I’ve been thinking a lot lately (roughly the past 10 years) about religion, faith, spirituality, and all the many twists and turns that my own personal journey has taken over my lifetime. After spending a good 8 years deconstructing all that I don’t believe anymore, I’ve spent the past 2 gradually reconstructing what it is that I do believe.
Writing is my therapy, and it’s how I untangle my thoughts. I’m going to start journaling through my journey of spirituality in weeks and months to come. For now, I’m going to stroll down memory lane to a pivotal and defining era and a few events that shaped the course of my spiritual identity.
I, like basically all of my friends from my childhood, was raised as a Christian. I was taught to see the world through a moderately conservative Christian lens. I use the word “moderately” because most of my peers were from families far stricter than my own. Though my mom converted to Christianity before I was born—and had thus left behind many of her wild ways of the 60’s and 70’s—she could never let go of music with a good beat or M*A*S*H and Jeopardy. So, unlike many of my fellow Christian homeschool friends, we listened to the radio and were allowed to watch some television. Also, my dad, (whom in recent years has been diagnosed with Asperger’s) had a bit of a temper and would use some rather colorful language whenever frustrated. Also, he taught me to defend myself and anyone weaker than I was, so I had knocked down a handful of bullies in my day. So, between the radio, the tv, the fact that I knew all the basic curse words, and had been in a few fist fights—I felt like I was a pretty normal American kid.
I guess I always sort of knew that I resided rather on the fringe of the conservative world in which I lived. My mom, while staying squarely within a Christian framework, always questioned (and still does) everything being taught from the pulpit. She would dissect the teaching with her own understanding of the Bible (which was deep and vast as she woke up before the sun every morning to pray and read said Bible—and still does). So, it was modeled to me to ask questions, challenge what people—especially patriarchal, loud, authoritative leaders—said.
So, I had this idea that I was a little bit different than the other more sheltered and obedient Christians, but I felt like I had my place among them.
But then just as the summer that I was 11 years old began, we were informed that my sister, Merry, 16, and I were not allowed to return to our homeschooling group in the fall. We were uninvited back to our co-op on the grounds that we were “too worldly.” Merry peaced out back to a brick and mortar school the following year, and my mom cobbled together a handful of loyal friends who agreed to remain in a group with me for another year.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the ways of conservative Christianity, you may be wondering what “too worldly” means. I’m still not entirely sure either, but I think our exposure to media was frowned upon. Additionally, we were judged to be too self aware and we laughed too much (often at each other because our relationship was laced with humor always; Merry was super cool and popular in her days at a regular school, and in homeschooling life, sometimes we were re-enacting the civil war or dressed like Pilgrims and we’d catch each other’s eye and have to laugh. Another thing my mom taught us was to not take life too seriously).
That was the first time that I felt like my very character was in question because my Christianity wasn’t pure enough. I definitely got the message that something wasn’t okay about me. The consensus was that the other children needn’t be tarnished by our worldly ways of listening to U2 and Pearl Jam and having a sense of levity.
I was sad about that because I was a great athlete when we’d play soccer at lunchtime on our co-op days. I also was one of the most prolific and interesting writers during our creative writing workshop. I also nailed my recitation of both the Preamble to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and I knew all the Presidents by heart. In my opinion, watching TGIF didn’t diminish my intellectual capacity and listening to Ten didn’t ruin my contribution as a valuable homeschooler. And apart from the time that I knocked one of the boys almost unconscious (for spying on a few of us girls while changing our clothes and then talking about what he saw to the other boys) I was a very sociable and even gregarious member of the group.
It hurt to be rejected for being different and wrong. Especially, I think, because the only world I knew was a conservative Christian world. So, for me, it was as if the whole world had said, “you’re a bad person with loose morals and a rusty ethical compass.” And that really hurt because I actually tried from a young age to take ethics to heart and to practice consistent living with my values.
I have early memories of leading my neighborhood friends (of whom, I was the oldest by at least one year) down the street and talking about how materialism and consumerism was rotting the souls of humans. I took a dollar bill and ripped it and said it was a symbol of my protest against materialism. I ripped off any labels on my shoes and clothes as a protest to big corporations (this, too, was largely just symbolic since I basically lived in my bathing suit in the summer anyway). Also, I hated gendered stereotypes and would rant on and on to my neighborhood friends about how outrageous it was that pink was somehow a “girl” color and blue was somehow a “boy” color. Did colors have genitalia? I think not. On protest, I avoided all pink for years.
Then the summer that I turned 12, someone came into my life who changed it forever. He was a fleeting, yet entirely intriguing and formative character. He was a philosopher-poet and an artist, and he just came walking down the street one day toward my house. He was 21 years old and had just moved from Naples, Florida, which happened to be where my family spent a couple of months out of every year to stay with my grandparents whenever the weather got bad (and my mom needed some sunshine and a good road trip). So, he struck up a conversation with me about the Naples license plate in our driveway (my grandparents happened to be visiting that week). One thing led to another and before we knew it he became a good friend of our family.
Also, he fell in love with my oldest sister, Darby.
This was no new phenomenon to me. Darby had long, brown beautiful hair that shone with gold highlights in the sunshine, and she wore flowing, hippie skirts over body suits with long necklaces and doc martens. She was kind to everyone, a great listener, and people just fell in love with her everywhere we went. Meanwhile, at that phase in life, I literally had bugs in my hair by the end of every day from basically being feral. I loved being outside; I’d go out almost as soon as it was light in the summertime, and I would only come in for meals and bedtime. And I only took a shower when my mom made me (making the ever so compelling argument that swimming or playing in the sprinkler was just as good as a bath) which was basically just before church on Sundays.
So, I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that often older guys befriended me—again, like countless others—to win the affection of my oldest sister. She and I always had a special bond, and I guess they thought if they got in good with me, I’d have some sway in the boyfriend approval department.
But meanwhile, for that whole summer, he and I formed a special friendship. Daily he would write poetry with my friends and me and philosophize with us about the universe and the quest for meaning and the purpose of existence. He genuinely respected my thoughts and what I had to say. When I was sad, he would help me to write about it. When I was angry, he would make me own my feelings and not blame it on others. When he heard my parents fighting from across the street, he would take me and my friends on walks to explore abandoned farmhouses. It was a magical summer, and one that changed the course of my life forever. Instead of feeling like a failure at being what I was “supposed to be”, that was the beginning of embracing the aspects of who I am. Having someone older that I admired see me for who I was and say, “hey, you’ve got potential. Don’t ever lose your insight and your quest for wisdom” left a lasting mark on me.
After that magical summer ended, this guy realized that Darby was in love with someone else just as he went off to college. But before he went away, he gave me a copy of Walden and On the Road. And then he vanished from my life just as quickly as he had appeared.