At the YMCA, I am on the third mile. It’s a Thursday night and way too cold outside, not that I ever run outdoors. I much prefer it in here- I can read and the hum of thumping feet provides it’s own kind of quiet. Typically, I pick a treadmill that is isolated, away from any neighboring runners, because it makes me feel more comfortable and relaxed, less cramped by others’ breathing and odor, their occasional spray of sweat.
I’m on the final mile when out of the corner of my left eye, I see him, stepping onto the treadmill, carrying the same hefty weight and cheap glasses. And it’s not like I can pretend I don’t see him.
He’s the dad of a close friend from high school. He was the parent other parents resented. He was, plain and simple, the worst.
In high school, he bought us all beer, fed us cigarettes, and made sure to look away whenever someone pulled out a joint. Most nights, he just sat around the bonfire spitting slurs at each of us, boozing himself into oblivion. Dad of the YEAR.
When we first trade glances, we both let out overly loud laughs and begin the how are ya?, and then small talk, chatting and chatting, until he gets to the Standard Operating Question:
So what have YOU been DOING these past few years?
Wandering, I say. Randomly, I think.
I vaguely explain my months in Kosovo where I chased a dream and became a cynic. How I came home, took a job as a paraprofessional at a local high school and then grew restless. In defiance of mediocrity, I packed my bags and sped across the country to DC, boomeranging back three months later.
He nods absentmindedly and starts telling me about my friend, his son, who was just promoted at work and is now taking in six digits- a corner office as a perk! He adds without eye contact, you’ll figure it out soon enough. I smile not even surprised.
It’s a quintessential question of life, Calling. Where are you going? Where have you gone? What are you building with your degree, with your intellect, with your hunger for life. How are you becoming the man you were always meant to be?
It’s a loaded question pointed with high expectations. And I feel incapable of answering it these days. Unsure of where to start.
~ ~ ~
When I was kindergarten, I have a colorful memory of telling Mrs. Robertson that when I grew up, I wanted to be an Owl. A year later, it was a Vet. And then a Journalist. A Scientist. A Pediatrician. A Sports Agent. And just about every other card in the Game of Life, until I turned twelve and my world shifted beneath me. Aware of my brokenness, my unloveliness, my sole purpose in life centered on my own healing. On becoming Straight. Being Changed.
I saw the Happy Ever After being told as a great redemption story. A boy is broken, but then fixed, made whole, and then, at long last, Loved, by God and by everyone.
My identity wrapped tightly around being changed, so much so that when that didn’t happen, I went ahead with the call anyway. I let myself fall and shatter that I might put myself back together again. A bizarre sort of psychology that I’m sure has no name.
I took up smoking in high school so that I could quit. I drank and drank and drank, shoplifted, rolled joints, as a way of writing my own story. Sketching a before I could speak about, an after I could feel. A way I could fit in with all the other believers turning away from themselves and up to the Lord.
In college, I declared Political Science my major and making Public Policy my dream. I wanted to take down and fix the broken things of our world: Starvation, Poverty, Prison Reform and, my greatest love, “The Energy Crisis.” I wanted to be a fixer, a doer, a world changer. I wanted to be significant.
Or at least, that’s what I thought that was.
I actually needed to change the world because I could not change myself. I could not pray away the gay. I was so wired for change that I took up smoking so I could stop and I took up politics so I could win. And then I grew defensive and distant. I became a lightening rod. I stared out at everyone in judgment while I quietly built my case, throwing out a hundred prickly opinions that burst like claymores should anyone try to get close. That they might look only at my anger or not look at me at all.
It was a platinum-made, perfectly constructed closet.
But then, in October 2011, I came out to my family and it was like the world unwrapped new. I felt a lifted weight and the world seemed foreign, and in the following months, nothing made much sense anymore.
I tried throwing myself back into the change passions, but they felt wrong somehow. I traveled to Kosovo to fix the nation’s electric grid, only to find out I hated research, and Energy Policy. I then fled to DC, my haven, only to find out I actually wanted no part in the political games. Both times, when I came home, I sunk deep into a fog of uncertainty.
The old dreams of significance, of making up for, of being enough, no longer fit this Out man who now knows he was loved all along. He was wholly enough. His value was set by nails on a cross. Inside a promise of never leaving nor forsaking.
Today, I work in a job that drains me, and I live with my parents. I am unsure of my calling and I am constantly feeling inadequate to my bankrolling peers. But grace is abounding and a balm to my journey. My start was complicated, perhaps unfair, sure, but I am learning about the God of do-overs. The God that doesn’t always point out the direction, but says go anyway. Jump. Fall. Crash. Climb. Walk, and I’ll make a way.
At church, Pastor Pagitt asks us all, in the spirit of Lent, to grab our own wrists in each hand, like their shackles. He says, “Quietly, to yourself, give up what you need to be free from. And then let go.”
Down to my dog-tired heart, I whisper, you are free of this. I unbind you from expectation, from financial success, from the life you’ve always thought you were supposed to live. You are free, go.
And so I go.