To Drink from the Silver Cup: From Faith Through Exile and Beyond
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READERS AND LISTENERS RESPOND
“This is quickly becoming one of the most important, if not the most important, books I’ve ever read. It’s a life-ring.” In the US, we’d call it a life preserver; this comment came by Facebook message from a young lesbian who attended one of my workshops. She grew up in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), the denomination I grew in which I grew up.
“Can you come to our house for lunch while you’re still up here in Cuba? I’m more than halfway through your book, and I have so many questions I want to ask you.” This man had taught in the little rural school system where I was a school counselor, but we’d never known each other well. I had lunch with him and his wife, whom I knew a little better. Nearing eighty, there was so much unresolved for him about his strict Baptist upbringing, which almost drew him into seminary. His lifetime of spiritual seeking had in many ways paralleled mine as recounted in the book.
“Your book touched me so deeply,” the woman said through tears. “It’s not because I have a lesbian daughter. That was easy to accept. It’s because I didn’t have that passion for faith that you had as a child and a teenager. My rigid upbringing [in the CRC] left me cold. I left it and later joined a more open church. I never looked back.” Her tears told me that the spiritual experience that had failed to touch her represented a loss.
A woman from Minneapolis, in the way of FB—a friend of friends—saw my post about taking the Blue Line to O’Hare after leaving Michigan. She wrote, “Will you be coming to Minneapolis? Please, please, please yes!” How can I turn down a request like that? She wrote more, “I simply devoured your book. For me to read a book in a week (with an 8-year-old, 18-month-old, full-time job and husband who travels) is unheard of. So much of it resonated with me (our similar Dutch upbringing, struggles with doubt, love of mysticism, and leaving a church we love and having to make our home in a new denomination).”
EXCERPT FROM TO DRINK FROM THE SILVER CUP
… a stone, a leaf, a door… O lost, and by the wind grieved…
~ Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
I left before the church could excommunicate me. It wasn’t because I wanted to leave. I went quietly out the back door. I wanted almost more than anything to stay there in the security of all that I knew, there in the place where I’d belonged ever since before I could remember.
On a Sunday afternoon in early autumn, when I was sixteen years old—that was when I started to sense that I would have to leave. My mother, father, and I were rolling back into Gallup in the mission station wagon. My brothers had all stayed home that afternoon. As we rounded the corner onto Second Street, I saw the railroad arms descending. Red lights flashed, and bells clanged, and I brought the car to a stop.
My mother started talking about two women who worked at Rehoboth, the hub of our mission in the Navajo Nation. Jennie was a blonde, blue-eyed nurse. Alice was a stocky, slightly older Navajo woman who ran the laundry. “We’re worried about Jennie,” my mother said, “because she’s been staying with Alice at night.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked, but already I was afraid.
My mother raised her voice and pushed her words out on heavy air. “They’re living in sin.
They should see a doctor.”
I might have laughed at that odd juxtaposition, except that her two sentences gripped my belly in a pair of cold claws. My mother was a large woman, always worrying about her weight. At that moment, she became vast, filling the car and the space around it. My father seemed to have gone somewhere else, and I shrank to nothing but white knuckles on the steering wheel.
When I got my eyes back, I fastened them on the freight cars that rumbled by. Baltimore and Ohio. Orange. Brown water marks. Rust-red Topeka, Atchison and Santa Fe. Grimy white words. My mind grasped at inconsequential facts: “No train ever stopped in Santa Fe.” “The Santa Fe stop is in one-horse Lamy.”
My mother might have gone on talking or not. I heard nothing but the bells going off inside my head.
At last I pulled into our gravel driveway. All I could think of was getting to my bedroom and destroying the piece of me that lay in a flat, powder blue cardboard box. Those twelve letters from Grace Vander Laan. Grace had discovered onionskin paper and cartridge fountain pens that summer. When I opened the box, I held the sheets of sheer, crinkly paper in my shaking hands. For one last time I read her stories about being a mission volunteer in Los Angeles. “I’m nut-brown,” she wrote, “from passing out gospel tracts in the poorest neighborhoods and lying out on the beach in between.”
Then came the parts I needed to destroy. “Remember being on the bus on the way back from Toadlena? Holding hands, my head on your shoulder? Do you think Charlie is right, that you’re my male substitute? I don’t think so. I just love you for who you are, and I will always.” My body summoned other moments of my junior year—holding hands in Reformed Doctrine class, pressing tight and close to each other during chapel, deciding whether to kiss on the mouth—a first kiss—during a pause while we practiced for our brass ensemble.
Grace and I never really talked about us. We just did stuff. But when we were on a school field trip, we shared a room with two other girls. Grace and I shared a bed. My legs and arms entwined with hers, I tried to breathe quietly, which was hard when my body wanted to pant and moan. Then Grace whispered, warm and moist in my ear, “This is wrong.” I felt like she’d blown ice water into my stomach.
I whispered back, “No it’s not. We’re just friends who love each other a lot.” But I was afraid. Was it because I might be sinning, or was I afraid of losing Grace, afraid she would want to stop because she thought it was wrong? We held onto each other tightly after that, waiting for sleep and whatever else might come.
While I reread Grace’s letters, my insides trembled. I remembered us finally pressing each other’s lips through the dusty window screen of my dorm room. We hadn’t kissed in that pause during ensemble practice, but Grace wouldn’t leave it unfinished. I was almost asleep that night when she scratched at the window. I was afraid Mr. Haverdink, the houseparent, would come by any minute and shine his flashlight under the door and up the walls. If he suspected anything other than sleep was happening, he would barge in. Still, we had our first lip-to-lip kiss.
All the time I reread Grace’s letters, I was nervous. At any moment my mother might thrust open my bedroom door and tell me to set the table. If she did, I knew her telescopic eyes would read everything on those fragile pages. Before she could, I stuffed the letters back into the box and went into the kitchen to get matches.
“I want you to set the table,” she said.
“I need to take some trash down. Can I do that first?”
“Okay, but hurry up. Mr. Vander Laan is coming for supper. He’ll want to practice with you before we eat.”
I’d forgotten that Grace’s father would be playing the piano for hymn singing at the Twin Lakes Chapter House. He would also accompany me on my trombone for a solo. I took the letters and rushed down the steps to the rusty backyard burn barrel. I lifted the lid off the blue box and carefully laid the onionskin envelopes on the bed of cold ashes. I lit a match and watched Grace’s words of lasting love and banal mission activities turn into thin black flakes.
Roly-poly, jolly Mr. Vander Laan arrived, and my mother shooed my brothers outside so we wouldn’t be disturbed. Grace’s dad sat at the piano. He asked what I was going to play.
“’The Holy City,’” I said. I didn’t know how I was going to get my body to stop shaking so I could blow air into the horn and move the slide. At the same time, I sensed that this horrible quivering vibrated only inside me, that no one could see it. All my thoughts went into each movement I had to make. “Unpack the trombone.” “Mr. Vander Laan is playing those ripples.” “Attach the slide to the bell.” “Mom hates flashy, ripply playing.” “Warm up the mouthpiece.”
Everything happened in slow motion, but at last my horn was put together, and I lifted it to my lips. At the second verse, Mr. Vander Laan said, “Let’s draw out these phrases. Never play two verses exactly the same way. Otherwise, why play more than one?” He grinned up at me and winked. I nodded and mechanically did what he said.
When we were done, I put the trombone back in its case and left my father and Mr. Vander Laan talking in the living room. I could hear them from a few feet away where I brushed my hair with my bedroom door open. Dad went on and on about expanding his mission beyond the little gray stucco chapel at Tohlakai.
I’d only been half listening until Grace’s dad said to mine, “Say, did you hear about those two teachers at the Christian school in Denver?”
“No, I don’t think so. What?”
“They were roommates. Then at the end of the school year, one of them came to the minister—Huizenga I think it is—and told him that she felt she was a man in a woman’s body.”
“What?” My dad said. “What?” and for the second time that day my stomach whirled. I held my hairbrush in midair.
“Ja. It happens, you know. I guess. They have surgery for it. Huizenga helped her. Him. I don’t know what to say. Him, I guess. Huizenga loaned him men’s clothes, and he had the surgery. So he came to school the next year a man. They say the kids didn’t have any trouble with it. Probably more the adults.”
“That can’t be…”
“Wait. There’s more. He. She. He was in love with the woman teacher who was her, his, roommate.”
“That’s not right. The Bible… Romans one says, ‘God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women burned in their lust one toward another.’ Verse twenty-six. It’s not right. Plain as day.”
I held my breath and hoped my mother wouldn’t call me back to the kitchen. I needed to hear this. I didn’t want to hear it.
“But that’s just it. It wasn’t two women anymore. I think it took a lot of guts for Huizenga to help him. Them. But you know what it made me think of? Those girls’ parents. How did they react? How would you and I feel if that happened with one of our kids?”
Everything had gone still around me. Like I was enclosed in a soundproof bubble so I couldn’t hear my dad’s response. Stillness around me, but my mind churning out one thought after another. “Does Grace’s dad know something about us? Why else would he ask about those girls’ parents? Is that what I am? A man in a woman’s body?” I looked down at my well-developed breasts, my slim waist and flat belly, curving hips. “I don’t think so. But I loved Grace. Grace is gone to college now. And I loved to touch and kiss her. Who am I?”
My mother called the boys back in to wash up. I could barely choke down half a baloney sandwich and some lime Jell-O with pears. I tried to swallow my rising fear with the sandwich. Potato chips were a rare treat, but I didn’t want any. No one noticed—one of the good things about sitting at the table with seven younger brothers and company besides.
At Twin Lakes, I played for the singing and then performed “The Holy City” the way Mr. Vander Laan wanted me to. The song is a joyful paean of children and angels singing loud and sweet hosannas. For the most part. The second verse, the flashback or forward, depending on how you hear it, takes you to the dark hour of the crucifixion. That’s the one Grace’s dad wanted me to play like a quiet dirge. I was always good at imagining that horrible, gracious hour when Jesus hung on the cross to save me from my sins. I could take the idea and let it fill my chest with gratitude and sorrow. There and then, I let it fill my horn.
My dad started up a black and white movie about the life of the Apostle Paul. With my part in the service over, thoughts came rushing back. “Alice and Jennie are living in sin.” “Was what Grace and I did together a sin?” “She said it was wrong.” “But I loved her.”
Back in the movie, I heard a man who sounded like he was in an echo chamber. He cried, “Come over into Macedonia and help us.” It was Paul’s call to his next mission.
That was one of my father’s favorite verses, the call to preach the gospel. Any words about God’s call could set him on fire. My father loved being a missionary. I loved those words too. I had been sure that one day I would hear God call me to serve. That evening my hope for a call was gone. I got up, glad that I didn’t have to cross the light of the projector. If anyone noticed me leave, they would think I was on my way to the outhouse.
A corral stood close to the chapter house, and I walked around it, listening to the tinkling of sheep bells, smelling the pungent manure, soaked in goat and sheep urine. I held onto myself with both arms as I walked, head down. It was chilly at this time of year after the sun went down. I held on for warmth but also to keep from losing the only life I knew.
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