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Attending private school was similar to being an inmate in a maximum security prison. They made us wear matching outfits…so if we tried to escape they would be able to spot us quickly. I remember a particular kid who was always trying to run away…he never got farther than the front lawn…he would be tackled and dragged back to the room where the giant wooden paddle awaited him. We were watched all day by teachers who could have easily passed for armed prison guards. The kindergarten teacher was known to pull children around by their ears and poke them in the chest repeatedly with her long bony finger.  The school nurse would patrol the cafeteria…and would occasionally shut the lights off for sport…The rule was “the lights are off…your mouths are shut!”…she would yell that phrase over and over until we all had our heads down on the table and the room was silent. One day two girls were still whispering…we all looked over at them in desperation because we knew some kind of horrible punishment was awaiting them, but they were oblivious to the pleas coming from our eyes and kept on going.  The nurse walked over and took the girls by their pony tails and smacked their heads down on the table. I think they got the message. We all had to finish our lunch period without any yard time and our heads all had to be planted firmly on the table. I once heard that the nurse took a boy by the throat and repeatedly slammed him into his own locker. Then there was my mother…she was the English teacher for grades 7-12, and had the ability to make a student who didn’t follow the rules feel completely insignificant, worthless, with no will to live anymore by the use of  fancy verbal and public humiliation tactics she had devised. Usually the kid would just sit in silence with their head hanging low for the rest of the day. The warden…I mean principal…changed over the years, but he was generally the kindest of the authority figures in the building. They usually had mercy on us because they knew how tough we had it, and by the time we got to them we were all ready a pathetic groveling mess.  In third grade we had a phys ed. teacher who asked all of us if we wanted to have fun. It sounded like a great idea to us and he asked us all to go stand up against the one wall of the gym. The whole class walked to that side of the room, and then he told us he would be right back and not to move.  He returned a few minutes later with the principal and announced that all of us just wanted to goof around that year and not get anything accomplished. He had tricked us, and despite our apologies and our lack of understanding defense…we all received lunch detention and had to write essays for the remainder of the class.  It was just his way of giving us an extra special Valentine’s Day. This wasn’t just any private school…it was a Pentecostal Christian school. We had chapel every Wednesday where we were subjected to fire and brimstone messages and punishment if we did not clap our hands and sing enthusiastically enough. God forbid any of us should cross our arms…we would never hear the end of it. Every few months they would bring in retired prostitutes and drug addicts to tell us their horror stories and sing us songs about how Jesus saved their souls. It was kind of like a scared straight program. When I was in seventh grade my home room teacher brought us back up stairs after one of these events and started crying and waiving her arms…telling all the girls in the class not to let the nasty boys sitting next to us take advantage of us. We didn’t have sex education class so we just looked at the boys in bewilderment wondering what they could possibly be up to and why exactly they were so nasty.  None of us knew what she was talking about, but we all just listened silently…nodding our heads every now and then for affect…partially out of fear of what would happen if we didn’t and partially because we felt the need to humor her since we all knew she had been in that school too long and was starting to go crazy.  Sometimes she would stand up on her desk and start marching and yelling about how we needed to love Algebra and then the next minute she would be ripping off her scarf and exclaiming…”It’s stifling in here” and throw open all the windows in the dead of winter. She made us very nervous…they all did.  There was something about that place though…maybe it was that we all knew we were in it together…that we all had a lot of time to serve before we were released…. and the only way we could survive it was to lean on each other.  We knew that no one on the outside would be able to relate to what we were going through so we created these strong bonds with each other. It was like we were a family all looking out for the other person.  It’s funny because whenever any of us get together in public other people tend to say….”You guys all sound the same” Like we have this same way of speaking…even years after….Maybe that’s what happens when you’re brainwashed as a child.  I think we have all managed to come out of it though. We all got to rebel a little and realized the flames of hell weren’t “lapping at our buttocks”.  We all have this similar humor  that we developed…most people don’t get it, but I love it, and if I happen to meet someone who shares a similar humor I instantly feel comfortable with them…like I’ve known them forever.  Most of us hated that place, but at the same time…there are all of these great stories and friendships that came out of it. Sometimes I even miss it…Kind of like how the guy that finally gets out of jail wants to go back…because he’s realized all of his friends were there and that he forgot how to live his life outside of the gates…that he’s different and that no one else could possibly understand his stories because they’ve never been a part of them.

A few months ago my mom bought me a book titled: So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore? She had been frustrated with my lack of church attendance over the past year, and thought a book like this would help.  Only trouble was…she forgot to read the book first.  It’s all about this pastor who gets fed up with dry religion and stuffy church settings and decides instead to live his life the best way he knows how outside of them.  The whole message of the book was basically that you don’t need to go to church to be able to hear from God…and that you certainly don’t have to call yourself a Christian to be able to impart life into others.  I remember just laughing to myself when I finished the book…because it had completely sabotaged my mother’s plans. The last time I sat through church my skin was crawling.  It had been a while since I had gone, and for the sake of “Easter and all that is Holy” I decided I should at least try to make an effort.  I had tried to prepare myself for it. I even plastered a big smile on my face, but the minute I walked in I found myself texting my sister… “I instantly regret this decision!” People immediately started coming up to me…asking me things like… “Where have you been?”  “What are you doing here?”  “Why haven’t you been coming?” “Is this really so bad?” …and then they said things like “Jessie, you have no idea how much compassion I have for you…” and “It’s so good to see your smiling face”.  I noticed that everyone who spoke to me had the same plastic expression on their faces as I did. The music started and I felt a little relieved…because at least I didn’t have to pretend anymore.  I chose to sit in the back row because it was close to the door and if I needed to get out I could escape quickly.  I sat there watching them.  They were all standing up and wildly clapping their hands…Some people were dancing and waving their arms.  I was trying to figure out why exactly I felt so horrible…it was like a bolt of grouch had hit me when I walked through the doors. I hated being fake. I hated smiling and saying it was good to see people when I didn’t mean it.  I hated that I had to pretend to care what they were saying…and I hated that I had to smother the screaming coming from inside me. A few years ago I had attended this church on a regular basis…I had felt like I was part of things, and that they were good. I thought I had found a place that would accept me the way I am and not try to shove their unwarranted regulations at me.  One summer my sister and I decided we wanted to do something for the community…just to show people that someone cared about them…and that it was still possible to receive a free gift with no strings attached. We came up with a plan to start something called Random Acts of Ice Cream. Every Friday night my sister and I would go buy these big tubs of ice cream, put it in our big cooler, and go show up in a town and start giving away free ice cream cones.  It had nothing to with any kind of church sponsorship…we were doing it on our own just for the sake of it.  I had been in church that Sunday and the pastor knew what I was planning to do so he decided to tell the congregation about it.  A few days before we started my pastor called me and asked to come to my apartment for an emergency meeting.  I didn’t really understand what the problem was, but I told him it was ok to come.  He and his wife came over the same night and I was not at all expecting what they were about to say.  At the time my boyfriend and I had been living together.  I didn’t feel at all that I was horrible or sinful for doing so, and up until then I thought everyone at church could handle the idea.  The pastor told me that he had received a call from someone who was furious that he would be willing to encourage Random Acts of Ice Cream from behind the pulpit…when he knew very well that I was “living in sin”.  I expected my pastor to then tell me that he told the guy to take a hike…and that what I was doing was a good thing, but he didn’t.  He then suggested two of the most outrageous solutions.  He looked at us and said… “You guys have two choices…I can either have a really small quick wedding for you guys before Friday or…one of you can move out.”  He then began to push my boyfriend about why he hadn’t married me yet and told him that if he had no intention to do so he should just leave.  My mouth dropped open…what the hell was going on here? These were people we had gone to dinner with…people we trusted…people we had listened to talk about not having to perform for anyone…not putting expectations on people…and certainly not telling them they had to change their lives…this was the same pastor who had come to me many times looking for my advice….and here we were sitting in my living room having this conversation…I was so angry and hurt…I couldn’t even say anything…They told us they would be waiting to hear our decision over the next couple of days…I walked to my bedroom…I went to my bookshelf and pulled out a book that was really important to me and had had a great influence on the way I was trying to live my life. I looked down at the cover…To Own a Dragon was the title…the author spoke about how he had viewed his father the way most kids viewed dragons…like they were some mysterious fantasy written about in books…but he had never seen one.  He said he viewed God the same way…someone he heard about…but was so out of reach he would never be able to experience him, and that most likely if he really did exist he was angry and ready to breathe fire on him because he probably had done a lot of things wrong in his life.  It wasn’t until he realized the Jesus in the Bible was much different than the one who was being preached about from the backside of a pulpit that his views began to change.  I loved this book, and in my anger and frustration it was the only argument I could give to what was happening.  I took a deep breath and walked back to the living room where they were getting their stuff together…they had brought their Bibles so they could read us a random scripture about the blessing of God…and then explain to us we were tying his hands from being able to bless us…I looked at the pastor and handed him the book…I asked him to read it…and managed to thank them for coming. Then they were gone…it was just the two of us and we stood there hugging with tears rolling down our faces….it was like we had been taken so off guard we were in a state of shock. He asked me if I wanted to get married…he said if it was what I wanted he would do it…I told him no…and that if I ever actually did get married I wasn’t going to have some secret shot gun wedding like I was a pregnant teenage girl in the south.  The next few days were miserable…I remember wanting to know who it was that had made the call…who had been so powerful that they could have forced my pastor’s hand…why was all of this happening? All I wanted to do was to give away ice cream!!! None of it made any sense…I hadn’t asked anyone to promote it… I hadn’t asked people to come participate and now I was being asked to change my whole life.  I loved this apartment that I had worked so hard to fix up…we spent hours mudding and painting…changing lights…and faucets…we had our own little family…just the two of us and dilly our cat, and the thought of leaving it was terrifying.  I had gone to see my parents, and my mom pleaded with me not to be angry with our pastor…she said I didn’t understand the whole story, and that they never wanted to have that conversation with us.  That it broke their hearts just as bad as it had broken mine. She had tears in her eyes when she said it and a lump in her throat.  She was right…I didn’t understand any of it…especially the tears…because my mom never cried.  My parents suggested that I could just come sleep on the couch at night and everything else would be the same…That then no one could say anything bad about me, and I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. I hated the idea. This wasn’t my home anymore. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Just because I didn’t have a ring on my finger didn’t mean I wasn’t worthy to give people ice cream.  I wasn’t a bad example… Two days later I hugged my cat and my boyfriend goodnight and headed down the stairs and to my car to spend my first night without them in two years.  The next day my sister and I went to pass out ice cream…Lots of people came out…even my pastor who was “in awe of what I had done” I didn’t care… I didn’t really want them there.  I was still hurt. Everyone wanted to know what church or organization we were from, but my sister and I  just said…we aren’t from anywhere….no one’s sponsoring us…we just wanted to come put a smile on people’s faces.  All different people showed up…children, grandparents, families, the owner of the liquor store…I had an especially big smile on my face as everyone from church watched us serve ice cream to a gay couple. They were my favorite people of the night.  When it was all over my sister and I piled everything into her trunk and headed home.  It felt good.  I felt like if God was really up there watching… he would have been proud of what we were doing…we did it the whole summer and I spent every night on the couch.  I think God never would have asked me to sleep on the couch…I think he would have just been able to know my heart…and that would have been good enough…I think that summer we gave people some hope…I think we showed them that not everyone is looking to take from them…I feel good about that. After the summer was over I found out who it was that had started all the trouble… I found out that they had expected me to just give up and not do the ice cream at all…they thought I wouldn’t care about it enough. They were wrong…and they happened to be an old pastor of mine and the next time I saw him in public he couldn’t even look me in the face because he was so ashamed of what he had done. It made me smile, but deep down inside I felt pity for him.  Ever since then my ideas about the goodness of church have changed.  I think it’s funny that the only people Jesus yelled at in the Bible were the religious ones…the people he decided to spend his time with were the prostitutes…the thieves…the people that the religious society looked down their noses at.  They were people who were poor and widowed…homeless…those were the ones Jesus felt were worth his time… and those are the people he said to take care of.  Jesus wasn’t a Christian and he didn’t spend all of his time in church buildings….He lived his life outside of them…teaching people how to love each other…and how to give hope…how to show grace and mercy…I think if Christians today really lived the way Jesus said…the world would be a completely different place…Ghandi thought so too…he once walked into a church service looking for life and they wouldn’t have anything to do with him…and he  later proved to be one of the wisest men that ever lived.  To me church is an empty place filled with empty people.  They talk about a new way of living…a better way…and yet they are miserable…forced to wear around plastic smiles…trying to hide their bitterness from a life filled with expectations that they can never live up to.  They are like leeches to gossip…telling stories about people with the premise of “we have to pray for so and so because…” They would rather point out someone else’s problems so they can take the light off of their own. I once told my pastor the biggest problem I have with church is that people are so focused on the outside of the cup…if it’s something you can see…if it’s visible to everyone then it’s a problem, but people fail to take into an account the mold growing on the inside of their own outwardly sparkling cup. I told him I would rather concentrate on my own cup then go inspecting everyone else’s…and that I would rather be dirty on the outside then on the inside if indeed all sins are the same and God is really only concerned about the heart. I would rather be a beautiful mess for everyone to see, and I feel that’s how I’ve lived most of my life.  I will be the first to tell you of my faults…but I know without a doubt that my heart is something special. I will tell you all my secrets and shock you with all of the terrible things I’ve done that most people would never suspect…but I know all about what it’s like to be given grace when you deserve it the least…I know how it changes you… because it changed me…and I will always defend the person who is being called less than everybody else because of some weakness they have. I went out for coffee with a friend from church a few months ago and she asked me how I was doing…I told her I was doing really well. She asked me if I had given up on “the God thing” I told her that I hadn’t.  She was surprised and said…“that’s not what everyone else is saying”….I just laughed…but inside it was like a knife…because I hate that not showing up for service conveys a message to people that you must have given up.  I thought about how the reason so many people have given up on the idea of God could be because some crazy…Bible waving hypocritical Christian…beat them over the head one too many times in an effort to “save them from themselves.”  I wish they could just learn how to love…and let everything else go…maybe they can’t…maybe it’s just impossible…and they are doomed to spending countless hours painting smiles on their faces…but I can’t stand to sit there and watch it…I’ve found that since I’ve left church…everyone who gets upset about something having to do with it or is discouraged…calls me up and asks to go out for coffee. They feel that with me they can just be free to be themselves…and vent about all their frustrations and imperfections…because they know I’m safe…they know I won’t judge them…or go spreading rumors about them…I won’t be calling the pastor to set up a meeting…I’m just a friend…and with a friend you can just be honest…you can sit there and pour your heart out and know that at the end of it…everything will be ok…and that you’re not alone…that you’re not going to hell…and the roof of the church is not going to cave in on you….that you can just breathe…and that  it’s ok to be flawed…I think that’s what makes us so special anyway…it’s what makes us real and separates us from the mannequins.  Religion says that perfection is the goal…but I think God could find beauty in imperfection…and maybe what looks broken to us…is really only something that was fixed.  I made it through that church service…but I haven’t gone back…I find that instead of sitting in a sanctuary with people who think they have it all together…I would rather go sit in a back alley with a bum who just finished his last bottle of whisky and sing our own songs and talk about our lives and things that really matter…at least the two of us wouldn’t feel like we had to impress anyone…we could just be ourselves…maybe we could even have ice cream.

I like to just sit and watch people…it’s like for a moment their door blows open and they allow you to get a small glimpse of their world that vanishes just as quickly as it appeared…leaving your mind to explore the endless possibilities of who they are and where they must be going.  This morning my sister and I got up early to make a trip to the grocery store. She had to get a few things and I hadn’t had time to get fully dressed so I decided to wait in the car.  I sat there in the sunshine drinking my pumpkin coffee when I noticed an old man carrying six long stemmed red roses.  He wore a little blue cap and a blue checkered shirt. He looked like he hadn’t shaved his face in a couple days and he was walking towards his old green ford pickup with purpose.  I wondered who he was going to see…I wondered if he had a fight with his wife a few nights before and she had kicked him out, and this was the solution he had come up with to get her to let her guard down again and unlock the door…or maybe someone he loved had died and he bought them to put on their headstone….maybe it wasn’t anything sad at all…maybe the look on his face was simply because he had so many errands to run this morning and the roses were just to say I love you to someone waiting for him. Then I noticed a man pushing a shopping cart full of empty beer cans toward the store….apparently he had finished an absorbent amount of Miller’s Milwaukee Best and felt the need to return the bottles early this morning and possibly buy some more for the game later.  He was overweight and had trouble putting one foot in front of the other. I wondered if he drank cheap beer because he genuinely liked the taste or if he just couldn’t afford anything better.  I wondered if he drank them all himself or if he had shared them with friends, and if he had been drinking alone how long did it take him to go through all those cases.  He didn’t appear to be someone up for socializing so I imagined him sitting at home in an old recliner all alone just watching whatever randomly came on the television drinking his beer and eating  some form of micro waved dinner. I think everyone drinks for a reason whether it’s to drown out someone’s nagging or the nagging coming from inside of our own heads…sure there are times when we just enjoy the taste of a crisp cold Blue Moon or Sam Adams but anyone who buys more than two or three is craving something else.  I wondered what had happened to this man. Was he ever in love…did he have children…did they grow up and leave him…did he have an anger problem…had he lost his job…had he ever fought in the war…had his mother or father ever told him they were proud of him? Did anyone care about him? Why did I feel like he had spent a lot of time feeling bad about something…? I probably think too much. It’s just the look on people’s faces.  I think sometimes people aren’t aware that they are making a face at all.  Then I saw this woman…I assumed from her light pink scrubs that she was a nurse. She was pushing a cart full of groceries toward her car that was parked right next to ours.  She looked tired…frustrated…sad even.  She was in her mid forties…her hair was in a pony tail and you could see it was thinning in areas. She was wearing no wedding ring and upon further inspection of the groceries she was putting in her trunk…I realized she must have a lot of cats. My stomach turned.  This woman was one of my worst nightmares… I thought to myself…this could be me in twenty years.  I am twenty five and I have no desire to get married.  I have no desire to have children. I want to travel. I want to experience things that most people from my town will never experience in their lives.  I want to swim in the Mediterranean Sea…I want to watch children toss coins in the Trevi in Rome…I want to spend time in Crete where they say you can feel energy radiating from beneath your feet…I want to explore the Taj Mahal in India and just sit and marvel at the pyramids in Egypt…I want to feel the dessert sand between my toes…and know that for thousands of years the wind has been moving people through it. My biggest fear is that…I will never do any of it and that someday…I will end up like this woman…sad, angry, alone, and with a lot of cats while some young girl is watching me load cat food into my car and thinking how terrible my life must be.  I am in this struggle to get out of here…it’s like I’m desperately grasping at opportunities to leave, and when they finally arise for some reason…I always end up with an excuse to stay…I always find a way to hold myself back from something I want so badly…I think it’s because at the end of the day part of me is terrified…terrified that I will go do all of these wonderful…exciting things…and then have no one to come home to.  That the little house I want to buy on an island someday will be empty. I’m afraid that I will grow old and be alone with just my memories…that I will be forced to stare at the waves as the sun comes up with no one sitting next to me.  I don’t want to get married, but I do want some sort of companion to share life with…one that doesn’t have to worry about breaking commitments…one that doesn’t have to worry about whether or not they will say the wrong thing and I’ll end up locking them out at night…one that doesn’t have to worry about me nagging them until the only thing they can find to drown me out is another can of Milwaukee’s Best…one that is free to be wherever they want…and at the moment the place they want to be is sitting next to me at sunrise.  They will know that I am perfectly content just because on that particular morning I don’t have to watch the waves alone. I don’t understand why leaving becomes so difficult for me because I feel like it would be better than staying, and still ending up alone without any experiences never being able to understand what it meant to be free of this place. I think when we watch people we learn things about ourselves, and I think that deep down we are all the same we just make different choices. Watching people is almost like getting to see what your life would be like if you went down a different path.  I feel like in a way…it helps you to know the answer to all of the what if’s you day dream about…all we have to do is open our eyes and look at who is walking in our direction. I hope that someday I will get the courage to finally leave…but if I don’t and my life begins to resemble this middle aged cat woman…I will at least buy a mask and a black leather suit and go look for some trouble.

This morning I woke up to the most wonderful day. The sun was streaming in the windows…darting around my room and hitting my blinds in such a way that it caused the light to stripe my face like I was some tiger ready to explore another day in the jungle. Mornings are always better when you don’t have to wake up in bed alone. I glanced over and there was my sister all snuggled up next to me. She opened her eyes and with a big smile on her face said, “Oh good morning sister!” The two of us have been through a lot together over the years. I don’t know where I would be without her, and just a glimpse of her sleepy little smile can light up my day. I think we are given certain people to make our lives richer…to make us more aware of the way life moves through us, and to give us the courage to keep going when we need it the most. There were times when my sister and I would just lie on our parent’s couch hugging and crying because something new had impacted our lives in such a tragic way, and in those moments the only thing we had to hold on to was each other. Then there were the moments when we would dance and laugh until tears made our cheeks and lips glisten and sparkle. Feeling completely full of love and happiness despite anything the world had thrown at us that day. When we reach over and hold each other’s hand…I just know that everything is going to be ok…and that whatever is waiting for us…we’ll get through it together and that today is going to be a beautiful day.

I have this little, perfect moment floating through my mind. I was driving home from dinner and my head started having a conversation with my heart about all of the injustice that it had been subjected to over the years. This event just randomly occurs, and is usually followed by a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach…like no matter which exit I take…I always end up back on the same highway…going down the same road in the direction I’m trying to drive away from, and I already know what lies at the end of it…pain.  I turned the music up to try to drown out the conversation between the two of them but it wasn’t working. My head was rationalizing with my heart about why things like this happen…like if I stopped giving so much of myself…if I stopped putting people so far above me then at least they would stop mistaking me for a doormat they could wipe their feet on. No one likes feeling like a doormat. See….for most of my life I went around thinking that I had to do things to get people to care about me. I would buy them presents…dinners…puppies even…I would go out of my way just to get them to smile. I would do whatever they asked even if it meant causing myself more harm…even if I knew it would leave me empty.  I didn’t care. All I wanted was to hear that they liked being around me. I just wanted them to want to stay. It wasn’t until I ran out of things to give that I would realize they had disappeared.  My head had already convinced my heart to stop emptying my pockets long ago, and now it was finally starting to convince it to stop giving everything else as well…because who wants to be left with nothing…? Look at all I had done and what did I have left? What did I get for all of it…? Then it happened…BOOM…no…I didn’t get in an accident…over the top of the trees these giant…vibrant…fireworks started going off…each one got bigger and brighter…it was like they were going off just for me…my own personal show…in that moment…all of my troubles were forgotten…and my heart smiled and I said out loud… I get fireworks.

The rain is coming down heavy today…I love watching the rain…it reminds me of change…not the difficult part of it but the beautiful part…when the land embraces the torrents pounding against it seeping and sinking into its skin and going all the way down to its depths… everything becomes new… the scent in the air…the sounds of birds singing high in the trees…the feeling of life pulsing beneath your feet as you walk barefoot through the wet grass. If only we could learn to subsume change the way the soil does…if only we could take every dark cloud as a sign of new life about to burst forth from our being… Life pushes us … it stretches us…havoc is only a sign of the stirring we need to survive…to feel alive. If we go through life always holding an umbrella or some form of protection we will never really change and in a way the umbrella isn’t protecting us at all…we force ourselves to live meaningless…dry lives devoid of beauty…listless….withering more and more every day because we are afraid of being immersed in something unfamiliar and beyond our control. I think of all the times I’ve tried to resist the floods…the times I’ve boarded up every window every door in my life…dug trenches around my walls so the water couldn’t reach me…so I felt safe, but it didn’t make me happy. I was so guarded and hard and terrified that something would still reach me…someone would find a way to break through my barrier that my heart would forget how to live without, and that one day…whatever it was…whoever it was would be taken from me or just go away because I wasn’t good enough or did something wrong, and I would be left all alone without any sense of security or love…I would be left with nothing but rain pouring in the cracks and running down my face, but I’ve come to believe that life always has this funny way of working out when we just let go…after every storm the sun shines again and sometimes there are even rainbows. 

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