Not a fan of organized religion, Traci Foust preferred to live by a different standard: Be kind, don’t judge. So when her young son announced that he wanted to join the local Baptist church, she had no choice but to let him.
As I watched my AC/DC album burn in our fireplace, by order of my newly Pentecostal mother who was certain the band’s name was an acronym for Against Christ/ Devil’s Children, I thought about Carrie White. Stephen King’s omnipotent, fed up/fucked-up prom queen. How would she handle watching Angus Young’s face evaporate atop a Presto Log?
Though I’m fairly certain I would not have enjoyed pinning my mother to a doorway via telekinetic powers and various kitchen utensils, a small sewing needle through one of her Lee Nails would have been kind of cool.
Only a few times in my life have I ever needed help to rise up and say no. But when my mother became a Born Again Christian and decided her 14-year-old daughter should be born right along with her, rebellion didn’t come easy. I knew her godly intentions sprouted from a long battle of depression and physical illness. She had been suffering from a rare genetic liver disease, one that had taken almost two years and eight extended hospital stays to diagnose.
Church made my mother happy. Being happy wasn’t something my mother often was. I knew to leave that alone. But how does a child express their beliefs to a parent if their beliefs are different, or in my case, just not there?
Our big family bible was a source of catharsis for me because the artwork was as close as a young girl could get to soft porn, and by the time I reached my teen years I was certain of only two things: 1) I had a little crush on Jesus. 2) If ever there was a group of people who lived by a code of not practicing what they preached, the Foust Family was it.
It’s a bit of legend on each crooked side of our family tree that most of my relatives practiced things one could easily categorize as ungodly. My mother’s grandfather was a water dowser in rural Oklahoma, and was often seen walking the arid plains around his farm with a metal rod, chanting Native American rain spells. My father’s great aunt Opal, a local medium, was regularly invited to my grandparents’ very Catholic house “just for fun.” Aunts and cousins often told stories of my parents playing the Ouija Board in my father’s basement. Once my mother bought me a pack of Tarot cards just for waiting nicely in the reception area of her favorite fortune teller.
Then she was saved, and the edges that surrounded who we were and who we were now supposed to be seemed like uneven rows of make believe.
Oh, we still watched Sylvia Browne on television and read our Edgar Cayce books. That was OK, as long as we didn’t “feel it in our hearts.”
Psychics were fine. AC/DC was not.
As I grew up, my interest in the occult and religion evoked an almost ravenous need to learn all I could on the subjects. After the ’80s Iranian boom of the San Francisco Bay Area—mostly by default of those mysterious black-eyed boys I wanted to impress—I discovered a fascination for Islam. In college I attended Mormon services with my neighbor because I loved the idea that they believed in life on other planets. In my late 20’s I was heavy into ufology, reincarnation, and the teachings of Nikola Tesla. I studied with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, worked for the Salvation Army, and joined the British Society for Psychical Research.
Somewhere in between God, aliens, and Russian scientists, I became a wife and mother. Be it through lack of time to study, or the carnival of horrors that is a toddler in a temple, I felt as if I had finally reached a conclusion that was right for me: Don’t judge. Work hard. Help those in need.
For the sake of teaching my children, at the very least, something spiritual, I bought picture books on Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. When they were old enough to understand, good pew behavior was often rewarded with ice cream and new Legos, I took them to as many different services as they could tolerate.
Whenever one of my boys asked about God I met the issue with something safe and generic: “The main thing is to be a good person.” That worked until they wanted me to define faith. “But what do we believe?”
When I tried a more philosophical approach—“Beliefs and morals exist separately. One being the idea of how you think things work, the other is how you work them”—there were shoulder shrugs and furrowed brows. Once, after a two-hour meditation meeting at a popular yogi temple in our town, my then 10-year-old son, Julian, asked, “If we’re not from India, what are we doing here?”
“We’re learning,” I told him. “About the world and the people we share it with.”
That was a good answer, and it seemed to suffice. But what I was failing to understand was that the more I stressed the idea of most people believing in something, the more I emphasized he too, should believe.
When Julian was barely 12 years old, he came home from school and told me all about me about a choir that met in a small Baptist church he passed every day during his walk home. “It reminds me of Forrest Gump stuff,” he said, then showed me a flyer that asked in big black letters: WHERE IS JESUS?
Just as I had not bothered to ask my son if he was OK with attending all those God places I had taken him to, Julian never sought my permission to go looking for Jesus. He simply wiggled off his backpack, stuck the flyer to the refrigerator door and announced his plan. “This Sunday,” he said. “I think I’ll go to church.”
When I was pregnant with my first child, I made a promise to my tummy that I would never restrain my children from their own perceptions. I knew I would one day be responsible for the final design of an adult who wold be under no obligation to show the world love, kindness, intelligence, and morality if they couldn’t move through it freely. This meant, religion—freedom of and/or from—would have to play a huge role in this belief. And unlike what went on in my childhood household, I knew that letting my son attend church services by himself had to be the biggest part of that whole practice/preach thing.
I hung onto this the day I bought Julian his bible.
When someone would say, “You’re letting your son go to church?” I would remind them that I’m not anti-God. I’m anti-force. I figured if I said it enough I’d believe it myself. But everything about it felt wrong. I assumed if I provided my kids with enough knowledge to understand there wasn’t just one way, they would automatically take no way.
In other words: my way.
One night I managed enough vodka tonics to finally ask Julian what he enjoyed most about church. He said, “The music.” He told me when everyone sang together, you could feel a connection. “We’re all there for the same reason and it’s like, all around you.”
What a glorious and frightening thing it is to be there at that moment, when your child stands in front of you, shifting into the might of becoming their own person.
As the weeks went by, Julian’s enthusiasm for church waned considerably. I likened this to the fact that getting up early on a weekend had lost its flair. I never asked him why he stopped attending. I know I should have. But I didn’t. Instead, I bought him a CD of popular gospel songs and said he could play it whenever he wanted. Which he did. Until he got into Gregorian chants. Then Scottish bagpipes. Then Green Day.
Julian is now a senior in high school. Everything that’s important to him is the breadth of the child making room for the man. He’s passionate about politics, human rights, and is sometimes so concerned with the challenges of the underprivileged, he’ll give his lunch money to the homeless guy who plays the harmonica in front of Wal-Mart. He has close friends who love Jesus and Mohammed. He has friends who are gay, some who are atheists, and one who believes the U.S. government is being controlled by reptilian hybrids.
When my house is full of these vibrant and exceptional almost-men, I watch as my son immerses himself into their diversity with questions, arguments, and tolerance, and I secretly wonder if this is what all those years of following me on the path of my own childhood rebellion has taught him. The simplicity of values that have nothing—or everything—to do with religion: Be kind. Don’t Judge. Help those in need.
There is one thing, though. No matter what I do, I cannot get him to understand the awesome life-changing power of AC/DC.
I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with that.
Traci Foust holds a degree in American Literature from UCSC. She is the author of Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD (Simon and Schuster 2011) Both her fiction and non fiction have appeared in several journals and websites including The Southern Review, Funny or Die, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is currently working on her second memoir, Love and Xanax. Find her on Facebook or her website. She is also a memoir instructor for Hardcore Memoir Workshops.