Form: Creative Non-Fiction
Written: Spring 2015
Commissioned For: Professor Mary M. Brown’s retirement gift
Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos we see despite all the chaos.
~ Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water ~
Resist the urge to lie.
~ Mary M. Brown ~
“I’m doing this on purpose,” I tell my friend Nick. “I’m saying this for a reason. He broke up with me.” Yes, I tell him, it’s victim language, the kind of self-oppressive rhetoric I have spent the last two and a half years learning to avoid. (You go to a socially-aware seminary and come out awake to the world.) “I’m saying it this way because it empowers me. It’s my way of saying, ‘This wasn’t mutual. I wasn’t given a voice in this decision.’”
We’re in the midpoint of a narrow indie bar, in downtown Indianapolis. Nick is sipping a drink “that tastes like a plant,” I tell him. His boyfriend is next to him, zoning out. I wonder how we sound, loud above the roaring bar, cutting each other off with critique.
“I guess I’m trying to bring meaning to everything that happened last summer. But it kind of feels like a waste, like I’m beating meaning into something that’s really, truly meaningless. Things don’t always happen for a reason.”
A week ago I heard a musician wail at a tiny Seattle venue: “Time will not heal us. Time will not heal us.” I find myself agreeing, as I feel the burn in my heart for my ex, still, after six months and a new beau.
Nick reminds me, or I remind myself, that we are writers. The words I choose are intentional, my use of passive voice, my construction. I make meaning from them, as I have tried to make meaning from the chaos of last summer. I think I have to.
Three weeks after we broke up, I moved into a new apartment on the other side of Seattle with two new roommates, a married couple. I spent the beginning weeks of that summer reconstructing my daily and weekly rhythms. I would wake up at 8, work till 10. I would shower, eat lunch, work till 2, then walk to a coffee shop and write. I would go back home, eat dinner, and watch TV before going to bed.
I did this six days a week with only some variation. On the seventh day, I sabbathed.
One of my seminary professors called the Sabbath a “day of delight,” so I tried to make it be. Some Sundays I would walk down to Lincoln Park with a book and read on a bench overlooking the Sound. Other Sundays were harder, more boring and less delightful. Eventually I made a list for myself, of things appropriate for the Sabbath, fit for a day of pleasure. The final rule (or as I edited, “freedom”) for the Sabbath was to always say Yes. While the recluse in me wanted to say goodbye so soon after church let out, to say No to all invitations, even the enticing ones, I tried instead to stick around, to say Yes to dinner, to the poetry reading on Capitol Hill, to a ride home.
I’ve begun seeing my whole life this way, as a series of Yeses and No’s. When I say Yes, I’m inviting possibility, danger, mistakes, the kinds of things I find myself fearfully avoiding six days a week. And when I say No, I’m protecting myself, building boundaries against chaos.
In saying Yes and No, I give myself a say in how my story plays out; I generate meaning. I get to reclaim some of the agency that was taken away from me in, say, a messy breakup.
If you’re going to run away from your problems, if you’re going to sabotage yourself anyway, do it well. If the way you disassociate is by overeating, then get the richest, darkest slice of chocolate cake you can find, pull out your fanciest china, and pour yourself the tallest cup of thick whole milk. If you’re going to sin, wrote Martin Luther, “sin boldly.”
I tell my friend Christina on the drive home from church that I know I’m not handling this breakup all that well. I know sometimes I make good decisions—the best ones possible, really. And other times, I say Yes when I know I should be saying No.
“That’s OK,” Christina tells me. “At least you’re honest with yourself.”
Earlier in the summer, Christina told me about a grad friend of hers whose way of handling her breakup was to discover herself sexually. She went from being one of those True Love Waits girls to sleeping with strangers. “Sometimes you just need to eat the chocolate cake,” Christina told me.
My becoming a Christian coincided with my learning about symbolism in middle school English class. We read our assigned books with new eyes. Yes, Buck and Spitz were dogs, but didn’t they also represent humanity?
I learned to read my life this way too. Maybe everything that happens happens for a reason. And the seemingly random, coincidental? Maybe those moments point to even greater meaning, like the tenor of a metaphor holding more weight than its vehicle.
So to my 12-year-old mind, the sun shining meant I ought to thank God for being there, for showing up. The rain meant God was in control.
And how could I not still believe this with the Seattle rain drenching the bus, then my body, as I met my ex for a rendezvous, just one month since I moved out of our co-habitat? How could I not think that maybe God had at least some control over my life, with the “this isn’t right, this isn’t right” echo in my heart, the one I kept pushing deeper and deeper down, as I took another step toward my ex?
Sometime last fall I had an image in my head of a poem. The content was still missing, but its construction was clear: the first lines would be a scramble of words, like an obscure e.e. cummings poem. Toward the middle, words would start to align, maybe with exaggerated breaks between each word. And then, order. Short, trim lines. I called this my “chaos poem”; I never wrote it. It sits somewhere on my Desktop, only a mosh pit of unpoetic words put to pixels.
I dreamed up this poem when I thought a crush of mine, my first crush post-breakup, was heading somewhere. I thought, maybe all this chaos was meant for something. Maybe things will come together; the chaos will funnel through the boundaries of Story and what I will be left with is a meaning, a meaning for all the heartache, the bad decisions, the library of memories.
But when that crush led nowhere, I abandoned my search for meaning like I abandoned my chaos poem. I wrote a prayer on the bus late one night: “This is all meaningless. There’s a part of me that wants to construct meaning out of some kind of false hope, but I can’t do that. All I can do is affirm the shittiness: God, this is shitty.”
So here we are, New Year’s Eve, nearing 2015, and I’m glad that my computer got a virus—one I’ve been crying over for the past 15 minutes—so my friends will mellow out. Geez, we can’t drink with Lauren in the next room like that. Meanwhile by text I’m coaxing my new boyfriend Joel from across the country, wondering what he means by “browning out,” one step under blacking out drunk.
A few weeks later, I watch Joel care for his best friend who gets sloppy drunk after going shot-for-shot with a stranger. We are at a tiki-themed karaoke bar on a Sunday, the day the Seahawks beat the Packers. Our team is going to the Super Bowl, and the whole city is going crazy. I’m trying to make sense of the feelings inside me, the ones that are so glad I got out of my introvert’s cocoon, celebrating a victory that, to the people around me, means so much, maybe too much.
But then I see the drunk, strung-out middle-aged woman swaying to poorly-sung karaoke music, her getting grabbed and thrown out of the bar by a goateed man; I see Joel’s friend grasping for drinks like a baby, his words fumbling out of his soft, wet mouth; I see people shoving meaning into things that, for me, hold none.
The 2nd century theologian Tertullian, a champion against the heretic Marcion, himself converted to a heresy toward the end of his life. Seeing that the Church was growing as ugly and corrupt as the world, Tertullian turned to the ascetic, rule-heavy Montanism. I read of a fictional character who wondered if maybe Tertullian was “too good for the world.” Sometimes, a little embarrassed, I wonder that about myself.
I tell Joel I’m ready to leave. I sit there staring at the next singer in Seahawks gear as Joel makes sure his friend has a safe ride home. I nurse this feeling in my gut familiar to me since I was 12 and my sister cussed in front of me the first time: this sense of indignant rage, of how dare you. How dare you shatter this image I have that the world is mostly good—or at least that the people I surround myself with know when to say Yes and No, choose to live stories that are heavy with meaning, not chaos.
I think as I put on my coat: How the hell did Jesus do it, always eating with the tax collectors and drunkards and prostitutes? What did he do when they cheated in front of him, or drank too much, or left dinner early to turn tricks the rest of the night?
The next Saturday, I go out to the bars again with Joel and his friends. In the cab ride over, there is a playfulness in the way we retell last weekend’s story. “You told us to sing anything Bon Jovi, don’t you remember?” Joel says to his best friend, the one who was too sick to work on Monday. And we laugh when he doesn’t remember yet agrees with his own sound, though intoxicated, advice. At the bar I remind him of the duet he sang with the eccentric Jimmy, the way they stared into each other’s eyes. “I was moved,” I joke.
If time will not heal, I wonder, maybe it makes room for reconstruction, for building meaning where you thought it could not exist.
Joel and I stay until 1 a.m., when I ask him if we can leave, just one thick porter in my belly; it’s enough to slow me down. We leave but decide together that the warm weather, the 55-degrees in January, would make the hour walk home worth it.
“This is perfect,” Joel tells me, pulling me towards him. He says this is his favorite trek, through the city after a night of drinking. He gets to see Seattle in a way he never does in the daylight: serene, lit up green and blue for the Super Bowl. As we walk, I think of how unsure I still feel with the man squeezing my hand, leading us through our city like a labyrinth. I think of all the Yeses we have made to get us here and how many more we still have to make. The Yes of love, the No of breaking up. I let the thought pass and wonder instead if this evening holds enough meaning for itself.
We walk the winding path through Capitol Hill, Westlake, past the mall, and down Fourth toward Joel’s condo. Some people are stumbling out of bars; the homeless are curled up on the curbs. But most of the city is tucked inside its high rise apartments, lights off, asleep and dreaming under the twinkling cosmos.