I spent a lot of my teenage life wishing I didn't have to be "different." I wanted to acquire the fire but I wasn't really allowed. Yes, I was on the inside with the label Christian, but I was still on the outside looking in at people being cool and popular for Jesus. I was the girl with crooked teeth, hiding behind a piano.
It’s a hard knock being unseen most of your life. It’s the ones with the outer passion and beauty and bouncy ponytails that get picked. I had lost most of those things by Kindergarten.
“Well, you’re just different,” a youth leader told me, when I tried to assure her that even though I was homeschooled, I still had struggles the same as other teenagers. She didn't really see me. She didn’t recognize depression and loneliness. She didn’t suspect how close I had gotten to sliding off the edge of the world.
Future note to everyone ever from now on: Never write off a teen as “different.” It’s like being bludgeoned with “I don’t care.”
I am good at building fires. I grew up with a woodstove for heating the home. I remember plenty of 6 a.m.’s of ice-cold pain in my feet and oversized flannel with slightly rolled sleeves comforting my chill-bump covered arms. I was skilled at using a frugal amount of starter materials: a bit of cardboard smeared with bacon grease, a few criss-crossed twigs, some bark pulled away from the logs. Add a couple of good sized splintered wood and strike the match. I could get our house up to a cozy 80 degrees before mid-morning and we’d have to open the back door.
I could build a decent fire to warm the house, but my heart was a smoldering wick.
“Light before heat.”
My dad said that a lot. He meant that there could be a display of emotions but no real depth behind it. I knew he was right, but I still wished I could have found out for myself instead of feeling forbidden from it. Those girls coming back from Teen Mania(c) trips were a lot happier than I had ever been. Oh, that one girl, she WAS fire incarnate, and her mother worshiped her, and oh, I just wanted a little bit of her spotlight because I was good at the same things she was. I just wasn’t a good salesman. Or pretty enough.
The “fitting in” with the youth group thing was impossible. I was the rain on their fire. I once extended hospitality to another teen whose mom was out of town temporarily. She was kind but I’m pretty sure I freaked her out. Note to self: talking about the profound impact on you after your grandfather’s passing does not make for proper small talk. I tried too hard; at least she was gracious. And then she got on with her life. I went back to being unseen.*
There’s this certain special thing about young people. The grown-ups leave it alone because it reminds them of being that age. It’s that restless, change-the-world spirit that hasn’t gotten a good dose of reality yet. There’s all that chemistry barely kept in check that makes the elders nod and smile and let it be. Preserve the fire and the fight in them; allow the unquenchable ambition. They’re gonna get hurt and altered forever but they don’t know it yet, like a woman expecting her first child, and who’s going to say anything because maybe for the first time things can be better for the next generation? So they leave us to write our own stories and nature runs its course and there is no taming that wildfire.
I wish the elder folks had invested more storytelling in us. As a way of life. I wish I knew their own coming-of-age tales. I wish we had talked long and hard about the realities. I wish I had listened. I wish we hadn't been sheltered from the whole big deal. I wish we could all have learned to tell the truth to ourselves, even when it's yucky.
And I’m starting to have hope that now it really is different. People are coming forward. We’re telling our stories. With or without shame, just getting it out. Nostalgia, tears, regrets, resolutions all swirl together in a jumble of memories and memoirs. Honesty and authenticity; a mix of rain and fire.
I can spend all my time hanging out in the shoulda-been. The smoke of a thousand hushed fires can smother if I let it: If only I had made better choices. Different choices. If I could just go back and fix things. See things bigger-picture view.
But I have to move forward, noting the struggle, but not dwelling in it. The fire has burned. The smoke is clearing. We can surely build again; this time with a little more awareness and as much love as we can muster. Because love is the fire that does not consume.
The cycle continues, and we will probably do more outrageous things in the name of Jesus. In a good way, please God. But let’s face our humanity, the parts we’re proud of and the parts we shrink from, and let ourselves be changed.
*What seemed like many years later, in my late teens/early twenties, I did find a welcoming group to mingle with. We didn't feel the need to God-talk all the time. We could just be ourselves. And that was a gift.
Linking up with Addie Zierman's When We Were On Fire synchroblog. I have not read the book yet but she's one of those writers worth taking a "leap of faith" like that. Check out the link to her sample chapters in the note at the bottom of her post.