An open letter to Joe.
It’s been a year since I last saw you.
It’s been nearly two years since we met, since you came right up to my table and told me you liked me. You didn’t know why but you liked me but there was some sort of light to me.
In that conversation I found out you were 77-years old. You came to that coffee shop everyday to laugh and talk with your gang of friends.
“If I were your age, I would date you,” you said to me. “I would see exactly what I had and I would not let you go... Some boy is never going to let you go one day. He’s going to be the lucky one.”
I didn’t know it then but I know it now: you were reassuring me. You were finding a way to tell me, “Don’t lose heart, child. You get to fall in love one day, just like the best of them.”
“What do you love?”
I remember you asking me that question first.
“What do you love?”
No one ever asks that sort of question. We ask each other “what do you do” and “what do you want” and “what is your plan” but we never stop long enough to just seek out of the love in one another.
“Words,” I blurted out instantly. “I love words. Nouns. Verbs. All of it.” I was tickled you asked.
“And what do you love?”
“Numbers,” you winked at me. Before I could stop you and tell you math wasn't my thing you were pulling my notebook towards you from across the table and you were scribbling a math problem down into the pages. It was fractions.
“What is the answer to that?”
I started at the numbers for a long time. I remembered failing math brutally.
“I don’t know,” I finally whispered.
“That!” you said to me. “THAT is the reason why I love math. If I were to ask you ‘what is the capital of Arizona’ and you didn’t have a clue, and you couldn’t google it, then you would have to tell me “I don’t know” but I have given you everything you need to solve this problem here. So the answer is never ‘I don’t know’ the answer is simply ‘I don’t know yet.’”
From that day forward, we were a thing.
You’d come and sit at my tiny table in the middle of that cliché coffee shop enduring its rush hour. You’d sip your coffee. You’d ask me questions. You’d read my blog and stare at me for long spells of time. You’d tell me I was peculiar— a 80-year-old trapped in the body of a 25-year-old. And you were really 25, trapped in the body of a nearly 80-year-old man.
You were my first constant coffee shop companion.
You asked me what I believed in one day. I told you I was a Christian. I believed in the bible. You told me you were an atheist, a proud one.
“I like atheists,” I smiled and said. “They have a lot of wisdom.”
“So you actually believe in this stuff?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I was timid then. “I think sometimes its just nice to choose something. To go all in with it.”
“You actually believe the stuff in the Bible?”
“I do,” I said.
“Then what about...” you went to say.
“I don’t really like to debate things,” I stopped you. “I think people with bibles spend too much time debating with people and not enough time trying to understand them.”
We both got quiet.
You spoke after a few moments.
“My son came to me a few years ago and told me that ‘he’ is actually a ‘she,’” you said to me. “Now I have a daughter, not a son.”
“What do you think of that?”
You were waiting for me to have an opinion. You were waiting for me to turn on you. My cheeks only burned. I felt embarrassed and a little bit sad that you thought I was supposed to have a narrow view, look at you differently, all because of the light the culture has shined on my belief system.
“I bet she’s lovely,” I think I said. All I can remember is the subtle pain in your eyes-- the remnants of a religion that had failed you at a lot of corners. I loved you a little more.
“I used to have so many views on that topic,” you said. “Until someone I loved was standing in the wake of it.”
I still think about your daughter so much. She gets my micro-prayers when I am driving in the car and when I am cleaning the sinks and trying to be an adult. I know that she’s lovely. Your daughter is lovely.
I never told you that for longest time I kept notes inside of my bible that weren’t mine.
I don’t know why I held onto those notes for so long but the handwriting was foreign and I didn’t know the woman who took them for me beyond a few simple facts: she had two children, she liked Obama, and she cared a whole lot about salvation.
She insisted on taking those notes so I could focus on the Bible and the teaching. I’ve never been a girl to let other people take notes for me. Even when I missed an important biology class and desperately needed someone’s scribbles in order to catch up, I always copied them over in my own handwriting. My own handwriting feels safe to me-- like the ‘y’s and ‘g’s won’t turn on me.
In that faith journey— the one that pushed me away from church— I was taught not to ask questions. That was really hard for a girl who only ever wanted to know “why.”
But I would trace over those notes at night, after we were done studying, and they just felt distant. I kept thinking to myself, “Doesn’t God want my questions? Doesn’t he want to know if I see him as more of a puzzle than a protector?”
I kept them in my bible for too long-- too long after everything fell apart. I think it was maybe my way of holding onto pain, holding onto a way I felt a human had hurt me and called it “Jesus” at the end of the day. I wanted to stay mad at God for longer than I thought. That’s how I am with God and people: I am looking for the reason to not trust you anymore so I can finally leave and make a shelter out of my own self. Self feels safe.
I don’t like the thought of building something when you don’t know how long it will last.
I once loved a boy so hard that I knew every detail of him. And when it was over, I didn’t know what to do with all the pieces of him. Breaking up was like slowly writing a dictionary with someone and then realizing you could no longer use any of the words you still loved.
I think I built walls up after that. I think each year and relationship was another layer of concrete on the walls.
And here’s what I am certain about (sidenote: I’m not certain about much): We often funnel God through imperfect human interactions instead of funneling human interactions through a perfect God.
We think if someone breaks us, wrecks us, treats us poorly then that’s how God will treat us too. We think if someone leaves-- forgetting or not caring to take their cologne bathed sweatshirts with them-- then God will eventually do the same too. He will find the backdoor, just like the others.
Here's what I never told you:
I never told you that I loved you. All those months sitting across from you in the coffee shop. I never told you I thanked God for you. That you will be one of the people I talk about for a very long time because you gave me permission to ask harder questions and be okay with silence and no answers.
I’m never going to be able to go to God at the end of this and give him an inventory of my faith that consists of a cross, and a bible, and a pew. I am going to say the inventory of my faith was a lot of uncertainty, a few bad Tinder dates, a good mother, the feeling of grace, a yellow room, the play Les Miserables, a slew of coffee shops, and you.
"Ask him all your questions."
That’s what the boy across from me in the coffee shop tells me to do. He’s the one who sits in your place now and does exactly what you used to do: gives me no answers, just asks me more questions.
He doesn’t flinch. He never really wavers. He just hands me books to read that already hold his underlines and uncertainties inside of their pages. He has asked the questions too.
I feel chaotic. He tells me Moses asked a lot of questions. It deepened the relationship Moses had with God to go to him honestly and say, “I don’t understand. Could you open my eyes a little more today?”
The answers might not come dramatically. They might not be right in front of my face. But maybe if I keep going, keep asking all the questions that get laid on my heart, something miraculous might happen: I might find a few answers or I might find peace with the not knowing.
I just hope I never stick two fingers up to your lips and whisper, “Shush.” There is grace and mercy in asking big questions. To ask big questions is to go before a God who can handle all parts of us-- our junk, our nastiness, our hopes, our failures. I think God is big enough for your big questions and bigger frustrations.
I have to ask more questions.
It’s been a year since I last saw you.
I think about you a lot. I think of how I’ve grown and how I used to try to fill conversations with the most amount of words possible. I don’t like the silence but I am finding that it helps a lot more, a lot more than trying to play God to someone else through my words.
Instead of words, I am trying to choose the air. I am trying to listen and ask more questions.
Maybe I didn’t ask you enough. Maybe I should have asked more. Maybe you and I had exactly what we needed to have— you with your questions and me with no answers.
Here’s the thing I do know though: you were onto something when you shifted that math problem across the table.
You were right.
I have everything I need right here to try and solve this problem. To try and find the answers.
You were right.
The answer isn’t “I don’t know.”
The answer is simply, “I don’t know yet.”