One afternoon when I was about four-and-a-half years old, my father waved me off when I brought a book for him to read to me. Frustrated by his rejection, I stomped off to my room. If he didn’t want me, I didn’t need him, I decided. I was going to figure out how to read that damn book by myself. I lay myself belly down on the floor, opened up my copy of Are You My Mother?, and started tracing along the undersides of the words with my index finger.
No one believes this next part of the story, but I actually checked it with my father recently, and he confirmed it.
I had already figured out that different letters had different sounds by that point, but I had never put together how it all worked before. Something about the combination of my umbrage and my natural stubbornness that afternoon, though, helped roll those language tumblers into place, and the written word unlocked itself in a sudden rush of understanding as my eyes traced the lines.
I felt powerful in that moment. I remember reading the whole book over again three or four times in absolute disbelief that I could make all those chunks of letters say what I knew they had to say. When I was sure I had it right, I took Are You My Mother? to my father and told him that I was going to read it to him.
From then on, I knew that language was where my power lay. Literacy felt like a superpower to me, allowing me to consume and create information and stories that had only ever been in the hands of adults before then. I needed no permission, and I had all of the tools I needed at my disposal at all times. Words ushered in my first sense of myself as a commanding being.
By the time I was ten, though, that sense of power waned a bit when I found out that not all reading was deemed good and not all words were allowed out in the open. Grade five was the year that James Clavell’s Shogun was deemed too smutty. An historical novel about missionaries in China was taken from me just when I started to learn about the perversity of human torture. Irving Layton’s poetry was shuttled away on a cart by a librarian who thought Shel Silverstein might be more my speed. This censorship confused me, because it’s not like I was an innocent unused to the truth of man’s inhumanity to man. I was a Mennonite, for God’s sake. I knew all about tongue screws and hot coals.
It became clear to me then that the written word, while being truly powerful, was only powerful insofar as it could be heard. My reading material could be and already was censored, so its messages were no longer being heard at least by me. Martin Luther’s revolutionary battle cry, the Ninety-Five Theses, were still being talked about in my Mennonite circles. According to my mother, writing could make for a nice hobby, but most writers would never be published publicly, and, if they were, they could never survive off the paltry money it brought in.
The written word and my ability to use it was seeming less and less like an extraordinary gift and more and more like the gift of potential disappointment and misery by all the apparent censorship, poverty, and persecution it brought. By the time I was 11, I felt resigned to the tortured life of the unsung artist, compelled to create but left to do so in isolation without an audience to give her voice flight, a martyr for her craft.
I had a pretty serious case of early puberty’s taste for morbid drama.
After that, I chose to keep my writing private. I shared it with no one, hiding it in drawers and under my mattress. To me, it felt like pornography, a secret desire, a masturbatory exorcism of private thoughts I wanted no one to censor. If I were to look back at those journals now, they would be a laundry list of angst about secondary sex characteristics and how much I really got the boy who wrote poetry on his arm in English class, but it felt very controversial to me at the time, revolutionary even. When I wrote down the word breasts, I heard the Ses as a snake’s hiss in my ear. I was Eve, willfully embracing her fruit, and it felt delicious.
Cue the internet, twenty years and many hidden journals later.
When my husband introduced me to the idea of blogging in 2003, it didn’t take me long to feel that I had found my calling. No kidding. Here were all of these people publishing their thoughts in real time in the personal narrative of journals but grown up, edited and shared publicly. It seemed brilliant to me. I had more than 20 years of just this type of writing I had been sitting on, and the feeling of transgression in even contemplating making my words public felt sexy — really, really sexy — and freeing.
I signed up with Blogger.com and started writing under a pseudonym, which I did for over seven years. I had been hiding my writing since the fourth grade, so I was in no rush to attach my real name to it in public. More honestly, though, I was afraid that all of the people I grew up with would see what I was doing.
I come from Mennonites on both sides of my family as far back as I know, and that means that I am likely related to every Mennonite of European descent on the planet, and I was sure that if any one of those Mennonites connected my writing with me, they would say “Oh, Elan Morgan. Isn’t that Erwin’s granddaughter from the Kansas Bartels?”, and then my mother would get a telephone call, and the jig, as they say, would be up. My mother would know from my public writing that I was not only faith-resistant but a full-blown heathen who got drunk on the weekends and never wanted babies. My part-time persona as the good Mennonite daughter would be destroyed.
The feeling of a superhero’s power that words gave me at four-and-a-half was still there, but I had allowed my fear of discovery to fracture me in two. I was now part-time online superhero and part-time offline fraidy cat, terrified that those same words would bury me in my regular life. How could I be both the atheist, outspoken feminist and the fairly conventional, married Mennonite daughter? How could I be both those things to the people who had raised me? I had come to terms with all of these things about myself, but could my Mennonite community? After effectively hiding my identity from them for over 25 years, I was frightened of shaking loose what last bonds we might still share.
I was asked to do a segment for CBC news about my blogging and healthy living, and I found myself saying yes to it before I realized that it meant outing myself publicly about my blog with my real name on television. As much as I wanted to, I knew I couldn’t backtrack and say no, though, because this a great opportunity I would be silly to turn down. Also, it was time.
There was no pride for me in having the most fulfilling part of my life kept like a shameful secret. In hiding all the good I had found behind fake names and carefully cropped photos, I felt that I was doing both my online and offline communities a disservice by not allowing myself to be fully present in either space.
So, I went on the news. I typed in giant 72-point Georgia to make blogging look dynamic. I shared my story on camera. I felt brave and proud and couldn’t wait to watch it. Later, though, I panicked. I drowned my fears in cake and hot baths. I waited for that phone call from my mother, the one that I was sure would spell the end of, well, I wasn’t sure what it would spell the end of, but it felt dire. The boundaries I had created around my own identity and my creative life had been taken down, and I didn’t know what that would make me look like.
Until that moment, my entire writing life had revolved around censorship of some kind, whether from without or within, and the idea that it would be both seen and known to be mine at once by anyone who cared was far more revolutionary for me than anything I had ever dared to write.
When the phone call from my mother came, I held my breath, sat still, and waited, if not for clear rejection, at least admonishment. I was sure my blogging was too loud, too close to the evangelical for our quieter community, too much show. I was afraid that I would hear what I heard from our community as a child, that I should be quieter, sweeter, nicer, less obtrusive. I was sure all my favourite work would be deemed too much.
For once in my life, though, I was thankfully, happily, thoroughly wrong.
I was not rejected. She did not reject my work or who I was. All of me was together in one place available for viewing for the first time in my life, and I was not shut up or taken away like the books I could not read at ten. There were no tongue screws for my belief. I was not shunned.
“You are a child of God,” she said in response to my online work, and although that is a God of which I am no longer sure, bringing my life and writing out of the closet had not unmoored me from my past, divorced me from a history I had been so connected to.
I write more publicly and to a broader world than I ever would have even been able to fathom when I first ran my finger under the lines of Are You My Mother?, and rather than pull me apart from the past that grew me up, which I had so feared it would, it has managed, even if in a more metaphorical than physical way, to bring me closer to home.
Cue Rhubarb Magazine.