On Pursuing the Genuine

A friend and I were texting tonight and laughing about those old journals we kept when we were fourteen or so that we wish we could burn but we kind of can’t because that person was us at one point–or maybe just because the journals were cool and expensive and so shouldn’t be burned.

Just thinking about that person who-used-to-be-me makes me die of embarrassment. We are talking about a teenager who looked for super-long knit dresses at the thrift store because that was what was “cool” at church, who judged everybody on sight and by very narrow standards, who was trying desperately not to grow up in some embarrassing ways. Basically the only thing from those years that doesn’t make me cringe is the part that was the very worst during those years–my deep struggles with faith and what I could believe about God and the world around me.

I think that part isn’t too embarrassing because it was genuine. It was mine and mine only.

At some point I shifted from fierce conformity to fierce individualism. And in the middle of all that was this great, genuine grappling with what I believed, with what really counted in life.

Interesting.

One of my friends posted today about conformity and the value we place on it in conservative circles, that she felt like water, easily taking the shape of every vessel she was poured into. She was not being bitter, but simply reflective about how the very qualities that make one an excellent citizen and family member are also qualities that can make one wonder who, exactly, one is.

I wondered as I read her post, because I was once her, and I am no longer.

Not that I don’t try to conform. I mean, my goodness, even edgy little subcultures have their set of ways that one must dress and behave, and woe to the one who doesn’t! I mean, a goth who doesn’t care for skulls? A girly girl who doesn’t like pink? A geek who doesn’t watch Star Trek? Can such things be? The second you realize that you’re comfortable in a subculture, there’s a pressure to start checking off the boxes you don’t already have checked.

Nevertheless, at some point in my life, I kind of scrapped everything and started rebuilding myself based on what I genuinely believed and genuinely liked. It started with the faith crisis, it continued in college as, you know, I got to choose my major (and chose something I liked) and then got to choose elective classes (Seriously, I was a writing major with an education minor and I took medieval history and choir just for kicks). Then I got a job doing (surprise!) something that I liked. And I have decided that because I feel called there (deep personal beliefs) and because the fact that I enjoy it is more important than the fact that I don’t make much money, I am staying there. On a more day-to-day level, if I like certain music, I will listen to it. If I like a show, I will watch it, provided I don’t have grading to do. (And if it gets canceled I will throw a several-year tantrum.) Life is too short not to do things that are genuine–things I genuinely like, things that genuinely matter to me.

Of course, to make sure I’m being spiritual enough, I should add that it does matter to me that God and I can still talk. If something clearly isn’t helping with that, then it does need to go. But even then, that standard isn’t because someone else is telling me to have it–it’s because that is truly important to me. It is genuine.

Seriously, when taken with a grain of salt, “follow your heart”–as in, base your life on what you genuinely believe and what you genuinely enjoy–is not half bad advice.

Does  come with some snags? You betcha. Such as, you know, a paranoia of disapproval if I mention movies or music I like around people with stricter standards. Or accusations of intolerance if what I genuinely believe about God isn’t in keeping with what’s popular. But whatever you like or believe or feel, there will always be someone who disapproves of it. Always. And if we let that stop us, nothing would ever get done.

If I could go back and tell that horrifyingly awkward fourteen-year-old in those journals one thing, I think it would be an encouragement to be genuine. To only do something because she really wanted to, because she really liked it, because she really believed it. And to value the genuine in herself and others.

“Do you ever think about how much you’ve changed and wonder if you’re even still the same person?” I texted my friend. (I may have been binge-ing Dollhouse and having some deep metaphysical thoughts about personhood.)

“Lol,” he replied. “Hopefully I’m not!”

The more I think about it, the more I don’t think I am. And the more I think about it, the surer I become that that is a truly excellent thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Days

Some days you don’t want to go to bed because it means waking up the next morning. At that point, you know that the next day is going to be SOME day.

That was last night.

Then today actually started. I don’t need to go into all the details, but it included a fairly intense conversation with a parent before first period was even over. An hour into the school day, and I felt like throwing up and really just wanted to crawl into a dark hole and hide. I felt like I was splitting at the seams, and if you poked me too hard, all the stuffing would come out.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take much. During lunch period, in front of my high schoolers, a fellow teacher and dear friend asked a harmless question that sent me into defensive mode. The stuffing was leaking, and there was nothing I could do about it. There was tension. There were tears. I left the room.

Not only had I hurt her, but my poor high schoolers, who certainly don’t need any more drama and emotion in their lives, were treated to tension between two trusted teachers. Not okay. Not in any way okay. And it was all my fault– unquestionably my fault. I frantically scooped up the stuffing, grabbed a needle and thread, and got to work. Apologizing to my friend in front of the kids was the best way to patch up the situation, but it was, after all, a patch where something had been irreparably torn that should never have been, and I left school today feeling like the biggest waste of oxygen on the planet.

This happens, you see. I make mistakes. Even worse, I do things I know are wrong. And I keep doing them. Then I realize I’ve been doing something wrong, and I sit back and imagine God’s perspective. But, after all, I am human, and this projected dialogue with God is a dialogue with my humanized imagination of God. It usually goes something like this:

Erika: “So I did it again. I know it was wrong, I knew it was wrong when I was doing it, and I did it again.”

God: “All right. I love you anyway, but hey, girl, I want to USE you. I want you to be an important part of my story here, and you’ve got to get your act together if you want that. You want that, don’t you?”

Erika: “Of course I do!!!”

God: “All right, then. Get your act together!”

But God, as we’re clearly told, does not think the way man thinks and doesn’t see the way man sees. In fact, sometimes (usually, I find) His workings are so completely and totally opposite anything we would plan out that there is no way they cannot be “other,” that they cannot be divine in origin. I see this in salvation; no human who really takes sin and evil seriously would invent a system in which their sin gets completely paid by someone else. It’s just irresponsible; we want to feel the pain, we want to feel like we’re atoning for things. We want to earn our way, to do penance.

But oh no. God had another plan up His sleeve, one so “other” that it can’t help but be divine.

It’s easy to see it in salvation. It’s not so easy to see it in the nitty gritty stuff in life.

For example, I’ve been noticing a very odd, very “other” trend. Every time I do one of these things, every time I do something I know is wrong and then feel terribly sorry for it and beg for forgiveness, what I would expect is a setback. I would expect a probation period, a time during which God wants me to come closer to Him and learn some obedience before he gives me a new assignment in his Story. A time to sit in the corner and think about what I’ve done.

But oh no.

Instead, I usually find that within twenty-four hours, I have been thrown an assignment of more-or-less epic spiritual proportions (usually involving a person in need) and have experienced victory in it.

This happens way too often for it to be a coincidence.

Back to tonight.

I think it’s safe to say that today was one of my biggest failures (out of many) that I’ve had in quite some time. I really, really blew it in front of a lot of people who mattered to me and who I’m something of an example to. If there was ever a time for me to get pulled out of the game for a while, thrown into the penalty box to ponder my ways, this would be the time.

Instead, four hours after leaving school in tears, I found myself on the back stairway of my church beside a fourth grade girl as she prayed the fourth-grade version of “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner” and became, as she called it, “God’s kid.”

You see, I’m beginning to understand something absolutely mind-blowing. God doesn’t always respond to my mistakes by telling me to sit in the corner and think about what I’ve done. He knows– he knows very well– that I want to be a meaningful part of the Story. He also knows that I’m weak and have issues. So, instead of dangling a “someday” in front of me and telling me to get my act together, the conversation runs something like this:

Erika: “God, I blew it again. I really messed up. I did it even though I knew it was wrong. I’m going to go put myself in the corner and think about what I’ve done.”

God: “No! No! Get back in the game! I have something I want you to do RIGHT NOW!”

Erika: “But I’m not your person. Didn’t you hear? I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway.” (looks up from the corner) “Oh! Look! Something needs to be done!”

(Goes and does it)

Erika: (comes back with a grin) “That was so cool!” (remembers earlier failure, head droops) “Wait, I messed up. Why did you use me? I need to sit in the corner and think about what I’ve done!”

God: (just grins)

Erika: “WAIT. Hey, that’s not fair. You didn’t play by the rules. You’re supposed to wait until I get my act together before you use me, right? Right?”

God: (just grins)

Erika: “Are you trying to tell me that the whole sit-in-the-corner thing was my idea?”

God: “Maybe. Hey, if I wait till you get your act together, you’re not going to get anything done. That’s too discouraging. So I’ve figured out something better. How about you get back in the action and actually DO some of the cool stuff in my power, and remember how much you like it.”

Erika: (grudgingly) “That DOES sound a whole lot more motivating.”

God: “How about I help you get your act together, instead of you doing it on your own, and we do it WHILE we’re doing the cool stuff?”

Erika: (sigh of relief) “Now THAT sounds like something that could actually happen.”

Of course this is all coming out of my imagination. I’m not even trying to say that God actually says these words to me. But it is actually how He’s been working. No dangling-carrots. No penalty boxes. Just… grace. Grace, which is frighteningly, gorgeously “other.”

And that’s more than enough to get me through some days.

A Resolution to Celebrate

As summer gave way to fall this year, I made myself a resolution. I was going to celebrate this year.

Maybe it’s my hobbitty heart, with its love for the sparkle and merriment and food of the holidays. Maybe it’s that they represent something innocent and childish. Maybe it’s my love of stories, which entwine themselves around all holidays. Maybe it’s the colors and the foolish beauty of decorations. Maybe it’s the gathering together of friends and family, painted in my head in the most idealized Dickensian lamplit colors. Maybe it’s my passionate love of gift giving and receiving. Whatever it is, there is a deep idealism in holidays that my heart yearns for.

And I sure didn’t have much of it last year, for whatever reason. Last fall, I was in the thick of my student teaching, doing little else besides school-related activities. Furthermore, as I’ve discussed before, it was a spiritually and emotionally draining school year. Students were wracked with tragedy; the school took several hard hits. For those reasons and perhaps more, I spent the holiday season in a sort of dark fog. The holidays passed, and I nodded soberly at them as they went by, going, “Huh. That was Christmas. Christmas used to be so much fun. Is it always going to be like this now? Over before I can hardly register that it happened?”

But a sort of change happened in me this summer. I made a new friend, and I developed a crush. I know. Alarming. And, as you’ve read in previous posts, it’s been thoroughly dragged into the light, analyzed, and given a proper and respectable place as a friendship and nothing more. But in the middle of the summer, when I was working hard and happy outside in the natural beauty of Whidbey Island, the peculiar heart-glow that comes with the giddiness of a girlish crush, especially when it is reciprocated by the kindness of friendship, lit me up from the inside. And as my overdeveloped imagination painted blooming future images in my mind while I scrubbed toilets and weeded walkways, the paintbrush strayed toward the upcoming holiday season.

Why, now that I had someone to do them with, I could do all the holiday things I’d been too busy or serious to do for the last several years! I could go to a corn maze with him, and then, by George, we could carve pumpkins afterward! Then would come Christmas. Would he go caroling? Would he like to walk around and look at Christmas lights? What about going to a Christmas concert of some sort? Suddenly all of the holiday sparkle, which had struck me as a jaded, gleaming veneer last year, seemed joyous again. 

Thus I resolved to make this season the season of celebration once again.

Now that the relationship has taken a more substantial and less romantic turn, I look back on the giddy, ephemeral source of my resolution with a little bit of embarrassment, but I will not say with shame. There is no shame in the rekindling of the heart. And the truth is, that somehow, God used my girlishness to not only bless me with a supportive friendship but to lift me, at least a little, back toward a sunnier outlook. And for both I am thankful.

But back to my resolution. As the fall rolled around, the corn maze and pumpkins happened, crowned with an evening of Doctor Who at a friend’s house. Halloween came around, and, even though I never celebrate Halloween on principle, I set aside said principles, figured that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with dressing up and watching a spine-tingling movie or two. So over the week, I crossed a few classics off my list, including “The Nightmare before Christmas” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Halloween night, I put on my long coat and went to the new Dracula movie with my friend. By now, our relationship had been carefully categorized; it did not lessen the charm of the evening.

Then came the Thanksgiving season, and my resolution to celebrate encountered its first hiccup. The week before Thanksgiving, my father and I had a telephone conversation, which I have already blogged about, which threw a very wet blanket on both my friendship and my celebratory spirit. And, lucky me, it was right before that holiday which, more than anything else, focuses on family. I got to go home and spend the week with people who were unhappy with me about something that made me happy. Great.

But sometime around Thanksgiving and the struggles that surrounded that week, I had to ask myself why. Why should I celebrate? Really, truly, why? Because I had a crush with whom I could share the sparkling delights of the season?

Or maybe these holidays were like my own giddy feelings. Once the sparkle floated away, there was something more substantial, more valuable to be found.

For the first time, it occurred to me this Thanksgiving that maybe my resolution to celebrate could be carried out despite all occurrences otherwise. That even if the circumstances surrounding this holiday season should become as clouded as they were last year, I could still celebrate.

And this Christmas, I will. That is a resolution and a promise.

Sure, the celebration might look a little different. Maybe it wouldn’t be the giddy, superficial fun, although giving that an try couldn’t really hurt. Maybe it would be possible to set the burdens on my heart in the hands of my Heavenly Father for long enough to enjoy some true holiday merriment. It would certainly be worth a try, should those burdens become overwhelming.

But there is so much more to Christmas than glittering trees and Christmas carols and presents (although those things are a source of particular pleasure to me). It is about showing love to others, selfless love that is not dependent upon any conditions at all, because that is the kind of love that Christ showed when He left Heaven to take on bodily form. No matter what the circumstances are, I can celebrate in the deepest form this Christmas.

Now, the best part of this is that I can use that kind of celebration to fuel the other parts of celebrating. I can celebrate by helping my mom make Christmas dinner, and by eating the Christmas dinner we’ve made. I can celebrate by giving gifts that speak my love to my sisters and family. And every time I show care or love–deserved or not, felt at the moment or not– I am celebrating.

So with that I laugh in the face of wet blankets and fog. Come rain, snow, or sunshine, I will celebrate Christmas this year.

Turkey, with a Side of Perspective

Thanksgiving was in full swing upstairs, but I had slipped downstairs for a moment to breathe. My cat Oliver, who had come to my parents’ with me for the weekend, rubbed up against me and started purring. I picked him up and squeezed him, as if squeezing my silent, furry friend could ease the pain inside me.

I felt unutterably sad about the tension between my dad and me. I felt sad that he had said nothing about the Thanksgiving card I had left on his desk. I so desperately want a good relationship with my parents, but I want that relationship to be one that allows us to talk as adults, back and forth. I want to be able to be honest about what I think without being condemned, and so far I have seen no progress in that direction. And here, at my family’s, we were celebrating thankfulness, and I could only seem to think about how my recent efforts at openness with my dad had failed or been misinterpreted or ignored. Not that I had always handle everything well– I fail as much as anyone– but I had been trying harder than usual, it hadn’t been working, and it hurt.

But as I hugged Oliver, suddenly I remembered that this was not the first Thanksgiving when I had excused myself momentarily from the family gathering because the atmosphere of happy thankfulness had become oppressive. And when I remembered the circumstances, I smiled in spite of myself.

I had probably been about fifteen or sixteen, and we were at my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving– you know, the long table and the cousins and the whole nine yards. It was all very happy and wholesome, and we had just gone through that yearly rite-of-passage where we all went around the table and said what we were thankful for.

I don’t remember what I said– something trite and expected, probably– but I do vividly remember excusing myself shortly thereafter and going into one of the bedrooms and throwing myself headlong on the bed, the quilt pressing up against my cheeks as I ground my body into the mattress in silent agony over the charade I’d just been through and the emptiness I saw in my own soul.

You see, I was in the middle of one of the darkest chapters of my short life, although I was doing a mighty fine job of hiding it from everybody around me. As a young person who’d grown up in the Christian church and been raised by very Christian parents in a very Christian way, I had been wondering for the last several years whether or not any of it was real. And I was terrified that it might not be, and yet afraid of the condemnation that would come should I ask the questions that were tearing me up.

Hence the inner agony. My life might not have any point to it, there might not even be a God or any hope for forgiveness or purpose, and I’d just stuffed my face with turkey and pretended to thank Him for it. I was desperate for answers and sick of the charade, and the agony of all of it was shredding me inside.

Over the next several years, my own inquiries and the guidance of several wise adults pointed me toward satisfying answers to my questions. My parents’ faith has now become my own. I believe with all of my heart in God and His plan, even if I will never have all the answers to why the things happen in life that happen. God held onto me. I was His, I am His now, and I will be His for eternity.

But I still remember that day with the vividness of a photograph, of a frozen moment in time. I remember it as one saves a relic. It’s a reminder of how lost I was then, and how found I am now.

This was what I thought of, there in the basement, as I hugged Oliver and took cool breaths of air in the solitude of the basement. And yes, I smiled at the memory.

It was the comparison of the two that made me smile. Because, what is a conflict with my dad in view of the destiny of my soul? The one question, the important question, was answered. And the answers I found are the answers to everything else, to every other desolate moment I might have.

I don’t know how things will get worked out with my dad. I hope for peace, for understanding, for a trust-based adult relationship, but I may not find what I seek. There’s bound to be a lot of unpleasantness ahead. But I can make it through that unpleasantness, because, well, I know Who’s holding onto me. I know that He exists. I know that He has a purpose for everything, and I know He is my Savior.

Not that it eases the pain. Just last night– after this epiphany, mind you– I was crying in a corner of the couch after nearly everyone was in bed, texting a friend about all the ugliness I felt. But that’s life sometimes. It stinks, and no amount of pious-sounding words will fix how much it stinks and hurts.

But there is hope. And there is purpose. As the Sunday-school song says, “this I know,” beyond shaking.

Nothing like a little perspective to put you fully into the spirit for Thanksgiving. Carefully I set Oliver down and headed back upstairs into the warmth of the kitchen and the laughter of my family.

A Redirected Revolution

“Anna, what do you say to a guy who wants to marry you?” my dad asked my sister Anna. We were all quite young–I would guess that Anna was four or five at the time– and we were passing the time on a family road trip.

Anna’s voice was sweet as she piped up with the perfect answer. “Speak to my father first.”

“Good! And Linda, what would you say if a guy asked to marry you?”

My two-year-old sister didn’t miss a beat. “YES!” she shouted.

It was funny. We all roared with laughter, and I immortalized it in one of the little comic strips I liked to draw of funny things my sisters said.

Today, though, it isn’t all that funny. Because today I am sitting around, halfway between resentful submission and outright antagonistic revolt, because my father is unhappy with me, a twenty-seven-year-old who has lived on her own for almost six years now, for having a guy friend without consulting him.

It would be funny if it wasn’t me. And my dad. And my dear friend. And the holidays.

My dad is generous, and kind, and wants nothing more than to protect his family, provide for them, and see them happy and safe. He also wants to serve God with all his heart. I know–as, in fact, my guy friend keeps having to remind me–that he loves me, and that all of his actions come out of a heart that loves and longs to protect. But somewhere out of this desire, he has subscribed to one of the many variants of a word that I am beginning to loathe: courtship.

Now, there are about as many different takes on that word as there are people who use it. I find that most people in my particular conservative Christian circle mean a variant on dating (though heaven forbid calling it that) which includes the guy who’s interested in you talking to the father, the father taking the guy through a sort of screening process, while the guy and girl get to know each other in supervised situations, particularly in groups of friends or with the girl’s family. Then, once the guy passes the screening process, he once again asks the father for permission to marry the girl, and the girl can at that point say “yes,” and he can put a ring on her finger. In a few months, they’re walking down an aisle.

My dad’s version includes something he calls “the Program,” which is a systematic method by which he hopes to get to know the fellow in question and show him for who he is, including reading a carefully selected reading list along with my dad and having weekly reading discussions.

The problem with all (and I mean ALL) man-made formulas is that they are just that: man-made. And when something is man-made, it will have a margin of error. It will not be one-size-fits-all.

The particular problem with this version of courtship is that this schema was not designed to accommodate a woman who is nearly thirty, has been living on her own, and has not screened her choices past her father for eight or nine years. Further complications arise when this particular young woman feels strongly about being able to make her own decisions.

The conflict was inevitable.

I was aware that my father would eventually like to know my friend. However, I knew that, to him, it would be highly singular and furthermore deeply suspect if he knew that I spent plenty of time with a guy as a friend. The whole “just-friends” thing, by the way, is rarely if ever found in the courtship schema, as far as I have seen. I mean, you’re hanging out before your dad has had a chance to screen him?

The problem was that my friend and I really, really wanted this to be just-a-friendship. We’re both cautious people, and we’ve been burned before, and we have no desire to rush into something. Why not just be friends, for a good long time, if not indefinitely? And if it turned into something else, save all the awkward parent conversations for later?

But I was growing uncomfortable with having to deliberately sidestep the gender of my friend in conversations. I never lied, but it was feeling sneaky–sneaky about something I shouldn’t have to be sneaky about. So in typical fashion, I decided to run at it headlong. I introduced my father to my friend, figuring there would be unpleasantness so we might as well have it out.

They spent all of twenty minutes in each other’s presence. I thought it didn’t go horribly, but alas I was wrong. Two nights later, I got a call from my dad. He wanted to talk about it.

I don’t really “talk about” stuff with my dad on a regular basis. Listening is not his gift, and submitting graciously is not really mine. So our interactions, while pleasant, have avoided controversy by skimming on the surface. But I had reached a sort of epiphany. The truth is, I loved my dad. I want very much for him to be part of my adult life. And while I do not feel obliged to “obey” him letter-by-letter, I do very much want to give him honor.

As my friend Mary pointed out, honor could very well mean opening my heart to him. It could mean trusting him to handle this situation well. And a relationship of trust is a relationship of truth.

So I listened to my dad. I listened to him talk about the shortcomings he perceived in my friend. I listened to him talk about what he wanted “the Program” to look like. I listened to him talk about how what he really, ultimately, wanted, in case of a serious romantic relationship of mine, was to get to know the guy, to have a relationship with him himself.

Then I shared my heart. I was finally honest with my dad about the things about the Program that made me nervous, about how I didn’t like everything being put into a formula because not everyone fit a formula. I told him that I wanted to trust him but it was hard, and when he asked why, I was honest with him. I got to say a lot of things I’d been wanting to say for some time, in a way that I felt was honest but not unkind.

Then I went home this weekend–and my little sister told me about the aftermath. Apparently he had discussed my conversation with him over dinner, and he had told the family that I did not want him to be part of that aspect of my life. Apparently it had also been seen as a sort of betrayal that I had had a guy friend without his knowledge, as well.

I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

I tried to talk to my dad that night, to no avail. He had worked a long day and was too tired to focus. I did manage, the next morning, to convince my mom that I hadn’t said those things, nor was that how I felt. But I felt so violated. I had finally opened my mind and heart to him, and I had been misunderstood on a catastrophic level.

My initial and regrettable impulse, once I recovered somewhat, was to decide that, well, it must be time for someone to stage a revolt against this whole system. But the more I tried to wrap my head around this Hunger-Games-esque resistance movement, the more it sat wrong with me. I don’t want alienation from my family. I don’t want to sit alone in my apartment, secure in my independence but with unraveling family ties. I love my family. They matter to me.

What I want is an adult relationship with my dad. I want him to listen to my side. I want him to hear my perspective and give it thoughtful consideration. I want him as a friend and advisor, not a dictator. I want to find a way that I can hang out with a guy friend–and go on dates–without being afraid that he will find out and object. I would love to be able to tell him about things like that without worrying about him suspecting me of inappropriate behavior or demanding to meet the guy… because the truth is that I have a pretty strong moral compass (thanks to my family and faith), and I know my own mind and furthermore have high standards of my own when it comes to gentleman friends.

So the revolt it is not to be, at least not yet. As I go home for Thanksgiving this week, I need to be carefully considering how I can pursue this dialogue, but, even more, I need to deliberately show my dad that I love him and that I know that he loves me. I need to steel myself and try to talk with him again.

Don’t think better of me than I am. Reopening this conversation is the last thing I want to do now.

It was my guy friend, actually, who gently reminded me of the love inherent in my dad’s words, actions, and even in the Program. Despite the unfairness directed at my friend and the rather vitriolic version of the weekend that he’d heard from me, he could see the love and protection in my dad’s methods. And when I asked what he thought would be the best way I could approach my dad about the situation, he said the last thing I was expecting.

“He needs to know you love him.”

Retreat or open rebellion would both be so much easier. This approach involves trusting when I am already suspicious, being vulnerable when I already feel hurt, and showing love when I feel antagonistic. Seriously, it feels like it will never work. It feels as foolhardy and impossible as the X-Men sending Wolverine back in time to talk sense back into young Professor X. It requires tact and delicacy and patience, and I’m feeling more like sullenness alternated with claws-out attacks. I have next to no hope that the situation will be resolved peacefully, and next to no confidence in my own ability to handle it well.

But what is the truth of the matter? The truth is that I have done nothing wrong–in having a guy friend, in being honest with my father about how I feel about his Program, in any of it. The truth is that no one else actually has control over me, and that the only person I “belong to” is my Heavenly Father. The truth is that “courtship” is a cultural construct, and that the intentions–purity and discernment– can be achieved by other paths as well. The truth is that, if my dad and I are willing to find it, a middle ground exists in which he can act as the protector while allowing me to be the adult I have become. And, even if we cannot find it, no part of my life needs to be destroyed thereby. None.

And the truth is that I love my father and he loves me. And in recognition of that love, however distorted and twisted its expressions might be, I intend to give the whole dialogue thing another shot. I’ll redirect my fighting spirit and, instead of fighting against my dad, fight for a new kind of relationship with him. It probably won’t work, but isn’t that the most epic kind of fight?

Excuse me. I’m going to go listen to the Gladiator soundtrack.

In Which I Discover that “Just Friends” May Actually Be a Higher Order of Relationship than Dating

Confession time: I have a friend who is a guy. We have been purposefully spending time together for about four months now. We give each other hugs and we talk honestly about what really matters to us.

And we are “just friends.”

Before you laugh at me and tell me I am setting myself up for heartbreak and failure, hear me out. Believe me, I have undergone all manner of agony of the heart over the last several weeks as I have tried to sort out my emotions and my better judgment, my thoughts and my feelings, and which of them are beyond my control and which ones I should listen to and which ones I should act in spite of. It has not been fun, comfortable, or settling. I have passed from attraction and a desire for a relationship, to panic and the desire to back out of said relationship before it got dangerous.

None of those options are what’s happening right now. You see, my friend and I have had several honest heart-to-heart talks in which we have concluded that what both of us really want, at least for the time being, is to remain “just friends.”

But there’s a little problem. Several months ago, as soon as we really began hanging out, I began to see this friendship as having the potential for “something more.” And along with that thought came the inevitable CHECKLIST. You know, that list of qualities that you want to find in a future mate.

I think that most girls… or most single people, for that matter, have a sort of CHECKLIST. My CHECKLIST today is vastly different than it was when I was fourteen; back then, brown hair and brown eyes were near the top of the list, after, of course, “Christian.” As of this summer, heading the list (after the inevitable “Christian”) was something along the lines of respecting my independence, seeing me as an equal and a friend instead of a prize to be won.

So when my friend and I went to see Taming of the Shrew in late August, and he surprised me with his displeasure at the “taming” of Kate, saying she was beautiful when she was herself and shouldn’t have to be changed, I was shocked and deeply pleased. On the way home, we skipped small talk and had a deep discussion about women’s roles in society. I am ashamed to say that a checkmark appeared atop my CHECKLIST.

Another of those items on the new and improved CHECKLIST was that I would end up with someone who was a friend before he was anything else to me… a good friend. Just so happens that I’ve known this friend over five years now. And neither of us called what we were doing “dating” nor did we really consider it such. Another check on the CHECKLIST.

So I checked off items on the CHECKLIST and frowned over other items that weren’t there, not realizing till last night that all the while a more sinister side of the CHECKLIST was emerging.

For one thing, the very fact that I was using my CHECKLIST proved that this was no “friendship” to me. Because, you see, my version of friendship does not include a CHECKLIST. Ever.

To me, friendship starts in a couple of ways. It usually starts with mutual interests. But it grows from there. It grows with trust, with confiding in each other, with shared experiences and emotions (be they laughter or tears, over real-life struggles or characters in a movie). And, for me, a friendship is on its way to being truly deep and lasting when my friend needs me, comes to me, and lets me help them. The friendship is solidified further when I choose to turn to that friend in a time of personal distress, when I am the one in need.

It’s as simple (or complex) as that. There is no CHECKLIST involved. I have friends with deep emotional needs. I have friends with criminal histories. I have friends with very different moral codes and different beliefs than me. I have friends who drink now and then and friends who believe that even cooking with alcohol is a sin. The only thing that has ever made me turn away from a friend was the horrific realization that they were not my friend in return and that the relationship was in fact damaging me in ways that I needed to stop. If I have any “friend CHECKLIST,” that, or the lack thereof, is the only item on it.

The result is that I try my best to love my true friends as unconditionally as I possibly can.

And the problem with a CHECKLIST is that it is conditional.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that one should enter into a serious romantic relationship without deeply evaluating the other. I believe that a lasting, strong marriage (which after all is where a serious romantic relationship leads, at least in my thinking) is not entered into lightly or without seriously considering how well the two people actually “work” together. A lifelong partnership is serious business and demands deep evaluation of oneself and the other.

I am, however, saying that calling a relationship “just a friendship” while at the same time subjecting it to the rigors of the CHECKLIST is living a lie and being vastly unfair to the other party.

It’s also making friendship conditional and imposing the CHECKLIST on something it was never meant to evaluate.

When I realized last night that this was what I was doing, I realized why “just friends” was beginning to feel so uncomfortable. I also found myself at a standstill, staring down at two separate forks in the road.

If I took the “just-friends” path, as we’d discussed, I would need to set my CHECKLIST aside. I would need to commit to the ultimate vulnerability: care for another, allowing him to care, allowing us to continue to talk about what really mattered to us without immediately passing judgment on each other. Taking this path would mean, for the moment, setting aside even the consideration of a romantic relationship. Yet a large part of me, the part of me that created the CHECKLIST to begin with, fears where this path may lead: that my affection for this person, deepened by friendship, might accidentally lead me into a relationship that wouldn’t work because of our differences (the differences highlighted by the items not checked off on the CHECKLIST). It sounds like a path for a naive, foolish, optimistic person, exactly the person I am trying my hardest not to be these days. I am afraid of the pain that could lie at the end of that path.

The other path involves continuing the friendship, with the goal of, at some point in the future, determining whether or not a relationship will work. This path sounds wise, until I realize that it implies the continued use of the CHECKLIST. I may try my very hardest not to use it, but with such a goal, the CHECKLIST will always remain in my subconscious.

The first involves a staggering, ridiculous kind of trust, as well as a turning away from something I deeply want.

The second involves violating one of the deepest principles of my being. Furthermore, it involves a kind of lie. On this path, my mouth is telling the person something different than my heart is inevitably doing.

Hmm.

As difficult as the decision is, I’m sure you can tell which path I took by the very words I am using to describe them. And I will tell you what led me to choose the “friends” path.

It is because I truly care about this person.

I care about keeping my word to this person. I care about telling him the truth when I tell him that he can talk to me about anything. I care about meaning what I say when I say he is my friend. I care about his questions and his needs and his heart. And I don’t want to damage those by saying one thing and really doing another. I want to really care, with no reservations. I want to be his friend. And I think I want to be his friend much more than I want to be his girlfriend.

I cannot be his friend if I am constantly holding him up to a CHECKLIST. It just doesn’t work that way.

There may come a day when the two paths cross. There may come a day when evaluation is once again necessary. Maybe, if that day comes, we will both have changed to fit each others’ CHECKLISTS. Maybe we will evaluate each other and realize together that anything other than friendship just won’t happen. The paths may cross, but I am not counting on it.

Wish me luck. It’s going to be an adventure, and we all know that they are nasty, uncomfortable things, that make you late for dinner.

But if Bilbo’s example is any good, they can also be an opportunity to be completely transformed, to have rough edges knocked off one’s soul, for the friction and trouble to polish one until one gleams. Adventures are good things.

And I’m up for one called friendship.

Like Cold Water

I didn’t realize just how intensely the events of last week (narrated earlier) had affected me until Friday night, when I went over to my friend Nicole’s house to chat and watch a movie. During a time we’d have normally been relaxing and chatting, she was relaxing and chatting, and I was answering in monosyllables. I felt like I could hardly move; I stared straight ahead; and, most telling of all, I’d drawn my legs up instead of stretching out on the recliner.

That moment when I feel safest when I’m as compact as I can make my nearly 6’frame– that moment, my friends, is a dangerous moment. Because, if you poke me with a stick, there is no telling whether I will run screaming from the room, run screaming at you, or just stare blankly at you and the stick as if I’ve never seen such a thing before.

What proceeded, though, over the next few days, was nothing short of astounding.

It’s hard to say at what point it started. But somewhere back toward the middle of that week, I kept getting texts. And messages. And little comments from people who I didn’t think even noticed that all was not all right. One of my students texted me a link to a song that spoke directly to where I was at. I got to spend a portion of Saturday with a dear friend who not only gave me hugs but also washed the dinner dishes for me and shared a Doctor Who episode that specifically addressed finding hope at the point where there seemed to be none (the 50th anniversary special, in case anyone was wondering). I mean, there were lines in that episode that seemed eerily written for me. A favorite Facebook page posted a meme with one of my favorite quotes from Lord of the Rings: that moment when Aragorn looks in hopeless eyes at Helm’s Deep and reminds the fighters, “There is always hope.” Friends– friends whom I usually looked after, not the other way around– were checking in with me because they were worried about me.

I didn’t understand it. On one hand, I was downright uncomfortable with all the attention. On the other hand, I was beginning to have no delusions about my own weakness and the fact that these people were actually helping.

But it all reached a head on Sunday.

I was on my way to church, and I got a text message. I checked it, and it was my mentor from student teaching last year– a woman I literally have not seen in months. “You are especially in our prayers this morning,” it read. WHAT. This was going beyond “I have a problem that people must be able to see.” This was getting downright weird.

But things didn’t get better. They got worse. Anyone who’s dealt with something similar will understand what I mean when I say that sometimes, when I am low like this, waves of inner blackness will come, for no explainable reason, and fighting them off is exhausting if not impossible. I don’t think I could tell you much about the church service, honestly, because it was mostly engulfed in one such wave. I made it home, though, things a little abated although not necessarily better.

Shortly thereafter, my phone rang. It was one of my best friends, whom I was more or less expecting. We talk most Sunday afternoons. Our conversations are usually a glorious mix of elaborate story crafting, sci-fi-tinged theological wonderings, rants about the world’s stupidity, and the occasional Hannibal joke.

I hate it when, instead, they turn into me sobbing my heart out into my friend’s ear. Never mind that she’s done that a few times, too. It just feels wrong, coming from me. It’s not who I want to be. It’s not who I’m supposed to be.

But there we were. And then something happened that I very much hope I will never forget. I don’t see how I ever could, anyway.

“You know, Erika,” she said. “I was thinking about you this week, and about all the stuff that’s been happening the last year or so. I was thinking about it, and I actually wrote some stuff about it.” She sounded embarrassed. “I wrote a poem, actually. And I won’t read it to you. I won’t read it to anyone, but let me see if I can just tell you the gist of what I was thinking. You’re going to make it. It will all be okay.”

“Well, of course I will,” I said. “If we look to eternity, we’ve all got a happy ending.”

“I had that one thrown in my face a few too many times to find it comforting. But you can think it if it helps; it’s true. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about you, in this life, in this situation. It will be okay.”

Before I go any further, one fact requires explanation. My friend just doesn’t say this sort of thing. Any cynicism I may display, I learned from her. She is one of the most cynical, pessimistic people I know–and what makes her pessimism stick in one’s mind is that it’s based on cold, hard, indisputable facts. She’s had more than the usual human share of grief and maltreatment, herself. Her outlook on life and humanity is bleak but justifiably so. She is, in fact, so consistently right about impending disaster that I have taken to just taking her at her word, no questions asked.

This, then, was the person who 1) wrote a poem about MY situation and 2) was now telling me that things were going to work out with the school. It was almost too much for me to process.

“Why do you say that?” I finally managed, quietly.

“Because I know you,” she said. “Because of who you are.”

I wanted to argue, to protest, to demand an explanation. But really, I knew what she was saying. It didn’t require an explanation. I just didn’t believe it. It seemed like such a strange reason to hope, a reason grounded in the one thing I really had no confidence whatsoever in, in the thing I felt was crumbling. Because of who I was?

“I watched a movie last week that you should watch,” she was continuing. “A Western. Tombstone. The best part of the movie was Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday character. I’ll send it to you. You should see it. He reminds me of you.”

The movie arrived at the speed of a digital document, and I watched it almost as soon as it arrived. And without spoiling a rather excellent piece of filmmaking for those who haven’t seen it, Doc Holliday was easily the coolest character in the whole story. He’s a drunkard and a gambler, but he’s got this sense of humor that stuns his enemies, and, even better, he’s casually deadly with a gun and has no objections to shooting up anyone or anything that gets in his way. All the while, might I add, he is suffering from a worsening lung disease.

I was enjoying his character immensely, but having some difficulty understanding my friend’s comparison until a scene where another character demands, incredulously, to know why he just keeps fighting. “Because Wyatt Earp is my friend!” he declares.

Nice one. I get it now, I thought.

But it didn’t end there. No spoilers, but that character just kept on going. He kept on fighting. It was ridiculous. It was beautiful. And by the time the movie was over, I was so overwhelmed at being compared to this character that I felt the need to call my friend and just sort it out.

At this point, I should probably mention that my student decided to come back to the school. The initial source of panic, the tipping point, was unexpectedly resolved Sunday night. I got a text from her simply saying that she would be back in school on Monday.

I could almost taste my relief. And I recalled my post about the scarcity of miracles, and I smiled. Take that, odds. Maybe you are in my favor.

I would love to say that life swung upward permanently. But the fact is that by the time I actually got to talk to my friend again about the movie, I had had another very difficult day, and what I had hoped would be an enjoyable discussion of the movie turned into another impassioned round of tears. It took an Evanescence sing-along and a long Facebook chat with another friend before I was at peace enough to sleep that night. No, I would not say that things have gotten easier, even though that particular hurdle has been crossed.

But I know one thing. I know that, no matter how close to exploding or getting engulfed I might feel, it will work out. My pessimistic friend told me so. And she is always right.

The moral of the story: A pessimist wields a power of comfort that an optimist can’t even touch. Optimists, at their best, are relying on an unquenchable scaly hope. An honest pessimist, on the other hand, cannot help but say what they see. And if they see hope, hope there must really be indeed.

So, keep that in mind, pessimists. Your day may come to do what no optimist can. Because, like cold water in a dry and weary land is optimism from a pessimist.