Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Belonging

May 12, 1983: all but one of us were gathered on the steps of our dormitory, Lausanne Hall, on the campus of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. We were dressed for a wedding at which Kathleen (with the flowers) was to be, or had just been, a bridesmaid: our friend Cheryl, who had been more a member of our Group during our freshman year but had drifted away since then, was marrying Tim Kilday (Thirty years is a long time: I don't remember Cheryl's maiden name.). The next day, all but one of us would graduate; that one was Tony Peterson, in the sunglasses and closely-cropped Afro, who had graduated in 1980, but stuck around for our remaining years. I like to think he was keeping an eye on us, as soon after this picture was taken, he went on to other things in other places, first in Richland, Washington, then in Nashville, where he still lives.

You may have noticed I capitalized the word "Group." That's how we always thought of ourselves: the Group. We came together during freshman orientation. In the beginning, it was Scott, Scott, Rick, and Mark. Elizabeth, Kathleen, and Annette came later, but not by much. Tony was Scott, Scott, and Rick's RA. Mary, who was a year behind us, and was spending a semester in Spain at the time of our graduation, became part of the Group the following year. Rick had not been with us all year: he was doing a 3-2 forestry major with another school, and came back to receive his Willamette degree before returning to that other school to finish up his masters there. Scott Greenwood (the tall one) had another year to go, thanks to being on some crazy banking scholarship that required him to divide his time between studies and working at US Bank (he quit that program after a couple of years, but it cost him that extra year), so he didn't actually graduate with us, but always considered himself part of the class of '83, anyway. Elizabeth (in the middle, between Scott Greenwood and Tony) was married eighteen months later; Kathleen seven months after that; Rick another year after that. Scott Marchand, between Kathleen and Annette (far left) was engaged to Mary at this time, but they broke it off a few months after her return from Spain; he married someone else several years later, I'm not sure when. So did Tony. All those marriages took. Annette was not as lucky: she had a short, abusive marriage in the early 1990s, then spent the rest of her life single. She died in a hit-and-run accident in 2007; I only found out about it six months later, from a brief obit in the alumni magazine. Scott Greenwood was in and out of relationships for many years, and ultimately came out. I don't know how long he's been with his partner, but it's probably at least as long as both my marriages put together.

That's right. Annette and I are the outliers. In a community of oddballs, an island of misfit toys, we were the furthest from the norm. Annette was childlike: naive, single-mindedly stubborn, obsessed with horses and pirates. I say this ruefully, because when I consider the late-teen/early twenty-somethings I know now, her interests don't seem that unusual to me. I had youthful obsessions of my own: science fiction, Model UN, film scores. There was something else about Annette, though, that set her apart, and gives some clue to why, after her brief marriage ended, she moved back in with her parents and stayed there until her bicycle was run off the road as she returned from a Christmas shopping expedition in her home town of Kingman, Arizona. I had one email from her, sometime around 2003, that mentioned being on medication, I'm not sure for what. She was a special person, and I cherish my memories of her.

Which leaves me. Not ready to teach in 1983, I ran off to grad school; still not ready to teach in 1984, even with a masters degree from the nation's best music education program, I spent ten weeks in a Class B district in eastern Oregon, finished out that year as a substitute teacher in Salem, and ran away again, this time to seminary in Dallas, Texas. Fifteen years later, finally accepting that ministry wasn't right for me, either, I moved into the Peace House. After two years there, with my disability clock ticking, I reactivated my teaching license, subbed for year, and groped my way back into teaching, finally strong enough for the classroom. Financially, music teaching is going through an extremely dry period, and I will be lucky to see full-time employment before I reach retirement age, but I'm in it for the long haul now. In the meantime, I've been married and divorced twice, to which can be added a broken engagement. At 48, I finally found my soulmate, and I expect this one to take. She's great, we're still in love after four years, and I'm happier and more secure with her than I've ever been with anyone.

Why did it take me so long to find the right vocation and relationship? The short answer: it took me that long to grow up. That's a bit deceptive: I was always mature for my age, disdainful of childish games, solemn, quiet, reluctant to engage in silliness. I was also lonely, insecure, wounded, and had abandonment issues. I didn't make friends easily. Those I had in high school were better than I knew at the time. Those I had in college were wonderful, but there was always a part of me expecting rejection. I just didn't feel lovable. That the rejection came is a testament to how warped my self-perception was. I was, and continued to be, somewhat overweight, rarely enough to endanger my health, but always enough that I never felt attractive, even when I was running marathons. I was, and am, an introvert, and I alternated between deep envy of the people skills I saw in others and resentment of those very skills. I periodically tried to train myself to be such a person, but it always felt forced and unnatural.

After graduation from Willamette, I found myself adrift. My one year at Illinois was not nearly enough time for me to make friends. Four months in LaGrande, eight months in Salem, I made some connections, renewed others (Scott Marchand was still in Salem, working on his law degree, and Dr. Behnke welcomed me back into the WU band), but spent many a lonely night in front of the TV. My first semester of seminary I was desperately lonely, sinking into a deep depression. It didn't help that the circular letter the Group had maintained for two years abruptly stopped during this time, and with the internet still a decade from reality, there was no good way for us to maintain contact. I longed for belonging, to be part of a community that wanted me and valued me for who I was.

Then I met Brenda, and all my longings for connection became focused on her.

In retrospect, I know how wrong this was, but I'm also keenly aware of how many young couples make the same mistake: turning a single relationship into the one place in which they meet all their needs for intimacy. This is especially true for people who, like both Brenda and me, bore raw childhood wounds and insecurities, and had little or no experience with one-on-one intimacy. We experimented in many ways upon each other, but lacked the maturity to transcend the experiments, and the security to know that we were not each other's last chance at happiness. I hear high school seniors--18-year-olds!--fretting that they've not accomplished enough, and hear echoes of my own naive frustrations. We were momentarily happy, and for fear of losing that happiness, tried to lock it in with a wedding. Eight years later, it ended.

Along the way, my need for belonging found another outlet: entrance into the Order of Elders, the club-of-sorts of United Methodists who have received "permanent" ordination. It was a paper chase, but it meant everything to me. So much of my identity was wrapped up in wanting the approval of these people that I again and again tried to remake myself into an outgoing, gregarious pastor. I also found myself struggling more and more with depression. Retrospect, again, tells me that it was rooted in a few fundamental issues: two bad marriages, one bad career, and a wealth of childhood insecurities. The only part of it that I could allow myself to acknowledge was the last, which I dealt with in therapy ad nauseum. Accepting that either marriage or career was the culprit meant acknowledging I didn't belong in either of the communities I had chosen to address my intimacy needs.



Marriage and ministry ended at the same time, and I found Metanoia, a community I had been aware of for many years, but which now I had the freedom to explore. Here, at last, was an island of misfits like unto the Group, a place where I could be loved not despite my quirks, but for them. Metanoia affirmed individual differences as no other community in my life ever had. The Order of Elders is concerned with effectiveness, and I was simply not effective enough as a pastor to continue in their company. Both marriages were based on specific aspects of my personality which, in the final analysis, were inadequate to compensate for other parts of my identity which proved unacceptable to my spouses. In Metanoia, I really could be myself. It was a prickly community, made up mostly of people who didn't fit anywhere else, and we weren't all on the same page on any one issue. At times it felt like a combative, dysfunctional family. But we always loved each other. That was a hard thing for me to understand: in my experience, disagreement usually led to broken relationship. Not so with Metanoia. People could, and did, spend time separated from the community, and from each other, but most came back, and were always welcomed when they did.

I had disagreements of my own with Metanoia. I marched with the community for several demonstrations, and found myself extremely uncomfortable with non-Metanoian anarchists we saw on our parade routes--something that the veteran activitists in Metanoia laughed off. I could not reconcile myself to being arrested, an experience at which many in the community were old hands. I enjoyed digging into theology and scriptural study with the community, and found worship stimulating and satisfying--except when it touched on Judaism, a problem I will address in another entry. And meetings--oy, those meetings! Like so many other things, Metanoia took meetings to an extreme that just didn't work for me. For all that, this was my community. It disbanded last year, and I miss it. I belonged.

I belong to the ComedySportz community now. It's another island of misfit toys. I do feel a certain insecurity around all these theater people, an inadequacy around my reluctance to get up on the stage and improvise theatrically. I'm aware that my contribution to the community is extremely specialized: I do things at the keyboard. But I'm welcome just the same, and even though you won't find me playing out scenes with these improvisers--at least, not with my words or actions--I'm a part of this company.

It occurs to me that the metaphor I'm seeking is that of the jazz combo. Each member of a combo plays a distinct role: drummer, bass, keyboard or guitar, soloist. The star of a combo is usually the soloist whether vocal or instrumental, but without the rhythm section, the solo is bare, separated from its chordal and rhythmic context. In a really good combo, every member takes solos, and all are equals even as each is unique. Consider my favorite small jazz group, Oregon, a quartet of virtuosi who, after forty years of playing together, perform seamless group improvisations that are telepathic in their unified brilliance.

A true community is like this: distinct individuals embraced by a collective, maintaining the integrity of their unique personas, celebrated for their differences, creating something spectacular. If CSz was made up of performers who all had identical strengths, improvisations might be technically spectacular, but would ultimately be predictable. Nobody wants to listen to a combo of just drummers for long. Let the elders and partisans have their monocultured unity. I'll take the crazy quilt beauty of diverse elements knit together in harmonically gorgeous counterpoint any day.

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