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Evangelicals Abroad: A Shame Observed

Hannah is one of my new friends from the wonderful world of social media/blogging. She writes beautiful words about spiritual hurt and healing on Wine & Marble. I’m so grateful to Hännah for sharing her story here today. -Micah


Monetier-les-Bains, 2005.

I was nestled up against the window, feasting on the green and gold of the fields and hills we passed, letting my heart rest on the glinting, flashing deep blue lake skins, tracing the lines of the mountain edges as our train climbed into the French Alps.

The sheer privilege of the experience left me numb. I tuned out the brash Marseilles accents of the teenagers across from us in the train car and held my book, pretending to read. But I couldn’t read, and I didn’t have words to journal (though I’m sure I made a show of jotting down a few lines about the train and scenery during the trip), and so I leaned into the window and let the scenery enchant me into heart-stillness.

We switched to a bus at Briançon, passing markers for the Tour de France route and generic hotels until we slipped up the road toward the pass and then into the valley below. The intensity of the green fields and the clarity of the sky swept clean of clouds kept me in my beauty-drunkenness, and I absorbed the whole scene, each house and crooked little street, the farms and fields, the hollows of the ski slopes jaggedly running down the mountains and through the trees. I swallowed the scene whole, making it part of my heart patterns and deepest loves. I was Whitman and this valley was my song, my poem, my dream-world self. Nothing else existed.

We arrived at the cottage, and I moved slowly, putting my things in place, finding my bed, opening windows and trying to feel fully that this was real. I was there, in the French Alps. And it was peaceful. There was no rush for anything and no one felt obligated to start up a game or a conversation or a meal.

I didn’t know it then, but in this place of tranquility and beauty, I wouldn’t be able to fully rest. The residual stress of home, of expectations, of duty, and responsibility would here crash down on me for the first time. The absence of the usual pressures amplified the usual pressures and would make me crippled under the power of my fear of letting everyone down.

My housemates were the French family we were travelling with—the golden and weathered mother with snapping wit and dark eyes, the mellow and masterfully intelligent daughter, the jovial and unflappable older brother, the shy and happy father. Also with us was my American traveling companion, the brains behind the trip, a short and stocky little woman with a shock of silver hair and a loud voice and little awareness of her own awkwardness or her entitled American mindset. I was grateful to her and owed her a lot for letting me come with her, but I also resented her Americanness and her lack of tact. But she in charge and I was her guest. This was her trip.

After lunch on the second day, I walked down to the local market on my own, wandering the foreign aisles and processing the signage as I hunted out the necessary ingredients for a familiar meal for supper.  The roads were tiny and edged with brick or granite stones, and each house was classically alpine, charming and petite and old. The gardens overflowed to the edges of the streets, poppies and herbs leaning out to be touched, picked, caressed.

I returned with zucchini (called courgette) and the fixings for macaroni and cheese (after hunting to find cheddar among the diversity of local cheese, I think I found something that would substitute and not taste too exotic), and an eyeful of envy for the pottery and carvings made locally and displayed in a nearby storefront.

Washing the lunch dishes in preparation for supper, I was still emotionally sated, like a child pleased with the world and itself, which lies and grins for the goodness of milk and mother’s close presence.  Home might be intense and suffocating, and returning there might be only five days away, but for now only this moment and those dishes and the afternoon golden sunlight existed for me. And I was happy.

So as I wiped plates and soaked mugs and sorted silverware, I sang—putting my happiness into the expression I knew best, as the daughter of the American evangelical movement. I sang praise songs and I sang hymns and I felt good about my voice and about the songs. There was no one to tell me I was off key, there was no one to ask me to quiet down, there was no one who knew the words well enough to tell me if I got the lyrics wrong. I sang and sang.

When I dried my hands and left the kitchen, I went to my room, where I shared a bunk bed and a little bathroom with Elaine, the other American. I crouched over my suitcase, digging around for the notebook I had stashed with my mother’s best recipes inside in anticipation of a tonight’s introduction to American comfort food for my hosts. I heard Elaine walk in behind me, and the door shut. She cleared her throat lightly, eh-hem.

“Hӓnnah, I have an observation for you.”

I turned around, sitting cross-legged on the carpet, the notebook in hand, my finger tucked inside to keep my place. “Yes ma’am?” I said.

“I think you shouldn’t sing while we’re here. Not in public, anyway. If you have to, do it in the shower, but not while people are around.”

I blinked at her. “What? Why? It was bad, wasn’t it. I’m so sorry.”

“No, no, no,” she said. “It sounded beautiful. But you really shouldn’t be showing off like that. You might embarrass our hosts.”

“Embarrass them…?”

“Yes, and we need to be grateful for them having us here and being so generous, so you’d better not sing like that anymore unless you’re in private. We need to be a good witness to these people.”

My hands were shaking and my face was hot. “Okay, yes ma’am.”

“I’m so glad you understand.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“So you won’t do that again, right?”

“No, I won’t sing anymore when I’m in public, while we’re here.”

“Good.” She opened the door again, and walked down the hall. “I think I’ll take a little walk now. See you later.”

I sat on the floor, staring at the carpet, my notebook clenched to my chest. Then I leaned forward and pushed the door shut again. I couldn’t face the others. I lay on the ground, my arms crossed underneath me and my cheek pressing into the nubs of carpet pile. I hated myself. I hated my singing. I wished I’d been less happy, so I wouldn’t have tried to sing.

And so I lay there on the floor for a long time, and tried to sleep off the shame and fear devouring me.

It would be at least another three years before I sang over the dishes again. And then: always when I’m alone.

Someday, I want to go back to the mountains. I want to go stay in a cabin with my people. And I want to break bread and sing with them and not be afraid.

[ image:  Darkroom Daze ]

published September 3, 2013

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