We sat around a warm fire that crackled softly beneath a dark canopy of night and the first early stars of autumn.
Nine of us, from five different churches, talked and laughed and sang hymns as if we were all back at our presbytery’s high school winter camp where most of us met for the first time. We would build on those friendships for a decade during backpacking trips and missions teams. Now we found ourselves together again – this time for the wedding weekend of a dear sister in Christ.
Perhaps it was the reason we all found ourselves in Dewey, Arizona or perhaps it was simply because this is an oft-spoken of topic, but we spent much of the evening following the ceremony talking about marriage and singleness.
We had two young married couples in our group and a smattering of people who were dating. And then there was my friend, who like myself, was very, very single, but younger by a few years.
Over the course of our discussion, I watched her wrestle to describe her frustration, confusion and discontentment to the rest of our friends. She ran the gauntlet trying to put into words – to explain to people who married young – why it is frustrating to find yourself single beyond the years you had expected to remain so.
When one of our friends finally referred to her frustration as “angst,” I decided to speak up – not to scold or to chide, but to gently describe a problem the single Christians in our pews are facing (one I know well) and how the body of Christ can better extend the love and care of God to these sisters.
While I am certain single men struggle with their own issues, for my purposes here, I will be drawing on my experiences as a woman in the church. I think it is important to understand that the pressures facing single men and single women are different. Understanding that singleness in the church is an enormous topic is also important, and I am only going to address what we talked about at the campfire that night: the effects of prioritizing marriage above God’s calling to singleness, be that calling for a season or a lifetime.
I have been single for nearly three decades and marriage has been a fervent desire since my earliest memories (as a girl, I used to design my own wedding invitations, and every stuffed animal in my collection witnessed ‘pretend marriage ceremonies’ on a weekly basis for…a long time). I understand that the desire for marriage in many cases – certainly mine – is a natural inclination of the heart.
But by the time I had begun college, marriage had become an idol for me. Something good and godly had been twisted into something vain and self-affirming. I wanted to be married to a good man because it would show that I was a good woman, that I was gifted and talented and worthy. Instead of finding my worth in Christ, I looked for it in a ring. I didn’t recognize this in myself at the time and I wonder how many other women don’t see it in themselves either.
In 2013, I moved to the Czech Republic to serve as a missionary associate. I struggled with the idea of never getting married – a notion not helped by people in the church who said all the good young men would be gone by the time I came back to the U.S.
God, however, took those two years and used them to fill my cup with purpose and joy and, eventually, I surrendered my idol of marriage to him. I promised God that I would be content in the work he gave me to do, even if it meant living a life very different from the one I had pictured for myself, and in return he gave me a peace I had never known. It was a peace that passes understanding, but one that was nestled in purpose and revealed in opportunities to serve his kingdom.
Upon returning to the US in my mid-twenties, I found my resolution difficult to stick by – not because of a change of heart, but because of the change of scenery.
I do not blame the church for my sin of idolatry, but reentering the Christian community brought into sharp awareness a blindness the church has towards its daughters.
Within a week of my return, four people in the Christian community had asked after my romantic prospects. The years that have followed have been full of set-ups and suggestions that I get to know so-and-so or visit this church or that because of their youth groups full of other singles. It all came from good intentions, but it created a bubble of pressure around an area of my heart that I knew was weak from sin already.
If a wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, I wanted to be that crown. Who wouldn’t?
But more than that, I felt overlooked by the workers in the harvest field. Why weren’t people asking me about how I could continue helping our church or our community? Why weren’t they encouraging me towards service instead of always towards the nearest single man? Why was I seen as someone to be married off rather than someone who could help the church right now with my available time and talents?
For girls especially, growing up in the Christian community can have a very one-directional effect on our values – and not necessarily the right direction.
From our earliest days at Sunday school, we are taught about Abigail and Ruth, women who were rewarded for their faith with godly (as well as rich and powerful) husbands. The Proverbs 31 woman is a frequent topic at Bible studies – “An excellent wife, who can find? She is worth far more than jewels.” Our mothers diligently prepare us to take care of homes and children, never assuming that we might not ever be blessed with such, or that God would ask us to wait a long time before giving us families of our own.
All of these can be sewn together under the common thread of what I like to call “marriage prep,” and growing up, that’s certainly what it felt like.
But they could also be tied together with another thread: service. Somehow, that message tends to get lost in the telling. Abigail wasn’t rewarded with a husband (any woman who has read 2 Samuel can attest that David was no award-winning spouse) – no, her reward was an opportunity to continue serving God and his kingdom as the wife of the king of Israel.
Even the well-intentioned efforts of friends and family to bring young people together can be misconstrued – “it’s only because we think so highly of you.” (As an important side note: I’m not saying that we can’t introduce godly Christian singles to each other, only that the manner in which it is done is important.)
Marriage to a woman in the church can look like affirmation, like achievement of some grand goal. It can look like finding approval from family and friends and finally having a visible role to carry out in the church as a wife and possibly as a mother.
If a wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, I wanted to be that crown. Who wouldn’t?
It’s no wonder my friend sounded “angsty” as she tried to express her frustration. She has been taught, though by no means on purpose, that her worth in the church and her calling in life is to be a wife, an easy-to-believe message when it lines up with the natural desire of her heart.
I am not the only one who made an idol out of marriage. The Christian community has put marriage on a pedestal as well.
“But marriage is a good thing,” one of the young married men replied as we sat around the campfire. “Why not put it on a pedestal?”
“Because nothing belongs on the pedestal but Christ,” I said.
“But marriage is a picture of Christ and the church,” he contended.
“Yes,” I agreed, “but only a picture. The picture is not Christ. And only Christ belongs on the pedestal.”
We make idols out of marriage. The world makes an idol out of singleness. And, to be fair, we sometimes make an idol out of service as well. Anything that helps us feel worthy and happy and blessed. And while God does use earthly things as channels for his blessings, our worthiness and therefore our true joy comes only from Christ’s remarkable work on the cross.
That’s what we need to be conveying to our women, from the day they enter our Sunday school classes as little girls of the covenant. Our worth is in Christ. Our calling is to serve him.
When we die, when we draw our last breath and cross the river Jordan, when we see our Maker face to face, each of us – married or not – will be alone. No spouse, no child or family member, nor any friend will accompany us.
This should be a comfort. It should be a comfort for single and married women alike – for women who have not yet been blessed with husbands or who never will be, for women whose marriages have ended in death or divorce, for women whose marriages are not what they hoped or expected.
Before we were knit together in our mother’s womb, and when our eyelids close in death, before all and after all and through all, Christ is our ever-present, unchanging companion. We are his bride and he is the prize.
I think the Christian community does a disservice to all its members by replacing Christ’s altar with the marriage altar. We should be encouraging our sisters towards kingdom work, as Paul would have done. As we teach and train young ladies in the church, the focus both in the home and in the pew should be Christ and obediently following God’s calling whatever that may look like.
The years have still found me occasionally lonely and disappointed, but never frustrated as I was before. And that is my hope for my sisters in the church, married or single, that they find themselves filled with purpose – whether that means serving on a foreign mission field or caring for someone at home, whether it looks like being a helpmeet and a mother or an encouraging sister to the body of Christ.
I rejoice that God has blessed me with good works to do, that my road is set before me and that, though I cannot see its every bend, Christ walks each step of it with me.
Honesty usually comes easily to me, but telling this story has not.
I think many of us can relate — my brothers and sisters who grew up in the church, in Christian families, steeped in good doctrine and surrounded by friends in the faith. It’s hard to admit that we’ve fallen away.
I never thought I would willingly walk away. I’m an obsessive rule-follower. My skirts go to the knee. I still address adults as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ The only tattoo I have is a Czech phrase taken from the statue of a martyred reformer which stood in the village I lived in while serving as a missionary associate for two years. Both my parents play visible roles in the Christian community, so if ever there was a poster child for what a good Christian young adult should look like, I was it.
For the greater part of my life, I could honestly say that, though I have struggled in aspects of my Christian walk, my faith has never wavered. Not once.
I cannot say that anymore.
When I lived in Prague, I commonly hosted friends and acquaintances who were meandering their way through Central Europe. Kids I knew in high school, people from church, some of my brother’s friends from college — the routine was the same: we’d meet up, I’d show them the city, and sometime between the hot coffee or the spiced wine and the sweeping views of majestic castles and steeple spires, we’d talk about God.
I had never felt closer to my Maker. It was clear I was where he wanted me to be, serving him in a beautiful place with people I fell in love with so quickly. I had purpose, I had contentment, and I had joy, and on the other side of the world from the community I grew up in, I felt none of the pressures of singleness or job security or social status. I could feel God in everything, and even though it was by no means a simple two years, his presence was so tangible and his provision so evident that I felt refreshed and revitalized daily.
But many of my friends were struggling. They didn’t feel connected to God or the faith of their parents. They were afraid to let people in their church know they had doubts. They were afraid to tell their families. They felt like hypocrites and many of them were considering leaving the faith altogether because, like an Irish goodbye, it would be easier to slip away unnoticed than to cause a very public, very humiliating stir in the community. You can only pretend for so long.
At the time, I didn’t understand. I told them that they should talk to someone, seek accountability, pray, draw near to God. After all, I had a great relationship with the Lord, so clearly, it could be done. It was all so clinical to me, someone who had never been through a spiritual drought.
One summer, in Prague, a Christian friend and I were discussing the story of the prodigal son. I never really liked that story because I always related to the older brother who stayed at home and did everything he was supposed to do. It seemed unfair that some Christians should have a better welcome into the fold just because they had a better conversion story. Sitting on the steps of the garden, surrounded by plump tomatoes and the stillness of the muggy afternoon, my friend insisted that I was misunderstanding the point of the story — we are all the prodigal son.
“The sons represent the elect, not the unsaved,” he said, as hot summer thunder clouds boiled over our heads. “Both sons are already children of God, but one walks away for a while — and, at some point, so will we all. The older son represents the Christians who are still leaning on their own works to win their inheritance, not realizing that everything the father has is already theirs.”
I didn’t fully agree with him, mostly because I still felt like the older brother. I had never walked away. I never planned on walking away. What a stupid thing to do.
But the point is that neither son understands the father’s love — one does what is right out of obligation and not out of gratitude for the father’s generosity, and the other assumes that he can return and earn his forgiveness by working in his father’s house as a servant. They both believe their inheritance depends upon their own merit. Yet the father treats both his foolish sons the same way, with unconditional love.
What a father. What a God.
But I think I left a lot of my relationship with God in Prague.
Almost immediately upon returning to San Diego, I was swept up into college and work and making new plans for the future.
And I was lost. There were no road signs from God, no clear direction. In a lot of ways, I felt like he had just backed away completely, like he didn’t need me anymore now that my time in Prague was done.
My Bible reading was the first to go. It was followed closely by poor decisions at school.
I wasn’t making bad decisions — I’m the rule-follower, remember? But they were worldly choices, things that drew me away from the Lord rather than to him. And, like the prodigal son, as I began to recognize the trouble I was getting myself into — especially as I felt myself falling away from the Lord, I assumed I could work my way out of it. I could do it on my own. I could earn my faith back.
Small sins became habitual, big sins began appearing.
It amazes me, looking back at the last two years, to see how God sustained and protected me, despite moments where I consciously decided to step onto a path that I knew would lead me away from the God who carried me through my time in Prague, the God for whom I went to Prague in the first place, the God who was feeling farther and farther away from me every day.
There could have been so many devastating earthly consequences to my actions, and yet there were none. It both emboldened and embittered me.
Rebellion is not a characteristic I would have associated with myself, but this was full-on, unapologetic revolt. I wanted to see how far I could push myself down the wrong path before something went really wrong. If I hadn’t witnessed the progression, I would never have recognized the person I had become — a person that was still parading around as a put-together Christian, leading youth group events and explaining to my non-Christian friends that “my faith is everything to me.”
What a lie.
A few months ago, I realized just how hallow those words felt coming out of my mouth. I came home from work late one night, sat on the floor and desperately opened my Bible, like someone who has been walking aimlessly for years only to wake up one day and realize they are hopelessly lost and need a map.
But it had been a long time since I had sincerely searched Scripture and I didn’t know where to start. I had a devotional tucked in the back cover of my Bible, so I pulled it out and read the first page. A voice in my head interpreted every line with bitter, cynical mockery. It was a voice I had never heard before — certainly not mine! I loved the Lord, I loved his Word, I believed that this was the Truth, so where had this voice come from?
I closed the book and tried to pray only to find my heart empty of words and my mind doubting that my prayers would find a listener. God wasn’t there. He was gone. I had walked so far away, he had disappeared entirely from view. For the first time in my life, I found myself cut off from my Savior.
I was alone.
Suddenly, I understood what my friends travelling through Prague were going through. I had both consciously and unconsciously let myself be pulled away from the faith, through wordly priorities and the cultivation of destructive patterns, by starving myself of Scripture and prayer. I was sickened by myself. I was a hypocrite, drenched in sins that had grown to consume my life, separated from God.
And worst of all, I really wasn’t sure if God existed at all. Sin I knew I could be forgiven of, but if there was no God, then there was no hope and no purpose. The world as I knew it was wrong and everyone I loved and trusted was a fool. I was a fool.
Falling through the next two days like a wounded animal searching for water, I questioned everything. What if God had just been a figment of my imagination for all these years? What if I had been brainwashed by a group of narrow-minded people who were believing a lie? What if these mountains I always assumed belonged to the hand of a Brilliant Designer were in fact merely the product of billions of years of evolutionary change? There was no God and I had no reason to be here. Right and wrong did not exist. Purpose, irrelevant.
Those were agonizing days.
In hindsight, it strikes me that even the shame of my sin was swallowed by the fear of a life without God — that is the true devastation of disobedience, after all, the original consequence to sin: separation for our Creator.
In that initial moment of despair, the night I found I couldn’t pray, I had two options.
The first option, of course, would have been to give in to the despair and walk away for good. In so many ways, it would have been easier. I was so far into the world already, and I desperately wanted what it offered — status, opportunities, fun, romance and relationships I had not been able to enjoy yet.
I thank God that he gave me the grace to choose the second option.
Crying on the floor, unable to even look at my Bible, writhing in the physical pain of my spiritual loss, with the clock on my wall blinking just past one o’clock in the morning, I picked up my phone and sent three text messages.
One message to three friends, and they all responded before morning with verses and prayers and promises to meet up. And for the next three weeks, they were God’s living witnesses, displaying through their actions his faithfulness, his kindness, his mercy, his strength, his love. And they held me tightly with arms, like His, that would not let me go.
One friend met up with me in person multiple times — a half hour before work, a quick cup of coffee at the end of the day to pray and read Scripture together. She sent me articles to read and told me to meet up with godly people at my church to broaden my circle of accountability and seek out the wisdom of our elders (which I did, and it was equally difficult and rewarding).
One friend sent me Scripture verses, almost daily. He challenged my doubts and questioned my devotional habits with unbending tough-love. It was uncomfortable and humbling, and I needed it.
The other friend — my prayer warrior — messaged me daily, “How are you doing? I’m praying for you.”
And slowly, slowly I started to find the pathway home.
God still felt far away, but I was reading Scripture every day, I was actively fighting the sin that had built up in my life, and I was praying again. I was drawing near to God — toddling closer with the clumsy steps of someone learning to walk for the first time. And this time I understood what was hanging in the balance.
For the first time in my life, I truly understood what grace was. I understood why we refer to our Christian walk as the ‘good fight’ — because it is a fight. It is spiritual warfare that we must consciously engage in, and we must win. And only by the grace of God will we.
The good news, of course, is that for those of us who do don the armor of God, the fight has already been won, our souls purchased by the blood of the Son of God himself.
I share this story, not because I am proud of any of it — not the fall from grace, nor even the return, for it was not my doing, but the Lord’s.
I share because I know I am not alone. I know that those of us who grew up in the church will one day be put to the test, if we haven’t already, and I want you to know that you are not alone in this fight either. The body of Christ, fellow saints and believers are struggling too, and they are here to pick us up as we stumble — in sin, in doubt, in fear, in grief, in loss.
It is easy for Christians to pretend that we do not stumble, to waltz into church on Sunday in our best clothes, singing with our loudest voices, while hiding the sin and hurt and pain that is welling up inside of us.
The facade of the perfect Christian will kill the church.
If you assume that the people sitting next to you have never struggled with temptations, never failed in their walk with the Lord, never doubted their faith or their assurance, how likely are you to share your own struggles with them? And if we do not confess to each other, we cannot build each other back up. We cannot edify and heal the body, so it will rot.
God uses a broken church to work out his sovereign grace, which means we need to swallow our pride, face our shame, and ask our brothers and sisters for help.
I share this story in order to shatter my own self-crafted image as a poster child for the Christian community — me, the missionary associate, the youth leader, the camp counselor, the school evangelist, the Christian blogger or whatever false idea exists about who I am and who I am not.
I am a sinner, ransomed and redeemed, lost and found.
I share this story so that you, too, might share yours with those who need to hear it or those who can help you through the battle, to the glory of God.
The story of the prodigal son isn’t about the sons, you see, it is about the father. It is about his faithfulness — and how great it is! New every morning, with strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
I realize now what it means to be the lost sheep — all those years in Sunday school learning the story, and I finally understand how it feels to walk away from the pasture, how it feels to be scared and alone and wonder if you’ll ever find your way back, how it feels to be wrapped in the tender arms of the Shepherd and brought back to the fold.
So, I share this story because I want you to feel this too. I want you to know that our God is so good to us. That his grace is sweet and his mercy is free. That you are his forever. That, even though the road home can look long and feel empty, you will not be walking it alone. Christ will be shepherding your footsteps all the way, until you reach the end and find our Heavenly Father waiting to receive you with open arms.
“I don’t think you’d make my zombie apocalypse team,” I said matter-of-factly, pulling the car out of park and starting towards the dark street. Woodstock’s Pizza glowed behind us in bright letters and our camera equipment rattled quietly in the back seat.
“Why wouldn’t I make the team?” Zach asked.
“I just don’t know what skills you would bring to it,” I pondered, fingers tapping the steering wheel.
“I’d be the one who’d die first, give you guys a fighting chance,” he said. “You know, I don’t see myself surviving the zombie apocalypse anyway.”
“See,” I said as we turned on to College Avenue, back towards the newsroom, “I just can’t have that kind of attitude on my team.”
It’s pretty safe to say that I am more prepared for the zombie apocalypse than I am for finals.
It’s a growing paranoia, my fear of the zombie end-times. On some level, I know it is completely ridiculous. But that doesn’t stop me from checking the backseat of my car after dark before getting in to make sure there isn’t a member of the living dead waiting for me. It doesn’t stop me from turning off the night lamp in the kitchen because zombies are attracted to light. And it certainly has not stopped me from devising a complete zombie apocalypse survival plan should we be in an actual crisis.
I’d rather be in the ranks of the foolishly over-prepared than join the legions of the undead.
Transferring to San Diego State University in late August shook up my life in all the expected ways: longer commute to school, fewer viable food options, more homework, less sleep, etc. The most aggravating change by far, however, has been the need to completely reorient my zombie preparedness plan. My home and former schoolmates are too far to realistically call upon during a breakout.
I have a new ground zero. And now I have to establish a new team.
“This office is woefully ill-equipped for an escape,” I mourned from my swivel chair. We had returned from shooting our pregame show at Woodstock’s Pizza on El Cajon, and now the staff was in the throes of ‘production night.’ I was rendering video, which is my new least favorite thing to do because you just have to sit in a chair and wait for the computer to finish doing whatever it does.
That’s a lot of my life, these days. I render video. How I managed to get myself into an editorial position that required me to do video, I still can’t figure. I don’t like being on camera, I miss writing terribly, and I am just as ill-equipped to edit film as our office is to providing a viable means of escape.
“Firstly, this is a basement,” I said, mostly to myself because as soon as I mention zombies people stop listening. “And although zombies are unlikely to get in, neither will anything else — food, water, light, clean air. We’d die down here. I’d give us 72 hours after we lose electricity.”
“Come on, York,” said Brian gruffly from his chair. “You know this isn’t the worst place you’ve been.”
Brian would know. He’s been with me to most of the worst places I’ve been, including that pirate-themed bar in National City. He also gave me a survivor’s guide to the zombie apocalypse last summer (because this is a paranoia that needs feeding…), so he’s got a credible grip on my zombie background.
And it’s true. Hands-down the worst place to be when the break-out happens is SDCCU Stadium. Not only would getting out of Mission Valley be a nightmare, but at any given Aztec football game, that stadium can have 30,000 people in it.
That’s a lot of zombies.
I’ve been on the field during games a number of times this semester. It’s one of the best parts of my job. The guys get settled up in the press box overlooking the stadium and I saunter down several floors by way of a rickety elevator that sometimes doesn’t quite make it all the way back up to the media level at the end of the night. Then, I crawl through the blue and grey passageways under the stadium, lit by flickering lights that Dean Spanos never thought to get replaced, and down a long walk-way that spills out onto the field and into the roar of thousands of fans.
Sometimes, when I’m on the field with a huge camera propped on my shoulder, when the game is in between plays and the cheerleaders are making the most of the screen time to flip and bounce around, when all I can see is black and scarlet in the stands and the bright stadium lights washing over the endzones, I stop and imagine how funny it would be to be chased by a zombie from the tuba section of the marching band.
No really, at least once I game, I ask myself if I’d really make it out of the stadium alive. I’m still not totally sure.
It has become a game, of sorts. Every new corner of campus I find myself in, every classroom or parking structure or campus garden, I ask, “How would I escape?”
And there are a lot of new places in my life right now.
In fact, I haven’t had such a massive change of scenery since I moved to Prague. SDSU is hugely new to me. Not just the campus, but the people, the pace, the lifestyle. To be honest, I’m not sure I like it.
I don’t mean to sound like a whiney older person here, but being surrounded by 19-year-olds all day is exhausting. Granted, they’re not all bad, but some of these kids have no concept of real life — jobs, rent, taxes, family responsibilities — they’re basically glorified high schoolers who still think they’re the center of the universe. Did you know sorority girls don’t even wash their own dishes?
No, I can’t. Don’t get me started on sorority girls. My only hope is that the zombie that finally gets me is not one of the 10,000 vapid, clueless bottle-blondes on this campus.
“They’re actually very practical,” Cami was trying to explain to me. At some point in mid-September, following one of my sorority girl rants (which are becoming more vitriolic) as we trekked down the winding staircase outside of the Education and Business Administration building to the newsroom basement, she had taken it upon herself to defend the basic girls on campus. “I mean, the shorts and the tank-top are a staple. What else are you going to wear when it’s this hot? And the flannel tied around the waist is for when it gets cooler later. See, practical?”
Cami would probably make my zombie apocalypse team because she’s like human sunshine, always bright and full of ideas.
“The shorts I just won’t ever understand,” I said obstinately as we neared the foot of the staircase. “Also, have you noticed how this stairwell, the footbridge to the parking lot and that little sidewalk along the slope are the only ways out from here? It’s not easy to escape in narrow spaces like this. I prefer open ground.”
I say it like I’ve been there before, like I’ve fought off zombies at some point in my life and I’m just back here at college because someone finally convinced me I needed the degree to ever get a job.
No one’s going to need degrees post-civilization.
“You just need a bargaining chip,” Tyler explained to me. “For example, if the zombie apocalypse happens, I would trade Will for gasoline.”
Will lifted his head rather quickly.
“I”m sorry, I’d rather not be bartered,” he objected.
“Too bad, I’m bigger than you are and we need gasoline.”
“You are not allowed on my zombie team, Tyler,” I said, crossing my arms. I have taken to occupying the couch in Tyler’s corner of the office — billing or ads or whatever it is he does. Tyler is a decent conversationalist, but I really do just come for the sofa. “How can I rebuild civilization if my people have no moral compass? No values?”
“We don’t need values, we need gasoline,” he reminded me with a chuckle. “You’ll see, Mary.”
It’s funny to see the warlord come out in Tyler, and the hesitant victim in Will. Normally, Tyler is the office sweetheart, the guy who makes coffee in the morning and says “aw, I’m sorry you’re having a bad day” and actually probably means it.
Will is the secret service, the armed forces and the mad scientist all in one. I mean, he’s the news editor.
Will would definitely make my team.
AJ wouldn’t. He’s one of the smartest guys on our staff and he’d be a great asset, but I don’t think he’d listen to me — he’d have too many of his own good ideas. I’m nipping insubordination in the bud and just not inviting him in the first place. He can make his own team. I’m sure they’ll do just fine. He and Tyler can hoard gasoline together.
Jasmine couldn’t be on my team because she’s also an Alpha. But I’d miss her, because she’s lovely and kind and fierce.
Justin would make the team because he does what I tell him to and because he’s a baseball player so I’m assuming he’s good with a bat.
Tristi makes the team because she’s chill when I’m not, and I need a right-hand man like that.
David and Jocelyn make the team — they’re sweet but they’re fierce.
Andrew doesn’t make the team, but only because he laughs harder than anyone whenever I mention the impending doom of mankind. One day he’ll regret that.
Ella makes the team because I just wouldn’t leave her behind. Ever.
I have surface streets mapped out for escape routes out of town, I know where we would pick up supplies and which of the school’s vans we would commandeer to get out of Dodge quickly. In every room I enter, after locating a viable means of escape, I pick a weapon to fight my way out with (Zach’s golf clubs, the whiteboard ruler, that steel-framed stool in HH 210 that looks dangerous to sit in). For the 24-hour, 48-hour, and week-long waves of realization, reaction and post-apocalypse re-establishment, I have a plan.
And it’s nice knowing that no matter how much people laugh at me for this, or say through tearful chuckles that I’d never survive a zombie attack anyway, I know what I’m doing.
I wish I had that confidence in life, because for the last three months I’ve been wandering around campus lost and horribly unprepared. The strong, determined, resourceful person I know I can be never seems to come out at school and I can’t figure out why.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the floor of the newsroom (or on the sofa in Tyler’s corner of the office when he lets me), staring at the ceiling wondering how to pick up and keep going. Everytime I think I’ve found the bottom of this semester, someone throws me a shovel.
I wish I could win friends into my life as easily as I can add them to my imaginary zombie-fighting team. I wish I could have prepared for the heartbreaks and disappointments of the last three months the way I seem to be able to prepare myself for the destruction of all mankind.
Like, seriously, something is out of whack with my sense of prioritization.
Maybe actual life is just harder, though.
Maybe I dream up nightmares because it’s a lot easier to be brave when you’re facing a zombie than it is to be brave when you’re facing people who don’t believe you can do what you say you can, or don’t see the value in your efforts; when you find yourself playing catch-up and missing opportunities just because life took you a different way than it took most everyone else, like when the coach of the rowing team says, “I’m sorry, but you’re too old to walk on — you’ve missed your window.”
It’s hard to see yourself as a fighter when you’re three hours into a closing shift at a gym, or when you’re dragging yourself to school the next morning for an 8 a.m. class. It’s difficult not to feel small when someone else gets credit for your work, or your scholarship application gets returned in the mail after the deadline has passed, or you come face to face with the side of you that realizes how easy it would be to cheat your way through the online class you keep forgetting you have and the coward wins.
And when someone says, “Sorry, I’m talking to someone else,” the zombie-fighter inside you just shrivels up completely and that powerful space it filled in your chest turns into a huge, aching, cavernous vacuum.
Honestly, I’d rather have the apocalypse.
But who I am now is who I’ll be in the end times, too. We don’t get to choose our own character for this. When civilization comes crashing down, the person I am in college, the person I was in Prague, the person I am in traffic on my way to school or on the campus sidewalk after a long day of let-downs, that’s the person I’ll be in the apocalypse. And I do have control over that person. Every day can be a practice round for me to be better, stronger, more determined, more hopeful.
We dream up perfect plans and perfect people to have in our lives, but the truth is that the only thing we can really control is the people we become, and there is no point in having the ideal individuals around you if you can’t give something back to the team.
So, tomorrow I start over. I plan to be ready for the apocalypse and for all the life that happens before it begins.
It’s not like I’m a fresh-faced college student, blissfully unaware of how much gas costs, when taxes are due, and where to go to do laundry. The 7 a.m. class doesn’t scare me anymore because I have taken them and lived to tell the tale. Moreover, I’ve lived as an adult in the real world. I’ve had real world responsibilities.
So, walking back onto a college campus for a student orientation feels a little weird.
Part of me, the part that had no intention to grow up ever, wanted to skip down the SDSU sidewalk cheerily in the mists of pre-8 a.m. fog, saying ‘good morning!’ to everyone. The other part of me, the part at the helm of my self-control, just glowered at the student guides in their red shirts, saying, “I’d be better with more coffee,” when they asked how I was doing.
I sauntered up to the check-in line, battling between the urge to pull out my front desk smile or to drop a snarl, and picked up my folder and nifty little SDSU bag. I tried really hard not to get excited about the bag but drawstrings are my new favorite things and this one even had a zipped up pocket!
Orientation was inside Montezuma Hall, a large rectangle room jutting off a long, elegant hallway. The hallway, accessed by a tall flight of stairs, was magnificent. The ceiling was pulled back with dark wooden beams and the walls echoed with the ghosts of a hundred scholars eternally roaming the hall in search of greater knowledge.
Nope, that was just my excited half momentarily staging a coup.
A sticky name tag with my identification printed neatly on the front began lifting off my shirt by its corners and I humphed. These things are so stupid.
The cynic was back.
Truth be told, I never thought I’d be here, at a student orientation in a grand hall at a real university. I’m not sure if university was never a desire I had growing up because I just wasn’t interested in getting my degree or because I knew I’d likely never get one anyway. It’s easier to just be indifferent to joys outside our reach.
It’s a romantic notion, admittedly, the summoning of a new faculty of academic minds to help them make port in an institution that will become a home and a source of identity. It feels so Oxford.
Student orientation, however, is one of many things in life in which the reality does not even begin live up to the ideal. The first two hours were filled with repeditary information and unnecessary applause breaks. Anyone who read any of the thousand emails the school sent out this summer would have already known what was said from a crackly microphone a thousand times that morning.
The seat next to me was occupied by a brightly dressed woman with matching personality. I could tell by her mannerisms that it was killing her to have to sit quietly. I could also tell there was an underlying level of snark buried in the granules of her person and it felt akin to my own feelings at that moment. Misery loves company.
When she got up and scooted past me during the middle of the second hour, the part of me that was still drooling slightly at the mouth to be sitting here with a cute little official name tag in a beautiful old building was scandalized that someone would be so disrespectful as to get up and leave during the middle of a presentation. But when she came back with a cup of coffee from the campus Starbucks, the other part of me was like, “Man, she’s a smart one.”
By the time the members of the student government got up, I was pretty over orientation day. It was almost lunch time, and I didn’t need these twenty-year-olds telling me how transformative the college experience has been for them because they decided to “get involved.”
Are you kidding me? I’ve been “getting involved” since high school. Political movements and election campaigns, volunteer teaching and coaching. I moved my life across the world for two years to work with a church and a school. And you want to tell me about “life changing” ways to “get involved?” No thank you.
My pretentiousness levels have never been so high, nor my patience so low.
The romance of student orientation and my visions of cardigans and Oxford blazers had vanished completely and I found myself sitting in an uncomfortable chair, suddenly feeling like maybe I didn’t belong here.
Between the on-campus student health initiatives and the three-part video about consent, someone tried to explain the effects of too much alcohol. That’s when I got up to look for that Starbucks.
Through a pretty courtyard and around a corner that overlooked more courtyards and walkways, a fairly sizable Starbucks brandished its summer drinks promotion sign. Inside was quiet and only partially full. The barista was clearly in training. Laptops and notebooks were out at every table. Summer classes are still in session.
Coffee in hand, I stepped outside to look at the campus. It’s pretty, I’ll give you that. I’ve driven by and around this university my whole life. My grandma lives right down the street, and several family members are Aztecs. SDSU has always felt like the family school, but this was my first time on the campus grounds. This was the first time I realized it would be my school.
A tour was in progress and I found myself side-stepping quickly to avoid getting dragged along by the group of gangling looking 18-year-olds. College is an adventure to them. To me, it’s just another brick to lay in this life I’m building.
Caffeine helped me survive the rest of morning orientation. They announced lunch and excused us by our colleges. On the way out, I recognized an old friend from high school. She was one of a handful of people who sent me a care package while I was living in Prague. Even though we don’t see each other often, I count her among the friends I most respect.
She lit up with a beautifully freckled smile when she saw me. We commiserated slightly, fell in line with the rest of the Arts and Letters transfer students for our meal tickets and then, finally, found seats on a shady curb in the courtyard.
She’s had a journey similar to mine. Similar in that it is far, far removed from the regular course of college goers. We’re both language majors who fell into our degrees of choice somewhat by accident. We both have international experience, a burden for bi-cultural communities here at home, and zero tolerance for how drippy the watermelon served with our lunch ended up being.
“I’m trying not to be too excited about this,” I told her. “This whole experience. I feel like I should be too old for this by now, you know?”
“What, you’re not going to go to the keg parties?” she laughed.
For a minute, we both could have been high school girls again, eating our lunches on the ground, talking about the future and our place in it. The part of me that wanted to be happy to be here, that had been trying so hard to enjoy this day, lifted her tired head and listened.
Breezes chimed against golden sunshine. Shadows danced along the sidewalk from the branches of sprawling trees. Gentle chatter floated around us. This was nice.
Lunch ended and we joined our college of Arts and Letter group into a smaller lecture hall to meet with our dean and then into even smaller groups to meet with course advisors. If all went well, in three hours we’d be registering for our first semester of classes.
“You okay?” my friend asked as we took our seats.
“I’m trying to play it cool,” I said, suppressing a girlish squeak. My inner cynic was becoming complacent, now well-fed and ready for an afternoon nap.
Our small groups narrowed the fifty or so people in the room down to groups comprised of single digits. There were seven in mine, and one of them I already knew! A woman from my last Spanish class at Southwestern. She’s a mom and wife going back to school. One man was a Chilean-Canadian transplant looking to get into interpreting for the UN someday. Another just got out of the Navy. Everyone had a different story and a different goal. But we were all here, and we were all going to study Spanish.
It took a while for the ice to break, but there’s not a lot that can’t be done in three hours. By the time we were set to register for our classes, it seemed like we were best friends.
We were giddy as we trekked through campus to find the computer lab so we could meet up with the rest of the Arts and Letters students. We got lost along the way, which only bonded us further.
Registered, ID cards picked up, and a long day behind us, we stood awkwardly for a minute on the white plaster balcony of the student services building.
“I guess we’ll be seeing each other in a couple weeks,” someone said. The pressure diffused and a few of us laughed.
This isn’t the end of anything, just a beginning.
And even though I’m used to beginnings, I’ve lived a life full of changes, I’ve faced my share of challenging experiences, this one is new for me. I haven’t ever attended a university and it’s something I’m genuinely so excited and so grateful to be able to do. It would be a pity not to see the adventure in it all.
I said my goodbyes and slung my drawstring over my shoulder. The walk back to the car was a quiet one. All the greeters had left. The late afternoon sun was silent and warm. My inner cynic had settled down peacefully, unable to criticize anything on our walk back to the car, and the part of me that was excited to be here was fully awake, uncontested, blinking in wonder at the new day.
If I close my eyes, I can still feel Irish winds blowing my hair atop the bulwarks of Blarney Castle.
Two days into a nine-day trip where I traversed the Emerald Isle with nothing but a few bus tickets and a backpack, my inner nomad was already climbing high upon a throne of wanderlust. Through rain slicks, three days of fever, the moaning grey ghosts of the Irish winterlands and countless pubs in search of the Golden Harp, I reveled in the challenge and the bliss of the open road. That was three years ago. I’ve been there and back and elsewhere, since.
But for the last year, I’ve been home and now I’ve got itchy feet again. I’m ready to move. Ready to walk the new road, fight the new fight, claim the new castle. I miss my roustabout days when I could buy a train ticket to Santa Barbara or hop on a flight from Prague to Madrid in just a few hours. Fresh places, fresh faces. A world of people and color at my fingertips.
But losing my teaching position to the school’s closure, a rather undramatic car crash that I do not want to talk about, college bills and a bottomless gas tank have left me absolutely penniless. And you need pennies to travel.
So I’ve spent my summer looking for gainful employment with varying levels of success. And by “varying levels,” I mean, no one would hire me.
I have a weird resume. I’ve never had a blue collar job in my life. I jumped into marketing, politics, journalism and law right after high school. So when I sat down for my interview at Denny’s in June, the manager looked at me with a quizzical tremble of her upper lip and asked, “Why do you want to work here?” And it wasn’t the typical, “tell me what you love about this company” question. She was literally judging my life decisions so hard. It’s hard to go from executive assistant to “I’ve never waited a table before but please hire me anyway.”
Not that I never wanted to be a waitress at a diner or something equally quaint and romantic.
For years, I’ve had this crazy impulse to run away to somewhere exotic and extreme, like Uzbekistan or the Florida Panhandle, and become a bartender. How great, to just be there for people. An entire job centered around making someone’s night better with a smile, an open ear, and a little liquid company.
I would be the world’s greatest bartender, of this I am completely certain.
I have no idea how I’d get to Florida without a car, though, so I’m stuck with the hometown job this summer.
Unfortunately, the temp agencies couldn’t find me a job either. Law firms need someone with a more recent paralegal certification (mine is a couple years old) and everyone else simply looked at the last four years of my work experience (teaching and freelance writing) and said with simpering smiles, “As much as we’d like to stick you in a closet to backfile our employee reports for us, we’d like someone with more filing experience.”
All for the best. I couldn’t spend the summer in a filing closet. I’d go mad.
I nearly gave up on the job search. Maybe, if I just curled up in bed with a good book for the summer, rent and car insurance and my eight dollar Netflix subscription would all just disappear. I had a really good book too! Spain’s Golden Queen Isabella by Iris Noble. Queen Isabella was the last great ruler of the age of chivalry and knights. She was a warrior of a woman, too. By 23, she was already a queen, a general, and a mother besides! She would race across Spain clad in armor with banners flying high, gathering support for the crusades into Andalucia or the war with Portugal. She prized the goodness of mankind, the nobility of the mind and heart, the gentle strength of bravery. And she set the standard with her own courage and conviction.
If I couldn’t let me feet wander the world, maybe I could let my mind go instead. But the sad truth is that you can’t hide from rent.
Desperation is the mother of miracles, so after dropping off my resume at restaurants all morning, I walked into L.A. Fitness. I had left my resume with the club in Eastlake about once every two weeks since late May and hadn’t heard anything, but there’s one much closer to my house that I had never been in before (at least, not with the intention of applying for a job). If being stuck in the Moscow airport for 18 hours taught me anything, it’s that if you don’t ask, you’ll never know whether that guy eating smoked fish out of a plastic bag was aware that he was publically consuming the entire corpse of a once living Oncorhynchus Mykiss, or if he just assumed nobody would mind the smell. Moral of the story: I walked in, flashed a smile, and handed over my application. Two weeks later, I was signing the hiring paperwork and sitting through employee training.
Actually, first they put me through first aid training. That was a long afternoon.
Then they asked me to cover a few shifts in the Kid’s Klub — thirty little kids running around half-crazed because it’s after 6 p.m. and they’re tired and want to be at home. How do you babysit thirty children at once for four hours? You play lava monster. You play a lot of lava monster.
I forgot how much I love tiny people. This last year, I only taught high schoolers. I miss my fourth graders from Prague. I miss their silly games and big opinions and tiny acts of heroism. Kids Klub reminded me just what an adventure the pre-teen world can be. A toy dinosaur can be a monster, a superhero, a truck driver or a baby, depending on whose imagination is at the helm. Hide-seek-can is still exciting enough to invoke shrieks of laughter and screams of terror alike. The world isn’t little to kids, it’s big. And stepping into their world for an evening makes mine seem a little bigger too, even if I’m just here in a playroom in San Diego.
Finally, I got a two-hour employee training session with our amazing operations manager.
The thing about employee training is that it can only prepare you for about two percent of the chaos that actually goes down at work, which is a lot like traveling, if you think about it. You can book all your tickets ahead of time, but if you miss a train or you get lost and can’t find your hostel in the middle of the night in a town where no one speaks any of the one and a half languages you know, you’d better know how to improvise.
They told me how to answer the phone, how to transfer a call, how to check people in and service their accounts. And then they gave me the closing shift on a Saturday night and left me to sink beneath the weight of my own incompetence.
I’ve done that before. Just ask anyone who has ridden a bus with me literally anywhere.
“So sorry to bother you again, but do you know where I get off?”
Anyway, what they didn’t prepare me for was how to pay off multiple accounts at once in cash, how to put a call on hold and pick up the other line without dropping both of them, where the ice packs are when someone drops a weight on their finger, which key unlocks the customer safe, how to respond when a member starts shouting at you over the phone, how to respond when a member starts shouting at you in person, how to respond when a member asks you out on a date, or how to use the intercom system with even the most basic effectiveness.
Actually, they did teach me how to use the intercom. Apparently some skills can only be learned through fire.
“I’m already getting compliments on how friendly you are,” my supervisor said as she showed me for the millionth time how to transfer a phone call.
The affirmation of my front desk persona came as a huge relief because I’m so terrible at the rest of this stuff, I’m going to need all the job security I can get.
Following a particularly bad day during my first week at work, I showed up to my next shift dressed up extra pretty. I did my hair and stole one of my mom’s black cardigans.
“You look nice today,” said one of my coworkers. “Dressing for the job you want?”
“I’m compensating for yesterday,” I told him with an exasperated sigh. “Just dressing for the job I’m desperately trying to keep.”
But I am good at part of this job. I am so, so good at welcoming people. If only I could sit there on my little stool all day and say, “Hi, how are you today?” or, “Bye, have a nice afternoon!” If that were the sum total of the job, I’d be amazing. It’s literally my favorite thing to do. There are so many people who come to this gym. And I love people.
Some of the gym members have started to become familiar. I can feel myself being drawn into this community of gym rats, fitness geeks and old people who just want to use the pool. People will grin back when they see me smile, or actually answer when I ask them how their day is going. Even the people in a hurry are pretty nice. And more than one member has taken the time to stop and compliment my smile. Mom and my dentist would be so proud.
Funny how far a smile can go in someone’s day, especially at a gym.
When you go to the gym, you’re taking a day’s worth of troubles, successes, and distractions with you, and the first person you see is the girl at the front desk. In a way, she’s the bartender. If you want to vent about your day for a minute, she’ll listen. If you want to get straight to business, she won’t take offense. If you sigh a little, she’ll understand. No judgement, just a smile and a sincere, “have a good workout today” as if she’s sliding over a gin and tonic on a cream colored napkin.
It’s been a few weeks. I’m feeling more comfortable behind the desk now. I don’t get rattled as easily. I had my first late-night this week. We close at midnight, so I brought my book about Queen Isabella just in case things got too quiet.
But work is its own little crusade, a challenge to make the day better for everyone who comes through our doors, if even in small measure. As I perched on my stool behind the front desk, like a lady in a tower, smiling on her subjects as they pass, I felt like a princess. Struggling with our computer system and my thin but growing level of competency to answer people’s questions and solve their problems, I imagined myself to be a general, commanding troops and winning wars.
And walking through the dark halls of the gym to close everything down, then locking the doors and stepping into the humid night, I felt like a queen shushing her kingdom into peaceful sleep.
When I lived in Prague, adventure was waiting right outside my door, ready to whisk me away at any moment. But the truth is, that lofty temptress has followed me across the world. Even in San Diego, even in my home neighborhood, even the dull humdrum of daily life, like working shifts at a blue collar job to pay off car repairs and tuition fees, there can be fields of war and palaces of gold. Always, there will be new people to discover.
So here is where I will be. My itchy feet are dancing off their nerves in this castle of new experiences. And proudly, I’ll fly my banner above its bulwarks until the wind catches my wings again and new roads open before me.
Who said that? Was it the women from my first teaching post, back when I was still in college and had no clue how to manage a classroom, even one with just eight students? Or was it my TESOL instructor shortly before I left for Prague? All the teaching lessons in the world wouldn’t have prepared me for Prague. Maybe it was those ladies from Prague…My dear, lovely Czech mothers who wrapped me up in all my mistfitted enthusiasm and showed me what real teachers look like.
Somebody said it. Somebody who knows what it’s like to be a teacher.
But this isn’t ever something a teacher wants to do — packing up the classroom, putting away the colorful whiteboard markers, taking down the preposition posters and the Spanish calendar, cleaning out the desks. Clearing out the classroom — not just for the summer, but for good — feels like packing up a piece of your heart and putting in a back closet with a neat label, and then shutting off the light, closing the door and walking away for good. It hurts.
And after welcoming students through these doors every September for forty-one years, the teachers and staff here who are now facing the school’s final closure…Well, they are feeling a hurt I know well.
I’d only taught at Covenant for one year, and it was only part-time. It wasn’t Prague. Nothing will ever be Prague, and I’m coming to terms with this. But beginning my days in this little room was good for me, I think. Stabilizing. The board’s final decision to close the school meant I would be out of a job, it meant I wouldn’t be teaching for a while and I knew I would miss that, it meant not seeing my fellow teachers and my students (who have wiggled into my affections with the most persistence I have ever seen), and it meant I was back to not knowing what the next step was. But for the teachers who’ve dedicated years to this ministry, the students who have grown up here, the staff who have watched generations of children, including their own, flourish and bloom within these walls, the process of saying goodbye was much more difficult.
June gloom had disappeared for good and were spending the our summer holiday in shorts and T-shirts, clearing out four decades of memories.
“There’s ice cream in the freezer,” said Sherry. Her voice tinkled with its usual cheeriness, despite the difficulty of the week. “Several boxes, actually, so you should take a break at some point and help us clean that out next.”
Celeste and I looked at each other. Ice cream.
But first, we had to finish the project at hand. My classroom was being turned into temporary storage and the P.E. closet had to be sorted before we could move in tables — by the end of the week, my room would be an unrecognizable library of books and bobbles, stacked floor to ceiling with historical knick knacks, geography maps, art and science equipment, and at least one version of every board game that came out of the ‘80s.
The P.E. closet was a treasure trove. Celeste and I had moved out all the boxes and laid them in the middle of the floor, sorting the contents one box at a time. She has been a teacher here for years and years and years. In fact, most of my first three months teaching the underclassmen were spent trying to live up the name she made for herself among the students. I will say now, everyone agreed she did a much better job decorating the class for Christmas. Anyway, you get the picture. Big shoes.
But Celeste and I go back to a time that is precious to me for a different reason. We met the summer I moved to Prague. For a few weeks, a few life-changing weeks, she was a very good friend to me.
And now we were both smelling old volleyball jerseys and deciding whether or not to put them in the ‘donate’ pile or the trash. I don’t think either of us thought we’d be here: her, closing up the school she loves and me, back in San Diego.
It was getting hot in the classroom. The humidity was not helped by the mountains of old jerseys and practice uniforms surrounding us. Celeste could tell which year most of them were used, who wore which number, every story behind every yellowing shirt. All I saw was a jersey that had seen it’s last game and smelled like retirement had not been kind. I suppose it’s true what they say about one man’s trash.
It felt odd, holding up pieces of the aging uniforms and asking if we should keep them or not. It was a practical decision to me. To Celeste, it was a personal one.
“I almost feel like I shouldn’t be allowed to be making these decisions,” I said, holding up a white practice jersey against the dusty sunshine from the window to see if it looked better with backlighting. Celeste just shrugged her shoulders, tears gathering in her eyes. It must have been the dust.
The school banner, weird ribbons whose purpose I never figured out, a sheet that someone wore like a cape at every game and award ceremony — memories were so deeply entrenched in the things we were clearing out, things that now served no purpose, things that had lost their value except to make us reflect on a time when the people and places close to us were just that — close to us. Throwing away the old jersey is like throwing away the memory. It’s like saying it never happened, the last living trace of yesterday removed from our today, our tomorrow.
We needed ice cream.
The freezer was loaded with bars and cones and sandwiches. Caramel drizzles, chocolate swirls, nuts and vanilla. Food for our weary souls.
We sat in the kitchen and ate our treats. Celeste had started reminiscing and once the floodgates opened, it was story after story of the most heartwarming, entertaining and hilarious moments of this school.
It made me think of Prague.
Every teacher has a closet of stories stored up for days like this. My closet is bursting at the seams and most of them I know I’ll never tell. Because I never had this — this closure. I packed my classroom up in a day and half and rushed straight from our last day of school to the airport and onto a flight that would take me away from my kids, my friends, my life. I wish I had had a week to sort through class papers and school performances, to rehash the war stories and remember the good ol’ days. I wish I had been able to share it all with someone who had been there, who understood even a little. But I was in Prague alone. I came back alone. And I have no one to share my stories with.
After ice cream, we pumped up volleyballs, moved kiddie chairs that had the weight and cumbersome nature of small tanks (when the zombie apocalypse happens, I will return to melt them down for their metal), and one of us had an infuriating run-in with a spider. It was me.
Then we got more ice cream.
Over the course of the week, the school transformed. What a sad metamorphosis to watch, to be a part of.
Not without adventures. I nearly had a mental breakdown trying to get the carcasses of dead flies and one mostly dismembered spider out of the crevice in the window sill. Rachel was not helpful. After I emotionally fortified myself, she shoved a fetal pig in my face, leftovers from biology class. Jackie excused me from having to clean out the science lab upon seeing my skin flush several shades of green. Besides, Rachel was only too happy to play with the dead animals.
I went through the library, the after-school room, the history class. Books were moved. Games were packed away. Globes and dictionaries and pictures of presidents were brought to what was once my classroom. Most of it would be given away, divided up like remnants of a conquered nation.
And I did start to feel the sadness of it. Already, I missed my students. Already, I missed those early mornings and the coffee that barely got me through fourth period English. Already, I missed what could have been: a future here at this school. Already, I was longing again for that thrill of life, that rush of joy, that slow trudge of building tiny humans into great people.
It’s not Prague, but I’ll miss this place. Once a teacher, always a teacher, I guess.
I can’t remember who said that.
Does it matter who said it? The women at my first teaching post in college, my TESOL instructors, those dear ladies from my school in Prague, the family of teachers and staff at my latest venture right here in Chula Vista — they have all lived the same basic truth, because the fundamentals of teaching are the same world-wide. You pour out your heart into the tiny hands of freshly minted humans and hope that you can equip them body, mind and soul for the journey ahead. What a responsibility. What a privilege. And what a hope and peace to know that it is God who opens each classroom to us, just as he closes the doors of others; writing our stories just as he hears us retell them.
The first thing I heard was that the groomsmen missed their bus from middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma to San Diego. This was Sunday morning, five days before the wedding.
“So, are they coming?” I asked Tyler, the fiance, groom-to-be, future brother-in-law and one of our most indubitable friends from childhood.
“They’re trying to decide who’s junky car to take across the country, but they’ll be here.”
As a blood-member of Team Bride, I held onto my unspoken misgivings about the surety of our groom that his guys would indeed make it.
Nine months to plan a wedding, and here we all were scrambling around at the last minute — all of us except Sarah, who remained as calm and cool a bride as has ever existed. Mom was running point with the church coordinator, assembling center pieces for the tables at the reception, and ironing all the bridesmaids dresses (ah, the dresses. We’ll talk about them more later). Dad did the airport pick-ups. Deborah had just come down from Berkeley, bringing my two gorgeous nephews with her, and took it upon herself to finish the party favors — a flower creation of ribbon, lace, Jordan Almonds and wire nets chiffon nets. Bouquets and bobbie pins and last minute champagne runs for the Bride were my territory. As Maid of Honor, I was responsible for all the loose ends.
Sophia, one of the bridesmaids, and another childhood friend, had taken the lead on planning the bachelorette party, accepting my contributions here and there (like the Harry Potter theme, complete with Hogwarts House bachelorette sashes, a sorting ceremony and home-cooked Great Feast). The guys went out to the desert to shoot guns or something for the bachelor party that same night, we heard, but they didn’t have butterbeer, so I think we still came out on top.
And yes, of course it was a competition. With the exception of the two missing groomsmen from Oklahoma, the entire bridal party basically grew up together, friends since middle school, basically. Austin, Tyler’s brother and the Best Man, had married Sara (one of the bridesmaids). They were high school sweethearts and we watched the romance unfold first hand back in the day. Sara became one of Sarah’s good friends (and their in-laws are going to spend the next sixty years confusing Sara and Sarah, and I find that hilariously gratifying). The rest of the groomsmen and bridesmaids were siblings or friends. We were literally all in the same debate club, took the same biology classes, crashed the same Denny’s at midnight after long tournaments on the road. And here we all were, most of us grown up.
So, naturally, there was a little groomsmen vs. #bridesquad rivalry going on.
The groomsmen didn’t earn any points for having two of their party still missing in action the Sunday before the wedding.
But I had other things on my mind at the time. For nine months, we’d been planning a wedding revolving around a mint green theme. Let me be the first to admit that I was not the ideal Maid of Honor when it came to rolling with the color. Have you ever tried looking for a bridesmaid’s dress in mint green? Options are minimal.
I spent hours digging up dresses online, creating pricing spreadsheets and then emailing options out to the other bridesmaids. The votes came in with little agreement. Finally, Sara (the other one) emailed back with an additional option, a mint green dress with adjustable top.
I hated it immediately.
Not just because she had cast aside all my hard work with the flick of an opinion, but because I’d seen the adjustable top dresses at a previous wedding and they were horrible.
My Sarah had taken other Sara’s suggestion to heart and ordered a dress in my size so I could be our bridesmaid-dress guinea pig. In keeping with my worst nightmares, the top of the dress was as sketchy and difficult as I had warned it would be. The skirt, which actually had some redeeming qualities in its fullness and shimmer, went about waist-high and then turned into two long trains of material meant to be wrapped around the wearer’s upper torso. We twisted and tied it and the varying end results either made me look like a nun or a harlot. Having jumped into a swimming pool after Deborah’s wedding in an attempt to get my revenge on that horrible bridesmaid dress, I just wanted one wedding where I could get through a night of dancing without having to worry about my dressing malfunctioning.
“Please, Sarah,” I had begged the bride, “Any dress but this. It’s going to look so tacky and I’ll spend the whole evening trying to make sure it doesn’t unravel.”
Five months later, there we were, ironing out those dresses.
I had made my peace with the sure-to-be disaster long ago, but in the back of my mind I hoped that if anybody’s dress did have an unfortunately timed accident, let it be the Other Sara’s.
This week, though, the mint green had arisen again to cause everyone problems. Somehow, the wedding favors, the napkins, the dresses and groomsmen’s ties had all turned out to be different shades of mint green.
“Maybe we can just switch out the napkins,” Deborah suggested as we dug into the basket of ribbons and almonds to painstakingly assemble the wedding favor flowers. “Or maybe we could leave the favors in a basket by the entrance so no one notices they’re a different shade.”
“Let’s just focus on getting them finished first,” said Sarah, nonchalantly. “We’ll figure out something when we’re done.”
The piles of ribbons and candied almonds looked up at us mockingly and several tubby fingers appeared over the rim of the table, making a move towards the mint green chiffon. Deborah scooped up the baby (nephew #2) and Sarah and I continued wrestling petals into lace cocoons.
“Hey,” I said, looking up. “Whatever happened to the groomsmen?”
“They’re taking Cal’s car,” Sarah answered, not looking up from the almond petals in her fingers. “They should be here by tomorrow, if the car doesn’t break down.”
Monday, Day Three in the wedding countdown, arose in a layer of grey. June Gloom had descended upon us in earnest making our summer wedding in San Diego feel like a December wedding in Northern Michigan.
Things were running smoothly, all things considered. Plans for the bachelorette party were coming along swimmingly, half the wedding favors were done, and the missing groomsmen, Cal and Tony, made it into town just in time for the family bonfire at Coronado Monday night. So, except for the incident with the bird flying into the house — which Sarah took care of for me — there was a surprising lack of upsets.
Tuesday went similarly well. Aubrey and I piled into my car as soon as I came home from work, dragging along a crockpot, several chilled balls of pie dough, and butterbeer ingredients, and we sped off to Sophia’s. When we arrived, the place was decked out in Harry Potter memorabilia, including a stream of Hogwarts acceptance letters strung between the fireplace and the ceiling and a sign that said From Muggle to Mrs.
Not only did our shepherd’s pie and pumpkin pasties turn out splendidly, but it was fun to prepare with Sophia, Hosanna and their sisters. I mean, they’re basically my sisters. We’ve all grown up together, staying close despite years and distance. And here we were, setting up candelabra’s and trying to figure out how much bourbon to add to our butterbeer.
Our gaggle of girls, including the Other Sara and Tyler’s little sister, who is not so little anymore, made quite a night of things, though it was distressing to see just how little everyone actually knows about Harry Potter.
Other Sara even demonstrated different ways to wear the atrocity of a bridesmaids dress she had forced upon us and they all looked good on her lanky, gorgeous frame. I was skeptical that they would have the same effect on me.
Day two of the wedding countdown ended with six women and two teenage girls who are growing up too quickly falling asleep on a bed, a coach and one and a half air mattresses at two in the morning with wet nails and the occasional unrepressed giggle — like the next day wouldn’t precede a wedding, like we didn’t all hate that mint green dress, like we hadn’t spent years cultivating our own bubbles of personal space, like our lives hadn’t changed a day since we all met ten, twelve, fifteen years ago. It was kind of nice.
One day to go and we began it with whipped cream-topped coffee and what was left of the bourbon.
The chilly day melted into a cool evening and eventually we all found ourselves at the chapel for the wedding rehearsal.
Attached to the package of the church and preparation rooms was the stiffest, most entitled wedding coordinator of all time. It took all of six minutes for her to turn our calm, cool, collected bride into a seething, livid mess. Suddenly, everything that had not been a problem exploded. There’s not enough tool to divide the pews in the church, the wedding favors still aren’t finished, we don’t have any mirrors for the changing room, the ring bearer (nephew #1) probably won’t make it all the way down the aisle, none of the mint greens seem to be matching, “and that woman is awful.”
Tyler, in what was the most reassuring demonstration of his capabilities as Sarah’s future husband yet, sat next to her while she vented, nodding in agreement when necessary. He didn’t offer to fix anything, or find the silver linings. He just agreed that it was all upsetting and Sarah had every right to be mad.
Ladies, if only we could all find ourselves men like that.
Anyway, I had a job to do, as Maid of Honor. I had to save the wedding, of course! Mom and I went straight from the rehearsal to WalMart and the yardage store to find full-length mirrors and tool — and for the first time in nine months, we found both in the same shade of mint green. After the rehearsal dinner, I stayed up till past midnight finishing the wedding favors while Mom created bows for the church pews. In the morning, the parents went to go oversee the reception hall set-up and I re-watched a billion youtube videos on wedding hairstyles.
The first time we tried doing Sarah’s hair on March, it was a complete failure. This was our second attempt and we were both understandably nervous.
But her hair turned out marvellously. We packed her suitcase into the back of my car, I sent out a million reminder texts for the bridesmaids to bring the “just married” decorations for the car at the reception, and then we hauled off to the church. (Actually, we made a stop at VONS for champagne and pastries that we planned to smuggle into the church because the wedding coordinator said we weren’t allowed to bring food or drink into the rooms and Sarah was feeling especially vindictive).
As the bridesmaids began showing up, I got a text from Best Man Austin that Cal and Tony had run out of gas 200 yards from the church in their sad excuse for a car. (“It’s because the gas gauge doesn’t work,” Cal explained.)
“Well, we won’t tell Sarah any of this,” I said, happy that my bridesmaids were clearly helping us win the groomsmen vs. #bridesquad competition. “Now, take the ring and please don’t lose it.”
Austin gave me a soul-quenching look in return. Lose the ring? As if.
I had put my ring in the lining of my dress because there were no pockets (because when has any article of female clothing had usable pockets? Just another feature to hate about this tacky, underwhelming bridesmaid dress). It was safe and sound.
Inside the prep room, the girls were getting dolled up (the nightmare dresses were looking pretty good after we all agreed to sell our souls to safety pins and fabric tape). We were eating the contraband pastries and drinking mimosas from special wine glasses customized with our names and #bridesquad printed onto the sides, having a marvellous time.
If I must say, I was doing a bang-up job of being Maid of Honor. I straightened Sarah’s train for every picture, adjusted her veil and hair, fixed her bouquet, and ignored her increasingly snarky attitude (which got exponentially worse the longer she had to stand upright in a fifty pound dress). And I was all over the place, running boxes and bags to the car, passing out fireworks and party poppers to the groomsmen for the reception, and intercepting well-wishing friends and relatives outside the changing room. All the while, the ring was safely in the lining of my dress, the skirt of which was heavy and billowy in a glamorous 1930s kind of way that I was trying not to get excited about.
Ten minutes before we were supposed to leave for the church, I slipped into the bathroom and dug into the dress lining for the ring and closed it over my pinkie finger. Curling my finger tightly around the ring and then taking the bouquet in the same hand, I figured it would be safe. But outside the restroom, I was met with more boxes to move to the car and a paper bag that had split in half, dumping contents all over the floor. No sooner had I gotten those cleaned up, someone’s heel got caught on the train of Sarah’s dress and we had to untangle them.
When I finally stood up and looked for my bouquet, it was time to hurry into the chapel. There was just one problem, a problem I didn’t notice until we were actually inside the building.
The ring was gone.
My stomach lurched. The procession had lined up. Our grandmothers were already being walked down the aisle. The bell boy was there tugging on the ropes of the church bells, sending sonorous notes peeling across the churchyard.
Grabbing the tails of my silky dress, I dashed outside, dragging one or two of the bride’s brothers with me.
“I lost it, I lost the ring! You have to help me find it!”
There was a mad scramble which provided no ring. Now heads were peeping curiously out the back door to see where the Maid of Honor had gone — Maid of Dishonor is what it felt like in that horrific moment.
I went back into the church where Sarah and Dad were sitting on the edge of a table behind the door. They both looked unreasonably calm. Very thoroughly English of them.
“I lost the ring,” I said, trying not to cry but wanting to express how serious I understood the situation to be.
Dad just chuckled and Sarah sighed and rolled her shoulders.
“We’ll fake it,” she said.
Losing the ring was all the gossip as I returned to the line of whispering bridesmaids outside the sanctuary door who thought the situation was hilarious.
And so we faked it. All the way down the aisle and through most of the wedding ceremony, only the bride, the #bridesquad, and a selection of family members knew there was only one ring on that stage.
Sarah was an example for us all. Statuesque and elegant as ever, she only let out one exasperated giggle when the preacher said, “And do you, Sarah, have a ring for Tyler?”
I went red and we faked a handoff behind the bouquets I was holding. Tyler, who now had first row seats to the plight of the missing ring, also went red. His eyes went from Sarah’s hands, which were holding ring-shaped air, to Sarah’s face, which I imagine was a edifice of strained composure, and then straight to me. Sweat beading slightly by his hairline, smile plastered coolly behind his blonde beard, Tyler gave me a look that said, “Mary, please tell me you have the ring somewhere. Please tell me you didn’t lose my wedding ring.”
But I had. And by the time the preacher gotten to the part of the vows that said, “With this ring, I thee wed,” Sarah had about lost her reserve of emotional fortitude.
First, her shoulders started to shake. I immediately recognized this as the pre-giggle fit trembles typical of York females.
Tyler was turning redder by the minute and he too was having trouble retaining his grin. Silence filled the church in curious hush, followed by a wave of whispers.
Next thing we all knew, Sarah had doubled over at the altar, laughing uncontrollably. Tyler was doing his best to keep things together, but Sarah was a lost cause. In her gorgeous wedding dress and perfect hair, nine months of planning climaxed in a missing ring and it was just too much.
Confused chuckles popped up around the pews and the preacher asked, “Did you drop it?”
“No, we lost it,” Sarah finally exclaimed. “We lost the ring!”
My sister’s have covered for me a lot growing up, but I will always remember that Sarah could have thrown me under the bus in front of all of our friends and family and chose not to. Like a real team captain, she said “we lost the ring.” We.
Everyone laughed and the moment turned into something sweet and memorable.
As soon as we got out of the church, Austin and I were scouring the courtyard, the changing rooms and the hallway for that ring. He and the groomsmen were now definitely winning the bridal party competition.
I’d been all over the place in those last ten minutes before the ceremony started. Where could a ring escape to? My mind pictured it dropping, bouncing and rolling in slow motion, Disney-animation style, across the courtyard, down the stairs and then into a lone bush or rain drain.
I was rifling through bushes when I looked up to see Tyler pulling up the grate of a storm drain, looking into the hole for his missing ring. My heart sank.
“Tyler,” I said, walking over with tears brimming up, “I am so sorry. I’ll find it. Or I’ll buy you a new one. I promise!”
Tyler just wrapped me up in a big hug, shushing my frantic apology with a promise of his own, that everything was going to be okay. And that’s when I realized what had happened today — we had made Tyler a part of our family. He wasn’t just some kid we grew up with. He was one of us now.
The bride and groom took off to finish pictures and the groomsmen continued to help me search the premises for that stupid, doggone ring.
I was losing it. Crying, shouting, snapping the skirt of my dress like an angry cowboy with a lasso.
Man, that silly bridesmaid dress was really beginning to grow on me.
“I cannot believe I lost it,” I was yelling to whichever groomsman was nearest, whoever that was digging in the dirt near the bushes by the parking lot. “It’s not fair that we don’t get pockets. How was I supposed to hold onto the ring all that time? Ten minutes! I couldn’t even keep it for ten minutes!”
Pulling open the back seat of the car, a yelp escaped my mouth. There, on the black leather seat, in plain and perfect view for anyone to see, was the ring.
Within seconds, four of the groomsmen were at my side hushing me as I burst into tears.
“Don’t let anyone know you found it,” Josh said.
“No, I’m telling Tyler right now,” I responded, trying to push past them.
“You can’t,” Ryan insisted. “We have to give it back at the reception when they’re not expecting it! We’ll make a show of it!”
“Yeah, we’ll stick it in Tyler’s drink,” Josh suggested.
“That’s great, then I can lose his ring and be the cause of his choking to death on his wedding day,” I said, crossing my arms and sniffing away the last of my tears.
“We could sing a song or something.”
“Maybe slip it onto his plate?”
“What if Austin brought it up in his Best Man’s speech?”
They were grasping at straws.
“I want to return it now. Besides, Austin is going to think this is a horrible idea.”
We asked Austin. He loved it.
By the time we all made it to the reception hall, the plan was set and the ring was safely stowed in Austin’s pocket.
We bridesmaids finished off what was left of the champagne in the parking lot of the country club where the reception was being held — a grand, old building with beautifully carpeted red velvet stairs in the entryway and large windows framed in richly-toned wood all along the inside. Someone also found a bottle of vodka and I took a swig of that straight from the bottle. Nerves.
Except that Sarah was a little distant with me during dinner, no one seemed especially upset that the ring was still “missing.” One of our uncles pretended to find the ring and that caused a number of hearts to race, though for those of us in on the real find it was harrowing and confusing in a different way. Any guests who had missed what had happened during the ceremony knew most of the story by the time Deborah and I stood up for our toast.
My accordion was waiting for me in the hallway and I retrieved it from its duct taped trunk as Deborah grabbed the microphone.
“I’m Deborah, sister of the bride,” she said.
“And I’m Mary, the other sister…and yes, I lost the ring. Let’s just get that out of the way now, I’m sorry, okay?”
People laughed, but I hadn’t meant it as a joke. I already knew this was something I would never live down.
As we tag-teamed our speech, using the accordion for dramatic effect when necessary, I remembered just how effortlessly easy it is to be sisters with these two women, both the beautiful mother-of-two standing next to me with the microphone and the picture of grace and accomplishment sitting next to her new husband.
We turned over the microphone to Sophia and when she finished, Cal stood up and took it from her before anyone could stop him.
Like a deer in the headlights, Sarah froze, clutching Tyler’s hand and looking about as livid as she had when the wedding coordinator told her someone had painted the white wedding steps for the chapel black by accident.
“Sarah doesn’t want me to give a speech tonight,” Cal began as the whole room tensed up. “But what she doesn’t know is that I’m basically the … ringleader of the group. When Tyler needed a Best Man speech, they should have given me a ring and I’d have done a ringer of a job.”
Cal went on with what seemed like an endless list of ring puns and I snuck up behind Austin who placed the real ring in my hand. No one noticed. They were all watching Cal in absolute horror.
“Anyway,” Cal said, seemingly wrapping up the speech after two very intense minutes of ring puns, “Even though you broke up our Fellowship of the Ring, I still have a wedding gift for you. Actually, it’s from all of us, especially Mary.”
All eyes turned from Cal to me and my outstretched hand with the golden band lying safely in my palm.
Applause exploded from the tables and, as Sarah and Tyler stood up to put the ring on properly, a chorus of awww’s fell in behind. Amazing, that one huge mistake turned into such a lovely moment, and it couldn’t have happened without the help of people who love the bride and groom as much as I do. But I suppose that’s life all over for you. We don’t do this alone.
The night disappeared. I don’t know where it went. Between coordinating dances and bouquet tossing with the DJ, helping Sarah with the transition from wedding dress to party dress, passing out our party-poppers to guests and ensuring that the bridal party found and bedazzled the getaway car in good time, the evening simply flew.
At one point, as I hurried from the crew in parking lot drawing “just married” in lipstick on the getaway car to find the Father of the Bride in the reception hall, I realized how rom-comy this all felt — the wedding favors we spent all week making lying half-eaten on tables, groomsmen blowing up balloons in the dark to stuff inside the car, extended relatives shooting whiskey from the bottle in the parking lot, the Other Sara and our glowing bridesmaids looking like a million dollars in moonlight-flushed mint green.
Man, I thought, swishing my skirt in glorious billows as I pranced in my heels up the red-velvet steps of the grand clubhouse entrance, I love this dress.
Bride and groom made it to the car in a flurry of bubbles, confetti and gunpowder (that’s what happens when you marry a Texan). Guests filed out in a steady stream until it was just us, the bridal party and siblings of the happy couple. Except for the two Oklahoma groomsmen, we’re the same group of friends who have been hanging out since high school. So we did what we did back in the day. We went to Denny’s.
The whole lot of us trooped in, order coffee’s and sample platters and nachos and pancakes. We ate and talked and laughed.
My ride had to leave the after party early so the Oklahoma boys promised to drop me off at my house in their car. The final goodbye’s should have been hard to say, but they weren’t, because they’re not really final. Half of us are related now, thanks to Sarah and Tyler. Time may keep us apart, but we’re all family and that’s not going to change.
“You can sit in the front,” Cal said as I reached for the door handle of the infamous car that nearly didn’t make it here. The doorframe nearly came off the car when I pulled it open.
Sitting in the front seat was like sitting inside a carpeted tin can. No AC, no radio, no rearview mirror.
“How did you guys make it here alive?” I asked in shock as the engine choked and sputtered and Cal said a prayer under his breath that the car would start.
“What can we say?” said Tony from the back. “We just love Tyler.”
I smiled and the car jolted gracelessly forward.
Sarah and Tyler. What confidence and dedication they inspire in their friends. It’s a loyalty well-earned by two selfless, loving individuals who have just become one. The groomsmen vs. #bridesquad war is over, if it was ever really on. We’re all on the same team now —