From “I Do” to “Goodbye”

Seven years ago on Valentine’s Day, I got engaged. After a very public proposal, I learned my father was not first asked for permission; I defended my fiancé. My wedding dress was the first one I tried on (I knew what I wanted in those days). Now, the wedding photographs I cherish are the ones in that gown with Dad, before and during our walk down the aisle and as we danced later at the reception.

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It is not particularly easy to write about one’s wedding when he or she has since divorced. Yet, with this past weekend spent helping Angel find the perfect dress for her upcoming nuptials and the weekend before attending a wedding for a childhood friend of Charming’s, my gaze is directly pointed toward my own failed union’s conception.

Add to it the half dozen women in my life who are experiencing intense brokenness in their marriages, most of whom are weighing the option of divorce, and I cannot help but feel obligated to spend a little productive time wading in a murky time portal. We were all in Angel’s place at one time, standing before a mirror and friends saying, “Yes to the dress”. In fact, so was Angel, more than a decade ago.

And all of us remember the first time we said, “I do,” and promised to love and cherish one another in good times and bad ‘til death do us part. When Angel, in veil and chosen gown, turned to face me, the bridal shop disappeared. My English gene kicked into full imaginative gear and I saw her walking down the aisle to her fiancé. She was beautiful, which warranted a few well-wishing tears.

It was then that I remembered my own wedding day joy, long since hidden by years of nothing changing and everything changing at the same time. I’ve often been prompted, “But you were happy with him at one point, right?” As if it should be obvious. Maybe it should be, but there’s a foggy haze extending backward with my gaze between now and then. It’s logical. We must have been. We were. We were.

I didn’t have to conjure up anything. Seeing Angel in that veil, glowing much as she will on her wedding day, kick-started the emotions in my memories. I was determined to marry that man. I rejected good counsel. I ignored my own family’s reservations. I put on that dress on July 25, 2009, and I married a man I loved, without any regard for the potential of the verb to ever change into past tense.

No one could have told me that I would abandon my marriage vows just four years later. My smile in those pictures was genuine. Maybe that’s why I can’t look at the rest of the wedding album. How could it all have changed so much? How did I let it get from, “I do,” to “Goodbye.”? How could I have so passionately vowed my always and forever and so assuredly believed that’s how it would be… and later change my mind?

It wasn’t flippantly. It wasn’t spontaneous or instantaneous. Over time, love and respect became words with little value. I hear myself in the voices of my friends who are experiencing true suffering. My heart breaks with the stories of their own blissful unions, now toxic and broken. Before my divorce, before I packed my wedding dress in a tub of costumes, I wouldn’t have considered divorce an option.

And so, before, I wouldn’t have empathized with their plights. Making life-altering choices with little confidence that they will find peace on either path. Wrestling with vows of conscience and broken promises. Trying unsuccessfully to fan away the shroud of foggy haze extending backward over the life of the marriage. Rationalizing and justifying to keep sanity within reach.

Though we share the process, the circumstances in each of our marriages are unique. No matter how much sage advice I sought during my process, the decision to stay or leave was mine. I had to make it, own it, stick to it, and ultimately never look back.

I’m still waiting for Disney to make Snow White: The Sequel. Give us a real life fairy tale, where Snow White stares into the adoring eyes of an alcoholic prince. The target audience might shift, but I could better appreciate that plot now than the ones that end in wedding bells. Let her make choices and wrestle and rationalize. Let her stay or go in the end, and it would be cathartic nevertheless.

Because that is real. When mired in the dark fog where true joy seems but a distant memory, our fears and our dreams come face-to-face in an epic battle. Countless couples find themselves here. Some choose to work through it and others to start over. All start with making a change.

When I talk with my grown-up friends, like Sleeping Beauty and Ariel, that’s what I emphasize. Change something, or nothing will ever change. Whether it’s counseling, trial separation, or a spiritual makeover, change something… and by doing so, choose to fight your way out of the fog until you can see clearly.

Grace means that God extends undeserved favor. I do not deserve blessings any more than I deserve suffering. Any portion of joy is a portion of grace. Blessing and suffering are inherently juxtaposed, reminding us subtly of our humanity. In A Grace Disguised, after Gerald L. Sittser recounts his own tragic story of loss, he writes:

“I would prefer to take my chances living in a universe in which I get what I do not deserve… That means that I will suffer loss, as I already have, but it also means I will receive mercy… I will have to endure the bad I do not deserve; I will also get the good I do not deserve. I dread experiencing undeserved pain, but it is worth it to me if I can also experience undeserved grace.”

My father was gracious to me when he danced with me at the wedding reception, having funded a union he didn’t wholly support. He was gracious to me when I confided in him about my marital woes, promising to fully support whatever I decided to do. I remember resting my head against his chest as we danced that day, completely safe and secure in his unconditional love.

My father models God’s grace in a tangible way. He’s never stopped pulling me into a loving embrace that is safe and secure and forgives all wrongs that came before. I may never fully understand how I let it get from “I do,” to “Goodbye”. No one could have told me then. My smile was real.  My father danced with me anyway.

What matters most is not the choice I made, but that after it was made, God’s grace followed. He forgave all wrongs that came before. And you couldn’t have told me then, but one day I’d have a real smile again, too.

From Dead Roses to Red Roses

Eight months ago yesterday, I buried dried roses in my yard, the soil moist with hot tears. It was a cathartic gesture, using the remains of a broken relationship as fertilizer to enrich my garden bed. Break ups often amount to no more than memories we don’t know what to do with now. I just needed something good to have come from all that time with him.

In college, I wrote a poem about a girl filling a shoebox with ticket stubs, photographs, and dried flowers, and then filing the box in a closet alphabetically between other boxes with other boys’ names. I use it to teach imagery and analogy with my sophomores, though I rarely reveal myself as the author. At sixteen, they get it. They resonate with the line, “Too good for garbage cans, but nothing just the same.” They see how the closet of shoeboxes symbolizes the storage of memories in our minds.

When I myself was sixteen, I wrote an essay for English class about my first real break up. At their age, I could name the heartbreak, likening it to hitting a dead end on a road trip: “I hated to have travelled all this way with him and have nothing to show for it.” That same sense of anticipated loss has happened nearly a dozen times since, with significant others and with friends.

As teenagers, we feel the full depth of our emotions, having not yet built the protective walls from bricks of experience sealed with mortar of regret. My yearbook student Young Beauty blogged about my blog last week, saying she likes reading about my experiences because she can see that everyone goes through things and the “feelings we have now will never go away.”

Young Beauty finds comfort or reassurance in the knowledge that no matter our station, our rung on the social ladder, our age bracket, or our bank account balance, hardship is common to the human experience. A revision to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs might even reflect hardship as a necessity (if only to make us truly human and stir the waters of empathy).

Our fear of certain pain in the anticipation of loss in active or passive avoidance of any trajectory that knowingly puts us on a path toward hardship most certainly halts us all too often to inaction. We remain in toxic or debilitating relationships out of that fear. In my first relationship after my divorce, I couldn’t really see a future. There were too many hurdles to clear. But it had been just barely two years since I filed an entire decade away into a shoebox with my ex-husband’s name.

I didn’t want to do it again.

Who does? My kids get it. Hardship is common to the human experience. Young Beauty gets it. The battle to overcome hardship unites us. We seek advice. Someone clever gets us to admit, “I don’t want to let him go because there might never be anyone else.” That was when I took that relationship right up to the dead-end sign and said, “The journey is going to be different on the way back.” And I walked on alone.

It was weeks later that I found out about the cheating, the discovery that landed my friend Angel and I in the dirt, in the dark, planting dead roses. I had to make another shoebox, but those flowers wouldn’t fit. Experience and regret built plenty of walls for me, but the promise of love and belonging chips away at them. Given long enough, the walls are down completely before the heartbreak begins.

If there were shoeboxes in my closet, they’d have girls’ names, too (because women know how to break a friend’s heart like a professional). In high school, my best friend stole said first boyfriend. In college, my best friend ended our relationship in an email. In my twenties, my best friend turned out to be a pathological liar. Perhaps I should be grateful that in my thirties I’ve moved too much for any new girlfriend to completely disarm me.

I could hear myself at sixteen, every time, “I hated to have travelled all this way with him and have nothing to show for it.” I’m not sure why it never occurred to me in any relationship’s end before this May night with Angel in the garden that there was always more than nothing. From every one.

From this one there would literally be fertilizer for my plants, but figuratively so much more. While burying the relationship remains in the garden, I was planting promise, hope, and expectation. I wanted something good to come of my time with him. And it did. I knew that there was either someone better or I would be better off alone. I could see my future without him, free to plant new flowers.

Four months of online dating was about all I could take, and I’d almost concluded alone was preferable after all. When I was a teenager, I didn’t think any guy existed that was better than my brothers. They had it all. They were smart, handsome, athletic, popular, God-fearing, and cool. The total package.

This summer, wading in a sea of dating profiles, that seemed to ring only too true still. My brothers have matured into intelligent, agile, brilliant, God-fearing, and cool men. Are there any single men of that quality and caliber left?

Right now, it matters that there is one. One might be all it takes. Charming had two dozen red roses delivered to my classroom at school last week. His note reaffirmed the creative wit I’ve come to admire. The unexpected gesture left me somewhat giddy, and it was difficult to resume my lesson as I attempted to contain the smile that threatened to overtake me at every bullet point change.

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In a series about relationships at church earlier this month, my pastor preached a sermon about dating. He emphasized that when dating, you should make the other person better, and that if a relationship ends, you’ve still improved the other person’s life.

Charming has already done that with me. I see growth in that fertilized garden now, eight months later. When he opens my car door, he reminds me to expect a gentleman, not hope there’s still one left. For the first time in my life, I’m dating a man like my brothers. And if this ends in a godly manner, then he’s left me better. My expectations will be to hold out for a man of that quality and caliber.

Men like my brothers and Charming aren’t raised on commercial farms. They’re a commodity. I understand that Charming is a limited edition that found its way into my hands, and I will cherish it. He was, perhaps, sowing some seeds of his own in my garden with those roses.

The vase on my dining room table remained empty for eight months. When I suggested back then that I buy some fake flowers, my mother replied, “No. The REAL flowers are yet to come. Save their place.” Charming’s roses now fill my dining room with promise, hope, and expectation.

For Me and Young Beauty

Falling in love is certainly not without conflict (as we know, any good plot needs a conflict to drive it forward, and so does falling in love if it’s to ever be a story worth telling). For example, what happens if you get “there” first, wherever there is? You might have met your match, and the reality of that possibility can stifle enthusiasm. Is there an undercurrent of future worry beneath the present contentment?

My students are full of authentic love stories, both comedies and tragedies. The drama unfolds predictably within the confines of the school building’s walls. Conflicts are internal and external. The students are their own protagonists, and they struggle against unfair grading procedures, backstabbing friends, and the requited or unrequited romantic flavor of the semester.

I’ve seen sixteen-year-old girls moved to tears by all of the aforementioned scenarios (often, rightly so).   A few have so captured me within their heartbreaking narratives that I give in to my own sympathetic tears, and perhaps all too frequently empathetic ones. I’ve found that by allowing myself to be vulnerable with these teen girls, by admitting to my own stumbles and failures, by offering a tear where one is warranted, that they trust me more.

One of my yearbook and blogging club girls is discovering through writing her blog that she appears almost depressed. She is typically a positive, a breath of fresh air, contributing a blonde moment every week or so to keep the rest of the club on our toes. She’s Beauty before she met the beast, head in the clouds, knowledge in her hands, ever aware there’s something more beyond her reach.

Young Beauty gave me two belated Christmas presents last week. The first was a tiny, personalized book of fifty reasons why I was her favorite teacher. One line said, “I like it when you… get excited teaching something you’re passionate about.” Like being vulnerable, volunteering my passion to my students, allowing them to access what’s near to my heart, endears them to me.

At blogging club, Young Beauty said that she must have missed me over break, because she went back and started reading my blog from the beginning, some forty-five entries ago. That was the second present. It had never occurred to me that a student would be thinking of me outside of school hours, much less reading my carefully penned words while on vacation. In nearly the same breath, she made known her epiphany about the sad undertones of her blogging freewrites.

My gym mentor Chuck asked me how much time I spend in the past, present, and future. Young Beauty, like me, spends most of the time in the present, with a little attention given to future pursuits. But her act of reflective writing, like mine, emphasizes the past and the future quite naturally. The undercurrents are more forceful when time is still under the click of the keys. In the stillness, in the free flow of thought onto the page, we look honestly at ourselves, and the mirror doesn’t lie.

It’s not that Young Beauty is depressed. She is quite content in the present, as I am. But when we put pen to paper, we face the inner worries and concerns about the past and the future. When we write, we hack into the cosmic pause button; no present exists. We consider exactly where we have been, and we wonder ineffectively about the uncertainty of where we will go.

Young Beauty is happy, as am I. The conflict is, really, an undercurrent, and when the present is still as it is now, paused for a couple of hours, that undercurrent is simply more powerful. More than anything, the conflict is an internal one. She and I both battle ourselves, ever our biggest critics. If it is an external one, then it is not against a man but rather the past and the future.

We can do nothing about the past, but we hope beyond hope we can do something about the future. Thus, we can resolve ourselves not to worry about the past, but worry resides, nevertheless, beneath the waves, waiting for the high tide that will inevitably come. It’s always high tide when I write.

Chuck also asked me if my time spent in past, present, and future had changed since I met Charming, and it has; why invest in backward thoughts when you have living to do? It seemed counterproductive to make a list of things I wanted to accomplish in my thirties and then commit mental resources to dwelling on unchangeable past events. What would I gain by spending a week in paradise with Charming thinking about old relationships?

In an effort to illustrate the power of an analogy to my sophomores, I likened a budding romance to planting a garden, lengthening the metaphor to include details like the roots extending and intertwining as the two discover one another and the shoots of green that indicate something beautiful is growing. The analogy works better on them than it does on me.

Because I saw different flowering plants fail in my first garden this summer. First it was the hanging baskets, then the petunias. Each new plant became an experiment. I learned not to get too excited about those initial shoots of green, because once the flowers meet the environment above soil, they may find conditions insufficient to meet their needs and thrive.

Charming and I have been writing our drama for four months now. I’m starting to feel some intermingling of roots, and there are definite signs of life breaking through the soil. Life has taught me not to get too excited, because I can’t know for sure if this garden is going to thrive or die. When I write, I face streams of consciousness that I can ignore in the present.

At the end of a spontaneous exploring adventure in the Bahamas, Charming handed me a purple blossom (which struck me as only nearly as brilliant as his smile during the gesture). I tucked the flower in my hair, and my present happiness, however intangible, became visible and audible. I had living to do. There was no room for worry.

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Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” I can hope beyond hope that I can do something about the future, but God secures that future. I don’t want to miss the joy of a flower in my hair as I smile back at my own budding romance.

And if I’m worried about the future because I got “there” before Charming did, I might miss more than this moment. Young Beauty and I reflect on the undercurrents when we write. Mine led me here. God fell in love with me first, and He waits patiently for me to catch up (though I never will). Even with the world on pause in my writing perch, God breaks through to quiet my anxiety.

I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable with my students and teach them with passion. They trust me, and I’m endeared to them. I might hope beyond hope that sharing the same vulnerability and passion with Charming would foster similar growth in our analogy-example garden.

There really isn’t room for worry if you have living to do. Consider the future. Learn from the past. And save the considering and learning for a time of reflection that will bring you clarity, like for me and Young Beauty.

As the Sun Sets on 2015

I’ll admit I’ve briefly lost myself in a fantasy of riding off into the sunset with Charming (as any woman with a healthy imagination is warranted to do on occasion); a spontaneous cruise to the Bahamas saw this fantasy fulfilled with a car, a ship, and a moped.  Though I’ve been back on solid ground for four days, part of me is still lost at sea.

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The concrete tangibility of Charming’s arms around me conflicted with the abstract awe of the sky and the sea as the sun set on 2015 over Paradise Island.  After a day adventure on our own around the island, we dined on some pizza on the ship and headed to the upper deck.  There was a postcard photo in every direction.  Obliged by Mother Nature, I took advantage.

You’ve probably watched at a sunset before.  Maybe you’re like me, and while the only words form don’t seem to do it justice, you exhale, “It’s… beautiful.”  And we know what you mean.  Substitute breathtaking or wonderful, and the adjectives are still aimed at describing an abstract, untouchable sunset.  Words don’t capture it well.

Yet, we still try. We quite naturally praise that which is praiseworthy.  We tend to audibly encourage others to take note: “Wasn’t that play incredible?  The set design was so authentic!  It’s the best rendition I’ve seen!”  When we are pleased by an event, circumstance, or even a person, we invite others to share in experiences we feel are valuable.

And this concept is just as abstract as the sunset.  I know there’s a scientific explanation for the spectrum of colors as the planets rotate, but it’s been over a decade since I studied that in ninth grade; forgive me if I choose to set aside logic and be amazed by something I don’t understand.  Moreover, I don’t particularly want to understand it.

As the shifting shades of reds, oranges, and yellows painted the horizon in the west, the blue skies darkened to an indigo in the east with pink highlights streaking once-white clouds.  The sun’s reflection on the ocean cast glimmering streams of light on the sea, simulating a 360 degree horizon where the sun sets into the sun.  I was so mesmerized by the vision that I have only the deck rail to thank for keeping me from being pulled into it myself.

Even after careful diction choices, I still don’t feel I’ve done it justice.  Maybe you had to be there.  Fortunately, Charming was, and we quite naturally praised that which was praiseworthy.  We could share in the experience.  I wasn’t thinking about New Year’s resolutions or the events of the year past.  I was simply living in a dream, fully aware of Charming’s hand to keep me anchored to reality.

I still haven’t made any resolutions this year (and honestly, I don’t know that I will).  I had thirty resolutions on a bucket list a few months old and I’ve tacked four off already.  The most recent was the last day of our trip in Charleston, SC where Charming made certain I got to see the sun rise and set in the same day.  I’ve been living intentionally, so that wouldn’t make for a new resolution.

My teacher friends have made resolutions to lose weight, get a divorce, eat healthier, and control anger.  Resolutions require reflection and commitment, and we allow one midnight a year to reset our track record and resolve to improve ourselves and our lives.

One of the items on my thirties list is to achieve my ideal weight.  The terms are intentionally vague.  I loved being a size two in my twenties, and enough failed resolutions have resolved me to more realistic aspirations.  I don’t look the same in a bikini.  I certainly don’t feel the same.  When the sun rose on New Year’s Eve, I fastened a bikini around all the curves and hoped for the best.

There were a handful of moments I was worried about how I looked in a bathing suit, but I can’t pinpoint them.  They were littered between riding a moped across the eastern shore, reading Tolkien on a deserted beach, and navigating back roads without street signs.  Charming encouraged me that I didn’t have anything to worry about, and he was right.

I’ve been sorting through the pictures, and the last thing my attention is drawn toward is me.  First, it’s the smiles.  Then him.  Then the scenery.  I can’t help but smile back at the photographs.  They attempt to capture these abstract moments of joy, excitement, and adventure that are just as intangible as the beauty of the sunset.  Words can’t do it justice, and neither can a picture.  But we still try.

Because abstract moments are sometimes praiseworthy, and it’s human nature to respond with praise. Another abstract concept.

Over the course of our cruise, we read some J.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  What delights me about both authors is their overabundant use of parentheses.  There might be three sets within the same paragraph!  For whatever reason, the authors saw certain comments as not essential to the current plot, but worth including.  Often the digressions, opinions, and explanations set off in parentheses richen or deepen my understanding of the narrative.  What’s in parenthesis would have no meaning without the story containing it, but the story does not lose meaning without the aside.

I think that praise is enclosed in parentheses.  We witness a beautiful sunset.  That’s the story.  The praise is meaningless without an instigating event, but the event does not lose meaning without praise.  The sunset, absent my attempts to laud it, would still be a beautiful sunset.   But my words of praise, set off in parentheses, richen and deepen the experience.

For me, the awe of a sunset directs my attention upward.  I don’t understand the chemical interactions, but I know the One who invented that sunset  and authored that wonderment.  That takes more than a mastermind; it takes the Master’s Mind.   My weak attempts to capture His majesty don’t do Him justice, but I still try.  In words and in pictures, I’m praising Him in all His abstract brilliance made tangible in a sunset with Charming.

Perhaps if I were to make a resolution this year, it would be to praise more.  Not gratuitously (as one might caution), but just as I resolved to live intentionally with my bucket list, I might resolve to lose myself intentionally in the parentheses of praise, where life richens and deepens.  Praise rose as the sun set on 2015.