I’m out in the mountains … again.
No Cheryl Strayed agenda. I gave up on that.
Seems like God prefers talking to me through panic attacks and people. “You coming, Brandon?” a camper calls.
“Nah. I need a moment.” I’m sitting on a massive rock, on the edge of an alpine lake as the group heads back to camp.
I don’t want to follow. I’m a bit overwhelmed. Everyone is new except for one friend, and I get insecure with new people (hell, I get insecure with familiar people). Plus, they’re all Christian, like good Christians, and for some reason I thought it was a great idea to talk about all the sex I’ve had. All the gay sex I’ve had.
Didn’t really go over well. Shocker. (Again, I’m. Bad. At. Small. Talk.) “You want my headlamp? The sun is gonna set soon.”
“Nah. I’m good.”
“You sure? It’s starting to get really dark.” “Yep.”
The final two campers look at each other, confused, then walk away.
Truth be told, I want to be in darkness. I want it to envelop me and hide me, hide me from those cleaned-up Christians who don’t talk about sex. But more than hiding, I wanted to gamble. I want to gamble with God … again.
You gonna get me back to camp, God? Or am I gonna get eaten by a bear like those bratty kids in the Bible who made fun of an old man? Lord knows I’ve made fun of you. And you’re God. Not some crusty curmudgeon. Who the hell am I kidding? With my luck, it wouldn’t be a bear. It would be a stick. I’d just trip over some stick, break my neck, and die alone in the dark where some toddler would eventually find my rotting corpse as she took her first steps. The parents would go from joy to horror as their child pokes my rotting nose. Not only would I pathetically die, but I’d pervert a beautiful memory.
(Always so dramatic.)
The final sounds of the campers fade, and the sun sets. Darkness crawls, and the water laps, as I lie down on the cold rock, staring up at the stars.
I’m reminded of that time, long ago, as a little kid, I made another gamble with God while staring at the stars—one for a baby brother—and how that prayer started it all.
Now, here I am again, barely holding onto any semblance of the divine, the majesty and wonder of blazing balls of gas burning billions of miles away explained away with facts and figures and science.
Somehow understanding robs us of magic.
I start to wiggle and squirm thinking of the fond-yet-confusing memory. To distract myself, I think of the cleaned-up Christians and how I’m going to clean up my sexscapade mess. After all, even though they’re Christians, I still want them to like me.
Guys! Yes, I know I said I’ve slept with multiple guys, but it wasn’t that great!
In fact, it’s exhausting, and I feel like I can’t escape it. Like it controls me.
Wait, that sounds pathetic. We don’t want to look pathetic? Or maybe we do! Pathetic could be good! Christians love that shit! I could grovel and say I’m bad and promise to be good. That kind of shtick always works with Christians. They can think their holiness somehow saved me; I can look like a repentant sinner, and we can all be friends! Perfect!
But I actually really like gay sex … Could I give up gay sex?
I drop the thought, now exhausted by the need to manage how I appear to people.
Instead, I take a deep breath and let the darkness clothe me.
Being alone feels nice. It’s like a soothing blanket. Like a cool gentle breeze. (Probably because there is a cool gentle breeze. But that’s beside the point.)
My rib cage relaxes as the anxiety leaves. My heart slows as I begin to feel comfortable in my own skin again. Here, in the darkness, I feel cozy and safe and rested.
I really should head back before a bear actually does eat me.
I get up from the rock and stare into the forest. It’s pitch black.
But when I jump off the rock, a bright moon crawls over the black mountain, lighting my path.
Thanks, God. Guess I won’t break my neck and traumatize a toddler tonight.
I jump from rock to rock and skirt past the branch that would have definitely been my demise. I weave in and out of the woods with ease.
When I get to the other side of the lake, I stop. A bright light shines through the thicket.
I push aside branches, thinking one of the campers was hiding in the bushes with a flashlight. When I emerge, I’m on the other side of the lake, its shore lapping before me. The bright light is the moon’s reflection dancing on the water.
I sit back down and savor the night once more before retreating to camp where Christian criticism awaits me. (I’m obviously not in a rush.)
A mountain breeze caresses my skin and cools my sunburned face. It feels nice, and I smirk.
I begin to think of the day. Of how I love it. Of how it offers adventure and life, opportunity and beauty.
But as I smirk, I also love the night.
I love how it offers rest, hides me from the hard-to-please Christians, cools me with a soothing breeze, lights my way with the moon’s gentle glow.
I think about how we’d all burn if there was only day. I think about how we’d fail to live if we never slept.
I think about how death makes room for new life.
While O’Donohue was fascinated by light, writing about all the different kinds, he also loved the dark, because we humans, creatures of the clay, are made of both light and dark.
“Each thing creeps back into its own nature within the shelter of the dark. Darkness is the ancient womb. Nighttime is womb-time. Our souls come out to play. The darkness absolves everything; the struggle for identity and impression falls away. We rest in the night.”
In this moment, I am grateful for darkness.
I inhale it, drinking it in deep one final time before returning to the warmth and illumination of the fire. It hid me. Caressed me. Refreshed me. So that I may return to the light.
I turn and walk toward the Christians huddled around the campfire in the distance.
That night, I’d chat with strangers, anxiety melting from free-flowing bourbon. I’d finally fall asleep, grateful for its sweet release.
In the morning, the anxiety would return, scared a cute boy would discover I thought he was a cute boy, so instead of talking to the cute boy like a normal person, I drank coffee alone, letting the sun reheat my face. We’d head down the mountain, and I’d volunteer to sit in the hatch, because if it wasn’t me, who else would it be, and the whole ride home I would feel anxious and forgotten because the one guy who said he had lots of gay sex to a bunch of Christians is now the one gay guy sitting in the hatch . . . alone.
On the way down the mountain, my parents would text me. They’d say they wanted to talk, and I would get even more anxious. I’d come home, and our conversation would somehow oddly be decent. We’d talk of my fears and how I was having panic attacks and how scared I was of life. Again, they’d be decent. I’d talk about being gay and the church and how frustrated I was with Christians. Still, they’d somehow be decent.
Then my dad would give me a knife, and on the knife, it would read, “God doesn’t waste pain.” And I’d think about how I liked that, liked how assigning meaning to hard things somehow helps me breathe a little better, like the darkness on the mountain, and I’d be grateful for the knife and my parents and the night and the moon and the sun and coffee and booze. I would be grateful for it all, because somehow all of it made me breathe a little easier…
This article is excerpted from Stumbling: A Sassy Memoir about Coming Out of Evangelicalism by Brandon Flanery.
Photo by Stefan Stefancik/Pexels