I remember churning butter. Vaguely. And I remember that we didn’t succeed at it, and that it was hard. But I remember these things for very different reasons than Erin does – and for the first time since we’ve started this project, I think, the difference in the way we remember says something about who we were – and are – as people.
I remember thinking that my arms weren’t strong enough, and that that surprised me.
You wouldn’t know it now to look at me, but I was a big kid in the 3rd grade. I always stood in the top row of photographs, was always bigger than the boys. I had height, and speed, and a strangely adult body for my age. Once in the 4th grade this kid Jordan and I had a pizza-eating contest to see who could devour more slices at lunch. I’m pretty sure I won. I liked being the big kid. It’s something I was known for. So when we churned the butter at Prairie Day, all I remember is being certain that I would be the one to finally make it turn into something. I was big and tough. I even remember other kids thinking the same thing about me, although this might be a trick of my small mind, enforcing the way I thought of myself. I have no proof.
I couldn’t do it, of course. None of us were going to. But when we failed to produce the desired result, all I could think was, “I wasn’t strong enough. I’m supposed to be strong. Why wasn’t I strong enough?” And I walked away.
I had a very strong sense of self as a kid. And with that very strong sense of self came the notion that there was somewhere I ultimately “belonged.” So where Erin saw a lack in herself, I saw a lack in the world. It wasn’t fitting around me the way it was supposed to, and I was befuddled constantly. I was the big kid, the strong kid. That cream should have bent to my will. When it didn’t, that was obviously because I wasn’t “meant” for churning butter. It wasn’t my calling. My strength was best used elsewhere.
Erin’s tale of her journey from childhood through young-adulthood is poignant for me because she describes a quality that I never possessed: patience. All the while that she was waiting for her faith to arrive, all the time she wondered if she should have tried a little harder – all those moments, I was turning away from things, leaving things behind because I didn’t see the point in waiting – on anything.
Things I have quit at various stages of my life include:
Calculus/anything math related
Eating in general
Most of my jobs
… I could go on. And now I’m starting to wonder if all of this leaving can be traced back to Prairie Day in the third grade. Because every time I’ve ever experienced a failure – or even a slight hiccup, a tear in the veneer of perfection – I have walked away, thinking “Well, I guess I just wasn’t meant to (churn butter, be a girl scout, work in a clothing store… etc.)” If I don’t come equipped with the perfect skills, then the job doesn’t belong to me. It’s someone else’s destiny. Forget hard work. Forget patience. If I don’t fit right in, it isn’t mine. I don’t belong.
My biggest reason for leaving relationships behind has always, always been that the other person “just doesn’t understand me.” I want to fit, like a puzzle piece. I want to open my eyes and have the world inside of them be visible to someone.
There are lots of moments in childhood where we realize that we are separate from the world around us – that we don’t create it with our own will. These are difficult moments for everyone. They’re incredibly popular fodder for stories. The problem with me, I suppose, is that I never learned anything from these moments. I simply refused to believe them. When Erin’s incantations failed to bring her unicorn to life, little bits of doubt slipped into her world. I didn’t like doubt, and so I ignored it. And somewhere along the way there’s a lesson I failed to learn – that things will never be exactly as they are inside your mind. You cannot will the world into being around you. And you will never fit exactly.
For these same reasons, I am very susceptible to narratives of children taken away to magic kingdoms and alternative realities. I cried when I saw the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are. When I have a bad day – when I bump up against one of those pesky imperfections – I still imagine the main character of the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon; he draws a rocket ship for me, so that we can fly away to a place where we really belong.
Since early childhood I have displayed a very strange notion of authenticity. I have a particular selfhood, and I have always seen that self as unalterable – pure, somehow. I grew up being certain that somewhere out there was a place, a way of life, a vocation that my identity could slide into perfectly, unchanged. I would not have to wait. Once I found this place, this thing, I could simply be. Who I am would be enough. I would be perfect.
I imagine that’s what I thought Heaven was.
Even today, even as I write these words this very second, I am still looking for this place. Even though I sit here claiming to know better, I still refuse to settle for anything other than finally, at long lest, finding my place of being. I know it isn’t real, and yet I still manage to walk away from so much. I’ve changed so many times over the years in the name of finding myself that I’ve lost track of that kid who was once so cock-sure. I don’t feel solid anymore. Instead I am malleable – someone who changes to fit the situation, but who never returns to being herself. I am consumed with the desire to return home – to go back in time, so that I can find that identity again, and protect her. She’s been tossed about on the wind a lot, and I miss her. I wish I could go back to being that strong-headed kid who was bigger than everyone and knew her arms were powerful enough to bend the world.