Thursday, February 18, 2010

An Index of Songs

1. We Weren’t Born to Follow by Jon Bon Jovi
2. Mexico Lindo Y Querido as performed by Mariachi Los Camperos
3. Dear Mama by 2Pacmen
4. Mojado by Ricardo Arjona
5. A Little Fall of Rain from Les Miserables
6. Just the Two of Us as performed by Will Smith
7. My Little Town by Simon and Garfunkle
8. Valleys Fill First by Caedmon’s Call
9. Freshmen by the Verve Pipe
10. In My Father’s House by Rich Mullins
11. Fools Rush In by Elvis Presley
12. Una Experienca Religiosa by Enrique Iglesias
13. How Great Thou Art as performed by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir
14. Man on a Mission by Van Halen
15. It Was a Very Good Year by Robbie Williams
16. If I Ever Lose My Faith in You by Sting
17. The Windmills of your Mind as performed by Sting
18. Let’s Get It Started by the Black Eyes Peas
19. Oh by Eric Hutchinson
20. An Unexpected Song by Sarah Brightman
21. What If I Stumble by DC Talk
22. Piensa en Mi by Valeria Lynch
23. Razzle Dazzle by Richard Gere
24. Think for Yourself by The Beatles
25. California Here I Come by Sophie Hawkins
26. Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell
27. A Maze of Grace by Avalon
28. Ride by Amanda Marshall
29. Heaven in the Real World by Steven Curtis Chapman
30. Superstar from Jesus Christ Superstar
31. Joy in the Journey by Michael Card
32. Somewhere North by Caedmon’s Call
33. What I Really Want to Say by Steven Curtis Chapman
34. I Can Only Imagine by Mercy Me
35. Harder to Breathe by Maroon 5
36. Nothing Else Matters by Metallica
37. That’s What Faith Must Be by Michael Card
38. Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkle
39. Sometimes When We Touch by Dan Hill
40. Un Dia Normal by Juanes
41. Fallin’ Apart by the All American Rejects
42. Crazy by Aerosmith
43. Somewhere in the Night by Scott Bakula
44. Losing My religion by REM
45. I Still Believe by Mariah Carey
46. Falling in Love is Hard On the Knees by Aerosmith
47. It’s my Life by Jon Bon Jovi
48. Memory by Elaine Pagen
49. The End of the World as performed by Susan Boyle
50. I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables
51. Were It Not For Grace by Larnelle Harris
52. A Brand New Day by Joshua Radin
53. It Hasn’t been Long Enough by Eric Hutchinson

53 It Hasn't Been Long Enough- An Epilogue

So that was over four years ago when all of these things occurred and a very logical question proceeds, what’s happened since or what are your thoughts? The simple truth is that I spent a while wondering in the wilderness if you will, unclear as to who or what I was, sincerely believing that I had destroyed what I was born to do. Those thoughts and days are still relatively common in my life today, days where I look into the mirror and feel like I have failed faith, life, my mother and almost all the things that matter in life. Those can be dark disheartening days but they are less common.
There have been more than several occasions where I have gone to church since then. Some of those were simply because of weddings, baptisms, etc but a good half of them have been because I, sometimes, just missed it. Invariably, the reaction I have is almost identical. I don’t know what post traumatic stress disorder is like exactly but I imagine its what I go through. I’m, generally speaking, a guy of little anxiety and low stress but when I’m there it feels like my system is shutting down. It lasts a solid ten to fifteen minutes before I am able to deal with it. It’s frankly speaking, very odd. Some who I’ve talked to about it have tried to tell me that it’s the holy spirit trying to move me but it feels more like water trying to drown me. It’s the closest thing I know to have had to a panic attack and its fairly consistent when I am inside a church. Perhaps there’s a day where God and I will get back together but in those times when it’s clear that the stress is so overwhelming, I doubt it will happen. If it ever does, it will be a while because it hasn’t been long enough.
Shannon and I had our rough patches, the worst vividly described here. We are these days very happy though and well connected. In fact, I think we would both say that 2009 was the happiest year of our married years together. I hope 2010 surpasses it. We continue to chase our dream list, in fact just a few days before the writing of this we completed a marathon together and chose it because it was on Valentine’s day. We’re deeply in love and have more grown up and realistic views and choices about sex, love, marriage and life. We’ve bought a house in Austin where she came to the University to get her Master’s in social work. I have spent over 4 years now as a juvenile probation officer and despite a couple of job offers to get me back into a world that makes more money, I’ve stayed here because I believe in what I’m doing.
We have a little girl, Kiana Lys Leon, who is now 3 years old. In order to make sure she got a better name than my dog (Puppy), we had a baby naming contest. This was won by an old friend from high school, Maydi Aguilar. Many had said that maybe I could stay out of the church but once we had a child we’d want to make sure she was raised in it. One of the best and worst things about being me is that being aware of psychological and sociological typical stuff, I often consciously ignore it. Anyway, she does go to church on a semi-regular basis but that’s because her mother is paid to at the church’s daycare. She asks us questions about the Bible and we answer them as honestly as we can but also teach her that not everyone agrees. She’s asked us question as to “who is God” and “why do people die” and it has led to many fruitful conversations.
But even that has not taken me back to church or to God. This is invariably disappointing for a good chunk of those reading and arguably for the one writing it but sometimes I think of God the way I did of Natalie. It was a relationship that was intense and overwhelming and had a lot of passion but I’m not sure it was healthy and its arguable that we’re both better off without each other.
Ironically, I still try to keep many of the tenants of my faith. I still tithe 10% of my income but now it goes to charities, keep the Sabbath to such a degree my job knows about it, still follow the Adventist dietary guidelines even though I suggested when I was a regular church goer that they were no longer applicable. I still keep the alcohol, tobacco, drug and caffeine aspects. I’ve not been perfect as I’ve been drunk once in my life on 08/08/08 because my friends kept insisting on the celebration of my 08/08/80 birthday.
I do want to clear something up in this epilogue. This wasn’t an autobiography; it was a story about a very particular frame of view. If it was autobiographical, it would have been lighter, funnier, telling more of the things that I think are amusing in life. It was a journey about a boy who wanted to become something, did so and then failed at it and may never quite forgive himself for it.
The best part of this journey has been that I’ve been able to find a large percentage of the people who made the story who I had completely been out of contact with. I tried to look for the lions share of everyone who made the story and send them what I had written about them and see their response both to it and how their memory is different from it. I’ve been amused at the things that I couldn’t remember and that I’ve gotten wrong: I’ll give you a couple of examples. Alycia, who wasn’t even at my wedding, got promoted to a bridesmaid. Josie, who wasn’t there that high schoolyear, snuck into my room in the middle of the night somehow. I said in the prologue, “Is this story true? No, it’s just what I remember” and you can see now the faultiness of the human memory. I’ve gotten some remarks from feedback that may well best encapsulate what all has gone on in here. One friend said that I was a narcissistic, self centered selfish guy who was extremely honest about it and that there was something refreshing about that. Another person said they remember as someone who had a huge ego but somehow a bigger heart. One person asked that I remove their name from the story. Another was just glad that we were able to find each other. I’ve thanked my stepfather for being my true father and apologized for the fact I stopped calling him dad. I’ve realized during the middle of this just how dumb it might have been for Shannon to stay with me and how grateful I am that she did.
The other great realization during this has been a nagging question. I am not certain as to which affects which more. Does our past affect our view of the present more or does our present affect our view of the past more? There’s no way to know but I think it may be a coin toss on any given day.
But writing all this down now is done now and for the first time ever, I’m much closer to making peace with all this. Invariably, someone will note that its not a great ending; well I’m still alive so my life’s not over would be my first answer. My second would be that life is not usually all cleaned up nicely and packaged with a bow.
Still, faith and I failed each other and that is the sad reality of my life. If you’ve come this far with me, please be so kind as to write me a few notes about what you think of it all. I don’t expect the comments themselves necessarily to be kind or in agreement but I imagine that you wouldn’t allow a friend to spill their guts to you over a conversation and then sit in silence. I have let you intimately into my mind and my life; please share what you think of it all.
I’ve got nothing left to say other than that the next entrance is a list of all the songs and the artists. In my mind, this would be read with that song playing in the background. Most of the chapters have a direct quote from the song that they share a title with and they almost all tell you something else about the emotions. I don’t expect anyone to do this, of course, but if there’s a chapter that you thought was particularly significant, try it with that one. Take care and thank you for your time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

52 A Brand New Day

When you lose your life’s purpose and what you have pursued for almost two decades, it’s tough to look at yourself in the morning. The job I had found was in sales as a yellow page salesman, probably only a notch or two above used car salesman. Perhaps at some level I had always been a salesman but this was the first time I realized. I had broken records during those school fundraisers, sold my mother’s burritos, recruited for both my high school and my college and been as avid of an evangelist as I knew how. So possibly it was inevitable that my first job after all this was going to be sales. During the nearly month wait until I started it, I found a temporary job mostly to pass the time because it didn’t really pay well. I became a valet driver which really means a valet parker where you make essentially minimum wage and then sprint back and forth hoping for a good tip. When I was in high school I had hoped to become a janitor and this was the closest to that I’d ever become and rather enjoyed it. It was winter in Arlington so it was cold but it was invigorating to at least have some activity. It may have been no more than when you feel like you’ve lost so much you’re willing to hang on to almost anything.

Eventually, I started my new job as a salesman. It was the first time I’d ever “sold” anything I didn’t believe in; not so much that I didn’t’ believe the yellow pages worked but simply that I didn’t care. It was entirely on commission but I worked as hard as I could on it and did very well. We had something called the “Rocky of the Week” and two of us tied for who got it the most, the company’s most established salesman and me. I was making tons of money by comparison to anything I’d ever made and I frankly didn’t know what to do with it. I was buying very expensive lunches most days. I bought my first car completely in cash (on an amusing side note, I actually showed up with several thousand dollars of cash at the dealership not realizing that cash typically meant a cashier’s check). Shannon had chosen to attend the University of Texas in Austin and we were waiting for later in the summer to move down there. When we finally did move down, we got our entire possessions on the smallest uhaul truck rental with room to spare. We moved into a luxury apartment that even had a backyard for puppy. With all the money I had made we bought several pieces of quality furniture in order to have more than the mattress and the chairs. For some reason the day that we started amassing more stuff it really depressed me, I was enjoying the freedom of not owning much.

I transferred within the yellow pages and my success continued in Austin. Shortly after I arrived there, I actually sold the spine of the yellow pages which paid enough commission to where I paid Shannon’s first semester and books with it with $18 left over. Easy come, easy go I guess…Still life was incredibly hollow and I wasn’t finding a replacement for all I had failed and walked away from. The first several months in Arlington and Austin were spent what can be kindly described as walking through the wilderness. It was a mind frame that I wouldn’t snap out of for a while but that goes beyond the scope of our story. Sadly, disappointingly, brokenly, I accepted that God and I were broken up that we were part of each other’s past and not likely part of each other’s future. I missed him but sometimes I missed Natalie as well and that didn’t mean that relationship was healthy.
The money was great but it was mostly piling up since neither Shannon nor I have ever been materialistic. But I had to constantly hear about Shannon’s social work classes and missed actively helping people. The best parts of me felt secluded and while I was the first to volunteer to help someone move or some small tasks, those were hollow. Eventually I started remembering my work with juvenile delinquents and headed to the Travis County Juvenile Agency and asked who they worked with. They gave me a couple of names and also mentioned that they were themselves hiring. I would apply with all three agencies and oddly enough the government one was the one that got back to me first and offered me the highest pay. As it was, it was still half of what I was making as a salesman so it was going to be a huge paycut. This was a tough decision as Shannon was going to stop working so not only would I reduce my income, hers was going to be disappearing altogether. No matter what I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with that job as a salesman, it was a place where I was only working for money. I know we all work for money but it’s a rough life if that’s the only reason. My sales figure were so impressive at the time I left that the regional director (about three notches above my actual boss) called me into his office and tried to convince me to stay saying I was exactly the kind of employee they were always looking for. I thanked him for his kindness and shook his hand but passed on the opportunity.

My frame of mind and decisions for a while after the Marshall Islands were reflective of a man who had lost all he though he ever lived for but slowly if not destructively I started to get a more even keel. I started focusing on these juvenile delinquents, these kids who thought crime was the better way and started realizing that I wasn’t that different than them; I’d just been luckier. That luck can be ascribed to better parenting, or randomly better genes but I hadn’t chosen those either. In opposition to being a pastor where people felt the need to commend you on way too many things, this was the definition of a thankless job. The community generally thinks you’re being too easy, the kids are tough to get to care; the parents think you’re being too hard and it burns through a lot of people fast. But I believed in what I was doing and kept at it.

Not too long after I started, I got a phone call from Dr. Cruz’s attorney informing me that my closest mentor had been convicted of an inappropriate relationship with a juvenile, would have to register as a sex offender and that the next day was his sentencing. He asked if there was anyway I could make up there to speak on his behalf. I immediately agreed and the attorney again elaborated that he had been found guilty, that he had done this. I acknowledged that I understood and went down there to speak on his behalf. That night I stayed at Kisha’s house and we talked about the strange twists and turns of life. When I had originally visited Dr. Cuz, he had explicitly suggested that I should apply to replace him. I had shrugged it off at the time and changed the conversation but now Kisha again asked why I hadn’t done so. I again shifted the gears of what we were talking about but reflected on the fact that my mentor and I had also failed each other. She was also going to be testifying on his behalf in order to describe how in two years of working with her in a small closed office he had never come close to being inappropriate with her. I don’t recall why but the attorney had me go first and the district attorney and Dr. Cruz’s attorney took turns questioning me. Apparently Dr. Cruz had been willing to plead guilty for a medium level of sentencing but this small county DA wanted him to plead to something that came with a 30 year sentence out of 40 possible. This was a lot to ask of a man in his mid sixties. Again, by all accounts, this had been consensual and short lived though that doesn’t mean to minimize its inappropriateness. Actually, when Kisha and I had ridden up on the elevator to the court that morning, we had coincidentally ridden up with her. She and her family made some comments about Dr. Cruz that were tough to hear.

The DA was floored when she asked me on the stand what I did for a living and heard that I worked with kids. It was the only time she looked up from her paper of questions and in a surprised tone asked how I could testify on behalf of someone who had done this a juvenile. I think the question was not prepared and one of the rules my attorney friends tell me is to never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. I looked at the jury box and talked about the good influence that this man had been in my life and then ended with, “A man should have to pay consequences for all of his actions but he should be measured by the whole of his life not just his mistakes.” After I had said my piece, I looked at Dr. Cruz and we exchanged a knowing and heart breaking glance and that was the last time we ever saw each other.

Several people had been asked to testify on his behalf. Here was a man who had spent decades serving the church and helping lots of people and while there were plenty of people who testified on his behalf but one thing that struck me. While quite a few had at one point been employees of the church, the ones who spoke at his trial were all retired. I’ve never been more proud of Kisha, the only person who was still an active church employee who testified on his behalf. Dr. Cruz’s attorney apparently wrote down what I said and repeated it several times during his closing statement. Its impossible to know whether or not it made an impact but while Dr. Cruz did have to register as a sex offender and did get a 20 years probationary period but he only had to serve 4 years in prison. This was the maximum he might serve but he would be eligible for parole after three.

I went home that day thinking about the twists and turns of all of this. After heading to my office, I sat down and started working on some of these cases. Maybe there would be no faith element, perhaps humanity was all we had; maybe each other was where we needed to turn for measures of grace and kindness. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be so connected to those who had heaven on their minds if their feet weren’t firmly planted on earth anyways. Faith and I had failed each other; the soundtrack of quiet desperation would be played over the rest of my life. But maybe, just maybe, it would all be okay. At that moment, I was likely rolling my eyes at God and He may well have been returning the favor.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

51 Were It Not For Grace

In case there was any doubt that the dream was dead, shortly after arriving back in the United States, I received a letter, actually both Shannon and I did. It was a letter from Pacific Union College letting us know that we were banished from their city set on a hill. More specifically, it was a letter letting us know that this was their notice that if we ever stepped on their campus again, they would be calling the police for criminal trespassing. They also noted that this applied to any property they own including many of the homes that several of the faculty members lived in, the businesses in town and many of the nature trails around there. In short, they wanted us to never step foot again into Angwin.

I can’t say that I blame them being this away from it. While neither then nor now do I consider myself a grave danger to society of people at large, they had to work from the fact that they had in fact given me an opportunity, perhaps a very unique one and that I had treated it with disdain. If I really didn’t care I should have not taken the opportunity to go to Majuro, it would have been far more honest. Plus, sexual sin is always more scandalous and better gossip and now I had taken part of it with two different students of theirs. However, can I say that I took it as gracefully then; of course not. I had lost my purpose in life; I had failed at what I was born to do and I had not come anywhere near replacing it. I was a broken, bitter shell of the person I was. The natural jovialness in my personality was still present but this was one of those times in life where you’re scraping the bottom with every other movement. Out of the same stubborn pride that I had made the t-shirts with, I almost framed the letters banishing me and put them up on my wall; they would have been the only decorations. I didn’t both because it would have been stupid and because at the end of the day, when I allowed myself to be completely candid, it stung rather deeply that the school that once had heavily recruited me and also had given me a full scholarship was now officially exiling me. I do think its ironic that despite that fact to this day my email is under their college domain and that every year, sometimes multiple times a year, I get letters from them requesting alumni donations. I can’t say that I’ve ever made a donation.

Shortly after a few friends realized I was back in Texas and in the area, I received a phone call from an old friend, Kisha Norris. The girl who I had once thought of as the most political person I know was calling to simultaneously share concern and frankly to gossip. Jaime Cruz, the last of my three great mentors, had also fallen. Pastor Gonzalez, the Pastor who baptized me, had left the ministry due to marriage complications. Jerry Cates, the man who had made my Adventist schooling possible, had left because he decided faith was not reasonable and perhaps even counter productive. The last great mentor in my life, Jaime Cruz, who had tried to show me truth, humility in my last two years of high school, the man who had conducted my wedding was the only one left…until he wasn’t. Kisha called to let me know that he had been arrested for having sex with one of his students. By all accounts, including the victims, the girl had offered herself to Dr. Cruz and he had gone along with it. I don’t mean to suggest by that last sentence that he was in anyway excused or to minimize the fact that a man in his sixties had taken part in sexual relations with a 17 year old. He was older, wiser and more mature in the ways of life and the world and he should have known better and done better and I don’t know why he didn’t but for some reason at the time I found a small measure of comfort in the fact that “she had started it.” Nonetheless, he was arrested for statutory rape, fired midyear and he was released on bond to serve house arrest. The thought certainly crossed my mind that if Dr. Cruz, Jerry and Pastor Gonzalez had all failed that perhaps our standard for pastors or for human was so high that it was unachievable for most if not for all.

Kisha was a little taken aback by my response that we should visit him. She said that she wouldn’t know what to say and I agreed that I would not either but that wasn’t the point. She dismissed me saying that it would be too awkward. Still despite what she was doing, that same weekend that I found I drove out to his house and visited with him. By court order and out of common sense, we didn’t talk about what had happened. He and I had not been in contact for a while so he didn’t know anything about my scandals and that certainly didn’t appear to be the time to tell him. We talked, at points about old times, at points about nothing more exciting than the weather, at points we did nothing but sit in silence. His wife was at the house but I never saw her since she understandably never came out of her bedroom. I hugged him goodbye and told him that if there was anything he needed, I’d be there in a heartbeat.

I then began a campaign among our old friends from high school who lived in the nearby area and both those who lived further away. While my memory exaggerated exactly how alone I’d been, I realized that sitting at home with nothing to do but think about your failures was tough. When I had gone through it, it would have helped to have a few friends like biblical Job’s were when he initially went through his bad circumstances. Sure the story talks about how they talked too much eventually and misunderstood the situation but what a lot of people miss in the story is that they sat with him for a week without saying anything. These were the friends that had helped me best get through my ordeal; Orlando and Julia, Joseph and Sal, Winter, Mark to name a few. Eventually some of them would get their licks in and take their verbal shots at me and that was fine but they also had sat with me in silence and done nothing other than help me cry.

I was and am open to the fact that so many people so quickly abandoned me during my crisis was due to my faulty personality, my leave-much-to-be desired character. It takes only a cursory reading of all this or a casual conversation to realize that at some level I am proud, stubborn, at points defiant, at others condescending and can come across as smug and superior. Those are all attributes that when people love me they can spin more positively, even embrace at some point but if they don’t like me, they can easily paint me as one arrogant bastard. Still, none of those attributes could be placed on Dr. Cruz. He was a man who was so buoyant he generally lifted you with him. He had been our class sponsor and a chaplain that people loved to interact with. He was more quite, not a bigger than life type but a short simple man who came across as a kind grandfather. Surely, I thought, despite what he’s now accused of, people will remember all the good he has done and extend a kind hand. I didn’t expect them to forgive, minimize or excuse what he had done but to simply extend some grace and not kick a man when he’s done. I wanted to believe even then that believers would be gracious towards a man who had given his life in service.
This turned out not to be true in the short or long haul. I called several dozen people from high school, mostly focusing on the ones that lived within an hour’s driving distance or so. I was encouraging them to go visit him while he was trapped in the prison of his home. The Cruzes knew they were going to have to move from the Adventist community that was Keene and had started packing up but had no clue so the house itself looked disheveled. Undoubtedly, the man’s thoughts and emotions were too. I called so many students several times but essentially none called or came. Leandro called (he was out of state), Kisha went but no others did. I had a lot more respect for the people who simply said that they thought what he did was so horrible that they didn’t want to support him. The ones that bothered me were the ones that would rather not visit or call than deal with the awkwardness. It reinforced exactly why my faith had failed when many of my friends, most of them regular church workers, some of them Adventist employees, made it clear that they wanted to help but just thought it would be too weird to make the phone call. What good was this belief in faith and grace if like me or Cruz those only applied until people sin? I felt like this was merely an echo of my own crisis, that as a group, the church only offered grace until people actually needed it.

Dr. Cruz, unaware of all that had gone on, encouraged me during one of our visits to apply for his job. It was a flattering request but that was beyond the time where I’d given up on my past. I was still lost in my own way and had not discovered what I would displace the gigantic place that faith had left in my life. While I tried to figure that out, I was determined to always be graceful towards people who needed it.

50 I Dreamed A Dream

Arriving back in the United States took the wind out of everything. I was certainly convinced that this was all over, the dream was dead and now I’d live through my self made hell while I waited for the real one. (On the plus side, the Adventist belief that hell was instantaneous rather than eternal was of some comfort). God and I had broken up and this was a storm our relationship had simply not weathered. All that I had taken from all of these adventures was a dog. I had brought back Puppy, paid a huge percentage of my savings in order to have the company of the first Marshallese dog ever to leave the country. A vet had come a few days before we were due to arrive, I’d been able to come up with a kennel and had her come back with me. I know she was the first dog ever to leave because government procedures had to be created for it to happen. This dog went from never having seen anything except oceans and lived through eighty five degree weather to now being in freezing temperatures. She also arrived pregnant and withing a day or two of arriving we got an abortion and had her fixed. For the first several weeks though she was unleashed that dog never left my side, perhaps because I was all that was familiar.

Anyway, I was picked up by some relatives. It was two cousins who are irreligious at best if not downright amoral at times. Ironically or appropriately enough, they were the ones who decided to take us out on our first night back. I had never watched porn or gone to a strip club or anything risqué despite the fact of what I had been involved in. That playboy was still the only thing that was mildly risqué I’d ever done and these two cousins of mine felt the need to take Shannon and I to Hooters on our first night back. They had an image of me as a pastor type and didn’t know about all that had happened so it gave them some adolescent glee to “pollute” us. Since the most common meal in the Marshall Islands was chicken and rice I’d long given up being a vegetarian. They also tried to get us to get drunk but I figured Hooters was enough for one night.

We had arrived into Arlington Tx and got an apartment there for no other reason than that was where the plane landed. We intended to return to California to settle where I had always said God lived but there was a pause in the plan. Shannon had applied to various schools throughout the country for her MSW, masters in social work and had not heard back from most of them. She figured she would do so the second semester of the Marshall Islands but since we’d been sent home a few days before the first ended, we didn’t know where to go. We had flown back into Texas because that’s where all our stuff was, spread out between Shannon’s parents and my own. We got a short term lease that would allow a dog and settled into a cold winter. We had no furniture and very little stuff. The Marshallese washing machines were so rusted that we got rid of nearly all the clothes we had taken because of the huge stains. My mother gave us a twin mattress which served as our bed. I bought two camping chairs which were our couches and my mom also gave us a piano bench which served as our tables. There were no decorations and all of our belongings at that point would have fit on the back of pick up easily. It was intensely liberating while trying to shake off so much of this emotional baggage to not have any actual baggage.

Shannon and I both started to look for jobs and both found some rather quickly. My job hired me but wouldn’t start until early January so I would have almost a month before beginning employment. Shannon’s took a little longer but she would start immediately; it was a job that would have her traveling throughout the country 3-7 days at a time. This meant that for those first couple of trips I was sitting at home with only my dog friend during the entire day. Once I started working, the evenings were pretty much the same. That dog saved my sanity I’m sure because it was the only distraction I had from realizing that my choices had in many ways left me utterly lonely even if not entirely alone.

I would take one last speaking engagement, a weekend of prayer at my mother’s church. I had given my first sermon in front of her and it appeared fitting that I would give my last there. I never told her about the second scandal, in fact I didn’t do so to many of even my closest friends. I lied to them about it and made it seem that the dismissal from the Marshall Islands had all been about Clark complaining about me. Some of the staff back in Majuro also thought this was true. (The truth was that Clark was always complaining to the principal and annoyed many people in doing so. In puerile fashion, I had custom shirts printed up that said “If anything I have said or done offends you, I apologize in advance. Please don’t call your mom, the principal or GMM” (the Guam Micronesia Mission). While this may well reflect how bitter I was, the fact that several of the staff sent me money to have a copy made for them showed how much Clark had annoyed others. With me gone, he would eventually win some of these people back. He wasn’t a bad guy really; he just had a sense of how he thought it should be done. My main problem with him was the way he would try to implement that, by immediately going to authorities rather than ever having a one on one conversation. Still, it was juvenile to have those shirts made.)

Anyway, with the scandal being virtually unknown in Texas, I took this speaking engagement. I prepared for it like few things and gave some of the most sincere and heartfelt sermons of my life. For a few minutes and moments that weekend, I remembered the dream and I poured all my memories of my affection for God into it and I think it moved people. I added stories from the Marshall Islands and talked about the various hitchhikers I picked up. I even told about how in doing good, we may even end up picking up Jesus Christ himself. The previous summer, with Melanie actually, I picked up a hitchhiker and having learned my lesson the first thing I asked was for his name. He replied “Jesus.” I pronounced it in Spanish as this is not an uncommon name in my culture but he pronounced in English, a phenomenon I’d never seen. Out of curiosity, I asked what his last name and it was Christ, Jesus Christ. He told me that he had a near death experience in which God had told him to change his name to Jesus Christ. I asked him if he now promoted Christianity and he responded that he did not because God had told him that all religions were equal. He was clearly a little off but relatively harmless and after some interesting conversation I dropped him off where he needed to go.Now in the sermon version, it was much shorter and mostly about how maybe just maybe we end up meeting Jesus Christ himself in our travels unaware. I said that with full belief while simultaneously believing that perhaps the belief was just as mentally ill as the hitchhiker had been.

I preached with all my heart, determined to make my mom proud one last time. She was and so were many of the church members that remembered that awkward kid who while he had learned to play the game was and still is probably an awkward adult. Some in the audience were moved, others impressed. I prayed with full conviction knowing that it well may be the last time. In my mind, it was like one last conversation and make out session with the woman you were divorcing. The divorce had been filed and you had waited the appropriate time and tomorrow was the day it became finalized. You both knew the connection had been strong but the relationship faulty. One hated to see it go but both knew that it was for the best.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

49 The End of the World

I went back to the Marshall Islands in a dark frame of mind, bitter, angry, and broken. Out of the few staff that had continued, one commented on the difference- both physically because of the weight change and psychologically because I was more dismissive of a lot of things. I worked hard at making sure the students were still never the recipient of this but I never gave a chance to the new staff to even get their feet wet before I was criticizing them too. One of them, Samuel John, even exploded at me very shortly after we met and said I was just a “big bully.” I sat down and listened to him about what he didn’t like about me, tried to excuse, justify and explain myself but finally made progress when I simply apologized. It may be telling that I’m still friends with several people from that first year but he’s really the only one I speak to on a regular basis from the second year. Everyone else didn’t get apologies from me just a lot of incessant nagging.

Part of the problem that year was that about a half dozen of the missionaries were all from the same school, Walla Walla if I remember right. They were instantly cliquish and they were all rich white kids who I took a disliking too. One of them in particular, Clark, was constantly complaining to the new principal about things he didn’t like and she would then hassle me about it. I can’t honestly remember what it was about me that constantly offended him, but he began an email campaign criticizing everything I was doing to his parents and the Guam Micronesia Mission.

In all fairness, many of his criticisms were accurate as I was again off balance. God and I were breaking up and it felt like the end of the world if not the universe. I’ve never been divorced but it was worse than when Shannon and I appeared headed there. It was definitely far worse than all my actual break ups combined and I hadn’t handled any of those gracefully. I knew I was watching our relationship die and felt that we had both failed each other. While several years removed with the luxury of hindsight, I can acknowledge- if not fully take responsibility for- having not noticed many points of grace and for having missed opportunities. However even this far away, the pain of some people being mean and God seeming so deafeningly silent is a haunting memory. It hurt that God had come across as so mute and distant and while I don’t want to minimize the fact that I had failed Him, His church and His People, in my mind they had been kind enough to return the favor.

That second year all the ruckus I was making raised my profile. With Clark and the Walla Walla crowd consistently complaining about me to the new principal, it made for a tense campus and the simple reality was that I was the obstacle to things being better there at least for the staff. Perhaps what I was pushing them to become(being more active members of the community), was a decent goal but my approach made a bull in a pottery shop look graceful. I was fine with the kids and treated them with incredibly generosity and worked hard at their education. Sometimes this is still my tendency that I think if I do the “job description” part of my work well that my relationships with coworkers should be ignored. This is naïve and not reality because people who pay attention to the politics of their jobs are incredibly successful even if they aren’t actually good at their jobs.

Nonetheless, the complaints were getting back to PUC and the supervising organization, the Guam Micronesia Mission. It didn’t make sense to some of the local influential people because I always was polite to them. This has always been my MO; if I have high expectations for you, I will keep expecting them. If I have lower or no expectations, I am incredibly kind. I don’t necessarily believe that this is a good or a bad thing inherently but the older I get the more I’ve had to learn to consider this with the type of relationship I have with people. It’s best to have expectations and communication balanced by whatever links you have with the person.

Anyway, GMM and PUC were receiving complaints about me which made me seem exactly what I was (even if I didn’t recognize it): ungrateful for the opportunity that they had provided to myself, my wife and my career. If that wasn’t bad enough, something else was coming to light. In the first few weeks after the school year started, Melanie and I had changed emails a few times and she had told me how things were starting at PUC. For the most part, she appeared to be fitting in well and enjoying the new campus. We even talked on the phone a couple of times. The references to the threesomes between her and us were rare and almost always jokingly. In my mind, it reflected that we had achieved a generally casual approach and had managed to stay friends afterwards without any major consequences. At first our emails were every other day or so. Invariably, we both got caught up in our new respective school year and the contact became more like once a week and then every other week.

Apparently something happened as the contact got less frequent. I’m still not fully aware of what happened, but this is the way some mutual friends described it to me. This is all second hand because I wasn’t there and got very little feedback from the principal players. Apparently, I had left some emails up on a computer which spoke about what happened with Melanie and that person felt the need to address it with the appropriate authorities. Melanie also had been in the middle of some week of prayer or sermon that address sexual purity and felt guilty about her activities as she heard it. She talked to a friend who was shocked and who also knew about the entire Natalie event. She was around people who felt that she had done a great harm to herself but who were also convinced that it was mostly if not entirely my fault. Eventually someone was kind enough to arrange Natalie talking to her. Melanie and she had a long conversation. Because I had taken them to some of the same restaurants and places around Napa Valley, they decided that this was my MO of seduction. While this may make for a good story line, I must confess it’s the same places I had taken my mother and many male friend visitors. Those were just the places I liked and so I shared them with people I liked. Nonetheless, Natalie sold Melanie on that Shannon and I were some type of perverts that preyed on people and thus both Natalie and Melanie should be relatively absolved. Hearing this story at the time was infuriating because it denied the fact that they were very active participants and no one had tricked them into anything. Melanie especially knew what she was signing up for before she ever showed up our door. The one mutual friend we had who knew about it, who incidentally was related to her, was shocked to hear the about face that she was taking on just to absolve her conscience. The interim time has allowed me let some of the steam blow off and realize that we all have to find a way to deal with our mistakes. My own way herein described was perhaps as pathetic in focusing on what people had done wrong in reaction to my mistakes rather than focusing on the mistakes themselves.

A very common way among all people I’ve discovered is to find someone else to blame someone else for it. This may blame our parents for our choices decades after the fact, or the classic “I make him so mad he hits me.” All of these examples are copouts and cowardly but we all have to find a way to get through the day; it may be possible that dealing with it this way is better than living with dark shadows on us for entirely too long; I don’t know. Nonetheless, let me state it here without any equivocation or excuse, I take full responsibility for the things that I did. They were wrong and I’m sorry for any and all damage that they caused Shannon, Natalie, and Melanie. Had I known what the consequences were or had I been more mature, I would not have done them but I did and all I can offer is my most sincere apology. I wish I could share it with the other two girls but it became clear they would rather have silence and that may well be for the best. I have spent several years and I hope the rest of my life showing Shannon that I mean her good and not harm.

Still, the anger I had for God, for the other staff, at myself and Shannon was overwhelming and exhausting and when they let me know that I would be leaving the island because of all of this drama, I was somewhat annoyed but at some level also relieved. The story couldn’t end quite that simply. The new principal was an older lady, very traditional and conservative. My aggressive approach about the school being a more influential force in the community and she herself being more active had made it to where we never got along well. I believe she must have been relieved to find out that I was getting sent home. The school had a tradition of throwing a going away party for all staff at the end of the year (one was also held for any staff who had to leave early as some had for logistical reasons). The principal made it clear that the school would not be allowing one for Shannon and I. Still, the students decided to throw one anyway and did so at their own organization.

At that party, I realized how much I had thrown away but perhaps how much there was to recover. Perhaps, there was a way to still help people and make progress the way I had with many of these kids without having to throw God in the middle of it all. However, it was easy to argue with God it was a lot better as it was all inclusive and more thorough down to the very soul of them. I cried at that party, not unlike I had cried the first time I threw away being a minister but that would be the last time. A day or two later when I got on that plane back to the United States with no plan and no future, I was stoic and ready to move on. At least that’s what I was telling myself.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

48 Memory

To return to Angwin was not a good thing in the big scheme of things. While it was arguably the place of many of my best accomplishment and some of my happiest times, all the recollections while I was there that summer reminded me that I had failed at what I was born to do. I was not sleeping well at all that summer all of a sudden, reliving the nightmare, remembering the Natalie episodes. I started to gain weight again and became aware then just how much of an emotional eater I can be.

I tried to use it as a quiet summer of life by focusing on how I had gotten here and whether or not I really was supposed to be a pastor. I started to remember things from my childhood, the boy pastor. I remembered the first time I had tried to speak in public and how at six years of age, when I fell apart, I ran and literally cried into my mother’s skirt. I remembered how one day in fourth grade the librarian had gone around the room and asked us all what we wanted to become; everyone announced this or that and when it came around to me, I mumbled that it was personal and I didn’t want to share. Why had I been embarrassed about wanting to be a pastor when I was only nine years old? I remembered the ironies of life: the time that for some reason in a skit in high school, Leandro had been cast as the Pharisee and I had been cast as Jesus. He was the most Christlike person I was becoming aware of how faulted I was. I became aware of the fact that, while everyone had always lectured me on the importance of having the right wife if I really wanted to be a pastor, by and large the girls I dated did not have their religion be very important to them. I remembered what I had dismissed as Freudian psychobabble that the main reason I wanted to be pastor was to make my mother proud since she was religious.

At times, I allowed myself to imagine life being perfect before Natalie at times and at other times I remembered it honestly. I remembered Shannon and I having a great time on our honeymoon but also remembered that we’d had too much fun on our honeymoon. Nothing inappropriate really nor anything worth mentioning but just silly things that made me uncomfortable with the memory of doing it as a pastor. The moments where I felt the worse was when I started remembering the people who I had disappointed, those who I’d worked so hard to help. The people who loved having me at their house to feed me and have me with them, the dean of USC who took me out suit shopping because I had tutored his son, the lady who had decided not to sue because she thought that my advice of grace was the voice of God through me. I would sit at night and just let these ideas flow through my head. Not infrequently I would do it at the rock where I once felt so clearly connected to my calling.

I let the thoughts get even more recent. I would remember the missionaries I had just spent the last year with. I recalled Autumn who had stopped taking her anti-seizure medication because since she’d been taking it she had stopped having seizures. The principal who had allowed me to come out to Majuro even after my continued screw ups, Mr. Dunbar, was a great administrator but not much of a person. He came across as rather lonely and doing so much out of obligation. He had married a woman who was so warm and giving, but who at times came across as using that kindness as the crutch with which she held herself up. They had some type of family emergency come up and would not be returning to Majuro. I felt rather abandoned by that and after I found that out, I criticized them along with everyone else, ignoring the grace they had so humanely let me have. There’s an old saying that if you take in a starving dog and feed him and house him, he will never bite you. That, they say, is the primary difference between a dog and a man.

Speaking of a dog, Shannon had continued to keep bringing a dog into the house in the Marshall Islands. There was a stray on campus that had given birth to a litter. The Marshallese had all taken the males and Shannon kept bringing in one of the female dogs to the house “to get her used to it.” I would immediately remove it but eventually she won me over. However, I had so often yelled “get the puppy out of the house” that we named the dog Puppy.

Invariably, however, the thoughts that would come back were the ones where people had been so grossly mean to me. My bitterness went back to its previous level and I ground my heels in and decided that the best kind of grace was just simply where humans extended it to one another and kept God out of it. I worked at New Horizons that summer and while I now had an option, I again took the shift that would make sure I was working on the Sabbath so that I would not have to go to church. I was polite to people I saw from the past but was dismissive and avoidant. This applied as well when I looked in the mirror.

In the middle of all this, I stayed in contact with several people who I had met on the island. One of them was Melanie, a young girl, with all kinds of insecurities and apparently a rather large crush on me. While it may sound awfully convenient to say this years later, the truth is I was so self absorbed in the Marshall Islands that I hadn’t noticed. She had become one of my favorites because she became one of the missionaries who, with a little nudging, would work harder at getting to know the culture. She was trying to get a new start from her old school and, despite all that had happened, I endorsed PUC as an option. I encouraged her to visit and facilitated the visit with the Enrollment office where I had previously worked.

In the few weeks between when it was decided she would come and until she actually arrived, we spent a fair share of time chatting on the internet. She was always one of the gossipy ones and kept prying and trying to find out what had been the big controversial thing she had heard rumors about it. This came across as something mostly out of curiosity and not any type of malice. At this point, I had spent so much time trying to avoid it that I continued but she didn’t relent. Eventually I told her and she was very amazed. The next thing she typed was surprising it wasn’t condemning or judgmental but a simple statement that she had been curious about that herself. I was taken aback and the chat turned flirtational. It was a bizarre development after what felt like a confession. However, the confession was poor because it suggested that we had engaged in this sexual experiment and then moved on, not letting her know all of the drama that occurred afterwards since to this day that’s what I’m far more embarrassed and guilty about.

We kept chatting over the internet and in the flirtation and the talk of curiosity; she asked if Shannon and I were interested in ever doing that again. It wasn’t something I’d spent time thinking about or that Shannon and I had spent time talking about, but it would be lying to say that the idea didn’t have some appeal to me. You can diagnose it however you want and I don’t have a great answer about why I hadn’t learned my lesson at that point and didn’t say “No, this was way more hassle than it was worth.” Yet my thought on it was that it wasn’t so much the act of sex itself that had been the problem but the fact that there were so many emotions involved. I had none towards Melanie other than friendship and at the time didn’t think she had any others towards me. I talked to Shannon about it and I am uncertain as to why she went along with it again. Over several conversations over a couple of weeks, all of us went back and forth on whether or not we wanted to engage in what we all said was going to be a completely casual experiment during her few day visit. Should I have known better? Of course but it would be beyond dishonest to tell you that there isn’t something both physiologically and psychologically rewarding about having sex with two women at the same time. People don’t drink or use cocaine or eat greasy food for no reason. Things that are bad for us don’t typically present themselves that way.

Eventually, I actually said it might be fun but if Melanie was unsure that she should not proceed but when she arrived, she said she thought about it and essentially took an attitude of you only live once and why not since she thought it would be interesting to try. So when she arrived for her five or six day visit, that’s what we did most nights including the first and last one there.

During the day, I took her to some of my favorite restaurants and museums and showed her campus. The week left such an impression on her that she was sold and when the fall came around, she was enrolled at PUC. A week or two after she left, we got on a plane ticket and were headed back to the Marshall Islands to mostly new staff with the realization that once the second year was done, we were also done with our connection to the church. Hope was no longer part of my motivation out there. I was only going back to finish paying penance.