In a Closet in a Dorm

by Bob Chikos

I crouched in my dorm room closet while my roommate Clyde was in the bathroom. After he returned and lay on his bed to read The Federalist Papers, I bided my time. The longer I waited, the more scared he’d be.

Two minutes. God, it stinks in here, I thought.

Three minutes. Getting hard to breathe.

Four minutes. I can’t stand it much longer.

Five—“RAAAAAH!” I blared as I opened the closet and jumped out.

I could almost see gray hairs sprout as Clyde’s eyes bulged from their sockets.

He returned to his book, trying to act nonchalant. “Ever got caught playing with yourself in a closet,” he asked.  

“No.”

“Safe place, isn’t it?”

——

Six months earlier, I had graduated from my community college in the Chicago suburbs. With my grades and awards, I could have transferred to just about any college in the country.

I chose East Tennessee State.

What was I thinking?

After living my entire life in the Midwest, I wanted to plunge myself into an entirely different culture – the Bible Belt – and live among their natives. Besides, all accredited colleges are pretty much the same, right . . .? 

. . . Right?

Johnson City was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever set eyes on. Small mountains bordered the campus, and they blazed orange in October. I smelled a spicy-sweet combination of allspice and vanilla in the air— some fragrant bush I’d never been exposed to in Illinois. Southern accents on the girls somehow made them even cuter. I pictured myself someday coming home with one to meet dear old Mom and Dad.

I eagerly anticipated college culture. Dorm conversations into the wee hours about the meaning of existence. Late night pizza runs. Spontaneous road trips. Pranks.

What I found instead was a campus in which most students went home on weekends, businesses closed on “The Lord’s Day,” and mediocre classes were taught by jaded professors stuck in an academic Gehenna. The only partying took place in frat houses. I refused, on principle, to pay for friends.

Most of the friendly sorts in my dorm were in one – or several – of the Christian clubs. I attended their events. Good clean fun.

But I couldn’t understand their hang-ups. Once, I had learned an African tribal planting dance and showed it to a small gathering outside a women’s dorm. In the dance, you touch one calf to the back of your other leg’s knee, then repeat with the other leg, while putting one hand atop the other and thrusting them downward, as if you’re using a gardening tool to make holes in the ground. It was less erotic than the Hokey Pokey.

But Darla, the hall’s director and a member of the Faith House, stormed out of the dorm screaming, “Stop! Just stop!”

“Stop what?”

“Stop that dancing!”

“Why?”

“We have rules about lewd behavior.”

I hadn’t been aware that some Christian denominations consider dancing sinful.

On another occasion, at dinner, a group of guys discussed bands. Abe mentioned Queen. “They’re all right,” Jonah said, “but Freddie Mercury was just a f——t.” He forked a chunk of pork chop into his mouth.

My jaw went slack. “Does it matter that he was gay,” I finally asked.

Jonah looked me sternly in the eyes. “He was a f——t,” he repeated. “And now he’s dead. He’s just a dead f——t And now he’s burning in Hell.”

“What do you have against gay people?”

“They go against God’s will. AIDS is God’s punishment for being gay.”

“It’s just who they are.”

“It’s a choice,” he replied.

“How can you choose who you’re attracted to?” I scanned the cafeteria and spotted a reasonably attractive man. “I mean, I can look at that guy over there in the No Fear shirt and say, ‘That’s a good-looking guy,’ but I don’t want to have sex with him.”

I surveyed our table. Although the other guys were nice, they clearly shared Jonah’s mindset.

Eli intervened. “All I know is you’ve got to love the sinner and hate the sin.”

The others nodded in agreement.

Later that semester, the school paper ran a story about a student who was also a drag queen. The student had been receiving death threats. I read it while Clyde cut Eli’s hair in our room.

“Surely, you’re against death threats, right?”

“Of course,” Eli said, as Clyde clipped the sides of Eli’s hair. “Although, if he’d just stop dressing as a woman, he’d probably stop getting death threats.”

——

Growing up in Illinois, I had had different early lessons in tolerance.

When I was seven, my older brother loved watching reruns of Soap, the first show with a prominent gay character.

“Mom, what’s gay?” I asked.

“It’s like when a man wants to marry another man.”

“Can they do that?”

“No, but they can be together just like they’re married.”

A few years after that, my brother discovered The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“Mom, what’s transsexual?”

“It’s someone who wants to have an operation to change their body from a man to woman or the other way around.”

“Why would they want to do that?” I asked, unable to comprehend.

“Some people just feel they were born into the wrong body.”

And that was that. As good of an explanation as anyone could give in the early ‘80s. I went through junior high and high school aware that gay and transgender people existed, but I was far too self-conscious to dwell on anyone other than myself.

——

In Tennessee, I sensed an odd mix of pride and paranoia on that campus. The region was overwhelmingly Christian, yet they spoke as if they were an oppressed minority.

They won’t let us pray in schools!

Stores say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”!

They teach—gasp!—evolution in schools!

Harlan bought into all of this.  

Harlan was five-foot-five and roly-poly with feathered brown hair, beady eyes, and a contagious baby smile. He worked at the mall at Johnson City (which was aptly named The Mall at Johnson City). A Spanish major with dog-like hearing, we would entertain ourselves by whispering phrases from farther and farther distances – twenty, thirty, forty, or more yards at a time, and he would repeat them to us with perfection. 

Over time, Harlan’s demeanor became dark. He’d lurch down the hall in his black satin jacket and khakis after work, head down, before quickly closing his door behind him. He’d extend his room’s phone cord into the hallway and whisper three-hour conversations with his hand cupped over the receiver.

One night, I walked by the lounge area – a seldom-used alcove that separated the two wings of the dorm – where Harlan sat cross-legged on the floor next to the couch. 

“Have a seat,” he said.

I sat on the hard, gray carpeted floor, the scratchy brick wall propping my back.

“What’d you think of that program tonight at Faith House?”

That night, the Faith House held its weekly meeting. I had attended the Faith House less and less often, as fire-and-brimstone sermons became more frequent.

A common ritual at Faith House was someone would speak about a sinful past, such as drunkenness or premarital sex, but through Jesus, they had been saved. This night’s topic was homosexuality.

“I think you know where I stand, Harlan.”

“What did you think when I said I knew for a fact that it was going on at our campus?”

“It goes on everywhere.”

He pointed to himself. I realized he couldn’t say the words. It was as if saying them out loud was the actual closet door— the one thing that separated a gay person from someone who does gay acts.

“I don’t care. You’re still my friend,” I said.

“Are you gay?” he asked.

“No.”

“Well, you give off gaydar. You know that, right?”

“What’s gaydar?” I asked.

“It’s a vibe you give off that makes people think you’re gay. You’re in really good shape, you use hair gel, you’re smart.”

“Not because I’m never with a girl?”

“Pfft!” he scoffed. “A lot of gay guys have girlfriends. That’s called a beard. You know – a disguise.”

“Do you want one to disguise that you’re gay?”

He put his finger to his lips to silence me. “Don’t call me gay,” he whispered. “I’ve just made some poor choices.”

“You feel bad that you’re attracted to men?”

He leaned far to his left, he almost lay on the floor. He looked down one side of the hallway, then rolled over and looked down the other. He rolled back up into sitting position.

His beady eyes stared into mine and his lips pursed. “I’m waiting on test results.” His eyes glistened as they sank to the floor. He sniffled. A single tear ran down his left cheek.

In my ignorance, I wondered if tears carried HIV.

I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry, man.”

A month prior, Clyde had put up a poster in our room. A black-and-white public service announcement. The kind that is typically seen in a high school nurse’s office, with wisdom like a rendering of a fetus smoking or a teen girl holding a baby with the caption, “Change the world, not diapers.” Clyde’s poster showed the front, minus the head, of a young woman in a chair, legs crossed, with the caption, “There’s a simple way to prevent AIDS.” Easy answer.

I had so much confusion then. At the time, HIV was practically a death sentence. People, from celebrities to a French teacher at my high school, were dying at alarming rates. Treatments were hit-or-miss.

I also knew that, fair or not, the most impacted group was gay men.

Harlan told me how he hid. His family didn’t know. Guys in the dorm didn’t know. He was careful to compartmentalize his life. The only ones who knew were the men – most of whom he didn’t know – and his Pastor Jim, and now me.

I had met Pastor Jim once. I made it a policy to accept invitations in order to collect experiences. Looking back, that policy had gotten me into far too many boring church services, with false promises that I’d “visit again real soon!”

Pastor Jim was proud that he wasn’t a bigot. In the Sunday school prior to the service, he went on a far limb and boldly stated that racism was wrong. To give an example, he said he approved of interracial marriage “in some cases.”

“What did Pastor Jim say?” I asked.

“He told me that Jesus loves me, but I must stop. He gave me this.” He pulled back his left sleeve to reveal a thick rubber band around his wrist. “See what it says there? Romans 6:23. Every time I get an urge, I—” and he pulled up on the band and let it smack his wrist, leaving a red mark.

I could see the letters, its black ink smudged.

“Romans 6:23. For the wages of sin is death,” he said, placing a finger on his right temple. “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, understanding the basics of Christianity, but not its intricacies.

“It means if you sin, you will die.”

“Harlan, we’re all going to die.”

“No, I mean you will die-die. You’ll be cast into the fires of Hell.” He sniffled. “I don’t wanna die,” he sobbed, like a baby starting a tantrum. “I don’t wanna go to Hell, Bob. I don’t want you to, neither!”

——

A week after he came out to me, Harlan sat in my room. He stared at the tiled floor and said, “I had another relapse.” Then he pulled the rubber band and let it smack his already-welted wrist. “I gotta wait another six weeks to find the results.”

He slowly shook his head. His voice was deeper, raw from crying. “I hate myself.”

We sat in heavy silence. After a full minute, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

We sat in silence for another minute, then he said, “Three weeks ago, I was at the clinic. They had to freeze genital warts off me with liquid nitrogen. Do you know how incredibly painful that is? Otis was there. He held me down while they did it.”

“Who’s Otis?”

“A guy.”

“A nice guy?”

“Yeah, he’s a nice guy.”

“Why don’t you date him?”

“I can’t, and you know why.”

——

Six weeks later, I stood in my dorm, door open, speaking on the phone to a girl who had zero interest in me.

Harlan knocked. He mouthed, “It’s not positive,” and made a plus sign with his fingers while shaking his head. Then he made a negative sign with one finger, nodded his head, and mouthed, “It’s negative!” His baby smile was back.

That was the last time we spoke about it.

At the start of the next semester, I noticed the rubber band was gone.

By the end of the semester, I graduated. I lost contact with Harlan for good.

——

More than twenty-five years later, I watched Boy Erased, a movie about a young man who was put through conversion therapy. Afterward, I got snoopy. I found Harlan on Facebook. He looks happy. He still has feathered hair, beady eyes, and that same baby smile. Behind him in the picture is a man— I wonder if it’s Otis.

I also looked up Darla, the hall director who wouldn’t let me dance. Her most recent post was a lovely picture of her, holding a bouquet, beaming, with her smiling wife of fifteen years standing at her side.

——            

In college, I never had meaningful conversations about existence. I didn’t go on any spontaneous road trips, and I didn’t bring home a belle to dear old Mom and Dad.

But I did prank someone by coming out of a closet, and hopefully, I made it easier for someone to peek out of theirs.    

——

Bob Chikos spent two-and-a-half of his most formative years in Johnson City, Tennessee. Today, he is a special education teacher, speech team coach, and is involved in statewide educational policy. He lives in Cary, Illinois.
 
Read “Andrea,” also by Bob Chikos.
 
“In a Closet in a Dorm” was originally published in YAWP.

tidbits, fragments, and ephemera 1

tidbits, fragments, and ephemera is a usually weekly but not always, sometimes substantial but not making any promises glimpse at some information and news related to Generation X in the Deep South.


Religion Landscape Study, South Carolina

This Pew Research Center study shows that 78% of adult GenXers in South Carolina are Christians, with the bulk majority (19%) as “unaffiliated.” Every other religion added together makes up the remaining 3%. (No year was clearly available for the study.)

Party Affiliation among Generation X by state

This info from 2014 shows that, among GenXers in Southern states, there was a mix of major-Republican and majority-Democrat states. Apparently, at this time Mississippi was no longer considered a state by the Pew Research Center.

University of Georgia launches a newsletter for Generation X alumni.

excerpted: “From a design standpoint, The Fast Times is reminiscent of the popular zines of the ‘80s, where people made magazines that were small in size and easily distributable. Their creators often gave them away for free to increase the spread of their opinions on music, film and other cultural followings.”

Alabama journalist Tim Lockette publishes two novels.

excerpted: “Lockette’s time as a newspaperman lends authenticity to Tell it True. But the 49-year-old said both books are colored by his personal experiences as a member of Generation X – the demographic group born roughly between 1965 and 1980 who were often criticized in popular culture as “slackers” but later gained a reputation for entrepreneurship while steering clear of political activism.”

Demographic breakdown of the Mississippi legislature

These graphs were compiled and are offered by the Center for Youth Political Participation at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. Among the graphs and charts is the category of generation.

“Generation X can flip the script in their communities,” by Kristi Gustavson, CEO of the Community Foundation of North Louisiana

excerpted: “One thing for certain about Gen X, perhaps as with any other generation, is that we refused to adhere to the constraints put upon us by the generation before us.  We sought to very uniquely define ourselves.  Of course, bucking the system is nothing new and certainly not invented by Gen Xers.  Every generation does this to some degree.  What makes each generation unique is not that we choose not to conform it is how we choose not to conform.”

Blues Old Stand, live

The band, which took its name from a tiny community in Macon County, was a staple of the Montgomery, Alabama music scene in the 1980s and 1990s. The band streamed a live show on Facebook in April 2021.


level:deepsouth is an online anthology about growing up Generation X in the Deep South during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. The anthology is open to submissions of creative nonfiction (essays, memoirs, and reviews) and images (photos and flyers), as well as to contributions for the lists.

When We Were Wiccan

by C. Don Jones

Knoxville Center Mall (once known as East Towne) was slowly dying. It would take several more years. Now it was losing another store. There was only one person working in the store that night. She was laughing but concerned about the upcoming event. “I don’t know who is going to be priestess,” she said. “I did it the last couple of times. I want someone else to do it tonight.”

She didn’t see me. I was among the free-standing shelves at Disc Jockey. When I was a teenager it was a “record store” that sold more cassette tapes than anything. Entertainment technological change was beginning. I went there often searching for Talking Heads, Rush, Devo, or Ozzy and hoping I had enough cash to buy something. Now I was approaching forty. The nineties were over. And the records and cassette tapes were gone. I was looking for bargains on the remaining DVD’s and maybe a few decent enough T-shirts. The store would be closing soon for the evening. It would not belong before it would be shut down permanently.

I found a copy of Gandhi and looked at my watch. The store had a few more hours left for that day. If I remembered the protocol correctly, she would shut the doors at 9:00 PM and then take some time to count the cash tray and tally the credit card receipts. She may even fill in a bank deposit slip for the next day. She would be leaving at 9:30. The ritual she was planning to attend would start around 11:00 presumably.

Here I was, a Christian minister, thinking about the timing of a neo-pagan ritual. I thought about the calendar. Is there a major sabbat taking place? I wondered. Yes! It was the time of Imbolc (sometimes called Candlemas). The chain store had gone through Christmas (or Yule) and was closing for good the first week of February. If I wanted to get back to browse the videos again before the shutdown, it would have to be soon.

I took my purchase to the cash wrap after she got off the phone. She smiled. Despite being about to lose her job, she seemed happy. “Find everything alright?”

“Yes. Too much,” I joked.

She sighed. “It’s the way it always is.”

I wanted to ask about the ritual. Was it Wiccan? If so, was it of the Alex Sanders type, Gardnerian, or another type. I didn’t ask though. I could be conversant on these matters. But, striking up a conversation could lead to an invitation to take part. It was not my world. But, spiritually speaking, I was her elder brother.

In the late 1960s, the Baby Boomers who looked for alternative spiritualities looked east. They explored Zen, Taoism, and the hodgepodge of spiritualities that came to be known as “New Age.” They redeveloped the practice of syncretism. For some, this would include attending Church on Sunday, then some other time during the week attending a Sangha, as in “My faith is Christian while my practice is Buddhist.” My father read Jiddu Krishnamurti and took us to the Church of Christ where he grew up.

Generation X is known for having been left alone. When it came to spirituality, we were expected to absorb something. My own high school student body was heavily influenced by Christian fundamentalism. Young Life met one morning per week for prayer and Bible study. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes consisted of a much larger group that met every Thursday immediately following lunch. Apparently, one did not have to be either Christian or an athlete to take part. It was open to everyone. I briefly attended one session and watched some of the biggest jerks “give their testimony.” The meetings were summed up best by a friend of mine who said, “The first liar never has a chance.” Testifying about how you were a sinner and then saved (or fallen and restored) was one thing. Trying to make your story more dramatic was another. It often fell into competition.

Since my family were Church of Christ, my parents did not expect me to participate in those school clubs. I was glad I didn’t have to. I resented the ambient fundamentalism of my town. To make matters worse, the Moral Majority was in its ascendency. Jerry Falwell was on television every Sunday and on talk shows during the weekdays. I saw and heard way too much of him for my taste. It was my first exposure to the idea that The United States was intended to be Christian, have a powerful military, and make sure the students never learned anything that threatened those ideas.  

I discovered Michael Harrington’s book Socialism and atheism at about the same time. But atheism is difficult for people to comprehend. For many people, thinking there is no deity is contemplating nothingness. I needed to look for something to believe and that would nurture a spiritual side, if I had one.

I looked in the strangest of places. I chose “the Occult.” Somehow, I discovered that wonderful forgery titled Necronomicon supposedly translated by “Simon.” The rituals were interesting. But the long background story of the magic was more impressive. I was a reader of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I played and was a Dungeon Master for a few Advanced Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. But it was not until the Necronomicon that I heard of the author H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos. In addition to that I was reintroduced to the occultist mage Aleister Crowley. I once read his story in a horror comic book when I was younger. And then there was the song Mr. Crowley by Ozzy.

A friend and I began pursuing “the magickal path.” I was the more voracious reader. I read anything I could find. There were works by Sybil Leek, a biography of Alex Sanders titled King of the Witches (I copied the Book of Shadows that was an appendix to this book), The Book of Law and Magick In Theory and Practice by Crowley, and Raymond Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft and Practical Candle Burning Rituals. I studied folk magic, parapsychology, and demonology. I bought a set of Rider-Waite Tarot cards after my friend told me they could be found at Waldenbooks. We mispronounced the word as “taa-rot.” Honestly, we were weird.

I learned how to read the Celtic Cross method of tarot. I practiced ritual magick. I continued to study occult history and the stories about medieval sorcerers Albertus Magnus and Cornelius Agrippa. I even read about John Dee. I was never interested in astrology or playing with Ouija boards. They never interested me. But what got the attention of my circle of friends and acquaintances was my reading on Nazi occultism, including the hypnotic effect of Adolf Hitler and the Satanism of Anton Szandor LaVey.

I watched Ghostbusters in the theater four times. Dan Akroyd’s character Ray Stanz appealed to me. He was excited by what he knew and could find out. He could scare the living hell out of himself and analyze it later. He was my kind of guy. I had friends who fit the other characters somewhat.

Could I ever say I was truly Wiccan? I am still not sure. But the natural focus and the balance of the goddess and the horned god appealed to me. Being outside was my idea of heaven. The spirituality of Wicca helped me understand the concept of ecology better. It was pantheistic which made everything connected. The difficulty was explaining this belief to my peers.

Jon was a friend, a conservative Christian, who wanted to know more about the stuff I was reading. We began the series of conversations on Senior Day for the class of 1984.

“So, what is it?” He asked.

We were following a trail in the woods near the park where the other seniors were enjoying the day. We were able to goof off. I chose what I liked to do during such times. I walked the woods.

“Well, it comes from an old word meaning ‘wise’,” he said. “The words wit and witch are somehow related. The craft would be about using nature the way a woodworker uses wood.”

“Okay. What do you believe?”

That question was tricky. “Well, some believe in the god and goddess and a balance to all things. Sybil Leek believes in cycles of reincarnation.”

“Why?” The idea of reincarnation touched on what a lot of people considered the ultimate concern of their evangelical faith. It was summed up by the evangelistic question, “if you died today where would you go?”

“All of nature is in cycles,” I began. “There’s birth and death, which is also a balance. The seasons change Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. The cycle of being goes from birth, life, death, to rebirth.” I stopped talking when we topped a hill. There was a break in the trees that allowed us to look over the park where our classmates were.

“Do you believe we reincarnate?” He prompted me, after giving me a moment.

“I think so.”

“Were you always human or some other animal?”

“I’m not sure about that. Do animals and humans have the same essence or soul?” We started walking again.

“Don’t ask me.”

“In church, they say we don’t,” I said. “I don’t really care either way. I can’t remember any past lives.”

“Don’t some people?”

“Yes.”

“Do you believe them?”

“Why not?”

I said earlier that I didn’t believe the testimonies of my classmates when they offered them in FCA. But I knew some of them were honest enough for there to be some truth in the stories. I felt the same way about some of the stories from people who claimed to receive information about their past lives.

“Do you mean that I believe everyone who claims they were a King or Jesus in a past life? Then no. I don’t believe those,” I said, finally.

I can’t tell you every position on a football field. I am not sure how I managed that growing up in the South. But I did understand that I knew something my peers didn’t.  

I was not completely out of step with my world though. Folk magic has been practiced in the Appalachian Mountains for centuries. Members of my family practiced it too. My maternal grandfather and my uncles located their wells by dowsing. The used a divining rod made from the branch of a hardwood tree. Some bystanders said they could hear the stick twisting downward in their hands. I never watched it being done. But I could picture the bark scraping against the calloused hands of my grandfather as the end of the rod pointed downward. He never moved his hands. He always found a good spot to dig a well. But that wasn’t all. He told me about working by the signs

“Do you know when to stack lumber by the signs?”

“Stack lumber?” I knew he planted his gardens by the signs most of the old people in East Tennessee did.

“Mmmmhmh,” he began. “You never stack lumber on the full moon. If you do that it will rot faster. The best time is to stack it at the new moon. It stays dry longer.”

“Really?” I asked.

“That’s right.” My great-grandfather had a sawmill. He cut railroad ties for the ALCOA’s rail lines between the three plants in what became the City of Alcoa. Aluminum was smelted at the South Plant and taken either to the North Plant for sheeting and molding or the West Plant to make foil. The finished product was sent to the major railroad station from tracks dedicated for the use of the company.

I could not imagine how long cut lumber was to be kept before it could be used. I knew green wood had to dry to be used and had to be kept flat. But what did the signs have to do with anything? I was driving home when my education kicked in to explain it.

The phases of the moon affect the tides of the oceans and other large bodies of water even the human produced lakes of the Tennessee Valley Authority. There is also water in the ground. As Barbara Kingsolver points out in High Tide in Tucson, there are tides in the ground too. The phases of the moon, I realized, either brought the water up or kept in lower which affected the dampness of the lumber. The “signs” were not as much astrology but astronomy and geology. Agricultural work is determined by such natural wonders. Spirituality is not divorced from the everyday world. It is part of the rhythms or cycles of living.

Eastern Tennessee can be described as the limestone capitol. We have a lot of limestone caves. It is because of all the water we have. There are springs everywhere. Grandpa’s divining rod was always going to find water because water is everywhere. When one of my uncles, Mike, could not find water using the rod, he claimed the others were faking it. They weren’t. But Mike is the youngest and the only son to graduate high school. The others trusted the practice of dowsing. He never “found” water like they did.

Generation X in the South searched for a spirituality that did not reflect the work/school schedules that made us latchkey kids and left us alone for a few hours everyday after school. Our parents may have believed we should do our assignments, designated chores, babysit younger siblings, or be babysat. Very few of us did any of those things. Some of us explored whatever forbidden fruit was available. Many of us went off the beaten path and found new plants and old uses.

Fundamentalist youth often went out to sow wild oats and prayed for crop failures. Some of us went into other things. And some of those, like me, returned to their fundamentalist roots for a while, at least. But something different was happening. The churches started changing.

“I don’t know understand, Christian rock,” one friend said to me. “It seems like so many of these guys want to play Rush or Blue Oyster Cult. But their parents will let them if they are talking about Jesus.”

Rock was once the enemy of Christian fundamentalism. Terms like “backward masking” and the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” were part of the scare tactics of the preachers of our childhood. “Faithful Christians do not compromise with the world,” we were told. Unless, of course, if it would “win souls” for Jesus. Then it was not compromise. It was being “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” The selling point was stealing the kids back from the Devil.

Churches that made such changes tended to double-down on doctrinal expectations of their members. Believing remained the important issue. Acting out one’s faith had little to do with living life. Acting out one’s faith was doing special acts of short-term missions, special gatherings or rallies for youth, and “soul winning.” There was a grand failure in the works for the churches. The great turning off was beginning for Gen-X and later the Millennials. Congregations putting on better programs drew members from smaller churches. A better show attracts more people. Messages preached often lacked nuance because the listeners were prepared by music that used very simple lyrics and repetitive phrases. This appealed more to fundamentalist-raised Gen-Xers than the non-fundamentalist ones.

Gen-X had two important and contradictory goals. We wanted to be accepted. And we wanted to be different. A young woman said to me once, “Our church is very open and progressive.”

“How so?” I asked.

“We use all sorts of instruments in our music. We don’t have pianos or organs for our worship.”

“That’s not what progressive means.” I had hung out with Unitarians at one point.

“It doesn’t? What does it mean?”

“Progressive means upholding gay marriage and female clergy with liberal doctrine.”

“Oh.” She wrinkled her nose. “Really?”

Her claim was a good example of Gen-X attempting to fulfill incompatible desires. It is who we are. By the time of that conversation, I decided acceptance was not all it was supposed to be. I began to liberalize my own faith. I had the background. And the internet helped me review works I no longer had immediate access to.

The young woman in Disc Jockey brought it all back. I decided to find out about the alternative spiritualities some more. I had left it behind. But more people over the years joined and began new schools and approaches for new generations. Still, the desire to stand out is strong. The new methods and schools of pagan thought are evidence of that.

The misfit aspect continues to be a part of alternative spiritualities too. Outsiders and misfits tend to find each other and form other communities. The internet makes that easier. Technology increases the availability for connections in nature-based spiritualities. It is ironic but Gen-X and the Millennials learned to adapt. So far it is working. After all, I am a fairly open Christian.

——

C. Don Jones is a United Methodist Minister. He publishes a blog on Progressive Christian Philosophy and Practice titled Glorious Life. He still lives in East Tennessee.