Nothing Is Red
The best record keeper in my childhood home in Colorado was an enormous, blackened-leather Bible ringed on three sides in gold, still smelling slightly of pipe tobacco. If we wanted to find which flowers did well last spring, or where, chronologically, Mom was in converting the family’s boxes of photos to scrapbooks, all we had to do was carefully turn through the red-lettered pages of The Good News. Generations of my family’s multicolored marginalia annotated those ancient stories more thoroughly than the publisher did and, in reading many of the notes, I’d often forget the reason I’d come to the nook where we kept the thing. As beautiful as my long-dead relatives’ writings were, I struggled to read them—they had still taught cursive when I was in elementary school, but I could never get the hang of it. Did either of my parents write in this Bible or was it simply a conversation piece? What did the red letters only in the last third of the book mean?
“Handwriting in general will be obsolete pretty soon,” my dad said, but yes, his was in there. “And some Bible publishers print all the things Jesus said in red. Maybe so it stands out.” The color of correction.
“We have spent a lot of time discussing the things you have communicated to us, the process of the past three-plus years, and our perspectives on things,” begins the letter from Dan and Diane in March 2013. They said two months ago that it would come in a week; I’d forced myself to stop anticipating it, so I could start to move on. It’s one page. “It was reasonable for you to expect a more formal response from the church in the wake of early December 2012. We take full responsibility for the lack of such, and for the elders’ team’s failure to adequately care for you as well.” They briefly explain their own turmoil, individual and marital. “None of this justifies the lack of a constructive response towards you, though, and for this we sincerely apologize.” They miss me. They sign it “in good will,” and then their names. The date is in the upper right corner: three years, three months and three days after Dan’s confession. Dan, my pastor, had had inappropriate feelings for me.
He tells me about them four months after he and Diane officiated my wedding.
“We didn’t want to mess up the progress you were making with us, so I firewalled them,” Dan said. For four-and-a-half of the five-and-a-half years we had known each other, through pastoral counseling, premarital counseling, countless hours praying and talking, he had let them smolder like heaps of coals, maintaining intimate access to me until it got too much for him.
A few weeks after Christian and I receive that letter, we grab lunch with Jason and Marie to explain our abrupt departure from the church we loved. This couple is dear. Christian, artist and engineer, brought my blurry vision of “some sort of tree” to life and Jason raised it: a 45-foot weeping willow made of packing paper, over 900 origami lotus flowers spray-painted green and copper wire and festoons of spray-painted origami cherry blossoms, Irises and lotus flowers taped to kite string. As he punctured each flower with wire when the kite string didn’t hold, he prayed that it would last through ceremony.
“I’m going to tell you the same thing I told Dan early this year, friend.” Marie braces. Jason means well but this is a big opportunity for cluelessness. “He came to me just lamenting this whole situation, how he screwed up, how he loves you guys, but he feels like there’s nothing he can do.”
“Jace.” Marie touches his arm.
“Joy can win, guys.” Jason nods; Marie leans back. “Family binds. You know that willow we all thought would just barely make it through the ceremony?”
Christian nods. I wait.
“Still standing.” It stood for three more years.
“Dan told you what happened earlier this year?”
“And it took you four months to contact us why?”
“Jason, Dan didn’t tell us what happened.”
“Well, not specifically, like you guys did. But it could have been worse, right?” Jason says. “He didn’t touch you, nobody’s pregnant.”
No. There are only the flags, which of course you never see until after: the shoulder-shaking incident in spring 2007; a year later, Dan squeezing my arms again, this time as he passed me entering the church, saying, “You really ought to start working out;” that Dan started signing his emails “Your biggest fan;” the sheer amount of time at any and all hours they were weirdly able to give to me, particularly one on one with Dan.
I wanted to get up and leave, just like Diane had done right before Dan confessed. Marie would have supported me, I think. But Jason did have a point. Nothing was red then. Did it have to be now?
January 2007; I’ve been alone in this new city for four months and I either need to find friends or go home. The first Sunday of the year, I walk up a dark red rug bolted to the stairs five minutes after the start time posted on the website; it feels like I’m early. I get to the top of the stairs and I’m inside of one of Seattle’s finest salmon. The balcony and bannister are a deep turquoise. More than one person is up there with everything they own, snoring. They must be the source of the fishy ammonia crumpling my nose. My cheeks flush as a gust of sun sings through the stained-glass heart flanked by flames a few feet below where the vaulted ceiling slopes to meet the wall. A disco ball dangles on a short leather cord from the hexagonal scatter of stained glass in the ceiling over the exact center of the sanctuary. Off to the right of the gaudy ball, a cardboard butterfly with a 20-foot wingspan that splays an Atlas road map of a city that doesn’t appear to be American lunges 30 feet over hinky chairs that smell vaguely of sunblock and mildew. The chairs radiate in semicircles from a red-carpeted platform. Home if I ever felt it.
A very tall and skinny man in ironed jeans, navy-blue socks and tan Birkenstocks takes the pulpit and welcomes the 65 people present to 2007. “Inner healing is sanctifying the past.” He doesn’t need a microphone, nor his notes, it seems. “You cannot do that without right relationships in the present. God cares about how we relate with each other just as much as how we relate with God.” I hadn’t realized that, before I walked into the sanctuary this morning, I had not really believed in healing. What would life be like if you thought it could get better?
The light, sifted by the stained glass, makes everyone look like cardboard. Except Dan, who jolts back into three dimensions when he says, “The spider didn’t frighten you. You frightened you.”
I am always afraid and I never know why but I’m pretty sure it’s not my fault. Ecocidal rulers, homelessness, chewing sounds and people who walk too slowly on the sidewalk. Maybe a little my fault. My rage burns but never consumes me, never ends. Fleeing Colorado to start over in Seattle hasn’t changed this. Wherever you go, there you are. My fault?
On my third visit to this church, Dan doesn’t mill about the music stand he used as a podium for his preaching notes to talk to people after the service. He comes straight for me.
“Welcome.” He doesn’t smile, he searches. I feel seen in a way that makes me wonder if I have ever been seen before. I like it, his nosey questions that follow. Was this how it started? I didn’t know what he saw, only that he was trying. It turns out he basically had X-ray vision, but I didn’t care how he could see me so well, or really why he wanted to.
“Let’s continue this over lunch,” he says. He points to the floor. “Great little Thai place rents basement space from us.” I have no idea what Thai food is, but I don’t know if an adult will ever ask me about my feelings ever again, so I accept.
He waves to his wife and points at the floor again.
“Don’t wait,” she says, smiles at me. One of the homeless youth from the church’s pre-service program needs some reparenting.
We don’t even have our menus before Dan starts up the questions again, stuff no one’s ever asked me before. Do you remember before you had siblings? How long were you the only kid among adults? Did they absolutely fawn over you? Did you register it at the time if they did? They are not accusatory, not leading. They are permission to have emotions, which feels in my body like a lifelong mid-lung lid lifted. I liked it. (My fault.)
We got the idea for a weekend trip to Canada on the second morning of our first long prayer session in Dan and Diane’s apartment. We’ve known each other for three months by now. It’s like I’m their formerly estranged child and they’re making up for missed family vacations.
I stay on their nine-foot red couch the night before our first jaunt up to Canada, their vast collection of books keeping me from sleep. What kinds of books people have, and where they keep them, says a lot about them. Various translations of the Bible take up half of a bookshelf - no red-letter ones, though. The red makes the text harder to see, according to Dan. “Especially when they’re so, so small.” Most of their other books were written by theologians, except The Scarlet Letter. It had never occurred to me that maybe Hawthorne was trying to say something about Jesus.
Okay, so I was emotionally deprived as a kid. A big revelation, perhaps, but no reason to make a pastor fall in love with you. Mom and I had clashed like red and orange (I’m the red); she and my sister meshed. My sister had striven to be different from me as long as she’s known how to say my name correctly (for a while there, I was “Egg”). I never saw my mom laugh or cry. I felt everything all the time, which was my fault.
“But this is all normal kid stuff,” I said. Nothing I remember could have been the culprit for such shattered-up insides. “No one hit me, and I wasn’t left alone until I was fourteen. I never went to bed hungry except when I chose to go to my room instead of apologizing to one of my siblings or something. Also, I miss being a kid, so it couldn’t have been that bad, right?”
“Did you say earlier that how you’d know you were an adult is when you stopped having feelings?”
“Okay, that’s not normal.” Dan’s face freezes in a wince, but he’s not saying it’s my fault. Surely.
We’re going to the University of British Columbia, the English program I got into three years prior and was even offered scholarships. I wanted to attend more than I wanted to breathe. But cute little poems don’t feed empty kids until they’re fat. Poetry is not penicillin. I never visited UBC. I stayed in Colorado and tried to study something useful to a world in crisis.
In my family, you do not ask adults questions and you provide the most concise answers you can when they ask you. But I don’t have to crowbar Dan to talk. (Diane’s naturally quiet, says she fit in better as a missionary in Asia than in blustery, swaggering America.) Dan’s dad threw hammers at him and his older brother when they startled or interrupted him, walked away from their younger sister when she cried, turned silence to stones around his emotional mother when she pleaded, sometimes literally on her knees, for some acknowledgement of her feelings. Dan clenches the wheel till the lines in his knuckles go pink.
Diane suggests we pray. There’s always enough air in her voice to make you think she’d rather be whispering if she has to talk at all. She puts her palm on Dan’s forehead and he relaxes but keeps his eyes on the road while she calls down healing for her husband’s body, soul and spirit. The next moment, we have to pull over so Dan can weep. Diane leans further, straining against her seatbelt before unbuckling and getting her arm all the way around his shoulders. I’m nervous about silence, especially in relation to big emotions, but Dan is the question asker here. I would just embarrass myself.
He starts driving after several minutes; Diane doesn’t remove her hand from his head. She lifts her face toward the cloud-quashed light in the sunroof, prays for healing some more. Dan finds the first parking lot on the UBC campus and pulls over again, where Diane continues to pray and Dan sobs.
“No,” he says below his breath. “I can’t. No.” Diane keeps praying. Was this the moment? It seems significant: I remember what I was wearing. Vulnerability can breed intimacy—should I have known such intimacy could also be false? Or, even when it’s real, that it’s not always good? Would I have cared if I did?
After twenty minutes, I open the door and startle them both. They shake themselves and smile and stumble over apologies before Dan quickly points at a garage-sale-here-style sign tacked to a tree: Day Beach CleanUp! Everyone is wanted!
“Yeah?” He clears his jammed throat. Diane nods and I close the door.
He turns hard and follows the thick line of cars through minty air and soggy trees. We spend the rest of the daylight helping UBC’s environmental club clean up trash on the beach. Diane finds an unopened package of diapers. Dan goes slow so he doesn’t miss a cigarette butt, even a fleck of plastic. Most of the things I think are trash are shell pieces, sea glass, a sand dollar. The forest of driftwood is smoother than ice, whiter than age.
It’s not till the next trip to Vancouver, BC, three months later, that Dan asks me why I torched the hundred or so notebooks I’d spent my childhood filling up. They were not journals. Had I told him this? Could I possibly have forgotten telling him that story?
“Were they in pencil?”
“Why would that matter?”
“Were they faded? Could you still read them?”
“No, they were pathetic and fake. Trying too hard.” I toe a stone on the path through a different set of trees that smell like oregano and smoke.
“To do what?” Dan’s eyes go sharp; he’s just about to preach.
“Be loved,” I eventually say.
“No, that’s what you’re doing now.” He looks into me, digs until I look away. “With us.” He glances behind us to see if Diane is catching up. “What you were doing then, seems to me, was trying to be lovable.”
“It takes immense strength to be loved," I whisper.
Dramatic, overly sensitive, reactive - just because your family uses a word as a pejorative doesn’t make it inaccurate. Maybe my sister wasn’t mispronouncing my name as “Egg.” You want to be progressive, you want to be a strong woman, but that’s hard to do when you go around constantly being on the brink of breaking. Life is this great purging, and I will not outlive my grief.
Dan and Diane are too good to be true. Almost every weekend from July 2007 to August 2008, I’d sleep on their big, red couch. For over two years, one of them, usually Dan, would take me for Thai food or tacos, occasionally sushi at least once a week. A couple times, I got to ride along to area pastor conferences and hang out in the woods while Dan attended a half-day’s worth of meetings.
Trips to Canada piled up, trips down to Powell’s Books in Portland, too. Dan and I invented a game for the three of us: we’d draw names and get ten minutes to find at least five books per person. These books had to be books not only that we thought our person would like but that said something we knew to be true about them. Dan never got one wrong when he drew me. Should I have pretended, shown a little more consideration for Diane’s feelings? Once, when I’d drawn Dan, I found a book called Too True Not to Be Good.
I started seeing Christian in September 2007, soon after he arrived from the East Coast, but Dan was resistant to including him.
“It would just be too easy to create this dynamic where he takes part in re-parenting you, and that’s not a good foundation for romantic relationships.”
Christian didn’t fight. “They’re probably better with big feelings than I am anyway.” So he didn’t object to the amount of time I spent with Dan and Diane, even when it was most often me and Dan.
Diane would excuse herself frequently, but always politely. “Just need some recharge time.”
Her breaks hurt. She likes me, I know. She trusts Dan. But I entered kindergarten assuming every kid would like me and every other kid. Then, Derrick Richardson shoved me off a swing and wood chips stabbed my hands and knees. Every time someone leaves, my stomach goes into a little free fall and then there’s stabbing pain everywhere. And I was tired of decades of trying to fix me, so all the kids would like each other; I wanted someone else not inside of me to take over. I didn’t want to know if I could handle life by myself because I didn’t want to be by myself. Especially after I got a taste of Dan and Diane’s definition of family: less ‘rules and control’ and more ‘here is how you can learn you belong in the world.’
It’s possible this whole thing was my fault. I had known for a while I needed too much. I even eventually figured out that my need for reassurance would never be met, that the only way to be loved is to be lovable. So, for me, that clearly meant being a different person. I was good at what people wanted from me. That was all I knew how to do. I knew I was being successful when Dan started signing his emails Pastor Dad, and Diane Dianemom. It finally wasn’t “just a job” to love me.
I spent the summer of 2009 traveling and when I came back, I stayed with Dan and Diane. During the ten days I lived with them, we had our first actual fight.
“Okay, share a poem with us.” Dan yawned.
I flipped through a notebook I’d started and finished in the seven weeks I’d hopped around England, Scotland, Ireland. I got to the back and flipped to the front, then again, like a slinky.
“Maybe you want to talk about your trip a little first.” Diane asked, adjusting her blanket around her shoulders.
I shook my head and lifted the notebook.
“I already asked you about that.” It sounded like Dan had put his voice in a pencil sharpener.
“That’s only because I asked you to ask me.”
Diane went to the kitchen to put on water for tea. Heat turned Dan’s neck pink. “What do you want me to do?” he said, unhooking his jaw as his shook me by the shoulders. His narrow face went glossy; my skin went black and blue under his fingertips, my chest stabbed cold. We didn’t talk about it again. I couldn’t, didn’t need to. I knew it was my fault.
This church, my family of four years by this point, loved well. Praying for and receiving prayer after the service followed by tacos and chips and guac on the UW lawn. Birthday parties, arts team meeting. House- and pet-sitting. Trading massages for writing lessons (finally something I could contribute). Too glorious, all this, to be true. So, I would just periodically test things, only a bit, to make sure that it was all real, little pinches to make sure I was awake. Would Dan still sign his emails “Pastor Dad” if I was angry at him? Did I have to ask for our regular lunches? Would someone forget their word if I didn’t remind them?
But Christian was the guy I wanted to really like me. He didn’t seem to know how to be sarcastic; he was smart enough to be funny without it, when he was comfortable with you. You’d have to explain most euphemisms to him. He wouldn’t be able to recognize Michael Jordan or Tom Hanks. He was dyslexic, but he started reading Dostoevsky and David Foster Wallace because he knew I couldn’t put them down.
We struggled for five years, broke up four times. I wasn’t spending enough time or emotion on him and he wasn’t complaining about it. I didn’t realize I was getting from Dan and Diane I should have been getting from Christian.
But nothing seemed wrong to us. I marched down the aisle to marry Christian in step with the song Dan wrote (based off a poem of mine he loved) and played on the piano for the occasion. There probably wasn’t one congregant left I hadn’t misconnected with at one point; still, the whole church found a wedding-day or wedding-runway job to volunteer for; I had to hire only a caterer. As far as I know still, there were no code reds; if anything went wrong the day of, I never heard about it.
After I got engaged on Christmas Day 2011, the trips to Canada and the sleepovers on the big red couch ended. But there were still lunches. Many emails. Texts. Over-lunch phone calls. Not till Dan’s confession did I start to worry that they, too, saw me as I feared I would always be, so broken it required them to sacrifice acres of calendar space, much of it meant for others, maybe indefinitely. I didn’t know until the year following Dan’s confession that they were putting people off; I’d likely have felt more guilt than loved. At least for the moment.
Dan calls an urgent lunch meeting for the first Friday in December 2012. I call in sick at work and meet them at our favorite place in the neighborhood we all used to live in.
“We haven’t caught up since your ‘moon” was Dan’s reason. And he did have a point. I’d picked up a parasite in Mexico on the last day of our honeymoon and had been sick for over a month. Still, my nerves shredded themselves; Dan could be disorganized, but it was the urgency that did it. If this is how red flags feel, it was not wonder I’d wanted to avoid them. My fault. I needed them, their love, their family too much. Wasn’t it inevitable that Dan would develop—
Stop. This is what happened.
We have this totally normal meal, except Dan’s questions irritate me and he avoids my eyes the whole time. I barely eat my tofu curry or whatever the hell I ordered. Diane leans back, whispers to Dan, then leaves the table. The electric, red-flag feeling.
Dan: “I have never met anyone as good at getting people to love them as you.”
Me: confused frown.
Him: “I mean, I have affections for you.”
Me: deeper frown.
Something large and metal clangs to the tile in the kitchen. Voices yell over each other in Thai.
Me: “How long?”
Him: “When you shared ‘Uncollected Height.’” The poem he based my bridal entry song off of. I had shared it with him four and a half years ago.
Me: silence, then “Does Diane know?”
Him: “Diane told me.” He sounds surprised even though he’s known longer than I have.
Him, just before Diane comes back: “If I were younger, and this were a different universe…”
I don’t have any more questions. I assume it will become clear what this, what all this, means soon enough. Diane returns, reaches for a hug, which I return out of a reflex to keep people from feeling embarrassed. They drive me the 20 blocks to my apartment. A friend is coming for dinner and gets there before Christian gets home from work.
“Did your meeting with Dan and Diane go okay? You look sick.” My friend sets a ceramic pot of African violets on our table.
I nod and drop a skillet full of hot oil and garlic.
“Did Dan tell you he was in love with you or something?”
We stopped going to that church. We stopped going to the home group a few blocks north of our house. Diane sent several emails throughout the rest of December 2012. “We miss you but understand if you need space.” Dan wrote the morning of the Sandy Hook massacre: “I know there’s a ban of silence on me, but I just saw this morning’s news—how are you doing, Megan?” I’m from Littleton; I was in lockdown ten minutes from the Columbine shootings in 1999 where before we were released I thought for over eight hours the country was at war. I heard three explosions I assumed were gunshots. Two of the victims had attended my youth group.
So, it was thoughtful, right? Dan checking in—he knew I’d be triggered.
No—he assumed I’d break. I craved relationship affirmation, being pursued, and he knew it because he maintained a level of emotional access to me that I would not have allowed had I known at any point what I learned when he confessed. Could it have been worse? It could have not happened at all. Yes, I needed to be seen so much that I’d forgotten, or may been unwilling, to see myself. Yes, I believed that I needed to be broken in order for people to spend time with me. But Dan, pastor, healer, needed me to stay broken, longing for the past so that I’d still want to understand it enough to keep telling him as much as I knew.
We stopped going to church altogether after our interactions with Holly, the regional leader—think bishop for nondenominational churches—overseeing Dan and Diane’s church. I wanted to tell someone with the power to do something, and initially, I was relieved such a person was a woman. She wouldn’t tell me it could have been worse; she’d understand rape culture and male privilege and how you don’t have to be a sexual assault victim to be legitimately violated by how men in power take whatever they want from those with less power and wantonly abuse the trust of those in their care.
But maybe it’s the power that’s the real problem. Holly initially was apologetic, even called Dan’s actions what they were: abuses of spiritual power. She’d need to talk to them; if their story matched ours: remedial action. If it didn’t: discipline. “You can be as involved in whatever process we go through,” she said. Then she stopped responding to my emails, was harsh in her response to Christian’s. She met with the elder’s team and, “for the sake of not turning the rumor mill,” told them not to speak with me.
Here’s something else that happened. The process of un-enmeshing, extracting ourselves from the church, seemed to be under a magnifying glass. I’d been fixating on how I grew up, what could have happened to me to make me “this” screwed up and nothing ever quite fit. I never found enough LEGOs to build a coherent story. I longed for the past because I thought, maybe if I could redo it, I’d pay more attention and I would understand. But I long for the past, not mine, and it’s only because it was farther away from the end of the world.
Sometimes the best we can do is try to believe that some worlds need to end. Or, if we can pull it off, live after they do as if they should have.
The Bible I have now has a squat, deep-rooted willow on its rough cover and none of the words are red. I don’t write in the margins. I have used the Bible’s weight to press flowers I find discarded and dying on the sidewalk. On the first page, I stuck a scrapbook-photo-sized sticker of the Connecticut state flag that an elder at the church gave me a few years after we met. He’s a linguist from Connecticut; the sticker is about the Latin on the banner below the Connecticut Coat of Arms: Qui Transtulit Sustinet. He Who Transplanted Still Sustains. It hasn’t lost its meaning even though after years of friendship the linguist and I stopped speaking when I had to leave the church. This is a Green Bible, co-edited by Wendell Berry with a foreword by Desmond Tutu, where all the texts that speak to the multitude of calls to care for and sustain the earth as well as each other are printed (on recycled paper) in dark green that’s easy to see even when it’s small.
about the writer
Megan Wildhood is a creative writer and social worker at a crisis center in Seattle, WA. Her work, which centers social justice, marginalized experiences and hope for healing as an act of resistance, has appeared, among other publications, in The Atlantic, The Sun, Yes! Magazine and America Magazine. Long Division, her poetry chapbook ruminating on sororal estrangement, was released by Finishing Line Press in September 2017 and she’s currently working on a novel. You can learn more at meganwildhood.com.