The smallest of things

I’d be lying if I told you I weren’t panicked about the spread of COVID-19. True, I have anxiety over many insignificant things — like flying or rollercoasters — cause immense and irrational fear. But there is something serious and menacing about a common but distinctly unique virus that spreads easily and rapidly, which has unknown causes and cures.

By now it’s a pandemic. Many events have been cancelled or postponed or altered, like SXSW, Coachella, the NCAA Basketball Tournament, and the remainder of the NBA season. And our first case of someone well-known and well-liked with it — Tom Hanks. All within a week.

That to me, doesn’t seem like something to take lightly.

People, as usual, react in extremes. It’s either nothing or it’s everything. The best and worst. It’s certainly not nothing, and it’s certainly not as bad as other viruses. But it’s not ignorable. It’s not insignificant. It’s not a Chinese effort to control its citizens. And it’s certainly not a conspiracy uncovered in 1981 by Dean Koontz.

What scares me the most is how utterly selfish so many of our responses seem to be. How myopic and foolish. Now ignorant and harmful. Anyone could be a carrier. And they could either get very sick and die. Very sick and not die. Somewhat sick and get better. Or not get sick at all. In every case, the likelihood that you come in contact with another person or a surface (where the virus can live) is almost 100%. Meaning you, every time you come in contact with a person or a surface, are spreading it another person; with the same variety of outcomes. And some of those people will die.

This is why the minor and temporary inconveniences of missing events, or working from home, or cancelling a party, or not shaking a hand, or staying at home for dinner, is not only wise, but life-savingly good.

A virus doesn’t care about our borders. It doesn’t know where one country ends and another begins. It doesn’t respect our boundaries or fences or walls. It doesn’t care if you’re an American. It doesn’t care if think it’s no big deal. It’s time to suck it up and stop just thinking about yourself and start knowing you’re hubris is idiocy.

If this turns out to be not as large as experts (yes experts, not Facebook posts, or opinion writers, not your friend’s friend mom who is a doctor), than thank God we took every precaution to make sure it wasn’t. Otherwise by the time we take it seriously, we’ll have been too late. That’s what I’m afraid of.

There are days when I forget that she’s not somewhere breathing, lost in foggy thoughts, trying to piece together pictures of a history without definition. More days than it takes to travel once around the sun have since passed, and yet I still am struck in moments of loss. This is memory, the unyielding weapon of tragedy.

The mystery

Before anyone reads any further, please know if you are a person of faith, I’m likely to say things you will disagree with and perhaps even make you angry. But understand it is in no way meant to attack you, because this is my story, not yours. It’s my journey, not yours. If you’re interested in learning about who I am and who I have become, please continue…

The last decade has brought me very far in my journey has a human. I’ve gone through all the high and lows that one can experience, other than maybe moving to another home. I am far from the same person I was in 2010 in many ways. One of the largest, if not most personal and private, is my slow and steady exploration beyond religion and my (former) Christian foundation.

For decades and decades and decades I dutifully sought answers to reaffirm and bolster my beliefs. To fortify my faith. I went to church every Sunday. I (tried) to read the Bible. I clumsily prayed. I devoured books expanding my theological and historical understanding of Christian foundations. But more than anything else, I consistently tried to convince myself God did not hate me (all the times I heard that God hated sinners, and that I was a sinner not worthy of his love, and whatever “but” followed in the form of forgiveness or blood sacrifices or whatever, never ever washed away my nearly life-long cultivated self-loathing that I was and would never be worthy of Gods love, let alone another human, and certainly never from myself). Any doubt I felt was used as a bludgeon to manifest more devotion, not a tool to explore deeper truth.

As a rule follower, and honestly someone terrified of making anyone unhappy, mixed with a hint of the desire to be a true and faithful believer, I unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) feared what wrath would reign down on me if I dared wandered outside the kingdom. Hell. Damnation. Separation from an all-knowing, all-powerful, eternal super being. Hardships. Destitution. Complete ruin. The root of all sin came about because Adam and Eve sought knowledge. Why should I or anyone within Christianity seek any honest truth?

I was told that doubt was welcome. The disciples all had doubt, and Jesus still loved them. That searching for the truth was necessarily. But underlining that claim was the unspoken warning that any doubt, that any search was only worthwhile as long as it didn’t combat what one already believed. All truth naturally leads back to Jesus. Back to faith. All doubts and searching take you to where you already stand. It wasn’t a matter if such searching or exploration reinforced faith and compelled deeper adoration, it was a matter of when. And if that didn’t happen, then it wasn’t doubt it was apostasy and unpardonable.

I felt like a fraud because I had no passion or connection to anything I heard or read. Life was grueling – a constant examination of my shortcomings and flaws that God observed and marked as to why I would not receive His love and care and provisions. I didn’t really read the Bible. I pretended. I told people I did. But I didn’t. And I prayed, not because I really thought God would change anything, especially for me (in my experience He didn’t, but that was always because He had bigger plans or maybe I didn’t have enough faith or there was larger purpose). I prayed because I desperately wanted someone to hear me.

The cycle of fear and faith worn on me for decades. Sundays were my least favorite day of the week since I can remember. I hated church. I’m not a social person. I just wanted to leave so I could go home and draw or play with my Star Wars figures or build something with my LEGOs. Hell, I even preferred going to my grandmothers house in Media PA to eat steamed lima beans and play in her creepy basement where I was certain a ghost wished to pull me into eternal torture. I couldn’t stand singing hymns, or being forced to happily greet someone sitting next to me, or chatting with strangers who were unreasonably “joyous” about life, after sitting through what is essentially a dull lecture on the same handful of topics thousands of times. None of it was comfortable or natural or remotely a positive experience for me, no matter the churches and denominations I attended.

I have always been a fairly skeptical person. But skepticism doesn’t always mean you’re mistrustful of the most equitable things. My personal skepticism carefully towed the line of healthy inquisitiveness and outright rejection. I was so afraid of being found out, or being on the outside, or of detaching from the only community and identity I knew from birth, that I thought it was the only option. One in which was believing in God and being forgiven, which gave life meaning and purpose, and then when I died I’d go to heaven to spend it with God eternally. The other option was not believing in God, which meant a life of hatred and hardship, of emptiness and pointlessness, only to die and spend forever in nightmarish torture and pain and isolation and fear in hell.

For years I was unhappy, and hated myself for my lack of faith. I always thought that despite praying for God to forgive me and to save me, that I must have done something wrong because I never truly felt His presence or love. I was a continual disappoint to God and myself. I passively let life happen to me, as I awaited some sort of signs and direction from this invisible, unknowable, loving, yet sometimes angry and inactive space being. I was far too afraid of the alternatives to move in any direction other than the one I always already heading. I thought “Sure, it might be bad now, but just wait till you die and go to heaven and everything will be great, despite it possibly being an eternity spent doing the things you hate most about church forever!” I really wanted die just so I could know what it might be like or if it was even real.

The cracks spread and spread and couldn’t be contained. My parents got divorced. My father was unfaithful, and the reactions to his actions were far from loving or forgiving or accepting, despite is attempts to seek forgiveness. I saw no Christ in these “Christian” reactions. But the act of accepting my father’s apologies, of showing any sort of forgiveness or mercy, in just wanting to maintain a relationship with my own Dad, threw me into some equally unforgivable position of ridicule. By trying to act Christlike was treated like a heathen.

So then we just stopped going to church. I stopped caring about reading the Bible, and only reading books related to Christianity. I stopped believing that there was or should even be a hell. The definition of what was and wasn’t a sin began to seem arbitrary, conceited, privileged, myopic and cruel. The thought of a literal heaven became ludicrous. And the idea of who God was or is or should be and how others defined and confined and refined Him was unappealing and growingly appalling.

I started to read books and articles, and listened to podcasts that were the antithesis of everything I once consumed. Atheists and mystics and agnostics and Buddhists and scientists started to say things that made sense and were not bound by the rules and fears and threats of my past. And oddly enough, I began to like and value myself, and the world around me became more miraculous and beautiful and purposeful. I no longer was depending on some future rescue mission to save humanity from its evils. No longer waiting on some unattainable idea of perfection, some magical transformation that would make all problems of the world disappear (as long as I believed things in a specific way). I began to care far more than I ever had before about others, in their stories, plights and journeys, the struggle of everyday survival, of being treated like a human, with rights and needs, not anchored to a system of this for that. I had true compassion because I wasn’t reliant upon a formula or a recipe or a checklist to a possible future solution, but started to see that here on earth, in the present, as the only chance to bring heaven to others.

Once I stopped fearing the actual search for answers to my nagging questions, my shackled inquisitiveness, and wandering through the fence of religion, did I realize the fence wasn’t for protection or empowerment or freedom, but for controlled truth and bound thought. My former beliefs did not want me to seek fresh answers, or develop ripe ideas, or embark on fruitful exploration. My old beliefs sought to make me more concerned with staying in the garden, in being isolated and kept and observed inside a fence of absolutes.

I have no idea if God is real, or if Jesus was an actual person, let alone the son of God. I don’t know so many things about things we don’t understand or can’t comprehend. I’m as much perplexed by the universe and gravity and space time and quantum mechanics. I’m no longer interested in convincing anyone they have to believe a certain way in a specific thing in order to understand life and existence. I embrace the unknown and the undefined. Faith and belief aren’t proprietary, they aren’t trademarked by a specific creed.

Sadly this journey has and will alienate me from friends, and I’m sure their are quiet a few others who feel compelled to pray for my soul and salvation. If I could survive and thrive and retain a modicum of authenticity and honesty about retaining my former beliefs, I would. It would be far easier in so many ways to stay where I was and not disrupt life. But I can’t and I won’t do that.

I will always appreciate anyone’s genuine compassion and care for me. I don’t hate Christians or anyone for being one. I do not wish to convert anyone away from their beliefs.

While I longer understand or want to participate within that system, it is never at the expensive of respectful and reasonable interactions with my fellow humanity. I need relationships. I need earnest connection and conversation, and intellectual honesty about the things we collectively participate and witness in this world.

I don’t need beliefs that support suppression and fear, superiority and subjection, hatred and shame, absolutes and regression, judgement and repudiation. I don’t need hidden purpose and motivation to try to save me (I know the thinking, I know the reasoning, I know what I’d think of me if I were me 10 years ago, I lived it for four decades). I don’t need saving.

I’m sure reading this might be angering, maddening, saddening, or infuriating to many, but my hope is that there are others to whom it will be honest and real and freeing and opening and meaningful in your own journey. None of us know what the next moment of life will bring. I don’t wish to postpone the beauty of now for an unreachable horizon.

I believe that what most of us want in life is a sense that there is a reason and purpose for our existence on this planet. That someone or something cares, is listening, is loving us because we’re all terrified of being alone and unloved and that our lives were pointless.

Our very universe is fantastical and miraculously, regardless of how you seek to define and understand it, and there are so many ways to do that, with so many different words. But at the core of everything is mystery, and I embrace that mystery because that is the essence of exploration.

Goodbye aughts

I will spend the majority of the next ten years in my 50s. My kids will grown – our youngest will stop being a teenager, while the oldest two will (hopefully) be out on their own. There will likely be 5-7 Spider-Man reboots. And Paul Rudd will look exactly the same age.

Goodbye 2019. So long Aughts. I value your lessons, but you are the past. It’s time to savor the present and embrace the future. I joyfully have no clue what might happen, but I’m excited for the jaunt.

I’m watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” and thinking about mom. I remember watching this movie with her (nearly) every year as a kid in Landenberg Pennsylvania. I’m sure it held a charm of nostalgia for her, which I suppose is the lure of all movies. It takes us to the time of who we were and where we were, when we watched it. But for me, I remember sitting on our olive green and gold and orange (the color of the late 1970s) patterned couch, watching a movie I didn’t fully understand, and enjoying it through the eyes of my mom.

I hope not

Hope is not a destination. It’s not a settlement. It’s not a place to live or dwell or wander forever. Hope should be a temporary state because it cannot be sustained. Hope is a bridge, a gateway toward something tangible and productive.

Hope is essential to living, but it’s power is limited.

Hope is unrealized potential, the thought before an action, a dream before a painting. It is not reality and not something to live for, but something to live beyond.

We are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.
—Madeleine L’Engle

Ache For Home

I can’t stop thinking about England. I was fortunate enough to travel to Reading for business in October.

Despite being there for such a very short period of time, being inside in an office building for 8 hours, and seeing so very little of the country. The shift in culture was so freshening and invigorating and soothing that I can’t stop yearning to be back, to again be immersed. The way everything seemed operated; the way people were mannered and reserved, the voice announcement on elevators, the simple efficiency of the cabs, how most all cars and even a most lorries were small and reasonable, the weather was tepid and underwhelming, the roads, the variance of signs and new ways of presenting information to the mass public, hearing small children with such lovely accents, even the fixtures the bathrooms were naturally better thought and executed.

It all felt so right, so much better suited to my mind, my senses, my reactions and needs, that I now I feel homesick for place I’ve never lived. Maybe there’s something deeply written in my bones from my ancestors that vibrates in the marrow of my essence. Or maybe it’s just the indulgence of new experiences.

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

—Maya Angelou

A certain time ago, in a headspace far far away…

Life never seems as consequential as when elucidating on milestones that significantly changed you – graduation, marriage, first home, birth, job loss, death. Over the last five or so years I’ve experienced each of those, a few several times over.

In the years surrounding these many milestones of my life, my mental wellness was being punctured. My self-esteem and self-worth were bullied, beaten, berated, and buried. I became empty, and over time started to put all of who I was on vacation. The me that was left was just a veneer of a human with my name, designing things, writing words, saying stuff, minimally existing to avoid fully dissolving.

I didn’t feel like a person, at least not the person who I thought I was or wanted to be. I was more like a yes machine. A production pawn. A startup shill. Compromised and ridiculed and bedraggled.

So in what might have seemed insignificant or ordinary, I turned myself into an avatar. I drew a flat, expressionless illustration of myself (with the proper amount of gray hair and facial stubble) and replaced any photo of my actual face with it. On every digital platform. In every virtual exchange. The real me was gone, and I welcomed a vapid, agreeable, inoffensive, polished product of my desolation.

Over the last five years I’ve been forced out of a company I helped create (there’s a large and complicated story there that I’m still not fully comfortable talking about), had a child threaten suicide, lost two dogs and a cat while also gaining four dogs and three cats (this is why we have called ourselves the Armstrong circus), dealt with family wide anxiety and depression and medications and doctors and therapists, witnessed teenage breakups and graduations, watched my mother whither away in dementia and die, was laid-off from a job in a company-wide downsize, got personally diagnosed with Celiac’s disease, diagnosed our oldest with EDS, and many more mundane and routine and random and tragic and beautiful life milestones.

And for more than four years this avatar has protected me. This stupid and meaningless symbol teeming with burdens. All the while I’ve been digging out and digging in. Searching for healthier dialogs to my inner tormentors. Moving up and moving on. Covering over and covering under. Ceaselessly crawling forward toward wholeness. But never resting. And I’m exhausted.

I need a rest. I need to recuperate so I can be full and connected and whole.

I’m ready to be real again.

No one writes a masterpiece on a plane. At best, you get a few regrettable sentences furnished by altitude and discomfort. I’m writing this on a plane.