It has been a potent summer. I remember years ago when I left home. I had come home for the weekend and it was time to leave, time to Return but not to Home. I nearly cried on my way out the door. Nothing awful was happening then; only to return yourself to your place of storage is a dreadful thing. You must treat yourself as a thing of function, moved by utility. Stripped of the clothing of love, you must now fabricate a covering for yourself pleasing to strangers’ eyes.
I moved back home as functionally as I left that weekend years before: it is necessary for me to be here now, so here I am. I manage new experiences by identifying what needs to be done and then doing it. This is how I manage myself when a plane has dropped me off hundreds of miles away from anywhere I have ever been and this is how I came home. I had no inhibitions about coming home, but when you have been clutching fig leaves long enough it is hard to let them go.
I didn’t really know that I had dropped some leaves until I left home again in the summer, for a trip. I was going out to Wisconsin to see some friends. I didn’t know if I would go out ever again to Wisconsin, for the friendships are not strong enough to draw me that far just to visit; and I didn’t know how much friendship was remembered and how much was imagined. Sorrow and regret gathered around me as my departure drew close. In moving home I had also so recently taken leave of the friendships I had cultivated, slowly, in the years of my absence. In November and December of 2010 I lost the people I worked with in person since graduating. Six months later I lost the people I worked with at a distance, the people happy to see me at the other end of the miserable hours in airports and airplanes. In July I lost the people I didn’t work with, the people who on weekends and weeknights made the world a little bigger than The Company. In one frantic day I moved myself out of the apartment and a friend in, and helped host a party. I ripped my life up from the roots it had grown, and, while those local friends lingered after the party, enjoying their friendship, I left.
We all said we would keep in touch, of course. But as the circumstances that brought us together shrivelled and collapsed, whatever remained would be less than we had. Having sold so much to come home, when I then left home for Wisconsin I was leaving my closest and dearest family to say goodbye to the last of my friends. I had found my way home by taking down every road sign and landmark on my way, and I was home, lost, and leaving. While I was out there my aunt died in a car accident, a month away from the anniversary of my grandpa’s death two years before.
When I moved back in with the family in early July it had almost the moment of prophecy fulfilled. The prophets had actually been forecasting the opposite, which is why it seemed the hand of God himself altered the current of history. Everyone knew I would be the first to leave home (and I was). Everyone knew I would never come back; but I did. Nobody had thought to prognosticate further. I had reached the end of the story, and the book was closed.
There is a blank chapter in my story, years without friends for me to leave. I hardly kept any friends from college. There are two people whom I still converse with from time to time. There are a few more that, when I was leaving so much, I thought of them and sent them a sort of last hello. But the mass of people who might have been friends plummeted from my grasp. I did not mean to let them go, but when the avalanche rolls down the mountain, you cannot hold it back by parts.
Have you seen a dog with his nose out the window of a moving car, entranced by the scents in the wind? His nose is up, his ears are down and his eyes are unfocused; he is smelling a memory and a promise. If he catches that powerful, sure scent he is hoping for, he will bound toward it before he even knows he has smelled it. It does not matter if the car is moving or what ever may be; he will go.
One day in college when I walked into the bookstore I saw the woman I loved standing at the checkout. My feet kept on walking but that little portion of my spirit which remained had leapt out already. Reason said nothing good could come from trying to resurrect the dead. Feeling said nothing else mattered. I turned around and went back.
She was gone. In barely a moment of time she had vanished. I turned, looking both ways, but she was visible neither to the right nor to the left. Heaven yawned open and my soul was taken into the abyss. Trembling, I tried to phone home to beg for help, but the call would not go through. The world unravelled; consequence forsook cause, meaning fled from fact, and the future ran out of possibilities. God frowned; nothing else was certain.
I have often thought that God was merciful that day, for if I caught her then I might never have let go until both of us were ruined. How I despise that mercy! I have lived since in dread certainty that, for the hopeless, a cruel savior stands ready to rescue you from whatever you most love.
That was seven years ago.
Just before I left for Wisconsin, one of my local friends from where I used to live wrote me saying, “You have never called me your friend and you avoid me in groups.” And no accident, either; I have been possessed of a determination not to lead anyone into that dark valley I may not have survived. A year or two back I had caught the notion this friend expected more from me, and I bluntly and vigorously denied any such intention on my own part. I accomplished only insulting my friend, who believed that romance must begin and end with her parents, and considered my broaching the subject apart from them tantamount to impugning her moral character. At the expense of making myself an utter boor, I established beyond doubt to both my friend and her parents that I had no romantic intetions, and, if I ever did, I would report them first to the parents.
I knew the family from church, and collectively their family represented the major part of my friends where I lived. I did not imagine that this awkward declaration of my non-interest would prohibit all possible misunderstanding, but I thought it would at least aid in clarifying and compensating where my careful efforts to be merely friendly failed. This proclamation, along with my generally established frankness and the consistent pattern of my behavior in the year and more that I passed, I felt must make my position transparent. And now, having moved much further away with no special goodbye, I thought: surely by friends my friend means friends! I have been overzealous and rude in my horrible paranoid fear of failed romances, as if, ha ha! young people are inexorably drawn together as gravitational bodies, either to collide or orbit! So I wrote back, of course we are friends!
Nothing further transpired with this friend; I was still moved far away, and busy going to Wisconsin and learning a new job and helping my family move. But I heard through mutual friends that I was being entirely misunderstood. Too busy and too far to make an appearance, I had to call and set the record straight. Never, never, never again would I allow an unsustainable relationship to develop until life ended with it!
The friend herself was cordial. From both her sister and mother I received scathing rebukes.
“I don’t know if you realize what kind of person my daughter is, but she is fragile in her feelings, is loyal, loves deeply, and wants, like all people, to be loved.”
I had tried so particularly and excruciatingly to make myself available for critique earlier so that, if anyone grew concerned about some misunderstanding, the way would be open for them to tell me so. I tried above all to avoid that abrupt, devastating, and final end which had nevertheless overtaken me.
Peculiar in the timing of all of this is the way God forestalled the catastrophe until after I had moved back home, and further until after I had gone out to the Searching Together conference in Wisconsin. As a young man you know (or quickly learn) that there are some people who consider your marital status and prospects to be their native concern. Usually these are women old enough to be your mother; the tendency increases with age. I was not very surprised the first year I went to the conference, in 2002, that several people asked me about my prospects. At least one woman, unbidden, prayed for me to find a wife. I was a little taken aback when one woman pointedly said that her granddaughter (in high school) did not get introduced to many fine young men like me, but grandmothers are the worst this way and we young people must try to be polite about their lapses.
That was three years ago. I was out there again the following year, then missed a year. Returning this year, I was prepared for debriefing by the various concerned women. Since I have been to the conference several times there are some people there I know well and count as close friends, and some who are friends in that once a year convention kind of way. There are some people whose names I can’t recall and faces I hardly recognize.
One such man, a biker, interrupted a conversation (with a complete non-sequiter as I recall) to ask me if I was married; and, on hearing the negative, “What! Aren’t any of the young women good enough?” This is a confounding question, since the answer is both no and yes; nobody ever asks you if none of the homes in the world are good enough upon learning that you do not own a home. It takes a peculiar combination of circumstances to enter into home ownership, and until the circumstances are formed one might say no home is fit for your ownership; but this does the homes are not good enough.
In any event, with so little rapport and so little at hand to suggest it, I was very startled by the man’s question. I brushed it off or fumbled through it, whatever one does when asked questions too personal to answer.
Perhaps I have, by omission of other context, made this convention sound like a marriage bazaar for adherents to a strange cult. God knows such things exist among homeschoolers, to say nothing of home-churchers. But one could hardly do a worse job of establishing a bride market than this conference, if it were meant to be such. Attendees are generally married and incapable or uninterested in having more children. American demographics contribute to this situation, but beyond that the organization behind the convention is something of a shelter for the “homeless,” for those who desire family in Christ and have only found Christians in business at the churches they have known. Most people my age have not developed a sensitivity to the shallowness of Christian fellowship exhibited in the religious stadiums.
Searching Together started off as a nerd’s theology group. Recently, though, they have been deliberately trying to move away from a bias toward the intellectual, away from treating the human being as a brain in a vehicle and God as little more than an ultimate philosopher. That is to say, there were some touchy-feely presenters this year. They were not all in the new vein, though. One man among them reminded me of my own father in that he could present the Bible as something to be understood. Rather than reeling off verses until encountering the semblance of a platitude around which to build a comfortable self-assurance, he grappled with the text until the intention and force of the author’s effort could be felt. The most cerebral of the presenters, animated when explaining but otherwise quiet, withdrawn, and solitary, he surprised me when he asked if I was married. And then if I had a girlfriend.
Because of the way he presented, I answered him more honestly. I am not good at expressing a real thought when speaking in the moment, but I tried to say something along the line that a marriage is a new life, and although it is precious, to seek it out of its place and time perverts its purpose and defies the Giver of Life.
Yes, he replied, and Amen, but God delights to give his children what they want, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Now there were other people at the conference who had reason to say something like that to me, but this was the first conference I’d met the man and nearly the first conversation I had with him, and he no basis to speak to me like that.
On the way back from the conference I stayed with some close friends, and we talked about the things I have related. As usual their advice seemed too simple, although not entirely wrong. They said I should not be afraid of relationships; and while that is true as far as it goes it does nothing to bridge the chasms between the wreckage of cavalier relationships, the father-god cults of Conservative Christianity, and the faithful, pure love that Christ has for his Bride.
I left without answers. But on the road, as I slotted in an old, familiar CD, God reached for my heart – that scarred, crippled thing – and squeezed it like a sponge. Pouring out of me in all of its absurdity came my resentment toward God and fierce determination to make sure nobody near me got loved by God the way he loved me. I laughed at my vanity and cried at my folly. I trusted God to run my life and save my soul, but also figured he would screw me over the first chance he got. I kept a ridiculous vigil to watch for God sneaking up on me. What a relief to see this comedy, what a tragedy to have lived it!
Now I do not mean to tell you that I was cleansed from all resentment. I was feeling it again this morning sorely, for an example near at hand since August. Nor do I claim a specific literal message from God. But it was so obvious in that moment that God knows me and loves me that it seemed then, and heretofore, completely unnecessary to ask God for a wife. It would be like a small child asking, “Mommy, will you love me?” or, “Daddy, will you please buy food for me to eat?” You might have to ask a monster – but why would you ever even think to ask your loving father?
So, I am home, at last. I have no plans to go elsewhere; yet it feels temporary, like a momentary quench before I am thrust again into the smelting fire. I am filled with apprenhension because I do not know if I can endure that crucible more. But my greatest fears have never been present with my greatest dangers. I am often terrified of a little pain that comes with a lot of love. By now I should know better.
[Edited for clarity, 12/30/2012]