Last winter my husband Scott and I, inspired by a wave of photo album-induced nostalgia, invited our college buddies to Maine for a weekend in mid-July. To our great amazement, everyone decided to come. We rescued our long-unused dartboard, planned a lobster feed, pulled out roll-a-beds and pitched a tent in the yard. By last Friday, we were ready for the deluge of company from Boston and D.C., North Carolina and New Gloucester, Maine. What we weren’t ready for was the dynamic among people, many of whom hadn’t seen one another in the ten years since our last big weekend party.
Of the 14 adults who gathered for the weekend, 13 of us went to Gordon College, a non-denominational Christian liberal arts school near Boston. Twelve of us graduated. (I alone ditched early and transferred to a southern women’s college.) Some came to Gordon by way of Young Life, some from a strong youth group, a few of us found our way there by the guidance of the Holy Spirit alone. We were all pretty much alike and were drawn together because we were bright, had a quirky sense of humor, and loved to argue.
Most of us married Gordon people, some within the core group and some outside. One was a student government president; three were student newspaper editors. Ten of us ended up getting a master’s degree or a Ph.D. Two are currently seminarians. All but two of us still attend church. About half of us turned into Episcopalians along the way. Only four of us decided to have children. One of us is a gay man.
Scott and I were glad Tom said he’d come for the weekend. We had lost touch with him in recently and had never met John, his partner of nine years, whom he’d met at an Episcopal church in Washington. Tom emailed me just last week to ask if everyone "knew" and if I thought there would be any weirdness around the fact that he is gay. I wrote back breezily that I thought there would be plenty of weirdness, though I doubted any of it would involve him and John. We were old friends, after all, and the ties are powerful. But I was wrong.
On Friday and Saturday, everything appeared to be fine. We went swimming in the Mill Pond, inner-tubing on the lake, played with my boys’ stomp rocket, took turns holding the baby. We sat around on our deck in fake Adirondack chairs telling stories on each other, drinking beer, laughing, and eating Popsicles amid the pine trees in the fine Maine summer sunshine. But on Saturday afternoon, my Martha Stewart radar caught a blip when I noticed a few people well apart from the rest. I caught Scott’s attention across the deck, and eyed him quizzically. "They’re okay," he mouthed to reassure me.
I thought nothing more about it until Sunday afternoon. It was dismal and rainy and people were scattered throughout the house with books or in little conversational clusters. A few couples had left, and the rest of us were going out to dinner. I flopped on the living room couch and wondered aloud where we should eat. The friends who had been sitting away from the others on Saturday were with me. Karen, a high school chemistry teacher, cleared her throat. "I have to tell you, Heido, I really don’t feel comfortable around Tom and John. "It’s obvious," she continued, "that most people are okay with it, but I’m not." I asked if it was because a smaller group of us was going out to dinner and she explained that she had felt that way in the big group too. The public relations sector of my brain began to hum. "Hmmm," I said calmly. "Let me get back to you on this." I ran upstairs and gave a muffled yelp down the hallway, "Scott!" When he stuck his head out of his office, I furiously gestured him into our bedroom and shut the door.
"Well," said Mr. Rational after I related my conversation with Karen. "Everyone’s allowed to be in a different place about this, and that’s okay. But we’re going out to dinner, and if she’s uncomfortable she doesn’t have to come. Don’t let it upset you." He opened the door and walked out. Easy for him.
Alone, I sat down in my comfy reading chair and began to tremble. Mostly I trembled because the hostess in me wanted everyone to get along, but also because I love my friend Tom. I met him when he was a charming college freshman who was fun and witty, wise and savvy about everything. He helped us plan our wedding. I didn’t want to see him hurt by anyone’s inability to hang around him. He is our old pal. We love him and enjoy his company. I also trembled because Karen was put off by Tom and John’s presence at the weekend. I didn’t want her to be uncomfortable in my home. I wanted to protect her, too. "Oh God… help," I said aloud to myself in the quiet, empty room, "Ah," the ever-present, eyebrow-arching Spirit of God said back to me, "now there’s an idea."
For a moment I thought of all the bishops and deputies at General Convention in Denver where they were just finishing up two weeks of dealing, in part, with something of the same quandary. Both the bishops and the deputies had, a few days before, passed a resolution that charged Episcopalians with "the imperative to promote conversation between persons of differing experiences and perspectives." Well, obviously, they weren’t spending the weekend at my house.
I remembered that at Gordon many of us could spend hours in friendly, boisterous debate about the matters of God, a phrase in scripture, a political point of view. Now, as grown-ups, we were way too polite to discuss the things that mattered. The cadence of our banter was familiar, but the substance was gone. Now we talked of mortgage points, children’s sleep habits, weight loss, job interviews, aging parents, web sites. Then, as I sat there musing, it hit — a burst of grace shot through me — and I just knew what to do.
God gave me the resolve to get over it, stop trembling, go to the phone and order six large pizzas. We didn’t have to go out at all! We could stay at our house and break bread, or at least a bread-like product with cheese and assorted toppings. We didn’t have to talk much; we just had to eat – some on the porch, some in the kitchen -- together in the same house. It wasn’t a resolution, but it was a start.
* Winner of the 2001 Polly Bond Award of Excellence for Editorial Courage by Episcopal Communicators
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