Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Instant Messenger and Little Women

Continued from In Which Things Get Messy

Traverse City, Michigan          late May, 2000

I knew that by nipping a courtship in the bud I was probably ending what had once been a warm relationship, but I had been raised on stories of extreme sacrificial love (Shiokari Pass, for example, where the protagonist throws himself under a runaway train and his fiancee dedicates herself to his memory; or Abraham) and it seemed far more romantic and dramatic to memorialize an ardent friendship than let it wither in a slow death under family scrutiny.

After Chris left, we had more house guests. Two former IBLP staff members were having a Michigan wedding and my old roommate from Brook Manor (also my roommate in Moscow, where we had met the couple who was getting married) was in town for the occasion. As we drove to the church together, I told her about the events of the last week: what had happened with Chris, where things stood now, and some of the reasons Chris and I weren't right for each other. Then we two single ladies sat to watch a courtship culminate in holy matrimony. Eating cake at the lovely yet still conservative reception, we encountered numerous old acquaintances from the Institute. My feelings toward IBLP were definitely mixed at that point, but these were still "my people".

The Sleeping Bear Dunes
After my friend left, we played host to a brother-sister pair we had gotten to know through ATI. Since they were from out of state, we took them to the sand dunes on the shore of Lake Michigan. We had a picnic and then most of the family went hiking to get a good view of the sand and the water. I retreated to the van where I sat in a backseat and cried my eyes out. It was too much, returning to the same picturesque place where Chris and I had played in the sand just the week before, knowing now that he actually had been attracted to me and at the same time knowing that that chapter had been definitively closed.

I didn't regret asking Scott to cease "negotiations" with Chris. But I was overwhelmed with waves of intense emotion. I was grieving something, but couldn't articulate exactly what I had lost. Chris had never been "mine". It wasn't like we had broken up or anything! But I was sad anyway, so, alone in the back of the van, I let myself cry. I was certain that God would give me "the desires of my heart" (whatever they were) but for the present I was still quite miserable. It comforted me to think that I would be leaving for the Summer Institute of Linguistics in a few days. It was time to find a new adventure.

That Saturday I was alone in Dad's office signed into AOL Instant Messenger. Chris had been back in Kansas for about a week, and had just started his new job at the phone company. And then his screenname popped up with a greeting. I checked the door to the hallway. No one there. I positioned my fingers over the home row and took a breath.

A girl was allowed to initiate a handshake, but in relationships she was supposed to be the patient responsive partner. And Chris was initiating. Even though he knew where things stood. That I was not interested in courting him. I felt I had been as honest as possible, and if he thought he could "guard his heart" and still be friends with me, well, that was his risk to take. I was glad to think that our friendship could survive the blow I'd dealt it the weekend before. Surely I didn't need Scott's permission to chat with Chris on IM? We had two years of experience with digital communication, after all, planning everything from pizza orders and work schedules to cross-country trips!

Our conversation was brief, only a few sentences. It was important to me that Chris know I didn't dislike him. When we stopped typing, I felt relieved. I still wondered how Chris had come up with the idea of trying to court me in the first place, but I still esteemed our friendship very highly and thanked God for giving it back to me, as it were.

But there was one more twist to the tale before I boarded my plane for North Dakota. Remember how Chris had wanted to sponsor my upcoming missions trip to the Philippines? He had intended to be anonymous, of course, but Dad had let the cat out of the bag. To my amazement, Chris still wanted to send the money. He convinced his dad to talk to my dad and in the end, Scott agreed that Chris could mail the check to him, with the understanding that there would be no strings attached (romantic strings? emotional strings?). After all, I might meet a stud who was called to the mission field and we could end up sharing a lifelong ministry!

Bill Gothard's definition of Love kept dancing through my head: "Giving to others' basic needs without having as my motive personal reward". What determination Chris had! What guts, what generosity!

The centaur logo
Days later, my mind more at ease, I put on my favorite traveling jumper and headed to the airport. During the layover in Minneapolis, I checked out a bookstore. It was my first time loose in a secular bookstore so I floundered a bit, searching for something familiar. I found it on the shelf of children's classics: a paperback edition of  Little Women. Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth had been my companions through childhood, from Mama's copy with the broken purple cover to the fine illustrated edition that had been a gift from my grandfather. That had been a Grosset & Dunlap Illustrated Junior Library edition, complete with the centaur illustration that was their logo. I had carefully cut out an oval shape around the centaur, excising him from the back cover, to please Mama. I wasn't sure if this was important because he was half-beast, or because he was shirtless, but it was a small price to pay for owning the book. Using markers, I created my own decorative design on the part of the blank page that showed through the hole. You could say my volume of Little Women was personalized.
The front of my "personalized" copy

And it was dear to me. I must have read it a dozen times. Sometimes straight through, sometimes only the chapter that spoke to me at the moment. Because it was the longest story on my shelf, I took it along on many a road trip. And I was careful never to read the play in the second chapter, which Mama had warned me against. Though I eventually succumbed to curiosity and read the whole of the story the friends made up while having their picnic in chapter twelve. Though it surely contained objectionable elements, it had never been expressly forbidden.

I adored Jo. I sympathized with Amy. I understood Meg's vanity, and pretended my nightgown was her white tarlatan. Marmee was my rock. Mr. Bhaer's advice got me through some difficult phases of adolescence and I could recite Meg and John Brooke's marital conflicts from memory. I loved that Meg's jelly wouldn't jell, that Aunt March was too proud to put her name on her wedding gift, and Demi's precocious antics made me laugh every time. Alcott's phrases imprinted themselves in my brain.

And then, after so many years of offering moral support, my book was taken from me suddenly one night. It had been lying in the living room when my dad picked it up, opened it at random, and read a few lines aloud.
"Good evening, Diana!" said Laurie, with the look of satisfaction she liked to see in his eyes when they rested on her.
"Good evening, Apollo!" she answered, smiling back at him..."
Diana! Apollo! It might as well have said, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" How could I enjoy a novel with such blatant pagan references? I knew the commandment: "And in all things that I have said unto you be circumspect: and make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth" (Exodus 23:13). And Louisa May's writing was laced with mythology, from the Romans to the Reformers! Troubled by this damning selection, I looked at Mama, expecting her to come to my book's defense. She had taught me to love it! But Mama only raised her eyebrows sadly and shrugged. I do not remember how old I was at the time--late teens? early twenties?--but I remember feeling beaten, doomed, sucker-punched. I never saw it coming. It was so unfair I was speechless. Scott confiscated my book that night and I never saw it again.

The little paperback at the airport was only a few dollars. Of course, I felt rebellious, but I also felt completely justified. We boarded the plane to Grand Forks and I found my window seat, next to a clean-cut nervous little man who uttered not a word though I tried to give him a friendly smile. After securing my seat belt, I pulled out my new Little Women and headed straight for the chapter where Jo rejected Laurie's interest.

"...[Y]ou're a great deal too good for me, and I'm so grateful to you, and so proud and fond of you, I don't know why I can't love you as you want me to. I've tried, but I can't change the feeling, and it would be a lie to say I do when I don't."
"Really, truly, Jo?"
He stopped short, and caught both her hands as he put his question with a look that she did not soon forget.
"Really, truly, dear."
They were in the grove now, close by the stile, and when the last words fell reluctantly from Jo's lips, Laurie dropped her hands and turned as if to go on, but for once in his life the fence was too much for him. So he just laid his head down on the mossy post, and stood so still that Jo was frightened.
"Oh, Teddy, I'm sorry, so desperately sorry... I can't help it. You know it's impossible for people to make themselves love other people if they don't," cried Jo inelegantly but remorsefully, as she softly patted his shoulder, remembering the time when he had comforted her so long ago...
"You'll love someone else too, like a sensible boy, and forget all this trouble... I agree with Mother that you and I are not suited to each other, because our quick tempers and strong wills would probably make us very miserable, if we were so foolish as to..." Jo paused a little over the last word, but Laurie uttered it with a rapturous expression.
"Marry--no we shouldn't! If you loved me, Jo, I should be a perfect saint, for you could make me anything you like."
"No, I can't. I've tried and failed, and I won't risk our happiness by such a serious experiment. We don't agree and we never shall, so we'll be good friends all our lives, but we won't go and do anything rash."
"...I won't be reasonable. I don't want to take what you call `a sensible view'. It won't help me, and it only makes it harder. I don't believe you've got any heart."
"I wish I hadn't."
...Not until months afterward did Jo understand how she had the strength of mind to hold fast to the resolution she had made when she decided that she did not love her boy, and never could. It was very hard to do, but she did it, knowing that delay was both useless and cruel.
"I can't say `yes' truly, so I won't say it at all. You'll see that I'm right, by-and-by, and thank me for it..."

Clutching the book in my lap with both hands, I let the tears roll down my face.

Continued at Breaking Up With Fundamentalism


  1. "Little Women" was my favorite book growing up. I used to read it twice a year, and sometimes I'd pick out a favorite chapter or two to read on occasion. That was a shame your copy was confiscated. When I was young, my mother was clueless about picking up on the god references in the book, and I think my dad objected to the mushy scenes. Somehow, this book wasn't ever taken from me, although I would never read it out where my dad could see... or if he passed by, I hid it so he wouldn't freshly examine it and make a decision to take and burn it. (Evil books were never simply taken and thrown out, they were burned.) LOL.

    Oh, I feel so bad that you felt you had to cut out the centaur logo from your book. I can see myself fastidiously doing something like that. I once bought a copy of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights for my sister for Christmas. The publishers may have been Grosset and Dunlap, but I'm not sure. The quality of the book was the highest, with beautiful print and pages that felt almost silky. But I had a huge dilemma. There was a pattern of mythical creatures skating across the inside covers, and there was the same mythical creature on the spine. I spent like 45 minutes debating: do I buy the cheap, "Godly," and safe paperback version, or a Godless but gorgeous version. I chose the Godless versions, and nearly had a panic attack, but packaged them in a box so that the logo would be hidden so that when my sister opened the box, her first impression of the books, at least, would be favorable. Why did we have to go through so much inner turmoil and guilt just over a logo. Sheez! Glad to not be in that frame of mind anymore! :)

  2. I did not grow up ATI but I married a guy who did. Thankfully he had already started backing away from it by the time we met but its influence made life...interesting. Your stories are giving me so much insight into his growing up years! Can't wait to read the rest.