My Fear of Speaking Up, Being Different, Being Myself
You know how sometimes you have a memory from your past that just doesn’t make sense to you, and it will keep popping up from time to time into your consciousness? It’s like the memory is holding a little flag that says, “Don’t forget about me! There is a mystery here you don’t understand! You have to figure me out to make sense of the Universe!”
I was lying in bed last night and one of those kept coming up. It was sixth grade, and I was in the girls’ locker room (a mortifying place to be — have they done away with the forced nakedness thing yet?).
In the memory, the gym teacher is storming out of her office at me and with a mix of incredulity, horror, and contempt, loudly asking me if I really believed in evolution.
Apparently some other student had told her this. Which was baffling already, because it didn’t seem like something to gossip about. I mean, I believe in gravity too, but is it really newsworthy?
She proceeded to yell loudly at me that if evolution was true, then cats and dogs would be able to mate. (Uh, huh?)
There was a lot of anger behind it. But the part that really doesn’t make sense to me is how shocked she seemed to be. My bafflement is threefold:
- Am I really the first person you ever met who believes in evolution? (This was around 1991.)
- Where did you get the idea that this is how evolution works?
- Why are you yelling at me, a mortified 11 year old obviously trying to be invisible in a girls locker room?
This was not the first or last time I was attacked and/or ostracized for not being Christian. I’m sure there were others, but here are a few I remember:
- Third grade: I was informed by a group of kids that because I didn’t believe in God, that meant I worshipped Satan. Apparently those were the only two options, and they wouldn’t hear otherwise.
- Fifth grade: At lunch, in the cafeteria, I was trying to defend my right to my beliefs while a whole group of students told me I was wrong and stupid. Then someone got the teacher, who I thought would say something like, “Everyone is entitle to believe what they believe and stop telling her she she is wrong”, but instead told me that I was wrong, and I should stop causing a problem and bothering everyone.
- Seventh grade: I was informed by the first boy I ever had a crush on that he couldn’t talk to me again, ever, because he had found out that I didn’t believe in God. (I think he also said something about witches and Satan but I can’t quite remember.)
I grew up in Myrtle Creek, which is about 10 miles south of Roseburg. I only recently gained a more zoomed-out perspective on just how conservative it is down there, when Roseburg became highlighted in the news after the UCC shootings.
Growing up, this was just my reality.
Religion was only one of the ways I was different. There was also environmentalism, and politics in general. These were the days of, “The only good spotted owl is a dead spotted owl”. Meanwhile I would pass clearcut after clearcut riding the bus to school and back every day. They’re not pretty. They made me sad. But, I didn’t tell anyone that.
I remember being about 9 or so, and I was at a friend’s house. They had a confederate flag. I said something about it–I don’t remember what, but I’m sure it wasn’t complementary. On the way home, her mom informed me that I was, “too big for my britches”. (I’m still not quite sure what that means.)
Being raised by my hippie, radically-progressive, atheist Dad was just not working for me in this town.
And then there was trying to figure out my (bi) sexuality, and being terrified that someone might conclude something about how I was behaving around the other naked girls in the locker room. Was I looking too much? Was I acting too nervous? How can I look without looking like I’m looking? Are any of these girls looking without trying to look too?
I don’t know how people would have reacted if I had came out as bisexual, because there is no way on Earth I would have risked that.
I’ve been mulling over all these incidents because I’ve been examining why I’m so terrified to be different. And specifically, why this blog, where I talk about things that touch on politics sometimes, like being a prison wife or thinking about privilege, or that put me way outside of the mainstream, like being kinky, leaves me feeling incredibly vulnerable.
I am beginning to admit to myself that I was actually terrorized for being different. I didn’t just “not fit in”. I was attacked by adults, the people I was supposed to turn to and trust.
Being myself just wasn’t safe. Period.
Twenty years later, I find it hard to write consistently about what I really believe or experience or feel.
I write, and then I stall. I feel over-exposed. This blog feels like an invitation to be attacked. I have the vague thought over and over that I should just stick to “safe” topics, like personal growth and business. Sex, politics, and religion? Inmates are people too? What’s wrong with me?
But I don’t want to stick to safe topics. In my heart, this is who I am. The things I think and believe aren’t mainstream. And I think they are important to say, even more so because they are said so little.
If I am going to be authentic, I have to write about them.
To let go of my fear, I have to accept that there is no way I could have been safe in that town, in that school, being who I am and being raised how I was raised. It just wasn’t in the cards.
Even if I had managed to somehow “keep my mouth shut”, that would have hurt me too. The need to say what is true for me has always been a part of me. I couldn’t prevent what happened to me, and trying to be silent now won’t undo the pain of what I went through. It will only keep it alive.
One more story. The hardest one, for me.
I was raised to take spiders and other insects outside the house if I found them.
Other kids apparently were raised to squish them.
I think this was third grade. I was on the playground and there was a moth on a pole. A group of kids were getting ready to kill it, and I put my hand over it to stop them. I said, listen, it’s not going to hurt you. You don’t have to do this. I’ll take it somewhere else.
The boy in charge of the group informed me that if I didn’t move my hand, he’d just squish my hand on top of the bug.
I couldn’t see any way to win, and so I watched, helpless, as they killed it.
I went home that day baffled and heartbroken. Not only did they not value this fragile little life, and seem to delight in squashing it, they wouldn’t even allow me to value it or take care of it. What sense did that make? And how could I ever belong on this planet, if this was the human race I was supposed to belong to?
When I grew up and left that tiny town, I searched and searched to find people who I felt some affinity with–people who value sensitivity and compassion and nonviolence. And I found them, and I’m grateful for that. But I have always struggled to feel safe among the rest of humanity. And that includes struggling to write when anybody on the internet could potentially read it. I just don’t feel safe.
But I don’t want to stop there. I want to write the next chapter of this story.
I want to be seen and known, as every writer does. I want to write what is true for me. So I declare that somehow, I will find a way through this fear. And the first step is acknowledging it. Yes, I’m terrified. Yes, I cried writing this post, as I often do. Yes, I’m sensitive, to a lot of things that don’t bother other people. Yes, I struggle to feel safe writing for the public. But I want to write anyway. My fear is understandable, but it’s not insurmountable.
I don’t know how to bridge all the gaps in understanding between people like me, and the kind of people who protested Obama when he came to Roseburg to comfort the families of the students who were killed. But I want to try. I don’t want to write only to people who already see what I see. I want to reach out with my words and create some new form of understanding that wasn’t there before. I want to contribute to the evolution of our species by sharing what I see with people who can’t yet see it. And as hard as it is to belong to a species that has done the things we’ve done and continue to do, I want to belong. I want to be a part of the great human project of understanding what it is to be alive. I want to help.
I’m old enough now to know that I can’t save the world by myself, and it’s really not my job. It’s a job that belongs to all of us. But if there is anything that is my job, it’s to be who I am. And who I am is a writer. A writer who is sensitive, different, thoughtful, and really interested in being real.
As a child, the world seemed overwhelmingly bleak to me, and I felt alone with this awareness of how things could be different. Now I know I am not alone, and while I may not always be able to feel safe, I choose to be myself anyway. Not because I’m somehow obligated to because the world would be a better place…but simply because I’d rather be honestly afraid than safe and pretending to be someone other than who I am.
I want to be a role model for that little girl inside me that is still afraid and alone.
I want to create as much space as possible for us all to be ourselves. I want to put more seats at the table for the voices of the different, the weird, the strange, the radical, the under-privileged, the oppressed, the voiceless. I can’t do that if I refuse to step out of the shadows myself.
So, here I am, fear and all. 🙂