Prayer Practice for Atheists

Ever since I first named it and begun to explore it last year, the concept of submission has haunted me. The pea under my mattress, so to speak. I was raised by a very strong, strong-willed woman, and I have grown up into my very own fiery independent female force of nature. I do not yield unless I am overpowered. Yielding is weak. Surrender = defeat.

So much of the difficulty of motherhood has been releasing the reins of control. Beginning with birth and continuing every day since. I am overpowered.

As I’m fond of saying, it’s easy to get down on your knees when you’ve been punched in the gut. I’ve learned a few things down here in the dirt, gasping for breath. It’s a hard way to go, but I like to think I’ve matured some.

One of the things I have been taught, quite entirely by force, is that surrender does not necessarily equal defeat. That yielding can be strong, the ultimate strength perhaps. At first this seemed anti-feminist to me, but I’ve since conveniently re-written feminism to fit my own needs. Honoring the female. And who can argue that yielding is female? In the strictest biological sense, we yield and are thus given the greatest power on earth– to carry and birth another human being.

In a more metaphorical sense, I have seen how surrendering my ego-grip allows everything to happen, opens up whole worlds of possibility. Yielding to life allows me to move forward with grace and poise.

But how to yield? Can I fall to my knees without the punch in the gut? Shouldn’t there be another way?

Over the last year, as the submission pea rolled around under my mattress turning me black and blue, I have started to feel a pull towards some kind of spiritual practice. Some way to connect with that surrendering soft part of myself which lays hidden under the white knuckle grip of ego.

I don’t believe in any gods or goddesses, unfortunately. I have always believed in a spirit element to the world, just as I myself inexplicably have this thing called a ‘soul.’ But I have never been able to believe in a singular cohesive spirit, so religion is pretty much out for me. I did try the local Unitarian Universalist church a few times. They welcome folks of any persuasion whatsoever, atheists included, and carefully leave the word ‘God’ out of their service. I enjoyed it, enjoyed the opportunity to focus on farther reaching concepts than my typical diapers/dishes/clutter-management shtick, but the whole church experience really is just a turn off for me. And in their attempt not to exclude anyone, it felt sort of cold and spiritually sterile.

The classic for folks of my ‘alternative’ bent is Buddhism. I have several Buddhist friends, and I’m glad it works for them, but I have just never been able to swallow what feels to me like an inherent scorn for the physical world. I’m a hedonist above all else, and I will take my spirit world with a heavy crust of black dirt under the nails please.

Not to mention that meditating for my rat-wheel brain has been a big fat not happening. I know, it takes time. Zen with it honey. But, time is in short order around here.

On the phone recently with a friend, I said something like, “Dammit. Are you telling me I have to meditate? Can’t you give me something easier?” She laughed, “What, like 10 Hail Marys?”

Yes! That is exactly what I meant, exactly what I wanted. Meditation is fine for some, but it is some damn hard shit. Hail Marys, on the other hand, along with rosaries, 5 times daily bowing to Mecca, and prayer in general are for us– the common people.

Prayer is so completely wrapped up in religion for me, but as I picked it out over the next few weeks I realized that essentially it’s just a tool for submitting your ego to something greater, a formula to occupy your brain while your heart communes with the Great Mystery.

And so, after a little groping around in the dark, and a helpful Unitarian Universalist recommendation for non-denominational prayer, I settled on my own atheist prayer practice.

I really liked the idea of beads, a physical grounding element and focal point. As I walked around the the bead store looking for just the right stones to rub, I suddenly realized that I needed pink. I have always patently hated pink, which I associate with the cute, girly weakness I have so sought to eradicate. But standing there looking over the colors I realized that pink is yielding. It is exactly the stumbling block I need to get the fuck over. And didn’t I remember some witchy friend telling me that rose quartz opens the heart chakra? (Right after she told me that every one of my chakras was blocked…) That’s just what I need. Some heart chakra.

So I picked out a big smooth hunk of pretty-in-pink heart opener. I strung it up with 18 small “breath” beads punctuated by 4 turquoise “intention” beads. I wrote out a litany of words for myself, roughly following the UU recommendations which seemed to cover the bases. I don’t feel like the words are hugely important. More the intention, which maybe is different for everyone. For myself it’s about quieting my mind and opening my heart. It’s about remembering that I am small, that the wide world is big, that I can ask for help, and be thankful for all that I have. Surrendering with grace.

This new prayer practice is far, far from perfect. I’ve been trying to kneel down twice a day, once when I wake, and once just before bed. But I often don’t get the morning time alone, or the Babe wakes up halfway through, leaving me half-prayered. After the initial fervor of the new words running through my mind, and new beads in my fingers, my mind started to wander off a lot. And there’s a certain irony in devising my own prayer ritual in order to submit my ego to the Great Mystery. Not to mention spending almost $70 on pretty beads so that I can get in touch with my heart realm. But I figure the point is to focus your spirit towards your best intentions, and then let the rest work out in the wash.

That’s why they call it ‘practice,’ right?

Having it All

I always thought I would grow up to be a kick-ass Alaskan homesteader. By age 15 I had dreamed out in incredible detail how I would build my log cabin, milk goats that survived on willow scrub, tend a garden carved out of the wild bush, hunt, fish, can berries for the long winter. I made countless graph paper sketches of cabin and garden layouts, lists of the groceries my family would need for one year in our bush homestead home.

Oh yes, my future kick-ass self was always a mama. In the fantasies, they blended so seamlessly– homesteading and mothering. Fantasies are lovely that way. In my ‘pre-enactments,’ the kids were perennially about 10 and 12. They did chores and homeschooled. They more or less took care of themselves, Swiss Family Robinson style. I don’t remember ever washing their dishes or doing their laundry (by hand in the creek?) I was busy kicking ass, right?

After the reality of kids, and just life in general, my homesteading vision was tamed down a bit to this punk housewife gig. Lately, in addition to rocking the garden and kitchen, in addition to raising up two gorgeous kiddos, I want to be able to write. A lot, apparently. A friend recently suggested that maybe I’m not meant to be a full time mama. Maybe I should just bite the bullet and sign my kids up for day care. But I don’t want to have to give up being with my kids to write. I don’t want to give up punking my household for either. I want everything I want. I want it all.

Because I’m worth it.**

I am always so profoundly disturbed when I dig deep, deeper within my psyche and unearth– the advertising industry.

Fuck me.

Under everything, all my intellectualizing, my earnest desire to affect change, my renegade claim, my hippie upbringing, my alternative education– under all that self that should know better is a solid foundation of good old American free enterprise. Which has underwritten me with the belief that I can and should have it all.

Capitalism wants you to think that you’re “worth it,” so that you will buy it. Corporations profit hugely off of an infinite desire for more, and a faith in the god of ‘having it all.’ If they can keep us believing that ‘all’ is possible, we will keep spending until we get it.

And they can keep us believing. They have the big bucks to spend on the top pyschologists in the world, to determine exactly how to shape us all into perfect consumers. I hate to venture into conspiracy theory territory here, but if there is a ‘they,’ it’s the ad industry. They have the tools, the brains, the money and the motive to control the entire modern world. Because who is safe from media these days? No one I know, and I know some contenders, believe me.

Media is everywhere. Big Brother had nothing on us. Look around you right now and count corporate logos. How many electronic devices are within reach, how many of them are on? How often do you look at something designed by corporate advertising?

If I think too hard about it, I get completely creeped out. Horror movie style. They are in me! No one is safe!

My Man always laughs at conspiracy theorists. He thinks the government’s too stupid to pull anything like that off. Bumbling idiots, he calls them. And maybe the ad industry is too. Maybe they’re not even trying to rule the world. But no one can argue that they are trying to make the maximum possible profit. And nothing ensures profit like a captive audience with an insatiable appetite.

How does this fit together? The ad industry’s evil plan to take over the world and my worn out “lost dream” story?

Well, here I stand at the ready, insatiable appetite for coffee, chocolate, heirloom seeds, and self-images. I want to be all and everything. I think I deserve to be everything. Wholesome mama, passionate wife, punk urban homesteader, and now respected writer on top of everything else. Who the hell do I think I am?

This is such a big subject, I hesitated to tackle it at all. To plumb the depths of this one would take far, far more time than I have. But let me ask you this? Why do we think we can have it all? Why do we think we are worth it when people all over the world, throughout history have had to be just plain old whatever-their-families-needed-them-to-be in order to put food on the table? Why do we all think we can accomplish so much more in our small lifetimes than anyone else?

And why, oh why, is this even more prevalent among us ‘alternative’ folk? We think we’ve circumvented The Man and his evil plans. We think we’ve banished the rampant consumer instinct, the materialistic desire for moremoremore, when in fact, we just moved it over 6 inches. We want moremoremore life, moremoremore accomplishment.

When My Man and I got together, at some point as courting couples often do, I asked him what he wanted from life. Among other things, he said he wanted to be ‘great.’ I remember scorning him a little, his egotistical desire to make history. Many years later I have finally realized that I wanted to be ‘great’ too, I wanted to accomplish what so many people before me have failed to do, to succeed exceptionally in many things at once.

Everyone I know, same story more or less. We start out thinking we can have it all. When the natural limitations of life start to sink in, typically in the 30s, and we realize we are not going to get it all, we feel disillusioned. We start throwing blame. If we have a family, we blame it on being tied down. If we’re single, we blame it on loneliness. If nothing else, we can always blame it on our parents!

If we could just wipe that slate clean. Stop blaming, stop expecting to be superheros, stop thinking we’re so extra special.

If I could do that.

Oh how my life would be easier! If I could just vanquish the ads.

Because I am worth it. I’m worth not feeling perpetually dissatisfied because I can’t accomplish every single goddamn thing I ever dreamed up. I’m worth feeling worthy without the right mascara/handbag/woodswoman image. I am worth just being me, whatever shape that may take over the course of my lifetime. Homesteader, mother, writer, wife, frumpy stinky me washing my 659th load of dishes in a plain old sink with running water and Joy soap, like every other American housewife. No accessories, no glory. Just me.

We’re all worth it.

**For any overseas readers or folks who grew up under a rock, “Because I’m Worth It” was a slogan created for L’Oreal in 1973 to sell their higher priced hair products. According to AdSlogans: “The message was all about what the woman thought. It was about her self-confidence, her decision, her style. Over time, “Because I’m Worth It” has become part of our social fabric and today an astonishing 80% of women recognize and respond to this positive phrase and powerful sentiment.”

Real Life

On this new day the sun pours through our windows, greeting us upon our awakening with a joyful hello.

We slip on our woolen slippers to buffer our toes from the chill of the wood floors. The waning embers in the woodstove from the night before have gently settled. One by one the children gather in the kitchen to greet this new day together. My youngest follows me to the wood bin to help me load up the wood stove for the day. My daughter and eldest son gather up their wooden bowls and we all sit down to homemade granola and raw milk for our morning refreshment. We sit together in the quiet of the morning joined around the long wooden table and shaker chairs set up in front of the wood stove. Daddy lights our lantern, and fills Mason jars with fresh orange juice that was juiced the night before.

Found this on another blog yesterday, which will remain nameless. It is apparently meant to be a true account of any morning at the writer’s house.  Here’s a morning at our house. Not this morning, or even any particular morning, just a collection of morning realities:

After an argument about money the night before, I wake up feeling cold and tense. Toddler’s newly re-found night waking routine means we’re all exhausted. I change two poopy diapers before I can get into the kitchen to make coffee. Since she didn’t sleep well, the Toddler’s already whining. I finally get her settled in with some granola, me with my coffee, try to read a few blogs, to get my brain in order. The Babe (who rarely likes to be set down for more than 10 minutes, meaning I wear him most of the day) hates when I sit down, and immediately starts fidgeting and fussing. I feel at the end of my little rope already and it’s only 8 am. I silently curse him as I get up to bounce/walk/cajole him. All I want is just 20 minutes to get my shit together, is that so much to ask? Then I look down at his amazing tiny person and feel the dreaded, crushing mommy guilt. How could I resent this little gift. What an ingrate. What a horrible mother. I want to go lay in my bed and cry, pull the covers over my head, but there’s last night’s dishes attracting cockroaches in the sink, diapers to wash, babies to bounce, toddlers to take on outings so she can interact with other little people. I try buck up and get on with my day, but the world feels sour.

Sorry this isn’t funny. When I was young, I escaped my real life into a fantasy world of my future, much like the glowy one above. Still I am sometimes tempted to recount my life with a rose tint, to tell myself pretty stories. More often I fall for the equally escapist technique of cynical or ironic humor. Which is what y’all were expecting from this post. And I could have, even wanted to deliver.

But what I really want to do, with my writing, with my life, is lay bare the real stuff. We all feel so alone, especially us mamas, in our feelings of disillusionment, failure, inadequacy, loneliness. Everyone is so busy pretending to the world that their life is either perfect or hilarious, that then everyone thinks they’re the only one suffering the dark corners. It’s backwards and wrong, and makes everything harder. When you expect perfection, everything short of it feels like a failure.

Life and motherhood are full of beautiful, miraculous moments. Also some really hilarious ones. Also lots of shit, real and metaphorical.

We have to stop telling ourselves these are all mutually exclusive! It’s not just okay, but the absolute way of the world for all this occur in one life, in one day, in one hour sometimes. You don’t have to wipe away your resentment to love your kiddos. You don’t have to never fight about money to love your spouse. You don’t have to have a perfect life to have a good life. Let’s try to remind each other.