The Ache of Grace


“Hurts so good.” “Sweet sorrow.”  Why do we say these things?  Why do good things make us ache?  And why does it feel that if  we name a goodness, a happiness, then we make it go away?

I was 12 when we visited the Allens up in Connecticut.  They’d moved away from the Red Bank area and I was sure we wouldn’t see them again.  The only close friends my parents had were a couple they’d known in college who were also a pastor and his wife.  They were also in New Jersey, so they stayed connected by beings pastors in the same region.

The pastorate was not conducive to friendship.  Parishioners got jealous if a pastor was closer to some members than others.  My father didn’t believe pastors could have friends.  And my mother found it difficult to be honest with people she was friends with;  she couldn’t share any problems or concerns that might reflect badly on my father.

But Chet and Sandie moved away and were no longer “parishioners.”  So I guess they were no longer off limits.  That weekend we went to see them was the “beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.”

Their 8 year old daughter Andrea had gotten some Poppers for Christmas.  They were little cylindrical pieces of foam that you pinched between your fingers, aiming them at other people.  The only thing I remember about that weekend is the Popper-fight that somehow erupted among the adults and children.  It seemed like there was enough Poppers to go around and then some, because the Popper fight went on for quite a while.  Chet and Sandie both attacked me and my mother got into the fray along with Andrea’s little 4 year old brother Chip.  It was like a pillow fight that had gotten out of control.  We were laughing, rolling, dodging, grabbing more poppers off the floor, pinching and popping blindly.  In the end, I could no longer reach any more ammunition, and Sandie was straddling my body on the floor, pelting me with her stash of little pieces of foam.  Finally, we all were on the floor–except my father who opted out of such nonsense–wiping our eyes, holding our bellies and laughing at absolutely nothing.  It was delicious and beautiful, and when Sandie made me surrender, she awkwardly disentangled her legs from my back and stood up.  I rolled over and took my time getting up, wiping the extra tears that formed in my eyes, and fighting the sudden urge to sob.

For those few minutes, I was outside of myself, out of my head, out of my life.  I forgot myself, which didn’t happen often.  For those moments I was free from my constant anxiety, the weighing of all words before I spoke them, the analyzing of every thought and emotion and subsequent self-condemnation.

I felt included.

Chet offered me a hand and pulled me up into a hug.  “You alright there, Peggy Sue?” he asked,  giggling.  The tears still formed in my eyes, but perhaps he thought they were leftover from all the laughter.  I smiled and let myself be held.

I was more than all right.

When we went back south to New Jersey, I replayed those moments over and over in my head, feeling a literal ache in my middle.  I curled up on my side in the backseat and replayed the visit again and again in my head.  I tried to write about it in my journal.  About how the weekend was so good it hurt.

I adored Sandie from that weekend on.  She took up permanent residence in my heart and as time went by, my love for her only deepened and took stronger root.  It didn’t matter that I was so shy I could hardly speak a whole sentence without evaluating it first.  It didn’t matter that I was quiet and timid.  I felt… visible.  She didn’t look through me or past me to my parents.  She smiled when she looked at me, as if she delighted in me.  She was a very touchy person– she was always putting her arm around me, scratching my back, tussling my hair or pulling me into a spontaneous hug.

Whenever we left a visit with them, I wrote every detail down, every touch, every word, trying to freeze it in my memory so I could retrieve it anytime.  So I had evidence it really happened.  That it was real.  It was a delicious pain.  Like eating a piece of chocolate so sweet it made your teeth hurt.

When I turned 14, my father was moved from Red Bank to Woodbury, New Jersey.  I thought my life had ended.  Red Bank was the only home I knew, as we’d moved there when I was five.  I grew up with all the same friends since kindergarten.  I was so shy, despite buying a book on How to Overcome Shyness.  My father thought that emotions were simply things that needed to be fixed and overcome, not felt.  Books, psychology, would fix anything.  Nothing “fixed” my shyness.  I didn’t know how I would survive leaving all my friends and be the new kid in school.

Fortunately, Kemble Memorial United Methodist Church in Woodbury embraced me along with my parents.  They helped me meet new kids before school started, and invited me to various youth activities in the church.  I felt welcomed.  They helped ease the terror of starting in a whole new school and having to make new friends when I was so shy.  They became my family.

The summer I turned 15, I decided to go to a summer camp called Pennington Institute.  It was a church camp put on by our Conference.  I’d never been away from home for a whole week before, but my then-boyfriend Eric was going, so I decided to go too.  The two of us were so painfully shy and awkward that I hoped it would give us a chance to relax with each other a bit, away from home.

Camp started on my birthday, so I didn’t really get to celebrate.  No one else knew it was my birthday, so as soon as my parents left, I kind of panicked.  What had I done?  A whole week?  I didn’t know anyone very well, and Eric already indicated that he wanted to hang out with his best friend.

After unpacking my things in my room, I wandered up to the boys’ floor to look for Eric.  He wasn’t there, so I came down the stairs that led into the main entrance of the building.  There was a crowd of teenagers milling about, greeting each other, dragging duffel bags and tennis rackets.  In the middle of the crowd was the head counselor, Ed, who was a pastor.  He’d been talking to my father earlier.  Ed was in his mid-thirties, and  dressed in shorts and a white T-shirt.  He had a whistle around his neck.  He looked up from the midst of the noisy teens and spotted me.

“Well, well!  What do we have here?” his voice was a deep baritone, loud enough to silence everyone.  They all looked up.  I felt my face get hot, and I stopped mid-step on the stairs.

“First day at camp and she’s already wandering around the boy’s floor.  And a pastor’s kid at that!!”  He gestured wildly with his hands and looked around.  The kids were all smiling up at me.

I could feel myself shrinking inward.  I thought I was in big trouble and I hated being singled out.  I opened my mouth but nothing came out.  Instead, I hurried down the stairs and ran in the opposite direction.

“You can run but you can’t hide, Michael!”  Ed called after me.  The youth around him laughed and resumed chatting.

During those first couple of days, I was so anxious and homesick that I couldn’t eat a thing.  My stomach was  twisted up in knots and I  wanted to go home.  This was a big mistake.  I didn’t go anywhere near Ed, but watched him closely.  He was very funny.  The youth all seemed to love him.  He was… weird.  He teased and joked and acted really goofy.  He made a fool of himself on purpose, to get a laugh.  I didn’t understand him.  The only pastor I really knew was my father, who always wore a tie, who never was silly or goofy, and certainly didn’t play.  My father would never lead a youth camp and found it very hard to relate to “young people.”  Ed was so different than any pastor I’d known.  I didn’t know if I liked it.  Or him.

By Monday, I’d decided I need to go home.  I was so sick to my stomach I’d never make it the whole week, and Eric was off with his buddy all the time.  Monday night, I called my Mom from the payphone in the lobby.  I was crying, begging her to come get me.  She was trying to convince me to stay.  Meanwhile, behind me I heard weeping and loud wailing.  I turned around and Ed was sitting across the lobby, pretending to cry.

“She’s waiting so desperately by the phone, wondering, ‘will he call? Does he love me?’ She doesn’t know.  But she waits, and hopes… oooohhhhhhhh!”  he collapsed into exaggerated bawling.

“Who is THAT?” my mother asked, a bit alarmed.

I couldn’t help but smile.  “Um, that’s Ed.  I guess he’s a pastor.  He’s the head counselor here, he’s a little weird.”

“Oh honey, I love youuuuuu!” Ed lamented in a falsetto voice.  I turned around and looked at him again.

“Oh no, I’m so sorry!” He was suddenly very serious, “I didn’t know you were on the phone, I thought you were waiting for a call, oh my gosh, I am so sorry…” he put his hand over his mouth and looked genuinely embarrassed.  I laughed out loud.

“Sounds like you’re having fun,” Mom said.

“No, no, that was just now, he… I don’t know him really,” I stumbled to recover my argument.  She agreed to come by the next day and see how I was doing and she’d decide then whether to take me home.  I hung up, hopeful.

Ed approached me.  “I really am so sorry, I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have done that… hey, we’re having a gathering in the gym in a few minutes, if you’re feeling up to it, why don’t you join us?”

I knew he could tell I’d been crying and I was embarrassed.  “Yeah, I need to go to my room first,” I said shyly and ran up the stairs.

The next day, my roommate suggested that we go to the pool before my parents came.  Brenda and I walked into the pool room in our swimsuits, me wearing my Dr. Scholls wooden sandals and my towel around my neck.  We walked by the bench where several of the camp counselors sat.

“There goes that Michael kid again, always making trouble…” Ed muttered loudly enough for me to hear.  I ignored him.  He was getting to be annoying.  I just wanted to go home.  I was starving.

Before we found a place to put our stuff down, he was right behind me.  “You going swimming, Michael?” He grinned like the Grinch. “Why wait?” and before I could take my next breath, he’d swung me up into his arms, cradling me.

He walked toward the side of the pool and already kids were chanting, “Throw her in! Throw her in!”  They were laughing and cheering.

As I kicked and screamed, Ed just grinned at me, swinging me back and forth, back and forth.  I felt a rush of anger and frustration as well as a bit of panic.  Brenda rushed over and grabbed my shoes off my feet.  The chanting and laughing went on, and still I felt a mix of embarrassment and anger.  Perhaps sensing that I wasn’t enjoying myself, he swung me a few more times and finally put me down.

“Never mind.  Too soon,” he shrugged.  I relaxed, just as he said, “but this is already damp anyway,” and he threw my towel in the pool.  The kids laughed.  I looked at my towel floating away, looked back at Ed and stomped my foot.  I couldn’t believe it!

A brown-haired guy named Dave was in the pool and grabbed my towel before it sunk.  “This yours?” He held it, dripping, above his head.

“Yes,” and I started to reach for it.

“Thought so!” he said and threw it further into the pool.  I sighed heavily and dove into the pool after my towel.  I swam toward the side and got out, lugging my heavy wet towel, and spotted Ed talking to someone.  I hurried toward him and the person he was talking to to warned him, “Look out!” as I threw my wet towel towards him.  It missed him and landed on the tile floor.

Ed winked and hurried off.

Brenda joined me and we went after him, spotting him here and there around campus before he ducked in another door.  My parents caught me running across campus with Brenda and I admitted that I was ok.  In fact, I realized… I was having a good time.  I stayed the week.  I barely ate a thing because my stomach never calmed down, but I had a good time.

The brown-haired boy named Dave started hanging around me.  Then he held my hand.  Then he kissed me.  I was over the moon.  Eric who?  Dave lived 80 miles away from me, so we didn’t get to see each other much over the few months we were “going out,” but we wrote letters every day, talked on the phone and convinced our parents to drive us to each other’s houses to visit.  It was over by January and my heart was temporarily shattered, but that experience of “first love” was my first taste of being giddy in love.

During that week of camp, Ed sought me out and started conversations with me.  When we made T shirts, I gave myself a “new” name.  I put the name “Peggy Sue” on the T-shirt, a name that Sandie had invented for me when I was 11.  To my new camp friends, I was Peggy Sue.

I watched Ed with other youth.  He was very popular.  He was fun and silly.  How could someone so “important” care at all for me? I wondered.  I didn’t realize until then how much I wished my own father could just love me for who I was and not always try to mold me into what he wanted; his little protege, his enraptured audience, his biggest worshiper.  I ached for a father who could look at me with love, instead of with Freudian analysis, summarizing me like a case study.

Not only did I enjoy the fun times, but I was very attentive during the study times of camp.  When he was serious, Ed was an engaging speaker and preacher.  It was as if he were personal friends with God.  His prayers weren’t formal, but sounded as if he were speaking to a beloved and familiar friend.  Ed was… real.  He got excited about telling us God loved us, or teaching us how the Bible stories related to our lives.  The singing was fun and inspiring to me, and I was moved by the candlelight commitment service.  It was an intense worship service with singing, Bible readings and skits.  It lifted me, empowered me and filled me up.

The week of Pennington–as it came to be for me for three more summers– was a week of intense community, sharing of feelings, hugging,  play and laughter, singing, swimming, and profound God-moments in the candlelight.  When I was at Pennington, I felt free to be myself.  I felt loved, visible, even popular.  In high school, I was a lonely goody two-shoes.  I didn’t fit in.

Going home from camp every year was a jolt to my emotions.  I felt exposed, vulnerable and cut off.  The rest of the world felt so harsh outside of camp.  My parents didn’t understand.  I never understood why they weren’t thrilled that their daughter had such an intense faith experience.  Instead they were annoyed that I was such an emotional mess when they picked me up.

I adored Ed like I adored Sandie and Chet.  He saw me.  He thought God loved me just the way I was, and he also seemed to think I was pretty great.

“Why do you hug him so much?” my mother would ask when I reluctantly folded myself into the car, tears running down my face in a mixture of joy and sweet sorrow.

“We hug a lot at camp, that’s all.”

“He shouldn’t be hugging you so much,” she’d say, meaning Ed.

“He’s like a father to you,” my father would add, “and of course you have sexual feelings toward him, that’s natural…”

“Dad!  I don’t!  Stop!” Leaving Pennington, I felt like my heart was hanging out of my chest, and the world was full of open containers of alcohol.  Rollo wouldn’t stop.  He wouldn’t give me a break, but kept dissecting me, especially at my most vulnerable.  I felt powerless in his presence to stop it.

“It’s true, I know why you love him so much, but he shouldn’t take advantage of that,” he said casually.

“What? He’s not… Dad, just please, be quiet.”  And I’d slump down in the backseat, holding all my camp memories close to my chest, aching so much it felt like I’d break in two.

My growing faith got me through high school.  I struggled daily with depression and anxiety.  I wrote poetry.  I kept a journal, into which I wrote all my feelings, good and bad.  I wrote Sandie and Ed lengthy letters, sharing some of my poetry, and every so often they’d reply.  I wrote letters to all my camp friends, listened to music for hours in my room and played my guitar.  I joined the Adult Choir, the bell choir and acted in plays at church.  Singing was a therapy for me that I savored.  I had a few close friends in high school who were just as nerdy as I was.

God was in the music, the poetry, the highs of summer camp, the candlelight, and in the agonizing periods of darkness and loneliness.  God saturated my life.  In that, I rested and breathed.


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