Sometimes it's nice to go back and revisit thoughts and memories from our pasts. I like rereading essays I wrote years ago, recalling the emotions I experienced when composing the piece--often I see images of myself with twisted, knotty hair (which usually is the case when I write because when I'm frustrated or anxious I twirl strands around my finger) or hunched over shoulders (because my posture has always been horrible when I write) or half-eaten cups of cereal (when I was younger, I would save part of my snack until I had finished my paper as a reward--actually, I still do the same thing now sometimes). Sometimes I less like revisiting pieces. I recognize how I use too many dashes and parentheses and ellipses, even in my early writing. Too many thoughts! Not enough space in the sentence to fit them in! I cringe when I realize how self-absorbed my writing is. I have never particularly wanted nor known how to write fiction. I write exclusively and exhaustively about me.
Anyway, I hope resurrecting some old favorites (and not-so-favorites) each Thursday will reinvigorate my writing now. I may tweak as necessary, but mostly I want to see who Emily the teenager and Emily the co-ed were, how they compare to the Emily now. True to form, a completely narcissistic project. Would one expect otherwise from me? Perhaps part of the reason I am so taken with this idea is that it allows me to "write" without having to write. I have always held that editing is far easier than composing; once words appear on the page, I have a framework that steers me.
Maybe this series is only for me. But I hope that maybe, just maybe, you will find something in young Emily that resonates with you, too.
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I suppose I have thought a good bit about the shape of Christianity in the Deep South lately, likely prompted by the Chick-Fil-A debacle. I think back to my friend Elaine*. She never was quite like the rest of the elementary and middle school girls, and her unconventional mannerisms and philosophical convictions exposed the insidiousness of southern culture, so well ingrained within all us southern children, even at a very young age.
I wrote this essay in college when asked to reflect upon an event that impacted me religiously for my religious autobiography class. That was all the prompt asked. The professor was deliberately vague. Southern religion continues to haunt me--how it has endured within the culture, still holding such prevalence and prominence, yet remains largely compartimentalized, a something one "does" on Sunday or when encountering homosexuals or a curse word. As much as I try to forget or escape it, I cannot. I live in the middle of the land of Honky Tonk and barbecue and am married to a soldier, after all. And even still, if not for those things, there is always Chick-Fil-A.
I don't much care for the title now, but titles continue to confound me.
*I have changed the girl's name to Elaine as well as altered a few minor details for privacy reasons.
written spring 2010
Filled with smells of deep fried foods and Lysol disinfectant, the middle school cafeteria was abuzz with overly rambunctious preteens seeking to take advantage of the highlight of the school day, the brief twenty minute reprieve from stern teachers and workbook exercises. One gray afternoon in mid-February, my friends and I settled down at our usual table in our usual seats and unpacked our usual lunches: I had a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread and yogurt. We began chattering about how annoying our science teacher, the new movies we wanted to see, and who was “going out” with whom.
Elaine hovered over a thick novel on the far end of our table, fully engrossed in the world of a Jane Austen heroine. Elaine never really liked to talk during lunch. She instead preferred to lose herself in the pages of faraway places, places utterly dissimilar from the conservative town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She intrigued me. She called her mother “Janet” and loved animals more than almost anything else and ate exotic foods like artichoke hearts and spaghetti carbonara and did not believe in God.
In the South, everyone goes to church. One of the first things that is asked when two people meet—after “Who is your family?” and “What sorority/fraternity were you in?”—is “So, what church do you go to?” Going to church, participating in their potluck suppers, and getting the requisite weekly dose of Jesus is simply what is done down South. My friends and I were perplexed and fascinated by the fact that Elaine did not go to church.
The lunchtime period seemed like any other until some of the students from a nearby table rose and approached Elaine. The students were my friends, our friendship the kind which involved saying “hi” to one another in the hallways and talking in classes but never associating outside with one another outside of school. One of the guys announced, “Elaine, do you know Jesus?” When Elaine peered over her novel, she told Will and the others that she did not believe in God. This is what they had expected. Each of my friends then began to take turns explaining to Elaine that she was going to hell since she did not believe in God and that she ought to come to know Jesus. Elaine halfheartedly protested, asserting that she had no desire to change her beliefs, and then turned back to the story of Elizabeth Bennett. My friends became increasingly excited, now actually quite agitated, and continued to insist that Elaine was wrong, that she had evil beliefs. When it became clear that Elaine had nothing more to say, they finally turned back to their own lunch table, and one of them loudly muttered, “I think she worships the Devil.”
I watched the entire scene unfold as if in slow motion. The entire episode probably lasted a mere three minutes, but it seemed to last for hours. Every second which ticked by provided an opportunity for me to say something, to defend my friend Elaine, to protest that Christianity did not need to be presented like that. Instead, I said nothing. I did not want to be the one next attacked.
My rosy, simplistic view of Christianity shattered that day. I could not understand how people could be so cruel to others under the pretense of “evangelizing,” how many could rest in the bloated confidence that only their religion offered the proper way for comprehending the world. I had received my bitter first taste of religious fundamentalism and arrogance, and I realized that I could never align myself with a belief system which justified or encouraged such conceit and disregard for others. The Christianity presented by the students at the other table that day was not the Christianity I knew. No, it was something far more complicated, more diverse, more belligerent, more vicious than I had ever imagined.