November 13, 2007

#9 - The Best of Times, The Worst of Times...and My Friend Wayne

The Summer of 17, a young girl moved to Arizona...that would be me.
I'd suffered a near-death experience and my health that fall was such that I'd been given the choice of either going to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN--or go live with family friends moving to Tempe, AZ. Let me see, eenie-meanie-miney-moe... My mother and I hitched a ride with a couple who happened to be driving down, and I arrived at the Ney's house on October 26, 1969.

In this "Year of 17," it was the worst of times because the doctor under whose care my mother placed me before going home to Iowa, molested me. A well-known Christian man, he was also the leader of Young Life at Scottsdale High, and therefore his molestation was a double whammy--an assault on my emerging sexuality (and hence my identity), and he dragged God into it. The worst of times, yes.

Yet it was the best of times. It truly was. For I had Wayne.

I remember well the day I first found him. I suppose he'd all along been going to the little church the Neys and I attended. Skinny, seventeen, blond hair hanging in his eyes, I didn't even know he existed until we were returning from a weekend retreat with our little church group.

Truth to tell, I had a bit of a crush on Howard, and I'd wanted to drive back with him and Jodi Tune, but instead I got stuck in the backseat with Jonathon and two guys I didn't know at all, squeezed between Wayne and Ron Carlson, elbow to elbow, hip to hip, all sweaty and sticky and melting into each other like ice cream and fudge on a blistering hot day. Oh my lucky day! For two hours I was jostled between them, and they, along with Jonathon on the end, were so funny, their camaraderie so spontaneous, so clever, that the afternoon stands as alive in my mind as if the trio were with me now. I mean right now. Listening to my two teenage sons over the years banter and tease with that peculiar humor of emerging men, I felt similar pleasure. But that night in the "Year of 17" Wayne Schroeter (first and last name rhyme) came by the Ney's house in Tom Lutz's Volkswagen van to take me to church and he and I were soon so tight that everyone thought we would some day marry.

He sought me out, a gift I accepted. Yet we were not romantically inclined. I had my own sexual crisis going on, and he was smitten with Sally Taylor. Somehow, though, we loved each other. And though my heart continued to go a little pitapat over Howard, my love for Wayne soon eclipsed anything I felt for anyone else. I woke each morning to thoughts of Wayne, I went to bed each night with him in my soul.

I lived at the intersection of McClintock and Southern, right on the edge of town, cotton fields to the south and west. Between my house and Jodi Tune's was a wide swathe that would someday be a freeway. Wayne lived a mile up this swathe, and so this ribbon of baked dirt and jumping cactus became the epicenter of my world.

I remember popping across the "freeway" to Jodi's, or Jodi popping over to mine. I remember Jonathon Manlove and Wayne rat-a-tatting at my window at four a.m. on scattered Saturday mornings, so the three of us could huddle up next to each other on the freeway, me in the middle, shivering in the predawn air and hardly noticing while we watched the sun stretch and open one eye. (The picture is of me taking a picture of that window. You can hardly see it--but it's right between the last two of three side trees.)

Mostly I remember walking home from school with Wayne, sometimes with Jodi and Linda Halloway, sometimes not. We'd stroll west along McClintock, turn into Jodi's subdivision, exit onto the freeway. Usually I went on across to my house in my own subdivision and Wayne headed up the freeway to his. Frequently, though, he and I dropped off my books so the two of us could re-enter the freeway and head north to within two blocks of his place.

I always wore white flat sandals, exactly like Linda's, with an elastic strap and white daisy at the toes. In these simple shoes, nothing more than a sheet of leather and elastic, I carefully skirted the cactus. Wayne liked to kick the rocks and send them skipping ahead. The heat and the mess he made invariably gummed the dust under my feet, making the sandals a bit slippery, and the little flowers at my toes grew thick with the dust. And inevitably two blocks from his house he shooed me back, and though I always begged to see him home he was firm, and I'd only give up when his distress sent me scuttling back down the freeway feeling sorry and sad for everything we couldn't tell each other.

That was the freeway. Everything else seemed peripheral.

At McClintock High I had an easy schedule: art, music, and English. I spent my days practicing viola, violin, and clarinet, sculpturing in the lovely art courtyard, and skipping study hall to be with Wayne in his math class. Sometimes he fell asleep, and one day I sketched him zonked out at his desk, hair tumbling down around his face. I placed him in a barn, probably because barn wood was easier to draw than a classroom of students and tangle of desks.

Sometimes he met me at my locker, and we'd share a few moments before hurrying off to wherever we were supposed to be. Sometimes I met him at his, #370. At one point he gave me his locker combination. I'm not sure why, but I still have his card with the three magic numbers--25/33/3. "The combination to my heart," he teased, pulling it from his wallet and entrusting it to me.

I remember handing him notes from Karen T, for she was in love with him, and he always disappointed me by never revealing his feelings about this. He simply took the note and stuck it in a pocket. I suspected he was irritated, but too kind and too gentle to say so. And no matter how many times I told Karen that Wayne had his eye on Sally and was mustering up the courage to ask her out, it didn't sway her. Eventually I got so irritated that I refused to bother him anymore and Karen quit speaking to me for awhile.

That was school.

Weekends were less predictable. I might get a call from Wayne. Did I want to go scorpion hunting with him and his buddy Tom? Was a full moon round? Pretty soon I'd hear the purr and rattle of Tom's van bouncing into the drive. Sun going down, we were off. We usually went out Price Road, I think. Tom and Wayne playfully argued back and forth about where to stop. Eventually they'd agree and out we'd tumble. Ten o'clock at night and a 110 degrees. Nevertheless, we were covered neck to toe; only our hands were bare. From a ratty old cardboard box in the back of Tom's van we'd each grab a #10 can and a pair of tongs with the ends dabbed in fluorescent paint. Under the beam of Tom's black light, scorpions twinkled into view like stars in the sky; green glowing stars worth 25 cents a piece.

One night Tom knocked on a farm house door and asked if we could look through some hay stacks out back. "Sure, but you won't find anything," the woman said, "my kids play out there all the time." Minutes later Tom flipped on the black light and my knees buckled. Everywhere... hundreds of little glowing green scorpions. A regular party of them and you could all but hear the boomedy-boom-boom of their music. I think it was Wayne who fetched the woman to come see for herself. We got rich that night. It was picking up quarters and dropping them into buckets for an hour or more.

The scorpions we took to Dr. Stahnke at ASU where I learned years later that my friend Sandy Dengler, a fellow writer and at the time working on her masters degree in bugs, milked, as she said, "those little devils." Small world. (Sandy, in her fifties, went on to get her PhD in bugs.)

I did go rattlesnake hunting with these guys once. The way I remember this? Wayne and Tom took turns driving blind down some desert road without headlights. Suddenly they'd stop, flip on the lights, and the one not driving would leap out and snag whatever rattlesnake was lallygagging on the road and too stunned by the light to move. How they actually snagged them, I can't recall--I was having none of it. I sat in the back, babysitting their catch. And, yes, Sandy milked Tom and Wayne's rattlesnakes, too.

Our church gave focus to our lives, someplace to go, things to do. Sunday afternoons Wayne picked me up in Tom's van and took me to choir practice. He had a good voice; I did not. But I went just to be with him. Down through time and every now and then, in unguarded moments and perhaps feeling uncharacteristically content, I'd find myself singing some of those songs. "He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, the wealth in every mine...;" "cotton candy clouds, so fluffy and white..." We sang mostly Bill Gather songs, about a dozen of us in a poorly air-conditioned room at the end of the church's single wing to the south. I only have to close my eyes to feel the heat of Arizona's climate, hear my friend's voice, and see his glance for he seemed to sense when I needed his smile.

Why we were so close is anybody's guess, but I have a few ideas. Given the circumstances, I most certainly needed his male companionship, the strength and safety of the nonsexual intimacy he offered. A bigger draw, though, was his endless ideas and perspectives that quickened my own. I'd never known a boy smarter than me, and I trailed along beside him like a bee after nectar.

He was a brilliant kid whose mind never stopped, a growing man whose Dad told him he was never smart enough. I guess his dad was off-the-charts and cat's-meow smart because Wayne was no dumb bunny and I have yet to find a man whose intellegence and ability to integrate ideas I admire more. I thrived on the sheer energy of his intellect, for no matter how smart I was, he could out think me, and I revelled in the challenge and found myself articulating ideas I thought peculiar only to myself, only to find he'd already thought of them and had different perspectives that enabled my own. A heady thing. And the sun, warming our skin, eavesdropped on our conversations.

He was the one, of course, who took me to the doctor, driving me from Tempe over to Scottsdale. I got through whatever was in store by going elsewhere, outside my mind, outside my body, outside the walls that hid me. I escaped by visualizing Wayne in the waiting room, slouched down in a chair, arms crossed, one knee or another jiggling up and down in patient boredom. When Dr. Mattson finally left and I was free to come back to myself, I'd pick up the pieces of what I could find and slip into the sunshine and safety of Wayne. He'd be ready with some kind of quip, joke, or jaded comment about an article he'd skimmed. I'd laugh. We'd climb into Tom's van--until the next time.

He had no idea, of course. He didn't need to. We seemed to understand each other on a level that didn't need words and, because I had no words, he became everything to me.

One day he took me to Phoenix on a job he was doing for his father. Somewhere downtown he told me he wanted to marry me. Were we in the Tom's van? Had we stopped someplace and gotten out? I have no memory; it's my calender that records the event.

This gesture was not a proposal; at the time he was finally dating Sally. That I needed him we were both very aware of, and so this suggests that the subterranean repercussions of my molestation were becoming a burden to us both. His enormous capacity for affection and sacrificial protection dominated his own emerging sense of what it means to be male.

After graduation, he went to ASU in Tempe, I to Grand Canyon College in Phoenix, a Southern Baptist School. I had a difficult time. The rules were oppressive and I missed Wayne with all the ache of arthritis on a rainy day. When I couldn't take it anymore, I'd call him. He'd borrow Tom's van and come over and get me. Girls in those days were not allowed to wear shorts on campus, and because pants were out of the question in the 120-degree temperatures, I was stuck with dresses. Our ritual was quickly established. He'd drive me over to a gas station where I 'd sneak into the bathroom, pull off my dress, and wriggle into shorts and a tank top (another no-no). Slowly--slowly but surely--I began to forget Dr. Mattson, make friends, and by spring Wayne and I saw less and less of each other.

I married the end of my second year of college. Wayne came to the wedding. I contacted him only twice after that: Once when I was going through my divorce ten years later; once when my youngest son turned 17, another sixteen years later. I'd simply gotten nostalgic for my old friend from "17." This last Christmas, though, I grew lonely for him and sent off a Christmas card.

He sent back a CD of some of his photography and we began e-mailing. Once or twice we called each other. His familiar voice and oh so familiar laugh stirred up memories of good things I'd forgotten, like the blue of his sister's pretty eyes and our church trips out to Legend City and the beastly heat of days we all spent at Big Surf, and then the flashbacks of Dr. Mattson started to haunt me with a strange sort of detachment. It was like cleaning out a closet and mundanely finding an old cast that had once fit your busted arm, an arm you'd forgotten had been broken. The cast kept falling out of the closet, so I decided it was time to go back and face not just the memories of Dr. Mattson but to also put to rest the craziness of the year between Wayne and the rest of my life, a year of confusion that led me into the darkness of a marriage without love.

Wayne's "little" sister Carol took me in and orchestrated a reunion with the minister's wife of the little church we'd gone to, as well as with one of the youth group leaders, Gwen Lavelle.

A brief detour here. When I was divorced in 1982, I phoned Wayne; I also called Jeff and Gwen. Jeff was without mercy. He made it clear I was committing an all but unforgivable sin. I wrote to Gwen; she refused to answer. Their condemnation was crushing. I was in a fragile state and for 25 years I carried a deep sense of loss. So when Rita and Carol told me she was delighted to hear I was coming down and wanted to see me, I was surprised. When they told me she wanted to join us for lunch...I was very much surprised--and I wasn't all that sure I wanted to. I had enough on my plate. But then I thought, what the heck, why not? Pile it up.

I was pretty anxious waiting for her to get to Carol's. I'd determined I wasn't going to let the loss pass without comment, but I wasn't sure how to handle it. As with Wayne, I'd never stopped loving Gwen; her condemnation was a badly healed scar. The first time I ever spoke of it was to Wayne last winter--in our first phone conversation.

To my surprise, Gwen gave me her beautiful smile, a smile I've never forgotten and which has returned to me over the years in the most unexpected moments. She came up the walk and gave me that well-remembered smile, warming my heart. She gave me a warm hug. And before I could catch my breath she gave me a warm and weepy apology. It had been bothering her for years, she said, and she was so grateful to God for giving her the opportunity to tell me she how sorry she was. "I was young, I was stupid," she said. "I followed the script. And I didn't think," she added, "that what I had to say was important."

Important? What Gwen had to say was everything. And so I, too, was grateful God had given her the opportunity--an unexpected gift.

The three of them--Rita (the preacher's wife), Gwen (newly restored to me), and Carol (Wayne's sister)--took me to lunch and then drove me over to Scottsdale to what is now a parking garage--but which had been, once upon a time in the "Year of 17," the doctor's office where I lost myself before having a chance to know me. (The picture, left to right, is me, Rita, Carol, her and Wayne's grandnephew Damion, and Gwen.)

Therapists and doctors tell us that our bodies hold memories when our minds cannot--which is why intellectually letting go isn't always restoration. As Gwen zig-zagged toward the parking garage rising out of the ashes of my past, I recognized nothing--though my body did. Panic jerked up from my gut when we rounded the corner and my throat pinched, quivered really, like something fluttering. I found it hard to breathe around the frantic internal chaos. Tears squeezed out of my eyes, then came spilling down my cheeks, tears that ran with a lot of snot.

Before arriving in Tempe, Rita and Carol had told me Dr. Mattson was dead, about fifteen years dead, but in Gwen's van, surrounded by people who knew me "then," and with tears dripping off my chin, images of a man very much alive ricocheted around in my head and heart, and my skin crawled with his touch that seemed worse than I remembered. But then the panic subsided--for I remembered Wayne. In the waiting room. Bored. Knee jiggling. Nevertheless, waiting.

He was waiting for me at Carol's. I'd not seen him for thirty-four years. Dusk was about to settle in, and in the soft light of a tired sun I slid into his hug with a silly smile, and wondered how it was that I had waited so long to come back.

We spent the evening and into the wee hours talking at two different restaurants, and then again on Monday before leaving. Perched on low stools and hunched over a toadstool of a table, eating Ethiopian food--and watching (always watching) his mouth and chin, for it was in the energy of these features I felt us seventeen again--he told me something that drop-kicked-me-Jesus down a hole into time. He'd come to see me, he said, after I married. My misery, he said, was palatable. My husband, he said, hated him. Why don't I remember this? My misery was, I know, ripe, a cesspool of disappointment and loneliness. On my wedding night my husband, after "having had his way" (me nonexistent in the act and obviously not to be considered), had drawn his finger down the sheets to make a line. "See this? Don't ever cross it, not even your little toe unless I want you." And in the midst of this bleak winter of my discontent...Wayne had come to see me?

A psychic cog must have slipped. I continued to rattle down the hole like Alice into Wonderland, only with me it was 1972, 1973. Memory morphed into something I could feel again. My nostrils flared on the danger I smelled. I struggled to jerk myself out of past into present, Wayne my conduit to 2007.

I've long known that molestation is merely the introduction to either promiscuity (an effort to normalize the behavior or born from a damaged identity) or further sexualization (boundaries gone). Neither is right or wrong; they just are. And, unfortunately, the all but inescapable reality for too many women. For me, raised in the church where boundaries are often taught to be sin ("turn the other cheek," "walk the second mile," "give the shirt off your back," "suffer in silence"), Dr. Mattson's violation blew down what barriers and common sense I had left, leaving me a sitting duck for someone like the man I married.

And he, too, brought God into it--coercing me into marriage by shoving I Corinthians 13 down my throat, pointing out that I was commanded by God to love everyone, including him; that I was commanded to forget his unkindness, forgive his cruelty, forsake my own desires to accommodate his own. I could think of no way out. Some proposal, huh? Once married, the Bible became not just a stick with which to browbeat me but a knife--forcing me to sacrifice everything that was left because the Bible made it clear my body was no longer mine. And it wasn't.

Eating Ethopian food, I stared into Wayne's sky-blue eyes, the same sky-blue eyes that smiled whenever we met on the freeway for a walk and a talk. "I was never married, Wayne," I told him, realizing for the first time the terrible loss Dr. Mattson had set into play.

"I know that." He took a breath. He did know; and it felt in that moment he was and is the only person in my life to really comprehend what this meant and means to me.

"I'm fifty-five," I told him, "and I don't know what marriage feels like. I don't know what it looks like."

"I know that."

Together we tried to remember when he came to see me. Near as we could figure, it was at the Thomas Street apartments, down by St. Joseph's hospital. That he had come meant a lot. Still, why hadn't I let him help me find my way again?

Scooping up shrimp in my "pancake" made of Egyptian teff, I pictured myself throwing my arms around his ankle, refusing to let go, him walking out that brick apartment, dragging me along behind like a ball and chain. In high school he'd have done anything for me. He still would have. "Why, why didn't I go with you?"

"Did you have a child or two by then?"

"Not at Thomas Street."

But I was trapped. Physically, psychologically, religiously...and God held the key. Wayne could not have fought God and won. The battle was mine.

It took ten years and three children for me to finally declare war. I see now that I was dead for ten years and that the seventeen years following exacted all the skill and wit and focus a person rising from the dead can muster, and then some. If I'm allowed to carry the analogy further, it was another ten years in rehab. My body, heart, and mind had worn out.

"I must be a woman of great strength," I told Wayne, "to have let you go that day without asking for help." Then I smiled. "No. I'm a woman of great stupidity. Let's talk about something happy now." I jumped right into it, what my friends all wanted to know.

"They all want to know what was wrong with you that you weren't attracted to me!" I grinned at him. "I mean, after all, your hormones were intact, it was me who was sexually damaged. And," I admitted, "my adult Self has her nose out of joint."

He laughed. "I wasn't, and am not, attracted to every girl."

And was too shy back then, he said, to speak to girls. If they said hi, he walked away.

"But you talked to me," I pointed out.

He hemmed and hawed, knee jiggling.

"Let me get this straight. You're saying I was not only unattractive romantically but I wasn't even a girl? I was just one of the guys?"

Thinking on it, that's exactly what I was. And I have to say, now that I'm thinking, it's a rare priviledge most girls never experience.

When Wayne took me to the airport a few hours later, he went as far as the security gate. Deja vous, he and me all over again, saying good-bye two blocks from his house. Only it was me walking away, he going back. But I headed on, content. Some day he'll call, deja vous, to ask if I want to go scorpian hunting. And, deja vous, I'll say yes. It's the way were. Are. Friends without definition, without structure. No angst. No ups and downs, just easy conversations, stimulating ideas, and do you want to go four-wheel driving in the desert today? Passing through security, throwing my shoes in the bin and giving up my mascara, I felt a sense of bliss reminiscent of my life with Wayne all those years ago.

At the parking garage across from Scottsdale Hospital I'd sensed a stirring of rebirth. On the plane somewhere between there and here I fell into a dreamy state, contrasting Wayne's memory of finding me in such misery to the day I first met him. What had happened to me in between?

When I wrote Taming the Dragons for HarperCollins in the mid-1990s, this was my thesis: Women can make choices to either endure or resolve their conflicts--but not until they know they can. This is the fundamental crime of victimization: it robs victims of their greatest power. And this is what had happened to me "in between." I'd been robbed. It wasn't until I was 29 that my sister Tresa gave me back what had been taken. "You can choose." And armed with choice, I'd at last declared war and begun fighting my own battles.

Next thing I knew I was crying for the girl who had been me, the girl whose right to choose had been taken before she knew it was hers. A stranger noticed and handed me his hankie. This is the gift of God, the universe, whatever name by which some have come to define as the Divine. Strangers and friends are always ours. I'd come full circle, begining again where it had all gone wrong, beginning where the worst of times had truly been the best. I'd been given the garden of friends, especially Wayne--who never knew the gift he'd been, and I flew home on the clouds restored to myself, time at last chronological, past and present no longer a parallel overlay in my mind and out of which I experienced life.

I landed to find three of my five grandchildren dressed in their jammies, their little bodies wiggling and wriggling and bouncing up and down, unable to contain their excitement. I'd been born to be their grandma, and the spectrum of time focused in Nathan's "Granny!" Jamie's sweet smile and tilt of his head, the baby's studied frown, pacificer in her mouth, as if to say, "What is all the fuss about, boys?" I was in the present.

The winter of my discontent had vanquished under the high noon of Arizona's sun and Carol, Rita, and Gwen

and the man who was, in the very worst of times, the best.

October 19, 2007

#8 - Eve: A Special Hatred

Gauguin (Breton Eve, 1889)

As some of you know, I was sexually molested when I was 17 by a Christian doctor. I'm now 55 and while some might say it's all "water under the bridge" and that I need to get on with my life (I am after all a grandmother), I am learning otherwise. It's water that took the bridge out.

For health reasons, my parents had put me in the care of family friends in Arizona my senior year of high school--and the minister of the church this family and I attended recommended that Mum place me under the medical supervision of a doctor who was also the Young Life leader at Scottsdale High. The man literally held my life in his hands; he was endorsed on two counts by the church; and he molested me. Not until I was 29 and coming out of a destructive marriage did I ever tell that it happened--though I could not speak of the details and still can't. At 29 I had single parenting and all its attendant difficulties on my plate, and when my youngest went off to college several years ago I had recuperation from the seventeen years of single parenting on my plate. What happened in Arizona, by necessity remained on a back burner.

Too, there was no real drive to pay much attention because I was (and am) fully aware that my molestation is nothing in contrast to what too many women and children have suffered (and suffer). And as miserable as my subsequent marriage was (once abused, you attract abusers), there are thousands of marriages far worse. To deal with my own "insignificant" psychoses has felt to me rather selfish; my limited energy seemed better spent on those who "really" suffered. Like my children. Like my neighbor. Like the stranger at a party who confides.

But then the flashbacks began two years ago, and I can no longer ignore the bubbling pot on the back burner of my life. So in two weeks I fly back to Phoenix for the first time in nearly four decades. My destination? The doctor's office in Scottsdale where I lost what feels to be 90% of myself. And then the church where I was married and lost everything else.

I have no idea what I'll learn and I'm apprehensive. I'm just sort of hoping, I guess, that seeing the buildings where it all happened will break something loose inside of me, and give me back myself. It feels a bit melodramatic, going back into time to save myself, but friends from that era have encouraged me, some rallying and coming alongside me in this uncharted venture: Carol, sister of my best friend at the time, and Rita, my former minister's wife, now eighty years old. This alone is immensely healing and serves to remind me of who I was then.
Too, last night I climbed into bed and picked up a book my friend Rachel had lent me. Rachel is actually Rita's daughter and part of the youth group in Arizona that sheltered and loved me during that year of sexual debasement. Ironically, Rachel now lives near me in the Pacific Northwest. We discovered each other last Easter and we share a love for books, ideas, and gardening. This last book she lent me proved to be about female wounding and how to be healed from the cancerous violation of our femininity. Apropos, I thought, delving in.

The authors had an interesting starting point. They went back to creation and Adam not being enough--hence Eve. She wasn't created for Adam, but to complete creation. She was the "best saved for last." Or, as my brother-in-law might say, "the heart of the watermelon and not the rind."

I'm not a big fan of Christian dogma and the church; much of my troubles stem from Christianity as it's practiced today. But I understand and appreciate cultural stories and God's transcultural communication through them, everything from Cinderella to Uncle Remus to Genesis. I was pleased to discover the authors of Captivating discuss the Hebrew word ezer--which has so lamely been translated "helpmeet" in the English Bible--and which has been used to provide divine mandate for female subservience in all its debilitating forms.

The word is used only 21 times in the Old Testament; once when referring to Eve's relationship to Adam; the other 20 times occur when speaking of God's relationship to Israel. He will be the ezer to Israel. It's a Hebrew word which is undefinable in English. The best translation is "the saving glory," or "you will die without my help," or "saving power of beauty."

John and Stasi Eldredge went on to say that the Hebrew Satan went after Eve not because she was the "weaker vessel" or the "great seducer" (both notions so prevalent in the church it makes me crazy) but because she was the saving force, the beauty and crown of creation, the now-it-is-perfect pinnacle. And that at her creation, Satan became enraged, for this had been his job before getting cast from heaven for hubris pride. Once he'd been the guardian, the beautiful, the powerful in heaven's domain! Now here was Eve?

It became imperative he crush the one who "usurped" all that he'd lost. And ever since her downfall, the Eldredges think, Satan's maintained a specific and enduring hatred of everything women are.

I'm not sure why I was blind to this very cogent observation. Many men go out of their way to stifle similar fear and jealousy by beating it out of us, using and abusing us, rendering us incapable so we can be judged incapable. They've written sexual and physical abuse into the codes of every religion, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and it permeates every culture from the cave dwellers to 2007. The misogyny of men is well documented and pervasive; and in Captivating, John and Stasi Eldredge summarize this brutality chronologically and culturally.

They underscore their awful point that Satan targets women specifically by pointing out that mere men can't be this methodical. Most men are not this mean, for one thing. Nor are men who are this mean so dedicated, or smart enough to carry out such wholesale and consistent annihilation down through time. The issue of abuse against women is bigger than mere men. Abuse of women goes to the very core of evil itself.

Something here struck a chord. How many times have I felt the power of evil unleashed--sometimes in a slow, torturous crushing; sometimes in mind-boggling blows? How many times has my own mother remarked that it's as though the Biblical Lucifer blocked every good thing from my life?

The authors point out that this kind of wounding is systematic and well-thought through. Men are often used to level the hammer, it is true, but it's the message behind the hammer that is the most damaging. All forms of abuse come attached with the same destructive messages, and women everywhere know the lingo. We're worthless, unlovable, fraudulent, pariahs upon society and deserve our abuse. We're not skinny enough, thankful enough, brave enough, strong enough, worthy enough. We're too stupid, too smart, too ugly, too pretty, too passive, too aggressive. We seduce, mislead, and generate misery. These messages linger and fester and invite further abuse; and which is why, at fifty-five I'm stuck at seventeen. The messages hold me back. This is the damage I (and everyone like me) suffer from.

Last night Rita said something on the phone while we went over the arrangements for my upcoming visit. I started to cry. This confused me. Finally I confessed, "I have never cried about this, Rita."

My tears astonished me. And the fact I hadn't known until then that I had never cried over the loss of my sexuality, the very core of my identity, astonished me further.

"You've never cried?" Rita too was astonished.

I stayed up late reading Rachel's book. I awoke this morning with two thoughts in my head. One, that I really must go back and rescue myself. Two, that my doctor and the man I consequently married were more messenger than perpetrator and this took the sting out of my fear.

No, three thoughts...the third arrived after the coffee. I can shoot the messenger.

And so I go back to 1969, to try and and find who I once was. To metaphorically shoot the messengers who wounded me. And to connect with people who once helped define and sustain me as I limped into womanhood.

My question: Is the brutality of women really a battle between good and evil? Or is this a new Christian terminology for a problem a few Christians are apparently trying to acknowledge and explain? Is there another language we can use to find healing from the violation of our sexuality? And why is it that we need to?

More importantly, what about the victimization of children, girls and boys? Women aren't the only ones to suffer rampant cruelty.

Finally, can it ever be stopped? Is there no hope for myself? For my grandchildren?

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August 02, 2007

#7 - Forgotten Foundations

One hundred fifty-six year ago, on April 10, 1851, Seattle’s founding families pulled out of Cherry Grove, IL. Louisa Boren, then just twenty-four years old, brought with her some sweetbriar seeds. When she reached the Oregon, she was to plant them, send word to her best friend back home; Pamelia would then do the same with her own seeds and in this way the two friends would never truly be apart. For when the sweetbriar bloomed each summer, they could remind themselves that some day, when “distance and death no longer reign,” they'd once again be together. The sweetbriar was their tryst. In far -away "Oregon," Louisa planted hers at the door of her honeymoon log cabin where Denny Way now ends, and today she is remembered in Seattle's history as Seattle’s Sweetbriar Bride.

She should also, however, be remembered as one of two women who laid the city’s first foundation. In February, 1852, the families had temporarily settled at Alki, across the bay from today’s city. Louisa’s fiancĂ© David Denny and her brother, Carson Boren, were down to Ore
gon to collect the cattle they’d driven across the plains. Her brother-in-law, Arthur Denny, was sick with "fever and ague." But Louisa and her brother’s wife Mary Kays got weary of waiting around on the men in their lives. So they borrowed an Indian canoe from Chief Seattle’s band and paddled the six miles across Elliott Bay, where they chopped down trees, whacked off the branches, notched the ends, and laid the first three log rounds of Mary’s house. I like to picture these two friends swinging their axes in the dark forest along the bank—no doubt with practiced blows, blow after blow, for they grew up in the Illinois frontier.Mary and Carson Boren’s house became Seattle’s first home, and is commemorated with a plaque at the intersection of downtown’s Second and Cherry. But history has forgotten who laid that very first foundation.

Three years ago I was asked to go back and speak at the Cherry Grove Historical Society’s big April 10th celebration, where the small community that still exists celebrates Seattle’s conception. I stayed with Marie Olinger, who owns John Denny’s farm, from which the four wagons pulled out--an avid historian and walking encyclopedia on Seattle's pioneers. We had breakfast together in Marie’s gazebo reenacting between ourselves Louisa and Pamelia’s last breakfast together so long ago. She invited the community women to a second breakfast, and they all arrived bearing gifts: geneology charts, artifacts, pictures. Pamelia’s great grandniece (who lives where Pamelia grew up) gave me pictures of the old Dunlap homestead--where Louisa and Pamelia in tears kissed each other good-bye. I walked the short road where the wagons rambled slowly through town, picking up speed as the Borens and Dennys waved hankies to friends and neighbors gathered along the picket fences to wish them all a last and teary “God speed.”

The best of the trip, however, was yet to come. For years I’d been in search of sweetbriar. To no avail. My last morning, three women brought by a small twig pulled from the roadway by Louisa's old farm, roots and all. Louisa’s sweetbriar...and now mine!

Louisa's farm, inherited from her mother when Sarah Boren married John Denny

Back home, I waited for it bloom. One summer. Two summers. Three summers. What’s this? A bud? Oh my gosh, hundreds of buds!

Louisa’s sweetbriar is now growing up around the porch of my new house. Every day I look out the window and remember two friends of another time. I like to think of them having breakfast in God’s garden, "never more called to part."

But I also like to remember who it was that laid Seattle’s first foundation. The sweetbriar is more than a promise of eternity, it's symbolic of a determination that seeds great potential.

Louisa's gift to time is not so much the sweetbriar as it is the foundation upon which much has come and is yet to be.

May 12, 2007

#6 - The Case of the Missing Pink Dress

Six years ago I began to worry that by the time my children got around to having children my arthritis would be too bad to knit them any baby clothes. Oh, but I could get started, couldn’t I? And just set aside whatever I made?
I was half way through a pretty pink dress when my daughter Heather announced that she was pregnant. Oh yeah, oh joy. Oops, a boy. Put the dress away. But then my son Phil and his wife Katie announced they were pregnant. Yeah, get out the dress. What? Another boy? Put the pink dress away.
Fast forward. Heather’s pregnant again. Where’s the pink dress? What? Another boy? Okay, but wait, now Katie’s pregnant again! Huh? A fourth boy? Four boys in two years? Dang! Put the pink dress away!
At some point I moved. My youngest son Blake packed up all my stuff, and his stuff, and it went out everywhere. Into storage, under Phil’s stairs, my dad’s garage, Heather’s backyard. I unpacked. I couldn’t find Auntie Han’s 100-year-old teapot. Nor could I find the pink dress. . .oh no, oh dear, guess what? Katie pregnant. And it’s a girl!
We go through everything. Even my mother’s closets. It’s simply not to be had; the pink dress has run off with the teapot.
So Evelyn Rose is born and the pink dress with all the rosettes along the bottom of the skirt has vanished. Wouldn’t it be nice if Evelyn Rose could wear it for Easter? There’s a renewed search, but she did not wear the pink dress. Suddenly Blake started making noises about getting his books out from under his brother’s stairs.
“You don’t suppose the pink dress got in with Blake’s books, do you?” I asked Phil.
“Want me to look?”
“Heck, yes.”
“It’s not going to be there,” poo-hooed Katie. “All the boxes under the stairs are heavy.”
Yeah, well, okay. She and I went down to the yarn shop at the beach and bought more yarn and I started in again. I was two inches into it, 360 stitches a friggin’ row!, when she e-mailed last night, “PUT DOWN THOSE KNITTING NEEDLES!”
Now ain’t that just the cutest dress you ever saw?

And the cutest little baby to wear it?

It goes to show two things:That babies do not arrive via sexual intercourse, as some still believe; babies, in fact, arrive when middle-aged women begin knitting baby clothes and dotty old women begin losing them…
And that God does indeed answer prayer; I did not want to knit that dress again! Okay, so he’s a little pokey about it, but there’s the dress. It fits. And we got our girl! What more do I want?
Oh? In case anyone cares? Auntie Han’s teapot was in with the dress.
So all’s well with my world. Yours?

April 26, 2007

#5 - Currier & Ives

"I'm so excited!" I e-mailed old friends in Arizona. "Tonight I'm joining Rachel's handbell choir!"

Wayne, Carol, and Rachel are high school friends; friends I've recently reconnected with. Rachel, it turns out, has been living right under my nose in Whatcom County for years. Not only that, she belongs to a handbell choir. Better yet, she invited me to join and, to make it all the more perfect, she goes to an antique church, built in the old days, complete with steeple, belfry and
hopefully bats.

"There's something about bells--Christmas carols come to mind, antiquated churches, and rolling countryside that appeals to me," I told them.

"How very Currier and Ives of you," said Wayne.


I had to look it up, google style. Ah, those guys--the guys who perfected the lithograph process. I didn't need to feel quite so stupid. I did recognize much of their work. Yes, how very Currier and Ives of me. Wayne is right. But--google, google--there's more.

Turns out hand bells are an evolution that date back to ancient mythologies. The ringing of bells kept back the demonic forces at death, preventing them from swooping in to claim our souls. They chased back the evil spirits, too, lurking about our thresholds whenever company comes calling. At sea, the chiming of bells hold back the storm.

Very quickly one begins to understand why we have bells in our steeples, at our front doors, and why--in the echo of ancient mariners calling out at the end of night watch, "Eight bells and all is well!"--we use bells to sound our hours, announce our guests, and call us to church. Bong, bong, bong. And I thought I just liked the sound of them. But it's their protection, the sense of peace, tranquility, of, yes, the divine, that has called to me as well.

countryside near Rachel's little church

Indeed, how very Currier and Ives of me.

Ringing off, I'm F, F#, and G.

And sometimes, if Rachel can't pick up fast enough, G#.

March 13, 2007

#4 - We Get Born

part of my application for the MFA program at UBC (University of British Columbia) involved sending the start of a children's story. yesterday i received notice that i am on the "reserve" list. so i'd like to share chapter 1 of TINSY WINSY--in the hopes that some of you might read and be inclined to knock on wood, say your prayers, and cross your fingers for me. this is a highly competative program that would warrant me a seat in the lime light of Canadian literature. that i should be so lucky. . .

the main character is my childhood red sock monkey, pictured here with Cheeko (part of my life since junior high) and a teddy bear i've had since i was three. the story is siimply called TINSY WINSY, the chapter is We Are Born.
Tinsy Winsy opened her eyes. Where am I? she wondered, blinking two times and looking around curiously. “What an interesting room, it isn’t finished!”

She was right of course about the room. The walls were up all right, but they weren’t painted. The windows were in, but they had no glass. The floor was there, but it had no carpet. And in the middle of the floor, goodness, stood two rickety old saw horses with a long skinny tree lying down on them! Yessireebob, a tree! With all its branches sawn off, and most of its bark, too. Now what is a tree doing in a house, Tinsy Winsy wondered, more curious than ever.

Her nose started to itch. It itched some more. The whole room was filled with sawdust! Sawdust on the floor. Sawdust on the window sills. Sawdust on the hearth. Was she going to sneeze? “Ah, ah—” She covered her nose. “Achoo!”

“God bless you.”

Tinsy Winsy whirled around sideways. “Who are you?” she asked a monkey tucked into a sock hanging off the fireplace beside her.

“I’m Bingo.” Bingo had the same shiny black shoe-button eyes that Tinsy Winsy did, but she had freckles all over her nose. “Who are you?” Bingo asked back at her.

“I’m Tinsy Winsy.”

“You’re a monkey.”

Tinsy Winsy looked down at herself. Sure enough, she was a monkey. What was she doing in this sock? Things were getting curiouser and curiouser.

“We were born in the middle of the night,” said someone new and Tinsy Winsy turned all the way around the other way.

“Hello. I’m Suzanne,” said another monkey in another sock.

“Are there more of us?” wondered Tinsy Winsy out loud, looking about.

“No,” said Suzanne. Unlike Tinsy Winsy and Bingo, she wore a smocked dress. Tinsy Winsy and Bingo only had sweaters, but they were very nice sweaters, hand knit and with pockets.

Tinsy Winsy wiggled and wriggled. “Do you know why we’re in socks? Hanging off a fireplace?” she asked Suzanne.

“Because it’s Christmas.”

“What’s Christmas?”

“You don’t know what Christmas is?” asked Suzanne in such a way that suggested Tinsy Winsy might be quite stupid.

“No, I do not know what Christmas is.”

Suzanne laughed. “I think you must have sponge between your ears! I have polyester batting,” she said very importantly.

“I do not have sponge between my ears!”

“She has cotton fluff!” shrieked Bingo, and she giggled so much she very nearly fell out of her sock.

“If you’re so smart,” said Tinsy Winsy to her, “you tell me what Christmas is.”

Bingo stopped laughing. She didn’t know what Christmas was either.

“Christmas,” said Suzanne, “is when Christ was born. Christ-mas. Get it? And on Christmas Eve, the night before Christmas, mothers and fathers everywhere hang up their socks for Santa to fill with candy and children, and in the morning they find us. And they eat turkey and pumpkin pie and they go to church. But sometimes,” she added, “they go to church on Christmas Eve instead.”

“Oh,” said Tinsy Winsy and Bingo.

“Are we in socks because we’re waiting for our mother and father to find us?” Tinsy Winsy asked Suzanne because she seemed to know such things.

Suzanne’s eyes were not made out of shoe-buttons at all, like Bingo and Tinsy Winsy’s. Her eyes were made out of wee green buttons sewn on top of larger white ones, and she rolled her fancy green eyes at Tinsy Winsy. “We’re in socks because our mother and father prayed to the Christ-child for children. And the Christ-child told Santa to put us here.”

“Did we get born?” Bingo asked.

“Yes,” said Suzanne. “But I’m seven, and I’m the biggest.”

So that’s why she knew everything.

Bingo said, “Who says you get to be the biggest?”

“I just am.”

“How old am I?” asked Tinsy Winsy.

“You’re six.”

“Me?” asked Bingo.

“You are only four. But you’ll turn five next month.”

“I’m only four?” asked Bingo. “I want my mother!” And she started to cry.

But Suzanne yawned and stretched. She stretched her two arms up over her head and yawned again. She stretched her toes. “Hey, there’s something at the bottom of our socks!”

Bingo stopped crying.

“You better not look,” said Tinsy Winsy.

“Why not?” asked Suzanne.

“What if we get in trouble?”

“I never heard anyone say we couldn’t open our stockings!” Before Tinsy Winsy could say “Curious George,” Suzanne climbed out of her sock and turned it upside down. “Look!” She held up a peppermint.

Tinsy Winsy and Bingo climbed out in a hurry! Out came an orange from Tinsy Winsy’s sock. Then a peppermint just like Suzanne’s. And a pair of brand new roller skates! “I always wanted a pair of roller skates!” she said, and right away she started strapping them onto her feet. “What did you get?” she asked Bingo.

Bingo held up a stick, with two bumps on the end. “I don’t know.”

Suzanne was trying to pull a bicycle out of her sock, but she stopped and went over and looked at Bingo’s stick. “That’s a pogo stick. It works like this.” She stood on the bumps, but quick as a wink over she toppled—boom, into the sawdust all over the floor.

“I know, I know how to do it now!” cried Bingo, and away she went, binging and bonging all over the great big room.

Tinsy Winsy didn’t care about the pogo stick! She didn’t care about Suzanne’s shiny pink bike! She had roller skates! Around and around she whizzed, around the saw horses with the tree lying down, around another tree standing up in the corner, around and around and all through the sawdust. Wheeee! She was flying! Once she nearly bumped into Bingo bouncing. Once she nearly whammed into Suzanne wobbling on her bike. Suzanne didn’t know how to ride very well yet. Wheeee! What fun!


Tinsy Winsy looked up. High in the air, way overhead, hanging onto a rafter for dear life by her tail, was Bingo. What Tinsy Winsy noticed, though, was the rafter. It looked just like the tree lying on the sawhorses. So that’s where the long skinny tree with its branches and bark all sawn off is supposed to go, she thought. It belongs way up there.

“Help, help! I’m going to fall!”

“What are you doing up there?” Tinsy Winsy asked Bingo.

“I bounced. Help me, I really am going to fall!”

Tinsy Winsy hardly had time to duck. First Bingo came crashing down. Then came her tail.

“My tail! I want my mother!” wailed Bingo.

“My, my, what have we here?” someone said.

“I think we have our little Christmas girls.”

The three little monkeys saw two grown up monkeys talking to each other at the end of the room. One had a yellow bow on her head. The other had a black and white polka-dot bow tie.
Bingo stopped crying. “Mother?”

“Oh dear,” said Mother with the yellow bow on her head. “The little one has already lost her tail.”

“She didn’t lose it,” said Suzanne. She got off her bike and went over to pick up the tail. “See, here it is.”

“My tail came off!” whimpered Bingo.

“Don’t you worry, little girl,” said Father with the black and white polka-dot bow tie. He came over and picked up Bingo. “Mother is a good surgeon. She’ll sew it back on.”

“Will it hurt her?” Tinsy Winsy asked, not sure at all this was a good idea.

Mother smiled. “Tonight when she goes to sleep, I will do the operation. She’ll never feel a thing.”

“Oh,” said Tinsy Winsy.

“Are you ready for breakfast?” Mother asked.

They all said, “Yes!”

“Come to the table then.”

What table? Tinsy Winsy didn’t see any table.

“In here,” said Father, shifting Bingo to one arm and reaching down to take Tinsy Winsy’s hand.

This is much better, thought Tinsy Winsy when Father led her into the kitchen. Here the walls had fresh yellow paint, the windows had shiny clean glass, the floor had little tiny checkered tiles, and the table had breakfast! Yum! Pancakes with cheese and hot syrup! Yum, yum, yum!

Father put Bingo in a high yellow chair and pushed her up to the table. He put Tinsy Winsy in another high yellow chair and pushed her up to the table. He put Suzanne in a high yellow chair and pushed her up to the table.

Suzanne said, “I am not going to wear a bib!”

“Only Bingo has to wear a bib,” said Mother, and she snapped a bright red plastic bib under Bingo’s chin.

“I don’t want to wear a bib,” said Bingo.

“When you turn five next month,” Mother said, “you won’t have to wear it anymore. That’s the rule.”

“Oh,” said Bingo, and they all sang, “For health and strength and daily bread, we thank you Lord, amen!”

“Dig in and eat,” said Father.

All day was a wonder to Tinsy Winsy. Mother helped them clear their dishes. Father helped them put on snowsuits. They went to church and sang Christmas carols. They came home and ate turkey and pumpkin pie and opened presents of books and dollies and paper and crayons. Then they had more turkey and pumpkin pie and Father got them ready for bed and tucked them into sleeping bags in their brand new bedroom. It wasn’t much of a room yet, and quite a mess. There were no windows at all, and no ceiling. And part of the floor was still gravel. “I haven’t finished building our house,” said Father.

“That’s okay,” said Tinsy Winsy. “I like our house. I can see the stars through all the holes.”

Father laughed and read them a story. He helped them say their prayers. “When your bedroom is done,” he said, “I will teach how to say your prayers properly.”

“How do you say your prayers properly?” asked Tinsy Winsy.

“You kneel, silly,” said Suzanne from her sleeping bag.

“Is that right, Father?” asked Bingo.

“That’s right,” said Father. “Now you go to sleep, Bingo. Because in the morning you’ll have your tail back.”

He kissed them each goodnight. Mother kissed them each goodnight.

“It won’t hurt?” Bingo asked Mother. “Suzanne said it would hurt.”

“It won’t hurt.”

When Mother and Father blew out the candles and tiptoed from the room, Tinsy Winsy lay still and looked all around. Stars twinkled through the big holes everywhere. She could see the shadowy lumps that were Suzanne and Bingo, going to sleep on their army cots. “Suzanne?” she whispered. “How did a bike, a pogo stick, and a pair of skates all fit into our socks?”

“That’s just the way Christmas is,” whispered Suzanne with a sleepy sigh.

Tinsy Winsy wanted to ask more questions but remembered Suzanne thought she had sponge between her ears. She said instead, “I like Christmas. I’m glad we got born. Yessireebob, I’m glad we got born,” and she snuggled down into her bag and stuck her thumb in her mouth.

“Me, too,” said Bingo with a sleepy yawn.

“Me, three,” said Suzanne.

Outside their bedroom door stood Mother with her yellow bow on her head and Father with his black and white polka-dot bow tie. They liked Christmas, too. The Christ-child had answered their prayers and Santa had brought them not one, not two, but three little Christmas girls.

February 10, 2007

#3 - We Write Not To Be Understood But in Order To Understand: The Integration of my Faith and Development as a Writer

My application process to Seattle Pacific University for their MFA program in Creative Writing required that I write an essay about my development as a writer and my faith. I thought some of you might be interested.

“I never remember a time when I did not love God.” So said Louisa Boren Denny, the main character of my Seattle novels and woman who laid the city’s very first foundation. I stumbled across her remark in a battered 1909 publication of her daughter’s book, Blazing the Way, and smiled. Growing up all shades of Baptist, I’d always felt left out at testimony time because there was never a “moment” of conversion for me. I was thirty-eight, Louisa dead sixty-five years, when we connected; and I have yet to find a better expression of my own faith.

But if I never remember a time when I did not love God, I do remember a time when I did not write. I drew in lieu. Boxes of crayoned pictures
give evidence to my earliest struggles to understand the world around me. I didn’t realize I was doing this, of course—until we drove over the Pitt Meadows Bridge on a Sunday afternoon drive. Four years old, I twirled over the front seat to try and articulate whatever it was that distressed me. Mum interrupted. “When we get home, draw us a picture. Then we’ll all understand.” I reared back, amazed at her. At me. By the time I was six and ready for school, though, I knew that my drawing could take me only so far: there were things color and shape couldn’t be made to say. I started to get anxious. How would my teacher teach me to read and write?

By Halloween I was suffering my grandfather through Dick and Jane. By Christmas, my father had taken me to the library, checking out stories. The day I realized I was actually reading on my own is mirror clear. There I was, a skinny little kid in a pixie cut, wearing Jean Dickson’s hand-me-down dress with the embroidered JD, an embarrassment because the initials were not my own and screamed for explanation, but there I was lollygagged on Dad’s old chair, an overstuffed thing all flowery, bouncy-trouncy. Suddenly, I’m reading! I sat up and looked around. How did this happen? It didn’t matter. By Valentine’s Day I was reading Wind in the Willows, by Easter my first Bobsey Twin book, by May Day a children’s version of Pilgrim’s Progress. On Memorial Day, my birthday, someone gave me Yertle the Turtle. I was disgusted. And out of my head, down through my fingers, pencil instead of crayon—I wrote.

I sent my outrage to my great Auntie Vi. She wrote back: “Of course you’re not a baby. Of course you are much smarter than that.” She ended, “And someday you will grow up to be a great Christian writer.”
Six months later my little sister, Heather, arrived with large hole in her heart and God walked out of the cotton balls glued to my Sunday School projects and right into my life.

Tresa, Me, Heather, Linda
taken a few months before Heather died
She spent the first eighteen months of her own life at Vancouver General, with brief forays home. I was seven the night I awoke from a deep sleep. Something was wrong. I crept into the hall. There, down the long hallway, at the far end, was a sliver of light slipping through the crack at the bottom of my parents’ door. An eerie glow washed over Mum’s well-polished tile floor. “Daddy?”

I found him seated on the edge of the bed holding Heather in one arm, the oxygen mask in the palm of his free hand. She’d always been afraid of the mask; she’d thrash in panic if you set it too close to her face. Years later, I understood why. The smell of the rubber is so noxious it suffocates. Mindful, Dad held the mask an inch or two from her mouth, precious oxygen escaping. At the sound of my voice he looked up, then gravely nodded to let me know I could come in and sit down beside them. The bed sank a little under my weight. Heather startled, she struggled to see me. I reached over and curled her all but lifeless blue fingers around my own. At the end of the bed, Mum paced. In front of me was the oxygen tank.

In the odd silence of tension and the quiet gasps of my sister dying, I became fascinated by the gauge needle slipping closer to the red empty mark. I gave Dad a running commentary. Finally, in uncharacteristic abruptness, he said, “Brenda, it would be better to pray than chatter.”

I instantly let go of Heather’s hand, shoved both of mine down between my legs, and bowed my head in agony. I’d been caught pretending she wasn’t dying. But she was. I did know this. And I knew that if she didn’t regain her breath within minutes, before the oxygen was gone, the sun would rise without my sister in its light. Frantically I prayed. I begged. I pleaded in panic as I watched the needle sink into the red zone, like the spinner in Shoots and Ladders settling on the line between six and one even as I, at last, sensed my sister relax. The hiss of the oxygen tank suddenly sputtered out. I jerked toward Heather. She’d fallen asleep.


He looked at me.

“She didn’t die, Daddy.”

She died two years later, while I slept.

I spend time on Heather because she informs both my writing and my faith. People used to criticize my parents for allowing my sisters and me front row seats to the drama of her short life and lonely death. Did they fear God’s impotence? True, my childish guilt over her ultimate death haunted me for years, but when a child sees God’s face in the mirror of pain, she knows God’s love. She knows he tempers the wind for the shorn lamb. And she knows she can trust Him. Even if she doesn’t understand Him.

And so I wrote, trying to understand. Not just in this first difficulty but in the many to follow: numerous moves; medical errors; poor health; a near-death experience from asthma; sexual molestation; my little brother’s broken neck, his paralysis; a bankrupt marriage. . .

Marriage was the darkest hour. Job’s friends rallied and drove me to despair. My doctors told me I would die and now God was the enemy, but my loyalty to Him tolled the bell. Though He slay, yet I will trust Him. . .

I actually began publishing in high school, a lonely girl who watched the world and wondered. I wrote from a troubled heart, my emotions raw and real. Then one day I married and emotion was silenced. I retreated deeply into myself. Denied expression and question, I held fast to a fading memory of God’s love reflected in my little sister’s pain.

And then one day, in the fullness of time I suppose and sick of Job’s friends no doubt, I turned to Job himself. “Behold, He will slay me; I have no hope,” he told his friends. Wait…he isn’t done. “But yet I will defend my ways to his face. And this will be my salvation.” How could I forget that I can shove my hands between my legs and bow my head in agony of mind and soul before the very throne of God and pray in a panic for life?

Shoreline Community College was offering a class called “Writing for Pleasure and Profit.” I picked up my pen and met God head on. In between, I wrote for my teacher and sold all six assignments. My father sent me four months pregnant with my third child to Billy Graham’s School of Christian Writing in St. Paul where Roger Palms began the conference by saying his prayer was not that any of us would learn how to publish but that we’d learn if God wanted us to write. An hour later, in Lois Walfrid Johnson’s nonfiction class, I found myself skewered to my chair by the sensation of a heated rod that went from the top of my head, down through my body, and into the seat. I could not move. Futilely I squirmed in the terrible discomfort as Lois read:

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.”

But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth;’ for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me. “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth…”
I went home in a daze. A week later Sherwood Wirt, editor emeritus of Billy Graham’s magazine, called me. He’d found one of my manuscripts and wanted to know if I could send something to Decision. And thus I began writing my way back to God; not the god of my marriage but the God of my childhood; a God of love, of joy. A God of mercy and grace. I sold everything I wrote. A year after my inevitable divorce, I sold my first book.Divorce thrust my three children and me into a world of poverty, abuse, oppression, disease, and despair--not so much ours but others. Divorce opened my eyes to what goes on outside the safety of white middle-class America; and I began to chafe at the restrictions imposed by the religious publishing world. I had things to say, that needed to be said, but I was to keep my notions to myself and deliver only what the “marketplace” warranted. So my writing, rather than helping me understand the tragic world around me instead cut me off from meaningful exploration of truth and honest emotion. I had three mouths to feed, and so buckled down. I churned out novels, articles, short stories, radio scripts, and supplemented our meager income, as Alice Walker put it, by selling apples on the street corner. I did this for years. Finally, frustration drove me back to school, where I could again have the freedom to delve and discover, and begin again to find my diminishing faith and voice.

I had identified a pattern. Denied honest expression in my writing, my faith would wither. I recovered both my voice and faith at Fairhaven College in 1988. The environment was ironically cynical, at times hostile, to western religion; yet I found it intoxicating, exhilarating, for I had an open road and unfettered feet. Professors plied me with books to read, reports to write, ideologies to dissect and rebuild. I worked them hard as I plowed through Jungian Psychology, Women’s Psychology, Women in History; as I explored patriarchal science through a feminist paradigm; as I studied the goddess before god; as I learned new words for old truths and struggled to articulate new faith. One that centered on Jesus, whose first mission after resurrection was to visit women who cried. A heady, exhilarating task in the tumbler of cynicism and agnosticism that ever honed and shaped me and, truth to tell, awarded me the first professional respect I’d ever known. I emerged with a contract from HarperCollins to write Taming the Dragons and entered graduate school with another contract to write the third novel in my Seattle Sweetbriar series, by now the bread-and-butter of my family’s existence.

Taming the Dragons came out two years after I received my MA. But just weeks before the pub date my editor at Harper left. Taming was released an orphan. A bitter disappointment. The book remains in my mind as the greatest piece of literature and analysis I have ever written. Conceived in the years of my silence, born in the hallowed halls of academia (an alchemy of magic that drove me to my best), there was no one to nourish my project and so the book floundered. I’ve not found another publisher to reprint it. Wizards and fairy tales and stories of Ashtar? More “Christian fiction,” please.

I tried. But three more books and I was burned out. I turned to teaching at the community college, only to discover that 500 essays a quarter from students who couldn’t care less about words was cancer to what little was left of my creativity.Years ago I studied under Charles Johnson at the University of Washington, where I wrote a rough draft of my family’s experience at a Christian camp following Heather’s death. Last winter I pulled it out and rewrote the first chapter. I gave it to my youngest son. “You have to write this.” I tried it out on a friend. “This is your masterpiece.” I sent it back to my professor. “You are a wizardly writer. Your professionalism and skill,” Chuck e-mailed, “come singing off every page.” Perhaps this is the writing for which God skewered me to the chair?

I don’t know.

Frederick Buechner says truth can’t be stated; truth is the silence before the word. Truth can only be experienced. Poetry and art, he says, frame the silent truth. I am therefore applying to SPU so I can again delve and discover in the hallowed halls of academia; be nurtured in my writing and faith; and find a way to frame the silence of my life so that others experience the truth that I know. Truth I learned from the front row seat to the drama of short life and lonely death with all its answered and unanswered prayer. For whenever I pick up my pen I meet God in the silence of everything I cannot understand, I see him reflected in the mirror of pain I cannot explain. He tempers the wind and this I have come to understand is true.

January 24, 2007

#1: Self: River and Rock

Self: River and Rock

Last week I reconnected with the man I deeply cherished in high school. We were 17, enjoying our last year; and though we were not romantically involved, Wayne and I shared a unique bond. We were both pseudo orphans.

Wayne and his younger sister Carol had absorbed some of the responsibility for their other siblings, particularly Carol. For health reasons, I had to leave home in Iowa to live with friends in Arizona. I left behind a traumatic health history and the kind of social stresses that would leave any girl feeling lost and unsure. So there we were, orphans of sorts, with secrets and shame, struggling to find our way in the world. Wayne became my sanctuary in a conflicting, critical stage of my development. And while we eventually went on with our own lives, he remained part of my heart.

I tracked Wayne down once when we were 30: I was in crisis and needed his input. I tracked him down a second time when my youngest son turned 17. I was simply nostalgic for my friend. This Christmas, though, I found myself really missing him. I tracked him down again and sent a Christmas card. He replied--and delighted me by sending me his sister's e-mail.I wasted no time but shot off an e-mail to a woman I hadn't seen or spoken to in some 35 years. Two days later we were on the phone, talking two and a half hours. What struck me most was that Carol hadn't changed; she'd simply become more of herself. When Wayne called later that same day, we talked another four or five hours. I had the same impression. Wayne is simply more of the man he had been. The core of his being, where everything lives that counts, is the same: honor, truth, passion, humor, insight... And while I'm sure they're both vastly different in many of their beliefs, ideologies, and views of life--after all, middle age is vastly different than being seventeen--life's ups and downs have not diminished them at all but brought them into a measure of wholeness. My head has been reeling ever since. Have I evolved into more of who I was? Or have I allowed myself to be altered by life's ups and downs, and been diminished rather than brought into a measure of wholeness?It's a hard question to answer.

Wayne sent me a CD of some of his published photographs; several of the Grand Canyon. I've been there. I've walked down to the Indian Gardens, seven miles down, seven miles up. My sons have walked to the river itself, twenty-one miles to where water laps rock. It's easy to be overwhelmed by the canyon, with its strata of rock and stone a mile high. It's easy to focus on the color and texture and enormity of something immobile and so solidly fixed. But look, way down there, way way down, runs the river. There it is, bubbling, rushing, catapulting, pooling, crooning, thundering, lapping, slapping, splashing, a steady swathe of water that keeps on going and going--and plunging over and around--year after year cutting down through the walls that surround.
Maybe the question is hard to answer because I've fallen into a habit of defining myself by the walls. There they are, all that granite and quartz and fragmented marble, all that basalt and limestone and Jurassic slate. All that towering "hard stuff" hard to ignore. Yet there is the river, too: dogged, persistent, unrelenting, cutting down through all that "stuff" and running on. Amazing.

To truly appreciate the Grand Canyon, you have to see it from bottom up. From the Indian Gardens, the canyon is astonishing. From the river's edge? I can only imagine. But it's dead, all dead. What's alive is the river, where everything that counts lives. Fish and bacteria and moss and frogs and flies and water-skippers and the DNA of the world.

Have I evolved into more of who I was? Or have I allowed myself to be altered by life's ups and downs, and been diminished rather than brought into a measure of wholeness? Looking into the river of everything that counts, I can answer my own question. If Wayne still holds in his soul honor, humor, and insight... if Carol still is rooted in faith, loyalty, commitment.... then here am I, grounded in the essential elements that have always defined me: unstoppable, unwavering, persistent, dogged. An old boyfriend once gave me an "eel of the year" award because I refused to give up in face of high odds. Okay, so I throw up my arms in that splash of despair over there; I fall into this side place of despondency; I eddy in hopeless circles of confusion and futility. But I get the job done, and behind me stands the impressive walls of life's ups and downs that don't define me at all. Monuments, if you will, of life lived well.

And if I really want to get all philosophical about this, I suspect behind us all stands astonishing monuments of mute testimony to our collective survival and triumphs.

Thank you to Wayne and Carol for letting me talk about them; and thanks to Wayne for allowing the use of his photographs.