What Wears Me Out

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I’ve always been a sort of magical thinker, my hopes always far outpacing my realities, and to the point that sometimes when my dreams would finally come true the pleasure had already been exhausted.

I had so wanted a go cart growing up.  On the school bus ride home my mind would start to wander into the fantasy realm.  I would picture a shiny new go cart, like the ones in the catalog, waiting for me at the end of the driveway and would actually be disappointed when it did not end up being true when we would finally pull up to to my stop. 

That’s not to say that I didn’t love the old go cart that my dad would finally weld up, using a rusted frame as a starting point, and an old lawnmower engine.  Anything with four wheels, that ran on gasoline, that could be slid around corners, definitely scratched that itch.  Still, my vivid world of make-believe did not always end with any fulfillment.

In my adulthood this tendency to be way out ahead of myself did not get any better.  I’ve cried, on more than one occasion, thinking of my beautiful bride walking towards me up the aisle.  And not in sadness either, it was in bliss having momentarily put myself in that wonderful place.  Of course, given that I never even so much as went on one date with this young woman, I pretty much ruined that music.

The world between my ears can be a paradise.  A place where there’s such thing as innocent love and anything is actually possible.  I used this as an escape.  My school years spent doodling and hoping for some kind of rescue from the mundanity of the classroom.

These visions were often grandiose.  A child scaled B-17 would land in the school yard.  I would run out to meet my faithful crew as the teacher and 5th grade class would watch in disbelief, stunned, as we revved the engines and were on our way to the nation (later a planet with two suns) that I benevolently ruled along with my brother Kyle and cousin Mel.

Truly, I had always thought that Kyle and I would always be together, build a house with a chimney in the center, like the ruins that I saw on a Civil War battlefield.  I’m not sure why, but it didn’t seem possible then (despite our fights) that we ever be separated, let alone hours apart, and I really can’t claim to have gotten over that disappointment yet.  He moved on, it seems that I could not.

And I have lived a sort of Peter Pan existence.  Holding on, hoping that some day the love that had eluded me, child-like and innocent, would finally magically arrive to rescue me from my torment for having failed to achieve.  I long overstayed the youth group.  Until I had my happily ever after, what choice did I have?  Get old by myself and alone?

Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy and I lacked the necessary social tools to approach an attractive young woman—let alone convince her to date me.  

Years would go by, where I would convince myself, “this time will be different,” and end up leaving the church retreat no closer to my goals and disappointed.  These beautiful wonderful thought going in would slowly morph into a nightmarish reality as opportunity would pass me by and I would be left with only my profound loneliness again.

It was only in my mid thirties that this optimism would crack and the pattern of hope followed by disappointment would finally overwhelm me.  Brimming with outsized expectations, I would arrive at the weekend, and suddenly shut down.  The wheels came off, I would collapse into the nearest couch, curl up, unable to push myself to try again—eventually ending up a sobbing mess.

The pressure had become too much.  The difference between my hopes and reality too insurmountable. 

Sure, I could entertain my delusions, the right one was going to finally arrive, we would look at our feet, shy at first, we would talk, she would smile at my earnest thoughts, I would finally be at ease and soon enough we would be walking hand in hand out the back of a church.  But the chances of that were as good as Gatsby somehow being able to turn back the hands of time and Daisy would be his.

My collapse from exhaustion came at the tail end of decades of forced optimism and sweeping aside my rational fears.  I did not want a world where my being 5′-8″ tall and rather unathletic disqualified me.  Love, to me, especially pertaining to my female religious counterparts, was supposed to be something transcendent.  Unfortunately, what I got instead was a brick wall of rejection.

Life is especially cruel to those with a high ideal.  If I were less able to see the marvelous maybe I could have more easily moved on to more practical aims.  But I could never get my head out of the clouds nor was I willing to acknowledge the harsh truth about romance.  The young women were also chasing their version of perfection and that perfect man wasn’t me.

Somehow, despite a mind that could span universes, I ended up being thirty years old living in Milton and thus ineligible for that kind of love.  How does a dreamer, still holding to those childish notions of escape, ever recover from that terrible pronouncement?

They don’t. 

It wears me out thinking about it.  

It makes me think of another novel and protagonist, Ethan Frome, an injured ruin of a man.  His house reduced in size as he limped, painfully, through what remained of his life.  Not even granted the merciful end to his suffering of that suicide pack those many years before.  Perhaps my life would have been better had my secret world been a little more stark, desolate and devoid of life?

When You Die Along With Your Dreams

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“He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

Those words have haunted me since I read them in high school.  Jay Gatsby was a fictional character, a creation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mind, but his story of seeking something from his past (a something that seemed close enough to grab yet was already forever behind him) has stuck with me.

Gatsby’s fixation, a moment from his youth, a girl named Daisy, continued to flirt with and torment him.  The green light at the end of her dock across the water was to him a beacon of hope.  He had taken the long way around (as one not born rich) and worked hard to increase his social status, he had achieved more than most men who started where he did—yet he still was not acceptable to her or those of her class and never would be despite his effort.

“…but now he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail. He knew that Daisy was extraordinary, but he didn’t realize just how extraordinary a ‘nice’ girl could be. She vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life, leaving Gatsby—nothing. He felt married to her, that was all.”

Daisy, to everyone besides Gatsby, was a frivolous person, oblivious to the carnage in her wake, and a strange obsession for a man who had everything.  But to him, in his mind looking backward, she represents something that had escaped him, perhaps the innocence of his youth or just a moment of time that passed him by that could not be recaptured despite the greatness he achieved.  It could be as simple as his wanting her acceptance.

Ultimately Gatsby’s dream of a restored youthful romance ended in his actual death.  He was murdered, the result of a confusing set of circumstances involving Daisy’s recklessness, and his deluded hopes died with him.  It was sad end, but almost the most merciful end, because he was locked in and could not escape a tragic fate.

The Mennonite Gatsby…

I’ve always been a nostalgic and sentimental person.  For better or worse, I’ve often been last to leave, the one who held on a little longer, and a person guided more by loyalties than practical concerns.  This disposition is probably why Gatsby’s hopeless pursuit of things already behind him had resonated with me.   It was sometimes difficult for me to distinguish the past from the future.

This backward orientation is also part of my religious cultural inheritance.  Mennonites, like other Anabaptist groups, seem to find most of their identity in defining historical figures and moments.  Ideas like non-conformity, while originating as a reference to a radical transformation of heart, have become primarily about maintaining a cultural status quo and preserving a Mennonite appearance.  Mennonite attempts to re-brand their denomination usually reach backward for their inspiration.

Unfortunately, the past, no matter how hard you reach for it, will always stay right beyond your grasp.

And, eventually, a person reaching back rather than forward will sacrifice the only opportunity they have for a future.

There was an ideal within the Mennonite church that had held me captive for many years.  It is the story of those who do all the right Mennonite things, who find their perfect Mennonite partner, have their beautiful half dozen kids, find their special place in the church, and feel good about themselves in the process.  I had failed to achieve at many points along the way and still had hopes that someday the right pieces would fall into place for my happily-ever-after story to begin.  It was the day that never came.  My Mennonite dream was somewhere in my past, forever behind me, but I was so heavily invested and didn’t know how to let go.

In the past year, mostly in one cataclysmic moment, the dreams of my continued participation in the Mennonite church were extinguished.  It was not that I was disallowed, I was not excommunicated nor was it physically impossible for me to attend, but the desire to belong that had propelled me onward for many years had disappeared.  After years of struggle, after years of faithful devotion to a hope against hope, there was simply nothing left about the denomination for me to love.

Could Gatsby have continued to live on after his dream died?

The outcome I had feared was now upon me and inescapable.  But, unlike Gatsby whose end came with poetic grace, my story continued brutally on—a forced march into the void that had become my life.  There was no longer a reason within myself to continue on.  Had I not had someone who needed me, who told me that if I go to take them with me, I would certainly have ended my own miserable existence.

I continued to walk although dead inside.

I continued to do my job but without a reason besides that one person who had their hopes tied up in me.

Later, in the spring, I mourned with my grandpa who lost his wife of six decades.  He had lost the wife he knew, who spent all those many years faithfully beside him, who shared a part in so many of his memories and could never be replaced.  Her death had profound implications for someone who had hoped to someday achieve what they had.  It is a dark moment of realization that all of our cherished dreams will eventually die—only my dreams of having what my grandparents did in their years together died before ever being born and thus would never get so much as a decent burial.

In truth, what was me has died with my dreams and is now gone forever.  I am the same person and yet there is this strong feeling that I’m a different person in a body that was once occupied by someone else.  I don’t care about many of the things that I once did.  I’m not as afraid to take risks that were once impossible for me.  And, nearly a year after setting foot in my old church, I do not miss any of it.  My friends from the past remain my friends, but there is nothing about being Mennonite that appeals to me like it once did.  Even discussing Mennonite issues has become more difficult because it has stopped mattering anymore.

I’ve done what was impossible for me this past year.  I’ve left the Mennonite denomination and have no intention of going back—there is nothing there for me anymore.  There is not a feeling of loss nor even understanding of why I longed to be a part of everything there.  I’m living beyond the death of my dreams, I’ve died with my dreams, and I am a different person.  My Mennonite dream betrayed me, it left me to die cold and alone, but God’s love never left my side.

My hopes built over many years had expired.  However, by God’s grace, I’ve continued on in love and have found deeper faith.  We will all die, everything in this world will pass away, and with it even the meaning of our struggles here.  But, after all, is stripped away from our existence, gone forever and never to return, only true love remains.

A friend from my new church posted this…

“Everything betrays you: family, friends, acquaintances, riches, sensory pleasures. Even your own body will leave you at some point. All the elements of nature deceive you. So make sure you cleave to God, because He alone is love.” —Saint John of Kronstadt (20th century)