Thursday, September 15, 2016

Poem From a Young Person

If you have to hoodwink–or blindfold–your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.
—Daniel Dennett,
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Still time to change the road you’re on.1

The following poem was written by someone eleven years old in the Laestadian Lutheran Church, which I left a few years back. I reprint it here with permission of the young author who wishes “to see this out there,” and a parent of the author. Except for the visual formatting and the addition of a couple of punctuation marks, it is exactly as written.

Their only proof is a weathered book.

Brainwash the young ones with lies and excuses.

Give ’em someone to worship

to avoid thoughts of reality.

Write the rules on a rock.

If they do otherwise

you’ll make sure they don’t.

Scared, insecure children hiding back from the cult.

Hold in those tears, my friend.

Why let them run? You’ll be questioned.

You’re worried what the Almighty might do.

And maybe his famous son too.

They’re living a living hell.

Believe me it’s never that swell.

They wipe you off and rip you out.

You never got what you deserve!

Boy you’ve got some nerve

To say his name out LOUD!

And if you shame the name of god

to make yourself heard,

Remember what I say:

You’re not a believer!

God I can’t explain

To anyone who’se sane

One single fucking thing

About how I live and

Who I think is “king.”

People handing out diamond rings

At the age of seventeen2

Pumping ’em out to save their souls

In order to be fit for heaven.

They’ve got eleven!3

Don’t even run!

Go and try, they’ll hunt you down

and you’ll be shunned.

I wore the face of an innocent child.

But my bitter thoughts soon made me vile.

If you ever leave the clan I’ll shake your hand.

Honey, you’ll be glad you left.

And overjoyed you’re gone.

Though your memories will always rage on.

There is nothing to add to this heartfelt work, except the hope that it be seen by other young people struggling under the weight of a harsh fundamentalism they did not ask to be part of, and by parents unware of the pain they are inflicting on their children–in service of doctrines those parents privately admit to doubting. And perhaps to repeat the remarkable age of the poet: eleven years old.


  1. “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin (1971). There’s actually a poem in an LLC publication with a line taken right from another 70s rock & roll song. The writer (not me, and I’m not telling who it was) obviously had a sense of humor. The photo is mine, taken deep inside the half-million acre Colville National Forest. 

  2. Since all forms of sexual contact outside marriage are considered sin, teenage engagements are common. Most Laestadian young people are married (for life) by their mid-twenties. 

  3. Readers not familiar with the LLC might not appreciate that “pumping ’em out” refers to children. The church has a strict doctrine that all forms of birth control (even the rhythm method!) are sin. 


Friday, September 9, 2016


When [in 1957] an armed Klan motorcade came after [his friend Dr. Albert E.] Perry in his neighborhood, intending to terrorize him into submission, [Robert F.] Williams, a US Marine veteran of World War II, had his NAACP chapter meet the Klan with “disciplined, withering volleys” of rifle fire. The Klansmen fled, and the very next day, the Monroe city council banned KKK parades.
—Roy Scranton,
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
Whoops, picked the wrong house.1

The other weekend a man named Ian, one of my fellow citizens in the rural northeast corner of Washington State, heard his dog barking and went to check out what was going on. What he found was an intruder he says was “definitely whacked out on something,” dressed in black. Way out in the back woods where Ian lives, the front yard is not a place where you just wind up by accident late at night. But this intruder had picked the wrong house to try breaking into.

Ian, you see, is very prepared for this sort of thing because of his service in the Marine Corps and a career as a correctional officer. He’s one of those guys who sits with his back to the wall in a restaurant and reflexively does 180-degree eyeball scans of the scene. It’s not something he enjoys; he has PTSD from his time spent in very rough places. But the other night, that vigilance served him well.

He retrieved his AR-15 with its 30-round magazine. That rifle, he says, “while not guaranteeing my safety, allowed me to have a fighting chance against a possible threat” in those first dark moments confronted with an unknown intruder, when Ian “had no idea of how well armed he was or if he had friends, waiting in the shadows of my expansive property to try and help victimize myself and my family.”2

The guy was messing with the door handle. Ian “swung the door open” and his unwelcome guest “went from the porch to the concrete quickly with some assistance. Supposedly he’s got some broken bones.” That, Ian added, can happen when you’re falling. Especially with some assistance from a well-placed foot appearing out of nowhere. He proceeded carefully but firmly:

My wife retrieved her weapon and covered me while I did a cursory search of him and I found a 7 or so inch knife.

I held him at gunpoint while waiting for the cops. He started to bend his arms as if he might get up so I reminded him to stay down and then he cried a bit about his ribs.

After 40 long minutes–not an unusual amount of time for our far-flung rural area–the “cops came and cuffed him up and I told him if he ever came back, he dies.”

Hold that pose, please.

Note Ian’s use of non-lethal force to drop the guy, even as he held one of those big bad “assault” rifles at the ready.3 The intruder had no shots fired at him, though Ian was ready to “press his head out the second I saw him and the whole time I had him down. I was totally prepared to. I told him, as serious as I could that I would and please don’t make me do it. By that time he was crying about his ribs anyway.”

But he’s glad he didn’t need to, because he didn’t want his “kids to see a body if they don’t have to.” For those of you that think it’s an easy thing to do, Ian says, “you’ve never done it.”

He didn’t feel good afterward. This wasn’t going to make the PTSD any easier. Though he was glad to know that he still has what it takes to protect his family, he said the incident took him “back to a place I don’t miss.”

But let it be known, he added, “This guy fell like a sack of potatoes and had he not, he would have died. I’m no tough guy but I will end your life to protect my family.”4

I don’t have his training or experience, and I never would’ve had what it takes to be a Marine. But a traumatic experience years ago showed me just how long it takes for a response to a 911 call out here. (That it took 40 minutes for the police to finally arrive at Ian’s place didn’t surprise me a bit.) The defense of my home and family is up to me, and for me, the Second Amendment is not about being able to go hunt with a bolt-action rifle.

Hell, I don’t even hunt. Never have. But I do have some guns, ones I’ve shot plenty at old appliances and other worthy practice targets and at least know how to aim. The firearms are all safely locked away; I have no patience with parents who leave deadly weapons laying around for curious kids to check out. But, note to scumbags: “Locked away” definitely does not mean “inacessible if needed quickly.”


  1. This and the other image are actual photos Ian took while waiting for the police to arrive, reproduced here with permisison. 

  2. From an open letter Ian posted online addressed to Washington’s Attorney General regarding a proposed “assault weapons” ban. 

  3. An armed homeowner without Ian’s training and experience could easily have made a tragic mistake at this moment. There are stories of fathers accidentally shooting their sons returning home late at night, or coming horrifyingly close to doing so. 

  4. Thanks to Ian for permission to quote these remarks in the fourth paragraph and thereafter from a summary he sent to some friends and acquaintances after the incident. 


Friday, July 29, 2016

Galaxy Gazing

I think that the dying pray at the last not “please,” but “thank you,” as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocks. Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see.
—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek1
The Milky Way from my driveway

Tonight, with clear weather and no moon around, I am up late to look at a dark sky with the first decent pair of binoculars I’ve ever owned. The vaguely textured white blur of the Milky Way that my eyes have long admired, unmagnified, now resolve through the 10x binoculars into clusters of countless stars with crisscrossing fuzzy ribbons of black woven in between.

I pan the circular field of view slowly along our galaxy’s long overhead arc, immersed in the depth I sense above me from my two eyes merging a single image. There’s a satisfying tangible connection between the fine motions of my arms and the slow sweeping past of this collection of a hundred billion stars in our little corner of the universe.

A dim smudge near Cassiopeia teases my eyes’ limits of sensitivity and resolution. I think it’s M52, a globular cluster a few thousand light-years away. It was first identified by Charles Messier in 1774. The photons I’m collecting in my binoculars tonight from its 193 or so stars were more than 90% of the way here when Messier peered through his telescope. In the meantime, a nation rose through a rebellion and then quashed one of its own; enslaved, freed, and still long oppressed a large fraction of its citizens; conquered its native peoples and then rescued others from conquest in two world wars.

The smudges are clusters of countless stars.2

These photons had already emerged from their nuclear furnaces by the time some settlements along the river Tiber formed the first humble beginnings of the Roman empire.3 Their journey may even have been halfway underway by then; we’re not sure exactly how far away M52 is from us.4

It’s been a little more than two thousand years ago since a citizen of that empire, a gifted poet and philosopher, stood next to some pool or pond beneath the night sky. The skies anywhere in Europe were darker than they are now, even at my place out in the country. I imagine Titus Lucretius Caras (c. 99-55 B.C.) looking at an image of the blazing array of stars overhead, seeing their “images,” which, he muses, must “be able to run through space incalculable / In a moment of time.”5

The pointpoints and patterns of the stars are mirrored in the still water before him, “not turned round intact, but flung straight back / In reverse,” with the features thus shown “in reverse.”6 He moves slightly to one side along the water’s edge and notices how one particularly bright star near the horizon comes abruptly into view from behind the tree. Its direct image and its reflection both wink on instantly–at exactly the same time, as far as he can tell.7

A smooth surface of water is exposed

To a clear sky at night, at once the stars

And constellations of the firmament

Shining serene make answer in the water.

Yet he knows that the “images” raining down from the sky take a longer route when they make the extra trip to the water and back than when they go directly into his eye.

Now do you see how in an instant the image

Falls from the edge of heaven

to the edge of earth?

Wherefore again and yet again I say

How marvellously swift the motion is

Of the bodies which strike our eyes

and make us see.8

Those image-bearing bodies are “marvelously swift” indeed. They move 186,000 miles–more than 23 earth diameters–through the vacuum of space every second. Yet the immense vault of our universe is so incomprehensibly vast that it’s taken most of the span of human civilization for them to reach us, from a relatively nearby neighbor within just our own galaxy (there are at least a hundred billion others).9

My kind of nightlife

Silent and impassive to all the twitches and ripples in the microscopic biofilm of one ordinary planet, in the hundreds of years since Messier noticed this odd feature among the stars–in the thousands filled with death and wars and tears of joy and sorrow since Lucretius did his ancient poolside musings–the photons from its clustered stars continued their long journey outward. Only now do they finally land on my retinas to collapse wave functions and trigger individual rod-shaped cells to launch neurotransmitters down neighboring filaments of cell-strings along my optic nerves.

In my brain, a little smudge registers. Something’s really up there.

The stars in M52 will keep launching their photons all my life, as they have for 35 million years now. They’ll get lost in the sea of light that covers and warms the daylight half of earth, fall through clear skies over the other half in darkness, and remain ignored almost always, as the earth swings around its own little star a few dozen more times until my eyes no longer see anything at all.

And yet, despite my absence, the earth will stay in its orbit and the photons will stream on.


  1. Does it surprise you to see such ringing words of spirituality as the epigraph to an atheist’s essay? Such prose retains its profound beauty regardless of one’s disagreements with its message. And even with no God in the picture, I am still happy to call whatever was behind the Big Bang, or the quantum fluctuation that unleashed the Big Bang, or whatever was behind that, a “power that is unfathomably secret,” even holy, filling me with a sort of reverence as I gave upwards at night. 

  2. There’s also some light pollution near the horizon, even out here, miles from the nearest city. I’ve tried to de-emphasize it with reduced yellow and green luminance. 


  4. Because “this cluster is in the plane of the Milky Way,” our available “methods of determining distance are too uncertain,” some yielding estimates “as small as 3,000 light years, while others are as large as 7,000” (Ethan Siegel, “Messier Monday: A Star Cluster on the Bubble, M52,” ScienceBlogs

  5. Lucretius, Book IV, line 191. From On the Nature of the Universe, Ronald Melville, trans. (Oxford University Press). 

  6. Book IV, lines 295-99. 

  7. It’s not exactly the same time, of course, something I remain well aware of as an electrical engineer with a radio background. Indeed, engineers rely on the known and limited speed of light to do antenna design with all of its resonant and carefully spaced conductive elements. Quarter-wavelength spacings abound. 

  8. Book IV, lines 210-17. 

  9. “How Many Stars Are There In the Universe?”, European Space Agency. I’ve seen another dim smudge out there in the night sky from the nearest of those other galaxies, Andromeda. Its photons took millions of years to reach me instead of thousands.