Valentine’s Game

I breathe easier knowing my grandfather died before the age of Trump. My grandfather, a fiercely opinionated man, believed in people’s power and populism. He was the first person to breathe the word “communism” in my presence — then, in the early nineties, still a dirty word. His relationship with populism and fascism was complicated. His own father had been a soldier in Mussolini’s army, but taken prisoner for most the war in North Africa and presumed dead, leaving my grandfather’s family without a source of income, broken, and ostracized in their small Italian village.

My grandfather was still a young child when Canadian soldiers liberated his village from Axis powers at the end of the Second World War. I still remember my grandfather’s smile at that particular memory — from that point in his life, he would forever associate Canada with hope. When he emigrated to North America, he became a factory worker. Like most men of his age, class, and cultural origin, he had a difficult time with contemporary liberal politics. Decades later, by the time 2008 was said and done, he often felt a strong need to express his dislike for Obama and Obama-style politics. But towards the end of his life, as sickness and age eroded his ability to track world politics — and wage interminable, circular political arguments at the dinner table — he did not have to watch the rise of Trump-style American fascism as his children and grandchildren watched him die. Small mercies.

I’m thinking of that on Valentine’s Day. I’m twenty-six, and I just watched my family blow up in my face.


 

I’ve been here before.

We were always a family split along linguistic and cultural lines — I often joked that my parents’ dinner table was a Babel where three or four languages could be heard simultaneously. Even if bits were lost in translation, nothing could stop the signal of this beautiful cacophony.

As is often the case, there’s only so much difference that blood and habit account for. Eventually, something cracks. We lost our ability to speak to each other.

It ends this time, as it did last time, with an email from my father. This one contains only two words: “Fuck you.”


We are not Americans, but American-style politics have become, in the past decade, our common frame of reference despite ourselves. My brother, the youngest sibling, often wears a baseball cap mimicking those red ones we saw on television at the American Republican National Convention. He calls himself the most feminist person of the family, as he uses racially and sexually charged language to provoke anyone at the dinner table into a confrontation. He is a master of pivot-and-redirect argumentation. He loves to personalize everything. The moment I begin talking about patriarchy, or racism, or oppression in terms larger than any one individual person, he reframes the conversation to be all about him, about whether or not we think he is a bad person, whether we think he is acting like a white supremacist, whether we love him enough despite his faults.

My brother also fully admits to be trolling us at the dinner table. It’s all a joke: the baseball-cap-wearing-redneck attitude, the role of devil’s advocate, even the yelling out of racial epithets to shock us.

Nonetheless, my parents are fiercely protective of his right to say whatever he wants. Every argument with him happens the exact same way. I have tried arguing with him at the dinner table and on Facebook. I have tried being calm, taking him aside one-on-one to detangle this web of entitlement and rage that keeps its iron grip on my brother and won’t let go.

I have also tried, as I did just this last Valentine’s Day after another disastrous family dinner, to walk away. To walk away from his provocations, from this game he plays where he tries to get me to call him out for racist or sexist behaviours in front of our parents. Because he knows that the moment I do that, it’s game over. My father will rise from his chair and begin to scream. My mother will defend her son, throwing daggers with her eyes. As my brother knows well, the bulk of that rage is directed towards me. It’s the fault of feminists that my brother behaves this way. It’s our fault, as women, that my brother channels his insecurity as the youngest in this way.

I reach out to my father later that evening to apologize, again, that dinner was ruined, again. The response is: “Fuck you.”

Reading the email, somehow I am still capable of stupefaction. I am struck with the memory of my grandfather in tears when I admitted to him that I wasn’t sure my father loved me, let alone even liked me.


The problem likely isn’t a lack of love. My father shunned me when I was twenty years old, and I usually describe the year after as the worst of my short life. My life was split into a before and an after; the edges of that divide reached into my family, as certain members of my family no longer spoke to me and others still did, braving my father’s chilly wrath.

My grandfather never stopped speaking to me.

It was through his efforts, my grandmother’s, and eventually my mother’s, that after a long, frosty year, I reached out again towards my father and accepted his help on his terms.

I was dating my nonbinary ex-partner at the time, a relationship that disturbed the delicate heteronormativity my family adhered to religiously. My ex was furious I was speaking with my father again: in fact, it nearly broke us up right then and there. They kept asking me how I could do this to myself after everything that had happened. After all the work we had done to make it to that point, my ex believed that I was cracking under the financial pressure of trying to cope with being in university full-time, working full-time, and being without my family’s financial help. They were truly, completely furious with me. I realise now, with the benefit of hindsight, that so much of that anger was fear — fear for me, fear for my fragilized mental health, and even fear for them.

While my dire financial straits certainly were a factor that encouraged me to reconcile with my father, the truth is that that doesn’t even come close to the full reason. The simple truth is: I love my father. I love my father even when he calls me a whore. Even when he calls me a liar. Even when he screams at me. Even when he tells my brother to go commit suicide. Even when he tells me that my mental illness, multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations, weren’t real. Even when he tells me that no one would ever love someone as screwed up as me. Even when he has never once apologized for saying these things. I love him even when he tells me, so simply: “Fuck you.”


My grandfather, when he was a young immigrant factory worker, asked my grandmother to dance on a Valentine’s Day. It was the very first time they met: star-crossed love between young immigrants separated by language, continents and race. The Day of Love has always had a mythic quality in my family. Somehow, the story of my grandparents falling in love and beating every single odd before them seemed a story too pure for the shallow claws of commercial capitalism and the cynical Hallmark-card-narrative reaffirming heterosexual gender roles. The story of their first date was a story my grandfather and grandmother adored telling, over and over, long after we had already memorized all the details.

It would be on a Valentine’s Day, in another century, in another world, that the very same family my grandfather built, could be so easily torn apart.

I am not alone. I may be walking away, but I am not alone. I reach out to a friend of mine, who works in the United States and has recently been disowned, financially and in all other ways, by her family because she would not support Trump.

We admit to ourselves that we don’t know, exactly, how to cope with this. We spent a day crying or staring at a wall, and then we rolled up our sleeves and threw ourselves back into work. We try not to worry about the fact that our futures have become dimmer. We try not to think of family reunions and dinners that we will miss. We try not to think of the holidays and vacations we will not be invited to. Funerals, weddings, births we might miss. These memories with loved ones are fleeting and ephemeral — I think of my grandfather dying last year. I don’t even remember the last proper dinner I had with him, when he was still completely lucid and there.

We try not to wonder about these things, and instead try to come to terms with the fact that this has happened at all. The usual suspects: the ever-present accident of our birth and bodies and gender; our queerness; our unapologetic commitment to a feminism that isn’t bullshit; our generational status as entitled millennials with terrible job and housing prospects. In my family, I consider the part language and culture have to play, and think of God confounding Babel until all its people scattered, no longer able to connect with one another. Trauma manifests, poisonous and inescapable. Can it really be that simple, that we are estranged, denigrated, or refused for these reasons? How have Trump-style politics and violence arrived at our dinner table and infected our conversations? How is it so easy for love to be corrupted as it is?

There will be a before, and an after, now. My friend in the United States admits that, just like with my own family, the tension in her family ran high for years, and while the results were usually explosive and terrible, she’d always been able to avoid the finality of this kind of confrontation in the past. Somehow, a few weeks into President Trump’s presidency, a dam broke somewhere — she was unable to escape this outcome.

We wonder about the stresses of “unconditional love” on children and on parents, how it broke us as proverbial lines were drawn in the sand. These cracks in the earth that separate children from their parents, or siblings from each other, don’t seem to matter much in the greater scheme of things. If a political agenda is being served by all this interpersonal chaos and violence, it will probably be for posterity to name and trace its contours, though I have my theories.

After Valentine’s Day, I call my oldest friend. She is, coincidentally, also estranged from her father. I ask her why it seems like the whole world has become a nightmare, and why it feels like it is going to only get worse. She says that she feels it too. She tries to cheer me up as an afterthought, reminding me: “Things always seem darkest before dawn.” The platitude is one we’ve exchanged before. It hangs awkwardly between us in the phone static, as we both take a second to steel ourselves.

The “Fuck you.” echoes, viscerally. When I open my emails I have to reign in the urge to close my computer in panic. I need to go back to work. I take in a deep breath, find my father’s email, and delete it from my inbox.


This was an anonymous contribution to Gods and Radicals. A complete list of Gods and Radicals publications can be found here.

Heathen Family Values

A Guest Post from Ruth Morong

Many would argue that the highest ethic in Heathenism is to defend and bring honor to the family/tribe. But what does it mean to bring honor to the family? What is honor? Honor or worth, (in my opinion) is the just esteem in which a person or family/group is held by the community. (I’m going to explain how I see it in terms of family, but I think it applies just as well to any close-knit social group.)

To build up the honor of a person or family means to make valuable contributions to the community, which reflect well on the contributor and those associated with them (the family). To defend the honor of a family is two-fold: first, it means challenging those who would hurt or oppress any member of the family, and second, it means fighting for the right of the family, both as individuals and collectively, to gain honor and worth. Furthermore, in the combination of these factors, striving to bring honor to one’s family implies leaving the best legacy possible to our children and grandchildren (or our spiritual children).

In practice, building up the honor of ourselves and our families might mean studying to gain knowledge and wisdom to serve the community, building an ethical and respectable career, or undertaking community service. In the modern day, defending the honor of our families’ means fighting for every family member to be treated with respect and dignity. This means defending our right to be safe in our chosen occupation, to be paid fairly for the work we do, and our basic human rights. Defending the honor of our families means pursuing justice against those who have wronged members of our family. It also means fighting for the right to gain honor through education, service, or leadership, and to compete with others for honor in a fair contest. Above all, it means ensuring that there is a place for our descendants to live and a chance for them to succeed.

If it is true that building this sort of honor is the highest goal of a heathen, then there can never be apolitical Heathenism. Politics has the power to affect our lives and the lives of those we care about. How could we be so blind as to carefully reconstruct a heathen tradition for our children to inherit while letting the ability of the planet to support their lives be destroyed? How can we bring honor to our families without fighting for a world in which our families and friends are not being oppressed?

Furthermore, how can we build honor within our family by ignoring dishonor and injustice outside of it? In the sagas, there are cases of a criminal showing up on someone’s doorstep and persuading the householder to protect them on the argument that if they allowed the criminal to be killed while seeking refuge on the doorstep, they would be judged dishonorable by the whole community.

If it is dishonorable to allow a criminal to be killed on the doorstep, then how much more dishonorable is it to allow our tax money to be used to kill innocents? How honorable can it be to allow the poisoning of children? Or the exploitation of children in sweatshops? The ancient heathens were quite obviously active, engaged people, always promoting the interests of their families and pushing for the agenda they thought was right. Turning away from the world in favor of religion was not something they would have understood.

It is this definition of honor that leads me to be a “political” heathen. My family comes first and foremost in all matters, and right now, the future of my family is being destroyed along with the future of thousands of species which will not survive the industrialization of our world or the inevitable post-industrial collapse which will follow. We humans grow sick from cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases caused by the crap diet that is all most of us can afford to eat. In fifty or a hundred years, even this factory style of agriculture will likely fail, leaving our children to starve. Those poisoning our water and our air, killing our pollinators, and laying waste to our food supply are our enemies.

A good heathen gives their enemies no peace. And yet I still hear the head-in-the-sand rhetoric about “not getting political”. “Not getting political” is giving our enemies peace. “Putting aside our differences” means giving our enemies peace while they destroy our families and the planet. Furthermore, there are many people in our world who face special oppression, beyond the destruction of our world and the general oppression faced by everyone who has to sell their life for money. Should the queers of the pagan world give peace to those who oppose their rights, or who support groups and politicians who fight against their rights? Should people of color give peace to those who would destroy the honor of any person who has the bad luck to be killed by the police? Should those of us who have friends and family who are Black, queer, or otherwise specially oppressed value the bonds of religion over the bonds of friendship and kin?

I know plenty of people will think I’m advocating for a “thought police”. I’m not. What I am saying is that if someone upholds a status quo that is literally poisoning my family and killing my friends (look at the death rates for Blacks, Native Americans, and transgender people), then I don’t need to invite them to my home or draw them into my family’s religious life. It’s not that everyone I work with in ritual needs to agree with me. It’s that a person can’t be working against my interests outside the ritual and then claim to be my kin within the ritual. The idea that the “community of faith” is more important than the “concerns of this world” is an idea rooted in the world-denying baggage of monotheism. It has no place in a heathen’s struggle to bring honor to themselves and their family.

I don’t care how someone identifies their politics. What I care about is whether a person is going to be screaming in my face when I go to Planned Parenthood, or donating money or time to some conservative Christian politician who seeks to destroy my religion and degrade the honor of my friends and family. Right-wing politics in America are based on denying environmental concerns and continuing the oppression of non-Christians, queers, racial minorities, and women. Right-wing politicians make a point of trying to deny the reality of climate change, force Christian prayer in schools, appoint justices who will discriminate against non-Christian religions, and restrict the rights of women. For pagans to claim that right-wing politics are not opposed to paganism is as silly and illogical as Caitlyn Jenner’s insistence that Republicans don’t oppose transgender rights.

This is serious. Politics is not a game that can be set aside for other “more serious” matters. Politics is life or death. It is the ability or inability of my children to survive. It is the hours I will have to work enriching someone else to feed my family, it is the amount of my money which will be stolen from my paycheck in taxes, it is how much my student loans will cost me. Politics is in the cost of my food, the time I have or don’t have to pursue my religion, and in the air I breathe, and in the water I drink. Politics determines whether I can teach heathenism to my child to whether social services can harass me for having a different religion.

The time has come to stop hiding our heads in the sand and face the world with the courage that can win a better world for our children. I can envision a different heathenism. One in which we make teaching true family values a main part of our religion. If we want a better world, or even a world as nice as this one for our children, our economic, political, and environmental system has to change. I believe this starts with changing our culture. It is my belief that heathenism has a lot to offer in developing a culture which respects the Earth, prioritizes the future of our children, and recognizes the value of other people, cultures, and traditions.

Heathenism offers us the long-term view- the knowledge of the struggles and victories of our ancestors, and the concern not just for our lives, but for the lives of future generations. I know that my ancestors fought for a better world and won worker’s compensation, the weekend, the eight-hour-day, equal pay for women, an end to child labor, and over-time pay. I honor my ancestors by fighting to maintain the rights they won. In the present, fighting for the rights of the working class might save my parents and grandparents, friends, and extended family from dying for lack of access to healthcare, unsafe work practices, and pollution-related diseases. In the future, fighting for a world that puts the long-term survival of our species above profit might lead to a future for my family. I honor my ancestors by defending and expanding the rights they fought for. I defend the honor of my family by defending our rights. And I leave a good legacy to my children by fighting for a better world.

Heathenism informs my struggle in that historically heathenism has put a high value on knowledge and cunning. We know that the head of the heathen pantheon was Odin, whose main interest seems to be in gathering knowledge and wisdom. Thor, the mightiest of the gods, was once defeated (in Utgard) by a giant who swapped a hill for his head (among other tricks). To see clearly friends and enemies and to recognize when an enemy is using deception was more valuable that might and strength alone.

In the modern day of red herring politics, gaining the background knowledge and experience to know what questions need to be asked and how the politicians and pundits frame the debates in ways that support their positions is critical. Follow the example of Odin and seek out enough knowledge to see the world clearly. Seek out information and perspectives from people you don’t like or trust. Wander outside your comfort zone and see what you can learn from people who might be hostile.

Heathenism is a practical (some might say cynical) religion. Heathens are concerned with the future of our families, and we value honorable behavior. These values imply that we must not shut out the problems of the world, but instead face them with courage. As the story of Thor’s journey to Utgard implies, our first weapons must be cunning, knowledge, and wisdom, or else all the might in the world can’t save us. We need to start using these tools that our religion gives us to figure out the true intentions of those who would win us to their causes.

This world desperately needs family values- the sort of family values that mean caring about what the Iroquois called the “seven generations”. Right now I look around and I see mostly people concerned about their own future, not the future of their children. I see people so unaware of the triumphs of our ancestors that they don’t see the need to defend things like over-time pay and human rights. They accept these things as natural, not as victories handed down to us by our ancestors and in need of constant defense by our generation.

It is my belief that our culture is poison. It is certainly poisoning our world. The heathen focus on family is one way to counteract that poison, but it will only help us if we are willing to take heathenism outside of the “religion” box and make it a living force in our lives. Which, as many people have pointed out, implies politics.

The alternative to allowing politics and heathenism to mix is to try to separate religion and politics- which means that we are left with a religion that we don’t allow to have any bearing on the deep questions of our time. By taking that route, we are guaranteeing the slow death of heathenism as a religion. It is unreasonable to cut off a religion from the life-ways of the people who practice it and then expect it to be able to survive.


Ruth Morong

I’m a Heathen and Radical. I’m a union construction worker with a useless college degree. My main concern is taking care of my family. In my spare time I listen to heavy metal and read books. My ranting is at Pursuit of Sol (https://pursuitofsol.wordpress.com/).


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