A little less than three years ago, I had a few dates/hang outs with a woman with whom it was never going to work. We were at significantly different stages of life, and while we had some fun, she saw earlier than I did that we didn’t have enough to sustain anything longer. Retrospect has proven her right, and we have sort of maintained an acquaintanceship since. (This isn’t the rant – I have no resentments about that time or relationship that didn’t materialize.) I ran into her recently and had a brief conversation about how things have been going, and the subject of online dating came up. She asked how I was handling it, and I said something about how I don’t take rejection as personally as I used to (which is true for the most part.) She said she wasn’t being rejected but that she was dejected because everyone out there is just so “uninspired.” To be honest, it was a surprising remark. Maybe it’s the difference between dating in your 40s and dating in your 20s. Maybe it’s the difference between being a man and being a woman. But I think more than anything, at least from where I am right now, I see that I am truly happy with my life, grateful for every little thing that I get to experience, and curious about other people as they are, rather than as something they aren’t. I once heard it said that “it’s your job to find something interesting about everyone you meet – it’s not their job to show it to you,” and I’ve found that so profoundly helpful in terms of accepting life as it is.
When I woke up on Monday, March 18th, I was mostly refreshed, fairly wide awake, and overall in good spirits. I had a few things to do before I got started with my job, but had plenty of time to reflect and relax before things got underway. After a few cups of coffee, I realized for what feels like the thousandth time what a very different place I am in today than I once was.
Two years ago, I woke up very differently, although so similarly to many Saint Patrick’s Days prior. I had a skull splitting headache, a broken heart, a fear that I’d made mistakes that would be impossible to reconcile, and a growing realization that I had some consequences ahead of me. I still don’t remember everything that happened the day before, but I knew that if I hadn’t hit rock bottom yet, I was definitely getting closer, like an anchor skipping along the sea floor before it finally comes to rest.
It’s not that I have no good memories from my drinking days. There were times that I had a lot of fun. And in many respects, some of those experiences probably served some purpose. But eventually, the consequences caught up with me, and they outweighed the benefits pretty quickly.
Today, the consequences of deciding to quit drinking, to turn my will and life over to the care of God, to make amends for the wrong things I did before, and to do my best to serve others have also caught up with me. Every day gives me new opportunities to be grateful. My bills are paid – not just on time, but often early, and my credit rating has skyrocketed from what it once was. I don’t wake up with a splitting headache unless it’s due to actual illness. I have clarity about how to handle relationships, particularly ones that are difficult. I’m not as afraid as I used to be. I wake up with a sense of anticipation and excitement for the day, and at the end of the day I have a greater capacity for review and reflection as I fall asleep with peace and serenity, with more hope for tomorrow than I ever had before.
Allison married Kevin Bannister, her first boyfriend. Not Rob Gordon, who had been her makeout partner for approximately two hours over the course of two weeks, before the Rockford Files.
Or so the story went.
It’s funny how things go sometimes. The Reverend, referenced in a previous post, recently posted pictures from Paris, where she and her daughter are visiting someone who is clearly a special friend who came into her life “over the last year and a half.” Doing the math quickly, it appears that he is likely the one who frustrated her into getting into online dating and consequently meeting me. I get to be a footnote, if that, in The Story of Them and How They Fell in More Love in Paris.
When I write the story of my life for myself and play the broken hearted jilted protagonist, it’s hard to keep things in perspective. It’s hard to remember that even though I am always the audience of my life story, my limited role in anyone else’s is reality too. I don’t know how things will turn out in the long run, but I’d say the odds are that I’ve ended up better off.
So far, Lent this year has been, unfortunately, much like “ordinary time,” as it is called in the church calendar. Not only have I not been as observant of spiritual realities as I idealistically hoped to be, I’ve only gone maybe one day without social media. While not having any apps on my phone has limited me somewhat, and I haven’t done any personal posting, I have logged in and observed others marking the time as I previously did. And perhaps the worst part is that I haven’t been nearly as present as I thought I’d be, even with limited social media.
But today is another day, and every moment is an opportunity to start again.
I grew up in a church that wasn’t especially sacramental. We observed the “ordinances” of baptism and communion, but much of the historic mystery of faith remained, well, mysterious to me for many years. My first wife’s family was Catholic, and although they were largely observant, they never seemed especially overcome by any of the mystery of faith either. It wasn’t until I entered recovery from alcoholism that I began to really appreciate the actual depth of Christianity, and even that came about after some time spent deconstructing what I had grown up with, since, as my sponsor pointed out, maybe my conception of God wasn’t quite really God.
This year, I’ve felt called to set aside social media for the forty days of the Lenten fast. Giving up certain foods has never been terribly hard for me, only because there are so many other foods to eat. Giving up alcohol nearly two years ago, while not without its particular challenges, wasn’t really that hard in contrast with the life I got in exchange. But social media is an insidious one. I genuinely feel a sense of connection just snap in half when I turn it off – perhaps all the more reason to do so.
But here we are, day one. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
A little over a year ago, I decided I was ready to try the swipeathon dating apps to see what all the fuss was about. A couple of days later, I matched with a very pretty woman whose profile simply said “Reverend.” It turned out that she, like me, was a former minister, and that we had several friends in common from seminary and ministry circles. After a few minutes of really fun banter, we decided to meet the next evening.
When she walked into the coffee shop the next evening and spoke my name, I felt a warm glow descend over me like a comfortable blanket, and the look in her eyes felt like home. We talked until closing time, sharing story after story of our respective journeys and opening up to each other about our struggles and challenges. We laid our cards on the table, from our respective divorces to our various mental and emotional health challenges. It felt safe. It felt natural. It felt real. After closing, we walked across the street to a bar to get something to eat, and we continued to talk until the place closed. We agreed to see each other again, and the next day enjoyed lunch together when she happened to be downtown. A third very fun date took place a few days later, and then spent a mutually agreed upon week apart, since she had a friend who was going to be visiting from out of town.
Over the course of that next week, a few things happened that I hadn’t anticipated. Some of my insecurity from previous relationships seeped in, and I started to wonder if she had forgotten about me. When we exchanged text messages, they were typically short, and she once said “thanks so much, friend” to me. While I was certainly rushing to assume anything beyond an affectionate friendship after three dates, I could tell she was pushing me away.
And then my mom died.
I let the woman in question know about what had happened, and received back a short message telling me that she would be willing to meet with me to talk the following week, but that I needed, in the meantime, to take care of myself and my family. I was, naturally, preoccupied for the following week, but found her brevity and lack of engagement confusing.
When we finally met, she informed me that she had actually had no business being on dating sites given the state of her life at that time. She admitted that she had been seeing someone who had disappointed her, and that she hadn’t expected to meet anyone with any depth of character or with whom she could make any actual connection. “What we had was real,” she said, “but I’m just not in a place where I can really experience that, and I don’t see it happening any time soon.” She offered to be friends, but I gave her a self-righteous and cocky speech about how I had no interest in being friends, that she was making a mistake, that she would miss me, and that she would simply have to wonder what we could have had. I kissed her goodbye, and walked away.
While this felt like the most triumphant version of the way a breakup movie should end, it wasn’t. We went our separate ways, experiencing whatever triumphs and defeats our respective lives held. A number of months later, when I was working through a few things in my own journey, I sent her a message apologizing for the way we parted ways, and told her I hoped she was doing okay. She politely thanked me and wished me well.
It used to be that when people parted ways, they parted for good. In the days before social media, we said our goodbyes and resolved ourselves to permanently wonder about the other person. There was no way to check on anyone once you’d walked away from each other. For all we’ve gained with the changes in technology and time, and despite the obvious advantages of being able to maintain friendship over miles and space, we have also undeniably lost a few important skills, such as how to say goodbye with grace and dignity, and how to move forward with life once someone has left it. No moment seems final anymore, and perhaps that’s why it’s so much harder to accept when a moment really is final. At some point, you will say goodbye to someone, and that really will be the last time. The hardest thing to accept, sometimes, is that there also might never be a way to fix, heal, or improve what happened. Sometimes we heal and help each other heal. Sometimes we wait to see if time can heal what effort can’t. And sometimes we must make our way wounded, hopefully not harming anyone else in the future.
I wish I had handled things better when I had the opportunity to. While we had some differences that might have become problematic or at least challenging later, the connection we shared, even for a short time, reminded me of the best ways that people can be together, and gave me a hopeful glimpse into the kind of life, relationship, and intimacy that I long to have again someday. I don’t ever expect to see her again in person, but I hope that despite everything that happened in that short vignette, we can both be better versions of ourselves as we live the lives we each have.
About a year after my second marriage ended, I signed up for a certain online dating/relationship website that promised a more harmonious experience than those that deliver matches or sparks. As with so many of my life experiences, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was only having a few drinks every night, so I told myself, and I was handling things more or less better than I had during the swan song of my marriage, so why not? I was starting to get to a more emotionally (not to mention financially) stable place than I’d been before, and I’d heard how much of a “jungle” it was “out there,” but I figured I could handle it after all I’d been through. Well meaning friends and family recommended that I “get back out there” and “get back on the horse” (which is an awful metaphor, by the way), so I figured I was probably doing the right thing. At a minimum, I’d at least be able to have dinner with someone on a regular basis instead of eating alone. Hard to see a downside, right?
Buckle up. This might get weird.
The first person who responded to me seemed like a nice lady. She lived about four hours away in northwestern Minnesota, and on paper we seemed to have a lot in common. She’d grown up in the same Christian denomination, had gone to a university that I was familiar with, and had been divorced twice, just like I had. We sent each other a few messages back and forth, and seemed to be on the same page with some of the compatibility issues of life. I did find it a little odd when she asked me the first day “are you ready to find the love of your life?” Given that I’d just explained everything I’d been through in my previous marriages, it didn’t seem completely out of place, in an “are you over your ex?” sense. But it also felt a bit forced, since we hadn’t even met in person yet. She asked if we could exchange numbers in order to exchange photos, since we were both on the free version of the site, and I agreed. We both found the other person attractive, and agreed to a phone call later in the week. The phone call went well, and I thought we were both very honest with each other. We’re in our forties at this point, life hasn’t always gone according to plan, but hey, we’re handling our respective baggage as well as we can.
A few days later, it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to do some background checking, mainly because I have kids, but also for self protection. She’d told me she’d been married twice, but what she had failed to tell me was that she’d also been married two additional times. In fact, I also discovered that she was still married to husband number four – and, as it turned out, living with him.
Given that we’d not actually met in person, I didn’t want to make a huge deal about this. I told her what I’d discovered, asked her about it as non-judgmentally as possible, and asked for an explanation. She told me that all of her previous husbands had been abusive, and that she had filed for divorce with the current one but had no place to live, so was just waiting for it to be finalized. I encouraged her to figure out what she was doing before looking for a relationship, and told her I wouldn’t be expecting to hear from her again until she had. She got angry at this point and told me that she had decided to stay with her husband anyway, because even though he mistreated her, she at least knew what to expect from him. I told her I thought that was kind of dumb, but that she could decide how to live her life.
I try to maintain an open mind about how people handle themselves and how the “rules” of relationships are more like “guidelines.” For example, people who start relationships on the rebound may have the deck stacked against them, but it doesn’t mean things won’t work out. On the other hand, waiting a fair amount of time between a relationship ending and a new one beginning, while advisable, doesn’t guarantee success. I hoped that she would pursue some growth for herself and maybe eventually find the kind of relationship she was looking for.
I was surprised to hear from her again about six months later, when she sent me a picture of her divorce decree and asked if we could have coffee sometime. I told her I wasn’t really interested, and she said she understood, but I don’t think she did. I told her about how I had hit rock bottom, how I’d found recovery and with it my self, and I apologized for the way I had handled our brief period of communication (calling it a “relationship” seems a bit overblown). She accepted my apology, and caught me up on her life briefly. For the next year, I got the occasional text message from her, and I tried to respond with kindness as one would to a person who wasn’t handling life very well, but the conversation always eventually escalated to some form of plea to give her a chance to prove to me that we should have a relationship.
This culminated a few weeks ago with a Facebook friend request, which I accepted. I breathed a little easier when I saw that she was in a relationship, and sent her a quick message to congratulate her on this. I mean, all any of us want is just to love and be loved, right? Not long after, she called and asked if I could give her some advice on the relationship. She’d gotten involved with him as a sort of “consolation prize” due to loneliness, she said, and even though he was nice and bought her things, she wasn’t happy. She wanted to get out of the relationship, but she was going along with it because nobody else was interested. “I mean, I wish you wanted me, but since you don’t, I’m going to move in with him.”
The very existence of that conversation, in my view, was enough evidence that this was a very bad idea, and I told her that, but she said she knew what she was doing, so I wished her well. A few hours later she sent a long text message that (essentially) said she would no longer be contacting me, and I decided (finally) to make that easier for her by blocking her.
I know, I know, that seems like it should have been the very first step, right? Lesson learned a bit late, but as my therapist once remarked, I have a history of “an overactive sense of personal responsibility.” This bizarre experience reminded me that I’m not responsible for anyone else’s happiness or decisions, that I am far better off without someone who attempts to manipulate me in any way, and that I can let someone pursue their objectives (in her case, to not be alone at any cost) while also protecting myself.
Two and a half years ago, in this bar, I told my good friend Jack about how I was struggling to continue in a marriage that was emotionally abusive and psychologically destructive. He wasn’t the first person to tell me I needed to end it (not by a long shot), and in fact, he (and everyone else) had been telling me that for years, but this time he helped me to see what I needed to do in order to escape with as much of my dignity and integrity intact as possible, even though I couldn’t figure out exactly how to pull the trigger. Then I drank too much and went to sleep.
The next day, my wife told me she and her kids were moving and that we were going to file for divorce. Sometimes problems handle themselves.
While I still ended up having to do a lot of work to extricate myself from that relationship successfully, the more removed from it I become, the easier it is to look back on it with clarity and self compassion. And, like this empty, closed bar, my life has moved on to be something better than it once was.
My mom passed away peacefully on Saturday, January 27th, 2018, after nearly a decade of slowly fading from some form of progressive dementia.
When people have asked how I or members of my family are handling it, there’s a part of all of us, I think, that say something about how it is a blessing in some form, given how difficult simple activities of life had become for her. But even blessings are hard sometimes. Mom was only 68 years old, and started showing at least beginning signs of this in her 50’s, although we didn’t notice it at the time.
One of the cruelest parts of the decline process (and there are many) was the loss of verbal skill and understanding. Mom taught me many things. I often find myself repeating pieces of simple wisdom she imparted to me, such as “it’s only worth what someone is willing to pay for it,” or “your problem, Pete, is that you think you have to understand everything.” Mom was a reference librarian, but even before that had been a voracious reader and thinker. Mom loved words. She enjoyed laughing at clever phrasing in books, smiling at Dad’s frequent puns, and nodding in quiet agreement as sermons were preached or scripture was read. And her love of the Word was something she passed on easily to those she interacted with, whether it was through praying with students or friends, or teaching her children to memorize the Scriptures for themselves. The verse I still remember her teaching me most vividly – one that has repeatedly served me well throughout life – is Proverbs 15:1, which reminds us (in the King James version) that “a soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.” I remember this most vividly, I suppose, because it wasn’t just words for mom. Many teachers and professors have made me memorize facts, figures, history, and even Scripture throughout my life, but mom taught me to memorize Scripture because it was life – and she lived this passage, and so many others like it – in a way that was impossible to ignore, and impossible to not respect, regardless of one’s faith persuasion. And as I think back on her life, and on the many things she taught me from an early age, particularly about words, and the Word, my Christian faith tradition also reminds me that death, even death through slow decline, does not have the final word.
Thanks be to God.
July 18, 2017
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 A.M. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.
I’ve been asked a few times about whether I miss drinking, and it prompted me to look back on the older pics on my Instagram feed. In a few instances, I can look back and see memories of times spent with friends, of moments of quiet reverie, of enjoyment and fun, but I also see a lot of that “unattractive company” that Didion describes, and maybe that is part of what keeps me from wanting to drink again.
But I haven’t deleted those pics, because I don’t want to forget where I’ve come from. Instead, I want to continue to come to terms with that person and make right what can be made right. The idea of “forgiving myself” has always perplexed me a bit, which was hammered home during my fourth step, when my sponsor pointed out that “there’s one person notably absent from your list, and that’s Pete.” Part of making things right with Pete is clearly acknowledging everything Pete went through, without justification, rationalization, or overdramatization. Glad to be where I am today, but I got here because I was once there.