid swung on it too much. Your kids have names for the different faces you can see in the paint chips. There's been a heap o' living there.

Most importantly, you stay there the entire time your kids are growing up. They never have to leave. You look at old photo albums and everyone knows the house, because they're sitting in it while they look at the album. The neighbor's baby grows up alongside your baby, and 18 years later they have their first kiss in that apple tree you planted when they were toddlers. Of course you couldn't leave that house. That house is family.

You stay in that house when all the kids are gone, and fix it up a bit the way you never could when they were underfoot. But you keep a couple boxes of their toys under the stairs, and when your grandkids come over, they sleep in their dad's old bed. With luck, you die in that house, peacefully in your bed.

I don't know how often that ever happened. People have always had to move, for one reason or another. But it feels even less possible now. Nobody stays at one job their whole career anymore; they carefully hop diagonally through the job market, accepting big changes to go slightly upward because they're never getting a raise where they are. Nobody has money enough, early on in their career, to buy a house big enough for the family they'll have later. We could never have bought this house when Marko was a toddler, but we also could never have fit four kids into the house we did buy. And nobody can be certain their kids will stay in the area; people of my generation and class very commonly live across the country from their families. When we were young, flying to visit seemed easy. Now that we're older, moving closer seems impossible.

Houses these days seem like commodities more than homes. You have to be doing improvements all the time. Mark your children's heights on the wall? Heck no. You need to be updating the kitchen for when you sell it. Don't make it too individual, too yours.

Selling a house feels like ripping the soul from its body. You tone down your presence in the home, you clean it to make it look like you don't even live there. And soon you won't. The house you filled with your laughter is a set of bare floors by the time you say goodbye to it. You'll miss it all your life, but your last memory of it is just echoing rooms.

Sometimes I think I like houses more than I like people, because I cry when they're sold and I don't always cry when I say goodbye to people. Then again, often a person's house is a symbol, in my mind, of the person. I miss my great-grandpa's house because it was his, because a big part of what I ever knew of him was his house. He talked to the grownups, but we kids were downstairs investigating his knickknacks, discovering what kind of a person he was from the things he left lying around.

The house I loved the most was my grandparent's lake cabin. My grandpa built so much of it himself, and I remember the process from bare beach to the polished, hand-carved towel hooks. It was in such a special place, where we made so many important memories. But most of all, it was his house. It meant Grampy to me, in a lot of ways, while their town house held more of Grandma's soul.

I did take my kids to that town house, showing them the couch with lemon upholstery and the elephant statue and the trees. It felt like a link I had to forge, connecting my children with at least one place I had been as a child. The house I grew up in was sold when I was fourteen. Now my parents don't even live in the same state. It feels disconcerting, wrong. That a place I felt was my home no longer has a place I can stay.

I feel like I am taking something away from my kids by moving, even though they are mostly on board with the move now. I wanted them to have roots. I wanted a place that connected them to their memories, so the past doesn't seem like it happened to somebody else. I wanted them to feel more grounded in a place than I have been able to be.

I didn't want them to feel homesick their entire lives, like me.

I've stopped being agrarian because I no longer feel like it explains anything or has any of the answers. But, even though I don't have an alternative, I still object to modern society. Maybe the things that were traded away were for good reasons. But sometimes I feel it was because nobody felt they were worth anything at all. I don't think people get what I mean when I say a house has a soul, when I say it has to be more than an asset and a way to save on rent.

But, if I linger in this house when the movers are gone and hide in the closet to whisper goodbye to its bare bones, I hope you understand why.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The city mouse and the country mouse

I grew up at the edge of a city, but I always dreamed of being a farmer or living way out in the country. Living here in a small town has been the closest I've ever gotten to that.

In many ways, living in a small town is the best of both worlds: there's plenty of nature around, but it's still five minutes to the grocery store. And our town isn't so small as to limit what we can access very much. There might be fewer options, but we have doctors, dentists, restaurants, even a (rather minimal) hospital.

Despite that, though, we're moving 45 minutes closer to the big city, to a suburb I'm just going to call Bigger Town. Because what we don't have are jobs that pay a one-income living for a family of six. John's been commuting over 90 minutes a day for about two years now, and that's really sapped his spirit. He's tried and tried, but librarians in this area tend to make under $40,000 a year--it's a job for married ladies whose husbands also work, or perhaps older people who don't want to retire.

I'm sad about it, but I'm also trying to find the bright side in moving closer to the city. Tons of people would love to live near a city, and many would never dream of living anywhere else.


Cities are full of things to do. Museums, restaurants, concerts, big libraries, water parks, community theaters, classes for kids. The libraries have more books. The shopping district has more shops.

In the city, there are more people to hang out with. That means a better chance of finding people who share your interests. I could find a writing group near me. I hear there's even a children's Magic: The Gathering club.

Downside of all this is that there are people when you don't want to be with people. Your yard is small if you have any, and you might share walls with noisy people. The streets are never quiet. More people means less starlight and birdsong.

My relationships with humans have always been fraught. The worst thing nature has ever done to me has been a bee sting. So it's no wonder I tend to pick nature every time.

But, you know, I'm looking to relearn how to interact with people, so maybe having a lot of opportunities to do that will be Good For Me.


The tradeoff for more people is less nature. I live next to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River. It's absolutely gorgeous here, especially if you go two minutes or so out of town. Even from our upstairs windows we can see the Blue Ridge. 

Seattle has a giant mountain and two large bodies of water going for it--you still get to look at some nature, even in the middle of the city. Bigger Town isn't like that. It has parks, but you have to go to them. It's flat, and I don't like flat.

Here, we have woods in our actual yard. Okay, a strip of trees, but you can climb them. We have lots of birds. We have redbuds and dogwoods and holly. When I'm feeling depressed, it's hard for me to get in the car and go somewhere. But I can sit at the window or go out in the yard and get some nature therapy. I really feel it feeds my soul.

High population density, I am told, is much better for the environment. Living closer to work means less energy use and emissions. Townhouses and apartments mean less land is taken up with housing and more can be left for animal habitats. Our yard is populated by deer and bears, but that's because their proper wild habitat is shrinking. As roads encroach into the forest, more animals are killed in road accidents. So love of nature should encourage me not to live smack in the middle of it.

And it does, but it's tough.


Small Town is more diverse than you'd think, but it's very segregated. The Justice Map shows our current neighborhood as 100% white. Just down the hill there's a little block that's allegedly 100% Black. I'm sure that's at least somewhat inaccurate, but not by a lot. 

They say what you see growing up is what you expect, what you assume is normal and right. I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, and I think that was good for me. I knew racist garbage for racist garbage early on, because it wasn't accurate to what I'd experienced. I'd like the same for my kids.

Bigger towns and cities are almost always much more diverse. And the town we're moving to is much more shaded and speckly on the Justice Map. Feels . . . I dunno . . . more American. More representative of what this country is actually like.


Cities are more liberal. It's a reason I wanted out of the city to begin with, back when I was ten million times more conservative than I am now. Small Town is red as red can be. Trump and Thin Blue Line flags everywhere. Racist comments said openly. People lining the street to pray the rosary against gay marriage. Awkwardly, a lot of those people know me and don't know I think differently now, so I find myself constantly being assumed much more conservative than I am. I don't want to start fights, but I also don't want to smile and nod through a rant about how trans people are ruining society.

I find it ironic in the extreme that I was so conservative when I lived in Seattle and am so liberal now that I live here. Maybe I'm a little contrary. Maybe I just didn't understand just how much further right the right wing went.

Anyway, Bigger Town is about 60% Democrat, meaning it's liberal, but shouldn't be a bubble either. I would like to meet some more like-minded people.


A thing they don't tell you, when you're considering a life path, is that most college-track jobs are in cities. College specializes you, and the more specialized the thing you do, the less likely you'll be able to find an opening for it in a town of 10,000. Small towns have openings for doctors, lawyers, dentists, real estate agents, and optometrists. Teachers and librarians too, but the pay will be low. If you have student loans, you might not be able to pay them on a small-town salary.

Plumbers, cashiers, mechanics, barbers, and factory workers are needed everywhere. You can pick a town and live there; there will probably be a job for you. Though if you want to move from a small town to a larger city, you may find cost of living is a barrier.


You know all that fun stuff available in cities? The vast majority of it costs money. Whereas the entertainment available here in Small Town is largely cheap or free: hiking, wading, swimming in the creek. If we want to pay money, we can swim in the pool or rent a canoe. It's not terribly expensive.

In the city, everything costs so much more. The houses, the groceries, the activities. Making the switch is going to be tough. In Small Town, we've been living (relatively) like kings the past few years. Large house, large yard, cheap groceries. To move to Bigger Town, we will have to downsize by about 500 square feet of house and almost all the yard. We certainly can't keep up the suburban lifestyle some people manage close to the big city. Those houses are like a million dollars.


I never wanted to be rich, I just wanted to be surrounded by beauty. It took me years of adulthood to realize that beauty costs money.

The country is beautiful, right? My dream was something like this:

It turns out this costs a bundle. If you are poor and live in the country, what you can afford is more like this:

Likewise, there are beautiful, picturesque city neighborhoods, like this one:

But if you're of reasonable means, you're just as likely to live here:

So the short answer is, if you want beauty, try being upper-middle class. Or at least don't try to raise four kids on one income. The first street we lived on in this town wasn't aesthetic at all. Where we live now is much nicer, but it costs an amount that hardly anybody pays out here.

That said, there are more free beautiful things in the country. The spur of the mountains that sticks out over Small Town is one of my favorite things, and I see it any time I drive anywhere. There are lovely drives all over this area. Even just taking the kids to school means driving past people's beautifully landscaped yards, with tulips and flowering trees . . . and yes, some number of crumbling buildings and cars on cinderblocks.

I've had ten years of practice finding the beauty here. I know where it is, and I am familiar enough with the ugly bits that my eye skips over them. Whereas when I go to Bigger Town, I mostly see this: 

The main drag is just one long soul-destroying succession of strip malls interspersed with used car lots. I hate it.

But, of course, there's more to the town than that. There are some lovely parks. There are cute, picturesque neighborhoods. The house we're hoping to buy is surrounded by some patches of trees, so I won't be starved for nature. And the art museum isn't very far.

And perhaps I can see beauty in some unexpected things. I always need to learn to do that more. People, for instance. That's a place beauty can always be found, but fear keeps me from looking.

* * *

I cried today, driving back from the grocery store. I will definitely miss living here. And it feels deeply unfair the way life conspires to push me away from things I want, the way none of the choices are simple and easy, the way decisions made long ago tie us down into consequences nobody wanted. I get so deeply attached to places. I'm sometimes struck with homesickness for a place I visited one time, for one week.

Small Town is going on the huge mantlepiece in my mind of Places I'll Miss Forever. And I'm going to a place that feels terrifying and strange, though I have lived there before. I worry my soul will be flattened out, stomped, suffocated.

But a line of a poem came to me, And for all this, nature is never spent. Flowers grow in crannied walls and sunsets happen everywhere. I need the Earth, but I won't be leaving her. So maybe that's going to be enough.

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