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.

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I Don’t Want to Be Independent (You Read That Right)

“Help!” I frantically texted my computer-savvy friend Jacob last night. “My laptop’s touchpad suddenly decided not to work!”

“Is there a button that turns it off and on?”

“Already tried it.”

“Did you try restarting it?”

“Yes. I even took out the battery.” (I’m beginning to panic at this point. I had a writing day planned for tomorrow and a talent show to make programs for this weekend, and just way too much of my life on that rebellious machine.) “I know it’s a huge favor to ask, but if it’s still not behaving tomorrow, could you meet me after work and take a look at it?”

“No problem!”

You guessed it.

I met up with Jacob, and he fixed the problem with… I kid you not… ONE TOUCH. More like two little taps at the upper corner of my touch pad, but still, the idea of it. Apparently my taps of the night before had been too violent. “It’s not pressure, it’s contact it responds to,” he explained, leaving me to laugh at my forcefulness with the thing and groan about the fact that I’d asked him to come thirty minutes out of his way to touch my computer.

It was the sort of thing that could potentially deeply embarrass a girl who likes to think of herself as an independent, twenty-first century woman who can handle things herself.

But the fact is, it wasn’t nearly as embarrassing as it should have been. We had chosen a little restaurant as the site of the computer’s examination, and we proceeded to order large breakfasts-for-dinner and visit merrily for over two hours, laughing so hard at times that the deaf elderly couple at the table next to us made grinning comments about us having too much fun.

A lonely evening had been turned into a delightful outing. Bless the stupid computer and my ineptitude. And bless my gracious friend.

In moments like those, I look at my independent ideals and wonder just how sustainable they actually are. What, indeed, am I trying to accomplish? What exactly is it that I am trying to prove to the world? That I don’t need people to survive? That I can take care of myself? That I am a world unto myself? And who, exactly, am I kidding?

I need people. I need friends to fix my computer. I need the man at the repair shop to fix my car. I need the people at the grocery store to sell me the food I so proudly cook for myself. I need the farmers who grew that food. I need my students to keep me laughing and living and believing in making a difference. I need people to take care of and I need people to take care of me.

I begin to wonder if this elusive independence I am constantly striving for is really what I want. Maybe what I really want is respect… respect and trust. I want people like my parents and supervisors and the parents of my students to truly respect me as an individual and, in turn, trust me. I think it’s validation I’m striving for, not independence. Because real independence, freedom from needing others and having others need me, not only sounds utterly impossible, but it sounds utterly miserable.

So, thank you, Jacob, for fixing my computer. I’m not going to let myself be too embarrassed about needing help there. Because I really didn’t know what to do with the thing–and now I can work on my story tomorrow. And also because, let’s face it, I will never be really independent. And that is actually a very good thing.

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.

Fourth Graders (and Me) on Marriage

Besides teaching high school, this year I am also working several hours a day as a teacher assistant for a combined 4th/ 5th grade class at our “sister school,” Oak Harbor Christian School. While switching between 12th grade literature and 4th grade math within minutes has been a mental stretch, it’s a joy.

But I still can’t seem to get those fourth and fifth graders to call me “Miss” Heins. To them, any female adult worthy of a title must needs be a “Mrs.”

Today I decided to remedy this error. Every time a fourth grader called me “Mrs. Heins,” I replied, “Miss Heins. Mrs. Heins is my mom. A wonderful lady, but she’s not me.” It was cute, it made them giggle, and, best of all, by the time I was finishing up with them, most of them were getting it right.

But one girl, a lovable ants-in-her-pants fourth grader who likes to talk to me about Star Wars during recess, wouldn’t let it go. To her, it was just too astonishing that an adult female wouldn’t be a “Mrs.”

“You mean you’re not married?” she demanded incredulously.

“Nope.” I grinned back at her.

“You’ve NEVER been married??”

“Nope.”

And the freckle-faced imp looked at me and declared, “We’ve gotta find you a husband!”

I pointed down at her half-completed math test, and she got the idea.

It was cute. It made me smile. And, coming out of the mouth of a fourth-grader, there was nothing whatsoever offensive about it. In fact, I prided myself that maybe I’d opened her mind to the possibility that adult females are not, actually, always married.

In fact, if a freckled fourth-grader had been the only one to demand such a question of me, I wouldn’t be thinking twice about it. And I probably wouldn’t be blogging about it. But she isn’t.

As a Christian twenty-seven-year-old raised in quite conservative circles, I have been surrounded with the concept that I was born to be married. Not that my parents (bless them) ever told me that, but I was taught how to cook “for my family someday” and we did assemble “hope chests,” because, after all, we all “hoped” we’d get married someday. Basically, people talked about Christian girls growing up to do one of two things: be a mommy or be a missionary. And if you were really, really cool, you’d get to do both.

So I talked about being a missionary and planned on being a mommy. I think, deep down, I figured things would work out for me like they had for my parents: I’d go to a Christian college, meet Mr. Right there, and get married a couple of months after graduation.

But it didn’t happen.

Partly, that was my fault. I was a late bloomer. My freshman year I looked like I’d just come off the farm, and my sophomore year I tried to wear makeup and failed. By the time I was a junior, I was developing self-confidence and friendships, but still somehow seemed invisible to the opposite gender. I didn’t mind, though. By that time, I was taking a heavy load of writing classes and was deeply enjoying wading waist-deep through art and writing and other things that I loved. I had a tight-knit group of girlfriends. In other words, I was happy, socialized, and very, very busy.

By the time I knew it, I’d graduated, no boy in tow.

I didn’t have long to worry about my state. I got a job, and after a several-year, somewhat-rocky transition, I moved out of my parents’ house, got an apartment, made friends, and once again started filling my life chock-full of things that I loved and people I loved. Not that it’s always been perfect or happy, but my life is full and good and worth it. It doesn’t feel like “half a life.”

I remember talking with a friend I worked with at summer camp, who was in such agony to have a particular counselor as her boyfriend that I just kind of looked her at in shock. She really, truly felt like she was half a person without, well, “another half” (pernicious saying). It was something of an epiphany for me.

Why do so many of my fellow conservatively-raised Christian women feel this need to put their lives on hold until a man walks through the door and sweeps them off their feet? It’s not, I think, because we don’t WANT to be useful. I think most of us really do want to play a meaningful role in God’s story. I think it’s because we’ve been raised to think of ourselves as incomplete.

I don’t think our parents ever meant us to see ourselves that way. I know mine certainly didn’t. They wanted me, I think, to honor the role of motherhood in a world that often puts it down. They wanted me to be a good wife should I get married. And their intentions were pure. I think they did a better job, honestly, than many other parents I know did. (In a way, the very fact that boys were not the center of my life in college proves that.) I don’t and never have felt like I’m missing a half.

But now I get half-questions, half-thoughts from them and some of the other conservative Christian adults who have watched me grow up. Yes, it’s fantastic that I’m a teacher. But haven’t I done this “on my own” thing long enough? Haven’t I met a guy yet? In my student’s less tactful words, “We gotta find a husband for you!”

Maybe I have met a guy and maybe I haven’t. Frankly, I’m not even sure myself. I’ve dated a few times; I’ve made guy friends. I’ve more or less outgrown my awkwardness around guys. I am not in the least opposed to the idea of getting married. I would do it in an instant if I met a man I cared about enough and who cared about me enough.

But I do know this: I don’t mind if I stay single. And there is no guarantee that I will EVER get married. But I have no plans of ever moving back in with my parents. I like having my own place, where I can serve meals to people and write my stories and hang my art on the wall. And I sure do wish that the happily-married-for-30-years adults around me would be okay with it.

For now, though, I’ll settle with teaching fourth graders that “Miss” is nothing to be ashamed of.