Friday, October 24, 2014

Library Shelf: Parenthood Reading List

Much of my personal reading this year has focused on healing the effects of my childhood. It began inadvertently a few years ago with a library book about mothering, and led further and further down the rabbit hole, as it were.

I share this list in hope that it will help someone else--to recover a lost or damaged childhood, or simply to be a better parent.

The Mom Factor by Henry Cloud and John Townsend (authors of the Boundaries books)

This book really set me on my journey to figure out the role we call motherhood. Incidentally, it is also the only one of Cloud & Townsend's books that I've really appreciated. The authors examine what a child needs from a mother, and then look at how five different types of mothers fail to adequately meet those needs. Overall, The Mom Factor motivated and inspired me. It gave me hope that I could repair the gaps my mom was unable to fill and become the mom my kids need.

As I was reading, I really wished I'd found this book before becoming a mother myself. As it was, I found myself processing the information at three different levels at once: what my mother missed out in her childhood, how my mom was unable to give me what she didn't have, and what my daughter needed me to be for her. It was rather overwhelming!

(I should probably note that this is the only book on my list that uses the Bible as a reference. However, it was not difficult to separate the counseling parts of the book from the parts that read like a sermon.)

You're Wearing That? by Deborah Tannen

As a linguist, Tannen is primarily interested in how conversation reflects social relationships. Here, she turns the spotlight on conversational interaction between mothers and daughters. The sociological implications build on Tannen's other fascinating work, but frankly, communication with my mother has never been primarily about words, so I didn't find this book very helpful in a therapeutic sense. It probably did influence my relationships with my girls, though, in that it provided an outside reference point for mother-daughter communication.

Complex PTSD by Pete Walker

Since this book came out in January, it has been my bible. My copy is dog-eared and highlighted throughout. Seriously, if you are struggling to overcome the effects of abuse or neglect in your childhood, this is a must-read.

Walker writes with compassion and understanding, having spent many years on his own recovery. Many times, I would dissolve into tears after just a page. All year, I've intended to write a proper review of this book, but words fail me.

Through these chapters, Walker has been my mentor and friend, offering courage and encouragement at every step and especially when I feel I am making no progress at all. The sections on grief, on managing flashbacks, and on silencing what Walker terms "the inner critic" deserve particular mention.

While this book builds on the work of many others (check out the extensive bibliography for further reading), it stands alone as a self-help manual or as a supplement to help you get the most out of your therapy experience.

Toxic Parents by Susan Forward

From the author of Emotional Blackmail, another extremely accessible and straightforward therapy book!

The first part of the book covered ground that was already familiar to me from other sources, but the second half was invaluable. Forward offers very specific advice on confronting toxic parents--not in the hope of changing them, but in order to recover one's autonomous self. She outlines clear goals and milestones on the road to emotional health. It did me good to see how much progress I have already made! There is also a forthright chapter on handling relationships that involved incest.

While each author I read discussed the concept of forgiveness, I found the thoughts in this book most helpful to my situation.

Difficult Mothers by Terri Apter

A good overview book. Like Cloud and Townsend, Apter categorizes five different types of difficult mothers. Unfortunately, they all sounded familiar, so I had to read the whole book! Very readable, but not as practical as some of the rest.

Surviving a Borderline Parent by Kimberlee Roth and Freda Friedman

Though written to adult children of a parent with Borderline Personality Disorder, the authors emphasize that the tools described here are useful whether or not a difficult parent has actually been diagnosed with BDP. (Diagnosis may not even be possible, since narcissistic or borderline individuals may not be open to getting psychological help from professionals.) A very educational and informative book.

Understanding the Borderline Mother by Christine Lawson

Using a fairy tale metaphor, Lawson describes various types of borderline mothers and gives specific advice for understanding and interacting with each. I learned so much about BDP while reading this book. For example, that borderline individuals may be high-functioning or low-functioning. The many possible variations make understanding a borderline mother extra-challenging.

Ultimately, Lawson benefited me by removing my fear that I, too, might be a "borderline mother" and by helping me realize that a borderline mother can be truly incapable of parenting. In other words, she may really have done "the best she could".

Adult Children of Abusive Parents by Steven Farmer

If PTSD is not a factor, this book would be a fine place to begin. Farmer uses slightly different terminology, but his explanations of psychology are otherwise very similar to Walker's. Farmer uses a more linear approach that is very easy to follow. Also, throughout each chapter, Farmer assigns short, specific exercises for healing and recovery, and encourages extensive journaling. If you are looking for do-it-yourself "therapy", this is the book for you.

I have spent many reading sessions in tears over this book--perhaps not surprising since Farmer highlights the healing importance of both grief and anger. But he is not content to resolve the past, he moves on to chapters on "Growing Up Again" and on becoming the parent you wish you'd had.

* * *

In addition to the above self-help genre, these novels and memoirs have been healing and enlightening in their own way:

Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas--A recent novel about a charming but psychopathic mother and the havoc she wreaks on her children.

A Spell on the Water by Marjorie Cole--Poignantly set in northwestern lower Michigan in the 1960's, the mother in this novel struggles to raise five children without succumbing to her own grief. Themes include addiction, fear, and loneliness.

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls--The author's first novel. Short, but meaningful.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls--A shocking memoir; I think it permanently rearranged my brain. Walls is an inspiration and a guiding star.

Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes--My book club read this southern memoir, and it generated lively discussion!

Mom and Me and Mom by Maya Angelou--The fascinating story of two incredibly resilient women.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

From There to Here

On a long drive home the other night, I was pondering our journey away from the IBLP cult. The further we get from it chronologically and ideologically, the greater the gulf between us and our associates (fewer in number all the time!) who still defend Gothard, his teachings, or his organization. It also becomes increasingly difficult to explain, or even remember, how we reached the conclusions that shape our thinking now.

We used to identify with the Institute in Basic Life Principles, after all. We supported it, sacrificed for the vision of its founder. Even today, many of our closest friends are fellow survivors of the cult. Even when we meet for the first time, there is an instant connection of shared experience. We have traveled to the same places. Our teen photos match. We find ourselves lapsing into the familiar old vocabulary we can't use with anyone else. We were shaped by the same influences and like military veterans, they bond us decades later.

I am always interested in hearing others describe the various paths they took out of that "ministry". Some jumped away suddenly, not looking back. Others got snared by other controlling groups after leaving IBLP. Some got stuck for years in abusive relationships. Some were re-socialized in the military, or in college, or working overseas.

When people ask me, "How did you get out?", I am often unsure how to answer.

"Well, that's a long story..."?

The truth is, we moved away ever so slowly. We were genuinely afraid of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In our over-analytical way, we spent nearly a decade evaluating each teaching, each experience. Just as we had always understood why we adopted the beliefs we held, we had to be reasonably certain before we rejected them.

For me, tendrils of disillusionment had long intertwined my loyalty. Because even as a homeschooled young adult, I had reason to doubt Bill Gothard's truthfulness. For a time, I truly believed that he wanted to share God's truth with his followers, but numerous situations cast doubtful shadows on that premise. Yet even as the evidence mounted that Gothard himself valued expediency over transparency, I still assumed the best about the rest of his staff. I believed that, like me, they meant well. All the church leaders I'd ever heard of had feet of clay, after all. And since I accepted most of his teachings as Biblically-based, his personal character flaws did not seem a reason to challenge the rest. Besides, IBLP was my ticket to adventure, and certainly the only place I was likely to meet a man my parents would approve for me.

But at last Bill fired me from his organization, evicting me from my rented room overnight. Later we learned about the sex scandal where Gothard's director of the ATI department left his eight kids and ran off with his secretary. If I was jaded before, that really didn't help. The affair bothered me less than the hypocrisy. Character, my ass! I realized I hadn't known about a lot of what was really going on behind the facade around me.

Still, all my friends were connected to the Institute in some way. I had no close connections on "the outside". Even if I had no more loyalty to the 'Tute, I was not prepared for life without it.

Chris left Gothard's employ (on good terms), but the cult teachings ran deep in both of us. The legalism bothered us a lot. We wanted our faith to be more authentic and less austere. Above all, we did not want to base our life choices on fear. We began experimenting personally with jettisoning certain "standards", to see if our relationship with Jesus was affected by, say, listening to Christian rock, or cautiously watching R-rated films.

When we started courting, we compared notes. Our standards were still much stricter than our peers', but we were growing as individuals, daring to make a few of our own choices. When we married, we chose a church without obvious fundamentalist leanings. We stopped following Gothard's financial "principles". We still visited the IBLP campus when we drove through Chicago, stopping to say hello to people we still considered friends.

Not being sure what denomination of Christianity we belonged to anymore, we visited different churches in town. Each had a unique flavor, but it was not obvious where we fit.

It wasn't long before our pursuit led us to examine the richness of older traditions: we visited a Catholic Mass, we read a book by a married couple who'd converted from Protestantism to Popery, and we paid $20 a session for abstinence counseling. (For real!) At the same time, we were taking a Bible class at a conservative Lutheran church (their doctrinal covenant specified that the Pope was the antiChrist). While the study influenced our view of eschatology and we even considered having our babies baptized, we concluded that deep down, we were neither Lutheran nor Catholic. And, after spending years in interdenominational settings, we didn't want to belong to any club whose members all agreed on exactly what the Bible meant.

Chris became partial to Pontius Pilate's line in the Gospel of John, "What is truth?" For his thirtieth birthday, we shared our first bottle of wine.

I joined a ladies' Bible study at an evangelical megachurch. We took the kids to Awana there and taught them lots of Bible verses. I sang them hymns when I rocked them at bedtime. I sang solos at our church, and filled in for the pianist sometimes. We were Mary and Joseph in the Christmas cantata, our infant the Baby Jesus.

During this time, we devoured Philip Yancey's books about grace and the mysterious sovereignty of God. His writing felt edgy and real. He wasn't afraid to wonder aloud, and he became our hero.

We watched several seasons of Law & Order while I was pregnant, and each episode sparked discussion about some social issue. We read Shane Claiborne's book about helping the poor in Philadelphia, and we read Jim Wallis' book about poverty and politics, and our worldview shifted some more. It seemed that heartfelt Christianity simply had to have a humanist side. Voting for white male Republicans was no longer a given.

We began researching how cults operate. And we recognized way too much. It took years to accept the term, but we finally began referring to IBLP as a cult. I read numerous memoirs about people leaving cults and cultish religious groups.

And strangely, no matter how normal we tried to be, we found connections to our past all over the city. The church library had a horrid Rod & Staff storybook my sisters used to read. ATI acquaintances worked at the tea shop. We ran into them at the farm market. A couple at our church were zealous supporters of Gothard, annually recruiting attendees for the Basic Seminar, which was held at the church where our kids later attended AWANA in the classrooms where an ATI dad ran a Christian school. I tried seeing a Christian counselor there, but couldn't get past the fact that my issues stemmed largely from teaching the church itself was promoting.

Our midwife had been recommended to us by Dr. Dean Youngberg, an IBLP Board member who attended church with my in-laws. In a strange twist, we later ended up in a Sunday School class led by her ex-husband, studying Philip Yancey's book on grace. In a discussion about legalism, Mr. Brace brought up the Institute as an example and our eyes got big. So much for finding a place where no one knew of Gothard!

Brace kept talking about how he'd tried to rescue his kids from this religious cult. It wasn't till we got home that I figured out who he was. "Chris, we've met the people that man was talking about. His ex-wife delivered our babies!"

When I shopped for educational materials at the Wichita homeschoolers book fair, numerous booths were promoting IBLP-affiliated resources: ALERT, the Seminars, books on courtship, "Godly" music, S.M. Davis DVDs. Teenagers were teaching character songs to a conference of children. When I found myself wanting to scream, I went out to my car and listened to ABBA songs while I ate my sack lunch. When I went back in, I found A Matter of Basic Principles at the used bookseller's booth. Gothard's face on the front creeped me out, but I bought it anyway.

That book clinched it for us. Gothard was a hypocrite and a mountebank. We recognized enough of the names and events the authors included, and we could fill in more stories of our own. It wasn't just in our heads anymore--it was in print! This was incredibly validating. I didn't even care about Gothard's doctrine anymore. He claimed to teach us, his followers, the ways of God, then violated his own principles at every turn. And we wouldn't even learn of the groping scandals for a few more years. We had no respect at all left for the man, or for his organization. We regretted the time we'd devoted to building it.

By this time Chris was working on the college degree he had been told was a waste of time. I began to read voraciously about science: astronomy, biology, geology... I wanted to fill in the sizeable gaps in my knowledge so I could teach my children with confidence. I ended up unlearning a whole lot of young earth creationism along the way.

I kept reading books on theology and philosophy, and began questioning patriarchy. Did God endorse it? Was misogyny a corruption of his intent? What if the genders could be equal? And while we're thinking daring thoughts--what about people attracted to people of the same sex, anyway? Was it a sin to be gay? Did God make people that way? Flannery O'Connor's stories didn't make me feel better, but they did help me ask more questions.

The church that had once seemed moderate to us was veering to the right, and we felt ourselves moving in a different direction. We resettled at a big, compassionate, liberal Methodist church and tried to look at the Bible in fresh ways that didn't trigger cult flashbacks. The kids dressed up for their first real Halloween party and Chris joined the pastor's weekly discipleship Bible study. I asked our female associate pastor to recommend a therapist. We got involved in the church choirs.

We still couldn't shake the triggers, though. I recall breathing through a panic attack even while the hip young musicians on stage performed a gentle, harmonious rendition of the Beatitudes. Had the most poetic lines of the Sermon on the Mount been ruined for me? The lyrics were of comfort and hope, but I sat in the pew quaking. Would my ATI past ever stop haunting me?

Maybe Halloween brought it up, I don't remember. But what began as a study of the Bible's teaching on the devil ended up challenging monotheism in a big way. In one weekend, I lost my fear of Satan. I doubted his very existence. I viewed him as a human construct, an explanation added to make the other pieces fit. And if there was no Satan, well, as it turned out, that changed everything.

My reading of ex-fundamentalist memoirs led me to an ethnology about private church schools. It challenged many of my assumptions about education. Suddenly we could see how our experience being homeschooled had made us more vulnerable to being "brainwashed" by Gothard. We wanted to give our children a better chance than we'd had.

Now that we no longer feared our kids learning about evolution, sexuality, or swear words, and because we now had a radically different view of socialization, it wasn't long before I stopped at the elementary school down the street. I met the principal and she gave me a tour. That fall, our fourth-grader took her first step into the pool of public education. Despite the anxieties we all had absorbed, it turned out to be a good experience! Two years later, I was no longer a homeschooling mom.

Our kids were old enough to ask questions now. And their take on the Bible amazed me. I had become calloused to the cruelty and bloodshed. The stories that had been my comic books as a kid (murders, rapes, genocide, and more!), they found genuinely disturbing. But by this time, I had stopped defending God. Like the Methodists, I saw the Bible as an ancient collection of composite literature. Unlike them, I could no longer admire the God it described.

Even as our daughter was an acolyte and we took communion and recited the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, we felt our faith slipping away. At Christmastime, I tried to rehearse a song with the choir, but ended up sobbing when the lyrics described what a good mother Mary was. It seemed unfair for the Baby Jesus, who had such a lousy human experience otherwise, to get a good mother. More than anything, I wanted to be a good mother.

We kept our Christianity on life support (oh, that marvelous pipe organ!) for a few more months, but it was brain dead when we pulled the plug one Easter Sunday.

Our progress was so gradual, it was almost undetectable to many of our acquaintances. We more or less looked and behaved the same as ever. I started writing here as a private way to process the changes, because I knew no one who would understand.

Eventually, we did try to drop clues to a few people. Maybe they would want to join us on the journey. We left book titles out in the open, offered wine at dinner, invited them to visit the Methodist church with us. But it was too far a leap. Unlike us, they were content where they were. They did not suffer from questions the way we did. We had to keep moving without their company.

 We've found other companions at this stage of our life. Our dearest friends are scattered around the globe. Our cohort are other homeschool graduates who have fought to reclaim their lives, wherever we find them.

For a long time, I wondered if I had lost my tribe, if I didn't belong anywhere anymore. But now I am finding it ever so slowly.

My tribe are brave truth-speakers and wise story-tellers, healing themselves with art and with beauty. They are curious, passionate, and introspective. They color outside the lines. They love across borders. They stare down adversity every single day, then wake up and do it again. Their scars give them depth. They thirst for justice, and hunger for understanding.

It may have taken us longer than most to discover our agency in this wonderfully diverse world, but now that we have, we want to use it to leave the world a happier, safer place than we found it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Mask of Modesty

When I was a girl, my mother made modesty a top priority. She discarded all my shorts, all my pants. God had made me female, so I needed to look like the woman on the restroom sign. Dresses it would be from then on.

I was never quite sure if Mom reached this conclusion on her own, or if it was Dad's decision for us, or if they worked it out together. I wasn't happy about it, but then, I wasn't consulted.

There were no more pajama outfits, only nightgowns. The sunsuit that had replaced my swimsuit was now replaced with a calico dress. Yes, I wore a dress in the lake. A dress on my bike. A dress in the sandbox and on the swings. I wore a dress in the garden, to the orchard, on a hike. When I went sledding, I wore a long flared wool coat over my snowpants. Later, I wore snowpants or sweatpants under a long, loose, flapping skirt. After a few runs down the hill, the snowy skirt would stiffen around me like a bell.

For warmth, I wore cable tights.

For modesty, I wore homemade knee-length bloomers over the tights.

They were usually white, longer than shorts, and they had eyelet ruffles below the elastic cuffs. The woman who first showed my mom how to make them called them "pettipants". We quickly shortened that to petties. The petties were so modest that I would often strut around my bedroom in them.

"I could go out like this and most people would think I was already fully dressed," I must have said to my sister a hundred times as a teen--before pulling a skirt or jumper over my loose-fitting shirt. No way would I leave my room in just my petties. They were a secondary undergarment, like a camisole. They should never be missing, but they weren't meant to be seen.

If Mom told it once, she told it a hundred times--the story about an evil man who had tried to molest a young girl in her neighborhood. "He asked if he could see her underwear!" The girl had refused him, she said, but the situation had been traumatizing. Knowing that such predators existed was motivation for us to stay covered.

Once at a hotel, Mom was anxious that we close the drapes because some of the girls were already in their nightgowns. "Bad men might see me?" my little sister inquired sweetly.

Over the years, I spent many hours sewing dresses and petties. Mom bought elastic by the yard and I fished it through the casings with a safety pin. Those little girls' diapers and underpants must never show, no matter how hard they played. My brothers must never see how their sisters' bodies were different. (We girls could change diapers of either sex, a privilege not permitted to the boys.)

By two years old, my sisters were no longer dressed in rompers--they wore dresses and jumpers and pinafores. When they went outside in the snow, we shoved the handfuls of fabric down the legs until the girls looked like pink or green marshmallow people. But the downside of dresses was the risk of accidental exposure. So petties were ubiquitous. Rarely visible, but ubiquitous, nevertheless.

My sex education was spotty at best, but one message I got loud and clear was, "Keep men away from your underwear." 

Whether playing outdoors or sitting on church pews, our bodies were kept hidden under layers of cotton. At IBLP training centers, we joked about boys not knowing that girls' legs separated before the knee. When I started wearing shorts on occasion as an adult, I felt a twinge of betrayal, pondering whether God intended for my thighs to be displayed in public. Would they, as my friend's grandma warned her, "make men think bad thoughts"?

Even when I married, I took my petties with me, accustomed to the secure and familiar feeling of soft cotton wrapped around my legs. And as Mom and I sewed dresses for the four sisters who were flower girls in my wedding, I never questioned that coordinating petties were an essential part of the ensemble.

And yet...

What I didn't realize then was that there was one glaring exception to the inviolable rule of modesty:


I have many memories of being spread across Dad's lap and struck with a belt or stick of wood. But my memories are always fully clothed. It was bad enough (and much more painful) when Mom hit me, but as the modesty rules tightened, something felt increasingly dissonant about a part of my body that was never supposed to be seen or talked about suddenly becoming a man's target. (The last time he hit me, I was about 13. I had the body of a young woman and was wearing a long wool skirt. Being ordered to lie across his legs, I felt violated. Since it never happened again, I assumed it made him uncomfortable, too.)

However... when my father took one of his younger daughters into a bedroom and closed the bedroom or bathroom door, many times he would lift that modest dress. He would pull down her petties, exposing her panties. (I am uncertain when my parents adopted this invasive approach to "discipline", but their pastor, also an ATI dad and a certified character coach, taught it in detail during a Sunday service years ago.) Sometimes Dad would pray aloud for "Satan to be bound".

Only then would he raise the wooden spoon that was the implement of choice, bringing it down hard against her thinly-clad flesh again and again. I heard the cries of anger and pain, and later saw the dark bruise lines when I bathed the girls and helped wash their hair. I didn't like the reminder of my own younger experiences, but I believed it was necessary. I had survived spanking, and now I was a responsible young lady. It never once occurred to me that our patriarch, the "priest of our home", might be looking at his little girls backsides in their knickers.

The petties protected us all, didn't they? They were a kind of magical garment, shielding us from prurient men and guarding men from lustful thoughts. Allowed too close to the natural shape of our bodies, any male might be overwhelmed with desire sufficient to become a pedophile. That was what we feared.

Though Dad slowly relented on parts of the family dress code, permitting his daughters to wear slacks, pajamas, and modified swimsuits, I had already absorbed the modesty mantra into the warp and woof of my being. So much so that it took a decade to silence my mother's voice in my head every time I went shopping or opened my closet door.

But these days, I think very differently about those who would dictate how females dress.

I also think differently about inflicting intentional pain on children's bodies to root evil out of their hearts.

And I feel more strongly than ever that if parent-teachers, in the sanctity of a child's home, are permitted to remove her clothing at their whim for the purpose of making her good, they put a hurdle in the way of her learning self-respect.

Let me take a moment to unpack all the harm I see in this scenario.
1) Our parents rigidly defined our roles as females. We were subject to rules and dangers that didn't apply to our brothers. 
2) In our home, everything was sexualized. Books, from our encyclopedia set to our Bible storybooks, had white stickers covering illustrations that were deemed indecent. We left the beach if a bikini showed up. The dining room seating was arranged so that the boys would not see the teen girls across the street washing their car.
3) Threats of physical violence by adults against young children were normalized in our home. We called it "spanking". It involved a weapon, and it left marks. 
4) As if being painfully punished on the bottom with a stick was not enough, having one's required covering forcibly removed was a special humiliation. 
5) We were told constantly to be "modest", but as soon as we were perceived as "independent", "rebellious" or "talking back", our modesty was no longer valued. Indeed, our value as females was directly linked to our obedient, submissive, and chaste spirits.
6)  That my father, in our insular world, had the privilege of exposing his own daughter's panties underscored his tremendous authority. He was the top dog. The rules that applied to others did not apply to him, at least not when we had been defiant or lazy, or had spoken out of turn. 
7) On occasion, my parents also spanked their daughters on bare buttocks. When Mom was particularly upset (she was often very cool while she beat us), she threatened to call Dad in to spank a girl's already-bare bottom. That girl still remembers the horrible threat. 

So tell me,

If a young child is made to feel dirty when she says "no",

Or if her resistance to pain is met with threats of something worse, 

How can she be expected to enforce healthy boundaries in relationships when she is grown?

In Mom's story, the would-be molester asked a young girl to show herself to him. But our parents made this sound shameful, and then demanded it of their own daughters.

Sorry, Mom and Dad, you can't have it both ways. You abused the "blessings" that filled your quiver. And you wonder why we struggle to respect ourselves now.

Related post:

Sunday, October 5, 2014

On Life, Death, and Family Values

I haven't been up to writing lately. Taking care of myself and my family has been enough to manage.

Last month, my therapist and I talked about coming out of the atheist "closet". I haven't told my in-laws that I don't believe in their god anymore, and she thought it would do me good. Because honesty is one of my cherished values.

But then so is kindness. If transparency is likely to cause someone else emotional distress, is it kind to be transparent? Or am I really just hiding from my fear of being rejected as a "disappointment"?

Not long after my conversation with my counselor, we buried Chris's grandmother.

The obituary said she "went home to be with Jesus".


What does an atheist do at a very Christian funeral?

The officiant keeps stating that all the children and grandchildren of the deceased have been "saved". (He is too polite to say what they have been saved from--it would be harsh to talk about hell when people are already crying. Does he believe in hell, I wonder? Some of his listeners have lived it.)

I still know all the words to all the hymns, and find myself recalling the stories behind their writing as well. Memories sweep over me with every chord. The verse written by a rabbi. Singing in four-part harmony with my team in Russia. I was introduced to one of the songs when I visited IBLP Headquarters in my late teens. It became my personal "courtship" theme song; I even wrote my own tune for it. Chris sings along with some of the songs, but then he stops. In my head, I add a soaring soprano note to the final stanza though my voice remains silent.

This pastor never knew Grandma before her recent stroke. He has taken his cues from stories the family told him over the weekend, and from the notes in her Bible. Someone has told him that in her final hours, Grandma whispered a three-word phrase found in St. Paul's writing, so he uses that text as the springboard for a sermon. Perhaps some listening find it comforting. Afterward, another devout family member tells me that Grandma was unable to communicate--that it's not possible she was able to form those words.

I understand. Telling stories to make ourselves, or others, feel better is what humans do. I decide that is the primary purpose of this gathering, a coming together to listen to stories that are supposed to make us all feel better. The stories about Grandma make us laugh. The ones about God not so much.

It's been years since I attended a church service. Several more since I attended a funeral. A lot of things have changed in the interim. These people don't know that my faith in God and an afterlife has melted away. "You haven't changed at all!" they say. I smile pleasantly and glance sideways at Chris. They are his relatives, after all.

They talk about the pictures hanging on the walls at Grandma's house. I recall our cult leader's materials framed in her dining room and the bathroom and get mentally stuck. I look at my sexy new boots and feel more grounded. The blue dress reveals my knees. My hair is the shortest it's been since kindergarten. I look nothing like the girl my husband married thirteen years ago. In fact, I look years younger.

My eyes stay open during the prayers, scanning the bowed heads in front of me. I stopped closing my eyes before I lost my faith. It's a slippery slope.

We silently file out of the auditorium to a room where cold cuts have been set out on long tables. The only thing that appeals to me is the homemade chocolate cake, baked by a kindly Mennonite lady no doubt. Sandwiches I can make at home, but no one ever bakes cake for me! Chris and I sit with cousins we haven't seen in years. We talk about kids and school and therapy while we fork the comforting cake into our mouths and sip coffee out of styrofoam cups.

Somebody is asking why So-and-so A isn't here. Someone else wonders why So-and-so B is here. I'm glad we took our kids to school today. They don't know most of these people. They would have found the homilies cloying. The great-grandma they remember was just showing signs of dementia. She may not have been certain who they were, but they knew she loved her cats, and her feisty Chihuahua.

This gathering of family members is beginning to fray at the edges. The young children are restless. The older people are tired, and worn with emotion. I have smiled with what I hope is compassion. I have been friendly to people who are almost perfect strangers. I have held in my secret.

Now I need real food. The cake was a momentary comfort, but not nourishing in the long-term. Rather like the sacred texts I used to repeat to myself, or those hymns I used to sing. They got me through some painful times, but eventually I still got shaky.

We hug Chris's mother and exit the church. A door  just inside the foyer says "Prayer Room" and we think of the Indianapolis Training Center. But here no one is locked inside. I give Chris directions to my favorite restaurant where we order gourmet sandwiches and debrief each other.

Were we kind? Were we true to ourselves? Even as atheists, we are as introspective as ever.

And someday soon, we will explain to Chris's parents that we are not waiting for heaven. We are trying to live, intentionally, right now.