Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Stranger in a Strange Land

Oh, how I wish we had returned to town in the same shape we'd left, sort of. We'd left in the mid-90's in a blaze of glory. We were young, upwardly mobile, and headed to a promised land. The new employer had made lots of promises. So many were made that I was near about expectin' them to hand me a winning Mega-millions lottery ticket redeemable upon receipt. Given the raise they'd tucked into their offer, I might have been tempted to turn down the lottery ticket if it had it been included. We were young, and life was sweet even if the marriage was not all I had hoped it would be.

When we dragged back to town 8 years later, we were barely recognizable. In fact, we longed for anonymity. Even tho' I kept telling my kids about my good God with the hard to understand but good plan, I couldn't understand what had happened to us. How could I explain it all to the friends we'd left behind almost a decade earlier?

Courtesy Mad Penguin Creations
One of the biggest decisions we made upon each of the 3 moves between '95 and '83 was where to go to church. If you aren't from the buckle of the Bible belt, you probably have a hard time wrapping your head around that concept. To us, it came as natural as breathing. You'd think in coming home to heal, we'd have run back to the church in which we met and married. Pride is a powerful thing. Without discussing it, we both knew what we couldn't do. Neither of us could stand the thought of going back to the scene where our fractured history had begun.

We figured that our upwardly mobile friends had just kept on moving on up. We doubted seriously that anyone could identify with an illness so perplexing that it had cost our home. We didn't know how to explain that we were among that new statistic: the invisible homeless. Maybe, had our experiences with the church community we left behind not been so bitter, we could have faced it. Today, we've been back as long as we were gone, but the thought still gives me the willies. I wonder. Could we have gone back and felt like we had gone home? Would we have been accepted? Would any of our old friends even have still been there to care? Funny how pride makes you afraid and how fear keeps you from trying.

We had 2 boys. We had made some vows about how we'd raise them. Being marked absent on our church attendance card was not an option. So, we dragged around a bit trying to find a place that was so-so without being too-too. I had grown up in church knowing about the vagabonds that go from place to place never able to settle down. This church too conservative. That church too liberal. This one too big. That one too small. The list goes on and changes to suit the need when the vagabond gets restless and needs to move on to greener pastures. We had never been 'that' kind of family, and we weren't about to start being one just because we were homeless.

So, we made our way to a mini-mega-church. Small enough that parking wasn't a nightmare. Big enough that no one really cared if we came or went. No one spoke. No one made eye contact. But, oh, did they make music, and oh, was the teaching spot on for us. It was exactly what we needed. We could come and go and not be required to make explanation for who we were and why we were in such sorry shape. We were comfortably invisible.

Such an odd change for me – the girl who never met a stranger and makes friends at the grocery store and dentist. No matter where we had moved, I had plunged right in to be all that I could be. I told myself it was 'ok' not to have the proverbial 'church family' in this latest new place. I was punching my attendance ticket and getting all the friendship I needed in the vibrant homeschool community that had embraced us with vigor. We just needed time to let our sunburned hearts and emotions settle down and heal. This new place was giving us plenty of that time and space, and it felt good!

The church had a lot to offer that would turn out to be life changing for us. Jeff would meet the counselor who would eventually unlock the key to his past. This man would administer the vows on that November day when we said, “I do,” all over again for the 2nd time. Even while he was still hiding from the monster that had imprisoned him all his life, Jeff would find a friend. This friend would turn out to be the closest friend Jeff had ever made. He would, as well, take part in the ceremony when we remarried. As if his friendship were not enough, he gave us another gift that would color the rest of son #1's lifetime. He took the son of this fraidy cat all the way to China and back and opened his eyes to so many things that he would have never seen otherwise. Today, son #1 is negotiating with a company in Australia about a business opportunity. I have no doubt these conversations would not be taking place had the trip to China not been part of his life. These gifts make the totality of my experience all the more perplexing and mysterious.

As we got back on our feet and put the pieces of our fragmented lives back together, I got restless. It wasn't enough anymore to be a nameless, faceless person in the crowd. This place had given us so much. I wanted to do like I had done before. It was time for me to become a giver and not just a taker. The process had always been so simple before. It would be easy again especially since we had been coming and going from that place for 3 years already.

Ever so tentatively, I began to reach out only to have my efforts fall flat. If there was a group that I had something in common with, I did my best to make my way into their presence. I'd even hear that someone in the group knew about and thought at a lot of me. I was assured I would hit it off famously with person after person. Then, I'd meet the very people only to have them freeze up and look at me as if I had grown a 3rd eyeball. I'd back up and content myself with my invisibility again for a while. Then, the restlessness would over take me again. I'd reach out with hopeful expectation. Again, I would be puzzled by the experience. Another year came and went as I made one failed attempt after another to create some sense of community in this church that had helped us put our lives back together for the 1st time.

Eventually, I began to confide my sense of alienation to a few trusted friends and my husband. Some of the 'in' crowd admitted that the church had a rep of being socially difficult for newcomers. I met dozens of folks who had come, visited, and beat a path out as quickly as they could because they caught on quicker than I had about that reality. I tried to puzzle it out with Jeff. He saw it too, but being the introvert to my extrovert, he was not as disoriented by the chain of events as was I. In one final effort to sort out why nothing I did resulted in any significant success, I turned to a staffer. I was told again that what I was looking for, what I wanted, was somehow unreasonable. The noise in my head from the dissonance of what I knew vs what they were saying was like a playground whistle blowing my eardrums out. When I left, I knew I would never return. It was the 2nd saddest day of my life.

I could feel weird all by myself. I didn't need to be reminded every week that I was even weirder than I thought I was. This shattering defeat on the heels of all I had already endured: fragile marriage, sick husband, months in limbo as one of the invisible homeless, caring for kids with complicated learning disabilities would serve to be one of the last 3 blows I could take.  I could feel myself beginning to go under, but I had been so good at treading water for so long who'd have thought I couldn't keep doing it forever. Looking back, I wonder how I kept doing it for 2 more years. 

Oh, dear friend...are you in that place? Are you treading water in the midst of a fraidy cat world? You are not alone. You are not weird. You've come home. I don't exactly know where I'm headed, but in this fraidy cat world, I'm beginning to realize most people don't anymore. I hope I'm writing my way back to God. People tell me he's still here and that one day I'll realize he's been here all along. Today is not that day. I hope that won't scare you away. I hope you'll come back tomorrow. When you do, I hope you will feel as if you came running home. Love you long. Love you strong. See you soon?

Psalm 25: 14, 15 (ESV)
14 The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant. 15 My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.