Monday, November 15, 2010

Why I am the way I am: an Introduction and Second Wind

I’ve had a lot on my mind lately, and have found myself in the midst of some heavy-duty emotional processing. What started out as simply reading a thought-provoking book became a soul-searching journey.

It started last month when my friend Cami’s newly published book was released. A triumph for an athlete (seven marathons completed, one on each continent) and for an author (her first book!!!).

Second Wind: One Woman's Midlife Quest to Run Seven Marathons on Seven Continents

I’ve been anticipating this book for a few years now, since she told me she had found an agent (!) and was working with an editor (!). The book is about running as emotional recovery and making life what you want it to be. I knew a few details about her races since we scheduled our get-togethers last year around her international travel and the many hours she spent writing. I knew we had both been involved in conservative Christian groups as teenagers, and that running had provided her time and space to address many of the ways it had affected her. I was eager to see how she tied it all together. But I didn’t expect the book to affect me quite like it did. Reading about her healing and growth unearthed a lot of emotions and memories I had buried and discounted as unimportant.

During my elementary school years, my family belonged to an ultra-traditional, skirt-wearing, home-schooling, whole-wheat-bread-baking Christian community. It was centered around a specific home school curriculum, and was not affiliated with any church denomination. We belonged to a sub-culture within a sub-culture. The church I grew up in (where Dad was a pastor) only had a few other families who were part of the same conservative home schooling group. And not all of them thought our church was conservative enough. I remember the first Sunday morning the worship service included a drummer, who happened to be a young man my Dad had recently befriended and started mentoring. As soon as the first song began with the addition of a beat, I watched a home school friend and her family stand and walk out, obviously displeased. Rock and roll was not to be trifled with, let alone incorporated into worship.

Not only was I a pastor’s kid (which was already a funky combination of being praised by adults but always feeling awkward among peers), I was the only girl in a long denim skirt playing dodge ball in the church gymnasium. My Sunday School teachers emphasized the need for us to be “in the world, but not of the world” outside the safety net of church. To the other kids my age, this applied to secular school settings. To me, this meant…what? Set a godly example in my student body of five? At home, I memorized scripture about letting my light shine and being salt of the earth. I took this to mean it was holy to be different; spiritual brownie points for being weird. But my world was primarily my family and my church. Sunday school was one of the few places I interacted with “worldly” public school students. My family's brief forays into any secular settings didn’t require much from me as an evangelist (until I started attending community college. But that’s another story for another day).

I didn’t fit in with the ultra-conservative kids in our home school group, either. I took cues from other families and saw all the ways we didn’t quite measure up. We did not dress in matching navy blazers. My brothers didn’t even tuck in their T shirts. While I did wear skirts, my outfits were mis-matched Value Village finds. I remember the mom of one of my home schooled friends asking me if I liked neon clothing (I was wearing a bright pink cotton knit skirt at the time and a thrifted T-shirt). It felt like a test. Based on the lack of fluorescent colors in my friend’s home, and the abundance of calico prints and blouses buttoned to the neck, I guessed the right answer. I made a mental note to never wear such an abomination as neon (and gave away the pink plastic bracelet I’d received from a well-meaning aunt). My family didn’t read the King James Version of the Bible, and instead, opted for the progressive NIV. We walked a fine line between the two worlds of our church, which tried to be contemporary and relevant, and that of the conservative home schoolers, who made Fiddler on the Roof look cutting-edge. I felt like a misfit in both groups.

Family vacation, early '90s
That hat I'm wearing came from an Amish mail order catalogue. No joke.
When I read Cami’s book, it struck a chord. She compared her church’s emphasis on rules to the discoveries she’s made as an adult and a marathon runner. It made me wonder how (and if) I’ve come to terms with the influence of such a restrictive Christian community. Ironically, the home school curriculum we used grew out of a program designed for at-risk youth. No wonder it was conservative. I’m grateful to my parents for doing what they believed was best for my family: I appreciate them protecting us the best way they knew how. And for leaving that group when they did.

Last week, I started searching online for articles about the program we had been a part of. I wanted to find criticism and hear stories of families who did what we did: hung in there as long as possible and left when it became absolutely necessary. What I found has certainly shed some light on the subject. I found a network of blogs by mothers who used to believe that birth control was sinful and that being female meant being submissive no matter what (beliefs considered noble in our circle). The women I found online used to relate to Elizabeth Elliot but after leaving their oppressive groups, sounded more like Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat Pray Love). It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I was super interested to read their stories. Finding these women’s writing was a little like opening a time capsule. I recognized names of authors my parents used to read, philosophies about parenting and living simply, and a whole lot of healing from spiritual abuse. It opened a floodgate of questions for me.

Age 12
It also intensified the loss I feel since Mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. I miss her, as she used to be. I could really use a good heart to heart this week. There are a lot of things I’d like to ask her. We left that conservative group when I was 13, in the throes of an already uncomfortable adolescence. What was that change like for her? Was she as relieved as I was to stop wearing skirts? Did she miss the structure? Words like “liberated” and “feminist” still sound taboo in my ears, but I’m reinterpreting them the older I get. In fact, there are a lot of lessons I’m re-learning. I wish I could include Mom's perspective in the process.

One blogger I just discovered who I am particularly drawn to is a woman named Elizabeth. She left an abusive fundamentalist church in her twenties. I can’t imagine what that paradigm shift must have been like. Yet she describes it so acutely. The emotions she experiences and second-guessing she does even now is so familiar to me. Unlike some of the more rant-y blogs I found, her faith has stayed intact, and she is raising a large family of her own. She has a great sense of humor which wins me over in an instant. This post about being a pastor's kid is classic. I emailed her to announce that I am her newest fan. I’ve spent the better part of my weekend reading her blog. I find it so encouraging.


  1. Hi Emily. I can so relate. Although, my Mom liked to church hop! So I had an upbringing of a "church buffet" if you will. I experienced a "program" similar to the one you described. It was too conservative and too restrictive for us, but it was nice to experience it for a short while, if not just to relate to those who have experienced it. The faith is what's most important though, right? A relationship with Jesus. Our Creator. He is what is most important to me! I found it very interesting to read what you had to say. Thanks for sharing! I appreciated the authenticity :)

  2. You are just awesome. I love reading your thoughts.

  3. Wow, Emily! First of all, thanks for reading the book. You were really there for the whole journey.

    And I know first hand how the questions and reflections about a restrictive spirituality can be both rich and confusing. It can even be hard to decide what sort of vocabulary to use that doesn't bring up old, difficult emotions. I'm a big fan of yours and look forward to being one of the cheerleaders on your path - no matter where it leads you.

  4. Rob't Frost said, "I never dared to be radical when young for fear it would make me conservative when old." Now that I'm old I cringe to recall much of the nonsense I dragged you kids through. Glad you can laugh about it (at times)! I wonder if there are any rituals we can do to officially jettison my oft times nutty fathering?