And What is Love?

me at two

Love.

Unconsciously, we bring stories – some true, some not as true, some false – that form our meaning. Every person has a different bodily reaction to the word, a unique pathway through the limbic system. Wandering through those stories and sensations can invite newness and openness, rather than defining and prescribing one right meaning. Inner work embraces feeling every emotion, regardless of its perceived importance or “rightness”. Anger and rage show up as they are, speaking the truth of what they saw and experienced. Shame and rejection receive invitations to the table so they may lay down what they have carried for endless years.

Love is an action, but it is not only an action. Emotions attach there, or they have for me, and the untangling of those has taken years of work, allowing the emotions to speak rather than denying or judging them as less worthy, as “sinful”, or any other number of choices that came to me from both home and church. Crying and sadness were banished to another room until I could “control myself.” Anger, though a constant companion to everyone with whom  I lived, needed to submerge itself, swimming underwater until it could come up for air in some solitary spot. Fear heard Bible verses that admonished it to remain hidden because it obviously did not trust in God. Anxiety shivered in the corner. Forgiveness meant silence, another twisted message. Whatever you do, don’t speak. In cooperation with the systems in place, I denied, judged, and controlled those consummately uncontrollable feelings and I joined the systems in passing judgments on others. How could she, how could he, how could they, etc. It didn’t feel good and it didn’t happen all of the time, but it fit.

Wanting to love my father as he was, not as I wished he would be or as others thought him to be, guided me over rocky cliffs and through surging waters that coursed within my body. Having come to the conclusion from years of exposure that the body, MY body, was suspicious, unruly, untrustworthy, shameful, and full of betrayal, imagine my surprise to find that my body holds everything I have ever experienced with great honesty, honor and kindness. The trinity of me – body, self, mind – lives in concert unless. Unless I learn to cut it off, which is actually impossible. But the mind can hold on for a long, long time, pretending that the body doesn’t know what happened, where the blows landed, how the scars lay. Piecing together the lives of my parents constitutes an act of love because love no longer means silence, complicity or denial. Love holds all – anger, peace, envy, fear, anxiety, kindness, hope, laughter, sadness, every single thing is held in love.

The stories of my father’s life are limited because he did not tell them. Some people believe that it is natural for a person to not speak of his life, that it was just a generational thing, that this was humility, that this was normal. I disagree. I believed that for a long time because it was said so many times, but as I became friends with older folks including my friend Mary, I realized that some people don’t speak because they don’t speak. Generally, if we don’t speak, we don’t want anyone to know. From my religious background, speaking could be considered selfish or self-centered or vindictive. For me to speak, I needed to notice all of those internal spaces that told me what I could expect from others who wanted me to say something different, what I was, what I intended. It has taken time and others’ presence to accept wanting, desiring, hoping, speaking, needing, feeling, a continuing work in progress. So I tell the few stories of my father in tribute to him, in gratitude for what he gave me, in sorrow and anger for what he took, in hope that he is well, in reality of what was, knowing that love is holding.

Dad was born in New London, Connecticut, in 1920, the oldest child and son of his parents, Marion and Priscilla. Priscilla’s family lived in Connecticut, so I imagine that they were there to be surrounded at the time of his birth. No stories exist of this time, only a photograph of Dad and Aunt Frances, my favorite, around the ages of five and three. The picture is packed away after moving, but the two children sit silently for the portrait, with little expression on their faces, an accepted practice at the time.

Childhood. I know that Dad was a choirboy – yes, he really was – at a church they attended. Whether this was in Connecticut or New York City – I don’t know. He was a good student and a favorite child. When he was young, his maternal grandmother, Priscilla’s mother who had moved from England and married Priscilla’s father, tied him to a tree for some minor mishap. He was not a hell-raiser. He was a little boy. From what I sense, he felt terror. Since these stories come again through my mother, the emotions remain at bay, a guessing game from the telling. Needless to say, there was no great kindness in his grandmother, so there are no stories of picnics or playing or reading. His father, Marion, hailed from South Carolina, the same county that gave the world Pat Conroy and Prince of Tides. According to family lore and lingo, he was the proverbial black sheep of the family so there are no stories of Dad’s paternal grandparents. The Hyrne family, a somewhat rascally group, bought Medway Plantation near Charleston, SC, in 1705 or thereabouts, only to lose it in debt, but the family name remains and continues in coastal South Carolina.

There are no love stories, no tales of how Priscilla and Marion met, but there are numerous tales of violence and terror. Marion was a violent alcoholic. The most commonly told story by far of Dad’s childhood revolved around Marion’s drunken rages. Priscilla, Fred, and Frances rode the subway in New York through the night to remain safe while Marion stormed the house. They would return in the light of morning, and according to Mom, the job of determining whether it was safe to enter the house fell to Dad. I don’t know how many years this happened, how old they were, how many times, what was the result if Marion had not sobered up, nothing. This is the nature of trauma. It is timeless. It is eternal – that is the sense in the body. It is no surprise to me that my father, who avoided and disparaged all external help that was essential to his growth, would not tell the story himself. I am grateful that he told Mom, and I am unclear why he did.

After Dad died, I took Mom to Long Island to see Aunt Frances, a dear, kind soul. Frances did not travel to Florida for Dad’s funeral because she suffered numerous health issues throughout her life, a fragile, bent body that endured much. I sat in the room with them both, Aunt Frances seated in an easy chair, Mom on a sofa, and me across the room, listening to the conversation that followed while the girls played outside in the yard with the dog. Mom had the ability to be intense. Understatement. She zeroed in intently, quickly, and with a certain ferocity on a story that Dad mentioned to her but had never quite had the courage to tell her. Sometime during their childhood or early adolescence, the family took a trip, possibly to Connecticut, definitely intended for pleasure, but horribly gone awry. As Mom described what little Dad had said – that there was a trip in a car, that they got lost, that something bad happened – I watched Aunt Frances. Her back that had been bent for years from health issues and general weakness, hunched over further. She sank into the chair, her eyes drifted to the floor as the memory returned to the present, her face held an incredible amount of pain, like a writhing knot had arisen in her stomach and she said, “It was very bad. It was very bad.” She shook her head. Mom pressed, but Aunt Frances did not relent. And that was it. The story died when she died a couple of years later, immediately followed by her only child, my cousin Priscilla. But the trauma continued, has continued and is in the process of being resolved by the generations who can name it for what it is.

Dad supported his family financially since his father would disappear for days, weeks, and possibly months at a time, leaving them to try and figure out how to make ends meet. Now, it appears odd to me that Grandma never went home to be with her family, though perhaps not surprising. I never connected with her – the peculiar relationship that she had with my father always made me feel uncomfortable in her presence. Whenever we went to visit Aunt Frances and Grandma in the summer because they lived together, Dad would enter Grandma’s room, close the door and spend hours in there with her while we did….whatever we did. It wasn’t a normal grandma situation – I had friends with stories about their grandparents, going to the house, playing games with them, listening to them, but not this family. That is my story of my grandmother, Grandma, the woman who raised my father. I never knew her.

World War II shook the country, and Dad enlisted. He had moved to Washington, DC, to work for the government, and went straight into the army, heading overseas. Officers noted his intelligence and chose him to be in officer’s training though he had not attended college. One of the few stories he would tell exhibited that he wasn’t as respectful as he was supposed to be. He ended up having to repeat some part of training or go someplace else because he had a smart mouth. I can admire that, and I think it was a point of pride since he was willing to tell the tale, an indication of the acceptable stories. I use the word exhibited intentionally versus exposure. The parts of him that were on display were accepted but the parts that were full of shame and self-loathing burnt a hole through him as he refused to allow the exposure of the wounds.

As an officer, he learned to give orders by going out into the forest and yelling. Again, for people who knew him, that might be surprising, but I believe it. After everything he endured throughout his life, being silent had saved him more than once. Whatever happened with his father, he took it and did not fight back. Learning to yell was a task he could handle. In the letters he wrote to my mother that she destroyed after his death, he told Mom about taking his beer rations and throwing them into the middle of the men boarded on the ship to watch them fight over it. I imagine he told her as a way to convince her that alcohol had no hold on him, with both of her parents killed by drunk drivers. He didn’t tell her about his rage, though, and she didn’t notice that that was an odd thing to do.

Dad never told stories about World War II. After he died, a man who had been in his unit under his leadership came to visit Mom. He brought with him a small book he had written years before that described the capture of the unit that Dad commanded in northern Italy. We only knew that he had been captured, that he had escaped, and that he credited his faith in God to an experience during that time. Of course, this is also through Mom, who had her own filters and needs in the telling.

Dad commanded a group of about twenty men, ready to take a hill in northern Italy as a new station for the troops to move forward and gain ground. As they advanced and took their places in an empty barn on an exposed hill, the enemy, Germany, cut the communication lines, leaving the unit without support or further assistance from the larger battalion. Discord within the unit about what to do, where to station themselves in the barn, how to approach the coming attack left Dad out of control, the control he rightfully should have had, and ended with several men killed and the rest including him captured by the Germans to be taken as prisoners of war. Some of them wanted to go out with guns blazing, taking as many Germans as they could with them; Dad wanted to surrender. The writing left me feeling gutted, something I am sure Dad felt at the time. In his mind, I imagine that he failed. That people died because of him. That he had been cowardly. That he could not save them. That he was helpless. In a telling dream that we would laugh at around the dinner table, Dad would describe something from his more current world, driver’s education. He repeatedly dreamed that, while teaching high school students to drive onto a ferry, each car would turn the wrong way and drive into the water with Dad yelling, “Turn right! Turn right!” only to watch them plunge into the cold, and he couldn’t stop them.

Dad did not suffer at the hands of the Germans. Treated with respect and according to accepted norms of battle at the time, as an officer, he received better treatment and was separated from the men in his unit, not to be seen again by them. He recuperated, healthy enough to escape with a passing group of Russian soldiers as the Germans prepared to move the prisoners to another location towards the end of the war. He hid among the Russians using the very little Russian that he knew, and used his survival skills gleaned from a lifetime to make it back to the United States, ready to marry the woman he had met before he left, Eleanor.

Today, we know and accept that veterans returning from overseas duty frequently deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Dad married Mom in Miami, no family present on either side, no one that they knew, and suffered consistent nightmares from all that he saw and lived. Mom asked him to see a psychiatrist, a therapist in the late 1940s, but he refused. She knew that great problems lay ahead in their marriage and asked for help with that, as well, an amazing recognition for that time period, but he refused. He suffered, and so did everyone else.

More stories exist, more ways that I experienced Dad’s intense shame over his body, his extreme fearfulness one time when we missed an exit in New York and needed to consult the map at night, another enormous reaction when we went through an area that he considered unsafe, his profound and utter silence in situations as a leader in church and in school where a courageous man would have spoken and acted. Reality requires that I acknowledge its existence. More important than more stories, though, is my feeling that, though I do not feel that I know my father personally and though he worked to put out my eyes, I have a growing sense of him. I have a sense of the child who endured more than I can imagine, who grew to be a stunted and limited yet gifted man, and a man who longed to be worthy. And most importantly, I love him and I thank him.

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Don’t Judge So You Won’t Be Judged: A Story of Divorce

wedding pics Jerry me 1985

A fire has burned recently regarding words that the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary spoke in 2000 regarding divorce and abuse. As they were recorded, what he said was horrific and his continued avoidance of addressing those words causes harm to the church, in general. Sadly, these attitudes and words ricocheted through me, reminding me of those that surrounded my own divorce and the judgment that falls on any woman who has been divorced, whether she remarries someone else, never remarries or reconciles with her husband.

Some people feel very free to offer opinions on anyone else’s life, regardless of whether they know them or not. As I have grown and gotten older – they aren’t necessarily the same – I have seen that I have absolutely no business questioning anyone else’s life decisions because I am not she and she is not me, though it sounds ridiculously obvious. Growing up in the Baptist church was often an invitation to judgment. We were taught to be “fruit inspectors” – that we were to look for the fruit of someone’s life. Discernment functions as a key factor in moving forward in any situation, but I was not taught to discern but to come to a conclusion about the life of another person. This can also fit under the verse; Don’t judge so you won’t be judged.

I sustained words of judgment from many people, some closer in and some farther away, some who felt the freedom to call me and tell me what I was doing wrong while not asking about what was happening in my heart. Some people felt very protective of Jerry – they were hurt, yet they weren’t tracking what was happening over a long period of time in a very tumultuous period in my life. They were seeing something, but it wasn’t me and it wasn’t Jerry.

Any woman from any church who has been divorced – and I speak here for women because I am one – knows what it feels like to be judged. One of the main conclusions in these judgments is that God is so very displeased and you are “outside the will of God.” I confess that I no longer know what those words mean. Some friends knew that I should be reminded, “God hates divorce.” The hammer felt heavy every time it fell.

Here is what people didn’t know and what they didn’t ask, though dear friends stayed in it with me, walked through the holy ground that so often appears as a swamp or a pigsty. We miss a lot of holy ground that way because it just isn’t as disinfected as we would like for it to be.

Our marriage had been full of discontent, of disappointment, of confusion. We saw that in our own families, so it makes sense that we would carry it with us. When I could no longer carry the weight of the expectations that I felt or the confusion of mistaking Jerry for my father, I decided that I was finished. I couldn’t do it anymore without continuing to do harm to myself and those around me. Confusion reigned in my heart, not knowing whether Jerry shared characteristics of my father that had harmed me deeply or whether his wounds and mine compounded to make a minefield out of the simplest interactions. The control that had been exercised over me throughout my life stifled my every breath, and I could not discern where it started or where it ended. Since I had no real boundaries – I was not allowed to close my bedroom door as a child and teenager and all of my interactions were closely watched by both parents in very different ways – finding my space seemed like an insurmountable task, complicated by the needs of a husband who sometimes explored his own inner landscape. My stint as Atlas had come to an end – I could no longer hold the world on my shoulders.

What did happen when I decided to divorce Jerry continues to humble and inform me, even now. The judgment of God did not fall and I was not abandoned. In fact, the smallest of details fell into place effortlessly. God blessed me greatly, even as others assumed I had fallen, into sin, but they didn’t know it was into grace.

When I had finally made the decision to divorce, I didn’t know how I would make it financially in the very expensive market surrounding the Washington, D.C., area. I was trusting at a time that I was told I didn’t deserve to trust, I didn’t deserve anything because God is like that. It’s payback time. Yet I was literally banking on grace. Any woman who has made the decision to leave a husband who has a decent job has counted the financial cost. Please don’t be naïve and think that there isn’t one. I had no desire to bleed Jerry dry – I refused alimony, asking only for child support because I wanted my daughters to know that their father would care for them.

I called my lead professor from my graduate days at the University of Miami and told him what was happening. I hadn’t seen him in five or six years, but I needed a recommendation for a job. He told me that one of his dearest friends from his time on faculty at Penn State happened to be the music supervisor in Montgomery County, where we were living. He told me he would give her a call. The next thing I knew, in a matter of a day or so, I had a job in Montgomery County guaranteed, I just needed a location. Gift.

We needed a place to live. I had decided to leave the house – that I would not ask him to find someplace else. It would be a good place for our daughters during their times with him and they would remain at their school. We went looking for a rental, someplace that was close enough to be near home and to remain somewhat familiar. After several attempts at finding a rental, one came open that was ten minutes from the house, for the exact amount of child support. No more, no less, never increased over the two years that we lived there with a decent landlord who helped me care for it. Gift.

Jerry gave me the better car, knowing that I would be transporting the girls more than he. I never had to change a flat tire, and I had more than one. Every single time, someone would drive up in a matter of minutes and volunteer to change it. I’m pretty sure that angels showed up one time.

I was out alone on a Sunday evening, not my weekend, and I had gone to a movie several miles away. As I returned home, I thought that I would try another route, a possible shorter way back, but my choice led me into some uncharted and not particularly safe territory. These things don’t frighten me, but the sound of my car did, so I turned around. I realized that my tire was flat as I pulled into a service station that appeared to be closed because it was on the later end. Crap. I thought something else, but I’ll leave it at that. I didn’t know what to do. I was not at the point of magically believing that someone would show up, so I worried a lot. These were the days before cell phones, before instant access to a plethora of assistance. In just a few minutes, a small white car drove into the parking lot of the closed gas station and came to a stop in front of me. Four large black men unfolded and emerged from that little car and started walking towards me, where I sat and wondered what I was going to do.

I would be dishonest if I said I felt no fear because I did. I didn’t know them, and I was alone. I rolled down my window, and the one in charge asked, “Do you want us to change that tire?” Gathering all of me that I could, I said, “That would be awesome.” They proceeded to change the tire quickly and efficiently while I got a $20 bill out of my wallet, hoping to make amends for my really bad decision. I offered and he, of course, refused, but as he walked away with his three strong friends, he pointed his finger in my face and said, “Don’t ever do this again.” And I said, “I won’t.” And I haven’t. Maybe they weren’t angels, maybe they were, but their appearance reminded me of the portrait of angels Madeline L’Engle paints. I believe we are protected more than we know, and I have experienced that so many times, I don’t have space to doubt that anymore.

I went to bed every night for months, listening to tapes by a man named Clay, weeping as I fell asleep. I began to realize that I was facing a deep father wound that got twisted and turned around while trying to be married and build a family. The baby grand piano that I have came into my life at this time – bought from a woman who had endured immense pain of her own and who was now moving to Europe to begin again. Gift after gift after gift, even as my family endured so much pain and loss, and I was facing the cavern inside my soul.

And what was Jerry doing during this time? He rebuilt his life. He spent time with Bill, friend of Dan, over the years that we were apart, communicating with me only to coordinate about our children’s lives. He nurtured friendships with other men, men who would pour into his life as he would pour into theirs. He lived in a house without a TV or much furniture, not only so that we could have those things, but also so that he could descend into the silence. In other words, he grew.

I remember the moment when I knew that he was different, when I knew that things were shifting. I was getting the girls ready to go to school and to go to my job when my car would not start, the newer car that he had given to me. I did not know what to do, but I knew that I needed to get them to school and that he would be willing to help. I called and told him that I needed help, something that felt both vulnerable and necessary, and he said he would be right over on his way to work. As he approached the townhouse, he asked, “Would you like for me to see what’s wrong with the car?” I could tell that nothing was attached to that statement – no need for me to be exceedingly appreciative, no need to bolster any insecurity of his, basically, no need. But I did need, so I said yes. He got out the jumper cables, started my car, and told me that I needed a new battery. I said thank you, and he said, you’re welcome, and that was it. It was the cleanest, clearest, most beautiful interaction I had had in a long time. There was no anger, no regret, no expectation, no need, nothing but simple kindness and a gentle smile. Something monumental lifted, and I saw him.

So when you know a woman who has been divorced or who is going through it, please pause a moment as your mind takes you to wherever it is accustomed to taking you, whether from experience or a church’s teaching. Please know that this was not her original plan, and that whatever has brought her to this place, she doesn’t deserve a black eye or a distant, angry man or any kind of abuse or neglect and she doesn’t deserve judgment from anyone for any reason. She is making the decision that she is making and it is hers alone. And God can bless her in that because grace, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

The Gardener

The Gardener2

He drove past in his golf cart, shovel, rake, and hoe leaning from the back to the front right in the middle of the seat. I have seen him with the bonsais, and his work fills me with wonder and peace. My heart jumped to my throat for a second as I thought about expressing my gratitude for his service to the garden, for the kindness he exudes as he tends the plants. I thought it was going to end there as he drove up the sidewalk towards the camellias, but a school group was coming out from the arid garden, so he waited patiently, no rush, no turmoil, no impatience.

I passed the golf cart that he had parked off to the side, thinking of how much I love his work, how I drink in the beauty, then I thought, well, this is the moment. I almost didn’t even enter the garden today because it was crowded, and I wasn’t quite in the mood for crowds, so I walked back and forth outside; but I love the garden so I decided to stay.

I turned around, walking back to him, knowing I had seen him working but wanting to be respectful. He is a slight man, deeply tanned skin, accented voice, calm. I said, “Are you the one who cares for the bonsai?” He said, “Yes, I am.” I put my hand over my heart – words weren’t working for me but my eyes spoke. He said, “Do you want to see something I made this week?” “Sure! I would be so honored.” He patted the seat next to him, motioning to the other side of the tools and said, “I will show you.”

He drove through the garden, on walkways and down paths to the nursery, where I had never been before. He talked about another lady who comes every day to walk – how she likes branches and shapes and leaves that have fallen. We talked about living in Orlando and how I’m a member so I can walk to the nursery now if I like, how he has worked there for 25 years and people ask him about retirement, but why should he retire? He likes what he does. Yes, he says, it is peaceful here.

We pulled into the nursery, and he took me over to a garden in a pot – to be specific, in several broken pots. He told me that he had seen the pot and thought how he could build a small succulent garden using many broken pots, how they fit into each other in just the right way, in a lovely way. He said there was no reason to get rid of broken pots – that they are beautiful in their own way and can be used again, not discarded.

Just wild. I don’t use the word, broken, to describe anyone anymore, including myself. It just doesn’t fit the picture for me, although it might work well for others. I think of the gardener – patient, kind, taking me to the arid garden to show me more of his work. It’s about the way he sees. He doesn’t see broken. He sees possibility. He reimagines beauty and order, and places things right where he wants them. He told me, “You don’t just snip, snip, snip. That doesn’t work. You must work carefully.”

Starting at the Ending

Dad and me at 3

I do things backwards sometimes; for some reason, that works for me. When some people begin to deal with the roots of dysfunction in their lives, they hesitate to bring their anger, disappointment, grief to their parents because they expect to be met with some kind of disheartening response – disbelief, dissociation, and often, resistance. Some parents own the stories, can embrace their children and ask for forgiveness, and the relationships begin again. I decided to go head to head at the beginning.

It is hard to tell stories of Dad because he hid. My mother, who, in her storytelling, crafted the version that she most wanted to believe, passed on the few stories that remain of his childhood. Yet the truth that lay in between the words and silences crept out into the world through his living, as it does for all of us. So my stories of him begin with his response to me, at a pivotal point of my life. Everything that I say here, I said to him, everything that I thought, that I felt – I did not want to hide, I do not want to hide, and I was tired of that hiding life. So I start at the beginning of the ending.

I worked for a man named Steve at a local Presbyterian church, a place where I wept at the age of twenty-seven because I thought that forgiveness was actually possible. I had been in church all of my life, but from my observations of the people around me and the sermons I heard, forgiveness came when you did something right, when you gave up whatever you needed to give up, or you changed whatever needed to be changed, but there had to be some effort on your part. Forgiveness was not full and free; it was limited and restricted, it was tit for tat.

Kathy invited me to a book study by a woman named Nancy from this church. She wrote a book entitled, From Bondage to Bonding. I didn’t know what the heck that was talking about, but since I had just burst into tears for some unknown reason at a rally where I played and sang that very night, I thought, Seems like a good idea. A few months before at our daughter’s first birthday party, Patricia came to celebrate with both sets of our parents and a few other friends. Our friendship began when I was pregnant, after she moved from Indiana, where she studied with Larry and Dan, and then came to the same church where forgiveness was normal. After the party she would tell me that what she experienced there with my parents was nothing like what I had described. She wondered why that was. I wondered, too.

As I walked up to the house in the Redlands where the study would be held, Nancy walked up at the same time. I had my hands full, literally. I had a little girl who was fifteen months old, a diaper bag, some food, some books and a notebook and my purse. Nancy asked if she could help me, and I said, “No. I can handle it, but thanks.” She smiled gently and walked away. As soon as we sat and opened to the first chapter, I read about what I had just done. I don’t need help, but thanks. I can do this all by myself. I can carry every burden easily. Watch me. But this little girl had already stirred the ferocity in me. She had gone through surgery at ten weeks old, and she had my heart and my will. I had already gone toe to toe with doctors; don’t even start with me when it comes to her, I thought. I will go right over you and not shed a tear. I did not have that experience as a child – rather, I have picture after picture, memory after memory of being left to survive on my own. My mouth never went hungry, and my heart starved.

While in that study, one chapter asked us to peruse pictures from our childhood, and two odd photographs struck me. I landed in counseling with a woman named Lottie, a woman with her own ferocity, who listened to me, held my space with me, and invited Jerry to be present. She suggested that it would be beneficial to me to have a break from my parents for six months. Some people shrink from this suggestion, but I was ready. I had been shaken to my true core, a heart-stopping jolt, and I needed and wanted the freedom to no longer be responsible for my parents’ happiness. Jerry stood in there for me, taking phone calls and asking my mother to please respect my request. It was my mother who called, not my father. It was my mother who went to a place in herself that harbored the most harsh, demanding, disrespecting and accusing piece of her, and probably, the most desperate.

At the end of six months, I arranged to go with Jerry to see my parents and speak with them briefly about why I had closed communications with them for that time period. I did not know that during that time, they had made an appointment with Lottie without telling her who they were. Dad had been a school counselor – he knew the ins and outs of what was ethical, even though he sometimes felt himself to be above those ethics. In fact, he was quite taken with Jay Adams and his methodology. His counseling included a time when he told a student at the Christian school to throw out the psychiatric meds that he was using, that he really didn’t need them, and the student did. He was rather proud of that when he told us at home. I thought that was normal. My therapist had trained with the same two men, Larry and Dan, way down in Florida at the very beginning. My parents had no idea what was coming. Later, my mom would tell me with a quiver in her voice that Dad was so upset when they left the office that he had to sit down on every stair of the flight from the office to the bottom floor. And only a couple of years ago, this same mom would tell me that Lottie had turned to her at the end of the session and said, “I think I can help you, but I don’t think I can help him.” Mom said, “But I never went back.” Such is the schism that is Mom – two very different reactions from the same woman, depending on time and space.

I didn’t know what to expect when I saw my parents. I grew up accustomed to rage, so I had vowed early that I would not subject myself to what I had seen happen to my older siblings. Jerry stood with me after standing for me, sheltering wobbly me. My parents, as well as some other people in the Church, had been concerned when I first started dating him. The youth pastor, who was dating Jerry’s ex-girlfriend, went so far as to ask me if Jerry was treating me OK, that he was worried. She wasn’t the most honest person, but he was the youth pastor and Jerry, well, he didn’t care. If Jerry is anything (and he is a lot), he is a truth teller, a greater gift than I knew at the time, starved as I was. Yes, I said, he is very good to me. My parents called me into their bedroom one evening – always weird now that I think about it, all of the missives delivered in the bedroom – and told me that they were concerned that Jerry would never be in a position of leadership in the Church. Thank God. That’s all I can say. It wasn’t about what he believed or who he was or what he offered – it was about power and authority and appearance. And he was failing. Thank God. So I married him. Twice.

We went to sit inside, two couches at right angles to each other at one end of the room, and another couch at the other end of the room where we sat, with Dad ensconced in his easy chair that faced the television. His elbows rested on the wooden arms of the chair, hands folded together, fingers intertwined and positioned in front of his mouth, covering any potential expression, his two index fingers creating an upside down V. He leaned back in the rocker position, looking as cool as possible. Mom sat with pursed lips and a dark brow in a rocking chair, her feet in shoes touching the carpet below. Take note – she is on guard.

After I spoke to them about the nature of our home as a child and how it had impacted me, I had the opportunity to observe the three consecutive defenses that always presented themselves in the same order. The first was derision. His lip would curl up at the edge, and the snarl would commence. Anything and everything you thought, believed or were would be called into question. If you made it past the first stage, rage showed up. Blasting past obstacles and attempting to level anything in its path, rage worked to destroy what had already been potentially seared. The six months had done their work, though, so rage it was. The final stage was self-pity. As I was able to be at a distance enough to watch what was happening, I recognized this. I recognized this from the time in college where I had sat on another couch with Mom, telling Dad that the way he treated her was horrible. She leaned into me with her feet tucked under her like a child at that time, and again I watched those same three movements, predictable. There really wasn’t anything after self-pity – just a weak kind of silence. Nothing else to say, nothing to address, no questions, no apologies, no ownership, no denial. That was it. We left, and I sobbed. I asked Jerry to drive for a while before we went home, so he drove down the beach, singing Jesus Loves Me, as I asked.

A month later, Dad would call to ask about Christmas. I couldn’t understand. Did you hear anything that I said? I would not expose my daughter to these people without some honest recognition of their lives, of my life, and I would not set her up to fulfill them as I had done for so long. In early February, Dad would have his first in a series of strokes that would end four years later at his death. I would give him a blanket near the end of his life, blessing it and asking God to keep him warm. That was what I could do. There were never any conversations, nothing. No denial and no ownership. Over a year later after the first meeting and at least one stroke, Mom would set me up again for some sort of meeting with my dad, without my consent or knowledge, guerrilla warfare. When I heard what Al Franken said about the accusations against him – “I can’t say it didn’t happen” – I went in to Jerry and said, “Remember? That’s the same thing my dad said.”

In Tribute to a Wild Woman

Old woman looking into the distance and smiling. Portrait of happy grandmother. Close up Side view Slow motion

She sat across the room, something like a conference room, gray-toned walls with metal and fabric upholstered generic office furniture, the chairs forming an oval so the group could weave themselves together into a unified whole. The class on Sunday in an Episcopal church, meant to preserve the contemplative space for those who gravitated toward the old wisdom, gathered around a book compiled by Richard Foster entitled Devotional Classics. She was an elder – a slight, old woman with twinkling eyes. Really. It feels almost trite to say that, except that they did. She did. She just couldn’t take life that seriously in her late seventies, and her lightness of being radiated through the room in the gentlest of ways.

I was in my late thirties, a divorced mother of two, new to this church, needing a space where I could simply be without any kind of extraneous judgment or spectator viewing, maybe seen, but maybe not. It didn’t matter right then. I wasn’t in search of community but solitude – I had some good friends, and that was enough. As she sat there, I caught her eye and felt her warmth. She glowed, a slight, old woman with a beam enveloping the space around her. She kind of sounds like a UFO, and she might have been.

New to the group and new to the church, I listened more, spoke less, resting in the space that felt both new and ancient at the same time. Readings spanned centuries – from Merton to Willard to Lewis to Julian of Norwich to Francis, Catholic to protestant in all its flavors. I didn’t know these people with whom I sat, didn’t know who they were, didn’t know their occupations or their reputations, but I saw Mary. Mary Matheson. One particular day she told all of us, “I am always amazed that I am just an old woman who sits in her bathrobe in the morning, and Jesus comes and sits with me.” Luminous radiance rested on her face, and I knew she was telling the truth. Everyone else recognized her, too. The room felt a hush settle as a simple, everyday woman shared her secret that wasn’t much of a secret.

After the class that day, I said to Mary, “I want to spend time with you.” And she looked at me and said, “I thought the same thing about you.” Stunned, I proceeded to take advantage of what felt like holy ground and seized the moment to make a plan with Mary. We would meet in a couple of weeks and I would join her for lunch in her retirement home – a beautiful high-rise building in northern Virginia with a spacious dining room and her well appointed studio apartment.

We spent more time together where she inquired about me – who was I, what was happening, where was I – and where she shared her own story as I spit mine out in spurts and starts. I began to see why I needed Mary Matheson, and maybe, why she needed me, although that would be far secondary, only to the extent that she could share her hard-earned wisdom as she sat with me in my pain.

Mary met her former husband in Bible college, where they both had gone with the intention of becoming missionaries. She shared more about their meeting and their decision to marry, foregoing the missionary ventures, sensing that deep darkness lay in wait. He wanted power and glory; she wanted a home and family. They had four children, two boys and two girls; he was abusive, controlling, demanding. Before the divorce, he had confined them all, Mary and children, on a sailboat, keeping them captive until he decided that he had finished terrorizing them, exhibiting his mastery of them and his world. Anyone who has lived in a house of rage knows that feeling of being captive, unable to get free. When Mary spoke, the familiar feeling huddled in me next to that space that had felt the constriction of knowing yet being unable to speak. Fight, flight or freeze, and I always chose to freeze because it felt the safest and the most invisible. Mary knew about that. They still played the masquerade of good church-going people, but the bottom had eroded to the place that she could no longer stay. She left with her children, divorced him, and lived as the divorced woman of the good Christian man. Mary’s story resonated with my childhood in a way that made sense, leaving the pretense for a world of more reality.

One of Mary’s great strengths was her honesty. She didn’t leave out the parts about her own failure during those days. She spoke of how she had extreme anger – how she would come home from work and ask the children if they had been watching TV before she arrived, and if they said no, she would put her hand on the television to feel whether it was warm or not. If it was, she would explode, and they would endure her wrath. She was a single mom in the 1950s and 1960s, with children who were older than I when I met her. After the divorce when the children were older, her ex-husband kidnapped one of her teenage daughters and kept her on the boat for a period of days, perhaps a couple of weeks. And Mary did not fight. Maybe the fight was gone out of her or maybe it was the fear that he would win, that he always won. But she knew that leaving her daughter with him was wrong. No questions, no defenses, and no “I did the best I could.” Simple ownership of her failures and the harm she had done to her daughter.

Mary told me, after I had already spoken to her of my story, my harm, and my failures, about her relationship with that daughter. Mary always called her daughter to talk to her, to see how she was doing, and she noticed – she noticed – that this daughter always told her she was fine and got off the phone as quickly as possible. So Mary was curious – curious – because she loved her daughter, knew that she had failed, and wanted a relationship with her. She noticed. She was curious. She wanted. So Mary gently asked her daughter, “Why is it that every time I call, I feel like you don’t really want to talk to me?” Mary walked through this restoration, even as she shared her story with me. Her daughter replied, “My therapist told me that it would be best for me to limit my communication with you.” While Mary’s heart sank, it also heard. It heard the harm that her daughter experienced, heard the pain that her daughter had endured at the hands of a violent man, heard the fallout from a man who preserved his appearance at the cost of the lives of his children and heard the anguish about a mother who abandoned her daughter. Mary noticed. Mary was curious. Mary wanted. Mary asked. Mary listened.

She did all of that without coaching. She simply responded to her daughter, she wanted relationship and was willing to do whatever it took to restore what had been lost, or rather, to gain something new that had never been. She loved her. I wept. I didn’t know that this was possible – that a mother could pursue her daughter without protecting herself and her reputation, her appearance, that her daughter was more important to her than anything else. And her daughter forgave her. This reconciliation wouldn’t fit into an episode of “This is Us” because it was real, long, tenuous, more risky, and not as clear. Mary’s humility led to the restoration of her relationship with her daughter, even to living with her during the final days of her life as her illness progressed and her life waned. Her sons had chosen their father, now wealthy and successful, using his money to seduce them, but her daughters knew.

So this slight, old woman that glowed – she was a wild, forgiven woman. And she has influenced me more than probably anyone else to this day. We sat in a room with Steve, the leader, currently a professor at Regent and the principal of a Washington think tank and his wife, Meg; Andrew, a prominent DC internist and his wife, Cary, daughter of a race horse entrepreneur with an entrepreneurial spirit herself; David, now a federal judge in DC, and his wife, Sharon, who argued a case in the Supreme Court; Clydette, a doctor who traveled far and wide bringing healing around the world. No one came to this room to brag about what they had done – far from it. The place itself gave respite to all who entered, who lived in the world in whatever sphere they found themselves, treasured souls.

Yet, in my eyes, no one measured up to Mary. She was just an old woman who sat in her living room in her bathrobe, and Jesus came to sit with her.

She Broke in Pieces

Mom and me at cabin

Before she was even born, her family experienced multiple tragedies that would mark her overarching story. A man shot her father, C. Ransom, in the back for participating in a raid on a still near Fayetteville. According to newspaper reports, he hung between life and death for weeks with buckshot in his back, the year after the infant Mary Alice had died. I learned this story after my daughter searched the internet one day, only to find another piece to an already complex and difficult puzzle.

With five siblings – Mary Alice gone – before her, Mom was truly a middle child. There were two more to come after her, each arriving within a few years of the previous with a few differences here and there. A large family dreamed into existence by her mother but without any idea of how to love rattled around the old wooden house, bumping into each other when necessary, allowed in some chambers but restricted from others.

She preferred solitude. While I cannot say for certain why, she would speak of her father’s temper and her mother’s coldness, of each person surviving in their own way, locked into rooms they could not escape. She shared few stories from childhood, other than snapshots of playing alone in the fields, of chores required while other normal daily tasks like cooking and cleaning belonged to The Help, of swimming in the Cape Fear River, overshadowed by her childish mistakes. She said that she wanted to play the violin when I started piano lessons, but that was for sister Virginia. Her requests went unheeded, though Virginia was younger than she. Her father preferred her, her mother pushed her away.

The stolen dime happened when she was eleven. She saw the dime outside her mother’s purse and she took it. Considering everything else, such a minor indiscretion but not without a serious imprint on her sensitive heart. Her oldest brother, ten years her senior, left home after leveling a shotgun at their father. What particular year and why remain as so many secrets in a contentious, raging and frigid household. Everyone saw this happen, everyone saw the gun, and everyone saw him leave after confronting his father.

The second son, Lawrence, lived with a seizure disorder. He had fallen out of a tree, and after that, he suffered multiple seizures and required extensive care. There is no way to know his condition exactly, and again, shrouded in secrecy, the truth moves around behind the veil, never to be known.

A few months after Mom’s thirteenth birthday, a drunk driver killed her mother while she returned from taking Lawrence to a medical appointment, a heart-rending catastrophe. It’s hard to know the exact impact that her mother’s death had on her. From my perspective, she froze. Time froze. They weren’t close, they didn’t communicate; her father had chosen her, my mom, as a favorite over her two sisters, Helen and Virginia. The fractures, the fault lines, ran silent and deep, waiting for a shift in the plates to send off another wave.

Lawrence would remain hospitalized for the rest of his life. Mom gave permission for heart surgery in 1967, and he would die soon afterwards. We would go to visit her classmate from nurse’s training who lived in Benson a couple of times before he died, and she and Dad would make the trip to the state hospital in Raleigh. That either detracts or perhaps amplifies the fact that a young girl at a very vulnerable time lost her mother in a traumatic event and lost her only kind brother to another world.

One brother gone, another brother institutionalized, a sister who would marry very early to a harsh, hard man because she was pregnant, and the third brother who would abuse her though she could not name it that. She was silent and full of shame. She had learned the lessons of her house well. Her mother had gone, and her father chose her to help him pick out furniture for the household, the same furniture that was later sold out from underneath them as she watched relatives become scavengers in the wake of overwhelming debt. She always told me that she wasn’t smart, but I don’t believe that. She lived through multiple traumas and made it out of there to do something that she felt could help, might change something for someone who survived injury or illness. The scars remained, invisible to many, but blazing markers to others with eyes to see.

Mom left what was home to attend nurse’s training in Fayetteville at Highsmith Hospital close to Fort Bragg. From hearing her talk, she was quite the party girl. While I would have been thrilled to be a party girl, she held enormous disgrace, the very opposite of her middle name, Grace. Once, while visiting her grandmother in the hospital in Fayetteville, Mom said that she and a friend were going out dancing. Mom adored the jitterbug, an athletic and beautiful young woman. Her grandmother, her mother’s own mother, replied, “I hope that Jesus doesn’t get stepped on at that dance, ” consigning Mom to an evening draped in humiliation, this woman who had already endured so much. And so she believed her, believed that the dancing she loved was hated by God, and she passed that verdict on, believing that God is more a god of hate than of Love.

At the height of World War II, Mom found herself receiving attention from handsome officers stationed at the base. Some were polite; others would be deceptive, inviting her to a weekend at a beautiful hotel only for her to find that they were married. She did not know how to judge character well, and the burden of shame grew. I admire her willingness to tell me. It didn’t fit the persona that had been so carefully groomed for sanitary reasons, but it lay right below the surface, wondering, wanting to be known.

Story after story of loss, dishonor, abuse, and silence – and in the final story, the house where she grew burnt down. She bore the burden of the burning, there for a weekend with some friends who left some ashes in the fireplace. And it burned to the ground. She did not share any details, only the fault remained.

Dad enters the story.

She broke in pieces. She did. We all break in pieces when we cannot hold ourselves together, and who can, as children? As children, we do not have the capacity to hold ourselves together; that is the job of parents – to hold – not to determine who the child is, but to watch and to wait, in love and in patience. I have failed miserably in so many ways, calling it failure and encouraging my daughters to tell me of my failures and of their grievances. They have faithfully done so, and I want them to continue because I want them to use their powerful voices. That only happened after I looked at my own pieces and invited them to meet. Trauma causes disintegration; the power of integration invites total acceptance of any and all spaces within me, and in doing so, I open to anyone and everyone because there is no threat. This did not happen with Mom and the window has closed on her mind, though she had some opportunities. Her pieces warred with each other and would not allow reconciliation within her self to begin. I can easily feel compassion for the child, for the teenager, for the young woman, and now for the old one who still remains disjoint and undone. I also feel vast love and tenderness after living through abysmal emotions of anger, abandonment and betrayal. Whether it appeals or not, avoiding the difficult places within ourselves does not make them go away; it just pushes them under. And those closest to us know. They can see the discontinuity; they can feel the spasmodic movements of our inner world as we move through different scenarios, looking for a way in or out. We can’t hide as well as we think.

So with all of my heart, I honor all of my mother’s pieces.

 

 

 

To Tear Down the Idols

NWCA family photo

Sometimes I need a break from remembering – not because it overwhelms anymore, necessarily, though there were definitely times when it did, but because I need to ground myself in the present, in where I am now, working to bring things together. Before things come together, they must be taken apart. And my mother’s story gets harder from the previous story, not easier.

I started compiling these stories in my mind because things did not add up. Around the age of 26, too many disparate stories no longer made cohesive sense. What we have in this life are questions. I am no longer sure of much – I have some beliefs, and I am open to hear what is said, to see what is shown, to notice. Questions always open in so many directions – why would we avoid them unless we are afraid? Or our god is really, really small? And of all people, why would people of faith live in such fear as to avoid any questions or inconsistencies, as if their very lives were at stake?

One of my favorite quotes allows questions room to live and breathe, as they are meant to do:

      “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the    questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live            everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without        noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Rainier Maria Rilke

The first crack in the facade appeared while sitting in my parents’ condo, doing laundry because our washer and dryer were not installed in our new home. Dad administrated a Christian school beginning in 1972, coming in on the ground floor as the church decided to build a school for the burgeoning movement in private education in Dade County, Florida, after he worked in the public schools in numerous positions – teacher, coach, athletic director, and guidance counselor – for over twenty years. As I sat on the porch some four years after returning from college in 1987, teaching in the school (because my father’s words to me upon graduation at the age of 23 were, “If I’m going to take care of you, then you are going to live here,” and I believed him) and now married to Jerry (can we all just mentally put our arms around Jerry right now? That man lived through hell), I expressed my disappointment and discontent with the church. I would not have spoken of any concerns about the school at that time because my questions ended up being steadily and consistently silenced, as they were for both of my siblings, as well, but that is their story to tell. I was on the verge of a prison breakout.

Somehow, I said, “I think there is more to this life than what is here. I want to go someplace else and find what I am looking for, ” speaking specifically of another church.

And the kicker – the absolute moment when the wall cracked from top to bottom like the temple curtain being torn in two – came when Dad replied, “Well, after you’ve been in church for a while, you’ve heard about all there is to hear about God.” Broken. The spell was broken.

An aside I have been considering for a while – for those atheists, agnostics, and other dear selves who might read – I know that I speak of faith as a certainty in my life. I am most definitely speaking for myself and for my way through this morass that often felt like the swamps of the dead in The Fellowship of the Ring (much better book than movie). I know what it is like to be alone, to feel that no one really sees or knows who you are or how you came to be where you are. And in this particular environment and others like it, I watched as mistreatment, judgment, and fear often wearing the mask of hatred poured out of peers and some leaders who mistakenly thought they were right. I saw it. I remember the fear, I remember the threats, I remember the control – both veiled and outright. And I know where I participated, with great sadness and kindness to my heart at the same time. So, if you do read this, please know that I respect your life, your walk, your experience, and your space deeply.

From my father, that statement uncovered something that I had intuitively grasped – that it doesn’t matter if someone tells you about faith, it matters how he lives. And on the flip side, at this point in my life, I would say in the next breath that there is this thing called grace that catapults us beyond anything we can see or understand, so I don’t have to know. I love that sentence. I don’t have to know. I can leave my dad’s statement with him, I can leave my dad’s life with him, and I can believe in a God that extends so far beyond what is expected, what is known, what is taught, what is believed, what is heard, what is written – book or Bible, what is comprehended, what is seen, and this is the God I wanted. I didn’t want the god I saw as a child growing up. I didn’t want the House god, so I left to begin my own pilgrimage.

Idolatry is a trickster, a moveable House god. I remember being taught so many stories from the Old Testament as a child, and ingesting this idea that there were no more idols today. That as Christians, we didn’t have idols because we have Jesus. Catholics had idols because they have statues and saints and all kinds of strange things that they worship (did I mention that I also converted to Catholicism for so many beautiful reasons, even though I don’t attend today?), and that the Pope is the anti-Christ. Some people talk about food or clothing or an addiction as an idol, and perhaps they are. But the biggest idolatry I recognize is raising anyone, literally anyone, to a status that they cannot fulfill, meaning everyone, and no one can fulfill the “Man of God” status. If we talk about Billy Graham, who did much good and lived later with regret for his absence and even opposition in the beginning to the Civil Rights movement that embodied the truest value of Christian faith, we also have to talk about his family and how their lives have been difficult because of him. We can talk about the fact that his daughters were married just out of high school to men several years their senior already in established careers, that they have spoken about how difficult life was with his travels, that they grew up in a single parent household, and how his absence affected them. The women have been the most honest. Does that negate the good? No. Does it mean that the difficult didn’t happen? Not at all. The moment I bring that up, I might be dismissed as angry, bitter, vengeful, any number of words. Perhaps, though, we just can’t handle having our idols deconstructed. It’s too vulnerable, and it might mean that we are wrong or at the very least, not right. Speaking of my family’s stories, of my mother and my father and what life was really like in the House, is deconstruction. The construction happened from the outside, from what others thought and felt, what they wished to be true. We just never bothered to refute that. Deconstruction definitely causes discomfort because stability feels so much safer, until it is taking your life.

Even so, some day I believe the kindness that accompanies truth will win the day, even when for some it looks most unkind. The beauty and the goodness that stand holding hands with truth will shine more brightly than the need for our small selves to be strengthened by a person that we don’t even know who stands on the pedestal we made, like the Hebrews and the golden calf, demanding that they stay there and deliver us. Until that day, there will be people who continue to speak their worlds and their stories, their hearts, to a sometimes unbelieving and often frightened world, but who know in the end that the faith that propels the story-telling forward is really love winning, because love has already won.