A long office Wednesday drew to a close as I shuffled mail into boxes. A group of co-workers taking an impromptu break in the hall between offices and kitchen began discussing Harry Potter just as I filed away the last credit card offer. I leaned against the wall on the group’s edge as we took turns describing when we discovered t the series. One mentioned she was in second grade when the books first came out and the rest of us took a deep breath, suddenly aware of how long ago that was.

I smiled. “Well, “I said, “I grew up in a circle of people really concerned about possible demonic influences in Harry Potter, because of the witchcraft.” I laughed and crossed my arms. One of my co-workers nodded, she knew someone else like that she said.

“My grandma gave my brother the first three books and then he started reading them so I read them to point out all the bad things.” I smirked. “I decided the kids challenged authority too much, but the witchcraft was okay. Then I read them in college and went, ‘What the hell was my problem?’”

“Well, it’s because you were brainwashed, right?” One co-worker asked, chuckling along with me. We’d talked before, she knew my story.

My smile tightened. “Yeah, I guess so.” I shrugged.  Brainwashed? Crap, did I really make it sound that way?

I’ve called my former self plenty of things – naïve, judgmental, generally insufferable – but beneath those words lurks an assumption of control. After all, my brother was raised the same way and he picked up Harry Potter as if it were just another series. Meanwhile, I dissected each spell fearing I’d find some echo of real world Wicca which I’d been warned against in the pages of Christian magazines. Certainly, my choices were hobbled by the world I grew up in, but no one was holding a wand to my head. Or so, I’ve told myself for years.

My junior year, the K-12 private Christian school I attended sent notes home announcing a ban on Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, Lord of the Rings, and Pokémon. This surprised our teacher, who’d been discussing his reading of Tolkien during opening exercises each day.

I remember cataloging the items on the banned list. Dungeons and Dragons? Didn’t that die out in the eighties? I assumed Pokémon made the list after some parents heard rumors that the Japanese title usually translated as “pocket monsters” actually meant “little demons,” something I’d heard from one of the nuttier callers on one of the Christian talk shows I’d listened to. I rolled my eyes.

Lord of the Rings? It was written by a Christian, for goodness sake.  Okay, a Catholic which made it suspect, but it had undeniable Christian themes and I was sure Tolkien had made it to heaven.  And why wasn’t anyone cracking down on the plethora of Star Wars backpacks, lunchboxes, and t-shirts? Why did the Force, which I thought reduced God to some kind of mystical energy, get a pass when Gandalf’s unexplained wizardry did not? I thought of the Yoda puppet in my youth pastor’s office. Bit of a double standard there.

I usually read during breaks at school and began bringing The Silmarillion, a collection of myths and tales set long before the events of The Lord of the Rings to school. I read it in the back corner of the gym where extra pews were stored or on a back stairwell.  Am I’m being rebellious?  I thought one day. I shook my head. It’s stupid, why would God give us imagination if he didn’t want us to use it? Still, I told my brother he couldn’t borrow my copy of Lord of the Rings if he were going to take it to school. Breaking the spirit of the law was one thing, actually violating it was another.

Near the end of my high school career, the youth pastor arranged a “pastor panel.” The church I attended was large enough to support the school and many pastors. Four of them showed up that night to answer questions the students wrote on slips of paper and stuck into a repurposed Kleenex box.

One of the questions was, “What do you think about fantasy books like Harry Potter?”

One after the other, the pastors declared them dangerous. “I mean, it’s an escape from reality.“ One said near the end, brows furrowed. He held out his hands, palms up, “Why would you want to escape from reality?”

I was taking anti-depressants at the time and coping with the aftermath of testifying in court against my former stepfather. Middle Earth had helped me survive the last three years.  I created stories in my head in which a half-elf girl (who looked a lot like me) fought alongside Gandalf and the hobbits. An escape, I refused to condemn. I stared at the wall behind the pastor. Glad your reality’s been so good you never wanted to escape from it. Must be nice.

In the narrative I tell of my past, the forbidden books on the back step and the unspoken questions become key scenes in my narrative of escape. They are proof I wasn’t some unthinking drone so locked into a specific worldview that every book I read clearly fell into categories of moral or immoral.

Perhaps that’s why saying I was brainwashed feels too simple. Question by question, my world slowly collapsed and then reformed. Right or wrong, the questions and the answers were my own. Yet, I speak of my form self with eye rolls and smirks. Don’t you dare think I was her, I say with my body language. She’s a freak. My own attitude in my co-worker’s words pulls me up short. Brainwashed? Me? A part of me wants to be true.

Ghost of Lent Past

I’m more aware of Lent this year. Here in St. Louis, meatless Fridays and were to go for a good fish fry are conversation topics in the break room, and one woman has loudly lamented the presence of any sweets for the last five weeks. I used to do that, I almost say. Then I gave it up.

Raised in fundamentalist churches with words like community and/or Bible in their names, I once knew that Lent was for Catholics, who were probably going to hell because they prayed to Mary. Easter was a chance to canvass the neighborhood and invite people to Sunday services where the pastor’s brilliant sermon would convince them to give their lives to Jesus. For people who scorned tradition and ritual, we obsessed over altar calls.

I left for a church still solidly evangelical but more interested in feeding the homeless than electing Republicans. Sermons emphasized God’s love and care for the world. Hell rarely came up. Most importantly, for a recent college grad with the usual existential questions, doubt wasn’t treated like a communicable disease. This meant that you could struggle with the correct answers as much as you wanted, provided you didn’t embrace a different answer, but it took me five years to discover that.

My new church also encouraged the observance of Lent.  The first year I attended services on Ash Wednesday, the grit of the ash on my forehead as the pastor drew a cross and said, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” drew my faith into the world of sounds and touch. I can believe in this, I thought.

I gave up sweets that year and decided to fast on Fridays. On those days, I allowed a glass of juice and cup of tea in the morning, another glass of juice in the evening, maybe one at lunch if I was feeling particularly lightheaded.  On fast days, the juice I slowly sipped seemed sweeter. My body slowed as the day went on, I trembled if I moved too fast, a reminder to move more slowly, to pay attention.

The growling in my stomach, the spreading emptiness became a call to prayer, a reminder of my dependence on God, and how little separated me from death. The cravings for sugar at other times served a similar purpose. For forty days, I felt like God was with me. At least, until I had to explain why I couldn’t go out on a Friday.

“Umm, I’m fasting for Lent,” I’d tell my friends and picture the raised eyebrows of my agnostic father, who was a bit concerned about my health. If I hadn’t been living with him at the time, I wouldn’t have told him. Trust me, I know how weird this sounds, I almost added.  “Saturday, then?” was the usual response.

The third year, my mother’s extended family came to town for my Grandpa’s memorial. We met up on the Friday before. I drank hot apple cider at the restaurant while people around me ordered burgers or salads and asked if this was a religious thing.  I tried to explain but all I could think was, there’s no way to make this sound believable. I’m a freak. The smell of my cousin’s order of garlic fries didn’t help. What the hell am I doing? I ordered a second apple cider.

“I feel like it draws me closer to God, “I said, shrugging. I eyed my cousin’s fries, my uncle’s burger. What am I trying to prove?

The following year, if I was invited out for dinner on a Friday, I broke my fast. I decided that explaining drew attention to the practice in a way that was not spiritual helpful, maybe ungenerous. Even on the Fridays I’d stayed in, I broke the fast earlier than I had before. Between Lents, I’d decided to become a vegetarian which lasted about a year. Still, it was the first ethical decision I’d made with zero Biblical support. Unlike women speaking in church, the Bible explicitly endorsed meat eating.

Perhaps because of the change in diet, my fast days were marked by an increasing feeling of faintness and shaking legs. I ate almond butter and toast at nine o’clock on Friday night instead of waiting until Saturday morning brunch. Why am I doing this?

By the next Lent, I spent more time taking stock of my beliefs than listening to the sermon on Sundays. I didn’t believe in Hell. I didn’t believe Jesus was the only way to heaven. I didn’t believe the Bible was the perfect word of God, only the attempts of people (men) to figure out God. Some had gotten closer than others. Whoever was responsible for the “abomination” language was wrong. So was whoever said women were more easily deceived and couldn’t speak in church.  That’s arrogant. Who are you to decide? My fading evangelical side asked. What do I have but my own experience?  I asked back.

I almost didn’t go to church that last good Friday. The service was a collection of songs, readings that told the story of the crucifixion, a brief sermon. The only light came from dozens of candles. As the service progressed, they were blown out until darkness filled the sanctuary. I thought of God descending into the worst of the world, loving humanity enough to suffer with us. I wanted to believe that God existed.  I do believe. I exited to a chill spring evening.  I’ll find a way, I will.

A few weeks later, a dispute over how much leadership woman should be allowed to exercise turned ugly. I couldn’t stay. I do believe, I thought as I walked out the church’s double doors for the last time. I’ll find a way. In the following months, whenever I tried to explain that statement, I pictured water running though my hands.  I don’t know, I finally said. I don’t know what I believe.

This Lent, four years later, I think of my necklace with a small silver pendant. A phoenix is stamped on the charm which hangs next to a small bird and a pearl. Sometimes I squeeze the silver and run my fingers over the groves. What I feel then nothing as solid as belief. Just a hope that life can still rise from ashes.

Oh Dear God, I’ve Moved to the Midwest: Primary Edition

When you move from Portland to St. Louis, you expect changes like more snow, fewer mountains, and conservative politics. It’s the mundane differences you don’t expect that can be more disorienting. Salad dressing that is often oddly sweet and/or creamy for example. My voting experience in the recent primary contained elements of both. I knew I would have to vote in person and expected to find this mildly annoying after the ease of vote by mail. I did not expect my polling place would be assigned and that it would be a Lutheran church, a combination I found unsettling.

Flags were common decoration in the churches I grew up in. My senior class at a private Christian school in one such church raised funds to put up a pole out back next to the playground the year after 9/11 and anyone who drove past the church couldn’t miss the fluttering flag.  Most of the classrooms also had one though the sanctuary remained bare, a spare cross providing the only decoration. In these classrooms and sanctuaries and from talk radio, I learned that separation of church and state was a fraud perpetrated by godless liberals on a long suffering public. I learned that America was founded on Christian principles and about to be judged by God for abandoning them, probably via a nuclear attack from North Korea, or an invasion by China or some unspeakable terrorist violence that would send us into a new stone age. My classmates and I were either a persecuted, faithful remnant or part of the vast decent crowd of pious Americans crushed by corrupt, liberal elite depending on the day and/or the speaker.  Also, American was the greatest country in the world.

This church put out voters’ guides which could be summed up in two words, “Vote Republican,” though they were meant to provide non-partisan information. One day  I said, “I guess you can be a Christian and a Democrat, but I’m not sure how.” This made me the closest thing to a liberal my church/school was likely to see.

Several crises of faith later, I am more likely to spend Sunday mornings sipping coffee and reading a book of essays than attending services. This is a marked changed from the first twenty-six years of my life and makes me feel the general Midwest piety as utterly foreign and familiar. This past has created a deep unease when it comes to flags and churches and a belief that the alliance of the two does neither system good. The church becomes more interested in political power and winning elections and real people get forgotten for in the push for ideological purity. In support of this, I would point to the recent popularity of Donald Trump amongst evangelicals. This is one of many reasons you won’t find me in a pew anytime soon.

When I read the notice of election card and saw “Lutheran Church of the Reformation” listed as my polling place, I swallowed hard, shrugged my shoulders and said once more, “Well, I guess we’re not in Portland anymore.”

My heartbeat and sense of unease increased when my husband arrived at the church on Tuesday. Though the church’s sign was far from the entrance to the poling area itself, it was visible as we turned into the parking lot.

Instead of the usual cheesy slogans I was used to, (Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven!) this one took a decidedly more antagonistic tone. “Abortion equals war on children” the sign read in which I read an election day barb thrust at, I’m not sure who. Given that you can’t go many miles down any freeway here without seeing some kind of pro-life billboard, I’m fairly certain that anyone who would be convinced by such slogans came to that decision a long time ago. I wondered if the person responsible though a person like me was going to see the trite slogan and exclaim, “Oh, abortion is killing children?! Let me immediately change my opinion which is not based on a different understanding of when life begins or any rational argument, just a selfish, uneducated whim. I repent of my abominable support of murder. ”

The sign seemed to confirm my fears about the propriety of making a church a polling place.  I wondered in a moment of paranoia if my vote would be “lost.” The bank of touch screens lessened my anxiety. My husband and I stood in line next to a soda machine with busted buttons. The logos indicating available flavors had long since worn to unreadable and been replaced by a combination of permanent marker and post-it note. A beetle perched on a spoon next to canisters of sugar and creamer and several pots of coffee. I tried not to think about the sign.

The line moved quickly. Soon I stood while a lady checked my ID. I wondered if I looked suspicious, as out of place in my office clothes as I felt in a line of t-shirts and jeans and Republicans. A guy with a TARDIS on his shirt set up the touch screen for me. I found the Doctor Who reference comforting, as if some common ground were possible. I almost said, “Nice shirt,” but the right moment didn’t come. I selected Bernie Sanders from the list, confirmed my vote and felt the same small thrill I’d felt back home walking my vote down to the mailbox and letting it go. Just like at home, it was a mostly meaningless drop in the civic ocean that still made me glad to be American for a second, even if my vote was cast while standing in a Lutheran church in Missouri haunted by a flag waving past.