PART II: Through Fire and Water   2 comments

I was headed for Washington, 3000 miles away with no place to stay, no knowledge of the area, and no one I knew in the whole state, leaving midday Thursday intending to start classes on Monday (Kimberly would come 6 weeks later). I could drive my Honda and rent a place short-term–a cheap hotel or Airbnb–or drive my truck and live in the camper I had built on back.  It was a 1991 Ford with uncountable miles, and I had no time to fix it up and sell it in NC for a pittance.  If I made it to the Northwest where the survivalists love tiny homes, I might get a better price.  It was a gamble, especially through the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, but I could save a lot of rental money.

So I packed up the truck and headed out. I made it through the Appalachians but realized my camper was creating a serious drag  I was getting less than 15 mpg and putting too much strain on the engine, but I could think of no way to fix the aerodynamics while traveling.  All the money I would save on free rent was going into the gas tank—it would easily be over $1000.

By Friday night I reached South Dakota.  Ahead of me was the biggest thunderstorm I had ever seen, with continuous lightening across the whole black face of the sky.  I pulled off to get gas and a sudden wind shook my truck like a chew-toy.  Stepping out, I looked up to see the clouds swirling in a circle over me, and a tornado siren suddenly blasted.  The gas attendant gave quick directions to the shelter of the courthouse basement, and with a dozen others I soon found myself huddled there, wondering about my homemade camper, but it rode out the storm fine.

By Saturday evening I made it to Bozeman, Montana, when my engine suddenly died and would not restart.  Pulling to the side of the road, I called a tow-truck which dropped me at a repair shop parking lot where I spent the night.  The next morning I realized it would stay closed all day.  I was going to miss my first day of orientation if I couldn’t get the truck fixed, but how could I find an open shop?  Just then a car pulled into the lot and I went over to the couple to ask if they knew where I could go.  They gave me the phone number to a shop that was open, and when I called them, they agreed to work on my truck.  It was an electrical problem that took several hours to identify and fix, but I didn’t realize until I got the bill that they were charging me $115 an hour.  Money was slipping down a black hole on this trip, but at least I would make it to class in time if I drove all night.

As I pushed the old truck up the mountains, a flashing road sign alerted me “Caution! Forest Fire Ahead!”  I could smell it and see the smoke off to my left, but the road stayed clear.  Still, the Rockies were too much for my truck.  Going downhill it slowed to 30 miles per hour before I pulled over so as not to destroy the engine.  I called for another tow truck.  Again I was dropped at a closed shop where I spent the night, only to discover that this shop did not open on Mondays.  After filling it with oil and antifreeze, I started my truck up to see if I could coax it to another repair place, and discovered it was driving okay, so I decided to chance it and headed out.

I had almost reached the Western border of Washington State when I pulled over for gas and discovered that my engine was leaking oil all over, having splattered the engine, and puddled under the truck.  A young fellow who pulled in next to me offered help, crawling under the truck to see what might be the problem.  He told me the repair would be thousands of dollars, and when I told him I needed to get to Seattle he said, “If it was me, I’d buy a bunch of oil and just keep filling it until I got there.”  He told me about an auto parts store one exit down where I could buy it cheap and of a mechanic at that exit who could give me a real diagnosis of the truck.

I pulled in to Adams Automotive and asked him to take a look.  He told me that oil dripping onto the hot exhaust system was a sure way to start a fire.  When he could see I was going to push on, he told me to wait till after dark as it was 100F and to be especially careful going over “The Pass,” an ominous sounding ascent into the Cascade Mountains.  He told me that his fire extinguisher had passed its expiration date and he would need to get another one anyway, so he handed it to me to keep in the truck.  Under these desperate conditions I realized the best way to lose drag was to remove the front panel of my camper and let the air blow through to the back.  If I had thought of this two days before, I might have saved my engine.

I waited till dark to start the rest of my journey.  The Pass proved to be the longest, steepest climb I had made the whole journey.  When I finally reached the summit late at night, I pulled over to give the engine a break and lifted to hood to help cool it down.  The engine was on fire.  I jumped into the truck and grabbed the extinguisher, quickly putting out the flames before any damage had been done.  At 3:30 am, after 8 quarts of oil, I made it to the outskirts of Seattle and pulled into a truck stop to rest a few hours before heading for school a day late.

 

 

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Posted December 27, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

THE CRAZY MISADVENTURES OF JANATHAN: PART I   5 comments

Since August I have been clutching a runaway roller-coaster as it crashed through a collapsing building.  You know the “fire and flood” metaphor… well, it wasn’t a metaphor in my case… but we’ll get to that.  Let’s back up to July when Berly and I realized that we could not live on my low-level wages, that I needed more training to land an adequate job, and that my best option was to go into counseling.  The right program fit was a school in the opposite corner of the country, and I started inquiring, thinking to start in the spring semester.  But they only accepted new students in August… one month away.  We both said, “That’s insane!”  But should we wait another year while our savings dribbled away each month?

They assured us that acceptance would be valid for a year, so I started the process: updating my resume, getting references, requesting transcripts, and writing a couple of essays while we took our vacation to the west coast.  We joked about the craziness of uprooting ourselves and moving across country in a 3-week time frame.  Finally, Berly asked me, “So what would it take, how would it be possible?”  And ever the problem-solver, I laid out a theoretical plan, which she outrageously declared workable.  “Are we really doing this?” we asked each other incredulously.  I was accepted into the program with barely two weeks to give in my notice at work and transfer my Home Depot job from the Southeast to the far Northwest corner of the continental U.S.  It felt like moving to a foreign country.

I was scheduled to work until the day before leaving, with 3 1/2 days in hand to drive 3000 miles, just in time to reach school for the first day of classes.  Berly would come later.  I had to sell my cast-iron jointer and repair and sell my zero-turn mower and trailer; I had to fix my truck, get a student loan, plan my trip and living arrangements in Washington, register for classes, get our rental house ready for final inspection.  It was a crazy two weeks, but far saner than what followed.

Kimberly found the metaphor into which we jumped, a scary new twist in our pilgrimage.  We clung to our trust in a God who was an unmoving rock in our ever-confusing and unpredictable journey only to realize that God is not static, but always moving, inviting us into ever-fresh insight and experience.  He is full of surprises, shocks that pry our fingers from our clenched securities.  Peter Mayer’s lyrics speak for us:

God is a river

 

Posted December 24, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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Is There Room for Me?   Leave a comment

Mazie, our white spitz mix, sat on the floor in front of the love seat, wistfully eyeing a narrow spot between Kimberly and me.  Mitts likes to sit on our laps, which makes room for both dogs, but he sometimes spills into the gap, and he guards his personal space with warning growls.  Kimberly pulled Mitts over a bit, slapped the empty space, and urged the timid Mazie, “There’s room for you!”  Then turning to me she added, “That’s our family motto: ‘There’s room for you.’  It may feel uncomfortable or even scary, but we always make room for each other.”

When I make room for others in my space, I have to adjust.  Their preferences, priorities, viewpoints, and feelings all stick out in odd shapes that don’t fit well with mine. What they say or do may upset me, and in defense I may push back, growl to make them stop.  We make relationships “work” by excluding the parts that are at odds–go silent about politics and religion and the morality of disposable diapers.  After repeatedly hitting the same potholes of conflict, we learn to steer around them, thinking that smoother relationships are better relationships.  But this dance of avoidance hides our true selves, and our deep need for connection goes unmet.

Family and marriage is the quintessential formative ground for these dynamics.  We are most vulnerable here, with the greatest potential for harming or healing.  And the redemptive way forward is no Hallmark movie.  The “precious moments” of marriage, the things that make it rich and rewarding and powerful, are not warm fuzzies but cold pricklies.  It is not romance that makes a marriage great, but the frustrations, fears, and foolishness responded to with stumbling grace.  We build a marriage by the messy process of learning to embrace our real selves with all its brokenness.  This shared grace is the foundation of trust on which every deep relationship is built.  Because the two of us are weak and fearful, we sometimes fail, but we always return to this core value: “There’s room for you.”

You Can’t See Your Own Nose Without a Mirror   Leave a comment

Isn’t it odd how we are often the last ones to realize the obvious about ourselves?  You may have spotted a theme that has been bubbling up through my posts recently, but I didn’t notice it until a few days ago: anger.   It is one of my defense mechanisms, so reflexive and short-lived that I often don’t notice it or I pass it off as a normal response.  In fact, it was a major piece of armor for my whole family, our shield against a sudden sense of danger, so quickly deployed that it even parried our sense of vulnerability.  Like so many family traits, it was carefully disguised–no shouting, name-calling, or slamming doors, but an intense burning that everyone felt without being able to name.  When I stumbled on Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger, it turned on the lights for me, so much so that I bought every sibling a copy for Christmas.

Many years ago I realized that an unexpected burst of anger is a telltale sign that I feel under attack, not from the incident itself, which is just a release valve, but from the pressure of turmoil building inside my heart, a festering wound that needs attention.  I don’t need a scolding, but a warm compress of grace–I need to locate the wound and apply self-compassion.

I have known for some months that my emotions were foundering, but it was a gradual, insidious tide that crept up past the gunwales without any alarms sounding.  Who doesn’t get mad at selfish drivers?  Who doesn’t get pissed at overbearing customers or lazy co-workers?  It seemed normal… except that it wasn’t.

The slowly building tension came from a big drop in income, a stressful job, and even an unsafe home (our cars have been rifled more than once, and I caught a burglar trying to get into our house).   The major soul cost has been a loss of even a minimal support structure–my low-wage job works me till 11 p.m. and on weekends, blocking me from making social connections here.  And when the scales are already heavily offset, even small weights added seem unbearable.  It becomes hard to do simple daily tasks, not to speak of the huge effort to overcome our current set of circumstances.

None of that is going to change soon.  It needs to change for life to be sustainable, but in the meantime I need to lean into self-support, be conscious of my pain in specific ways and direct compassion to myself as I would to any dear, suffering friend whom I love.

 

Posted July 13, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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FEAR   2 comments

I am afraid.  It’s been going on for some time now, but I just now realized it because I’m a newbie to this feeling.  All my life I’ve lived fearlessly, without regard to personal consequences, at least regarding major life decisions–where to live, what job to take, what insurance to buy.  Being single, I had no one to answer to, no one whose life would be affected by the turns I took–right or wrong–no one I had to look out for.  It wasn’t from a confidence in my success, but in a stubborn disdain of worst case scenarios–I’d do fine sleeping on the street and scrounging food out of the garbage.  What’s the big deal?

I had a whole way of doing life that was completely sustainable when I was on my own.  Then I got married.  to a person who has a very different approach to life and money and jobs and everything.  She is not high maintenance at all, but she would be unhappy sleeping in an abandoned storefront and eating dumpster Dominos.  So we have to aim a little higher and actually consider risk.  I fear that if I push for us to take a big risk and it fails, whether it collapses suddenly or through years of decay (both of which have their own unique awfulness), I will be at fault.

And we are both spent emotionally.  We have very little psychic capital to use on new adventures, and if we get half-way in and run out of initiative, or the route ends up being twice as long or twice as difficult as we had planned in rationing our energy, or the road we take is a dead-end and we run out of both money and options, or….

What she needs to sustain her life is quite different from what I need.  As just one example, the kind of work I have is far more important to me, and the environment we live in is far more important to her.  We have very different needs for stability, security, community, challenge, and everything else.  But with limited funds, our needs can be in direct competition.  If we must sacrifice, how do we divvy that up?  It is not an incidental wish list for either of us, but a question of sustainable living.  Should she be miserable or should I? (Which is not a genuine question, because if either of us is miserable, we both are.  That’s the nature of love.)  How do you measure the respective burdens?  Or should one of us be miserable in the short term so we can get to a better place?  How miserable?  Because a certain level of misery is not sustainable even in the short term… and what is “short term”… and what if it takes longer to get to a better place?  AAArrrgh!

I see we have a big discussion ahead of us.  At least I now know what it is about.

Posted June 29, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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Still Untangling a Confused Life   12 comments

When I stepped through the gate of adulthood, I turned the wrong direction, and with the best of intentions, trudged deeper and deeper into the wilderness.  I should have gone into teaching Bible or Theology–it was my gift and my joy–but I was told that missionary evangelism was God’s real calling.  At the age of 40 I discovered my whole worldview was cracked, and I started over, trying to understand life from the viewpoint of grace.  I did my best to recalibrate my life’s occupational trajectory, but seemed to keep getting it wrong.  I tried pastoring, then social work, and though they were both fulfilling, the structure in each demanded that I deny my true self in order to succeed.  In the end, I was forced to leave because the pressure to conform was too great for me to bear, and I began to languish.

I was deep into midlife when I ran out of meaningful work and had to settle for something uninspiring that would meet our basic expenses.  That has proven harder than expected.  All my education and experience is of no use to land a professional job in another field.  I now realize I have to get more training or education just to find work that will cover our simple lifestyle (almost half my wages now go to health insurance alone), and that means years of effort and tens of thousands of dollars in costs just to start applying for jobs… jobs I may hate after all the effort.

Becoming a college teacher would require a Ph.D., and there is a huge market surplus of competition to contend with, and I would be in my 60s and just starting out, a very dire prospect.  Since becoming an electrician or plumber would take just as much time and money as other professions (yes, I looked into it), I have been thinking of getting my M.A. in counseling (since my other joy in life is connecting redemptively in a deep way with others).  I haven’t done well so far in every effort to reconfigure my life, so this too could be a misadventure.  We are thinking and praying.

 

Posted June 27, 2017 by janathangrace in Life

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The Self Made Man Deflects Grace   1 comment

We Americans are strikingly individualistic, even inventing self-contradictory proverbs to make our point.  “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” we say as though sheer effort can somehow overturn the law of gravity.   This outlook even molds our view of spirituality, which we see as something personal and private, between me and God.  We turn what is quintessentially a collective, integrated, synergistic  venture–the church–into a gathering of individuals, largely disconnected personally.  Henry doesn’t know that John’s marriage is crumbling or that Karen’s fifth grader is desperately struggling with depression.

This individualistic mindset is especially detrimental to grace.  Grace, like patty-cakes, is not something we can do on our own.  It is not something we “claim,” but something we are given… there must be another to offer us grace.  Gifts are never earned or won or conquered or they would cease to be gifts.  It is true that all grace originates with God, but his primary means of delivering that grace to us is through people.  We are all bearers of his light of grace, sharing our small, flickering flame with those whose wick has whiffed out.  God came down to us once in flesh that could touch and hear and comfort us, but that was 2000 years ago, and since then, his body has taken on the form of our fellow humans.

This it at once a great responsibility and an amazing privilege–to be the voice and hands and heart of God to our fellows, and them to us.  None of us do it perfectly, perhaps not even particularly well, but we each have an indispensable role to play in the redemptive journey we are all on together.  We depend on each other for our core heart needs to be met, and we suffer deeply when we cannot connect in mutually supportive relationships.  Failing those redemptive relationships, we must do our best to welcome with hope those small tastes of it, the little gestures of goodwill that come our way.

Posted June 26, 2017 by janathangrace in thoughts

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