84: Your Sweater Is Awesome

84: Your Sweater Is Awesome

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

Your Sweater Is Awesome

A desire to be in charge of our own lives, a need for control, is born in each of us. It is essential to our mental health, and our success, that we take control.

~Robert F. Bennett

As a young child, I understood that my mother, from the moment I was born, had laid out my path. My path was straight, forged from steel and lined with barbed wire. I was not to deviate from nor question my path. Make-up, short shorts, tight jeans, high heels or low-cut tops were not part of the approved ensemble. Boys were most definitely not allowed. On this path I would be an obedient daughter, student and member of the church. I would go to college, marry a good boy from the church, have children and settle down in some nameless Midwestern town.

For eleven and a half years I followed these rules and met all expectations. I was an excellent student, I practiced hard for my piano lessons, I visited my two approved friends, and I went to church, where I had to stifle my questions. At my church, we were taught the following:

1. Science was false.

2. The Bible was truth verbatim.

3. Premarital sex was an abominable sin.

4. The end of the world was imminent and preparation was required by all.

Outwardly, I accepted these teachings. I tried to fit into the awkward youth group gatherings and become an active, productive member of the congregation by serving lukewarm coffee in the food kitchen. Inwardly, I was confused because the rest of the world seemed to be doing just fine believing in modern science, engaging in premarital sex and not waiting around for the world to end. I felt I was hovering on the fringes of fully living.

On the cusp of my graduation from high school, I met a boy. It happened at my part-time job, amid harsh fluorescent lights, surrounded by racks of clothing and the scents of mingled perfumes from the cosmetic counter.

“Your sweater is awesome.”

My eyes lifted to meet the blue stare of a tall, handsome boy with long, straight pale blond hair. He was dressed in a dark suit and colorful socks.

“Thanks.”

He dipped his head in acknowledgment, grinned and walked confidently into the break room. With that seemingly trivial first exchange, I felt a sense of possibility and optimism. I was not sure what would happen, but I knew I had come to a bend in my otherwise straight path.

We began dating immediately, almost without conscious thought or spoken agreement. Being with him felt dangerous, freeing and exciting. He was confident, sophisticated, well educated, and intelligent. We took breaks together at the mall food court, laughing over limp Taco Bell and sticky tabletops. On his days off work, he dressed in black T-shirts with ripped jeans, drank alcohol, cursed and played electric bass. His friends were down-to-earth, non-judgmental and genuinely friendly, a far cry from the people I grew up with at church. He introduced me to new genres of music, such as the surprisingly lyrical metal band Tool and the experimental ramblings of Michael Gira. He taught me to appreciate the metaphysical art of Salvador Dali, showed me indie films like Garden State and racy comedies like Super Troopers, and helped me enjoy new experiences. I was eighteen, he was twenty-one, and we were inseparable.

I brought him to meet my parents after a month of dating. They hated him on sight. The tension was palpable. I felt waves of judgment radiating from my mother as she questioned him the way a detective might interrogate a criminal. My throat was dry and my hands were slick with sweat as I contemplated the results of this disastrous meeting. In the aftermath, I was forbidden to see him again based on the sole fact that he was a treacherous speed bump in my carefully paved future. It was during this first meeting that I believe I made the unconscious choice to go against my rigid upbringing and make my own decisions.

Secretly, Andrew and I continued to date. With each lie and fabrication, I felt my protective bubble disintegrate and allow me to glimpse the freedom that every teenager longs for. I went to loud, outrageous parties, the bass pumping through my body. I stayed out past 9 p.m., driving around in his huge baby blue Buick LeSabre, feeling the cool night air snake through my hair and give me a shivering thrill. I made new friends, went to my first non-Christian rock concert and drank my first alcoholic beverage. I even committed the aforementioned abominable sin. I reveled in the feeling of truly belonging to someone and something.

Eventually, one hasty lie caused the entire house of cards to crumble around us. I can still feel the punch glancing off the side of my head as I sat at the dining room table in front of my mother, forced to disclose my intimate experiences in front of my family and youth pastor. Time slowed to a crawl as I was immobilized by shame, anger, hurt and final disillusionment. As if through a fog, I heard my brother call me a whore and saw my youth pastor convulsively clutch his worn brown leather Bible as he looked at me with disappointment and disgust. I will never forget the moment I saw my mother decide that I was tainted by my relationship with Andrew. In her eyes, I was ruined. My life as a sheltered, supported dependent ended that day. My parents turned me out of the house into the proverbial unknown. My car was taken and sold, my college funding stopped. I had nowhere to go but into the arms of the boy who had showed me a glimpse of how rich life could be.

Perhaps I was immature in how I chose to handle that fortuitous summer after graduation, or perhaps it needed to happen for me to realize that the weight of my predetermined future was slowly crushing me. On some level, I understood my need for rebellion and experimentation. I felt fleeting flutters of guilt as my previous “good girl” persona made herself known. But deep down, I yearned for the ability to be my own person and make my own choices, for good or bad, without fear of judgment from those professing to love me unconditionally. Andrew showed me that it was okay to fail and that it was okay to have my own opinions and ask questions.

For many years, I could not recall certain events of this time. The confused feelings of guilt, shame, freedom, and love were like tangled threads, too intertwined for me to examine them individually. Later, I was able to separate them and grow to understand how each thread was important to my personal development.

I keep the “awesome sweater” in the back of my closet as a memento of the quirky pick-up line that was the beginning of a new future. Sometimes I take it out, put it on and become the oppressed eighteen-year-old girl I once was. As I look in the mirror and see the moth holes and unraveling hem that belies its age, I wonder how different my life would be if I had chosen to wear something else that day. Meeting that boy eight years ago was the catalyst that changed me as a person and gave me the strength and ability to deviate from my path.

That boy has now been my husband of six years, and because of him, I am able to see how different the world is outside of the bubble made from religious judgment, rigid rules and fear. To this day, I still struggle with my personal views on religion and reconciliation with my family. As a new mother, I can only hope that my daughter grows up free to believe and experience what she wants. May she find acceptance in being herself, formulate her own beliefs, and love whomever she chooses.

~Emily Oman

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