Cringing

I didn’t know what to write this evening, so I started poking around looking for material. One of the tag words I look for sometimes on the WordPress site is atheism. I looked at it this evening and I saw something that really upset me.

I was adopted as an infant. For many years, all I knew of my birth family was from a one page description the adoption agency gave to my parents. By the way, this terminology confuses the non-adopted. Mother, father and parents, without any modifier, means my adopted parents. People who are raised by their biological parents often get it reversed. They call my parents my “adopted parents” and my biological parents “my parents.” Mother and father are the people who raised me. Those other people… well, let’s say they did me a service.

There wasn’t much on that sheet of paper. Height, weight, age, etc. for my biological mother and her parents, a list of my “ethnic background,” French, English and American Indian and Scandinavian. One day, I would find out that the Scandinavian was a lie, as was all the information about my supposed biological father. Apparently, there had been more than one man the only thing she could be sure of was that he played guitar – but now I’m getting ahead of myself.

My mother was an enlightened type of woman. She was familiar with most of the pop psychology of the day and up to date regarding many social issues. Like many people who raise children from other cultures today, she felt that I should learn about “my” culture. She tried to get me interested in things about Indians. Of course, that wasn’t my culture. Don’t we contrast culture with nature, culture being the acquired portion of being human? My culture, my real culture, was white, suburban and Dutch in origin, with a healthy admixture of Anglo-Saxon (whatever that is) and Jewish culture.

So my mother, trying to be a good mother, thrust on me all sorts of garbage about Indians. I would be lying to not say that sometimes I fell for the romanticism of it. I love taking walks in the woods, like who doesn’t, but somewhere in the back of my mind something would whisper to me, “You belong here.” Call me “Dances With Squirrels.” I love North America and in the days before I finally embraced rationalism I liked to imagine that I had a “connection” to the land. But much of the time, too much of the time, Indian “culture” just looked hokey. Eventually, I would come to realize that this was because it was a sterilized pastiche of native North American cultures, with plains tribes standing in for hundreds of very different groups of people, feathered headdresses and brave warriors on horses. As I got older and more knowledgeable, it started looking stupid.

My mother would gladly tell everyone that she adopted a part-Indian child. It’s only been within the past decade or so that she’s finally come to understand how much that embarrasses me. A Wampanoag woman with whom she worked wanted to teach me about “my culture.” I didn’t want to be taught but I did accept a subscription to Akwasasne Notes. This newspaper, put out by the Mowhawk people from a community on the U.S. – Canada border, would come to have a formative effect on my intellectual viewpoint. On an emotional level, it wasn’t hokey and it didn’t make me cringe.

Eventually, as I entered college, friends and acquaintances began to get more sophisticated. They started accusing me of lying. They would say, “Native Americans hate it when white people claim to be part Indian.” Or even worse, “What? Are you going to tell me that you have a Cherokee grandmother.” When people asked me what my ethnic background was, I started to say, “French and English” and leave out the rest.

Anyway, this is getting longer than I wanted it to become and I still have a lot to say, but I’m not angry anymore; I’m tired and want to go to bed. I highly doubt that that outspoken atheist would have found a choir singing “Trust the Lord” comforting no matter how beautiful the music. And the video, with its stereotypical imagery of plains Indians, made me cringe.

Update: I’ve apologized to Daz for misrepresenting him.

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2 comments
  1. Daz said:

    Fojap, for the record, The woman who originally posted the song in question, and who commented under the article you link, is half Indian, though I’m not sure if you feel this makes a difference. Furthermore, I do happen to enjoy some songs which are religious in nature. May The Circle Be Unbroken and Rock Of Ages (a song which does indeed say “trust the lord” very directly) spring to mind.

    I do not know why you decided so suddenly to stop commenting at my blog (the email I sent enquiring if you were okay, after your rather dramatic exit was returned “address does not exist”), but I do know that you know enough about me, and especially my taste in music, to not honestly portray me as some stereotypical atheist who can’t stand anything with any connection to religion—and to do so in a way which implies that you merely ran across my blog through a random search of atheist posts would also seem… dubiously honest.

    Glad you’re okay. I was worried.

    • fojap said:

      You’re right. It doesn’t really matter. Perhaps if I was of Irish descent, I’d cringe on Saint Patrick’s Day in New York City. Now that I think of it, I’m sure I would. The fact that many of those drunken New Yorkers acting like assholes (When I lived in Chelsea, I didn’t leave my apartment on that day.) are actually descended from Irish people doesn’t make the spectacle any better.

      The company through which I had an email address went out of business. It had nothing to do with me. I thought you knew that. It turned my life upside down for two weeks. In this day and age, suddenly losing your email address throws a major monkey wrench in your life. Since I relocated, 90% of my life happens online. Why I stopped commenting is pretty simple. I get pissed off more on your blog than just about any place I visit regularly. After a comment I found highly insulting and offensive and I was tempted to say something nasty to the commenter, I thought to myself, “If this was a party, that would be my cue to leave.” So I did. It’s very awkward on someone else’s blog because you probably would have been mad at me if I had said what I wanted to say. I was tempted to send you a message through your “About” page, but then I thought to myself that I was being incredibly narcissistic to think anyone even cared. It was kind of impulsive, but then afterwards I figured it was for the best.

      Frankly, Daz, I don’t understand you at all. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. You are unusually opaque to me. Actually, I did come across that post exactly the way I described. I’ve stopped visiting your blog because I get mad too often and it just isn’t healthy for me. That’s more of a comment on me than a comment about you, by the way. I’ve got a lot of faults, including plenty you haven’t seen yet, in fact there are days I feel like a total fucking mess, but I tend to be pretty honest. I’ve seen other posts you’ve put up the same way. I clicked on the one about motorcycle helmets because I was writing something I never finished about the new Quebec law banning public employees from wearing headscarves. If I’d stopped by your blog because I was curious to see if you’d written something interesting, I’d say so. In fact, I don’t mind if it flatters you to say that I’ve thought of doing just that and stopped myself saying, “You’re just going get yourself all pissed off and you don’t need that.” I was looking for something to write and you hit a nerve. If someone else had written it, I probably would have rolled my eyes and have looked for something more interesting. You and I both lurk around atheist blogs, so it’s not at all surprising to run into you by accident. In fact, I half expect it will continue to happen from time to time.

      I did doubt that you would feel bad and put on Christian music and find that comforting, but it was presumptuous of me to say to. I can’t know your feelings or what you would do or not do. The song itself I already knew. I happen to have Robbie Robertson’s Music for the Native Americans. I also have Contact from the Underworld of Redboy. It’s not bad music. I listen to a lot of stuff that has religious themes, too, and I know you do. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that you and I are on the same page regarding that. I was responding to the fact that you said you found it comforting.

      We all carry our own shit with us, or to put it more politely, we bring with us our own contexts based on our individual life experiences. Even though I know nothing about you other than the fact that you’re from England, I think it’s safe to say that you and I have had very different life experiences. It’s just some weird little quirk of fate that you and I have a huge overlap in musical taste. (Off-topic: Listen to more funk. Then your taste would be close to perfect, in my own, admittedly ignorant, view.) We’re both atheists and, as far as I can tell, lean left politically without being died in the wool socialists. (Note: I grew up in an environment that had more Communists than conservatives, so, despite the reputation of people from the U.S., I don’t see Socialists and Communists as bogey men.) I grew up in a world in which traditional, orthodox religious beliefs were almost entirely absent. I’m sure it was there, but I didn’t see it. However, that doesn’t mean most people were atheists. Ersatz Native American spirituality was commonplace.

      Needless to say, being an atheist, I don’t believe

      My mother phoned and interrupted me and now I’ve lost my train of thought. Also, it’s the hour when the sun is in my eyes at my desk, which is my cue to go out and get some exercise so I remain a dumpy middle aged lady rather than an obese one. Originally, I wasn’t going to publish the link to your blog, but then I realized without the context it made no sense. Blogging while drinking is no excuse, but I’m going to add an apology in the text. Here’s a link I was digging up when she called: http://www.thetrackingproject.org/writeups/theftofspirit.htm

      I’ll try to finish this response, but my mother is getting feeble, so we rented an apartment around the corner from me so we can look after her better and I”m packing for a trip to Europe in a couple of days, so don’t take it personally if I don’t finish.

      In the meantime, here’s a song. Personally, I love this band, but they might be so embedded in a particular time and place that I think it’s nearly impossible to share, but I’ll try anyway. One day this song was playing and I said that I liked it. My ex said, “You’d better because it describes you.”

      The lyrics from another song by the same guy:

      “L’harmonica n’est pas un violin,
      C’est pas éternel.
      Pis ça pleur comme si c’était conscient de son sort.
      D’ailleurs à soir je me permets de pleurer avec elle.
      J’attends un peu,
      chus pas pressé j’attends la mort.’

      Loose translation:

      The harmonica isn’t a violin,
      It isn’t eternal,
      and it cries as if it was aware of itself.
      Last night, I let myself cry with her.
      I wait a bit,
      I’m in no hurry.
      I wait for death.

      This is, to my knowledge, the only song the harmonica player wrote before he died.

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