Sunday, November 6, 2005

Babe on the Beach

No, that's not my child.  That's my new nephew, Patrick Ryan Denlinger.  I'm at the Santa Monica Pier.

Several weeks ago, I got a call from my brother Richard.  He and his wife Tina were in Pomina, CA, having just picked up their newly adopted child.  The mother is "a 22-year-old English major who's living with a 37-year-old man."  

My brother asked me if I cared to come see the baby and visit with them.

I did.  I really enjoyed myself.  I took photos of the baby.  Then more photos.

During the next two weeks, while waiting for the red tape to clear, Richard, Tina, and Patrick spent a lot of time with me.  It was nice to have them here.  They seemed surprised that I would spend so much time with them. 

It was even nicer once Tina's parents flew out to join them, bringing niece Katrina and nephew Caleb from North Canton, Ohio.

Richard was the first member of my family to visit me. 

I've been living in Los Angeles since August 2001.

                         *     *     *

While my brother's family was here, and immediately after they left, I created a music video.  I'm still placing the last photos.

In the video, I contrast the photos of the child and family with photos from my past:  childhood, adolescence, and departure. 

My nephew and niece are quite photogenic.  And Tori Amos's lyrical song "Winter" captures my emotions perfectly.

Richard and Tina were so taken by the video that they've asked for a copy, once I complete it.  They offered to pay for it. 

So I'm sending a disc of the video back to them.  They said they plan to send it to the family as a Christmas present.

                         *     *     *

Shortly after my brother's family left for home, I received a friendly letter from my brother-in-law.  The most conservative one in my family. 

He was pleased to hear about the time I'd spent with my brother and his family.  He was concerned about my soul.

I guess he just couldn't restrain himself. 

Thanks, bro.

Should I have written him back to tell him that I completely disagree with his world view? 

One in which women are encouraged to submit to their husbands in daily life as they do to God?

One that has more in common with the Muslim Taliban than it does with American democracy? 

As a teacher, I promote independence, self-realization, and risk-taking in young women.  This man's faith promotes dependence, repression of self, and actions based on fear.

Is it any wonder that his letter infuriated me?

                         *     *     *

I don't like to talk much about my departure from the world of my childhood.

It comes up occasionally when someone here in Los Angeles hears that I "grew up Amish." 

Actually, I was raised Conservative Mennonite.

The sound of the word Amish immediately evokes a world that includes a simple lifestyle, happiness, and tranquility -- not necessarily in that order.

That may be what an Amish person experiences.  They have a documented escape valve called rumspringa.

My reality was anything but simple.

Trust me, there's nothing nostalgic about the experience of the Conservative Mennonite world.

Nor is the exit from that world much fun.  The intense psychological pressure to stay -- from friends, family, and other members of the faith -- is well-nigh unbearable.

Especially if you're a woman, as my cousin is. 

Especially if you're told that the only way you can be truly certain of eternal salvation is by remaining within the world of your childhood.

Never mind the panic attacks.  The guilt.  The fear.  

The only thing I really knew was that something was wrong with a world that discourages education.

                         *     *     *

I don't like to talk much about my family, but tonight I'm going to.

It needs to be said.

"Your family fought you every step of the way," remarked one of my friends who saw me leave my childhood community of faith.

They did.  Kindly.  Sweetly.  Bluntly.

My family is convinced I'm no longer a Christian believer.  They're wrong, but I've given up trying to correct them.

People will believe what they want to.

I couldn't stay.  There were too many questions.  

I knew the Story I'd been taught since childhood was wrong.

And so I left.

                         *     *     *

The real discovery was talking to children of fundamentalist Muslims.  Reading books written by the children of Hasidic Jews.  Looking at art created by the children of radical evangelicals.


We all had the same experience.

The perspective is the same.

Every fundamentalist movement -- whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim -- obsesses over the same issues:  the place of women in society, and the control of sexual behavior.

Why is that?

                         *     *     *

I don't like to talk much about my faith because it's essentially a private thing.  I know intimately the psychological pressure of evangelicalism. 

Nothing coming from George Bush and his cronies surprises me -- it's just the intolerance of my childhood writ large.

When someone told me recently that God sent Hurricane Katrina as a punishment to Mayor Nagin for tolerating gay pride parades, I wanted to throw up.

That's not my God.

I guess said person got the idea from some evangelical magazine.

Perhaps said person's God should sharpen His aim. 

If the US Military can send a smart bomb into Saddam's basement, surely the Lord of All Intolerance could kill fewer innocent people when he goes after an enemy as thoroughly mediocre as Nagin.

                         *     *     *

One of my cousins just wrote me -- a young woman who is brilliant, talented, and uncertain about where she fits into the universe.  At the age of 18, she's left her childhood home to join the real world.

I applaud her bravery and determination.  I wish I had left in my teens.  It would have made my present life so much simpler.

There.  I've said it.

                         *     *     *

Hair is grey and the fires are burning,
So many dreams on the shelf.
You say I wanted you to be proud of me,
I always wanted that myself.

When you gonna make up your mind?
When you gonna love you as much as I do?
When you gonna make up your mind?
Cause things are gonna change so fast,
All the white horses have gone ahead,
I tell you that I'll always want you near,
You say that things change, my dear.

                                     ~from "Winter" by Tori Amos


sistercdr said...

Writing about my spiritual beliefs and life was very hard when I first started, but then the dam broke, and I couldn't stop.  My move away from fundamentalism to a more liberal understanding of the Bible was a huge move for me, and I can only imagine the transition from conservative Mennonite. I've been accused more times than I care to count of not being a real Christian, but that comes with the territory.  Your view on the commonalities of fundamentalism is very accurate, and that's because a woman who's not controlled by anything other than her own Spirit and that of her Deity is a scary, powerful thing.  Teaching girls, haven't you felt the surge of transforming energy when they're totally into something? I didn't mean to turn this into a rant, but the fear of women and the fear of sexuality (which fundamentalists place squarely on women's beautiful shoulders) has come to me to be a sign of a weak spot in faith.  Yeah, we women are potent, heady stuff, but God/dess is greater.  Sorry about the length of this rant, you just got me thinking.

cloudlessangel13 said...

I am glad that you are able to talk about your past like that.  I remember the difficulty I had when I first attempted to confront mine, granted I have not had quite the life that you have had, but there are still things in my past I would rather bury and not talk about.  It is a difficult task to do, especially in a forum such as this, but your ability to do so is inspiring.  You had mentioned to me very vaguely brief bits about your upbringing, but I did not understand how difficult it must have been for you to leave the culture you were raised in, that takes true courage.  Also, I am glad that there is a new addition to your family, there is nothing better than having a family that truly cares about you, and ther more of them, the better.

vxv123 said...

The baby is quite beautiful, Steven.  That's a lovely picture of the two of you.  YOu look very loving as you cuddle that little cutie with the scrunched up face.

This entry is very movingly written, Steven.  You have come so far and understand so much, yet it is obvious the hurt is still there, as it probably will remain in some form or other.  I hope it fades over time, and aches only occasionally, like an old war wound.  I am glad for you that you have this warm relationship with your nephews and niece, and that you are creating a tribute to it in pictures and music.  It is a wonderful gift to offer your family.  And that your brother and sister-in-law are offering to pay for it surely shows their acceptance of you for who you are now.  That is precious.

I am thinking of you and your father.  May it go well on Tuesday, and may you feel at peace with him and the rest of your family.

Warmly, Vicky

stevendenlinger said...

Thank you, Kelley and Vicky.  It's good to know that people really do understand.  Incidentally, I went to sleep last night and slept with glorious abandon.  I think I needed to share this.  It doesn't make everyone happy, but my keeping my mouth shut didn't make anyone happy either.


paulajlambert said...

Wonderful entry, Steven. Thanks for sharing. Are you familiar with the poet Julia Kasdorf? Try Sleeping Preacher first, then her next, which I can't quite recall the name off right off--I want to say The Body and the Spirit, or something similar. She was raised mennonite and writes about the two worlds she has lived in.

I've been unusually close to a number of Amish in my life, including dining and praying with one particular family I have in mind. In Indiana, my ex-husband's family was very close to their Amish neighbors and I respected their lives very much. Here in Ohio, my boyfriend's family has a very different and bitter attitude toward them. D's mother is highly educated and resents the very things you mention and there are many stories--on both sides of the coin--to illustrate both what's admirable and not so admirable about their lives and beliefs.


paulajlambert said...

part 2

my comment was too long so  I cut it in half--here's the rest:

It does not sound too terribly different, at least in some ways, from my own experience of distancing myself from devout Catholicism. (When I lived in the south, though, I got to see real true fundamentalism and I found it shocking and horrific, and as you say, no different at all from the fundamentalism of any other sect. Though love is preached, I see little of it practiced...). My father recently visited me and we spent a lot of time talking about life and faith. Though a lifelong democrat, he voted for Bush last election for the sole reason that he could not support anyone who was "for" abortion. When we were driving across town one day and passed a Planned Parenthood, he waved his arms and boo'd and said "They're bad, those are the real bad guys. They make like they're good but they're real bad guys." I considered arguing what I knew from my own experience about the good they do, but I let it go. My arguments wouldn't change his mind, just like his wouldn't change mine.

I'm glad you've been able to open yourself to love and life and change; it will continue to be an ongoing process for all of us, no doubt.

paulajlambert said...

I didn't mean that entry to sound so political. I meant to emphasize philosophy and education and life learning and life experience. In trying to cite a couple of examples (which are recent and pretty fresh) it sounded like a political stance and I didn't mean it to be. Sorry...

stevendenlinger said...

Thank you, Paula, for sharing.  Your insights are always welcome.  Thanks for the reading tip as well.


mlylpcc said...

Hi!  Brandon Mullet advised me of your blog awhile back.  T'was interesting to hear (and see!) what you've been up to. You look real good with Patrick! There IS something about the innocence of babies; gives us a taste of transcendence.  We have a 7 month old; I could eat her up every day!
I would agree that conservative leaders are being called to repent of all the ways they've used power, control, and position for selfish purposes, self-gratification, and for building their own kingdoms.  In my work I've also seen how the suppression of healthy sexuality leads to a lot of unhealthy deviousness.  It seems the more conservative, and the more suppressed and fearful people are of sexuality, the more deviance you find hidden.
I sounds like you've been influential in the lives of many people.  Like other professions, teaching is a powerful position.
Planning to be with Brandon for Thanksgiving.  Is Marlin ever on here? Mark

stevendenlinger said...

Hello Mark,

Thanks for the response.  Yes, Marlin does occasionally look into the blog, based on his comments to me.  He's in London right now -- working on an opera there, I think.

Nice insights.