Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Family Bookshelf

My friend, Cara, is currently visiting family and dealing with the double standard of the atheist having to keep certain things to herself in order to keep the peace.  I suggested she write about the experience and the following is what she wrote.
Every family I know has one, as sure as they are to have family secrets, family gossip, and the real or perceived family black sheep.  Everyone I know has a family bookshelf.  Some consist of a handful of books shoved in the corner beside the couch, while others have “branches” that extend to fill rooms.  I’m sure there are those whose family bookshelf consists of a handful of out-of-date magazines piled on the back of the toilet, or rows upon rows of DVDs which fail horribly to provide any degree of literary fulfillment.  One’s family bookshelf can speak, often better than words themselves, about that particular family. It can speak of priorities, interests, and personal tastes; or it can speak of darker things: of obsessions and unhealthy fixations.

My given room while visiting my parents every year contains one such structure: the same shelves that were a fixture in our home my whole childhood, though the books it contained have changed and developed just as my siblings and I have.  Spending a month with my parents when I’m so conditioned to solitude results in my often retreating into that room to escape from the responsibilities of being company.  At least that’s what I try to tell myself.  When I look closer though, I can’t argue that what I’m really hiding from is the person I think my parents want to believe I am: that for one month every year, hiding alone in a room is the only way I have to be myself. And it’s during these respites that I lie on my bed and stare at those shelves.  I read the book spines and see how much those shelves mirror my parents, or perhaps, more accurately, mirror the parents I believe them to be.

The easiest aspect, by far, is the shelf of photo albums.  My whole life is there: captured moments that serve to shape memories, even years after those times have passed. There’s the album that contains my baby pictures, the one that chronicles our family’s time living abroad, there are birthdays, graduations, reunions, and even an album that celebrates the life of my maternal grandmother who passed away two years ago.  Like that album, which has been shelved, my mother’s sense of loss and grief must be tucked away, because she doesn't show it. Undoubtedly  the pain is still as tangible to her as the pink, flower-covered album is to me, as it sits within arm’s reach, though she can’t dismiss it as easily as I can, I’m sure.  Those albums, those family histories, as one of the only constants on those shelves, always remind me that I have a place in this family that’s unshakable.  They couldn't excise me from their lives any more than they could erase me from those albums while keeping anything intact when they’re done. It’s like a promise that some have but all should, but sadly don’t.  I am lucky.

Most of the rest of the bookshelf is divided in uneven thirds, though the themes overlap. There are religious books, religious anti-abortion books, and veganism books. It’s hard not to see this as the summary of who my parents are, and that being the exact opposite of who I am. There are the odd books here and there that I can feel connected to them through: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos; the complete works of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; a stack of six Jane Austen books. Yet the fundamentals that make them them, as represented by the rest of the books, are so deeply ingrained in their worldview that my presence feels like a challenge to the very heart of who they are. The temptation is there to pull out the anti-choice Handbook on Abortion written in 1971, and start a discussion on women’s vs. fetal rights. I should be able to; after all, wasn't I subjected to endless indoctrination sessions when I was a kid, impressing on me of the evils of abortion, including misinformation about the dreaded “partial-birth, late-term abortions”?  I was sat down with my sisters and made to watch The Silent Scream, as if the horror of it could somehow inoculate us against ever committing such atrocities.  If my mother had the freedom to share all that with me, why can’t I work up the courage to say that I support Planned Parenthood and abortion should be available to all?  Am I afraid of being less loved and respected, or am I just afraid of the ensuing awkwardness?  Or am I convinced that being “pro-life” is so ingrained into my mother’s being that the chance of her changing her views are infinitesimal?  It feels easier to bite my tongue.

One and a half shelves contain twenty-three volumes of The Pulpit Commentary, there are at least nine bibles, and two whole shelves of books by Christian philosopher George MacDonald.  How do I pick up one of my parents’ three copies of What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills to discuss my views on it? My parents’ would defend the words of Jesus, where I would just be trying to say, “How do you know he even existed?”  Of course he existed.  Of course Jesus still loves you. Of course.

Though I normally remain silent, the other day when the conversation turned to the rapture and God eventually putting an end to human suffering, I read the following Tracie Harris quote to my mom: “You either have a god who sends child rapists to rape children or you have a god who simply watches it and says ‘When you’re done I’m going to punish you.’  If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your god.”  My mom was silent for a bit, deep in thought, then agreed that that was one of the greatest challenges in understanding God.  Then she presented me with a book off of her shelves called God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross by Christian theologian, Douglas Hall, saying it was the best explanation for why God allows suffering.  “The best Christian explanation,” I replied, feeling like we were speaking different languages.

Shortly afterward my mom pulled out another book, written by United Church minister Anne Hines, called Parting Gifts: Notes on Loss, Love and Life.  She read me an excerpt:
We all know that the purpose of family is to provide us with affection and a sense of belonging we all require. Our parents and siblings are those who love us entirely, not for anything we’ve done, but simply because we exist.  They are living, breathing covered wagons of emotional support and nurture, circling around to protect us when the forces of life threaten our well-being and our self-esteem. Family provides a soft, safe place to be in a hard and dangerous world.  This is the purpose of family.

Until a few years ago, I would have said this was true.  In fact, the main and most important role of those closest to you is to yank your metaphorical chain, poke you with a psychic stick, bring up your most deep-rooted, vexing personal issues and make you totally insane.  The definition of family is not “people who push one another’s buttons.” It’s “people who push one another’s buttons, hold them down and then slap a piece of duct tape over them.”
I tried to fathom why she’d read me this, and made the assumption that it had to do with the veganism she and my brother perpetually push on us: that she was trying to justify the force of her views with the excuse that it’s her responsibility to push my buttons.  But I wonder if she was trying to give me permission to speak my mind, despite the fact that my ideas clash so harshly with hers.

The fact that I eat meat, drink milk, even enjoy honey, is a source of pain to my mother.  That I've concluded there is no god pains her as well.  I am hurting her just by what she does know about me.  How could I reveal more?  How could I expose the parts of me that run so counter to her deeply-rooted sense of morality? So I remain silent.  I rob my parents, whom I love, of the opportunity of knowing me better.  I judge them by their books and they know only the shadow of me.  I resent them for not seeing me, ignoring the fact that by hiding, I’m neither allowing myself to be known nor pushing my parents’ buttons, thus failing them far worse than they've ever failed me.  I hope, ultimately, that knowing my shortcomings in this regard will force me toward being more open.  Last year, while hearing about abortion from my mom, I told her that only about 10% of Planned Parenthood’s work involved abortions, but the rest was essential medical services provided to low income women.  I was met with silence, but sometimes that just indicates thought.  Maybe next year I’ll be able to share more.  Maybe the process of contradicting my parents’ deepest held beliefs shouldn't be attempted all at once, but in stages.  I hope someday that I will wake up to discover that without noticing it, my parents and I have met in the middle and allowed common ground to be a greater focus than our differences. Maybe then I won’t have to hide upstairs, staring at a bookshelf that screams at me how wrong I am.

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