30 May 2006

Raven and Emerald

I met her for the first time in high school, in the hallway outside J1 with bright, spring sunlight in the sky – a girl with long, curly black hair and giant green eyes – raven and emerald. I was dating her best friend who had long, curly blonde hair and cornflower blue for eyes – sand and sky. Before I had even heard the brunette's name I said to myself “That’s the girl I want to marry.” And at that moment I became an adulterer.

I say adulterer, but it was never about skin, never about lust. My affair with the brunette was always a matter of the mind. That semantic distinction, the fact that we didn’t kiss, tricked me into thinking that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. It allowed me an intellectual sleight-of-hand to keep my sense of morality in check. I wasn’t being unfaithful to anyone – we were “just friends” after all. Nor was I lusting for her in my heart, so I could even sidestep Christ’s pointed words. True enough, the brunette was lovely, but that was never what I was driven by. Regardless of the reason though, I gave her a piece of my heart, a part of myself, the part that housed my hope for the future, and as such, I couldn’t give that part to anybody else. For instance, not to the blonde who I was dating, and who introduced us, a woman who remains perhaps the sweetest, kindest, most gentle hearted women I’ve ever known, and it was to her that I was probably the most cruel in all of this. But my cruelty, my folly, by no means stopped with her.

Our affair started with a few clever remarks. A quick turn of phrase lead to a witty riposte which was met with a combined literary reference / double entendre. “Here’s a smart one.” I thought, which was attractive because I was young enough to think myself smart. She’s a ‘good Catholic girl’, but still somehow worldly, seductive. That too was attractive because we smart people can’t be too constrained by religious shackles, and yet solid character is important – so long as it doesn’t get in the way. Don’t ask, “In the way of what?” because we clever people don’t need to ask such boorish questions, we just know. We wink and nudge and pass knowing grins as if we’re in on the joke when in fact we’re constantly hoping that the other smart people will let slip some telling detail that will finally reveal what it is we’re all actually winking and nudging about. That was also the brunette’s most mighty charm, an ability to make you feel as if she were letting you in on a secret, like she was telling you something, or sharing something that she had never shared with anybody else. Without needing to really say anything tangible, she made me feel like I was special to her.

Without question, that sort of coy, inscrutable posturing was absolutely representative of our entire relationship: mile upon mile, page upon page, year upon year of things that were never said, only implied, and all the insecurity and confusion that kind of thing produces. I, for example, couldn’t risk saying anything that might expose my vulnerability, or my intentions, or anything too personal. That too was part of the game, not just her being suggestive, but my ability to keep pace with my own suggestions.. I wasn’t able or allowed to actually say that I wished there was more to our relationship. Oh, it was acceptable to vaguely talk about romantic possibilities between us, but never to come right out and say it. So we built our friendship on this pattern of not communicating, not saying what was deepest or truest in our hearts, at least not about ourselves or each other. In one way, it created a sort of mystery that added excitement to our relationship. Looking forward to seeing her, I would hope for the off chance that her tongue would be unguarded and she might ‘accidentally’ tell me that she loved me too. I groaned and fretted over whether or not I should contrive to ‘accidentally’ say that sort of thing myself. In time, that escalated to involve alcohol. We would drink and I would look for opportunities to do or say something that I couldn’t bring myself to do or say sober., just to reach out to her in some way. At times, that would lead to a ‘meaningful look’ or some slurred confession of possible interest. But in the morning, it couldn’t stick. I was drunk after all, so clearly nothing I said or did was ‘real’ nor did it need to be dealt with, and so the game continued. I think we even called it that for a while – the game. The regular dance of implication and innuendo, it was like a game of chicken really. Who could get closest to saying “Please, please, please stop this.” without actually saying it, without admitting that the game, in fact, hurt. It’s true that in the beginning it just seemed a matter of bad timing. We were never single at the same time, so we remained friends. But in time, that excuse wore thin and yet we still stayed that step apart.

What was really in my heart all those years, what I was totally unwilling to admit to her or my girlfriends (who were not her) and not even to myself was that I was powerfully hung up on that woman. In one way, to say I was in love with her seems the appropriate description, but in another way it seems inaccurate. So much of her had to be read between the lines that it’s difficult to say what I truly knew and what I only projected. Since the game was built on suggestion instead of communication, it’s impossible to really say or guess how much was real and how much was simply misinterpreted or hoped at. There again is that word – hope. I think that’s the crux of it. For better or for worse, I vested my hope in her, in having her, and that hope saw only what it wanted and little of what it should. The Word says that hope deferred makes a heart bitter and that was very true for me. The longer I went, the more frustrated I became. I hoped – for many years – that she would see through my constant hinting and cut through it all, taking the risk to simply say “Me too.” But in fairness, I was so twisted up in the game that I probably would have played her candor off as just another feint. I certainly know that there were times where I said something or other and thought that I couldn’t have been plainer, only to have my gut-wrenching confession treated like I was obviously joking. Who knows how many times she may have bared her own soul, taken that risk, and I missed it, or laughed, or couldn’t believe what I was hearing...so I didn’t.

One bitter outgrowth of all that is that I was an asshole to the various women I dated in those years. I was the classic “physically present, emotionally absent” man. As I said, the brunette had a part of my heart that I was unable to share with anybody else. Now I don’t mean to say that I was deliberately deceitful, nor consciously unfaithful. My mental sleight-of-hand had fooled me as well. At my clearest moments, I might have recognized that there was something broken in me, but I doubt I could have laid my finger upon it. At least one girlfriend was perceptive enough to know exactly what my problem was, and she pointed it out. “It’s that brunette.” she would say. “No, no, no. It can’t be. We’re just good friends.” These women, at least so far as I know, were at least in earnest about their desire to pursue a relationship, even to consider marriage. But I was unable to do the same in return. I wanted to go there – I really did. There was a big part of me that truly wanted to make a relationship work and I had plenty of “What the hell is wrong with me!” rants.

In truth, I owe each of them an apology. If I had been honest with myself I would have known that I wasn’t able to see that kind of relationship though. I was entering into an agreement that I couldn’t keep and I caused a lot of pain and misery with my double-mindedness. And breakups in those years were bloody, ragged, awful things that dragged on for weeks or months, or even years. Half of me knew it couldn’t work because of the brunette and the other half absolutely resented the fact. I was like my own hung jury, totally unable to decide my own fate, so justice and fairness get trampled under.

If, by chance, any of you read this – I’m truly sorry for the grief I know I caused you, particularly you sand-and-sky. It’s taken me these years, and this distance, and God’s gentle hand to help me understand how badly I mistreated you, each of you. I hope you know that it was never my intention to hurt anybody, but I certainly hurt people all the same. This all comes too late of course, but at least one of you gets to say “I told you so.”... and it would be out of character if you didn’t rub my nose in it...as a sister in Christ of course...

What was happening for all those years, was I was waiting for the brunette. I was waiting for her to make a move that it seems I couldn’t. At the time, I wouldn’t have said “couldn’t.” Instead, I would have said that I wouldn’t, and I’d have said that it was out of respect for the brunette. That to pursue her would have been to impose upon her, and that wouldn’t be fair. But in fact I was just chicken shit. The risk of rejection was profound and each passing year only made it more so. You see, I was also bringing my biggest Question to her - “Do I have what it takes?” In this case, “Do I have what it takes to earn your love?” And what I heard her say was “No. Not quite.” It wasn’t enough that sand-and-sky or girl-in-boots were happy to answer my question in the affirmative because I wasn’t asking them. I shouldn’t have been asking any of them that question, but the fact remains that I was, and the brunette’s answer, or the fear of it anyway, locked me into a loop I couldn’t break out of. A simple ‘No’ would have been easier to deal with. At least then I could move on, but instead it was more like an ‘almost’ which only made me want to bridge that last gap. I paid rapt attention to the things she said about her boyfriends (she too was dating, but not marrying). What was good, what was bad, and I tried very much to mold myself to that expectation, hoping that I could turn an ‘almost’ into a ‘yes.’

I realize that up to now it must seem as if my relationship with the brunette was this tortured thing full of miscommunication and unmet expectations, but that isn’t it at all. Despite this recognition of where things went wrong, that friendship was rich beyond measure. We talked about everything, share big ideas and small details, dream, and ponder, and laugh at most everything, including ourselves. There was a self-consciousness about the warped love/friend thing we had wrought, and it was a frequent topic of discussion – we just didn’t know what to do about it. In many, many ways that friendship was, and remains, unique in my experience. The fact that we weren’t physical meant we engaged in other ways that might otherwise have been neglected. We told stories, we completed one another’s sentences, we had more private jokes than public jokes. Plenty of times we were mistaken for a long-married couple by folks who didn’t know us, and we could sit for hours saying nothing at all without a hint of discomfort. And by herself she was a remarkable woman. Bold in a way that was inspiring, extremely bright with a razor wit, loyal to the point of recklessness and her entire family was a tableau of feminine archetypes, not counting Dad of course. She was a woman of tightly help principles and vivid idealism. So it’s not for nothing that my heart was divided. I remember concluding at one point that if things were to only remain as they were, with never a kiss between us, that would be enough. I felt that I could be content to have this good a person, this good a friend and forego a wife.

But in the end, that was untrue. The root of my consternation was the fact that ‘friends’ seemed short of what we could be. If for some reason a deeper relationship simply weren’t possible, if one of us were married say, I would have been OK with ‘friends.’ But there wasn’t anything like that in the way. I think I also could have done without sex if for some reason that were the price to be together, like I said, it really was never about lust. What was too much for me to bear was the uneasy knowledge that eventually one of us would go away to marry somebody else, that I would lose her not by choice, but by the slow, simple wearing of time.

In those ten years between J1 and GFU, life happened. We trudged through the punishments and disappointments the world offered us, including those we made for ourselves, and this special thing we had, our intimate friendship, seemed more and more precious, more and more fragile. And so it was that our friendship sort of fossilized. It became a thing to put high up on a shelf above the reach of grabbing hands and in time we weren’t really willing to even look too closely at it ourselves for fear of breaking it. It’s hard for me to see how those years changed me since I’m too close to it, but I saw how they seemed to change her. I suspect those perceptions were as much my own, my perspective shifting, as her actually evolving. But I remember realizing that we had moved from optimism, through sarcasm, and into cynicism. Her eyes were no longer emerald, but jade. I was growing in bitterness toward our perceived unwillingness to really talk about the elephant in the room. Oddly enough though, even that seemed somehow to draw us closer in some ways. It was as if we were soldiers who kept surviving battles that we shouldn’t have and even the steel that was settling into our gaze was a thing we shared. Increasingly battered by life, continually rejecting perhaps the one relationship we actually believed in, it was like we congratulated one another, and respected one another for still living, but never really admitting or mourning the loss.

Along the way, I remember a girl I met while in the Navy named Melissa and the Dear John letter she wrote while I was at sea. By the time I was stateside again she was getting married and had invited me to come – I asked the brunette to be my date, like I had to a dozen other weddings. Driving to San Diego I had my one and only proper panic attack. I was driving toward one broken heart with the biggest of all my broken hearts in the seat beside me. The irony of it all was so overwhelming that I started balling hysterically...not a good idea at 70mph. So instead I flipped the car around and tore ass to Palm Springs where I drank a lot of sake. Sitting there next to the brunette, freaking out about Melissa – another botched relationship – there came this crystal vision of the life I was in, and it seemed like some kind of Victorian love tragedy.

No doubt, the brunette had her own Questions. If she were asking me “Am I worth fighting for?” my stupid answer was “Um....I don’t really know how to do that.” She went through a nasty car accident with a drunk driver that nearly took her life and scarred her face. If her question was “Am I lovely?”, I wonder how often she looked in the mirror and answered that question for herself – perhaps unable to hear from me or anybody else that her beauty wasn’t diminished in the least. I know that I was not the only boy to give her a piece of my heart. I know that I’m not the only boy who thought I was special to her. But regardless, and even now, even after the part of the story I haven’t told yet, I still believe that what we had was important to her – different. But that said, this isn’t her story, it’s mine. I couldn’t tell her story if I wanted to, nor would I if I knew every twist and turn. I’m just thinking about the ways in which I failed to understand her and the ways in which I mishandled her heart, and her questions. For all that my devotion to this woman cost me, you would think I would have been more deliberate, when in fact it was probably the relationship in which I was the most reckless. I operated on some foolish notion that it would simply ‘work’ if it were supposed to almost regardless of what I did or did not do. I was always thinking about the brunette, but I rarely considered her – how she felt, how something I did might effect her. For crying out loud, now that I’m talking about it, I’m not even sure that I ever really thought about how I might win her. Instead I just wanted it to snap smoothly into place when all the stars were right – so I see that I was an assshole to her as well...figures.

I should point out, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I did in fact kiss her once. There was a brief moment, about 96 hours, where we tried on the boyfriend/girlfriend clothes. One day I said something like “I can’t do this anymore. I need to know we’re going to at least try and make this work or I need to walk away before I go mad.”, after some thought she gave in. You see, I pushed her. I made her choose between the unthinkable and the unbearable and I regretted it almost immediately – I couldn’t stand the fact that I had forced the issue like that in a season of weakness and I took it back as soon as I could, where things went back to almost normal.

It’s funny though, it was also in that moment when I was most honest with her and myself. It really was driving me absolutely crazy – to not be with someone you love sucks, but to be WITH someone you love and can’t have, that’s torture. So in my fit, what escaped was my true desire, and it scared me. Also I wonder if that moment didn’t reveal her hand as well. After all, she did decide to give it a shot. She could have said “No.” but instead she was willing to take a big personal risk rather than loose me entirely. The shitty thing wasn’t for me to force the issue – the shitty thing was to snatch it back and try to act like it never happened. To treat her risk, a risk she took for my sake, as if it were nothing. God I hate myself sometimes.

Really, I don’t know that things ever quite recovered after that. I’d broken it.

Bly talks about the Golden Haired Woman who haunts the dreams of every man. She’s the archetype of beauty and femininity but only so long as she remains in the distance. Once a man is close to her, once she gives him what he asks of her, she becomes only another girl and the hollow man suddenly finds that the Golden Haired Woman is again to be seen on the horizon. Lather, rinse, repeat. Eldredge talks about Eve in a similar manner. That Eve will paradoxically remain unattainable so long as we seek after her. Instead, we must seek after God and in so doing we find Eve – our Ezer Kenegdo.

In the midst of all this, sometime around 1994, I guess I got religion. My faith in Christ was ignited and the slow process of adjusting to a new reality started. In 1997 I left SoCal for George Fox University. I left behind another muddied, wounded girlfriend. At least with her I think I said something along the lines of “Hey, I’m kinda screwed up in the heart department so, ya know, caveat emptor.” I don’t think she really heard it, or chose not to, but I guess I felt like I had covered my bases. Regardless, when I got my acceptance letter from GFU, and started packing, I heard God say, “You’ll meet your wife there. She’s a redhead.”

For the first year, I didn’t date anybody. Truth is, I was having a lot of second thoughts about girl-in-boots. I was sick to my stomach about how I couldn’t get this girlfriend thing right and I was approaching the point where I just wanted to get off the frakking roller-coaster already. So that year by myself was really good for me. I had a lot of time to think and pray and I was building a life in Oregon that lacked any of the baggage from SoCal – it was a clean start in a lot of ways that I needed. Of course I was keeping one eye out for any redheads and I still had the other eye on the brunette in SanFran. She was dating somebody and it seemed pretty serious, so I’m sure some part of me was trying to get to a safe distance where a wedding announcement wouldn’t kill me.

Then I went to Kenya for a semester.

Kenya is far, far away from everything familiar, and I mean EVERYTHING. It was under African skies, where Scorpio looms over your night and jackals bark where you were used to coyotes, that God started unpacking my baggage. I only realized it years later, but I started a journal on that trip and page after page after excruciating page was about women. About how I saw them, how I saw my past relationships, how I was so deeply confused about what I wanted and what I wanted to want. In those four months my journal probably heard about every female I had known: my mother, my hot 4th grade teacher, the gravel-voiced, sad-eyed actress all the way up to another brunette I met at Daystar. Let’s call her Blue for the sake of clarity.

Blue and the Brunette had the same first name, though neither of them used it. They had the same middle name, they had the same last initial. They had the same kind of eyes (except Blue’s were... well...blue), almost the same hair, and the same size and build. Not only did we have a lot of things in common, we had the SAME things in common as I had with the brunette. Listen to me – not the same kinds of things, the exact same things. As the two of us talked over milky chai it was really quite surreal. The parallel details went on and on and on, and on both sides. For every detail in which Blue was like the brunette, I was like a lifelong friend Blue had back home. We sang the same obscure folks songs, quoted the same silly movies. At times, the details would shuffle a bit, but they were always there. Blue’s older sister wanted to grow up to be a fire engine. The brunette’s younger sister wanted to be a fire engine  – I’m telling you it was absolutely bizarre and we both stared at each other in open-mouthed disbelief. Looking at her was like looking back into the past, to what the brunette was when we met, or what she might still have been if life hadn’t happened. I say that because Blue was about 10 years younger and still innocent in a lot of ways. There were no broken hearts, or drunk drivers, or pregnancy scares in her life.

Meeting Blue – 10,000 miles from home – just about cracked me. It was so very bittersweet. It was almost like a second chance, and yet, there was no chance. Sure, in four months we wouldn’t be 10,000 apart, but we would still be 1,000 miles apart. Plus, she had a boyfriend cum fiancée and she wasn’t damaged goods like I was. I knew that Blue did not honestly represent a potential wife, but she had to represent something. It wasn’t possible that this nearly perfect copy of the woman who haunted my life was here, on the other side of the world, in a tiny University out in the Kenyan bush, by accident. The only thing that quite makes sense to me is that she was an image of something I had just about forgotten – how good and wonderful a person the brunette really was. By that time you see I was disillusioned and part of me was angry with the brunette for not choosing me. Of course it was totally unfair to her, but it was dawning on me how much I had sacrificed on her alter and I had nothing to show for it. The recognition of my own role in that transaction hadn’t yet arrived...

As I journaled page after page, telling my story to myself as God dictated, Blue reminded me of why I had been so smitten by the brunette in the first place. And at the same time, it was made painfully clear how much I needed to let both of them go. Please understand, I couldn’t have formed that last sentence at the time – it’s an idea that’s taken an additional few years to germinate, but I can see now that my time in Kenya was an emotional detox in preparation for meeting Rebekah. That’s where I got all my crying and screaming and mourning out – stuff I’d failed to do before.

Across a dirt road from the University was a sprawl of 10 x 10 plywood rooms called Hostel B. It was a maze of dead-end alleys and random clothes lines where the less affluent students lived while they studied. A few of us Americans, including Blue and I, had made a friend in Hostel B and we often sat in his box making avocado and butter sandwiches. In the last days at Daystar, I was wearing an Indigo Girls concert shirt that the brunette had given to me as a gift a few years before. It seems sort of silly, but that shirt was pretty symbolic to me at the time. You see I was supposed to have been at the concert with her, but I missed her...because of miscommunication...and all I got was this lousy tee-short. You see the joke right? Anyway, Blue and I and Tony and Gump were down in Hostel B killing time when a fire broke out. In the next fifteen minutes, all 60-odd units burn to the ground. I’m kicking down doors looking if anybody is asleep, trying to rescue important belongings from rooms that aren’t totally engulfed in flame and a family history with fire-fighting puts me somehow in a place to help lead the flying squad. 15 minutes and a million things happened, including my Indigo Girls shirt being ruined. Completely saturated in smoke, peppered with pinhole burns from falling embers, and Emily’s face welded into several kaleidoscope blobs...it’s no longer really suitable for the public.

Was that fire auspicious in some way? An omen of what was about to happen? - I don’t know. In fact, the story and its parallels have only just now occurred to me, but it certainly seems prophetic in hindsight.

Two things happened when I returned from Kenya: I moved into an apartment right next to a redhead who I thought was a stoner (that’s my wife, Rebekah, who in fact was not a stoner, but just liked hippie stuff), and my last semester of school started with all the term papers, and thesis writing, and final grades that entails. Of course I also wanted to call my best friend, the Brunette, to regale her with stories of endless wildebeest herds and hoping Massai warriors. If memory serves, that turned out to be easier said than done. It seems that there were multiple failed attempts, probably separated by weeks of busybusybusy but that kind of thing had never been a problem before. Once she moved to the Bay, it was common for us to go for months at a time without speaking and we never lost anything. We just picked up the conversation where it had left off without missing a beat. I can’t say I was planning to tell her about all the things I had been writing about, nor was I planning to mention how I met her younger doppelganger, Blue – even had I wanted to share those things, the Brunette’s deeper connection to all of that had yet to be made clear to me, I was still processing.

When I finally did reach her, I could tell something was wrong. There was a great deal of tension in her voice and she said next to nothing. No “How was your trip?” no “Welcome home” just a few mumbled words through what sounded like clenched teeth. This must be a bad time I thought. Maybe I caught her in the middle of a fight with her boyfriend or something. So I said I’d call again later, and hung up. “I sure hope everything is OK.” was what I said to myself, but didn’t think much more of it. When I called again, I discovered the same tension in her voice as before. But this time I noticed that her “Hello?” seemed normal enough. It was when I said, “Hey, it’s me!” that everything in her voice changed.

That second conversation was only marginally longer than the one before it, but those few words broke my heart.
“I’m so upset with you that I can’t even talk.”
“How dare you?!”
“Don’t call again.”

I was shocked, stunned, wounded, totally confused, and it was probably the heaviest blow to my heart that I’d ever suffered. Filled with joy and excitement and tales to tell from abroad, I found my dearest friend, the person who I cared more for than anybody else on the planet, livid beyond words...and I had absolutely no idea why. That was around six years ago now. I wish I could tell you what her anger was about. I wish I could confess some wicked deed that drove her away from me, but to this day, I still don’t know what upset her. We haven’t spoken to one another since. I tried for a while to reach her through other means, for instance I sent her birthday cards that I I really don’t know if she ever got. I also tried to reach some of the people around her to try and discern what sin I had committed. In all truth I would have confessed and apologized for killing President Kennedy if that would have soothed her ire – but alas, I’m as ignorant today as I was that day. For all I know, she was mad that I hadn’t written more or called sooner.

After some initial scrambling, a vain attempt to fix whatever was broken or atone for any possible insult, I got angry. Angry because I felt that I had been treated unfairly. Angry that she would do such a thing to me after all that we had been through together. Angry that she would throw down one of her best friends without so much as an explanation (which I clearly deserved) or giving me the benefit of the doubt to hear my side of whatever story there might be to tell. In that season of anger, I’m pretty certain I just stewed. I didn’t try to contact her, I didn’t fret over the mystery of what I had done to her. Instead I rehearsed and crafted deeply biting comments and lectures. Preparing a quiver of bolts against the day I saw her again. I practiced my indignation and righteous rage and had long dissertations in my mind on how her anger was always more important to her than her relationships. Oh, I had a lot to say, and I knew her well enough to put those bolt where they would hurt the most. Thank God I never had the opportunity to release that rage or I’d regret it to the end of my days.

But in time, the anger passed too. In time I prayed that she would forgive me for the things I had thought of her, and also for whatever it was that I had done to start thins in the first place, if indeed it was anything deserving so dramatic a response. I also made it a point to give my anger and frustration and accusation over to God – to forgive her for the wrong I perceived, since I couldn’t determine if I deserved her wrath or not. In short, probably a year and a half later, I moved on.

I really never found out what it was that drove her to sever our long and powerful friendship. She’s not an irrational person, so I must assume that she had her reasons. She’s not fickle nor flighty, so I have to assume that they she weighed my error against my friendship and chose one – which is to say I must believe they were good reasons. But all that said, I really only know that she broke fellowship with me without an explanation and as far as I can tell, that was the end of my affair with the Brunette.

With another four years of hindsight I see now that she did me a tremendous favor – she pulled a thorn from my flesh that I was unable or unwilling to pull myself. At the perfect moment – she released me, released me from herself.

I say it was the perfect moment because this was all happening at the same time that I was getting to know and love Rebekah. The first time we were introduced, like I said before, I was certain that she was a pot-head. Her duplex was covered in psychedelic mushrooms and tie-die and smelled of sandalwood and patchouli. Re is very quiet and laid back (read: stoned) and her roommate greeted Jamie and I with a sleepy look and a pan of stereotypical stoner food, “Hey, would you guys like some broooownnnnnies?” she said in her over-calm manner. But as I walked backed to my apartment God said ‘That’s her.” and I knew exactly what He meant. If things had been the same with the Brunette, then things would have been the same with Rebekah – the same as they had been with the other women I dated during my serial monogamy. If things had been the same with the Brunette, I would have been unfaithful to my Redhead. My heart would have remained deeply divided and as one half of me stepped into a relationship with Rebekah, the other half would have dug its heels in and remained behind, trapped in the grasp of a woman half a continent away, waiting for something that was never coming.

The breaking of that bond was incredibly painful, and I resented her the stroke for a while, but I would never have come to where I am today if the Brunette hadn’t cut me off. Instead I would have been single, aging, and bitter, or perhaps married, aging, and bitter. You see, given what I saw as God’s direction I still might have gone and married Rebekah, but I’d be just as double minded as I’d been before only now the stakes would have been higher. By now, the hope I had invested in the Brunette would have been deferred too long and the bitterness that had begun to sprout up those years ago, would be in full bloom, poisoning my marriage. I’ve said before that what I’ve found so striking isn’t that I love Rebekah more and more each day, but that I continually discover new capacity to love that I didn’t know existed. My ‘love tank’ isn’t being filled, it’s growing. I have to credit a large portion of that to the gradual reintegration of the various shards and tailings of my heart. The huge chunk that was missing in all my previous relationships has been recovered and I’m finding rooms and halls in there that have lain unused for long years. I was blind, but now I see. I was lost, but now am found.

While I would honestly thank the Brunette today for saving me, it seems unlikely that saving me was her intention. With all things considered, I think a more likely explanation of everything that happened was the enemy saw an opportunity to destroy me and he took his best shot. With all that I had been going through in Kenya, all the God-driven reflection and revelation, finally meeting my wife and quickly falling toward her - it was a perfect moment to cut me down, perhaps for good. It sounds a little weird to say that the Devil used the Brunette against me, but I do think that’s what happened. If you’re not familiar with all the spiritual warfare I’ve been talking about these last years, don’t read too much into that. I’m not at all suggesting that she was evil or possessed or anything remotely like that, just that the enemy is an opportunist, and a single whispered suggestion can turn a small thing into a world war. If there was one person on this planet who could have slain me with a glance, it was her...and she did.

But what was meant for evil turned out to be for the good. In ways that are almost too much to explain, that death was prerequisite for the life that followed - the life that I have now. A two barreled, full-throated, hair-on-fire life where my whole heart is united and engaged. Not that it looks like something particularly special on the outside, but on the inside, where The Spirit speaks and I weep or laugh or question with boldness and without fear. You know, just now I’m realizing something. I’ve been chewing on this letter for about a year now, piecing it together bit by bit. And I’ve always been thinking of it in terms of how my restored heart made it possible to bond with Rebekah. But I also see how critical it was for me to make my bond with Christ. The overarching theme of the last few years of my life has been this concept of a whole and integrated heart. Raven-and-emerald, it seems I have this also to thank you for. To that end, I can’t discount the very real possibility that this blow wasn’t orchestrated by Satan at all, but by God. Given all that it has accomplished, the timing, and the surrounding circumstances, I can also see it as a kind of surgery, the excision of a tumor. Perhaps in time, the agent responsible will be made clear, but I’m not certain it matters much either way.

You see for all those years I was a kind of ghost – trapped between one world and another. One foot here, the other there, and unwilling or unable to commit to either side. My deep and abiding double-mindedness lead to a profound inability to commit to much of anything, especially a woman. It turns out that Hamlet was right after all – “To be or not to be” really is the question. My indecision, my unmanliness in that regard, not only tortured me, but it caused a lot of misery to the people around me who were counting on me to commit, for my word to mean something, for my “yes” to be a “yes.” I don’t want to take myself too seriously here, or think my actions one way or the other were critical moments in the lives of the women I dated, but at the very least I wronged them to the degree that I said I was them and wasn’t. I failed them insofar as I claimed to be the man in their lives, when in fact I wasn’t. I was, instead, ephemeral, ectoplasmic. Present only in this fragile mortal coil that we all know turns to dust and ashes, just a tissue-paper image of a man. The part of me that is eternal, the part of me that God calls out to offer strength to my mate, was AWOL, trapped inside a kind of stunted, aborted relationship that I couldn’t let go of. So my heart, my soul, spent all those years never living, only waiting, waiting, waiting.

I do need to avoid that peculiar Christian trick of history where we see a thing redeemed, an unexpected blessing coming from dreadful spell, and conclude that it must have all been God’s plan after all. The fact that my marriage to Rebekah is far more than I expected or hoped for, and the fact that the path I just laid out is what lead me to her, cannot absolve me of the fact that I sinned. I can’t look at the chain of women I was intimate with, but never married, and act as if that wasn’t wrong just because I stand here today, restored, forgiven and happy. I can’t hold up my inability to commit to any of them as proof of anything other than my infidelity of the heart. It’s true that you wouldn’t have been able to convince me at the time that my relationship with the Brunette amounted to adultery since we remained platonic, but that’s only because I was lying to myself and doesn’t mitigate the truth of it now. To somehow twist and warp all of this and somehow conclude that I was being saved for Rebekah would be to say that God’s plan included my disobedience, which is utter nonsense. There is an important difference between providence and redemption that we can sometimes skip over when we fear that to recognize our sin would be to cast a shadow on the grace and blessing that we received despite it. To say, “God can make good of all things...” should never be confused with “A Blessing in disguise.” or “God works in mysterious ways.” There are a lot of things in this post that I just as well had not have said, nor shared. There’s a lot here that reflects quite poorly on me and the choices I made. The moral of the story is not that it’s difficult to see through the ordained twists in our paths. The moral is that we regularly make our own paths so crooked that they loop back on themselves, becoming impossibly tangled, and yet God snatches us, as from a fire, for His own glory.

Having come through that now, and having some distance to see the broader strokes, I’m mortified by the fact that I was so unable to see my own story, my own ingrown path. I also rue the thought that at some point in these last years the Brunette might have thought to herself - “Oh no, what have I done?” but never reached out for fear, or pride or apathy. Romantic aspirations aside, she and I were mighty friends, and I miss that relationship...I wonder if she does as well. Even more, I hope she isn’t still nursing her anger, whatever it’s original cause. I know how powerful a poison bitterness and resentment can be, and how healing forgiveness is. I hope that she too found some unlooked for blessing through all of this, even if that’s simply to be rid of me. And really, I don’t mean that that in some self-deprecating, woe-is-me sort of way. I may have been a close friend, but I also know that toward the end I put a great deal of undeserved pressure on her. I held her accountable for my frustration and at times for the collapse of relationships that she had nothing to do with. To that end I’ve asked for, and sought her forgiveness in many ways and many times and I have to console myself that that’s about all I can do in that regard, which in all honesty feels pretty damn unsatisfying.

But perhaps no small part of this letter is my chance to return the favor, to release her. To say publicly that, for my part anyway, there are no hard feelings, no held grudges. I can offer up my own forgiveness for what it’s worth, perhaps unsought and undesired.

Dear, dear friend - I’m very sorry for all the ways I was unfair to you, expecting things from you that I shouldn’t. For my failing to be either a proper friend or lover. For missing your heart for the trees of your intellect. Though I was angry for a time, I recognize that you no doubt did only what you felt right at the time and I can’t hold that against you, nor would I had I the strength. My forgiveness and my good will are here and freely given. Take them or reject them - as you wish.

20 May 2006

My monster story

Here is (to date) my one and only monster story. It’s odd, but this truly is the way I remember it. I’d be quite interested to know how Kathie remembers it since she was there..

It must have been 1985 or ‘86 and it was Homecoming at Rim – that means it was late October. The skies were clear but there was a mighty wind tearing through the trees. Not a gentle whooshing but a roaring, shake-the-house, the-gods-are-warring-in-heaven sort of wind. That by itself gave he night a particular feel. There was no peace, no sweet October breeze. Instead everything was clamorous and tense. Later that night, as Kathie and I were driving across the Rim, we watched from a mile above the surreal effects of the wind storm as entire city blocks would suddenly go dark – victim to some tree falling into a power junction...or worse.

But I’m ahead of myself. We drove across the Rim because 330 was closed. For some reason Kathie picked me up in Running Springs. I don’t remember why, but perhaps it was because she had her CRX and I only had access to my father’s 1972 1/2 ton Dodge pickup – not really a ‘date’ vehicle. Regardless of the reason, we left my house and headed down Live Oak with plans to have dinner at Edward’s Mansion in Redlands – a house that looks almost exactly like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland (just another vaguely spooky detail).

There was nobody else on the road, which was odd. It was Homecoming for more people than just Kathie and I and it was a Friday night to boot. You would think there would be people everywhere, but instead everything was buttoned up tight. Maybe the rest of the mountain somehow sensed that something otherworldly was afoot and decided to wait it all out behind closed doors. But Kathie and I were excited to be out and about. I was probably wearing a new sweater that Kathie bought with my mom’s money – a little plan the two of them had foisted upon me. I was willing to wear clothing that my girlfriend bought for me, but not anything that my mother bought for me. So the two of them conspired to upgrade my wardrobe bit by polyester and velour bit. Kathie was no doubt wearing a new dress with hair up and makeup – the whole nine yards. We were committed to go get our picture taken at the dance and no silly wind storm was going to stop us.

As we pulled to a stop at he bottom of Live Oak, where it joins Highway 330 on a wide, mile-long, five-lane slope, there was a Caldrons truck parked across the two downhill lanes. The truck’s back, and the driver’s, was to us and the pale orange glow from the sodium street light cast everything in sharp angled shadows. Keep in mind that the wind is absolutely howling. It’s bitter cold and even Kathie’s little sports car was being blown about in the gale.

It’s at this point where something went screwy in my head. Several very weird things are about to happen and yet they didn’t seem weird at all at the time. It was as if were hypnotized or something. I was the storm trooper letting Luke and Obi Wan go by as the Jedi waves his hand. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for...” It was only quite a bit later as I started to think back on these next few minutes that I became convinced that I was witnessing something unnatural.

I’m at a stop sign with my windows closed against the wind. Roughly twenty-five feet away is this pickup-truck with it’s tail toward me. This major highway, on what should have been a very busy evening, was absolutely empty. I can see the back of the driver’s head through the rear window but I can also see his face, reflected in his port side mirror – the big 12 x 8 truck mirrors – and his face is not human. I wouldn’t say it was demonic, but it was monstrous – think Sloth from Goonies (“Hey you guys!”). All skin, and no hair – misshapen eyes that weren’t symmetrical, a mouth with protruding teeth and swollen lips. His window must have been down because I remember his arm resting on the sill like he was just killing time at a gas station. He never turned around to face us but I know that we had a brief conversation that could not have happened. With the wind, and the distance between us, and my closed window, it was impossible that I could have heard him, nor could he have heard me. But as we pulled to a stop I heard him say very clearly, as if he sat next to me in the car, “The highway is closed.”

“Oh.” I said, “What happened?”

“A semi truck jack-knifed. You’ll have to turn around.”

Despite the fact that everything in this moment was wrong in some way, none of it seemed odd in the slightest right then. Of course I can hear the monster man from way over there. Of course we have to turn around – I’m sure he’s only looking out for our safety. Of course he’d sit there with the wind screaming through his open window – it’s a lovely night after all. So I said “OK” and turned the car around.

I don’t particularly remember the next 20 minutes or so. I couldn’t tell you if Kathie and I spoke to one another or if we were silent. The next thing I do remember was mentioned already, driving across the Rim, trying to meet our reservation despite an additional hour of driving we had to do, and watching San Bernardino lights flicker and die in the invisible storm. I also know that Kathie and I were pretty certain that we dined with a vampire at Edward’s Mansion, but with so much Garlic on the snails, I guess we were pretty safe all the same.

It was an odd night all around, but the monster working for Caldrons was definitely the weirdest...although it does explain a lot about Southern California roads.

12 May 2006

Slaying spirits

“Awake, O sleeper, rise from the dead!” - Eph 5:14

For a while now I’ve had lots of time to examine (and practice) this thing we call spiritual warfare – and I confess that it often seems rather silly. Or if not silly, perhaps incomplete, or false in some way. The problem is this word ‘war.’ In the wars that I see on TV, the final answer to who wins or looses comes down to who’s dead and who is still alive. Patton says that no war is won by a man dying for his country. “We win by getting the other bastard to die for his country.”  There is a finality there – an unambiguous point where combat stops, one way or the other, it stops.  But in spiritual warfare we’re talking about the combat between eternal things – spirits, angels, souls – there is no dying, no end. So praying against demons can at times feel like the drudgery of shooing flies away from a picnic. We wave our hands and the things disperse but they always return, over and over and over. Jesus describes an exorcism with some depressing details. The unclean spirit runs off to a dry place...whatever that means...but in time he simply comes back, and brings along his friends. What’s the point then?

There is no indication in Scripture, that I’m aware of, that suggests this war between heaven and hell is ever exactly won – at least, the enemy is never destroyed. Instead, the best situation we see is one where the enemy is chained up. It may be as simple as this – eternal means eternal. A spirit, by its nature, will never be destroyed, will never end, never, ever. Not the devil, not his angels, and not us. We are permanent fixtures of this universe for better or for worse. In which case, the more closely we associate ourselves with this earthly paradigm, where live is started and life stops, the less sense spiritual warfare will make.

In my Ninjutsu class we talk about something called Zhjon Shin – the indominatable spirit. The notion is that half of every fight is won and lost when your spirit interacts with your opponents spirit. It’s not just a matter of mental toughness or tenacity. It’s a matter of setting your heart to iron and projecting that spirit in your attitude, your state of mind, and your body language. When you see a kung fu movie and the hero, who has been loosing the fight till this point, takes a deep breath and sets himself again with a look of peace on his face, when Neo beckons to Agent Smith with a slight grin saying “Come get some.” - that’s Zhjon Shin. The kung fu master has won the fight already because his heart has overcome his enemy’s.

When this spiritual warfare journey started for me, the primary fight was simply one of self preservation. The enemy can’t kill our spirits anymore than we kill his, but he assaults us all the same - how? And to what end? For this we must recognize that when we talk about a dead spirit and a sleeping spirit, we are describing the same thing. While our spirits cannot be destroyed, they can be crushed, traumatized, or anesthetized – we can sleep. In truth our spirits can sleep long years while our bodies remain alive. “Awake, O sleeper” and “rise from the dead” are synonymous.

This is big leap for many of us. As young children our spirits are alive and zealous and longing for life. But as the years and wounds pile upon us it drives that spirit from the field. By the time most of us enter our early teens, we’ve already seen quite enough of this world and we want the ride to end, we want to get off. Our parents divorce. A beloved grandmother dies. Our camp counselors touch us where they shouldn’t. We want the pain the stop – the disappointment, the guilt, the anxiety – but it doesn’t. The sun rises and sets and races around to rise again – truly everything is vanity, chasing after the wind.

And it’s here that we learn to sleep.

We stop engaging, we stop hoping, we stop longing – because it seems to bring more misery than anything else. Our first crush is so aptly named. The immense joy of love screams into our tender, naive hearts like a bullet and we’re almost overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. But for most of us, it ends in a million pieces and we can’t fathom where all of this torturous pain has come from. I remember my first heart break, the begging, the foot stomping, the profound ache in my chest and how it all seemed so unfair.

Tragedy lives in these places of our lives. Where the experience is deemed quite unbearable and we vow not that we won’t feel that way again, but that we wont feel that deeply again. Our eyes dim and the heart thunders away like a frightened stag into deeper and deeper woods. The message that came to me in the midst of that first heart break was this, “You look like a fool. Look at you crying and whining and begging – and it only makes you look more ridiculous than you already do to the woman you love and to her parents listening upstairs. You’re pathetic!”

Listen to me – pay attention. That was spiritual warfare. Warfare waged against me.
I got thwacked by the pointed end of a well aimed shaft and I didn’t even know I was on a battlefield.

Of course that wasn’t the only arrow that came my way, but it was a potent one. Over and over, as my relationship with Rebekah has grown, I’m not so surprised that I love her more, but that there is still more of me that is capable of loving her. It’s the rediscovered capacity to love that has been so striking to me. It’s like this ice burg slowly rising out of the sea – revealing more and more and more of itself – unguessed at space and strength and structure that had always been there – but was pestered into dormancy by the war waged against me.

That’s the enemy’s battle plan, at least at first, and particularly when we’re too young or too misinformed to guess the true hand that is set against us. He wants to make us sleep – through pain or indulgence or distraction he coaxes our spirits to lay down the struggle and instead to close our spiritual eyes. It’s like our parents soothing us as we start on the long drive to Grandma’s house. “Why don’t you just grab a pillow and go to sleep. It will all be over soon enough.” What’s really happening is that they know you’ll be a pain in their neck so long as you’re awake – so long as your eyes are open you’ll squirm and fuss and kick. So long as your spirit’s awake – you’ll engage in this life and the struggle that proceeds around you. You’re more likely to sing, to vote, to write. So long as your spirit is alive and awake you’ll cause no end of trouble for the enemy who’s trying to hold on to this rock he calls his kingdom.

Does that make sense? The weapons of spiritual warfare are not meant, nor able, to kill. They are meant to suppress. That’s how prayer becomes a weapon, and song, and the simple name of Christ. Those physical actions come with a spiritual component – the exertion of your own spirit against another. In that way, it’s similar to the way many fantasy worlds explain magic – it’s a way of effecting the world through the exercise off our will. Keep in mind that we humans are hybrid creatures – body and spirit, and the motion of one effects the other. When I kneel, my spirit can’t help but be moved toward a submissive posture. When my soul is agitated, it tends to make me scowl. Which is why the physical acts of spiritual warfare can facilitate or embolden that corresponding action of my spirit.

This is also what I mean when I talk about fighting for men’s hearts. So many of us are asleep at our posts. Our lives have taught us not to engage, not to love too deeply, not to hope too much. We’ve been driven to seek spiritual sleep as the only defense to our continually broken hearts. That unbearable misery I felt over that broken heart – that wasn’t physical pain, it was spiritual pain. Physical pain would have been easier to bear, because it can only get to a certain point before it simply kills my body and it’s over. Spiritual pain can last forever and I suspect it can grow without measure. This assault on our spirits starts the day we are born and we soon discover that it just keeps coming and coming.

My experience with The Spirit these last years has been a process of waking up. Of drawing myself back up to my proper height without drooping shoulders and without a bowed head. When I do so, I make myself a bigger target, I get the enemy’s attention and I make myself deliberately more vulnerable to attack. The offer of The Spirit is not a safe life – but rather a vivid life. A life with both joy and sorrow – and lots of them both. I pray that will never go back. I pray that I won’t find myself like Cipher from the Matrix – knowing truth from lies...but preferring the lie because it’s easier.

03 May 2006

Bootcamp NW

I just got back from a four day men’s retreat based on the Wild at Heart material called Bootcamp NW.


It’s not like I’m the kind of person who shies away from hyperbole, but the ongoing experience of my interaction with these concepts and these people can hardly be overstated. In many, many ways it’s changed my life. And let me be clear about something because I think it’s critical to understand. I am no John Eldridge groupie, I’m not a shill for some Wild at Heart cult. W@H is just one book among several that have been published in the last ten years or so that deal with similar concepts. Specifically: how should a Christian man look and act in modern America and why are so many of us asleep? So it’s rather gender-specific, in my mind it’s particular to today and I suspect it’s particular to America, or perhaps the west. W@H is only the book that caught my eye – it’s the Colorado colored version of something that I see the Holy Spirit talking to a LOT of people about in a LOT of churches. And the message seems to have real staying power. This message has outlasted at least two other pop-church messages that had more energetic followings, Prayer of Jabez and Purpose Driven Life.

That said, I also recognize that I’ve been guzzling the cool-aid for a while now. Regardless of anything else I know how much this train of thought, this set of tools and terms, has impacted my life and I’m really not very interested in debating the minutiae anymore. To that end, I’ve also become something of a cheerleader. I’ve taught at two miniature versions of this camp myself, I’ve lead small groups (Bands of Brothers is the proper jargon), and continued to explore these themes on this blog. Verily, if it weren’t for what W@H hath wrought (that was fun) I never would have had the nerve or the passion to do half of what I did this last year. I still waffle between thinking that this message would be valuable to every man I know and where it’s only useful to some – so far I can’t quite determine if the guys who don’t get it are resistant in some way or their just the wrong audience. Perhaps that’s not the point anyway. The point is to find that thing – anything – that will light your fire, and I’ve found mine.

So here’s a central theme that really turns my crank. When Christ says that He came to give us life, and life to the full (or life abundantly) when does that abundant life start? If I think that it starts when I’m saved, as opposed to when I die / resurrect, then why are most men in the church asleep, bored, distracted, living the same lives of quiet desperation that the men of the world do? If nothing else, the idea that this war we see described in scripture is 100% REAL and NOW and in my face – and that I might have a functional role to play in that war...now that’s an idea that catches my imagination. But I don’t want to recap the book here – read the book.

Michael – come to Bootcamp in November. I’ll buy your admission if you buy the plane ticket.

Compared to last year, this Bootcamp was less dramatic and more refreshing. God spoke on the same topics we hit last year and it really helped clear my head after a difficult season. In fact, by the time I went this year I was quite tired, quite bummed out, and wondering what the hell went wrong – dark days. Perhaps the best part of this weekend was the chance to gain some perspective. I mean – wow – what a year! It’s so easy to get myopic and only see what our most recent and immediate life has been, but the simple chance to go back over my journal and this blog, all since the last Bootcamp...He surely is my Ebenezer, where else would I go?

The last 12 months have been, without question, the most spiritually active in my life. But they’ve also been some of the most...what to call it...zoeally active? My life, my circumstances, my job – physical world things that can show up on a photograph or a bank statement. Those things too have seen all kinds of activity. Some joyful, some mournful, but all of it ALIVE! And that’s the great thing. I don’t see W@H or the broader movement calling men to ‘better’ lives in the sense of easier, richer, less stressful lives. Quite the opposite. The Spirit is asking men to get up off their asses swing the damn sword. There will victory AND defeat. The invitation is not to safety, but to risk. It’s not increased territory, but to contesting territory. Not to Christian purpose but to true Christian liberty.

I’m told that the Celtic Christians called the Holy Spirit The Wild Goose – utterly unpredictable. I hope to spend these next 12 months waking up every day with no idea what will happen because the Wild Goose goes where it will and my job is simple – chase it!