Monday, December 29, 2014

The Songs I Learned in High School

The three years I spent at Upper Columbia Academy were among the very best of my life. It wasn’t because it was high school. It was because God led me to that high school. I discovered a lot about myself during those years. I chased my dreams there. I escaped some of my fears there. I learned to appreciate my mom there. I made life-long friends there. And UCA is where I met two men who would change how I saw myself forever.

Zvonimir Hacko was the Choral Director at UCA; my first year was also his first year at the school. Mr. Hacko was from Yugoslavia, and he was very serious when it came to music. He held auditions for everything he did; no one was in his choir just because they wanted to be. He also had a talent for seeing “diamonds-in-the-rough”. I loved to sing, but auditioning for him was a very intimidating experience. He listened to me run through some scales and then asked me to sight-read some sheet music for him. After a few minutes, he turned to me and asked why I wasn’t signed up for vocal lessons. I responded that I only had so much time in my schedule, and I was already taking piano lessons. And that’s when he looked at me and asked the question that would end up defining my years at UCA:

“Do you want to play the piano or do you want to sing?”

Mr. Hacko told me that I had potential—that he could work with my voice and train it to do what it couldn’t yet do. He could teach me not just to sing music, but how to “make music.” I was sold. He spoke to my heart and my heart wanted to sing!

Telling Mom that I was abandoning the piano wasn’t easy, and she wasn’t as sure as I was, but she told me to do what I wanted. I joined choir, took vocal lessons, and practiced daily. I worked hard, because I wanted to be what Mr. Hacko believed I could be.

By my Junior year, I was in Choraliers (the touring choir). By my Senior year, I sang solos with the Men’s Chorus, mixed quartets with other seniors, and even an aria and duet in a German Cantata at St. John’s Cathedral in Spokane, WA. Mr. Hacko’s work ethic played well to my perfectionistic, people-pleasing, high-achiever personality. He taught me that hard work, focus, and good choices could take me to the top of whatever I set my mind to do.

He also taught me how to “make music”. It’s more than memorizing words and notes and performing them flawlessly. You “make music” when you sense the audience, watch the conductor, tune in to your fellow musicians, and make the performance fit the situation. Each time was unique; I loved the concept of music as an ever-evolving work of art. This man forever changed the way I looked at music.

But John Briggs forever changed the way I looked at God.

God brought Mr. Briggs into my life while I was struggling to cope with the feeling of not being “good enough” for my father. He worked as the Guidance Counselor and one of the Bible teachers at UCA. During my Sophomore year, he was on the periphery of my school experience. But then I heard about this great Bible Elective class that he taught each quarter—a sort of seminar class, covering a different book each time. The class was small—intimate, even—and supposedly wasn’t too demanding. I loved the idea of credits that wouldn’t hurt my GPA!

And that’s how God works. He takes our petty personality issues and uses them to show us His message for us.

Through this class, with this incredible man, I learned about appropriate, unconditional love and tenderness. Mr. Briggs was soft-spoken, gentle, almost always smiling, and he always used our relationship to point me to Jesus. He was encouraging, but direct, as he challenged me to expect more of myself in healthy ways—to appreciate my strengths and remember that I didn’t have to be all things to all people. He stressed that I just needed to be me—that my weaknesses were just ways to grow.

I grew close to John and his wife Judy, spending many evenings at their home, and several weekends at their cabin near Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. They were surrogate parents during my time at boarding school. They gently shaped my broken faith and unhealthy performancism and taught me about real grace. They helped me understand that my “good enough” didn’t matter, because I was a child of God; a daughter of the King. They encouraged me to learn and grow without falling into the trap of believing that Jesus would only love me if I was “good enough”.

John Briggs introduced me to the Biblical works of Paul and John—and they are still my favorite parts of the Scriptures. I continued to struggle with a legalistic, demanding view of God, but Mr. Briggs gave me hope. He believed in me because he believed in God. He knew that if I could just see myself the way that Jesus did, then I would never be the same. 

He taught me that “Jesus loves me, this I know” is the most important song to sing. I know he would be so happy to see that, 30-plus years later, I finally understand.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

My Secret Song

I sat there quietly, holding that soft molasses cookie in my hand; feeding it to you bite by bite. When I stopped at Starbucks earlier that afternoon, I saw the cookies and remembered how much you always loved the flavor of molasses.

“Why not take Grandpa a treat?” I thought. So, I found myself breaking off pieces and gently placing them in your mouth, bite by bite, while you sat there—immobilized by Alzheimer’s Disease—unable to feed yourself and unable to recognize me. The same thoughts kept running through my mind.

“Do you remember that day, Grandpa? Do you remember the shame and the guilt that settled on me that day? Is it fair that you get to retreat into mental oblivion, while I play the scene over and over in my mind? It’s a broken record of shame and guilt always playing in the background like a sick theme song—my secret song.”

I remember everything about that day. We had just returned to your house from a driving lesson. I had my permit and was eager to get my license. Mom was busy, so you offered to teach me to drive. I remember the warm summer air and the breeze moving through the kitchen; the smell of food in the air; the sound of your work boots, as you walked down the short hall from the back door to where I sat at the table, reading something. I remember I was wearing tennis shoes, shorts, and a light blue baby-doll style blouse. My blouse was loose-fitting, so it was easy for you to reach beneath it and run your hand up to cup my breast; your other hand was on my shoulder—holding me in my seat. I remember your whiskers against my cheek and the feel of your breath as you spoke in a low voice next to my ear.

“You’ve grown up into such a nice big girl, haven’t you Sandy?”

My thoughts were paralyzed. My voice was choked. I could barely take in shallow breaths. In a few minutes, it was over and I was alone in the kitchen again.

“Surely that hadn’t just happened. My own grandfather didn’t just. . .”

But, I knew it was true. Somehow, this had happened to me and now I had to figure out how to handle it. I pulled myself together. I reminded myself that I was strong and smart. I developed my plan for how to handle this new reality. My plan couldn’t involve Mom. She already had enough to worry about. I was tough. I could handle this on my own.

I knew he and I could never be alone together again. Ever. Definitely no more driving lessons. I rationalized that having a driving license was overrated. (It would be 3 more years before I would get my license, at the age of 18.) I would always make sure that someone else was with us. If Grandpa entered a room that I was in alone, I would leave and go to where there were other people. Besides, I would be leaving for boarding school soon, so this should be pretty easy to deal with.  I could handle this on my own.

And I did. I don’t think anything like that ever happened to me again. But, sometimes I do wonder if I just decided to not remember.

I also became acutely aware that these parts of my body—my breasts—were a source of attraction to boys and men. My posture suffered, as I stooped in an unconscious effort to diminish others’ awareness of that part of me. I grew to hate what guys seemed to love. I could see it in their eyes when they spoke to me, but didn’t make eye contact with me.

Not long after that day, I decided to change the way I spelled my name from “Sandy” to “Sandi”. I might not be able to take back that day, but I could move forward as a new me.

But Sandi could not escape Sandy’s secret song. The song of my worthlessness resonated in my heart—the unshakable belief that I didn’t deserve to be treated better. It clung to my soul for years—until I took control back through forgiveness.

So there I sat. Feeding a cookie to the grandfather I forgave many years before that day. The grandfather who never acknowledged what he did—even when confronted a few years later.

This man stole my soul’s simple song of innocence and my trust, and replaced it with a secret song—a song of shame.

This man didn’t even know who I was anymore.

This man got to forget, while I could still remember.

And I found myself wishing that it was the one thing he couldn’t forget, either. That it was the one thought that tormented him.

I could forgive, but I couldn’t forget.  And, I hoped he couldn’t either.