Today is unplanned. Easy. Hot. I feel like I’m 15 again, lying in the sun in Otter Creek, reading about Jesus with only the sound of cars climbing Quail Run Drive or the occasional lazy woof of the neighbor’s dog punctuating my read and reread sentences.
Did I daydream what my life will look like in 10, 20 years? Would I still be living in Arkansas? Would my husband play bass in a band? Would I be a figure skating coach or a literary scholar? Would my father come back to Mom?
If that girl could see me now, healthy in a hammock in California, reading a memoir about a famous female photographer, under the shadow of a wide-brimmed straw hat, would she approve?
Surely, she would wonder about my eye—the CD that struck it, changing my face, my life at 17; my husband—the one who had Jesus tattoos and played bass in a band, whom I married at 20 and divorced at 27; my God.
God. The word itself has the muffled density of a gold bar wrapped in velvet.
God, that far-away feeling, a piano reverberating through the hallways of an empty, country church.
She’d see the Christian God of my youth—the one I used to write letters to while sunbathing in a bikini on our roof, as if trying to actually reach him; the one I prayed and sang to while driving my blue 1990 Honda Accord to and from school; the one I spoke about in living room prayer groups, church sanctuaries, concert stages—standing on the other side of a river.
His feet submerged. The hem of his robe wet with the effort of his love to draw me back.
(I see him still. When the sun sets over the card-shuffled waters in Montana de Oro, his silhouette haunts me. When another love story ends or my mother is wrapped in post-surgery bandages, I see a cross lit with Christmas lights on the top of Cerro San Luis, and a crevasse opens in my chest. These 20 years, his energy remains close enough to feel, and just beyond my reach.)
She would see my own feet, ankle-deep in mud. The purple-blue-black ixthus forever-stamped and faded. She’d see me unable to step back, and afraid—no, guilty—to step forward.
I left Jesus.
I say it the way one speaks of an ex: “I finally left him.” And it sort of feels that way. But not exactly. I didn’t want to leave Christ. I needed to break away from the 21st Century, Contemporary Southern American, socio-cultural trappings of JEE-SUS.
No to Christianese and Sunday buffets.
No to the youth minister who sexually violated me.
No to the pastor who did creative accounting with our tithe money while giving us marriage counseling.
No to Homophobia.
No to keeping women small, quiet in their domestic place.
No to narrow interpretations. No to culturally acceptable racism. No to Shame and Fear—the body a cumbersome sin tent. No to highway billboards screaming in blocky, bold font: Repent.
Hell is Hotter than Arkansas in July.
I felt there was something more than this. I wanted to start saying yes; it just had to be to something else.
But Jesus was my first love. He showed me beauty when, during Vacation Bible School, I hid from kids in the empty baptismal and sunlight reached through tall windows to bathe my skin with his holy whispers of acceptance. He put his arms around me when I bowed in a fetal position on my bedroom floor the summer I limboed between keeping a dying eye and losing it. He always had my back when friends hurt me, the boy lost interest or Dad just stopped wanting to know me after he moved out. Not a class ring, but better—I wore his sign on my skin. How could I say, thank you, and now I’m ready to move on?
Jesus was as a lover I outgrew but still longed for—his familiar pine needle and cut-grass smell, the timely encouraging words, how I’d catch him looking at me with so much adoration while I washed the dishes.
I cried for what I left behind in the tissue-thin, purple-pen annotated Bible pages. I cried for what I thought I forfeited: the entire family filling a pew; the social acceptance of 60 Christmas cards of families remembering the real “reason for the season” ringing the fridge with frozen smiles; mostly, the scripted template for living.
Many people frame themselves within these predetermined guideposts. Not just Christians. I understand why. Life is not easy.
But something drew me into the river. I swallowed hard when I stepped into that free-flowing possibility, seemingly nebulous morality and foreign enchantments. And when I did, I took myself out of the frame, leaving a Leslie-sized empty space in my family portrait.
Would she see, as I now see, the gift of that step? How those waters were a new baptism into self-discovery and the potential to see life in its ambiguity and grace—to see love, to feel love, to be love in its myriad songs and shapes.
I hope so.
Author: Leslie St. John
Editor: Toby Israel
Images: Author’s Own // Milada Vigerova/Unsplash