The Finest of Lines

I walk the finest of lines. Between unshakable faith and unflagging doubt. Between men and women, rich and poor, the haves and have-nots. Between my queer life and the straight world I inhabit regularly out of necessity. That line bounds my life, placing me in the World, but not of it, situating me in multiple spaces, yet assigning me comfortably to none.

The line between belonging and not belonging is a thin one, but it's tall and wide, like an industrially reinforced bulletproof glass enclosure pieced together from a million little prohibitions and minor denials of indulgence. Like grains of sand molten and mixed with titanium, they've been shaped into a functional shelter that protects others from me, just as it buffers me from them. I live in a state of continual echo, moral messages rebounding back at me from the inside of my impenetrable cultural enclosure. Reverberations from my upbringing. Warnings of the ways of Others. Cautions about losing my soul to forces beyond my control. Reminders of what can happen when I let my guard down and come across as too queer for even a moment.

There are far too many temptations--and penalties--out there in the World to feel very comfortable. Anywhere. Any time. Even among trusted friends, a foreign influence might intrude and lead me astray. Especially among friends. Hanging out during the high school dance, feeling relaxed, invited to a buddy's house to break into her mother's liquor cabinet: the first of too many drinks in the course of a few interminable (and nearly terminal) years. My sister's friends inviting me to drive around on a Saturday afternoon, their 1980 beat-up Chevy meandering down the buggy-rutted roads between cornfields and pastures as the hash pipe got passed around. The creeping habit of saying "Geeze!," that gateway expression to taking the Lord's name in vain. Before you know it, you're cursing "Jesus fucking Christ" under your breath. How do you get right, after all that? Yet another trip to the altar to confess generalities along with specifics? People keep track of how often you kneel at the front of the church.

"Her, again...." A statement. Not a question.

When my guard is down, I'm susceptible. This I know. When I'm too trusting, soul-corrupting influences tend to take over. Not only for me, but for others, as well. Don't blame my queerness; it's ignorance-fueled intolerance which leads people to pretend Matthew 7:1-3 never existed and to disobey Jesus's multiple commands to not judge. One of my beautiful, feminine friends from church youth group during high school led me on, and obviously so... until her parents realized what was happening and commanded that she keep her distance from me. I've unguarded my glance towards an incredibly attractive woman passing close by... and got noticed by people I didn't even realize were there... duly noted for future reference. Looking back, ah yes, that explains the sudden chill I felt from them. My widely distributed welcome-to-the-job email announcement at work included an enthusiastic mention of my 24-year marriage to a woman, and my new boss pulled back and froze me out for a good year's time. And those awkward silences I know so well from people who haven't figured out yet how to talk to queer folks.

Somewhere, somehow, someone is always conspiring to either lure us away from our salvation, in whatever form that happens to take. That means I need to take care. Constantly be on guard. Keep watch. And toe the line. For the sake of others, as much as as myself. If I want to belong in one place, I must abandon another. Or at the very least, I must never be comfortable in that Other location. Don't settle in. Don't make myself too at home. If I want to run around with the rest of the World, I'll have to forfeit my inborn identity. If I want to belong to my Tribe, I must put aside all personal ties with anything and everyone who is not One Of Us. Keep them at arm's length. Keep my distance. Sure, I can intermittently trade off between the two spheres, but whenever I do participate outside the bounds of my own defined identity, I must necessarily become Other in that space. It's the only way. The only way I know.

This finest of lines tells me I belong somewhere else, because I don't belong here. The reflexive recoil I feel at swearing, even when I do it... my discomfort with working on Sundays, even though it's often my busiest day... my utter lack of surprise at the violent, downward turns our world has taken (what did people expect?)... they're all regular reminders of just how foreign I am to my oblivious surroundings, biding time in this place, till some ultimate reward comes due.

The line also dictates that, because certain people think I belong here, I can be certain I don't belong anywhere. The enthusiastically worldly folks surrounding me, with their Amazon Prime dependencies, their streaming show binges, their drug-addled lives driven by painkillers of every kind, their neurotic self-centeredness.... With every humble brag about a deal they got on a shiny new vehicle, with every monologue about how they downloaded an entire Netflix season to their tablet for the long flight to meet their cruise liner, with every demo of apps that track their steps and their craft-brewed beer consumption, they remind me, yet again, how I have no business being in their midst.

And yet, there I am. The person they imagine me to be.

Wherever I am, I cannot fully exist as I truly am. Lesbian. Queer. Secular Mennonite.[i] Agnostic. Married. Creative. Driven. A corporate minion. Mostly healthy, despite intermittent go-rounds with chronic pain. Fallen. Saved. Lapsed. And happy, nonetheless. I can be any of those things, but only up to a certain point. Or else. Frankly, it's not worth the puzzled looks, the blank stares, the nodding in attempted comprehension, which is nothing of the kind. They do not know what they do not know. But I do.

I imagine that Mormons understand this. Or Jehovah's Witnesses. And, of course, Jews. Blacks. Undocumented Spanish-speaking folks from the other Americas harvesting celery in California. The Irish. Scottish settlers who settled in New York a few hundred years back, then moved to Pennsylvania and proceeded south when they weren't welcome there, anymore, down the Great Warrior Path, a trough between the Alleghenies and Appalachians that was a natural conduit for native war parties through Maryland, West Virginia, then farther south, till they settled in the Highlands of Virginia. Persecuted peoples driven from one place to another. People who pick up and move because they either have no other choice or they have all the choice in the world. The human family, past and present, is full of folks who find belonging by cutting loose. And just as the tight-knit communities of Waldensians in central Europe, Mennonites in Mexico, and River Brethren along the Susquehanna found shelter in their separateness, so do I. My Otherness is a shield that both protects and exposes. In the World, but not of it, I can dip a toe in the rushing stream and never be pulled in.


I once worked for a converted Jehovah's Witness. He'd been raised Jewish in St. Louis, then moved East to New Jersey, raised a family, and dead-ended his life in unbridled self-indulgence and secular, sensual dissipation. Along came a pair of evangelicals who talked him through his fears, reasoned him through his objections, and welcomed him into their enclave of faith. He was every bit as devout as he was twisted. He'd never accept me telling him "Bless you," after he sneezed. "I don't need to be blessed," he'd tell me with deepest conviction, as he reached out to give me an uninvited shoulder massage. Just the two of us in the office. How... intimate. When I shrugged him off and told him to keep his hands to himself, he recoiled as though I'd stabbed him through the heart for pushing him away. Maybe I'd violated some boss-subordinate rule that gave him free access to my body because he authorized my paycheck every two weeks. Maybe.

It can throw you off, that sort of thing, and rightfully so. It's intrusive, injuring, and you never quite feel safe from that point on. I was thrown, yes, but not completely derailed. I'd never felt particularly safe to begin with. How could I? Jehovah's Witness or not, my boss was from a World I'd never trusted. He was foreign to me, inherently treacherous, whether he meant to be or not. And I kept myself at a distance. At the time, I was also figuring out that I was queer, and he'd seen me flirting with the obviously lesbian waitress during the business trip we'd taken to San Francisco. That Otherness reinforced the razor-thin wall that separated me from him, along with just about every single person I knew, or had ever known. But it also made me more attractive to him. He put his hands on me without my say-so. Of course he did. That's what the World is all about.

I'm not the only one convinced I don't belong. Millions of people know, deep in their hearts, that here is not where they want or need to be. It's a state as old as a human race itself as groups have formed and split, re-formed, re-split, splintering and coalescing, generation after generation.

We know who we are, because we know who we aren't. We know we are Mennonites or Brethren because we are not at ease in this World. In it, but not of it. Called to be separate. Called to split from the mainstream, to find a different path, the self-same path trod by our parents, grandparents, and their ancestors tracing back hundreds of years into the heart of old Europe. Each generation reinvents its own schisms. We find our reasons to depart. Exigency. Modern practicality. Or scripturally justified caprice. We continue the vein, but in our own ways. Amish families move into ranch houses with attached garages for the horse and buggy. Plain woodworkers are chauffeured to professional trade expos by the drivers they hire to help them keep to their religious pledges. Women in coverings and cape dresses pass out pamphlets at a local college, answering questions about "What does it mean to be Mennonite?"

Come away, come away, we are called. Join together in our enclave of sanctified separateness.

I can't remember a time I've ever felt like I belonged. When I was young, my family lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in the midst of integration, busing, racial conflict. School pictures from early grade school years show mostly Black kids in my classes of 30-plus students, with a scattering of white faces. Whatever attempts I made to connect with my surroundings never seemed to get far. I was too different, two white, and I was a girl.

When my family moved to Lancaster County, again I was on the outside. I had trouble understanding the heavy Pennsylvania Dutch accent, I had trouble relating to my peers who all seemed to be so much richer than my family was, and of course there was the whole queer thing. Yes, I had always felt different, and slowly but surely, yet another reason why I felt that way coalesced. Dancing along the fine line between friendship and... more. Hanging out in my best friend's bedroom, making art, benefiting from our parents' conviction that we'd never do more than that with each other. For the record, we didn't, other than sneaking beers and wine. The most chaste of romances blossomed in the fierce light of denied desire. Dating boys? Meh. I performed that obligatory duty without incident. If my parents had known how uninterested I was in having sex with boys, they might have slept a little easier. Unless, that is, they'd realized why.

To say I belong anywhere is to overstate my position. The places where I have felt most comfortable were the places I was trained to avoid, distrust, judge. In the company of the equivalent of tax collectors, adulterers, lepers, women of the night. The kinds of people we read about Jesus hanging out with, but who most people I grew up with considered metaphor. Not real people. Not exactly. But those were my people, the freaks, the addicts, the drunks and drag queens/kings, the dykes and non-binaries, pagans, Wiccans, atheists, pierced and shaved and tattooed, holding down day jobs with some faceless, soulless corporation, so they could run for the hills on the weekends and let out all the primal screams they pleased, till Monday rolled around again.

And yet, the people who welcome me most readily, who never question my right to be among them, continually remind me--I am not one of them. I was raised different. I was raised to know better, to do better. Whatever comfort they feel with me around, I don't share about them. I am by training and nature separate, apart, with a different set of values to guide me through life. Yes, I know they love me, I know they trust and value me, but I am not, have never been, and never will be one of them.

To belong or not to belong, that was never the question. I come from a place where we are called to be different, to stand apart, to follow another set of guidelines than the mainstream has to offer. Something higher, something deeper, something else. And yet, the more I was told I did not belong in the outside World, the more welcome I felt in it. I learned my way around the World by hanging out with kids who never went to church but owned their own cars, who danced and listened to rock music, smoked and broke into their parents liquor cabinets, and never quizzed me on passages from II Corinthians. They knew how to order from menus. They knew how to interact with police officers. They knew how to go into stores and buy things. They played Pac-Man and Asteroids with abandon, pumping quarter after quarter into the humming, beeping, buzzing box. They knew where all the local Pizza Huts were located, and how long they stayed open. They didn't worry about staying out late, didn't worry about doing... whatever. They worked on Sundays, and they knew how to just hang out without making themselves useful. They welcomed me with open arms, but I always knew I was not one of them.

And on the other side of the aisle, there were the ones who never let me forget I was one of them... and I was being watched. The constant testing of my moral mettle, the regular queries about my relationship with God. The challenges, the testimonies, the earnest insistence that I mow neatly up to the edges of the lawn, trim the hedge at a consistent angle, that I dump the compost promptly, that I make the rounds on my newspaper route at exactly the same time every afternoon. Deviation was danger. And the more intense the chastisement for any infractions, the more I was sure I was welcome in their midst.

Church services on Sunday morning and evening, again on Wednesday evening, and youth group on Saturday nights. Like clockwork, the regular reminders of What Is and Is Not Done when you choose to live as we lived. Potluck dinners, Maundy Thursday services, men and women in separate groups for the intimate foot-washing ritual, feet in the foot washing basin, the warm water getting cooler and murkier every time the next woman dipped her feet in. The drying towel becoming damp, clammy, and clinging as it was passed to the next kneeling woman in line. And the singing. Women's voices raised together in the room, thin, full, melodic, searching. Down the hall, we could hear the men singing their hymns, our four-part harmonies split down the middle into complements of two, out of sync, just like the genders separated for half an hour. Just like me, split between worlds.

Who among my current peers, my daily contemporaries, would understand what it is to kneel before a woman of 73 devout years, ribbons hanging from the fine mesh covering on her bunned hair, her breasts and belly concealed behind the cape dress, her work-thickened ankles leading to swollen feet circled by indentations from the edges of her heavy laced-up shoes? Lifting her hot, blotchy feet into lukewarm water and washing them, just as Jesus once washed his disciples' feet. Replacing the expensive, worldly, scented anointing oil with the spirit of humility and service. Quavering voices, devotion, the heaviness of that room full of worshiping women following their Lord, renewing that singular sense every year in exactly the same way. The rise, the blessing, the hug, and the gradual tailing off of singing till it's time to put our shoes back on, rejoin the men, and sit down to the creamed corn, ham, and fruit salad. Maybe even sloppy Joes.

Who among my non-Mennonite social circle would understand the resignation of a winter fed on noodles, tomato sauce, and soybeans because just about everything else we grew to freeze or can failed to grow the summer before? Who among my neighbors would commit to helping each other the way it's always been done in my parents town? Giving the blind or elderly ride to the doctor on a moment's notice, weeding the neighbors' gardens when they're away, rounding up the rabbits that got out of their pen, loaning implements when the folks nextdoor need a tool they'd rather not buy if they're only going to use it once or twice a year? Being required to trust someone, because you both worship in the same place, in the same way, just as your parents and grandparents and theirs before them did, those many generations all along? There's something very country to it, but there's something else, too. Something that translates to Mennonite-settled cities and suburbs. So much so that I'd much rather hire the landscapers with the name "Yoder" on the side of the truck, than someone whose name could belong to anyone. From anywhere.

The World doesn't understand this. Nobody outside understands it. But those of us inside… well, I've never found anyone else who really liked to talk frankly about it. At least, not in person. When I mention it in passing--the enforced separateness--there's usually an uncomfortable silence. Awkward. Self-conscious. Hidden. As though it's off-limits. We don't discuss it. Not out loud. The most obvious fact of our life is obscured like some sort of guilty pleasure we can only process because we don't talk about it.

Some people have told me that that separateness is an artifact of centuries gone by. That's not how the emerging Mennonite community is anymore. At least, it's not how it should be. Mennonites and Brethren must move beyond that. But how could we? It's so much a part of who we are, such a defining feature of how we are in this world, the idea of our separateness ever going away seems laughable to me. To be Mennonite and be wide open at the same time... how absurd! I'm no theologian, and I haven't been active in the church for decades, but I know my blood. I know my bones. I was trained up as a child in the way I should go, and now that I am grown I cannot possibly depart from it.

Across the way, several states off in the distance, is a place I can never return to, for good. There lives my blood, the flesh of my making, the earth of my bones, calling me, always calling me. But because I belong there, I can never go back.

[i] I was raised Brethren in Christ (BIC), but since my family lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and my Dad was with Mennonite Central Committee (and everybody I had anything to do with outside of Lancaster BIC was Mennonite), I consider myself much more culturally influenced by the Mennonite world than the BIC world. The woodcut of Dirk Willems from the Martyrs Mirror is burned into my memory.

About the Author

Kay Lorraine

Alongside pieces in publications such as Mennonot, The Evergreen Chronicles, and The Ebbing Tide, Kay Lorraine is the author of a number of independently-published novels and collections of poetry. She currently lives in Massachusetts and describes herself as "a "Vennonite"--someone whose Mennonite heritage is one circle in the Venn diagram of my life, both separate from and intimately connected with other supposedly unrelated aspects." She blogs at kaylorraine.com.