Erin

Posts Tagged ‘being good’

How did we Get Here?

In Uncategorized on February 28, 2010 at 11:18 pm

It’s funny to see how markedly our posts change from the late-childhood to early-adolescence period.  There’s been more written on the unbearable awfulness and hilarity of that time of life than I could possibly hope to capture here, so I’ll refrain from waxing philosophical about what it means to grow up, or feel adult feelings for the first time.  And looking at it from the outside–that is, as an adult watching kids become teenagers, or trying to capture the meaning of that transition–always seems so inadequate.  On the other side of puberty, nothing seems as important or embarrassing or exciting as it was in that moment, and it’s tempting to do a little condescension-dance, even (or especially) about our (my) former selves.  And frankly, most of the time, those teenage selves–with all their self-centered, drama-queen myopia–deserve it.  But because this little project is about, as much as possible, remembering, I want to try to bracket the urge to qualify or apologize for my 13-year-old self, and see if I can give you a bit of a window into how she became who she was–angsty teenage narcissism and all.  Interestingly, I think this will necessarily be something of a failing proposition: we live forwards but understand backwards, as Kierkegaard says, so I don’t pretend to offer you something about who I “really was,” if by that we have in mind some access to True Lived Experience.  But what I do have is this, such as it is.

When I was almost 12, my family moved out of our main-road house, a few miles down the road into a “real neighborhood,” with a suburban entrance-sign and everything.   This marked the first time I was ever allowed to walk on the sidewalk by myself for more than a block, and a new school-bus route populated by new kids–most of whom were much cooler than I was.  Sometimes, walking home from the bus, a boy who lived a few streets over would follow me home and throw rocks at me.  I ignored him, as I was taught to do.  On the bus, I was the quiet, well-behaved kid–I sat in my seat without chewing gum (which was strictly verboten by Miss May, the angry bus driver with pancake makeup and dyed-black hair) and frequently said nothing, other than the occasional request to listen to my seatmate Lindsay’s radio Walkman after she tired of the 45th replay of Ace of Base’s “The Sign.”  Miss May would scream at the beautiful, misbehaving cool boys to be more like me when they started raucous paper-football games, which left me simultaneously proud and humiliated–especially after one named Josh sassily replied that he could quiet if he were “antisocial” too, but that he preferred to have friends.  Things were changing, and the world was not what I thought it was.

Another time, to punish an older boy, Miss May made him sit with me–and he responded by loudly unzipping his fly next to me in the seat: “Aaaahhhh, it feels sooo much better open.”  Again, as I had been taught, I looked out the window and pretended to ignore him.  It was excruciating, until Miss May realized what was going on and screamed at him to zip up.  And then it was merely humiliating again.

Throughout this period, I remember being consumed with the sense that I was leading a double life: at home I was a little girl, who was afraid of the dark and got in trouble for failing to say “yes ma’am” and “yes sir,” and at school I was attempting–for the most part unsuccessfully–to be someone else.  Anyone else, as long as that someone wasn’t a kid anymore.  I bought bras, though  I didn’t really need them, and saved my allowance to buy clothes at the mall, like the cool girls.  And somehow, I had the sense that no one else knew a reality like mine, and that everyone just was the seemingly flawless image they maintained at school.

It’s lucky, I think, that I knew Sharon during this time–and, later, our other ‘dorky’ friends as well.  We were a kind of refuge for one another, a place to go where everything made sense and laughter was both possible and inevitable.  There are so many incidents that stick in my head as earth-shatteringly embarrassing from the 12-14 years (that time I sent a boy who barely knew I existed flowers on Valentine’s Day, that time I didn’t know what a “skater” was, that time we prank called and then arranged a meeting with the cool boy down the street without having the slightest idea what would happen next, those many times I wore ill-advised outfits modeled on descriptions of Claudia from the Baby Sitters’ Club series–despite the author’s admonition that “on anyone else it would have looked ridiculous”,  that time I didn’t know what a “blow job” was, and I could go on) that it was a relief to just be with someone who would still think you were fun even after seeing life on the inside of your house.

This became even more true when we started High School.  Truthfully, I was terrified.  I remember riding the bus in 8th grade, being hit by a wave of panic when I thought about it–a feeling that, unfortunately, was not helped by the pre-school revelation that (horrors!) Sharon and I had no classes together.  We were on our own.

Once things got underway, we were fine, of course.  Sharon had warned me never to accept an “Elevator Pass” from an upperclassman–“They try to sell it to you, but the thing is, there is no elevator,” she had knowingly explained.  And we were also warned to avoid anything called the “Sappho Club,” which was apparently code-word for “Lesbian,” as our Magnet-and-Arts-specializing high school had a reputation around town for being a haven for The Gays.*  So we went about our business rather uneventfully for the first month of school.

And then, in September, everything changed.

Or, it did for me.  I have wondered about how I should talk about this time of my life, and even now, it is…fraught (though this description is a sort of grasping) for me.  I have, now, lived more of my life on this side of it than before, which is at once unbelievable and deeply sad.

In September of 1995, my cousin–who, as I was quick to tell people in the months and years that followed, was also my friend–was killed in an accident.  His name was Brent, and he was 14.

It was a Saturday.  I had gone with my mom to the grocery store, where I had gotten my favorite indulgence, frosted Teddy Grahams. They had round rainbow sprinkles stuck to the frosted side, which crackled satisfyingly in my teeth.  I was eating a handful–biting the heads off one at a time, with the frosting side against my tongue–when the phone rang.  It was my mom’s sister.  I told her, between Teddy Graham bites, that my mom was in the bathtub, could I take a message?

No, she said.  I need to talk to her right now.  I heard the urgency in her voice, which was a mix of tears and anger.  I told my father, who ran to get my mother.  I stood in the kitchen alone, my heart racing.  From the other room, I heard a kind of desperate yelp, and then, uncontrolled sobbing.  Seconds or minutes passed.  My parents emerged from their bedroom, and my father seemed to be holding up my mother by the sides of her arms, still wet and in her bathrobe.  I had never seen her like this–weak, devastated, entirely without self-possession.  It was terrifying.

Moments later, we were in the car, racing to the hospital in north Louisiana.  I was wearing the Mickey Mouse shirt that Dawn would later borrow without asking.  The ride was a blur of darkness and incomprehension, full of words that I heard numbly without understanding them: head trauma, comatose, brain-dead.

I had last seen Brent two months earlier.  Every summer, he and his sister spent at least a week with me and my brother, and this year, we had together made a satirical video of a Mr. Rogers-esque children’s show with a skeezy host (played masterfully by Brent), as well as my brother’s birthday cake, which we decorated elaborately with a “Riddler” theme inspired by that summer’s blockbuster, Batman Forever.  We had seen the movie twice in the theater, and giggled uncontrollably through much of the second showing, after I stepped in a neighboring patron’s bucket of popcorn on the way back from the bathroom.  The last time I ever saw his face was in the parking lot of the Sizzler in Natchez, Mississippi, where our parents met (halfway between our houses) to transport him and his sister, Lauren, back home.  He was handsome (if awkward, in that 14 year old way) and smiling, with his dark hair perfectly combed, and his preppy polo-collared shirt neatly tucked into his light khaki shorts.  I hugged him goodbye, and smelled the smell of his parents’ immaculate house.  He got into his mother’s van, and was gone.

In the hospital, we waited.  We waited for days.  And then, it became apparent what we were waiting for, as we gathered in an ugly room with wood paneling, where the doctors  told us that there was no more hope.  I felt myself ripped apart, disoriented, surrounded by an unrelenting flood of blinding pain that I saw repeated and magnified in the faces around me.  I did not understand.

Back in the main waiting room, which was equally as hideous but which featured walls painted an institutional light blue, rendered more piercingly grotesque by the fluorescent lights and ticking clock, I sat with my mother and waited for everyone to say goodbye.  She and my father had just gone themselves, and she asked if I wanted to go.  I refused again, physically recoiling from the thought of being confronted with the visible evidence of this reality.  She sighed and stroked my hair, her eyes red.  In the midst of our exhaustion, she pulled me onto her lap, and I curled into the fetal position and wept.  Through my tears, I heard her whisper over and over again–to me?–it’s going to be ok…it’s going to be ok…it’s going to be ok…

At some point during all of this, my parents gave me their phone card and told me that I could call a friend.  At the bank of pay-phones, I dialed Sharon’s number, and spoke to her about everything that had happened.  I don’t remember the conversation, but I do remember the feeling of the cold, plastic receiver against my cheek, and somehow getting out the words: “I’m ok.”

It was almost true.  In the weeks and months and years that followed, I vacillated between trying to be ok and defiantly refusing to be ok.  I wanted, desperately, for all of this to mean something, to fit into my life in a coherent narrative–whether that turned out to be a story of triumphant overcoming or of a sinking into immovable despair.  But it was neither of these things.  It was senseless pain, utter loss.  And as I learned, much, much later, such senselessness simply does not fit, and defies our attempts to render it coherent.

In the face of that incoherence, our lives went on.

That’s what happens, as it turns out.  For survivors, I mean.  Life just keeps going on, and at some moments, that is all you can say of it.  It goes.  You do your best to make sense of it–sometimes that involves listening to loud music that your parents hate and wearing black nail polish with over-sized pants, and sometimes it involves throwing yourself headlong into religiosity–but at the end of the day, it just keeps going, regardless of your success.

But the funny thing about this, at least for me, is that the going isn’t always so deadly serious.   You join the JV soccer team, and have your first kiss, and still have moments of goofiness that make you laugh yourself silly.  You try out new identities here and there, declare yourself an ALFD, and write a bit of terrible poetry.  But the kicker is that through all of this “going on,”–living, I suppose–the senseless loss remains.  I don’t mean that you stay immovably sad forever.  In truth, the fact that I was so unpredictably happy at times was incredibly frustrating to me for the first few years.  I mean that through all the “going,” the loss becomes no less real, nor less incomprehensible.

The best thing that can be said, I think, is that if you’re lucky, you have a friend or two to bear with you, through all the going.

*In retrospect, the homophobia involved here is horrifying and ridiculous (especially considering who we became later in life)…and, I hope, dated.

Belonging

In Erin on February 18, 2010 at 11:48 am

When I was a teenager, I–like many people, I imagine–wasn’t a big fan of apologizing, particularly to the people closest to me.   I wanted to “be myself” and “speak my mind,” and all the other cliché-ridden things that I learned from Teen magazine and MTV.  At least, I thought I wanted those things.  I also, somewhat paradoxically–and again, like virtually everyone who has ever been to junior high or high school–desperately wanted to be liked, to be interesting, to be cool, to be quirky-yet-fascinating…and, through a magical twist, to be really, really good.  At everything.

This overwhelming desire to be someone who was worth knowing, envying, loving, rather geekily played itself out in some typical “Type A” ways: with extra-curricular activities and honor-roll grades, and also in a way somewhat less typical: an obsessive involvement with our church’s Youth group.  I (and for a time, Sharon as well) was regularly in church 3 times a week, attending Sunday School, choir, handbells, and drama ministry group in addition to worship services.   I liked church–in large part because all of my friends were there–but I also really, really liked doing The Right Thing.  Mainly because when you did The Right Thing, people told you how Good you were…or, at minimum, didn’t point out all the ways you messed up.  So I plugged along, spending most of my non-homework-filled free hours at church or with people from church, all the while trying to maintain an “interesting” streak by rebelling in inconsequential ways–most of which involved professing to be a Democrat (horrors!) and refusing to wear khakis, or anything else that might be procured at The Gap.

What’s really amusing, in retrospect, is how effective this was.  I was usually awash in approval from adults who admired my academic and Bible-related diligence, while simultaneously being treated–at least at church, where things were decidedly capital-V Vanilla–as quirky and daring…and maybe just this side of dangerous.

But there were moments in which things broke down, when I was not the unique and valuable snowflake I had hoped to be, and those are the times that interest me now, because they were also times in which apologies featured prominently, when “sorry”–or some approximation thereof–had to be dragged out and brandished like some sort of self-respect-preserving weapon.

Around the time that I turned 14, things started to feel a bit different in the Youth group: I noticed that a particular group of kids, including my friend Alex and the boy that both of us had recurring crushes on (I’ll call him Jeff), were becoming something of a clique.  They had private jokes and seemed to have spent significant time with one another outside of church–and, worst of all, from my perspective, Jeff began hanging around Alex, asking her advice on serious Churchy questions and suggesting that they pray together, alone.  Only a year prior, Jeff had gone “with” me to the 8th-grade dance out of pity–he was significantly more popular than I was in our public school, but when I asked him, I think his church-related sense of obligation was too much to ignore.  By now, I had transferred my interest to a different boy, but the idea that Alex was getting Jeff’s attention, and that both of them were involved in some kind of exclusive group of which I was not a part was almost too much for my insatiable, approval-requiring teenage brain.  I’m sure you can guess how subtle my attempts to rectify the situation were.

“Alex, what are you guys all doing on Saturdays, anyway?” I whined one day, after realizing that, yes, closed gatherings were being regularly held.

“We have a special Bible Study with Sam,” she said, “at his house.”  Sam was one of the Youth leaders, a gawky, awkward middle-aged engineer who drove the world’s oldest minivan.  He seemed to care deeply about us, but showed it in odd ways, like charging interest on loans of a dollar to “teach us a lesson” about…either being prepared or capitalism.  It was never totally clear to me which.  I thought about all of this as Alex told me about the Bible Study, which involved both matching workbooks and rotating lunch-duties.

“Can I come?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, “I think it might just be us.”

Around that time, Jeff showed up, coming around the corner from the boys’ Sunday School room.  He put his arm around Alex, playfully.

“I want to come to your Bible Study!” I blurted.

Jeff just smiled his regular, cocky half-smile and explained, “It’s already started.  You can’t start coming now.”

“But how did you even know about it?  I never heard about it!”  I was getting desperate.

“Sam asked us to be in it,” he said, his arm still around Alex’s neck, “He might ask you next time.  If he didn’t ask you now, he probably thinks you’re not ready.”

I felt the words fall on me.  Jeff left to find his friends, and I looked at Alex, jealous and embarrassed.  I remembered the time I had just barely stopped myself from saying “fuck” in an argument just outside the Youth room–who else had heard me?  I looked at my blue nail polish and ill-fitting  baggy pants.  I remembered, a few months before, declaring to Sam–with Sharon–that we would like to be known, henceforth, as “Abrasive Liberal Feminist Democrats.”  (I swear I am not making that up.)

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he’d said.

For some reason, at the time, such a response was totally unexpected to me.  I knew that most people in the church were conservative–indeed, that most people in our city were (I vividly recall, for example, being the only kid in elementary school who rooted for Dukakis in the ’88 election)–but usually, my politically rebellious declarations were met with some mixture of amusement and indifference.  Sam seemed genuinely horrified and disappointed…a fact which I had, in true ALFD fashion, brushed off before running off giggling with Sharon about “protests” we would stage at the next church picnic.

Until now.  Now, Sam’s disapproval meant something more than that I would owe him an extra ten cents on the dollar.  There was a group that was both Good and Cool, and I was Not Invited.  I have the sense, now, that my being excluded from the Bible Study had less to do with my espoused political views (such as they were) than with my goofy, teenage need to broadcast them–like my clothes–as a marker of my difference.  It was church, after all, and Good kids, especially Good Girls, might be different, but they were above all to be respectful and humble and outspoken only about how great Jesus was.

I had learned that lesson, in a way, on my first-ever Sunday in Youth group.  I was in 6th grade, an 11-year-old whose sheltered existence had left her  ill-prepared for interacting with teenagers.  That day, the Youth Minister entered the gathering carrying what he said was a letter he had received from a member of the congregation expressing concern over the behavior of some of the church’s Youth.

“I’ve blacked out the name,” he said, raising the letter aloft so that we could all see it, “but I want to read part of it to you.”  The letter-writer, he explained, had witnessed some teenagers engaging in several forbidden activities while outside the mall.  “Not only were they all smoking,” he read, as my heard began to pound, “not only were they all swearing, but one of the girls – who was wearing the shortest skirt I have ever seen – was from our Youth group.”

I was descending into panic.  Is this what happened in Youth group?  The older kids were less horrified, but more eager to exonerate themselves: “It was totally you, Shelly!” one yelled.  Shelly, half-laughing and half-aghast exclaimed that it was not, and and shouting match ensued amongst the girls, who were each desperately attempting to out the others as shameless sluts.  Finally, one of the older girls who Knew All the Answers raised her voice to exclaim over all of them, “Y’all, it’s not important who did it; what’s important is what we’re going to do about it.”  The Youth Minister nodded approvingly.

And then he confessed to having made the whole thing up.  The letter from the congregant was a fake, designed apparently for the dual purposes of slut-shaming and teaching a lesson about how Good Girls were to behave publicly–whether that public were Sunday School or outside the Mall.  Be demure, be respectful, be sensible, and for Chrissakes, cover up.

Of course, parts of that message had failed to stick with me, and thus, my 14-year-old self was on the outside peering in, wanting to belong while at the same time struggling to have my “independence” recognized and valued.  I began to try and prove my Christian devotion to everyone at church (and probably to myself): I volunteered to go on mission trips, I wrote Jesus-poems, I bought t-shirts with Jesus-related slogans.  And, somewhat counter-intuitively, I also started hanging out with some of the “freaks” at school.

How I got involved with them is another story entirely, but my short-lived Lindsay Weir-esque time only encouraged my fantasy of being both Cool and Good–a blue-haired Bible-thumper who loudly professed her love of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Youth group.  The summer after our Freshman year of high school, I took the opportunity of a Youth camp trip to show off my (poseur-rific) “freak”-ness by wearing a fantastic outfit-and-hairstyle that is best expressed not in words, but in this photo:

(And yes, I cut it up to make it look more awesome before hanging it on my wall.)  Before heading to church camp, we were on our way to a wholesome, fun-filled day at Six Flags over Georgia, followed by a laser show at Stone Mountain, just outside of Atlanta.  Needless to say, my outfit was a fantastic success–until the log flume ride.  In a departure from my general baggy-pants style, the shorts I’d worn that day were some of my mom’s old cutoffs from the 70s (they were vintage, you guys, which meant that they had to be cool), which were tight and a bit mid-drift-exposing.  After the log-flume soaking, I was getting more than a little uncomfortable, as both my tight stripy top and the vintage cutoffs chafed against my skin.  Ever the sensible one, Sharon suggested that I change out of my mall top and into the sweet Led Zeppelin t-shirt that I’d bought earlier that day for my “freak” boyfriend (who shall, for the moment, remain nameless).  This wasn’t a perfect solution–I still had to wear the cutoffs, after all–but it made sense.  So, before long, I was sporting a much-too-big black ZoSo t-shirt with my braids, and ready to watch some freaking lasers already.

Stone Mountain was crowded, as it was apparently the place to bring Youth groups on their way to various church camps.  It was also, unfortunately, ridiculously boring, and by the time it was time to load up and leave, I was hot and tired and cranky.  As we were walking back to the bus, Jeff appeared over my shoulder.

“Justin is here,” he said.  Justin was a friend of his from our hometown, who I had “gone out with” for a total of 3 days in 8th grade.  “You should say hi to him.”

I didn’t really have much of a desire to say hi, but I did, and Justin gave me a hug.  We chatted for a moment and then left to rejoin our respective Youth groups.  As we were walking back, Jeff said to me, “see, he was nice to you.  You didn’t have to worry, he’s a nice guy.”

I tried to interrupt an explain that I wasn’t worried; I just didn’t give a shit, when Jeff cut me off.

“Besides,” he said, “I had already prepared him.  I said, ‘Look man, Erin’s here, but she looks like a freak today.  She doesn’t normally look this weird, though, I promise.’  And he was cool with it.”

And with that, he slipped away and caught up with his friends.  I looked down at myself, was simultaneously embarrassed and enraged.  My shirt was enormous, and my braids had gotten frizzy.  But who the fuck was he, to “prepare” someone for my appearance?  And what the hell did I care about what some dude I held hands with in the hallway when I was 13 thought of me, anyway?  I sulked on the bus and talked to no one.

Later that week, when we had finally been at church camp for a few days, I showed up to the evening worship service to find our Youth group’s resident odd girl, Dawn (who Sharon mentioned in her last post), wearing my clothes.  I had been recruited to room with her–maybe because I was a little odd myself, or maybe because I’d made such a show of being Good over the last few months–and she had borrowed my favorite vintage Mickey Mouse t-shirt, jeans, and Airwalks.  Without asking.  I was livid, in that incomparable teenage way that shrieks (if only internally) those are mine, and people will think that you had them first!

I wish I’d had enough self-awareness then to realize that Dawn, too, only wanted to belong.  I wish I’d realized that neither she nor I needed to prove anything to anyone, least of all a group of judgey church kids.  But that’s what you do when you’re a teenager, I suppose…at least, that’s what we did, or tried, desperately, to do between the moments of self-preserving apology.

After the week at church camp was over, I never got to give the Led Zeppelin t-shirt to my boyfriend, who broke up with me to head to greener–and probably, less Vanilla–pastures.  I still remember what Jeff asked me after he found out:

“So, are you going to stop dressing like a freak now?”