It seems about right and fitting that I will be in my second month at seminary when I arrive at the twenty year anniversary of that fateful decision I made inside the elevator of my friend S’s dorm. Of course, I was already well along on a collision course for what was to come, and too much about how I’d behaved in middle and high school would have had to change in order for me to make the correct decision at that moment in October 1996.
It was the start of my Junior year in college, and I was yet again feeling like my luck would change. I now had my own apartment, was out of the dorms and the younger, noisy riffraff that mostly looked askance at older guys who remained in dorms. All of my friends had moved out, dropped out, or moved on to become grownups. I was wearing a button down Tommy Hilfiger shirt that I’d purchased a thrift store, but the shirt still seemed to my naive self to be in fashion. My hair was lightly peroxided, and slicked back with some product. I don’t remember what my closer friends who remained in Columbia were doing that night.
I wanted to get drunk. I still believed that if I got drunk at the right pace at the right party, I would be able to talk to a girl and get her to go home with me. I was singularly focused when I stepped on the elevator of S’s dorm, and though he seemed only halfway committed to tracking down someone who would by me booze or take me to a party, he was my only hope. The girl who got on the elevator with me was gorgeous, though I hardly remember what she looked like. She smiled at me, and smiled intently in a way that said she would be amenable to me inviting her up to my room, if my room was indeed inside this dorm. I smiled back at her, got extremely anxious and nervous, and steeled myself to the fact that I was committed now to joining S for alcohol consumption.
It was, of course, the night of my DWI. The night I forfeited my pickup truck for good. The same Chevy S-10 that would be passed on to my little brother H. The truck which had an engine block, an aluminum frame and a bench seat. Safety wasn’t the first concern of someone who drove it, thought it was remarkably safer than the Triumph Spitfire convertible I had been driving–a car so small and flimsy that a motorcycle might actually be a safer mode of transportation.
As anyone who has bothered to know me or has read much of my other writing (ie, someone in the distant future who is curating my records) knows, my little brother was to die two years and three months later in that truck. This precipitated my need to get the hell out of Missouri, which also sealed my parents’ commitment to retiring in Texas. Therefore, I felt an intense obligation to stay in Texas with my parents long after I’d grown tired of Texas and had fallen in love with San Francisco and wanted to live in some big city on a coast.
Only eleven years would pass from that night in October 1996 until my mom died of cancer, the last round of cancer she battled. Like every previous battle of cancer, my parents refused to let me in on just how bad it was until it got really bad, and they really needed my support. Naturally, I would have been much more committed and focused to academic excellence in college if I had known that my mom was as badly off as she was the entire time I was there. She detected her first lymph lump when she was 49. I will be 49 in nine years.
I am not really certain what college meant to me, exactly, other than it felt like a massive ball of swirling opportunities and potential that I just couldn’t quite get my hands on. I was unable to see just how much I needed to suck it up and throw myself into things, in spite of how uncomfortable it would be. Yes, I would have to probably date women who weren’t as good looking as I imagined my first loves would be, but I wasn’t going to develop any sort of ability to engage the opposite sex looking at porn on the brand new Web or watching sitcoms on TV.
I didn’t understand any of this. I was well into my thirties before I finally got the point that I wasn’t a special snowflake of any kind, but simply someone who was socially retarded due to the fact that he hadn’t bothered to take any necessary first steps to get past initial awkwardness, because he thought he was gifted and chosen and God or the Universe would simply send him the perfectly wonderful beautiful virgin on the campus quad one fall or spring, and this girl would agree with everything he said–not because she felt forced to, but because she was my perfect soulmate.
The primary problem with me then and now is how I tend to have dreams and desires that are completely at odds with each other. I want to put on display a silly kind of oddball humor, but I also want to be taken seriously and not become the butt of jokes or the special kid that people step mostly just patronize. I like the idea of living in a backwoods swamp area in the deep South where I do nothing but paint, read and write, but I also want to do something with my life, and I love the feeling I get when I first step out on the streets of a big city while on vacation there.
I suppose that those who analyze my writing in the future will declare my obsession with parts of my past to be pathological. I can’t explain why I feel the need to fly up to KCMO and drive up to S then out to Columbia before beginning this new chapter in my life. Partly, I want to pay respects to the old home and go to the cemetery where H and Nannie are buried. Since my dad has yet to purchase a headstone for my mom after nine years, I still am unable to really feel proper about going and paying respect to her where she is buried in B. My dad will not let me help pay for the head stone, and won’t hear of any suggestion about ordering something temporary, so it’s almost like I am paying respects to my mom as well while I am up there. At any rate, I don’t believe people hover around where they are buried, but I do think our psychological and emotional intensity increases to a degree that we might attract some of their energy to us. I suspect that my mom is quite happy with H up in heaven, but perhaps I will feel something extra of her presence if I go up there. Maybe I’ll even go over to the old church in K and stop in if anyone is in there.
What is this all about? I think maybe there is a part of me that longs to have a sense of home, tradition, community, roots, a place to come back to and see old friends, etc. and I do not have that. I have the places I haunted like a ghost, moving through, making friends only with rootless people who loved me when I was drunk and otherwise didn’t care to get to know me. I have all the places I know I should have been frequenting, but never did, because I thought I was too good to be a part of those places, when I was really just too scared to let my awkward self be on display to be laughed at or ignored. The last time I drove up to S and Columbia it was very much like this–I felt like a ghost in the places where I’d spent a lot of time and realized I was a ghost back then as well, and I felt like a character in a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life or a time travel show like Journeyman who knew he had actually been a part of maybe some of these other places (like perhaps a church or youth center in college) but it was on a different timeline, in an alternate universe, and there was no way to get back over there and get it right again.
I can’t explain how all of this happened. I don’t know where it started. I remember having a crush on a girl in the first grade who I think really liked me as well, and feeling the same fear and inability to talk to her that I would feel with girls and women I liked throughout all of my single life. The same fear. A certain quality of fear that also saw me refrain from playing sports and going to school dances. Was it cowardice? Perhaps, but I had no fear of roaming the countryside around my house and playing in old, rotten barns or on rotten ice that covered ponds and lakes. I wasn’t afraid of large, stray dogs or snakes and other critters. It was a people-centric fear–a sense that perhaps whoever I became deeply or even modestly connected to would change me in ways that I didn’t want to be changed.
And yet of course, I ended up having all of those things happen to me slowly over the course of an adult life that was slow to take hold and become much of anything at all. I ended up finding myself in suffocating relationships and in relationships where I felt like I was there to be manipulated and controlled and hurt. And I did change, just like everyone else did. As far as my socio-emotional maturity goes, I probably went through a lot of the experiences people go through in high school and college during the rest of my twenties after college.
And then there were those dry, awful years following my mom’s dead. They were really only three years, but they were three years of heady expectation for the future met by endless disappointment.
A younger version of me would probably find it quite strange that almost twenty years after I traveled to Austin and then New York during the month of July (1997), I am travelling to Missouri on some kind of quest. I guess I don’t look back on Missouri anymore with hateful or even sorrowful eyes. I see it as a state like any other, and I guess maybe some day I will feel the same way about Texas. The rest of my life is really in God’s hands, and all I can do is let God know as often as possible that I would rather find myself living and preaching in New York during the final two decades of my second career than living and preaching in Texas. I am willing to concede that if this isn’t God’s plan, or if it isn’t the best thing for L and a future child, then so be it. But, at least God has a complete understanding of what would and would not make me happy.
Almost every church in my denomination I’ve looked at seems to be looking or have been looking recently for a Senior Pastor, and so I think I would be able to work any number of places after I graduate and put in a few years as an Associate Pastor.
What is all of this, anyway, except an attempt to derive a thread of meaning from my life? The thread of meaning only starts to seem complete and robust after it because a negative one. The story is one of a series of terrible decisions, some due to ignorance and some to folly. There is a struggle to understand why I am being kept in Texas when I don’t really like it that much. Sure, there are the superficial explanations, like a desire to be close to my parents in their last years, especially while they were still heavy with grief over the loss of H. Yes, there was also some guilt from having left them in KC right after he died. But then, an entire story of me doing things that would only keep me here longer. I go to SF or NYC and I feel love for the city–an actual feeling of love. Back in Texas, I visit Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston–there is only the shadow of the heady feeling of being someplace right.
I had all but concluded my desire to live in NYC was purely born out of my false, extremely sinful self and it would go away once I started talking to God and reading my Bible more. But, I don’t feel like the desire has abated much. I feel a continued pull, and am almost convinced that perhaps God wants me to live there some day and help people in some way. I say almost, because I have a history of thinking I knew what God wanted for me, when I really did not. I am not completely convinced, either, that God has an iron, immutable will that refuses to take into consideration anything we want for ourselves.
At this point, though, unless I was called to preach or be a chaplain in NYC, or I decided to make the rest of my professional life an academic one and happened to get into a school in NYC–unless any of these things happen, the chances of my family and I living there any time after seminary are pretty slim. We certainly wouldn’t be able to swing it financially without someone underwriting the cost of living.
I should also state that I still hold out that perhaps God does want this for me, and I need to keep my mind and heart on God and the focus of getting my MDiv, and let God unfold the future outside of my attempts to control it and dictate what the narrative will be. In the past, when I had held that sense of waiting for Fate or the Universe to take me where it will, I wasn’t especially precise as to what I wanted and which higher power(s) would be helping me. I also continued to cling to some false notions about there not really being anything other than my own person and sense of personal responsibility. God, of course, isn’t going to help you if you are praying to other entities or yourself to get things done.
The other thing that should be stressed is that I needn’t struggle to figure out how this could happen, us moving to New York for me to preach, be a chaplain, social worker, professor, etc. God has always opened doors for me in unexpected ways, and the doors have seemed least likely to open the more I try to have the future completely mapped out ahead of time.