What Being Muslim Means To My Daughter

What Being Muslim Means To My Daughter

Muslim-girl-resizeBy Stephanie Meade

“I wish I could eat pork like Eryn!”

It’s a harmless statement really. My four-year-old wishes a lot of things. She wishes she could have a dog and a monkey, she wishes she could “buy” a princess (I explained to her you can’t buy people but left the discussions of slavery and human trafficking for a later date), a certain dress or a stuffed animal. Sometimes she wishes she could be other people or have other family members. But something in this statement felt a little like sandpaper on my skin and I couldn’t at first pinpoint why.

The month of Ramadan just finished—a time of spirituality and fasting from sunup to sundown—and I tried to fast like I always do but didn’t succeed beyond one day. The maximum I have fasted is 12 days, which made me feel like a superstar. But when you think Muslims are fasting for 30 days, my sense of accomplishment dwindles. The thing is, I’m not Muslim so I don’t even have to fast like my husband looks forward to doing every year. But I try—not because my husband wants me to (I had to put that up front as that’s what most people assume)—but because I like the holiday spirit it creates in our household, the togetherness. Our household has two sets of beliefs but each of our traditions is part of the same family canvas, blending seamlessly like a watercolor painting.

Before we had kids, my husband and I had decided to raise them as a balance of both of our belief systems. Even though I lacked a formal religion, I consider myself spiritual. But after the kids were born I changed. I felt strongly that being raised within a faith is beneficial, especially when you go through hard times in life. I always wished I had been raised with a strong sense of faith versus the nominally Catholic-but-never-went-to-church religion I grew up with. So Muslim became their predominant identity, with perhaps a trace of something else that doesn’t have a name, like when my daughter once told me between tears to say an “om” for her to calm down.

The thing about celebrating Muslim holidays in the West is they don’t feel much like holidays. You can’t pop over to Hobby Lobby or Michael’s and pick up some decorations or Islam-inspired crafting supplies while Ramadan-themed music plays in the background. As you go about your daily fast—tired, a little drained and just plain hungry and thirsty until the magical minute of sundown arrives, which in the summer isn’t until almost 9 p.m.—not many people understand why you would undertake such a practice. And when it’s Eid, the big celebration at the end of Ramadan, with presents, feasting, new clothes, social gatherings, candy for kids and holiday cheer, it’s just business as usual for most of the Western world. That part I’ve grown used to.  I should be more used to people’s surprise (putting it mildly) when I mention my husband is Muslim and we celebrate Ramadan. I don’t seem to fit their profile of what they think a woman married to a Muslim guy would be like. But that discussion, on stereotypes and Islam’s negative portrayal in the West, is not the one for today. But it’s not entirely irrelevant to my four-year-old’s innocuous statement about wanting to eat pork either.

For now, I know my little one’s proclamations of wanting to partake in foods outside her religion don’t mean much. She is secure in her Arab and Muslim identity and still protected at age four, just barely, by the paper-thin innocence of childhood.  When we were in Mexico recently boarding a plane, someone asked where she was from. “Morocco,” she answered, even though she was born and has lived her whole life in the U.S.  Boisterous and chatty, she tells strangers pretty much everything and anything on her mind, even stuff that makes us squirm a little, like yelling to our twenty-something neighbors over the fence that they shouldn’t be smoking.  She loves experimenting with different head scarves, likely because she adores our babysitter who wears one, and looks for any excuse to wear her fancy Moroccan dresses, putting together color combinations that make me sure I will be asking for her fashion advice in a few short years. Unlike her six-year-old sister, she brings up God a lot in her questions. While my six-year-old doesn’t talk much about God, she enjoys praying with my husband when it’s Ramadan.  She also loves singing Arabic songs and teaching them to her friends. But she identifies herself differently from her sister. “I’m English,” meaning American, (as she was making the distinction from speaking Arabic).

However, as they grow older in a society that regards Islam unfavorably, they will face questions, comments and likely even criticism. I hope the foundation we are building for them of confidence in themselves, pride in their heritage and an appreciation and love for many other cultures and religions will be their source of strength. I hope they will not just recognize that people are different and that’s what makes the world beautiful, but take confidence from that statement I regularly repeat. And with that confidence they won’t want to be anyone but themselves.

Stephanie Meade is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent, an online magazine for parents raising globally minded children.

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Will Daddy Die?

Will Daddy Die?

img_1077_2By Lea Grover

“Mommy? Will you still love me when you’re dead?”

My six-year-old asks me this question a lot. She is a little focused on whether or not her parents will still love her once they’ve died. I’m 100% certain this is because her father has brain cancer.

I’m Jewish, and I often think of myself as an atheist, and that means I have pretty complicated beliefs about what happens to a person when they die. I try to be honest about death as much as possible, letting my children know that every single person dies, because life isn’t and can’t be forever, and that’s okay. I let them know that being dead isn’t scary, it’s just what happens when you’re not alive anymore. I desperately don’t want them to be afraid of death, or of somebody they love dying. I don’t say that when she asks me, though. I usually say, “Yes, honey. My love will always be there, and I’ll love you forever and ever and ever.”

My six-year-old and her twin sister both show signs of the strain of living with their father’s astrocytoma. One is fixated on the idea that we will all love each other even after we’ve died, an idea that gives her a great deal of comfort. Her twin has internalized the strain, and instead shows it by becoming hyper-emotional over increasingly minute elements of life she wants to control.

Her kindergarten teachers have taken me aside a few times to let me know she needs help controlling her emotions. I don’t tell them it’s hard to control your emotions when you know something big and scary is happening, and no one is capable of explaining it to you.

As much as I want to, I am doing a terrible job making their daddy’s cancer understandable. What we know as adults is that cancer is never something you can rationalize. I don’t want to scare them, so I tell them he’s getting better, which is only a half truth.

He is getting better, or rather, he’s not getting worse. That’s not what they want to know. What they want to know is what happens if he doesn’t get better? What does that look like? What happens to them? I have told them that lots of people get cancer, and lots of people get better. I haven’t told them that lots of people with brain cancer get better. I have told them that sometimes people die from cancer. I’ve told them that daddy has a device he wears on his head to help his cancer get better. I’ve also told them he probably has to wear it forever.

The looming unanswered and unasked question is, “Will daddy die?” And I have skirted it as much as I can, because I don’t want to answer it with any phrase other than, “Everybody dies, someday, probably not for a long, long time, and that’s okay.”

It’s a hard thing to live with as an adult, the idea that somebody you love is seriously ill, and going to be ill until they pass away. It’s a hard thing to live with when it’s you, when it’s your spouse, when it’s your child. But as adults, we are capable of so much. We can do our own research, we can express our fears and confusions to others in a way that can be constructive. We can run marathons or donate to charities or shave our heads in solidarity, and it makes us feel better to be doing something, anything, to make sense of the helpless feelings that come with this experience.

My children don’t have that, because these are new emotions for them. Learning to live despite constant, nagging fear is something that has taken me years to achieve. My six year old twins hardly stand a chance.

So when the kindergarten teacher tells me my kid had a meltdown about nothing in the playground, that her whole afternoon she was anxious and quick to cry, I don’t talk to her about daddy’s illness.

I wait until her twin sister asks me, as she does whenever emotions run high, “Will you love us even after you’re dead?”

“Yes, honey. I’ll love you forever and ever, even after I’m dead, and after that, and after that.”

Lea Grover is a writer and speaker living on Chicago’s south side. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies, on websites ranging from Cosmopolitan to AlterNet, and soon in her first memoir. She speaks about sex positivity in parenting, and on behalf of the RAINN Speakers Bureau.

Art by Mary Ann Cooper

Church of the Latter Day Sane

Church of the Latter Day Sane

WO Church of Latter Day Sane Art

By Krista Genevieve Farris

It’s just an old white stucco-covered house on North Loudoun Street, greying and overcrowded. There’s no lawn, just an endless pad of cement from street to a cinderblock porch that’s been painted forest green. I see it every day.That’s my view.

The paint can’t mask the drab. It makes me mad.

When our crepe myrtles bloom, purple blossoms dress the view. And I have to position myself just right to see that ugly porch with the mismatched chairs and random residents chewing their nails and nodding to no one.

In spring, the buds bulge.

I peek my head outside to get the mail. It’s always ads and bank statements
these days—nothing personal. And a man in an alb and a tasseled cincture genuflects, kneels down on that hard porch.

Blesses me—

Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Raises a chalice,

a real churchy chalice.

I duck my head and hold-up two fingers “Peace” then double-lock my door.


Summer comes, a hazy blur obscured by ivies, humidity and pollution.  No glorious view of the Blue Ridge.  Just days spent on the porch with my son, his lemonade stand, biting insects and the dander of stray cats that makes me itch and sneeze and leaves me cranky.

The priest guy wants a cup of lemonade, opens our iron gate and hands my 6-year-old 10 bucks.

“Keep the change,” he suggests.

I think he can’t or shouldn’t spare the change.  I don’t want it.

“No,” I say.
My son takes it.

The man sits down.  Dry white flakes fall from the wicker and settle under the chair.  He rambles about God and grad school days and then talks incoherently about God some more.  He flits and drones and eventually leaves.

I tell my son there are too many mosquitoes on the porch the next time he wants to sell lemonade. We wait out the doldrums indoors.  I say I’m scared of West Nile and for some reason he believes me.


Thanksgiving – the leaves rain from the crepe myrtle and cushion our walk. The guy’s cleric robe is grey at the hem from his constant pacing on the treeless sidewalk across the street.  Back and forth and back again – barefoot- he sucks an endless cigarette smoking out one last stand of mosquitos.  He is bald.

Someone yells something indiscernible from a car window.

He screams, “Don’t fuckin’ talk about Jesus fucking Christ like that.”

I slide on the hem of my yoga pants while racing to my window to see.

A woman walking by on the sidewalk asks him

“You O.K.?”

His face is soft and pink.  He smiles a gentle closed-mouth smile,

“Why do you ask?”

He takes a drag off his cigarette nub.  Leaves it between his lips, clasps his hands behind his back, bows his head, turns away and paces.


I’m thankful.

I’m warm




Cigarette smoke hangs over that damn porch across the street like a funky cloud of incense by mid-December.  A barefoot woman with a buzz cut chain smokes in union with him.  I don’t care for her. I really don’t like her being there adding to the haze.

Each Tuesday afternoon at two, after his social worker leaves and the Christian radio station stops preaching on his old boom box and starts playing music, he starts mass.

Every Tuesday he rises from his chair, takes his chalice and walks a few steps away from the porch.  Then he walks back, sits down and lights two cigarettes.  He hands one to the woman.  The two of them sit and smoke- inhaling and exhaling- synchronized for a couple of hours. This goes on for days – this ritual.

Then, she starts rising with him and holds a cup through each mass, following behind him.  She kneels in front of him at the porch and offers the cup.

She trades her jeans for a long dress and the processional lengthens.  Her buzz cut hair is now completely shorn. She’s bald like him.

They cross the street toward me.

I wonder if they can feel my eyes through the window pane.

My son asks me what I’m doing. I say I’m just drinking a cup of tea and tell him to go color in a book.

The next week they come even closer to my home during their processional. They cross the street to the sidewalk right in front of my house, then veer north until they land on the porch of the abandoned house next door to mine. They turn east, kneel together to pray.

I’m a little pissed by the audacity- the trespass.

I’m sure they feel me.  I’ve been staring too long, frozen in my turret window.

I shouldn’t or should look away? I look down.

I see the frayed hem on his robe.  I feel dirty.

My husband asks me what I did today.

Nothing, I say, nothing. Why can’t I say?


It’s a New Year, the beginning of the end of the end of the beginning, and he’s wearing black pants and a black leather jacket and she’s wearing a sweater and a short skirt, her hair is growing, and they’re walking arm-in-arm on the south end of town.   I’m in my minivan waiting for them to move it along at a crosswalk- no chalice at that cross. “Move,  fucking move,” I mutter.

“What Mommy?” says a little voice behind me.

Oh God, did I say that out loud?


Leap day he sits beside her empty chair.

The plastic seat cracked in the cold.

He’s in jeans

robeless, shoeless, sockless, shirtless


He looks toward my house.

I know he sees me

he feels me

sitting at the windows.


A crisp draft breathes at me from under a sill.

Snow dusts the tops of his feet.  He rises,

walks past my house

finally out of my sight.


When I go to meet my son at his bus stop, a neighbor asks if I know anything about a guy dressed like a priest. I shrug. She says the man paused to pace at this school bus stop at the corner of West Avenue and “what’s up with these creeps anyway? Has the whole world lost its mind?”  So she called the police, who followed his footprints down the sidewalk to our alley, into a snow-covered shed.


The man sat in the corner

with some feral cats and

rose peacefully when

they said “come.”

The silence he left is mine

to hear, the empty porch,

my desolation –

his footprints – an order

to witness this gentrification

I think- if it has a pretty,

rational name,  I will be safe from

this purgatory, predatory,

paranoid neighborhood watch.


Krista Genevieve Farris likes the liminality offered by a prolonged sit at a window.  She lives in the Shenandoah Valley with her husband and three sons. Krista has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Social Change from Indiana University and a BA in English and Anthropology from Albion College. Her recent writing can be found on the Brain,Mother blog, Gravel, Literary Mama, Cactus Heart, The Rain, Party and Disaster Society, The Literary Bohemian, The Screech Owl and elsewhere. Please visit her writer’s website – https://kristagenevievefarris.wordpress.com/


The Search for God at Radio City

The Search for God at Radio City

By Daisy Alpert Florin


I wanted them to have a sense of belonging that I had never had, to know who they were and to feel proud of being Jewish. But did that mean they couldn’t enjoy the Radio City Christmas Spectacular? 


We were in New York to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and my nine-year-old daughter was confused.

“Why are we going to a Christmas show when we’re not Christian?” Ellie asked me, twirling her penguin earring with two fingers.

I gripped her hand tightly as we made our way through the busy midtown streets. “It doesn’t matter if you celebrate Christmas or not,” I told her. “It’s just a fun thing to do.”

Before the show, we walked over to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Sam, Ellie’s older brother, was blunt: “Why are we here? We’re Jewish.” Later, her 5-year-old brother Oliver declined an invitation to sit on Santa’s lap at a pre-show luncheon. “We celebrate Hanukkah, remember?” he said, loud enough for our whole table to hear.

The show itself was pure Christmas kitsch: high-kicking Rockettes, dancing Santas and speeches about believing in the magic of Christmas. It was the visual equivalent of eating a bag of gummy bears, and I loved it.

On the ride home, I asked Ellie what she thought of the show.

She shrugged her shoulders. “I just don’t like how people make such a big deal about Christmas. There’s no show like that about Hanukkah. I mean, the only show I’ve ever been to that had anything to do with Hanukkah was at camp. It’s not fair.”

“That’s because Christian people dominate,” Sam said from the back seat. “If they made a show like that about Hanukkah, it would be a waste of money because no one would go.”

Ellie looked out the window, a pensive frown on her face. I sensed she was grappling with issues of identity that had been brought up by the winter holidays because just the week before she had been upset after visiting the school book fair.

“Did you know there were twelve books about Christmas and only four about Hanukkah?” she told me when she came home. Her eyes were bright behind her blue glasses.

I told her that Hanukkah is probably the only Jewish holiday the book fair would have any books about and that was most likely because of its chronological connection to Christmas. (This kind of nod to religious equality always annoyed me. I felt the same way when the school orchestra felt the need to play a Hanukkah song at its winter concert, and it was always the Dreidel song. “Thousands of years of history reduced to the Dreidel song,” I would gripe.) Plus, I said, in light of how many Jewish kids went to her public school, I thought four books was a lot.

“It shouldn’t matter how many people there are,” she said. “There are more girls than boys in the world but that doesn’t mean girls are treated any better than boys.”

I could tell she considered this an injustice, and who was I to tell her it wasn’t? If this was her nine-year-old version of identity politics, more power to her.

But it got me thinking about what it meant to raise Jewish children, especially at Christmas. Ellie’s nascent sense of persecution was not something I could relate to because I had grown up celebrating Christmas. I was raised by a Jewish father and a Swedish mother but was not really part of either culture; we didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays or speak Swedish. Neither of my parents was religious, so our version of Christmas included a tree, gingerbread house and stockings, not Jesus or the Virgin Mary. (Easter was much the same: no resurrection, just jelly beans.) My husband, Ken, had grown up in an observant Jewish family and when we got married, I converted to Judaism and stopped formally celebrating Christmas.

Ken and I wanted our children to feel connected to religion in a way neither of us had growing up. We wanted being Jewish to mean something to them so, from an early age, we encouraged them to self-identify as Jews and sent them to Hebrew school, Jewish preschool and Jewish camps. I wanted them to have a sense of belonging that I had never had, to know who they were and to feel proud of being Jewish. But did that mean they couldn’t enjoy the Radio City Christmas Spectacular? That was something I hadn’t considered.

When the kids were younger, they had asked lots of questions about Christmas, wondering why Santa Claus didn’t come to their house and why we couldn’t have a Christmas tree. What made it more confusing was learning that I had celebrated Christmas as a child. “You mean, you get to choose?” Sam asked me once.

I didn’t always know the best way to answer these questions because, to be honest, I was also grappling with what it meant to give up the traditions of my childhood. I had no model for celebrating Hanukkah so for a few years, I kind of winged it. But with time, I thought we had created Hanukkah traditions that were meaningful and joyous, while keeping the holiday in perspective. I never tried to make Hanukkah the “Jewish Christmas” because such comparisons felt phony to me. I wanted just being Jewish to be enough for them, and for me.

Now that the kids are older, they have accepted that we don’t celebrate Christmas and have a better understanding of their identities as Jews. But it seems that with that process has come a kind of hardening toward Christmas. Instead of viewing it with wonder, they see it as something they have to resist. If Ellie sees Christmas as an aggressive force that could lay bare her identity as an outsider, I could understand how watching the Christmas Spectacular—and her Jewish mother smiling and clapping along—could be destabilizing.

That feeling I could relate to. As a child, I had often been confused by my dual identity. I wasn’t really Christian or Jewish but somewhere—or perhaps nowhere—in between. I had wanted something different for my children which was why I had chosen to give them a strong religious identity, at least to start out with. But while I was able to embrace the parts of Christmas that weren’t religious, like Santa and the Rockettes, Ellie found this difficult because she was still understanding what it meant to be part of a religious minority. Maybe one day she would be able to enjoy the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, but today was not that day.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer and mother of three. Her essays and stories have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Kveller, Halfway Down the Stairs and Mamalode, among other publications. Visit her at www.daisyflorin.com.

Photo credit: nydailynews.com

Secret Baptisms and Other Forgivable Sins

Secret Baptisms and Other Forgivable Sins

By Monica Crumback

secretbaptimsMy daughter recently carried home that common curse of the preschooler—the fever virus. This made for a rough week and one particularly trying night. That evening, after doses of ibuprofen, she remained wet-headed, scarlet-cheeked, and pie-eyed with incomprehension. Her pink princess pajamas were wilted and sticky. My husband and I followed the temperature-taking schedule, and we planned for awful contingencies in worried whispers. When, at long last, we poured our sodden, spent girl into bed, I told her I’d ask Jesus to make her better. On hearing that, David’s eyes grew as wide as our daughter’s.

Although the face of a famous, long-haired bearded guy hangs in a state of perpetual laughter just above our daughter’s bed, our little house rather distinctly lacks a direct line to his ear. In truth, we’d never thought to have one connected. It’s not that we’re not good people, decent people, moral people, Christian … well, I guess we can’t claim that last one. Until we had Sophia, this was barely a point of consciousness for us.

Very early in my pregnancy, my mother-in-law gave me the gift of a hooded baby towel. It was lovely and soft and yellow. We didn’t know yet if Sophia was to be herself or our would-have-been boy, Henry. My mother-in-law is etiquette-savvy and always quite carefully appropriate in matters like color-to-gender agreement. She was also, on this day, careful to tuck a tiny pamphlet (brochure? mini-manifesto?) on raising one’s child in Christ into the fold of the towel. I remember seeing it, discreetly pretending not to have seen it, and covering it again with great haste. Oh my, I thought. Already?

In fairness to my mother-in-law, she had already cut me a good deal of slack in the Christ-Her-Lord category. When I met David at a Lutheran college, I was in the infancy of my feminism. He was studying to be a pastor. As our relationship became serious, we reconsidered our circumstances and remade our choices. We were still very nice young people when we left, just a lot more liberal and a lot less Lutheran.

We were married three years later before a judge. Four years after that, David became a lawyer. The transition was jarring for his mother in some ways but not so bad in others. Sure, a pastor for a son may seat you closer to the altar, but a lawyer impresses the ladies at the potluck. So slack was cut—until we had Sophia.

She was born in the usual way—meaning a horrible, extended, botched, vacuum-assisted hospital delivery. Her reception by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends was also standard in its statements of joy and its pronouncements of her being a miracle. I accepted all of this and even agreed. Babies, before they become sleep-depriving, nipple-biting, in-hair-puking monsters, seem quite miraculous indeed, even to a skeptic like me. We named her Sophia Bella, and it seemed to stick well enough without the meeting of water with forehead.

Well enough for us, that is. As I have since learned, once a baby emerges from one’s vagina, she enters not just the world but a family, lying in wait. Ah, sweet child, may the wind be always at your back.

We brought our baby home. She grew and thrived. Sure, David and I were both working at least two jobs apiece, but Sophia was warm, clean, and clothed (color-appropriately, I feel moved to add). I was breastfeeding to the absolute exclusion of bottles (she refused to take one). Months passed.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, secret discussions commenced amongst the female contingent of my husband’s family. By all measures, we were doing right by Sophia physically. But what about her soul? They may have even said her immortal soul. I don’t have a transcript to reference. The exact wording doesn’t really matter. What they proposed to do, according to our well-placed in-law source, was baptize our child behind our backs. Yikes and Holy Shit indeed (even though they would really mind my saying that). The heathen mother is always the last to know.

The news that a clandestine sprinkling had been in the works came to me secondhand via my angry husband, and the fury that immediately overtook me was, well … Biblical in scale. I think I was angry mostly because I should have seen it coming. There had been clues. My husband had, after all, been studying to be a pastor in no small part to please his mother with whom he had always had a complicated relationship. Sophia’s yellow towel had, after all, come with a pamphlet directing us steeple ward for guidance. Up until this point, we had been, to our minds, indulgent of their many hints and nudges meant to get us back to God. When his aunt presented us with a beautiful, if entirely inappropriate, handmade christening gown, I believe we even succeeded in passing off our stunned silence as speechless awe. We had been told she was buying us a swing. A secret baptism, though? I mean, Jesus!

It’s not as if my husband and I had never thought of baptism. This was way too sticky a subject to have simply slipped our minds. Growing up as we did in families that practiced Christianity—to varying degrees—we still spun toward it when the going got harrowing. That’s exactly where I’d been spun by exhaustion and a raging case of oh-God-no the night of my daughter’s fever. My pious promise to Sophia surprised my husband. We are often amused at this ability of ours to be born again and then perish (so to speak) in five minutes flat. We find these moments to be seldom and fleeting and fun. They probably also point to the inappropriateness of either or both of us ever having thought of entering a parsonage.

But the thought of that secret baptism was in no way amusing. After all the years of treading lightly through a fraught relationship with David’s family, this was the moment when it all collapsed, when we couldn’t help but think our position as parents was in danger of being usurped. The night we found out, I watched David pacing the floor, saying, “This is it” over and over again with deep conviction and watery eyes. I stayed mostly silent, slouched on the couch, chin in hand. I had little left to say; I’d run out of bravado. That was the worst moment, thinking about their disregard for our wishes for Sophia, the disrespect for our skills as her parents, and the betrayal of our beliefs in how to raise her.

The next day, we were all over the place. Being too weary at breakfast, we didn’t even bring it up. By lunchtime, though, we had revived and were having a good laugh, picturing the family matrons gathered around a mixing bowl in the dark with our daughter, a shameless pastor, and a teaspoon full of water. But then dinner rolled around, and we were back at “This is it.” “It” as in “They will never lay eyes on our girl again!”

And then, right before bedtime, we watched Sophia as she listened to her grandparents’ voices on the phone. She was beaming and squealing and, well, loving them.

Well, damn it.

But could we just let this slide? Could we, really, when there was already so much residual tension over our having jumped off the pastoral track and gotten married in a courtroom instead of a church? Or would there now be open bitterness and derision between us and people we loved and who we knew loved us and our new daughter? People we had always known we had disagreements with? No. It would be a lie to say that we never thought of using this last straw as a fuse, enabling us to finally blow apart a difficult relationship. We did think about it, but we could never quite bring ourselves to light it. As uncertain as I am about where I stand in relation to Christianity or what it represents, I am positive about where I stand in regard to going through life with suspicion and malice.

My dad’s parents died long before I was born, so I always had only the one set of grandparents. I’m sure my mom’s parents did their best, but they couldn’t be four people. Sophia had the full complement, and I wanted her to know them all. She was a lucky girl. Really, I still thought so. And so did my husband, who was carrying a lot of heavy love for every single person in the wretched scenario. Besides, try as we might, we couldn’t imagine an instance in which saying, Just where the hell do you get off? would make us better parents. So we didn’t say it.

As far as I knew, David’s mother had no idea that we were wise to her scheming-for-salvation ways—and still hasn’t. They don’t really make a pamphlet that says, So you were thinking of secretly baptizing my child, huh?—nor is there really an appropriate occasion on which to hand her a towel with said pamphlet tucked inside. With no subtle way to tell her to back off, we simply chose not to.

Even so, I will admit that this isn’t exactly a bygone. My husband and I simply limit our rants, which are more seldom of late, to our own private audience of two. Of course, there is a slight chance that someone in the extended family may find out we know about The Plan. If that is the case, I will say simply, Yes, we know, and when will we see you next for dinner?

Our way of coping was to make our choices and stick by them. While we’re not ashamed of the clay we come from, we of little faith still revel in our freedom to choose different, fresher, more philosophical, and less sanctified material from which to form our daughter. Sophia is four years old now, and, yes, a print of Jesus hangs in her room. It had been a gift from David to his grandmother, a deeply religious woman, to help her through the death of her husband. When she died, it was returned to us, and Sophia asked to have it in her room.

Why not? Our little girl understands Jesus as living in the sky and loving her and everyone else. She understands much the same about the Buddha, Allah, and Vishnu, to name just a few. She has passed long hours in her short life flipping through her father’s old religion texts to admire the big, bright pictures. Nowadays, this activity often brings up questions that combined sound like this: Why is he crying or dying, blue or bleeding, wearing that or naked, glowing or burning? We answer when we know and consult the text when we don’t. This is good enough for now. We are doing our best to give her a childhood filled with choices. Later, she’ll be at liberty to add her own finer details, like churches and sacraments, whatever her development and tastes should indicate. And while we can’t predict later, we will always tell her that she is loved, loved, loved. And that love, even when it stumbles, presumes, and conspires, is itself divine.

Author’s Note: A while ago, during a visit with his parents, David and I inadvertently overheard his aunt telling his mother that she had missed an opportunity to “get Sophia to church.” She had been on speakerphone when she said it, obviously not realizing that we were there, too. David quickly boomed a “Hello!” to his aunt. The subsequent look between him and his mother might have been hilarious had it not been so painful.

To the best of my knowledge, Sophia remains unbaptized to this very day. This is something I am neither proud nor ashamed of—it’s a mere fact. Her dad and I agree that should she one day choose to be baptized, we’ll be there, front pew center. I’ll even leave a space for her grandmother.

Monica Crumback lives in Michigan with her husband, daughter, and three cats.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

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The Shema and I

The Shema and I

By Jessica Bram

WO The Sherma ArtWhen I was twelve my mother gave me an instruction that was to stay with me in a most annoying way for the rest of my life.  I was waiting at an airline gate about to take my first plane flight alone, thrilled at the prospect of my first experience at air travel and this undeniable leap toward adulthood.

Finally, the door to the ramp whooshed open.  This was it.  As I stepped forward to board my mother, who had been standing quietly at my side, turned toward me.

Her face was unusually serious.  “As the plane is about to take off,” she said, looking at me intently, “I want you to say the Shema.”

This caught me by surprise.  Although my mother lit Shabbat candles most Friday nights, and attended High Holy Day services each year, I did not think of her as a particu­larly pious person.  Hebrew prayers were not something commonly invoked in our day-to-day life.  Yet here she was instructing me to say the most sacred declaration in the entire Jewish liturgy—not only an affirmation of the sovereignty of God, but also, an explicit statement of the existence of one and only one God, thereby defining Jew as apart from Christian.  It was proclaimed at every service: “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.”  Accompanied by a full throttle organ blast of major chords, Shema never failed to induce a huge shiver like icicles coursing down my shoulders as the congregation sang out, each word almost its own triumphant declaration: “Shema! Yisrael! Adonai! Elohenu! Adonai! Echod!”

I was impressed.  Did air travel really merit a gesture so profound?

It occurred to me then that my mother’s command might have had less to do with reverence than supersti­tion.  My mother was of that genera­tion for which air travel was still regarded as somewhat perilous.  When she had stuffed quarters into the flight insurance dispenser in the terminal earlier, I was quite certain she was aiming for insurance of a different kind.  To ward off “the evil eye,” no doubt, and deliver me safely.  In any case, I imagined her thinking, it couldn’t hurt.

Even at age twelve I could recite the Shema from memory. But I had learned it in the unlikeli­est of places: Girl Scouts.  I had been chosen as one of three, along with a Catholic and a Protestant girl, to recite our respective religion’s prayers at the opening of a huge convoca­tion of Girl Scouts and Scout leaders from the Greater New York area.  So I had the odd experi­ence of pro­claiming the Shema aloud for the first time before a microphone and few thousand Girl Scouts, mostly Christian.

I did not forget my mother’s instructions as the plane, engines roaring, began its acceleration down the runway.  At the very moment of that heart-stopping miracle in which a huge machine lifted into the air, I obediently whispered a quick Shema.  And then turned my attention to the astounding first sight of tiny cars crawling along slim, winding ribbons of highway; of perfect squares of green and rust laid out like a giant, undulating checker­board; and most breath­taking of all, the sudden surprise of rising through grey mist to a blindingly bright blue sky above a snowy floor—the most perfect depiction of heaven I could ever imagine.  Now this, if anything, spoke to me of God.  Not an ancient Hebrew prayer that reminded me mostly of our great stone synagogue with its worn velvet seats.

Over the years, as I grew older and air travel became commonplace to me, the Shema had a habit of popping into my head at that very moment in which the plane’s wheels lifted off the runway.   To be perfectly honest this became, more often than not, irritating.  I meant no disrespect for this sacred declaration.  But when flying to Mexico on college break with not much more than a bikini and a bottle of Bain de Soleil; or off on my honeymoon in Paris; or even, during my young banker days, when flying to Pitts­burgh with a pile of annual reports on my lap, the last thing I wanted to think about was religion, or four thousand years of rabbis in black coats.  Least of all did I want to be reminded of martyrs of the Middle Ages uttering the Shema with their last breaths before being burned at the stake.  But there it was, every time: the Shema.  Seeming almost to utter itself with some odd power of its own.  And suddenly I would become, once again, the obedient daughter. A Good Jewish Girl—dutiful, reverent, and chaste.  It has been that way ever since.

My first born son David was eleven when he flew alone for the first time, to Space Camp in Florida.  At the airline gate, neither of us spoke as David waited to board.  Ostentatious­ly noncha­lant, David scarcely glanced out the large observation window onto the runway, as though air travel was nothing unusual to him.

Should I do it?  I wondered.  Should I tell him to say it?  I wasn’t the slightest bit supersti­tious. But, well—it couldn’t hurt.  And it was tradition, after all.  I hesitated, and then reconsidered. Should I burden David with this annoying instruc­tion for the rest of his life?

I was caught in a small panic of indecision as the plane was called to board.  It was now or never.  Maybe I should just tell him.

I took a breath.  No.  Let him think about Space Camp, and adventure, and the view out his window.  Boy stuff.  Not religion.

With barely a “Bye, Mom,” David stepped out the door to the tarmac where a row of gleaming airplanes waited in the distance.  A flight attendant at his side, David walked briskly toward the farthest plane, which seemed to grow larger as they approached it.  And then, as David’s figure became smaller and smaller, a strange kind of reversal in time took place.  David seemed before my eyes to change back from confident almost-teenager to small boy to toddler, and then to that baby boy whom I once never let out of my sight.

And then I understood.  It hadn’t been superstition at all that had been in my mother’s mind when she told me to say the Shema.  It was the knowledge that she had that day been putting me in the hands of her God, entrust­ing me to His safekeeping.  Deliver­ing me not only to the sky, but to this first step toward adulthood and that inexorable journey away from her.  The words of the Shema—her words, but spoken by me—were the link of their hands as I passed from one to Another.

The small black speck that was my son disappeared into the plane.  I remained at the window, and the words came easily.  Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echod.

Jessica Bram is a writer, radio commentator and author of Happily Ever After Divorce: Notes of a Joyful Journey (Health Communications, Inc. 2009). She teaches at Westport Writers’ Workshop, which she founded in 2003.



Losing My Religion, Looking For Our Faith

Losing My Religion, Looking For Our Faith

By Kristen Levithan

levithanWhen my husband and I first started dating in college, the subject of religion came up all the time. We stayed up late, chatting in his dorm room over Wawa subs and barbecue potato chips about how he—a Conservative Jew, the son of a rabbi—and I—a lapsed Catholic—could ever get married. How could we pull off a wedding? And what would we do about the kids?—children then as theoretical to us as our upcoming art history exam was real. How would they answer the question, “What are you?”

For a while, I thought the only choice was a binary one: as a couple, we would have to pick a side. So for the next few years I learned more about Judaism. I memorized the rituals of Shabbat, the motzi over the challah, and the choral songs his family would sing during the Seder, fists pounding on the dining room table in time to the music. I agreed to keep a kosher kitchen. But the more I considered conversion, the more I realized it wasn’t the right answer for me or for us. I didn’t really feel like a Catholic anymore, but I didn’t feel Jewish either.

In time our reservations about an interfaith marriage gave way to the force of our years together and our youthful optimism that we could make it work. After considering ways to make our wedding ceremony reflect both of our traditions, we decided to dedicate our celebration to one religion we had in common: our love of words. We stood before our family and friends and shared original vows and selections from poetry and literature. There was no priest, rabbi, or cantor, but there were Jane Austen, Matthew Arnold, and Sappho and promises to love and nurture each other come what may.

As well as our wedding went, the idea of starting a family dredged up those dorm room conversations. When I became pregnant and my belly started to swell with the promise of our oldest son, we sketched out an approach: our child would be neither Jewish nor Christian from birth. There would be no bris and no baptism. But we would make it our duty to expose our kids to the rituals of both of our traditions. We would celebrate holidays with our families and teach our kids the stories that are central to each. And, above all, we would do our best to create a home for them in which the religious values that we cherished—love, community, wonder—would be honored. And then, eventually, if and when they wanted to, they could choose a path for themselves.

For the first few years of our kids’ lives, our plan hummed right along. Living in a rural Ohio town hundreds of miles away from our families, we often traveled to be with them on holidays and those occasions reinforced the values we’d hoped they would. Our boys, especially our oldest son, seemed to know that they were different somehow from the other kids at their Nazarene preschool, but I’m not sure that their religious differences ever felt all that much more weighty than the other differences that feel important to a preschooler, like favorite baseball team or favorite Avenger.

Earlier this year we moved to a New England community that is much more religiously diverse than the Ohio one we left. Instead of a Nazarene preschool, our youngest two go to a Jewish one and our oldest to a public school where his own religious hodgepodge—an atheist dad, an agnostic mom, a kosher home—seems the norm rather than the exception. In many ways, we are perfectly placed to raise our kids to come to their own answers to the question, “What are you?”

Last month, though, something happened that shook my certainty that we have got this interfaith thing all figured out. Someone dear to us—really more family than friend—died. He was the first person that my kids knew well who had passed away and it’s clear that his death shook them. Since then our four year old has been asking many of the Big Questions: “Am I going to die?” “How old will I be when you die?” “After I die, will I get better again?” Our oldest has responded with occasional tears mixed with long, lingering hugs, as though he doesn’t have the words to express how he’s feeling, but wants physical reassurance that’s he still here—that it will all be okay.

And therein lies my worry about raising our children outside of either of our religious traditions: without faith, how will they know that it will, indeed, all be okay?

I don’t think of myself as a religious person anymore; I’m not even sure I still believe in God. But I do have a sense of inner security honed, I think, through an early commitment to religious practice. I grew up with a traditional religious education: I went to Catholic school for nine years and went to church every Sunday until college, loving the rituals and the singing, the candles and the community. I was never sold on the dogma—on transubstantiation, the ascension, the Holy Trinity—but I believed in a benevolent God and I prayed to Him every night before bed. I asked Him to protect me, to look after my family. And—it seemed—he did.

Now I’m raising my kids in a world filled with entropy—where good men die too young, where people hurt children and kids say mean things on the playground—and I’m doing it without offering them the same blanket of safety that my faith gave me. I’m giving my children a pick-and-choose experience of religion, but by letting them pick what they like and ignoring the rest, will they ever experience the greatest gift that religion gave me: the faith that, to paraphrase Julian of Norwich, all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well? Without religious practice, how can I make my children feel safe?

I’m not sure that I know the answer, but I suspect the best I can do is to borrow a page from our wedding planning playbook: start with love and go from there.

Kristen Levithan writes about motherhood, women’s history, and mother-writers for print and online publications. Currently at work on a non-fiction book about writers who were also mothers, Kristen lives in New England with her husband and three children and offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog, Motherese.

Read Kristen’s essay in This is Childhood, a book and journal on the first ten years of motherhood.

Losing My Religion

Losing My Religion


doubtWhen my son lost his innocence in the back seat of our beat-up Volvo station wagon, I never dreamed he’d take me down with him. I’m not talking about his virginity–he’s only eight. I’m talking about the Big Guy in the red suit.

“Come on, Mom,” he said one afternoon in the dwindling days of the year, having just observed that everything Santa had brought fit perfectly, was the right color, and had appeared item for item on his wish list, all without benefit of a single flake of snow falling to the ground. “It’s you and Dad, isn’t it? It just doesn’t make sense the other way.”

No, it doesn’t make sense, not by the time you’re in the second grade. I swallowed, met his glance in the rearview mirror, and bravely gave my little speech. Santa was something his father and I did as a present, a little magic at a dark time of the year, a lark, not a lie. After a few more questions (did we actually pay for all that stuff? we went to the store and just bought it all for him and his brother?) and a few bittersweet seconds of silence, he put his hands over his ears and wailed, “Am I going to be able to forget about this by next Christmas?”

It’s hard watching your firstborn reach the Age of Reason.

From there, of course, the clock was ticking on the whole childhood fantasy trip. “Easter Bunny?” he mouthed at me at breakfast a few mornings later when his little brother was distracted dissecting an orange. I made a slashing motion across my throat. “Tooth fairy?” he asked a couple of nights after that as I was shooing him into bed. “Sorry, dude.” Would he still get the money when his teeth fell out, he wanted to know. Yes, he’d still get the money.

“Anything else?” he said, a little sharply, pulling up the covers. I did a quick mental survey of all the unmagical truths he still has to uncover on his own: that his father sneaks cigarettes late at night on the back patio, that the Red Sox might never win the World Series, that there’s very little we can do to keep him truly safe in the world. “No,” I said. “That’s it. I swear.”

That’s not true, though. There is another Big Guy who’s taking the fall in our house these days, the one who wears white robes: God. As I watched my son parry and counter and feint and finally attack the Santa story head-on, I was trying to impose some logic on my own perception of the world, but coming up short every time.

The stories that tripped me up weren’t about elves or reindeer or nighttime circumnavigation of the globe, but news stories, mother stories, stories so unimaginable to me as a parent that they hit the brain and bounced off again, rejected, before burrowing in deep.

Stories like the Bosnian woman forced onto her hands and knees by soldiers and raped repeatedly in front of her children before being burned alive along with them. Stories like the Kurdish mothers, one gassed by Iraqi helicopters along with her family, who all die from the poison; another who watches from the window of an ancient, overcrowded prison as wild dogs tear apart the body of her six-year-old son. The starving Afghani couple, unable to get their extended family across a freezing mountain pass, who finally decide to abandon their young children in favor of their elderly parents.

And that’s not even counting the stateside stories, the planes and the towers, the children abducted or abused or drowned by their own mothers or left to die the most trivial kind of death in a hot car in a beauty-salon parking lot.

Are all these suffering people bad? The Croatians, the Kurds, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Rwandans, the New Yorkers–are they being punished? And the people who live in my town, many of them my friends, with the Land Rovers and the leg waxes, horses in the barn and granite in the kitchen and money in the bank (real money, not the stock-option kind), are they good? Or is it rather that everything that happens to us is just fucking dumb luck?

Where is God in all of this? Truly, for the first time in my life, I can’t say, not for sure.

Call it the Age of Reason, Part II. Just as my son had no choice but to admit, finally, that you can’t make brand-name toys in the vast void of the Arctic and that mammals don’t fly more than fifteen feet at a pop, I can’t stop wondering if God isn’t just a childish response to the staggering random cruelty of the world. Sing along, everyone: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good . . . ” I am afraid I know already how this story ends, in the back seat of a car with your hands over your ears, trying to forget.

Believe me, this is not where I expected to be in the middle of my life. I’ve always thought of myself as a “rowing toward God” kind of girl, to borrow a phrase from the poet Anne Sexton, someone who would naturally grow closer to God in a more intense and personal way as an adult. And certainly motherhood upped the religious ante for me, with its miscarriages and forceps deliveries and those woozy first few hours postpartum, the holiest times of my life, when pain and joy and Percoset and pure gratitude toward the Almighty course in equal cc’s through the veins.

But now? Only the shock of suddenly coming up empty-handed, or maybe more exactly, empty-hearted. It’s lonely with no God to be grateful toward, it’s disheartening to think there might not be justice any more divine than what we get right here and now, and it hurts me to admit that I’m not the best person to be answering my own children’s existential questions, not right now at least.

To be specific: Santa Boy’s little brother, a dreamy, philosophical four-year-old, wants the lowdown on the Higher Power–how does God know we’re being good? Can he see? Does he have eyes? What color? And most urgently, if God loves him, why won’t God pick up his bicycle and drop it down in the library parking lot so he doesn’t have to pedal all that way himself?

On and on it goes, with me thinking guiltily of the parenting books that brightly encourage readers to “State your values!” to their offspring. What if your values are nothing but a big muddy mess at the moment? After a chat session with his mom, my poor kid is left thinking of God as some combination of Mother Nature, Lady Luck, and the Statue of Liberty who watches impassively as we scurry over the face of the Earth like bugs.

This is not good. I leave him for now to the safety of his Episcopal preschool, with its easy-to-take, Jesus-loves-me-that-I-know catechism.

My own catechism is a bit more of a problem. I know I need to read the believers and the doubters and the born-agains and the late converts, sift through Bonhoeffer and Freud and Lewis and Merton and Nietzsche and Pascal and work through all this. And I know I’m not the first person on the planet to have these doubts: Humans have tortured and murdered one another, and people have questioned the existence of God, since the world began.

As my friend Walter (cultural Jew, current atheist, practicing Unitarian, former philosophy professor, father of two) diplomatically puts it, my big spiritual crisis is completely trite by even undergraduate standards. What’s more, he points out, only those who once believed in a personal, intercessionary kind of God can mourn his absence. So I might think about choosing a new religion altogether on the premise that my problem isn’t with God but Christianity and its insistence on a sympathetic, human divinity.

Of course, I could give up religion altogether. History is filled with examples of intelligent, ethical people who lived lives of moral human decency without believing in a greater power. But then I’d have to give up the New Testament stories that I really do love, and I’m not ready for that, any more than my son wants to stop listening for the sound of hoofs on the roof.

The nativity is one hell of a good story, whether you’re a believer or not–the frightened, unwed, pregnant teenager, the angel at the door, the bureaucracy, the poverty, the animals, the shepherds, the star. My sons’ birthdays bookend the Yuletide, so I spent Christmas one year sitting in the pew on a pile of stitches with a tiny newborn in my arms and another, a few years later, being viciously kicked in the ribs by a fully grown nine-month fetus. It’s hard not to feel a little closer to donkey-riding, stable-birthing Mary–the woman or the myth–after you’ve had a few babies yourself.

From there, it’s not a big leap to internalize Mary’s anguish as the grieving mother of a torture victim. And, weirdly, it’s that image that finally offers me some sort of temporary peace as I agonize for the women of the world and all the pain they endure watching their children suffer and die, suffer and die, over and over.

It seems that when it happens, you can go mad, you can kill yourself, or you can try to change the world in your child’s memory. So maybe Mary, always annoyingly painted as the quiet, uncomplaining woman in blue at Jesus’s feet, maybe Mary chose the last option. Maybe Christianity started not with an unbelievable rising from the dead but with a mother’s entirely understandable search for meaning in her son’s murder. Think about it: Mary as the first Million Mom marcher, the prototypical Mother Against Drunk Driving, the godmother of victim’s rights.

So what if religion is nothing more than a way for mothers to insist some good come of their children’s suffering, a way for humanity to pay respect to the fierce human spirits that have gone before us? That’s enough. I don’t know about God, but mother power? That’s one story that still works for me.

Author’s Note: This piece is a complete departure from anything I have published before. Usually I work fast and funny (or try for it, anyway). This one took about eight months of almost continuous rewrites, and I was at least partly miserable the whole time. Curiously, now that it’s done, I feel better, as though God and I had a big fight and cleared the air. Who knows. As Anne Sexton says in the last line of her poem, “This story ends with me still rowing.”

Brain, Child (Winter 2003)

Art by Elizabeth Hannon

Beltane Flowers

Beltane Flowers

Beltane FlowersBy Brit St. Claire

I didn’t know there would be so many flowers. Flowers line the tables, bubble from vases, and encircle handmade crowns in pearly explosions. Later, there will be a giant maypole studded with blossoms like jewels.

Beltane is an ancient Gaelic festival. It was my first pagan celebration. For several years I’d wanted to meet people in this alternative spiritual community. But I didn’t start making an effort until giving birth to my son eleven months ago. His birth awakened in me a spiritual restlessness that had been lingering in the periphery of my mind.

My search led me to the Craft and Wicca, which is a relatively new nature religion, reconstructed from old British-pagan witchcraft traditions. I’ve pursued these subjects from the comfortable silence of what’s known in the neo-pagan world as the “broom closet,” and I’ve become hopelessly intrigued. Hopelessly because, although society has come a long way from burning suspected witches in the town square, witchcraft in general is still mostly misunderstood and feared. I don’t know anyone else who shares my interest.

I’ve always prefaced my studies behind a wall of vague mainstream-religious skepticism. I’m unsure of how to discuss the extent of my spiritual wandering with Christian family members and reluctant to step into what I imagine could be blinding glares of judgment.

There’s also the matter of my son. The little being that inspired my search for spirituality is the one I worry about the most. I don’t know what I will share with him about my quest, how it led me to a group of witches. I can barely explain it to myself.

My husband Jim*—now an atheist—and I were raised with Christianity, which we have both left behind. We have to create our own roadmap of where and how to guide our son spiritually, and that process is evolving. We know we want to educate him about various world religions, to nurture a sense of God in nature, to teach compassion for others, and an appreciation for science. Ultimately we want him to choose his way for himself.

Stereotypes about Wicca are triggered by the vocabulary involved: witch, coven, magick, spells. These words conjure creepy Hollywood images of pointy black hats, bubbling cauldrons, and warts, or teenage misfits who turn to Satanism (which, to clarify, is a direct rebellion against Christianity and not related to Wicca).

The actual definitions and purposes of these terms are surprisingly simple. A spell can be described as a focused prayer with visualization and props, such as herbs and candles, which are thought to lend energy and focus intent. A pretty good definition of magick is the movement of energy directed by the will toward a goal. The idea is not to cultivate power over others—magick should never be used to control another person, but only over your own self. The concept of karma is a close relative.

Several Wiccan concepts are beliefs I hold firmly, beliefs I held before discovering they are also embraced by Wicca. Things I would teach my son anyway: find divinity within the self and nature; practice meditation for strength and balance; spirituality is individual, personal; don’t proselytize, but help others less fortunate anyway; examine your intentions; harm none; feel free to view a symbol like “God” or “Goddess” as just that: a representation of a creative life force energy we can’t possibly understand.

When I get past my own misconceptions, I find nothing to fear in these earth-based practices of spirituality. They are mystically compelling. They invite me to tune in to myself and my surroundings, as though the universe itself were tapping on my shoulder with a secret—if only I would listen.

That’s why I’ve come to Beltane tonight. I’m ready to listen, to find what’s right for me. I’ve pursued my interest in the Craft cautiously, one crumb at a time, like Hansel and Gretel finding their way home through the for- est. And so far, instead of leading me to an ugly, wart-nosed witch hungry for my flesh, it has led me here, to this local Wiccan coven’s celebration of spring fertility—Beltane—in a room bursting with flowers.

In spite of overcoming some doubt, my reservations still followed me here.

Everyone in the coven house bustles, chattering and laughing, but I hold back. I remind myself about the reassuring meeting I had with the high priestess and priest, who met me for coffee before I decided to attend tonight’s open Beltane ritual. They were delightfully normal, friendly, and thorough, answering my flood of questions with warmth and patience. But still, I wondered, what if my positive impression of the group were crushed? What if they do something bizarre? Maybe they’d sacrifice a chicken. Maybe the ritual would end with everyone getting naked. I was reassured—with amusement—this is not that kind of group.

I recall Jim’s joking, yet half-serious words of caution before I left him and our son home for the evening.

“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” he’d said.

Snarky comments are usually a welcome part of our banter, but I flinched at this. I was somebody’s mother now; what business did I have gallivanting off to spend precious time with a group of witches?

I police the room for suspicious activity, but the atmosphere insists on festivity. The crowd is dressed with surprising diversity; some folks are bedecked in Renaissance-style costumes while others wear jeans and casual tops. Several elementary-age girls frolic around like spring fairies in white dresses and flowered headbands.

Watching them, intrigued, I think about my own childhood experience with Christian Lutheranism. Churches that were somehow at once stuffy and over air-conditioned; long, boring sermons; the tranquil yet somewhat ominous tones of the pastors which instilled both calm and fear in the parishioners; the focus on sin and redemption, forgiveness, and judgment, which so often led to an emotional and spiritual roller coaster from which I quietly disembarked so long ago. It had been years since I let go of my childhood religion, with its powerful concepts of hell and Satan. Still, those images and the fear they fostered are about as easy to shake off as head lice. And despite how far from Christianity I’ve gravitated, alarm sluices through me when I notice a man at Beltane wearing what appears to be a headband with horns.

Until, staring at this horned man, I remind myself that these horns symbolize the pagan god of the hunt, a positive image of strength and fertility, not the dark, better known Christian villain. In fact, there is no “devil” figure in Wiccan symbology.

While a small part of me continues to analyze the room, looking for some- thing objectionable enough for me to abandon all this nonsense, I will myself to relax. When I do, my hypersensitive mental radar registers nothing more negative than my own anxiety, picking up instead on an infectious sense of cheer and goodwill emanating from this group of people who happen to identify as witches. Maybe it’s simply difficult to keep worrying about rejection and hell- fire in the face of so many flowers.

When the crowd is called to order, several coven members welcome every- one and begin to speak about the evening. When my gaze lands on a familiar face, it takes a full minute to absorb. I blink in surprise as a memory snakes through my mind: a dinner at Whole Foods, one of my husband’s friends from law school—is that him?

Couldn’t be, I think. Must be some- one who looks like him. But when the man is introduced as one of tonight’s ritual leaders, the name is the same one I remember. Kevin*, attorney-at-law, friend of my husband’s, respectable and functional member of society, appears to be a witch.

Flabbergasted and delighted, I can hardly keep from leaping over the crowd to say hello. It’s not the right time; ritual is about to start.

We venture into the night, following a tea-light studded path, winding around a grove of trees to the ritual space. Flowers blanket the circle. A large sculpture of blossoms stands behind the altar, upon which a Goddess statue appears to have been caught dancing in a shower of petals. Sweet incense perfumes the humid air. I wouldn’t be surprised if a fairy landed on my shoulder.

The priestess and priest of the evening speak, representing the god and goddess, forces of nature and the seasons. They engage in a poetic, dramatic exchange: winter is checking out, summer is arriving, and now is a time of fertility, they explain.

I wonder what the kids in the group are thinking, and what their lives are like. Are they bored standing here in the circle, the way I used to be during sermons? Or do they enjoy the feel of the cool grass beneath their feet, the breeze gently brushing their cheeks, moonlight peeking over a cloud overhead? Do they tell their friends that their moms and dads are witches? And if they do, how often are they greeted with acceptance? How often with scorn? What about Halloween—do these kids go trick-or-treating along with celebrating Samhain, the ancient Gaelic ancestor- honoring harvest festival that most Neo- pagans recognize today?

And how many parents here practice this spirituality in private, quietly excluding their kids?

What would I do?

During the ritual, we are encouraged to think about goals we want to manifest this summer, and then we jump over a bonfire at the center of the circle in an old Beltane custom to invoke blessings and abundance. I hold back at first, worried about my jeans catching fire, but Kevin grabs my hand, and we jump together. I feel the fire’s heat on my feet and legs, then the cooler wind sweeping over my face and through my hair. As we sail over the yellow flames, it’s as though we are literally leaping into summer. I can’t help but laugh with exhilaration. Next we raise energy, clap- ping our hands and singing, faster and faster, finally lifting our hands overhead in release. It’s a strange, but satisfying activity.

In the silence that follows, under the dark sky and bright moon, I think about where I am in life and what I want to accomplish, enjoying this aspect of the ritual. I can’t deny a sense of detachment as well; the theatrical component makes me feel like I’ve been involved in some kind of interactive Medieval play rather than a genuine spiritual experience. Maybe group ritual isn’t for me. Or maybe fewer verbal theatrics, or getting to know the people here, would make a group experience like this more meaningful. I simply don’t know yet.

After the ritual we move to a field next to the circle space. While singing and performing a weaving dance, several couples wind long thick ribbons around a tall, flowered maypole the size of a tree trunk, as everyone sings— naked. Kidding. This really isn’t that kind of group.

A potluck feast is next, so everyone heads back to the house. Plates of food appear and cups of homemade mead are poured.

When I spot Kevin, I make my way through the crowd, wondering if he’ll recognize me. We only met that once at dinner, and I spent most of the meal walking around with the baby.

After we exchange pleasantries, Kevin says he did remember me: “When I saw you I was like, oh shit.”

We laugh, and I’m happy to know I’m not the only one paranoid about being found out. “If you don’t want me to tell Jim I saw you, I won’t,” I say, although I’m thinking Oh please let me tell him! My husband is supportive of my finding a spiritual practice that works for me and open to discussions about what I’m studying, but he’s still suspicious of the Craft. Learning that one of his own friends—someone he respects—is involved would be nothing short of a revelation.

“Oh, you can tell him. I generally try to keep all this on the down low at work, though.”

I nod knowingly and ask him if he’s out of the proverbial broom closet with family and friends. He tells me most of his friends know, but while his family might suspect, he hasn’t directly informed them, instead deciding it would be better for them to know and love him without worrying about the fate of his soul. I also learn that Kevin’s spouse isn’t pagan but attends rituals once in a while.

A young woman with a pixie cut, Lena, joins the conversation, and my curiosity is piqued when I learn she has a young child. Tall and slender, with short curly hair, Lena has calm green eyes and a long, graceful neck. She works as a research analyst. With a laugh, she waves away the idea of anyone judging her spiritual choices. I ask if her family and friends know, and she tells me that in fact they do. With a laugh, she says something like, “My mom thought I was crazy at first, but I think she’s starting to come around a little.”

During the conversation I also learn that Lena does bring her daughter to circle once in awhile, although her plan—like mine—is to let the child ultimately choose her own path.

I can’t help but notice that Lena and Kevin—both intelligent, friendly, self- assured, funny—embody the opposite of any negative witch or Wiccan stereotype I’ve encountered (think Fairuza Balk from The Craft). Their confidence is so inspiring that my sense of guilt and paranoia begins to fade.

When I head home to my husband and son, I feel much calmer than when I arrived. Although I don’t yet know whether Wicca by itself will define my spirituality, or if it will end up serving as a jigsaw piece in a larger, eclectic spiritual puzzle (I suspect the latter), this night marks a shift; it suddenly feels like much more of an option to pursue a mystical path while still being a good mother. Being in the presence of Lena and Kevin—people my husband and I would consider peers—has encouraged me to embrace my path, however it unfolds, trusting that when I become comfortable in the skin of my own spirituality I will know what details to share—or not share—with others. Possibilities blossom before me.

Double Take: Read another perspective on this topic: Believe It or Not

Author’s Note: I’ve been toiling with this piece for over two years now, both compelled and terrified to share it. Compelled to help expand the very concept of what’s okay to do and be as a mother (that we often impose on ourselves and others); terrified to reveal myself. But the deal was, send it out there and if it gets pub- lished, the time is right to be more open. So here I am, exhaling a long-held breath, ready.

About the Author: Brit St. Claire writes, raises a family, and remains fascinated by esoteric topics in Atlanta, Georgia. Her pieces have appeared in Sandiego Babies, Western New york Family and Wired magazine’s parenting blog Geek Mom. To learn more visit her website at www.britstclair.com.

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