I grew up in a world whose limits extended to the end of my family’s property. I was a very sensitive child, prone to cry and make bizarre, intense connections.
I was home-schooled throughout these years. Our family became part of what the Internet describes as a cult. Not the live-on-a-compound, sister-wives, drink-the-Kool-Aid kind of cult, but a large organization that believed the world was so corrupt, that the only way to bring up children unaffected by the evil that existed all around was to sequester them in the home, to educate them through the lens of extreme evangelical Christianity. No television. No video games. No secular music.
Out of this circumstance I found myself living in Castro Valley, CA--an upper middle class suburb in the south bay of San Francisco. At ten years old I surfaced from a daze of isolation in a new neighborhood that was unlike any place I had ever known. Children my age roamed the streets on BMX bikes. Pick-up baseball games happened every evening in the cul-de-sac. Older brothers built skateboard mini ramps in the back yards. I walked the perimeters, looking in. I was clearly different. An odd kid. The “other.”
The kids on my block didn’t seem to have any beliefs, or parents for that matter. Without any preface I was introduced to bullying, cursing, judgment based off of every trivial detail of life, from what shoes you wore, to what sports team you rooted for. All of a sudden I cared about the brand of my bike, the color of my shirts, and my knowledge of the Giants batting line up. It was painfully clear that I was different. I never felt more than tolerated. I was quiet but not naturally so; it was just that almost all cultural references eluded me, and I was terrified of being exposed as a weirdo. As everyone else left for school, I was left behind, spending my days reading every book I could get my hands on. This only further isolated me. I could recount the adventures of Scout and Atticus Finch, but was unsure of exactly who Michael Jackson was.
I had no idea what it felt like to go out into the world, to leave my house and spend the day surrounded by others. It was a frightening and exhilarating fantasy.
I got my chance the summer between my fourth and fifth grade year (or would have been if I was in school). My parents started attending a mega church in the next suburb over from our town, the kind that had video screens, professional musicians in the worship band; a church so wealthy and large that they didn’t just have a building, they had a campus. On this campus was a summer camp for kids, and after some persuading by one of my mother’s church friends, she reluctantly allowed me to go.
For the first time in my life I would be going to spend the day in the world, alone, if only for two weeks.
I was thrilled.
The first day of camp I walked into a classroom and sat down at a long, low table. It was built for children my age, with small scale chairs to match. At first I just stood there, completely unaware of what to do. As other kids started filling up the room, I began to feel self-conscious. I noticed the brands on others backpacks and shoes, small symbols and words that I recognized from the kids on my block. While I was acutely aware of everything going on around me, I seemed to be invisible to all the other children. As I stood there in debilitating wonder, other kids blew by me at light speeds. Talking loud and fast. Perhaps a different language. I was a ghost that they walked through.
Each grade was split into small groups of 15 kids. This was going to be my class for two weeks. I had no idea how to act in a setting like this. Social customs that other children learned in kindergarten were completely foreign to me.
The same friend that talked my mom into sending us to camp had also talked to my room teacher, explaining my “situation.” When I walked into the room she came over and started to explain where to put my bag, and sat me down in a seat close to her at the head of the table. I kept my eyes locked on the teacher, trying to not give away my complete ignorance of what was going on around me. She was young and kind looking. She was the only part of the experience that was familiar. I was a class of one at home, my mother was my only focal point. I knew how to act around teachers. She started taking roll, and when my name was called I had no idea what to do, but she looked down and smiled, then continued to read names out loud.
I was so scared of doing something wrong, I don’t remember anything until the teacher told us to pair off for an art project. I had never heard this term before, and was still looking at the teacher, hoping for a hint when a hand touched my shoulder.
“Hi, I’m Lily, want to work on this with me?”
I turned to find seated next to me the most beautiful being I had ever seen. It’s hard to say what a prepubescent ten-year-old boy finds attractive in an other person, but I was enchanted. She was wearing a small sundress, her short hair pulled back out of her face with bobby pins, which I thought must have taken a lot of work from her mother or some other adult. Most startling were her giant green eyes, so large that they almost looked fake, so beautiful it would likely take her years to grow into them. She was like an alien, a painfully beautiful alien. So different than anything I had ever seen. I was so startled I couldn’t even respond, but that didn’t deter her at all. She just opened the “Children’s Christian Workbook” to the correct page and we began.
Over the two weeks of camp we became inseparable.
We sat next to each other in class and group assemblies. I didn’t play sports with the other kids, which had been my gateway to making new friends in the cul-de-sac back home. Instead I happily joined in whatever activity Lily preferred. She had a lot of friends, and I was happy to go along with them and do whatever they wanted to do; at the same time I was terrified that I would be exposed for not understanding any pop culture references. We talked about animals. She had two rabbits in her backyard. She loved everything natural. Trees, grass, bugs. She seemed to exist in their world as easily as the kids’ world of playgrounds and classrooms. I told her stories that I had read in books, as my own. I told her that long ago there was a kid who played piano for kings and queens, and wrote his first masterpiece when he was our age. Also there was this French girl who led an army when she was just a little older than us and then was burned to death because people thought she was a witch. Lily liked the stories. Finally, my hours of reading where becoming useful.
There was a very large and prestigious private Christian school that was located on the church campus, and most of the other children were students there and had known each other for years. Looking back, I’m sure that much of my infatuation with Lily had to do with her effortless navigation of this world that was so foreign to me. She became my guide through an alien landscape, my hero fending off would-be attackers. She talked to adults with a confidence I lacked even with other kids.
When the kids snickered at our closeness, she never became embarrassed, or denied our relationship. I on the other hand had to hold back tears, and desperately wanted to become invisible. At an age when girls and boys are like oil and water, she seemed utterly immune to this taboo. I had never been told that having a girl best friend was like wearing a sign around your neck that said “this one’s odd” in large bold print. When others teased us she would simply smile at me with an understanding that calmed my anxiety. If she told me I could fly I would not have even questioned it, I would have simply left the ground and floated into the air.
Soon the children quit teasing us.
I guess when they couldn’t get a rise out of her or me it stopped being fun.
As the camp progressed, Lily’s other friends would ask where I went to school. How was it that they never had seen me before?
“Go to school at home,” I would mumble with my head down, hoping to end the discussion.
“Why?” they would always ask.
But I didn’t have an answer for them. I had never needed an explanation before. It was just my existence, the way things were and always had been. I was aware that other children left home and went to school every day, but the reason why I didn’t had never crossed my mind. Adults never pressed for an explanation, but their eyes always showed alarm. I was an odd kid, and this must be why. I was clearly the “other.” The children were relentless with questions, and I had no answers.
“Do you put clothes on in the morning?”
“Can you eat whenever you want?”
“Are you really smart?”
“Are you really stupid?”
“Do you know how to read?”
“Does your mom give you bad grades?”
I fielded these questions with honesty because I didn’t know how to spin my situation to seem less bizarre to them. Throughout all this, Lily never wavered in her loyalty to me. In fact, I can’t remember her ever asking me any of these questions herself. She seemed to understand the discomfort it caused, and was content letting it be. Looking back, she seemed to regard me like a bird or a flower, unconcerned with why I existed, happy to accept that I simply did.
I was desperate to show her how grateful I was.
My tiny heart burned, eager to find some gift, some token of my feelings, that I could give her before camp was over.
Throughout camp we were told that if we memorized a passage from I Corinthians (the one that is often recited at weddings) we would get a prize.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
I Corinthians 13:3-13
We were presented with a large box full of stuffed animals, and if we successfully memorized and recited the Bible verse, we could pick what we wanted from them. One day Lily casually mentioned that one of the medium sized toys, a stuffed white rabbit, reminded her of one of her pets at home. That was it for me. I studied the passage that night in bed, over and over, searing the words into my brain. My teachers were impressed with my dedication, but they had no idea my devotion was not to their God but to a little girl whose kindness had infatuated me.
The last day of camp was a huge event. All the parents packed the main sanctuary of the giant church. Each grade sat in different sections, all wearing the same colored T-shirts. A large production of skits and choral music performed by all the kids, essentially showing off all that we learned in the two weeks at camp, reassuring the parents that their money was being well-spent.
As the presentation came to an end, all the kids ran out to the lobby, where parents waited with congratulations, hugs and praise for all the hard work we had put into the show. I found my parents being dragged by my youngest sister out the front doors and across the campus to her classroom.
“We will meet you in your classroom after we see Susan’s,” my mother told me.
This was fine with me, as I was on a mission.
I ran back to the classroom and got in line to recite the verses I had memorized.
The line was much longer than I had expected, and I soon realized that the prizes were not for just my own class but the whole grade. When I peeked into the box, I found Lily’s rabbit was already gone. I left the line and found my teacher.
“I have to leave, but really want to recite my verses,” I said to my teacher, stammering from foot to foot like I had to pee. “Could I recite them to you? The line is too long!” She turned away from the parents she was talking to. She must have seen the desperation in my eyes.
“Sure,” she replied, excusing herself from the other adults and sitting down on a small chair.
“How much did you learn?” she asked.
“All of it!” I said, then immediately recited the whole chapter at an auctioneer’s pace.
Afterward, as I was catching my breath, she looked up at me with a shake of her head and told me I could take whatever I wanted. I rushed over to the pile of prizes and took the biggest stuffed animal I could find. Lugging it over my head I ran out into the hallway and searched for the rabbit. I found the boy who had taken it and offered mine instead.
“It’s way bigger, I had to recite the whole thing for it.”
He agreed and gladly exchanged the smaller rabbit for it. I hadn’t seen Lily since the presentation in the large worship hall. I ran back to the classroom, but she wasn’t there.
My heart sank.
“Have you seen Lily?!” I sobbed frantically to my teacher, interrupting her conversation.
“She and her parents left right after you ran out. I was surprised you didn’t want to say goodbye to her.”
“Had to get the rabbit!” I yelled over my shoulder as I ran out of the room. I sprinted down the hall, and burst through the doors to the parking lot. There were so many cars, like a sporting event was queuing up to exit the giant lot. I ran to the top of the church stairs looking out into the sea of cars. She must think I didn’t care about her at all! She must think I’m embarrassed of her in front of all the parents. The one thing she never did to me I inadvertently did to her, right in front of everyone!
Suddenly I caught sight of her yellow dress climbing into a giant, white SUV at the edge of the lot. I ran. No football throw or baseball hit ever spurned me on to run like that. I was weaving in between moving cars, causing breaks to slam and angry voices yelling for me to watch where I was going. I didn’t care, I had to get to her.
My little legs pushed me through the parking lot, everything becoming a hazy blur of sweat and desire.
Everything went black.
I woke up on my back with a very concerned looking man standing over me.
“Are you okay? I’m so sorry. You came out of nowhere.” I looked up at the open car door with a head sized dent in it. I tried to stand up then fell again. I was picked up and rushed back into the classroom. My parents were talking to my teacher. The man explained what happened, while I simply cried.
I never saw Lily again.
My family moved away to another town, far away from the church camp.
There are some regrets that you never lose. They shape you, weave themselves into your personality, and actually become who and why you are. I’m sure if I ever found her again she would not remember the scared, awkward boy she spent two weeks with when she was eight. I can’t even say with complete certainty that she ever existed at all. I do know that I lost my religion at a very young age, but never my faith in kindness. I have spent my whole life embracing the “other,” the odd and different, going out of my way to look after the frightened outsiders, attempting to make their way through a cold and unforgiving society.
And to this day, twenty-five years later, I still have a small, white stuffed rabbit named Lily.