Monday, November 15, 2010

Not Some Kind of Anything -- Chapter 8


Do we have enough strength to take down the walls? 
Do we have enough patience to rise from the falls?
Do we have enough love to walk through this pain?
Do we have enough hope to vanquish this stain?

With just enough grace, we could lift up our brother.
With enough truth to stand, we could stand with each other.
With abundant forgiveness, we could push through the sorrow.
And with fullness of faith, we'd rejoice in tomorrow.

But we'll fall short of grace as truth slips from our sight.
And hoard our forgiveness while hope fades in the night.
And we'll run out of strength, for the climb is too tough,
'Till we find in our Savior . . . that we do have enough.

-- Thom Hunter
The Weight of Who I Am

Chapter 8
Not Some Kind of Anything

When it comes to the reality of life, it can be hard to distinguish between a plummet and a summit. A high and a low. A stop and a go. Forward and backward. Worthy or worthless. Arriving or departing. Even dead or alive becomes complicated in the sense of spirit and hope. Deciding if things are "going well" or "getting better" is not easy in the midst of overriding crisis. Are we growing, or have we just been ripped up roots and all to shrivel in the sun?

Such was May 2009. My May 2009. I realized fairly quickly that the world was going on and I was sitting by like a careless child thrown from the merry-go-round, lying in a heap while the band plays on. I had come undone. The only world I knew for certain was coming to an end was my own. If I survived at all, much of the life I had slowly and methodically built around me -- the world I depended on day-to-day -- would not be there. I did not want to be redefined anymore than I had wanted to come undone . . . but it was done.

Unlike God, who is aware of every final prayer of the people on a plane as it falls from the sky . . . and, at the same moment, just as aware of every first cry of a million babies being born . . . I was aware only of the crumbling of my own existence, certain that the last thread straining to hold it all together was in danger of snapping. It seemed callous that the rest of the world carried on so normally. TV was in re-runs. Grass was growing. Rain fell; the sun shined. They were solving the puzzles on the Wheel of Fortune. Day and night, dark and light. How dare the cycle of life be so unbroken. For me, there was no cause for even the most minimal optimism.

The calamity I was experiencing did contain some certainty: no church, no job, no connection between myself and the five children I had helped raise. Likelihoods emerged: no friends, no future. Unavoidable intangibles loomed: no hope, no voice, no way out. Not this time.

I also became very aware that while it seemed that the whole world had turned upside down, most people were just going on as always, or trying to. Mother's Day -- May 10 -- I sat at home while Lisa and her mother attended church, one week before my membership would be revoked in the evening service. It would be weeks later before the church pastor would ask Lisa to remove herself as a member because she had remained in our marriage and her presence made them uncomfortable. My mother-in-law would follow Lisa and our time at ----- ----
Baptist Church came to an official end.

Only Lisa, who still believed in me and believed my version of the events that had lead to my arrest, and believed God had answered her prayers with the word "stay," and Stephen Black, director of First Stone Ministries, who believed in the power of a mighty God to rescue, were with me. I was woefully short of people who could look me in the eyes without looking away.

I found myself willingly pursuing unpleasant tasks which might produce a result -- good or bad -- but at least evidence that life was continuing for me. Thus, I plunged into finding a lawyer who could advise me on how to handle the inevitable: an appearance in court to enter a plea and begin the course of accountability. As if it was just another external affairs project at AT&T, I sifted through the brochures and letters that came in the mail from attorneys offering their services.

As millions celebrated Mothers' Day, I spread out promotional pieces, trying to distinguish integrity and professionalism from slogans and promises. I chose my lawyer because he appeared to me to be the least-lawyerly, based on the bravado of promises and unrealistic sympathy some put forth. His brochure said "Do not despair." Even his name -- Bill Smith -- spoke of normalcy, something I really needed. I wanted representation, not a savior. He had an up-front honesty that portrayed to me the understanding that I was about to go through something necessary that would not be pretty, but we would survive. I admit, though, that I did like his comfortable usage of the word "we" on the phone. "We" will take it step-by-step and make it through.

Strangely, seeing my signature on a contract with a lawyer had a strange soothing effect on me, as if someone really wanted to help me walk through this. Hired help, yes, but help.

The first step? A court appearance on
June 23, 2009 in courtroom number 3 at 9:30 a.m. The attorney would handle that one on his own. My job was to prepare a complete and truthful narrative. "We" were on our way.

Of course, I realized that "we" would not be in the same place when "we" made it through. I remembered the words on the lawyer's brochure: "Don't despair." But I also remembered the words of the song of surrender: "So here I am. This is my plea. My only hope is your love for me. I'm reaching out, so desperately. Come take my hand; take all of me . . . just as I am."

The real and the unreal were somehow tangled up. The real? Well before the arrest in the park, my decades-old struggle against homosexuality had dwindled down to only a shadow of the past battles. The unreal? I would face the judge to enter a plea on a charge for something I did not do. The tangle? My own past was the best prosecution witness against me; the charge seemed believable in the light of my own past character, which had arisen to cast a dark shadow. The future hung on "I am," but the present was being overwhelmed by "I was."

I also knew that I was not alone in this quandary. How many other men and women were coming to the truth, through trial and error, that their desire to change, if turned over to God, could be fulfilled? And how many of them were so tainted by their past that it seemed there was no hope that anyone would ever believe them if they did, indeed . . . change? How many were being observed by the culturally-driven masses -- Christians also -- who believe in their own hearts and minds -- despite God's omnipotence -- that people cannot change? How many were without encouragement in perhaps the greatest battle of their lives?

Could all of this -- this odd arrest, the continuation of family disintegration, removal from my church, the job loss, the great unraveling of my entire life -- be God's intention? Was there a benefit to be discovered? Even something valuable to share? Something God could work for good . . . for His purpose? Suddenly, in the vacuum of loss, I had time to search and share. I would do it through writing, pouring out the struggles of my soul, seeking transparency in the absence of relationships. It seemed this was the time for a total revelation of the struggle from roots through repentance toward hopeful restoration.

So, on
June 4, 2009, 20 days after my career ended, and 20 days before my legal journey would begin in earnest, I began to write with the simple statement: The Struggle is a Sign of Life.

The Early '70s
Denton, Texas

Days began and nights ended in the duplex on Denison Street with a collective sigh of relief that "the man whose name we do not mention," had not returned, apparently believing my mother's final warning that if he did, there would be hell to pay. I relaxed and even began to see myself as less like a gypsy and more like the other kids in class or the other carhops on the Sonic lot. The repeated upheavals that had characterized our lives between Daddy's departure and Michael's -- oops, the name -- drunken rule, had subsided to only occasional "I think I saw him drive by" moments. Post-stepparent-paranoia, no doubt.

We should have known that if we relaxed, he'd return, which he did, sneaking in while Mother was at work and we were all at school, making his presence known by stomping through the house, overturning furniture, dumping drawers, breaking things . . . and slinking away. "Michael" to me is a metaphor for how sin invades our lives, cozies up, takes over, makes demands, confuses us into compromises and guilt trips, offers promises and then leaves us sitting like fools on a curb waving as the last car pulls out for Six Flags and we're left behind to fetch cigarettes for the evil stepfather.

I'm not sure what Mother told Michael after this last episode, but I never saw him again. Still, the collective sighs of relief did not return, and even years later when we heard he had died, I still wondered if he might drive by, or come through the door if we accidentally mentioned his name. After Daddy and Michael, I was pretty sure my mother would never marry again. One thing she promised: we would not leave
Denton until we all finished high school.

Bearing the lack of bearing that was a natural trademark of our family's lack of stability, my older brother and sister -- Mike and Deb -- had already made their peace with high school, dropping out for different reasons. For Mike, it was a sign of rebellion and a quest for freedom. He ended his high school career with a ride through the halls on a souped-up Honda motorcycle, signing up with the U.S. Marine Corps not long after. For Deb, marriage was more appealing than home economics class, and, at 17, she became a Mrs.

I liked high school. I hovered somewhere just below the popularity line as the editor of the school paper, a position that would have brought more respect if it hadn't been balanced out by wearing paper hats on cruise-through evenings to cook countless Sonic onion rings and number two hamburgers, having been promoted to cook, at 90 cents an hour, which bought a lot more gasoline for the Falcon . . . which was also a bit of a drag on the popularity positioning. Still, I had friends and I had a knack for creating controversy with the paper, thus developing a reputation for quiet boldness.

Sparked by a hint of acceptance, I embarked on a round of materialistic self-improvement, setting aside my roller-skating carhop past for a job as a custodial assistant at
First Baptist Church, which, for some reason was more socially acceptable, perhaps because it was a church? My hourly income soared above the dollar point. Soon after, my odd habit of reading the local newspaper during high school lunch breaks allowed me to be the very first person to respond to an ad a woman had placed to sell her son's 1968 Camaro convertible for a mere $800. He had gone off to Vietnam and she was sure he would want a new one when he got back home, so she made me a deal and suddenly I had a car all would envy.

I was still me, with all the same lingering doubts about my identity, all the inner fears and wonderings, but I sure looked better pulling into the parking lot. I was no longer invisible, nor trying to be.

My early journalistic standards varied from "strong" editorials about the meaningless effect marijuana laws were having on kids whose parents couldn't even get them to come home on school nights, to hard-hitting pieces about whether spirit ribbons were an effective way to promote football games or just put more money in cheerleader's pockets. Deep.

I wasn't beyond inventing a little news when things got dry around Denton High. High school sophomores in the early '70s wanted desperately to latch on to the college level peace movement, but we lacked the boldness required for marches and sit-ins, being young enough to still get paddled by a principal. In the curious way that teenagers elevate the meaningless to momentous, a couple of friends and I decided that since there was nothing more important to world peace than Denton High Homecoming, we needed to make a statement. Being an "editor," gave me easy access to the football field after hours. A friend's easy access to his dad's wallet provided the supplies we would need: sacks of rock salt, which we carefully and quietly poured onto the football field around the 50-yard-line in the shape of a peace symbol four days before the Homecoming football game. Each night the sprinklers would come on in the dark, watering the field, soaking the salt into the grass until, by Friday, the peace sign stood out in its withering brownness against the healthy green.

It was destined to be page one news in the Denton High Horseshoe, with a strong editorial to follow about whether the pursuit of peace justified vandalism. Deep stuff once again.

Which led me to Becky. Three rows back and one over in biology class. She was beautiful . . . and a Filly . . . a member of the drill team, which performed with precision at football games in high boots, short skirts and white cowgirl hats, twirling white mock rifles. Taking a Filly to a homecoming dance was a move that alone could mark a successful high school career. I didn't have a chance, even though we were good friends in class. I was an able partner behind a microscope, but not a part of her after-school inner circle. As the day of the dance came closer, Becky remained unmatched, the word going around that she was holding out for someone in particular. In a moment of self-inflated self-delusion, I stammered through an invitation, ready to run for the door.

"Yes," she said. "I will go with with you." I was in shock, responding with "You will?" Thinking back, she sounded a bit like a bank teller being taken as a getaway hostage, but . . . she did say "yes." I was apparently not the dream guy she was holding out for, but, with time running out, her only chance for a homecoming mum. I had moved up from a '60 Ford Falcon to a '68 Camaro convertible, a point in my favor. As the evening would prove, my dancing skills were clearly not the draw, which reached the height of awkwardness on the third playing of
Chicago's "Color My World." I had an odd feeling that Denise was not actually in my world, but rather was looking over my shoulder.

"Want some punch?" was met with "I don't feel well," which led to "Can you take me home?" I might have been clumsy, but I was a gentleman, and, top up on the convertible, we made our way home, the hot dream-date ending with a pre-11 p.m. almost peck on the cheek on the front porch, a brief "see you Monday in biology," and a sad walk down the sidewalk. I couldn't go home. My mother and my sister would be in the living room eating yellow cupcakes, in bathrobes, painting their toenails while watching Johnny Carson and anticipating a full report on my dream date.

I had at least an hour to kill after watching her shut the door and turn off the porch-light, so I put the top down and, sighing solo in the bright moonlight, circled the block a couple of times, pining away at the sight of Becky's dark porch on every round . . . picturing her in her prom dress retching in the kitchen sink . . . until I noticed on trip three the light back on, Becky emerging -- wearing the mum I had bought her -- and taking the hand of Dennis, a senior, who had eyed her at the dance. She finally had her holdout in hand. Miraculous recovery. Dennis

, two-years-older and half-a-foot-taller than me, clearly had intentions beyond sharing a cup of punch.

Monday would be a tough day. Becky and I would be back in biology; we had a frog we needed to dissect. I was determined she would label her own organs.

My fascination with Fillies came to an end a few months after the Becky less-than fling. My sister, 11-months younger than me and arguably the most loyal person I have ever known, tried out for the drill team, spending hours and hours hopping and high-kicking in arm-locked rhythm with all the other girls who wanted the validation the uniformity would bring. My position as editor of the paper got me into the final tryouts. Sue was super, matching kick for kick, twist for twist, deep bend for bend. In matching outfits and bright white cowgirl hats, they performed their routine for the judges like a long row of paper cutouts. Until, that is, that Amelia, a slightly-skinny girl on Sue's right, made a kick to the right when everyone else kicked left, striking Sue's boot-clad foot. Shocked, Sue turned her head to to the right, while everyone else looked left. Sue's cowgirl hat out of sync, which is what the judge's saw, with her long blonde links more apparent than Amelia's skinny leg.

When we returned to the school that night to see the names posted of the Fillies-to-be, Amelia's name was on the list, but Sue's was not.

Sometimes we find our rejection is no fault of our own, but there is nothing we can do. We don't make a list. Other times we find our rejection is because of something we did. And it goes on a list.

My Becky-date-disaster added to a confusion about girls that had emerged the previous summer, just before dawn on a Saturday morning by a lakeside in the twilight of my Sonic days. I had just turned 16. Having a single parent who worked two jobs, freedom wasn't something I had to strive for; it was thrust upon me. I realized that if I showed good judgment most of the time -- particularly as measured against an older brother whose motorcycle-riding-rebellion was reaching legend status with the local police -- I could pretty much make all my own decisions and do what I pleased.

I had come to know Darlene and her mother as part of the onion-ring making crew on Saturday mornings. I knew Lacy Dawn, the other daughter, as the popular night-shift carhop skating her way to fame, raking in tips and always finding a ride home from one of the late-night customers at closing time. Except Fridays. On Fridays, the boys on the night crew would rush to clean up after midnight and head to Lacy Dawn's and Darlene's big old crumbling house on the edge of a private pond about
10 miles out of town. When I turned 16, it was my turn to take the trip into the moonlight wilderness of loud music blaring out of car speakers playing 8-track tapes, parked around the pond, where as many as a dozen boys would spread out on blankets, guzzling Schlitz beer, while vying for the attentions of Darlene and Lacy Dawn. I was petrified, waiting for the real dawn.

All night I wandered around the edge of the woods that circled the pond, watching a mist rise from the water as boy after boy slowly passed out. I had heard the laughter, seen from a distance the sexual abandon with which the not-so-pretty-now girls entertained their guests, had even seen the mother sitting on the porch in the dark, identifiable only when she took a deeper puff of her cigarette. I was hiding, waiting for someone to start a car engine so I could get myself away.

As the sun rose, I heard a voice from the foggy edge of the pond.

"Tom," said the voice. "Lacy Dawn wants you to come over here."

I saw the older guy, clothesless, lying on a blanket. Lacy Dawn stood nearby, wrapped in a blanket, curling her pointing finger and laughing at me as I froze and slowly backed away, closer to the trees, refusing her offer to end my virginity.

He sat up, joined in her laughter and said in a drunken drawl, "What's wrong with you? Are you some kind of queer or something?"

I heard a car start.

In the days that followed, I would repeat his question over and over in my mind, adding it to the memories that will not fade, like Mr. Hooten's dismissive glance across the room on the day of my discarding. Shortly thereafter, I quit the Sonic forever and buried his question alongside many others unanswered.

"No," I told myself. "I am not some kind of anything. I am me."

My job at First Baptist Church provided a great deal of solitude and time for reflection as I vacuumed the huge auditorium, swept the never-ending halls, washed the countless windows and assisted with the setting up and tearing down of meals and receptions, and swept up the petals left behind from wedding happiness to funeral sadness. From the push-end of a broom, I had a panoramic -- and overall comforting -- view of the world the way it seemed that God had intended it to be.

My boss, Ray, was a rough, uneducated, uncouth and poorly-dressed man who smelled bad, had bad teeth and even a tattoo here and there on his huge arms. His grammar was bad, his comments sometimes off-color. In my post-Lacy-Dawn emergence of puritanical persuasion, I held a deep concern, not for Ray, but for
First Baptist Church and the obvious mistake they had made in his employment. He just didn't belong.

I found my chance to correct the Ray mistake when I discovered him sneaking a smoke in the church supply closet. Following my self-righteous confrontation, Ray asked me simply and humbly to please not tell the church administrator . . . or he might lost his job. Smoking was absolutely forbidden, unless you happened to be a deacon on a Sunday morning grabbing a quick one between Sunday school and worship service. Smoking was one of the most rigid rules applied to all employees.

Now this was a dilemma. I was 17; he was probably about 47. Clearly I was good and Coy was crude; just look at me and look at him and it's clear. But I was conflicted and thought I should give my conscience a few minutes to clear itself before reporting his great deficiency. His shift ended and Coy gave me a humble thumbs-up sign as he headed out for the night, leaving me alone to walk the halls and later lock the doors. I will always remember how creepy and croaky the church could become when empty, the windows opaque and dark. Pondering my decision, I left the building, retreating to the parking lot to sit in my Camaro, which itself had become a sort of private sanctuary. I made my decision; Coy's discretions were too great.

The next afternoon, after parking my car in the lot, I walked into the church office to see Coy and the administrator waiting for me.

"Coy tells me that you left the building last night," said the administrator. "The doors were not locked and the building was empty. Anyone could have come in while you were gone, hidden, waited, and cleaned us out."

"But," I protested, wondering hoe Ray even knew. "I only went out to sit in my car. I need to tell you something."

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to let you go," the administrator said. "Ray and I are in agreement. Never leaving the building unguarded is our number one rule."

Later, I did get a chance to explain to the administrator about Ray's smoking and my crisis of conscience, which gave him a chance to explain to me that he had hired Ray shortly after Ray had become a Christian and that, despite Ray's rough edges, his need to be at the church was greater than mine.

"You'll be fine," he told me, handing me my final check.

Maybe as we grow up we become confused about who we really are because we so constantly come across people who are not who they proclaim to be and we're not really ready to figure all that out. A father who loves you but can leave you. Michael and his wide winning smile that hid an evil taking heart. Becky and her willingness to use me to get a night out with Dennis. A mother on a porch who watches her daughters give themselves away. Ray, a Christian who seemed anything but, but was perhaps just a little short of getting his footing.

Maybe all of these events are things that most people easily absorb and reason out to use as foundations for building their own character and for establishing a personal moral base, but to me they only added to the confusion and suspicion and prodded the nagging questions that come after "I am me." "Who am I?" "Who knows?" "Who cares?"

A biscuit with the affirming Aunt Bee at the Kentucky Fried Chicken might have been a good idea, but I considered myself grown up now. I would work this out my way. I decided those questions could wait. I was in high school; I had a Camaro; I carried cash. What else mattered?

In our one-bedroom duplex -- now on
Congress St., right across from the park where I had been sexually-abused almost 10 years earlier -- life was good. Just me, my sister and my unpredictable mother who seemed always able to fashion a chaotic life into something more mis-manageable, but something we would eventually survive. Sue and Mother shared the bedroom and I had a single bed wedged tightly into a hallway that curiously went no-where, and had no doors. I crammed in a hippie-decal-decorated chest of drawers, hung beaded curtains on each end of the hallway and pretended to have privacy. It was my own space.

I also had my own dog -- the first of several Sampsons I would own through the years. A bouncy, rambunctious border collie confined in our tiny backyard, constantly barking at the neighbors and chewing on the trees. Undaunted by my memories of
Emily Fowler Park, I took him there to teach him how to walk on a leash. I should have taught myself first, taking off in a trot, not prepared for Sampson's never-ending desire to show affection. He stopped, turned, ran towards me, yipping and jumping, ran around behind me, wrapping me in the leash. I tripped, landed on top of him and broke one of his legs. As I reached down to comfort him -- or really to try to stop the incredible howling that was drawing a crowd -- he bit my hand. A man's-best-friend moment had descended into mutual panic.

Fortunately for me and Sampson, a veterinarian's office bordered the park and I was able to carry him there, him yapping in pain and snapping at me all the way. Unfortunately, for me, the veterinarian's able assistant was out to lunch.

"You'll have to hold the dog down so I can give him a shot," said the vet. "Then we'll do the leg."

I had one hand on Sampson's neck and another on one hind leg, pulling it back to expose the other so we could "do the leg," which started with a nice, neat surgical cut with a scalpel . . . and a nice cut-length flow of bright red blood . . . which is the last thing I remember before I fainted and hit the floor, victim number two of the ill-fated walk in the park.

We both survived.

Our neighbors survived as well, though I could often see them peeking through their curtains as we would come and go. My mother's pink boat of a car had gone to the great salvage dock in the sky, but she now had something almost as ugly, a brown Dodge Dart with a push-button transmission. It seemed my mother was on a mission to rescue wayward cars, bad ideas from
Detroit that should never have survived the drawing board. Her inability to choose a normal vehicle -- pink Buicks and push-button Darts -- was similar to her ability to choose husbands, though one stemmed from poor choice of character and the other a desperate balance in the checkbook.

Not to say I did not grow attached to the Dart, particularly after seeing my Mother's love for it in action the afternoon after the flimsy back bumper and thin metal trunk had been crunched into an arching v-shape from an untimely confrontation with a supermarket light pole "that just shouldn't have been there." Visions of the earlier Christmas-tree-dragging danced in our heads as we, like the neighbors, peered from behind the blinds as she wielded a sledge hammer and tried -- loudly and with repeated blows -- to re-shape her Dart. I considered throwing myself onto the driveway and wailing, "Mother, please don't!," but I knew by now that Mother would do what Mother would do, neighbors or no.

High school would not answer all of life's questions, but it was a brief pause between the pain of a rampaging, out-of-my-control childhood . . . and an adulthood to come, one that would be determined by calculated choices conceived from ill-fated attempts to avoid difficult questions, like "Who am I?"

Still, as I edged ever closer to adulthood, life had a familiar feel.

Mother announced that she was getting married.

(Note: This is the 8th chapter of my on-line book, "The Weight of Who I Am." The seven previous chapters are contained in earlier posts on Signs of a Struggle, beginning with "Have We Finally Come to the End?")

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