magnolia

trust yourself. you're really all you have.


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$4.73

lately, i’ve been spending my mental downtime revisiting my happiest years: high school, the late 1990s. a lot of people get angry – yes, angry – when you tell them that you really loved high school or had a great experience during those years. it wasn’t a happy time for everyone, and i get that. but high school was GREAT for me. i was free, truly free, in so many ways that the restrictions of being underage didn’t matter. i will never be that unburdened again, and when i need some emotional comfort, those memories are great little fuzzy security blankets.

a lot of my favorite stories from back then center around the man, but a lot of them don’t. [yes, i did have other friends and other interests as a teenager besides pining for my eventual second husband. i may have led you to believe otherwise.] this is one of those other stories, about one of my favorite people from my favorite time in life…

we’ll call my buddy flyboy. he was taking flying lessons when we met, and nearly 20 years later he’s a successful commercial pilot. but at the time, he was just a goobersmack teenager with a 1970s volvo and a drivers license. as an october baby, he was nearly a full year older than the rest of our class, so he got his license in the fall of 10th grade. when the rest of us were 14 and 15, this was big news for our social lives. flyboy would drive around and pick us all up, or we’d meet somewhere central, then we’d take off. we’d ride up and down the main east-west artery in our town with no destination in mind.

one of my favorite things about flyboy is that he gave nary a damn – he was his own weird, quirky, fabulous self with no regard for anyone else’s thoughts on the matter. he found the most uncommon things funny. he made the theme from the quick and the dead into a whole-class joke that lasted all four years of high school. he once started a three-week gag centered around “suicide is painless,” the theme from M*A*S*H, in our 11th-grade biology class. (and yes, we went to high school before columbine. i am fully aware of the many ways that the lot of us would’ve been pathologized for supposed threats to our fellow students based on some words we thought were funny and nothing else. that’s another post for another day.)

gas was stupid-cheap when we were kids, too. all of us could put in $2 each and fill up flyboy’s volvo for the whole night. but he never filled up the tank. nah, that’d be too linear. he would pull up to the pump, carefully dispense exactly $4.73 worth into the tank, and walk into the convenience store for a little debbie oatmeal cream pie. since none of us had credit cards at that age, this was a cash transaction, and as it happens, a little debbie cake was $0.25, making the purchase total exactly $5.00 with tax. he took a special form of joy in making those numbers line up. and because quirky teenagers find EVERYTHING funny, we all laughed right along with him.

i really can’t stress enough the importance of cars to how we lived as teenagers. we drove around, listening to mix tapes and talking. had i grown up in a place like where i live now, that wouldn’t have been my reality. how do kids bond without the kind of autonomy driving around together brings? i don’t even think it’s legal for a 16-year-old to drive 15-year-olds around where i live, and that is STAGGERINGLY awful to me. i mean, modern parents don’t seem to give their kids ANY space to be people on their own. kids in this area are more heavily scheduled than i am as a corporate middle manager. it’s horrifying. and you can only put the blame on the parents to such an extent, too, when montgomery county throws families into the child-protective-services system for letting a 10-year-old walk to the park. teaching your kids to be self-sufficient, which is arguably the best life skill my parents taught me, is illegal here.

there is nothing more vital to raising a teenager than giving him or her the space to grow into his or her own person. you shouldn’t parent your kid to be who you want them to be – you should parent your kid to be the best version of WHO THEY ARE that they can be. my folks did that for me. they let me hang out with my friends without stalking my every move like a microchipped animal. we got into flyboy’s car and had a small place to ourselves. all to ourselves. no keystroke-tracking software that records every thought your kid dares to have online. no GPS tracking. just us, alone and free.

for the low, low price of $4.73, i bought memories that remind me who i am and what i’m capable of being. it’s sad beyond reason that kids can’t give that to themselves anymore. we’d do well to give them that experience back.


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atheist lent: halftime!

happy day 21 [not including sundays] of atheist lent! how’s everyone doing?

we have 20 days of sacrifice, gifts and thoughtfulness in the books. i thought i’d give you all a little report card/reflection exercise to mark the halfway point. i mean, that’s part of the deal, right? lent is supposed to be a mindful time when you consider how you’re living and why you’re taking the actions you’re taking.

part 1A: sacrifice
so my sacrifice was going to be 30 minutes of exercise every single day except sundays. i have an exercise bike in my bedroom, so this shouldn’t be a huge diversion from daily life. just a period of concentration, something i hate doing that’s good for me.

and then, the universe intervened: i did something to my right ankle. i have no idea what i’ve done to this ankle, mind you. walking is about 94% fine, just a little bit of pain from time to time. but there are two actions that trigger intense pain in the ankle – lying down to sleep and pedaling the exercise bike. when i put my foot on the pedal and push, there’s a little click and a great big complement of hurting. i soldiered through day 2 and got through all 30 minutes without dying, but YEEEESH, i was useless for the rest of the day.

dangit. i’ve tried a couple more times, but no dice. until i can figure out what’s going on here, no pedaling on the bike for me. sigh.

part 1B: revised sacrifice
stupid body. but i will not be deterred from the sacrifice portion of the program! that sorta defeats the purpose of the whole exercise. the sacrifice has to be financial instead of physical. i’m spending $5 a day on not myself as a fine for having a busted ankle. i can hear you saying ooh, wow, mags. good job. five whole entire dollars. don’t spend it all in one place, universe.

part 2: gifts
that’s why i’m taking the sacrifice, aggregating it, and combining it with the gift portion of the program. i have set aside $25 every 5 days of the program for a contribution to people doing good work that i believe in. any no-exercise fines i rack up are added to the $25 gift. i’ve picked a slate of groups and causes that matter to me. here’s the roster up through today:

  • day 5: $50, trans lifeline – a crisis line for transgender people staffed by fellow trans people. when trans people are threatened at such high rates for having the unmitigated temerity to breathe, exist, and live, this is vital work.
  • day 10: $50 to animal welfare. i split this donation in half – $25 to the world wildlife fund’s beluga whale conservation activities, $25 to the turtle conservancy. i love beluga whales and turtles.
  • day 15: $50, national advocates for pregnant women. because there’s nothing more existentially terrifying than realizing all the ways america threatens the bodily autonomy of all women of childbearing age.
  • day 20: $50, donors choose. i have a buddy who is a teacher of very high-risk kids. he asked for some chemistry equipment for his classroom. he is SO CLOSE to his goal! help him!

part 3: thoughtfulness
i have said over and over again that i don’t get down with redemptive suffering. i think suffering is not laudable, nor is it “teachable.” you can learn about life without venerating pain. there is a distinct and vital difference between discipline and suffering. i like to try new things that stretch the ol’ boundaries now and then. it’s good for the brain, the body and the soul.

the charity/cause piece has been interesting too. it’s really… fun, for lack of a better word, to be able to put my pocketbook where my mouth is on some of my favorite worthy causes. i love watching people who are equipped to do good work get out in the world and help. i have always been more of a back-line soldier when it comes to activism, but until very recently in my life, i’ve had more free time than free money. it’s great to be able to turn to a great group of dedicated folks and say, here’s some funding; go get ‘em, i’m rooting for you. i will probably keep this going after lent ends, now that i know it doesn’t pinch too much or get in the way of paying bills.

and this is why i love atheist lent. i learn something about myself every year i do this. i learn what’s important to me, and i learn a little about what i’m capable of. it’s a great education. easter won’t be quite as big a catharsis this year as it was the year i gave up fast food – that was still the tastiest damn hamburger i have ever eaten. it’ll be more of a commmencement ceremony into a planned pattern of giving. and that is a good thing.

ok, halftime’s over. let’s get out there and bring this thing home, fellow lent folks. you’ve got this!


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fraternity man

[BIG GIANT CAVEAT: “greek life” means different things to different people. my experience is interfraternity council/national panhellenic conference greek, which is historically white. there are, of course, the “divine nine” groups governed by the national pan-hellenic council, which are historically black. there are other groups aligned with other ethnicities, honor societies that consider themselves fraternities, etc. because i know nothing about those, i’m not qualified to talk about them. when you see me say “greek,” we’re talking white folks unless otherwise designated.]

i am in a sorority. my husband is in a fraternity. and more relevant to my college greek experience, my ex-husband is in a fraternity too. an old-south one, to boot. i sometimes look back on experiences i’ve had that are far outside the reputation of such situations and think man, i think i went through [experience x] in a parallel universe/heaven/etc. this is ABSOLUTELY NOT a #notallgreeks treatise. we have a huge problem in our greater greek community. the rotten little bigots formerly of oklahoma’s SAE chapter are not an unknown quantity to me. there is a reason we always called SAE “same assholes everywhere.”

it’s extremely upsetting to see the total lack of evolution in greek life. it’s not like it’s impossible. i know it isn’t; i lived it when i was a kid. we sure had all the visual trappings of the stereotype in our fraternity-associated circle: white-columned brick mansion frat-house; tons of loud, obnoxious white boys drinking heavily; girls from the women’s colleges scattered around the western part of virginia driving down for the weekend to visit with the boys; a portrait of ROBERT E. LEE in the damn living room, for god’s sake, donated by a rich old alumnus who came by once in awhile to check that the portrait was still there.

but if you walked in and sat down with us, you’d hear, for example, the following:

  • one drunk boy screaming at another: “BRO. you’re MISSING the POINT about WITTGENSTEIN!”
  • a three-hour billy joel sing-along, led by one of the brothers playing grand piano
  • three of the guys developing a tripartite philosophy of eminem, with marshall mathers as the father, eminem as the son and slim shady as the holy ghost

[yes, those are all 100% real things that happened in front of me, and yes, i did go to college in the early 2000s.]

these dudes were kinda weird. they were quirky. not all of them were straight, not all of them were republicans. they were all white, because for all intents and purposes the school was too. [there MIGHT have been five black kids who weren’t international students at the whole school; at least one of them was greek.] and though i can only bear witness to the things i knew, the most racial these guys ever got was making fun of the rich kid from appalachia for wearing a fubu sweatshirt. they called the lee painting “st. bob,” with various levels of eyeroll implied.

and what if i told you that i have never felt safer as a woman drunk off my tailfeathers at a party than i was around them? they had a brother who would walk the floor at parties to stop people from taking embarrassing pictures of drunk girls. [he saved my bacon from being mortified at least twice, including the night i discovered why 100-proof vodka was more expensive than 80-proof vodka.] the sober brother (who was usually my ex-husband) was charged with evicting anyone who made girls uncomfortable. they actually went along with the university’s requirement of trained bartenders at parties for alcohol control.

i didn’t pledge my sorority until i transferred from this school and got to my alma mater. and at my school, greek life was even more open, more chill. when we had greek week events, ALL the fraternities/sororities teamed up together, including the divine nine. (i hadn’t seen that before and haven’t heard of it since.) i still follow my little chapter sisters on social media, and it makes me proud to see them cheering on all of their fellow greeks. hell, they won a step show for the whole greek community sponsored by alpha phi alpha. that was amazing to see, and it made me really proud of my school. i am thrilled when i see bid-day pictures that welcome young women of all body types, races, and ethnicities. while we did have stupid bid discussions in my time – really? you’re weirded out by that chick’s SHOES? – we did NOT have the kind of horrible racial blackballing that, for example, the girls at ‘bama did, and for all we know still do. hopefully they’re the exception and we’re the rule, but i have this nagging sense that isn’t true.

what’s my point? i have two, really.

1) if nothing else, maybe our experiences can be roadmaps to redemption for the greek system. and yes, i do believe greek life can be redeemed. it’s really no joke that sorority life has given me a great toolbox for corporate life. getting thrown in with a group of people you may not know well to advance a common set of ideals is pretty much the essence of working for a company, and i go back to my college years way more often than you’d expect to respond to work situations. maybe not every fraternity/sorority can be saved; it’s not just SAE with a history that doesn’t exactly scream “welcome to all.” but with conscious reform efforts, a lot of them can.

2) speaking of history, i am positive that every last pre-integration IFC/NPC group has at least some ugly racial/religious history in its past. almost every IFC fraternity and every NPC sorority was founded LONG before the civil rights era. how many of the old songbooks have things we now regret in them? we all know this SAE chant is part of fraternity lore by now. i mean, there are a bunch of states that are revisiting their state songs for old-timey racist language. we’ve talked about the third verse of “maryland, my maryland” and its reeeeeeeally confederate imagery.

so why not just… own it? if we really want to be a part of the 21st century as a greek community, we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge what we were. my sorority’s history is always presented in a really “positive” way. i would like to see some recognition of, for example, when we integrated. i have no qualms with the greek community saying this is our past. our predecessors did this. we’re sorry for the hurt it’s caused. we’re committing it to the dustbin of history, but we won’t forget it. we will learn from this, and we will never let things like this happen again.

right now, the phrase “fraternity man” is synonymous with white boys full-throatedly and gleefully chanting vicious racial slurs. if greeks want to secure a place for ourselves in the 21st century, it is ON US to replace that image. we are the ones who have to do the heavy lifting; it is not anyone else’s job to do the work to get us right with modernity. these are our brothers and sisters. it’s time to help our family evolve.


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perspectives

my favorite SNL sketch of all time is “perspectives.” i think it’s because my lovin’ daddy worked in local TV late at night when i was a child, so i remember clearly the days when TV stations had to do the barest minimum necessary to meet their public interest obligation. if you don’t remember, it was tim meadows hosting a community service show that was sandwiched into the lineup whenever the station wanted to.

here’s a link to my absolute favorite iteration of the sketch, from when chris rock was the guest. i love this sketch so much that, when i wake up and look at the clock in the middle of the night, i think WITHOUT FAIL, “it’s [whatever time] in the A.M., and you’re watching ‘perspectives,'” just before i fall back asleep.

i’ve had perspectives on my mind a lot lately, mostly because i finally downloaded the ol’ blog archive and grabbed my writings into a word doc for backup purposes. because my tech background is only selectively strong, i did the HTML deletion manually, which required a lot of re-reading of what i’ve written over the years. a couple of key things popped up time and time again.

  • i miss some of my old bloggy pals who have drifted away from the blog/twitter-sphere over time. i’ve met some really awesome people over the 5+ years i’ve been at this blog-thing.
  • my voice grew very distinctly over the years, from scattered and chatty to long and drawn-out.
  • i’m one hell of a lot more political on here than i used to be. i can also clearly tell the influence of smart people i’ve started reading and listening to. i’ve gotten a lot more outwardly intersectional. i’ve learned how to put the right words to things i’ve always thought, but haven’t said well over the years. that is a welcome development.
  • inside of the fiction that most of my 2010-12 stories were, i accidentally spilled a LOT of my business in public.
  • from the start of the blog until the man and i moved into our own place together, i was stark-raving out of my gourd.

reading back through everything was a sharp, intense experience. i thought i was so grown, so on top of things, so in control of all the decisions i was making. i had to have looked like a tasmanian devil on speed back then. and i had NO sense of what was happening. my LL.M. year was an autopilot blur. some of those entries picked up my heart rate. i wanted to pick up that girl and just hug her until she calmed down.

i know intellectually that this is just how life works. you move through seasons of your life, you grow and change, and that’s that. but i will never, ever get over that stunned feeling of damn, i was so… young. getting older/wiser will never stop being surprising. i am sure that people older than me are currently laughing at me for saying all this out loud. that’s just the way it is, some things will never change, i guess.

it’s clear that there is no such thing as one “perspective” over time. i tried to put myself back in the middle of some of those situations and come to the same conclusions i did in real time, and it was just not happening. not-quite-34-year-old me is not even close to not-quite-29-year-old me. (and not-quite-30-year-old the man has grown up into not-quite-35-year-old the man, for that matter.) some of the things i said back then are so cringeworthy to me now.

but that’s the fun of life, i guess – perspectives change. and the extra dose of fun about the 2010s is that you can do that growing and changing out here in front of ERRRRRRBODY if you want to. and i did, for better and for worse. i’m glad to have done so; it’s brought great people who i love and care for into my life, this blogging thing. but it’s not for the faint of heart to grow that publicly. you have to confront weaknesses in perspective that you didn’t recognize as weaknesses before. but then, that’s why they call it perspectiveS, i guess. here’s to many, many more.


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throwback: love is stronger than justice

[i’m running through my blog archive making a more permanent file of my writings. there’s a lot of territory to review in that XML file, for sure. it’s been a heart-warming and harrowing review process, to be sure. it’s been fun to see when i met some of y’all, and it’s been sad to note how some folks who were blog-pals from way back have vanished completely from ye olde interwebs.

anyway, i’m reposting an entry from 2012 today, in its entirety. it’s probably the truest thing i’ve ever written, in any context or on any subject.]

november 13, 2012: love is stronger than justice
[by the way, can y’all tell that i’m running out of fun song titles to name my posts? this is the title of an album cut from the 1993 album ten summoner’s tales by sting. STING! gaah. but i digress.]

being among the lawya-types of the world, i think a lot about justice. when you’re in law school in particular, you tend to drink the NOBILITY OF JUSTICE flavor aid. y’know, the lofty purity of the academic study of the law, where you can build this perfect world of applying the words to the facts and letting it go at that. and it’s really, really seductive, too. when you’re in the thick of the study, it’s easy to believe that justice will win out over the forces of bad, dumb and evil.

but then you get back from school into the real world, and you get right back into the reality of the situation. there is no such thing as justice, really. not in the purest sense of the word, anyway. we’re human beings, and simply because perfection is beyond the grasp of humans, pure justice is impossible. we can get pretty close, when we try real hard and look to our better angels. but we all know better. and somehow, remembering how life is stings a lot harder when you’ve spent all that time in the shining city on the law-school hill.

and i’m not just referring to criminal justice, fair trade practices or actual arenas that concern lawya-ing. law school really gets in your head and makes you think that you can achieve clarity and balanced justice in your personal life. it did for me, anyway. i evaluated my marriage to my ex in light of things like fairness to him, competing equities, and all that stuff. the marriage did not pass muster.

i did this again with my racist bigoted crazy-ass grandmother. i stated my case, awaited the answer, the whole nine. and you know what happened? i got no justice. being forthright and honest, using cold, clear reason, got me a fat load of nothing (and allowed her to kick her martyr complex into HIGH gear). i did this again with another undiscloseable family situation. i encouraged the application of honest, forthright reason to a problem, and not only did we get nothing in return, THAT one exploded and got about a billion times worse than it had been before i tried to apply reasonable principles of honesty to an irrational bad actor.

so what have we learned?

sometimes the bad guys get their way. you can’t be reasonable with people who actively reject reason. and justice, in those cases, straight-up fails you. but there is an upside to this sort of thing: you are provided with the full range of information you need to determine whether or not you actually want to maintain relationships or remain in certain situations. you get to either cut your losses and flee, or you can fight crazy with love. (the christofascist nutbars tend to describe this tactic as, “well, we’re just gonna love ‘em back.” it’s a variation of attracting more flies with honey than with vinegar, i think.)

and you figure out, in those times of crisis, when logic, reason and justice fail, who your real friends are. those are the folks who fill the holes left by the explosions with love, with laughs and drinks, with commiseration over snacks or over twitter, and with the sense that all is not lost. you can swaddle yourself in the knowledge that a lot of people care about you, even when it’s been made abundantly clear that some people who you’d think would be required by position and relationships to care cannot get past their own narcissistic malevolence to care.

in those moments, you see love trump justice. justice stops mattering so damn much. yeah, these idiots wronged you. and they’re idiots, and they’re wrong for it. but they’re not going to stop being idiots, even though you’ve called them on their idiocy. in fact, they’ve doubled down on their idiocy and slathered it all in a dose of self-righteous, wounded, martyred rage. but for all the big, loud, explosive presence those bad actors have in your life, the lovers, the laughers, and the people who care have more. it would be really awesome to get redress for the wrongs. but when you have so damn much love to block out the clanging, wailing malevolence, who the hell needs justice? just turn up the music, pour the champagne and get in there to celebrate what matters: love. cheers.

[one of the things that’s been most distressing to review in my archiving project is how long some of these problems have gone on. it’s been over three YEARS since my grandmother showed her true colors to my beloved. his parents have been acting out about the “undiscloseable family situation” for almost FOUR.

but we persevere. we choose love over foolishness. and within our chosen families, with their bonds of love, laughter and true respect for one another, we flourish. that’s what you do, right? that’s what healing is. you drop what harms you and surround yourself with what helps. here’s to more of that sustaining, redeeming love to come…]


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the truth in love

sometimes twitter makes my head ache, like when articles like this cross my path. like i needed another reminder that institutions will stop at nothing to dehumanize and demoralize a sexual assault victim if it means they don’t have to acknowledge their complicity in rape culture.

but other times, i am inspired by twitter. there was a beautiful conversation among roxane gay, ashley ford, and tayari jones this afternoon about honesty and truth. [by the way? if you’re not following all three of these amazing women, do yourself a favor. your life will be richer for it.]

the genesis of the conversation was a discussion among writers about the “worth” of a masters in fine arts (MFA). having no frame of reference for the merits of that point, i’ll refrain, but roxane gay said something that stirred me to my core:

the more interesting conversation is one about ‘honesty’ and how sometimes that is a polite way of saying something else. ‘i’m saying something you might not like but i am just being honest.’ this valorization of blunt honesty is interesting. as if honesty is objective. ‘just being honest’ is a get out of jail free card for ‘just saying something that may be cruel or unpopular or something don’t hate me’ even ‘honest’ people want to be liked heh”

to which one of her followers responded: “my minister told me whenever she hears ‘i’m giving you the truth out of love,’ she knows to put her shields up.”

i knew a girl in law school who was a visiting student from another law school. she’d spent several years before school in the evangelical christian activism arena, much like christine “i’m not a witch!” o’donnell. her email address was thetruthinlove[at][old ISP that will not be named dot-com]. and sure enough, she came to everything we talked about with a particularly vicious frame of mind, so sure was she that every word that left her mouth was “the truth.” if you weren’t living biblically, it was her place to make sure you knew how far off the path you’d strayed. in a constitutional law class on privacy that centered around roe v. wade, she brought her bible and a book of evangelical legal briefs on the subject to class, sitting straight up in her chair just ready to pounce with the “truth.” the professor took note of this, and in a move i give him credit for to this day, refused to call on her (or me, for that matter). he limited his questions to students who had no polar opinion on the topic and demanded strict discussion of the cases only, not their policy ramifications. it was an act of pedagogical microsurgery, and it neutralized her hyper-pious attempts to share “the truth” with us.

radical honesty is something the internet praises. it’s all about being REAL, being TRUE, damn the consequences. articles like this cross my timeline, which i’m sure are meant to be affirmations for some audiences despite their seething contempt for anyone who doesn’t live that way. guess only women without children and husbands can be interesting, according to this article. there goes my shot, and my mom’s shot, and every other wife and mother’s shot at being an interesting person. but hey, that author’s just being honest, right?

and that’s just it. it is possible to “give the truth in love.” it is a welcome reassurance when someone loves you well enough to chin-check you when you’re not doing right. but you actually have to demonstrate the love part of the equation to qualify. far too often, people use the cloak of honesty to disguise truly cutting, brutal behavior and leave the interaction convinced that you’re a good, right person who helped your audience. meanwhile, you get to escape any liability for the wounds you’ve caused. after all, you were honest, and honesty is good.

tayari jones capped the conversation with, “and there is this idea that kindness is dishonest.”

and heaven forfend that honesty be trumped by anything else, right? it is the ultimate virtue of this winter of our discontent. and it makes me crazy. you don’t have to tell your friend that you don’t like her haircut if it’s just going to hurt them. you don’t have to mention that they’re getting fat, or that you’re not a fan of that thing they wrote.

as ashley ford said, “there’s a way to communicate with people that ACTUALLY conveys that you care about how they feel. it doesn’t make you less genuine.”

i would rather be perceived as kind and less genuine rather than honest and cruel. that’s just the way i was made. i have made it a point to learn to tell the truth to people in a way that honors their humanity. it’s really not hard. just think for a brief second right before you speak: is there a way to say this nicely? because if you don’t care about the person you’re talking to, even a little tiny bit, you’re not telling the truth in love.

you’re just being a jerk.

and there’s no honest concern in that.


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gifts and sacrifices

happy day 5 of atheist-lent.

yes, as always, the atheist observes lent. i grew up in a former french/spanish colony, in which catholic and high-liturgical protestant traditions are baked into the way of life. so when all my friends growing up gave something up, i did too. not for spiritual reasons, but to support them and to test my own willpower. there’s nothing more rewarding than completing a hard challenge.

so this year, i’ve come at this a little differently. in years past, all i’ve done is give something up: fast food, red meat, hard liquor, etc. that’s a fine way to test your mettle: go without something you like for 40 days to prove to yourself you’re a little tougher than you think you are. but that’s a pretty self-focused way to go about this. i wondered if there was a better tactic to use, and lo and behold, there is.

being a heathen, i was unaware that lent in the catholic tradition takes a three-fold approach: prayer, “fasting,” and “alms-giving.” obviously, prayer is a non-starter with me. i’ve got the sacrifice piece in good order: i’m giving up my evening laziness to dedicate 30 minutes every day to the exercise bike the man bought me. but alms-giving, or charitable donation, is a new facet for me. it’s a great way to take your focused dedication and use it for something good.

so this year, i’m giving as much as i can. every 5 days of the 40-day lenten cycle (you don’t count sundays in lent; they’re sort of built-in skip days), i will give at least $25 to a different charity. if i skip an exercise session for any reason, i will add a $5 fine to the charity piece. today is the first giving day, and i’m going with a group doing vital, amazing work: trans lifeline. what could be more important than saving the lives of trans people, who are so much more vulnerable to suicide (as well as other violence) than cis folks? and i won’t lie; the fact that the pope compared trans people’s existence to the danger of nuclear weapons may have inspired this donation.

i’ll pick a new group doing something important each giving day during lent. i have some groups in mind; others i’ll need to research. it’s literally the least i can do during a season of focus, discipline and being mindful.

mindful. that’s become a really loaded term in the age of the internet self-help complex. there are tons of sparkly infographics and pumped-up polished blogs swearing that drinking kale juice and running marathons will make you more “mindful.” but really, what the internet life-coach industry tends to offer is a kind of comfort masquerading as thoughtfulness. yes, you can make yourself feel healthier by watching what you eat and exercising. but bragging about “clean eating” (which is a LIE, by the way, and a really judgmentally caustic thing to say that shames others) and running marathons isn’t really being mindful. using yoga or belly-dancing to be “spiritual” usually just results in co-opting eastern religious traditions while erasing the brown folks who brought you the practice.

the trick in 2015 is to find a way to care about others without making it all about yourself. one of my biggest pet peeves is when people go on and on and on about how much they give to charity or how many good works they do. i knew a guy who, after spending high school being a seething pile of self-aggrandizing arrogant jerk-ery, went on to work in the nonprofit industry after college. i lost touch with him (on purpose) before this, but he resurfaced in our lives when a coworker of a friend randomly ended up on a match.com date with him. she told us he spent the entire night talking about all the great work he did – HE gave this money and HE did this project and HE raised this much and blah blah blah.

that’s not charity. that’s making yourself look good. and the motivation matters. do you really care about the world outside yourself, or are you just trying to use their gratitude to pump your own self-image?

so i’m not going to sit here and brag. that’s not the spirit of atheist-lent. the idea is to make a sacrifice and make a gift – go outside yourself and center others in the service of making things better. i’ll check in from time to time, if only to share a particularly awesome charity with y’all. but when you give, you have to give with the right frame of mind. even jesus, that awesome guy who christians never seem to actually listen to, said this was a good idea. “when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men.” [matthew 6:2]

there’s nothing wrong with being happy that you’re doing good work. just make your sacrifices and give your gifts humbly, modestly, and with an actual spirit of generosity. make it about the people you want to help, not about you. that’s what atheist-lent is all about, right?

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