I grew up in rural Northwest Ohio and although my family has lived here for several generations, I’ve always felt like an outsider. I struggled with my feelings towards religion throughout my childhood and frequently dreamed of moving far away.
A Year Abroad Defined My Values
When I was 16, I was given an amazing opportunity to study abroad. I spent one life-changing year in Denmark. When I say life-changing, I really mean it. I’m now 37 and my experiences in Denmark still affect me today. It shaped my values – how I feel about parenting, working, politics, social issues, human rights, and just about everything else.
In Denmark, I met people who were openly atheist for the first time. That had a huge impact on me a few years down the road. I had never met anyone who wasn’t Christian let alone an atheist.
Even though Danes are often known as quiet, I came back to Ohio pretty outspoken. Just knowing there’s a whole big world outside of Ohio gave me confidence. I was counting down the days until I could leave.
My Exchange Year Had Lasting Effects
I had one more painstaking year of high school left when I came back from Denmark. It was the longest year ever. I was constantly protesting at our absurdly conservative “public” school. I even got a detention for walking out during the prayer at one of our football games. I was pretty proud of it. (Still am, actually.)
When I was in my early twenties and finally called myself an atheist, I thought about my experience in Denmark and I knew what I was doing was okay. I knew that there were lots of good people who were atheists – almost a whole country full actually. Just because I don’t fit in at home doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Now that I’m a mother, I’m really hoping my daughter will get a similar opportunity one day. It would be hard to send her away just like it was for my dad, but I feel it’s an extremely important experience that can potentially shape a person’s future. I just hope we will have the resources at that time to make it happen.
Life Back in Ohio
Today I’m pretty shy. I tend to avoid social situations. I would love to be fearless again like I was as a teenager.
I did leave Ohio but only to return a couple of years later. Now I absolutely love living in Toledo. I have all the opportunities and conveniences of a city but I’m still close to my family in the outlying area. Plus, Toledo’s just a neat place. The city just has this spirit or attitude about it that’s hard to describe – gritty yet hopeful, maybe? We’re in the rustbelt but still kicking.
Sometimes I still feel like an outsider in Ohio, but you know what? This is my home, too, damn it.