respecting other’s beliefs – life as an atheist family

There seems to be this idea that atheists are just wayward people without any beliefs or morals who just don’t know any better. A couple of summers ago Mr and I were walking with the kids down Spring Garden Road and a very earnest young man came up to us and started shoving pamphlets in our hands. In response to Mr’s “No thanks, I’m an atheist” he said, “I’ve never met anyone who didn’t believe in anything before”. There are a lot of things I believe in. Love. Family. Honesty. Gravity. Kindness. Nature. Science.

Recently, a few of Miss N’s friends have been sincerely inviting her to church. The one that made me angry? Not at the child, mind you. She is doing what her Sunday School teacher and parents have told her to do, but they added the clincher of a treat bag if you are new to the church. Yup. They’ll bribe your children all the way. It may be called a gift by the person who thought of it, but it’s similar to the toys given out by McDonald’s – it’s not enough to sell french fries, there is the extra bait of a toy that will break in three days. I understand why these children feel it is imperative to invite Miss N to church, it is a fun place where they sing songs, eat a snack and talk about the underlying fear of what happens after you die. These children love Miss N and even though they can’t quite articulate it in this way, they think we’re failing Miss N and her brother by not taking them to church.

This part will be touchy for people who do not believe the same as we do and I respect that, I’ll raise my kids and you can raise yours. I do not think religion is for children. I think that they should be exposed to the beliefs of all people and while I will tell my children “this is what Mommy and Daddy believe” I do not expect her to believe the same thing. I’ll ask Miss N what she thinks and she has some really amazing thoughts on the matter, but I will not tell her she is wrong if she disagrees with me about the big beliefs. I do not tell her she is going to hell if she does not believe as I do, that she ought to live in fear for the people in her life who do not because it is unfair to expect a child to live like that. It is not right to speak in absolutes with children because they will believe anything and everything you tell them and they are still developing the cognitive ability to sift through the logic of some claims. Case in point: Boy honestly thinks Batman is a viable career choice (after Miss N encouraged him to come up with a back up plan, he’s settled on police officer/Batman).

Many people don’t understand that atheists have a belief system and that we are just somehow lacking and need to be led to “the right way”. There are a lot of right ways in the world, it’s what makes our world so awesome and awful at the same time because so many of us are walking through the world with blinders on. I am very proud of Miss N that she tells her friends that she has her own beliefs and their church is not the place for her – it’s like school for people who believe in their god, it’s not really our place. Our church is in the museums, in our garden and at the art gallery. Our church is when we come together as a family at the dinner table (every night) and we talk about the world we live in and how we can treat one another with respect and kindness in our daily lives. Miss N asks a lot of big questions, about where humans come from and what others believe. As part of our “lesson in respect” I don’t say that people of other faiths are liars or wrong, I preface it with “Hindus believe… Christians believe… Some people believe…” because it is not my place to judge you for your beliefs. I only ask that you don’t do the same to me or my children.


Kurt Palka: Patient Number 7

A free fall into the life of a woman who is strong willed and yet from the other side of history we, as the reader, feel the heartbreak of her life in Austria under budding Nazi rule – so often I found myself whispering “no.. no..” as my children curled around, safe in sleep. The vandalism and deaths she sees are part of the overwhelming violence in the city. So often I wanted to reach through the pages and shake this woman caught in her own idealism, to point at the death of a Jewish couple killed under suspicious circumstances and shake her until she could see reality, to connect the random dots for her. This is the luxury of living 60 years after these events and throughout Kurt Palka’s mesmerizing novel I was reminded of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, the imprecise memory allowed to German citizens following the atrocities of World War II.

The main protagonist, Clara Herzog, is the type of strong-willed woman I would like to be if life ever came crashing down around me, her willful disobedience while she is at once entrenched in the machinery of the regime and yet she doesn’t seem to know why she does the things she does, only that she must. The wife of a German cavalry officer, she finds a way to hold salons with the prisoners of war in her basement and feed them stolen fruit while an SS officer patrols her living room.

In some ways Clara answers the question of how the horrors of the Nazi regime could happen, how could every day Germans allow the atrocities to occur in front of them? Clara is an intelligent woman with a proud heritage and yet she is inexplicably drawn to the Nazi political party in the beginning. This underground group of misguided youth and idealists attempting to find their way in the world, they offer a place for women in the party and it is for this reason that Clara flirts with the idea of joining their ranks. It is with a sigh of relief that she does not, her own intelligence unassailable against the undercurrent of antisemitism – a Jewish friend accompanies her to a party meeting and admonishes Clara that in Germany the antisemitism is much more visible but she cannot quite believe that a party that sends a female representative could also speak hate.

There is violence in Patient Number 7. In fact, there is one scene in which Clara is the perpetrator of the bloodiness but it is just and rest assured, he had it coming. The violence is not gory, it is unsettling in that it is often senseless – the deaths meted out are as banal as the Nazi’s own racism.

The story is told from the Austrian viewpoint, and Palka captures the fear the Austrians lived in, the white-faced panic of watching their country capitulate under the ferocious might of a megalomaniac. What is most remarkable is that the story is woven from family lore and a long mythologized folder of missives from the most turbulent time in recent memory. I would easily recommend this book, Clara Herzog is a real woman of character and strength. Palka, with his dotted references to Freud and Heiddeger makes me want to revisit these giants of psychology and philosophy.

Patient Number 7 was published March 27, 2012 and is available through McClelland and Stewart (check your local bookstore). Thank you to Netgalley for providing this engaging galley.

word-filled wednesday

I had originally started (and never really finished) this tradition on my other blog but it is much more fitting for it to exist over here. I’ll establish a Mr. Linky once it appears people are actually, you know, reading this blog. Each Wednesday I will post a writing prompt in this space and if you so choose, feel free to take part and post a link to the results in the comments below. Since I’m not really one for having rules, or, as admitting that as long as one knows the rules they can break them, try to post your piece of writing connected to the prompt by sometime on Friday. And have fun.



a life well lived

Yesterday, I read this story about a woman who vanished from existence, the lives she lived and the people she knew. It is as if she did not die suddenly or without warning, she simply ceased to be and though people wracked their brains, their memories and even their journals, there were countless people who simply could not remember seeing her pass from living to the count of dead. There is a tremendous amount of sadness in Joyce Vincent’s death, the fact that no one knew she had died and had instead imagined her off somewhere living an extravagant life and chasing after dreams, does this mean that she was not really dead until someone knew? Floating in an existential soup of BBC 1, old washing and 3 year old yogurt. She lived on in some way because the people who knew her believed her alive but that knowledge was nothing but a lie.

In this time of gross communication (obviously, not disgusting but tremendous), it seems so… inconceivable that a person can just disappear and no one noticed. It’s not like there were reports of her disappearance, that someone cried at night because they did not know where she was, what she was doing. They simply didn’t know so the believed her alive. It begs the question, if you have all the means of communication, besides the obvious telephone, does it really matter? That smart phone at your hip, with its insistent red light or flashing icon to signify that someone in the world is looking for you, does it matter if you are so isolated that the phone ceases to be?

To all appearances, until she vacated life – I have difficulty using the term death in relation to Vincent because she simply ceased to be, like an Olympian god whom no one believes in so she fades into nothingness, Vincent lived a full life. Friends. Wild experiences like meeting Nelson Mandela, lovers. Somehow, it wasn’t enough. The cause of her death is unknown. Fitting to the death she experienced.

She was young, only 38 at the time of her death. She did not outlive all the people her life accumulated. I originally set out to write about quality of life and the fact that it in so many ways our obsession with the length of one’s life overshadows a life well lived. As though finally succumbing at the age of 97 after 30 years of sickness and heartache is a triumph. My father died young (it’s interesting what we consider young), at the age of 65. He had sworn his entire life that he would live to 68. It was just the way it was supposed to be. When he did not fulfill that promise, I was stunned, as though he could somehow fulfill his macabre promise. I   have an idea that age does not matter, that clocking in time at a cosmic punch clock is not quite the same as big “L” living.

Madison Smartt Bell: The Washington Square Ensemble

Conflicting voices, shattered pieces of the whole and a group of men that is hardened against cold weather and unspeakable cruelty. This is Madison Smartt Bell’s The Washington Square Ensemble. I did not initially like the novel. It didn’t sit well as the first few chapters are devoted to one of the street thugs who is amongst the mouthiest and most egotistical, his language effusive and dismissive. Initially, I was skeptical of the book, unsettled by my own general dislike for the character and seeing his voice as the voice of Bell.

Suddenly, a shift. Before I knew it the collective voices of these men of the street became clearer, likeable even. Bell is effective at manipulating the language of each chapter to make each a devotion to the voice. But, I never felt entirely comfortable within The Washington Square Ensemble. Each time I wanted more from a character (or the writing for that matter – it’s unique only as much as it is staid), Bell didn’t deliver. It was easy to forget which character was “speaking” as the lines between the identifying characteristics of each were blurred. An ensemble that is not much above the parts of the whole.

The novel, or Bell, seems to be chomping at the bit trying to catch th ereader off guard but most of the uniqueness, the shock of possibility never delivers. The group shifts, drops numbers off of its ranks and though there is death it another day in the life of a drug dealer in a notorious square. I cannot decide if the laissez-faire approach to violence and death is just lazy writing (there is death that is so expected it wrote itself into the plot) or brilliant because the characters so wholly embody it. I had the sense throughout most of the novel that the core group were essentially the same individual with seemingly subtle differences among them. It’s that feeling of being so close yet so far to the truth.

The Washington Square Ensemble is the type of book that deserves to be read multiple times. As much as I wanted to say I wasn’t really into the book there was an exception. Kind of like the English language, there are no rules only exceptions. This appears to be the mantra of Bell’s work here. I would recommend the novel to someone with patience to tease out the mysteries of a dark weekend in New York City.

Thanks to Open Road Media and Netgalley! The Washington Square Ensemble, originally published in 1984 has been reissued.

Alan Bennet: Smut

Two tales of sexual intrigue and the gaps and silences used to keep them tucked away. Smut, the latest offering by British playwright Alan Bennett is entertaining, a deliciously sinful exploit of British sensibilities.

The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson has a delicious push and pull of secrets and tension. There are so many elements throughout the story that I was genuinely surprised when widow Mrs. Donaldson experienced her unveiling that I actually risked waking the kids sleeping next to me to squeal. This is Alan Bennett’s writing: Mrs Donaldson became a real person for me, navigating her way through a confusing life that keeps happening to her (or is it?). The writing is twisted and coy, enough that Mrs. Donaldson’s performance of social graces hide reality, in more ways than one.

The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes follows along some very familiar story lines, the overbearing mother who hates her new daughter-in-law and fails to see her son as anything but bronzed perfection. As much as I enjoyed The Greening..  I found it difficult to really get into The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes and truly enjoy it. Bennett sticks to more of a stream of consciousness style of writing, again it reflects the sloppy lines of relation and distinction the characters take, particularly in comparison to Mrs. Donaldson’s proper segmented life. Bennett adds subtle nuances to make it uniquely his own but it still remains a known story. Bennett definitely hedged his bets with this story and played it safe. The reticence in the storyline informed on the text and it became rushed, as if Bennett couldn’t wait to expel on to paper this convoluted tale of crossed lives and blackmail. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes is a solid piece of work but in comparison to The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson it pales.

The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes relies on some fairly antiquated ideas, all filtered through the spectacle of cell phones and internet savvy. It’s rife with delicious double-crosses but I just don’t see it. Each sentence is clipped and polished, much like the lives these characters appear to live, all packaged into neat and tidy boxes. The performance of normal is ever present, even as the characters delight in their seemingly subversive lives. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes is notable for its subtle change in writing style, the sentences grow longer as the lies stretch beyond all means; a heavy vein of stream of consciousness undercuts the text.

Smut is definitely an enjoyable read and it does make me way to acquaint myself with more of his work. Smut is a well-written piece despite its turn at the cliché wheel.

Natalie Maclean: Unquenchable

I was initially skeptical I would be engrossed in Natalie Maclean’s latest book, Unquenchable; most of my non-fiction reading is devoted to hefty school readings. The premise of a wine book did not immediately pique my interest, this in spite of my own affinity for a glass. It was, however, Natalie’s writing style that drew me in completely. Her writing is succinct in that you feel as though the book is whipping by and as it does, she fills your head with heady visions of lush wineries and eccentric characters.

The style of writing is interesting. For much of the book I would sigh dramatically about not feeling a connection to Unquenchable but then go on to describe in minute detail every last thing Natalie wrote. I am a fickle, cynical beast about my literary adventures, constantly unsure I’ll enjoy what I’m reading even though I remain incapable of putting down the book (or closing my computer) for the entire thing, late into the night. Any of my misgivings were definitely due to preconceived notions that a wine book would be boring. This is not your boring wine book. Natalie has a cheeky sense of humour in the sweetest sense and it is quite evident throughout the entire book as she encounters the denizens of the wine world.

Unquenchable is written in a friendly, conversational tone, as though you are peering over her shoulder as she shares a glass of wine with Wolf Blass, the man as much of a legend as his wine label, it really does feel as though we are sitting quietly at the same table, “clearly, Wolf’s outsized personality is not solely responsible for his success: The broadsides are backed up by wines that are pretty damn good” (Unquenchable, 18). The book is a good mix of approachable, straightforward and creative and even though it comes in at a whopping 372 pages, Unquenchable is a fantastic read. I read the chapters almost effortlessly, completely engrossed in the shenanigans (and deep history) of each vintner and their winery.

The book is as much about the people as it is the wine. We are deftly taken through an entire week’s worth of wine pairings, including each chapter’s Dinner for a Cheapskate menu and the Top-Value Producers for each region. Stephen and Prue of the traditional Henschke vineyard are everything that I love about farming the land, the traditional care the couple takes to preserve their 150 year old vines is remarkable and their passion is clearly evident as we and spend the evening imbibing with the couple. Natalie carries with her a knack for informative storytelling.

I would recommend the book to just about anyone. It is certainly a wine book in that you learn about what makes for the perfect wine (and how to impress your guests with your new pairing super ability), and the way to do so inexpensively with each turn of the page; but it is so much more than that. The people and their stories make it a joy to read Unquenchable.

Thank you so much to Natalie Maclean for the e-copy of her Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines.