It’s amazing how much can change in five years, much less in ten. Who your friends are. Who you sleep with and next to and where you sleep. What kind of work you do. What your paycheck says. What your body looks like. What your priorities are. What your dreams look like. What you see differently when you look at something that has happened or is about to.
I see the work I’ve done on patterns of traumatic and abusive experiences in a fundamentalist Christian subset of our society, and the work I’ve done on myself as I came to terms with its’ impact. I am proud of what I learned and built and overcome, even though I think there is much to be done, but I think my own personal changes are often harder to explain.
I don’t feel like I require a seatbelt on this car ride. I don’t need theology or a man or a tribe to keep me buckled in.
I see my old survivor spaces, now being termed ex-evangelical, and that they are about getting out of one form of transportation and buckling in to go somewhere they’d been trying to get to the whole time. At one time I had squirmed away, feeling claustrophobic, and thought that maybe I just wasn’t good at this stuff. Or that I’d found the wrong space to try to belong. But really the truth is I did belong, for a life phase, for a bit, for a minute. Until I didn’t.
I am a challenger, intent on connecting dots rather than trying to find a place to land, so that usually makes me a leaver rather than a stayer. And fact is I don’t really consider myself ex-anything, because everything I’ve been through or seen I carry with me in memory form. I am a sentimental woman. I save dried flowers from dances half a lifetime ago. I still can laugh at inside jokes I had with lovers and friends and even family members that I no longer speak to. I remember. It could all be seen as baggage or experience, but I believe that when we process and release the shame of it not having turned out how we wanted, it can be the latter.
If there was a Venn diagram of me five years ago and me now, it would look like a donut. I have grown. And I’m not just talking about my pants size, even though it is a little bigger, and given that I’m built like my Grammy, I imagine my butt has even more room to grow.
I see people talk about having friends and relationships for life as some ideal. I used to believe that. Want that. Try for that. Be devastated when it didn’t happen. But I’ve never had anything that has lasted for life so far. For years, even decades, yes. Some still ongoing. But not for life. I haven’t even been friends with myself for life. So I don’t think that’s a thing. It is a painful and unrealistic dream that keeps you striving in ways that aren’t exactly healthy. Kind of like the idea of all your sins being washed away. Or the idea that a diet or exercise or vitamins can help you outlive a human lifespan. Or that there is a perfect haircut for your face shape. There is no magic bullet, no panacea, and sometimes time doesn’t heal what ails you. It just moves you on to focus on new things.
Sometimes the old things are left undone and come knocking on your door at midnight, asking to be squared away. Often when you don’t want to do this work, you go to church or you go to drinking, perhaps both. Or you don’t even realize there was a loose end until you pick it up and try to tie it. That’s more what recently happened to me.
Last month I went home to New Orleans, got tickets to go to the Voodoo Fest music festival in City Park with three of my sisters. I hadn’t gone on a solo trip in four years, and hadn’t been to Voodoo Fest since I was in my early 20’s.
Things had changed. My siblings hosted me in their own apartments with wine and cheese and steak. Adults doing their thing, living their lives, showing hospitality. They needed nothing from me but for me to be their sister, to love them, to be there with them. And so I did. It was easy to do and felt really good. My heart had always wished for this and time had brought it.
The music festival itself hit me with more complex feelings and time brought that too. It first made me feel old, and not just because three days of braving mud and people and expensive carnival food isn’t quite my cup of tea anymore. Apparently now the cool thing to do at festivals is wear lots of rainbow glitter and have your buttcheeks hanging out of something that kinda resembles shorts. When I was that age showing up as a half-dressed unicorn would not have been permissible. But now it had become the standard. I saw more butts than I’d seen in years. So many so that they got a bit boring. I guess that’s how it goes with these things.
I went and saw Marilyn Manson up on stage, his voice cracking, the sound of an older man. I remembered him being so shocking when I was young. When he was young. Next year he will be 50. He invited brass band up on stage with him to sing “The Beautiful People.” I thought “only in New Orleans” and saw a man next to me with a gray beard rocking out to it like he was a young guy, obviously thinking the same thing. Then I realized he and I were the same age.
I thought about how teenage me would have loved to know I’d get to see this, to be here. How in actuality she did, because I’d brought her with me, same as that guy next to me did for himself. But my sisters, there being a decade or more of an age difference, weren’t here for this. They were off at one or another of the EDM stages, listening to something else. So I saw Manson by myself, and rather than being lonely, me and my inner teen had a really good time. Later when I told my sisters about it they said that they were glad I got to enjoy something old school. And I guess it was and is. I did.
I called my Mom and told her I could stop by for an afternoon. She knew I’d been at Voodoo Fest. She disapproved of it as much as she ever did. I told her a story of how I’d lost a shoe in the mud on the first day, found myself tromping beneath the oak trees in the dark hoping I wouldn’t get cut, then realizing I was having fun.
Where most moms would be horrified and think of tetanus shots and safety, my anti-vaxxer Trump-supporting faith-healing old Quiverfull mom doesn’t. “Oh, that actually sounds really nice – you ever hear of grounding?” my Mom asked. So I laughed and told her I didn’t believe in her hippie philosophy that being barefoot is more likely to get you healthy than a puncture wound. But I could tell she was genuinely happy at what she saw as a good experience for my feet, if not for my soul. And sometimes you take what you can get.
It is truly a miracle to be able to connect over things at all when so much time and space and and life experiences divide us. We each have to come to terms with that in our own way. That even shared experiences are on some level non-shared. Or sometimes the sharing doesn’t happen until you can connect it later in time. Or it develops into some symbolic meaning to you.
My Grandpa always said that if we last long enough, us and our childhood toys will all become antiques. I think he first told me that more than 20 years ago, when I was a child and him and his were still considered vintage. But now he’s 85 and I’m 35, and it’s become true.
I used to think middle age was a boring phase of life, with people dressed either too comfortably or professionally, obsessed with jobs and houses and anxiety over letting their youthful bodies go, but I see that it is not boring, and not all of us get even that. Maybe if you are lucky and if you can release some sense of control, then you can pay more attention to the folding and unfolding of these things as you move through time. You can become more used to being a custodian, a steward, a finite creature that is usually overlooked but can still make a difference and can still be surprised and still have vitality and passion. Then it doesn’t seem a travesty or even overly humble, but something of a quiet honor. It’s also not so lonely or sad to see a world beyond yourself and a world within yourself and accept that they often aren’t going to be the same world.
I often hear people who haven’t accepted this reality say that this or that thing will always be around, but I have come to see that they are incorrect and engaging in a mythology that amounts to emotional hoarding. Because whatever a thing is, it changes because everything changes. Change is the only constant. That can either be terrifying or a relief, or both, depending on how you see this moment in time or look to the next one.
If you notice how weathering these changes can both soften and straighten you out, you begin to appreciate that you don’t yet need the guard rails but no longer need training wheels. That you can really be in your prime, feel in your prime. If you are in your prime, you are present. And if you are present, you don’t need to get in thrall to end times theology, whether in church or on social media. You also won’t feel compelled to save the world or even yourself in order to be sufficient. You’re ok with just being alive in it. With participating. With giving a general good effort. Your boundaries are better than those of the youth.
But if you are not allowed to have a prime or openly acknowledge yours (and many are not), then you have had something as significant as a childhood stolen from you. And if you already feel like your childhood never happened and this loss was never sorted out, then you don’t feel ready for a prime. And if you don’t heal that wound some way, somehow, you are at risk of stealing or marring the childhoods and primes and old age of others while wondering where yours went.
It happens all the time. It is the core of intergenerational trauma.
I returned from my trip realizing that if I have children of my own – and I have been hoping to start a family as of late – that it will not be for the kinds of reasons I was brought into the world by my parents, which was not just an ordinary enough accident of biology, but due to a fundamentalist dogma accompanied by a sense of duty or compulsion. They were lost in how to approach adulthood, looking to have meaning, and they thought children brought that to you. They were spurred to have more than they could ever care for by the belief that children are tools to solve the issues of the world, so reflect on parental worth in some way. But they had it backwards, thinking I could ground them instead of them needing to be there to ground me.
So I realized that by recognizing my foray into middle age as also the foray into my prime, I was reclaiming the value of my youth and recognizing the energy of youth in general, while acknowledging the inevitability of becoming old and that there is a bounty of life to be had in that too. It is love, a form of learning by osmosis to accept the life phases, which I had felt happening, barefoot under a full moon and those 300 year old oak trees, surrounded by younger sisters wearing glitter and dancing to the beat of a different drum than my own.