The Only Secular Life Altering Event

23 August, 2008

Yesterday, (((Wife)) and I experienced another transitional moment in life.  There aren’t that many truly transitional moments:  marriage, birth of a child, death.  Almost all of these important life moments have become religious moments.  There is still one which religion has not co-opted.

Marriage changes ones life.  Dedicating your life to a partnership means that your life is no longer singular.  (((Wife))) and I were married by a Justice of the Peace.  The simple ceremony, held in the living room of her parent’s house, was thoroughly secular (even the music (provided by a hammered dulcimer) was secular:  Mary’s Wedding, The Golden Vanity, and other traditional folk songs).  We did not mention god(s), nor did the JP.  We recognize how unusual this is. 

For a vast majority of couples, god(s) are an integral part of  the ceremony — even to the point of promising to serve god(s) through their marriage.  This has, of course, created a public mindset that views marriage as purely religious.  They seem to mentally edit out the part where the officiator says, ” . . . by the authority vested in me by the state of (insert state name here), I pronounce you . . . .”  Marriage is so thoroughly religious that the mere idea that two men or two women might be happily married sends a significant portion of the American populace into an incredible conniption.  The partnership between religion and marriage is fixated in the mind of a vast majority of humans.

(((Wife))) and I have two children.  Neither have been baptised in any church.  Both kids have attended, on and off, a Unitarian church near my parents home.  Both are naturalistic atheists, free-thinkers willing to accept the reality which their senses show them.

I was baptised High Episcopalian soon after I was born.  It means nothing to me now, and really didn’t mean a whole lot to my parents.  I think they did it to please my grandparents.  (On a tangent, as a kid, I always thought the term ‘High Episcopal Church’ rather funny.  I pictured a priest intoning:  “Dearly (giggle) beloved, we are, like, y’know, standing here (giggle) in the, like, wow.  Look at the colours, dude. etc (silly, I know, but I was a child)).  (((Wife))) was baptised and was a member of the UCC until she was around twenty.  For her, it was more of a way to be with friends.

The birth of a child has, like marriage, been thoroughly linked to religion in our culture.  Baptism, bris, churching of the mother, godparents, naming ceremonies, and more, are all religious ceremonies — some inherently, some through rather amorphous linkages.  Even in the hospital, it felt like (((Wife))) and I had to beat the preachers off with a stick to keep them from trying to religify(if that’s even a word (and spell check says it ain’t)) the birth of (((Boy))) and (((Girl))).

Death is also a life event with has become, almost unavoidably, religious.  I have never been to any funeral, viewing, wake, etc., in which a central theme has become god(s).  Sometimes it isthe central theme, to the exclusion of talking about the life of the dead guy.  I have been to funerals in which the person’s life gets fifteen minutes (and she was in her 90s when she died) and the evils of homosexuality gets an hour (sadly, I’m not kidding).  When my grandmother passed away (the Red Sox had won the World Series and she said, “Well, I guess I can die now,” and damned if she didn’t), we got together with the family and talked about her life.  The good things, the bad things, the funny things. We celebrated her life and reinforced our memories so they would last. One of my favourite memories is Grandma Mary in downtown Salem at rush hour taking (((Wife))) and my hand and walking into busy traffic saying, “They have to stop.  Its the law!”  They stopped.  I think that at under 5 feet tall, frail, and severely nearsighted, she just glared the traffic to a stop. 

(((Wife)) and I both want to be cremated and have our ashes spread in Hayden Valley at Yellowstone National Park.  Neither of us want a minister, preacher, pastor, imam, rabbi, or whatever other term they want to use, to come anywhere near our funerals.  Remember our life, damnit.  The good and the bad.  But keep religion out of it.

Birth, puberty, marriage, death.  Religion has a pretty good monopoly on life events.  Except one.

Yesterday, (((Wife))) and I took (((Boy))) out to college.  We filled the back of our mini-van with all of his shit (I went to college ten-hours from home and fit all my shit (including a massive computer) in a VW Rabbit) and drove out to Clarion.

He lives on the sixth floor of a 1960s-era dorm.  Moving all of his shit meant dumping it in a parking lot, parking the van, moving all his stuff to the bottom of a 50-foot stairway, and then moving it up to his room (there is an elevator).  Then we drove over to the strip-mall district to get a wireless router and some printer cords we forgot.  After that (including some swearing while trying to get his laptop and the router to communicate) we went to a picnic and left.

As we pulled away, (((Wife))) was in tears.  I fought the tears back.  After all, this is what we were hoping for for the last 18 years.  I felt happy and sad, proud and scared.  I hope he flourishes.

During the drive home (four hours), I realized that this is the only major life moment which is not inherently religious in our culture.  A child heading off for college, or moving to a new town to start life, or just getting a full-time job, is purely secular.

Perhaps this is because the idea of children moving away is fairly new.  During the Middle Ages, unless you were nobility (of any level), your children stayed at home and inherited the farm, or the mill, or the smithy.  Some girls moved to another town for marriage, but the population was stationary.

Here in America, we are more mobile.  But even in the 1950s, college was for a select few and the jobs the rest of us took tended to be close to home.  The 1960s introduced the idea of college for the many (my school up in New Hampshire was a Vietnam college — keep the boy in school and he won’t get drafted).  Today, higher education is considered normal, as is leaving home to get it.

There is no religious ceremony wedged into our national consciousness for that moment when child becomes adult and heads off to college.  It is a purely secular moment.  And it is a bittersweet moment I will remember and cherish.

(((Boy))) is now, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, a full-time resident college student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in History and an Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education – Social Studies.  And the best part is, no one expects a priest to be involved.



  1. The deacon and I went through this last week with our youngest son (the oldest one is still at home, making plans to get married). After moving him into his spartan dorm room (I think crappy dorms are a rite of initiation or something – they pay their dues before getting to move to a space that’s actually habitable) and going shopping for a couple of days, we took him out for a steak dinner. We felt, and are still feeling, all of the feelings you noted.

  2. We moved my step-daughter to a college about two hours away on Wednesday. Apparently it wasn’t far enough, because she showed back up on the doorstep at 8:00 last night saying that she forgot some things…

    Unfortunately, she was lured by her friends into a local church here (she now wears TWO, count ’em, TWO cross necklaces), and I’m afraid that she will be sucked in by the Campus Crusade for Christ fairly quickly. Her dad is hoping it’s just a phase.

    I moved my son to the same college – same dorm, even – last year. He’s in a house with some friends, this year. I’m already calling it Animal House.

    My 21 year old step-son is finally leaving for a college two hours in the other direction next week. Woo Hoo! We’ll finally have the house to ourselves!

  3. Wow. Both our sons went in the navy right out of high school, my youngest close to 18 years ago. They took with them a kit for ablutions, extra socks and undies, a couple of paperbacks, and what my wife, friends, other friends, and I taught them. Also, a sense of who and what they were, and courage. They both since told me that it was more than enough and quite a foundation to build on. That’s what any parent would want to hear, I’d think.

    There were only three “Gee-Dad-It’s-Sad” letters in twenty years, and they had theri ups and downs but they’ve done well for themselves, became good men like we planned.

    We saw them off on the bus (They rode “The Dog” to Pittsburgh to MEPPS) and that was it.

    Wife was somewhat upset both times, but we raised them with that day in mind, as when the job was done.

    It wasn’t, of course. they asked advice, we never offered any unsolicited, and have never offered judgement, either.

    My youngest is a corpsman, was assigned to a marine unit and was in the battle of Falujah at one point. He’d been home a while and we were having a visit, he and I were talking alone. He broke down and wept in my arms, something he hadn’t done since he was nine tears old. Guy about half a head taller than me, bigger and stronger, but he needed a “dad” rather than a “father” at that point. He told me about it, the horror, the guilt, the feeling of uncleanliness, other things. Things he saw, heard.

    He, at least, had a father who knew what he was talking about. I told him that he’d at least been a life saver, not a life taker like I’d been. We talked it out, and he said that he felt better that he’d talked it out, but he didn’t see he could leave such a thing behind. I told him that if he couldn’t forget it and how awful it was, it showed he had a conscience. Just be ready when it was his own sons.

    No clergypersons or ceremonies necessary, just the care is needed.

  4. Since I appear to be a generation younger than the regular commenters I can hopefully provide perspective from the other side of the “ritual.”

    I started college 9 years ago. Since I’m the oldest of my parents’ children I was also their first experience in sending a child off to college. It was an exhilarating experience to say the least. I was always a resourceful and independent person, so the expansion of freedom was really not a big deal.

    It was, however, the beginning of an adventure that has resulted in me living thousands of miles from any of my family, essentially learning to perform without a net. I even started college while still in my religious phase. While it was a combination of events over a period of time, my de-conversion was in part due to the positive actions of the people around me. For those of you sending your children off to college it will be amazing to see how quickly they transform into “adults” by whatever definition of the word you choose to use.

    I’m still quite a ways from experiencing the other side of the equation. (There’s no Wifetide, or whatever the female equivalent of my online identity is). I couldn’t be more excited about the concept whenever it eventually happens.

  5. Since I appear to be a generation younger than the regular commenters I can hopefully provide perspective from the other side of the “ritual.”

    Sure, rub it in sonny, rub it in. I’d beat you with my cane if I could remember where I put it.

  6. Okay, so maybe there was an inkling of an intent to rub that point in. It is often difficult to determine things like age and gender while reading comments (especially from people with non-gender defining names). I was attempting to clarify my position before heading off into 9-year-old nostalgia land.

    Try not to trip on your cane when you stand up, it’s probably right there on the floor. And, be careful when swinging that thing around, I still have a soft spot on my head. 🙂

  7. Congrats to you and the son. Just be glad he his leaving to move on in life and not like why my husband left his parents house…because he couldn’t stand to be there any more.

    When I went to college I stayed local, we were too poor to send me somewhere else and my parents believed in the “if you want to go, it will be on your own dime” philosphy. I got scholarships and grants and only had to pay for books. I moved in with my grandparents because it was rent free and they let me borrow their old beater car. It worked.

    Just as I was about ready to graduate and move to LA to take a internship with a casting directory my grandfather got prostate cancer and my grandmother had knee and hip replacement surgery. *sigh* I stayed to take care of them. Several years ago the mister and I bought the house from them so my grandfather could retire and now they live with us.

    We all have our own space and it works out. So it has been good for all of us.

  8. Casting directory= casting director.

  9. Chappie: I think you may be right about the dorms. I wonder if anyone has ever done a study looking at quality of dorms and how long it takes to get a four-year degree? Would crappy dorms speed up the process? (hint to any sociology student out there)

    Laurie: We don’t have to worry about the boomerang effect– he doesn’t have a car. (((Wife))) and I still have one (15-year old (((Girl)))) to go before we have an empty house.

    Sarge: Its always a sign of good parenting if, when a child has become an adult, they can still look at parents as ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’

    Tungtide: Damn whipper-snapper! Someday you will know what the other side is like. When I went to college, I drove up in my own car, so the ‘goodbyes’ were at home. I boomeranged a couple of times, but things have worked out.

    Ric: The cane is by your desk, next to your Alzheimer’s meds.

    Tungtide: Sometime’s its easier to tell gender on a blog than in person.

    Poodles: Sounds like you didn’t really boomerang on your parents — more like they just pulled the string back. And casting director? Is that like an orthopaedist?

  10. Something like that. 😀

  11. What is this, a bunch of young whipper snappers. Or perhaps whippers snapper, the plural being uncertain.

    I DO walk with a cane, and it’s a handy thing, I can tell you. In the grocery store there are top shelves with otherwise hard to reach products it’s very handy. About two ounces of lead in the tip has come in handy, too.

    When I left home my parents and everyone else knew I would be a failure. The only reason I had contact with my family later was because they wanted to see my wife and kids.

    I took great pains to not treat my sons like that, prepared them for whatever they wanted. They failed at things, I didn’t ridicule or otherwise treat them scornfully as I was treated. I showed them how to do well.

    When my sons left home the were still my sons, but they were no longer my “boys’ or my “children”. They were men, and I expected manhood from them. The only time I ever treated one as a child again was the time I mentioned. He needed that.

    I know a woman in her eighties who treats her daughters (both older than me) like they are hopeless six year olds. Makes me want to puke.

  12. So, Poodles is a casting director…does that mean that you coordinate mass groups of fishermen in their activities?

  13. Sarge: I use a cane too, occasionally. When my knee starts to act up, it comes in real handy. (((Wife))) and I are struggling with the transition as he goes from teenager/child to adult. It is a weird feeling.

  14. Yes, it does seem rather odd to begin with. We go years without seeing ours. The changes in all of us can be quite startling.

  15. (((Billy)))
    Just wait until someone is calling you grandpa…


    Sarge…no, I never made it to that appointment. I am not a casting director, which is probably good, because I sucked at fishing.

  16. Poodles: I hope its about ten years (or more!).

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