I got my “Daisy Girl’s Guide to Girl Scouting” in the mail yesterday, a thick blue fancy looking binder with a magnetized closure flap on the side and a space to print out my name underneath the “This book belongs to:” tag. This binder is pretty much everything my 33 and 7 year old selves could have hoped for, although the 33 year old has a deep appreciation for the fact that this binder isn’t bright pink. Line drawings of butterflies, birds, flowers and fruit decorate the side flap, and when you open it up, the other side has big bright letters that read “Get ready to grow!” underneath a daisy with mascara on her eyelashes.
I wonder if there is a make-up application badge.
Written on the inside cover: “Girl Scouting builds girls of COURAGE, CONFIDENCE, and CHARACTER, who make the world a better place.”
I LOVE this sentence! These simple tenets, so obviously necessary for the development of a well rounded child, are the parts that seem to lose their import as we get older. Straightforward goals of having courage, confidence and character end up getting replaced by mantras like “don’t drive drunk”, “use condoms”, “contribute to a 401K”, and “remember that Hot Pockets are not a food group”. In some ways the adult credos are distant relatives to the kid ones, but they are much more distinct, more strict, more self serving than what we were taught as kids. Many of us won’t drive drunk because we don’t want to get in trouble with the law, but what about not wanting to endanger our life and the lives of others? Refraining from drunk driving should come from having integrity, not having a fear of a suspended license. And avoiding the Hot Pocket shelf in the freezer section shouldn’t just be about steering clear of bubble guts, it should also be about having the courage to make good decisions about our bodies. I wonder if a Girl Scout understand the difference.
Okay, so COURAGE, CONFIDENCE, and CHARACTER.
I can totally do this.
Next, I read The Girl Scout Promise posted on the inside front cover.
“On my honor I will try: To serve God…”
I haven’t even turned an actual page of my guide book and I am already stuck.
On my honor I will try…to…serve…God.
I have never really known how to explain how I felt about God, not now, nor when I was a little girl, even though I grew up right in the middle of the bible belt.
So how will I know how to “serve God”? I ‘m not even sure of what that means exactly. Which God is the Girl Scout Guide referring to? There are a lot to choose from. I didn’t realize that the Girl Scouts were affiliated with any religious group.
Although growing up I was surrounded on all sides by churches, I was able to successfully finish my 18 years in Birmingham without ever actually being a member of one. Which is not to say that I didn’t know how to play the system. In middle school, in order to spend more hang-out time with my best friends., I started joining them at the gigantic Baptist church down the street from our school on Wednesday nights. We hung out and gossiped and acted silly as always, just within the confines of stained glass windows and the expensive perfume of the church’s patrons. Little did I know at the time that the cheap hot dog and hamburger suppers they always served on these nights were an attempt to snare church-less young individuals like myself into their grasp, the young parishioners of the church having been encouraged to invite outside guests on Wednesday nights.
When I was five years old and my single mother moved us to Homewood, a small, middle class, comparatively colorless suburb of Birmingham, we were struggling, big time. My Mom found us a small, unimpressive apartment she could barely afford in this neighborhood because it had one of the best public school systems that the county had to offer. So what if she had to work her ass off 12 hours a day and I had to come home to an empty house after school and we had to survive on food stamps and endure relentless racism from everyone in the neighborhood (“Are you one of those people that adopts those kind of children? Bless your heart!” and “My goodness, this little girl is SO clean and well spoken!“)! Upon our arrival in Homewood, my Mom went to this very same gigantic church down the street from what would eventually become my middle school, and she asked for help. She needed resources, assistance in whatever way the church could provide. My mother had absolutely no family to ask for help, since they had estranged themselves from her when they found out she had fallen in love and given birth to a brown baby. Now my Mom and Dad were separated and she had no one else to turn to. The church said they couldn’t help her unless she became a member of their congregation, and would she like to fill out an information form and attend services on Sunday to pray with the parishioners?
No, my mother would NOT, thank you very much, and she walked out of the gigantic doors of the gigantic church, crying and I imagine feeling quite lonely.
My mother had grown up very content in the church, had been the star of every choir she had ever joined, but she became increasingly aware as she grew older the incongruities of what the followers preached and how the followers acted. She didn’t want to get help from an organization whose charity was based on stipulations and judgements of who she was and how she lived her life (she had too many things stacked up against her already in this conservative southern town: young single parent, unmarried, biracial child, no college education, un-apologetically high heels). I think she was also weary of bringing me into an environment where every single person around was white. It just didn’t sit well with her.
But it didn’t keep her from walking through the doors on Christmas Eve every year with throngs of other churchgoers for Midnight Mass. We would sit in one of the rows furthest to the back while tears streamed down my mother’s cheeks, her voice joining the congregation’s to sing every song by heart. I wonder if the person my mother asked for help from the church ever recognized us on those chilly nights, scurrying out of the pew before Mass was over to avoid the crowd, and more importantly the stares.
I knew this sad tale about my Mom’s plea to the church for help, so I side-eyed the constant invites I would get from my friends, pretty much all of whom attended this church. But one day I found out that this church served food on Wednesday nights to everyone who attended youth services.
I came for the hot dogs.
But I stayed for the choir.
I guess it’s genetic. I have always been a sucker for a choir, just like my mom, and this church did not disappoint; behind it’s gigantic doors lay a gigantic stage with a booming piano and a microphone. “Oh, Jessica!,” they would say (you know they couldn’t pronounce my name correctly), “you are such a gorgeous soprano! Would you like to sing a solo in our next youth choir concert?”
Of course I did! Even if it meant grinning and bearing through 45 minutes of talking about Jesus with popular kids who ignored me every day at school (I was never bullied; I was just invisible). The bible study section of my Wednesday nights at church played out like an episode of Peanuts, with an adult “womp womp womping” in the background while I doodled on any scrap pieces of paper I could find. I can’t remember learning anything about God, or myself in those classes. But I can remember the lyrics and choreography to the Christian rap we performed at my final youth concert.
Eventually I stopped going to youth services on Wednesday nights. The sacrifices I had to make in order to sing solos had become too great. Talking about Jesus all the time was exhausting considering how much real life drama I was experiencing (nasty stepdad, mentally unwell stepmom, bills not getting paid, Mom working way too hard, Mom not quitting smoking like she promised, Mom is going to die one day, what will I do when my Mom dies one day, etc., etc.) and I found no solace or comfort in the myth of a Lord and Savior whose goodness I never saw bestowed upon the people who seemed to need it the most. I found my relief in books. In drawing. In creating things that made people smile. In finding friends who were every bit as irreverent as I was. In the belief that my grown up life didn’t have to look like the one I was living if I didn’t want it to.
I have no idea how to “serve God” since God hasn’t ever been anything I actually believed in with all my heart. I definitely went through a period in high school where I tried desperately to attach myself to some kind of glorious faith, like all my peers seemed to have done so effortlessly, and I have the diary entries to prove it: “I just wish E- would stop ACTING like he likes me and ACTUALLY like me! Why does he put me through this??? But whatever, cause I know that the Lord is my shepherd and I will totally get through this!” is, embarrassingly enough, an actual line from a diary entry I wrote when I was a teenager. In all my years of living a life surrounded by churches and church going folk, a shepherding Lord is pretty much the only thing that I could remember from the handful of sermons I had been forced to listen to, and I referenced it like a Jewel lyric. When I was younger, I wanted very badly to have my heart filled up with the idea of this perfect thing that would comfort me in my times of need, but I felt like a phony, like I was going through the motions of a dance I needed to learn.
I could not articulate this then, but looking back, I realize that I have always felt full, even when I was incredibly sad, or mad, or angry, or confused. It doesn’t feel like there is enough room in my heart for some foreign, uncompromising and undefined force when that space is already filled so deeply with my passion for all the people in this world, the beautiful ideas that exist around us, and my growing acceptance of all my parts, both good and bad. Maybe that’s what people mean when they say that God is in us and all around us. Maybe it’s just the concept of God that feels unsatisfying to me, but that feeling that God is supposed to elicit in you, that wonder and that drive to be good and to ignite love in every single thing you do, that power to feel whole even when you are in a dark place, maybe THAT is the feeling that people experience when they have faith in God. Maybe it’s not about a white man in the sky, which is all that my young mind could understand when I learned about God as a child; maybe it’s just about semantics.
Okay, so let me do a little revision:
The Girl Scout Promise:
On my honor, I will try:
God [the world, all the curious things in it, along with the safe parts and the scary parts about myself and others, and every single little thing in between] and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout law.
I doubt that The Girl Scout Promise allows for compromise; as far as I know, this promise has been written since the beginning of Scout-dom and has remained unchanged for all these decades. But, it says, right there on the inside cover, that “Girl Scouting builds girls of Courage, Confidence, and Character, who make the world a better place“. Well, my world would be a better place if I could redefine the Promise to better fit my understanding of it. And how much confidence does it take to stand tall, proud and unashamed for not having the same belief systems that everyone else around you seem to have?
Maybe just enough to make me good Girl Scout material?