“They have cradled you in custom, they have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through and through;
They have put you in a showcase; you’re a credit to their teaching —
But can’t you hear the Wild? — it’s calling you.” – Robert Service
Around 1999, my brother David built a bike cart. He crafted it with the help of one of the members of my grandpa’s church. The cart was large and sturdy with two giant wheels and a flatbed. A miniature truck attachable to the back of a bike.
Perfect to carry recycling bins.
In Germany, the law requires recycling to a level of detail that dismays most Americans. You must separate plastic, paper, cans or metal, and glass (white, green, or brown). My family had five bins lined up along our kitchen wall. Our “regular” trash wasn’t very large at all, especially once my mom separated the compost as well. All food remains were tossed into the large Rubbermaid bins in our backyard. A rat made his nest there once until our neighbor deftly ended his life with a pitchfork. The dangers of compost are real.
Once a week, my brother loaded up the bins and rode the mile down the hill where the recycling center was. Each village had its own recycling station, separate from the main recycling centers in the larger cities. These areas had dome structures color-coded and clearly labeled for each type of recyclable material. I would ride with my brother often on these excursions. My long skirt threatened to tangle in my bike chain. Our gracious neighbors along the way would nod and wave. I wonder what was truly on their minds at that point. Did they pity the odd religious Americans? Did they ponder if they should interfere for the sake of the children? Or did they notice at all?
My brother educated me on which bins were which, how to organize the recycling, and where to throw in the glass containers and bottles. I always enjoyed the sound of smashing glass the best. A shattering of something while my soul was restless.
I didn’t have words for it at that point in my life. I just knew I liked the sound – the release it gave me.
The weekly bike rides with my brother got me out of the house. At other times, we would go on longer bike rides, exploring the nearby woods and outlining villages. I desperately tried to keep up with his long stride. Sometimes, I would help him with his garden as well but wasn’t engaged as he was. Sometimes, he would get into his own head, and forget that I was there at all. He volunteered at the village fire department, played soccer, and had a few friends in the village. Most days, I stayed indoors, or just outside our door on the patio. Both unwilling and unable to venture out. When he left for good to attend college in Tennessee, I regressed even further.
I stopped riding bikes altogether.
During this time, I went to dinner at a German family’s home. Their daughter, Jessica, was a part of the children’s ministry that I led in my dad’s church. Jessica had wanted me to come over and play with her. I was much older than her but felt “compelled by the Gospel” to go there to minister to them.
Instead, her dad asked me questions about my life in a rapid-fire format. He had a bushy mustache that twitched whenever he spoke. One of the many questions was, “What do you do for exercise? Just run around the house once?”
I muttered something about biking with my brother. I never went back to their house for a meal. But those words stuck with me. That question was full of dripping sarcasm and judgment towards me. I was only fifteen, close to sixteen. I didn’t know yet who I was or what I wanted. The limits of my exploration were real – bound to a small book with lined pages and a pen.
I wanted to smash some glass.
I wanted to be seen, heard, noticed.
I wanted to get the heck out of the house.
Yet, this didn’t seem to be allowed.
Alone in my room, writing in my journal, I summed out that the few options available to me were to marry and have children, or possibly become a teacher at a Christian school. The other desires I had—to go to college, maybe join the Navy, maybe become a nurse, maybe study journalism and write, maybe become a pastor—were forbidden fruit.
I wanted so much more.
A bit like Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I was thrilled when I watched her sing, Part of Your World: “Ready to stand, and ready to know what the people know, Ask ‘em my questions and get some answers! When’s it my turn?”
(That movie had been banned in our house for Ariel’s lack of clothing and her “rebellious nature”.)
But I wasn’t Ariel. I wasn’t going to defy my parents, yell at my dad, or run away from home. Instead, with both of my brothers gone to college and then married, I dug my heels further into the routines and roots of a good church girl.
I didn’t work a regular job. I studied the Bible. I taught children’s classes. I tutored two kids at my dad’s church in reading and writing. I studied writing through a Christian-based correspondence school. I babysat. I became very good at the piano and marginally good on the violin. I had lots of time to read. I learned how to keep a house, how to engage in small talk with other adult Christian women, and how to make a delicious casserole.
In short, I bought into the idea that I was waiting in the wings for a husband. Then, once married, I would leave my father’s house for my husband’s house.
No houses in between.
This idea, where girls stay at home until married, is propounded among many Christian cultures, not just the one in which I was raised. It is rooted, I suppose, in a desire for the protection of women and girls. I’m not saying the wide world can’t be a scary place; it’s just that it is so much bigger than I was allowed to experience. I was drilled in the concepts of Elizabeth Elliot’s “Let Me Be a Woman”, where she said, “God might have given Adam another man to be his friend, to walk and talk and argue with if that was his pleasure. But Adam needed more than the companionship of the animals or the friendship of a man. He needed a helper, specially designed and prepared to fill that role. It was a woman God gave him, a woman, “meet,” fit, suitable, entirely appropriate for him, made of his very bones and flesh.”
In other words, the best and only life is one where I was married with children. I bought into this hook, line, and sinker even as I buried any other ambitions. I wrote in my journal in 2003, “I’m reading Passion and Purity by Elizabeth Elliot. The book is very interesting, explaining her love story and challenging young people to put Christ first in their love lives.”
I stayed at home until I was 22 years old. I did not meet any men who wanted to marry me during this time. I tried to leave once to go to a Christian college, but the week before I was supposed to leave, I had a panic attack and a “conviction of the Holy Spirit” not to go. The rules of my environment were engraved on my soul by this point. While I wanted to leave, I also desperately wanted to be good.
I might have stayed with my parents perpetually if it hadn’t been for two things: the death of my grandfather and Divine Intervention.
My grandfather died in April of 2006 in an unexpected way. At his viewing and funeral, hundreds of people lined up to pay their respect to a man who had impacted the community around him. He had been involved in local politics, farmed several acres of land, and in his retirement years, driven a school bus. People knew him and loved him. After I was back home, I couldn’t get the images of people out of my head. What was going to happen when I died? Would anyone even notice?
Suddenly, my other private hopes and dreams seemed to clamor much more loudly for my attention. Maybe I could leave to be a nurse, or a journalist, or a missionary on my own. Maybe I could get a job to earn my own way in the world. Maybe I could go do something with this single life I was living.
Then, Divine Intervention. One summer evening around June of 2006, I went for a bike ride. I had convinced myself to go again. “Gotta do something,” I thought. The concrete bicycle path wove through the corn and soybean fields. A fading sun hung low in the horizon. I sucked air as I rode. My skirt twisted between my legs. I yanked at it incessantly, thinking with longing about the corduroy pants I wore during horseback rides.
“What do you want me to do, huh?” I said out loud. No one was nearby. I was 22 years old, overweight, jobless, and immersed in a world of church, Bibles, hymns, prayers, and financial straits. My plea was to God. I wanted guidance. I wanted a commander to direct me.
I wanted out.
I urged the sky to split open and a loud voice to tell me what in the world I was meant to do on this planet.
That didn’t happen.
What did happen was a very clear message in my heart and soul and mind.
You need to leave now. If you don’t leave now, you won’t ever go.
I bunched my skirt in my hands and willed my legs to move faster, as I sped home.
My parents didn’t flinch when I told them I was leaving.
In fact, they bought the plane tickets. My moment had come. I was finally let out of the house.
I was about to find out how much I’d missed all those years sequestered away from life experiences. I was about to realize that my fundamentalist rules were not going to work in the world outside the four walls of my father’s home. I was on the cusp of engaging with people and with moments that would shake me, shift me, and change my heart on many values.
I couldn’t see it that summer night as I laid down in my bed, smiling over the fact that I was truly leaving. But, I was on the verge of learning and growing and spreading my wings. I was about to learn how much I had missed over the years. I was about to know how much I didn’t know. Over the next few years, I would embrace the life outside the four walls of my family home. I would struggle and fall down, I would cry and hurt, I would question my faith and relearn about God’s love.
It was going to be brutal.
It was going to be hard.
It was going to be worth the effort.
But I hit the glass ceiling of my denomination’s rules….
and finally, crashed right through it.
I think my brother was proud. After all, I’d learned how to smash glass from him.
Until next time,
The Baptist Nun
PS: if you want to read about some of the things I have learned since I left my father’s home in 2006, check out my other blog: coloradowriter84.wordpress.com