NOTE: This post concerns my custody struggles over time with Susanna. I would prefer she not read this, but I will not be silenced by fear that she could. My blog is public, but Susanna does not subscribe to it or visit it, so unless someone shows it to her, she won’t see it. Please don’t show it to her.
I got no time to be small
David R. Weiss
Some of you know I was dismayed this past week when my ex-wife claimed the power to unilaterally erase a weekend my daughter was supposed to spend with me. Then, after appealing to Susanna’s guardian ad litem to stop this nonsense, I was further crushed when—pressured by my ex’s attorney—the GAL reluctantly confirmed that she probably had the power to cancel placement. Just like that.
Yesterday after lunch I received his e-mail the same way you receive a kick in the gut: with the wind knocked out of me. I sat in the library at Valparaiso University where I had just finished spending two days empowering students … feeling overwhelmed at my own powerlessness and unable to catch my breath.
On the long seven-hour drive home I wept when I spoke to Margaret on the phone. I sobbed and screamed in anguish when I talked to my son, Ben.
But this afternoon, while watching 42, the story of Jackie Robinson, right there in the theater, I remembered something very important: I got no time for being small.
So, I’m going to come clean, and then I’m going to move forward with full force.
I live under a custody order that is insane. I lived the last three years of a nine-year marriage with a violent spouse. Now, fourteen years later, while my ex-wife can no longer hit me (though I suspect she wishes she still could) she is empowered through the custody order to be almost as abusive as she wants to my placement time. And let me just note this twisted irony: the main architect of this custody order is a lesbian judge. She’s made my life as a father a living hell while I work like hell to make her life as a lesbian easier. Go figure.
Here’s what happened to this weekend. (Now this is a little complicated, but you can’t begin to fathom the madness that hovers over my life unless you try to follow this.)
Susanna plays violin in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO). They rehearse almost every Saturday morning during the school year and have three concerts each year. She can only miss a couple rehearsals in each concert cycle. I plan her school year placement schedule with me around her WYSO schedule (as well as a host of other constraints placed on me by the custody order). From mid-March to mid-May she would miss two rehearsals (her limit) to be with me and the rest of her family in St. Paul.
However, unbeknownst to me, the spring break tour by Susanna’s high school orchestra (which is distinct from WYSO) was going to force her to miss a third rehearsal in late March. Under the custody order, if that happens, I’m required to move one of my Minnesota weekends into a hotel room in Madison, Wisconsin so that Susanna doesn’t exceed her limit of absences. That’s odious, to say the least. Because the order already requires me to spend one of my nine school year weekends in a hotel room in Madison. And because whenever I have to do this, the order also implicitly encourages Susanna to sleep at her mom’s while Margaret and I (and anyone else who comes along) stay at the hotel. And because it practically goes out of its way to insure that this domino-effect triggering a second required hotel weekend will happen sooner or later. And this spring it did.
But it gets worse, because Susanna’s mom knew this was likely to happen since last December when (at a parents meeting for the orchestra tour) she saw the first tentative schedule for this year’s tour. For my part, the orchestra teacher had provided me the itinerary from the last tour and I had used it to make out my placement schedule for the coming school year back in June 2012 (a deadline imposed by the order). By that itinerary Susanna had a good 4-hour buffer between rehearsal and load time. So for three months Susanna’s mom knew this domino-effect was likely going to happen. But she never told me. With even two weeks advance notice I could have rearranged the spring placement schedule to accommodate the early tour departure. Instead, she chose to inform me of the departure time two hours after the bus left (and while I was in Uganda).
But it gets worse. Because I actually resolved the domino-effect dilemma. I contacted WYSO directly and learned that they have a “special consideration” clause in the attendance policy for absences related to school music involvement—and her missed rehearsal due to the spring break tour would not count toward her two allowed absences. Both Minnesota weekends could happen as planned. So everything was coming together after all. And this is where things fell apart.
I expected Susanna’s mom to be angry that I managed to “save” both Minnesota placements. I just didn’t realize how easily she could undo everything. I sent her a civil, measured email letting her know I had resolved the problem. At the end of my message, I made a small request. That request cost me the weekend.
These are the words—verbatim—that cost me this weekend with Susanna:
In the interest of resolving issues like this more easily in the future, I request that whenever possible you alert me as soon as you see a potential conflict rather than after it has taken place. I had a phone conversation with Chad Whalley last June (in which he clearly indicated a 4 p.m. departure—a ballpark figure that even had it varied by 4 hours would’ve still allowed for a partial WYSO practice) and made my placement schedule out based on that information. I can’t find anything in any of the orchestra trip e-mails that I received that ever announced a exact departure time, so I had no way of knowing that a WYSO absence—with rippling effects—might happen. You seem to have been aware of this—at least as a possibility—since last December. Had you shared that information with me back then, I could have taken proactive steps to clarify the time and resolve any conflict in advance—including perhaps using the March 15-17 weekend as a placement weekend, since I had already made plans to be in town then. I don’t expect you to solve these problems for me, but I do ask that you alert me to them when you see them coming so that I can work to solve them in a more timely fashion. Thanks.
But there is a clause in the custody order that empowers Susanna’s mom to ignore any communication from me that she regards as extraneous or inflammatory. And she decided that this small request for better communication in the future was unnecessary and inflammatory. And under the insanity of the order, she can then not only ignore the communication, she can also cancel—erase forever—any placement time discussed in the message. And that’s what she did.
Who gets to decide what counts as extraneous or inflammatory? Susanna’s mom does. You see, she has a history of hitting me. She has a decade-long history of making unjustified unilateral decisions to deny me time with Susanna (despite my having “joint custody”). All I ever fought back with was words—impassioned words, but never abusive or disrespectful ones. But since 2010 the judge thinks she should not even have to listen to words like those above—words aimed at preventing future conflicts. And so the judge authorized her to act abusively in response to any slips by me. Had I re-read the 2010 order before writing my email, maybe I would have left the extra request out. Or sent it n a separate message. But I was just interested in trying to lay groundwork for a better process next time. And for that, both Susanna and I lost the weekend.
This is the guardian ad litem’s exact discussion of the “offending” paragraph above: “While I have looked for a way this does not violate the Order, I cannot say there isn’t a violation of the Order, at least on a technical basis. Therefore, according to the terms of the Order, Ms. Yaeger is authorized to ignore the request.” What a sack of shit. Done deal. Time evaporated. Lost forever.
This is the madness of my life as a father. And on Friday it crushed me. And I felt powerless. Numb. In fleeting moments I wished I were dead. I have lived this nightmare not just this once but dozens of times over the past fourteen years. It is enough to make anyone feel horribly small.
But this afternoon Jackie Robinson, aided by a couple of queer youth, reminded me that I got no time to be small.
Traveling in Uganda last month a whole host of LGBTQ persons were glad and grateful to meet me. Several of them voiced deep appreciation for books that I left with them. But I did far more listening than talking in Uganda. I went there to listen, not to talk. On the other hand, I went to Valparaiso University to talk. And I talked well. My Thursday evening presentation was good. I was distracted in my preparation for the Valpo events by the unfolding custody nightmare, and I felt a bit rough around the edges, though I doubt anyone but me thought that.
But on Friday morning, at the very moments when powers and principalities up in Madison were shredding my weekend time with Susanna—I can see this on the time-stamped emails between Connie’s attorney and the guardian ad litem, running from 10:44 a.m. to 12:29 p.m.—I was giving a virtuoso presentation of sexual ethics and Christian-Queer identities. I was bearing gospel to young people at Valpo just a few years older than Susanna while the goodness of my time with her as her father was made a mockery of by a pair of attorneys two states away.
These are words that saved me. Michael, from Valpo’s Alliance (the student organization that hosted me) told me on Thursday night that my presentation was “exactly what we needed here.” He went on about how powerful and important my words were. On Friday morning after my second talk, he reiterated everything again (now in vocal italics), “I know I said this last night, but I need to tell you again …” This afternoon, shortly before heading out to see the movie, Erica, another of my Alliance student hosts sent me a short Facebook message that concluded, “Thank you so much for the beautiful work that you do.”
I went to Valpo to talk—and I could feel the goodness of my words within me even as they brought good news to others. But the words I heard, from a number of students but especially from Michael and Erica, also brought gospel to me on a weekend when good news seemed far from my reality.
I thought 42 was a good movie. But I’m not really in a position to critique it very closely. Because as I watched Jackie Robinson face down injustice after injustice, one cruel humiliation followed by another—but balanced by superlative performances on the field—I was also busy remembering what Michael and Erica told me. And I was realizing that I got no time to be small.
On my own “ball field” I’ve had my share of superlative performances. Hell, on Friday morning in the President’s Boardroom in the library, I singled to first and then stole my way to second, third, and straight on home.
I am not happy at what Wisconsin Family Court has done to my family. I am not at peace with the time lost. (And by now that lost time, whether erased by Connie’s contempt or by the court’s callous indifference, is measured in a tally that runs weeks, perhaps months, of priceless childhood memories never to be made.) It sucks. And it hurts.
But I have gifts and the world has needs, and I find deep joy where they cross. And one day, I believe that crossing will include Susanna more often than it does now. And even when I feel kicked in the gut, I am grateful to be reminded that my words are important and my work is beautiful, AND I GOT NO TIME TO BE SMALL.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace, David lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and is a self-employed speaker and writer on the intersection of sexuality & spirituality. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at http://www.tothetune.com.