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Feral Child


In “Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House”–one of my favorite movies and one which should be required viewing for all students of architecture–Jim and Muriel Blandings are harried apartment dwellers fleeing Manhattan for the post-WWII joys of a suburbanizing Connecticut. Mr Blandings is ill-prepared for the process of building a home, however. After all, he’s an advertizing executive. How hard could it be? 

But it’s difficult to say whether Jim or Muriel (played to comic pathos by Cary Grant and Myrna Loy) is more naive. For me, the most memorable line–the one that has stayed with me more than fifty years–is this: Muriel says to Jim, “There are only two kinds of people in this world: those who observe and those who participate.” I have always been one of the former.

Growing up in 1950s Chicago (technically the burbs) I might have known Jim and Muriel, but we lived toward the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, in a blue collar suburb with limited upward mobility. Two other things shaped my youthful world view: 1) I was the only child of an only child, and 2) my parents divorced when I was eight, leaving me in the care of a distant father who did not know how to cope with his own needs, let alone mine, and a widowed grandmother who had endured an abusive marriage, though I did not learn these things for decades. The upside of it all–and there definitely was one–was that I became a feral child.

My grandfather had been an atheist and my father, at best, an agnostic who succumbed to the wiles of organized religion just three days before his death at the age of sixty-one, a forty-year victim of unfiltered Camels, Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes. Leave it to Roy to cover his ass within sight of his own end.

My Polish Catholic grandmother rarely went to Mass, no doubt a habit reinforced by her husband, a man I barely knew but had every reason to love as much as any five-year-old is capable. A rosary hung from the corner post of her dressing table and prayer cards from her many Catholic sisters rimmed the mirror there. More of a shrine than many I have seen since.

Yes, I said my prayers each night, including one for our deceased parakeet Mickey. And, yes, the Miller family two doors west took my spirtual welfare in hand and brought me with their daughter Andrea to the Congregational Church about a mile away. But, other than baptism a few weeks after my birth, religion had not branded me in any meaningful way and I grew toward adulthood wondering why God had not spoken to me, as so many around me claimed he had to them. Perhaps, as for Muriel Blandings, religion was always a thing to be observed.

I grew up almost exclusively among Christians. There were three Jews in my high school (one student, one teacher, one librarian), but no Muslims and surely no one beyond the People of the Book. America may have been more homogenous then; certainly Bedford Park was. So I was immediately curious why there were so many competing ways to God. Long before Baskin-Robbins gave us thirty-one flavors, I wondered why there were more Christian denominations than Heinz had pickles. If God was Great and God was Good, why hadn’t his believers managed to present a consistent message? Apparently, it was a good deal more complicated than a conflicted teenage mind could comprehend. As in so many other areas, I was left to find my way through detached observation. Decades later I discovered syzygy–the pairing of opposite or adjacent ideas–and resolved my discomfort oh so simply: spirituality and religion have little to do with one another.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”

Though I grew up believing in the separation of Church and State, the current state of affairs is very different. Churches are tax exempt, yet their budgets and physical plants (and a lot of their profit-making real estate) can be used for activities that are probably illegal and patently unethical. Partisan political activities, for example, workshops and rallies promoting hatred and political action based on race, ethnicity, religion [there’s that word again], gender or sexual orientation are commonplace. How is that OK?

Congress hasn’t established a religion or even religion in general; it didn’t have to. But it has certainly discriminated against those of us who choose not to play in that sandbox. Since I have been able to vote, candidates for public office have increasingly had to pass a litmus test, demonstrating not only their religiosity, but also its intensity and flavor–shades of Baskin-Robbins and H. J. Heinz! Each candidate must not only like pickles, he or she must also prefer dills and find fault with those partial to gherkins. Heaven help ye of the kosher persuasion. And chutney is simply out of the question.

Scan the Republican horizon and what do we see? I’m reminded of Dorothy Parker’s review of a stage play staring Katherine Hepburn: “Miss Hepburn’s performance ran the gammut of emotions from A to B.” Other than LDS adherents Huntsman and Romney, the remaining candidates are so hudled in the Fundamentalist camp–each one hearing God’s clear voice–as to be indistinguishable. Never mind what I was told about the Bible (or what I found there on my own, but that’s another story), Rick Perry can’t execute Texans fast enough. The terminally ill can’t die too soon to suit Ron Paul. Michelle Bachman will tell us when the End Times have arrived. And the Herminator apparently has not read the New Testament. I have. Except for the Mormons, who get to become Gods, the rest of them had better hope there is no Hell.

“…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Go ahead, believe whatever claptrap you like and allow me the same right. Notice I didn’t say “privilege.” But don’t expect me to sit idly by while you spout my damnation.

The Constitution grants you free and unfettered exercise of your religion–devoid as it may be of spirituality. But also know this:

  • I will not subsidize it through my taxation;
  • I will not permit it to harm those who do not believe as you do or who believe nothing;
  • I will continue to be both spiritual and irreligious and enjoy the company of my kind and those of you willing to endure my point of view, and
  • Please leave science alone and allow it to do what your God surely intended: that we learn from, love and nurture Creation, whatever its source.

After years of observation, it may be that I’ve decided to participate.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for your relevant (and revealent) essay. I have also had my spiritual beliefs changed over time until they can now not rightly be defined by any conventional religious label. Life and introspection tends to do that to you.

    I also can’t understand how we got to a point in our political life as a nation where the jackals chasing after the Presidency are forced to pretend to be one very narrow subcategory of Christian in order to have a chance at it. Why does anyone care? Maybe very few do, in actual fact. I can only hope so!

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