When Was the First Christmas? A Minority Report

You’re a Superstar
What difference does it make when Jesus was born? Answer: Identifying the Star of Bethlehem as both an astronomical event and a meaningful sign. If the star was a natural phenomenon, then which one it was depends on when we date the birth of Jesus. I happen to believe the date most commonly accepted – between 6 and 4 BCE – is open to question and a later date to be preferred – and I’ll tell you why.

The dating of Christ’s birth is calculated from one event: the death of Herod, a specific historical event referenced in the Gospels. And how is the death of Herod dated? It is calculated from a specific astronomical event, namely a lunar eclipse. Most historians assume this eclipse to have been the one that occurred on March 12/13, 4 BCE. But that is not the only lunar eclipse that could be used to date it, and if a later eclipse is more likely, we also find an even more dramatic series of astronomical appearances in the Middle East – whose meaning would have been profound to star-gazers of the day – that occurred before and at the time of this later date for the birth of Jesus. We call these appearances the Star of Bethlehem.

Someone is bound to object that the Star of Bethlehem was a purely miraculous, i.e. supernatural, event. However, there is no explicit statement in the gospel narratives that requires us to believe that the star is something more than a natural, albeit extraordinary, phenomenon. (Regarding Mt.2:9, see below.) It served as a sign, I would contend, because of its timing and its meaning. So what was the timing and the meaning?

When did Herod die?
According to Matthew and Luke here is the order events around the birth of Jesus:

  • Augustus orders a census for tax purposes
  • Joseph and Mary travel to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem
  • Jesus is born, circumcised and presented in the temple
  • The Magi arrive in Jerusalem and are questioned by Herod
  • The Magi find Jesus in Bethlehem
  • Herod orders the massacre of Bethlehem’s male infants
  • The family flees to Egypt
  • Herod dies
  • The family returns from Egypt

In order to date these events, at least one of them must have a fixed date, and that event is Herod’s death. The Jewish historian Josephus describes the circumstances of his death. Herod ordered the execution of two dissident rabbis on the same night as a total lunar eclipse (Antiquities, 17.167). He died shortly afterward. Most historians hold that the eclipse referred to is one that happened on March 13, 4 BCE. Shortly after his death was a Passover, indicating that it was spring. Herod had ordered the death of all boys two and under in Bethlehem, strongly suggesting that the Magi told him the star had first appeared some two years before their arrival.  Herod concluded that the birth he was worried about had happened sometime in the previous two years. Thus, Jesus’s birth is placed in 6-4 BCE, on the assumption that Josephus’ eclipse was in 4 BCE.

Jesus’ birth                                                   6/5 BCE ?
The Bethlehem Massacre                        5 or 6 BCE ?
Herod’s death                                March/April 4 BCE

Are there reasons to question this dating? Yes, a few.

1. According to Josephus, a lot of things happened between the eclipse and Passover, which fell on April 11 in 4 BCE. That’s less than a month. The other proposed early date of 5 BCE has a lunar eclipse on September 15/16, but Passover is seven months later.

2. A proper reckoning of Herod’s reign begins with beginning of his first full year of reign on April 11, 35 BCE. Josephus places Herod’s death in his 34th year of reign, which began on April 6, 2 BCE.

3. Most of the early Christian scholars date Christ’s birth to 2/3 BCE: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Africanus, Hippolytus of Rome, Hippolytus of Thebes, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Cassiodorus Senator and Orosious. All these people had a much better handle on the reckoning of time in the ancient world, and likely had access to records that no longer exist. No early historians give a 6-4 BCE date.

4. Another, later eclipse fits the timeline better. It was on Jan. 10, 1 BCE (there were no lunar eclipses in 3 or 2 BCE). The Passover was twelve and a half weeks later, allowing time for the events between the two, while Herod’s death could still be described as shortly after the first and shortly before the second.

In other words, Herod may in fact have died three years after the accepted date. In which case, the early historians, forming a consensus, may have been correct in assigning a later birth date. But there are even more compelling facts to consider.

“We Have Seen His Star”
How about celestial occurrences that we could identify as the Star of Bethlehem?

“Some may regard the star as entirely mythical, some as completely miraculous, but it is also possible to suppose and inquire after an actual celestial phenomenon back of the account.” – Jack Finegan (1908-2000)

We should go where the evidence leads, but I favor the  latter approach – investigating an event that can be verified independently of Scripture – for the following reason. The star as presented by Matthew is a sign to the non-Jewish world, and it is a sign that was not to be read about 60 or 70 years later. An immediate sign for people who would take note of it and seek to understand what it meant and what it pointed to. A miraculous star does not rule this out, but how much greater a sign it is, if in fact it is an astronomical event whose factual-historical nature stands unquestioned throughout all history to come – like the stars and planets themselves. So if there is such an event, and it happens to line up with the other events under consideration, we should not rule it out because it is not strictly supernatural. But Matthew 2:9 has this peculiar account:

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the

Zodiacal light: after dark, sunlight is reflected off of space dust and scattered.

Zodiacal light: after dark, sunlight is reflected off of space dust and scattered.

East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.

Not exactly how you expect a star or other celestial body to behave. But the planets could have reached their stationary points at that very time; they would seem to “stand still.” Also, there could have been a concurrence of zodiacal light which creates the appearance along the ecliptic of a beam of light (actually sunlight) and can seem to be shining down on the earth like a spotlight.

In short, a completely natural phenomena, but serving a divine purpose at a divinely appointed time.

Those who hold to 4 BCE for Herod’s demise can point to a number of astronomical phenomena which could account for the appearance of the star.

The Chinese recorded a nova (or a comet) in 5 BCE (appearing for 70 days, perhaps more), and another in 4 BCE. In 7 BCE there was was a triple conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn in Pisces, with Mars also coming close.

But what if we accept a later date of 1 BCE for Herod’s death? If Herod ordered the massacre sometime in the last months of his life, it points back to 3 or 2 BCE for the birth. In those years there were no novae or comets, but there was something even more remarkable for its astrological meaning and its allure to the Magi.

Finegan (550*. Emphasis mine):

On the morning of August 12, 3 B.C., Jupiter and Venus rose in the eastern sky, an event which could ave been what was meant when the magi said, “We have seen his star in the East,” or “in its rising” (Matt 2:2). (The word ἀνατολῇ means both the “rising [of stars]” and the “place of the rising [of the sun],” i.e., the East.) In this conjunction Jupiter and Venus were so close they were almost touching each other. From the point of view of astrological symbolism, Jupiter is the king planet and Venus (Ishtar in Babylonia) a female; so their conjunction can suggest a coming birth. The conjunction took place in Leo (the Lion) and near the bright fixed star Regulus. Regulus is the king star and the Lion constellation is the tribal sign of Judah…Afterwards Jupiter moved on to be in close conjunctions with Regulus three times (a triple conjunction on Sept 14, 3 B.C., Feb 17, 2 B.C., and May 8, 2 B.C.), then June 17, 2 B.C., came into again into conjunction with Venus, this time being so close that without a modern telescope the two planets would have looked like a single star. In the fall and winter 3/2 B.C. Jupiter appeared to stop several times against the background of the stars; and on June 17, 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus were in extremely close conjunction and shone almost like a single bright star in the west – in the direction of Jerusalem as seen from Babylonia. With these phenomena we may compare Matthew 2:9: “The star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.” If the magi were students of astronomical events it can theorized that the appearance of this star on June 17, 2 B.C., was the final heavenly sign that impelled them in the late summer or early fall to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where they found the child Jesus, ‘who was born some time during the previous year and a half.’

This is what the magi saw that foretold something they perceived as of immense importance to the world:

The king planet came together with the woman/maiden/mother planet in the constellation of the tribe of Judah – the tribe of David, Joseph of Nazareth and Jesus. Then the king planet came together with the king star – emphasizing the royal significance – not once but three times. And during the first of these, the sun was in the constellation of Virgo – the virgin. Then the king planet and the woman reunited, appearing as one.

Finally, on the winter solstice of 2 BCE, Jupiter reached a stationary point, “in the constellation of Virgo (the Virgin) when Jupiter was directly over Bethlehem, about 68 degrees above the southern horizon as viewed from Jerusalem where the magi were.”

I don’t believe in astrology, that our fate is governed or revealed by celestial movements, but the magi probably did; that’s why they followed the ‘star.’ And I believe something even more rational and wonderful: that God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, synchronized the heavens with his unfolding plan of redemption and revelation. He spoke to a watching, wondering people, in the stars and planets sparkling in the night sky. He spoke their language, and bid them Come and see. I don’t know about you, but it fills me with awe.

We know, astronomically, what happened during those months. For those of us who believe, we also know what happened historically there in Bethlehem. It’s easy to imagine how jubilant the magi must have been at the discovery that lay at the end of their long journey and the years of sky watching that preceded it.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.
-Matthew 2:10

They rejoiced because what they anticipated from their interpretation of the planetary and stellar paths was the birth of a great King, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and they came to honor and worship Him. The Star – the king planet and the king star shining in the house of the virgin – and words of the prophets, had led them to Him.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
{Psalms 19:1-4a}


*These numbers are Finegan’s section numbers, rather than page numbers.

[This article is essentially a summary of some of the relevant sections from Jack Finegan’s Handbook of Biblical ChronologyRev Ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998). I have done no independent research here. Finegan, a professor of New Testament History and Archeology,  was a master of the subject. The book is extremely complex, and challenging to follow, so I have long wanted to write a digest of this topic that was more accessible.]

Here is a chronology of the period incorporating some of Finegan’s conclusions. Any errors are mine.

EVENT                                          DATE       YEAR         FINEGAN #
Jupiter+Venus near Regulus  Aug. 12     3 BCE          550*
Jupiter+Regulus (1)                Sept. 14     3 BCE          550
The Enrollment             Before Feb. 5     2 BCE          519 – 526
Jesus’ Birth                             January     2 BCE          569
Jupiter+Regulus (2)                   Feb. 17     2 BCE          550
Jupiter+Regulus (3)                     May 8     2 BCE           550
Jupiter+Venus                          June 17      2 BCE           550
Magi leave                                Summer     2 BCE
Magi arrive in Jerusalem              Fall     2 BCE
Jupiter stationary in virgo     dec. 25     2 BCE          551, 547
Magi go to Bethlehem & see Jesus
Joseph, Mary & Jesus flee to Egypt
Slaughter of the Innocents                                       508-510
Total lunar eclipse                 Jan 9/10     1 BCE          514
Herod’s Death                        Jan-March    1 BCE          501-518



How I Became a High School Dropout

(Warning: harsh language, drug use.)

Painted Black

At the end of the summer of 1980, my girlfriend Anna left for college, I turned 17, I began my junior year, got glasses, read Catcher in the Rye, assumed my post as Editorial Page Editor on the Lance, and badly sprained my ankle playing soccer. And I was at war with myself, total war.

As September cooled into October, a gloom began to settle over me that I couldn’t shake. I don’t know if it was clinical depression; it might have been. After spraining my ankle I was done with soccer, and any sports for the time being. I began to slack at school. My introspective tendencies were at their worst. As far as I could tell, it was all brought on by the pangs of Anna’s absence. I was overcome by negative feelings about myself and life in general. Smoking dope and drinking didn’t help.I was tired and, as always, walked around with a knot in stomach over school.

You know I’d give you everything I’ve got
for a little peace of mind
-John Lennon
I’m So Tired

Over the summer, my friendship with Mark and Troy grew stronger. In September, Mark, Troy and Dave Larson (my co-editor) had talked about traveling together in Europe, and as soon as they were all done with school was the perfect time for them to do it. Of course they didn’t have the money, so they would have to figure out a way to save as much money (and as quickly) as possible. One night, Dave came to my house and we walked through Bonner Park. He was very troubled. He asked if could confide in me, if I could keep a secret. Mark and Troy had come up with a scheme to make a lot of money fast: growing pot. A lot of pot. Dave found this very troubling, and needed  to get it off his chest. I suggested he decide if he was in or out, and let the other two do what they wanted. He told them he was out.

Shortly after that, about the end of the month, Mark and Troy proposed the Alliance: the three of us, backing a growing operation to fund a trip to Europe. I did not like the business plan, but the Europe trip – well, that was something I had dreamed of since I was 10 years old. I loved the idea. After arguing with them about my objections, I was in. As soon as I did, I began to mentally persecute myself over the decision. I was overcome with self-contempt for agreeing to help grow and sell drugs, mostly because I knew my motivation for opting in was easy money. In other words, I was guilty of one of the worst sins there was: greed.

I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and it has been painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black
-Jagger & Richards
Paint It Black

That wasn’t the only problem. Mark was graduated, and Troy was going to finish early, at midyear, by taking correspondence courses. But I was not going to be done with school for 20 months. I don’t remember who first suggested it, but when I started getting F’s, not just on my work, but on my report card, I felt I had dug myself into a hole I could not dig out of. I truly believed this. And unless I gave up the parties, drugs and alcohol, I was probably right. I began to think about dropping out of school. In so short a time, my way of thinking about my future had been derailed by a half-baked pipe-dream.  No, I was not thinking clearly. And no, far from giving up drugs, I was branching out.  That fall, I took mescaline, the hallucinogen found in peyote, and tried Quaalude, the drug du jour.

Boy, did I feel rotten. I felt so damn lonesome.
-JD Salinger
Catcher in the Rye

I did this in the apartment Mark and Troy rented in Missoula. To get it they asked me for the remaining $300 I had earned in the summer. The apartment served two purposes: it allowed Mark to move out from his grandparents’ house and Troy to move out from his folks’, and it was to be the home of our growing operation, a scheme that began to fail before it ever got underway. For the few months they had it, it became my second home.

Meanwhile, my energies and creativity were focused on the Lance, where Dave and I edited the editorial page, and I continued drawing cartoons and writing my humor column, Nowhere Man. One night in early October, I worked late with other staffers on paste-up. Getting home about 11, I went up to my room and was listening to music, when the phone rang downstairs. I raced to answer it, as Dad and Jane were asleep, and It was Jeff Morgan on the other end.

“Some asshole  just murdered John Lennon,” sounding dismay mixed with anger.


“Some goddamn lunatic shot him on the street. He’s dead.”

“My God.”

To me and some of my friends, this was a cause of sadness and anger. Another death that waved a black flag before us. A warning, a revelation or perhaps a remembrance. I don’t know.

Bad news news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
-Don McLean
American Pie

The real fallout was a sense of disillusionment. Lennon symbolized much of what I had grown up with and had taken as my own attitudes and convictions over the last year. Within the counterculture vision I found a promise – of personal and social evolution – that I was desperately grasping for, but which I was already beginning to doubt as empty and impossible. It pointed to a deeper struggle I was lamely putting up: an illusory light, losing its struggle against a very real darkness. You might stand for such a vision, but skulking around the corner is a lunatic with a gun. There’s always one of those, isn’t there?

With my emotional and academic life in a seemingly irreversible tailspin, dropping out and moving away started looking to me to me like an escape hatch – and I wanted to escape. I was one decision away from making my problems go away.

In February I made the decision.

* * *

I realize that my problems were not very apparent to those around me. I was gregarious, always seeking the company of my friends, and never solitude. At those times, I generally aimed to be the life of the party, which often led to me just making a fool of myself without knowing it. On the outside, I was all laughs and good times. On the inside, my thoughts were serious and dark. I wondered what I really was, if my ideals meant anything, if life and the world and my dreams had any value or meaning.

In the fall I first listened to The Wall from beginning to end. It was a disturbing experience for me, a view of life as so unbearable in its losses and oppression and torments that alienation is inescapable and isolation the only recourse. At this time I first caught a glimpse of something that was just a plain horror to me: the notion that we were alone in the universe. No God, no ultimate meaning or purpose, no reality beyond the material and physical, no soul, no eternal: nothing. Just this life and then the grave, lived on whatever terms we could arrive at by our own wits.

The prospect that this was the truth, that this was the fact of our existence that science, reason, and philosophy presented us with – the fact that I must face, and must embrace –  it knotted my stomach and made my blood run cold. I did not accept it. I wasn’t ready.

If you should go skating
On the thin ice of modern life
Dragging behind you the silent reproach
Of a million tear-stained eyes
Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice
Appears under your feet.
You slip out of your depth and out of your mind
With your fear flowing out behind you
As you claw the thin ice.
-Roger Waters
The Thin Ice

This was running silently in the background to my declining grades and plans of escape, and did so for most of the next two years.

* * *

Maybe then I’ll fade away

When Troy, Mark and I formed the Alliance, we had one aim: save enough money for a trip to Europe. When the pot-growing plan fell apart, they began to talk about moving out of Missoula to a big city where we could make more money. We talked about Boston. I had to decide if I was willing to drop out of high school half-way through my junior year. I couldn’t see myself ever getting back on a good academic footing. And if I couldn’t, why stay in school, especially if there was the prospect of adventure and travel?

Of course, this meant telling my parents. Not asking. Telling. Not letting myself be talked out of it. The memory of the upset and anxiety I caused them is something I don’t even like to recall enough to write about it. But I did tell them, Dad and Jane in person and Mom over the phone. Legally, I was old enough to leave school, but going forward in life as a dropout did not offer a lot of promise. They were worried about me and my future.

I told my teachers, too. A couple of them smiled and got a far-away look, remembering their own freedom road days of 1969, and found little to say in objection to my plan. I remember speaking to Kermit Edmonds, who was never my teacher but was greatly respected by me and most of the students. I told him I still planned on going to college some day. He said that when I got there I would have an invaluable advantage over my classmates: life experience, an education of a completely different but indispensable kind. Boy, was he right.

So I did it. On Friday, February 13, 1981, I walked out of Hellgate High School, walked away from our friends, from my classmates, from the Lance, from the great teachers I was lucky enough to have there. As we planned to leave Missoula, life seemed a little more hopeful, and I felt a little less despair. I think that is because I was switching things up, making something happen, and it didn’t seem like circumstances were running over me as much.

Of course, I didn’t realize in any meaningful way all that I was walking away from. And not the least idea of what I was walking into.

Crazy Little Thing | Part Two

Baby, even the losers
get lucky sometime.
-Tom Petty

Something like a promise

Devotion and fidelity are not one and the same.

One perfect August night, I sat with Anna at the edge of an aquamarine lake seven thousand feet high in the Bitterroot Range, holding hands and hearing my heart beat.  I stared with her at the stars and marveled at my undeserved good fortune. Never in my grandest hopes did I think I would have what I had in that moment. This remarkable, lovely person, who cared for me. This elation. This galaxy spread out across the sky just for us. It seemed so perfect, so brilliant: it was sublime.  Two kids who answered something deep within one another had stumbled upon each other and I was lucky enough to be one of them. I couldn’t let the moment slip away without telling Anna how I felt about her.

But I was afraid to. I fumbled  for the longest time, and she waited patiently while I got the nerve to tell her I loved her. Why did I feel I had to, and why was it so fearful to me? Why not just say, “I love you,” or, “Never mind”?

I had to say what I felt, so there would be no doubt what she meant to me. She had to know I didn’t think of us as a summer fling. But telling her so, that meant something more than feelings to me, it was something like a promise, a commitment, that reached ahead of us into an unknown future. I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t control what it would be. I was afraid of what it might require of me, and how empty that made me feel. I didn’t think like an adult, but in some regard, I was thinking as though I already were one. Wasn’t I just a 16-year-old with a girlfriend I was crazy about? Couldn’t I just leave it at that?

No, I couldn’t.  I was ready to move in, follow her across the country, order my life around being with her. I needed for her know that’s how I felt!

“I love you. I’m in love with you.”

* * *

U Siamese

Upper Siamese Lake

We were on a 35-mile backpacking circuit that wrapped up the 7-week YCC program. We were at the Idaho-Montana border, hiking all day, and then camping at a lake every night. The loop started around 3500 feet and climbed up to 6900 feet. It took us to Fish Lake and the Upper and Lower Siamese Lakes. We walked along the Bitterroot Divide, and could see for miles, into Idaho on one side and Montana on the other. It was rough going, but beautiful.

And I was in love.

When we got back to Missoula, we were done with work for the summer, so we had a lot of free time. But Anna was only weeks away from leaving for college. Then, not fully expecting it, I fell off a cliff. Into an abyss, from the high mountain top and crystal air, to a black, foggy ravine.

My heart burns with feeling, but,
My mind, it’s cold and reeling
Is this love baby,
Or is it confusion?
-Jimi Hendrix

L Siamese mirror

Lower Siamese Lake

At first I rode a roller coaster. Down: I saw her off as she boarded a plane to New York and a new life, and I felt the first pangs of her absence. I went to Oregon to visit my family and came back to start my junior year at Hellgate. Up: I got a letter from her and my heart soared. Down: after I read it three times over and wrote her back, every day I waited for reply was just anguish. Up: the next letter came. Down: I waited, and as I waited I went down further, and didn’t see the next up-turn. Then a darkness began to overtake me. Depression, no doubt. Now my thoughts and the other circumstances of my life kept me there. The only thing I could do is look forward to her visit over Christmas.

I wonder if I seemed different to her when she came home. I was. Less than a year earlier when when we first met at a activist group I helped start, I was energized, optimistic, cheerful. But my choices and circumstances had taken a toll. I was slowly slipping down and down. Also, she had just spent three months at Cornell. I couldn’t have seemed as wonderful as I did last summer, when I was the first boy she’d been close to. I was still a boy, no doubt about it. But there were probably a lot of interesting guys at Cornell, who were not boys. Or slackers. Or druggies.


If I hadn’t thought of that already, I sure did after she told me that we should be free to see other people. I didn’t realize it, but that was really the beginning of the end of our relationship. I think I may have wrestled with the real meaning of her proposal. For her, it was in truth an eventual breakup. That, I did not get at all. Ever. Until maybe a couple of weeks ago.

For me it was a change in our relationship necessitated by the 2200 miles between us. It was just a loosening. Opening things up a little.

Um. Right?

My brain wasn’t really prepared to follow where this was going, which was: nowhere. It was going nowhere primarily because I wasn’t the man for her, because I wasn’t a man at all. I was the nice boy back home. A mixed up one at that.

If we were two cars that had briefly been driving together down the highway, she was pulling ahead and away, and I couldn’t keep up because I was slower and weaving from side to side.

And I was about to drive off the road altogether.

* * *

We didn’t actually break up for a long time after that. But a little seed was planted in my mind, a seed of separation that was not just the continent between us, but Anna’s decision that we shouldn’t be exclusive. When, shortly afterward, I left Missoula, and was adrift in Seattle, it gradually became clear that if I were to see someone else (highly unlikely) and never saw Anna, I had nothing to hold onto with her. Who was I to her, if she was seeing someone else in Ithaca?

Any basis I had for being faithful to the love I felt for her was unconsciously but assuredly undermined by the circumstances – but not my wishes. I would fantasize from time to time of somehow getting myself to Ithaca. But I knew there was no place for me there. Ever so gently, almost imperceptibly, I’d been kicked loose.

I should wonder if such a fragile relationship deserves the word love attached to it. The feelings are powerful, certainly. But, on my part, the demonstration, the commitment, the acts and gestures of caring and sacrifice and giving that should issue from it were absent. We both left its future to chance and circumstance, and in the end I wandered off, wishing we could be together but knowing that we probably never would be again.

In the end she wrote a letter to me and it was over. By that time so much had happened to me that I didn’t think of myself as the same person she first knew. How much had she changed in those two years? I had no idea.

This was a good person, one of very best I had known. Thinking I was holding onto her when it was hopeless to do so, being so blind to where I really stood, my oblivion to how different I and my situation (and hers too) needed to be for any continuation of our relationship – all this kept me from seeing that we broke up long before I knew it. We were together for the summer of 1981 when we both came back to Missoula, and I somehow had the idea that we would continue seeing each other like this, for just weeks out of the year. I would have saved myself a some pain  and doubt over the next year and a half had I realized how unlikely that was. It was my waking dream.

I also called my affection and desire and elation love long before I had any idea what it means to actually love someone who’s not a blood relative. The feelings were very real, but of course a lasting relationship cannot be built on living by love as merely feeling,  because feelings are beyond our control. They come and go, rise and fall, and to them must be added promises and commitments kept sacred.  Only these can hold two hearts together over time and change and hardships.

Finally, I had yet to learn that if another person is no more than a mirror to me, that is narcissism, not love. I’ve simply fallen in love with myself through them. To truly love another is knowing, accepting, and giving yourself to another. Romantic love – or any kind of relationship – so often shipwrecks in a storm on the hard, destructive and immovable self.

Ours, though, just faded away: a good thing, I suppose. It hurt a lot less that way. And something immeasurably better was waiting.

Crazy Little Thing | Part One

I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know

-Velvet Underground


One of the sadder truths of this life is how little we know of love, real, selfless love, rooted in trust and resulting in intimacy. We know little of what it is, how to receive or how to give it. We yearn for it most powerfully, but are so often deceived by its counterfeits into mistaking for them the real thing. Our fears and selfishness are its constant enemies.

As I approach 50, I realize how little I yet understand of real love: the saving, healing, and life-giving love – the real thing. This piece is mostly a confession of my confusion as a boy who wanted it in his deepest heart’s core but had only a meager notion of what it actually was. Perhaps ‘meager’ is too generous.

The first time I fell in love happened the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school. I had never had anything close to a girlfriend, and had only one or two dates. I was terrified of the opposite sex, mostly because I figured females were pretty much the opposite sex from me. If I ever liked a girl, I was always afraid to ask her out. The one time I did, it was extremely uncomfortable; I didn’t know how to talk to her and couldn’t bring myself to continue seeing her. I thought it must have been the worst couple of hours of her freshman year.

The previous summer had been whiled away on my odd personal pursuits, virtually friendless and alone. Dad insisted this year that I get a summer job, and told me about the Youth Conservation Corps. I applied early in the year and was accepted. Though it was not all work (we got paid for class time as well), it was my first real job. It turned out to be a fantastic experience. The YCC was a federal youth work-educational program modeled after the Civil Conservation Corps of the 1930s. We spent one half of the week in Missoula, where our time was spent in the classroom and on public improvement projects, such as building and repairing playground equipment, or grounds keeping. In the classroom we learned about various subjects like first-aid and forest ecology. We spent the other half of the week at ‘spike camp.’ There we worked our way through acres of recently logged forest, gathering and making enormous piles of slash. It was hard work on rugged terrain. When we broke for the day, we swam in a cool mountain lake, and spent the evening and night in a tent camp.

The job began on  June 16, 1980.  On the third day of work, I joined some other workers loading a pickup before heading to a work site. As I introduced myself to the others, a girl named Anna told me we had met before.  Earlier in the year I had helped start a left-wing student group, USA, at Hellgate (see Waiting for the End of the World). Audrey, a friend from Sentinel High, came to a few of our meetings, and once she brought her friend Anna. Audrey had talked me up to her, and she already held me in esteem on account of my civil-disobedience arrest on Easter Sunday.

I fumbled a little, trying to remember where we had met, and she told me. That was the beginning of our friendship. We began working together when we could, eating lunch together, and before long our feelings went beyond friendship.

Anna had just graduated from Sentinel High, Hellgate’s cross-town rival. A National Merit Scholar, she would be attending Cornell in the fall. She was bright, soft-spoken, friendly to everyone and cute as a button. To me, however, the most remarkable thing about Anna  was: she was interested in me. No person I had ever known was as interested in me – other than me – and it just astonished me. It seemed we could talk about anything, and that neither of us – me at 16, her at 18 – had known someone like that. The overwhelming thing about falling in love is not just the feelings you have for the other person, it’s that they return them. When another person reflects backs to you a better self than the one you know, a smarter, more interesting, more treasured person – well, they are a mirror, with an image you haven’t known. If your self-image is marred by a mix of vanity and self-loathing, as mine was, then you will become transfixed by this mirror. Someone outside my own self-obsessed mind wants to be with me. She must be awesome!

As it would turn out, Anna was, in practically every respect, a far better person than I was. But I couldn’t see that, and what it might mean for us, and – at first, anyway – neither could she.

I began having the typical first-love feelings. I thought of her all the time, and time away from work – and thus from Anna  – became far too long.  One day at spike camp, Anna suggested we go see a movie she had heard about.  Seeing John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven at the Crystal Theater was our first date.

One memory from that night has stayed with me. We came before they had begun seating, the first to arrive, so we sat on a love seat in the small lobby. As we sat, a man and a woman walked in from the street, both clothed in long white robes. He had hair down to his elbows and a long beard. Right away I knew they were Children of God. They greeted us warmly and then the man proceeded to the box office. From inside, the owner asked what he could do for them.

“We are traveling Christians and we carry no coin.”


“I wonder if you might have two seats in your house for two weary wayfarers.”

All our eyes were on the owner.

“Well, this is a movie theater, a business, and I do carry coin.”

“I understand.”

“Mm. Wait until the film is started and everyone is seated inside, and the lobby is clear. You can sit in the back.”

“God bless you, brother!”

After this we began to see each other on the weekends and evenings. We saw some more movies, “Annie Hall,” “The Elephant Man.” We rode our bikes up Pattee Canyon,  stopping along the way to pick huckleberries and eat lunch. Anna met Dad & Jane when we rode with them to Stevensville for the July 4th parade. I knew they would love her and they did.

I wanted her to meet my friends…sort of. The problem was, Anna and I ran in different circles – rather, different kinds of circles – and the differences between my world and hers, between the darkest pathways my mind had begun to take, the whole drift of my life in the last year – it was all highlighted by my relationship with someone whose path was in stark contrast. It was uncomfortable. I should have been traveling her way, but I wasn’t. Anna had a goodness and wholesomeness to her that did not characterize my life, to say nothing of my heart. In spite of beginning to awaken, I was basically self-seeking, and she, to a much greater extent, looked out for others. In many ways I was closed and narrow in my thinking, but her world had a lot more room. She had worked hard in school. I would soon be slacking off. She had steered clear of trouble. But the masthead over me and my friends was Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll.  In fact, it was my interests and aims around these three things (which were not shared by Anna, it should go without saying), that most obviously marked the real content of my character compared to Anna’s. I was torn, because it felt a little like it wasn’t  the real me, but I was going that way nonetheless. Anna as a mirror showed me what she saw, but not the hidden me that only I could see, wounded and a little desperate.

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. She wasn’t going for it, at least not the first two. I was crazy enough about her to settle for one out of three. And she liked me well enough to listen to my rock ‘n’ roll. But did we hear the same songs?