I didn’t edit this photo at all. I just want to say that even though being alive is hard sometimes, it’s also very beautiful and surreal and nonsensical in a way that always makes me want to see it through. I felt like I was in love looking at this sunset last night (you […]

Exodus: Decisions

Part One. “Exodus” is a series of vignettes, posted till completion, describing my experiences growing up and out of an evangelical church. All names have been changed to account for privacy.

“Do you want to be baptized?”

I was seventeen and desperate — to please and be loved, among other things — when I heard those words. Desperation is funny in the way that it convinces you that you don’t have a choice. So when my friend Megan, a card-carrying member of the Going-to-Heaven-Club, asked me if I wanted to join the walk on that narrow road…I knew that I would say yes, regardless of how I felt.

The prospect of baptism had sat like lead in my heels since I’d first been told of it as a child. The weight of it caused me to drag myself spiritually for years, avoiding the topic while many of my church friends took the holy plunge at ages as early as fourteen. The only way to get to heaven is through baptism, said my Sunday school teacher. Some churches teach that you can pray Jesus into your heart, but we know that not to be true, said my pastor. People who aren’t baptized disciples go to hell, said my church. I felt broken every time I heard these “truths” and felt everything but the relief I was told comes with knowing that eternal life could be mine. Why didn’t I want that? Who wouldn’t want that?

Anxiety is funny in the way that it convinces you that you couldn’t possibly know what you want.

I envied Megan, and the way she truly loved the church we’d grown up in. I looked up to her—my first memories of friendship were of her and the other girls my age, and I desired their affection and acceptance more than most things. Megan was one of those intelligent, kind, funny people that everybody genuinely liked, including me. And even though I knew from years of conversation that her attitude and demeanor were not effortless on her behalf, I still wondered what I could do to be like her. Her response would be to say that she just wanted to be “like God,” a common, but meaningful, phrase in evangelical churches. So I considered that, perhaps baptism—a ceremony that our church believed not to be a symbolic, but literal, washing away of all sins in exchange for committing your life to God—was the way to acceptance and approval. A life less dominated by desperation, or enslaved to anxiety.

Of course, I was also into the whole peace-in-heaven-instead-of-being-tortured-in-horrific-ways-for-all-of-eternity thing.

I was careful to take my time before answering, though. It was the summer before my senior year of high school when Megan asked me this question. I was attending an arts school that had already saved me in a lot of ways, and studying theater had helped me explore experiences outside of my heavily Christian upbringing. I loved the challenge of taking my “self,” and denying it in order to fully embody a character. My entire major revolved around finding the humanity in people, discovering the good among the ugly, learning that humans are never always good or always bad. Theater is, in a sense, the expressed study of people. And my studies were leading me to become more open minded, more skeptical of the hyper-religious life I was leading.

While this growing skepticism had increased the space between the question and the answer, it had done nothing to change the answer itself. I was intensely afraid of rejecting 14 years of effort and immersion: attending church every Sunday since I was 3-years-old, midweek studies on Wednesdays, youth-services on Fridays, a week of summer camp, spiritual retreats, praying before every meal, praying before bed, praying, praying, praying. I was living my life according to the idea that baptism, and the believed connection it gave my soul to the creator of the universe, was the reason I was alive, the reason behind all of my actions.

And who the fuck is going to reject what feels like a reason to live, when they haven’t yet found what else there is to live for?

Megan stood in front of me looking expectant and hopeful, as expectations and hope are the fuel Christians run on. “Yeah. Yeah, I do wanna get baptized,” I told her. She squealed and hugged me tight. I hugged her back, her enthusiasm and loving nature contagious in the moment.

I can do this, I thought to myself.

I can be this person that loves God, loves her neighbors, loves religion.

My parents will be happy.

My sisters will look up to me.

I won’t be a disappointment.

And I’ll go to heaven.

This is the right decision.

This is what I want.

It’s not lying to say I want this.

This is my decision.

Dear God, if you’re listening…

I’m not lying.

I’m not.

When I Said I Only Write What I Know

I’ve wanted to be in love many times. I’ve only been in love once.

I was fresh out of high school. Impressionable. All-in, yet detached.

There’s something about youth that makes you want to make excuses for saying you were in love. Diminish it. Like what I felt as a girl could never be as legitimate as what I’ll experience as a woman.

That’s not true.

It feels like it’s true sometimes.

There’s a chance the person I loved grew older, as I have, and realized they didn’t love me then. That as they dated, as they became an adult experiencing life and new affections, they realized the time they’d spent with me as teenagers was simply time spent.

I can appreciate that.

I used to write poems about it. Being in love. About him. What I learned.
They were the kind of poems that went viral. It felt good, validating, seeing thousands of people tell me they could relate, they felt what I was saying, that they too have loved.

Those poems kept me in love with him, or perhaps the written version of him, or perhaps the him I never pushed away but only loved loved loved. Those poems made it hard for me to leave, long after I’d left.

Do you know what I mean?

It’s embarrassing to admit I still think about poems I wrote six years ago, I still think about a boy I last kissed at 19, I still fear being truthful in writing. What if the people I’m writing about read what I have to say?

What if the people I’m writing about don’t read what I have to say?

I’m 24. I’ve wanted to be in love many times. I’ve made the mistake of judging every relationship on whether they make me want to write.

I once saw a guy who made me want to write after we had ended. I wrote ugly, honest things that made me cry. There was no love in those poems. There was no love in me for him and my frustration at not being able to reanimate ghosts of feelings past spewed from me in sharp lines and rough cadences.

Those poems were popular too. I read them out loud at a spoken word gathering and imagined he was there to hear them. The closest humans will ever get to secreting poison is break up poetry.

I can appreciate that.

I stopped forcing myself to create love where it wasn’t, to write about it when I couldn’t. Trying to recall what it felt like to be immersed in someone started to resemble sitting under a lamp in the dead of winter and saying “This is what the sun feels like.”

For the someone who asked “why don’t you write love poems anymore?”…this is my answer. Because I’m not in it. Because the one time I was, seems so long ago. Because love makes me think of him, and he is somebody else, and also somebody else’s.

Because when I do write another love poem, I hope it’ll feel like the first storm of spring, like the midday sun in June, like the last few days of August.

New and familiar, all at the same time.