As the Christian celebration of the namesake holiday of a Germanic pagan goddess looms, I am once again preparing to make my semi-annual four hour trek (read: drive) into the middle of fucking nowhere (read: rural Northeast Texas) to visit my family. And while I am excited about seeing my eighteen-month-old absolutely adorable nephew, there is the usual trepidation that accompanies such a visit these days. (And it’s not just because I’m still unable to process anything but gluten free oatmeal, gluten free toast, or Botlhouse Farms protein shakes. Stupid stomach.)
You see, I am the self-proclaimed fluorescent orange sheep of the family.
This labeling came about when I was trying to convince a friend that I am indeed the black sheep: I am the only non-Christian in a family of very serious Southern Baptists. I drink. I swear. (I swear like a goddamned, motherfucking sailor.) I dance. I’m an agnostic who does yoga and spiritualistic whirling instead of going to church. I believe people should be able to marry whichever consenting adult they want, and that one’s religious morality should have no bearing whatsoever on our government’s lawmaking. I have had sex with more than one person (i.e., two, though not at the same time) to whom I was not married. GASP! I’m such a rebel! So among my very straight-laced, Jesus-freak, gosh-darn goody-two-shoes family, I certainly spend a lot of time FEELING like the black sheep.
But even if you don’t consider my personal rebellion all that rebellious, my family may not be as saintly as I sometimes portray them. My parents got divorced when I was in college, and my dad is now remarried. My sister lives with her boyfriend. My aunt and uncle are fellow liberals. Considering these examples, I eventually agreed that black might be a bit strong of a descriptor.
But I am the introvert among a family packed to the brim with extroverts. I feel that one hug at the beginning and one at the end of a visit is plenty of physical affection, and more might be a little too intimate for anyone but a significant other. I don’t agree with things just because I was taught to believe them. I have a mind, and when I have a mind to do so, I speak it. I prefer living in the fourth-largest city in the country over the small towns and farmlands in which I grew up. I don’t even look that much like anyone else (because I look like my dad when he was younger, and not how he looks now). There is no mistaking it: I am the different one.
At length, I realized that if my family is a flock of sheep, really the best color I could assign to my wool would be bright-ass, fluorescent orange. I am the one you look at and (in comparison to the others) go, “Huh.” I am the sheep that the other sheep look at and scratch their wooly heads with the edge of one hoof. I am not rejected, but I’m not sure they know what to do with me.
So for years, they tried to treat me like any other sheep. And to their credit, for years I let them. For years, I even tried to pretend I was one of them. I would let them shower me with physical affection, even though it made me uncomfortable, until I just couldn’t stand it. I went to church and tried my hardest to believe, even though it only ever made me feel guilty and bad about myself. I would hold everything in, everything I felt, until I practically burst—or until it started causing panic attacks my freshman year of college.
That was when I realized that being anyone but exactly me was toxic. It’s taken about nine years of personal reflection, experimentation, and letting go to figure out who “exactly me” is. In finding her, and letting myself be her, I have become the free-spirited, slightly hippie, happy soul I am today.
But there are times when it’s still a fight for me to be that person with my family. And truth be told, I am as much to blame as any of them.
My break with the Christian faith has not been met well. I made the mistake of telling my mother first (whom I love, but from whom I get my tendency toward the dramatic); I am convinced that she alone will pray enough for my soul to save half the sinners in this world. It has become a clear point of contention between us, and is a major factor in why spending time with her now leaves me thoroughly annoyed. And so I glossed over the transition with the rest of my family. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. Now I’m starting to wish I’d just got it all out in the open at once, because it’s become a topic of non-conversation—one of those things we all know about (or at least suspect), but no one has yet been brave enough to talk to me about it.
It is pretty well known that I do not go to church except for weddings and funerals. I make jokes about how Easter-egg hunts are pagan fertility rituals and refer to this Sunday as Zombie Jesus Day. I openly read books about Taoism, Voodoo, Wicca, and Catholic saints (because I have an anthropological interest in the occult and the nature of religious belief). I post on my Facebook page about my adventures in Sufi spiritualistic whirling and the challenges faced by atheists and agnostics. And in return for mostly ignoring these things, my family still expects me to say the blessing with them over just about every meal, and to listen politely to the “interesting” lessons they recently heard in church. Our disagreement over whom or what created the universe and the nature of the afterlife, if there is one, is just not something we discuss.
We also do not discuss politics unless we absolutely have to—or unless I am in the privacy and camaraderie of my liberal aunt and uncle’s home. Over the years it has become something that invariably leads to a fight between me and my more conservative relatives, and has led one of them (on more than one occasion) to ask if I am secretly a lesbian. I have hid more than a few family members from my newsfeed in social media so I don’t have to see their constant bashing of our president (simply because he is a democrat, or worse, because his middle name is a common Middle-Eastern name, or because he’s not white) or a barrage of “pro-life” anti-abortion propaganda (don’t get me started…). It is one of those subjects on which we cannot even agree to disagree.
And yet, in my journey of self-discovery, not all of the altered relations with my relations have been bad. After my parents split and my dad got remarried, I finally got to know him not just as my father, but as a human being. I realized how much I take after him. He is also an introvert, and possibly the only other introvert in my entire family. It is from my dad that I get my odd, quirky sense of humor, as well as my duck-feet and long toes. My father was also a bit of a rebel in his day (though he quickly returned to the “path of righteousness”—with me, the rebellion seems more of a permanent state). While we still don’t agree on religion, politics, or the enjoy-ability of hunting or fishing or hauling firewood, my dad and I get along better than I do with anyone else in my family. I have also learned that my cousins are no longer the horrible, noogie-giving tyrants they were when I was nine, and that my paternal grandmother is one of the most interesting people I know.
And then, there is my nephew.
He is the first child among my siblings, and he is the cutest child on the face of the earth. Half of my bulletin board at work is covered in pictures of him. I was there the night he was born. I was the first person to watch him while his parents went out (for about half an hour when he was two days old, and we danced under the ceiling fan). I cannot imagine loving any child more than I love him. I sometimes wonder if I will find in him (or he in me) a weird, fluorescent orange, kindred spirit, or if he will stare at me in amazement with the rest of them.
Either way, he makes all of the hullabaloo well worth it.