Hope Between the Lines

I could swear my heart actually skipped a beat with Charming this weekend. This time, he showed me his world. Like every encounter to date, I was pleasantly surprised with each shared aspect of his life, from his home and meal selections to his anecdotes and interests. If it’s possible, I am smarter after a few days with Charming.

My students and I are studying the art of rhetoric – the power of persuasion in argument development. The basis of any claim should consist of reasons and evidence. Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle posits that communication is based on three appeals: Ethos (Credibility), Logos (Rational), and Pathos (Emotional). Essentially, these play their roles in every moment of persuasion, be it getting permission to stay out after curfew or changing an existing law violating Constitutional rights.

In your thirties, giving yourself permission to fall in love is a lot like writing a persuasive essay. Although it’s tempting to get caught up in Pathos, the naturally progressing cynicism that accompanies each birthday won’t be silenced. Choosing a partner is less about skipping beats and more about stability, intersection of interests, shared future goals, and practicality. And my track record suggests that I lack the credibility to make a choice at all.

Step one: Pick a side. Do you agree or disagree? If a student is on the fence, I tell him to make a list of reasons for or against, and to choose the position for which he has more solid support. That’s where I’ve been with Charming. If he continues to be the man he’s shown himself to be over the past month and a half, I could potentially fall in love with him. But will I let myself?

Past unions have yielded heart wrenching pain and disappointment. Into the Against column it goes. Entering into a relationship introduces the possibility of experiencing that again. If the time ever came and I trusted someone with my heart, he would also be entrusted the power to devastate me. Furthermore, there are no guarantees about the future, and the byproduct of divorce is awareness that what you had committed to, had hoped and dreamed for, eventually broke. The fear of that possibility is crippling enough to add to the column. What other logic can become a player in this debate?

In one of our adventures this weekend, Charming and I found a little garden grotto tucked into a vast lawn, secluded behind by an iron fence. Outside the fence, we were surrounded by stone walls. Inside the fence, water drained through rocks covered in ivy and vegetation. It was dark where we stood, but sunlight illuminated those rocks and greenery. The beauty of the moment was just beyond reach, but I photographed it anyway, to capture the paradox.

We spent a lot of time walking outdoors, sidestepping softballs in favor of the kind of thought-provoking, intelligent dialogue that leaves your mind a bit winded. Charming volunteered that he had made a list of thirty-one things to do before turning thirty-one. It is, in essence, a bucket list with a due date. I remember making one such list in my flowered pre-teen journal. In a way, these lists encourage you to commit to dream. He so inspired me with checked off stories that I spent last night curled up with bucket-list blogs and knocked my own out in three and half hours: Thirty Things to Do in My Thirties.

And this is where the For column begins to build support. I’m looking ahead. I’m assessing my life and recognizing what is of most value to me. I’m committing to striving to make each of those dreams a reality in my future. On equal footing with past heartaches is future joy. On equal footing with the potential for failure is the potential for success. We need more evidence.

This evidence comes in the form of the first two items on my list.

  1. Marry the man of my dreams, not settling for anything less than that.
  2. Become a mother to at least one child of my own.

Conservative, logical reasoning concludes that in order to accomplish these, I will first have to fall in love. At some point, I will need to open my life up to a man and trust that he will honor my offering. Add a touch of Pathos to both sides of the argument with simultaneous foreboding and excitement. More specifically, I assume within the context of the goal statements themselves that I will fall in love. It’s between the lines, but it’s there.

When Charming and I ducked into the stone walls and gazed at the garden grotto, we were given a vision of a possible future. We were both on the outside looking in at the beauty beyond reach, in the dark but glimpsing the light. My students could tell you that the archetype of light symbolizes hope. In life after divorce, hope is a juxtaposition of our dreams and our fears. We cannot cling to hope if we’re afraid of it.

An iron fence separates my present from my future, a fence that bears the persuasive essay prompt: You should fall in love with Charming. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not? My students are instructed to respond to the whole prompt. So far, I’ve been preparing arguments for or against falling in love, but I’ve ignored a key piece of the task.

Today, after discussing my 30 list, my workout mentor Chuck asked, “Why do you want him in your life?” After a moment of silent reflection, I found myself spilling out a surprisingly passionate argument for this very prompt. In short, Charming is an intelligent, God-fearing man with a heart for others, who inspires me to dream for myself, holds accomplishments to come as more worthwhile than past disappointments, who bears the scars of past wounds, who is justified for staying on this side of the iron fence.

But that wasn’t all that leaked out. “Chuck,” I slowed. “I want to help him with every item on his bucket list.  If I were the woman the walls came down for, I would hope that his future could hold so much joy, achievement, and love that the sum of it would overshadow every hurt that came before.” So much so that maybe we could come to be grateful for the tarnished road that found us at that crossroads, face to face before a gated garden grotto.

What’s beyond the gate is on my 30 list, in between the lines with falling in love. The list is about looking forward, not backward. Heartbreaks and failures are realities of the past. Love and success are possibilities of the future. I could fall in love with Charming, but I didn’t need a prewriting graphic organizer to come to that conclusion. Will I fall in love with Charming?

I’m still logging evidence, but ethos dictates I can’t trust myself to make the right choice. Pathos demands I consider the peace I feel when he takes my hand. Logos requires me to consider all the reasons for and against. But dreams are rarely rational, and falling in love is not a persuasive essay. Hope is between the lines, beyond the fence. And so, I imagine I won’t have any syntax control over the decision to fall in love. After all, they call it falling in love, not persuaded to love.

Evening Glories, Grammar, and God

Charming was here on my white wicker loveseat this weekend. On Saturday night, he would ask me to describe my perfect day. “Today,” I would say, after taking a hay ride and picking pumpkins at a farm, walking hand in hand on Fort Monroe beach, carving pumpkins together here on my writing perch, and experiencing an evening of thrills at Busch Garden’s Howl-o Scream.

As I write, I have the memory of Charming beside me, his arm around me, sharing everything from favorite colors to greatest fears. Behind him, for the first time, no evening glories bloomed. And they haven’t bloomed since. It could be explained simply in terms of nature: the soil temperature is decreasing. But the writer in me questions simplicity, opting instead for the expected symbolism as only a writer does.

A writer does. Writers do. Simple subject-verb agreement. The evolution of the English language, however, results in a set of rules governing advanced cases of agreement. We look for red flag words like “and” joining singular subjects to make them plural, or “not only… but also” dismissing all nouns except the one closest to the verb, or “everyone”, billions of people, serving as a singular indefinite pronoun.

My students and I are undergoing an intense workshop on agreement. We started small, simply identifying subjects and predicates, then worked our way towards understanding the rules, then practiced applying the rules together, then independently, reviewing them together, and again practicing independently. It may seem like overkill, but when it comes to grammatical correctness, the age old adage applies. Practice makes perfect.

Repetition plays a critical role in our mastery of content. When implemented effectively, the mental process called upon becomes automatic. At first, we look for red flag words and remind ourselves of the rule. Eventually, we identify those red flags subconsciously and simply apply the related rule. We think less about a choice when we know the rules inside and out.

Gardening has its own set of rules set forth by nature. For months, my evening glories climbed before yielding their first blossom. For the months since then, my evening glories have kept me company on writing night. Yet, I glance up at them now like so many Tuesdays before this, and there isn’t a single white flower. During the summer months I had only to be concerned with the amount of sun and water, but fall temperatures volunteer another concern, one beyond my control.

I know the rules. I don’t have to think about it in order to decide that my evening glories are going to die. When they needed water, I could provide it. I cannot warm the soil during chilly nights. I’ve had practice applying the rules of gardening correctness for seven months… of grammatical correctness for decades. Which one have I mastered?

Just as it was time to say goodbye to summer, it’s time to say goodbye to the evening glories.   This first season of gardening was filled with lessons in flora and life. It themed hope and faith.   The garden beds were sown in a Nicholas Sparks summer, and I’ve bypassed him. With its first blossom, I claimed that if nothing else in my garden ever grew, I would be content with a single white evening glory.

Now there are none, and I’m still content. I can’t deny that the memory of Charming beside me overshadows the absence of the flowers.   Deeply wounded in the past, he is rightly guarded and cautious. I’ve invested as much time into relational correctness as I have in grammatical pursuits… by my previous logic, I should be a pro.

In reality, I’m far from it. I know the basic rules, though. When a person is hurt, he puts up protective walls. When a person loves, she lets down those walls. You know what that feels like, when you give another person a window to who you are and leave yourself completely exposed, vulnerable, and open. It’s risky and exciting and scary simultaneously. Charming has been reading my blog, so he must know what I want: always and forever and the front porch swing and the little league games and the school plays.

Charming doesn’t know what he wants. What rule applies here? For subject-verb agreement, there are six basic rules. For relationships, the rules are infinite. We don’t have a guide that neatly sums up exceptions and instructions. We learn new rules with every relationship… family, friendships, and romance. No matter how much we practice, the choices don’t become automatic.

I’ll admit I overanalyze my world. It’s why my evening glories won’t bloom because I don’t need them anymore not because of cold temperature. I’m good at applying rules once I’ve practiced them, and I have a storehouse of relational experience to inform those lessons learned. I assess, evaluate, and draw conclusions from varied encounters for the simple fact that the resulting rules help build that guide for relational correctness.

Yet somehow, I have no rules for Charming.   Assess, evaluate, draw conclusions. What do I do with his walls? Nothing. He can’t go around the wall. It has to come down, and if it happens brick by brick, it’s going to take time, patience, and intentionality on his part. If that’s the rule, then my application is that I control my part.

My part is to be me. Be genuine. Authentic. Real. Unedited.   And thereby exposed, vulnerable, and open. I know what I want. Just before my date with Charming, my friend Chuck texted me, “May God give you the desires of your heart.” I want always and forever, yes. But I want something else. Maybe more.

In the years since my divorce, I haven’t felt God’s presence. Absent His sovereignty, awareness of the meaninglessness and purposelessness of a Godess existence remained just under my skin. I didn’t want to choose faith because of a rule.   I haven’t made expectations of God or his interactions in my life. I’ve recognized that the absence of feeling God does not negate his Lordship. I’ve been back at church as long as I’ve been gardening. It was a season of life, not flora. Of hope, not faith.

Until Sunday, after my perfect day with Charming, letting my own walls down and leaving myself vulnerable. At church, during worship, God took advantage of my emotional exposure. During the song “Our God.” As I sang, “Into the darkness You shine. Out of the ashes we rise. There’s no one like You,” my arms went up and the tears came down and I felt something.

It’s too simplistic to apply a rule stating that God would only give me His presence when I had given up the need to feel it. God is God, and I am not, and all the undertakings in grammar, gardening, and relationships cannot fill a page in His guide book. He knows all the rules, and they don’t apply to Him.

I don’t have any rules for God. I’m grateful or the flora and the faith in this season. Like with the first bloom of my evening glories, if all Charming is in my life is one perfect day, I’ll be content. He coaxed my walls down, and I felt God’s presence. It was just as Chuck had prayed on my behalf.

I may never have always and forever and a front porch swing and little league games and school plays. I don’t know if I’ll ever be content with that, but I have something else. Purpose. Meaning. And a Teacher who knows all the rules.

Photo credit to Charming.

Photo credit to Charming.

A Chalkboard Promise

It was time. This weekend I dug up my pink impatiens and begonias and replaced them with burgundy and golden mums. Amidst faculty meetings and Homecoming and writing remediation, they were the only lingering reminder of my sandaled beach summer of online dating. When colors darkened in autumn’s descent, summer’s remaining blossoms trespassed in the garden beds, out of place. You can’t fall in love if you’re holding onto the past. It was time to let go.

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Fall is inspiring after all. The cool breeze brings wisps of hair in to tickle my cheek as I write, crickets chirp, and the moonlight hidden by clouds struggles to break through. By my porch light, I relish in the company of my evening glories and a decorative scarecrow. As I tug my sleeves down, I imagine hayrides, candied apples, bonfires, pumpkin patches, and divorce.

Each season has its own set of memories. My divorce was final two years ago on a Tuesday in October. Nearly a decade of my life signed away on a notarized piece of printer paper. It was colder that day, and it should have been. There’s nothing warm about divorce.   Fully falling in love with fall means embracing that memory, one that is neither warm nor inspiring.

Why did I choose to divorce my husband? Just penning those words puts a lump in my throat.   I feel the blood rise. Shame? Embarrassment? Guilt? I don’t particularly want to write about this, but this telling physical reaction obligates me. When asked about my divorce, I brace myself before answering, assessing the grace meter of the one asking, and after two years, still fearing the potential judgment.

I didn’t rip out my impatiens on a whim. I’m new to gardening. Because of the shaded yard, I planted shaded plants, and now that the magnolias are shedding their leaves, the impatiens were sundrenched and dying. Death was inevitable, by nature’s hands or my own. I could not bear to witness these once thriving plants withering away and becoming an eyesore.

And when I did rip them out, I did so with care and completeness. I was nostalgic for the day my friend and I built the garden bed and gave them a home. I remembered how the sight of them when I came home drew my lips up into a smile every day. I mentally calculated the hours I spent watering them and pulling up weeds around them. Though I cherished them, I knew it was the right decision, and I could not regret what I was doing.

When I left my marriage, there was very little “me” left. My world was dark, and ultimately the only way out was out. I had barely the will to get out of bed. I searched for answers in the Bible, in radio shows like Ravi Zacharias, in books, and even Google. God eventually intervened in a way nothing natural could do and gave me the confirmation that I needed to end my marriage.

God hates divorce. So do I. So do many people, I am sure, that have experienced it. Divorce rips out the roots of a plant once thriving. It’s an entrée of pain and ugliness with a side of broken promises.   My marriage was blooming at one time, but neither of us had been thriving for years before I made the choice. The death of our marriage was inevitable because we were dying together.

Though it would have been possible to anticipate the change in the climate of my front yard, it never crossed my mind. I had a shaded front yard. I needed shade-loving plants. It made sense. Summer ended. Trees shed leaves. Now, the shade-loving plants die. I didn’t notice the change last year absent plants to tend.

But it’s easier to chalk up the plant error to novice gardener status than it is to chalk up the marriage error to novice life status. It would have been possible to anticipate its demise. I ignored sage counsel from family and friends. I ignored my own journal entries cataloguing a myriad of prophetic problems. I ignored signs of a lifestyle in my future mate that would not be beneficial in my future.

My mother told me once after I left that she believed God was writing a wrong that I made a long time before, on my wedding day, where joy eluded her because she lacked peace about that choice. During the first few months, I stayed with my parents, and on a decorative chalkboard, Mom had written a scripture, “Behold, I make all things new.” Regardless of the reasons that led to my decision, the reality of my divorce was a new life.

I’ve now spent as many hours writing for therapy as I did in my sessions with Dr. Bogin in New York. The emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth that has transpired since my divorce find me a much more self-aware and resilient woman than the broken, spiritless girl who made that choice. So when someone asks me why I got a divorce, I hope they have the grace to see that, too.

I can’t regret my decision. I was a shell of a person, having given up parts of myself until I could no longer survive without drastic intervention. God intervened. And though I have failed to feel God’s presence in the years since my divorce, I cannot fall in love with fall without accepting the memory of my divorce, and I cannot accept that memory without acknowledging God’s hand in it. Absent feeling, God still works.

Though my mind needed to process other matters tonight, Charming does get a footnote. He recommended that I read The Dark Night of the Soul. In it, Gerald May writes, “Thought we don’t realize it at the time, when habitual senses of God do disappear in the process of the dark night, it is surely because it is time for us to relinquish our attachment to them. We have made an idol our images and feelings of God, giving them more importance than the true God they represent.”

I prayed fervently, but I dare say I stopped trusting God on that Tuesday in October. I no longer felt anything when I read the scriptures or sat in Bible studies. There was no comfort or joy in songs of worship. I sang without emotion. I went through the motions of faith. What do we do when someone breaks our trust? We build protective walls. I built a wall with God. Is it any wonder I stopped feeling?

To fully fall in love with fall, I need to embrace this memory. It’s not just an ugly divorce. It’s a warm and inspiring reminder that God intervened in my life when I was searching for an answer. He offered grace and chance for a new life. It’s time to let go of feelings… shame, embarrassment, guilt… and replace them with the chalkboard promise.

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Hope in a Hurricane

Last week’s winds of change brought hurricane effects to Virginia sufficient to close schools early on Friday, which gave me some spare time to go jeans shopping in preparation for my date on Saturday. Prince Charming read my blog, and he wanted to see me again after all. Given the setting for our second encounter, I can conclude that he is, in fact, charming.

We met at a halfway point again at a shooting range. While making plans for the day, it was unclear how the weather would affect travel, but despite the ever-present rain, we fared well. Sufficed to say that spending the day together did not disappoint. Charming maintained the intellectually stimulating tone of our story swap a week earlier while reassuring me of his gentlemanly qualities.

I drove home in the dark of night with a cover of rain so thick my fingers ached from clenching the wheel by the time I pulled into my driveway an hour and a half later. The rhythmic drops on the windshield quieted my enthusiasm following the date as I sobered to full awareness. Soon after I had moved to Nashville, I hydroplaned and crashed my car into a curb. Since then, whenever I feel a flood of rain beneath my tires, I slow down, put on my flashers, and proceed with caution, focusing on the tail lights of cars ahead.

If the weather had suited my mood, it would have been sunny and seventy with blue skies… okay, go ahead and throw in a rainbow. Charming had me in the clouds above the storm such that if I weren’t looking down, there might not have been a hurricane at all. As I gripped the wheel and narrowed my eyes on tail lights, I was grateful for the distraction. A few weeks earlier, he didn’t exist. Now, I was hard pressed to stop psychoanalyzing our date conversation.

Once home at after one in the morning, I dropped myself on my writing seat on the front porch before even unlocking the front door. The same raindrop percussion that called me to alertness in the driver seat soothed away any anxiety on this perch. I watched the water stream from the roof, heard the occasional branch land on leaf-crested lawn, felt the damp of the drops through my new jeans. The focused frown was overtaken by a smile. It was a perfect date. And I wanted to remember how I felt in that moment, a way that I hadn’t felt in years, where hope was tangible if only because I felt it. So I took a selfie.

My Selfie

In the days that followed, Charming expressed an interest in being cautious with me. I discovered that he’s learning to fly a plane, and being cautious is most certainly a prerequisite for that task. I myself had been cautious driving through the storm, and my first instinct was to willpower my way to join him in his defensive game. A teacher friend this morning asked if she would get a giggly girl hug from me after my date, and I gave her an emphatic no, proceeding with a dismissive retort about distance and reality checks.

It wasn’t until Chuck that I had peace of mind. When he first started chatting with me at the gym, he told me he was a retired cop. I later found out he is the retired Chief of Police of Hampton.   Through deep, surprisingly meaningful conversations over the elliptical, he’s ultimately become a part of my writing process. Last week, he admitted to having read my blog from start to finish because he enjoyed seeing my progress from then to now.

Today, I told him that I wasn’t going to write about Charming. He seemed disappointed, but listened as I explained that it was too new and putting so much emphasis on it might complicate things. Chuck is invested… he is, after all, the one who convinced me to wear jeans in lieu of my go-to dress and flip flops. After twenty minutes of cycled conversation, Chuck explained that the only mistake I could make would be to not be myself. He asked, “If you write genuinely, is there a chance you could jeopardize this?” I nodded. “Is it worth the risk?”

And all of a sudden the fog cleared. I looked away from Chuck’s smile to my phone and pulled up the hope selfie from a few days ago. Charming is cautious, and he should be. I’m a fan of traditional gender roles. He’s in the driver’s seat. He needs to be alert and aware and defensive. He’s navigating through an unexpected storm. I wasn’t on his radar a month ago. The winds picked up and he’s in an unfamiliar landscape. Let him focus on the road.

I, however, am not driving. I’m not a particularly cautious person. I would prefer to relish in the joy of my covered porch then brave the storm on the road. Cautious describes him. Passionate describes me. Glancing back up from my phone to Chuck’s still-grinning face, I knew then that if the urge descended to write about Charming, I would not be my own writer’s block.

Chuck might well be one of the hope-restoring forces most impacting me these days. He uses stories of his wife, his son, his time on the force, and his own school days to illustrate little life lessons perfectly constructed over the course of a workout. He could publish an inspirational column.   I recently discovered he was a believer, and that further broadened the scope of his ability to advise me. Some days he’ll direct me to a song lyric or a video, other days it’s his life anecdotes, and one day he even brought me a book.

Though an unlikely friend, Chuck emerged at a time in my life where I appreciate the wisdom and perspective. He said he was drawn to me because he sensed I was genuine. To preserve the authenticity of writing nights, I have to sit down in this very spot and write whatever I’m led to in that moment. That’s where I’m most genuine, unplanned and raw.

I understand Charming’s need to be cautious. I remember the moment when my car careened through water on the streets of Nashville, and I am careful to avoid that. I also remember that moment after our date, right here, where I felt a hope that comes from another quality that defines me – my passion.

Don’t worry, I’m still in love with fall. The vanilla pumpkin air freshener greets me at the front door and my country apple bottle spray keeps my lover close to my skin. When I feel, I feel deep. When I hurt, I hurt deep. And there are so many hardships that I get my fill of that without trying.

But the joy, the excitement, the hope, the passion. You have to capture those moments. They’re precious. It’s not about Charming. I may never see him again, and though that would be a disappointment, it wouldn’t change the face in that selfie.