The Role of a Lifetime
creative nonfiction by Juliane Worthington
The Role of a Lifetime
I’m eight years old, dressed in a Strawberry Shortcake dance costume, posed with my class on an auditorium stage—the look on my face is pure discomfort. It’s the tights. As a girl, I was expected to wear tights to make my legs look prettier and also because it was inappropriate for women not to wear hose over their legs in the 1980s. I hated this rule, and when forced, I made faces and was miserable. But, I quickly learned there are just some things we do to fit into society, no matter how scratchy and constricting they are.
A few years ago, snug in my late thirties, somewhere between the anemones and sunflowers in my backyard garden, in the midst of books, tea, and quiet looks, I fell in love. We both had husbands, but even worse, we were both women. My gay knowing had been creeping up on me for a while, along with the other parts of me I’d been too afraid to embrace. Like writing. I’d wanted to be a writer since the seventh grade, when my English teacher Mrs. Paraka slid across the tiled floor on her black ballet flats, her short, red curls bouncing against the shoulder pads of her pink dress as she passionately taught us to find our voice. I wrote in spiral notebooks and on the unformatted, blue screen of my Apple IIGS desktop that printed out trails of perforated paper with tiny square holes. I wrote about all the things I couldn’t make sense of like the AIDS epidemic, the way the trees swayed soothingly in the summer breeze, and how awkward my growing body felt in such a giant, sad world.
When the time came for me to go to college though, I’d become deeply embedded in the Pentecostal church and felt the calling to become a missionary. I abandoned my dream of becoming a journalist and went to Bible college instead. The idea of being a missionary appealed to my sense of self-worth being rooted in helping and serving others, a practice I’d perfected and excelled at. I was a model child, who wore her tights like a good girl, followed all the rules and was kind to everyone, even if they preached to me about how women were responsible for the fall of mankind. I spent my time pleasing others and earning gold stamps of approval: sports awards, music awards, academic awards, humanitarian awards—I even had an article written about me in our city’s newspaper for protesting the board of education’s plan to cut our music program. College was no different. I had a 3.75 GPA, ran a homeless ministry team on the streets of Philadelphia, played bassoon in the orchestra, and was engaged to the best looking guy on the soccer team.
The year before I was scheduled to graduate I married the soccer player, also studying to be a missionary and promptly had a breakdown. I’d been advised junior year to change my major from missions to elementary education so I’d be more useful to my husband on the mission field. Like a good girl, I’d listened. But I was miserable. I hated everything about it: the index cards, the lesson plans, the repeating of the same thing, day after day, year after year that was forecasted for my career. My husband, who I’d let see the real me more than anyone in my life, suggested maybe I stop avoiding who I really am and switch again into the English program. It meant adding another year onto my course load, more time, more money, more work. But I decided it’d be worth it to have the chance to step into a truer version of myself.
I’d been dancing all day in the hot, August happiness of a folk festival when my lips accidentally brushed against the bare shoulder of my female partner, a woman who’d quickly become the highlight of my life. I’d been married and in full-time ministry with my husband and three kids for roughly eighteen years. Her husband was on the worship team at our church, and she was the woman I’d secretly been searching for my entire life. She was the first woman to encompass physical, emotional and spiritual desire for me in one, gloriously tall, farm-girl, human body. I didn’t even know I’d been looking until I found her. As my lips tasted her skin, a deep knowing took root in my belly, one that had been a seed left unwatered in the sickly soil of my religious, homophobic upbringing. This blossoming and unfolding of myself had begun gently with her at first, sprouting slowly over the span of a year, but on this night burst into full bloom.
The realizing of my truth was only the beginning of allowing my truth to be true. That night, after the festival, I lay on my bathroom floor in a ball all night, dizzy, dry heaving--feeling like my body was actually going to split apart. I knew this truth growing in my belly would have to come out through my mouth to all the people in my life, or else wind around my organs in imminent death. I hung over the toilet with my mouth open, forcing the truth poison out—trying to flush it away. Nothing would come out. I had been flushing my truth in so many ways for nearly forty years--afraid that being me would make everyone, including me, very uncomfortable.
Coming out is a term widely known, even to straight people. What I wasn’t aware of was the concept of coming out to myself—the act of admitting the truth to my own body. I came out to myself that night on the bathroom floor, and the next day went into the woods to my favorite tree and came out to her. Saying the words, “I’m gay” out loud, even to a tree is terrifying. Especially when you’re taught to believe you’ll die ten thousand deaths in a burning pit of fire for all eternity if you lay with a person of the same sex. I remember sitting down, leaning my back up against this tree friend and crying over my damned soul and all the damage this knowing was going to wreak in my life. The sun was late in the sky, filtering through the trees onto my face. I was crying so hard I could only open my eyes a sliver. The tears on my lashes caught in the light, and all I could see was a rainbow. The words I’d heard so many times but never really understood before seemed to envelop me, “Love is love.” I realized what I was so afraid of was, in essence, love.
I knew admitting my truth was going to mean a lot of change, a lot of hard conversations, and a lot of tears. I tried to allow the possibility that somehow, some way, I’d make it to the other side of all the pain. E.E. Cummings once said, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing it’s best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight—and never stop fighting.” I came to a crossroad at that moment when I had to decide if I was going to fight for my own authenticity, or if I was going to give up and die.
I chose to live. Later, when I opened my mouth to speak, a beautiful vine of truth came out with unexpected flowers and grace like warm sunshine I hadn’t foreseen. There was pain, and tears in the birthing of it, and loss of blood from the clearing out of things and people who had suffocated me like weeds. But my family became my garden and hovered around me protectively while I bloomed and opened.
I don’t wear dresses or tights anymore. I’ve stopped trying to mold into society for everyone else’s comfort. I’m learning to allow myself to be me in all the ways. I’m fighting through fear every day at what might happen if I’m vulnerable enough to say what I really want. I’ve stepped into the role of a lifetime (me). My costume is a comfortable pair of jeans, boy’s high-top sneakers, and a cozy flannel. My face is smiling, and the truth is flowing out of me like water into the garden of my life.