Struggling with the Downside of Atheism

Being an atheist has some significant drawbacks in this culture, especially in times like now when a dear friend is suffering a life-threatening illness. Most people aren’t public about not believing in God, so I often feel alone, on the outside of a caring community of believers who offer great comfort to each other. Painful social stigmas are attached to nonbelievers in some circles and I’ve certainly experienced that. But when it feels worst are in times of peril or sorrow when my Christian or other religious friends deal with their helpless feelings by invoking the power of their god through prayer. I don’t have that option.

I don’t pray. I don’t believe that there is a Higher Power to pray to. And if there were, I don’t believe he/she/it would be persuaded by people asking him/her/it for favors. What, does someone get to recover their health and live because enough people prayed for them, or the right people, the anointed, prayed for them? I hear my religious friends urge everyone to pray for someone as if one more person would be the deciding vote. How could anyone believe in an omnipotent god who decides people’s fate like that? Sorry, I’m not trying to judge. I’m honestly not able to understand that. And, yeah, I’m upset. And scared.

Don’t get me wrong. I think prayer is a good thing, not because it causes a god to do something but because of what it does for the one praying. It focuses their heart on someone who needs support and that’s of real value. Most people believe their god works through ordinary people so prayer means friends are paying attention to the person in need and that is very powerful, regardless of whether you believe in a god that will do something miraculous or not. I honestly hope the believers in my friend’s circle of support will continue praying.

My spiritual life centers around gratitude and mindfulness. I’ve always wished there were a box at the end of the choices – Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu – that said Grateful. Gratitude for an atheist is admittedly ironic since there’s no belief in someone to be grateful to. I just am grateful, to my core, as a default place I always return, and that works for me. In this instance, I am grateful for this friend, for her care and love for me across more than a decade. The spiritual path I try to walk is mindfulness. I learn, time and again, that there is room in my heart for all emotions, including sorrow and fear, hopelessness and powerlessness. Negative emotions (“upset. And scared.”) do not have to be fought with and defeated or relieved in some way. They just are. They exist right alongside love and joy and hope. For me, to be human is to accept and live inside the full continuum of human feelings.

I still struggle with what to say when others are saying “I’ll be praying for you.” My daughter has taught me the Quaker phrase “holding you in the light” which I love. I often say “I’m holding you in my heart”, pretty much the same thing. I don’t believe in a Higher Power and certainly don’t have any influence with one if I’m wrong about that. All I’ve got to offer are my compassion and acts of support. All I have is my love.

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A Kick in My Writerly Rump

From Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column in The Rumpus, reprinted in Tiny, Beautiful Things:

"Be brave. Write what’s true for you. Write what you think. Write about what confuses you and compels you. Write about the crazy, hard, and beautiful. Write what scares you. Write what makes you laugh and write what makes you weep. Write what makes you feel ashamed or proud. Writing is risk and revelation. There’s no need to show up at the party if you’re only going to stand around with your hands in your pockets and stare at the drapes."

Stay tuned.

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“Older Ladies”

This is an absolutely true, spot-on reminder of how to celebrate and embrace our older bodies. I, for one, plan to play this delightful music video daily for a while. Check it out and consider doing the same – the least you’ll get is your broadest smile!

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For Josh, Duncan, David, Malcolm, Lee and Phil

Today I celebrate you six magnificent men who father my beloved grandchildren. When I think of how you love them, what I see is their faces and your love in all its forms reflected there.

The full-on glee when you’re blowing raspberries into their soft baby bellies or roughhousing with them down on the floor;
The intense concentration when you’re teaching them something they want to learn, to work a chunky wooden puzzle or take the ready position in right field;
The beam of pride when you’ve praised them for that first terrifying swing all the way across the monkey bars or the enormous accomplishment that is graduating high school;
The small nod and quick, acknowledging smile when you’ve cheered their soccer goal or all out effort in a swim race;
The wide-eyed wonder as you’re explaining how to flip a pancake or where India is on a map;
The way their faces soften and quiet from tears of terror or pain or anger as you hold their small heads against your broad shoulders, patting them gently on the back for as long as it takes;
The explosion of joy when they run to greet you at the door, “Daddy’s home!”

It happens every day, in countless ways, many of which you may not see but we, their mothers and grandparents, we see. How you play with them, teach them, support them, comfort them and love them. But most of all, how you model for them how to be a parent and how to be a human being. For all these reasons, I love you and thank you, today and every day.

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David Seawell’s Tribute to Tom McCoy

My son David writes a blog of which I am extraordinarily proud at Here is a sample that I hope encourages you to become a follower. Tom and I would love that.

He Was Here

For Thomas McCoy

He was here in the room the day I was born.547281_10151420780697017_357538899_n

He was here for my first play in high school, and my last performance in college. He was here the night I met a girl, and here the day I married her. He was here, here with me.

He was here when I found writing. He greeted my words like he would greet my kids, with love and pride and laughs. He nurtured them. Corrected and chided them when they were lazy or overly cute. He sat with them and cared for them, and showed me how to do the same. When fear or doubt made me run away to law, or to being busy, or just away, he gently reminded me of responsibility, and teasingly reassured me of my capacity to fulfill it. I write at all because when I wrote he was here, here with me.

He was here and pointed me to Conrad’s Preface, DeLillo’s Noise, and Kafka’s Hunger. His gifts, for every occasion, were words of his own. Full tender words of humor and depth. Words that showed how beautiful he was here. Here with us.

He was here that night I needed him most. Hours earlier and hundreds of miles away, I doubled over from the thought of losing him before I could say goodbye. After three years of being sick, his body fell out from under him. The pain, and the medicine, and the pain from the medicine closed in on his hospital bed. He fought through all that awful with jokes and tears, and he was here when I pushed through the hospital, and gave him the only words I had, “Tom, I’m here.”

Today, he is not anywhere, not anymore. He is not in days or places, just words. He is here.

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The Thankfulness of Anticipation

Recently I have been faced with two friends threatened by despair, one from a horrific diagnosis and the other an impending divorce. Turning inward, I searched for words, any meager words of solace and support, and found only a familiar, powerless emptiness. Then I remembered that a writer I revere had just the words of hope and healing I had been looking for.  I sent both of them this quote from Barbara Kingsolver in “High Tide in Tuscon”:

In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.

One of those friends told me she had shared the quote with her family and they were putting it into practice together. Once again I marveled at the power of art flowing from the artist to me, then through me to the next concentric circle out, and on and on.

Last week I watched Daniel Day Lewis animate the complex, tortured, noble life of Abraham Lincoln with a brilliance I can hardly comprehend. On a continuum of my interests, movies would be in the cluster at one end while historical anything would be as far away as possible on the other. I am grateful for Lewis’ portrayal that allowed me to access all the interwoven threads of the amazing tapestry of that man’s life and heroism as no college history course (which I consistently avoided), battlefield visit (as interesting to me as sitting down and watching its grass grow) or nonfiction Civil War  bestseller (so many books, so little time and none for these) ever could.

In this my favorite season, a time of thankfulness for the universe of gifts that enrich our lives, I want to remember the artists who work courageously every day, never giving up, to bring to us their works of beauty, insight, power, hope, comfort and joy. I’m sure it’s because I struggle to use my far lesser talents in service to these same goals, but I am keenly aware of their talent and effort this time of year. When I’m a little down, I try to remind myself that at that very moment there are artists all over the world working on creations that some time in the near future will bring me pleasure, reassurance, understanding, and appreciation for all that is best in life. Some time today, one or many of my artist/heroes will find that germ of a new creative idea, see the world from an exciting new angle, break through a paralyzing barrier, allow a character to make a surprising transformation, hear at last the perfect harmony, or write the words that perfectly express the humanity in all of us.

New books, films, paintings, photographs, poems, music, even wearable art, recipes and blog posts, are lined up in the creative pipeline. Anticipating the joy of receiving them fills me with thankfulness.

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Good News in Ghana

In an attempt to make amends for my Halloween Grinchiness, here are some heartwarming images and information about the NGO in Ghana that rescues children from child labor and slavery, and Semester at Sea’s involvement in supporting their efforts. Give yourself a dose of good news during this difficult week.


City of Refuge Orphanage – A Day in the LIfe

By: | Date: 11.02.2012

The City of Refuge Children’s Village outside of Tema, Ghana is a safe house for children rescued from child labor camps. Began in 2007 by Johnbull and Stacy Omorefe, the Refuge is steadily filling with children who once worked as modern day slaves for fisherman in the Lake Volta region of Ghana, where child slavery is rampant. “Children were everywhere we looked. In every canoe on the lake there were two or three young boys casting nets or pulling them in. Their eyes hollow, their stomachs distended and their muscles overdeveloped.” Children are often sold into slavery on the lake by single mothers who simply cannot afford to feed them. They grow up without education, without love, and without hope. For a few fortunate children all that is beginning to change. With organizations like the growing City of Refuge, which has a history of support from Semester at Sea students, young boys and girls sold into slavery are being rescued from the labor camps and given an opportunity to live childhood as children.

Painted children greet the sun as laundry dries on the line. The day begins at City of Refuge, a home and school for children rescued from slavery.

From a boats to a bunk beds, many of the orphans at City of Refuge come from Lake Volta where they are enslaved as fishermen, generally performing such duties as gathering nets from the bottom of the lake after they became tangled in sunken trees.  This is Gabriel.  He is one of the newest children in the City of Refuge.  Gabriel was orphaned when his father’s canoe flipped in a storm on the lake.

Armed with a new toothbrush from Global Grins, a young girl stands next to her clean clothes laid out on a rock pile to dry in the rising sun.

Chores are done around the house each morning before school. These young boys wipe down the table after a breakfast of boiled eggs, bread and milk. They don’t need direction or reminders.

Gabriel can’t yet read the books in his backpack as he has just begun the first grade, but he brings them to class because he is eager to try.  Many of the rescued children, like Gabriel, have received no education prior to their arrival at City of Refuge.

The classroom is empty this early in the morning, but it doesn’t matter. Life is much more precious to him here than on the lake. Gabriel takes full advantage, patiently waiting for the other pupils to arrive.

Holly Stewart, and American volunteer schoolteacher, sips her morning coffee and prepares her classroom for the day. She initially came for just a visit, but has stayed for the love of it.

What the school may lack in computers, overhead projectors, and microscopes, the teachers, like Jacob Atsu, make up for with hard work, skill, determination, and strength of spirit.

Mid-morning sees the arrival of Semester at Sea students. They don matching Global Grins T-shirts and boxes filled with toothbrushes to give away.

One of the founders of City of Refuge, Stacy Onorefe, teaches the Semester at Sea students about the child trafficking and child slavery problems faced in the Lake Volta region of Ghana.

Johnbull Onorefe, husband to Stacy and co-founder of City of Refuge, gives a tour of the village to the visiting students.

Semester at Sea students became tutors when they get the opportunity to help in the classroom. Matthew Poundstone (CA State University Chico) is clearly enthusiastic about his pupils correct answer in math class.

Ashleigh Mason (Va Wesleyan College) has her arms full.  A young girl sits quietly in the back of the class.  New arrivals to the Refuge often feel a bit out of place, but they warm up quickly in its’ friendly and loving environment.

The school does have electricity, but it really isn’t necessary as each room is filled with large windows. Katherine Saffelle (Elon University) sits in the soft window light of the classroom tutoring a young boy.

Sara Santomauro (Ohio State University) listens intently to the children’s stories. English is taught commonly in every school, with most teachers leading each class in english.

Jolina-Rose Blier (Western New England University) was “inspired to see how happy a child can be after going through so much in their short life.”

Yan Benink (U of Co Denver) comments, “this felt less like a service project and more like a trip back to Elementary School.  But better, because everyone is nice to me and I knew all the answers.”

Business Administration Professor Mark Peters (University of San Diego) gets back to the basics by tutoring the children in spelling.  Professor Peters is inspired by City of Refuge and encourages “SAS alumni to give serious thought to how they can support their good work and spread the word of the urgent need to combat modern day slavery.”

Schoolteacher Holly Stewart breaks up a little tiff between two boys in her class as they wait outside for lunch to be served.

Enoch was working 12-14 hours a day on Lake Volta prior to his rescue. Sold into slavery, children work for many years to buy back their freedom, by which time they are too old for school. Uneducated, unable to read, they are destitute and will spend the rest of their lives as laborers. Enoch is now learning to read, learning math, and living a new life filled with promise.

City of Refuge is a place where children are allowed to be children once again, not child laborers. Bryn Valaika (U of Colorado Boulder) plays a little football with the youngsters.

The sun goes down in the west; the students whom live in nearby villages have gone home; what is left are children, free from labor camps… free from enslavement… free to live, free to play, and free to still do chores like young men should.

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