I remember the first time I ordered coffee. I was 22, a junior in college, freshly returned from the mission field in Taiwan. I’d experienced tea overseas and met Adventists who didn’t think caffeine was sinful, just a little unhealthy, like cookies. After a few months at home, I’d gotten up my nerve to go to a Starbucks.
I stood in line, inhaling the heady, exotic fragrances, delighting in the cheerful atmosphere…and twitching with anxiety. I couldn’t shake the impression that everyone was judging me, even other coffee-drinkers. I was terrified that someone from church or SAU would spot me, even though I knew plenty of them drank coffee, too.
When I reached the front of the line, I experienced a new kind of embarrassment. “I don’t do this very often,” I babbled. “Which one has chocolate in it?”
“Mocha?” asked the bored-looking girl.
“Alright, I want a small mocha.”
“You mean a tall?”
“Nevermind. Do you want whipped cream?”
“I guess. Maybe. I don’t know. I’ve never ordered coffee before.”
The cashier looked at me with a mixture of wonder, pity, and distrust. I wished I could retract my absurd statement, but instead I gibbered apologies, paid for my drink in blushing humiliation, and then savored the unfamiliar warm sweetness with its bitter counterpoint. I delighted in the pleasant feeling of buoyancy, which I knew must be sinful. I apologized to Jesus, while simultaneously hating my own childish naivety at the checkout counter. College kids from town ordered their drinks smoothly, thoughtlessly, like adults. I stammered and fumbled like a child.
As the years passed, my fear of disappointing Jesus dwindled, but the embarrassing process of having adult experiences far too late in life repeated itself over and over again. In so many ways, my Adventist subculture infantilizes its practitioners. Any activity or entertainment that would be labeled “adult” by the wider world simply means “sinful” to most Adventists—an activity never to be enjoyed at any age.
Bacon, beer, movies, literature, coffee, wine, music, lobster, role-playing games, school dances, sexy clothes, and beautiful jewelry—these nearly universal cultural experiences are often truncated or absent from Adventist life. I think, for many people, it’s easier to just coast within the subculture that trimmed their roots, dropped them into a tiny pot, and placed them in a kind of suspended animation—no longer a child, never quite an adult, a mini-human, a bonsai.
This is how I began to think of myself at some point in my late twenties: Bonsai Girl. It’s a frustrating state—trimmed and warped to suite someone else’s aesthetic. As I grew older, the bitter realization dawned: The pleasures I was promised are imaginary, while real pleasures are inaccessible to me.
I wanted desperately to sink my roots into the wide world, to reach my full potential, but each time I tried, I was carefully trimmed back. I couldn’t seem to find my way out of the pot—not until I left the church at age thirty.
It took a long time. I still don’t know how to dance and detest the taste of beer. But I can cook bacon and even crab without too much flailing. I can order wine at a restaurant. I can engage in the complex mating dance of our species. And I can order coffee without embarrassing myself. More importantly, I can more easily engage with my fellow human beings, because I’ve shared some of their experiences. I’m still stunted. I still do not have the same associations with these common cultural touchstones that others do. I will always be a little strange. But I have climbed out of the pot. I have put my roots into the warm, wide earth, and it is so worth it.
If you’re like me, you probably went through a period of railing against what was done to you. I’ll never know what I might have become if I hadn’t been a bonsai—the skills I might have learned, universities I might have attended, friends I might have made, the mate I might have found. I don’t think it’s wrong to be sad and angry and to mourn the loss of these things. However, mourning will not make your life better. Your past may have belonged to a strange cult from the 1800’s, but the future is yours. It’s never too late to become fully mature, to climb out of the pot, to grow up.