In which they turn me loose on Washington D.C.

From Sweet Briar, I landed at Jessica’s apartment in Northern Virginia. For a country girl like me, few places are as horrifying as Northern Virginia. If Hell was established on Earth, it would not be very different from Northern Virginia. However, Jess is one of my favorite people, and is also adorable.

She had to work (she works for the Maunter Project, which is awesome), so I pretty much had the run of the city. I had a Metro pass, so getting around was very easy. I went all over.

I saw the U.S. Capitol, but didn’t attempt to find a tour or anything.

It was impressive!

Then I wandered around the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, none of my photos were very good. I was trying very hard to pass as a D.C. native, instead of a hated tourist, and for the most part I was pretty good at it, but the camera is kind of a giveaway.

Still, I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of this sign. I ❤ the United Methodist church!

It’s just a nice counterpoint to people like Westboro Baptist Church–it’s nice to see that some Christians are still advocating love.

I also saw the Postal Museum, and got an H1N1 shot for the Peace Corps, and bought cupcakes from Hello Cupcake, and returned to the Renwick Gallery (which I’d visited earlier in the week), where there is currently a moving exhibit of art from Japanese internment camps during WWII. However, I didn’t photograph any of these activities. OH WELL!

I expect the rest of my vacation to be fairly uneventful, so this will probably be the end of my vacation series. Soon, though, you can look for posts about the Philippines–my departure date is August 19!

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The benefits of religious diversity: a case study

My move to Fort Collins brought me into the heart of a social group that is quite unfamiliar to me. My roommate is an atheist and a skeptic, as are his boyfriend and his brother (my other roommate). All of this means that atheism and skepticism (not the same thing, but two related movements) have been a lot more on my radar than they used to be.

It’s a curious position for me to be in, because while I disagree with very few of the principles these people hold–I don’t practice any religion, I think science is a good thing, and I don’t really believe in God, per se–my worldview continually comes into conflict with theirs.

It’s mostly a result of my education, I think. My family would like to believe that college turned me into a godless liberal–in most cases, that’s simply untrue, but it is true that my liberal arts education is at least somewhat responsible for the fact that I am, when all other labels fail (and they usually do), a relativist. Basically, it really matters very little to me whether I believe the same things that you do–in fact, I feel like the world is a better place because you believe different things than I do. I care a lot less about Truth than I do about the richness that results from a world in which different people believe different, crazy, beautiful things.

That last bit is the part that drives my skeptic friends crazy. What kind of crazy person will outright announce that they don’t care what’s true?

I’m never quite sure how to respond. It’s been hard to work up a defense, because I’m . . . simply not troubled by the fact that Truth doesn’t matter that much to me. I’m still working on fine tuning my defense. But, while I’m working that out, I’d like to offer up a case study.

Howard and Sandra Tayler are the creative machine behind the very successful webcomic Schlock Mercenary. The comic has updated continuously (every single day without fail) for ten years. A few years ago, Howard quit his corporate job, and now Schlock Mercenary is what supports their family. They have four children, and they are Mormon.

Now, Schlock Mercenary is not a very Mormon comic, in my opinion. By that, I don’t mean that it’s full of things Mormons would object to–not at all. But, you know how you can pick up practically any book that Orson Scott Card has ever written, and just smell the LDS wafting off it? Schlock Mercenary doesn’t have that.

But this comic is a full time job, and not an easy one. You only have to spend a little time on Sandra Tayler’s blog to get a sense of what a massive undertaking it is. It isn’t easy being self-employed in a creative field. It’s even more challenging to do so while attempting to raise four children and keep a healthy marriage. But all indications are that the Taylers have been successful on all fronts.

Now, could a secular couple in the same situation succeed? Absolutely. I’m not trying to say that religion is sine qua non here. But, this kind of creative partnership, especially one that demands so much from both members, cannot help but benefit from the peace and strength that Howard and Sandra draw from their religion.

That’s not something I’m making up, either. Have a look at this recent interview with the couple. It’s intended for Mormon audiences, but I think that helps provide a better sense of how their faith matters to them. (They tend to be very tactful when discussing their faith before mixed audiences. They don’t preach–in fact, they just plain don’t talk about it all that much, at least online. In my opinion, their lives give a far better testimony than any preaching, anyway.)

Sometimes, atheists like to imply–or, hell, outright state–that the world would be better without religion. (I feel like I should make it clear that that’s a general “atheists”, not, say, my roommate, with whom I have had numerous very interesting and challenging discussions about the merits of religion.) That anything that’s good with religion would be better without it. That the drawbacks of religion far outweigh the benefits.

I say, maybe more of us would be better off like the Taylers.

Found story: All from a sweater

I’ve worked at Walmart for the last six months. Yesterday was my last day. It was a terrible job in many ways, but one thing I did love was gathering stories and characters–fleeting glimpses of people that stuck with me. I think of them as found stories. Mostly, I see just a brief image–an Asian woman, herding her tiny, round grey-haired mother into the store, or a man with wild grey hair and a wild grey beard and his all fingernails rotted away–but every once in a while, to my delight I get more details.

The other day, an older gentleman came up to me from the pharmacy and asked to borrow a pen so that he could write down his blood pressure. He was just turning to go when I asked, rather unexpectedly, “Did someone make that sweater for you?”

The sweater in question looked to have been made out of bright blue Red Heart Super Saver–solid, except for a couple stripes made out of matching variegated blue yarn. It had a crocheted hem and button band, and a zipper. There was a bit of dried food crusted onto the button band, by the zipper. It was obviously handmade, but also quite well constructed. It’s pretty rare to see someone in my town wearing a handknit sweater, so I felt it was worth asking.

I had to repeat myself before he understood, but then he brightened and told me his wife had made it; she’s Navajo, and her craftmanship, he told me, is superb.

I smiled, and told him it was a beautiful sweater. And then, I don’t know what it was, but he started talking to me.

He told me that because of his wife’s handiwork is so fine, he hasn’t needed a belt in thirty years. He used to teach school, and he favored jumpsuits, which his wife made for him. He saw her making them, once, and realized that she made the pants and top separately and sewed them together, so he asked her if she couldn’t make them out of different materials, so it looked like a normal shirt and pants.

So, he went around for all those years wearing jumpsuits that looked like normal clothing. He told me, people used to say, “How is it that Mr. Queen is the only teacher here whose shirttails are always tucked in?”

He told me how he earned the respect of the people on the reservation by eating their food without disgust or disdain. They would invite teachers into their homes, and feed them. One of the things they fed them was blood pudding–the other teachers would refuse to eat it, but he ate it.

(I could have told him how I had a similar experience, how I was initiated into my Vietnamese family over a dish of congealed duck blood, but it didn’t feel right to talk about myself; he was on a roll, and I was enjoying listening.)

The other teachers justified their refusal to eat it by saying that the Bible says not to eat blood. But, he told me, most people don’t understand what it means to be Christian. He took on an instructional tone. There are only two principles at the heart of Christianity, he told me. He asked me if I knew Matthew 6:14. I confessed that I didn’t.

Matthew 6:14, he told me, says that if you forgive, you’ll be forgiven. That’s all. And if you don’t forgive, you won’t be. That’s the first principle at the heart of Christianity. The second is love your neighbor as yourself. Those are the only things that actually matter.

I nodded, and listened. His Christianity had its heart in a very different place than the Christianity I grew up with, and I liked his quite a lot more. The Christianity I knew said that it didn’t matter what you did, you were condemned if you didn’t confess Jesus as savior. In his, though, there was more emphasis on attitude and action. It would have made my Sunday School teachers shake their heads, but I liked it.

He was clean-shaven, but he had long, wild, grey eyebrows, like down feathers, and his eyes leaked tears as he talked; not from emotion, he told me, but because he has a disease (his word) that makes his eyes tear up at odd moments. Every so often, he’d reach up and wipe a tear away from the weathered skin under his eyes.

I listened to him until I had to step away to help someone else, and before he left, he thanked me for talking to him. It was good, for once, to listen to someone else instead of talking about myself. I came away from the conversation with little pearls of beauty, and I think he appreciated having an welcoming ear for a few minutes on a Sunday afternoon in Walmart.