Iowa

Reflections on Shuffle Play

Twenty-one years ago today, I left an internship at a church in Wyoming. I was supposed to be there for a whole year but ended up being there two months. It had been the perfect storm of me needing affirmation in the gifts I had for ministry, but receiving instead daily verbal abuse and experiencing indescribable loneliness. I have never felt more like a failure than I did the day as I drove away from that church and that experience.

I didn’t think I would return to seminary or to the path leading me to ordained ministry. I truly believed I was out for good, unfit to serve God as a pastor. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but it was apparently going to be something else. Bridge burned. Over. I didn’t say goodbye to a soul. I didn’t even go back to my office to pick up my books – I just started driving East and vowed to never return to that sorry town.

But then, a few months later, after a whole lot of beer and prayer, I did go back to seminary and went on to complete another internship and now I have been a pastor for 18 years and a few months.

This afternoon I had lunch with a friend who is in the midst of seminary and just found out she is leaving her internship church – an extremely unhealthy church. Unlike me, she is going about her ending differently, better: she told the bishop about all that she was going through, she got help, and the bishop is getting her out of there and into a different, hopefully healthier church. She was able to ask for help and I’m so proud of her for that.

I wish I had known how to ask for help twenty-one years ago. Instead, I drowned in the shame that I hated where I was and I hated how my supervisor was speaking to me. I blamed myself. I believed fully that if I were just better/stronger/more outgoing/prettier/thinner/etc. that my supervisor would be a nice person and I wouldn’t feel like I was going to die every time I drove up to that church. I did talk to my seminary about how hard things were, but when they did nothing to help, I wish I would have demanded they listen to me, demanded they help or get me out of there. Instead, I tried for two months to suck it up and tough it out until I realized the survival of something deep within me was at stake.  I packed up my truck in the dead of night and drove away. I smoked ten thousand cigarettes and cried an ocean. I said, “I’m sorry, God” on repeat until I crossed the Wyoming/South Dakota border. I was crushed by my sadness and shame. Even when I finally did go back to seminary, I slunk around the halls trying to take up as little space as possible. I felt called to be back there, but I also wished I could just be invisible. I didn’t want to talk about what had happened. I saw the entire situation as such a personal failure of mine that I would often lie and make up some story about how the internship supervisor had left and so my internship just ended early. It was only when I began to tell the truth about what happened that I began to heal, and I began to see the event with clarity.

It’s so long ago now, and I hardly ever think of it except for when I talk with someone else who is having a hard time maneuvering through some hurdle of life. I listen to how they are handling it and I think about that autumn in Wyoming.

I hadn’t known how to demand help. That is not surprising. I was raised to not make a fuss, to deal with problems quietly, secretly even. It’s like Dar Williams sings in her song, “Iowa:”

“But way back where I come from,
We never mean to bother,
We don’t like to make our passions other people’s concern,
And we walk in the world of safe people,
And at night we walk into our houses and burn.”

I never knew anyone who actually spoke about their negative feelings – rather, I watched people bottle up emotions until they exploded in anger, tears, or were submerged in alcohol. Problems weren’t tackled, rather they were a sign of failure and a source of shame. The only solution was silence and secrecy.

I’m not sure where that comes from but it is common among those with Scandinavian heritage. We like to joke about it sometimes but it is really no laughing matter. Does not talking about difficulties come from a sense of not wanting to complain? From knowing that it could always be worse so why torture yourself with festering about it? Move on. Get over it. Have a good cry alone in the bathroom and that is that?

The last twenty-one years have been a long process of learning as an adult how to communicate better and live authentically. I still have plenty of room to grow when it comes to communication, but I am pretty good at defending my right to do what I feel called toward and staying away from what steals my joy. I don’t have patience for toxic people or toxic situations anymore. I don’t feel it is my duty to suffer them – and somehow making up my mind about that must have changed something in the air around me, because while I used to seem to attract toxicity, I no longer do.

Sometimes I think about how I would have handled my Wyoming internship if I had encountered it later in life. It is impossible to know, and ultimately, while it is an awful memory, I am certain it was a necessary stepping stone in my life. At some point each one of us must face an asshole, a horrible situation, get pissed off, and then see what we do. I could look back that time and see it as I did for a very long time: weakness because I didn’t leave gracefully, because I didn’t know how to respond perfectly, because I didn’t demand help in a way so that my seminary actually helped me…OR…I can see it as I choose to see it now: strength – how I took a baseball bat to that experience and smashed it when I realized it was killing me. My departure may not have been smooth, but it was effective.

And while the experience was devastating, as is often the case, beauty came out of the ashes of it. Dear friends, extraordinary adventures, travel, even getting reacquainted with the man I married – so many good things came out of the fact that I left that awful internship. In the long run it didn’t matter how I left, all that matters was that I did leave and I moved on. For all the pain that short period of time brought to my life, no one would hardly remember it anymore except that I still feel the need to tell the story now and then.

These days I can’t help but do that – because I understand that telling the stories of our difficulties is important. It’s medicinal, life-saving.  I never would have believed it when I was growing up and so busy learning how to keep secrets and isolate when there was any kind of trouble. But time has revealed to me that when we have a survival story to tell, it cuts us when we keep it inside, but it heals us when we let others know.  Our survival stories assure others that they will survive, too. Telling the truth and sharing compassion is so much better than hiding in the safety of silence.

So, twenty-one years ago right now I was at a Bible Camp in North Dakota for the night. I drove directly there after I left Wyoming because I had worked there a few summers before and the director was a friend of mine – and I had an immense, all-consuming crush on him. Perhaps I was hoping my terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad luck would start turning around and he would turn into Prince Charming and sweep me away from the shit-hole my life felt like that night. That didn’t happen. But, he did build me a fire and let me sleep on a couch in the retreat center. He didn’t ask any questions about why I was roaming like a cigarette-smoke covered ghost through North Dakota on Halloween night, just gave me a “hello friend” hug and a warm place to stay before he left to go to a Halloween party.  I stared at the fire until I fell asleep, left before dawn to keep driving and crying and driving some more. I made it the rest of the way to my parents’ house in Minnesota and mom welcomed me in.  She had my favorite supper waiting.

lonesome

Iowa

By Dar Williams

I’ve never had a way with women,
But the hills of Iowa make me wish that I could
And I’ve never found a way to say I love you,
But if the chance came by, oh I, I would
But way back where I come from,
We never mean to bother,
We don’t like to make our passions other people’s concern,
And we walk in the world of safe people,
And at night we walk into our houses and burn.

Iowa

How I long to fall just a little bit,
To dance out of the lines and stray from the light,
But I fear that to fall in love with you
Is to fall from a great and gruesome height.
So I asked a friend about it, on a bad day,
Her husband had just left her,
She sat down on the chair he left behind, she said,
“What is love, where did it get me?
Whoever thought of love is no friend of mine.”

Iowa
Once I had everything,
I gave it up for the shoulder of your driveway
And the words I’ve never felt.
And so for you, I came this far across the tracks,
Ten miles above the limit, and with no seatbelt, and I’d do it again,
For tonight I went running through the screen doors of discretion,
For I woke up from a nightmare that I could not stand to see,
You were a-wandering out on the hills of Iowa,
And you were not thinking of me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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