I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know
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. As a teenager 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. When was the last time someone was as interested in me – other than me ? I was astonished by this. 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.”
“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?