Monday, February 22, 2016

Am I Still Polish?

I had the strangest question surface in my mind the other day: Am I still Polish?

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the meaning of racial, ethnic, and national identity, how fluid and overlapping it can be.  How divisive.  And how ultimately ineffective in helping establish a meaningful identity.

For over thirty years I thought of myself as Polish.  I prided myself on being Polish.  I hung onto that identity because that's what I grew up hearing I was.  I was given that label and I internalized it without question.  I felt as though being Polish was a no-brainer, and to deny it was to offend my family, something I dared not do.

I clung to this identity even when it became obvious I didn't really know how to be Polish, or that Poles living in Poland (my relatives in particular) no longer thought of me as "purely Polish" due to the American influences on my values and preferences.  I insisted I was Polish because I didn't have any alternatives on my radar.

Being white in the United States, it seemed the alternative to a Polish identity (which carried with it a sense of belonging and a history) was to blend into the mainstream, the norm, the...ordinary.  I saw nothing special about being "white American".  

Now that I think about it, many misguided proponents of "white history month" and "white pride" movements try to base themselves on what they must see as the advantages of minorities. They - and I for the longest time - wanted to stand out from the crowd.  Even when being part of the crowd brings with it benefits of white privilege, the grass always seem greener on the other side of the proverbial fence.

Only in the last few years have I finally made the transition to thinking of myself as "Polish-American", trying to somehow combine both aspects of my experiences into a single identity. I fought this new hyphenated label, and I'm still uneasy about it, because when I think of Polish-Americans, I think of second, third, and later generations of people whose ancestors were Polish, but who themselves only maintain the genetic influences of Poland, and none of the culture.  Perhaps they're still Catholic, but just as likely not.  Hardly any of them know more Polish than a mispronounced "kielbasa" or "pierogi". Some may have visited Poland, but even these were no more than tourists.  There may be some Polish traditions still present in the home, but they may often have an American flavor to them.  In other words, I didn't really see myself as a "Polish-American" because I was more Polish than them.  Yet I was more American than not, so to ignore that aspect of my identity was incorrect.

But really, what I've been realizing more and more lately, and what brought me to my initial, strange question above, is that perhaps trying to hold onto the "Polish" identity at all no longer serves me. Maybe it'd be better to say that my family of origin is Polish, that I was born in Poland, that I speak Polish - my heritage language - to my daughter, but that none of this necessarily makes me feel the need to continue to identify with the label.

The thing about labels is that they carry with them expectations.  Once you label yourself - or someone else - certain assumptions follow.  I struggled with my Catholic identity in much the same way for a long time.  Being Catholic presumes certain spiritual practices, certain socio-political stances, certain priorities, certain beliefs.  And once these assumptions were no longer true for me, I had no choice but to question if I really should continue to identify as Catholic.  I had decided that I had a "birthright" to the Catholic identity by way of my Polishness.  Yet here I am questioning even that!

We use national identities to separate ourselves from each other.  Poles are known for certain folk arts, several key famous people, popular kitchen fare, idiotic Polak jokes.  But who cares?  These are not important reasons to separate people.  It makes a lot more sense to divide people according to sex, because certain undeniable biological experiences follow, and even these are not guaranteed and have been fought tooth-and-nail by feminists for several generations.

Why do I need membership in a group in order to take advantage of what the group is known for? Why can't I have a claim to things by virtue of our shared humanity?  Shouldn't all the things we admire or appreciate about any given culture contribute to the betterment of humanity as a whole?  Why can't so-called outsiders appreciate culture-specific beauty, food, music, art, traditions?  And values really aren't culture-specific, not to the exclusion of every other culture; they just tend to overlap by region, probably where multiple cultures were once a single culture.

That's the other thing, two thousand years ago - at the time of Jesus - there was no Poland.  But Poland is one of the older civilizations.  There are countless modern nation-states who have split from various other cultures and established their own identity.  For what, I ask?  Why this ongoing hair-splitting, this posing of us versus them?  Even among modern-day Americans, there's Yankees and Southerners, there's Democrats and Republicans, there's the filthy wealthy and the working-middle class - and various identities in between each pair.  Do any of these labels ultimately matter?  Do they bring happiness to their carriers?  Do they enable purpose-driven lives?  Or do they serve to divide, to feed our egos, our need to feel important, even at the cost of others, in order for us to feel a sense of meaning in our lives?

I recently read a quote about the meaning of life.  Namely, that there is no set meaning to life, save for the meaning each individual gives her or his own life.  And sadly, the vast majority of us automatically delegate that right, that privilege, that honor, to someone else.  To the groups we think we belong to.  To our nationality, our race, our sex, our socio-economic status, our profession, our religion.  When our life's purpose is tied to the "mission" of any sub-group of humanity, something that in no way benefits humanity as a whole, then our life's meaning is useless.  But if we are able to transcend all the various categories that work to put up division - both among us and within each individual, then we begin to see these labels as merely superficial, elementary, and not at all helpful in allowing us to live a meaningful, purpose-driven life.  

I'm not saying to ignore the ways in which we differ from each other!  Not at all!  I'm saying lets allow our differences to be what they are, nothing more and nothing less.  They are simple variations on a theme.  How wonderful to look around and see the different ways beauty expresses itself.  The different flavors cuisine can take on.  The different ways of looking at life and priorities and values. Observing these differences should give us pause, fill us with amazement, and give us pride in the unique expressions that life has taken within ourselves.  In no way should it make us start comparing ourselves to each other, wishing away some things while coveting others.

So, am I still Polish?  It doesn't much matter how I self-identify if others don't perceive me the same way.  When I'm in Poland, my awkward behaviors and uncertainty about the norms will immediately give me away, in spite of my Polish language skills.  When I'm in the United States, only rarely does anyone ever detect a bit of an accent in my speech, and this is generally when I've switched from thinking in Polish.  Otherwise, I look and act as if I am just one of many white American individuals. That's one of the beauties of the American identity - that individuality is actually expected.  While there is some group-think when it comes to choices Americans make, when someone goes against the grain, it is not enough to warrant being stripped of one's American label.  At least not for white Americans, that is.  It's not an ideal label, but it's much closer to who I am in the world than "Polish".

And while it may be technically true, "Polish-American" is not how I identify.  My past is grounded in Polishness, this is true.  But my present, and my future - no.  Even if it troubles my Polish relatives, I am not one of them when it comes to nationality.  I do not consider Polishness to be in any way better than any other nationality.  I feel the exact same way about Americanness.  In essence, I'm a global citizen.  My immigration is the single most influential aspect of my identity.  Because I don't fully belong anywhere in particular, I belong everywhere equally.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Desire to Belong

I was watching some YouTube videos about the multiracial experience, and I was struck by how people can identify with a race or ethnicity that isn't obviously evident in their physical appearance. It was also interesting to hear that when multiracial people are perceived as "ethnically ambiguous", perfect strangers stare and ask stupid questions that they wouldn't ask "just white" people.  The take away I got was that no matter how hard they try, no matter which "side" they try to fit in with, multiracial people run the very real risk of being told they don't belong.

I then searched for more specific videos about Filipino Americans, and again I was struck by the amount of animosity between so-called "FOBs" (fresh off the boat, ie. newly arrived Filipino immigrants) and "Fil-Ams" (Filipino-Americans, or those who have undergone some level of Americanization).  While the videos about multiracial people focused a lot on physical appearance as an obstacle to belonging in both races (or the race one predominantly identifies with), the Filipino videos focused on the ability to speak Tagalog without a particular accent, and other cultural traditions, values, and choices that are considered more or less in line with "real" Filipinos.

I remember how, for years, I tried to fit into what was supposed to be my rightful ethnic identity - Polish.  In spite of never forgetting the language, in spite of being able to read and write it, in spite of "looking Polish", I never felt accepted by any Polish community or group once I emigrated.  And on the flip side, perhaps due to my own desire to distance myself from mainstream America, I never felt a part of American society either.  Even though it has been nearly 30 years since I first arrived in the United States, I continue to identify as an immigrant.  There are still values and traditions that I have kept from my culture of origin, and there are values and traditions that I have accepted from my adopted country.  I am both, Polish and American, but I wouldn't say that I "belong" in the full sense of the word to either.

So then I think about my daughter and the various cultural identities that she has a birthright to.  I think about how I've been worrying myself sick trying to figure out the best way to help her have a shot at claiming the various identities.  But today I realized that I've been focusing on the wrong approach.  I've accepted society's definition of identity, race, culture, and its priority of such a label. I've accepted the - granted, very human - desire to belong as a given.   But there is something far deeper that I think I can offer my daughter instead of teaching her how to fall in line with other people's expectations.  The truth is that no matter how hard she tries, no matter how skilled she becomes, there will be members of any given group that will find a reason to try to exclude her, make her feel like an outsider.

Her Polish may be perfect, but she doesn't "look Polish". She may "look Filipino" but her Tagalog may be limited, along with her cultural knowledge, having not grown up in a Filipino household.  And while she has different white influence in both her upbringing (me, Polish) and DNA (one of her donors is British), no one would mistake her for "just white".  At first I thought she probably has the best chance of belonging in the Hispanic community.  She will grow up speaking Spanish and her coloring is the same as that of a lot of Latinos.  But Maya's looks have already been commented on by two Latinas - one asked Alex (her Latino dad) if his wife was Chinese, and another used a nickname ("chinita") to describe her.

So while I'm not going to pretend that we live in a post-racial society or that it's easy to ignore one's desire to know where one fits in, I also want to make it a point to help my daughter have a spiritual identity, something beyond physical and cultural boundaries. And of course, I will have to lead by example.  No longer caring about if I am accepted by Poles, Americans, Catholics, or anyone else.  I am me.  I am.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Belonging and Identity

My daughter was born to me.  I did not adopt her.  I have to get it out of my head that embryo donation is just an early prenatal adoption, the way I was taught to believe by my pro-life Christian online forum acquaintances.  This attitude helped me get over my desire to not go against any Catholic church teaching, which forbids donor conception but welcomes adoption, and which recognizes personhood from the moment of conception.  For my own sanity, I was able to pursue embryo donation and still feel completely aligned with my faith.  

But now that I no longer have a need to be in line with that - or any other - organized religion, I'm also free to look at the circumstances of our family formation without trying to spin it a certain way.

There was no legal adoption that took place.  My daughter never knew any other relatives, any other human beings, until she began to grow and develop in my womb.  Absolutely all of her experiences and memories have been shaped by me and Alex and the people we have introduced her to.  Her donors were in no way coerced to give her up, as is the case sadly in many adoptions.  Her conception was no accident.  It was very well planned and thoughtfully carried out.  She was dearly wanted from the beginning. (That is not to say that this doesn't apply to adoptees, only that the circumstances of their birth tend to have an element of bad timing.)

I look at artificial reproductive technology as a sort of pre-mixing of cake.  You get all the necessary ingredients together, and then if need be, you put the mix in the fridge until you are ready to put it in the oven.  And perhaps you premixed more than you could reasonably eat, maybe because you are concerned about messing up the recipe and having to dump one or two failed attempts, so you allow for a margin of error. So after one or two cakes have come out of the oven, you realize you still have the makings of another cake left that would be a shame to get rid of.  So you donate it, let someone else bake it in their oven and enjoy it as if they made it from scratch.  Obviously people are not cake, but I hope the metaphor makes sense.  

Now I know that any pro-lifers who agree with the Catholic stace of personhood beginning at conception won't be able to get past this comparison.  How can I talk about tiny little people as dispensable, experiments, donations?  That's where we differ.  I do not believe that Maya was already a person before her embryo implanted in my uterus.  I believe that all the ingredients for her physical body were there, but that she only became animated once implantation took place.  It was my blood, my flesh, the environment that I provided for her during pregnancy, that molded the raw ingredients provided by her donors into the unique individual that she became.  And she is not done becoming, either - none of us are!  We all continue to change and evolve according to the experiences of our lives, never arriving at who we think we are.  What we really are, deep down, is not limited to our physical incarnation, our earthly life.  But that's another story.

So, while I do think we have an obligation to honor her Filipino heritage, I do not think that we need to do this to the exclusion of her Polish and Salvadoran heritage.  These last two are the cultures that she was born into.  She wasn't born into a Filipino culture.  

Alex and I recently took a DNA test to see what our ethnic heritage is made up of.  Alex has a large portion of his heritage (about half) indigenous Central American.  In other words, he is half Native American, according to his genes.  He was not born into a Native American family or culture.  He was born into a Salvadoran culture.  Similarly with me.  I long suspected that I have some Roma heritage, and it seems that there is about an eight of my heritage that originates in South Asia, which likely means I was right.  But I was not born into a Romani family or culture.  I was born into a Polish culture.  

What's more, we both changed dominant cultures when our parents brought us to the United States.  Now our dominant culture is American.  So too with Maya.  My Roma blood, Alex's Native American blood, and Maya's Filipino blood all contribute to our physical appearance.  I have the least amount of non-white genes, and so you really have to know what you're looking for to see it in me.  Only my very white relatives have ever noticed my light olive complexion, dark brown hair, and light brown eyes as being possibly of an origin other than Polish.  And while I feel intrigued by this link, and as much as Alex would like to claim his Native American heritage, what really defines us is our American culture.

Now I know that there are two points to consider here, and I've only talked about personal identity so far.  Based on my experience and Alex's, I am making the assumption that Maya will view her Filipino heritage similarly.  She may not, but then again, my parents never anticipated the difficulties I would have with my identity when we immigrated to the US.  

The other point to consider though is how mainstream society perceives us.  People assume I'm Anglo-American, or at least "just white" with solid roots in American genealogy.  They do not see a Polish immigrant.  Alex was once assigned the boxes of "white Hispanic" without being consulted. Are we treated differently?  It is really impossible to compare my experiences with those of Alex.  

First of all, I am female; he is male.  Second of all, we have very different personalities.  I've struggled with my identity while Alex hasn't.  If Maya takes after her dad, which we have reason to believe that she just might, she'll take on a carefree attitude as well.  If she takes after me, the brooding type, then no matter what we do, she will analyze every little thing to the detriment of much progress!  

Bottom line, I think I'd be doing her a disservice by fixating entirely on her Filipino heritage, to the exclusion of her Polish and Salvadoran heritage.  If identity is formed in large part through culture, and culture is passed down through language and experiences and values, then she has more claim to Polish and Salvadoran - and American - culture than she does to Filipino culture.  But identity is still determined to a degree based on genetics, and that's why we can't simply ignore her Filipino heritage. Only as she grows will she be able to reflect on her own identity and determine which aspect(s) of her background are the most salient for her.  

Does Alex have a claim to his Native American heritage even though he wasn't brought up in that culture?  I think so.  But I think so in large part because it's a significant part of his genetics, and it affects his physical features and thus how he is perceived by others.  Do I have a claim to my supposed Roma heritage?  I doubt it.  Probably because the percentage is something like 12% or less, and it doesn't have a significant affect on my physical features or how people perceive me.  

What I find interesting about Alex's heritage and identity is this.  As a Latino, he is by definition multiracial.  His ancestors include Native Americans and white Spaniards.  If he had been born in the United States, with North American Native American heritage rather than Central American, he would not be considered "Latino" even if his white ancestors were Spanish speaking Spaniards.  Yet because he has the added layer of immigrating to the United States, within the US, his multiracial identity is replaced with the label of "Latino".  

Similarly, had my family emigrated to a different European country instead of across the Atlantic, I wouldn't be considered "white" as my primary identity, but Polish.  Our differences - mine and those of the people of our host country - would be highlighted over our commonality, opposite to what happened to me in the US.

Maya, had she been born into her donor family, would be a multiracial American, just like she is after having been born into our family.  She would be perceived the same by society - multiracial.  People may guess as to her heritage - Latina?  Part-Chinese? Some other mysterious and exotic combination? And she may very well get these questions from Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, because she is multiracial.  Granted, Filipinos as a whole are made up of various racial admixtures, some looking more white, others more Chinese, others somewhat Latino or indigenous.  

To treat her genetic heritage the same as if she had been adopted from, say, a Chinese family, or even a Chinese-white family, by two white American parents, is to ignore the additional layer of identity that is created by the facts of her donor conception and subsequent birth into a different yet still multiracial and multicultural (and multilingual) family.

In the end, the best thing I can do for Maya in helping her form a sound identity is to educate myself not so much on transracial adoption, which doesn't technically apply to us, but on parenting multiracial children as a whole. Her being born into our family isn't what makes her multiracial.  That was a given from the circumstances of her conception.  What being part of our family does is allows for a more nuanced consideration of what it means to belong, to a culture, race, ethnicity, nationality.  

Who decides on the labels used? Who decides what percentage of one's heritage is sufficient to lay claims to that identity?  Who decides which type of heritage - genetic or cultural - is paramount? Who else if not the individual herself?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Religious Rock and a Spiritual Hard Place

In my search for "the perfect place of worship", I've come to realize that I cannot make peace between my desire for a racially diverse community and, well, all the other things that are important to me.  Racial diversity among religions tends to be the result of a long-standing tradition with missionary work.  

Seventh Day Adventists, Muslims, and Jehovah's Witnesses top the chart of most diverse religions in the US, each having a significant demographic of at least three different heritages (white, Black, Latino; white, Black, Asian; and white, Black, Latino, respectively). Catholicism ranks just a bit below these, right around the general adult US population, but mostly divided between whites and Latinos. As can be expected, the actual demographics of any particular congregation will be determined by the overall diversity of the region of the country. 

And the faiths I find most resonant with my personal belief-system - Quakers and Unitarian Universalists - rank quite low on the diversity scale, both being overwhelmingly white. (The site above doesn't list Quakers, but from other research and my personal experience, I have found this to be true.)

In no particular order, here is a list of characteristics that I would love to find in a spiritual home community.

Racial and ethnic diversity
LGBTQ rights and feminism
Pro-Life post-implantation
Inclusivity of Freethinkers
Access to religious service while traveling and geographically local
Meaningful ritual
A Sense of community, especially via small groups
Children's program for religious education
Uplifting music
Beautiful art and architecture
Inspiring sermons
Social justice, including racial justice

Bottom line, the spiritual home I envision and have been searching for simply does not exist. Therefore, I must prioritize the above and choose accordingly.  Nothing is standing in the way of me attending more than one place of worship on a regular basis.  In fact, I already know that this will happen because I have a birthright to Catholicism and a vested interest in Catholicism for the sake of maintaining a cultural link to my daughter's Filipino heritage. That said, my personal spirituality is no longer being nourished in the Catholic church, so I must look elsewhere.

Below is how I would divide the aspects of a religious community that I am looking for.

+ Due to universal missions, racial and ethnic diversity is greater than in many other religions.

+ For the same reason, I can count on finding a Catholic mass being celebrated pretty much wherever I travel.  Including local to where I live.

+ The ritual is meaningful for me due to my upbringing.

+? In older churches in particular, beautiful art and architecture are part of the landscape.

+? As for social justice, there is some of that in the Church's stance on immigration, and definitely in terms of poverty, but lacking in terms of the racial component.

? The music and sermons are hit-and-miss, dependent on individual churches, much like the art and architecture.  I've been to some very inspiring churches and some very abysmal ones.

? The Franciscan tradition does take an active interest in environmental issues, but there isn't nearly enough support or interest in these issues church-wide.  I've only ever been to one church that bothered to recycle, and it was a Franciscan parish that was also getting certified by GreenFaith.

? And while I have long agreed with the Pro-Life stance of the Catholic church when it comes to abortion, even the death penalty, I disagree with the way it has been expanded to include restrictions on birth control and fertility treatments.

I realize this will need to be specific to the religious community I am considering.  Liberal Quakers and Unitarian Universalists are on my horizon currently.  I've attended services in both traditions, but what will make a difference is the specific places of worship that are local to me.

At least these four tend to be a given in both traditions:

+ LBBTQ rights and feminism
+ Environmentalism
+ Inclusivity of Freethinkers
+ Social justice, including racial justice

Very likely are also these three points:

+? A Sense of community, especially via small groups
+? Children's program for religious education
+? Geographically local

The rest of these will need to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis

Uplifting music.  I've only been to one unprogrammed (liberal) Quaker meeting where they had music, and it can hardly be said to be "uplifting".  I have better chances of hearing inspiring music at my own Catholic church.  Unprogrammed meetings do not tend to include music, period.

Beautiful art and architecture.  Part of the value-system of Quakerism is simplicity, and so generally speaking, the meethinghouses are not meant to inspire and uplift but to be humble and non-distracting.

Inspiring sermons.  Again, unprogrammed Quaker meetings do not have prepared sermons.  There may be spoken testimony by anyone present.... or there may not be.  In that sense, it's a very individual-based worship service.

Overall, what I remember liking about Quaker faith were the values and beliefs as well as social justice outreach - all things that I can easily carry with me into the UU church.  But three things I definitely have a better chance finding inside the UU church are sermons, music, and art/architecture. Perhaps the music won't be gregorian chant or gospel music - two of my favorite styles of religious music.  And the art and architecture found in old Catholic and Orthodox churches would be hard to find elsewhere.  But at least I can hope to glean some insights relevant to my spiritual walk from the sermons, since I know they won't be based on the assumption of original sin.

And the aspects of UU churches that I remember not really jiving with me were the service not being particularly meaningful because of lack of the ritual familiar to me, as well as no objection to abortion.  What it is coming down to is a matter of prioritizing.  So here goes.

Most important in a potential spiritual community for me:

1. A Sense of community, especially via small groups (the ability to get to know a manageable group of like-minded individuals where I can express my spiritual beliefs and gain insights without fear of judgment or the expectation of conformity)

2. LGBTQ rights and feminism (I need to qualify that by feminism I do not mean what has become of modern feminists, where essentially women think they should be able to get away with abortion on demand in the name of "equal rights" [um, because men do have access to abortion-on-demand??], or where women who chose to dress modestly or stay home with their children in lieu of a career are seen as enemies of the movement.  As for LGBTQ, for a long time now I have been a sympathizer with LGBTQ rights to equal treatment under the law, and nothing short of that is acceptable to me, no matter the archaic scriptural reasoning.)

3. Environmentalism.  (I've been accused of being un-Christian, back when I identified as Christian, for my concern and focus on green issues.  I kid you not.  Disgusting to think that God cares more about the afterlife than the life we are living right now.)

4. Social Justice, including racial justice. (After getting hung up on the racial/ethnic diversity aspect, I now realize that who the members are is one thing, but providing meaningful support to those of all backgrounds, even those who are not members of one's church, is another.  [Yes, a diverse demographic would be better able to provide racial mirrors for my daughter.  But that's why I intend to continue with Catholic Filipino mass. My commitment to helping her build a healthy self-identity cannot be outsourced to an activity we do once a month though, and once a week would be no better. From the Filipino mass, I need to branch out into the various events and make meaningful friendships for the sake of my daughter.]  Equally important is to actually work towards peace and justice in the world.)

5. Inclusivity of Freethinkers.  (This is essentially the reason my spirituality cannot be contained by the Catholic identity.)

6. Inspiring sermons.  (While I like to think that I think for myself, I also enjoy learning from others whose experiences and knowledge surpass my own.)

7. Children's program for religious education. (How I want to raise my daughter in terms of spirituality is never far from my mind.  While I think she will most likely go through the typical Catholic rites of passage of First Communion/Confession, I also want her to have access to non-Catholic/Christian beliefs in order to make an educated decision for herself when she grows up.)

8. Meaningful ritual. (I realize that this will involve some compromise on my part, having to be open-minded to a new normal.  What used to resonate with me about the mystery of the Eucharist within the Catholic mass no longer does so, except in a more intellectual manner.  So I need to be open to totally new rituals that express what I actually do believe and want to stand for.)

9. Uplifting music.  (I can always hope.  And if I don't find this, there's always the internet and concerts for me to find music as a part of my personal spiritual practice.  I don't need to always expect to be entertained by wonderful music when I gather for worship.)

10. Beautiful art and architecture.  (While I do think there is value in helping us lift our thoughts to things greater than us via various art expressions, the lack of such expressions should not be reason for me to stay away.  I've found just as much inspiration out in nature as I have in expensively adorned churches.)

11. Racial and ethnic diversity.  (So this is what prompted me to write this post.  My conclusion is that I cannot reasonably expect my local place of worship to look like a chapel at an international airport, as much as I would love that.  I need to have enough dimensions to my life, enough connections, that between the various activities and friends I have the diversity I desire, both for myself and especially for my daughter.)

12. Pro-Life post-implantation.  (There is a whole pro-life movement that is not affiliated with any particular religion.  If I felt truly dedicated to the cause, I could always join in its efforts.  The fact that I have only sporadically been involved with the March for Life and 40 Days for Life shows that I can hardly call myself dedicated, nor can I blame my religious community for my lack of deeper involvement.)

13. Access to religious service while traveling and geographically local.  (So I can reasonably get to the closest UU church from where I live without much of a commute, and when I travel, I can always attend Catholic mass and benefit from the various other aspects of spiritual inspiration that I find more so among Catholic churches anyway, like the architecture and art.)

The next step is to attend my local UU church.  Attend a few times.  Attend with an open mind. Attend not so that I can see if the label "UU" fits me, but attend to see if I see myself contributing to - and benefiting from - the spiritual community available there.  This is actually much different from my previous attempts at "finding a spiritual home", which were always based on a search for an apt label for myself.  I think my current labels would remain the same - cultural/birthright Catholic, Deist, Spiritually Independent.  If I do find a sense of community in the UU church, I'd only be adding to this list of labels, not replacing any of them.  My spirituality is my own responsibility, not the church where I attend.  Hopefully this attitude will serve me well on my journey.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

On My Fifth Life

I'm going to attempt to put into words something that I know will be elusive without having personally experienced the idea yourself.  I'm sure you've heard people reflect back on some past phase of their life and say that it was a different life, or that they were a different person back then.  Well, I actually think there is a lot more truth to this than meets the eye.

Take my "life" for instance.  We already know that our physical bodies replace all their cells in a span of something like 7 years, so we are literally not the same physical person that we were seven years ago.  But when I think of being a different person, I think of my circumstances, the people that were most influential on me during that phase of life, my attitudes and values of the time, how I saw the world and my place in it.

According to my completely nonscientific calculations and estimations, I am currently on life #5.  My first "life within this life" started in the womb and continued during my childhood in Poland.  It smoothly transitioned into life #2 when I immigrated to the United States.  These two lives may be the easiest to compare due to the drastic geographical relocation.  But there was so much more to that.  There was an ending - death, if you will - to my Polish life, and a beginning - birth, if you will - to my American life.  I did travel across with my parents, but other than that, I left behind other people with whom I had close relationships - my grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt.  I also left behind people with whom I wasn't as close, but who nonetheless had a significant influence on who I was - my teacher and friends from school, my grandpa and my dad's side of the family, even my neighbors and really, random strangers on the street.

Being outside the house in my Polish life and being outside the home in my American life meant completely different experiences.  In Poland, there were sidewalks and public transportation, and a greater freedom as to with whom I was out and about.  There were always other people also walking around, taking the trolley or the bus like us, and with that came inevitable pleasantries or even just quiet observations of others.

In contrast, my American life meant the home, school, and the grocery store with my parents or the mall with my friends.  I had to depend on a school bus to take me to school and back, no independence with that.  I had to depend on my parents to drive me to meet my friends, so again, no independence.  The people I grew up around were strictly limited to my close neighbors, my parents' friends, and people I saw in school or on the school bus.  We went to church, but after the first couple of years we stopped attending a Polish parish, and once at an American church, we never developed a community with the people there.  It was just in and out for our Sunday mass obligation  I didn't really make friends at my Confirmation classes, which didn't last long anyway.

And so there was a huge gulf of experiences that divided my first and second life, and I haven't even mentioned the language difference! My second life lasted roughly until about age 16.

After the first two years of high school, we moved (for third time inside the US) and I had to change high schools.  It was here that I remember wanting to "start fresh" where no one knew me.  I had fumbled my reputation at my old high school while trying to fit in with my peers while simultaneously not letting my parents down.  At the new school, I didn't have to worry about previous expectations.  My third life began as I started to try to establish my independence after years of having no access to independence due to to way American society in my area was set up.  Had I stayed in Poland, I would've been much more independent and responsible by then, but as it was, I had a late start.

In my third life, I had all new friends yet again.  I met my best friend, Rachel, who was pivotal in helping me navigate life outside of school and home.  She was allowed to drive me around before I got my license (at 18!), and thanks to her I experienced eating out, dance clubs, bowling alleys, and the homes of people I never would've otherwise seen.  I didn't know it at the time, but I was trying to become an American adult without any real American role models.  I was expected to stay Polish by my family, who also didn't provide any Polish role models to that end, and so I embarked on a journey of self-discovery that bled into my fourth life even.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My third life went from my junior year of high school up to just before I got married.  I graduated high school, I spent 5 months in my native Poland, I worked in retail, tutoring, and telemarketing.  I went to community college where I was recruited into the Army.  My father had a tragic vehicular accident that left him brain injured and unable to work or communicate well.  I met my now-husband, we moved back to somehow help my family, we moved in together.  I graduated college and my wild days of trying to figure out who I was settled down into a sort of background hum of uncertainty.

My third life smoothly moved into my fourth life.  I graduated college, Alex and I bought a house, and we got married, all within the space of a month.  I spent a bit of time in admin work before starting on a decade-long teaching career and graduate school.  I thought I had an idea of what my future held, or at least what I wanted it to hold, and I patiently and naively hammered away at my goal without much thought to reality or practicality.  For 11 years this was my life.  We found that we had severe infertility and began to try to adopt.  We spent 5 years struggling with various forms of adoption, having four false starts, before finally turning to infertility treatments.  In the process, we both became more religious and began to share that religious faith with each other, which helped us make a bit more sense of our struggles.  I was an adult, an American, but it sort of just plateaued that way.  It wasn't due to any concrete intentions, and so without any mentors, I still didn't really know why I did what I did.  I knew I didn't "feel" like a grown-up, but I attributed it to the American way, with the extended adolescence that is so common among high school through college graduates and 20-somethings.  This fourth life died sometime after my best friend Rachel's suicide, the year before our daughter was born.

My current life, my fifth within this Earthly journey, began when I became pregnant with our daughter...or maybe with her birth.  The transitions from life to life have usually been somewhat gradual, with the exception of the transition from my first, Polish life to my second, American life.  That happened on December 19th, 1986, the day we arrived in the US.

My current life is that of a mother.  This has brought a whole new set of challenges along with the blessings, and it has helped me to unpack some of my old identity issues from previous lives and try to make sense of where I've come from and where I'm going.  It's thanks to insights from raising my daughter that I am able to look back on my own upbringing and deal with things I didn't have names for or didn't know were the issues at hand.  I imagine that my current life will continue for some time, with the next transition taking place sometime when my daughter is a teenager or moves out on her own.

As I think about these five lives of mine, I can't help but think of the parallels between these lives-within-my-life and our Earthly lives.  I'm not convinced of any details regarding various afterlife theories, including the different reincarnation theories that are out there, but I do believe we are eternal beings, and that in some way, we continue on after our physical death.  I also don't believe that our souls are created at the moment of conception, because I think we existed before our current incarnations.  Not necessarily in another human life, but possibly.

Anyway, the point is that every death, every ending, is difficult and sad.  Sometimes such transitions are bittersweet.  Looking back, I see that my life with Rachel as my best friend had to end before my life as a mother to Maya could begin.  This hurts my heart.  I couldn't have had a life with both of them in it.  Yet here I am, and as I move from life to life, very few people actually travel with me.  It's tempting to think that it's those people who give us a sense of continuity withing our incarnated identity, but this can't be true.  I think of adoptees who had their ties to biological relatives severed upon their adoption.  They have no one from their old life in their new life.  Of course, I can't speak to that experience.  I only know that in my life, one thing that has helped me sense a continuity from life to life has been the people who traveled with me across the bridges.

But really, the bottom line is that just like there are multiple deaths and rebirths within our Earthly life, there is always another existence to look forward to after our physical death.  But believing that doesn't make the transition any easier, not for those who go before us, nor for us as we consider our own mortality.  It's always sad to say goodbye, but that's life.  We cannot keep adding and adding without some emptying to make room for new - new experiences, new people, new lives.