I’ve been revising the Introduction and thought I’d share the new and improved version:
Sitting on the floor in Barnes and Noble, I found myself angry with Mr. Rogers, of all people. If he had never opened his smirking mouth, I wouldn’t be camped out in the Christian Inspiration aisle, angry-eating a Rice Krispies Treat and using my sticky fingers to flip through a stack of memoirs.
It was not a wonderful day in my neighborhood and if I thought back far enough, Fred Rogers seemed like the one to blame.
For the most part, I had always hated Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I hated that he changed his shoes when he got home (why not just take them off?), I hated the way he spoke his songs instead of actually singing them, and I especially hated that ridiculous cat in the Neighborhood of Make Believe who only spoke in meows but somehow everyone understood her and liked her.
Give it a rest, Henrietta.
But the younger version of me watched that show all.the.time. I sat there through the shoe removal, and the song-speaking and the echolaliac cat, waiting for one thing: the Picture Picture Factory Tours. I sat enraptured by the process of wax dying and paper wrapping required to make crayons, fascinated by the many different molds used to cut pasta shapes, intrigued that toothpaste tubes are filled from the bottom and then sewn shut. (Who knew!?)
I had always been a person who needed to know the origin of things, especially if it involved a process of sorts. For that same reason I loved cooking, children’s museums, arts and crafts and history. I loved when makeover shows didn’t just show the before and after, but the in between stages. I liked to take things apart. I liked to know how things worked. I stuck around through all of Mr. Rogers’ shenanigans because I so desperately needed to know how guitars, hot tubs, snowboards, gummy worms and rocking chairs came to be.
And, sitting there in Barnes and Noble, with my sticky fingers and outrage, I realized that’s how Fred hooked me: the curiosity. He captured and fed the curiosity. The same curiosity, that, when I had arrived at college two years earlier, compelled me to study Sociology. Sociology was like a Picture Picture tour of people and the things they did. I learned how people – with all of their complexities and anxieties and quirks and secrets – were shaped by society and in turn, affected their surroundings. Sociology taught me to take behaviors, trends, organizations and predispositions apart to understand how they came to be. It taught me to critically examine the makeup of these things to determine what was truly useful and to criticize the components that were flawed or unnecessary for health and development.
Like a surgeon, I had spent the past two years as a Sociology student dissecting. Urban society, suburban life, gender roles, family dynamics, and educational systems – I took them all apart. I cut away layers of motive, upbringing, history and culture to find significance and origin. The more I learned, the more often I turned my scalpel inward. I took apart my childhood, m,, my womanhood, my class, and my ethnicity. I dismantled, learned my foundations, and reviewed the process of the making of me.
And in every facet of my self, my process, I found Christianity – an invasive presence, impossible to cut through. Its roots tangled back into my furthest memories. It trickled down to every particle of my existence. It was in my thoughts, my actions, my motivation and my ambitions. It affected the way I treated people and the way I treated myself. It made me feel guilty and it brought me joy. My self was a Christian self. My process was a Christian process.
In any other setting, in another person or society, I would have dissected this Christianity to find out whether it was positively or negatively permeating that social organism.
But I couldn’t.
I grew up in Christianity – the Sunday school, VBS, Veggie Tales and McGee and Me. I went to Christian school and youth group and Christian college. No matter how hard I tried to be objective, I couldn’t seem to grasp the concept long enough to evaluate it. I was overwhelmed by its enormity, eluded by its endless tiny influences.
My friend Julia called it the “fishbowl syndrome”. She grew up a pastor’s kid and said that for someone raised in the Christian culture, trying to examine your faith objectively is like asking a fish to describe water. Water surrounds it, fills it, gives it life. A fish cannot even begin to understand the quality of water, how it splashes and trickles and soaks. It is impossible. The fish would need to take a mighty leap out of the bowl, lake or ocean and sit outside to even grasp that it was in water, much less examine it. That’s how I felt when I tried to look at Christianity with my sociological mind.
I couldn’t take it apart and examine it because I couldn’t even see it. Couldn’t even separate myself from it.
And so I found myself cutting my Community Development class to sprawl across the aisle in Barnes and Noble, digging for answers. I just needed a “me too”, a poetic assurance that I was not alone in my confusion. I needed a trailblazer, someone to show me how and where to leap. To whisper the secret trap door out of the fishbowl.
Two years of Sociology had taught me that memoirs teach better than statistics, so I dumped a pile of spiritual stories into the aisle and started reading.
Tossing each to the side, tacky with marshmallow fingerprints, I felt a frustrated and despairing wail building inside. These people weren’t like me. They came to know God late in life. They abandoned the church and were then drawn back in. They fought with God and lost.
They had been outside of the fishbowl.
I had been raised to believe that the worst place to be was outside of Christianity. I was taught that in church lay safety and accountability, while outside lay darkness, temptation and danger. Yet, as I stared at the pile of discarded books, stories from people who spoke of being drawn to God’s beauty and the grace of the Gospel, I felt a fierce and choking wistfulness.
I wanted to know that feeling.
At times it felt like I couldn’t stop being a Christian any more than I could stop being Asian or stop having freckles or stop my feet from turning in. I wanted God to be something new and beautiful that I discovered and chose, not just the water around me, not just a reflex. I wanted Him to be a frontier, not a dusty habit. I longed to appreciate Him anew and see with my naked eye that spark that these outsiders were drawn to.
During those early college days, I read a book about a woman who heard someone speaking Italian and was so transfixed with the beauty of the language that she immediately set out to learn it. In comparison, I felt like the homegrown Italian who grew up speaking my native language, hearing it all of the time- both to bless and curse others. I loved the language, believed it was what I needed to communicate, but to me it was not beautiful, it was functional. I didn’t hear the inflections and pronunciations that made that author’s heart flutter. To me it was just life – just the water that filled my lungs.
I simmered with need, desperate for so many answers.
Was this Christianity- so pervasive and mysterious- a parasite or a balm?
How would I ever get the perspective to know?
If – as it seemed – there was no escape, was there a way to sit content, inside of the fishbowl?
I dropped my head back against the bookshelves and waited for some small miracle; droplets of inspiration on my forehead or a rumble of divine revelation under my ribs. But I was alone. Carpet under my legs, fluorescent bulbs overhead and the scent of new books and coffee, warm around me. I sighed and felt an odd, empty freedom. Something childish had been scooped out of me and, terrifying as that was, I knew I had the rare opportunity to fill its place. I felt something pooling where the old complacency used to be: curiosity, cool and familiar.
And Fred Rogers got the last word after all, echoing through the espresso and fluorescence.
It is good to be curious about many things.
It is important to ask questions.
How will you grow if you don’t ask?
I got up off the ground and I took my questions with me.