Empowering women! Through secularism!

Remember a couple months ago when you wonderful people went and sent me to a conference? That conference is this weekend! Myself and some other awesomers (hey there Geoff & Sharrow and a bunch of other people who weren’t actually sitting right in front of me) have been tweeting up a storm over at the #ewts2013 tag. Beware of the trolls, though- this is a thing on the internet where people are talking about feminism. You have been warned! 

I’ll be heading back there in an hour or so- giz a follow if you fancy. And if you’re at the conference, don’t be a stranger!

Empowering women! Through secularism!

Going to your (Catholic) funeral

I went to a funeral today.

I feel like I write a lot about going to funerals. I wish I didn’t have the opportunity. But I do, and they make me think. This was the first funeral I’ve been to in the years since I left the catholic church where I wasn’t one of the primary mourners. My granduncle died. Though I loved him dearly, I am neither his daughter nor his granddaughter. I had the space to think a little about what was happening, about what I found beautiful and comforting and what I did not.

Being at a mass is difficult. I have such profoundly negative feelings towards the catholic church, but I respect the fact that this is a church to which my uncle was incredibly devoted. There’s a very fine line between attending, showing respect and expressing grief for the person I love, and not being dishonest about my own position. So I do what a lot of people do: I attend, I sit quietly on a pew, I listen to the words being said and try to focus on the reminiscences and individual meanings. I do not kneel when asked, though, and I do not say any prayers. I’m the only person I can see who can kneel who isn’t. That feels strange, and I feel so self-conscious. I think my integrity needs me to not kneel, though. I don’t go for Communion. I do shake hands when this is offered- but I always meet someone’s eyes with a question before shaking hands with them, and am happy to smile instead. Because I do want to share solidarity and compassion, and because I don’t want to foist unwanted contact on anyone. I feel like my integrity demands that I do this, too. I feel profoundly aware that I am not a Catholic.

I listen to the singing. It’s beautiful. I will never deny the aching, tragic beauty and hope of the requiem. The choir are people my uncle sang with for decades. Their voices are strong and clear, just like his was. Listening, I think about how so much of religion is based on this moment- when we acknowledge that everything and everyone must end, when we grieve and ache and we long to create and communicate what they meant and who they were. How much of it is simply the impossibility of reconciling this.

Then they talk about his life, about all the things that he did- about his love of sport and his time as President of Richmond Rugby Club, about his devotion to his family. His love of music, his skill as a carpenter, the love he shared with his wife. And then they say that with a life so well lived, he will surely be rewarded generously after his death. And I think that they’ve missed the point. The huge, beautiful point that a life so well lived rewards itself so many times over, that the things and people to which he was devoted must have been such a rich and beautiful reward for him. The hundreds of people who came to his funeral, the deep love in their grief, the stories they all had- isn’t this the reward? Can’t we just celebrate and grieve a life?

But I don’t say any of this, because I know his faith was as important to him as all of the rest of it. And I know that he probably spent his last moments looking forward to reuniting with the people who he loved who have already gone. And in my own way I do respect that. More than that, I do understand it. There were moments at that mass, when the priest described what those reunions much be like, that I let myself imagine them. In those moments, I longed for it to be true. I don’t believe, but I do understand.

And then we are at the grave. It is bitterly cold, the noise of the wind through the trees almost drowning out our voices. Until one person starts to sing, and another, and another. And in the cold and the rain, huddled together against the biting wind, we raise our voices in sadness, in joy, and in love.

In that moment I realise that this is what we do. We comfort each other and we love each other. When we are dying and in pain, we take away the pain and we sit with and hold and comfort each other. When we are scared, we stand with each other and we hold each other. When we grieve, we stand together, we make endless cups of tea, and we love each other. In that moment, I know that that’s enough.

Going to your (Catholic) funeral

To Hitch

A bunch of people over at Reddit have made a living tribute to Christopher Hitchens, raising a glass to him for how he has inspired them:

I love this.

I mean, I don’t love that Hitchens is seriously ill. I love that people are taking the time to talk about how inspiring he has been to them while he’s still here. To not wait until he’s gone (hopefully a long, long way off in the future) to talk about the good that’s come from his life. To make sure that he damn well knows it.

As for me? Like so many others, I’ve always been challenged by Hitchens. When I agree with him, I’m moved and inspired by his bravery and eloquence. When I disagree with him, I’m discomfited by his intellect, forced to reconsider my own views and the justifications I have for them. I have never, ever heard him speak and been bored. I’ve never heard him speak and been unmoved by his passion, fierce intellect and ever-present humour. I’ve never heard him speak and not looked at the thing he spoke about differently afterwards.

In Hitchens, we have been obscenely fortunate to have one of the great intellectuals of our time be someone who has devoted himself to questioning what is right, what is just, and what is true. For his intelligence, for his bravery, for his forthrightness, for making us all sometimes a little uncomfortable in our own assumptions- I say thank you.

To Hitch

A Linkspam To The Past

Since I disappeared from the internet for a while, the first few links here are going to be ancient history. Things which are multiple weeks old. Several decades, in internet time.

I still think they’re worth sharing. And want to do so before everything in this post becomes truly paleolithic, so it’s going up today instead of on schedule, next Wednesday. Because it’s my blog, and I can.


Geekery and the Humanities: A defense of the humanities, of subjectivity, and why they’re as much a part of geek culture as the STEM fields. Also, why Sheldon is a dick.

I’m not anti-logic or anti-science; I do think these things are valuable, but they can only be convincing and powerful when they take into account emotion and the humanities (for lack of a better term). None of these things work best on their own. Which brings me to my real argument: the idea that the humanities are less important than STEM is an idea that geeks need to drop, because the humanities are constitutive to geek culture, just as much as science, technology, and math are.

Why Does She Stay With That Jerk? TW for domestic violence. Holly Pervocracy looks at reasons why people she met through her work in the ER stayed in abusive relationships. I’m not going to quote anything specifically, so I can keep the TW at the other side of the link. It’s essential reading, though, if you’ve ever wondered why people stick out relationship abuse. On a similar note is autumn whitefield-madrano’s post over on Feministe,  “I Can Handle It”: On Relationship Violence, Independence, and Capability. This post is a lot more personal- it was a lot more difficult for me to read, because of this. It’s her story of what it felt like for her, from the inside of an abusive relationship.

Cisgender News is the best. If you’ve ever facepalmed at how trans people are discussed in the media, you’ll love it. If you haven’t, then you should probably read it anyway to get a snarky, snarky feel for how messed-up it is. Then you too can facepalm!

Rebekah Wade – a cisgender woman who has now quit as News International chief executive – not only conquered the macho cis world of tabloid journalism to become its queen but did so with astonishing speed. What was behind her rise to power?

Rebekah Brooks – as she started to call herself following a second marriage – courted power but avoided publicity.  She started receiving female hormones via her ovaries during her first puberty, and intends to continue with them.

And now for something a little more current.

I’m an atheist. Is that a problem? Kate Hilpern writes about being an atheist godparent. What does being a godparent really mean? Is it as much a purely religious role as the church would have you believe? Is it okay for atheists to participate in religious baptisms?

some will say I have no integrity. As its name suggests, a spokesperson from the Church of England points out, at the heart of the role is a commitment to support someone in the journey of faith. An atheist can be a wonderful influence in a child’s life, but being a godparent is to be a representative of the religious community and an example of godly living (which is why they should be baptised and preferably confirmed), in addition to supporting them socially.

I’m an atheist. I’m a godparent as well. When I was asked to be a godparent I was still technically a member of the Catholic Church, not having yet registered my apostasy, but was a nonbeliever. The reasons why I happily went into a church, crossed my fingers behind my back and took part in that ceremony? Because I was incredibly honoured to be asked. Because my own relationship with my godparents has always been about love, not doctrine. Because there are very few people who I’ll engage in Catholic ceremonies for- and my godkid’s dad is one of them. Am I entirely happy with that decision? I have no idea.

Finally, today’s Awesome Person Of The Week is Sally. Who has a thing or two to say about being described as a precious pearl. Or a lollipop. And also a few things to say about preventing sexual assault. (Hint: not assaulting people is a good start).


A Linkspam To The Past

Anniversary rekindling

Today is the second anniversary of my grandmother’s death. All the cliches apply. I find it hard to believe that it’s been so long. I find it hard to accept that she is really gone. Most of the time everything is fine, but sometimes I still get hit right in the guts, left breathless, dizzy and sick by the reality that she is gone and she will never again be. I suppose that we all do.

Something I’ve been reading, over and over, in the past few weeks is this passage from I Am A Strange Loop. It’s a beautiful secular way of articulating what survives of us after our own death.

In the wake of a human being’s death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of all those who were dearest to them. And then those people in turn pass on, the afterglow become extremely faint. And when that outer layer in turn passes into oblivion, then the afterglow is feebler still, and after a while there is nothing left.

The slow process of extinction I’ve just described, though gloomy, is a little less gloomy than the standard view. Because bodily death is so clear, so sharp, and so dramatic, and because we tend to cling to the caged-bird view, death strikes us as instantaneous and absolute, as sharp as a guillotine blade. Our instinct is to believe that the light has once and for all gone out altogether. I suggest that this is not the case for human souls, because the essence of a human being–truly unlike the essence of a mosquito or a snake or a bird or a pig–is distributed over many a brain. It takes a couple of generations for a soul to subside, for the flickering to cease, for all the embers to burn out. Although “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” may in the end be true, the transition it describes is not so sharp as we tend to think.

It seems to me, therefore, that the instinctive although seldom articulated purpose of holding a funeral or memorial service is to reunite the people most intimate with the deceased, and to collectively rekindle in them all, for one last time, the special living flame that represents the essence of that beloved person, profiting directly or indirectly from the presence of one another, feeling the shared presence of that person in the brains that remain, and this solidifying to the maximal extent possible those secondary personal gemmae that remain aflicker in all these different brains. Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows. This is what human love means. The word “love” cannot, thus, be separated from the word “I”; the more deeply rooted the symbol for someone inside you, the greater the love, the brighter the light that remains behind.

On this note, I’d like to share some things with you. Namely two posts I wrote this week two years ago in my old blog. One was barely hours before she died, and the other was a few days later. Neither has been edited, except to remove names- sorry about initials repeating.

So this is the second night in Killarney. My granny lost her swallow the other day, she can’t eat or drink anymore. We’re all here.

It’s strange.

I was really upset before I got here, after I heard. Having a really lovely day with lovelypeople and hating everything about it because I couldn’t do anything about the fact that someone I love immensely, fiercely, doesn’t get to have days anymore, never mind good ones, with Good Company and Silliness and Fun. And there’s not a thing I can do about it.

But then I got here, and the house is full of people. Me and J and my aunt M and D&M and my cousin A. And M, for an hour or two in the evenings. And constant streams of visitors.

My family are being so good to each other. I was so scared that this would make everything blow up, all the tensions that have been simmering for the past few years, but everyone is being so kind to each other. We’re letting each other be, and deal in our own ways.

And people keep cooking. The house is now full of stew and ham and pie and really good cake, and really good wine.

So that is good. There is good food, and my family are being so good to each other, and there’s a lot of us here, and that is not only comforting, but a whole lot of fun. We’re not being awkward about it. We’re making horrendous puns and talking about things and being silly and serious and it’s all very genuine.

And then there’s my granny.
She’s so tiny. You can see her bones under her skin, stretched tight. Her breathing is shallow and it’s loud, the sound fills the room. Her skin is cool, and it feels so, so thin.

I don’t know what else to say about it.

So, yes. Some of you know this already but I’m PSAing it, just for informationey purposes. I didn’t want to tell many people before now- it felt too personal, too intimate at the time. Too bare.

Last Sunday I got a phonecall from Jacqui saying that I should get to Killarney the next day, that my granny had lost the ability to swallow and that it would only be another few days.
This, by the way, is my mother’s mother, a.k.a. Mary Casey (officially O’Riordan, but she was always known by her original, not her married, name). She’s the one who’s had Alzheimer’s for the past decade or so.

So I got here on Monday evening. I was here, and my parents, and my cousin A and his parents, and my aunt M. My granny was in the front room of her house, on a water drip and on morphine, and she was so, so peaceful. We spent the next day with her. It was beautiful.

She died at 2.20am on Tuesday night. J was with her when she died. She didn’t suffer, she just.. stopped breathing. J called us all in, and we stayed with her all night. We called the rest of her kids who weren’t here- except for my aunt A, but I’ll get to that. We called my second cousin G, the undertaker, who granny had soundly briefed years ago on precisely what was to happen when she died. we made tea and we sat on the bed with her and we hugged each other and we hugged her and it was quiet and unhurried and sad and so, so peaceful.

At about half five or six, Ger took her away to his funeral home to do whatever it is that he does. Me and A went to bed, got a few hours of rest, everyone else stayed up.

Ger brought her back at 7.30 on Wednesday.

She was waked last night and the night before. Yesterday, there was a steady stream of people through the house to see her for over four solid hours. Hundreds of people, and so many of them were so moved, so many. She knew everyone, did Mary Casey.

Late the night before last, I got a chance to go into her when it was quiet and everyone had left, to sit with her for a half hour or so and to say my goodbyes. I’m so grateful for that.

Today she went to the funeral home in Tralee. We drove her around Killarney first, before heading out the Tralee road. J talking about the time when she lived in Tralee and worked as a nurse in the mental hospital in Killarney, when her sister was sick with TB in Tralee and she cycled from home to work, then back to Tralee, then back to work, then back to Tralee, all in one day. And we’re driving through that road, framed with mountains topped with snow and rivers of clouds between them, cold winter sun shining on us.
It’s a good day for her to go home.

And I love her, and I miss her. She was one hell of a lady, was my granny, was Mary Casey from the Top of the Rock in Tralee.

I still miss her, and I still love her. And along with everything else, love is a reflection of how much of her is a part of me, how much of her uniqueness lives on in my mind and my memories and all the little ways in which I would not be who I am were it not for her. And my granny? She was, and is, loved by an awful lot of people.

One more thing before I go. Over the summer I wrote a post about something very similar to what was talked about in the quote from I Am A Strange Loop above. I want to post it again here- I hope you’ll forgive me this indulgence.

I have a scar on my chest. It’s about an inch tall by two inches across. I’ve had it since I was around two years old, when I got under my granny’s feet as she was picking up a pot of potatoes in boiling water. I’ve always loved that scar, but I could never quite work out why- when I was younger it just felt like a thing that was mine and mine alone. More recently, it’s become something a bit more. Even though she is dead, that scar is a visible, tangible reminder that there are ways that she was, there are patterns of hers which exist in me, and in the many others who knew her. Her actions continue to exist. While most of them are less visible than scars on my chest, they are no less physical, tangible, and real.

I miss you.


Anniversary rekindling

Salamanders and hymns: secularism and beauty.

Lazy weekend mornings are the best for contemplating the meaning of life, don’t you think? I was just in the shower, listening to church bells playing Ave Maria a couple of roads over, and found myself singing along. I really do love hymns. I love that they are expressions of some of the best things about religion- that search for meaning and connection, for something greater than oneself. I love that many of them have been around for a long time, that I’m humming along to the existential longing of someone from centuries ago, that I can empathise and understand how they must have felt.
It’s a beautiful thing, that. Religion and spirituality would have been wonderfully creative and oh-so-human expressions of our common need to understand the world around us, to make explanations and connections, to make sense of our lives. It’s a pity that in many cases they can do the opposite. From outright rejection of science, to deliberate dehumanisation and Othering of those with even slightly different philosophical positions to oneself, to insisting that humanity itself is somehow different and separate from the rest of the world.
There’s an accusation often leveled at science, that it is a cold and emotionless tool for viewing and understanding the world. Scientific methods rely on documenting facts, not on human values and warmth. This is where salamanders come in. Blind cave salamanders, to be precise.
Last week I watched Hitchens debate Dembski on the existence of God. One thing that he mentioned stuck with me, about blind cave salamanders who have, over millions of years, lost their eyes, until all that’s left is little eye-shaped indentations on the front of their faces.
Think about that. There are blind cave salamanders who have little eye-shaped indentations where hundreds of millions of years ago, their ancestors had eyes. Eyes a little bit like the eyes that my ancestors had hundreds of millions of years ago. Like our common ancestors had, probably long before that. If you’re looking for connection with the rest of the world, for something bigger than yourself, for a sense of wonder, you could do far worse than the little indentations on a salamander’s face.

Salamanders and hymns: secularism and beauty.

On death, and life, and a quite marvellous day.

So there I am this morning, having a bit of a think about how ridiculously lovely my life is right now and generally feeling quite delightfully chipper, and my thoughts, naturally enough, turned to death and how we deal with it.

Yes, that is how my brain works. And no, it didn’t spoil my good mood.

What I was thinking about is what of us survives after we don’t, and how to frame that in a very real, physical kind of way. Bear with me with this, because I think it’s a good one. By the way- none of this is a thing I can back up with a single citation or reference. It’s just how I think about it.

I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife. I also believe that even if there is an afterlife of some sort, the fact that it’s quite doubtful means that we should life this life as if there was nothing else*. Carpe-ing the diems like there was no tomorrow, that sort of thing. However, recently I’ve been thinking about the nature of what it means to be an individual, and how much of our actual selves does survive the cessation of our consciousness.

I am my brain, but I am more than just my brain. My brain is an expression of my genes and environment, which are themselves created largely by the expressions of other brains. My brain doesn’t exist in and of itself- by its existence it, by necessity, changes and creates the world around it. That’s what brains do.

Some of these effects** are more direct than others. My arms and legs and toes and eyes and mouth are things that I experience as being part of myself. I am intellectually aware that I could have most of those amputated and survive perfectly well, with no discernable difference in the nature of my consciousness bar a growing sense of irritation, but that’s not how it feels. And nothing of them would be what it is were it not for my brain. The processes that create my brain create, by extension, my currently full stomach and my slightly tired legs from cycling, the shape and strength of my muscles.

In a similar way, the same could be said of the world around me, and around you. It’s not just that we create change in the world around us. It is that those changes are fundamental to our existences, they are as important and as intrinsic to the processes that create us as are the patterns and connections in our brains. Our actions are part of us. They are us. And our actions not only alter our environments, and our own brains. They alter the brains of those around us. The things which make us who we are- our genes, experiences, environment- create patterns in those around us as much as they create patterns in ourselves. They may not be experienced as our own consciousness, but they are, nevertheless, ourselves as much as our hands and our toes and our livers.

We are not just our brains. We are our relationships with other people- these are real, physical and concrete things which alter not only what we do, but what we are. And as anyone who has lost someone they love is far too aware, those relationships carry on after us. Have you ever imagined conversations with lost loved ones? I sure have. Have you ever realised how much of your preferences, your feelings, your most ingrained reactions are things which were created by the people around you?

I have a scar on my chest. It’s about an inch tall by two inches across. I’ve had it since I was around two years old, when I got under my granny’s feet as she was picking up a pot of potatoes in boiling water. I’ve always loved that scar, but I could never quite work out why- when I was younger it just felt like a thing that was mine and mine alone. More recently, it’s become something a bit more. Even though she is dead, that scar is a visible, tangible reminder that there are ways that she was, there are patterns of hers which exist in me, and in the many others who knew her. Her actions continue to exist. While most of them are less visible than scars on my chest***, they are no less physical, tangible, and real.

And that is kind of lovely, I’m sure you’ll agree.



*I’m the agnostic kind of atheist. I do not believe in any gods/afterlives/etc. I also don’t have any positive belief that there aren’t any. I see their existence as unlikely, and besides, largely irrelevant to how I live my life. Supernatural dudes with big sticks don’t get to bully this argumentative, uppity biznitch, I’ll tell ya that.

**affects? I have a blind spot for effects/affects. It’s quite irritating, for someone as picky about grammar and accurate communication as myself.

***without very expensive scanners of brainses. Which may not even exist yet. Medical tech is not my area!

On death, and life, and a quite marvellous day.

Secular Songs and Sunny Days

I love that song above. You should totally give it a play there.

I’ve heard a couple of interpretations of it. Daniel Garrett over at compulsivereader.com figures it’s about a person who “loves and continues going to church, even though the music isn’t what she expects”.

For me, though, it’s about something far deeper. It’s about the all-too-human desire and need for community. It’s about moving forward from dogma into a sense of awe and wonder at the universe, and a celebration of our own humanity. To me, it says that this is the thing, this is the ‘sermon’ that would be worth getting out of bed on a Sunday morning. Or any morning.

Which is, of course, why it came to mind this morning, as I brewed up a nice pot of spicy chai to drink out in my back garden in the sun, staying still and quiet so as not to disturb the birds eating crumbs of bread we left out for them.

I don’t know what Joan Armatrading meant in Secular Songs. Maybe she is talking about an abiding love for faith in the face of secularisation. If so, I hope she wouldn’t mind my own interpretation, different as it may be.

Secular Songs and Sunny Days

“I’ll pray for you”

There’s a post over at the Friendly Atheist on “how to push away religious people with good intentions?” Reading through the responses to that got me thinking. Now, I’m in a very different cultural context to most of the people at that blog, living in Ireland as opposed to the US, and I am aware that the way people “do” religion here is very different. But here’s my take on people offering prayers and religious consolations to me:

The Good Stuff

For a lot of religious people, “I’ll pray for you” is code for “I’m thinking of you, I hope things work out for you, and I’m going to set aside some time every day to do what I can towards that in the best way I know how”. For these people, I’d respond in the same way that I would to anyone expressing those sentiments. In many cases, the intention to pray for me comes bundled up with some perfectly appropriate ‘real-world’ actions as well- offers of endless cups of tea and a well-placed shoulder to lean/cry on. In some cases, the person offering isn’t capable of offering those more practical things, and that’s okay too. Either way, when I’m dealing with something difficult, it’s always good to know that I’ve got friends and family who care about me, and who have my back. Whether they express that with “I’ll pray for you” or “I’ll be thinking about you”, it’s still all good, and it still makes me feel loved and fuzzy inside.

But then again..

Despite this, however, there are situations in which religious attempts to be comforting have precisely the opposite result. And yes, if you’re a believing type, this would be a good place to start taking notes*. You see, while offering to pray for someone having a tough time is quite the sweet gesture and, for me at least, is generally appreciated as such, you might want to be careful about offering religious consolations.

Last year I lost someone immensely important to me. It was tough, it hurt, it still hurts. I was lucky to have people in my life who were there for me, who helped me so much in working my way through that loss and all the bewildering array of emotions that went (and go) with it. And yes, some of them offered to pray for me, and that was very sweet. It was good to know that they were thinking about me, that I wasn’t on my own. However, sometimes people took a different route, and tried to console me using their beliefs. They would tell me that it’s okay, that she’s in a better place and she’s happy now. That there was a good reason for all her previous suffering, and that, again, she’s in a better place.

Trust me. When a person is trying to deal with the reality that someone they love is gone forever, trying to make sense of the fact that that person does not exist any more? Telling them that this isn’t the case, that in fact that person is in a happy land filled with butterflies and bunnies, is not the way to go about comforting them. For me, all it served to do was remind me that no, she is not in a nice happy place. She’s dead. And that sucks. And there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. And, while I haven’t experienced this myself, similar responses to illness (“There’s a reason for it, it’s a blessing in disguise”? Give me a break) and other difficulties would be almost certain to elicit similar responses.

So- praying for someone? Awesome. Go for it! Just make sure to follow up the praying with putting the kettle on, stocking up on biscuits**, getting a good pair of walking shoes and limbering up your hugging arms. But be careful when it comes to offering religious comforts to the non-religious. With the best intentions in the world, it can backfire in ways you mightn’t have expected.

*No, I’m not talking about you, C, and you know it. Put the notebook down and thrown on the kettle there garl.

**Cookies, for you Americans. Cookies.

“I’ll pray for you”