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Renee Dubeau

Creative Nonfiction & Inspirational Shit

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religion

Where did “You Are Important” come from?

I live in an affluent little bubble in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee. The poverty and hunger here are well hidden, tucked away behind strip malls and subdivisions with cul-de-sacs and swimming pools. But, if you pay attention, you’ll see it. Panhandling is forbidden in suburbia, so you have to look beyond street corners and exit ramps to find our homeless and hungry. Or, sometimes, you don’t have to go looking. Sometimes, they jump right out at you. That’s what happened to me.

I was working for a large health care company as a claims adjuster. I was a single mom with two teenagers at home, and often started my work day before the sun came up. There was a Starbucks on my way to work, where I stopped frequently before my six o’clock shift started. I thought nothing of the five dollar coconut milk latte I enjoyed several days week— a necessary luxury to begin my long day of staring at spreadsheets and medical claims. That’s where I saw him.

I was sitting in the drive-through waiting to order my much needed cup of motivation when I noticed one lonely car in the strip mall parking lot. All of the stores were closed, and would be for hours. Maybe that’s why it looked so strange there, all alone, in the well-lit space between the Starbucks and the Bed Bath and Beyond. It wasn’t the typical car you see in that particular part of town. It was older, and showed more wear.

As I examined the little, red car in the early-morning-empty-lot, I found that the driver of the vehicle was reclined in the front seat, asleep. It was strange. Not something you see every day. But, certainly, he had chosen a safe place to rest. I assumed he was a traveler who had pulled off the nearby interstate for a nap. That is, until the next time I saw him there in the same spot, sleeping in the rain a few days later.

On the third occasion I saw this stranger sleeping in his little red car, he had the driver’s side door propped open, his bare foot extended out onto the ground below him. That was the morning I made an agreement with myself: If I was going to take my privileged ass through that drive through for another latte, I had to bring him breakfast.

I had an appointment one morning, and was driving to the office late when I remembered the stranger. This was the perfect day to make good on my agreement. I drove by to see if he was there, and my heart jumped at the sight of his little red car. I drove across the street to  McDonald’s and ordered a little bit of everything. I had no idea what this man might like for breakfast, or how he took his coffee, or if he drank coffee at all. When I returned with a bag of breakfast foods, coffee and juice he was awake, sitting up in the front seat. I pulled up next to him, gathered the items, and got out of my car.

I was suddenly nervous. I felt my heart speeding up with each step I took toward his driver side door. I quickly noticed that his car was full from floor board to ceiling with clothing, blankets, trash and all kinds of things. He was talking on a cell phone when I knocked on his window.

“Um, just a second,” he said, placing his phone on the pile of items in the passenger seat. He was a young man, maybe in his twenties. He had dark hair, dark features, kind eyes. 

“Good morning! I brought you some breakfast.” I said, extending the bag and cardboard cup holder toward him.

“Thank you so much!” He took the items from my now trembling hands. “You are so kind! I don’t know how to thank you. What made you want to do this today?”

The honest answer to his question was guilt. I felt guilty sitting in that drive through every day waiting for my coffee while he slept in his car. I felt guilty for having the luxury of my latte habit, and the comfort of the bed I had just left to go to my job that afforded me a life that did not necessitate things like sleeping in my car in a well-lit strip mall parking lot. Probably, this stemmed from my deeper guilt of leaving my family behind in rural Michigan to go make a better life for myself, and being mostly absent from their daily struggles. It was like survivor’s guilt. I could’ve been the one sleeping in my car, but by some miracle, I wasn’t. I had more than I needed, and felt compelled to share my good fortune with this young stranger.

When I opened my mouth to speak, guilt was not on the list of things that came out. The words that fell from my lips were as much a surprise to me as they were to him.

“I want you to know that you are important, and your life matters. People care about you— even some you’ve never met. So, you have to take good care of yourself. Ok?”

“I don’t know how to thank you…”

“You don’t need to thank me. Just pay it forward someday.”

“I will. I promise. Thank you so much for breakfast. This is really nice.”

“You’re very welcome. Have a great day,” I said, turning to get back in my car.

I felt the lump in my throat growing. Where did that come from? By the time I closed my car door tears were rolling down my cheeks.

“You are important. Your life matters. People care about you- even some you’ve never met. Take good care of yourself.” I repeated the message.

I was sure that something bigger than me had spoken those words. I was so shaken by it, I forgot one very important thing: I didn’t ask the kind stranger for his name- the one way for me to really acknowledge his existence, his humanity- and I forgot to ask. I made another agreement with myself- next time I would bring him a meal and ask his name.

I looked for my friend in the little red car every time I stopped for coffee after that day, but I never saw him again. I never had the opportunity to ask his name or bring him another hot breakfast, but our relationship was far from over.

On my way to the Starbucks, when I looked for the little red car each morning, I had to drive by a large construction site. At first, I thought it was going to be another strip mall. I watched all the trees vanish from the lot, which made me infinitely sad as I thought about all the little creatures who were pushed out of their homes. When the  building began to take shape it was massive- definitely not a strip mall. Then, a sign went up, advertising a new mega church. If there was anything we needed even less than another stupid strip mall, it was another stupid mega church.

I googled the church and found that it came with a price tag of twenty-two million dollars. Less than two miles away from the twenty-two million dollar mega church was the parking lot where the young man in the red car slept. The juxtaposition of these things infuriated me so much, I had to write about it.

I had been blogging for my own personal entertainment for several years. I had just started a little series on my blog called “Buddha Girl in Jesus Town” where I  talked about my personal spiritual journey, and how strange it was to live in the Bible Belt as someone who does not identify as Christian. I began writing a piece I thought I would add to the series, called, “Why Mega Churches are Mega Bullshit”.

As an existentialist, I am always looking for purpose and meaning. As I wrote about the new twenty-two million dollar mega church, I was filled with indignation. I could not fathom how an organization that was supposed to be based on the teachings of Jesus could justify building an arena to honor him— something he would not have wanted according to the teachings in the new testament— instead of feeding our hungry, and housing our homeless. It was a shining example of the kind of superficial, misguided, self-serving hypocrisy I had come to expect from modern Christianity- and the epitome of everything I hate about organized religion.

In the article, I broke down twenty-two million dollars into the number of meals our local homeless shelter could provide. I truly believe this would have pleased Jesus, who taught on hillsides and in the marketplaces, and did not need a temple to make himself look important. As I finished my little rant, I felt a nudge. It was a gentle, familiar push. I had been flirting  with the idea of sending my work out to actual publications for some time. Before clicking the “publish” button on my WordPress site, I went to Elephant Journal’s homepage to read their submission requirements, again.

The toned-down-a-bit version of my piece, “What Mega Churches are Missing” became my first published article on Elephant Journal. When the editor sent me my published link, she said, “This is great writing. I can’t wait to see more from you. Congratulations!”

I cried tears of joy for about three days after the article went live, as people read it, sent me notes, commented, and shared it all over social media. The article was read over five thousand times, and even people who identified as Christian reached out to tell me how much my words resonated with them.

This opened the door to my writing career.

 Over the next 3 years, I would go on to publish more than one hundred articles. My face was added to the Elephant Journal homepage as a Featured Author, and stayed there until I decided to branch out and send my work to other publications. I self published my first book on Amazon- a collection of short stories from my first little blog, Dysfunction Diaries.

That first article about the man in the red car and the bullshit church changed my life in ways I never imagined. It gave me the opportunity to share my personal story. I wrote about mental illness, sexual abuse, feminism, parenting, relationships, and all kinds of current events. I wrote about all the things you’re supposed to avoid in conversation- religion, politics, sex and death. I wrote little love notes to people I had never met, reminding them how perfectly wonderful they are.

I was amazed at the ripple effect that happened as I shared my story. Strangers reached out to tell me how much my words helped them. People who had carried their painful family secrets their whole lives shared those secrets with me. For the first time, I saw the purpose for my suffering, and how sharing my painful past could help other people. I watched as people I loved began to open and share their own stories, many of them even started blogs, and some began submitting their work to Elephant Journal. I felt incredibly humbled and grateful to be part of each journey that intersected mine.

Sometimes, I wonder if the man in a little red car was an angel, sent here to help me find my voice, purpose and power. Sometimes, I wish I could share with him how my life changed after meeting him. Sometimes, I wonder what became of him, and send love into the universe with wishes for his comfort, peace and prosperity.

That was four years ago, and the words are still with me. I still make bags to keep in my car for our local homeless population with hand warmers, toiletries, snacks and a note card with “YOU ARE IMPORTANT” written in big, bold letters. Sometimes, when handed a bag of treats with this message inside, grown men put a hand to their chest and ask, “Me?” It brings me to tears every time, and I say, “Yes. You.”

I thought I was delivering a gift to someone in need that fateful morning. As it turns out, I was the one receiving a gift. This work is my way of paying forward the incredible inspiration and healing that began that day. 

You Are Important is now the working title for my current work in progress. It’s a book about how to overcome our circumstances and create a life we love. It all begins with realizing that we are perfect just the way we are, and that we deserve to have all the things we might think are outside of our reach. But, it’s more than just a book- it’s a call to action. It’s a little push to get uncomfortable and look at the things we may be avoiding so we can resolve them once and for all. It’s a reminder that we get to choose who we will be in this life, and create our experiences through the things we do every day. It’s my challenge to everyone who’s ready; to live authentically, leave our excuses behind, and become who we were born to be.

Most of all, You Are Important is a message of hope and universal love. Our worth is not determined by our bank accounts, job titles, clothing, zip codes, or any other earthly measure. Our worth is inherient. We don’t need to earn, prove or beg for it. It’s woven into the fabric of who we are. We are important because we exist- all of us. When we begin to look at ourselves as worthy, we open up to new ideas and opportunities. When we recognize that all humans are worthy, we might begin to see people differently- we might even treat them differently.

As I work to complete this project, and seek publishing opportunities, I’ll be sharing some little nuggets here to get us thinking about how to make our lives, and the whole wide world around us, even more amazing. Please, join me.

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Walking My Talk, Even When I Don’t Wanna.

Our lives have been mostly consumed with wedding planning for the past couple months. We had a beautiful wedding, with all of our most favorite people there to celebrate with us. We spent a glorious week in Jamaica for the perfect honeymoon, then came crashing back into the reality of our everyday life. We returned with sun-kissed skin, the happiest of memories, and new vigor for making our dream life a reality in the years to come, together.

I am nearly finished with my next book, You Are Important. I’m hoping to publish later this year, and so excited to see what I can do with it! Writing the book is huge, but my real mission is much bigger than the book. I truly hope to impact people’s lives- to help people see their potential, find their purpose, and foster unconditional self-love and acceptance. So, I decided to start a Facebook page where I can start some groups and gather people together so we can get some conversations going.

Of course, when you start inviting a bunch of strangers to an online forum, anything can happen. Typically, it’s wise to establish some ground rules, so I wrote up a little post and pinned it to the top of the page for all to read. In it, I asked participants to approach unfamiliar ideas with curiosity rather than judgement. I asked that people educate each other gently and with kindness, because we want everyone to feel comfortable. In our group, we are to speak openly, share honestly and agree that everyone is entitled to their values, opinions, and ideas. We don’t have to agree, and we don’t have to conform, but we do have to be kind and respectful toward one another.

Naturally, after you’ve put a statement like that out into the world, there will be a test. My test came this morning at the gym. I woke up early to do my favorite classes. I’ve been gone for a couple weeks with all of the wedding craziness, and didn’t know there would be substitute teachers in both Barre and Yoga.

I walked into Barre and got my equipment set up as the substitute introduced herself to the class. She seemed nice- friendly and enthusiastic. Then, she turned on the music to get started and I cringed. Hard. My ears were asulted with christian worship music, and my little atheist ass was not happy about it.

Number one, this is a secular gym. It’s actually a recreation center that is owned and operated by our local government. So, the separation of church and state thing should definitely be a thing there. Number two, it was early and I was un-caffeinated, which makes every annoyance extra annoying. Number three, I’m a Midwest girl, and this is a Southern thing. I’ve been in the South for almost twenty years, and I still can’t get used to the bible belt stuff. People in the South are used to christianity being ingrained into the culture- it doesn’t seem to bother them at all. But, for someone like me, who is neither Southern nor christian, it just feels disrespectful. People have no problem forcing me to sit through their prayers, worship music, and preaching- they don’t even ask if I’m comfortable with it. And, if I speak up and tell them that I’m an atheist, they clutch their pearls and promise to pray for me, because in their minds there is only one God, one religion, and one way to get to heaven. Their way.

So, it’s early, I haven’t had my coffee, I dragged myself into the gym for an 8am class on a Saturday morning, because I want to recommit to my fitness goals now that we’re back to real life. I’ve just made this public statement about allowing others to be who they are and respecting their beliefs even if we disagree. And now I’m stuck on a yoga mat fighting with myself. In the past, I have walked right out of classes like that. At my old gym, I knew which teachers played Jesus music in their classes, and I made sure not to go to them. I didn’t get a choice today. I didn’t even know we had a sub, and certainly didn’t expect her to come in with her worship playlist on full blast.

I’m in all black, tattoos out, looking like a pagan witch, ready to crawl out of my skin listening to this music. But, if I react poorly, if I allow my temper to get away from me, if I berate this poor lady who just showed up to fill in for someone so they didn’t have to cancel class today, then I am the asshole. I can’t go out like that. If I make her feel uncomfortable for being herself, I am a hypocrite. I hate hypocrites, and I hate assholes. I don’t want to be either. But, mostly, I want to be in integrity with myself.

I want my thoughts, words, and actions to always be in alignment, as this is my personal definition of authenticity. So, I have no choice but to suck it up, let the music play in the background, and just do my workout.

But, Renee! If you’re not christian, and christian music offends you, are you being fake if you just sit there and don’t say anything? Is that really being authentic?

In my mind, staying in class and choosing to ignore the music was the most authentic choice. One of the things I hate most about religion is the arrogance it breeds. Everyone is so sure their religion is the best one, right one, true one, only one… This is why religion creates so much division around the world. Think about how many people have died in holy wars, in the name of someone’s god. And, think about how judgmental people can be where religion and the implied moral code therein is concerned. If you don’t practice the same religion, or call your god the same thing someone else calls their god, they are likely to turn their back on you, to write you off completely, or try to convince you that you’re wrong and you have to learn what they know if you want to be saved or whatever. Walking out of class or demanding she change the music today would have been equally arrogant and dismissive. Even if I was totally justified to request secular music, calling her out in front of the class would have been a dick move, and that is why I chose to let it be.

Being in integrity with myself today meant being kind and accepting of someone who unknowingly made me feel uncomfortable. In the end, the way we make people feel makes a greater impression than anything we say or do. Even though her insensitive music choice made me cringe, I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or judged. About halfway through class she switched to disco music- which felt like a huge upgrade. I thanked her at the end of class, and went about putting away equipment and getting set up for yoga.

When the next substitute teacher walked through the door, I was nervous. I adulted for 30 minutes of worship music already. Could I take another hour of it? Or worse, what if she was one of those white people who only teaches “christian yoga”. That’s an actual thing in the South, because the ancient art and science of yoga is considered “witchcraft” in many churches. So, they totally rape the ancient traditions, remove all the language and teachings that don’t align with their flavor of religion, and replace it with English words and junk from the christian bible. It’s completely insufferable, and I definitely didn’t want to end up stuck in there for an hour of that.

I half considered packing up and going home. But, I made a commitment to myself to get my two hour workout in today, to atone for the champagne and cheese plates in Montego Bay. I decided to stay and take care of my health- even if the soundtrack was not to my liking. Thankfully, the yoga teacher played quiet, secular music and the class was perfect. I sweat my butt off and left feeling fantastic.

Being in integrity with myself today meant honoring the commitment I made to my physical health. I know that staying active is important, and that I always feel better after I exercise. I could have used the early start time on a Saturday morning, the absence of my gym buddy, the christian music, the substitute teachers, or any number of other excuses to get out of my commitment. The only one I would have hurt by doing so is me. I could have ripped that teacher a new one for playing her worship music in my Barre class, but it would have made us both feel bad, and wouldn’t have changed either of our minds about the validity of religion.

Sometimes, we have to get pissed off and roar. Sometimes, we need to shout from the rooftops about this injustice and that tragedy. Sometimes, we have to say the hard things to people to help them do better, even if it hurts their feelings. But sometimes, it’s better to protest silently- to be offended without reacting- to choose our battles wisely, because being kind and open is the only way to start real conversations with people who don’t know what they don’t know.

Authenticity comes from being true to ourselves. Sometimes, that means standing up for what you believe in. Sometimes, it means behaving like the person you want to be. If you can do both of these things at the same time, that’s some next level shit.

Please, come join the discussion at You Are Important and help us navigate all kinds of topics. Let’s come together with purpose, to expand our minds, to learn and grow together, and change the world with love.

 

 

Is Ignorance Really Bliss?

It’s strange times, to say the least.

It seems the whole world has gone mad. Or, maybe it’s not the whole world. Maybe it’s just ‘Murica. Our president is a twat, violence is more rampant than ever, and the news ranges from depressing to downright frightening. We’re more segregated, more afraid and more polarized than ever before.

I’m a sensitive girl. When the world gets too harsh or scary for me, I retreat into my little bubble. I don’t read the news. I avoid social media. I stay as far away from the negativity, fear porn and hype as I possibly can. It’s a good place for me emotionally and spiritually. Just all nestled in my little bubble, where I can just focus on rainbows and puppies, taking care of my family, and just generally ignoring the world around me.

Then, I see something shocking- like the babies in cages at our border, or the white supremacist who advertised their political campaign with the slogan “Make America White Again”, or the homeless people baking in the sun on the hot Tennessee asphalt, or the bill congress passed making it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples. This shit infuriates me to the core. There are no puppies and rainbows when I’m in that headspace. Just sadness, rage and guilt.

Sadness, because goddammit, it’s 2018 and I just feel like we should be more evolved as a collective body of human beings. If everyone could stop trying to divide, devalue, degrade, dehumanize and disrespect others the world would be a fucking spectacular place to live. I don’t understand why we haven’t all figured this out, or why people put so much energy and effort into trying to hurt other people. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

I’m sad because I want to help and make a difference, and I just don’t even know how. How do I comfort the families who lost their children in a school shooting? How do I support gay and transgender people whose families are too indoctrinated in the hate of their chosen religions to show unconditional love and acceptance to their own children? How to I convince our government that people matter more than money? How do I convince my children that the world is a safe, lovely place while also teaching them how to protect themselves from acts of violence?

I’m sad because I know people are hurting, and I can’t fix it. I wish I could just sprinkle some glitter around and say some magical words to make all the hate, hypocrisy, judgement, fear and pain vanish. As it turns out, glitter and pretty words can’t change the world over night. Knowing this makes me feel helpless, hopeless. I’m just one person, and sometimes it feels like I am too small to make a difference. In my frustration, I do nothing. I sit back complaining instead of trying to do something- anything- positive or productive.

The rage comes after the sadness. I am a pissed off little hippie, because my utopian dreams depend entirely on everyone getting their shit together. This is not fucking rocket surgery- it’s basic decency and respect for human life.

Here’s the truth about people as I know it: we are all different, and we are all the same. Each of us has a story, a past, a gender, a race.  Our skin is a certain color, and we speak a certain native language. We have as much education as we have, and we make as much money as we do, and we live where we live. We have unique gifts, talents, strengths and weaknesses. We believe in god, or we don’t. All these things shape who we are, and how we experience the world around us. None of these things are good or bad, right or wrong. It’s all just part of our individual human experience. Being individuals is so important- we all need to have our own identities, beliefs, values, and things we do that make us who we are. That’s good shit.

Everyone has the same basic human needs. We need food, water, shelter and safety. We need love, community, family- a place to belong. We need a purpose- something to do that brings us joy. Everyone deserves to have the same opportunities for success- education, health care, and jobs. Everyone is entitled to respect, dignity, and freedom. Everyone is searching for these same things in the world- and no one has the right to take or keep us from them.

The guilt is real, and heavy, and sometimes almost too much to bear. I feel guilty for having so much and giving so little to those in need. I feel guilty for sitting idly by while everything goes to shit. I feel guilty for not making more of an effort to be a voice for the voiceless. I feel guilty for complaining instead of taking action. I feel guilty for not dropping everything to go to Texas to rock those babies who were taken from their mothers, or spending time with the elderly people wasting away in nursing homes without any visitors, or serving more meals at our local homeless shelter. I feel guilty for staying out of politics, instead of joining the activist efforts that are at least trying to influence social changes.

Most of all, I feel guilty because I know that my inaction is a product of my privilege. I am a straight, white, cis-gender, middle-class woman. I live in an affluent area. My kids have great schools. Our daily needs are met. My life is comfortable, and outside of the occasional chauvinist or judgey religious person, people generally treat me well. It is a privilege for me to be able to choose ignorance over action. It is a privilege for me to look away when the world gets too scary and dark. It is a privilege for me to choose silence, when I should be screaming from the rooftops about the atrocities I see. It’s a privilege to turn off the news and ignore the pain of other human beings, who are just like me, who are searching for the same opportunities and comforts I so easily take for granted.

Ignorance comes in different flavors.

In my privilege, I choose to look away from the terrible things in the world. I choose to be uninformed, and unbothered by the pain of other human beings. I choose to be ignorant to the events in the headlines, because it hurts me to look at them. This ignorance insulates me from the fear and hate out there. It gives me the illusion of safety. Unfortunately, problems don’t just go away because we choose to avoid them. This chosen ignorance, or avoidance, feels like self preservation. But, it’s actually part of the problem. If we don’t do something, who will? Maybe one person can’t change the whole world, but small acts of kindness and speaking up for what is right certainly can make a difference for those around us.

The other flavor of ignorance that seems to be fucking rampant in our society is the fear-based kind that breeds hate. This one is also a choice, but I don’t think some people even realize they are choosing it. Most of them probably learned it from their families, churches, and peers. This is the malignant kind of ignorance we must challenge as a society. We do this by traveling, moving around the country, leading by example, exposing people to new ideas, and sharing our stories.

Racism is a fear based ignorance that we can no longer excuse or tolerate in our culture. Discrimination or degradation of the LGBTQ+ community under the guise of religion is antiquated ignorance that must stop now. The chronic objectification and dehumanization of women is no longer acceptable. Xenophobia, and all the ways it shapes our politics and our attitudes is absolutely not ok.

As much as I would love to remove myself from all the unpleasant things happening in the world, I can’t do that anymore. My little bubble may be cozy and warm, but there is a great big world out there that needs me to care enough to participate in making it a better place. Maybe I can’t change the whole world. But, I can use my voice. I can stand up for what’s right. I can contribute to efforts in my local community to feed the hungry, educate the children, and influence our leaders. I can be a support to people who are hurting. We can, and we must.

No, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is a privilege I will no longer allow myself. Ignorance is a source of fear of the unknown, and hate of the unfamiliar. Ignorance is the antithesis of the love, community, safety, and shelter we all crave. Ignorance is not bliss, and it’s not acceptable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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