Erin

Posts Tagged ‘Erin’

True Confessions of an Artless Nerd

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2010 at 11:42 pm

If we’re going to start talking about The Teenage Years (insert horror movie soundtrack here), it’s important that I confess something up front: I am entirely incapable of cultivating an image.

It’s true.  I am the sort of person who will announce to a group of L.A. hipsters that I absolutely love the band Counting Crows.  My wardrobe still consists almost entirely of t-shirts, jeans, and cardigans.  In an upturning of gender dynamics, many of my boyfriends have been appalled enough by my style of dress that they had to make me into their own personal paper doll.  I still don’t really understand how to style my hair.  My bookshelf displays no coherent sense of taste beyond being skewed vaguely Victorian.  My music and film collections are ALL over the place and, again, have no interwoven theme other than, “Man, wasn’t that AWESOME?”  I describe almost everything as “The best (or worst) thing EVAR!!!!”  I am a sucker for Greatest Hits albums.

This doesn’t mean that I am not conscious of image in general.  I am not a holier-than-thou, “I’m better than you because I don’t NEED an image” type.  (That in itself would be an image, and is therefore beyond my capabilities.)  In fact, for a good deal of my life, the fact that I had no image was one of my greatest sources of self-consciousness.  But no matter what I did, I just couldn’t change that aspect of myself.  My most consistent personality trait is my inconsistency.  I just can’t stick with something long enough to be identified for it.  When I was a little kid, I frequently changed outfits four or five times a day.  When my mother finally confronted me about this, pointing out that it made an awful lot of dirty laundry, I countered, “But, Mom!  I HAVE to change clothes because I need to be different people!”  That pretty much sums it up.  I’ve always lived buried inside my own head somewhere, and inside of that world I am constantly shifting identities.  I have a jillion different contradictory identities always fighting for attention.  And I’ve never managed to figure out exactly how to project a singular image – how to cultivate an appearance and style that magnify rather than diminish all the things that I am on the inside.  And ultimately, the self-consciousness about my lack of identity came from a basic teenage drive – a desperate desire to find a place where I truly “fit in.”*

So when Erin began what she references as her “freak” phase, I was insanely jealous.  I wanted a Freak Boyfriend too!  I wanted to hang out with the “weird” kids who were in bands or occasionally might have smoked pot (Horrors!).  And, more than anything, I wanted to be accepted by the “artsy” crowd, the kids who liked indie movies and did their makeup in experimental ways.  I KNEW that I was NOT “Vanilla.”  But no one else seemed to notice this at all.  At least as far as my appearance was concerned, I was your basic everyday Goody-Two-Shoes, the same that I’d been in our elementary school days.

Since Erin included some photographic evidence for her post, I’ll be brave enough to pony up some of my own.

This is a pic of the two of us in the church rec room.  The dress Erin’s wearing is one she made herself, from scratch.  Although she’ll make fun of herself for it now, you have to admit it’s a pretty cool dress.  And it looks good on her.  I, on the other hand, am wearing jeans that don’t really fit, along with what was my favorite top – a sleeveless black sweater from (gasp!) The Gap.  I loved this shirt.  You know what it says about me?  Absolutely nothing.  Same goes for the jeans.  From this picture, I could literally be any generic white girl.  And that’s pretty much what I felt like I was during the years from about 6th grade on.

So again, I repeat: insane jealousy.  What I didn’t realize about myself, though, is that the same qualities that prevented me from actively cultivating an image also prevented me from editing myself in any way.  I said pretty much whatever I felt like saying, pretty much wherever I felt like saying it, regardless of the consequences to my image.  At school this wasn’t such a big deal.  For middle and high school, Erin and I attended large public “magnet” institutions – meaning that we had big student bodies made up mostly of kids who were slightly smarter than average.  Because we got classified as the “smart” kids, more than a few of us were fairly self-righteous and loudmouthed.  We liked to argue, liked to show off our “knowledge” of important “issues.”  My tendency to spout off wasn’t unusual in the least in such a setting.  However, that same tendency made my presence at church more than a little bizarre.

Before joining Erin’s church in what I’m pretty sure was the 8th grade, I had spent one year as an official part of a church congregation – the year that I was four years old.  I have exactly two memories of church: coloring pictures of Jesus walking on water (my Jesus’ robes were always orange) and the day when a boy named Michael got his head tangled in the volleyball net in our church’s gymnasium.  And that second one I really only remember because my mom reminded me of it when Michael later became a beautiful specimen and member of the Untouchable Popular Group at my middle school.**  Despite my attendance at the Unnamed Religious Private School (or URPS, as I will refer to it from here on out), I didn’t really understand what constituted “appropriate” church behavior.  I wasn’t familiar with the politics and hierarchies of church, the way that a congregation can divide itself into cliques the same way that any other body of children or adults will do.

Like Erin, I was obsessed with being Good.  I wanted to Do the Right Thing.  I wanted to be Perfect perfect perfect perfect.  Desperately.  The thing was, I was still really too young and unaware to know that the definition of “Good” and “Perfect” change depending on the crowd you’re hanging around.  My ideas of Good were based mainly on my parents’ notions of right and wrong.  I practically worshipped my parents for most of my childhood, and as far as I was concerned they were the ultimate arbiters of Truth.  For some kids Parents and Church are virtually one and the same.  They live in households where their moms and dads uphold the laws and dogmas of an organized religion.  My house was a bit different and this, combined with my  general loudmouthedness, made me into an accidental outcast.

There was no CHANCE I would have been invited to Sam’s private Bible study.  Sam maintained a fairly open distaste for me, actually.  And I’m pretty sure I know why.  Here are some (not all) of the things I said and did during the 4 or so years that I was a member of the Major Religious Institution of Baton Rouge:

1. I declared myself to be, along with Erin, a member of the Abrasive Liberal Feminist Democrats – four out of four of those things were unacceptable adjectives for women.

2. I once told off the child of a visiting minister, in my most professorial tone, because he explained to our Sunday school class that “religious tolerance” was a sign of weakness and that, basically, we were fighting a spiritual war with every other major belief system on earth.  I believe that somewhere in my speech I used the phrase, “I don’t care who your father is.”

3.  Erin and Alex and I once planned to stage a PROTEST, complete with feminist signage, at a church picnic because we girls had been excluded from the all-male basketball tournament that was the main event.

4.  I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper decrying the poor behavior of Christians on the gay rights front.  (I received actual hate mail from members of our congregation for this one.  And I received some letters of praise from other members.  Although I will sometimes portray the church as the Bogeyman, we were surrounded by plenty good and well-meaning people.  It’s just that they tended to fade into the background when I was on a tare and telling people off.)

5.  Most of the time, our Sunday school classes were separated by gender.  Once, however, most of the girls were absent for some reason and the few of us who remained were “invited” to sit in with the boys.  Their leader, whom I will call Lee, was teaching a lesson that somehow involved discussion of the death penalty.  I told him off too, in dramatic fashion.  And he did not back down an inch.  We spent a good deal of the lesson debating the ethics of capital punishment.  I remember that at one point Lee read me a verse in the Bible that basically says “God put earthly leaders in charge, so it is our job to follow their laws” and implied to me that this meant all laws must be good.  Because leaders are from God.  I wish I’d been savvy enough to bring up Roe v. Wade here.  Dammit.

6.  I committed the rather large sin of forgetting that I had boobs and hips.  I dressed without regard to how much skin I was exposing.  And I really really love dresses with spaghetti straps.  I also loved tiny tank tops.

I was NOT in the cool group at church.  I remember being jealous too, but I also remember realizing vaguely that I had no hope of being included.  And that that was okay.

I have never had a great explanation for how I ended up at church, especially coming from a family where church was not part of the requirement.  But now that I look back on it, I realize that perhaps not fitting in was part of what I loved so much.  Like I said, I’d always been jealous of people who could cultivate an image.  I’d never been able to do it.  I wanted, so very badly, to be a “freak.”  I wanted people to stop thinking of me as the quiet, unassuming girl I’d been in elementary school –  the one with the perma-white shoes and perfectly straight belt.  I wanted to be seen for the abrasive girl I wanted to be.

Simply by joining a Baptist church, shoving myself in amongst people who thought differently than I did, I was able to experiment with a new identity – an image.  I had accidentally found the one place where my developing teenage assertiveness allowed me to be viewed exactly the way I wanted, Gap clothes or no.  I was still included; I was still given the impression that I belonged.  (As Erin said, a great deal of what we did was met with closed mouths or shrugs.  I’m sure the preacher’s wife talked behind my back when I refused to participate in part of the Sunday school lesson, but no one ever asked me to leave.)  But I was on the outskirts.  I was edgy.  Sometimes I was even tough.  And because my parents weren’t there, I was answerable only to myself.  I decided who I was, and I loved the feeling.

At some point I want to address some things about Jeff as well, but I don’t feel what I want to say quite fits in here.  Perhaps for a different post?  For now let’s just say that Jeff for some reason never treated me in the particularly bad way he often treated Erin – and I’ve been unable to figure out exactly why.  Jeff had a lot of power in our youth group.  He was an attractive guy – attractive in the way politicians are attractive.  And he was charming.  He sang in the church worship band (Swoon!), and he was uber-involved in all church activities – including the drama group that Erin’s dad started for us.  He was a hand-shaker, a baby-kisser.  And at some point all of us had crushes on him.

But somehow, Jeff never tried to exercise his sense of power over me.  He let me get away with a lot.  At church camp each year, we were separated into Bible study groups that would become our “families” for the week(s) we were there. These groups consisted of kids from all across the country, and they were intended as centers for mingling and meeting new people.  Thus, only two or three kids from one youth group could be assigned to any given Bible study.  Our second year at camp, Jeff and I were on our own in one group.  The entire week, I made fun of him mercilessly.  I referred to him, for no particular reason, as “Sparky” and patted his head as though her were a small puppy dog.  I got in the way when he tried to flirt with out-of-state girls and lectured him about how his tastes were “too narrow.”  (I guess what I meant by this was that he always chose the most obviously traditionally pretty girls – pretty like politician’s wives are often pretty.  Or I could have meant anything.  I was an angry abrasive liberal feminist democrat!)  I also, along with Erin, would tease him for his dandruff problem, reciting under my breath a satirical  poem Erin had written referencing said dandruff.  (We were nothing if not creative about our insults.)

Jeff and I continued to be acquainted through college, and our relationship remained in this vaguely friendly-antagonistic state.  We argued politics, and he would ask my opinion on poetry he’d written.  He told me about his girlfriends.  He told me about his crisis of faith.  And I sat and listened.  And I was honest with him about my opinions, just as I’d always been.

I will never understand how we managed to stay friendly, especially now that I know the full extent of the way Jeff treated Erin.  It’s something I want to explore further, as we tell what I’m sure will be a few more stories about Jeff and the cameo appearances he would make in our teenage lives.

*I want to acknowledge here that I know I am insanely lucky in this department.  Although I will sound here like I am bemoaning my life as an outcast, I want to acknowledge that I am the bearer of an insane amount of privilege that in most of life allows me to fit in really anywhere I want.  I am white.  I am upper-middle class and have the bearings and education that go along with that class identity.  I am cis-gendered (feminist lingo for not being trans-gendered.  I am a woman with distinctly feminine features who identifies socially as a woman).  I am also naturally petite.  I am (at least apparently) able-bodied.  Although I do not identify as straight (I’m bi, for whatever it’s worth), I am also not gay and can therefore “pass” as straight.  I have enough features that are close to the modern standard of beauty to get by and not be ridiculed for my appearance, even when I’m understyled or dressed down.  In other words, I recognize that a lot of kids suffer for being socially marked in ways that I am not.  So although I had some awkward moments based on my inability to cultivate image, I got off really easy because of a set of social and genetic factors that are a pure accident of privilege.

**Erin and Alex and I also once made a series of prank calls to said Michael – something that still constitutes one of the most amusing and terrifying evenings of 7th grade.  I hope we revisit this later.

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Screw You, Sorry. I’m Not Your Bitch Anymore.

In Uncategorized on February 12, 2010 at 12:38 am

“Sorry” is a magic word.

I’ve talked about these before.  The performative phrases, the things you say out loud that are supposed to alter the state of being, change the substance of the air around you.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought a lot about “sorry” and its power.  And I’m beginning to realize that Dana was right; sorry doesn’t help.  Sorry is an easy answer, sure.  It’s a way out of a real conversation.  But I think it’s more than that.  “Sorry” can hurt.  In fact, I think it’s hurt my life a lot.

So fuck you, sorry.  I’m not taking your shit anymore.

When Erin and I were young, I think it’s safe to say that both of us were astoundingly afraid of treading on anyone else’s toes.  We didn’t like getting into trouble.  We didn’t like “being bad.”  And we most definitely did not like hurting another person.  So one of my earliest “sorry” stories mirrors hers almost exactly.  I was playing with my neighbors from across the street, a girl and boy very close to my age who were my first real companions in childhood.  I was around 4 I’m sure, meaning that Girl was 5 and her Brother was about 3.  Brother was the sort of kid who was always underfoot.  He wanted to be around me and Girl, but he was still a little young, a little bit behind us.  One year of difference matters a lot more when you’re that small, when every year is such a huge portion of life lived.  And we, being older, were always in a race to get away.

On this particular day, Girl and I were in a major hurry to play outside.  Rain had plagued us all week and we had been cooped up.  As our mothers sat and dallied in the living room, we were insisting loudly that we needed to move, to get going. Wasn’t it dry enough yet?  Couldn’t we just go out and see, test the ground to find out if it was still wet?  We promised we wouldn’t track in mud.  Finally they relented, giving one of us the key to unlock the back door and head into the yard, unattended.  I ran to the door and fiddled with the lock, Girl standing next to me all the while hurrying me along.  The lock gave in and I swung the door back, ready to push through into the sunshine.

As I swung back the door, an enormous moan came from somewhere near the ground.  And then the sound of sobbing.  Brother had been trying to follow us out.   In the haste to get what I wanted, I hadn’t noticed him underfoot, where he always was, his head close to the door.  When I swung it open it knocked his head and sent him tumbling over, crying.

“I’m sorry!”  I started crying too.  Just as loud and just as long as Brother did.  I was inconsolable.  I had hurt someone else.  He had a bump on his head, a mark.  And I had put it there.  I was so destroyed, so “sorry,” that eventually, once Brother was calm, he waddled over and hugged me at the urging of our mothers, trying to show me he was okay.

It’s the sort of thing that happens in childhood all the time.  In adulthood too.  We hurt someone because we aren’t paying attention.  And we feel bad, because we don’t want to be that person who isn’t paying attention to the feelings of others.  We don’t want to be that person who hurts someone else.

Or at least, that’s how I would have interpreted it once.  But the prevalence of “sorry” in my life – the insidious way it’s made a home for itself inside my head – is beginning to make me question whether this is the only way to see things.

“Sorry” did something else for me that day too.  It made me the center of attention.  This isn’t how I intended it – at least I don’t think so.  But my regret was so big, so desperate, that it required immediate forgiveness and attention (in the form of that hug) from the boy I’d injured.  Saying “sorry” wasn’t enough.  I needed  to know everything was okay, that the world had been righted again.  I learned that saying “sorry” did a lot for me – but it did hardly anything for the kid I’d hit with the door.  I learned to NEED sorry.

Over the course of my childhood I became a veritable “sorry” machine.  I became hyper-aware of any and every offense I had caused someone.  Because of my reliance on sorry – my willingness to claim a mistake or to suggest that I’d wronged someone else, the standard of behavior became different for me than it did for others.  For the most part, I was a quiet kid in school.  I followed the rules and kept my mouth shut, keeping me off the radar and leaving me to my own private world.  The majority of kids in our school were not this way.  They were mostly rowdy, mostly loud, mostly “baddy bats.”  Everyday in line from the classroom to recess they talked and pushed and shoved.  Same thing on the way back, or on the way to the lunchroom.  The teacher tried to quiet them down, to no avail.  One day, I decided to talk.  I don’t remember why.  I whispered two or three words to Alex, and the teacher snapped around.  “Is that SHARON talking in line?” she gasped.  “Sharon?”  I uttered a shy “Yes, Ma’m” and then immediately followed it up with a reflexive “I’m sorry.”  “I’m glad you know when to apologize,” she said.  She acted disappointed in me the rest of the day.  Every day, all day, those other kids talked.  None of them ever apologized.  None of them were ever asked to.  I had taught her – and most of the adults in my life – that I would tow the line. And so the boundaries of my freedom became different, tighter.

When Erin and I were in middle school, we went to church with a girl I’ll call Dawn.  To a bunch of goody-goodies at age 12, Dawn was odd to say the least – odder, even, than the Dana Erin mentions in her previous post.*  (She once painted her fingernails and then set them on fire, just to see if the “flammable” label was true.  We were far too “safe” for activities like this, even though I now realize lots of kids did things like this.)  The thing is, though, she was made to seem even MORE different from us by the way the adults in our church introduced her.  We were given a “talking to” the first time she came to church – a speech to let us know that Dawn was different, that she came from a home with a single mother who was mentally ill (in exactly what way no one said).  She was “troubled.”  She was moody and dark; she pitched fits and stormed out of rooms.  She talked back to figures of authority.  She was decidedly unchurchy.

The truth was, we (Erin, Alex and I) had encountered “troubled” kids before.  Plenty of the kids in our school could have been classified as “troubled” according to the vague definition of our youth ministers.  The kids at our Unnamed Religious Private School pitched fits, were churlish and combative.  They set things on fire just to watch them burn.  But the thing was, those kids were the royalty at school.  They WERE the people of privilege.  At church, Dawn was the Other – the girl with a single mom (who didn’t come to church, mostly), who was decidedly less light-skinned than we were**.  Because she was Other, she made our youth ministers and other figures of authority decidedly uncomfortable.  They knew that by the dictates of Southern Baptist politeness they HAD to let her into youth group if she wanted to come.  Having her there meant they were Good People.  They were supposed to be showing kindness!  And pity!  In the name of God!  But they really, really didn’t want to.

You know how I KNOW they didn’t want to?  Because Dawn immediately became the sole responsibility of Erin, Alex, and myself.  We were the “good” kids.  We would “be kind” to her.  We would “influence” her.  But most of all, we would “look after” her so that the adults didn’t feel like they had to.  Like good little robots, we would do FOR them the things they thought they OUGHT to do but didn’t really WANT to do.  It was a lose-lose situation for all of us.  Dawn didn’t get any of the healthy, normal companionship kids of that age need.  She just got three friends who were trying really really hard to do what they were “supposed” to do.  And we got tossed into a situation we couldn’t really parse or understand, with other people’s prejudices and fears bouncing around in our heads.

Dawn had a serious temper.  She also lived in a house where tantrums were fairly standard and completely acceptable.  She and her mother and grandmother communicated mostly – at least in our visits to her house – in shouting.  Erin and Alex and I had all been taught to be appropriately repressed.  When we got angry, we mostly didn’t talk about it, or only talked about it quietly to each other.  Explosive rage was “inappropriate” and “bad” – something the Baddy Bats would do.  Dawn expressed her rage – at everything and everyone – openly and with fairly hostile intent.

During her first year at the church, we took a trip to New Mexico (three states away!  A REALLY long drive) for summer church camp.  The drive was so long that it required an overnight stopover in Amarillo, TX, home of the play Texas – a musical (I think?) about pioneers hosted in the Palo Duro Canyon.  The Palo Duro is deep, and we visited it at night – a group of gawky teenagers and tweens, restless and rowdy and excited to be out of the van for the day.  Prior to the drive from the hotel to the canyon, one of our Sunday school leaders had sat down with Erin, Alex, and me to inform us that while we were at the play we should take care to “keep an eye” on Dawn.  “You know how she can be,” she said, winning the award for most predictable sweeping generalization ever.

Shortly after we arrived at the Canyon, Dawn got angry with us about something.  I don’t remember what.  We were 13.  We were mad at each other all the time.  But because she was different from us, Dawn chose to storm off from the group rather than sit and stew in silence.  And we couldn’t find her.  We wandered through the crowds some, called her name, even looked back at the vans.  She was nowhere to be found.  It was time to report our error to the adults.  They were angry, of course.  Furious – you might say with Righteous Anger.  And Disappointment (which was even worse).  We had let Dawn out of our sight.  We had made her angry.  It was all Our Fault.

And so we apologized.  We apologized to the youth leaders.  When Dawn finally wandered back of her own accord, we apologized to her too.  We said more “sorries” than I have ever said, and we said them all night.  We felt genuinely bad.  We had made Dawn angry.  We weren’t supposed to upset her.  We were supposed to patronize her.  Because we were Good People!   And Dawn was made to “sorry” too.  She had wandered off, after all.  She had put herself in danger.  She had acted out of accord with the way good church kids act, and so she was made to say “sorry” too – sorry just for being who she was.

When I look at this situation as an adult, I realize that all those apologies I issued that night allowed my youth leaders – the ones whose attitudes towards a young girl had led to her ostricization in the first place – to continue to pat themselves on the back, convinced they’d done a “good deed” in allowing such a troubled girl to be in their exclusive group.  It was their job as adults – not mine as a teenager – to recognize that the tensions we experienced with Dawn were more a result of their own prejudices than Dawn’s actual behavior.  Had we not been taught that she was “special”, we might have come to consider her a friend rather than a project to help us win a gold star in our crowns.

“Sorry” helped everyone maintain the status quo.  Someone had to be “sorry,” and so it was us.  If no one was sorry, then that would mean all of our assumptions about the situation were wrong.  It would mean stopping to think, parsing the situation, and reexamining what we thought about the way the world worked.  The adults in our lives (our church lives) wanted nothing more than to avoid all that parsing and reexamination, and so they accepted our “sorries” and allowed us – me, Erin, Alex, and Dawn – to take all the blame.

“Sorry” taught me to take responsibility for things that were not really my fault.  It taught me to carry on my shoulders the weight that everyone else refused.

I have plenty, plenty more to say about this.  This dynamic has worked this way in so many corners of my life, and I’ve only addressed one so far.  But I worry that this post is getting too long, so I’m going to stop and post for now.  Maybe Erin will have some other examples of how “sorry” functioned as a barrier?  I don’t know.  I hope.  But even if we go on to other topics, I’m going to come back to this one.  Because it crops up again and again until I have given up on “sorry” almost entirely, and I want to be able to show you exactly why.  To show you why we need to rethink the word and its implications, the ways we try to use it as a “magic word” to escape the difficult task of thinking.

*When I talk about how “odd” Dawn was to us, keep in mind that she was “odd” to a bunch of privileged middle-class white girls who had the luxury of extremely extremely stable families.  I completely acknowledge my privilege here.  Hold on, cause that’s going to be part of the main point – how I and the adults in my life handled that privilege.

** I am intentionally vague here.  I have no clue as to Dawn’s racial make-up.  Her mother was white, but we knew only that.  So there was, of course, constant speculation at church – among the adults – about who (or “what”) her father might have been.  This speculation Othered her even more than her class status or her single mom.