The year is 1999. You are eleven years old and you contain one multitude. Following in the example of your much older brother you asked your mom if it would be okay if you could maybe dye your hair. She says yes, immediately, as long as it goes back to normal before the school year starts (and the entire time you're a teenager it never occurs to you how fortunate you are to live in a home where this kind of experimentation and self-expression is accepted). It is the beginning of summer and she drives you to the nearest place that sells any variety of manic panic. You quickly chose the color blue. Back at home your mom enthusiastically helps you first bleach your hair light enough to take in the dye. It's a complicated process that involves a barber shop bib and tin foil and sitting on the lid of the toilet but the chemical miasma in the upstairs bathroom fills your lungs and you feel maybe, possibly, cool. The blue dye sets beautifully and you line your scalp with LA looks and watch the now richly yves klein blue, sharply pointed curls set, like waves freezing on a lake. You look in the mirror and imagine yourself playing guitar loudly on an outdoor stage, there is a crowd, there is a beach and they are screaming for you, for you, for you. You have only learned your first few chords, worked out some tablature for a Red Hot Chili Peppers song, but with this look - rebellious and yes, alternative - the roar of the spring break crowd in the afternoon sun feels inevitable, as inevitable as the roar of the waves, breaking at the edge of the earth.
You want very deeply to be different. Both separate from the pack and different from how you are right now (chubby, cherubic, quick to tears, nerdy). You want to be distinct from your peers, noticeable, desirable. These concepts are vague, you lack the words for them, exactly, but you ache for it anyway. At the same time you want to change because you have started to see that the things you naturally gravitate toward are simply not cool. You learn very quickly through the vicious feedback of your junior high peers what is cool and what is not. Partially because of the bullying, partially because of suddenly needing girls to pay attention to you, partially because of the pop punk your cousin is getting you into, partially because your mom loved hard rock when she was a stoned LA teenager and now plays zeppelin IV loud in the car on the way to school, partially because of the influence of your older brother who dyed his hair long before you and used to play in bands in the garage and you could hear the drums from down at the other end of the cul de sac (he once took you to see weezer and the get up kids and reggie and the full effect in San Diego, your cousin had to hide his wallet chain in a bush outside the venue before security would let you in) what you allow yourself to enjoy is changing. Playing the cello is not cool anymore, listening to yo yo ma CDs is even more not cool, crying at your cello lesson regularly is absolutely not cool (although, not your fault: the teacher speaks in a confusingly frank tone and aims every lesson toward eventually getting you a gig. When you tell him you want to play stuff like Smashing Pumpkins he really loses it and says you're wasting everyone's time but you're not sure why). The disco songs you love to shout at the top of your lungs on the way to school are not cool, even though they make you bouncy and happy (you will never admit to a love for Anita Ward in your AOL Instant Messenger profile). Church is okay, not cool exactly, but it is complicated - at school you can never admit you go to church, even though you spend the entire summer there and your mom works there, because no one at your tiny little middle school goes to the same church as you or even the same type of church as you, exactly. At your church the youth pastor shows you how to play counting crows songs (which, not cool, but learning guitar is cool) and he does motocross on the weekends. In the lounge area where youth services are held (which is really far from the choir loft full of old people where you spent a lot of time in elementary school) they have a couple video game cabinets and a wonky pool table and an N64 and before and after services you and your friends play wrestling videogames. All of that is cool, and in this rarefied space loving god is cool, too, so you're much more popular and comfortable at church than you ever will be at school. At church you can sing your little aching heart out during the tear-jerker worship ballads and your wet-eyed conviction demonstrates inner strength, whereas almost everywhere else being too excited about anything shows you to be weak and invested, rather than aloof and dismissive (it's cool to be dismissive). And the one group leader who came back from two years of clandestine ministry work in China takes you to watch wrestling pay-per-view events and eat hot wings at a sports bar once a month. One time he took you and a bunch of friends laser tagging, too, not even a church thing, this was just for fun and he actually broke his foot while he was playing when he took a corner too hard. But he didn't cry out and he didn't stop the game, in fact he kept shooting and ended up winning the match because he was so low to the ground. Afterwards he hopped to his car. You didn't see him as weak or too old to be playing laser tag, you saw him as badass. He's cool, because everyone says that the work of bringing christ abroad was dangerous, he could have died or been put in prison, but he testified anyway and had some success, and one early morning in Santa Barbara after sleeping over in a different church on a summer camp trip he tells you about being a warrior for christ, how his love made you strong, his love was a shield, and how in heaven it's not that you walk the streets of gold but rather that you simply exist in his presence, immortal and unyielding. So you consider yourself a warrior for christ, you imagine defeating satan in a cage match and when you mouth along the words in rage against the machine songs playing on your discman you feel the hooves of the four horsemen rumbling in the distance. Your faith is a secret strength: though it is never to be mentioned to your dad or your brother or especially your grandfather or any of your classmates it simmers inside you, an ever-lit torch. Though at the same time you are also obedient and terrified. You are confused and disgusted by wobbly new body feelings and sometimes wake up from nightmares of underground caverns and sulfurous fire. This tension within you is pulled taut, like a seatbelt on too tight - you feel your faith restraining your movements, at times keeping you apart from your peers or members of your family. But it defines you, too, it sets you apart, and in this you take delight, so that when your hair gel sets into tight, hard, blue curls and you leave the house in a button-down shirt with dragons and flames running down the side you feel celestial, brilliant - an unwavering band of light.
Good morning, friends ~
I will keep it brief today.
Thanks for taking the time to listen and read. I hope you’re whole and hanging in there. I’ll see you again next week.
And what about you? Are you pulled taut? Are you allowing yourself to sing the songs that make you bouncy and happy? Do you consider yourself cool?