14 November 2021

As you're told

For a year in college, I stipulated that you could ask me to do a dance, at any time, and I would do that dance

After my disappointing race finish in Chester, I immediately signed up for another marathon, this one outside of Manchester in December. The quick turnaround replaced the sense of failure with a sense of possibility, but it's meant getting up earlier and earlier every weekend to make all the commitments of the training schedule. Running coaches will tell you that it's normal to miss runs, that there is no one that can do a training schedule perfectly, but that sounds defeatist to a person like me who was raised religiously and learned somewhere along the way that if you don't perfectly complete something, then you've failed. I'm sure this isn't a healthy approach to running, or indeed, anything else in life, but it has motivated me to get up and out of the house much earlier than I would otherwise, and get through that first half-mile of a twenty-two-mile run, starting several hours before anyone else in the house will wake up and into the dark that won't become light until you've forgotten that you are running in the dark.

This obedience to the plan, to doing what I'm told, is who I am. Next year I will be forty and there is something that happens at this point in your life, where you give up on the dream of becoming a real rebel, someone who genuinely fights the system, and accept what you've actually become: someone who just tweets snarky things and is full of self-pity. For all my aspirations to true rebellion, it's always been the same for me, a mixed desire to both follow the rules and rebel, to be able to get away from whatever was expected of me, but in a way that did not bring the crushing guilt of having sinned and needing repentance. In jr high school, this meant taking on all sorts of eccentricities often related to gender norms, wearing Hawaiian shirts exclusively, then cross-stitching, then listening to classical music. These were all acceptable hobbies in the confines of my homeschooled, conservative world, but also slightly weird. Still, no one in the late nineties either in the church or in my family could put their finger on what the problem was: what could you say about the Hawaiian shirts that wouldn't require saying something you didn't want to say. I wore a pink Beloit Girls Softball shirt that said COACH on the back. It's okay, I would say, pointing to the back, I'm the COACH

For someone so good at following the rules, I was also a master of finding the weak point in a conservative obedience ideology, doing a thing that, if someone in authority were to confront that thing, they would have to say something that would expose how weak their logic was. I remember my mother once accidentally opening the door of my room as my friend and I were shouting along to some Christian hardcore music which objectively sounded angry and demonic, but had a clear and consistent Christian message. 'You're shouting, "When I die,"' my mother said, 'It's disconcerting.' I'm shouting, 'When I die/ I live' was my retort, which was an unimpeachable theological position. You couldn't argue with it.

Around this same time, I was also a student leader in my church youth group, a position that was well-suited for my obedience and eccentricities, in that I could both generate excitement and toe the line. You could sense the discomfort with some of the adult leaders at times, always on the edge of saying something but never being able to quite articulate it. I'm sure everyone knew I was baiting them, particularly those that worked with teenagers regularly — I was taunting them to draw a line they couldn't defend and then I could point out their hypocrisy because they had clearly not thought about what they were saying and I had. It was my whole aesthetic, I had a complete worldview wrapped around it, and I knew, in the end, it would come down to someone saying to me, You have to do it just because I say so and once that happened, once I could get someone in that situation, I would have won. I would have proved the point. 

One weekend during my senior year of high school, the youth group had planned to go bowling, and I, as one of the more responsible leaders, was chosen to drive a group of younger students from church to the bowling alley. On the way, we got in our heads that it would be funny to put someone in the trunk of the car, and so at the next stoplight, I shut the car off, opened the trunk, and Amos jumped in, and we drove off. We arrived at the bowling alley, and Amos popped out, and we all had a good laugh, with the exception of one of the adult parents who had been driving behind, and who pulled me aside to let me have it for being so irresponsible, for doing something so dangerous and stupid, particularly after the trust had been placed in me.

I spent the week feeling terrible about it, completely devastated that I had let Mrs Bergin down, that I'd done something so clearly over the line, not thinking about the worst outcomes, if we had been rear-ended, or in another accident. I wrote her a letter that I gave her in church the next week, explaining why I'd done what I'd done, and apologising profusely, begging for her forgiveness, all I wanted was her trust back. When I graduated, she gave me the letter back, and that was that — she died some years later, well before she should have, and I felt for many years that letting her down had been one of my biggest failures, that all I wanted was for her to have said I'd made the amends I needed to, that she had completely forgiven me, and I hadn't let her down. 

Now, I'm almost forty. I should be over this teenage rebellion, seeing as I have teenagers of my own. One daughter had a climate event this week, related to the COP26 summit, and was encouraged to wear natural colours, and I said, there is no such thing as an unnatural colour, wear anything you like. She pushed back, they were meant to wear greens and browns, something natural. Every colour is natural, it's a meaningless thing to ask, I said, and I was eventually excluded from the conversation because I wasn't helping. But I'm right, I said, after it was done and I insisted on showing them a picture of a rainbow and demanding they tell me the rainbow wasn't natural — I know what they mean, I'm not an idiot, wear something brown or green or whatever. But I'm right.