July 2, 2016

Odyssey of Light Series: Part 1

Odyssey of Light Blog Series

Part 1: The Before And The How (Or, "Why I'm Not Sixteen")

This is part 1 in a five-part series, in which I finally tell the truth about myself, my music, and my identity in Christ. Please leave any and all comments on Facebook, where they can be monitored better. Over the next two months, as part of my Year of Practicing Personality, I’ll be making some changes to this website as I continue to release music and stories. If a link doesn’t work, please let me know.

Let me start off by re-introducing myself, particularly if this is your first time here. My name is Emily Ann Imes, I am a Christian and I am a lesbian, and the two are mutually exclusive. I am from the most obnoxious city in America, which means I am from the most awesome city in America and nobody can convince me otherwise. Yes, it’s true, I’m from New York City, where the pigeons have more class than the people do and it's not church, it's brunch. In my spare time, better known as day 8 of the week, I do this music composition thing. I also used to write and am trying to get back into it after bedbugs ate my career. You know. Because New York.

This is the summer of 2016. Eleven years ago, in the summer of 2005, some freaky deaky stuff happened and my life got flip turned upside down, and I'd like to take a minute, just sit right there, and tell you how Jesus saved my life by using roller coasters. But before we talk about the summer of 2005, we gotta cover what happened before that...the beginning of the Rest of the Story. It's a very good place to start.

17 year old me. With about as much attitude as I have now.

Let’s start off with: hey, Emily, why would you start this series off by telling us you’re a lesbian?

Funny you should ask that, and here’s the reason: if I’m adding to your noise, turn off my song. I’ve loved Jesus about as long as I’ve loved women, I’ve loved Jesus despite loving women, and I’ve been in denial about the whole thing for more than a decade. (Well...partial denial. Anybody from college remember how I said I was a nonpracticing bisexual? That.) I went through high school and college looking for a guy to fix me. After I moved to NYC, I went through a long period of not being around church or Jesus because my abuser started using Him against me. Shortly after this period, I realized that I couldn’t hide from this part of my identity any longer. And Jesus calls us to be honest, both with others and Himself.

So I’m done hiding. If you want to get technical, I’m genderfluid panromantic homosexual. If you want to keep it simple, I’m a lesbian.

But I understand for some people this is a dealbreaker. Their faith or their church cannot allow them to be around people who are gay. Or you just can’t stand people who are mired in sin (despite the fact that we all are) and you’ve come here to throw shade, mostly to make yourself feel better. This is me giving you an out. If you are not comfortable reading a testimony by someone who isn’t afraid of who she is, then back out now and go back to your happy Big White Jesus box. It’s okay. I promise. I don’t want to cause someone to sin against themselves and their own relationship with God.

This also means that if you choose to read, you choose to be open to my story. I mentioned on my last post on Memorial Rainbow that if I hear one person quip about “loving the sinner and hating the sin,” I reserve the right to spork you. Which basically means I will fling plasticware at you (in a very nonthreatening manner) until you try to see my life the way Jesus sees it. My theology about being a lesbian and a Christian is still in the works, and that’s something for another blog post entirely. I would very much appreciate it if my identity in Christ (the real reason for this post series) isn’t ripped to shreds because of any one person’s own theology.

So. If I’m adding to the noise, go watch some VeggieTales or something. This is your final warning.


Do I still have you? Good.

This story starts on April 1, 2005, a very dark day in my life. There are two events we must cover if we are going to talk about the summer of 2005. This is the first.

The early 2000’s were not kind to the gay. The Defense of Marriage Act made it clear that we were second rate citizens. Churches around the world rallied to keep us permanently in the closet. We started making the word gay synonymous with weird. I had always been alone, the oddball out, in my small town. Nobody else moved from clique to clique, or wrote stories and music, or played piano and violin at a savant’s level. But not only that, I fell in extreme like with a freshman girl and got sucked into a very strange world.

See, here’s the thing: if you go your entire sixteen years being told by other people you’re weird, you will start to think you’re weird. If the kids in your sixth grade class start calling you a Martian and that you should go back to your home planet, you’ll honestly start to think you’re maybe not from here. And if everybody hates gay people, then you start getting isolated very quickly.

I won’t say the girl’s name to protect her identity, although some of my oldest friends may know who she is. But when we weren’t sneaking kisses in the band room or going to my church to keep it all on the DL, she believed she was a princess of darkness, a vampire of energy, someone who could never be redeemed. Online, I found a group who believed the same things: that we were all aliens or angels or something else not from this world, and that someday we’d find out our true identity and our way home. And I didn’t really think the same about myself, but what could I do? Everybody else thought I didn’t belong here.

Now -- spoiler alert -- when I moved to the city in 2011, I met some of these people in person. And, surprise! They’re just relatively normal people who were going through a phase. Like me, they were isolated for several different reasons, back before being a geek was a commendable thing. Today we’re cool and we hang out and we still have each others’ backs. I’m even dating one of them. But I digress.

Things with this freshman girl were never healthy. First of all, she didn’t even think she was human. Second of all, the general negativity towards gays meant our relationship was a horribly kept secret. Most of our time consisted of us being dramatic for the sake of being dramatic, her going off and breaking up with me and me having to chase her down, and us doing the whole “when we graduate, let’s get out of town” thing. Very t.A.T.u.

On April 1, 2005, she called my landline and, while under a blanket in my basement, I talked her out of breaking up with me AGAIN. The trouble with landlines is that parents can listen in.

They confronted me about it. I felt so sick I ran to the toilet, afraid I would throw up. Somewhere in the mess, I remember my mom saying it was okay if I was gay. And then the truth came out about who I was hanging out with online. To say they threw a fit about my online community is putting it mildly at best. They requested the passwords to all my emails, made me print out my entire online blog for their safekeeping (to be used against me at any time), and banned me from the computer. In an age before mobile, this cut me off from the Internet entirely.

My father -- always a very loud man -- told me that I was not allowed to have my own email address until I was out of college. (Spoiler alert: that’s the first thing I did when I got to school.) He also told me the lie that would resonate with me for a decade: that his reputation around town would be ruined if I were seen with another girl. It didn’t matter that my mom said otherwise. From that point onward, I would tell myself that I was not allowed to be gay and that my father would disown me if I was. Enter unhealthy cycle of dating men and denying myself of my true identity.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I dated some excellent guys. And I hope they all marry someone who can give them what they need. Including the abusive one.

So as of April 1, 2005, my slate was wiped clean regarding a lot of things. I had no good way to connect with the outside world. I lost a lot of my friends at school, but managed to keep a couple. When my ex-girlfriend wrote “Emily Imes is a bisexual bitch” on the bathroom stall, I called one of my artist friends from her English class and we spent all of flex period covering it up with Sharpie marker. I started dating one of my old boyfriends again to get people off my tail -- and I did still like him as a person anyway. I started planning a new novel, which would eventually become my 3-Day Novel in 2013.

When I turned seventeen on May 5 of that year, my brother and I danced around in my kitchen singing “we’re not sixteen!” And it was true, but my life was still very much on its head. I was in trouble, and I was no longer in control. And I would ultimately not be the person or entity to gain control back over my life.

This is where Jesus comes in.

The second event’s exact date is forgotten, but it is sometime in June of 1999, on a Sunday.

Before that date, I knew who Jesus was, but not through my parents. They weren’t really avid church-goers. When we moved to Indianapolis, we lived in an apartment for two months. During this time, in addition to my mother having my sister, five-year-old me locked myself in a closet for fifteen minutes and was mortified for years afterward. (Foreshadowing much?) The only kids around were a pseudo-neighbor family who worked for a church in a nearby town. They ended up living within walking distance of us once our houses were built, and my childhood in Indy is reminiscent of sleepovers and random stage plays and going through their backyard to the nearby park. All of their kids were older than us -- their youngest, Katie, was two years older than me -- but that just made them excellent babysitters.

And of course they invited us to their church. I remember going with Katie to kids’ church and singing “Flood” by Jars of Clay, the lyrics printed on an overhead transparency sheet. I did children’s plays there and went on an on-off basis, depending on how often my parents wanted to go. So I knew that Jesus was a person who did miracles, and I knew that He died and came back to life. I mean, how cool is that? He died and He came back to life! That’s pretty awesome to a seven year old. And then we learned about His miracles and that He was a good person and did good deeds and that we could learn how to be better people because of Him.

You know how it goes.

This continued until my fifth grade year, at which point, a series of dominoes happened. I saw a yellow mouse on television, promptly decided it was the cutest thing ever, and tuned into the Pokemon television series in time to see Pikachu defeat Raichu. My regular group of fifth grade friends was more into Lisa Frank than Game Boys, so I turned to my piano teacher’s daughter. Kristen was a homebody to herself, always playing her Sega Genesis and Playstation whenever I would come over for a lesson. She was homeschooled, so none of my other friends knew her. Since she didn’t have a lot of friends, either, Kristen got really excited when I mentioned I might be interested in Pokemon. While I eventually got my friends into it, Kristen was always my go-to for information. We would spend summers in her pool and winters trading Pokemon and reading manga. (She was also my first “kiss,” planting one square on my cheek after I defeated the Elite Four for her.)

On a random Saturday night in June, I spent the night at her place, which was fine as long as I was okay with going to church with them in the morning. This is where the second event starts. This wasn’t the church I was used to, but it was familiar enough, having Sunday School before the kids’ service. I almost fell asleep in the Sunday School, more concerned with trading Pokemon cards than the actual content.

I don’t remember a lot about the service -- this WAS some odd fifteen years ago, and I had just turned eleven, so bear witness. There was worship music, and talking about Jesus, and the youth pastor was more engaged and more hype than the one at my ‘normal’ church. The one part I most definitely remember about the service was that every kid put their name on a ticket, which would then go into a huge raffle for a bicycle (which, when you’re eleven, is gold). The catch? You had to come to the evening service to see if you won or not, and if you weren’t present, you wouldn’t win anything. Kristen went to bat with me, and I begged my parents to let me go. They conceded, mostly because they wouldn’t have to lift a finger and Kristen’s mom/my piano teacher, someone they already trusted, would be taking me.

We got to the service and it started off the same way -- same worship songs, same youth pastor, same bright lights and fun. He ensured that everybody hadn’t forgotten about the raffle, then launched into some games and other stories that seemed to last a lifetime. It was all super fun, and I remember loving every moment of it.

Kristen met up with a few of her friends from the church, including an older friend, taller and most likely in middle school at the time, with long, light-colored hair. I no longer remember her face, only her voice. I will refer to her as “Midori” because if I learned her name, it was quickly forgotten. I’ll explain the nickname later, promise.

At one part in the night, things quieted down a good bit, and the youth minister got on stage and started talking about Jesus, just like how everybody talked about Jesus. However, this time, he spoke of a Jesus I had never known before. There was a reason for this cross, for this death and coming back to life, and eleven year old Emily had never heard it before that night. It finally made sense, that Jesus died for us so that we wouldn’t have to die. When he asked if those who had never heard this before would come forward, I hesitated, but my feet went, one step in front of the other. On the floor in front of the stage, aware of others around me but not sensing a thing, I had that moment every Christian remembers like the back of their hands: the prayer to accept Jesus into your heart as your Savior.

The music amped up. I stood up with everybody else as we started singing, lyrics on a Powerpoint slide above our heads. Kids started worshipping -- and I felt really, really weird. Mad weird. Like there was something in the room weird. Now here’s where you have to suspend your disbelief for a hot bit and roll with me, because this is the first time (and not the last) where I mention something I can’t explain. It’s like when you’re nervous before a test and you think you’re going to throw up, but the exact opposite feeling. I felt love, and power, and majesty that took my breath away.

Who do I attribute this to? God, of course. I mean, I had just accepted Jesus into my life. It would make sense from a semi-logical standpoint that the Holy Spirit was in the room, and I could feel it for the first time. And before you loony-bin me, from what I remember nearly every kid in the room had their hands raised. I wasn’t paying THAT much attention, admittedly.

At some point Kristen helped me raise my hands and I was bawling, tears streaming down my face, not understanding what the heaven was going on but completely shocked that I could feel this way, this floating, this high, this assurance. At some point, I came down from my high, and I vaguely remember Kristen’s friend Midori pulling me aside and sitting with me near the stage.

This part I remember, and I will remember this part until the end of time, and my eyes well up with tears every time I reference this. Midori asked me if I understood what happened, and I shook my head because quite frankly I had no clue. She told me, “your life has changed, now that you have accepted Jesus. From now on there will be a sparkle in your eyes. You’ll look at yourself in the mirror and you’ll see it. Nobody will ever be able to take it away from you. It will always be there. Some people will look at you and say something’s different. They’ll never understand, but you’ll just smile, because you’ll know.”

Every time things get hard, I go to the mirror and I look back at myself, and I see that sparkle. It’s not a literal sparkle, but there’s definitely something in my eyes that makes me do a double take. I know this sparkle claims me as one of God’s children, which is something we can never lose. Romans 11:29 states that “God never changes His mind about the people He calls and the things He gives them.” Jesus said in John 10:28 that “I give them eternal life, and they will never die, and no one can steal them out of my hand.” We accept once, we are His for eternity, black or white, male or female, gay or straight.

It’s pretty clear to say I didn’t win the bike. I’m a firm believer that I won something more important that night.

On the way home from the church service, I talked about what happened to my piano teacher, who was in shock. “You mean you’ve never experienced that before? You’ve gotta let your mom know.” So I did. She dropped me off and I ran into my mother’s arms, saying I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I figured she would understand, that maybe she’d just somehow know and be happy for me. She said that sometimes people cry a lot when they get emotional, and not to worry about it.

I went to bed that night and stared at my ceiling, aware of something that was beyond myself but unsure where to go with it. I knew the light in my eyes wouldn’t die, that nothing could make me any different, but I was aware of the one thing no eleven year old should ever sense: that I was on my own.

Mom would eventually be cool with me joining a church, once I joined North Terrace Church of Christ and got drafted into their youth worship band in late 2003. It kept me out of trouble and got me some friends. I learned how to play with a band, we went on tour across Southeastern Ohio, and I learned more about Jesus. Our youth group went on a weeklong summer camp called Summer in the Son in 2004, upon which my understanding of Christ grew and I almost died in an epic game of dodgeball. I continued to play with the band while dating my girlfriend in secret, which, looking back, was a Bad Life Decision. They would have most certainly kicked me out of the band or made me dump her. Right around the time it was starting to be an issue, it wasn’t anymore because my parents found out.

So, as of June 1st, 2005, this was where I was: I had no connection to the Internet. I had a boyfriend and plans for a novel, which I started working on each day. And my ex-girlfriend very much hated me, but she was signed up to go to Summer in the Son that year, as was I. I rearranged my sleeping room arrangements to make sure I wouldn’t be around her, packed my bags, and on June 26, we all gathered in the North Terrace parking lot to depart for Kentucky in a huge purple school bus, affectionately dubbed the “Barney Bus.”

I left Ohio nervous and unsure how I would make it through the week.