My Own Authority By Maura McDanel
"She was trying to get rid of a religious hangover."
— Simone de Beauvoir
In fifth grade, I went to bible camp. This was pretty common among the kids I went to Sunday School with. We went swimming, made crafts, played capture the flag, and saw bible skits put on by the camp counselors. At the time I didn’t think anything of the rules about our bodies, it all seemed familiar. The one rule that stood out the most was “no making purple.” This meant girls were red, boys were blue, and they shouldn’t touch. Not sure how they were going to enforce this rule seeing as so many girls in my cabin were determined to kiss hot Toby, the camp lifeguard, by the end of the day that “making purple” seemed inevitable.
One of the years I went to camp we were shown a video expressing the absolute importance to stay abstinent until marriage. I just remember nails being hammered into an apple with dramatic music. I think the apple was suppose to represent our vaginas. There was a weird dynamic to this. The idea of virginity was very pressed on us girls, stressing that our worth relied on our virtue, our purity. Then the bell rang and it was time for us to have a half hour of “quiet time with God” where I usually went by the lake with my rainbow notebook.
By the time I was in eighth grade I got confirmed at my church like a lot of other teenagers did in my hometown. It was an extensive process. We had to get a “mentor” to work through a bible workbook before our confirmation ceremony. I just remember having tea with one of my mom’s friends a couple times at a grocery store deli talking about sin and purity. Overall I was pretty disappointed with the ceremony because all the other kids got cool, in depth bible verses on their certificate that represented their personalities and mine was some crappy one from Peter saying, “a quiet soul is of great value in God’s eyes” and that my name meant “dark skinned.”
When I was 13 I went with my best friend to a gift shop to buy ourselves “true love waits” rings which are just rings you wear to vow to yourself and God that you will wait until you get married to have sex. We were pretty excited to date and sign the cards that came with them to show our commitment to being “good girls.” I never saw any boys buying those rings though.
One guy I liked in high school I had to “court” meaning you always had to have a chaperone with you because his parents were religiously strict. At one point I had to have a sit down talk with his parents to vow I wouldn’t have sex with him until marriage. This is still a traumatic experience I try to repress because it made me feel like I had to defend my character. Plus it was really fucking awkward as a teenager to convince two adults that I didn’t want to have sex with their son. I tried to reassure them that I had a promise ring that said, “true love waits” to ease their suspicions but that didn’t help because on one of our courting hangouts four of us were watching a movie sitting on a bed and his dad came in and clapped at us like dogs to get off because we shouldn’t all be sitting so close.
When I came home after explaining my sex plan trajectory with my crush’s parents I found out that they had called my parents. Now I had to explain to two more adults that I wasn’t trying to have sex with anyone. After re-explaining my purity ring again to my parents my dad proceeded to tell me that it didn’t matter because he said I was going to have sex and I can’t make promises about that stuff. So basically it was a big ordeal of other people telling me whether I was or wasn’t going to have sex at some point in the near future. I was horrified and ran up to my room and cried while listening to Shania Twain.
My freshman year of college I rushed a Christian sorority. Everyone was nice enough and I went with the seniors to church when they invited me but things started to feel off. That was the point when I was like “what the hell am I doing?” and started to question everything I was taught. It felt like God was leaving me and I couldn’t figure out why. Moving to Boulder was like a safe incubator for me to hatch out of this weird small egg of the culture I grew up in. I learned what a clit was, I became friends with people who were openly gay, and I tried beer. I slowly stopped judging people for how religious they were, which I didn’t even realize I was doing in the first place. Also, everyone should know what and where the clit is.
I will admit when looking back on the teachings that were pressed upon me while growing up, it comes with bitterness. I’m disappointed that instead of being taught how to have healthy boundaries about my body, I was taught outdated rules or told by someone else what was right for me. This would have saved me a lot of trouble because dealing with boys sneak attack kissing you is weird to navigate, or it’d be nice to have known that it is okay to tell someone to the fuck off of you even if you’re dating. My whole life I’ve been learning how to deal with the layers of men’s authority over me. Society at large is dominated by men, the religion I was taught; my home, too, with a father as "head of the household." Then if you bother, you would find me, at the bottom.
I haven’t had a religion in a long time and that’s okay because it never served me. Now I feel like a much happier and healthier person. Through the bitterness I can find nuggets that uplift me and make me feel good that they were there all along. Nature has always been my sacred place. I remind myself of my secret fountain in the woods of Germany where I use to live and that the dock at my childhood home in Minnesota is my favorite and most sacred place in the world. It’s where I use to try and heal trees who had broken branches with crushed up lake rock and where I’d start fires with my friends and stare at the moon's reflection. In the city I have a salt lamp, oils, special rocks, and relics from my travels to surround me in the special corner where I get quiet and breathe out my thank yous to the world. Nature is my holy place where I can be my own authority.
Also, I’m reading a book about sexual awakening for women because I repressed a lot of shit.
“I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.”
Maura McDanel is a metalsmith, improvisor, poet, and co-founder of Hay Nonnie residing in Chicago, IL.