Mary and I have been friends for nearly 10 years. We met our junior year of high school, attended college together, and were roommates for a year and a half. She came up to visit last month, so naturally we went to Skyline Drive. It’s one of the most impressive parts of this state and I’m lucky to live so close to it. I especially love the foggy haze and flash storms that visit the mountains in summertime. It’s like exploring a primordial rain forest.
After I heard that my friend Gillian was flying to England to surprise her mom for her birthday, I decided it’d be perfect to surprise my sister by showing up for her college graduation in Jacksonville, Florida.
I’d been homesick for awhile anyway, and with a new job that provides generous personal leave, everything fell into place. I boarded a plane from Charlottesville last Friday morning and arrived in Jacksonville (after a bout of nausea, serious sinus pressure, and a nearly missed connecting flight) before 11 am, just in time to catch Jenny before extended family arrived. Even though my dad had explicitly mentioned my name in connection to weekend events the day before, Jenny didn’t suspect a thing. In fact, she called me while I was in the grocery store parking lot 5 minutes from the house to talk to me about post-graduation plans.
We enjoyed post-graduation hors d’oeuvres courtesy of our mother,
spent some time relaxing and shopping on Saturday,
and hung out with my Florida friends (and the kitten) on Sunday afternoon.
It was a wonderful, albeit brief, trip home. I’m so glad I survived my first time flying alone to see loved ones and enjoy the Florida weather. Congratulations, Jennifer!
One Saturday night a few weeks ago, Daniel and I were in the car on the way to a potluck dinner where several grad students would be present when he asked me:
“Why do you act embarrassed that you’re not in grad school?”
I replied, “Because I am embarrassed. And I’m embarrassed now that my embarrassment was so obvious that you picked up on it.”
Here’s my confession: I’ve been embarrassed that I’m not pursuing grad school since the semester before I received my undergraduate degree.
That was always the expectation, at first from only myself and later from everyone (at least as I perceived it): peers, family, professors, coworkers, friends. I heard them saying, implicitly or aloud:
Leah is the grad school type. Leah is smart and motivated and needs to use her academic talent to better the humanities. Leah is too good to leave academia. Leah’s job as a nanny/framer/barista is obviously temporary – we know she can do better.
But here I am, two years later, not in grad school. And I can’t help feeling like a disappointment to myself and everyone who invested in a dream that may have been more theirs than mine all along. And I have to learn to cope with that. To not be ashamed of myself just because I don’t have a title or prepared statement for that pervasive, incessant question: “What are you doing with your life?”
Do I have to know what I’m doing with my life? Does anyone ever stick to their early-20s response? And if they do, are they satisfied?
I need to work through my feelings of inadequacy. I need to see value in myself as a living human being trying to better myself and be good to others. I need to recognize that I am enough as long as I strive to make life meaningful – by the moment and the hour and the day.
I need others to grant me the space to breathe. I need others to have the self-respect to see themselves as more than their resumes or academic accolades so that they can see me in that light, too.
I’m trying to internalize the truth that I don’t have to – and probably shouldn’t – measure myself by someone else’s standards for success. I’m trying to overcome the pull of the myth that the highest form of human being is the employed scholar. I can be who I want to be, read what I want to read, and discuss in depth what I want to discuss without a piece of paper that tells others I’m an expert, that tells me I have the right to speak. And I can do other things too. And I have the right to respect myself for grand things like my entrepreneurial goals and lowly things like my ability to make a great cappuccino.
And I am not less for the decisions I’ve made or the place I’m in.
I attended college in North Florida, the southernmost point of the true south. As a Religious Studies major, I learned about my Christian faith and its heritage within a much wider scope than my evangelical upbringing had provided. I studied history, literature, ancient languages, and ethics. At some (I suppose, inevitable) point, I found that I possessed more academic knowledge than many pastors who had lead my congregations growing up, and that I was respected for my thoughts and given a voice within academia.
I attended a conservative Protestant denomination affiliated with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. They followed the Bible literally, which included not using instruments in the main service and not allowing women to take part, by speaking or leading, in the main service, or assembly. I ignored the obvious tension between my undergraduate expertise and the church’s interpretation of the Biblical text for nearly a year. But when women (and men) within the church began to discuss giving greater leadership privileges to women openly, I could no longer ignore their stance. When the elders ruled that it was best not to forsake tradition and stir up controversy just to let women pass the offering plate, the tectonic plates within my chest began to crunch together, grinding and sparking, forcing words and cries and change out of me. Something had cracked and I couldn’t stay silent.
That being said, I didn’t begin prophesying in the assembly or tearing my garments. I really liked the friends I’d made and the a Capella singing and the fun weekly hangouts. I tried to move past the pain, and the anger, by venting to those within the group who would willingly, and lovingly, provide a listening ear. One night, we invited several people over to our apartment to learn some new hymns. After the worship portion of the evening was done, we began to casually chat. Someone mentioned that “where two or three are gathered” there Christ is also. I remarked that our group, in effect, was an assembly. Yet women were speaking! A few female long-time attendees began to argue that women could speak, lead, and participate within this context, but not within the context of the larger, whole church assembly. I couldn’t face the contradiction, the injustice, the lack of critical thought. I blew up. I shouted that I couldn’t stand the denomination, began to weep, then ran to my room like a small child. Within the week, I had been formally chastised for my behavior on the grounds that it could discourage newcomers’ in their faith.
I couldn’t help thinking that my faith had been manipulated and shattered by the undercurrent of sexism labeled as Biblical adherence, and that no one cared. I mentally disconnected myself from the congregation after that talk. Although I worked to forgive those who believed they had spoken the truth in love, those who had meant me no harm, I could never go back with an open and full heart. Near the end of my attendance there, the worship leader sang the wrong part, and I recalled that there were formally trained female vocalists in the congregation who could have lead with both heart and knowledge. But they weren’t allowed. Implicitly – and there’s no satisfactory way to get around this – women were secondary to men. I got up and ran out of the building, down to a creek on the church property. I cried, and felt at peace, away from the church. I felt God. Away from the church.
I didn’t attend church again for almost a year. And my faith grew.
This is the first part of a series on faith and feminism.
We move in a week.
Daniel and I both feel a sort of stagnant anxiety. The move is inevitable. It is approaching quickly. We have a lot to do.
I’ve lived in Florida for almost 14 years – that’s most of my life. I never didn’t like it, but I’ve grown to love it – particularly its nature – passionately, especially within the past few years. There is so much beauty here. A hummingbird just came to our porch! A baby manatee was less than 5 feet away from me at Wakulla Springs yesterday. I used to see otters play in the lake by our house. Tallahassee is full of quiet canopy roads and hidden parks. The Florida Caverns are some of the most ornate caves in the United States. Torreya State Park boasts a view that makes you feel like you’re in the foothills of a mountain range.
I have always felt most at peace when I look out to appreciate natural beauty. I know Charlottesville has it, too, and it will probably overwhelm me. The beauty of Tallahassee and of Florida in general have served as a daily reminder that I am blessed, that the world holds wonder still.
Tallahassee has changed me more than any other location, mostly because it held my growing-up years. I was just reflecting with a friend that when you go off to college you don’t realize, at least not on an emotional level, that you will never return to home life as it was. Tallahassee became more than just the place I attended college, it became my home. I’ve lived here 5 years. Within that time, I lived alone for the first time, navigated classes and roads, led student organizations, lost and made friends, lost faith and gained it, had my first kiss, cried deeply, laughed heartily, got married, rented an apartment, graduated, saw my friends fall in love, worked odd jobs, learned custom framing, and experienced the heaviness of post-grad life. I was challenged. I failed and succeeded. I learned compassion and forgiveness and pain. These have been hard years and wonderful years.
A quiet excitement is beginning to surface. I never intended to spend my whole life here. If I’m going to move, I’m glad it’s Charlottesville, a place consistently rated as one of the best places to live in the United States. I’m happy to live near the Blue Ridge mountains. I’m happy that Daniel and I get to go together. I’m happy for another starting-over point – a time for reinvention and introspection and speculation about things to come.
I think we need to be woken up by landmark life changes. I needed to know that the move was coming to realize how much I have, and how much I’ll miss. In the past few months, I have finally gotten around to re-visiting people and places I love, to exploring places I hadn’t yet worked up the energy to visit. I’m grateful for the deadline that tells me I only have a few more moments to squeeze out what Florida has to offer.
I’m happy that amid the chaos of packing and uncertainty and early 20s crisis, I can find so many things to be happy about.