I’m sitting in a pew, attending mass at the church I attended growing up.
It’s been 7 years since I went to a service here, on another visit to my hometown, but surprisingly little has changed since then.
Actually, surprisingly little has changed from 30 years ago, when I was a small child doing my best to remain quiet and tolerate the unending boredom, lest I be carried out by my parents and punished.
The light fixtures are the same. The murals depicting scenes from the crucifixion of Jesus and the resurrection are familiar.
One thing is different of course: My mother treats me like a peer. She nudges me and whispers secrets about fellow parishioners as they wander into our field of vision. She updates me on what my high school classmates have been up to, many of them with their own families in tow.
Mom is a prime source of local gossip. These days she’s hooked into church leadership, part of a fundraising group that organizes raffles and charity dinners to help keep the place open.
And there’s another change: Mom informs me that she tithes online now. Tells me not to worry about kicking money in when the baskets come out. Huh. Wasn’t expecting that in a rural church. One that’s otherwise pretty low tech and seemingly suspicious of change.
Mom says it’s easier for the church to process those payments. Makes it so they don’t have to run to the bank. And that it means she can still donate when she and Dad are out of the area.
The Sinner at the Pulpit
Mass begins. The first lector is a familiar, though unexpected, face. My former Sunday school teacher (who also had a primo administrative job at my school district).
He is the same person who used to punish me at Sunday school (which confusingly actually took place on Saturdays, causing me to miss a lot of cartoons growing up). I can still remember being banished to the rectory for asking too many questions about reincarnation — because they were “disruptive.”
Of course the situation only worsened when I discovered the priest’s vestments in an unlocked closet. I felt like Liberace putting them on, or at least attempting to. I was a small child, and they were clothes for a grown man.
The punishment at home after I was discovered had been awful. Hardly worth the brief moment of joy, stroking the shiny brocade.
Anyway, this Sunday school teacher and I have quite a history. And not just when it comes to Catholic youth education.
We’d cross paths later after his wife of many years left him for a younger, pony-tailed art instructor (local gossip had them skinny-dipping in a friends’ pool where everyone could see them).
I was working at Borders bookstore in Bangor, Maine, when I saw him. At the time Borders was hands down the largest bookstore for many, many miles. And we had something else going for us that customers knew: We had a really great porn selection. Videos, magazines, literary erotica, etc.
Anyway, one day my former Sunday school teacher came up to me at the counter when I was the cashier, and his hands were full of dainty black erotica paperbacks. I was professional of course, treated him with respect. But it didn’t escape my notice that the man who had lectured me about sin and straying from the path was buying a load of books that all centered on golden showers.
Nothing that really bothered me — but a sharp departure from everything he’d barked at me when I was a child.
And now here he is, all of these years later, still at the same church. Still serving in leadership. The man who had told our priest when I was a teenager and striving to be part of Catholic youth leadership that I was unsuitable for that role… failing by his own purity tests.
Perhaps he’s confessed. Made things right with him and the guy upstairs. I don’t know. I don’t know how he explains it to himself, how he’s comfortable casting stones. And I know that’s between him and God.
But he always assumed to know what was going on in my heart when the roles were reversed.
Moving Away Made Me Anonymous for the First Time I Could Remember
If nothing else, his unlikely emergence spices up the mass. I am flooded with memories of him and other adults in our community who judged me for what were at the time really little things — mostly for asking the “wrong questions.”
I begin to realize that it’s entirely possible that every person who judged me has their own hypocritical backstory. That they, too, are a mess of contradictions.
It was a big relief to move away from the small town in Maine where I grew up to major cities, first to Ohio and more recently to Texas. One of the most striking improvements was that I was anonymous for the first time in my life.
Growing up in a small town (and particularly in a family that was well known and regarded in our community), I had a reputation to maintain even as a small child — and expectations placed on me and my behavior. What I did wasn’t just about me; it was about my family. And they had a way they wanted to be seen by others, one that I continually seemed to deviate from, just by being me. I was funny but embarrassing. Smart but too curious. Too outgoing, too bold.
In the big city, I could do what I wanted, and the only person it really affected was me.
It was amazing. Not continually being confronted by people’s preconceived notions of me, based on my family and whatever rumors they’d heard about me.
I had a fresh start.
And for the first time, I began to understand who I was, without my trauma, without my family name.
It Used to Bother Me That People Confused Their Idea of Me With Who I Really Was
Looking back at my old journals from the last five years I lived in Maine, I can see a persistent theme. I write over and over again about how other people seem to own pieces of me that I don’t remember giving them.
That they’ve carved off their idea of me and don’t have room for the real me.
It gave me huge anxiety then that I couldn’t control the way other people saw me.
I can remember feeling like that. And feeling tortured by it.
I’ve Accepted That You Don’t Get to Control How Other People See You
It’s funny… because in some ways, not a lot has changed. I still can’t control the way other people see me. That’s been a definite feature particularly of writing online for a large audience the past few years. Lots of people only read headlines, or they’ll skim a piece in a lopsided way and miss the main thrust of it.
Or they’ll actually read it but project some situation and context that they’re struggling with onto it and mentally discard a lot of what the piece says.
Maybe they’ll take needless offense to something that really doesn’t apply to them.
Or maybe they’ll use something I wrote as a weapon in order to bully someone in their life.
I honestly don’t get a choice how people apply my words. Once it’s out there, I can’t control where my writing goes. But that’s not just me; that’s every writer whose work gets read by enough people for shenanigans to happen (and it takes fewer readers for that to happen than you might think).
So in a certain light, little has changed.
And yet… everything has changed. Because it’s no longer a painful neurosis. I’ve made peace with it. I’ve accepted that for better or worse, you don’t get to control how other people see you.
Mostly these days I focus on whether I have what I need in my life. For me, it’s not a lot. I want a safe place to live, food to eat, a few people in my life I can really talk to, books, a way to write. Everything else is extra.
I don’t need to have the approval of people like my Sunday school teacher who are probably secretly failing by their own life metrics anyway, the ones they keep trying to clumsily force on others.
It’s quite freeing actually.