“Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?” (or Mulan, Fundamentalism, and Me)

MulanReflection1

It was 1999 and I was twelve-years-old as I sat on my bed listening to Christina Aguilera’s self-titled debut album on my Walkman to prevent the parental units from hearing some of the racier lines that weren’t exactly church-sanctioned—“Hormones racing at the speed of light / But that don’t mean it’s gotta be tonight … I’m a genie in a bottle baby / Gotta rub me the right way honey.”

I was an extremely sheltered Christian homeschool kid whose only real friends were other Christian homeschool kids at our church. The closest thing I ever got to sex ed., even while in high school, was when I was assigned to read I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Passion and Purity. The basic premise of the books when it came to sex: Just say no. We never even talked about anatomy, that was the Forbidden Zone.

But despite being so isolated even I knew that some of Christina’s songs could get her added to the ever-growing Banned List—the list that included things like Pokémon, almost all fantasy worlds besides Narnia, some Disney movies, computer and video games and movies that had magical components, and anything and everything that seemed to be going against my parents’ conservative Christian beliefs. Even I knew “rub me the right way” didn’t exactly fit with my family’s abstinence-only and no-dating/courting-until-you’re-old-enough-to-get-married rules.

Christina was my little secret. But what that album showed me as I sat in bed listening to her sing through my crappy Walkman headset was just how many secrets I had hidden.

I cried every time I heard her sing Reflection from the movie Mulan.

I will never pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter.
Can it be,
I’m not meant to play this part?
Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself,
I would break my family’s heart.

I was hiding so much more than some sexy lyrics on a Christian Aguilera CD.

Earlier that year my mother had confronted me regarding my clothes. The modesty teachings at church and home were already underway. I’d already began to feel like my body was wrong because it had the power to cause men to sin, so it needed to be covered up and hidden. However, when crop-tops are in it’s extremely hard to find anything in the Juniors’ Department that meets the modesty guidelines, and middle-school femininity felt so foreign and uncomfortable to me (lip gloss, glitter, and the works—although I did make an exception for butterfly hairclips because, after all, it was the 1990s). So I’d started dressing more androgynously, buying unisex t-shirts and cargo pants.

But it turned out that wasn’t okay, either.

“If you didn’t have long hair, you’d look like a boy,” my mother said one Sunday afternoon once we were home from church.

My frizzy hair was nearly to my elbow. But I would’ve chopped it off if it’d really been an option. I was told I’d have to wear a hat to church as sign of my submission to God, but it had felt more like it would have been a sign of shame. And I was instructed that I would have  to carry a hat everywhere I went because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to pray. Getting a haircut had sounded like a lot of work and a lot of guilt, so I kept it long. But I hated it every time I looked at my reflection.

After the comment about my clothes my mother asked: “Are you a lesbian?” In our world lesbian wasn’t a word used in polite company.

She asked if I’d been sexually assaulted, to which I responded no. I’d been taught homosexuality was a form of sexual perversion. There were degrees of perversion, but having a crush on another girl was just one step away from making love to a cow. At home I’d been taught that homosexuals had become perverted as the result of trauma; their sexuality was broken. Perverted. My mother thought I was perverted. Broken. My mother thought I was broken.

She said my clothes were ugly and that I looked like a dyke, a word I’d never heard.

I began to cry. “I’m not a lesbian! I’m not a lesbian!” I didn’t know if what I was saying was true but it didn’t matter.

My mind raced and the world felt swimmy as I thought of the time earlier that year when Misty, a girl from church, had grabbed my journal, refusing to give it back. Terror had surged through my whole body at the thought of her seeing the page of doodles I’d dedicated to brunette at church’s name.

I was terrified Misty would know what I couldn’t even put into words; what I didn’t even know yet, myself. I was terrified she would tell people what I couldn’t find the words for. But as she held my diary out of reach she flipped right past the incriminating evidence without knowing what it meant.

But can you be a lesbian if you still like boys? I’d only learned that “gay” could mean more than happy the year before, so “bi” was nowhere in my vocabulary.

“I’m not a lesbian!” I cried again, unsure if I was telling the truth. But it didn’t matter. I couldn’t be one. I couldn’t be that word.

My mother began to get angry. She said I was lying.

“I’m not lying! I’m not a lesbian.” I wasn’t sure if what I was saying was true. But it didn’t matter because I planned to make it true. Or at least I would make everyone believe it was true.

She called me butch, an unfamiliar term I could tell was intended as an insult so it stung even without a definition. She called me an ugly lesbian.

Ugly. Lesbian.

And at that moment I decided that if this is what happens when you’re a lesbian, then I would never be one. I would do whatever I needed to do, say whatever needed to be said to avoid ever being called that word again.

She said I disgusted her. She said I made her physically sick.

I needed to get away from the accusations so I pushed past my mother, throwing my bedroom door open so quickly that it shatters the mirror behind it with a crash.

I ran down the hallway and out the front door.

I didn’t even notice that I’ve forgotten my shoes until I was already halfway down our street.

Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself,
I would break my family’s heart.

I chose to be a good Christian girl. I eventually got rid of my secular music, even Christina. I didn’t go on a single date in high school, or even for years after high school. I didn’t go to prom. I said I only liked boys. I said I loved being homeschooled. I read my bible and prayed every day. I was actively involved in my church. I said I was theologically and politically conservative. I tried so hard to squeeze myself into the box that everyone said was mine, but I’m not a contortionist so I got pretty bruised up as my arms and legs knocked against the walls of my prescribed identity.

They want a docile lamb,
No-one knows who I am.
Must there be a secret me,
I’m forced to hide?

I hadn’t listened to Christina’s song Reflection for years, but heard it by chance not that long ago. It brought 1999 back in all its butterfly-hairclip, crop-top, Christian Aguilera glory. It brought back the tears as I remembered the identity question Mulan and I were both so quietly whispering that no one even heard.

Can it be,
I’m not meant to play this part?


A Sunflower for Gilbert (Or, that Time I went to Hungary)

Flickr CC Rachel Samanyi

Flickr CC Rachel Samanyi

Honestly, I’m not sure we were supposed to be up there in the first place. Or even out of bed for that matter because the school, in order aid in the celibacy of the students, had a strict curfew. But there was something about quietly sneaking through a dark castle with towering ceilings and great windows that felt, to use an Anne word, romantic.

We weren’t kindred spirits to begin with. It’s not that we ever fought, but common ground seemed to be in scarce supply.

I’d only graduated from high school a matter of weeks before. Only spoke English. And was living and traveling on my own for the very first time.

Hermina, on the other hand, had grown up in Serbia, but after attending a university in Hungary had decided to call it home. She was very well traveled and spoke multiple languages fluently.

And we were roommates.

My ex-denomination had a bible college in a tiny rural town in Hungary. During the summer the old Hungarian castle — yes, it was a castle — served as a conference center for pastors and missionaries throughout Europe. And in 2005 Hermina and I found ourselves living together for three and a half months as we volunteered during conference season doing dishes, making beds, working in the coffee shop, and enjoying our one day a week off work.

As an “on fire” Evangelical youth I’d gone to Hungary with the goal of aiding those who were sharing the Gospel. However, what I actually ended up doing was converting someone to the Gospel of Saint Anne of Green Gables, patron saint of romantics and misfits everywhere.

One of the American staff members at the college owned all of the Anne films on VHS and Hermina, to my horror, had never even heard of Anne. So we located an old TV in a finished section of the attic that was used during the day as a classroom for the teachers’ children.

We didn’t have a lot of time for movie watching, so it took us a while to get through the films. But every night that we could, after the Hungarian castle was asleep and the lights were off, we’d tiptoe through lonely rooms that in their previous lives may have held grand balls but now, only a few hours before, hand been bustling with conference guests.

We’d climb several flights of spiral staircases with wrought iron handrails. And then, when we got to the top floor, would open a small door that looked like a closet but was  another set of stairs leading to the attic. Once there, we’d sit on the rug in front of the TV since the furniture in the children’s classroom was all on the small side. Hermina would lay on her stomach, taking in every moment, as I sat there feeling proud of my new convert.

The Canadian films were very foreign to Hermina. And some aspects about the historical context and word usage required a little translating.

“Why does Anne have such a strange last name?” She asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Of Green Gables — What kind of last name is that?”

“‘Of Green Gables’ is more of a title,” I explained. “It’d be like if I called you ‘Hermina of Serbia.'”

But one thing translated just fine: Gilbert Blythe. We may have been different when it came to age, education, and the section of the globe we called home but we both couldn’t help falling in love just a little with that steadfast Canadian. We fell in love with the idea of a romantic someone encouragings us in the pursuit of our dreams rather than standing in the way. The idea of being loved for both our mind and our daydreams. And the idea of being loved because of, not just in spite of, our quirks and faults and even the beauty we couldn’t see (like carrot red hair).

He wasn’t some rugged bad boy tamed by the love of a woman. Or a two-dimensional Prince Charming. Gilbert was the character, the man, who showed us what it meant to be cherished.

I loved watching Hermina react to the story that was by this time very familiar to me. It made it feel new again. She was annoyed with Gilbert when he had the nerve to call Anne carrots and pull her braid (and appropriately shocked and proud when Anne responded by cracking a school slate on his head). And then when Gilbert started to grow up and his admiration and love for Anne became increasingly obvious and endearing, she lamented Anne’s long-held grudge. She’d routinely ask, “Is she ever going to like him?” And I’d just laugh but wouldn’t say a word.

Hungary will always remind me of Anne and Gilbert, not just because I had the chance to share their story with Hermina but because Hungary would’ve suited them so well.

Anne would’ve loved spending a summer in that castle; she would’ve imagined the love affairs that had transpired there, and the ghosts that couldn’t bear to leave. She would’ve loved strolling through the little town past a small Catholic church with an overgrown, forgotten cemetery; the petite cottages that lined the street and were practically overrun with flower gardens; and the bright orange sunsets.

She would’ve loved the summer storms that seemed to roll in out of nowhere, and how the lightning would be so close that during the night it’d light up the entire castle like something out of an old horror film and how the windows with their old locks would sometimes blow open during an especially hard gust. She would’ve loved Budapest: the architecture, the vastness of the city, and the romantic but not-so-blue Danube.

Anne would’ve loved my favorite part of Hungary, too. She would’ve loved the fields of yellow as far as the eye could see, so bright it hurt my eyes. When Hermina and I’d drive in to Budapest I’d point out the window like a little kid who’d just spotted the gates to Disneyland for the first time. Look at that! It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. “Kelsey, they’re just sunflower fields,” Hermina would laugh. But there will never be such a thing as just sunflower fields. And Anne would’ve understood that.

And Gilbert would’ve loved how happy Hungary and the sunflowers made his Anne girl.

Like so many fans of the books and movies I’m heartbroken about Jonathan Crombie’s death (the actor who played Gilbert). But he will always live on in the movies and my memory as the one and only Gilbert Blythe. I’d leave a sunflower at his grave if I could. My memories of sunflowers and Hungary and late nights spent watching Anne finally, slowly, fall for Gilbert are all so closely tied together that no other flower would seem appropriate. But this will have to do, instead.

Wishing you fields of sunflowers, Gilbert.