Postcard from a Dislocated Life
David R. Weiss, March 3, 2018
I’m in an unfamiliar place these days. Truth is, I’ve wandered my way here over the past decade or longer. Partly through choices I’ve made. Partly through choices made by others that have impacted me. Only in the past two years has the awareness become all-encompassing. Yet here I am. Quite dislocated. Knocked off balance. Okay, knocked on my ass.
I suspect—no, I desperately hope—that the way forward lies through this muck. And that writing about it (because writing is what I do) may help ground and guide me, enlighten (or simply entertain) others, and perhaps collect a nugget of insight along the way.
So this is a postcard from a dislocated life. And, no, it doesn’t read: “Wish you were here.”
Over the past decade I’ve lost track of how much I’ve “lost.” Of course, every loss is relative, but there are a handful that have rocked me to my core. Like a yawning abyss, they’ve threatened to swallow me whole. At times, they have. Succinctly, these losses involve my children, my sense of self, my work, my vocation, and my church.
I’ve lost the future I hoped for with my children. I’ll say quickly that I haven’t lost the future per se. But the future in front of us now is wholly different than the one I had hoped for, the one I had actually laid a foundation for.
Going back twenty years, as my second marriage was twisted by emotional and then physical violence, my whole sense of self collapsed. That’s not quite true. I maintained just enough of a sense of self to function pretty well in the outside world, but not enough to function well in my inner world. It was a deceptive combination that’s proven toxic as the years wore on.
My parenting became a game of emotional dodgeball. At times a matter of physical dodgeball. Both kids may have intuited my best intentions and my deep love. But both also saw me fail them, sometimes due to finite time and energy, sometimes to fear, and sometimes to folly. No one parents perfectly. I get that. But I parented across a battlefield, and I regret the years I “agreed” to do that because it lessened the joy and weakened the trust that should have been there.
In those years my own self-care rarely reached the front of triage. I gave one of my first public talks on welcome to LGBT persons while living in daily fear of the woman I slept with each night. I taught feminist theology in a long-sleeved shirt to hide the bruises on my arms left by the violence in my home while I tried so hard to impart insight and hope to others. That’s an abyss. And even when I finally crawled out of it, the damned thing chased after me.
Starting fifteen years ago, my time with my daughter came under siege—the seeds of our bright future framed by laughter, wonder, and trust, were unsown by a series of legal and barely legal maneuvers by my ex-wife and then utterly scattered to the winds by a series of court orders that dismissed my standing as father and sought to reduce me to a bit role in her life. This lasted for more than a decade, from her fifth birthday through her eighteenth. I lived ten years and more under the terror of having my parenting proscribed by decisions that derided my love and demeaned my personhood. To say that takes a toll is understatement. It unravels you. And sometimes it doesn’t even wait to unravel; it tears whole pieces from the fabric of your self.
Did I teach and write and work well enough during those years? Perhaps. (Occasionally I’d add an emphatic Yes!) But did I have nights of rest-full sleep? Or draw breath that truly filled my lungs with life? Or hold her tightly in joy not fringed by fear? Hardly ever. And more than once—indeed more times than I can count—I was gut-punched by events that left me psychically traumatized. There is no other way to describe it. Most of what I battle today is the ongoing echo of those years: ugly scars, gaping wounds mis-healed, landmines still live and buried, just waiting for a single misstep. That type of trauma, left untended, becomes gangrenous.
Against this backdrop—over-extended and inwardly exhausted—I cobbled together a work life with a fair measure of vocation to it. By “cobble” I don’t mean to disparage the work itself. The writing and speaking (and some of the teaching) that I did over these years was undeniably passionate, frequently creative and insightful, occasionally even visionary. And up until just a couple years ago that cobbled career kept me busy enough in each present moment that I was able to avoid inquiring about its sustainability. Until suddenly it wasn’t. Now, with miles (and years!) to go before I sleep (and promises I hope to keep!), I find myself feeling altogether worn out, used up.
Over the past fifteen years as an adjunct professor—particularly over the last seven—I’ve lost any predictable sense of work as a teacher, never knowing what or whether I’d be teaching. As a direct result of that, I’ve lost far too much of my skill as a teacher. Both intuition and instinct, as well as actual subject knowledge, get rusty without practice. I am a shadow of my former classroom self. Less than once in a blue moon do I have any real choice in teaching courses fully aligned with my interests. My theology used to be in direct conversation with my teaching; nowadays the two rarely even speak to each other. In fact, nowadays I teach very little. The phrase “never again” is in the wind.
Worse, I mislaid somewhere along the way of doing other good work (most notably building a union for adjunct faculty), my very best and most important work: theology. These days I ransack my mind and I know it’s still there, buried beneath the ungodly amount of mental-emotional clutter that finds material expression in my office as well. (This is not the clutter of a creative mind; it’s the clutter of a fractured self. Trust me, I know the difference.)
This past week I attended a conference at United Theological Seminary. Checking in at the registration table, Mark (who knew an earlier me) said, “Hello, David!” then reached for the wrong set of nametags, saying, “You must be here to present.” Because at an earlier point in my life, I might’ve been. Not today. Moments later, as I took my seat for the opening session, Kathleen (who also knew that earlier me) greeted me in the exact same way: “Oh, David! Are you here to present?” She then introduced me to her wife, describing me as “an amazing theologian-poet-ally,” while I silently switched all her glowing words into past tense.
Then, after one of the panel discussions I went up to greet one of the panelists, Emmy, a young queer pastor that my earlier me knew, though only in passing. During our brief exchange, she shared with me that back in 2004-2005 my writing on the Book of Acts and LGBT welcome—writing that she still has in its pre-publication 3-hole punched blue binder on her office shelf right alongside her published copy of To the Tune of a Welcoming God—played a singular role in giving her the strength to remain in the church during the years before the church had found the wisdom to welcome her. Emmy’s words of gratitude were so specific (and so unexpected) that they caught me so off guard and before I could flip anything into past tense, I was teary-eyed. The sheer power of theology I once wrote whispered to me through the tears, that just maybe there is more yet to come. Though perhaps it was only a wishful whisper.
Finally, over the past year I lost my church. For someone whose theology has always been driven by the church’s life rather than by academic debates, this last loss has been both spiritual and vocational. I dedicated my book, To the Tune of a Welcoming God, to this congregation, declaring, “The manner of our life together, imperfectly but passionately seeking justice, fills me with hope. Within our walls the tune of a welcoming God is always in the air.” But today I am no longer myself welcome within those walls. Informed by official edict (that is, on church letterhead) that my welcome was henceforth conditioned on leaving my words at the door, on silencing my voice as theologian in this congregation. Bereft is not hyperbole.
Since September I’ve been settling into a new congregation. But the anguish remains, not least because Margaret and I, who in college drove forty miles round trip each week so we could sit side by side in a church where we both felt welcome and at ease, now we worship six blocks (or is it six thousand miles?) apart. She affirms my pain but is, for the time being at least, committed to maintaining relationships in the church that was once so life-giving to both of us, but which now welcomes me only on terms that would rupture my vocation and my faith each week.
Thus, from my hopes, my work, my vocation as writer-teacher-theologian, and my own church: DISLOCATED.
So what’s next? Whoa—not so fast. Something is next. Most days I believe that—though my confidence ebbs and flows like the tide. But disruptive as it is, this dislocation (damn it!) has work to do. If only by way of undoing. By stripping away almost everything before starting afresh. Believe me, I’m as impatient as the next person to get on with this. Likely more impatient than the next person since its my getting on that’s at stake. And yet, here I am. Right now. Feeling quite dislocated on too many counts to count. Certain there is a way forward. Not at all certain that it’s anywhere close to “soon.” On my good days I regard dislocation as that long season that precedes resurrection.
But whether this is truly so remains to be discovered.
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David Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (2013, www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, http://www.tothetune.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their blended family includes six children and nine grandchildren. They like keeping close company with creation and their household has included dogs, cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, and even worms. Their home, like their life, is fairly cluttered with joy. You can reach him at email@example.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”