Mimosas with Ruth
Bill Sworm is a leathery, bent-over man with patchy salt-and-pepper scruff and a bulldog’s underbite. He swears like somebody is paying him royalties every time a choice word slips out, and his life’s prized works are his cars (though he has children too). They (his cars) are his Facebook profile picture and wallpaper, where underneath his bio reads, “Optimism is the forerunner of disappointment.” Naturally, his close friends refer to him as Mr. Sunshine.
The only pictures of Bill on the internet are hasty candids of his wrinkled hand flicking off the camera. He nearly exclusively wears denim-on-denim with a yellowed wife-beater, and always a baseball hat—even to his daughter’s black-tie wedding. A couple of years back, Bill (mostly) gave up drinking after it started to take a noticeable toll on his health. Now, if he drinks, it’s a shot of Jack Daniel’s straight from the bottle, and only in moments of severe distress or celebration. He doesn’t text. He is deeply loyal.
I met Bill at the racetrack that my stepfather’s hobby of engine-meddling and drag-racing brought me to, though I don’t exactly remember when. He dates back to hazy memories like originless family traditions and Santa Claus. Bill has sporadically appeared in our home over the years as a vague, vulgar, and valued family friend. I have vivid memories of him snarling at me if I stared too long. My mom said it was his way of showing affection, and that Bill would drive cross-country to deliver me a band-aid if I ever needed one.
When I was 11, my stepfather had a colectomy for cancer prevention. Bill showed up at our house a few days later, unannounced, to check on him. He walked through the front door, said we’d been acting like hermits, and looked square at my stepfather to ask, “So, JB, how was it getting tickled with the ass cam?” I think that this, too, was Bill’s way of saying “I love you.”
I ramble on about Bill’s profane shell, his desire to be buried in cutoff shorts, his endearing curtness and racetrack prestige because he is everything I love about my childhood. I loved sitting at picnic tables with sweaty men who never graduated from college but also never paid a plumber, carpenter, or mechanic, and hearing what wisdom poured from their lips. I loved being trusted to intake and filter their polluted stories under the warm smile of my Metallica-doting mother, and I cherished being left to chase barn cats at their massive, beer-soaked Fourth-of-July parties. These are the types of men who struggle to choke out an “I love you,” but will pull a splintering chair up to the grill and guide your tiny, delicate hands in flipping the discount burgers one by one. They want to discuss the latest Discovery Channel documentary from lawn furniture, and they are human enough to stop and watch your cannonball when you call for the crowd’s eyes a ninth time.
I hold their type – those you’d find populating a WWE match or swearing into mufflers—on a pedestal of prestige and honor. Remorselessly, when I look back on them, I feel warmth. Though fallenness and failures spill from between their teeth, they’ve granted me access to all of the wisdom they have without any conditions or expectations. I was able to learn from them at my own pace and volition; I was free to grow from Bill Sworm’s cigarette-smoke-threaded jacket without growing into it. Still, I’m confronted by my idealism every time I watch these men shamefully exchange their sobriety for amnesia, or hear them recount ex-wives with lines that single-handedly make the conversation R-rated, or listen to their drunken apathy over the relationships they’ve reduced to ashes with pride and rage. I know the refuge I take in unceasing permissibility will lead me to decay, and yet it feels like home.
The dragstrip that houses Bill Sworm, his brethren, and much of my childhood, has held an intercom chapel service every Sunday morning as long as I’ve been alive. Sunburnt men in cutoff bar tanks and Farm-n-fleet jeans flock together in the aluminum stands, someday drinking, and hear an announcer’s voice proclaim a cheapened, partial gospel from the vantage point of the time box. I’ve known since my conversion that a seat among these bleacher disciples doesn’t count as church membership, and I have wept in grief over this contention. In place of their stained hallelujahs, I’ve found my way to churches full of upstanding men in expensive collared shirts with wives who iron things, and I’ve listened to the clack of freshly-manicured nails tap along on the shiny pew back to the rhythm of the hymns. I’ve been invited to potlucks with families whose faith doesn’t allow them to laugh at stories about ass cams and Jack Daniel’s. I’ve been welcomed into homes that won’t watch movies if Common Sense Media even makes note of the language, and I’ve attended countless Harvest Festivals, all hosted by people convinced that uncarved pumpkins are somehow more righteous before God.
I ridicule their convictions, but I owe much to the world of pressed shirts and catechisms. As my bookshelf has filled with commentaries and Piper’s favorite biographies, I’ve watched the distance between myself and the tattooed men of Byron Dragway grow. In their place, pious couples have taken me under their wings to explain basic concepts that were at one point foreign: holiness, objective standards, righteous judgment. They’ve helped me kill my sin and redraft myself with words of truth, but it leaves me in limbo: I’m not ragged enough for the greasy hippie fog that I come home to, nor am I clean enough to thrive amongst the shepherding saints. I rejoice that I somehow came to faith in a home that only discussed religion as a dogmatic theory, but the aftermath planted seeds of painful incongruence.
In January, I visited a church where all the women wore skirts. I smiled in my slutty pants as they filed out of their homeschool family short-buses and asked about public school like I’d returned from Jurassic Park. I love the smell of garden mint muddled into a mojito. I wasn’t traumatized by the public school system. I frequently suggest Bitchin’ Rides when my parents don’t know what to watch on TV because I have yet to find an alternative that makes me laugh as stomach-deep. I would’ve loved to have memorized the Nicene Creed by age 4 rather than the Offspring’s “Pretty Fly,” but I still cackle every time my mom tells of the story of me asking, “Mom, what’s a lily ass?” from my car seat.
I also lost all my friends in high school when I stopped going to parties. I stopped holding boys’ attention when I wasn’t willing to entertain conversations of sexual gymnastics over cafeteria chicken nuggets. My heart has learned to break for my peers at state schools who come home over the holidays to tell me about who they’ve slept with and what dorm-grown ’shrooms are like. I sometimes check the length of my shorts before I walk out the door.
It makes communing with Bill Sworm in my living room a bit sourer. It also makes Sunday morning services a bit colder. Welling up inside of me is a comprehensive world where I can listen to a Jeff Durbin sermon on the way to Tattoo Bob’s, and then on my way back, I’ll stop at a gentlemen’s club to lead a devotional. A place where Nirvana can serenade my drive to Bible study and my prayers can be littered with cursing. I know it’s not real. I trust there’s a reason for boundaries. But I’ve been ripping my hair out for years trying to find “the line.”
It’s showing up to a youth-group pool party at 15 in a bikini and realizing that all of the girls are wearing shirts over their swimsuits. And you don’t have a shirt. And you are dirty.
Or leaving cheerleading sleepovers at 1 a.m. when the captain asks how many girls on the squad have given road head, and it makes your eyes sting.
Quoting SpongeBob instead of VeggieTales.
Watching friends dump backpacks when the drug dogs come in.
Realizing that nobody at my Baptist university knows what it means when I say I’m from BFE, and that when I direct them to Urban Dictionary, they scold me.
It’s a bitter cup to drink—one where I’m a harlot or a Puritan depending on which state lines I’ve crossed. I find myself switching to my receptionist voice each time I sit down for an “intentional one-on-one” where somebody asks how my heart is doing. And then I come home, and I can’t talk about sanctification, but I can watch The Real Housewives of Orange County with my mom, who will play with my hair while she researches bar crawls on Pinterest.
I gag every time I try to swallow my calling of severance, and I can’t determine how exhaustive it needs to be. If I’m told to hate my father and mother for the sake of Christ, then crass music and foul jokes certainly won’t be preserved with Yeshua’s stamp of approval just because they’re deep in my roots.
I fear I’m clinging too tightly to affections that drip of worldliness, but life without them seems so flavorless, so frigid. I want the comfort of other jarring consciences, the affirmation of testimonies scrutinizing what memories can be cherished and which ones have to be burned.
I’ll erase whatever you want, Lord, but what is it you are jealous for me to become?
Hold the thought.
Humor me, for a moment, and consider the Biblical character of Ruth—the washed-up, widowed Moabite reliant on agrarian leftovers and mercy for survival. Then, by an unsuspecting act of grace, she finds her redemption through marriage to the admirable and distinctly Israelite Boaz. Hope restored. Change for the better. Cue the wedding feast, and the adorned, faithful Ruth beaming in radiance before her love. Consummation. Security. Ushered into true Israel. Though God had sworn no Moabite would ever enter His assembly (Deuteronomy 23:3, if you’re one for references), Ruth is grafted into the people of God. She couldn’t have devised a better ending for herself if she tried.
And yet, in a cocktail of speculation and projection, I’m convinced that Israel’s beloved Ruth—the woman who won the affections of her kinsman-redeemer by her loyalty—felt nauseatingly displaced in every corner of Bethlehem.
The great fortune of her life demanded the denial of her roots. To inherit Israel was to denounce Moab. Of course, she knew and cherished such implications: brought from certain death to certain life, from destitution to fullness, from condemnation to justification. Blessed woman was she! I trust she proclaimed day after day what a cosmic upgrade her marriage story had induced.
But I also want to hold her. I want to weep for the culture she loved and had to kill when she embraced the tenets of another—a better one, even. There’s no denial of improvement, but also little room for grief once the banners of rejoicing are hung.
Perhaps I think too minimally of conversion joy. The thrill of the Lord could’ve prodded her to box up her lineage and spit on it at an eye’s glance. But I find comfort in supposing a greater complexity—that an overwhelming jubilee flooded her soul in the transitional glory, but the highs eventually mellowed enough for her to yearn for the stews and festivals and architecture that bordered her youth.
I wonder if Ruth ever fell asleep to censored visions of nostalgic spices and the music of her childhood. Were her wedding-day tears for love or for home? Who could understand her native idioms? I wonder if she had to stifle laughter when esteemed men exchanged sandals for her at the city gate. I question how often she washed down her damning Moabite affections with the Passover lamb.
And through each of those forbidden, stolen griefs, I wonder how many well-intentioned saints knocked on her front door to communally revel in the absolute favor she had received.
“Rejoice,” they’d cry. “Rejoice.”
She may be stronger than I. More pious, perhaps. Likely.
I will still weep for her. Delight and sorrow will not cease to flow from my inner being because I am convinced that somewhere, buried deep beneath her genuine Israelite pride, there rocks a little girl trying to reconcile that the sweet-smelling woman who used to brush her hair and twist it into delicate braids would thereafter awake in the morning to whore after Chemosh’s poison tongue, pouring a lost child’s lifeblood out onto cracked pagan stones.
Synergist roots bruise.
I’ve wrestled through this tension of mine with friends; I’ve shown them my scribbled notes and aggressive drafts that plead for recognition of Ruth’s loss—my loss—and each time, I’ve been told to temper them.
“When are you going to show that Ruth loved her life more once she left Moab?”
“Why are you so harsh towards the Christians?”
“But isn’t the point of Israel that it’s better?”
And I’m sure it is. But at these comments, the worldly affections that I desperately try to suppress, boil out from my self-inflicted wounds of denial. Melodies of clinking IPA bottles and the allure of high slits tempt me to the forbidden symphonies of depravity. I remember how loose tongues and prideful soliloquies feel more than just “permissible,” they feel rich, full, and comprehensively human. They feel like my mother’s voice, fanning my freckled cheeks, telling me that there is nothing I could ever do to make her stop loving me. My home’s promise of universal acceptance: the security of standardlessness.
But now I’m changed, and my saintly siblings find that promise shameful. I try to trust them. I assimilate. I check to see how many fingers wide my tank top is before I leave my dorm. I question if I can attend a church that uses real alcoholic, bitter, alcoholic, red, alcoholic, communion wine. I drive off campus if I want a moment of privacy with a guy friend. I try to preach to myself, as I cover my shoulders and ask for Welch’s, that this too is a part of the straight and narrow. These are the ways of the righteous; without them, they tell me, I’ll rot.
So, I preach it to myself again. I ignore my thirst for freedom. I hear people tell me what a gift it is that they’ve never touched so many evils of the world, and I do not tell them how partial their lives seem because of it. I sort between tolerance and transgression. I will myself onto the path of holiness, and I stumble forward.
I’m sure there’s an implicit ease in embracing the new birth for that fortunate crowd who had Psalm 139 painted on their nursery walls and were rocked to sleep with The Jesus Storybook Bible ringing in their undefiled ears. I’m sure holiness feels less foreign to those who always knew to pack the pool-party shirt, and could always quote the niche episodes of VeggieTales, and always remembered the evils of a mimosa. I’m sure if any of them read this right now, they’d tell me how attacked they felt. I wonder if they’d realize how much of that condemnation I’ve been absorbing for years.
Admissions like these make me lust for absolution; they necessitate the cultural identity crisis I’ve ascribed to Ruth. Surely, the aftertaste of forbidden nostalgia swirled in her mouth for all of her days. When we sit for tea on the new earth, I hope she’ll be steeping the fragrant spices of her vibrant childhood mornings. I ache for that detail.
I dream of us sitting in our bikinis, listening to Black Sabbath, laughing at stories of Bill Sworm, and singing a hymn of praise to our Lord. I pray she’ll prepare me a dish with the flavors of a Moabite feast, and that we can bless it in her native tongue. I hope she likes tattoos.
But I’m not privy to that knowledge now; instead, I’ve been left to wrestle.
Eventually, I have to put something on the radio. I have to get dressed. I have to go to church and call home and submit assignments and buy groceries and go on a date and fall asleep. Maybe I shouldn’t crop my t-shirts and defend movies’ sex scenes as “artful,” but I’m still going to buy my stepfather something 90-proof for Christmas. I’m going to get the next piercing I want. I’m probably going to keep swearing in my prayers too. I doubt I’ll ever fully deduce what I should cling to and what ought to be torched like Sodom, but I can exhale into the struggle: so long as it’s a struggle, work is being done. I can rest in knowing that my days of moral ignorance died with Him, and they are being raised with Him too.
Heidie Raine is a junior at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio; she is pursuing a degree in English with concentrations in creative and journalistic writing. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Marathon Literary Review, Chapter House Journal, You Might Need To Hear This, Still Point Arts Quarterly, and others. Heidie loves lavender lattes, folk music, and flannel-lined jeans.