Saturday, March 15, 2014

aching to know what it's like

When she got up to read her essay, I missed her last name because I was admiring her haircut. There was something funky and familiar about it, the kind of short, choppy cut I'd get if I knew I could pull it off. Her haircut, her style, the way she carried herself like she knew she could hold the attention of an audience of one or one hundred - it was all familiar to me, but in an aching, desperate way. She reminds me of Janelle, I thought. I looked down to read her last name. Yoder.

I bet she's Mennonite. A few minutes later, as she introduced her essay, she explained that she'd been raised in a conservative Mennonite home in Ohio. Bingo, I thought.


In my best friend's wedding, I was the maid of honor and Janelle was a bridesmaid. I had grown up with Heather, had known her since before either of us could read, back when you pick your friends from the small pool of people who you can find by running out your back door over the summer. Years later, Heather graduated from a high school a year before me and left for Baltimore and then Kenya with a Mennonite missions program for young people. There she met Janelle, her teammate, a friend whom Heather had to leave home to find but then did everything new and exciting with: slept in the same dormitory-type room and talked about their first real loves and lived in a hut in Kenya. I heard about Janelle, and then met her and immediately knew why Heather liked her. She was fun and spunky and unafraid of being different. Set next to my preference to blend into a crowd, I'm surprised Heather even remembered me. And I'm sure that's what I was afraid of: being forgotten. In terms of friendship with Heather, I had more than ten years on Janelle, but growing up and leaving home seemed like a it came with a whole different set of rules.

This is what came rushing back when I saw this writer stand to read her essay. This and knowing that I envied Janelle and this woman not only their spunk, but their belonging. Though I also identified as having grown up Mennonite, I was not really Mennonite. And for some reason, I realized, I'd always felt left out because of it.

Being Mennonite, I like to explain to people, is like being Jewish: it's both a religion and a culture. So while my parents chose to be part of a Mennonite church when I was very young, they don't come from Mennonite heritage. Which means that of all the extended families of grandparents and grandchildren and cousins (growing up, it seemed like my mom was always surprising me with news of who was really related to whom at church - Amy and the Wismer boys are second cousins? I never knew!), my family just stood by itself on the periphery. A little lonely bush next to the family tree that was church. To make matters worse, my dad stopped coming with us to church when I was in early elementary school. Single-parent families in Mennonite churches weren't too common, especially one created from a father who'd rather stay home on a Sunday morning.

I guess it might sound a little strange to say that I felt strange to NOT be Mennonite, but understand that in Southeastern Pennsylvania, little brick Mennonite churches abound. Mennonites were (are) everywhere. The Rices, Yoders, Myers or Meyers or Moyers, Detweilers and Friesens, they were all Mennonite. I went to a Mennonite summer camp and to retreats and volleyball tournaments that gathered Mennonite youth groups and I even went to a Friday night social type event at a Mennonite church during high school sometimes. I should probably also clarify that while yes, there were some aspects of this upbringing that sheltered me, I didn't grow up in a plain Mennonite tradition where women where coverings on their heads and certain social activities or clothing are restricted. My life was pretty normal, as were my Mennonite friends. Normal except that they seemed to flourish from the richness of their Mennonite heritage. My flourishing seemed to lag, with my family's questionable church attendance and mixed background. (I guess here I should add that I do have a little true Mennonite in me - my Mom's mom's mom was a Moyer, a Mennonite. Unfortunately, she did some things that a Mennonite woman shouldn't do. She wasn't banished or anything but, well, the fact of her Mennonite-ness seems like it kinda gets cancelled out or something.)

I can guess how Janelle and this writer and other young women who grew up belonging would respond to me - they would say that while I was trying to belong, they were trying to escape. Belonging has its calloused underside, rough and bumpy from rubbing against what threatens to steal your identity. I think that is the reason for the funky hair cuts, the mysterious glimmer in their eyes, the decision to devote themselves to vocations that emphasized beauty, creativity, uniqueness.

I listened to the writer read her essay, the story recounting her own attempt at a certain kind of belonging. It left me aching to know what it's like.

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