I became an atheist in 2011 while writing my first novel, Alex. I went through the “angry atheist” phase, wherein I realized precisely how much of my life I wasted believing bullshit and how many opportunities I had passed on because I feared they were “sinful.” For awhile, I was having a new revelation about how contorted my religious life had been on a near-weekly basis. I remembered destroying my D&D books because they were evil. I remembered seeing a paper cutter at school and fighting the urge to cut my hand off (because I had masturbated with it, and of course, if your hand offends you, you should cut it off). I remembered believing for several years that I was demon-possessed because there was “lust” in my heart (in the heart of a normal 16-year-old? Say it ain’t so!).
The hardest part, though, has been realizing the lost opportunities. Coming to the realization that returning some of the advances I had gotten from girls while growing up would not have damned my soul to hell, for example, or that enjoying anything that wasn’t primarily concerned with the worship of Jesus was okay.
If you didn’t have this experience and can’t really comprehend it, just chew on that last phrase for a second. Any game, any book or movie, literally any form of entertainment that didn’t have Jesus in it was impossible for me to fully enjoy. I felt guilty and ashamed, on some level, the entire time I experienced it, because I wasn’t giving sufficient glory to God.
The breaking moment for me—the instant I decided to admit I didn’t believe in gods any more—was triggered by my children. After that, my love for them and my desire to spare them the hell I went through as a child has fueled a lot of my decisions on what to teach them and how to interact with them. I feel very protective of them, and I don’t want them to experience the things I did. But as is often the case with kids, they surprise me.
In trying to spare them from harm, I find them healing me in the process.
I love music. It is a secret language that speaks in emotion, a unique expression of the human soul that has the power to transcend culture and experience. So deep is its power to communicate that we included it—along with speech samples, mathematics demonstrations, and the sound of a human baby’s cry—as proof of our intelligence to prospective alien life.
Good music can create a sense of euphoria or melancholy; it can trigger the imagination; it can color your mood for an entire day or week. I listen to something catchy in the morning in lieu of drinking coffee—I call it “aural caffeine”—and whenever I have a long drive I relish the opportunity to let my inner 8-year-old run wild in the back of my head to whatever music will stimulate him the most. Music is one of the absolute greatest things about my life, a drug without peer.
So it should be no shock that Christianity nearly ruined it for me.
Dancing was fine, but only if done at church to church hymns. Singing was fine, but only if done to worship or spread the word of God. You weren’t allowed to love music. You were allowed to love God, and use music as a tool to that end and only that end.
Understand, it was a zero-sum game. A given activity was either glorifying God or insulting him. There was no neutral. You didn’t have to be rapping along with Dr. Dre about bitches and hos—you could merely be singing Madonna’s Material Girl and it was as good as blasphemy. (Like a Virgin was right out.) I skirted this restriction by seeking out the closest thing I could find to subversive Christian music—I was such a rebel. (In fairness to Steve Taylor, I actually still enjoy a lot of his music. Apparently he got a new band together in 2013, and the video for the kickstarter was pretty funny—he’s still a talented guy.)
One of the clearest examples of this dichotomy was the raising of hands. I was taught that you raised your hands to give worship. What you were worshiping was the only open question. It was a-okay (and even expected; indeed, nearly mandatory) to raise one’s hands at church while singing worship songs. Your intent was clear, there: you were giving praise unto God. To raise your hands pretty much anywhere else, at any time, to any piece of music, was essentially worshiping the devil.
I remember going to a Def Leppard concert (I know, I know, I heard some of the band members were Christian so that made it okay), seeing the audience with their hands up, and being utterly appalled. I was surrounded by people that were either ignorant of what they were doing, or worse, willfully offering praise to either the band or the devil. There was no possibility that they were simply exulting in the music. Like I mentioned in an older post about the movie Woodlawn, the Christian mindset I was raised in was that non-Christians couldn’t possibly be making their own decisions for their own, valid reasons, and that mindset was the only one I had.
I never felt the urge to raise my hands while listening to secular music, and I never wanted to raise my hands while listening to Christian music, because it felt conspicuous. Any time I listened to music, there was a section of my mind completely devoted to managing what my body did during the experience. As you can probably imagine, I was a great dancer and really comfortable at parties. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)
This automatic self-monitoring didn’t stop when I became an atheist. Weirdly, it intensified in some ways. After cutting faith out of my life, I started to feel the urge sometimes to raise my hands to music—something that had never happened to me before, in or outside of church. I stifled it, because it was a leftover product of my religion. Some weird template that said I had to lift my hands while listening to music, that there was no other way to properly enjoy it. It made me severely uncomfortable.
At the same time I tried to make a point of playing music around my children, especially when we were in the car. Different styles, different genres. I wanted to foster a love of it in them, the pure love that I was never allowed as a kid, the love of music for music’s sake.
Flash forward to 2014 or so. My daughter Rydia was 6 years old. We were in the grocery store parking lot, with Florence and the Machine on the iPod. The song was Shake It Out. Only as I write this do I realize how apropos the song itself was for the moment. It has elements of a hymnal. The lyrics are about overcoming the chains of the past. Florence’s voice is beautiful and fierce, filled with longing.
I loved watching and hearing my daughter sing to music like this, to see it move her like it moved me. But that day she surprised me. Around the three minute mark, Florence launches into this held note—not an ostentatious, look-at-how-long-I-can-hold-this-note kind of thing, but a soaring, gorgeous cry that interweaves beautifully with the rest of the music and elevates all of it. Listening to it feels like flying. It is my favorite part of the song, possibly my favorite fifteen seconds of Florence and the Machine’s entire library.
And when it came on, my daughter closed her eyes and raised her hands.
Not because anyone told her to. Not because she had something to prove or something to hide. Not for any reason at all other than the sheer joy of the music, the spiritual connection to another human being’s art.
It brought me to tears. It’s bringing me to tears writing about it now.
In that instant I realized that Christianity had never owned the concept of raising one’s hands to music. It had co-opted that, just like it had co-opted every piece of entertainment I had ever enjoyed, just like it had co-opted my own private thoughts when I’d found a girl pretty in high school. I could raise my hands if I felt moved to. God had nothing to do with it.
My 6-year-old girl had shown me how.
This is a thank you post, so I’m going to say that first.
To everyone who has ever left me a good Amazon review, who has ever emailed or messaged me to say how much they loved my work. Even if “all” you’ve done is purchase a book of mine or read it under Kindle Unlimited so I could see the pages flying by—those pages are uncontrovertible proof that someone was hooked enough to keep turning them, and you have no idea how valuable that is to me. How necessary.
I’m talking to my mom and my aunt, of course, my wife and friends and family, but I’m especially talking to the folks I’ve never met in person. The Marcia Sommerkamps and Elinor Bragas and Gwen Peters of the world. The people who will never see this post because they don’t follow me on FB or read my blog, but have reached out to make sure I knew how much they liked my stuff regardless. Thank you. This business is constantly punching me in the gut. You give me the power to keep my feet.
So what’s with the sudden outpouring of gratitude?
Critics, of course.
I got my review back from Publisher’s Weekly on ALEX. My first novel, my bestselling novel, my baby, the one I’m proudest of because it’s had the most “success.” The one that more than a thousand readers have gushed over publicly, the one that has moved so many to tears and literally left them thinking about it for years.
Yeah. PW was unimpressed. “Lack of suspense.” “The buildup of suspense is overwrought.” “Predictable twists.” “It is established too early that ghosts dictate the course of the plot.” (That one is particularly brutal to me, since I as the author never made a final decision whether the “ghosts” in the book were real and never intended to communicate one. Apparently PW thought it was pretty obvious that this was a vanilla ghost story from the word go, and were way too smart of all my tapdancing shenanigans.)
So I opened my email this morning and got hit with this particular gut punch. Good morning.
My immediate reaction: devastation, of course. These are the REAL reviewers. These are the PROS. If they say my book sucks they must know what they’re talking about.
But . . .
Because of you, I can hardly even write those words with a straight face. I *know* people loved the book. They’ve *told* me.
Leading in to my second reaction: smug superiority. So the traditional publishing industry hates my work—that’s not a surprise. I knew that yesterday. I’m self-published and they hate that. All these efforts to give out reviews to the little people are obviously just a ploy to put us in our place and remind us that THEY decide who lives and who dies. I don’t have to listen to them. I don’t have to give a rat’s ass about them. I have my own reviewers who like me. So there.
But . . .
It passes. I don’t want to be that guy. Stars help me if I become *that guy*. I never want to deny criticism on face just because of its source (with certain exceptions; some sources prove their unworthiness, but this isn’t that). I want to be open to legitimate critiques, no matter how they sting. And I agree with some of it—predictable twists? Sure, some people saw the twists coming. Professional reviewers are the most likely to see those, aren’t they? It’s hard to bullshit a bullshitter. “Suspense is overwrought” and “lack of suspense” sort of seem to contradict each other . . . but I know what they’re driving at: the book sags a bit in the middle. Enough people have told me this that I believe them.
But . . .
Try as I might, I just can’t be super-cool, above-the-fray guy. I pour my heart and soul into this stuff. I leave myself wide open—that’s what artists do. We beg people to shiv us in the stomach all day long.
So the reeling starts. You know, the self-pitying, self-destructive thoughts. Maybe I could just take a day off to recoup. Maybe I should go home and rethink my life—
—and it bumps into this weird bedrock. “No. People like my stuff.” The same thought as before, but in a different form. Not a scream of defiance, not a petulant denial . . . just a fact. People like my stuff. I’m not making it up. Shit, I know some of their *names*.
It doesn’t mean PW is wrong. It doesn’t mean I should never get criticized. It doesn’t mean I’m some tragic, hipster writing god, doomed by the artist’s curse to roam the earth with my genius unrecognized for all my life.
It just means I’ve got readers. I’ve got people who are picking up what I’m putting down—even if PW isn’t. And isn’t that the whole goddamn ballgame?
So thank you. *THANK YOU*. You saved my psyche today.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go write my ass off.
When I hear that Apple is worth one trillion dollars it makes me want to scream. That is the kind of money that could buy everyone an electric vehicle and convert whole swaths of the world to green energy. It is the kind of money that could solve global poverty if applied correctly. But we have a system that instead silos that money for the sole purpose of making more money. So it sits there replicating itself while the world burns and people starve. That’s a stupid system.
[Please note what I did not say, namely, “We should take their money and use it to fix the world.” I did not say those words.)
I don’t have a religious code. If I were still a Christian, anyone sitting on billions of dollars who doesn’t use it to improve the state of the world would be violating my beliefs (I suppose as long as they’re not gay, though, that would have been fine – and that really is a dig on me, not Christians in general). As it stands the main rule I live by is the golden one. It’s really simple, and yeah, watching any global crisis unfold and not taking forward steps to address it when they literally have the money at their fingertips is reprehensible.
I don’t care about whether they have an “obligation.” I don’t care about whether they feel the children who are getting lead poisoning from the water in Flint somehow wronged them by living in a home that voted blue. Those are not factors in my mind. They can solve a problem and neglect to, opting instead to feed their money into the money-making machine. The money goes in and it makes more money. WHAT IS THE POINT OF THIS MONEY?
The “billionaire” angle of this thing is also only a piece of it. Congress has the power to act on this. Michigan has the power to act on this. I almost checked to see which party controls Michigan right now and realized I don’t care — THEY HAVE THE POWER TO ACT ON THIS. It is appalling and embarrassing how long the situation in Flint has continued. And deeply dangerous. It is equally appalling how paralyzed we are in the face of global climate changes that could literally end civilization as we know it, and how bad we are failing as a worldwide species to curb the hate that is rising up everywhere. I do what I can, but I don’t have a billion dollars. I don’t have the resources of the government. I don’t have the POWER that these people have. All I have are the bit of money I can spare for these causes and my voice. So that’s what I use, and that’s why I post thoughts like this.
Call it vilification of the rich, or call it social pressure – either way, they have a choice of how to respond to it. They avoided regulations for years with the argument of self-regulation, but they won’t do the same thing for the big problems. The problems that require their kind of power to solve.
Because this isn’t about money, not really. It’s about power. You need power to solve big problems. And the people who hold the power refuse to solve the problems.
Sometimes two things that feel contradictory can actually be true at the same time. Recognizing this, I think, is one of the ways we can discover nuance — a seemingly lost art in what passes for today’s national dialog.
I see examples of this all the time, often in politics, but in other arenas as well. A great example is the current debate over what Nancy Pelosi said about impeaching Trump, i.e., that it wouldn’t be “worth it.” People are upset about this, and I totally understand that. I’m upset too.
There is no doubt in my mind that Trump’s conduct has met, again and again, an impeachable standard. In emolument violations alone he has flouted the constitution. His recent emergency declaration violates the limitations of the office. His obvious & public witness tampering and obstruction of justice. His refusal to listen to American intelligence sources while holding closed-door meetings with multiple enemies of our nation. Even his daily behavior fails to meet the standard of nobility we expect from the office.
And I feel down to my bones that impeachment should be a matter of national security and principle, rather than political advantage. That no matter which party the president is from, Congress as a whole has an obligation to act in the best interest of the nation.
Yet Republicans have proven a hundred times that they will not hold this man accountable for anything. Their vague hand-wringing has devolved into base bootlicking. They have completely surrendered anything even resembling oversight power in the Senate; their sole purpose is to ram through as many of Trump’s judges as possible.
So while it’s true that Trump deserves impeachment, it’s also true that the Senate will not vote to convict. That means no impeachment effort will remove him from office.
I don’t want that to be true. It kills me that that’s true. I want to ignore that that’s true and plow ahead with impeachment anyway—because it feels like a moral imperative. It feels like our country *has* to be better than that, that letting this president get away with the atrocities he’s committed guarantees we will see even worse in the future. And that may also be true.
But none of that changes the fact that impeachment will be a symbolic action. Even if it passes the House, the Senate will never vote to convict based on the evidence currently available, and possibly never, period. In that case, what does impeachment achieve? Well, it may achieve a temporary sense of empowerment among democrats. It may leave the president appearing weak and attacked.
But I think it’s far more likely to leave the president looking stronger. Impervious. And that will, if anything, embolden him. It may even affect public opinion—”Oh, well, they tried to impeach him and failed so I guess there really was no collusion and I can believe everything he says.” If that happens, the impeachment attempt itself will paradoxically make it HARDER to remove Trump from office next year, by making him stronger going in to the election.
So what is the real goal? To impeach for the sake of impeaching, to follow that moral imperative because it’s what America really SHOULD do? Or to get this cancer out of the white house?
Because if the goal is the latter, until we know we have the votes in the Senate and that Mitch McConnell will even bring it for a vote, the best way to achieve that goal is to forego an impeachment vote in the House and focus all our energy on beating the bastard in the 2020 presidential election.
It kills me to say that. It leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.
Trump deserves to be impeached.
Impeaching Trump may empower him to remain in the office.
Both things are true.