Thursday, July 20, 2017

Nine - Could it be divine?

“We’re just spinning leaves in the flight of a dawn, little girl
Falling through an eternal horizon of time
But I’d like to think as we lie here
that all we’ve got will be ours forever.
Don’t you think we’re forever?” - Roy Harper

“Love is a stranger
And hearts are in danger
On smooth streets paved with gold.
Oh, true love travels on a gravel road.” - Elvis

I was in the throes of fresh matrimony, the stars still sparkling in my eyes while they gazed up to the pedestal upon which I’d placed Steven, his every quirk endlessly endearing, his every utterance rife with coruscating wit and his flatulence odorless. My three co-workers, all late middle-aged and married for twenty years or more, were markedly not trembling in love’s dulcet thrall like I was. Somehow we’d begun a conversation about love and marriage that had deteriorated into me passionately defending love, marriage and love in marriage while they rolled their eyes and muttered things like “just you wait”. My rose-colored glasses were being snatched off, dashed to the ground and soundly stomped upon, and I was not taking it well.

Then one of my co-workers, Alberta, turned to me and stared plainly. “Love doesn’t last,” she said. “It doesn’t last.” My eyes filled with tears and I pushed back from the table and hurried to the bathroom, where I let my tender hypersensitive tears fall and in my head pledged undying love to Steven forever and ever, no matter what these crusty old cranks said. I daubed my eyes and marched back into the meeting.

Later, Alberta gently expounded on her statement: “The infatuation, that doesn’t last,” she said. But her original statement rang in my mind and heart and deeply troubled me. Being newly married is sort of like being newly pregnant in that so many people - including strangers - love to offer opinions, advice, horror stories and admonishments on your condition. But why, I asked. Why were these people so cynical?

At another temp job I’d held before marriage, a middle-aged single co-worker had waxed one afternoon on her ideal romance. “Why can’t I just have a torrid six-month affair with a pilot whose plane tragically goes down in flames?” Beate asked moonily, her eyes glittering with the prospect of a love frozen in time and enshrined by tragedy. Meanwhile, the closest thing to romance in her real life was a longtime close friendship with a man named Patrick, a biker with a ponytail whose image contrasted sharply with Beate’s Iowa farm girl pedigree. She talked about him constantly and I wondered why their obvious attraction hadn’t breached the platonic walls of their friendship yet. It seemed to me that while she dreamt of tempestuous liaisons truncated by aviation disasters - love that never lasts long enough to become real - her best chance at real love languished beside her, relegated to neuter companionship because of fear or timidity or… something.

What is that something? Marriage is a very particular choosing, a narrowing, a decision to go deep and risk everything. There is no guarantee of success or protection from rejection or promise of a plane crash to get us out of the whole thing. While tales of new lovers who meet tragic ends might make for highly sellable 2- hour cinema, our absolute exaltation of the dopamine-riddled phase of fresh love only makes us shallow, and yes, it does end. Sort of.    

I learned eventually that Alberta was telling the truth. But the thing is, she wasn’t telling the whole truth. Maybe she knew it, deep down, but her preference for stark statements and unadorned speech got the best of her. Maybe her long, depleting walk with a husband stricken with Alzheimer’s had obscured it. Maybe she just couldn’t resist knocking me off my high horse (really more a majestic Lisa Frank unicorn). The truth is that the whole story of marriage gives the infatuation its meaning. The acute infatuation doesn’t last, true - but it is subsumed and contained within the story of a marriage.

As a kid, I remember once being dazzled by a rainbow array of shirts on display in a store. But after my mom bought me one and I got home and the lustre of cleverly designed visual marketing wore off, the single color alone seemed - well - kind of boring. And lonely. Once isolated from the full spectrum of color, it wore out. After the first year or so of our marriage, I frantically strove to hold on to the love-high even as it faded. I thought it was everything - love itself - and I didn’t know it was just one season. And it wasn’t gone forever. I wish I had known then that I could trust the story to unfold as it should.

I believe God intended marriage to be a prism, a bedazzlement of colors and phases and seasons, each made beautiful in its time and each intoned in the others, sparkling through in mysterious darting glints and glimmers. That early stage of oceanic infatuation is lovely in its own right, but it only achieves its fullest beauty when it’s framed by the full story of a marriage.

After almost 9 years, I have discovered that when you stay in the story and love when it’s hard and abide when it’s boring and keep your vows even when it hurts (Ps. 15:4), the sweetness of that first infatuation - when no romantic overture is too saccharine and every cliche about love rings so true and L-O-V-E all caps in vivid neon blooms profusely and spills over and saturates the whole spinning world - springs up when and where you least expect it to delight you anew. The person next to you is again a delicious mystery to discover, a revelation made even more resplendent by your shared history: the peaks and valleys, the sickness and health, the pleasure and pain. Because it is really His story, and the dying and rising again that reverberates through this cosmos which lives and moves and has its being in Jesus Christ also echoes throughout and sustains our marriage, if we only let it. Marriage can be a lilting melody in the resurrection song He is always singing.

In many ways, the old romantic in me did die. Marriage did her in. Good riddance, though, for she believed that true love lived only on the mountaintop. She believed love required no sacrifice and asked very little of her while giving continuously. She believed love made ultimatums and kept record of wrongs and bore nothing. She didn’t know that true love could hurt, could fail in major ways and still endure, still be true love. She didn’t see how full of selfishness and arrogance she was. And she believed that a mere mortal (albeit a wonderful, magical, devastatingly handsome and stunningly virile one such as Steven Lande) could bear the burden of being a savior.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out that Jesus is the mediator of all relationships, whether we acknowledge that reality or not. (God said it first, of course - John 1:3, Colossians 1:16-17) Our failure to acknowledge it is disastrous, while with our acknowledgment of it comes a kind of death - death of pride, of wrong and covetous ownership. But then the relationship is gently handed back to us, fresh and new and illumined from within with a sparkle it didn’t have before when we believed it a closed circuit between us and the other. Our human relationships flag, wilt and ultimately die when the reality of Jesus Christ - and the Christian saturation of God’s cosmos, created through Jesus - is resisted and rejected.  
So here I am, after nearly nine years, still a romantic, but of a new breed: one that, by the grace of God, is stepping into an understanding of love’s high cost but also its invaluable worth. I’ve read marriage “experts” smirkingly deride the Beatles’ line “all you need is love”, saying a marriage takes far more than that to survive and thrive. But it’s actually true - all you need is love. Authentic, vulnerable, co-suffering, collaborative, magical, wonderful love. It doesn’t come from you, but from the source of all love, the Trinity. Yes, you also need extraordinary patience, endurance, astute money management, all that practical stuff, the mention of which sends an artist like me into a sweaty-palmed glazed stupor. But what does all that flow from but love? Seek the kingdom first, and all these things will be added to you (including a spouse who actually seems to take pleasure in practical matters such as packing for vacations and budgeting).

I am still a romantic, yes - but I am a chastened, humbled, disillusioned and restored romantic. Could this be something of what it means to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves? I remember yet another incident from my temp days. I was working at an engineering firm when Steven and I were very new newlyweds, shortly before the gig I mentioned at the beginning. Making my rounds about the office delivering mail and invoices and various documents, I encountered an older woman who worked there as a structural engineer. She had to be in her fifties but there was something buoyant and young and girlish about her. She was beautiful. I didn’t really know her but I was giddy over my new status and when I mentioned to her that I’d just gotten married, her eyes came alive. “Oh!” she exclaimed, sighing dreamily. She clasped her hands at her heart and looked at me with wide earnest eyes and said “I’ve been married for 35 years. Isn’t marriage wonderful?”

Oh, it is. It really is.   

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Rejection and Redemption

From my embarrassing photo file, which includes any photo taken between the ages of 9-14, none of which, I vowed, should ever see the light of day again. I make this weighty sacrifice for you, dear readers!

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things - and the things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” - 1 Corinthians 1:26-28

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come!” - 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

“Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on.” - Simon and Garfunkel

He literally couldn’t wait. As soon as I put the car in park, he was gone, leaving the car door open and forgetting to look both ways across the (blessedly small) parking lot in his haste to get inside. “C’mon, mom!” he yelled as he held the door open and waved frantically to his sister and I. As he weaved through the tables, holding his Pokemon card binder excitedly, his eyes searching for an opening, I watched anxiously, wondering if he’d find a spot. His eyes were so eager, his posture so unjaded and hopeful, his zeal palpable and undimmed by any desire to be ‘cool’ and indifferent. I knew I should just go sit down like the other parents who had sunk comfortably into the leather couches or milled around the library with smaller children, but it was difficult to look away. Even though he obviously wasn’t nervous, I was. And I realized deeper questions troubled my heart than whether he’d successfully trade a basic Vullaby for an evolved one*.

No, the real question that lurked beneath as the subtext, the ground of all the others, was this: will he be accepted, or will he be rejected? Can his inherent sense of worth as God’s beloved withstand the gauntlet of social negotiations that is childhood and adolescence? Will his innocence be crushed? Or, if I’m being honest, the real question that I harbor, the one that fills me with dread, is this: when will his innocence be crushed?

I think of Severus Snape and the mosaic of memories contained in his dying tear, the ones that formed and shaped him - particularly the bitter formative ones, the ones of rejection and teasing and relegation to the outer darkness of the social hierarchy, where the pariahs and misfits and not-good-enoughs languish. I was lucky - if it can be called that - to fly under the radar most of my school life. I avoided decampment in that outer ring, but deep down I knew it was where I’d end up were I to actually be myself, let my vulnerabilities show, stop tailoring and censoring my every word and action according to the very avoidance of that rejection. By high school I’d decided to forgo any efforts to fit in and instead intentionally cultivated weirdness and a foreboding reticence to speak, both of which conspired to exude an air of alleged intimidation that was totally incongruent with my inner life and rampant insecurity but hey, I took it happily so long as it pre-emptively staved off the beasts of rejection.

My own agonizing memories of the times I was singled out rise and float like a black miasma on the surface of my own personal Pensieve. Although when I’ve recounted them as an adult I’ve always made a joke of them, the truth is that they still carry an acute sting, a cutting and acid reminder of just how lonesome and desolate rejection feels.

The three worst ones that have stubbornly rooted themselves in my psyche are all from middle school. Ah, the miserable crucible of middle school - when the desperate need for peer affirmation and the scarcity and volatility thereof both peak, it seems. The first: In social studies I was sitting next to my friend, Lauren, who was being badgered as usual by a boy named Cole who had a crush on her and thought the fastest inroad to her heart was relentless pestering and coercion. Today, she’d had enough. “Cole, why do you even like me?” she asked exasperately. “Because you’re cute,” he answered. “If you looked like her” - he pointed to me - “ I wouldn’t bother.” Ouch.

The second: in the same class, but later in the year, if memory serves me right. I was fervently hoping to be accepted within a group of kids who were slightly bad and totally rad. I sat directly behind them and laughed at their jokes and said stuff like “totally, me too” and periodically interjected asides into their conversations. Half the time I wasn’t sure I was even heard, but undeterred, I kept trying and eventually mistook their lack of response or paying attention to me for provisional acceptance. Until one day, when the ringleader turned around abruptly in his seat and half-yelled at me “why are you always trying to talk to us and act like you’re one of us? YOU’RE NOT!” Message received, most pointedly. I slunk down in my seat in horror and made sure never to besmirch their ears with my speech again.

And, the third, the real coup de gras: I spent all of my eighth grade year pining after a boy in gifted class (see how I did that? Subtly made sure you knew I was in gifted class? See?! I am special!). I was obsessed. When he invited me to his birthday party I nearly had an aneurysm from joy but sabotaged my appearance by vomiting from nervousness before my mom even pulled me up to the entrance in our minivan. Anyway, on the last day of school I was feeling bold, feeling like playing fast and loose with my dignity, feeling uncharacteristically courageous, the middle school caste system be damned! So, naturally, I did what any self-respecting 14-year-old would do and I asked my friend Emily to call him and ask him out for me. I gripped the phone in her kitchen, one hand clamped over the receiver, while she dialed him from the upstairs phone. The question was asked… and he laughed. And said no. But let me tell you, it’s really the laughter that sticks with you.

How painful it is to be assessed with a passing glance and found wanting. Perhaps even more painful, for the question of your worthiness to be laughed off as totally ludicrous after a year of pining, a year of fluttering pulse rates whenever he was near, a year of interactions endlessly parsed and analyzed and scoured for any iota of reciprocity. I watch my son’s easy sense of worthiness, his unquestioned belief that he is welcome in the world. He hasn’t learned to hesitate and wonder if acceptance or rejection is coming, and I mourn for the loss of that restful way of being as though it’s inevitable. But what if it’s not? Is there a way to form a child in knowledge of his or her belovedness, to form them in Jesus Christ, so the stings - which perhaps are inevitable - are not as penetrating, not as piquant, not as scarring?

My story is a redemption story and, of course, Snape’s was, too, in the end. I met a man who was the sum of all my crushes over the formative years and who, wonder of all wonders, loved me back. Then I met Jesus and learned I was loved from the start and loved all the more miraculously and steadfastly where human love failed, or, worse, marred. Truly, he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. And I learned that to be sat upon, spat upon, ratted on, to be a lowly thing of the world, is blessed, perhaps because it puts you in a place where you can no longer deny your own weakness and the utter inadequacy of your efforts to earn love. Yet I can’t help but wonder, watching my son’s (usually) easy way of moving through the world, his acceptance of God’s enveloping love as a foregone conclusion, is a taste of what Edenic Kingdom Life is like. And I don’t want it to fade or, worse, be broken by the fickle vicissitudes of human popularity.

Jesus was clear, though, that the kingdom has no exclusivity except repentance and faith in the One He sent. The homecoming court, the socially anointed, the luminous popular, the glitteratti and literati and even the Illuminati are all welcome. But I think inherent in repentance is the ceding of whatever worldly power we hold, the recognition that His power is made perfect only in our weakness. And power is easier to surrender if you don’t really have any. Still, it’s not like being a dork made me sinless in this way. We humans have ingenious ways of inventing our own power where the world gives us none. And maybe in some cases, being powerless in the world makes us grasp more desperately for whatever small tyrannies we can create. But if we allow it, there is truly something blessed in persecution, however mild.

I tend to covet popularity for my children, if subconsciously, the way I also covet a trouble-free, pain-free life for them. I should spend more time praying that the love of Christ takes root in them, that they don’t fall away, that their love endures for the One with whom and through whom they can endure anything. That, like Jesus, they’ll move toward the wounded, the strange, the ugly, the things which are not, in the service of helping the kingdom burst forth. That they’ll be able to say to all forms of death - physical decay, rejection, failure, ‘loserdom’ - where is thy sting?   

* Please don’t think my Pokemon vocab is this advanced, or that I am fluent at all - I am not. I had to go look at his cards so my reference would sound more realistic. Pokemon is by far the most difficult thing I’ve had to pretend to be interested in as a parent.