Sunday, May 11, 2008

The First Year, Part V

Read Part I

Read Part II

Read Part III

Read Part IV

I wouldn’t ever have thought of myself as a person who talked through movies, not before that night. Maybe it’s true that we drift through life without ever seeing ourselves the way others see us—or at least, those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to have very strong guidance. Sitting and watching a movie without speaking was an exercise in constant frustration, and an amazing education. Even as I bit back comments, I wondered at how difficult it was, at how unaware I had been of my tendency to put my two cents in at every turn. For the first time, the restriction, though it chafed, felt valuable. In just 24 hours I’d learned something about myself that I’d never known, and something that bore attention.

When the movie ended, I got up and went to pray. It was just after 8:30, and I decided to stay on my knees until 10:00 and then get to bed early again. It had been a long time since I’d invested that much time in prayer, and I knew that it was going to be a rough stretch on my knees, but I was working hard to see this sentence as an opportunity, to make the best use of the quiet time it forced on me. And, of course, after dinner and the discovery I’d made during the movie, I had a lot to talk with the Lord about.

I thanked Him for Aaron, for the clarity I’d experienced during the movie, for the will to use the time in edifying ways. I asked Him to continue to show me hard truths, to give me the strength and the willingness to see and accept and address them, to guide Aaron as he guided me, and to reward him for showing me the truth. And then I simply listened.

In bed, I was much more at peace than I’d been the night before and I slept almost immediately, not even stirring when Aaron joined me an hour later.

The next few days were very much the same. I was more productive. I spent more time in prayer. I gradually conditioned myself to meet my husband’s eyes, not because I was no longer ashamed but because I was learning to open myself to him and share my shame. And yet, I often felt that I struggled against invisible bonds, often actually opened my mouth to make some insignificant comment before I caught myself and closed it again, often walked toward the computer before realizing it was off limits and turning away. Each time, I felt like a child squirming in time out.

Gradually, though, I began to notice something interesting. Almost everything that I had such a burning urge to say turned out, on closer examination, not to be particularly important. Some of it was unnecessarily sharp, altogether better left unsaid. The world, it turned out, wasn’t suffering in the least because the perpetual motion of my mouth had been stilled. Of course, that realization was more painful than the restriction. It forced me to think about what I would do when I was allowed to speak again. If I’d discovered that so much of my speech was unnecessary, unhelpful, even counterproductive, then I couldn’t in good conscience pick it right back up when the month was over. Would I have to examine everything that came to my mind for the rest of my life, screen it and decide what was truly worth sharing?

To be continued

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Reparations, Part III

Read Part I

Read Part II

And so for three weeks he worked, living on the one meal a day he got at the shelter and praying morning and night on the floor beside his hard little cot. He spent no money, because he knew that the money he earned didn’t belong to him, not until that $800 had been paid. On the third Friday he had $800 and he set out to see the man he’d stolen it from. He found the man ten years in his grave, and so searched until he found his son. The son was a mean-spirited mechanic, operating the same small shop his father had run years before, making a lean living and taking out his anger on the young detailer who worked for him. He was the image of his father, in his face and in his manner.

He listened to Tom’s story with disbelief and then asked harshly what Tom wanted from him.

“Only to make amends,” Tom said, though humility did not come easily to him in this place where he’d been so badly treated, where he could see that nothing had changed. He extended the $800 to the man and heard a derisive chuckle.

“Eight hundred dollars.” The mechanic’s son shook his head. Thirty-three years bears a lot of interest, Mister. $800 today isn’t worth what it was back then.”

Tom felt anger and frustration rising, but he forced himself to respond evenly.

“I’m sure you’re right, sir,” he said. “What do you think would be fair?”

The mechanic’s eyes glinted and he thought for a minute. He scratched on a piece of paper.

“I’ll be fair with you,” he said. “Low interest rate. And I won’t compound the interest. Let’s say 5% for thirty three years…that’s another $1320 that you owe me.”

Tom felt the same kick in the stomach that he’d experienced in church that first day. He struggled to catch his breath before saying simply, “Yes, sir. It will take me some time to get it up, but I’ll be back.”

He walked slowly back to the shelter, calculating as he went. It would take another four weeks of living on charity, eating one meal a day and walking back and forth to work to pay that $1320. Only then could he begin to think about giving something back to the shelter and then scraping to find a place of his own to live. Only then could be begin to think about eating when he was hungry instead of only when the food was free. The three weeks he’d just lived through had seemed an eternity, and the next four stretched before him like hell.

Back in the shelter he went straight to his knees and gave thanks to God.


Reparations, Part II

Read Part I

And then one Sunday he’d heard a reading about the fruits of sin and, as sometimes happened during mass, he’d been struck with a sudden clarity, a message that seemed intended just for him. This time, though, the clarity had torn his breath from him and churned his stomach so that he’d feared that he might vomit. He’d managed to push it away at first. Rational thought told him plainly that what he’d heard, internally as much as in words, couldn’t be right, couldn’t be reasonable, couldn’t be expected. But he couldn’t shake it off. And one Saturday morning he’d sat in his office examining his conscience and allowed himself to plainly see that all that he owned and all that he’d built was the fruit of that one sin. $800 stolen from the man he’d worked for when he’d been 19 years old, snatched in a fit of anger and used to buy the tools that had started him off on his own.

Surely, he said to himself again, but he knew that he argued in vain. All the rational justification in the world was no match for God’s truth, and God’s truth had landed firmly on his desk and would not be budged. All that he saw around him was the fruit of sin, and he could not benefit from any of it. He’d made his confession and spoken at length with the priest, who had urged him to wait and pray. Sometimes dramatic inclinations were more about pride or self-gratification than true spiritual calling.

Tom had known better, had known that he would have been glad to take any excuse not to go through with what seemed required of him. He feared that in the delay he would lose courage, but he knew the importance of obedience and so he did as the priest directed, continuing to work and going to his knees each night asking for clarity and guidance.

Those three months were perhaps an agony greater than the act itself. Three months of confirmation, every night, of what he must lose; three months of looking at and touching the things he must give up every day and knowing that time grew short. But every night the answer was the same, though his dread grew proportionate to the nearing of the day.

When the day came, Tom walked out of his house without anything but the clothes he wore and his driver’s license—the same things he’d had when he’d walked away with his boss’s $800. He’d gone to his lawyer’s office—the lawyer a friend after years of business dealings and golf games—and signed papers that put his home and his bank accounts and his business and his car and his boat in trust for the benefit of the local homeless shelter. Even the contents of his house went into the trust, his furniture and his silver and even his clothing.

The lawyer, of course, had tried to dissuade him, and Tom had been obliged to tell him the truth, simply and briefly—his entire business and all of his success had been built on a sin, a crime that had taken place more than thirty years earlier. The lawyer nonetheless argued that the action was extreme, that he could make reparations without giving up everything, but God’s voice was stronger. Tom knew, no matter how much he wanted to take the easy way out, that he wasn’t entitled to a single dime of the fortune he’d built from that stolen money.

And so he’d walked away, totally vulnerable, with no money, no food, and no place to sleep. He’d gone to the city and found a shelter that looked relatively clean and safe. He’d chosen carefully, knowing that he’d be living there for a while. Then he’d gone looking for a job.

To be continued

Reparations, Part I

Tom McCue rose and stretched hard, trying to work the stiffness out of his neck and back. At 52, he was hardly the oldest man on the construction site, but the others had worked hard all of their lives and were fit and muscled. Tom had been behind a desk for decades. He looked around the quiet room: four other men, all much younger, still slept. Tom longed to lie back on the narrow cot where he’d slept. It hadn’t been comfortable, but it was better than this cold half-darkness, and better still than the prospect of another day at hard labor. If he’d been working only on his own account, Tom might well have slipped back into bed. But Tom wasn’t just working to live. He owed a man $800.

He sank to his knees next to the cot and offered thanks to God—thanks that he had found work and that the work was difficult and caused him pain. He offered thanks for a safe place to sleep, and thanks that the place was uncomfortable and deprived him entirely of privacy. His stomach rumbled as he headed out into the chill morning air, but he ignored it. He had, literally, not a penny to his name, and dinner at the shelter was nearly eleven hours away.

At $12/hour, with taxes taken out, it would take three paychecks to pay back the $800. Construction workers, he knew all too well, made far more than $12/hour, but at his age and with no experience for decades, he’d had trouble even getting on as a laborer. He’d had to plead with the foreman, a kid barely older than his daughter, and admit that he was in debt and living in a shelter. The kid had taken pity on him, but with a kind of contempt in his eyes that was painful to see. Undoubtedly he thought the worst, because how could a man be flat broke and have no work experience at his age? Undoubtedly, the young man thought that he’d been in prison, or that he’d lost everything to drugs or alcohol or gambling. Tom didn’t explain, though the temptation was strong. He only thanked the man sincerely and accepted the pay he offered.

When the crew broke for lunch, Tom sat quietly by himself. Hungry as he was, he was grateful for the chance to rest his aching body. He didn’t have a watch, but he knew it must be near noon, and that they had four hours or more left to work. He tried to do the math in his head: about twelve hours so far, at $12, was $144. But then taxes would take a bite out of that—probably 15%. About $14 and then half of that—so he’d made almost $125. He found that encouraging and daunting at the same time, and had to force his mind away from the days when he’d had more than that in his wallet at any moment. Once upon a time, not long before, he’d have been able to pay that $800 with a check or a credit card or sometimes by reaching into the locked drawer in his desk for cash.

Tom’s life had changed a lot over the past few years. His daughter had married and moved away, and his wife hadn’t been far behind her. And then it had been just Tom and the Lord, and that had been okay, too. He’d worked and prayed, helped out with the food and clothing drives at the church, made donations, boated, gone to football games…life had been good. But then that $800 had begun to nag at him. At first, it was only in momentary flashes, and he toyed with the idea of doing something about it. Send the man a check. Send him cash. Deliver it, even, with apologies. But as time had passed, it had nagged him more and more, and the nagging started to change. The nagging started to point out to him that just giving back the $800 wasn’t enough.

Continue to Part II

The First Year, Part IV

Read Part I

Read Part II

Read Part III

He said grace and I bowed my head and followed in my heart. But again, when it was over I found myself reluctant to look up at him. I pushed food around my plate, not really eating, glad that I’d eaten lunch while I was alone. After a few minutes, he spoke.

“Tricia,” he said firmly, “this is necessary. You must accept it, not just grudgingly obey. I am trying to help you grow in faith and virtue and obedience, in an area where we both know that you struggle—and sometimes don’t even bother to struggle. I know that you can’t really feel that you’re submitting to me, and to God’s will for our marriage, when you refuse to look at me and obedience taxes you so that you can’t even eat.

“If you’re ashamed, that’s as it should be. But if you try to avoid humiliation by looking away, by hiding your shame from me, you aren’t accepting the full consequences of your actions, and you aren’t keeping yourself open to me. We must be open and honest with each other.”

I nearly spoke at that moment. I nearly burst out that I couldn’t very well be open and honest if he wouldn’t allow me to speak. He anticipated me and held up his hand.

“Don’t tell me that you can’t be open with me without speaking. You’re not trying. You’re hiding your eyes from me, protecting yourself from the shame you feel. Look at me.”

The command in his voice was clear. I looked straight into his eyes, but could hold them only for an instant. My own darted away, then back, as I struggled to open myself up to him. Tears poured from my eyes as I shifted them to him, away, and back. Finally, though my lips trembled and I cried openly, I met and held his gaze.

“That’s better,” he said. “You should be crying.”

Immediately my eyes shifted away.

“No,” he said firmly. “Face it.”

I looked back at him and held his eyes, silently acknowledging that I deserved the discipline and the shame. Silently acknowledging that I needed them, that I had much learning and growing to do.

He wiped my eyes and said gently, “Now, eat,” and I found that I was able. He talked a bit about his day at work and I listened, thankful for something to break the tension but having to remind myself again and again not to comment or respond. He left me to clean up the kitchen alone and it felt like a mercy. Not speaking is so much easier when there is no one around to hear.

As I was finishing, he came back to the kitchen doorway. “Come and watch this movie with me, if you like.” Again, I felt a rush of gratitude surely out of proportion to the invitation. A movie didn’t require talking. I could be normal for a couple of hours. Or so I thought.

To be continued

The First Year, Part III

Read Part I

Read Part II

If it is possible to feel anger and gratitude together, I felt them at that moment, and something else very surprising—a deep desire for him. I think that he knew of my desire, but he did not satisfy it. I think, though I have never asked him, that he wanted me to feel the pain of being unable to express my love and gratitude and anger and frustration and desire. I couldn’t tell him, and he didn’t give me the opportunity to show him. Not that night. Eventually, I fell asleep, and woke the next morning to fresh pain. We tend to forget, overnight; we tend to wake in the morning with a momentary expectation that everything is “normal”. I woke with that expectation and then felt it quickly dashed as I realized that I was not free even to say good morning to my husband. The reality of the rest of my day quickly followed: I would speak to no one, could not answer the phone, could not email, could not write in my journal. It might sound absurd that I wondered what I would do; of course I did many other things in the course of a day. Still, I felt oddly at loose ends for a person with so many restrictions.

When Aaron left for work I was bereft. I felt newly vulnerable without my speech and entirely alone without the freedom to email, instant message, write a letter, make a phone call. I had a thousand thoughts a day and no one to share them with—or rather, no freedom to share them. I remembered Mary kept all these things in her heart, but I didn’t really know what it meant. Things didn’t settle in my heart; they ripped around my body and mind like tiny tornadoes looking for a way out. I threw myself into work around the house and by noon had accomplished more than I did in a typical day, but felt no less on edge. Finally, I went to my knees and silently poured out my heart to God—the one form of expression I was allowed. That, of course, was no accident, but I didn’t know it then. In fact, I felt a bit like I was putting something over on my husband, like I’d found a secret release valve in “talking” to the Lord.

When Aaron came home, I wanted to go to him and kiss him, but the fact that I could not greet him verbally hung between us. I did not turn from my dinner preparations when he came into the room, and when he came and turned me toward him I did not kiss him. I only looked at him with tears in my eyes. He kissed me lightly on the forehead and went upstairs to change. As he did, it struck me full force that this would be our first silent dinner. How was one to sit across the table from someone for an entire meal and not speak to him?

To be continued

The First Year, Part II

Read Part I

“Why don’t you pray?” he asked softly.

Of course. I would certainly need strength in the days ahead, not only to hold my tongue but to learn the lessons intended and grow rather than getting mired in anger and frustration. I knelt and asked for the strength to submit to my husband, for the wisdom to learn the lessons he intended for me, for an open heart that would let me learn and grow from this discipline, for the will to stay the course. I asked for those things sincerely, but I was not at peace. The protests and frustrations still bounced inside me and when at last I rose and went downstairs to wash the dinner dishes and prepare for the morning, I did not meet Aaron’s eyes because I wanted to hide the anger in my own.

I found, as I became engaged in my work and the anger subsided slightly, that I could not meet his eyes. My pride ran strong in those days, and every time I looked at him and did not speak I was humiliated anew. I felt as if every glance transmitted a message, flashing neon over my head: I am not allowed to speak. I am being punished. I was so focused on the shame of being disciplined that I neglected entirely to be ashamed of my behavior, of the awful thing I’d said that had set this all in motion.

At 10:00, I headed upstairs again, glancing toward my husband and realizing that I was not even free to tell him that I was retiring. It was earlier than I usually went to bed, but I could find no place for myself in the silence and so I said my nighttime prayers and tried to settle myself for the night.

When Aaron came up the stairs an hour later, I still lay wide awake and rigid. I turned away from him when he entered the room, facing the wall. He said nothing until he’d undressed and slipped in beside me and then he said, “Don’t hide from me. Marriage must be honest. Whatever is in your eyes, I want to see it.”

I bit back a thousand retorts about the difficulty of being honest when one wasn’t allowed to speak, about how honesty required expression, but I rolled toward him. Still, I found myself unable to raise my eyes to his. I think that he expected to see anger, and he probably did, but much more: deep humiliation, uncertainty, something that couldn’t be named. He drew me close to him and I let myself relax against him, reminding myself that he was the husband I loved and trusted, who loved me, who certainly had seen me in shameful circumstances before and who was not responsible for my current suffering. The last reminder came as a bit of a shock, but I instantly saw the truth of it. He was only doing the job the Lord had given him, to guide me and correct me. My actions had brought us to this point. In fact, I realized suddenly, this would be hard for him as well. Not as hard as it would for me, of course, but he was paying a price for my impetuousness and disrespect as well, and paying it willingly in order to help me grow.

Continue to Part III