God’s Hands in My Words

I’m at my writer’s perch like always, blue cushion and white wicker beneath, the privacy of evening glories to my right, a couple of scattered porch lights in the distance.  Apart from the occasional passing car, there are only crickets and wind chimes.  The orange blossoms of the Cosmos Charming’s mother gave me peek through the front porch slats.  Nothing struck me as I readied myself to write tonight except how much I cherish this love seat.

It’s not just the wicker, but the surroundings that I cannot recreate when I travel on Tuesdays.  With summer waning, the darkness soothes my writer’s soul. After the night applies its dimmer switch, I can only see clearly what matters: my laptop, my flowers, and my Shiraz.  For the last seventy-seven weeks, I’ve perched here and waited for inspiration.

Sometimes it came in the sights and the sounds around me.  Other times it came in a photograph I’d taken recently.  If something had been weighing on me, I found it was difficult but therapeutic to face it head on, particularly if I didn’t want to write about it.  My gym mentor Chuck says my best posts are the one that came from nowhere shortly after 8 pm.

Maybe it’s the stomach flu that sent me home early from work today that’s flushed too many electrolytes out of my system and inhibited my ability to see metaphors in my immediate world.  That’s what is supposed to happen next.  When the first significant thought comes to me, I write an intro paragraph.  Then I sit back, read it, and look for a metaphor. If I was a superhero, then I would describe this as a sixth sense power.  I’d make an observation about one concrete thing and the metaphorical connection to some concept or lesson would just immediately present itself.

And for the past seventy-six weeks, on this white wicker love seat (and a few travel locations), I intuited something worth writing about even though I rarely knew where it would take me.  It all started as a Word Doc journal.  I shared it with my mom by email.  Family members eventually started asking for access or for permission to share an entry with a friend.  I hadn’t found my way back to faith.  Looking back at a year and a half long journey, I see the path my writing set me on to eventually encounter God.

Perhaps that sentence isn’t worded correctly.  God set me on a path in my writing to encounter Him.  After a couple months with promptings from friends and family, I published my blog and soon after had a dozen or so email subscribers.  One day in May, I accidentally linked my Facebook… and when I posted on WordPress, it populated on my Facebook timeline.  It wasn’t until the next day that I realized it, and by then my view had skyrocketed.  I decided it was a divine error, and if people wanted to read my writing, what harm was there in making it available to them?

Every time someone reached out to me because they identified with something personal I shared, I was surprised, touched, and moved.  Even before I knew it was God’s hand guiding me, I sensed that I was supposed to commit to this blog, to writing every Tuesday night, to sharing my growing pains, to being real and authentic and honest.  The title, Writer’s Growth, explains what this process is for me.

This white wicker love seat once sat on my back deck in Nashville where my ex-husband and I would entertain friends from Bible study.  Then, it sat on the front porch of a rented duplex in Syracuse where I would play dolls with my ex-boyfriend’s daughter.  Now, it sits in Hampton, where I write every week and discover something of value, of significance, in the process.

I’ve written through some of the most difficult seasons, including those broken relationships.  The posts in which I am most raw and vulnerable stimulate discussion.  Last summer, while I was finally attending church but still only going through the spiritual motions, women from varied stages and walks of life contacted me, often simply grateful that someone else could relate to their struggles.

Exposing myself strategically in writing forced me to be honest first with myself.  The integrity of my weekly therapy sessions here on this blue cushion is upheld only by my willingness to go where the writing inspiration leads me.  Failing to write about a break up out of embarrassment when that’s clearly what I need to work through for a couple of hours would compromise that integrity.  And I’ve found that my readers relate most to these posts, the broken and uncertain ones.

Then last fall, I got a Facebook message from a guy I hadn’t seen in twelve years.  My blog had come across his newsfeed, and after resonating with a couple of my posts, he wanted to meet up and swap stories since he didn’t live too far away.  A few weeks later, he would be Charming.  A few weeks later, he would help facilitate the walls around my heart falling down, as if by opening my life up to him, I’d given God an opening to reveal Himself to me.  It happened in church, the day after our first Hampton date where we carved pumpkins on this very love seat.

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That picture from last October is still Charming’s contact icon on my phone.  His ringtone has always been the same, too.  When he calls, I see that smile and those blue eyes and hear, “When I’ve lost my faith in my darkest days, she makes me want to believe.  They call her love, love, love…”

That’s who Charming made me want to be.  I couldn’t have inspired him to hope or believe or dream if I didn’t reclaim those first for myself.  I’ve had dozens of picture-perfect moments with Charming on this love seat, from carving pumpkins to reading Tolkien to smoking cigars and playing Candy Crush.

Through my blogging narrative, however, I can see how God used my writing to eventually restore me to Himself.  And so it’s the writing nights that make this perch my peaceful place, probably my favorite place to be, though I’ve made other inspiring memories here, too.  See, that’s all I could think about tonight while the minute hand clicked onward, and in the spirit of writing night, I went with it.

I didn’t know where it would take me, and I couldn’t have imagined that a couple of hours later I would be seeing God’s hand navigating me through some of the most painful seasons of my life.  I had to start writing.  I had to be willing to share my shattered journey.  There had to be a blog.  I had to be open with others.  I had to reply to that Facebook message and meet Charming.

God was writing my redemption story while I was publishing my blog.  Each entry serves as a testament to His perfect plan.  It had to start when it did, while I was still searching, so there would be a record of my brokenness, my endless questions, my hopelessness.  Eventually, those records would evolve, evidencing restoration, faith, and optimism.

And I see the change in me.  I believe that it is possible to recover from personal loss, overcome the nagging feelings of guilt and disentanglement, and find your peaceful place.  The place where you remake yourself.  Some mornings, I’ll sit and have my coffee here, listening to the birds, and simply know that I’m grateful to be home.

I already knew I wanted to be a woman capable of making Charming believe that despite of his past wounds, God’s writing a redemption story with him, too.  But until I tried to write about it, no sixth sense super power could connect the story line. He had done it first; Charming made me want to believe.

I believe in what happens here, on nights like tonight, with the crickets and the garden and a glass of red wine.  (And Chuck will probably tell me tomorrow that this is my best post yet.)

Seasons, Names, and Faces

There is a time, a season for everything under heaven.  A year ago I was kissing online dating goodbye, focusing my attention on making goody bags for my English teachers, apparently waiting for Prince Charming to discover Facebook Messenger.  As I bought goody bags today, preparing for another first department meeting, I wished summer would halt and give me one more day.

I would go to the beach, like Charming suggested, on my last day of freedom.  Instead, I got lost in Google Slides and calendars, already working that “Back to School” To Do List full time.  I got an oil change, shopped for meeting prizes, wrote lesson plans, watered the plants, hit the gym, brought in the trash cans, and had dinner with my brother’s family.  At the beach, I disappear.  At the computer, I ready myself for the next season.

Amidst my meandering relationship status with Charming these past few weeks, I had plenty of freedom to disappear.  I lost myself in the last four seasons, nearly a calendar year spent with Charming, while creating a digital scrapbook.  I considered how different my life feels now in contrast to the end of my summer of online dating.  Chatting with one of the auto techs at the checkout for my oil change, we exchanged a few ridiculous stories about online dates gone wrong… and I hope beyond reason that I’ll never have to return to that.

It’s hard to let go of the sweet summer season when you’re a teacher.  For a couple of months, your heart is yours to invest where you please.  For me, it was gardening, reading, beach bumming, family, scrapbooking, and adventures with Charming.  In two weeks, 120 young teens will find my room number on their schedules, and my passion will be theirs for the next ten months.  They are my ministry.  I don’t know their names or their faces yet, but soon I won’t be able to forget them.

Even though I recognize the wealth of once-in-a-lifetime discussions that will flow from the intermingling of adolescent minds in the seasons to come, I relish the saltwater breeze kissing my shoulders as I devour a Francine River novel at Fort Monroe Beach.  I hardly went this year.  Last summer, I was there twice a week.  I might start to regret this if I hadn’t made that memory book.

This summer was unbelievable. Senior prom, two weddings, a wine tasting, a paint night, a week at a lake house with my family, the twins’ birthday, and an unrivaled road trip are just highlights.  No wonder I’m having a hard time giving this up to devote my full attention to the needs of students I haven’t even met yet.  I know the faces in my memory book, mine and Charming’s and all of our friends and family.

But summer is just the last season in that memory book.  I fell for Charming in the fall.  The first pages of the digital scrapbook detail every part of our story, from Facebook message to first meeting to first date to a first date at my place and a first date at his place… I fell in love with fall, and the pages of our autumn memories assure me that though our next three seasons will be different, we still have three-quarters of another scrapbook to fill.

Teachers don’t stop living when they go back to school.  They just live differently.  The appearance of Charming on the scene forced me to live intentionally on our weekends together, here or there.  Struggling to understand our impromptu break-up, my mom reminded me that we had done more living in the last ten months than some couples do in a lifetime.

In season transitions, we often find it difficult to let go despite the promise of something equally good in the future.  We love names and faces that we know now.  One of the most painful aspects of my divorce was the severance from my spouse’s family and our church and friends.  It was hard to imagine a future Bible study or family holiday where I felt so comfortable after I’d left Nashville.

I didn’t know the faces of Katarina and Theresa yet.  I couldn’t see how much I would love and cherish every tiny feature and phrase the way I do now, that when they toddle over to me and say my name, there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be.  I longed for what I knew because I could not see the good things that God had in store for me.  The good people.

In the weeks preceding my decision to divorce, a street preacher in Baton Rouge gave me a word from God.  He didn’t know me or my situation.  He simply declared that God had closed a door, that I was not to go back to where I came from, that God had already forgiven me, and that He would open new doors for me. I left St. Patrick’s Day weekend.  I didn’t want to let go of that season, of those names and faces.  I didn’t know Katarina and Theresa yet.  The thought of a future Charming didn’t register.  I just knew that I had to do this, that it was time for a new season, that there was going to be a spring in my life for the first time in years.

Things didn’t work out with my rebound guy… they rarely do.  We both learned and grew.  Though I hope he’s doing well and sometimes imagine what his daughter might look like now, we drew a strategic line in the sand last Thanksgiving that we’ve both respected.  Sometimes, the seasonal transition has nothing to do with a calendar.  It’s the result of decision points we reach as we go about the daily business of sharing existence.  Like my divorce, it was painful to sever certain ties.

But I couldn’t see the faces and the names that my weekly writing nights would unearth in seasons to come.   Nearly every fairy tale character pseudonym corresponds to an influential person in my life that didn’t exist until I moved to Hampton.  We struggle to transition from summer to fall, to lose the freedom and the serenity; regardless, this season will end and another will begin.  I will go back to school tomorrow.  The beach will have to wait, and no amount of struggling or wishing will change that.

Still, I think that’s for the best.  If summer never ended, I couldn’t fulfill my calling in the classroom.  There are faces and names in the next season, waiting for us to choose to invest in them.  Maybe I hold back in the fall because I know these students will go in and out of my life so quickly.  Next year, there will be 120 more, similar but different, to know and love and invest in for another ten months.

These past ten months, Charming and I have done our share of reclaiming memories.  We’ve visited places and done activities that were previously associated with an earlier chapter of our stories, making new, positive memories by experiencing them together.

For me though, some of the best moments of the past four seasons’ changing are the ones unfamiliar to me a year ago that now seem to blur together over a string of intentionally lived weekends.  Places and activities that have become uniquely ours.  I don’t expect to find this kind of depth and quality on OK Cupid, and I hope I never have to try.  Still, if this season with Charming ends, I’ve got to believe in all the faces and names that I just don’t know by heart yet.

When we reunited last week in Alexandria, we walked to Old Town like we’d done too many times to count.  We had white queso at Don Taco’s again.  We had silly-named drinks and pizza at Bilbo Baggin’s again.  We walked to the riverfront again, this time with Keurig coffees, Bruegger’s bagels, and Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.

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You can’t know their names or their faces now.  But in the next season?  The one you’re not quite ready for?  You’re going to love them.  God’s going to open new doors, and you’re going to walk through them.  And you’ll find your Katarina, your Theresa, even your Prince Charming.  You’re going to believe, with all your heart, that there is nowhere else you’d rather be.

A Year with Charming

I smiled today.  Really smiled.  For the first time in ten days.  It was still hesitant when I awoke to a good morning text, but it came more readily as I shared my road trip memory book with Mom tonight.  It arrived on Saturday, practically concurrent with my arriving at the conclusion that Charming was worth waiting for, of course.  The surprise twist was that, by then, he was having doubts.

My week-long process for analyzing and evaluating the potentially premature end to a thriving relationship, beyond the severance emotions, began with writing therapy that helped me consider which questions I could ask Charming to determine if dating is the right decision.  Once I’d sent the questions, I turned inward.  No sooner had I clicked “Order” on our road trip memory book than I’d started a new one.

A Year with Charming.  It was on my Summer Productivity list.  I wasn’t torturing myself with photos and memorabilia as one might think.  I continued to analyze and evaluate each weekend together.   First, I narrowed thousands of photos down to four hundred, chronologically named, creating a coordinating calendar detailing related info as I went.  Then I uploaded a spread’s worth of photos to Shutterfly at a time, designing a layout while leaving room for ticket stubs, placing and cropping photos, and writing our year-long story throughout.

It was a little like torture, but I’d earned it.  I got scared, ended our relationship, and knew only one thing: you can’t change another person, you can only change yourself.  If we were to get back together, I would consider his answers to my 36 Questions.  Still, to find peace about deciding to give the man of my dreams more time to be ready for family life, I wanted to consider the answers he’d already given me while doing life with me for the past ten months.

That’s what creating the Year with Charming album did for me.  I’ll admit, in a bit of an end of summer slump I pretty much holed up and worked at the computer for seven days straight (borderline obsessive, I realize).  Every major, photographed moment of our time together was shipped out today, a 12×12 book in a thin orange box.  I saw beyond the photos and the emotions that snuck in, remembering all the unphotographed moments no one would ever know but us.

Charming’s good at surveys.  He completed a Republican questionnaire that came in the mail, then gave me the same questions… about fifteen minutes before we broke up.  In the early months of our courtship, we answered 36 Questions from a New York Times study to get to know one another.  So, I’d asked him questions about family, timeline, love, life, and me.  Two days passed.  I was into winter spreads by then.   No answers from him.

I kept analyzing and evaluating.  I set up a Skype date with my former matron of honor on Thursday night.  I needed an objective, outside perspective, and I wanted to uphold our road trip vow not to go another three years without seeing each other.  In keeping of tradition with Disney pseudonyms, she’s Mulan.  And not just because she’s half-Chinese and not just because she’s a fighter, but because I’ve seen this woman’s character since she wasn’t much more than a girl.  Always, she sacrifices for her family and helps others see the right way ahead more clearly.

Mulan and I met on the plane to Spain in 2005.  After nine hours, we’d bonded over books and boys and faith.  My initial host family fell through, and I was placed with Mulan’s host mother: a little old, grey woman with an earnest smile named Berta.  We spent our summer abroad experience living, studying, and exploring together.  On our recent drop-in to visit them, she’d told Charming about our only argument in eleven years.

We’d taken a weekend in Portugal.  We survived the shaky, tiny plane ride.  We photographed sights around Lisbon.  We walked and talked.  And walked.  And looked at the map.  And found out nobody wanted to speak Spanish.  And tried English.  And walked, looked at the map, asked broken questions.  Then we had a fight, in the middle of a cobblestone street, said some heated words, found our hotel and never argued again.  Mulan is my Spain sister.  She’s family.

While we Skyped, she caught me up on efforts considered toward expanding their family.  Mulan and her husband had started trying to have a baby in their late twenties, I think, which is reasonable.  They’ve experienced fertility issues, heartbreaks, and marital trials along the way that I imagine many others can relate to, like my mom with two miscarriages between PJ and me.  Their three-year-old son is an answer to prayer, and they aren’t sure they’ll be able to have another.  They haven’t stopped trying to conceive, but they have decided that they want to pursue adoption regardless.

That’s what makes her Mulan.  She is a fighter, in her friendships, her marriage, her family, and her faith.  The thoughts in my head were silent long enough to hear encouragement and inspiration in the way she’s faced recent challenges.  She’s grown.  Her marriage and her family have grown.  It’s not that my relationship crisis seemed trivial, but rather that a much broader perspective conversely put it into focus after applying the rule of thirds.

I continued evaluating Saturday evening as I read Charming’s answers.  I’d turned my Google Form into a survey quiz where certain choices were my acceptable correct answers.  Short essays followed.  He knocked it out of the park.  We were on the same page, after all, about everything that mattered.  Our timelines are nearly parallel, and would logically intersect in the future.

By the time I reached his last answer, I was ready to call him up and say, “Is it too late to take that break up back?”  In writing, in scrapbooking, in mentoring, in answers, I knew that Charming was worth waiting for.  But in that last essay, Charming indicated he wasn’t sure that I should wait, and that he would like to prepare similar questions for me.  There was no thoughtful reunion at the halfway point where we first met.  There was more waiting.

We simply cannot account for all future variables.  We set ourselves up for best odds.  Mulan and I had booked flights, made hotel reservations, and mapped our way through Portugal.  Irritation and July heat aside, the argument brought to light issues we needed to address in future action, not in present conversation.  Inside air conditioning, we saw that while lost, we’d fought our way “found” together, and we were stronger for it.

Mulan couldn’t anticipate her fertility issues.  She married the right man for her, a man she would continue to build a life with even when faced with the prospect of no biological children.  Though this has put unusual strain on their relationship, it seems both are better and stronger for having endured their storm together.

By Sunday night when I received Charming’s questions for me, I was wondering how this storyline had ended up here.  I broke up with him, so it should be pretty easy to undo a week later.  I couldn’t account for all future variables.  I set myself up for best odds.  I knew I needed to sever the emotional bond with Charming in order to see clearly, making a conscious choice to wait.  But in those seven days, he was thinking I believed I was better off without him, and that made him do some soul searching.

Last night, we Skyped our reconciliation.  It probably won’t feel real until I look into those blue eyes tomorrow and put our road trip memory in his hands instead of mailing it with his hoodie.  On the last page, I wrote that these memories were worth cherishing regardless of where our future journeys lead us.  On the last page of my Year with Charming album, I struggled more with what to write.  It seemed so final.  We broke up.  Somehow though, it just didn’t seem the appropriate end for the story we were writing.

It was abrupt.  It was unfinished.  Now, at least, there’s a chance for Volume II.  We got a little lost, and we struggled to find our own ways, and if Mulan logic applies, we should be better for it.  Stronger for it.

So why not smile?  A real one.   We’re in this moment for sixty seconds.  There is potential for so much more beyond what we can see or feel or anticipate.  There will be sunny days, there will be storms, and the sunset is always more beautiful when clear skies are up ahead.

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4 Days Without Charming

I was driving east on Saturday when it started to rain.  The sun was fighting clouds when I’d left Charming’s house two hours before.  Now, the sunset was clear in the rear view mirror as I plunged into a twilight summer storm, leaving the light behind me.  I’d said goodbye to Charming, maybe for the last time.

I wasn’t planning on breaking up with him.  We’d just ordered Chinese food, and the rain had cleared so we could walk to pick it up, but a simple, “What’s wrong?” from Charming had us stumbling into another Relationship Defining Talk, the RDT as we’d called it in our Wheaton days.  Orange chicken shifted to the back burner as we revisited the question of timing in our relationship.

As I recall the conversation here on my own front porch days later, I’m sipping wine out of a glass from the Wine on the Waterfront festival in June… also the site of our last RDT where I’d tried to break up with him because I was further along in emotions than he… also the night he finally came to the logical and systematic conclusion that he loves me.  My breath still catches.  That had been worth the wait.

My evening glories were blooming when I got back, seeming not to note my week and a half absence.  I’d wanted Charming to see them.  When I left, he’d asked if he could come down and see me in three weeks.  I said no, but I was already rethinking my answer.  Like the evening glories’ white blossoms, there are still things I want to share with him.  I’d broken it off, but I hadn’t meant to.  There wasn’t an ultimatum, just the issue of timing.

I started crying as soon as my wheels left the curb.  On our road trip, I’d played him a song from a playlist I made when I was going through my divorce.  The iPod started automatically where it had left off.  While I wept, wondering how I was going to see the next 175 miles, Casting Crowns drowned out my thoughts: “We were made to be courageous, and it starts with us tonight.  The only way we’ll ever stand is on our knees with lifted hands.”

I couldn’t drive on my knees, but I could choose to let God minister to me through worship music instead of falling apart, hurtling forward into a future without Charming in it.  My inner voice was looped, and every song in sequence seemed to combat my current hopeless train of thought even as the hours fell away, losing the light completely, the storm intensifying such that I could barely see a hundred feet in front of me.

My first thought was that this is the first thing about Charming that has made sense.  Happily ever after didn’t fit the story of my life.  No sooner had I processed the thought than Third Day broke in with, “After all that I’ve been through, now, I realize the truth that I must go through the valley to stand upon the mountain of God.”  I’ve had valleys before.  In one, I abandoned faith while listening to this playlist.  I left the door open to God, believing He existed but unsure to what capacity He was actively involved in my life.  In essence, I didn’t turn from God, but rather retreated to a waiting room, willing Him to show up.

Then, Charming showed up more than two years later, and he brought the Lord back with him.  I always said I would be better for having shared this time with him, no matter where our roads eventually brought us.  Charming was an act of God’s providence.  I’m not the same girl I was in our Wheaton days.  She would have despaired and abandoned faith after yet another failed relationship.  I would do the things I knew to do… tend the garden, go to church, and hear Pastor Grant say, “If you listen to the wrong voices, you’ll make the wrong choices.”

As I drove away from Charming, God interceded for every pessimistic thought.  When I was thinking that I’d ruined too much to wind up with a dream guy like Charming, Matthew West interjected, “There’s only grace … and believe me it’s enough. Your sins are gone without a trace.”  When I aked, what was all of it for?  Why meet him again only to have wasted another year of my life?  Jason Gray answered, “In the hands of our Redeemer, nothing is wasted.  From the ruins, from the ashes, beauty will rise.”

But we were always too good to be true, I postured, weaving around Richmond and the question: why would God have made this a part of our story?  Laura Story countered with, “’Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops?  What if Your healing comes through tears? What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?”  God would make it pour the rest of the drive just to reassure me that He’s got the road ahead covered, much farther in my future journey than I can see in the storm.

Honestly, I heard precious little of the sermon after I opened my Bible and found his Valentine’s Day card, signed “Adoringly” as if to remind me of our timing conflict of interests.  It was tucked inside Deuteronomy, Chapter 8, with versus 7-9 underlined.  I’d just finished coaxing my hoarse, teary voice through, “I will not fear, His promise is true”, and now before me was the promise I’d rejected in my time in New York, when I listened to these same songs and decided to close off my heart to trusting God.

“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills… and you will lack nothing,” the passage affirmed.  My narrative has changed.  I will hold God to that promise.  I won’t lose hope this time.  God intervened personally in a practically ordained playlist.  I believe there’s a good land in my future.  So I keep doing what I know to do.

I’d spent some time in the garden before church and still had dirt under my nails from fussing with the bell pepper plants I’d sowed as seeds that were finally beginning to flower.  In fact, they look a lot like the seedlings I planted at the same time, a gentle suggestion from my gym mentor Chuck so that I would be see fruit faster.  I saw Charming in this.  We’ve always been in different stages in the growth process; I’m further along in the pursuit of marriage and kids, and so much time with families on our Wheaton road trip had armed my biological clock with a protective trigger.

I saw my fear in the spinach plants, or lack thereof.  I’d waited too long to harvest them.  They’d fully formed and would not grow new leaves.  I’d planted seeds after the stems withered and died, but it was too late in the season for them to germinate.  I returned Charming’s house key in the very physical fear that if I wait too long to get married, I won’t be able to have children.  It’s a question of timing: how long?  How long until he’s ready, and how long can I wait for him to be?  We don’t have the answers.

When I came inside after gardening, I saw his dried roses on the dining room table, resisted the urge to call this déjà vu, and focused my gaze instead to the birthday card at its base.  I didn’t need to open it to know that’s when he told me he hoped we’d have many more years together.  I’m not ready to move that card or those flowers.  We’ve been the evening glories climbing up around the hanging baskets half dead from heat exhaustion.  Beside me as I write, they cover the ugliness of loss with beauty, blossoming vines growing together.

I’ve considered it for a few days, and I still don’t have any answers to our timing issue.  Over the next twenty-four hours, I would create and order our Shutterfly road trip memory book, a hybrid scrapbook with space where I can add ticket stubs and other memorabilia, just doing what I knew to do.  I would finish what I started with the album, all the while anticipating the sequel to Walt Whitman’s “The Road Not Taken” where our paths converge again.

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I keep doing what I know to do.  I went to the beach this afternoon, but there was no delight in the heat of the sun on my skin.  I missed Charming.  I wanted to give him my take on the book he bought me last week.  I go through the motions, but without him, they lack joy.  There wasn’t an ultimatum.  There’s a question of timing.  He’s not ready for the white picket fence.  I’m scared I’ll never have one.   What I can uphold, with certainty, is that Charming and I are better together.  The goal of every union is to glorify God, and I believe we bring him more honor as a couple than either of us would apart.

Charming brought God back into my life with him.  I’m still hopeful God can direct our timelines into harmony, if not a melody to speak to every doubt like an iPod playlist in the storm.  And I’m still holding Him to the promise that there are good lands in store for me.  Once again, I’m leaving the door open.

I might be further along, but we grow better together.  We can’t answer the question: how long?  Only God can see that far down our paths.  In four days without Charming, I’ve realized I need to start asking different questions. I waited on my Prince Charming for over thirty years. Now that I’ve found him, I don’t know how long is right to wait for him to be ready for marriage.

But is he worth the wait, worth the risk of waiting too long?

That’s the question I should be asking.  That’s the answer I’m still trying to find in the evening glories and the vegetable garden and in scriptures of promise.  He’s certainly been worth the wait before.

Steps, Scars, and Stories

It’s been thirteen years since I last stepped foot on the campus that should have been my alma mater.  The only school I applied to.  At eighteen, I would join my brother P.J. at Wheaton College, live in the same dorm on his sister floor.  Like Mom, I would meet a man of God, fall in love, get married after graduation, and earn a degree in education… the closest in the catalog to one in motherhood. I had fantasized since early adolescence that one day I would take part in the Wheaton tradition of ringing the bells in the bell tower with my collegiate love to announce our engagement.

And while I did join my brother there, Wheaton wasn’t my alma mater.  I did fall in love with a man of God, one with a savior complex who was happy to walk with me through my first great spiritual depression, one who ended our friendship once he had sufficiently “fixed” me.  The years distanced me from the memories, good and bad, that I made on that campus.  He wasn’t a hero or a villain, just a footnote in a book I closed before the story was supposed to be finished.

After my sophomore year, I spent the summer in Nashville, living on a friend’s couch, working at a restaurant, and experiencing Music City with a strange cross section of struggling producers and musicians.  When asked why I left Wheaton, I’ve always told the same tale.  I fell in love with Nashville and didn’t want to leave. I transferred to Belmont, worked my way through undergrad, landed a teaching job before graduation, and made it my home for ten years.

I only returned to Wheaton once for Homecoming in 2003.  Though I’d been absent just a few months, it was clear that my friends had grown closer. I was on the outside of most of their inside jokes by then.  I’d chosen a different college experience in an uncharted city, one untouched by the Palma name, one where I could start over. After a few short days, I drove south to my new home and never looked back.

That was, until I met Charming last fall.  I use the word “met” loosely as we’d actually made each other’s acquaintance my freshman year at Wheaton when my brother was his RA. We didn’t fall in love.  We weren’t even friends, but our circles intersected enough to warrant a Facebook request some time after I’d left.   Our first dates were filled with reminiscing on a short era of my life that I’d since tried to forget, recounting stories about our time there with common friends, coursework, books, professors, and buildings.

A year ago, before Charming was on my radar, I didn’t devote much mental energy to recalling my Wheaton days, but having rekindled the fire of Christian Education through countless conversations with Charming who holds Wheaton in the highest of esteem, I thought it might be fun to visit the campus with him this summer.  Maybe we could reclaim some memories together.

So last week, we began a road trip, planning to hit eight cities in nine days, packing in baseball games at some parks Charming hadn’t seen yet, a Lindsey Stirling concert in Pittsburgh, a musical and architectural boat tour in Chicago, visits with friends of his and mine along the way, and of course, a day spent walking the grounds of a place I hesitate to remember, Wheaton College in Illinois.

When we parked his car at the dorm we lived in my freshman year, I jumped out excitedly to take a selfie together in front of the building, deserted in the summer months, absent the steady revolving door of passionate, hopeful, aspiring Type A personalities that will return in a couple of weeks for the fall semester.  It was surreal, holding Charming’s hand in a time portal to an age where he was just a handsome face across a crowded residential lobby.

The campus has evolved.  It’s not the same as I envision it in my memory.  There are new buildings and pathways, and some buildings, like the French House where Charming spent much of his time, have been torn down to make room for more new additions.  But Williston is still there, the dorm where I lived with my roommate sophomore year, the year I fell apart.  It smelled the same.  And it brought me to tears.

I knew in that moment why I’d really left Wheaton.  Yes, I loved Nashville, but that wasn’t enough of a reason to leave behind the college I’d dreamed would be the start of my always and forever.  At nineteen, I’d had my first taste of loss – friends who had met unexpected, tragic deaths that tested my young faith.  I’d brought along my old college journals, reading some entries to Charming that reflected common events or experiences we’d shared there while on separate journeys.

But the struggles penned in those books, honest prayers and outpourings locked away for more than a decade in the confines of lined papers, concealed beneath hard covers… they reflect the inner dialogue of a young girl searching hopelessly for meaning and purpose amidst senseless tragedies that taunt the woman I’ve become in my thirties.  They’re a volume of wrestling with God, of the restlessness of my spirit, detailing a spiritual darkness I wouldn’t encounter again until my divorce.

Crossing the quad with Charming yesterday, hand in hand, I could see the truth in the outlines of the chapel and the bell tower.  I left Wheaton because after just two years there, I’d lost myself in that hopeless search.  Nashville was a chance to start over, to remake myself.  It was easier to start over than it was to face the place where I’d already accumulated so much regret.

We’ve spent some time with Charming’s closest friends that still live in the area.  They’re all celebrating ten year anniversaries, raising three kids in beautifully decorated suburban homes.  They’re living the life that I believed would be mine when I first stepped on Wheaton’s campus fifteen years ago.  They talk about their formative college years with Charming, reminiscing together about people and experiences I might have shared if I hadn’t left to start over.

Charming’s roommate lives close to campus, and we had dinner with his family tonight.  He joked that he wanted to be called Felipe in my blog.  Truthfully, I didn’t expect to write about him, but tonight, with his two-year-old daughter in my lap, Felipe said something that struck me out of context.  His six-year-old son had to get six stitches above his eye.  Felipe told him, “Scars build character.”  I asked why.

Felipe didn’t have to pause to think.  Traumatic experiences define us, he said.  They alter our perspective of the world.  They give us stories to share.  They change us.  I am not the girl I was when I stepped on Wheaton’s campus for the first time.  My journals detail the scars of a spiritual darkness, searching for meaning and purpose that I wouldn’t find until many years later.

Though I grieve for that lost, broken girl, those scars remind me how far I have come since then.  Charming and I didn’t ring any bells in the tower, but we did climb the stone campus wall bearing the college name.  There, looking down at the pathways I had left behind, I was grateful for scars born there, and even more so for the meandering journey in the thirteen years since that brought me to this moment, with his arm around my waist.

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Scars build character.  And it was the sharing of the stories of our scars that brought Charming and I together last fall.  He rang those bells with another woman, and he believed when he married that it was the start of his always and forever, that he’d have three kids and a ten year anniversary like his friends.  He could never have predicted that his Wheaton romance would eventually break his heart.  The scars from that relationship shaped him spiritually, morally, and emotionally.  Yet, he still cherishes that place and his time there.  His perspective is different now; it’s changed, like the campus has, with losses that make room for new additions.

Like Felipe said, traumatic experiences define us.  The broken girl I was at nineteen wouldn’t have been capable of the kind of love, devotion, admiration, and respect that I now I have for this man of God.  The kind of woman that he could partner with to reclaim his youthful hopefulness.

Wheaton wasn’t my alma mater, but it was his.  I didn’t fall in love and get married after graduation, but he did.  Nevertheless, we bear similar scars that put us both on a pathway to build character and prepare us for the next book in our stories.  One we started writing together last fall.  And it’s a tale of redemption and second chances, of grace and change and hope.

When I left Wheaton to start over in Nashville, I buried a dream that Charming unearthed after time had so distanced me from its memory.  As it turns out, I did meet a man of God at Wheaton all those years ago.  Then, I knew just his name and his face.  Now, I know his heart, scars and all, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  How can I regret a past that brought me to this moment, looking down at the pathways that would eventually lead us to each other?