Monday, January 19, 2015

The Song that Dating Taught Me (The Things We Do for Love)

It seems strange now, to remember just how serious I was about the subject of dating, when in was in high school. In our Bible classes, we discussed issues like marriage, divorce, and the general culture we were growing up in. I remember learning a statistic about how much more likely children of divorce were to experience divorce themselves. Learning that really shook me up! Experiencing divorce in adolescence was horrible—and I had no desire to experience it as an adult. Beyond that, I definitely did NOT want to put my kids through that pain.

There was one caveat to those ugly statistics on divorce: children of divorce were less likely to experience divorce in their own marriages if they took the time to educate themselves about healthy relationships and communication. They also needed to make smart decisions about what they wanted/needed in a mate and then enter dating situations with those issues in mind. It all sounds very clinical as I write about it now, but this approach appealed to my high-achieving mindset. I signed up for an elective class, titled “Marriage & the Family”, and drank in all the information I could from the course materials and other things that I was reading. I totally bought into the idea that I could control my heart and find the perfect soul-mate.

If only it were that easy! The combination of naiveté, pride, and hormones made for some turbulent dating experiences. There was a song that was popular just a few years before this, titled The Things We Do For Love. It could have just as easily been the title of my dating years; that was the song my soul was singing. I wanted to be smart, but I craved being loved. The craving to be loved resulted in some poor choices. Afterwards, when I considered those decisions, I was flooded with guilt. How was I ever going to find the perfect Christian husband when I couldn’t make choices that showed I honored and respected myself? My approach to intimacy left me feeling ashamed and worthless. And feeling worthless drove my desire to be loved. And my desire to be loved drove my choices. . .

Sometime during my first year of college, my current very-serious-relationship ended. He broke up with me and I was actually relieved. I had thought we were a forever kind of couple—probably most of our friends from high school did. But I realized that I was tired of doing everything wrong and expecting a happy ending. I remember thinking that I was done with dating—it was time to direct my attention to something where I knew my decisions would be good enough.  It was time to focus on school, get my act together, and grow up. And so, I did.

No dating. Only school. Focused. Driven.

I think that, subconsciously, I believed that if I let up on the pressure to achieve in school, I would have to face the fact that I was a failure at relationships. I was a child of divorce, destined to make the same mistakes myself, unworthy of a truly decent man. God must have smiled as He saw me give up on my plans for the perfect relationship. He knew I had to—in order to make room for His.

In July of 1983, I completed LPN school—at the top of my class. I was so happy that I could get one thing right!  And I had a job already; I was returning to UCA as the School Nurse and Assistant Girl’s Dean. I was beginning to believe I could make good choices and I could be good enough, at least where school and work were concerned.

I had about one month to kill until the school year began, and I decided to use that month to travel to Ohio and visit my daddy. I deserved the break—I had kept my promise to myself. I had focused on school. I hadn’t been on a date in 20 months. And I had a plan for my future.

Little did I know that God was about to put His plan into action and teach me about unconditional love. He wanted to show me that there was someone who would love me—and I didn’t have to do anything but truly love him in return.

But, that’s another story. . .

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Song My Mother Taught Me--Verse Two

While I attended Upper Columbia Academy, learning valuable lessons about hard work and grace, my mom was busy teaching me a new verse in the song we shared. This new song was all about strength and sacrifice; courage and community; but mostly about effort and reward.

Fifteen is such a difficult age for mothers and daughters. There’s so much angst and awkwardness as, step by step, the changing relationship is negotiated. I don’t think I truly appreciated all my mother did for me, and meant to me, until I left the shelter of our home and went away to school. Of course, Mom had taught me how to keep my room clean and do my laundry. I knew how to study and how to goof off. What I didn’t know was how to balance all of that—I didn’t realize just how much structure Mom had added to my life. She had been the safety net I was tightrope walking over, and I hadn’t even realized it.

The best advice Mom gave me about boarding school was this:

“You will get out of the experience whatever you are willing to put into it”.

She explained further:

“Invest in other people and make new friends, and you will have life-long friends; participate in activities and you will learn new things; work hard in your classes and you will have a rich education. But, if you sit in your room all the time, you will only magnify your loneliness.”

I took that advice to heart, and those three years were full of learning and laughter and love that are still with me today.

Boarding school was expensive, so both Mom and I entered into a partnership of sacrifice to make attending possible. I worked the maximum hours each day to pay for part of my school bill. Our income qualified me for student aid, through our local church. My grandmother and siblings also worked as janitors for the church to help with the expenses. Years later, I would learn of the family friends and church members who sent personal donations. It took a community of love and support to make my dream come true.

Still, the greatest sacrifice would come from Mom. There were more chores at home, with me gone, and never enough money. Many days she worked 10-12 hours, at minimum wage, to support all of us. In order to pay my bill, she refinanced her car at least three times. She did without new clothes, needed furnishings, and even basic treats like orange juice for breakfast. The phone bill became a luxury, so she disconnected long distance service—which meant we couldn’t speak on the phone. Instead, I received a letter from her every week, filled with all of the news from my sisters and our friends at church.
Reflecting on that time now, I can’t imagine how she found the time! And when the time for Home Leave came each five weeks, she made that time with me special. We didn’t quarrel when I came home. The time we had was short and precious. It was spent talking and laughing and there was usually music involved. Perhaps being so far apart helped me appreciate all of the things she added to my life. I know that during those years, I was very aware of how much she loved me and how she was willing to do anything to secure my dream for me.

Mom never missed a concert or school presentation, either. Although UCA was 2 hours away, she made the trip in all kinds of weather and could always be found in the audience, just beaming with pride.

My memories of that time are filled with images of love—and it is a strong, courageous, undaunted kind of love. My mother is one of the strongest women I have EVER known! And that is the part of her I admire most and have tried hardest to emulate. Her strength, in the face of overwhelming difficulty and loss, was an inspiration to me, both then and now.

And that lesson she taught me about getting out of life what you put into it—that means more to me with each passing year. I didn’t realize for a few years that her advice applied to more than just boarding school—it applied to all of life. I’m sad that I let my self-absorption, and the desire to push away in my 20s and 30s, obscure this truth.  (For more details, follow this link: My own path through life took me away from Mom, in terms of distance. But I let my pride and my fear of not being good enough keep me from telling her how much I needed her; I created emotional distance to match our physical distance. I wanted so much to be as strong and independent as she was, that I lost touch with the need to be vulnerable—especially with her. Perhaps I was afraid that she would see my neediness as a sign of weakness, and I couldn’t bear to disappoint her. There were moments in the years to come when I would recognize that need, but I would tip-toe through them and around her, instead of sitting down in that moment of need and embracing it.

After years of getting out of our relationship exactly what I was willing to put into it, I’m learning to invest in my relationship with Mom. I’m taking her important life-lesson to heart.  I get it now—it’s about effort and reward. And I’m enjoying putting the time in and reaping the blessing of letting her get to know me better.