This is how you leave.

“Leaving” Oil on canvas; 48"x48"; 2012 by Julie Ruth

When you are the leaver, the one who abandons a former position for a new self-assigned place of occupancy, you learn to steel yourself.

The admonition to “never forget where you come from” lands softly, spoken by people familiar with their own authority. Then, in the silence after it is spoken, you feel the words’ crusted flint center. The center is sharp, with a barbed core that wounds only after the words, lobbed from safe distances, find their mark.

“We don’t do that.”
When one — and only one — path is laid out for you to walk down as a young child, you have two options. You can assume the burden of carrying out your elders’ wishes and walk straight down that path to a future that you can already trace the outline of with your fingertips. Or, you can choose to take the unknown detour at the risk of losing everything and ultimately hope to find some meaning.

I chose the second option, and I chose to start down that path at a very young age. Raised in a devout, fundamentalist evangelical household in rural Ohio, I saw no hope at every turn. I lived in a homogeneous culture, where each variation was just that — a variation on the norm. Walls rose to meet me, in every direction. My curiosity about the world, about other humans, about history and science and art, was disparaged and discouraged by the church — the ultimate authority. The point of living a scripted black-and-white life eluded me.

Grow up, go to college, find a husband and then settle down with a litter of kids, a library of gardening books, church on Sundays and a respectable fellowship group on Wednesdays?

No. Absolutely not. What was the point of even being born if there was no other possible outcome? That was my thought at age five, when I experienced my first existential crisis as I climbed out of a bathtub and stood, dripping, feeling hopelessly trapped.

By the age of seven, I was routinely forging escape hatches with books, my sketchpad and the faithful PBS programming I came to rely on like the lifeline it was. The intro to Reading Rainbow can still bring me to tears.

I read. I read everything and anything, and won the reading challenge year after year in elementary school. Days that the Bookmobile, with its cheery graphics and sighing transmission, trundled down my rural township road were better than Christmas. In between, I waited impatiently for my selections from MOLO, the mail order regional library system books-by-mail program (active in Ohio during the ’80s) to arrive. The brown nylon sack with the zippered top signaled a day of binge-reading under the apple trees in the backyard, after my chores were done.

“What will they think?”
When you are the one who leaves, you learn to pack yourself away in tiny pieces so as not to upset. Years of compartmentalizing helped me survive many things — a few truly awful by any standard, others simply routine from living in a fishbowl too small.

So when the time came to truly leave, once and for all, I did without a backward glance. And when no one understood, I kept going. I had learned to steel myself against the withering judgement that reliably followed any small deviance from the path. I had learned to tamp down my discomfort and keep walking. With each deviance from the norm, my relief grew until I knew that I had— finally — reached my self.

Originally published in Olive Branch Writer’s Collective.

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