Ill-fitting ecstasy and soothing hymns. The language of Methodism and of God runs through my head like the murmurings of a mother soothing a child. The order of worship, the Christian calendar, the way a Sunday afternoon after church can seem as long as a year, holding the sunlight and the heat like a basket of secret wishes.
I grew up in the doctrinal Wesleyan tradition of discipleship and lemonade on the lawn, harmonized hymns and church camp in the mountains, singing beneath the wooden rafters of a chapel surrounded by hardwoods with the rushing waters of a goldminer’s creek not far behind. But I rejected these comforts because in my waxing adolescence I divined that my hungry sexuality was not welcome, and my outspoken questions unwanted.
Mine was an angry rejection, and one steeped in hurt and betrayal. I recognized the faith of my parents and their peers as one bound by a set of rules masquerading as social grace, but manifesting as sharp judgment and censorship. I wanted a life that celebrated uneven temperaments and saw the variety in human experience as an abundance of goodness, rather than as fodder for a Godly crowd to hew and cut into an idol called Normal.
So I ran off. Off to the Pacific Northwest and away from the South of my ripening. Off to the college that the Princeton Review called the most godless in America. And I was strange in it. There were fewer Southern students than International ones. My peers took for granted the easy secular humanism of our seminars because it was the language of their childhood dinners. Many years later I read the words of Slavoj Zizek as he discussed how a loss of faith could be seen as an actual violence, and I was soothed, and I remembered my own ripping asunder.
In that first year at school I did not adapt well. I converted back to a deep and profound love of God because the people around whom I felt most at ease spoke the language of Jesus. One of those friends was Don Miller, an older student who I met on my first day of classes. He was auditing Humanities 110, and he sat behind me during our first lecture. We became friends without effort. From the beginning we were honest with each other, and our conversations could wind into silliness and profundity with the same enthusiasm. I used to show up unannounced at the house he shared with several other dudes, and we would watch movies or make dinner out of whatever could be found in the kitchen. Many evenings we just sat around drinking beers and talking about our week.
Those evenings feel like a long time ago now. It was a long time ago, now, I suppose.
I remember days, too, when I would sit with our friend Penny and admire how her faith seemed to spring from some deep knowing, as though the roots of heaven were in her very bones, and I remember listening to Don wrestle with his own truths and anger in the face of a God that, as he later wrote, “would not resolve.” Penny and Don, along with several others unnamed, formed a small Christian community that thrived at Reed, as interested in questions of servitude and Christ-like humility as their academic studies. In later years, I remember the Christian group on campus seemed to become more embattled against the student body, but that year the group was not so other.
My freshman year was also the last year that my name was Laura Long, and not Laura Jean (the Moore came later). I was growing into myself, and the following year I chose to return to the double name of my childhood. Many who met me during the few years that I introduced myself as Laura call me Laura still. I do not blame them. I have learned that people have a hard time unlearning their first memory of you, even if you become someone, or something, else. As I did, as I have, a few times over.
As Laura Jean, my faith waned—this time without the anger or hurt of my first rebellion. I became enamored of the concrete and academic and clung fast to the skepticism of religion’s critics. It was an odd time to settle into atheism. Blue Like Jazz, Don’s book about his experiences at Reed College, his faith, Penny’s love of God, and my own conversion, had just been released by Thomas Nelson. Very quickly it became a New York Times Best Seller. Don’s life was transformed by its success. Sometime later Steve Taylor came around, determined to turn Blue Like Jazz into a movie. I remember Don and Steve and a crew of others staying up late to storyboard and write, wrestling the memoir and its characters into a filmable story. They showed me an early draft of the script and told me I was renamed Lauryn and characterized as a lesbian unbeliever “to avoid a love triangle” between the characters. I didn’t mind. Maybe it was obvious I was bisexual even then. Maybe my unfaith was already a mark of difference that couldn’t let me be the Laura I had been before, even in fiction.
After reading that first script, I criticized several bits of dialogue and was not included in later rounds of revisions. Nor was I included in the production or release of the movie. I never met Tania Raymonde, who played my character, although several friends have said they liked her depiction of that on-film simulacrum of me: the self-same swagger, the self-same pathos. It made sense to me that I was removed from the hubbub, even if part of my story was therein. I enjoy watching more than being watched, and that has been true throughout my various incarnations.
Don and I are not close anymore—not out of any malice, but because our lives have been borne along their own currents, passing away from each other across geographies and time. And Penny and I are facebook friends, the way many people from the past have been netted by social media into distant hellos of likes and scrolling. Now that I am in my thirties, my surety about the void and nothingness has faded into a gentler curiosity about all that I do not know or understand in this world. So, too, have I come to believe that rightness and righteousness are not qualities of metaphysics but of dogmatism. I cannot scoff at the deep faith of believers, or the committed skepticism of those who find comfort in certainty and rational analysis, because I have known both perspectives, and both have served me well.
Last year I was in the mountains of my childhood a month after my dog had died in my arms. It was early fall, just before the trees would begin their turning, and I sat on my mother’s porch in the morning, naked, reading Emerson. No one was around. The wind blew and the sun passed across my bare knees. Birds came and went. I stared at the mountains, layered in greens and golds to the horizon, and exhaled. With my breath came also a sob—itself a surprise—and then another. I surrendered to the impulse and threw my shoulders back and cried and cried and laughed and cried again, until I could not cry anymore. I was diffuse. Grief and celebration were the same; past and present and future were arbitrary; I was myself and not myself. And when it was over—because all things must come to an end—I wiped my eyes and understood then the words of Paul, like an echo from the Sunday School of my youth: the peace which passes all understanding.
Laura Jean Moore is the 2014 winner of the Cobalt Review’s Zora Neale Hurston Fiction Prize. Her poetry, essays, and stories have been featured or are forthcoming in FLUX WEEKLY, VICE, [PANK], the EEEL, the Brooklyn Rail, ENTROPY, Corium, and Change Seven. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Reed College. She is suspicious of most things.
Read All Columns by Laura Jean Moore
- On Greatness
- Whiteness, A Study
- New York
- American Dreams
- Body Talk
- Habits, Simple and Austere
- On Love