Two weeks ago, I talked about stories. I’ve been feeling a pull, a call, to write down some stories. To remember, revisit, and reclaim some of my own. This is the first. I have no idea why it came to me first. I don’t question those things much anymore. I hope you like it.
Junk Mail, Couches, and Repentance
The beige rental carpet itched my legs, bare on a rare warm Montana afternoon. Who knew what those fibers were made of or what had made contact with them over years of rental to college students. A newlywed, I figured I had immunity to all of life’s hardship, including infection from dubious rental carpet. Still, I moved to the couch to open my stack of mailbox-warmed envelopes.
I had a new last name and a new home, and the fact that said home sat in the landlady’s basement and had a kitchen so small I couldn’t open the oven and the refrigerator at the same time mattered little to my self-satisfied first months as a bride.
The landlady’s only real intrusion came on random Saturday mornings when the live-in boyfriend decided to practice his elk horn at 4 am. Directly above our bedroom. I don’t know how well he could bow hunt, but his elk horn skills were enthusiastic.
Said new name and home made opening even junk mail in the basement an exciting daily event. Neither age nor experience had yet jaded me to seeing my name and address on an envelope half-way across the country from where I’d grown up and feeling the special adultness of it all.
The couch’s combo of white polyester and black vinyl squares didn’t treat my thighs much better than the carpet had. My new in-laws had given us the couch when we moved from St. Louis to Bozeman for the first year of medical school, with them ten miles away. I didn’t look gift furniture in . . . what pat of a couch passes for a mouth? Point being, with a recession in Montana and no one hiring an English teacher with one year of experience and only one year of commitment to offer, gratitude seemed the sensible option.
I opened Concerned Women for America’s red, white, and blue envelope third. On our meager income, I’d agreed to send a few dollars when I could. We were in a fight after all, we Christians and “them.” Even then, I wasn’t quite clear on who “them” was. But I knew it was true. I listened to conservative Christian radio and focused on my family every day even though we had no children and wouldn’t until we lived on a lot more than a part-time after school program facilitator’s salary with generous outstanding student loans.
Currently, “we” were fighting allowing gays in the military. The slippery slope warnings in the letter, appropriately capitalized, italicized, and red in all the right places, made sense. They had to be true. They came from people that people I trusted said people they trusted said were to be trusted—so how could they not be?
“They” would cause morale to drop. Trust would fail among the brethren. Real men would flee the military. Troops would decline, we’d embarrass ourselves in every war, America wold lose its status as world leader, and western civilization would end as we know it.
I’d never get those 2.5 children. All because real men didn’t want to shower with not real ones.
Obviously, I had to do my part.
I don’t think it was that day I began to read a bit between the lines, began to see what hadn’t been explicitly written but what surely had. It took time. A few red, white, and blue envelopes opened. A number of appeals that decried “them” as despicable minorities intent on shoving their agenda into my well-ordered, clearly Christian-Right manicured life.
A few more adjectives that made me pause. It happened one day that year on my scratchy black and white couch. I saw the words and I wondered if Jesus would use them. I wondered whom he would call despicable. Disgusting. Militant. I wondered why I read a lot of words about America and protection and rights and not any at all about Jesus even though all these words in the red, white, and blue envelopes supposedly came straight from his heart.
The discomfort had been trickling in, but I’d ignored it because of all those trusted people. If I couldn’t believe these words, what would happen to my well-ordered, promising future? Who would defend me against “them”? Being young and in love did not protect me from the weary woes of the world—bad carpet or bad policy. I knew this. Who didn’t need a buffer between us and them, me and those who would come for my one-day children, if I didn’t send in my duly-appointed ten dollars?
That day, I didn’t.
Another couch, another day. Many years between, and three children, one of whom sat beside me, sixteen and lovely, but mad as righteous indignation can make an almost-woman.
We could afford a better couch by this time, and I’d bought this one to match my perfect plans for the living room—navy blue plaid, intermingled with forest green and cranberry, shards of gold shot between. The precise colors I’d wanted. Still, perfection is a beast of a slave master, because Pippin the black cat used that couch regularly to sharpen his mouse-catchers on, and all the shouts, claps, and sprays of water in our arsenal had never convinced him to desist.
I can’t protect my couch, let alone my neat world.
I apologized to the girl-woman, she uncertain if tears or spitting anger fit her mood best, so she alternated the two in amazing synchronicity. I unsure of the words to admit I’d been wrong, because words of apology had always hung somewhere between my heart and my mouth, like a breech baby wanting to come out but not willing, and in the meanwhile showing its worst side to the world.
I’d tried to protect her, really to protect me and the perfect world I’d created as a pastor and a mother. She wanted to support her lesbian friends on the Day of Silence, and I’d refused to let her buy the commemorative T-shirt to wear at school that day. I made up some excuses as to why I didn’t want her wearing it, that kids were cruel and crazy and sometimes even allies got attacked, but we both knew they were flimsy at best. She had friends, and she wanted to love them well, and it seemed an easy choice to her.
But not to me.
All those us’s and them’s came pouring back over me, and I understood as I held her I’d messed up not just in my edict but in showing courage to a girl learning to step into her skin and her world. Though I’d refused that agenda twenty-some years before, I lacked the nerve to do it out loud, at least, to allow her to do it out loud and accept whatever ripple effect it had on me.
I had such potential as a right-wing political activist. Nearly went to law school. Could write a potent protest letter when the need presented itself. Knew all the right causes and defenses.
Until I didn’t.
Until I realized that agendas go both ways. We all have them. That we don’t see our own only creates a wider chasm between us and them.
I don’t know if I’ve put my agendas down, but I know now that safe isn’t on any of them. I know that if I can’t imagine my words coming out of the Prince of Peace’s mouth, I’d probably better rethink them. I see his agenda, and I see how we, I, have wanted to use it to create my own.
The exercise should frustrate me. The backwardness of it astounds me.
They’re still around, CWA. The website, nonexistent in those days of red, white, and blue envelopes, still touts defense of family, religious liberty, and national sovereignty. I clicked on the “gays in the military” fact card, but I got a 404 message. No more facts to be had, I suppose, and now I understand that there never really were.
Still, the fact card decrying “hate crime” legislation, the quotation marks intentionally delegitimizing the pain and fear of those who don’t find themselves in the beautiful white straight majority, perches unapologetically on the resources page, daring me to argue with its logic and new veneer of grace.
I still don’t see much Jesus.