On loving, losing, and then loving again

When I was a freshman and sophomore in college, I was a youth group leader at our church. Jill, one of my “kids,” had lost her mother to cancer when she was nine, and like other women at church, I felt drawn to take Jill under my wing. Her boyfriend Mike was also dear to me.

For my junior and senior years, I transferred to a four-year college about an hour away. On the way to Seattle, with my car packed full of dorm-life necessities, I stopped at the cemetery, knelt beside the grave of Jill’s mother, and prayed, “God, I can’t take care of Jill anymore. Take care of her for me.”

But in January of my senior year, Mike and Jill were both hit by a drunk driver and killed. Mike was 17 and Jill was 16. I never felt such raw grief before or since. But beyond the grief of losing two people I loved at the same time, beyond the feeling of wrongness when young people die, there was a sense of betrayal. I had asked God to take care of Jill, and now she was dead. My faith shattered.

The fact that everyday life continued around me felt like sacrilege. How could people go on about their business when my world had changed so profoundly? Nothing would ever be the same. The world, populated by billions of people, felt empty now that Mike and Jill were no longer among them.

But there was a time when I didn’t know Mike and Jill. The world didn’t seem empty then.

I didn’t consider that until two years ago. We moved to an intentional community and, shortly thereafter, a single mom moved there with her son, who was three-and-a-half at the time. Cooper and I fell in love with each other. His mom raised him alone 24/7, and I was happy to care for him when she needed to be elsewhere. But often, he would just show up, enjoying the free-range childhood that an intentional community on an island can provide.

About a year ago, Cooper’s mother decided, after a great deal of agonizing, to move two hours away to live with her boyfriend. Understandably, the dream of having a traditional nuclear family eventually outweighed the support she received from our intentional community.

I wept many times in anticipation of Cooper’s departure. How had I ever been content to live in a world without him? But I held him with open hands, believing in Richard Bach’s quote, “If you love something, set it free; if it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”

Cooper and I get to see each other every month or two, now. Because of the distance between us, and how rapidly children grow, we have had to fall in love with each other over and over again. In spite of the fact that I’ve set him free many times, he keeps coming back.

I’ve lost a great many people, but I have also been surprised by joy. And as risky as it seems, it inspires me to open my heart again and again.

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Soul mates, courage, and happiness

The “Happy” image from the Mixed Emotions card deck (c) 2012 Kris Wiltse

If I were blind, how would you explain “yellow” to me? “It looks like the sun feels on your skin,” perhaps. Or, “It looks like lemonade tastes.”

Until about a year ago, the term “soulmate” was just as inexplicable to me as “yellow” is to a blind person. Nothing you could’ve said would’ve helped me understand what it means–until I met Eddie and discovered the exquisite agony of finding my soulmate. Exquisite because I have never felt compatibility or unconditional love like this before. Agony because Eddie and I could not be together.

The best definition of “intuition” I’ve ever heard is: knowing without knowing how you know. I have only a nodding acquaintance with the concept of reincarnation, but when I met Eddie, I knew that our paths had crossed in many lifetimes. I also knew that we’d seldom been together. There were lifetimes in which I wasn’t allowed to choose my own mate. Lifetimes in which he was poor, I was a nun, he was a Jew, I was a slave, he was married, or we were both the same sex.

Though there were obstacles to overcome, we realized that in this lifetime, we could finally choose to be together. There was a price to pay, though. It would take courage to be happy. Eddie would have to unplug the life support of a marriage that had flat-lined years ago. He’d have to hurt people he loved and grieve the loss of what had been while simultaneously acknowledging and celebrating what could be.

The “Hopeless” image from the Mixed Emotions card deck (c) 2012 Kris Wiltse

It was as if Eddie had been in a ship that sunk so slowly, he didn’t realize he was underwater. Then, on realizing where he was, he swam toward the surface so quickly that his body could not accommodate his rapid ascent. He got “the bends” as his body caught up with his soul and the emotional work of processing endings and beginnings sometimes left him physically exhausted and ill.

Meanwhile, my heart and head were at war. I had never known or been known the way Eddie and I knew each other. I had never felt more safe. There were so many words we didn’t have to say, so much explaining we didn’t have to do because we were One. When I was with Eddie, I felt a sense of rightness that never wavered. But when we were apart, my head kicked in. The ghosts of failed relationships haunted me. I lived in fear of judgment. Eddie wasn’t a logical choice for a number of reasons, including financial ones, and it would take blind faith to keep putting one foot in front of the other and see where a life together would take us.

The “Loving” image from the Mixed Emotions card deck (c) 2012 Kris Wiltse

There’s a saying that I’ve lived by: leap and the net will appear. Eddie and I screwed up our courage and leapt. Life has been real, gritty, and often hard. But now, we are experiencing the enormous privilege of living it together–held safely in the net of unconditional love.

Judgment day

When I was in the fourth grade, my younger brother, sister, and I responded to an altar call at the Bible Baptist church in Rantoul, Illinois.

Now, it wasn’t like we weren’t Christians before. Mom had been raised a Methodist in Germany, and opting out of the state church to join a different one meant something. It meant you were conscious about your faith. Mom’s ancestors were Huguenots, who were driven out of France for being protestant, so consciousness around faith went back for generations.

cross in handWhy wasn’t that good enough? Because the salvation part was missing. So Mom took it up a notch, accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, and encouraged us to do the same. Dad politely declined. (Actually, he threatened to start smoking again if Mom was baptized, but she did it anyway, and he never followed through on his threat.)

Salvation brought division into our family. The pressure on Dad to convert was unrelenting. We were right, he was wrong. We were saved, he was a sinner. Everything was black and white.

Eventually, I became a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, Christian camp counselor, and a resident advisor in a dorm at a Christian college. The black-and-whiteness of my world made me feel safe, and Christianity brought order to my universe. But one day, I said to myself, “This is too easy. I can fit the God I believe in into a shoebox.”

I went out to my Grandpa’s pasture and prayed, “God, show me how big you are.” And then all hell broke loose. Mike and Jill, two of my youth group kids, died in the same car accident, and my faith shattered.

I continued to live by Christian principles, not knowing anything else, but eventually, after spending a year in Germany, I fell in love with a German man and we decided to move in together. Now, in Germany, this was no big deal—not even for Mom’s brother, a Methodist minister. But we decided to set up housekeeping in the U.S., and it definitely was a Big Deal for my family. For the first time, I felt the sting of Christian judgment.

Any kind of fundamentalism is based on a we’re-right-they’re-wrong sort of belief system, and judgment is its lifeblood. In the religious tradition in which I was raised, swearing was wrong. Consuming alcohol was wrong. Smoking was wrong. Secular music was wrong. Premarital sex was wrong (but so was masturbation). At the Christian college I went to, even dancing was wrong because it was a “vertical expression of a horizontal idea.” Thinking outside the fundamentalistic box was wrong. I could go on and on.

When it came time for Reiner and me to move to our new place, no one in my family helped—as they’d always done when I moved before—because helping would imply support for our decision to live in sin. Perhaps, by shunning me, my family hoped to encourage me to return to the fold, but it had the opposite effect. My family’s judgment hurt so deeply that I could no longer bring myself to judge others, and my Christian faith came to an official end.

Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental,” and I’ve tried to live by that since. I fail daily. But I often succeed, and my world is much richer now that I love people who are different from me. Now that I respect and defend their right to be different. Now that I’ve given up any attempt to evangelize them into my way of thinking.

I would love it if my mother respected my beliefs. The little girl in me yearns to be loved for who I am, not condemned for who I am not. But, I’m not going to spend a single second judging or trying to unravel her belief system in an attempt to make her love me as I long to be loved. Her faith nourishes and sustains her, helps her make sense of the world around her, and gives her a group of like-minded people to belong to. It makes her happy.

In the end, I respect the differences in others because it makes me happy. I like who I am when I’m not judging others. Love just feels better.

The fortress

The day I walked through the doors of Gifford Grade School at the beginning of third grade, I entered my sixth school. By then, my father’s career in the military had taken my family from:

Gifford was a Lake Wobegon sort of town. It had around 600 inhabitants, and we lived there for three years—long enough to put down roots. We caught fireflies, got lost in  endless fields of popcorn, and actually knew people where we trick-or-treated. We skied down snow drifts, became Cub Scouts and Brownies, and sang for the residents of the local nursing home.

Then, Dad retired from the military, and we headed west in the station wagon, towing a travel trailer behind us. I loathed the forever place to which my parents retired and missed Gifford terribly.

At 11, I was on my way to my seventh school, and something snapped inside me. I had said so many goodbyes over the years that I couldn’t bear the thought of saying any more. So I addressed the problem by building a fortress that surrounded and protected me. By preventing hellos, it would prevent goodbyes.

It worked. It kept me safe—and very lonely—into adulthood, and despite my best efforts, still exists today. Occasionally, someone breaches the wall, but it’s relatively rare, and I wonder sometimes what makes it so effective, especially now that I no longer want it to be.

Recently, however, I was minding my own business at a coffee shop, when I turned to find a stranger inside my battlements, fiddling with a cream pitcher. I had no idea who he was, or how he got there. We exchanged a few sentences over the course of the evening, and went our separate ways. I was shaken.

The stranger appeared inside the battlements several times after that, and each time I felt a sense of joyful recognition that was completely inconsistent with how well I knew him. Then, one day, he skittered under the portcullis just before it closed and declared his love for me from the other side.

What am I supposed to do with that? Leave? The fortress?

I am intensely and inexplicably drawn to the stranger. Can I work up the courage to leave these walls I’ve come to know so well?

And will he be there if I do?

Destiny, boys, and men

How I failed to meet my Destiny

As I was washing dishes in my teens one day, I looked out the window and “saw” a joyful little girl on a swing, her pigtails flying behind her. Perhaps, I thought, this was a visitation from a child I will have someday. I named her Destiny and thought of her often through the years.

I always wanted children, but married a man who didn’t, and it took us years to come to a compromise. He finally agreed that we could have one (and only one) child if I could conceive it without the aid of fertility drugs or in-vitro fertilization. In spite of the fact that I was in my late 30s, I conceived easily. But I knew in that intuitive way mothers often do that this baby was a boy. Since I had only one chance at motherhood, that meant I would never meet my Destiny.

Over time, however, the baby I carried managed to communicate with me in various ways, and I warmed to him. In fact, by the time I miscarried two-and-a-half months later, I would have been disappointed if he had been a girl. His purpose was clear. Like John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus, the first baby I carried prepared the way for the son I bore about a year later.

How having a son turned out to for the best

The fact that my child was male turned out to be a brilliant cosmic move that ensured that my family history didn’t repeat itself. My mother and I were completely enmeshed. I didn’t know where she ended and I began, I just knew that my purpose in life was to meet her expectations. I worked constantly to stay within the target area of her love—because falling outside it was life-threatening. Would she care for me if she didn’t love me?

My son and I will never become enmeshed because we are so different from each other—that Y chromosome is our continental divide. In this otherness, my boy has given me a new understanding of and respect for men. He has unwittingly taught me this:

Girls are born women. They begin nurturing soon after they can walk, and there is nothing remarkable about the fact that they eventually become mothers. Boys, on the other hand, are born boys, and thanks to my son, I know what an enormous metamorphosis it takes to turn armpit-farting, BB-gun toting megaburpers into daddies.

Today, witnessing daddies who deeply, compassionately, and meaningfully engage with their children sometimes moves me to tears. These men bear a message from the future that helps put my troubled mama-mind at ease.

“Don’t worry,” they seem to say while wiping their child’s nose with their shirttail. “Your son’s going to turn out just fine.”

Life, and how we move through it

As I walked through the forest on my son’s birthday yesterday, I reflected on how challenging life has been since the moment, 12 years ago, when he was born. At the same time, I’ve grown weary of thinking about how hard it’s been. Weary of feeling sorry for myself. Weary of My Story.

I realized that the past twelve years have felt like walking through chest-high water, which is something I used to do on purpose for exercise. There’s a much more efficient way to get through water. It’s called swimming.

Walking through the water of my life hasn’t exactly been a conscious choice. I do it because it’s all I’ve ever known. But I’m ready to find a more efficient and joyful way to move through life.

I’m going to sign up for swimming lessons.