“The truth has legs; it always stands. When everything else in the room has blown up or dissolved away, the only thing left standing will always be the truth. Since that’s where you’re gonna end up anyway, you might as well just start there.”
“I can’t tell him that!”
“Why not, if it’s the truth?”
My heart drops and I find it impossible to imagine a way to reveal this without destroying my husband and my marriage. There are a thousand ways this could ruin him, and I spend the next few days desperate to find just one that I hope will only hurt. One thing is certain: He has to know.
I am in love with a woman.
My husband thinks I shouldn’t write about this. He’s worried about the reaction I’ll receive, the negative comments and loss of friendships and to be honest, I’m worried, too. So why do it? Why announce something that could possibly ostracize me and cause me and my family to be ridiculed, scorned, and possibly even hated by my conservative friends and neighbors? Because it’s not about a blog post. It’s not about an announcement. It’s about who I want to be when I look at myself in the mirror. It’s about honesty and transparency and moving through the world unashamed of who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. For the nine years that I’ve been blogging, this medium has been a tool in my quest for authenticity, and I cannot allow one of the most important things in my life to remain in the shadows.
“If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself. That does not only mean that you suppress who you are, although it also means that. It means that so much of what you could be will never come forward. Truth is the light in the darkness.”
And so, I tell my story…
I sit criss-cross-apple-sauce and read the baby book. It’s obvious from what is written that my I was loved, once. What did I do, as a baby, to earn that love? How can I become that child again? I turn each page slowly, desperate for answers.
My life became a search for love. I studied the popular girls in class, the successful women on television, the members of my family who seemed to “have it all.” A deep, hidden part of me decided I needed others, especially men, to define me; I needed the respect and admiration of those around me in order to feel worthy and loved.
As a teen, I was given a book called The Rules. Advertised as a formula for being “desirable and mysterious,” the authors claimed their list of do’s and don’ts would help me “land the guy of [my] dreams.” I vowed to follow this set of rules, twisting the meaning of the word “love,” giving it an impossible definition, and spent years of my life chasing it.
The illusion. The Sisyphean Stone. My very own Holy Grail.
As a young adult, I was given another book which would change the trajectory of my life forever: The Bible. Within, The Commandments. A divine list which, if followed, guaranteed stability, predictability, an idea of what the future would hold and, to a certain extent, control over my life and seeming lack of vulnerability. Most importantly, it offered a clear road through which to earn God’s love. I vowed to follow yet another set of rules.
For the next two decades, I examined the bible to determine the correct practice on every subject I could think of. From birth control, to recreation, to clothing, to celebrating religious holidays, I held it all under the microscope and examined it in the light of scripture. I kept the Old Testament commandments, covered my head, and abstained from using birth control and wearing jewelry. I read books on how to be a good Christian mother and a good Christian wife and experienced guilt every time I binge-watched a season of Grey’s Anatomy. Most heartbreakingly, I lost my best friend because she was gay, and I felt I could no longer associate with her. Later, I broke ties with several family members for the same reason. I made unimaginable sacrifices and horrific mistakes in my search for what was “right” and held myself apart from all I believed was “wrong.”
Until it all fell apart. Without going into too much detail, two years ago I found myself going through one of the most heartbreaking, difficult things I’d ever been through, and it left me drowning, disoriented, plunged deep underwater and unable to find the surface. During this time, I did what I’d always done when in pain: I turned to books. However, things were different. For the first time in almost twenty years of Christianity, I lifted my self-imposed ban on authors who didn’t line up with my religious beliefs. I decided to read anything and everything, with only one stipulation—I would read only those books that pointed me toward the surface. I examined my own responses as a drowning person might examine her own breath, searching for the bubbles that will show her the way. I had long ago discovered that some books were stones, weighing me down with guilt, shame, and unrealistic rules and expectations. Now, my focus, instead of being one of control and orchestration, became “who can help me navigate this? Who writes good bubbles, and how do I follow them?” I devoured books by Glennon Doyle, Cheryl Strayed, Brene Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sue Monk Kidd, Anne Lamott, Jen Hatmaker, and Anne Patchett—all authors I would have once avoided in the past. Simply put, and to use Anne Lamott’s words: they’re “bad Christians.” But their words resonated with me and helped me in a way few authors ever had.
These books changed me. My life became more peaceful, even as my beliefs became less stable. Somehow, without intending it or fully realizing what was happening, I began exchanging my book of rules for little markers of direction. I released the self-created certainty I thought I had with scripture and embraced the unknown. When I finally breached the surface, I faced a landscape for which my maps had become irrelevant. What was the world, if it was not as I had always defined it? Who was God, and how could I relate to him outside the confines of my own understanding? I spent weeks confused and disoriented, unsure of how to navigate this new territory, unsure of how to connect with God. Then one day, I realized there was only one thing I could offer the one I had called my Lord for nearly two decades: honesty. So I said one thing, the same thing I’d been saying since I met him eighteen years before:
“I will follow you.” Only this time I would LISTEN.
For someone raised in the particular brand of Christianity I was raised in, this was one of the most difficult moments of my life. I had been taught that my desires were questionable, if not bad, and my heart was corrupt, if not evil. I had been taught not to listen to the voice inside, never to trust myself. In the bible, I believed I had a set of instructions that would keep me from being deceived. Yet now, I faced uncertainty. I no longer knew what the bible was to me. Had I become lost again? I didn’t know. I still don’t know. But through this process, I discovered that it’s not my job to know. That’s what God’s sovereignty is all about. I had taken His job upon myself, and He’d allowed me to do so. Now, I gave it back.
In the months that followed, I became aware of my own thoughts, feelings, emotions and reactions in a way I’d never been, before. I spent time doing things I loved and hadn’t done in years. I said “yes” to more things I wanted to do and “no” to things I didn’t. During this time, I stopped wearing headcoverings and started using birth control and stopped trying to squeeze myself into the Christian box I’d believed I must live within.
And then I met a woman.
By then I had paid attention to my own voice long enough to identify the feeling. I was attracted to her. My body resonated like an untouched string that sings with its harmonic. It caught me by surprise. I had never been attracted to a woman before, and didn’t know what to do with all I was feeling. Yet I knew what NOT to do. I wouldn’t ignore it. I wouldn’t shove it in a box and sit on the lid and pretend it didn’t exist. I wouldn’t call it bad. I had committed myself to embracing the dichotomic yin and yang of my own existence and resolved to pay attention to all that was inside of me, rather than slapping on a label and repressing what I didn’t understand. I didn’t know what would happen, but was determined to remain open to the experience, wherever it might lead.
We slip our shoes off at the shore and I try to anchor my feet in the sand, the rest of my body floating, unmoored by the strangeness of this night. Me. Her. Together in the moonlight, under a canopy of stars. Our first date? I clutch my skirt in trembling hands, desperate for something to hold on to.
“You make me so nervous.” My words sound foreign, transfigured by the salty air.
I feel her eyes on me. “Why?”
I turn and force my mouth to form the question I’ve been longing to ask since the day we met: “Am I the only one who feels this?”
Each second seems an eternity waiting for her response. When it finally comes, it is so soft I can barely hear above the crashing waves. “No. You’re not the only one who feels this.”
Her hand meets mine and everything fades as I focus on the sensation. After years of squeezing myself into places I don’t belong, it feels as if I’ve finally come home.
For a short time, I believed I could leave this experience behind, but having once stepped over the chasm between what religion had taught me was “right” and what I believed in the deepest part of myself to be “right,” nothing in my life would ever be the same. In the days that followed, I slipped deep into dark thoughts and reflections. I no longer felt like the confident woman I wanted to be, the courageous woman I’d spent half my adulthood striving to become. I felt like a simpering fool.
I tried to be gentle with myself. As a 38 year old mother of eight, raised in the Southern Baptist/Pentecostal traditions, married for 17 years, in love for the first time in two decades, and grappling with a new-found sexuality, it seemed only natural to feel disoriented and confused. Questions haunted me.
How could I explain this to Jon?
What would happen if I tried?
Was I gay?
And the biggest question of all: Did God hate me?
But though I was confused and distraught, I had promised God I would trust his love for me, even if I couldn’t understand it, even if I felt I didn’t deserve it. I took great comfort in the words of Thomas Merton:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
I also took comfort in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert: “Women can survive their consequences.” I had survived horrific religious mistakes in the past, such as cutting ties with our family members for the crime of being gay, and I would survive them again, if need be. I chose to trust God’s love. And I chose to tell my husband.
The first few weeks after telling Jon were fraught with confusion, anger, resentment, and blame. He struggled to support me and I struggled to help him understand. A few weeks before I was scheduled to see her again, I sat down with him, in tears.
“I can’t do this. I can’t be an adulteress.”
He twirls his thumbs the way he always has during uncomfortable conversations. I notice the pale, wrinkled strip of skin on his ring finger, skin that hasn’t seen the light of day for 17 years. Until now. “What choice do we have, Rina? We can’t divorce until the kids leave home.”
I touch my wedding band, running my finger along the indention of letters which spell “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” I can’t yet bring myself to take it off. “I’m not talking about divorce. I’m talking about the time between. We’ve talked about open marriage, but I don’t think you want that. And I can’t be an adulteress. I can’t be the person causing you pain, if it’s not a pain you’ve willingly signed up for.”
“What do you mean? Who signs up for pain?”
“I mean there’s a difference between deciding, together, to open our marriage and deal with the pain and jealousy and fear because we’ve chosen this path, and being forced into a situation where you have no choice. We’ve spent 17 years partnering in this marriage, and we’ve committed to continuing that partnership at least until the kids leave home. That means something to me. It matters to me. I can’t take this next step without your blessing.”
He leans forward, eyes dancing with anger. “You’re asking me to bless this relationship? Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I’m not asking you to bless it. I’m telling you I can’t do this unless you can.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that if you can’t, I end the relationship. It means we go back to the way things used to be.”
I wait, watching the familiar expression of thoughts playing across his face, still handsome after all these years. “I’m going to need to think about this.”
He spends the day driving and praying while I lie in bed, sick from blame. For 17 years, Jon has been faithful. He has worked for me, sacrificed for me, and given me and our children everything we’ve ever needed, everything we’ve ever asked for. For 17 years, he has worked toward a life with a clear future. A life in which we would grow old together, perhaps on a little farm somewhere, surrounded by our children and grandchildren. All he’s ever wanted in return is now the one thing I am powerless to give him. Stability. No matter where we go from here, no matter what he decides, nothing will ever be the same.
He sits beside me on the bed and places a hand atop my own. “Rina, I love you,” he begins.
“I know you do. And, although it must seem impossible to believe, I love you, too.”
“I do believe that, as insane as it all seems. And I think that if I truly love you, I have to let you go.”
I swallow a lump rising in my throat. Do I want him to let me go? Do I really want to end our life together?
Reading my expression, he goes on. “I’m not talking about divorcing you. I’m talking about possessing you. I think I have to learn to love you without expecting anything in return. As crazy as it sounds, and as much as I hate to admit it, I see so much good coming from all of this. I see so much growth, for both of us. And in a strange, fucked up way I can’t begin to understand, I think we need this. I don’t know what’s going to happen with us, but I think we’ve been given an opportunity to learn what true love really is, and I think whatever pain or heartache we have to go through to learn that will be worth it. Don’t you?”
I nod, tears filling my eyes.
“I wouldn’t have chosen this, any of this, but I think we have to see it through.” He draws a piece of paper from his pocket. “I wrote this, today. Will you read it?”
I unfold the paper, studying the familiar handwriting, the writing which had begun our relationship so many years before, when he’d tucked a love letter into my hand at the end of our work shift. I hold it in one hand, place my other into his, and read:
“The place of brokenness is a quiet place. All arguments are laid to waste, there is no room for begging or pleading or trying to find a way out. The door is closed. This is the place of acceptance and surrender. There are no volunteers here. This is a place for those whose dreams have been shattered, the humbled and broken souls. Some decline into despair and hopelessness and never make it out. But those who return do so changed. They return with a divine ability to love—truly love. Not a love of rules, or protections, or covenants, but a love which needs no such restrictions. A love that is vulnerable. A love that boldly states in the face of its recipient: “You can do whatever you want and I will continue to love you, because I have fallen through fire. I have risen from the ashes. And I will be here, loving. Regardless, loving. I will love freely, without fear, anger, resentment, or control. And my love will never fail.”
Pain, the path to freedom