College, mostly positive, but punctuated with some, what I like to call, “highly overrated learning experiences.” For most people it’s the first time away from home, on your own in a semi-controlled environment, new people, new experiences, new pressures. As an almost only child (a much younger brother grew up in another state), the best part of college for me was feeling like I had a ton of siblings. I loved it and my apartment became command central – “key’s in the lamp, let yourself in;” everyone knew that mantra.
As my last year was starting to wind down, I felt pretty lost. The plan was to move to Boston to live with my boyfriend, but in the back of my mind was the nagging feeling that he wasn’t completely on board with the idea of me moving 3,000 miles across country to be with him. Of course there was also the question of what I would do when I got there. Liberal Arts college, BA in International Relations, two years of Russian language five days a week, but I wasn’t going to be a translator or foreign service officer. Good thing I didn’t know then that it would take me another twenty five years to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.
But the hardest thing was leaving my friends.
That Christmas, only six months before we all said goodbye and our lives diverged, I was fully immersed in a funk. I didn’t want to do Christmas; too much effort. Didn’t care about a tree (a big deal for me), especially didn’t want to do the Christmas gift exchange several of us had done every year. How could exchanging gifts be a bad thing? Easy if you’re the only one who didn’t buy presents for anyone else. I tried to get out of it, this was going to be uncomfortable to say the least – I only prayed that everyone else had left me off their shopping list.
I sat at the party and watched as gifts were exchanged – none to me or from me – and wanted nothing more than to slink out of there. Hard to do when the party is in your own apartment. Thank God, I thought, when things finally started winding down. I felt like such a jerk, but at least no one had handed me a gift. There was a moment or two of silence until somebody said something like, “hey, there’s one more,” and two of my friends walked out of the living room and down the hall to one of the bedrooms. When they came back in the room, they brought with them a very large red bow attached to a rocking chair.
I’d always wanted a rocking chair. I must have mentioned it at one point or another. But looking at that chair, and at each of them, I knew I didn’t deserve it, and I didn’t deserve them. They didn’t seem to notice as they regaled me with every detail of the procuring of the chair. I felt smaller and smaller. I looked around the room at these people I had known for more than four years. I had lived with some of them, laughed with all of them, fought with a few of them, slept with one of them, and loved all of them in varying degrees. They had been my family and soon we would all be going our separate ways. And as difficult and unpleasant as I had been, they nevertheless gave me this amazing gift. They loved me too.
I walked around for awhile not thinking too much about that gift; it made me revisit what a bitch I had been. When I did think about it, I figured the lesson in it was – gee, I have amazingly nice friends. It wasn’t until sometime later that I figured out the bigger, truer lesson.
I was correct about the boyfriend in Boston and we split up shortly after I got there. Fortunately a very good friend (who became my best friend) had moved to Boston the year before and let me bunk with her while I got my bearings. That all worked out just fine, I survived those post college, what the hell do I do now years, and stayed in Boston for five years. That friend and I became very active in a church that we attended pretty much every week. Always a bit leery of churches, for some reason I threw myself into this one, taking classes, and tackling some lingering theological questions from my childhood days in Sunday school. You know from that previous sentence that those past Sunday school teachers did not know what to do with me.
But back to the chair. Grown-up Sunday school and I was struggling with the concept of grace. Grace is defined differently in different religions, but mostly it boils down to this – you are loved, whether you like it or not. As a person who had equated love with good behavior, this was a tough concept for me. Then I remembered that Christmas and that rocking chair (which I had then and still do have, in case you were wondering). Love is there for us no matter what. The only things that keep us from accepting it with open arms, are our inability to let go of our need to be perfect, to be willing to embrace who we are, and to share that imperfect self with the people we love, the people who love us, and especially the divine creator who loves us unconditionally.
Whether we like it or not.