I really don’t like tuxedos all that much. Or suits. Or any other type of formal attire, for that matter, except maybe for vests. Vests are cool sometimes.
No formal attire seems to fit me very well. Some of my friends tell me, “well that’s because they typically don’t make suits fitted for people like you.” I disagree: I don’t think I was made fitted for suits. Especially not bow ties, those things are horrible.
But I suppose there is a time and a place for such things (yes, bow ties), even for me. Weddings are one of those occasions.
The sanctuary where the ceremony was to be held was immense and majestic, and even that seems like an understatement. I had only stood up at the front, near the altar, once before –– last night, during rehearsal dinner. And I had been overwhelmed then.
But now felt even more unreal: there were ribbons and flower petals and robes. Dresses and suits filled the pews on both the groom’s and bride’s sides (because suits can be cool, I guess, as long as I don’t have to stay in one too long). A piano and violin played some of our favorite hymns, and their notes floated up to rebound among the grand wooden arches above. That sturdy roof was so long and great, it could have been Noah’s Ark turned upside down.
Then the music changed. I pulled my attention away from the sanctuary’s architecture once again, and just in time. The doors at the back began to swing open; those in the pews turned their heads as one in anticipation. All rose.
And there she was.
I watched Erika walk down the aisle for a few strides, noting her smile, her hair, her dress––all things perfectly set in place as a result of years of dreaming about this day. But soon I turned my attention to Jason –– the groom.
Although he stood only a few feet away, I couldn’t see him well from my vantage point behind the other groomsmen. I leaned out to catch a glimpse of his face, and fought off the rising lump in my throat. Glassy-eyed, grinning wide, Jason was nearly trembling as he beheld his bride. And suddenly, all of it –– the immense sanctuary, the tuxedos, suits and bow ties –– all of it made perfect sense. Jason was courting his beloved. That’s how Jesus looks at me, I thought, with the kind of love that unravels a person.
Erika, led by her father, reached the front of the altar and halted, her own smile unabating. And as they arranged themselves and the officiant began the ceremony, I watched Jason sneaking in little glances at his bride and suppressed a laugh.
I first met Jason during freshman year orientation at Belmont. When we returned in the fall for classes, he quickly became my best friend on campus, even though most of our interaction consisted of me watching the second season of “Heroes” on his television while the rest of the dorm floor had Bible study outside in the hallway. We swapped stories and went to Belmont volleyball games and took goofy pictures with our girlfriends when Ashleigh flew into town.
In October, I bought a plane ticket back to Colorado to see my high school football team play their rivals, and Jason came too. He learned what plains and goatheads were. He told me that all that open space made him uncomfortable, exposed, like he might just bounce off the face of the Earth if he jumped too high or something. And before we returned to Nashville, Ashleigh and I took Jason to Two-Buttes, the little mountain, and we climbed to the top.
Jason came to know Ashleigh well, especially after we were married and our friendship grew. That’s why after she left, I barely talked to Jason for a long time. I kept him, along with all my other previous friends, out of the loop, because in my cowardice it seemed easier to simply start a new life rather than face the close friends who were hurt and confused, no matter how badly they wanted to help.
But that changed. Jason is one of the most patient, graceful people I know. In the spring, he asked me to be a groomsman in his wedding.
Admittedly, as much as it welled me with joy to watch Jason and Erika exchange vows, committing to each other until death parts them and nothing else, a certain ache surfaced as well. I think we often believe that our emotions are like a giant set of scales; if happiness fills up a little bit more than sadness, or pleasure a little bit more than disappointment, we feel good. And if that pervades for a few hours, we might be able to say, “I had a good day.”
But I don’t think it’s like that. Maybe you can be filled completely with joy and completely with a sad sort of longing at the same time, like I felt while watching Jason and Erika holding hands on the altar. Maybe it’s not as measurable as we think.
Yes, I couldn’t help thinking of Ashleigh as I watched them. I couldn’t help go over our life together –– from the time we kissed on my grandparents lawn under the pine tree, to the time she left and the tree died. Marriage is a mystery. It’s a complex, complex thing, because people are messy and complex. When you put two together, it gets even crazier.
There were many reasons Ashleigh left; not all of them were outlined here. For a while I had a hard time with the very idea that two people could actually survive together these days. We’ve all heard the statistics about how it’s a failing institution. Of course, the institution is the same as it’s always been. It’s us that changes.
But is it achievable? Can two people reallygrow in love and light all their lives together?
The bride and groom kissed and the pastor presented them to the congregation. Applause and cheers rang out; the organ chimed. And all watched as the pair took their first steps forward bound to each other. It was a joyous, excited sort of stride, bouncy and triumphant. Someday, I knew, it would grow more steady, then maybe more tired, sometimes more like stomping, sometimes more like tiptoeing. Sometimes more like dancing.
And then, I pray, it will eventually be hobbling. It will become slower with the years, but undefeated, bent with the weight of each other, but not broken. They will grip their canes and each other and still smile. And it will be good.
Erika raised her bouquet in the air like a torch before they disappeared out of the great sanctuary doors, lighting a new hope in me.
I sit out on the back porch often, watching little Jesse sniff around our new courtyard, his nose buried deep in overgrown grass. He walks here and there with a strange sort of creeping, squatted gate, never going very fast, never wandering very far. He ducks at car horns. He yips uncomfortably at strangers walking to their back doors. He’s not used yet to the change, of course.
But he ventures out a little further every day, and barks a little less at the neighbors. Like everything else with breath, he’s adaptable. This place is steadily becoming his home, too. In a strange way, it’s a comfort to watch him grow a little every day.
I think it’s funny that we ended up in this location, in this new apartment, just Jesse and I; if it weren’t for Greer Stadium across the street, I might be able to look out from my porch and see the house that Ashleigh and I had last lived in together with our two puppies –– that house that had seen and known and required so much of us.
I imagine the current tenants must have just finished out their first year lease by now. What has that house seen them do? What other stories, besides ours, does that place have to tell?
I call Jesse and go inside to my desk, where it’s quieter, and boot up my computer. I used to be able to do this all day –– just type, alone in my own space, without any hunger for company. A guitar and a word processor were the only companions I needed. And after moving, I’d started drifting back in that direction once more.
But not all the way. In a proper sense of the word, I need people, too.
I open up my word processor and engage my mind, tracing over the previous year, and then the years before it –– analyzing my past self, examining old hurts, picking at scabs and watching how they bleed.
I admit it. I wasn’t ready to write this blog.
I labored under heavy depression as I composed the first chapters in January, and though further along now, I am in no way a “cured” man as I pen the final ones. I stumble often in the same ways as before; I think and say things not at all befitting for someone who’s claimed to have realized so much. In fact, it’s a nasty mind game writing about a present-day problem in past tense, hearing my own narrative voice assuring me that things were all good and over. They weren’t, of course.
In the end, a few glimmers of advice from myself or friends, though comforting, couldn’t change me. And many pages of writing, though therapeutic in their own sense, can’t transform my heart without outside power.
Telling you, the reader, that “everything’s better now,” aside from being a proud, proud lie, wouldn’t make for a very good story, anyway And isn’t it strange how the things that make for the best stories are often the things that make for the best in us? It’s little by little you get somewhere, after all, and I am getting somewhere.
We all long for an arrival of sorts, don’t we? We want a swift end to conflict, a speedy knitting up of all the loose ends (regardless if they’re all messy and poorly woven at the climax). Who has the time for gradual healing? Even if we might say otherwise, our nurtured sense of instant gratification demands a deus ex machina sort of resolution.
But no one’s seen it yet. No, we’re all still in the midst of the journey, and to pretend otherwise –– that any of us have arrived at the end of our toiling –– is to pretend that we’ve got complete control over how our stories start, and how they end. It’s not true. As Sam said to Frodo on the stairs of Cirith Ungol: “…we’re in the same tale still! It’s still going! Don’t the great tales never end?”
They don’t. At least not in the ways we think they will.
So in the meantime, in the toiling, I’m trying not to get in a big rush about things. I’m twenty-three, after all, married for two years and divorced for one, trying to figure out what it means to be creative in America and survive, and how to love well and be loved. And that’s where this blog comes in.
To be completely honest, I don’t really even enjoy writing about myself. The thought of coming up with twenty-four chapters devoted to the telling of my life (especially chapters that otherpeople could read) would have made me blanche in January. If left to my own devices, I prefer to write down things out of my imagination rather than out of the history of my life.
For instance, one day I may dream up a tale about a young boy living on a ranch in Indiana, who speaks to his livestock and knows the language of the earth so that his crops grow.
Or about a hideous monster, living in a decrepit house with his crude brothers, who daily sharpen their teeth and roll in filth though it pains them to do so, because that’s all they know.
Or about a woman stuck in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Or about a society where people are assigned deathdays along with their birthdays, and learn to live functionally with the specific knowledge of their impending doom.
Or about the life of a young man my age that I saw once, selling newspapers just off a Nashville interstate.
Sometimes I spend so much time dreaming stories up, that I begin to wonder if I haven’t already dreamed up the story of how I want my own life to go. On a car ride to a party, I might come up with whole conversations of things I’m going to say to people –– ways I want to flatter them, or rebuke them. I might imagine how I’d intend the night to go, and esteem myself for intellectual conversations I haven’t ever had. I might imagine the whole thing blowing up in my face and feel sorry for myself in advance. I’m a master at crafting expectations. That’s why writing about true things was so good for me.
If I’d known in January how far this blog would go, how much of a true story I’d end up telling, I might not have continued. I’m glad I did.
Writing down real life reminds us that when it comes to our lives, we can only go around telling true stories about our past, and in some places, our present if we’re clear-headed or courageous enough. But once you start telling them about your future –– not in an ambitious way, but in a true sort of way (even if in your own head) –– all sorts of messy things happen, and you begin to find that they rarely come to pass anyway. Real people will always break character in the roles you’ve pinned them in. The simplest of situations can surprise you. God’s universe is infinitely more unpredictable than we have the ability to imagine…
My phone buzzes twice on the desk, pulling me out of my trance.
Tim wants to hang out –– probably to play catch or share music or sit outside in the sun and read. I wrap up my thoughts and close my computer screen; I had been past due for a break, anyway.
I text him back and tell him I’m on my way over. Like me, Tim seems to enjoy having his own place immensely; it’s a two-bedroom duplex a couple blocks down the street from my new apartment. I could walk there, if I like.
So roommates turned to neighbors. After all our conversations and transitions, the unhealthy attachments that I’d formed to Tim and to others began to lift like the breaking of old enchantments.
The day we moved our things, Tim told me still to call or come by if I ever felt depressed. Other friends have urged the same from me. I’ve rarely had to since. Back in the middle of the summer, when Tim announced that he was moving, he said that getting away from the Parliament would make us better friends. I couldn’t understand it then, but he was right.
I grab my keys at the door and tell Jesse to behave himself; it’s an old habit Ashleigh and I used to do, as if to pretend the dogs were like children and could understand us.
The sun outside is warm against the back of my neck; I never take for granted the summer. After locking up, I do a quick stretch and soak those rays in.
But as I move down the sidewalk to my car, everything freezes for a phantom moment. This happens often enough still, that I thumb my left ring finger and feel with a terrible jolt that I’d forgotten something. But the feeling passes quickly, without much ado, and the sun is warm again.
I hop into my car and start the engine.
The story is going on still. I’m falling into more tales all the time –– tales bigger and stranger than the ones I’d ever imagined for myself before, with characters and situations infinitely adept at defying expectation. Things aren’t over; things are still going. And I think that’s good news.
About a week after we returned home from tour, I stepped outside a Starbucks to call Jared and tell him I was quitting the band.
He’d left for a trip home to Nevada immediately after getting back to Nashville. I’d been trying to think of a proper time to tell him all tour, and figured waiting until afterwards was best. Besides, I’d told them before that I would wait to make a decision until after tour.
I’d talked with all the guys before about the tug-of-war between my own music and Yours Truly’s; I didn’t have time to fully commit myself to both. One had to take precedent, and my own finally won out. I decided it had come to the point to take a full-time roll as a singer/songwriter, and to put away the pop/rock rhythm guitar persona for a while. The business of our tour had clenched that decision.
I leaned over the wooden porch as I dialed his number, fighting the sinking feeling in my gut. I’ve always hated giving bad news, especially to a close friend.
When Jared answered, he explained that he was busy with family matters and didn’t have time to talk. I told him to call me back. He said he would.
I returned inside to the table, where Tim sat, unblinking and immovable, lost in the world he went to often in his own head. Still, he looked unusually flustered; he had his own news for Jared. Minutes later, he would step outside himself and place a call to our friend, announcing his departure from the band for similar reasons.
Of course after that, it didn’t take Jared long to guess the reason for my attempts to get a hold of him. He got back to me right away and I confirmed his suspicions: Yours Truly was now out a background vocalist and a bass player. Both calls ended on a rather unhappy note.
Afterwards, Tim and I sat in silence at one of those reclaimed wooden tables, staring guilty holes in our computer screens. I felt lousy, and couldn’t shake it. The band meant a lot to all of us; letting it go and disappointing a friend at the same time felt a little bit like giving your insides an indian burn. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of it.
“Hey,” Tim said to rouse me from my own inner world, his brows inclined, his voice small and shaky. “I know this probably isn’t the best time for this, but I’m moving out.”
The first time I had to get my blood drawn, Dad probably had in mind that it was going to be a disaster. I imagine that as we walked through the hospital doors, he was fighting off mental images of his son kicking and screaming on the white tile floors while he and all available staff pinned me down just to get a few red drops out. Most of the kindergarteners Dad knew weren’t very fond of needles, after all.
But he’d made it into the hospital lobby with me fine enough. That was better than some kids.
He filled out the appropriate paperwork and we sat in the waiting room a while. My spirits still seemed reasonably high by the time the nurse emerged and called us into her small little office. Still, Dad had already started formulating a game plan. After the nurse instructed me to sit and then stepped away for a second, he leaned over to me.
“Just look at my face, buddy,” he said in my ear. “Don’t look at them, just look at me. Everything will be fine, okay?”
The nurse returned with her instruments and put on stretchy gloves –– the same kind I’d play with out in Mom’s pottery studio. She rolled my sleeve up and swabbed my arm; I imagine the apprehension in the room increased just then. Still, I kept my eyes on Dad and he kept his eyes on me.
“You’re going to feel a little pinch,” the nurse said. I ignored her. Dad had on a goofy smile.
A few breathless moments passed. Then at last, she sunk the needle in.
I held Dad’s gaze for as long as I could, but it wasn’t much use. I’m sure a silent sort of dread shot through him as he watched my attention turn away from him to the nurse. Perhaps he thought, as he anticipated my reaction, that tears or screams or bites or kicks were imminent (I had once bitten a dentist, but she’d had her fingers in my mouth, after all).
But to Dad’s surprise, I remained still. In the end, it wasn’t pain or fear or worry that pulled me away from my his eyes; it was curiosity.
I watched the nurse in silence as the end of the needle slowly filled up with blood –– my blood! And once she’d gotten all she needed, she pulled the point out of my arm and dabbed the skin with a cotton swab. I remained stoic.
“All done!” she said. “Very good, Blake! You didn’t cry even one tear! We don’t get kids like you very often.”
I was rewarded with a cartoon bandaid, and as soon as she’d applied it, Dad picked me up and sat me down in his lap. I looked at him, wondering if he’d been upset that I didn’t look at him the whole time. I knew by his smile that wasn’t the case at all.
“I’m so proud to be your daddy,” he said. Of course, that was the best reward of all.
We left the hospital without any trouble at all, and Dad continued to tell that story for years afterward (as well as many others about the courageousness of his children). And every time I heard him tell it, I’d wonder at how much that day had changed the way I thought about myself: I’d somehow shed the person who used to wallow in the face of pain or trouble. And even then, when trouble came, I wouldn’t simply do my best to just grin and bear it, turning my face away, pretending and hoping that it would all be over soon. No, the story reminded me: I was becoming the kind of person who stared pain down, who watched it carefully to see how it worked.
If my present-day self was confronted with my five-year-old self, I’d hope kindergarten Blake would tell me about how he went to get his blood drawn, and didn’t cry a bit. And I hope present-day Blake would listen.
Tim sighed. I think he figured that would have been my response –– to blame myself, to assume I’d spoiled something. No doubt he’d considered for a while how best to tell me, and do it in such a way that was helpful and ultimately beneficial.
“There are a lot of different reasons,” he said. “And yeah, I’m not going to lie, you’re part of it. You’re a very difficult person to be around sometimes. Your depression weighs on me, really heavy.”
Those words were pretty much all I latched onto. Even after he went on to say how he thought the move would ultimately be good for all of us, how he still wanted to help me beat depression, I had a hard time hearing anything else. We continued to clumsily hash things out for the next day or two, and the lump in my chest from having quit the band inflated like a balloon. My head grew foggy, like it did many times throughout that year; a prevailing shame and confusion choked my thinking. I don’t remember a good deal that was said.
I do, however, remember a good deal of the things I said to myself: you’re a poisonous, unwanted disaster. Your wife couldn’t stand to be around you, and neither can your best friends. History repeats itself, and all of this is proof: you will never be good enough for love. You will die, alone.
And almost exactly a year after Ashleigh told me that she was leaving for Colorado, Tim announced his plans to escape too.
The whole ordeal was a bit dramatic, of course. Tim was only moving into a different house, after all –– not ending a friendship. The fact that I became so upset about it was a hint to me: there was more going on in this story. History really was repeating itself.
If I were to turn the entirety of my relationship with Ashleigh into a novel, it would look pretty bland, I think. It would feature two rather static characters with nearly identical personalities, moving through the pages together but not together, estranged but completely codependent. She’d spend chapters on the couch, reading a fantasy novel, and he’d spend chapters in the study, playing his guitar. And when dinnertime came, they’d meet up to discuss (but not really) their dinner options until reaching a stalemate, at which point they’d just go to Cinco De Mayo so as not to upset anyone. You choose, they’d chime.
When you’re codependent with someone else, you’re always very worried about upsetting them.
And even before we were married, Ashleigh and I spent most of our time together. From becoming close friends after Clay’s death to discussing our faults with each other for the last time on the living room couch, we’d both spent a good portion of our lives learning how to attach ourselves completely and unhealthily to one another –– in such a way that we couldn’t really operate properly otherwise.
That was it: the biggest lesson I needed to learn after Ashleigh left wasn’t about being honest or trying to beat depression. It was one of independence. I had to learn how to function alone.
And instead of tackling it head on, like the little boy who once watched the nurse draw his blood, I just found other people to become attached to. I turned away from the problem. It didn’t help, obviously, and codependence tendencies persisted with certain side-effects –– fear, loneliness, depression, and the mindset that all the love in my life must be earned.
I guess most of us are always trying to be more mature. We’re all trying to grow.
I heard once from a wise man that maturity isn’t really a straight line; it bends back and forth over top itself and collides in grand explosions of sadness or anger. It gets all twisted up until you try and look down it and find that all your chapters have gotten tossed out of order. Your teenage years end up right next to college life; a childhood memory pops up right in between your current calamities.
But sometimes it’s better that way. Sometimes that’s the only way to make sense of the story of your life. Yeah, history does repeat itself. That means we’ll probably need to be willing to learn the same lesson over and over, more than just once or twice.
Once I got the courage, I realized Tim moving downtown was like that. I’d been given another opportunity to shed the old person who wallowed in pain and trouble, who clung to those nearby for protection. It was another chance to learn what I’d only begun to understand a year before, in a different context: that it wasn’t Ashleigh’s place to shield me from pain or trouble, and it wasn’t Jared’s or Tim’s either.
We stopped for gas only two hours short of Lamar, having driven without rest from our show in St. Louis the night before. The landscape outside became more and more like my hometown the further across Kansas we drove, until we reached its western border. And then every glance outside made me smile; the breath in my lungs swelled the way it often does upon seeing an old friend.
There was only one small gas station in the nameless town we filled up in. A sign hung in the front window. On it, a clumsy hand had scrawled with magic marker: “This station is guarded by a shotgun three nights of the week. You can guess which ones.”
The guys loved that. One of the great things about going on tour with them was that they never missed an opportunity to laugh.
While they piled inside the strange convenience store, a freight train roared by the grain elevator across the road and shook the few houses nearby. This was it. The things my new friends marveled at –– the flat ground, the unpopulated space, the noisy train, the dust flying in the wind, the sign in the window –– they were all the very things that announced to the land and confirmed to me my homecoming.
As I stood outside on top of those familiar plains, stretching my eyesight to the clouds above (which, I swear, float higher up), a strange phenomenon caught hold of me for the first time in my life. I studied the subtle changes in the blue of the atmosphere or the shape of the clouds, and was taken back not only of my childhood in Lamar, but to a beach I’d visited once before. Or maybe to an adventure I’d dreamed up once and wrote down on paper. The sky above was not only the same sky that watched me grow up, but also the sky that blanketed the far-off lands of my imagination.
As if to test this new sensation, I slipped my sandals off and stood still in the sand. Sure enough, it seemed I not only felt the dry heat of Colorado deserts, but what I’d always dreamed the Sahara might feel like. I’d spent all my childhood in Lamar imagining worlds near and far, and was now experiencing glimpses of those worlds again.
That’s when I realized: so many of my strings were tied back there. To return to Colorado was to return to everywhere else. I wonder if maybe that’s a little bit what going to Heaven is like.
We made it into town that night just in time to play our second annual show at The Hott Spott in Lamar –– an old skate park converted into a bar and owned by a family friend of ours. Our schedule of events while in town was almost identical to the previous years’. The next day, of course, we had to stop at my favorite fast food restaurant for some burgers before getting back to work.
After that, we headed south of town, en route to a music festival. We passed by the land where my grandparents’ ranch lay, where Ashleigh and I had exchanged vows nearly three years before. Again, I couldn’t shake that welling feeling in my chest. I watched each mile of the prairies pass with a sort of reverence. And then finally I caught sight of what I’d been looking for all along: that great keeper of the grasslands.
“There’s Little Mountain,” Jared said. He pointed out the window. Everyone looked.
Right there, right in the middle of some of the flattest acres anyone could imagine, rose one single anomaly: Two Buttes Mountain. A mountain in the middle of the plains. It stood proud upon the earth hundreds of miles from the Rockies, its dual peaks high and rounded like two eyes strained towards heaven. And the downward arch between –– a smile. It was welcoming us back.
I nodded, lost in memory.
My family had long ago climbed those steeps together. We’d more often go fishing in the reservoir nearby while it towered over us. Also, one of the first trips I took after joining youth group was a camping trip to the mountain. And even before that, Clay and I had once raced each other up and up to the highest butte. We wrote our names on the topmost rock in paint marker, one right next to the other, and thought we were becoming immortal.
Those rocks had certainly watched me grow.
Again in 2011, on Yours Truly’s very first tour together, we took a detour to that sacred monument. We embarked upon those ancient slopes like ants on an anthill, bent on adventure. That day the wind streaked across the landscape the way it always did there, threatening to blow us right off into the atmosphere, over endless fields of wheat and alfalfa to places only God goes. But we held on. We threw our weight into the gusts and pretended to fly instead.
We explored all the cracks and caves and rocks; and even though the wind couldn’t master us up there, when I looked for the signatures Clay and I had written, I found that the weather had carried them off long ago.
Later, on the road back to Nashville, I’d tell the guys that those moments in the wind, looking out over my homeland, were the ones I prized most from the trip. They were a pinnacle of sorts –– a climax, a tipping point.
Of course, I had no way of knowing then that within a month after getting back from the road, my marriage would be crumbling — that the wind would indeed carry my wife far away to some unreachable place. And all the while I’d only struggle to hang on myself, letting the flurries beat up against my skin and tear at my clothes.
I had no way of knowing then, on that mountain during our first tour, that the following months would be the most difficult and confusing months of my life, and that I would end up doing things I’d sworn never to do, hurt people I’d hoped would never know pain, and contemplate leaving all of it behind.
But the mountain, while holding onto me, was also shaking things away. It was making preparations.
Years before, just after coming to Nashville for college, I’d written a song about it. I called it “Little Mountain.” The song ended with the third verse:
So I guess he made his home here,
Or maybe he just got the wrong address,
Or maybe he got kicked out of the ranges,
All I know is he stands tall without the rest.
Throughout the history of my life, I’m usually close to my worst when I begin to think that I might be more or less like that mountain — rooted either by fate or accident to some barren place with no company, where only on clear days could I make out the ranges in the distance, and then think to myself that I wasn’t made to be loved.
And the really nasty parts of me –– the devious Hydes –– come out when I decide that isolation is the place where I belong. I hide my shortcomings and uniquenesses from others because I figure I couldn’t measure up anyway, and I’m scared to death of disappointing them.
But after visiting that mountain last year, the deeper groanings of the earth rose up in me, speaking truth against it all: that’s not at all how things should be! We were made to walk together. Mountains were made for the ranges.
It wasn’t until I let people see my wounds that I stopped being alone. I had to come close enough to let them really examine all of me. Those cracks and caves the light never used to touch, those wind-swept stones of my heart, once carved with marks of friendship and now left bare –– those things and all their hurt had to be raised to the surface.
I had to begin to move the mountain. I had to reunite with the ranges. And no matter how little or how big they stood, mountain-moving is always messy business. And it’s impossible to do alone.
After leaving Lamar, just before our camping trip in Lubbock, we stopped at a Wal-Mart for supplies. I sat in the van with a couple of other guys while everyone else went inside. Darkness weighed heavy on me; I laid down and tried not to think or feel.
But a couple of other guys were talking somewhere above me, and their conversation quickly caught my attention.
“…I went through a rough place in high school once.”
“Yeah, struggled bad with depression.”
At the last word, I slowly sat up.
“It was really hard for a while,” he continued. “Probably a year. Started taking medication, though, and that really helped.”
I tried not to let my distaste show on my face. Having witnessed so many people abuse prescription drugs, and seen so many doctors prescribe them for a little extra cash in their pockets, I’d developed a strong resistance to the idea over the years. We’d survived for years without depression meds, right? Maybe we’d just forgotten as a society how to deal with our problems properly, without drugs.
“Were you ever addicted?” I asked. I’m sure the skepticism came through now.
He shook his head. “No. I’ll take one every once and a while when I feel it coming on.”
“Did it change your personality?”
“And you don’t get depressed anymore? How do you know when to take the meds?”
“I know the difference between when I’m just having a bad day, and when I’m chemically imbalanced,” he replied.
I nodded. As much as I wanted to resist, I knew exactly what he was talking about. The other guys continued their conversation as I laid back down and closed my eyes, trying not to think, trying not to feel. Trying.
Most all of my life, I’ve been able to excel at just about any physical activity I tried. I’ve always been able to learn quickly, pick up the rules easily, and outperform my opponent by whatever means necessary. I’m also extremely competitive, which never hurt.
But once I get a board underneath my feet, I’m not worth much.
Maybe it’s a balance thing, or a confidence thing, or a “feel” thing (though none of those were ever a problem in other sports). Whatever the case, I’ve rarely been able to keep myself upright on a board of any sort for very long. One year for Christmas I asked for a skateboard. I tried it for hardly longer than a week and put it aside to bike and roller blade, both of which I did pick up naturally.
Other boards were no better. I’ve had little success at snow boarding, and even less at wake boarding.
I’ve grown up with an understandably strong distaste for such sports.
Unfortunately, once Jared and I moved into the Parliament, one of the primary modes of transportation between us and the White House were longboards. And it seemed everyone except me knew how to operate them properly.
So I decided the time had finally come; I fixed all of my resolve on overcoming my chronic board incompetency. Before the end of the year, I was determined to feel at home on one.
Tim, who had spent most of his life skateboarding (and can even do it on his hands), began to teach me.
“Get a wider stance,” he’d say. “Bend your knees a little. Stay loose.”
We started on the smaller hills in the neighborhood until I was comfortable enough to go down them without reservation. Then we found longer ones to ride. And at last, we moved on to an even larger one.
The Parliament itself lay at the bottom of a rather steep hill that took a good amount of skill to navigate. Going down straight was easy, but in order to reach the driveway of our house, the rider needed to take a sharp left turn at the bottom of Parliament Hill, in between a guard rail on one side of the street, and our front lawn on the other.
Tim had no problem making it the first time. Even after many attempts, I couldn’t manage it. I’d reach the bottom of the hill and have to jump off into the yard, landing in a heavy run across the grass until I slowed down enough to go retrieve the board. But even so, I’d get a little better each time; I’d make the turn just a little wider.
“I think I’m starting to get the hang of it,” I told Tim after an afternoon of practice. He grinned, amused.
“Yeah, not bad,” he said, bouncing his board up in down with a kind of ease I could never imitate. “You won’t really learn until you crash once, though.”
“It takes falling off before you really know how to stay on.”
I laughed. “Okay, we’ll see.”
Determined, I continued to take the longboard back and forth between houses in the weeks that followed, always running off into the yard while Tim turned gracefully into the driveway. Still, no matter what, I refused to fall. If anyone could learn to ride without falling, I could.
One night in October, while Jared was out of town, I slept on a couch over at the White House and woke up early the next morning feeling desperately alone, as would happen many mornings during that time. I walked the house quietly, like a ghost, while my friends slept. There, perpetually unsure what to do with myself, I found the longboards by the front door and grabbed one. The neighborhood lay still and cool that morning as I tried to pry the darkness from my heart.
I ran all the calm hills first, just to warm up, and then the longer ones. And after those, I moved at last to Parliament Hill and peered down it. A chill dew glistened upon the blades of grass at the bottom.
I pushed off and took it once, bending around the curve smoother than ever, bailing only at the very last second to avoid the curb. Adrenaline raced through my veins. I snatched the board from the gutter and ran to the top of the hill to try again.
This time, I ran it, perfectly.
I took the curve into the driveway a few more times just to assure myself that I’d got it down. Exhilarated by my accomplishment, I ventured even further into the neighborhood, on to paved hills we’d never explored before.
Wait till I show them, I thought to myself. I don’t need to fall. I didn’t even fall once.
The morning wore on triumphantly. Suddenly sure that I’d become an instantaneous longboarding protege, I pedaled to the top of a new hill and threw myself down it, enjoying the chill wind against my face –– the swelling, speeding sensation of victory. The asphalt sped by below. No hill could best me now.
I turned a corner and changed my mind about that one.
A huge hill lay out before me –– bigger by far than any I’d attempted yet –– curving away to the right. It dead ended at the bottom. Into a ditch. That was a problem.
Years of runningback training took hold at once. In a split-second I assessed the situation: shrubs on the right, plan B. Ditch straight ahead and lined with rocks, too wide to jump, too close to avoid: not an option. People working in their flowerbeds beyond: could call for help in emergency, but let’s just hope they aren’t looking. Trees on the left, and a wide lawn in front, clear and lush save for a small driveway across, but avoidable: that’s it.
I made for the lawn, crouching down in some survival tactic I’d never consciously learned. I hit the curb, and like I’d always done at Parliament hill, I landed on my feet in a run. Unfortunately, after such a hill, my longboard had been going a lot faster than I was capable of running.
I took two hopeless steps and landed flat on my face, not missing even an inch of the six-foot-wide concrete driveway I’d been certain to avoid. A rather embarrassing grunt escaped me; I pancaked and skipped like a rock on a pond into the grass on the other side and came still.
The folks tending to their flowers stopped and gaped at me in silence. They didn’t really look concerned –– more confused and reproachful.
I quickly retrieved the board and skated off with all haste, and with as much of my former confidence as I could muster. Once around the block and out of sight of the neighbors, I checked my battle wounds.
I remember laughing at the sight of it. It suddenly occurred to me that the sorrow I’d woken up with had, for the time being, vanished. I owed most of that to endorphins or adrenaline or whatever, but it still seemed strange that falling, scraping open my side, and embarrassing myself in front of my neighbors could brighten my day so significantly.
I returned to the White House and told everyone how I’d finally mastered Parliament Hill, though not without injury. Everyone laughed when they saw the scar –– which had become a much more worthy trophy than the news of my accomplishment.
“You’ll be a better longboarder now,” Tim said.
“Yeah,” I chuckled, “because I’ll know which hill not to go down anymore.”
“Time alone does not heal all wounds; if it did, we would not need physicians, surgeons, counselors, or psychiatrists. On the contrary, many untreated wounds will fester, become infected and perhaps spread poison throughout our bodies.” –– C.S. Lewis
I could tell a thousand stories about depression: how it could set on without warning, how it could suck every bit of ambition right out of you, how it could turn you into a person who suddenly thought and said things –– horrible things –– that strayed so completely from your usual character that you begin to wonder if you’re at all the same person as before. I don’t have the space to tell them all. They wouldn’t be fun to read anyway (and even less fun to write).
Suffice it to say, I began operating like Jekyll, living life in between personality-altering episodes for the remainder of the year. They set on often and unpredictably; there probably wasn’t a week that went by that Hyde didn’t show his monstrous face. He desperately wanted people around, but he really wasn’t a very good hang. That upset him even more.
My friends urged me to seek professional help, but I mostly just made excuses: that I didn’t have the money, that I could see improvement so I figured I didn’t need it, that I wasn’t sure how my parents might take to it. Mostly, I hated the idea that I might simply be able to talk or medicate my problems away. In the end, I did nothing. I trusted that over time, I’d get better.
Come January, Tim moved into the master bedroom. He declared that the walls be painted red, for Gryffindor, so we bought rollers and paint and did it. Finally, all three mustaches lived under one roof.
Still, Hyde stuck around.
By March, we finished recording for my record, which had taken much more time and been a far bigger burden than we’d ever anticipated. But we were happy and proud with our work, and excited about where the project would go from there.
Despite this, I felt Hyde there still.
And even later, after putting off signing the papers for so long, the courts in Lamar finalized the divorce. I was free to let go, and to move on.
But Hyde continued to make frequent appearances, especially if he were left at home for long by himself. I couldn’t understand it. He said spiteful things to those closest to him. He dwelt continually on suspicions that his friends might soon kick him to the curb and forget him. And as a result, he turned frantic and clingy. Like that bumper sticker, torn away from the chrome it thought it would spend the rest of its life with, he used the residual adhesive to stick to people he had no business sticking to. Namely, Tim and Jared.
This, of course, caused contention in the house. Too desperately insecure to stay home alone, I’d follow the guys out on their weekend plans and find myself nearly crippled with a strange new social anxiety. We started praying together before every outing that I wouldn’t unexpectedly spiral downwards and go sit silently in a corner or something. But even my best behavior was often burdensome. They could rarely enjoy themselves in my presence.
And I doubt it was much fun leaving me at home, either. Once they returned, they most likely found me pouting on the couch, convinced no one wanted me around. The conversation that followed usually went something like this:
Hyde: “I’m depressed.”
Hyde: “I was alone for a really long time. Like, pretty much all day.”
Hyde: “So it made me depressed. Are you still my friend?”
Tim: “Of course.”
Hyde: “Sorry. I guess it seems like you don’t want to hang out.”
Tim: “I do. But sometimes you get where you’re not very easy to hang out with.”
Hyde: “I know that. I have to hang out with me more than you do.”
Tim: “But not much more. We don’t need to spend all of our time together.”
Hyde: “Isn’t that what good friends do?”
Tim: “No, that’s what wives do. I’m not your wife.”
Hyde: “I know.”
Having your roommate accuse you of treating him like a wife hurts almost as bad as having your wife accuse you of treating her like a roommate. It seemed I often flew from one extreme to the other after the divorce; it had that general effect on me. My life began swinging the opposite direction.
For instance, the part of my personality that had always been introspective and independent became desperately afraid of abandonment and prone to loneliness. The part that housed my compassion suddenly sought only sympathy. Eyes that refused to cry more than once or twice a year began welling up at the mere mention of something unhappy.
What’s more, I stopped thinking for myself. Deferring to anyone else’s judgement, I accepted every other wisdom as superior wisdom, no longer willing to trust myself with the smallest of decisions. My old motto echoed louder than ever in my head: you choose.
When March came, Jared took off on a tour across the East Coast and Tim made plans to return to Austin over his Spring Break. That meant I had a week to spend in an empty house, by myself. I asked Tim if I could go with him. He reluctantly agreed.
About two days in and without fail, the monster in me started fussing as we drove to the mall for some running shoes. Tim recognized it immediately; that was another ability I’d lost because of the divorce –– the ability to cover everything up with a smile and a nod.
Tim: “You’re not alright, are you?”
Tim: “Something sparked this. There are reasons you go down.”
Hyde: “Well, yeah. I feel alone.”
Tim: “You’re not.”
Hyde: “I know I’m not really. And I know even if I was alone, I don’t need to feel bad. But I still feel bad.”
Tim: “You just need to say the truth to yourself, over and over.”
Hyde: “I do. It doesn’t help. It’s like there’s a blockage or a kink somewhere in the line between my head and my heart. I don’t think they’re talking anymore.”
Tim: “I’m sorry.”
Hyde: “It’s alright.”
Tim: “This seems an awful lot like codependence.”
Hyde: “I know.”
None of my friends were at all equipped to counsel a guy struggling through depression from a recent divorce, and not only that, a guy with the sudden emotional maturity of an infant. After spending twenty-two years burying my emotions, I found myself all at once thrust into a life laid bare by honesty. The time had come at last to learn to function with my feelings.
That’s my journey. It’s much like learning to longboard, really. Before, I was determined not to let myself fall –– not to allow room for scrape or injury. But my sport wasn’t really longboarding then, it was self-protection. I didn’t really start longboarding until I fell down, and learned that falling was an inescapable part of it.
It was necessary that I fall down. I couldn’t learn properly otherwise.
Living openly with other people meant being willing to let myself get scraped and scarred at times by friends who, like me, can be hurtful and abrasive. It meant learning not to then pick the scabs and nurse bitterness. It meant having the humility to let them get a good look at the wound, and by doing so, help in whatever way possible to mend it, even if only through sentiment.
It’s true: you really can’t learn to stay on until you fall off a few times.
A sense of dread fell on me as I stretched out on top of my bed Christmas Eve. Unable to help myself, I studied the nooks and crannies of my room, reeling in my eager (and frankly, rather pessimistic) imagination.
I let out a long breath. The air seemed too thick, the covers too hot, the room too cold –– the night too long. I’d hardly been able to sleep at all after arriving in Lamar the night before. I didn’t expect tonight to be much easier.
I’d known it would happen, though. Ever since Ashleigh had left, sleeping had become a consistent worry. Old shadows haunted my dreams and unsettled me in the night. Sudden fears lingered in darkness. Unable to regain control of my dream life, I would often wake up from nightmares of hideous faces and figures –– something that hadn’t happened to me since adolescence.
Of course, staying in my old room only seemed to amplify it. It was the same room that had always terrified me, after all, where I used to lay out pentagrams and hide in alarm from the phantoms in my mind, as well as the ones outside.
Even so, I’d learned long ago to sleep in relative peace –– without keeping a light on or the television going. Before I climbed into bed on the 24th however, I wanted more than anything to hit the power button on the remote control. I even picked it up and played with it in my hands.
No, I told myself. You’ve got nothing to be scared of. You’re fine.
I turned the lights off and crawled slowly underneath the covers, feeling like some foolish kid afraid of the dark.
I found myself praying. It wasn’t a long prayer –– just enough to ask for protection while I slept and that I’d grow a pair. I mumbled amen and closed my eyes.
Some indiscernible time passed before I became aware of myself again, lying in the same bed in the same manner as always. I was asleep, however; I could tell I was in much the same way I used to be able to know a dream while dreaming it. This one was stranger though, and as vivid as reality. I’d crossed no noticeable barrier into the sleeping world. I wasn’t even sure at what moment I actually dozed off.
It didn’t take me long to notice a striking difference, though: a man now stood beside my bed, slouching in such a way that nearly concealed his form in the darkness. A shock went through me. I couldn’t move, couldn’t look away from him. His presence demanded attention.
He stood still and tall. His short fire-red hair trailed down into a sharp beard that lined his square face. A kind of light came from him –– one that allowed me to see him plainly, but failed to cast any light into the rest of the room. All else remained dark. A slight smile or a slight frown was always hinting at the corners of his mouth, though I could hardly ever tell which.
And after a moment, I recognized him: it was the same face from my dreams. The nature of his very presence, although dreadful, was one of familiarity. I’d no doubt felt him before, following me around in dark corners since those nights Alexia had lost herself next door.
He stared at me, a kind of fiery malice in his eyes. I felt bare underneath their scrutinizing gaze; I couldn’t hold them for long, so I went back over the words I’d just prayed before falling asleep. I’m not sure how long I remained there in silence.
“I’m here to hurt you,” he said finally. His voice was clear and deep, and the threat upon it heavy.
“You won’t.” I replied.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“God is protecting me.”
A definite smile snaked across his mouth. “That is a lie.”
“Do it, then.”
The smile stopped. Perhaps in hesitation, he lingered a moment and then inched forward, extending his arms towards me with a strange robotic look on his face –– as if he’d just gone mindless, compelled instinctually towards some prize he’d long waited to have. He reached the edge of the bed and stopped. Moments passed.
“You can’t hurt me.” I repeated.
His hands returned to his sides. He smirked.
“That’s what the Jews said during the Holocaust. I know, I was there. Were they protected?”
I didn’t answer. Unsure how best to engage the question, I looked away.
“You’re a failure,” the man said.
Something in me said, I know.
When I looked back at him, I noticed that he’d taken something up in both of his hands. In one, he had what looked like a ruler or yard stick, and in the other he held aloft a set of scales. Both objects were black and swam in his hands as if made of shadow, though many sharp angles stuck out from them here and there. It occurred to me while observing how he held them that the man could somehow wield these objects as weapons, and had done so on others before.
He continued to rattle off faults of mine: “You couldn’t love your wife well. You knew how horrible divorce was and you did nothing to stop it. Who would love you? You lied. You said nasty things. You looked at porn…”
The man went on, still holding those terrible weapons, spouting out a list that seemed to go on for eternity. I said nothing until at last he ended, having gone through every mistake I’d known, and every regret in turn.
“You’re right,” I remember saying. “I did all that. I’m that bad. Jesus died for me anyway.”
The man dropped his hands and the objects disappeared. Apparently he didn’t seem to want to go there.
“As soon as I’m allowed, I will tear you apart.”
“No you won’t. God is with me.”
“So you say. Was your god with Job when we tore him apart? Didn’t your god allow that to happen?”
Again, I couldn’t answer. Instead, I focused my energy on staying calm.
Then the man reached down, finally crossing over the threshold of the bed, and took hold of the corner of the covers. He tugged and they all came off.
I remained there in my underwear, still and on the surface of my bed, lying bare underneath those piercing eyes. Still, somehow, I managed to gather my courage.
“I’m going to be fine,” I said aloud, more for my own morale than anything. “In the end, it’s all going to be fine. Even if you are able to hurt me right now, you won’t be able to forever.”
He didn’t reply.
“Did you know,” I continued, feeling a fight growing inside me, “you’re gonna be thrown into a lake of fire? I’m gonna be fine. You’re not.”
The man remained at my bedside for a few more moments, covers clenched tight in his hands. Then at last, he dropped them and turned away towards my bedroom door, shaking his head. Before opening it, he looked at me again, his pupils dancing with hatred. “Because of you, I will hurt your family.”
Then he was gone.
I awoke immediately. Holding my breath, scanning the room, I found everything dark and silent again. The bedclothes –– thank goodness –– still lay on top of me, just like they had before I’d fallen asleep. I listened closely for any other creak or sign of distress from my room or the rest of the house. Nothing.
Despite the strangeness of the dream, I felt no lingering fear from it. I got up at once, wrote down everything that had happened, said another quick prayer and dozed off again. I slept soundly in my own bed afterwards.
It had been a while since I’d looked at the stars. I mean really looked at them.
Back in Colorado, we have a lot of stars. The sky out there still remains, for the most part, unpolluted by light or smog. It’s just a five-minute walk from my parents’ front door to the Milky Way, give or take a few seconds.
But the years in Nashville had concealed the constellations from me. I guess I’d grown to forget their message after a while, until now.
Staring up at the sparkling heavens through folds in our 8-person tent, I breathed in the cool night breeze and found my mind at peace for the first time in a week.
What a week it had been…
At the dawn of the new summer, Yours Truly set out on tour once again, retracing its course from the previous year and tacking on even more shows throughout new parts the midwest. I joined them again, this time as a member of the band.
We took north out of Nashville, hitting Indiana, Chicago, St. Louis, and Louisville before playing some shows out in Colorado and then Texas. The schedule we ended up with was solid, and the venues were amazing. But most of all, the opportunities we got to play our music together –– the medium we used to connect to each other and to our listeners –– was remarkably inspiring. I’ll spend the rest of my life feeling privileged to have been a part of something so uniquely life-changing.
And yet despite this, waves of depression came rolled over early on during our time on the road and refused to loose its grip on me.
I spent most of my time trying to figure it out, trying to diffuse it like a time bomb deep inside me. Tim and Jared tried to be encouraging but grew understandably frustrated.
Maybe it seemed too eerily similar to what had happened the previous year on tour, just before losing Ashleigh. Maybe it came on because of new insecurities that left me feeling that I didn’t fit in with a group of pop/rockers. And maybe other things could have contributed to it –– deep, dark things I wasn’t even aware of.
In the end, I never arrived at any conclusion; I never do. I just felt alone. It’s strange and scary how alone you can feel in a van with seven other dudes. Keeping to myself, I spent most of my time in survival mode, content to simply ride it out until it faded.
We set out from Colorado and rolled into Lubbock, Texas, about halfway through our trip. Having a few free days before us, we decided to find a campground to stay the night in rather than pay for a motel.
And despite the growing gloom inside me, once we set up our beds underneath the stars –– as bright and clear as the ones back home –– I felt the darkness clearing. Even after everyone else fell asleep, I stayed up to stare at them.
What worlds laid out there in that expanse? I felt all at once that if gravity could reverse, I might go crashing through the dazzling universe, from inner rings to outer rings and beyond.
Just days before, we’d all had a conversation about the stars in the van, after a show. We’d marveled at how many there were: how could there be so many? Thousands of stars shone before our naked eyes then, and thousands more in telescopes, and perhaps many millions more even outside of human knowledge. What are humans in a place so vast? Could we dare to think that we might be alone in it? What is the purpose of the stars?
Laying underneath that light canopy on the riverbanks in Lubbock, I smiled at the stars, and couldn’t help but remember a character I’d heard from a story. The man’s name, at the time, was Abram.
From what’s been told, God once commanded Abram to look at the stars –– perhaps the very same constellations I found myself gazing upon now. The Creator of the stars told that man to look at them as a reminder to him and his children that God would never leave them. It was a promise. And like all of God’s promises, the one about the stars included more width and depth and height than Abram could have possibly imagined then.
But we’re knowing it better all the time; as years passed, we discovered more stars. The promise kept growing, at least for us.
We found ways to reach far out into the cosmos, to see things no human eye had ever seen before. And eventually we found so vast a discovery that it seemed almost silly that God would have created so much wasted, uninhabited space.
It is, of course, not wasted. He made the stars (both explored and unexplored) for a reason –– perhaps not to confuse us or give us little puzzles to solve, but to allow us an opportunity to explore the far reaches his faithfulness, and see his promises ripening beyond our wildest imaginations. It’s his way of whispering to us still, in the midst of our modern devices which are no mystery to him: “I promise, I am with you. I promise.”
“But self-preservation is the main predator of honest relationship. This is a very profound and extremely true statement. Makes me think, hard!”
Thank you so much!
“Do you have a favourite song from Eventide and if so, what is it?”
My favorite to listen to might be either Provider or Psalm 88, mostly because I’ve always wanted real strings on my records and have never had them until now. Shawn, who arranged the parts, is pretty much my hero.
My favorite to play out is probably Brave. I often say that if the world were ending and I had just one song to play to a listening audience, it would be Brave.
Our pastor motioned to Ashleigh, who sat with her legs crossed on a chair in front of the office window. It was cracked slightly behind her and different sounds from the neighborhood drifted in –– footsteps of people going to coffee shops, voices talking about meaningless daily affairs. As I glanced from our pastor back to my wife and thought about how much pain I was experiencing compared to the people outside, I felt a strange gap widening inside me. Is that life, or is this life?
“Well,” Ashleigh replied, her voice small and fragile, “I don’t know. I’m not very good at describing how I feel sometimes.”
“That’s alright. That can be something you both can work at through all of this.”
He talked like that at every meeting –– like things weren’t a complete disaster. When the whole thing seemed in obvious shambles to us, he looked at it like a minor bump in the road or something. I supposed he’d seen his share of struggling married couples like us.
“Try it anyway,” he continued.
Ashleigh nodded, unsure. We sat a little while in silence while she gathered her thoughts.
“I guess I feel confused and alone,” she said. Our pastor nodded, encouraging her to go on with a sympathetic expression on his face. “I thought…well, I don’t really feel loved or wanted. Like I’m just not good enough.”
I tensed up as she spoke.
Though most everything Ashleigh said during our meetings tended to crush me (and I, her), her final words took me by such surprise that I drifted away in thought from the meeting immediately, back through the times I’d spent growing up in Colorado, in middle school, in high school, to those classrooms and basketball courts.
That was my struggle –– being good enough. Trying to glean my worth from the approval of other people. I’d spent twenty-two years trying to work for the love of those around me, building up facades, earning awards and trophies, avoiding making enemies. But I’d dealt with all that baggage long ago, hadn’t I?
How had I not known that my own wife was struggling with the same thing? And not only that, but struggling not to feel good enough to me?
There on the couch in our pastor’s office, my breath caught in my lungs. Had I imagined and maintained such a high standard for myself that I expected the impossible from others also? A few of our pastor’s words drifted back to me from some sermon in the past: Hurt people hurt people, and all too often with the same weapons.
Maybe I never had recovered. My sweat felt cold against the surface of the couch. Was there still a part of me that thought love was something you had to earn?
“Every solid married couple I know went through something like this,” he was saying when I came back to myself. “They woke up one morning and couldn’t decide whether or not they loved each other, or even wanted each other. And it sucked. They had to start breaking down the walls they put up to keep the other person away –– the walls concealing all the junk they’d secretly brought into the marriage. And then they had to go through it all. Together.”
Ashleigh wiped a tear away and I avoided her gaze. No one had warned us about all this; we’d just jumped in blindly. Growing up in a place like Lamar, we hadn’t even heard about things like premarital counseling. Apparently, we hadn’t at all known what we’d been signing up for. Does anyone who gets married?
“But all the couples I’ve known who have kept fighting,” he continued, “found their marriages unimaginably more fulfilling on the other side. In fact, I’d say that it’s only once you start pursuing each other honestly that the real marriage begins. Some couples go their whole lives without finding the courage to be honest with each other, like you two are doing.”
He smiled. “If you choose to work through this, I really believe you’ll end up with a marriage that’s better than you’d ever thought it could be. Harder maybe, in some ways at first. But better.”
Before we left, he asked us both whether we were willing to keep fighting for the marriage. Ash said that she would try. I said that I was still doubtful, and another tear spilled down her cheek.
Was the marriage itself just another attempt of mine to prove my worth? To my family, to the people of Lamar, to Ashleigh, to myself, to God? And if it was, could a marriage founded on a desperate desire for approval be redeemed?
It’s strange how a person can understand the truth about something –– for instance, that love isn’t a thing that needs earning –– and still live for years as if it weren’t actually true. And without even realizing it.
As the weeks after that meeting passed and we scheduled more meetings, we started swapped stances: Ashleigh’s resolve waned as mine grew. Still, in the end, it wasn’t enough to save us.
I still believe our pastor’s words. I believe that if we’d stuck together, we would have found ourselves nurturing a closer, happier, more fulfilling marriage now. And if I marry again someday, I still believe I’ll have to wake up one morning faced with the decision to actively choose to love and to want the woman lying next to me.
It might sound naive or idealistic to believe that everything works out for good –– that even though I made a mistake in letting a marriage end that could have been more beautiful than anything I’d ever known, there is still good to come from it. I do believe it’s true.
It took a crisis as big as divorce to finally convince us of something we’d known all along, but never truly believed: love, as it was meant to be, can’t be earned.
Come mid-October, Mom already started to ask about Christmas.
Since getting married, Ashleigh and I made it back to Colorado maybe twice a year at best, usually for Christmas. That was mostly because of Ashleigh’s tight work schedule; she didn’t get many vacation days.
But after she had gone and I floated around Nashville jobless, my mother couldn’t understand why I refused to visit. Not at the end of summer, not for Labor Day weekend, for Thanksgiving. I think she really began to worry when I told her I wasn’t sure I’d be home at the end of December.
I told her I didn’t think the restaurant I worked at would let me off, and that I thought it important to keep Jared company as he was staying in Nashville alone. But those were all just minor reasons. I was afraid to tell her the truth.
My reputation among my family and in my hometown had always been golden. Aside from being one of the few church-going students in my school (which was considered, even by non-believers, a rather noble thing), I kept out of trouble and worked on excelling in every activity I participated in. I got plaques engraved with my name hung up on the high school cafeteria walls. Old playbills with my picture were framed and placed in the theater, and I would make sure to land a picture in the local newspaper every couple months or so. I used to pride myself for being featured in the yearbook so many times, apparently ignoring the fact that I’d been the editor-in-chief.
Friends in high school called me “perfect.” Though I mostly took offense to it, I couldn’t deny a dark part of my heart that reveled in that praise, and perhaps even began to believe it.
During my time in Lamar, I spent years trying to cultivate a spotless reputation. It took only one day –– the day Ashleigh moved back, for it all to shatter.
When they saw her around town without me, rumors snowballed across Lamar like they do in all small communities with desperate need of news and gossip: quickly and mercilessly. I heard stories about how I inexplicably told her to leave, or about some affair I had (sometimes with a woman, sometimes with a man), or about becoming obsessed with music to the point of insanity. Angry emails came in as a bandwagon of Facebook friends jumped ship. Hypocrite, they mostly said. I always knew you’d do something like this. I thought better of you. Or the worst: I used to look up to you.
All those angry emails only supported my selfish life philosophy: the love of others is contingent on my performance. The bigger you screwed up, the more love you lost.
Terrified to return to that mess and face life stripped of my golden boy title, I quietly resolved to stay in Nashville over Christmas. My parents and Mandi didn’t really understand.
In the end, it was Jared who convinced me I should go.
“I’d go if I were you,” he said. “Your family loves you and wants to see you.”
“Yeah,” I replied, though not without some dark thread of skepticism.
Despite being pressed financially, my parents immediately bought plane tickets to fly me into Denver. Dad and Mandi picked me up at the airport and gave me two big hugs.
I had one the best Christmases of my life.
Numerous visits to family later, I discovered countless relationships enriched. Conversations came easier; eyes sparkled more; handshakes were firmer and warmer. I was surprised to find that the divorce had somehow torn down certain walls that had always stood between us. Apparently, it had never been much fun talking to a golden boy.
I think that’s why it’s so important that we tell each other how broken we are; we just relate better in our brokenness.
No one ever said, “I totally relate to how awesome you are.” But if we’re honest about our struggles with each other, we often do find ourselves saying, “I’ve experienced something like that darkness, and I’m sorry.”
It’s essential, imperative. We need to let each other know about the ways we bruise and break. Nothing gold can stay.
One of my last nights at home, Mom came down to my room and sprawled out on my bed while I played video games. She fidgeted with my arm or the hem of my pants like moms who miss their boys do. I turned the game off and we talked.
“We love you so much,” she told me. I finally began to feel my doubts and skepticisms fading. “And there’s nothing you can do to change that, you know?”
The story of my time living with Tim and Jared started when Jared’s dog peed on the couch.
Boston, the 10-pound rat terrier, ruled the White House with a secret fury. Stalking through hallways, burrowing under blankets, the dog gained himself a rather illusive and bitter reputation among the tenants. Word was, if you drew close enough to smell his breath, all was over. The rank, as Tim described it, was something worse, but not unlike, the smell of a dozen dead moldy crickets.
New residents of the White House usually experienced Boston’s wrath the hard way; within the first few nights of moving their things in, they were likely to find little smelly messages here or there among their belongings. The messages went something like, “I’m watching you,” or, “Just so you know, this is really all mine.”
So naturally, when the new couch came, it didn’t stand much a chance. Boston wasted no time or bodily fluid. Luckily, it was made of leather and not terribly hard to clean.
But that had been the dog’s last hurrah; it had come time for Boston to learn, or to leave.
So Jared began looking for other places to live, and I joined him. I figured a roommate with a halitosis chihuahua was better than no roommate at all. And what’s more, Jared was one of the closest friends I’d ever had; it made no sense not to want to live together.
Our search didn’t last long. A three-bedroom house not a block from the White House providentially went up for rent around the same time. After only about a week’s worth of negotiations, we signed a new lease together. We dubbed the new house “The Parliament.”
Thus Boston’s reign at the White House came to an end, and for the benefit of all. I ended the lease at my one-bedroom apartment.
Just before our move-in date, Jared, Tim, and I took a weekend trip to Texas for the Austin City Limits music festival. As a permanent monument to our friendship and unique senses of humor, we woke up one morning and got matching mustache tattoos on our fingers.
Now we always have disguises on-hand. (Get it?)
We returned to Tim’s mom’s house that Saturday night after the concert. Tim and I needed a bit of time on the back porch to run to through the Recovery packet questions before turning in. Once we concluded, I asked him about the Parliament.
The house had three bedrooms; we had three mustaches. It seemed to make perfect sense to me that three best friends should move in together if they were afforded an opportunity to.
“Do you think you’ll wait until the end of your lease at the White House, or move in sooner?” I asked him.
I remember a strange fear –– a secret hesitancy –– flash across his face as he sat there on the porch chair, feet propped up on the table where his mother’s Black and Milds lay. He didn’t answer for a while. His silence unsettled me.
“Do you … think you will move in?”
“I think so,” he answered, becoming stoic once again. “I mean, probably. I still need to pray about it, I guess.”
He said he didn’t want to discuss it much further. Words like that were usually all it took for me to spiral downwards. The divorce had planted deep seeds in me; against my own failing will otherwise, I took every opportunity possible to believe that I’d done something to push a friend out of my life.
And when depression came on, I couldn’t see the world but through blurry vision. Small, inconsequential events or decisions looked suddenly like life-altering crises. Subtle turns of phrase or eyebrow raises –– and nothing more –– became reasons to suspect treachery in my friends.
And treachery was what I deserved, right? That’s what I came to believe, and that never helps a person’s suspicions. When I looked at the good things I had, I saw time bombs. When I looked in the mirror, a lit fuse.
Feeling a strangled sense of desperation, I continued to inquire passively about Tim’s decision to move in for the remainder of the month. He finally agreed to, though not without what seemed like reservations.
Lost in my own muddy mind, dominated by a fear of abandonment, I couldn’t understand his disquiet. I couldn’t see the person Tim saw when he looked at me: a sad man rather like an old bumper sticker, having been peeled away from the thing it had always planned on sticking to –– the thing it had given up its precious backing for –– and found itself a sticky mess afterwards, clinging to anything else that might come close.
Maybe he saw then a vision of Boston, unwilling to be noticed as he skirted around those he felt threatened by, marking and claiming things that weren’t really his to claim. Why? Because he couldn’t stand the thought of having nothing.
I awoke from a dream the morning of August 31st feeling as if i’d just been plunged into some foreign reality. It was a Sunday, in 2008, and before Ashleigh, Troy, and I went off to church, I wrote the dream down, unable to shake the strangeness of it.
I’d found myself sitting at a white table in a white room, filled with all white things –– chairs, shelves, rugs. Light shone in from a row of vertical windows to my right, but made no shadows upon the objects around me; they seemed to have a sort of light of their own.
The only colors I could find in the whole space were on pieces of large construction paper laid out on the table before me. Although I could tell that they were pieces of paper, they looked uncomfortably like human skin –– with pores and wrinkles and hairs. There was an array of different pigmentation and skin tones side by side in a large grid, and above that, I found two white cups filled with small wooden sticks.
It wasn’t until after I noticed all this that I became aware of the Instructor. I couldn’t see him –– but I could feel him there, behind me where I sat. I knew I mustn’t look at him, so I studied the squares of skin-paper in front of me, wondering what to do.
And then, driven out of some far-off inherent knowledge I’d kept in the back of my mind as long as I’d lived, I set to work.
I pulled one stick out of one of the white cups and examined it.
Tiny letters had been engraved in its side: Martinez.
I laid the stick down on a particularly pasty piece of paper in the top right corner of the grid. The engraved name disappeared.
I drew another: Smith.
My immediate reaction was to place this stick on a piece of paper that seemed to fit –– a lighter skin tone, one like my own. But those were not my instructions. I went to the top again, and laid it down on the piece of paper to the right of the top-left. The name disappeared.
In this manner, going from top down, left to right on the grid of skin-paper, I began to empty the cups of their sticks, regardless whether the names seemed to match the skin tones. People were getting all mixed up, I knew. They were losing identities and finding new ones.
It wasn’t until I drew a stick and read a familiar name that I paused.
As in Josh Kurtz, one of my best friends. I was about to change his life forever.
Questions sprang to life in me: This thing that I’m doing…is it really right?
At last the Instructor behind me spoke in a voice that shook chest like a rock concert.
“Don’t doubt, Blake. This is the only way to bring peace to the world.”
Upon waking, I laid under the covers for a while, trying to shake a certain panic I’d fought hard to weed out of my life over the years. The dream had been mysterious and interesting, no doubt, but it had also taken me over. It had left no room for influence. And I didn’t like that.
When I was very young, I would wake from nightmares often. It didn’t help having an over-active imagination.
So, starting in elementary school, I began learning how to take control of bad dreams. The process, known as lucid dreaming, took me consistently into a state of sleep where I could remain completely aware that I was, in fact, dreaming. What’s more, I began to monitor the things I dreamed. If a man ran up to me with a gun, I would change it into a stuffed animal. If I found myself in a black pit, I would conjure a light.
By the time I made it to high school, nothing could happen in my dream life that I didn’t want to happen. I’d become king of my subconscious.
But the dream about the white room had been different. I hadn’t picked up on my dream state at all. I woke up shaken, feeling that I’d lost the reigns on reality for a brief time. It legitimately scared me.
After all, if I couldn’t stay in control of my dreams, was it possible that I wasn’t really in control of other areas of my life as well –– my finances, my goals and ambitions, my relationships? My wife?
It was possible. I did learn, finally, that I hadn’t ever in control of those things. Ashleigh, outside of any control I thought I had, left in June 2011. I haven’t been able to lucid dream since.