Atheists on Elevators – Texas Style

by Anne Crumpacker, Socratic Mama

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in

woke up at 5:00 am to straighten my hair. I had already secreted the hotel coffee maker into the bathroom so its sputtering wouldn’t wake my sleeping husband and eight-year old daughter.

I’m a Dallas,Texas girl and the summer of 2011 was the worst drought in the state since the 1930s—the heat had been habaneroly wicked. The ground was deeply cracked, the grass had turned frijole brown months ago, and worried homeowners were surreptitiously watering their slab foundations with soaker hoses against city ordinances.

Our governor and Republican presidential candidate, Rick Perry, had done his damnedest to squelch the danger of wildfire and to put the fears of the good folks of Texas at peace. Mr. Perry had even gone straight to El Jefe himself, by evoking his own gubernatorial authority under the state constitution and proclaiming a three-day period of prayer for rain in April. But truth be told, come October we were still waiting for a response from on high.

Yet, Richard Dawkins had arrived in Houston to speak at the Texas Freethought Convention and had brought with him a genuine downpour.

Due to the sudden humidity, straightening my bleached-blond hair was about as futile as defending the Alamo, but like Davy Crockett, I was going to die trying.

Let me start by saying you’d be wrong if you assume everyone in Texas is some kind of frontiersmen or cowboy. The freethought community in Texas is more like a good salsa: spicy with a surprising mixture of diced vegetables. There are the intellectuals, the activists, the hippies, the old-timers, and even a few recovering Christians. And then there are people like me. I’m pretty average. You might say respectable. So, I wanted to look “normal” for the convention and that does not mean like a southern Roseanne Roseannadanna.

“Texas pretty” ain’t fast or easy, but by 7:30 am I was ready to go downstairs. Clutching my second cup of hotel-tap-water-java, the 19th floor elevator doors opened and I herded my groggy husband and little girl inside. Even at this early hour the elevator was stuffed like a piñata full with people and suitcases. I was suddenly very conscious of my convention lanyard around my neck, so I shifted my coffee cup downward forming a nifty styrofoam shield to block my name from any unwanted attention.

Then the absolute worst thing that could come to pass to a coffee-drinkin’, elevator-ridin’, god-denyin’ fe-male actually came to pass! A tall, blond man eyed me over and said…

“Excuse me, but you look familiar.”

“Me?” I whipped a glance around to see if there were a mistake.

“Yep, I’m sure. I’m Colt Rollins, ” he said motioning to himself, trying to be helpful.

Crap. Colt Rollins… I flew through my mental Facebook. Colt, Colt… Colton Rollins. I had it!

“Oh, you must be Colton Rollins’s dad! Colton and Mason are in the same class at school! Mason, this is Colton’s dad. Say, ‘hello,’ sweetie.”

Identify crisis solved. We were all big, friendly smiles and greetings until Colt asked, “So, what are y’all doing in Houston?”

(“Damn, what are we doing in Houston?” I thought. Well, I knew one thing for sure. We were not there to attend an atheist convention.) I improvised, “Short vacation, ” my husband nodded. “Just kicking around, you?”

“We’re taking Colton to NASA.”

(NASA! Hallelujah, that’s it!) “We’re going to NASA, too!”

A perfect save until Mason groaned, “Mommy, I don’t want to go to NASA. I’ve already seen NASA.”

“Well, you can never see NASA too many times. NASA is so interesting!” I scolded. All the adults smiled and agreed.

T-minus 10 floors to go. Surely Colt had noticed our name tags by now and I was getting paranoid. But wait. We weren’t going to the lobby! The meeting was actually on the third floor in the hotel meeting rooms, so we could say “adios” and sneak away with no one the wiser. Ding. The doors opened on the third floor and we hurried out. All of us. Colt, too. And then I saw her… Lacy.

Lacy “my hair is naturally blond and never frizzy” Rollins. Waiting on the third floor. That was not good. Lacy and Colton Rollins were now directly between us and the Texas Freethought Convention.

“Lacy, the Crumpackers are talking Mason to see NASA,” he said.

“Oh, NASA is so interesting.” she beamed.

“Yes, well… I’ve got to get some fresh coffee. Nice seeing you both,” I gushed.

My little family of three tried to sidle off towards the open meeting room doors, but the Rollinses were following us! They followed us all the way into the meeting room and sat down towards the back. Accusations and probabilities raced through my caffeinated head. They weren’t wearing lanyards, so they couldn’t have been registered for the convention. And Lacy was taking notes. Why would anyone need to take notes? She was clearly a christian mole and I was going to be “outed” when I got back home to Dallas. I wanted to cut and run.

Now, I’m sure you aren’t a cottonheaded fool like me, and you have already figured out the end of this Texas Tall Tale. Nobody was going to NASA that weekend. I just didn’t know the Rollinses were atheists because I assumed that they weren’t. But after a few awkward moments during the first break we all set the record straight. Lacy and I began clucking away about the kids’ homework and the school bullies, just like we were at a PTA meeting or something. She said it would be nice for Colton to know that Mason was like him—and I agreed.

Later that same night darling little Mason asked Christopher Hitchens “What book should I read?” during the keynote Q&A. Mr. Hitchens was gracious enough, despite his illness, to chat a bit about books with her after dinner.

The next morning, the Houston Chronicle printed a few lines about their encounter including our full names and hometown—effectively outing us as non-believers. Dr. Jerry Coyne invited me to write a story about it for Why Evolution is True.

That story went viral, and now here I am. No longer a closet atheist. Over the past six weeks I’ve had to “pony up” to my true convictions like a real cowgirl. It has been both scary and fun—a virtual rodeo of conviction.

The irony of our little story is that we went to the convention to be in the company of like-minded strangers. But before the meeting even began, we unknowing found like-minded friends. After the convention, our free-thinking community expanded exponentially thanks to the Why Evolution is True readership.

Then more, and more encouragement and advice poured in from fellow atheists on Facebook and Twitter, until our meeting with Mr. Hitchens had literally circled the globe. What started that morning as an unremarkable elevator ride introduced us to an international well-spring of inspiration and support.

So, if you’re the type that likes symbolism and deep thoughts and stuff like that I guess you could say I’d been living in a self-made corral of sorts, and when that elevatorgate swang wide open — I busted out of the proverbial shoot. Over the years, I had penned myself in, one lil’ fearful assumption at a time. But this year, I’m determined that I’m living life like a mustang! Or at least a free-range chicken.

No more fences in my head.

For starters, I’ve created a new website for secular families. I’m a former public school teacher with a passion for fostering critical thinking and innovation in young people, so is a collection of snippets, treats, and tales chosen to nurture imagination and logic for both children and their grown ups.

You’ll find short, easy to share activities that you can incorporate into your family life without ever breaking a sweat. There’s even a support forum with multiple interest groups and a Secret Book Club on Goodreads for parents. I hope to see y’all there real soon!

Finally, I would like to thank Dale McGowan and Rebekah Bennetch of Parenting Beyond Belief for their guidance and goodwill.

I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
And I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in

This entry was posted in Coming out, For the kids, Online presence, Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Atheists on Elevators – Texas Style

  1. Well done Anne. Good to be out in the fresh air. Great post & legs!

  2. docbrain1 says:

    Excellent post. Very well written. The more we are silent, the more we approve of the religious. Standing up like this will encourage others. And you never know where you’ll find friends.

  3. Pingback: Coming Out on the Third Floor | SocraticMama-Inspiration and support for secular families

  4. lesaperry says:

    Great post! I think the most compelling reason to come out of the closet may be to encourage others to come out with you.

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