My Christianity at 30

April 8, 2014

The full prayer kneel, April 8, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

The full prayer kneel, April 8, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

No, today’s not my thirtieth birthday — I’m still forty-four and twenty months away from entering middle age. But, it has been thirty years since I converted to Christianity, two weeks before Easter Sunday ’84, sometime between 8:55 and 9 am. You could say — and many would — that this marks three full decades since my spiritual rebirth, a milestone as significant as my birthday on the final Saturday of the ’60s at Mount Vernon Hospital.

In many ways, it was a renewal, a reboot, a beginning of sorts. To claim control over my life and my destiny, at least, as much control as I could muster. In the past thirty years, the issues of control and perfection, faith, knowledge and wisdom, and the expectations I have of myself, my God and those who either don’t see God as real or as real to me have remained constants in my life.

Perhaps this has been because of how I became a Christian in the first place, a bit more than three months after an aborted suicide attempt on my fourteenth birthday. With my abusive stepfather Maurice and his insistence that we were Hebrew-Israelites, I couldn’t be open about my conversion or the thought and faith process that led me to Christianity. At least, I didn’t feel strong enough back then to be open about it. I remained a clandestine Christian for five months before I stood up to the idiot after my first day of tenth grade — my first time not wearing my kufi since sixth grade — and dared him to kill me. He didn’t, and it was my first full victory against my stepfather.

As for my classmates, the splits between the denominational Christian, agnostic, atheist and Nation of Islam sets were ones I’d become aware of long before my conversion. And, by tenth grade, it was obvious that many of my immediate Humanities classmates were about as accepting of the spiritual as Bill Maher and the late Christopher Hitchens. Maybe not openly so, but the barrier of intolerance and disdain was there.

Break the chains, April 8, 2014. (

Break the chains, April 8, 2014. (

Over the years, my walk with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection has grown more complicated, with euphoric highs, quiet lows, and periods of almost evangelical revival along the way. Still, I remain faithful, even as I remain disillusioned, about my life, humanity, the universe and the afterlife. I still pray, and believe that God listens to my prayers, but understand that prayer without action is tantamount to talking to myself. “Faith without works is dead,” is what the good book actually says. Unfortunately, there are way too many alleged Christians in exalted places and in positions of power who practice neither faith nor the works of Jesus. All they do is talk about their Christianity while acting like pagan Roman emperors.

I no longer welcome debate about what and in whom I believe. I find those who smirk and call my walk the equivalent of someone with a mental illness or an imaginary friend about as bigoted as a Christian who believes that all atheists are the sons and daughters of Satan. There’s a certain hubris in claiming the nonexistence of the spiritual because the people whom are representatives of the religious are themselves flawed and full of crap. Then, I guess, there’s a certain hypocrisy in the universe, in evolution, in all life, and I don’t think any of us have enough knowledge to be that cynical and nihilistic.

I no longer regularly attend church. I’ve been to at least a dozen churches in the DC area over the past decade and a half, and combined, I’ve gotten less out of all of those services than in one service I attended at my mother-in-law’s church in Pittsburgh last September. Heck, I’ve found more wisdom and compassion and realness in some of the courses I’ve taught than at most of these churches. Church is a place for fellowship with other Christians, but I have a hard time with my own contradictions, much less those of others.

Bertrand Russell wisdom quote, April 8, 2014. (

Bertrand Russell wisdom quote, April 8, 2014. (

For my son Noah’s sake, though, I want to find a place or two where we can feel comfortable exposing him to Christianity. Places where the hypocrisy quotient isn’t so high, and with the understanding that this is a long spiritual walk, not a magical carpet ride of infinite miracles and treasure chests full of gold. I’m tired of the megachurches, the Gospel of Prosperity, the overly emotional, the attempts to strangle human behaviors, and the endless predictions of apocalypse based on homophobia, misogyny, Whiteness, and a terrible understanding of history.

But I do have a one-on-one spiritual walk that’s mine, that no one — atheist or evangelical — can take away from me. It’s a walk that has taken me far from the despair and abuse of my youth, warts and all.

Icy Dream

January 14, 2014

Massacre perpetrated by white walkers north of The Wall, "Winter Is Coming," Game of Thrones (2011). (

Massacre perpetrated by white walkers north of The Wall, “Winter Is Coming,” Game of Thrones (2011). (

One of only four times in which I use a dream or daydream device in Boy @ The Window, this one from January ’84:

It must’ve been everyone I’d come to know. About twenty-five or thirty of them in all. Led by Wendy, JD, Alex and Andrew, they all were marching down East Lincoln near where I lived, sticks and stones in hand. More like bricks and baseball bats and chains as they got closer. They were all dressed in Sergio Valente and Jordache, Benetton and OshKosh, Levi’s and Gap attire. They were all after me, my kufi, my life, my eternal soul. They weren’t running after me. They were marching in formation, like Soviet troops in Red Square, only with ridiculous smiles of mayhem giving away their intentions. I felt scared. But I had resigned myself to my fate. If I was goin’ down, gosh darn it, I was gonna put up a fight and take some of them with me!

I knew that dreaming about your classmates in any other way than out of adoration or infatuation wasn’t healthy. They served as a metaphor. They were an obstacle between me and my inner peace, a constant reminder that the odds were against me escaping 616 and Mount Vernon for the brighter pastures of a life and education elsewhere. They were symbols all right, symbols for everything from abuse and fear of abuse to undying and unrequited love. I woke up, sweating and with a panicked heartbeat from the nightmare. I looked at all of my body parts to make sure that I still had them in place before getting out of bed.

A glacier cave on Perito Moreno Glacier, in Los Glaciares National Park, southern Argentina, January 14, 2010. (Martin St-Amant [S23678] via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 3.0.

A glacier cave on Perito Moreno Glacier, in Los Glaciares National Park, southern Argentina, January 14, 2010. (Martin St-Amant [S23678] via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 3.0.

Later that snow-melt Saturday in early ’84, Mom sent me to the Fleetwood Station post office in the northwest corner of Mount Vernon to pick up a certified package. She had a PO box there, set up originally to protect sensitive documents from thieves in the building. I assumed that she was using it now to keep Maurice from getting his hands on any checks or other sensitive information. This was yet another task that I’d become the go-to-child for. I got dressed in my hand-me down winter coat and blue sweats and began the slushy trek to Fleetwood.

Then déjà vu struck. I found myself standing at the northeast corner of Lorraine and East Lincoln, unusually quiet because of the snow and the cold front that came with it the night before. This was where the metaphorical forces of destruction had lined up and marched against me. I laughed out loud, hoping at the same time that no one saw me. I looked down at the curb and sidewalk as the slush-ice was turning into mini-glacial streams and rivers, all blending as they ran toward a storm drain. In a semi-frozen pack nearby lay ten dollars. It had been trapped by the icy H2O. “My luck is getting better every day,” I said to myself. This happened to me, someone who never found more than a penny at a time on the streets and sidewalks of Mount Vernon. Despite all my worries and nightmares and other self-inflicted thoughts, things, at least at school, felt like they were getting better.

The Wall, viewing from the north, Game of Thrones (HBO), January 14, 2014. (

The Wall, as viewed from the north, Game of Thrones (HBO), January 14, 2014. (

I suppose that if Game of Thrones [Ramin Djawadi – Main Title (Game of Thrones)] was on HBO in ’84 (and if we had cable back then) that I could’ve thought, “Winter is coming! OMG, Winter is coming!” I’m a fan of winter (to a point), though, because there’s the promise of renewal, the possibility that struggle can lead to reinvention, even redemption. And for me thirty years ago, that’s exactly how I saw January ’84. I was looking for a fresh start, a new beginning, within myself, if not necessarily from others. But being fourteen, I could only be that wise for so long when I controlled so little of what was going on in my life, even with the best of icy dreams.

The Fight (Again)

February 18, 2012

Clubber Lang vs. Rocky in Rocky III (screen shot), 1982, February 18, 2012. (

The fight that changed my approach to Humanities and put me back in a determined frame academically happened on this date thirty years ago. After all of these years, I find it awfully strange to look back and find that some of my more poignant moments growing up were ones of rage, resistance and renewal. All either around abuse, muggings or fights with classmates.

Strange because I’d never seen my immature and thin-skinned self as much of a fighter before that day in February ’82 (see my post earlier this week, “Quitting Before a Fight“). Strange because it often takes something only indirectly related to my struggles to cause me to regroup and fight for what I want. Strange in the ways that all immature preteen boys and girls who get into fights always are.

It had gotten so bad that month that folks who wouldn’t have dared to mess with me at the beginning of the year — guys significantly shorter than me and guys who were so superior to me that they didn’t even notice me — started messing with and threatening me. JD (see my “The Contrarian One” post from February ’11) was one of those classmates. The week before the mid-February winter break, our homeroom/English teacher Mrs. Sesay was home with the flu. Our substitute’s idea of managing a classroom was reading a newspaper while the class engaged in verbal and physical combat. It seemed that no one was safe from strife that week, including me.

JD decided that it was his turn to give me a hard time. A ten-second scuffle took place on Tuesday over the usual tweener issues of communism versus capitalism, or to use more sophisticated language, neo-Marxism versus Keynesian economics. He also didn’t like that I had corrected him the month before about Australia’s official language, which he said was “Australian.” I learned that day that you should never correct a preteen contrarian when they think that they’re right.

When I walked into the boys’ locker room for gym class that Thursday afternoon thirty years ago, I was greeted with two punches to my chin and face. He walked away and went through the green double doors to his locker, arrogant enough to think I wouldn’t respond. He muttered “stupid” as he walked away. I think it was the combination of being caught by surprise and being called “stupid” by JD that got the better of me. Or maybe it was five months of enduring public humiliation combined with the sense that things at 616 were spinning out of control.

Whatever it was, I finally snapped. I stared blankly at the red lockers, green doors, and depleted beige-colored walls for a couple of seconds, and then my mind exploded in violent colors. I threw my entire being into JD as he had started to undress at his locker, knocking him to the floor.

I choked and punched him until I had bloodied his mouth and made his nose turn red. JD attempted to fight back to no avail, as I kept my weight on his legs while I head-locked him with my left arm and wailed away with my right hand. Just as I began to run out of energy, the gym teacher came in to break us up. He yelled at us and asked “Do you want to be suspended?” When I got off the floor to go my locker, I almost couldn’t believe that I had won that fight. I went into the break with an emotional boost, one that I hoped would lead to better things for me at school.

You could say that only a nerdy preteen boy like myself would find academic motivation in a fight. That’s definitely true. But, not just someone like me. Every kid who’s trying to find their way can only work with what he or she knows or what he or she is presented with. I could’ve either decided to keep being a punching bag — literally, figuratively and academically — or decided that whatever else I wanted to be, I needed to stand up for myself and fight.

So yes, winning that fight with JD sent me into that winter break as if I’d thrown a Hail Mary to Hakeem Nicks just before halftime for a touchdown. It provided the inspiration I needed that I wasn’t getting from Humanities, A.B. Davis Middle School or 616. Where else would I have found it in February ’82?


January 16, 2012

Cartoon of a patient consulting a doctor about a burn-out (Dutch -- "You are having a burnout."), April 17, 2008. (Welleman via Wikipedia). In public domain.

It’s a word I rarely admit to. One that I usually notice signs of, but try to work through anyway. But as I’ve learned over the years, I’ve needed to acknowledge and understand my burnouts before moving forward and avoiding the conditions that produced it in the first place.

My first experience with burnout was my sophomore year of high school in June ’85. It came after three solid months of applying my memorization skills (some would say near-photograph memory skills) full-time, without the time and space to study at 616 or the support of good teachers that year, especially in Chemistry with the not-so-great Mr. Lewis. That, and no food at home during finals/Regents exams week made me actually sick of school for the first time (see my “Hunger” post from June ’08).

I went through something similar in late November and December ’89, the end of the first half of my junior year at Pitt. I had put together what I called a “total semester” plan for the first time, to organize my life so that I’d have a life outside of my classes and to take a shot at a 4.0 that semester. Only, I was dumb enough to take third-semester calculus a year and a half after my last math course, and I was now a history major taking writing intensive courses.

That, and finding out that one of my closest female friends was attracted to another, much shorter guy — also a friend of mine — meant for a rocky last three weeks of ’89. And I’d unwittingly helped to set them up. I managed a 2.98 GPA that terrible semester, including a D+ in multiple integrals and differential equations. Terrible, at least by my own standards.

Burning Brain (cropped), January 16, 2012. (Selestron76 via Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws.

I was beginning to understand that my occasional burnout wasn’t just because of school or work, but because some area of my life had caused me significant emotional turmoil, which in turn affected my performance in other areas. The period between December ’96 and September ’98 was a long period of burnout for me. I have written here before about my battles with Joe Trotter and Carnegie Mellon as I completed my dissertation at the end of ’96 — too many times for some people’s tastes. What I haven’t discussed is the emotional toll that process took on me and how long it took for me to recover.

I spent most of ’97 and ’98 angry, raging ready to actually strangle most of the folks on Carnegie Mellon’s campus after finishing the degree. I couldn’t look at Trotter without wanting to wrap piano wire around his throat from behind and feeling him squirm as I cut the life out of him. Yeah, it was bad. As my now wife of twelve years can attest, I’d get into arguments with cashiers at CVS over a nickel and their complete disdain for their duties, ready to throw a punch.

But I also couldn’t write, at least write in the ways in which I wanted. I could execute the mechanical exercise of writing well enough, even put together papers for presentation and articles for publication. I even wrote an editorial on race with my then girlfriend that was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March ’98. Still, I was writing mostly because I didn’t believe in writer’s block or in burnout, this despite all the contrary evidence.

Add the fact that I’d learned that my own mother was actually jealous of me for going to school, among other things (see “My Post-Doctoral Life” post from May ’08). I was burned out, a sad person to be around for most of ’97 and a good portion of ’98. All while I was an underemployed adjunct professor at Duquesne and working part-time at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. I’m not sure how Angelia put up with me, because it was hard for me to put up with me.

So, how did I pull out of my burnout? Time after the doctorate, away from Carnegie Mellon (I didn’t set foot on the campus for nearly two years after I cleaned out my cubicle in July ’97), for starters. Having people in my life who needed me to be me at my best, like Angelia and my Duquesne students, for instance, helped.

But the need to find full-time work and the realization that staying in Pittsburgh to wait for Trotter to be run

Spool of piano wire, with 247 ft-lbs of torque (enough to kill), January 16, 2012. (http://

over by a PA-Transit bus for a potential job opening was also a great motivator. I realized that despite everything, I’d gained more than I lost in earning my doctorate, and that I may yet find my better self again by putting those roiling emotions in a box in my mind’s attic.

I’ve felt burnout since. In a family intervention from a decade ago, in moving on from New Voices, even in my current context as consultant and professor. At least I’m more aware when I’m feeling that way, and am able to cope with those emotions with reminders of what and whom I have in my life that remains true and good.


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