Dreams of My Former Life

It was very dark and cold. There was a moment of stillness that lasted the length of a breath. Nothing existed in that vacuum but the jumble of emotions rising in my throat that stung like choking on salt water. I released it, filling the stillness with ocean and energy, and everything came rushing back to life. My brothers were crying in the back seat. My car door opened and my sister was pulling me out by the corner of my jean jacket.

“We’re okay! Everyone’s okay. It’s going to be okay,” Ruth was saying in my shoulder as she held me. I cried between screams. I think I was in shock, like actual shock. I’m still not sure how I managed to park the car on the side of the hill.

As if I was having an out of body experience, I remember seeing an overhead view my younger sister get out of the front passenger seat of my Ford sedan and run around to the driver’s side to pull me out of the driver’s seat, where I sat, screaming. In one moment, I took a breath, and in the next, I mourned, healed, released, and processed, all at the same time. From a cerebral place, a million thoughts came pouring in at one moment, streaming as one-

We could have died. I have to leave school. How did we not die? I have to quit my job. Everyone is okay. I have to move home. My car is totaled. Where is the deer? How am I getting work tomorrow? I’m not going back to the dorms tonight. I’m not going back to school now. It doesn’t matter. We could have died.

About three minutes prior to this scene, I had been driving my three younger siblings home from church on a Wednesday in early January. It was about 11:00 at night, the temperature was probably around freezing, and I almost had them back to my parents house in the hills outside of San Antonio. The radio blared and we were smiling and laughing on our way to our childhood home. As we mounted a very steep hill with prairies on both sides, several things happened in a matter of moments. The first was that I accelerated to climb the hill. Also, something told me to break (I ignored this thought). Then, a very large buck leaped into the road, trying to jump my car, but landed on it instead. We stopped short from accelerating at about 60 miles per hour from the impact of the buck hitting the hood of my car. Amazingly, this crumpled the hood and lowered my entire engine a foot without damaging it. The deer ran off into the night. My sister told me that I then managed to pull the car to the side of the road and turn off the engine before Daniel and Isaac in the back seat started crying, and I started screaming.

The part that I am ashamed of here is not the natural reaction to surviving a crash that could have been deadly for at least me and Ruth. I am not ashamed for feeling shaken that this occurred while I was responsible for three children whom I loved very much. I am not ashamed that I allowed my little sister to comfort me, the adult- the one who was supposed to be in charge. What I am ashamed of is that in that moment, the main reason I was crying, was that I knew that I would need to quit college and my job to deal with what had just happened. I was crying because, after a struggle, I had failed.

I had always been an A student, graduated high school a year early, moved out of my parents in the country to move an hour way in the city, and was supporting myself through college. That was, until the end of fall semester. I hadn’t told anyone yet, but I couldn’t afford to live in the college dorms on a part time job at the grocery store and make a car payment. I hadn’t told anyone that I would have to leave school if I didn’t find a place to live in the next three weeks before spring semester began. But I had been determined to find a place to live and pay for school. Because I had to.

I would not fail. I couldn’t; it was unfathomable. I had always been the example for all my siblings to follow, the golden child, the smart one. I was very blessed to have to loving parents who applauded me for my accomplishments and talents, and who supported me as I achieved my goals. But because I thrived on the reward of praise, I didn’t know what failure was. I was about to find out, and little did I know how much it would sting and then change my life.

My dream was to earn a degree in Cross-Cultural Ministry, learn to speak Spanish fluently, and become a teacher and minister. My dream was to move to Mexico and work with young girls. My dream was to marry my husband while in ministry, and we would work together as pastors in Mexico, supported by our church in Texas. I even had my future husband picked out, and passions were starting to spark between us. But all this depended on my present involvement in my school and church in San Antonio. It all depended on my plan working. The day the dean pulled me into his office to tell me that I needed to move out of the dorms or leave the college all together, I was lost.

Looking back, all of this shouldn’t have affected me the way it did. I was pretty self-absorbed. Not much else mattered– just accomplishing my dreams. It’s not that I was selfish. I just didn’t know how to do life when I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do. I had grown up in a soft bubble that allowed me to grow into myself, but didn’t let me stumble. Struggle was an unfamiliarly bitter taste to which I would need to adjust. So many times during this season of my life that was just beginning, I would find myself in a crying, stressed blob, blubbering the phrase, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next!” What I wish I could do, if I could grab the shoulders of my former self, would be to stare into her teary eyes, and tell her the following:

Perhaps you were never supposed to be minister. Perhaps you were never meant to move to Mexico. Perhaps that boy that you loved so much and saw yourself marrying would never love you the way you needed. Perhaps that church and school were never meant to support you. Instead of dreaming of accomplishing the plan, you’ll learn to daydream of the possibilities and get excited by the forks in the road. You’ll come to savor the moments that aren’t part of any list, can’t be documented, and aren’t anticipated. Don’t let this shake you, because you’ll learn that your identity was never in making things happen that look good on paper, but in how you see everything as beautiful.

That’s the thing about having your identity and dreams depend on success. When you fail, you see it as the opposite of the dream, and then you don’t know who you are. That was all that was left of me in the weeks to come. I had no identity, no car, no way to get to work, and therefore no way to go to school. I had to quit my job in the city and apply at my old high school job in my parents’ town. Ruth helped me move my stuff home, and the only memory I have of the next few weeks was feeling broken on my parents sofa while I waited for my car to be repaired.

Eventually my car was fixed, I moved home, and quit school. I took this time to figure out who I was. The failure I felt from quitting school would take a very long time to heal from. I can see now how the events surrounding that night didn’t have to define me as a failure, and yet I see how they shaped my future. I finally realized and accepted that my heart was not specifically to be in Christian ministry, but to help people in need. Something that I would learn is part of my true identity? Empathy. I started volunteering as a mentor for at risk youth. Through this, I realized I loved working with young children, and that would eventually lead me to becoming an early childhood teacher. I still loved Mexico, and while I wasn’t moving there any time soon, I started helping out local humanitarian projects that took youth across the border on week long trips to build homes for the homeless. One day, I was tasked with driving to the airport to picking up a group of young men from Brooklyn, New York, who were traveling to join us in Mexico. All of them would become my best friends and one of them would become my husband. We celebrated our tenth anniversary this year.

My dreams have changed over the years. Some dreams turned out to be uphill winding roads that would lead me to find who I am and what I truly value. Through these roads, I have learned to succeed. All of this taught me that failure isn’t the opposite of success, but part of it. Often, failure shapes and strengthens how you succeed. My old dreams have shown me that success isn’t what I my former self thought it was at all- success does not define me, but I define it.

I’m Angry

     For days, I have been trying to write, the way I know I am capable of writing. This was the way I expressed myself. I did everything I could think of to become inspired, to let the pressure out my body and flow through my words. I looked up writing prompts, I thought about old ideas I had for fiction, I tried to work on autobiographical novel that I already have 200 pages of on a thumb drive from 3 years ago. It all seems to have fallen away. The writing prompts inspired nothing, the old fiction I used to write was gave me no inspiration anymore, and as I read my old novel pages, I realized that I wanted to chuck it all. Not because it wasn’t good, but because it was just for me. I need it. I wrote it to work through something, and it had all served its purpose. Those 200 pages had helped me process some really crazy shit that could only get processed when it came out through my fingertips. I read other essays I had written, too, but every single piece ended with a revelation that God was good and I was His child. I can no longer relate. It felt good to make peace that all that writing brought process and healing to my heart in one way or another, but it was no longer what I felt. Even after all this self-reflection and discovery, I couldn’t write.

     I moved to my next creative outlet- photography. I thought about printing and mounting some old images I had taken. Maybe these images would give me inspiration for the future images I would capture, but they were all of things like Mexican children with dirty faces in the laps of clowns; pictures from missions trips I took with my church. They caused a melancholy mixture of tender memories and regret: memories of me running through barrio streets with children who I couldn’t talk to because we spoke different languages, and regret of being the white Protestant colonizer who came in to save the second-hand disciples. Those pictures were tainted and no longer something I wanted to be associated with. I couldn’t appreciate my own photography, so I in turn found no inspiration to capture new images.

     A strange thing started to happen next. I think that I’ve been having a subconscious crisis as I’ve been in this time of deconstruction, discovering who I am. I’ve been having dreams of leading worship in church to empty seats, singing louder and brighter than I ever had before. It was like flying, I felt so free. I had musicians behind me that I couldn’t see, agreeing with the music and supporting my singing. When I opened my mouth, I widened my throat and jaw wider than was possibly outside of dreams, and the way I sang could make anyone cry in its beauty; that is, if there was anyone to hear. That’s not what it was about- it was about expressing myself and flying with my lunges spread out. This is what my dreams told me: I am desperately seeking a form of self-expression. So, I tried singing when I was awake. But I didn’t know what to sing. Singing was always about worship and worship was about finding worth in God. I know hundreds and hundreds of worship songs across genres and generations, all by heart. I can navigate harmonies and melodies, come up with piano accompaniments and flute improvisations like the back of my hand. It all came so naturally when it was about God. But now that I have no God, now that it’s about finding the beauty in my humanity and self-expression, I feel like I have no voice. I can’t sing.

     I keep feeling hope on the other side of religion and legalistic Christianity that I am finding a way to be more truly me, with my desires and dreams and humanity and voice more accessible now than they ever were within the rules, roles, and obligations of Christianity. But I have nowhere to start. That is, until today. Today, for the first time, I can admit that I know what this is. Now that it’s about me, I feel tongue-tied. It’s so easy when it’s about a greater being. Having said that, and perhaps this needs no mentioning, my self-esteem is shit and I’m also determined to get that back from Christianity. I want to Today, for the first time, I realized that I’m angry.

     I’m angry that my talents were called “gifts,” attributed to benevolence of God, and in essence, they were something taken away from me. I’m angry that all of my former outlets of self-expression, (perhaps the very things that opened my mindset to consider forbidden ideas outside of what the Bible allowed) feel cut off of me, like I’ve lost limbs, and I don’t know how to even begin to process what to do without them. I might even admit that on some level, I want them back, as rotten and poisoned as they were. This makes me sad.

     I remember the day I read over pages and pages of poetry I was considering publishing, and noticed a pattern of tying up even the most raw, bloody poem in a bow of hope that contributed healing or hope or light or peace to God. Why couldn’t I just feel raw and bloody in my self-expression? Then came the day I realized that I was missing out on some of the most beautifully written stories ever told and some of the most awe-inspiring music because it wasn’t Christian (let’s not even talk about the wretched thing Christian Contemporary Music did for tuning the ears of my generation to really shit quality music). I started to feel rebellious when I allowed my photog eyes to take in the beauty of the human body, the most captured image in art history, and recognize the reason for that being the case. Suddenly, I wanted to know why the things that made my heart beat harder had limits, and why I couldn’t feel emotions that Christianity called sinful. Anger was sin. Desire was sin. Fear was sin. Sadness was sin. Hopelessness was sin. These things supposedly denied the role of God as greater than the problems that caused them. But what if these emotions and the way we express them allowed us to process and heal from life? What if they simply allowed us to navigate the natural cycles of things? What if they served a purpose for which religion didn’t make room? I’m angry at religion for taking my voice and trademarking it for it’s cause.

     I think that this is the beginning of how I take it back. I don’t know what a lot of the parts of me will look like on the other side of this, and even as I type this, I feel a dam breaking just in that admonition. I feel a release and tears are flowing because it’s okay to be something I never knew I was going to be- not a woman of God, not a Proverbs 31 Woman ©, not a prophet or missionary or whatever the fuck next they’re going to come up with next. I am afraid, but I think that’s okay. I think that this fear is real because I know that this change is going to impact my life in a way that keeps letting me live it widely. Even honoring that is giving me footing for whatever that’s going to look like. I will create. I will use my voice, I will write, I will capture beauty in whatever form makes my heart burn and beat harder, because this is mine. It was not a gift given to me, but I will send it out as I myself expand.

Autumn

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Brown against orange against

Black against grey against

Light filtered through paper leaves

Makes golden rays

The end of the middle period when there

Is acceptance

Of the end, of the time as it has passed, of

Dying things

Show the beauty of falling things, of

Letting go

Blue shadows and slivers of cold wind

Whisper

Chill to come, frost to cover, death to

Prepare for life to

Awaken after a time

Even at the anticipation of dark nights

And cold, dark days

This color is our reality

Time is a concept but this is very tangible

Browns and blacks and blues

And Light, paper leaves, and cold winds

Mark unapologetic ends

Even when we aren’t ready to say goodbye

So the next thing can come

Up green

Katie

The soft release of your lips from that

Cigarette, the white winding from your breath

To dissipate in the blank air felt

Malicious in the space between you

And me, such discontent to saturate

And evaporate the peace of my home, you

Invaded and displaced graces of mine

And I let you

Slowly rising black waters were silent

And the creamy darkness felt warm around

My toes, fading the impact of the stark white

Light so it hurt my eyes

An embark into dark sharpness never felt

So much like home, oh how little did I know

Such adventures enticed but never

Satisfied, left dry tongues and wrinkled

Fingertips, lost in black dripping into pools

Around my legs, while the whites of my eyes

Closed

 

Hunger in my belly is to be listened to, while

The cry of my heart shouldn’t be ignored

Don’t let that window shrink like I did

Shriveled heart chambers like quivering

Fruit with no water left in it

Tart on the lips and crushed by the teeth but

Lost in purpose, such distaste

Intent is in light and dark edges remain

In stayed places, but hope displays and

No matter what they may say, it will

Completely wipe that sooty dissent from

My soul

Cigarette and Smirnoff laden lips, twisted hearts and

Pathological lies just symptoms of you

Forgetting

It pulled me along, but it was because

I wanted to forget things, too

 

I know, I know, it hurt me too when I let go

But where were we going? Towards blood from

Fresh cuts and unholy wars and

Stormy nights but not the kind that bring light

You had your own tar that I pumped willingly

Into my veins but now I am letting go

I’ll let judgement sweep the mud from the sodden

Chambers of this heart and wrinkled soul

Because discernment tells me that

I am enough and I hope you see how

All along you were too

But pull those knees up out of black ink

And never again exchange air for that smog

Again, again, this is my hope for you

Though I don’t think we can touch, ever

Again

details

My first kiss was with a boy named Joe. He was short, like me- the perfect height to kiss without arching your neck or standing on your toes. He was Mexican, like most of the people in my town, other than my family. We were generically white. He had full lips that I would come to find felt strange against my thin ones. He was strong and gentle. He was not my boyfriend, but we were friends. Joe was going into the army in three months.

We had started spending time together outside of work, but both knew it couldn’t go anywhere. I was an innocent girl who was afraid to tell people that she had never been kissed. Not because I was embarrassed by it- I hadn’t met anyone I found worthy enough to kiss. But I didn’t want to deal with the shock, the dramatization, that 19 years was too old to be that much of a prude. I didn’t want to deal with the statements in so many words basically labeling me a freak. So I didn’t tell anyone, until I got tired of not knowing, and I asked Joe to kiss me.

We had gone to dinner. I do not remember what we ate that night. I remember what I wore, I remember the dew shining on the black asphalt road after dark as we drove to the next town to go to a Mexican restaurant. I remember the amount of orange construction cones on the street outside the restaurant. I remember that Joe was my friend and I was safe with him. I remember how I removed all emotions from myself as we talked over our meal about “us” and where this was going and how we were just to be friends.

Looking back, we were dating. I don’t know Joe’s intentions, but I knew he liked me and he was always respectful. For me, things just kind of happened, and they started that night. There was a joke as we got back in the car about how I couldn’t fall in love with him now. There was a comment about how I would never know what it was like to kiss him. Somehow I told him that I had never been kissed. He offered, and I laughed. But those are not details I remember. I don’t remember the drive back to our town. I remember it was cold and wet, like the early fall days of South Texas can be when the weather doesn’t know what it wants to become. I remember that it was dark, from the moment we got in his car after sunset, to the late night walk under the street lights in our town. We had decided to walk when we got back because we didn’t want to say goodnight.

We slowly strolled down the street above Main, the one with the Lutheran church, the cemetery, the old rickety houses, and the bar. With Joe next to me, I felt safe, and soaked in the cold and quiet around me. Every drip of precipitation, every quiet front porch. No one was awake. A dog barked in the distance. The trees didn’t creak tonight, but were still like the air. It was late, and the mist hung in the air, not heavy enough to dampen your skin, but just present enough to make shapes in the cold white-blue street lamps on 6th Street. The street lamps were almost awkward like a fawn’s long legs, too tall for the unmarked one-lane road, with too much space between them to serve much of their own purpose. We walked under one circular beam, and everything turned white. The pearls of water on my sweater, the straight black sticks that were Joe’s thick, buzzed hair, and my long, curved eyelashes. We moved back into the dark and walked for a while, only aware of the other by the sound of our feet and breath, and by the almost-pulse of a warm body next to another. After a few minutes we would move into the light of another lamp, and it felt like we were moving from lily pad to lily pad, the darkness submerging us, only to be pulled back into the circle of blue-white light of exposure.

I remember we turned onto a street that went up hill from the river. It was near another old church and cemetery. We moved under the first street lamp, and Joe’s hand reached for mine. He had never done this before. His body moved towards mine, like we were on a tiny ship of light, the proximity of our bodies balancing the blackness outside of our circle. I heard his breath, and it charged energy into my body. I almost said something, but didn’t. I trusted this boy. I wanted to feel him close to me. I wanted to feel safe with him in the space that no one had been allowed before. The joy and gentleness of a chosen friendship made me want this in a way that I didn’t understand, or wouldn’t allow myself to. He was going away to the army. But this was tonight. My heart was in my ears and abdomen as I almost closed my eyes. My lashes were washed in cold light again. His shoulders and nose were too. The curve of his top lip shown with a white line like a broad ‘M’ as his mouth opened. His face came closer to mine and I smelled him for the first time.

His cologne, the detergent his mom used, the dinner we just ate, his hair and skin. I smelled it all. That was too familiar and I didn’t know if I could trust him to be this close. But it wasn’t that. In that split second before our skin touched, I realized that I was afraid for him to have those details of me. I actually made a noise, and he only protested with a touch of his large, warm finger tips on my cheek, reassuring me that this was mutual. My lips quivered from anticipation, and I melted. You see, never touching another person’s face, never smelling their smell, never allowing them to be this intimate with you, it kept you unseen. I did not think that being looked at made you seen- being felt did. I was not a freak. I was unseen. I was a mystery. I was alone, and wanted to be accompanied and known.

His lips found mine. That is a detail that is romanticized in my mind and the strongest in my memory of them all, to this day. I laugh when I think of it, and I smile at the sweetness of that moment. Somehow, our lips new how to find the correct place to land. They knew the rise and fall of the other, and filled the places in between. It’s a feeling every young person imagines, wonders about, but cannot comprehend. It’s softer than you’d think, but more solid than you’d been able to imagine. It was real, and we kissed. I think I was surprised at how unfamiliar the feeling was, something so natural and intimate at the same time. The fullness of his lips rolled into my mouth and I had to get used to it, wondering what it would be like to kiss someone with thinner lips. I found my body wanting to be closer to his, and I found that this was fun. It was mysterious and foreign and natural, and instinctual. We kissed some more.

In that lamplight, we were alone in a bubble. We were walled into isolated light by that mist, and truthfully, anyone watching would have known it was my first shy kiss. I imagine any of those houses having a smiling old woman reminiscing her own first kiss while she held her cat. But it didn’t matter. I was seen by a friend I trusted but would have to say goodbye to.

We kissed many more times in the next two months, and in the end, I cried, because we fell in love. Joe was ready to abandon that first talk we had and make plans for after he came back from the army. But I knew that it was the end. So, one sunny day on a street near the one on which we kissed, I gave him a hug good bye. I remember many details about that day too. It was the day after Christmas. I remember how Joe was wearing a red shirt and had come from his house without shaving because I had called him out of the blue to tell him good bye for the last time. I remember that I cried and he looked confused and understanding at the same time, because he really was my friend first. He was hurt and so was I, neither was angry, and as he pulled me into him for a final hug, not a kiss, but a hug, I remember that his body was strong. He surrounded me in that red shirt and I smelled his smell one last time. I wondered if he felt my body and smelled me too. It wasn’t sexual in the way people get off to. It was intimate, personal, a trust between two people that had a season in each other’s lives.

I would have a few more first kisses, ones that I remember and ones that I don’t. My final first kiss, with the man who would become my husband, holds a very different, more permanent place in my heart. It’s different. It’s a treasure. But there’s something about a first time. It’s not love like the one you find in a spouse, and there are other firsts through a marriage that burn new places into your spirit and mind. That’s a fiery type of thing. A first kiss is sweet like sugar.

I don’t remember leaving Joe on that sunny street and driving away. I don’t remember the rest of that day. But I remember our hug and his smell. Never again did I see Joe. He was my friend and for a long time I considered the events that played out to be a series of mistakes. I viewed the beginning of those things to causing our good bye, but in reality, it was always going to happen. So now, I look back, and I remember the things that stay with me. I think about what I gained from our time spent together, and that first kiss.