Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hot Cocoa

In many ways, my life... well, it sucks. I’m fortunate in that I’m an optimist at heart. I tend to look on the bright side; partly by nature, partly by choice. One thing I don’t look for is a theist god. If I did, I would probably melt into a puddle of despair, kind of like porridge, but not as tasty.

That’s what I was reflecting on as I shoveled my way through 21” of snow this morning. The snow was piled high against the house. I had to shoulder the storm door open just to get to my front steps.

The sky was dark. The forecast calls for clearing skies, but I haven’t seen any evidence to support that theory. I was just glad that the snow had stopped at last.

If someone else was out there, shoveling upwards of 50 cubic feet of wet, heavy snow from my walk, I would be busy inside. I would be heating up hot cocoa on the stove. Going to the door frequently to see that the person out there was okay, that s/he didn’t need a break, wasn’t having trouble breathing, didn’t need someone to take over the shoveling for a while. And when that person came in, I would have a warm blanket and the hot cocoa (or coffee, or soup, or whatever else s/he liked) ready and waiting. To me, it’s a basic expression of concern for the well-being of another individual, and gratitude for work done.

Last night, my car was stuck in the blizzard. I was dressed for a wedding, and stuck, freezing, for two hours with no heat. A friend came out and got my car started. I was thankful, and I paid him $20, all I could afford, for his kindness. He was very grateful. There was about 8” of snow on the walk when I finally got home. No one had shoveled. I had to pick gingerly through the snow in my three-inch heels, clutching my coat to my body. I slept like the dead till morning, when I came out to shovel. The amount of snow on the ground had nearly tripled.

I’m not a tall person or a particularly strong person, but I shoveled the whole walk, the steps, cleared off the mailbox, dug out access to the street. It took a long time, and it was cold. I don’t have a pair of boots at the moment, so the whole experience was kind of miserable. And there wasn’t a cup of hot cocoa waiting for me. I didn’t have the energy to make it myself by that point, so I wrapped myself up in a warm, dry shirt and huddled up, alone, on my bed. There wasn’t even any coffee for me, although I’d made a pot. Someone else had drunk it all.

Two other adults are in the house. One of them said “thank you” when I got back in. The other asked in passing if I was okay when I came in to use my asthma inhaler. Both these people are bigger than I am, and at least one is much stronger. But they’re not the same kind of person that I am. I think they were raised with a certain sense of entitlement. Maybe they should have done some of the work, or cared enough to do something nice for me. But they didn’t, and I was too exhausted to ask. Besides, I’m not their responsibility. Not really.

You see, I’m alone. I have a daughter, but she has rather severe special needs, and communication with her is often difficult. There’s no one to snuggle with at night, no one to wake up with in the morning. Life isn’t easy. I wish it were.

But I’m a good, kind person. I am thoughtful and considerate. I choose to be that kind of person. It has nothing to do with a “higher power” or ten commandments or any of that nonsense. It has to do with concern for my fellow human beings. Nobody’s going to fall down and hurt themselves on my front walk. No one will have to climb through mounds of snow, as I had to. Anyone who comes to my home will be safe and can enter without difficulty. And if I know they’re coming, there will be a warm drink waiting for them.

If I believed in a theist god—that is, one who creates the universe, listens for my prayers, intercedes on my behalf, and judges my actions—I’d be a basket case. I do my best, 24-7, to be the most loving, rational, responsible and respectful person I can be. I try not to judge, not to be hurtful, to afford every individual I meet with the same courtesy and dignity I would like for myself. But virtue is its own reward. There’s no heavenly choir waiting for me. And there’s certainly nobody waiting with a cup of hot chocolate. If a god existed and gave a $%*& about me, then I wouldn’t be cold and wet and miserable, shoveling snow for other people’s comfort and safety, with no reward.

Fortunately, I’m an atheist. And because of that, I don’t expect hot cocoa. I expect practically nothing from my fellow human beings. And yet, more often than not, I’m pleasantly surprised. Maybe I didn’t get a nice surprise today, but so what? My life sucks, yes—but it could be so much worse. And at least I have the comfort of knowing that every day, in some way, I’ve tried to make someone else’s life better. There isn’t an afterlife, that I know of. So I do my level best to make this life better. It’s all I can do. And it feels good to know that I’ve done it.

I’ve warmed up now. The walk is clean. I may be able to take my daughter out sledding later, and that will be wonderful. But that’s in the future, and I have something that I need to attend to now, now that I’ve warmed up and I’m feeling better.

I need to go into the kitchen and make some hot cocoa.

Wish you could join me. This is going to be a beautiful day.


Amy Frushour Kelly

Saturday, December 5, 2009


For the third year in a row, the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia has placed a Tree of Knowledge next to the Christmas tree, menorah and nativity scene on the courthouse lawn of the town of West Chester (Chester County, PA). The Tree of Knowledge is a standard pine tree, decorated with book covers from famous scientific, philosophical and atheist authors. While the other three holiday displays pay tribute to religious figures and holidays, the Tree of Knowledge acknowledges a rich history of freethought and joy in learning.

The first year it appeared, the Tree was vandalized. Last year, it was left alone. Will it be vandalized again this year? Time will tell.

Margaret Downey, founder and former president of the FSGP, writes on her Facebook page that the tree is being met with obstacle after obstacle from town commission members.[1] Apparently, the commissioners are attempting to restrict which book covers can be displayed. This appears to be a clear violation of the First Amendment, but as of this writing, Downey and the commission are still trying to work things out, as detailed on her Facebook page. The commission also prohibited the FSGP from displaying a website address on the tree, as this was too similar to advertising for their tastes (as far as I am aware, none of the other displays included website information, so this may be a valid criticism).

Not surprisingly, many are offended by the existence of the tree, as well as its near proximity to the religious displays on the courthouse lawn. One local blog is quite adamant, proclaiming the tree “a grotesque and kitschy shrine to Godlessness.” Apparently, the separation of church and state doesn’t mean much to that particular blogger.

As for me, I am undecided. Frankly, religious displays on public property offend me. But a Tree of Knowledge on public property doesn’t thrill me, either. It seems a little in-your-face for my taste. While the FSGP makes an excellent point with their display — and I applaud their intent completely! — I don’t think that the way to persuade people of faith to open their hearts to freethought is to mock their displays. And I strongly suspect that most of the hardnosed religious types looking at those book covers are simply taking notes on which books not to read.

If the display were pretty, or didn’t reference a cherished Christian symbol, it would be harder for most religious types (let’s face it, they’re more concerned with aesthetic values than ethical principles) to oppose it. If it’s a thing of beauty that enhances the courthouse lawn, you’re not going to get as much of a fuss. Of course, a fuss may be part of what they’re looking for, if generating publicity for freethought is their goal. But to be honest, a lot of the publicity just seems to make them look like cranks. And they’re not cranks. They’re committed people who want to share their own brand of holiday spirit. Margaret Downey and the FSGP are making a heartfelt outreach effort with their Tree, and that’s more than most of us are doing.

I emailed Barry Karr, Executive Director of Committee For Skeptical Inquiry, for his personal opinion on the Tree. He wrote back: “To be honest, and I am sure this will offend a few of my fellow unbelievers, but I am not really a fan of the Tree of Knowledge idea. I know that the tree was appropriated from earlier pagans into Christian Christmas traditions, and I understand the symbolism they are aiming for with the bible story where God forbade Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of knowledge. But like it or not it is now a symbol associated with Christmas and I am not in favor of us trying to co-opt it as one of ours.”[2]

Mr. Karr makes a valid point. (And as long as we’re co-opting Christian symbols, I’d love to see a cartoon of the Three Wise Men, with the heads of Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan.)

Last year, my daughter and I decorated a tree in our dining room. We put up ornaments that we had decorated ourselves. Orbs with symbols of things we cared about. A couple of Darwin fish. Pi symbols. Hearts, peace symbols, ankhs, happy faces. The result was a colorful secular celebration of many of the concepts near and dear to our hearts. It was also a very pleasant way to spend a chilly December afternoon with our family. Yes, we had a tree, but Christians don’t have a monopoly on trees. I’m not saying our decision to have a tree of our own is the best choice for any atheist, but it was certainly a good choice for us. We will be doing a tree again this year.

I guess my point is that the holiday season is a time in which people try to open their hearts and make peace with one another, even if they don’t celebrate holidays. And while the Tree of Knowledge is a good idea, perhaps the holidays aren’t the best time for it to be up. I’m very interested to hear if anyone out there has alternative ideas for appropriate non-theist displays.

In any case, to all the atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Subgenii, adherents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and everyone else reading this, I would like to say: no matter how good or loving or ethical you were in 2009, let’s all try to be a little more so in 2010. Let’s be more accepting of one another. Let’s all make an effort to be rational, compassionate, respectful human beings for the next year. That’s my resolution. I hope you’ll join me.


Amy Frushour Kelly

[1] I tried to contact Ms. Downey by email regarding the Tree this past week, but she did not respond.

[2] Please note that this is Mr. Karr’s personal opinion, and not to be considered as reflective of any organization in which he is involved.

I'm back...

Been quite a busy couple of months around here. I moved from Bay Shore, NY, to Lindenhurst, NY, wrote a few articles, had family visit from out of town, and lost a close friend. With any kind of luck I will be able to post more regularly from here on out.

Amy Frushour Kelly