Wise words from Miss Emily Dickinson, shy and sheltered spinster poet. Considering I’m shy and sheltered myself (minus the spinster part), I take her words to heart. All of my blog posts are personal truths about love and motherhood, family and teaching, and just plain life as I live and know it. But the one personal truth I have not yet shared has been my faith – nor had I any intention of doing so. But then last night, I prayed for some guidance about what to write for this week’s entry… and wondrously, at 2:00 am, Dickinson’s lines woke me. They were running through my head like a mantra –which is surprising since I hadn’t read her poem in decades. But I knew immediately what truth I was supposed to tell.
I’ve known a lot of truth in my fifty years. And I’ve known a lot of lies. I know the phrase, “the gospel truth,” and I believe in it. But I have seen a multitude of transgressions committed in the name of those selfsame gospels, and I must admit that the Good Book has been used in the past to crack me through to the very core. And it still can send me cowering to a corner if someone too dogmatic and zealous waves it at me. So how do I go about telling all of you my truth without sending you running headlong away from my sinful self and the harsh realities of my past? Or perhaps worse, running toward me with promises of salvation and sanctuary within the walls that house your own cloistered congregations…
The truth must dazzle gradually, says the divine Miss Em. So let me ease you into it. And the best way to explain it is that I’m sort of like the alcoholic’s daughter who won’t try a sip of beer or go into a bar because she’s afraid she’ll become a raging alcoholic. She’s afraid she’s inherited that dispensation toward weakness and rash behavior – or in this instance – weakness and rash beliefs and that she’ll — I’ll– end up a radical, out-of-control zealot ready to condemn any and all who don’t think and feel as I do. So I steer clear of sanctuaries and Sunday schools, and FCA meetings, and even organized prayer chains. My fears are real and they are debilitating. Because from a young and impressionable age I was thrust into a controlling and questionable church. By the way, I’m a believer. But I believe in the Love of Christ. Not the liturgy. Organized religion controlled me once. To the point of near-annihilation. That’s one time too many.
Until the age of ten, I grew up a free-spirited, southern tomboy. My little postage stamp of native soil was none other than Faulkner’s own Yoknapatawpha. My summers were a barefoot bohemian paradise. I played house in creek beds, chased snakes in kudzu, deadheaded marigolds in the garden and drank Kool-Aid in dixie cups. Just describing it, I realize that this idyllic place has all of the haunting, symbolic overtures of that original garden and the fall from innocence… And indeed, in the late summer of my eleventh year, thunderstorms stacked themselves tall and dark on the horizon and triggered that inevitable fall.
My family decided to pack up and hit the road like twentieth-century tribes of Israel, along with about a dozen others from tiny towns in northern Mississippi, and head out to Dallas, Texas to forge a new, eternal life in the blazing-hot Promised Land. Once we reached the proverbial land of milk and honey, all childhood innocence banished. There were no creek beds or kudzu in the concrete jungle. Instead, there were rules. And orders. And boundaries. And curfews. Fraternizing with the neighbors was frowned upon. So was public television, unless it was church sanctioned. (The church allowed football, thank God, and it’s in Dallas, that my passion for football was formed.So there’s a silver lining.) But back to my coming of age… Over the next five years, I was dutifully schooled on the hazards of being a girl. The world was big; I was small. The world was bad; I was a good girl. The world was dangerous; I was weak. The world was out to get me; I needed looking after. I needed firm guidance. I needed to rely on the Lord’s wisdom and the church’s protection. I was weak and feeble-minded and incapable of forming opinions. As a female, I bore the stain of original sin and would always need a male figure (pastor, father, husband) to guide my wicked and wayward soul. Education was not for me. High school (a private and church controlled ) was as far as I would or could go. My voice was silenced and my opinions were hobbled.
But I didn’t go down without a fight, I will say that. There wasn’t much I could do because I had no true weapons or ammunition, but I did what I could. I quit eating. I quit communicating. I curled inward and shut down. At one point toward the end, the church thought they had me where they could break me. I remember a room filled with elders in beards and three-piece power suits. I remember prayers. And prophecies. And speaking in tongues. And condemnations. And demands. And laying-on of hands.
I have despised beards with a fear bordering on phobia ever since…
The irony of needing salvation from a faith that promises salvation does not escape me.
But escape, I did. And salvation, I found.
My parents saved me and my grandmother rescued me. Somehow my mother and father managed to extricate me from the ravenous claws of theocracy and religious radicalism, while they themselves remained firmly entangled and entrenched within its dogma. I know it wasn’t easy on them after I left. I know they bore the stigma of failure– and probably a whole lot worse — because of it. I’m sure the inability to control a girl-child was an outrageous sin of grievous proportions. But they risked all and flung me as far and wide as they could: two states over, to a little town with a big reputation, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Again, the irony that my salvation was found in the belly of the apocalyptic Manhattan Project does not escape me.
But escape I did. Thanks to my sweet grandma.
She, above all others, showed me what it means to truly embody Christ and his teachings. She sacrificed so much to accept me, her mysterious firstborn grandchild with the broken sense of self and the paralyzed soul. She nursed me back and she showed me the light. She proved to me that I could make it in this world, that I was important, that I was smart, that I was worthy. She was a female phenom. She modeled what I knew I wanted to be. Strong and willful and courageous and true. Because of her, I eventually went back to school and got my degree. Because of her, I raised strong-willed, able-bodied, incredibly intelligent daughters. Because of her, I write.
I was silenced for far too long. I shied away from hard subjects. I shied away from confrontation. I shied away from truths. But now I’m telling all the truth. And my truths aren’t told out of anger. Or shame. Or to cause harm. Or to seek pity. My truths are told to help others. Other women who don’t feel or know their value. Who’ve been denigrated and diminished until their spirits are dried up and their souls are sawdust. Other children who have been bullied and badgered into choices and changes that fly in the face of their sweet sensibilities and ultimate destinies. These stories should be told. These opinions should be heard. And so I will tell all my truth. And I will wait for them to tell theirs. The truth must dazzle gradually…