I was born in New York state, but I grew up in Arizona, in Scottsdale, “the West’s Most Western Town.” I suppose that my childhood would be considered idyllic by today’s standards. My father worked hard to provide a stable, financially secure existence for his family. My mother, a stay-at-home mom, made our home really worth coming home to. My sister and I were given the privilege of an education that my father never had. My parents took us to church every Sunday (even though they disagreed on which church to take us to). Life was good. There really was only one tiny fly in my ointment. As an Arizona teenager of the female persuasion in the 1970s, I had my nose rubbed in my shortcomings every summer, just as soon as some DJ saw fit to crank up the old Beach Boys standard, (I Wish They All Could Be) California Girls. Then suddenly, by the authority vested in the Beach Boys, I had been weighed and found wanting. California Girls had been officially declared “the cutest girls in the world.” Arizona girls were… not California Girls.
The story of my life. As a teenager, I was acutely aware that I was deficient in certain “must-have” qualities. My sister was beautiful, the kind of girl who could make heads turn when she entered the room. I was, to put it diplomatically, average-looking in a high-school milieu where looks were everything. Making things worse, I was (and remain) socially awkward. I am a slow thinker; witty repartee is not my thing. Whatever gene is responsible for producing “poise” in humans is recessive in my DNA. Trending towards the Asperger’s end of the spectrum does not bode well for one’s ability to deal with people. I was not, and am not, a “people person.” I was not athletic or coordinated; I couldn’t style my hair or apply makeup attractively. I had anxiety issues. As a supremely bashful, oversensitive teenager, I was painfully aware that I was just not measuring up in the estimation of my peers. As far as the world was concerned, I could pull up stakes and move 300 miles west, but I was never going to be a “California Girl.”
Moving overseas helped. There I was generally given a free pass because of my exotic appeal – I was from the U.S., and therefore automatically mistaken by some folks as a California Girl. Perhaps when people in Germany or Taiwan ran up against my introversion and my dorkiness they attributed them to the fact that I was American (who can understand those Americans?), and let it go. I don’t know. I only knew that I was more comfortable overseas than I had been at home. Eventually, though, I moved back to the States, and once again found myself to be something of the odd-man-out.
By that age I was getting used to it. You are what you are – I told myself. No big deal. So you’ll never win a popularity contest. California Girls are a dime a dozen. Just raise your kids well and do a good job at work; that’s all that matters – I told myself. You are an acquired taste. God made you the way you are, and you need to acknowledge His sovereignty and trust that He has a purpose. You need to be thankful – I told myself.
But I wasn’t thankful – I was quite resentful of the fact that I was a quince tree in an apple-tree-prizing world. Who wouldn’t want to be an apple tree? Apples are the “California Girls” of pomology – so coveted, so beautiful, so desirable. You can eat them, make cider from them, make applesauce out of them, add them to fruit salad and bake them into turnovers. Where would Mom be without apple pie? An apple a day even keeps the dreaded doctor away. The Andrews Sisters certainly never warned anybody not to sit under a quince tree – what could happen to you there? People flock to commercial orchards in the fall to pick their own apples. Grocery stores carry an impressive selection of apples year-round. Who doesn’t like apples? Apples are GOOD.
I bet the Beach Boys like apples.
But I’m not an apple tree. I am a quince tree. I bear quince fruit.
You may not be too familiar with quince fruit; it’s not really in high demand. I have yet to find a quince in the supermarket. Quince fruit is actually too sour and astringent to be edible, and quince fruit is hard; you have to cook it if you want to eat it. (Alternatively, if it is allowed to become frostbitten and decay a little, it softens to the point where it becomes edible – oh, boy. Watch out, though; the high concentration of tannins in uncooked quince can induce a sensation of choking.) The Farsi word for quince fruit is apparently “beh,” most likely an onomatopoeic pronouncement on the flavor. And I hear that several centuries ago they made a drink out of quince fruit, to be used as a purge.
None of this information served to increase my satisfaction quotient. While most of this was a reflection of and on my personality, it had spiritual implications as well. I understood the concept of surrendering all that I am to God for His use, but my compliance ranged from half-hearted to non-existent. We are all called to produce the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. That I could do, but those fruits are produced differently by different people. I have known charismatics whose expressions of joy could get them arrested for disturbing the peace. I’m an introvert; I just don’t express joy in that manner. My manifestation of gentleness or faithfulness might strike you as overdone or underdone, depending on your personality and the circumstances, and that was distressing to me, because I didn’t want to bear fruit that pleased God – I wanted to bear fruit that inspired admiration in my fellowman. Popularity, admiration, success – that was what I longed for. At least I could become a California Girl Christian! As a Christian, I have been commanded to bear fruit. Certainly! – I told myself. But not quince fruit.
I wasted decades trying to be the kind of Christian that other Christians would like and admire. Evangelical churches urged me to be a “winsome” ambassador for Christ – winsome, as in “attractive or appealing in appearance or character; engaging, charming, fetching.” After years of trying, I’m here to tell ya that it ain’t gonna happen. I can be kind, patient and forbearing, but “fetching” just isn’t me. I lack the requisite social skills to be convincingly winsome. Sometimes, though, I felt like I was expected to fake it. And sometimes I felt like others were faking it. They may have been more “winsome” than I was, to be sure; but they were faking faith, faking hope, faking love, because they knew that it was expected of them. Some of my fellow Protestants believed that when you were born again, God changed you into an apple tree. Becoming apple trees was the goal; it was their definition of “walking with the Lord.”
So I continued insisting for years on being allowed to dictate which kind of fruit I was going to bear, until one day the truth came over me – I wasn’t bearing any fruit at all.
Not everyone is an apple tree, I finally had to admit, nor should they be. The world is full of orange trees, peach trees, cherry trees, mango trees and lemon trees. Let’s face it, certain types of fruit are just more popular. People would rather eat an apple than eat a lemon. Of course, if it’s 90 degrees outside and they want lemonade, those apple trees they planted aren’t going to help them. Similarly, you can’t make a cherry pie out of kumquats. But then again, if you’re trying to make kumquat liquor, cherries are useless to you. And if God is searching for someone with my particular proclivities and temperament through whom to express His grace, no one else is going to do….
That’s why He made me the way I am – not to impress people, not to please the world, but to please Himself. I can be useful to Him. And when I bear bushels of ripe, well-formed quince fruit, no matter how the world feels about it, I am pleasing to Him. The fact that most people prefer apples to quinces really isn’t my problem – God wants there to be quince trees in this world. I wasted years of my life trying to be what I wasn’t in order to fit the popular mold. If God ever needs a bowlful of quince jelly – here I am, Lord. I’m bearing fruit for You to use as You see fit.
And did I mention that quinces are high in vitamin C, copper and iron? Cooked and sweetened, they inspired the food writer for the LA Times to gush over the “lovely rosy color and a fragrance and flavor that for me conjures up pears and spices and maybe a touch of orange flower water thrown in.” Exotic, no? Spiced and baked in Riesling, they make an out-of-the-ordinary dessert for those evenings when you just can’t look another apple strudel in the eye.
I believe even the Beach Boys might be persuaded to try a bite.
On the memorial of St. Samson
Deo omnis gloria!
Different kinds of apples in a supermarket, by Abrahami/Wikimedia
Famous Koum Quat liqueur from Cirfu, Greece by Edal/Wikimedia