Not This

For as long as I can remember, my driving motivation for major life choices has been getting away.

First, it was getting away from my family.  When I was a little kid, I used to Run Away From Home regularly.  I would get my mom’s suitcase and walk off down the street.  I didn’t put anything in the suitcase; I just knew you had to take a suitcase with you to Run Away From Home.  I would wander around the neighborhood and eventually go back.

When we went on our first school field trip to a city, I knew I was going to move to a city as soon as possible.  The buildings and the sidewalks, all the cars and people, it gave me such energy!  Here, I thought, things really happened.  Not like my small town where everyone knew each other and nothing ever happened.

My family could have been worse.  I was not abused.  My mother was extremely lenient and soft.  She let us do whatever we wanted.  I never had a curfew or any rules.  She taught me to forge her handwriting so I could write my own late and absence notes for school.  We went to the mall together and bought lunch and looked at clothes.  There were lots of good things.

But other things were not right.  My mother wasn’t really a mature adult, in retrospect.  She wanted to be a kid still, not a parent.  Being a single parent was hard on her and I sympathize with that.  I was fine.  I was pretty much born a mature adult.  I have felt “older” than my mother from a very young age.  My brother was not fine.  He needed a stricter parent and she wasn’t it.  My house was chaotic.  He was constantly in trouble.  She listened to the police monitor in case something happened to him.  He threw tantrums.  We fought.  He pushed me down the stairs.  He threw things at me.  He paint-balled my car.  He harassed my friends and called me names.  She could not control him.  I hid in my bedroom reading as much as possible until I could escape.

Escape.  That word is like a light bulb to a moth for me.  Escaping holds so much promise.  Going somewhere else.  Anywhere.  The unknown.  Who knows what it will be, but it will not be this.  Anything but this.  How many decisions have I made in my life that were the result of “anything but this?”

I have lived all over the country because of it.  I am never afraid of a new place or change.  I love it and thrive on it.  I don’t feel tied to anything.  Through moving so many times, and sometimes long distances, I have whittled away my material possessions to the barest essentials.  I don’t need things.  I can pack all my stuff and move it in one small U-Haul in one day if necessary.

I don’t feel like I’m searching for something, I’m just always moving on.  It’s never the promise of what’s to come, it’s getting away from what was.

Some people think this sounds terrible and they love to have things and put down roots.  Not me.  I don’t want roots, they just tie you down.  I am a bird and I will be free.  I will go where I please and there is nothing stopping me.  The less Things I have the better.  I donate unneeded things to people who need them.

Maybe someday I will find a place that makes me feel differently, but if not that is also okay.  The world is large and there is so much to see.  Every new place teaches me something.  Every new state shows me the world from a different angle.  I do not know what it is I want, but I always end up coming back to the same thing: not this.  And then it will be time to move on.


Mutually Assured Destruction

I grew up under the shadow of the Cold War between the United States and the USSR.  This probably would not have made so much of an impact on my childhood if it weren’t for one differentiating factor: my mother’s extreme paranoia.

It was simply part of my knowledge, for as long as I can remember, that at any moment, we could all be obliterated by nuclear bombs.  I did not question this or think it strange that my mother spent so much time thinking and talking about nuclear war until much later in my life.

The “nukes,” as she called them, were a constant looming threat.  News about politics, war, Gorbachev, Reagan, et al was on the evening news daily.  My mother, eyes wide, watched raptly as the talking heads dissected the possibility that the two most powerful nations in the world would obliterate each other over this or that controversy.

On vacations at our grandparents home, nuclear war was the topic of conversation. My grandfather was a history connoisseur and a veteran of World War 2. He predicted World War 3 was imminent and the discussions lasted into the night over cans of cold beer, my grandmother’s Newport cigarettes and my mother’s True Blues.  My brother and I would sneak out of our rooms after being put to bed, sip unattended beer, and listen to them discuss the end of the world as we know it.

I can’t say I found any of this particularly frightening.  Maybe I was numb to it.  You can only hear that you may die tomorrow in a nuclear blast so many times before it loses its impact.  It was simply a fact of my life.  Nuclear background noise.

As an adult, I can look back and separate fact from fiction for the most part.  But as a kid, whatever my mother said was inherently true.  So I did not question her interpretation of events.  It wasn’t until later that I realized that there was a component of delusion mixed in with her fretting over nuclear missiles.

The “Underground Pentagon” aka Raven Rock Mountain Complex occupied a large tract of my mother’s obsession.  We did indeed live close to it, that much was true.  But my mother had all kind of stories about what was going on in there and why we were definitely going to be the target of the USSR’s first missiles for living in close proximity to it.  She was constantly pointing out mountains with radio towers on top and telling us “Look kids, there’s the underground pentagon.” In retrospect, I think she was just pointing at random mountains.  And I do not think she was lying, she has always believed all of her stories whole-heartedly.

I did a lot of book reports about the nuclear bomb.  I was interested in the physics of it as well as the history.  I knew about Trinity and Oppenheimer and Hiroshima.  I knew what would happen to you in a nuclear blast, depending on your distance from it.  I knew about nuclear winter.  I knew about Chernobyl.

I am so grateful that when I grew up there was no internet and no 24 hour news cycle.  If there had been, the background noise of assured nuclear destruction surely would have been so loud it would have overtaken life. I know this because after the September 11 attacks, my mother found a new obsession to fret about: terrorism.  And the internet made it unbearable.

In a way I feel like imminent nuclear war was my Santa Claus.  It was the story that was told to me over and over again as a child, and eventually I grew up and realized it wasn’t totally true.  There was an element of reality to it, but the scale was all wrong.

The cold war ended. We were never attacked. I am still here. My mom is still here, still full of worry about something else.


Covert Jesus Party

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania dominated by Born Again Baptists. The first friend I met in elementary school happened to belong to a particularly devout family. Elisa was a very smart little girl with a caustic wit and sarcastic sense of humor. She could deliver a joke with a deadly serious tone that frequently went right over everyone’s head. I loved her for that.

Elisa was not allowed to play with Barbies, which were the popular toy of all our peers. I have never known the exact reason for this, though I suspect it had something to do with Barbie’s sexy appearance. So instead we would play Ghost Barbies using imaginary dolls when her parents weren’t looking, being very careful not to get caught. Talking about Ghosts (aside from the Holy Ghost) was also against her parents’ strict beliefs.

Looking back, I am surprised they let us play together at all. As a child of divorce, I was already on the goodchristian blacklist. I did not attend Their Church. But worse than that, my family was very sporadic in our attendance of any church at all. When my mother did take us to the Lutheran church, she did so “just in case it was true,” which is also the reason I was baptized. It was clear that Mom didn’t really believe any of it, although she kept an open mind. Nobody in my family was particularly religious except my paternal grandmother and she kept that to herself. We were godless heathens, through and through.

Anyway, some of my earliest interactions with proselyting Christians were through Elisa. She firmly believed that it was her duty to attempt to convert me, lest I go to hell. I firmly believed it was all nonsense. Despite all of the differences between us, we remained friends. Even when I declared my defiant atheism and refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because of the God line, we remained friends. Years later, I attended her wedding, where she walked down the aisle in a White Dress and meant it. All along I secretly hoped that Elisa would go off to college and go buck-wild. She was too smart for all this nonsense, I thought. But it never happened. Elisa went to a Christian college, met a Christian husband, and is now raising three adorable Christian children. She seems pretty happy and for that I am happy. I am also secretly disappointed in a small way. Elisa would have been an amazing heathen.

I attended several events sponsored by her church throughout my childhood but one stands out in my memory.

I remember the excitement of being invited to a party at Elisa’s house with lots of other little girls and boys. This must have been around the fifth grade and parties were the highlight of our lives. It was not a birthday party though, and I thought this quite strange. Parties were generally for birthdays.

In many ways the party seemed like any other children’s party. There were snacks and balloons, decorations and cake, party favors and music. Then mid-way through the celebration, we were told it was time to watch a movie. So we gathered around the TV and VCR and Elisa’s mom pressed play.

The movie turned out to be a film about Satan and his evil plot to destroy humanity. Satan had a little impish demon helper slave that was wreaking havoc on the world and reporting back to his master with the news. It wasn’t a cartoon; it was live action. Satan and the imp were puppets I guess. Or maybe Satan was an actor with a horrible mask. At one point the imp said to Satan “Yes master, everything is going according to plan! People are reading their horoscopes and having abortions. It won’t be long now!” I didn’t know what an abortion was.

After the movie ended, we were asked to stand in a circle. Elisa’s father told us that all we had to do to be Saved was accept Jesus into our hearts and we would go to heaven! So one by one, we were asked if we accepted Jesus into our hearts. Most of the responses were not memorable as the majority of the kids were already a part of their church or another Christian church and they had already been indoctrinated to give the acceptable response. One girl, Marissa, who was partially deaf, broke down in tears because she felt that God had forsaken her by giving her a disability. “Why doesn’t God love me?” she wailed pitifully. The Christians comforted her and assured her that God had a plan for her and she should know that God loves all his children and she accepted Jesus into her heart through sobs and tears. Personally I thought it was a valid question. If God was so all powerful, why would he choose to make people suffer?

And then it was my turn.

“Do you accept Jesus into your heart?” Elisa’s father asked.

“No.” I said.

“Why not?” he replied with concern.

“Because I do not believe in God.” I said.

They didn’t seem prepared for this answer, so after some hemming and hawing, they moved on to the next child. Like dutiful Baptists, they continued to invite me to church things. I went to some of them, because I liked Elisa and found it to be an interesting experience. I went to quite a few churches, as a matter of fact, of my own accord. I was intrigued by them and their differences and similarities. I read the entire Bible (it was incredibly tedious and boring.) But never for a second did I waver in my belief that it was all a bunch of bullshit.

Elisa and I remained friends. Despite the bait and switch from fun-party-time to coerced-Jesus-time, I recall that party as a fun event and I laugh at fifth grade me. I was already so determined that all of these people were deluded on every level and living life for a non-existent God of an imaginary heaven, an opinion that has never left me to this day.


You Aren’t a Girl Unless You Wear a Dress

When I was a little girl, I loved to run around outside in our country backyard wearing nothing but my “ruby necklace” made of shiny red plastic beads. I liked to play with my brother’s toys, especially anything that involved building blocks or digging in the yard. We played outside all the time, catching salamanders in the stream that ran behind our house, a variety of bugs, and little frogs in the yard. I liked finger painting and making a big mess with Play-Doh. I never wanted to be a princess or play with baby dolls. Baby dolls seemed ugly to me. I didn’t know what you were supposed to do with them.

Photos of me from this time show that I wore adorable little Osh Kosh overalls, corduroy pants, and rainbow stripes. I was a quintessential child of the 80’s. I loved Punky Brewster. We shopped at the thrift store.

But like many children, I was sensitive to the opinions of my peers. My memories of being a child are like clear focused spots in a sea of black fog. I remember very few specific moments. One memory that stuck with me, thirty years later, is being teased by the most popular girl in my kindergarten class.

Even then, I remember being aware that there were popular kids and that I was not one of them. I didn’t grasp the nuances of this until much later, but even as children too young to understand things like class, the popular kids were the rich kids. They had the coolest toys and clothes. They were already indoctrinated with the idea that they could and should get everything they wanted at all times and they had the propensity to act like spoiled little brats because of it.

I don’t remember her name but I remember that she was an adorable pushy little Asian girl with long shiny black hair and many fancy expensive-looking dresses. On the day when this memory took place, she was wearing a dark red velvet dress with lacy white trim, white tights, and shiny patent leather maryjanes. She had taken her place atop the jungle gym and declared herself the Queen of the playground. There was a social order to recess, you see; only the Queen was allowed to sit on the top. How do kids learn to do things like this so early? We must have been five or six.

I was wearing brown corduroy overalls, a colorful striped shirt and sneakers. I also had very long hair, but it was plain and brown and frequently a tangled mess. I was playing on the jungle gym and climbed high enough to be close to Her. This is the distinct part of the memory: She hung down from one of the top bars by her knees, so that she was upside-down, her face framed by her beautiful long shiny hair, looked me dead in the eye and tauntingly said:

“You’re wearing pants! That means you are a boy. If you were really a girl, you would wear a dress!” Then she laughed at me.

This was very confusing. I knew that I was a girl and my brother was a boy, in the most basic way children know such things. Nobody had ever tried to tell me that there were things I had to do to be a girl, I thought you just were what you were. I knew how my brother’s body was different than mine and that was what made him a boy. If I didn’t wear a dress, would I grow boy parts?  Would I be like my brother? I was shy when I was a little kid, and easily embarrassed and upset. I did not like people making fun of me.

The next day, I threw a massive temper tantrum and insisted that I must wear a dress to school. The memory ends there, but my mother later told me that I would not wear pants anymore that year, I insisted on always wearing a dress so that I would be a girl.