Chapter Two: Three Decades of Begging the Guy Upstairs for Help
[NOTE: Although this sample chapter makes sense by itself even if you don't read
anything else, I suggest you read Chapter One (which has its own button on the
web page) first. It's only a fraction of the length of this chapter, so it shouldn't
take too much more time.
Alternatively, you can read the even briefer Chapter One abstract (at the
Abstracts button), & then come back here & start this NOT-brief (but, I've been
told, compelling) chapter. If you lose patience you can always just go back to
Abstracts & read the Chapter Two abstract instead of this, but you'll miss some of
the best parts of the story that way.]
Part 1: The 2 1/2 Decades of Petitioning before Belinda
My senior year of high school, Mama usually let me take her car to school. The first
day, as I headed eastward on Lakeland Drive, I found myself looking up at the sky and
begging whoever was up there to help me with a problem I knew I was about to have to
deal with. I had known God was real since he or she or it had zapped me at that Bible
study three years before, but this was the first time it had occurred to me to ask him or
her or it to do something for me. “God,” I said, “please no hearing embarrassment today!
It says in the Bible, ‘Ask and it shall be given unto you,’ And that you’ll do anything for
us if we have faith. Well, I have faith so please no hearing embarrassment. I really believe
you can do it, so DO it!”
By “hearing embarrassment” I meant the times when teachers would call on me in
class and I wouldn’t have any idea what they were talking about, or, worse, wouldn’t
even know they’d called on me, so that I’d sit there not saying anything until I finally
realized everybody was looking at me and waiting for me to answer, when I hadn’t even
heard the question in the first place. At least now that my classmates were full grown,
they no longer roared with laughter when I responded with a non sequitur, or when the
teacher repeated herself for the fourth or fifth time, but it was still embarrassing! And I
knew there was nothing I could do about it on my own power. Since my whole problem
was that I was embarrassed about my hearing impairment, talking to a counselor or
anyone else was out of the question. But this idea of getting divine help seemed like a
As I locked the car and started walking toward the senior-high building, I thought of
some other lines from the Bible. “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can
say to this mountain, ‘Throw yourself into the sea’ and it will obey you.” “Anything you
ask me to do for you in my name, I will do.” It was exciting to imagine that all I had to
do was ask and believe, and God would deliver.
Since the one thing I knew was that faith was the most important element for getting
prayers answered, I just tried my hardest all day long to believe that God was in fact
going to keep up his end of the deal and not let anything embarrassing happen to me.
During activity period, I realized it was working so far; in the first two periods I’d had
the two teachers I was most worried about and, surprisingly, hadn’t had any trouble
understanding either of them. (Thanks, God!) Then in the last class period, God used a
different technique to grant my prayer, because I did have trouble understanding the U.S.
Government teacher, but, joy of joys, she used an overhead projector with everything
important written on it, and pointed to it periodically as she talked. She also seated us
alphabetically, which put me right up front. So I was able to follow everything well
enough to avoid any trouble whatsoever.
What a spectacular start to the school year! Every year before this, I’d had at least
two teachers who were pretty much impossible for me to understand. It hadn’t hurt my
grades or anything, since everything was written down somewhere, but it had meant
plenty of those slow-burn episodes while someone nearby would try to explain to me
what the teacher wanted me to do or say.
The rest of senior year, I said my prayers every morning on the way to school, and
then all day long I simply used my will power and concentration to try to continue to
believe in the face of any trouble I thought might be coming up. It worked! I had my best
school year yet, and sent up thanks and praise constantly. All those biblical promises
about faith had proven true!
Fast forward fifteen years, to when I desperately wanted to be a graduate teaching
assistant in my master’s program at Mississippi College, even though all the slots had
already been filled. At first, I used the same method of simple willed belief that had
worked in high school. I prayed hard all summer and felt good about it. But about mid-
August, with no assistantship in sight, I started getting worried that it wasn’t going to
Just as time was running out, though, I somehow became aware of another Bible
verse, one less well-known than the simple ones on faith that I’d relied on in the past.
The new verse, Mark 11:24, read, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have
received it, and it will be yours.”
What an interesting idea—to believe I’d already received something even though I
didn’t have it yet. What could this possibly mean? The only thing I could think of was
some psychological exercises I’d heard of that seemed to be based on the same idea: the
“Act as If” saying from Alcoholics Anonymous and “visualization” from sports
psychology. I didn’t know anything about either of these methods beyond what their
titles suggested—do you?—but I was thrilled to have some concrete techniques on
So, trying to put these principles into practice, I pretended I already had the TA job. I
imagined myself having classes to teach, papers to grade, and students coming to my
office for help. Whenever doubts or other negative thoughts started to arise in my mind, I
simply refused to dwell on them even for a minute. I also went to the bookstore and
looked at the textbooks I’d be teaching from, although I didn’t actually buy them because
I didn’t want anybody to think I was crazy.
Then, literally two days before classes were to begin, when I got home there was a
note from my mother. “Dr. Taylor called—,” it said on the first line. Underneath were the
words, “Wants to know if you’re still interested in being a TA.”
Although at this point I was still ignorant of most of the truths I would later learn
about the petitioning process, God had nonetheless responded to my efforts to strengthen
my faith at this very basic level. I thanked him big time!
My next big petitioning project was during my doctoral program at Louisiana State
University. I was again a TA, and this time had trouble understanding my students in the
classroom. The room was large and not very well-lit, meaning I wasn't able to read lips
well at all, which had always been the main way I supplemented my poor hearing.
Another difference was that I now had responsibility for my own lesson plans. For
me, this meant I was desperate for anything that might make the course, Freshman
Comp I, more interesting to the students than it would be otherwise. Thus the time was
ripe for me to do stupid things like try class activities that I knew deep down I couldn’t
hear well enough to supervise, especially not in that huge room. And I didn’t pray at all, I
guess because I knew I was already ignoring the warnings God was trying to send me, I
mean in the form of my misgivings about the activities.
Another complication was that I had a crush on the professor who taught the TA
practicum (a class that teaches people how to teach). This meant I absolutely wallowed
in the pleasure of the practicum sessions, where it just so happened that I could
understand Linda’s crystal-clear voice perfectly. It also meant I immaturely wanted to
use the lesson plans she gave us the same way everyone else did, instead of tailoring
them to my disability. So, all semester long I simply blocked out the fact that I was
having trouble understanding my own students. (Have you ever let a crush keep you
from being responsible?)
One day, for example, I was trying to use an activity where the students came up
with reasons in support of abortion rights, which I was supposed to write in a list on the
board. I reminded them to wait till I was looking at them before they spoke, but that didn’
t help much at all. The first person I called on was a talkative girl in the front row whom
I thought I wouldn’t have trouble understanding, but all I could make out was some form
of the word “private.” I asked her to repeat herself, and wracked my brain for some
phrase that might contain that word. Finally, I picked up the chalk and wrote “private
matter,” when actually what she was trying to say (as I learned after class from their
brainstorming lists) was “the right to privacy.”
Not too far off, but it got worse. I called on a guy in the back row, and all I could
understand was “control,” which in desperation I turned into “self-control,” even though
I knew full well that didn’t make any sense. (What he’d actually said was “control over
one’s own body.”)
When the semester was over, this class quite understandably gave me low scores on
their student evaluations. The graduate committee then took away my assistantship until
I improved my competence in the classroom.
I received this news by means of a terse form letter in my box in the mailroom.
When I first read it, I was like, WHEW, relief! I’m so glad to be rid of that responsibility!
In a few minutes, though, my relief began to morph into fear and confusion. What the
hell was I going to do with my life now?
Back at home the next day, I wasn’t the least bit ready to humble myself and listen to
God in order to start solving this super-serious problem. Instead, I found it very easy to
focus on reading for my Ph.D. prelim exams that were coming up in the spring, and to
completely avoid thinking about what was going to happen with my teaching. This way I
also avoided feeling the pain of what had happened. For several days I was totally numb.
When I finally did bring myself to pray about the problem, it seemed God had been
readier to respond than I had been to ask, because as soon as I got back to LSU in
January, there was a note in my box from my dissertation director Professor Karen Eliot,
asking me to come see her in her office.
When I did that, this pint-sized dynamo of a guardian angel told me that in hopes of
eventually persuading the graduate committee to restore my assistantship, she’d gotten
special permission for the two of us to team-teach a double section of British Survey.
One of our objectives would be to develop ways to compensate for my hearing loss in
the classroom. “I know you can teach,” Karen told me confidently from behind her
familiar large-rimmed glasses. “And I want to help make that happen.”
Talk about the weight of the world off my shoulders! But it was par for the course
for Karen to save my tail in this manner. I’d always known God had put her into my life
for a reason. (Have you ever felt that way about anybody?)
At first, God had used Karen to keep me in school at LSU, when I probably would’
ve quit the program after my first year if I hadn’t met her in the spring and started taking
her Milton seminar the next fall. The only reason I’d started the whole thing to begin with
was because I’d followed my friend Anne from my master’s program on to LSU, where
she had a prestigious doctoral fellowship. I had no particular desire to get a Ph.D.
myself, but I wanted to keep being friends with Anne, and more schooling sounded just
as good as anything else I might’ve done at that time, such as going back to teaching and
coaching in high school. Once I was at LSU, most of my classes were OK, and I had
some very good profs, but no one I really connected with.
So I was feeling completely directionless that spring afternoon when I went to one of
the lecture halls on campus for this large, rowdy meeting having something to do with
political correctness. After two or three militant-feminist professors gave downright
angry speeches, Karen went to the podium and stepped up on a wooden box to help her
reach the mike. “My name is Karen Eliot,” she said in a commanding but calm voice. “I’
m not going to talk about political correctness because I don’t know what it is. Instead,
my job as chair of the rules committee is to make sure everyone understands the
procedure for making a formal complaint to the university if they think their rights have
been violated.” At that moment, the anger of both the speakers and the crowd started to
Although I wasn’t especially interested in the topic at hand, I was fascinated by
Karen. I guess as a metaphor for the situation my life was in at the time, she seemed a
beacon of clarity and hope amid a sea of confusion. When the meeting was over, I went
up and complimented her on her talk, and she was gracious and kind. As soon as I got
back to my apartment I looked her up in the bulletin. Cool, she was actually one of the
people who worked on the poet John Donne, whom I was already considering writing
about for my dissertation! There was no question this was a sign that I should take a
course from her as soon as possible.
So when the schedule for fall came out, to the surprise of my friends I registered for
Karen’s Milton seminar instead of the only Donne course for grad students, which was
taught by someone else during the same time period. From day one, Karen and I hit it off
so well that I knew I’d done the right thing—even though it meant trudging through the
entire text of Paradise Lost! By the end of that semester, she had enthusiastically agreed
to be my dissertation director.
Now, here she was again, saving me from myself by coming up with a way for me
to keep doing what I was trying to do, namely to succeed at college-level teaching. I
praised God, and asked for his help in carrying out the plan.
Before the team-teaching project was to begin, though, there was God’s custom-
designed masterpiece I like to call the Interview from Hell.
What God did this time was have the one school in my hometown that I thought I
would someday like to teach at (Millsaps) call and say they had an emergency opening
and would I possibly be interested in filling it? Instead of being thrilled with this invitation
like anyone with half an ounce of sense would’ve been, I actually felt irritated because it
threatened my master plan of finishing my degree before worrying about getting a real
job. I just did not want that kind of stress and involvement with the world while I was
still a student myself! Even so, I didn’t consider simply telling them I wasn’t interested.
Even I knew that would be inexcusably idiotic.
During the phone call, I had no trouble understanding what the department head was
saying, which was a surprise because I knew her and in the past had always had trouble
with her voice. The only bad thing about this was that it led me to decide I didn’t need to
do anything to try to ensure I could understand her at the interview, such as asking my
sis-in-law to go along to interpret if necessary. Another, more important reason for my
decision not to prepare any backup was because not doing so was a great way to express
how PO’d I was about having to fool with the whole inconvenient, involved-with-the-
world thing in the first place. Just minimize it, you know, and slide by the easiest way I
When the big day arrived, I grumbled to myself starting the minute I got out of my
car in the parking garage. As I waited in the English Department’s reception area, I was
polite, of course, but every last person I saw got on my nerves. One sorority girl
annoyed me with her preppiness, while I felt just as put off by a guy with long hair,
grungy jeans, and sandals even though it was still wintertime. Why were people so
Finally, Diana, the department head, was ready to see me. A reserved but genuinely
kind person, with strawberry-blonde hair, sparkling eyes, and a sincere smile, she didn’t
get on my nerves, but as soon as we started talking, I realized I was in deep trouble. I
could barely even tell when the subject changed, much less make out any individual
words. Diana was glad to repeat herself whenever I asked her to, but that was a losing
proposition because even on second and third tries, I still couldn't understand much of
anything she said. I stumbled through the half hour, trying to pick up bits of what she
was saying and use them as a basis to make statements about myself that seemed
relevant to the job we were discussing, but of course that didn’t work. I left the
interview feeling even worse than I had before, and—needless to say—I didn’t get the
In addition to ruining my teaching prospects at Millsaps forever, God’s masterpiece
Interview from Hell also did me two huge favors: it forced me to tackle both my hearing
impairment and my misanthropy head on. Before the interview, even though I was
grateful for Karen’s plan to help me in the classroom at LSU, I hadn’t been completely
sold on the idea that I needed to develop systematic methods of compensating for my
hearing problem. And—much more significantly—I now realized I needed to take a very
serious look at my relationship to the world. It had never before occurred to me that the
general disdain I felt for so much of the population could actually keep me from getting
work in my chosen field, but that fact was staring me in the face now.
When I thought about trying to rid myself of this fundamental flaw, though, I found
myself worrying that then there would be nothing left of me. Bothered by this prospect, I
prayed deeply, asking God to help me see the truth about myself, no matter how bad it
was, and to show me what I ought to do with that truth when I found it. (I wish I could
give some specifics here about the prayer techniques I used, but this was years before I
started keeping my spiritual journal, and I just don’t remember any, sorry.)
What I learned was that my identity was very dependent on my misanthropy. I had
always viewed myself as hard-working and competitive and looked down on those who
weren’t. The teeth-gritting contempt I felt for so many people was my way of keeping
myself separate from what I viewed as the lazy, careless masses. I cringed at the thought
of changing into some kind of bland, benevolent bundle of “niceness,” which was what I
thought I’d become if I gave up my anger and hatred.
But anything was better than being cut off from my vocation and from the few
people I did like. On that basis, and with much help from God, I finally overcame my
fear of losing my edge—and committed myself to learning from guardian angel Karen not
only how to teach with my disability but also how to treat and appreciate others.
When the team-teaching project finally got underway, my petitioning was raised to its
highest level yet. I prayed my tail off about every aspect of the experience, from the bus
picking me up on time to planning and delivering my lectures well to God helping me
every step of the way as I tried to communicate back-and-forth with every one of my
The teaching skill I most needed that help with was fielding questions from the
students after I lectured. Although I absolutely loved to lecture, I dreaded the Q & A
sessions at the end because then I had to stand up there and let them ask me anything
they wanted. I hated not having any idea what they were going to say!
At first, I even tried to figure out in advance what the questions were likely to be, in
hopes of being more likely to understand them. Standing in the front of the room in the
modern building Karen and I had requested because I thought the good lighting would
help me read lips, I’d perk up my ears for questions like “Could you explain again what
‘humanism’ was?,” only to be bombarded by such unforgettable Teaching Moments as
“Can Web sites count as sources for our research paper?” This utter failure of my efforts
to predict what the students were going to ask destroyed my composure and made it
even harder for me to handle the rest of the day’s interactions.
Karen was always around if I needed her to repeat what the students had said, but
that pretty much defeated the purpose of me developing my own ways of communicating
in the classroom. But along about mid-semester, she offered a valuable insight.
“I have an observation about your teaching,” she said as she closed the thick Norton
Anthology of English Literature and pushed it to the far corner of her desk. “I’m just
going to throw it out there and let you do what you want with it. OK?”
“Sure, go ahead!” I wondered why she felt the need to cushion whatever it was she
was about to say.
She then picked up her pen and leaned toward me as if to make sure she’d get her
point across accurately. “Well, when the students are asking questions after you’ve
lectured, you view the questions as challenges, as though you’re having to defend your
ground—and they’re not!”
“I do?” I said with surprise. I had been expecting a criticism of my teaching style,
not a comment on my interior mental state. “Well, maybe I do—because I do wish they
just wouldn’t ask anything, or would only ask things I could understand instantly.
Hmmmm. I guess maybe I even associate it with my childhood fear of being called on in
class and not knowing what the question was. You know, unconsciously. Because it’s
the same feeling.”
“Is it that bad?” Karen asked, wrinkling her brow.
“Well, no, because I’m not embarrassed the way I was when I was little, but I still
feel like I’m suspended over the classroom on a rope or something, so that I can’t get
down to the level with everyone else and therefore understand what they’re saying.” I
paused, not knowing what to make of all this. “Thanks for pointing this out. How can
you tell, anyway?”
“I don’t know. It’s not really anything you do or say, but I can just tell by watching
you that you feel defensive.”
“Thanks! Is there anything else? You can tell me anything, I want to know! I’m
going to work on this starting the next time it’s my turn to lecture, so tell me if there’s
anything else and I’ll work on that too.”
“Nothing else I can think of. Good luck working on it. I’ll let you know how you
Wow. The stakes seemed really high here, since my defensiveness seemed so tied in
with my basic problem of understanding what they were asking. So I did some serious
Bible-searching for anything that might help me get God to help. I sort of skipped around
a lot, reading anything I could find that might be a new tip for getting prayers answered,
anything in addition to that very obvious requirement of faith that I’d made use of for so
I remember coming to the Lord’s Prayer and almost not even reading it because I
figured it was so familiar, how could it possibly help? But somehow I read it anyway, the
version in Matthew 6, where after the prayer Jesus says if we forgive others for
trespassing against us, then God will forgive us our trespasses, but if we don’t, he won't.
And, by implication, he won’t answer our prayers. How interesting!
When I thought about it, I remembered that I’d tried this technique of forgiving
others before petitioning once or twice a long time ago, but it hadn’t crossed my mind in
years. So, thanking God for the reminder, I asked myself and God if there was anybody I
needed to forgive regarding this matter of my defensiveness with student questions.
YES! There were two or three people I always had trouble understanding, and—
wouldn’t you know it?—it seemed like they were the ones who asked most of the
questions. The students I could understand hardly ever said anything. And I used to get
very irritated at the questioners. I knew intellectually that they didn’t deserve any blame—
they were just participating in class, for God’s sake—but that didn’t lessen my irritation.
So I really did need to forgive these people, in the sense of losing my irritation.
When I saw how neatly this all fit together, I was pumped with excitement. The very
act of losing my irritation was itself going to improve the situation quite a bit, plus here
was this promise from Jesus himself that losing it would lead God to forgive me and
grant my prayers for help.
Right that minute I started working on changing my thinking. Every time the thought
of the questioners would pop into my head and the aggravation would bubble up, I’d let
myself feel it for a minute or two—if I was by myself, I’d grit my teeth, roll my eyes,
and do whatever else I felt like doing to express myself. But then I’d force myself to take
some deep breaths, relax, and turn my feelings over to God, asking him to take them
When it was time for class, I Acted as If I was confident even if I wasn’t feeling
confident that day. I tried to make eye contact with all the students, and acted like I
welcomed questions from everybody. (This was quite an improvement over what I’d
done before, which was to pretend to be working so no one would try to talk to me.) If
someone did ask me something, I had my routine down pat: I’d repeat the question to
make sure I had it right, and would not panic if they responded by correcting me. A few
times I actually had the presence of mind to send up a quick plea to God for help before I
None of this was easy, but it worked. When the course was over, I’d gained not
only a semester of successful teaching, but also a new level of dialogue with the Creator.
And the most important thing I’d learned was that forgiving others (with God’s help)
was a major tactic for getting prayers answered.
The only catch is, these kids were pretty easy to forgive, because they weren’t
people I hated, or even especially disliked. I think God let me start with them, but
eventually God challenged me with much harder cases of forgiving others. We’ll get to
some of those soon enough.
After the team-teaching project was over, I went back to being a regular TA and
taught two semesters of comp on my own before finishing my degree. Without Karen
around to save me when I needed her to, it was that much more important for me to
make sure I had God helping me every step of the way.
This time, thank goodness, I did much better than I had two years earlier about
talking and listening to God as I planned my lessons. I couldn’t believe how disconnected
from reality I’d let myself get before. I was determined not to let that happen again!
I still prayed about the bus being on time, but once I was safely on the bus, the five
minutes it took to get across campus was just enough time for me to look back over my
carefully constructed plans and ask God to help with each part in turn. This five minutes
of focused prayer and concentration really made a big difference in my mindfulness
about what I was doing, and my basic confidence about the whole thing.
Once I was inside that same modern building Karen and I had taught in—all sturdy
and bright and sterile—I’d go straight to the ladies’ room, which had become my
sanctuary. I’d be pumped with energy, but would stand in front of the mirror calmly
combing my hair so I could stand there and, silently, yell out to God: HELP! (Have you
ever been in a situation where you had too much energy and needed to control or channel
These prayers always worked, and I think the reason was that I took on an attitude
of total humbleness in the face of the power of the universe. That was easy to do
because—unlike the way we humans naturally feel in most situations—I was 100%
positive I wasn’t in control of what was about to happen. Once I had my humble attitude
in place, all I then had to do was try my hardest to believe that that power was going to
help me out. This part of the process was a lot like the willed belief I’d practiced in high
Sometimes when I took on my humble attitude, I could actually sense God’s
presence behind me there in the restroom, as though the sturdy metal fixtures and the
thick concrete walls were a direct expression of his strength and reliability. And whether
I could sense that presence on a given day or not, I found I could tap into the strength by
relaxing physically, breathing deeply, and letting my shoulders fall downward as I
exhaled, as if to relieve their burden of trying to be in charge of everything when really,
God had so much more control over the whole situation than I did. I mean breathing very
deeply, with all my might—remember, I was full of energy. This was a great way to
When it was time to start for the classroom, I would make what I called my leap of
faith, a sort of close-your-eyes-and-dive-in action of the mind, in which I could pretend I
had my act together when the truth was that I felt partly numb and partly terrified. The
best I can describe the leap of faith is to say that because of the strength my prayers had
given me, I was able to put up a wall in my brain between myself and my fear—a wall
that would last long enough to carry me through the few minutes in which I actually had
to put one foot in front of the other and get to the room.
Once I got there, the rushing river of reality would instantly wash away both my
prayers and my fear and replace them with students and lecture notes, roll books and
handouts. But at that point, all I had to do was go with the flow.
One other prayer technique I used was that just before I walked out of the restroom,
if no one was around, I’d make the sign of the cross on my chest—you know, the way
Catholics do. Both this and the deep breathing are ways of making use of the fact that
our bodies and souls are deeply connected. Which, by the way, seems to me a very good
argument for the existence of a supernatural creator. How else could thought possibly
arise out of something so fundamentally different from it as matter?
Anyway, for me, crossing myself works like a shorthand reminder of the main
attitude adjustments I always need to make whenever I’m trying to ask God for help.
When I first started doing it—decades ago—if no one was looking I usually made three
crosses in a row, to stand for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but that was just a
symbolic act that didn’t really have much psychological meaning. So after I started
learning about the petitioning process, I decided to make each crossing stand for
something about petitioning. I made the first stand for forgiving everybody for
everything, the second for humbly submitting my will to the will of the universe, and the
third for going forth joyfully in faith and thanksgiving because I know God is in the
process of answering my prayers.
Here, I think it’s crucial for your development of your own petitioning ability that
you make sure you really get what I mean by submitting my will to the will of the
universe. It’s actually two-pronged: first, I have to accept whatever situation God has
currently put me into, truly opening myself to whatever lessons he or she wants me to
learn, and second, I have to stop trying to do whatever it is by myself on my own power
and instead turn it over to the Creator for him or her to help.
I think you should stop right now and try to imagine doing this for whatever problem
of yours pops into your head. If you’re like me, chances are that you don’t really want to
accept the fact that the problem is something God wants you to learn from. For example,
a man wrote me for advice and what he wanted was for me to help him pray that his
wife would stop spending so much time with people from her church and instead would
go back to wanting to stay home with him and have sex with him, which she’d told him
she was no longer interested in doing. He wasn’t willing to accept the situation and start
learning from it. The reason I understand this so well is because I’m exactly the same
way myself! (As you’ll see as you read the rest of my story.)
As for the other aspect of submitting—to stop trying to do whatever it is on your
own power—as I mentioned above, it’s human nature to think we’re in control and to try
to do everything without God’s help, but that’s an illusion, which you can probably
believe about this problem of yours since it’s apparently a problem you need help solving.
(Adam and Eve wanted to do everything on their own power, too!)
Years later, I still use the triple-crossing technique all the time, rapidly thinking these
thoughts: forgive, submit, and believe. If people are around, instead of making crosses on
my chest I just tap my finger unnoticeably, just by squeezing it against my thumb or
something like that. The neat thing about all this is that the crosses or taps themselves
cause that same physical relaxation as my breathing exercises in the restroom at LSU.
Everything really is all connected!
The only other thing I’d take note of about this section is that the whole idea of
relaxing and letting God do his thing is another big piece of the petitioning puzzle.
As I said, my ladies’-room strategies for enlisting God’s help with my teaching really
Every day when I first got to the classroom, I made a point to make myself as
available as possible, as I’d first learned to do when teaching with Karen. As time went
on, I got to where it almost came naturally to me to be open to interacting with everyone.
That would’ve been unimaginable not too long before.
Once class had started, the most useful of Karen’s and my inventions was a work-
study student who was paid to come to class and write everything my students said on
an overhead projector aimed at the back wall, for me to look at if I needed to read what
they’d said. This worked pretty well till the last few minutes of class, when the Q & A
session had degenerated into a free-for-all that the writer couldn’t really keep up with.
But then, I was able to make even better use of another of Karen’s and my inventions.
Let me just illustrate.
One day at the end of class, this kind of grade-conscious and earnest guy from
Lafayette asked with his Cajun accent, “Ms. Anderson, could I write my process essay
about a ____[unintelligible]_____ ? About the process of ____[unintelligible]____?”
“About what?” I asked him to repeat as I walked toward his desk, which was plan A
for when I didn’t understand what somebody had asked. But I still couldn’t understand
his answer: “A _______. Like a _______.” It sounded like “A Baroque. Like a cocoon,”
except that didn’t make sense. So it was time for plan B.
I pulled out a blank index card from my pocket and handed it to him. “Just write
what it is you want to write about because I still don’t know what you’re saying.” He
bent over and labored for a few seconds—he must not have known how to spell it. When
he handed the card back to me, there in big block letters was “PIROGUE.” I’d never
seen the word before, but when I tried to pronounce it, he said I had it right.
Then he took the card back from me and drew a picture of a small boat or slip and
repeated what he’d tried to tell me previously: “It’s like a canoe—except it’s flatter and
easier to carry. I’ve used ’em all my life to fish and stuff.”
“Oh, a canoe. How interesting!” I answered. “Yes, I think you could write a process
essay about paddling a pirogue, or maybe about the whole process of putting it into the
water and paddling and maybe looking for fish and how you catch the fish and bring
them home. Yes, I think that could make a great process essay if you put enough effort
The guy, obviously pleased with my answer, continued the discussion. “Well, what
you do depends on how deep the water is. When it’s too shallow you have to ___
[unintelligible]__ because you can’t paddle. I can write about either one of ’em.”
In the past, I would’ve just said “Fine” and let the conversation end. But this time, I
actually lived up to my goal of true two-way communication. I handed him back the card
as I asked, “What’s the other thing besides paddling?” But before he could write
anything, the guy sitting next to him demonstrated by using his pencil to push against the
wall as he repeated “POLE it!”
I laughed. “That’ll be fine either way. Write about the one you know the most about,
or the one that you have the most to say about. Or maybe both. Just be sure it’s a
colorful and detailed essay, and I think it’ll be very good.”
Next, without even thinking about it, I did something else I’d never done before. I
said to the whole class, “Does anybody else want to ask me about the subject for their
process essay?” No one did, but for a minute there I actually felt like a normal teacher.
By the end of the semester, this class—as well as the one I taught the next
semester—gave me much better evaluations than I’d ever gotten before, which led the
graduate committee to acknowledge that I’d corrected my previous failure to teach
effectively. What an improvement to put on my resumé!
What was more, with my prayerful preparation for my classes and my relaxation into
God’s power when it was time to execute the plans, I had reached another level of
proficiency at getting my prayers answered. Praise be.
Despite these victories, I wasn’t feeling confident or even the least bit right with God
during my drive down from Jackson to LSU the first day of the second semester I taught
on my own (spring 1996). Instead, I was dreading the changes that were about to take
place. It seemed like just when I’d gotten used to the people and the daily routine, it had
all been pulled out from under me. (What I didn’t realize was that that’s life!)
To make matters worse, Karen was now on sabbatical. If I wasn’t going to be able
to stick my head into her office when I needed a boost, I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to
carry over my still-developing communication skills to a completely new group of
Another way Karen had helped was to be my shoulder to cry on (so to speak) when
the one person I’d wanted to spend my life with had married a man. I didn’t normally
talk to professors about things like this, but Karen had asked me about it whenever we
met to talk about my dissertation. I was still in plenty of pain, and now she wasn’t going
to be there for me in this way either.
In this stupid-selfish, change-resisting frame of mind, about an hour into my drive I
started freaking out. I knew the only thing that could possibly help would be to pray
about all my problems, but I was totally unable to get anything going. But I was also
scared to death to go to class without praying—so as I got closer to Baton Rouge, I
started feeling literally squeezed in the chest by the giant hands of impending doom.
Finally, I begged to God, “Please help me, NOW! I know I’m blocking you by my
attitude, but I can’t help it, so you please help me!”
I then tried every keep-the-faith trick I could think of. Acting as If was out of the
question, since that was precisely what I was unable to do in this awful mood. But I
looked out at the rain that had been coming down hard for a while now, and told myself
that if God could do that, then surely he could help me. I also had the bright idea to slow
down a little, to give him more time to do something before I got there. I also tried to
relax physically, but I really couldn’t.
The one thing that finally helped was to belt out some faith-boosting hymns I knew
by heart—like O God Our Help in Ages Past, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, and Go
Forward, Christian Soldier. Chain-singing them one after another, loudly and without
letting myself think about anything else at all, actually did work to make me feel like I at
least had a handle on my fears and doubts, so that I could hold them away from me as I
Who knows why music has the power to affect us so deeply? Still more evidence
that God exists, in my opinion. In any case, as I sang, I focused on pushing my nervous
energy out of my chest and into each word and chord in turn. And when I did that, it
made me feel connected in my mind with the old familiar spirit that had comforted me in
As I kept on singing, my panic gradually went away, and then I was able to at least
try to pray in my usual manner. By the time class met, I had a reasonably good grip on
myself and my faith, although I knew I still had plenty of work to do on my attitude
toward the new situation.
The main thing was, I was grateful to have made it through this little crisis intact. I
hope my account of it can somehow help you in your journey, because I believe we all
have these kinds of challenges to submit our wills and accept our situations. (What are
some of yours?)
Part 2: Belinda
As it turned out, God wasn’t done for the day. For classwork, the students had
written paragraphs agreeing or disagreeing with their choice from a list of controversial
statements on social issues, and I read them in my office afterwards. One of the choices
was about gay marriage, and only a few people wrote on that one. One guy was against it
for religious-right reasons, and one girl was against it because she thought it would
threaten the traditional family structure. But another girl was not only 100% in favor of
same-sex marriage, she was also remarkably articulate, even eloquent, in her defense of
it. Using Idgie and Ruth from Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle
Stop Café as an example of true love, she argued that when a relationship was as deep
and spiritual as theirs was, there was simply no way it could be wrong. My jaw dropped
a mile. Such intelligence! Such depth! And—most amazing of all—she was actually going
to be my student for the whole semester!
The whole thing seemed way too good to be true, especially the fact that it was Idgie
and Ruth this “Belinda Thompson” had chosen to write about. As I commented in the
margin of the paper, I'd been so taken with the mischievous but noble Idgie myself that I
had named my cat for her.
I wasn’t completely sure which face from roll call was Belinda’s, but—as you can
probably imagine—I’d never in my life been half this excited about meeting somebody! I
leaned back in my swivel chair, looking up at the ceiling and shaking my head in disbelief.
In my brain, I could actually hear God saying, “See? I've got everything under control.
You worried yourself sick for nothing!” I thanked him silently but also at the top of my
So the new semester was off to an infinitely more promising start than had seemed
possible just a few hours earlier. But—interestingly enough—it turned out to require
more, rather than less, prayer than before.
That was partly because of who Belinda turned out to be. She was tall and appealing-
looking, but a tad cold in manner. She was also much cooler than I’d ever been in my
life, her china-doll skin, big hazel eyes, and beautiful, waist-length silky auburn hair all
rather incongruously paired with heavy-metal T-shirts and faded, ripped jeans. Plus, I
wasn’t even sure if she liked me or not; some days she’d be friendly, other days she’d
hurry nervously out of the room the minute I dismissed the class.
What was infinitely more important to me than all those superficial concerns, though,
was that Belinda lived up to the potential she’d shown the first day, demonstrating over
and over again both her writing ability and her deep sense of morality and goodness. At
first I wasn’t sure she herself was gay, but she soon revealed she was, which made our
association that much more promising, because I’d never before even known a
comfortably gay woman who interested me in the least.
I think you can see why the only way I made it through this emotionally challenging
semester was by begging God, almost constantly, to guide my actions and make them
fruitful! Fortunately, with practice I became pretty good at channeling the hyperactive
excitement I felt over Belinda’s very existence into humble and faithful petitions for help
with every aspect of my teaching.
Maybe I should have been worried about having feelings for a student, but I decided
that as long as I was careful not to show favoritism or to interact with Belinda in
anything other than a professional manner while I was her teacher, then it was my
business if I let myself become obsessed with her within the safety of my own mind.
This stance worked till the end of the semester. As the end neared, I talked and
listened to God a lot about whether I should ask Belinda to have lunch or something once
we were done being teacher and student.
People are always wondering—and it’s a great question—how they can know God’s
answers to questions they ask him. My experience has been that God uses just about
every way imaginable to convey these answers. Sometimes there’s something big that
you can tell is a sign, but lots of times, God simply lets events develop in such a way as
to show what his answer is. At those times, it’s up to us to be open to getting the
That was how God did it this time. One afternoon about a week before the end of
school, Belinda came by my office to get back a graded essay, which surprised me
because she could’ve just waited and gotten it at the next class meeting. And the
conversation we got into surprised me even more. I did absolutely nothing to start it, but
suddenly I realized Belinda and I were talking about movies, and she was asking me if I’d
seen Bridges of Madison County.
“Yeah, I have,” I said. Then I added, “A lot of people think it’s too mushy—my next-
door neighbor said it was as bad as Love Story—but I like Love Story!”
“Me, too—so did you like Bridges?” Belinda asked, swiveling around in my office
mate’s chair, where she was sitting because that was the normal place for students to sit
when they came to talk to me when my office mate wasn’t there.
“Yes, I admit it. I loved it. Meryl Streep has been my very favorite actress for years,
and she’s so hot with Clint Eastwood. Also, I’m just a sap for the mushy stuff anyway.”
As I made that statement, I felt a flutter in my chest.
Belinda smiled warmly. “Me, too—as long as the people are attractive!”
“But I like other kinds of movies too,” I went on. “Have you ever seen Murder in
the First, with Kevin Bacon?”
“Yes,” she swiveled again. “Did you like it?” she asked, tentatively.
“Yes, but I don’t like all movies that are violent or exciting or whatever you want to
call it. It sort of has to have a purpose for me to like it.” She nodded as though she
wanted me to continue. “Murder in the First was the first time I ever realized what was
so bad about ‘solitary confinement.’ I used to always think that if I was ever in jail then I’
d rather be in solitary.”
“Me, too! I’d want the privacy!” We both laughed. What an important thing for us to
get each other about.
“Well, didn’t Murder in the First change your mind?”
The talk kept on for several more minutes at fever pitch, until I said I’d better get
back to work. I silently praised God for giving me the sense to stop while we still had so
much left to talk about. It seemed clear that even though Belinda had said she had a
girlfriend named Audra, God was giving me the green light to ask her to lunch.
That didn’t mean I wasn’t nervous about issuing the invitation. I was terrified. But I
knew God would help if I asked.
During this time, I discovered I could talk to God very effectively while looking into
my own eyes in the bathroom mirror—which I recommend you try—which was also the
best place to practice my approach. “God,” I prayed, “please at least make her not be
bothered that I’m asking. And please let me say it smoothly. And please, if you can fit it
into the big plan, let her say yes. But if not, just don’t let me do anything stupid.
Thanks!” Then I bowed my head and crossed myself three times, thinking forgive,
submit, and believe.
Finally, breathing deeply and relaxing into God’s power, I looked at myself again in
the mirror, pretending I was talking to Belinda. “I’d like to continue our friendship,” I
said. Not satisfied with the way it came out, I tried several more versions till I got it right.
Then I prayed some more, repeating my requests for help, trying to relax in faith, and
thanking God in advance for what I knew (at least in that faithful moment) he or she was
going to do.
I also thought about what I’d do if I didn’t have a chance to talk to Belinda privately
in the classroom on exam day. This was important, because once she was gone, she was
gone, unless I wanted to call her on the phone at home, which I really didn’t want to do.
So I decided that if I needed to, I could simply follow her through the doorway as she
was leaving the room, and then get her attention after we were both out in the hall.
As it turned out, that was exactly what happened. Thanks to my prayers and
practice, I casually followed Belinda as she left the room, then uttered a perfectly
executed “I’d like to continue our friendship.” She replied silently by smiling and nodding
I still remember the excitement I felt at that moment. “We probably shouldn’t go
anywhere together until after I’ve turned in the grades, so I was thinking maybe we
could go to lunch or something next week?”
“Are you going to be in your office this afternoon? Why don’t I come by and we can
make our plans for next week? Will that be OK?” I loved it that she took the initiative on
this. Plus, now I’d get to see her again before next week. What a luxury.
“Sure, I’ll be there. See you then!” I was glad I remembered to stop smiling before I
turned back toward the classroom. In my mind, I was yelling THANKS, GOD! at the top
of my lungs. Fortunately, none of the remaining students seemed to have even noticed I’
d stepped out.
When Belinda came to my office, we went straight to the business of making our
lunch plans. She worked full time, so we decided I’d pick her up at work—a huge
furniture store called Schroeder’s. “I think I can get a whole hour off, so we won’t have
to hurry,” she said. She drew a little map on a scrap of notebook paper, and I was
holding it as we stood there in the doorway.
She was presumably leaving, but once again the conversation seemed to have a will
of its own. We had picked back up on the movie topic, and since we both had so much
we wanted to say, I sort of automatically invited her to sit down. I could spare a little
time from my grading.
This time, we got off on a few non-movie tangents, but I was still careful not to get
too personal, and Belinda seemed to do the same. She did say, though, that Julie Andrews
movies had been a comfort to her when she’d needed escape as a youngster. While I too
recalled my heart nearly jumping out of my chest when Andrews sang in Mary Poppins
and The Sound of Music, I was puzzled at this news that Belinda had needed “escape” at
such a young age. Both her parents were business executives, Catholics who went to
Mass every Sunday, and I’d been assuming her childhood had been pretty sheltered, like
A few minutes later, I happened to mention that I’d spent eleven years waiting for
the great love of my life only to lose out to a man, and I found myself getting into way
more detail than I meant to. That was partly because Belinda asked questions that had
urged me on, but still I hadn’t intended to spill my guts before our friendship had even
officially begun. When I finally got to the end of the story, I was a little embarrassed. “I
guess we probably both need to get back to our work,” I said. “I’ve been boring you, but
thanks for listening.”
Belinda shook her head forcefully. “No, you haven’t been boring me! I’ll leave if you
need to work, but you haven’t been boring me!”
A rush of happiness surged through my heart. It was so strong that I revised my
decision that Belinda and I shouldn’t go anywhere together until after the grades were in.
We decided we’d go somewhere safe for supper later—I mean safe from the possibility
of running into anyone from class. Then we quickly got back to our conversation.
My second inkling that Belinda wasn’t as innocent as her youthful appearance
suggested came when she said her only sibling, a sister five years older, was a drug
addict. Belinda was so studious and serious that I’d have thought she didn’t have any
more experience with drugs than I’d had, which was basically just a little pot in high
school and college. But now she was telling me that right there in the bedroom next to
hers, her own sister had been a victim of the never-ending nightmare of cocaine addiction.
Belinda didn’t stay on that subject very long because she started telling me about her
own experience, in high school, of losing her beloved (Ashley) to a man.
At some point I said, “I believe in God—I mean I really think it’s true, most people
don’t really believe it, they just say they do—“
Before I could continue, Belinda replied: “I know, they just say they do! I really
believe, too, but they just say they do!” Her hazel eyes were large and earnest, and her
lips curled into a peaceful half-smile. (Have you ever been positive someone believed,
even if just for that moment?)
I added, “I also think he has a plan for everything, and everything happens for a
reason, even though we can’t always tell what the reason is when the bad things are
happening.” Belinda nodded in agreement, so I went on, “So when Ashley left you, I
think there was a reason, even though it hurt so much.”
“I know! Everything happens for a reason. When God closes a door, he opens a
Belinda had to tell me later that that was a line from The Sound of Music, since in the
days before captioning, I hadn’t been able to understand a lot of what was said in movies
or TV. But at the moment, the quote was perfect as an expression of the absolute
wondrousness of Belinda’s and my conversation. For the first time in years, my deep
craving for emotional communication with a good woman was being satisfied.
Even more wonderfully, the talk kept on with the same intensity for another hour or
so, until I realized that most people had left the building for the day. At that point, we
decided to walk over to my apartment and think about where to go for dinner.
When Belinda and I stepped outside into the gorgeous early-May Louisiana twilight,
the first thing she did was take a cigarette out of her bag and light it, in that casual but
unmistakable hurry of a smoker needing her fix. Surprised, I jumped a little, but then
explained, “It seems like smoking would be one of those things people your age do that
you thought was stupid. It doesn’t bother me or anything, but it just seems like that.” She
shrugged it off, saying something about having started when she was twelve, then put
the cigarette out after just a few drags. I forgot about it completely. We had more
important things to talk about on this magical night.
Important, yes, but not necessarily somber! Just a few minutes after talking about
our pain, we laughed at everything (and nothing) as we cavorted gaily down the street
toward the grad-student apartments where I lived. As we approached my door, I tried to
prepare Belinda for the mess. “When I was your age, my roommate and I had the neatest
room on campus, but now—‘O Hamlet, what a falling off was there!’” We giggled like
schoolgirls as we spilled into my living room.
“Really, Shakespeare wasn’t being funny; it was like a—um—a—um—,” I fumbled
for the words to explain.
“The ghost of the dead guy!” Belinda shrieked, which sent us into more gales of
laughter. It took about a minute for it to register with me that she actually knew this
stuff—some of it, anyway. How fascinating.
I guess we were still on the subject of British poetry a few minutes later, because I
suddenly realized I was in the middle of reciting soulfully Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. I’
d recited this poem, which I love, in the mirror millions of times, but never ever to a real
person, especially not a beautiful woman! All the way through the five stanzas, I
remember thinking, THIS CANNOT BE HAPPENING.
When I got to the end, I pointed out my favorite line: Heard melodies are sweet, but
those unheard are sweeter, and said something like “Even though they can’t quite get to
each other to kiss, they also won’t ever get tired of each other.” Belinda’s reply was to
smile and nod in agreement as she said, “I know!” I silently sent up a big Thank you to
God—and a quick prayer for him to somehow make this association as everlasting as that
of the lovers on the urn.
About an hour later, Belinda and I were sitting facing each other on the thrift-shop
rug that took up most of the floor space in the tiny living room, and she was talking
about how her parents had unintentionally neglected her when she was growing up
because they were so busy worrying about her sister. She said maybe the reason she was
so shy was because she hadn’t gotten to talk much. Then she added, “A lot of times I
got sent to my room, just to get me out of the way.” When she said that, tears came into
I then instinctively reached out and took hold of Belinda’s wrist. My own childhood
had been pretty much the exact opposite of this, and I found myself squeezing Belinda’s
wrist and forearm in an effort to tell her, without words, that I wanted to give her some
of the love she’d missed. She’d said things weren’t going well with Audra. Who knew,
maybe she’d even break away from that relationship and take up with me. That wasn’t
why I was trying to comfort her, but this was the first moment it occurred to me as a
I didn’t hold onto Belinda’s forearm for long, but over the next hour or two, she
talked a lot more about her troubled childhood and teenage years. She said Ashley had
been the first time she’d felt like somebody really cared about her, and then when they
broke up, she’d been so hurt that she fell into a strange mute state, where she did not
speak—to anyone about anything!—for a whole year. None of the several shrinks her
parents took her to were about to get a peep out of her.
Belinda said that during that year, she lost what few friends she’d had, and ate lunch
by herself in the back hallway of the school where no one saw her except a few of the
maintenance staff. The one time she “came alive” was when they had to write a poem for
their English class. When the teacher called for volunteers to read their poems, Belinda
volunteered and went to the front of the room—“fearlessly,” she said—and read five
chilling stanzas addressing the beloved who had broken her heart. She said the whole
class listened intently and clapped enthusiastically when she finished. She then went back
to her desk and retreated back into her mute state for several more months.
When Belinda finished telling me this, she was sitting in a chair and I was sitting on
the floor facing her, so I reached up and took one of her hands in both of mine, and
made some kind of earnest statement about how she didn’t deserve so much pain.
A minute later, I had some reason to get up and go do something in another room,
and when I started back toward Belinda, my heart leapt in my chest to see that she was
still holding her hand in that same position, her long fingers stretched down toward the
floor, indicating very clearly that she wanted me to take hold of her hand again. So I did,
and started to talk some more, but then I realized Belinda was saying absolutely nothing in
response, but instead was staring into my eyes deeply, keeping her eyes locked into mine
as she followed my every move. This created a magnetic pull for me to do the same back
to her, with my eyes, I mean.
I doubt Belinda was familiar with Donne’s poem The Extasie, but it was as though
she was directing the two of us in acting it out ourselves. In the poem, the speaker and
his beloved spend a whole day in silence with their eyes and hands locked together, the
premise being that their souls have gone out of their bodies to meet in the sacred space
between them, a connection that transcends sex and “interinanimates” them forever.
Some readers find the idea of two people actually staring deeply into each other’s eyes
for that long too implausible to be believed, and it was a strange experience, but it also
felt wonderful. So I continued to follow Belinda’s lead, and we stayed like that for about
twenty mystical minutes before going back to our normal interaction.
It was 11:30 at night when we finally stopped talking and—completely forgetting to
worry about running into anybody from comp class—went to a nearby all-night diner for
a much-needed hot meal of omelets and hash browns.
Two days later, Belinda wanted to come see me in the afternoon before I had to leave
to drive back to Jackson that night. I had planned to be napping, so I put the key under
the mat for her. I didn’t really think I’d be able to sleep, but I wanted to act out the deep
trust I already felt for her.
It turned out that I did doze off before she got there. What a thrill to open my eyes to
her standing quietly beside my bed!
When I sleepily invited her to make herself comfortable, she arranged her long frame
crossways on the twin bed, with her legs casually over mine and her head propped
against the wall. This put our heads close enough together to where I happened to notice,
as we talked, a few wisps of baby hair at the edges of her scalp. Those impossibly
diaphanous auburn curls against that impossibly porcelain skin—how my heart ached to
help this defenseless creature escape the pain of her world and soar to the heights I knew
she was capable of!
I kept those thoughts to myself, but did make a lighthearted remark about the baby
hair—only to recall instantly that she had a complex about not being thought of as a
grownup. So I added, “That doesn’t mean you’re young, everybody has it!”
The little half-snort of delight Belinda made in response confirmed, to me, that she
was happy to be receiving some of that love I had such a surplus of. Surely God had put
us into each other’s lives because of this fit.
It was a few minutes later that things first took a romantic turn. While we were lying
there, I’d been holding Belinda’s right hand in my left pretty chastely, like I had during
the Extasie session forty-eight hours earlier. But then during a break in the conversation,
she took her hand out of mine and then took hold of my hand again, this time with our
fingers interlocked, which she sealed with a squeeze.
I was SO not used to my attraction to a woman actually being returned!
In any case, thus began what I came to call the passionate month.
For that month, mid-May to mid-June ‘96, Belinda and I spent the evening together
at least one of the two nights I was in town each week. The rest of the time she was
usually with Audra, but I wasn’t the least bit jealous. I knew Audra was unstable and had
threatened to kill herself if Belinda left her, and—as Belinda and I both mentioned lots of
times—what she had with me and what she had with Audra were two totally different
things. Most importantly, the quality of Belinda’s and my time together continued to be
“off the planet,” to use her expression. I knew she meant it when she said things like “In
spirit I’m always with you.”
The week after exams, it was going to be my last night in my apartment, and Belinda
took me to dinner at her favorite restaurant, a romantic little authentic Italian place called
Pinetta’s. That night, even though the two of us were crowded into that narrow twin
bed, Belinda slept what she said the next morning was super long and soundly for her. I
hoped it was because of me that she felt so relaxed and safe. When she later said so
herself, I took it as another bit of confirmation that I was meant to save her from Audra
and the other negative aspects of her young life.
When I was back at home in Jackson, we burned up the phone lines to the tune of
$300 on my bill alone, not to mention the times Belinda called me, which were also quite
a few. She said everyone at Schroeder’s who had known her forever kept saying how
happy she was.
In one of those phone calls, Belinda said, “You make me feel really comfortable about
saying what’s on my mind, which nobody else has ever done, including Audra.”
“Well, sometimes I worry that I’m too open myself,” I replied. “I mean I say
everything on my mind, immediately, and it might be too much for someone like you
who’s not used to it.”
“Your openness doesn’t bother me. It’s thrilling,” she insisted. “But this is a new
situation for me, so I’m gonna need your wisdom and your tutoring, you know. I’ve
never ever in my life experienced anything like this before.”
During this time, I really didn’t pray about anything, because (for once!) there was
nothing I felt the need to pray for. But this wasn’t necessarily a good way to be! I
remember telling Belinda that she was causing me to lose my bearings, which I said
affectionately, but I knew it wasn’t an altogether desirable feeling. I felt like my tether to
the earth had been cut so that instead of walking I was zooming around in a million
different directions, from one point in the cosmos to another, not staying at any of them
for more than a few seconds.
As for my relationship with God, it seemed like a dim memory from the past that I
couldn’t quite get ahold of anymore. This was completely opposite the way I’d felt with
my previous beloved! With her, our shared relationship to God was the whole basis of
our relationship with each other.
Also, I knew I wasn’t really in love with Belinda. But since everybody else I’d ever
been interested in had either been straight or at least not comfortable with the idea of
being gay, and Belinda seemed so right for me in so many ways—her brains, her depth,
her goodness—it just didn’t really bother me that I wasn’t in love with her. I’d waited so
long, and I might not get another chance!
This thinking ran counter to a solemn vow I’d made years before to myself, to God,
and to my beloved (in my mind, not in person): I would never be with another woman
unless I loved her as deeply as I had my beloved, and unless we had the same kind of
God-centered relationship that my beloved and I had had. Belinda definitely didn’t qualify,
at least not yet. No wonder the whole thing was making me feel so strange.
Most of the time I was flying high with Belinda, though, I did like it, and thought I
was happy. About three weeks after exam week, we even signed a lease for an apartment
together in Baton Rouge. She wanted to move out from her sister, whom she’d been
sharing a place with all year, but she didn’t want to move in with Audra, and I needed a
place to stay the two nights a week I was there since I no longer had the campus
apartment, so . . . .
On one level, the whole thing was simply a sensible rooming decision, but on another
level, it was something I’d never done before in my life. Belinda and I didn’t really
discuss the terms of our living arrangement, but how could it be anything but
But the week we signed the lease and the next week weren’t 100% fantastic the way
the first two had been. There were some complications related to Audra, and—what
bothered me lots more—Belinda started showing flashes of this weird inner split. Instead
of the high-minded and compassionate way she’d acted at first, now she was frequently
in a cynical mood, saying things like “It’s a crock of shit, Sara” when I brought up the
subject of people getting therapy, or “Payback time!” as an explanation for something she
or Audra had done to each other in their fights. When we went to look at the apartment,
she linked her arm through mine and glanced down at me as she asked, “Is it OK?,” but I
got the distinct feeling she was just going through the motions.
It was like she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to be anti-everything, the way
her sister was, or enthusiastic and optimistic, the way I was and the way she had been
during our hours and hours of off-the-planet conversations. We’d talked so many times
about her fiction-writing career, and about what other fulfilling occupation she might
have as her day job. And one of her typical phone sign-offs had been “Be a good human
being.” But now it looked like that radical change she’d remarked about was simply too
much for her. She wasn’t always able to be that good self, the one she’d presented to me
that rapturous night when we’d bared our souls to each other in the middle of my grad-
You’re wondering, didn’t I pray now? Well, NO. I guess I was in denial that I
needed to. The whole thing—the good and the bad—was still such a shock that I just
kept thinking things would suddenly be magically OK again. (Have you ever had a similar
I guess I probably did try to pray a little, but nothing with any real focus or
concentration. In hindsight, I think I could’ve tried harder to get a grip on myself and
reconnect with God, but I didn’t. It was a perfect example of how letting our happiness
come completely from earthly things can make us forget our position as creatures whom
the Creator will help, but only if we ask him or her sincerely, which I definitely did not
In any case, just before we were supposed to move into the apartment, I wasn’t able
to find Belinda on the phone for a day or two, and then when I finally did get ahold of
her, she acted distant, and talked about the apartment arrangement the same way she
would have if we were only planning to be platonic roommates. I still hoped she was
planning to end her relationship with the deranged Audra, but who knew?
It seems dumb to me now, but the way I first reacted to the change in Belinda was
to try to roll with the tide and hang onto what we’d had, in hopes that she’d revert back
to her good self. So I moved my things into the apartment as planned, but after just one
absolutely agonizing two-night stay—during which Belinda and Audra actually came over
to our apartment when they were supposed to be spending the night at Audra’s!—it was
clear that the only thing for me to do was to get the hell out of there and let Belinda
navigate her identity crisis in peace.
So the next day, tired and numb, I loaded my things back into my car and drove
home to Jackson.
I decided I’d contact Belinda periodically, just in case the old Belinda did return, and
also because I couldn’t conceive of not having even the slightest thread to hang onto so
soon after the bliss of exam day and the off-the-planet time that had followed.
With this sudden end to what I’d wanted my whole life—I mean to share my life
with a woman—boy was I in pain. Over the next few months, I talked the ear off my
fellow dissertation student Teresa, another theologically minded armchair psychologist
like me, who (bless her heart) always acted interested in listening. I also reread The Road
Less Traveled, since I was finally able to make sense of the opening sentence, “Life is
Gradually—very gradually—Peck’s masterpiece led me out of my darkness and into
a whole new way of understanding life. (Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with the
book, because I’m about to explain—both right here and throughout my story—how it
works for getting prayers answered.)
Before I started to apply The Road Less Traveled to my problems, I tried to pray
about Belinda lots of times, but it was always on my own shortsighted terms. All I
wanted was for things to go back to the way they had been. But when I tried to ask,
“God, how could she do this? Please bring her back to the way she used to be,” God was
completely silent. No sale. (Can you relate?)
God’s silence didn’t surprise me. I knew what I was asking wasn’t worthy of God's
help, at least not in the form I wanted. I was miserable.
But I still believed God existed, and still believed he or she had my best interests in
mind, so I kept on contemplating what might be the meaning of my pain. On that basis, I
finally started to get through my head Peck’s thesis that the purpose of life is spiritual
growth, and one stimulus for spiritual growth is pain, and that's why God lets bad things
happen to us. (The idea, I later realized, is for us to progressively become more godlike
As I began to internalize Peck’s wisdom, I made the fundamental decision to learn
and grow from my pain instead of sitting around complaining about it as I had before.
Soon I was able to accept and even welcome the loss of Belinda because I knew the end
result of the whole thing would be my greatest good. As long, that is, as I kept my faith
in God (who is love, you know, as Jesus came to tell us!).
Another thing I didn’t realize at the time was that this growth-based attitude toward
life and this conscious connection to our Maker (however we understand him or her to
be) is also the only way we humans can be truly happy and at peace while on earth!
As I started to understand the overarching truth about change and growth, I kept on
praying for Belinda, but in a totally different way. “God,” I said one morning as I looked
out at the sky, “I know I can’t just ask you to give her back to me the way she was
before, but I see that I can ask you to help her grow, and to lead her to what she’s
supposed to do with her life, so please do that, and PLEASE make her feel the joy of
doing good again, as I know she felt for a while with me.” Then I bowed my head,
taking deep breaths and exhaling them slowly, surrendering myself to that great big wave
of goodness that had swept me up in that ninth-grade Bible study. Surely it could do this
if I would just trust it.
This prayer session made me feel truly comforted for the first time in months, so I
went on sending up these petitions for Belinda’s growth at least once a day.
Before you go applauding my nobility, though, it’s very important that you realize
that I was motivated entirely by self-interest! Since Belinda’s and my relationship had
been based on the good rather than the bad, the creative rather than the destructive, I
knew this growth of hers would make her more likely to come back to me.
The reason it’s so important for you to understand this is because the whole
petitioning program is based on self-interest! It’s long-term self-interest rather than short-
term, but it’s self-interest all the same. When I try to persuade you to get into this mode
yourself with respect to your problems, I’m not preaching that it would be more
“virtuous” for you to do this; instead, I’m saying that it’s going to make YOU happier to
do it this way, to make the choice for growth. It’s a win-win situation all the way
around. In accepting your situation and deciding to grow in response to it, you’ll
maximize the chances that you’ll get your prayers answered (because, for starters, you’ll
be asking more forgivingly and more completely in Jesus’ name), and you’ll also be
happier and more at peace during the process, because, for starters, you won’t be sitting
around complaining about your life, as I was doing about mine until I made this
discovery. As Peck said many times, once we really get it that life is difficult, then that
fact is no longer a problem for us, because we accept it and rise above it by focusing on
As I mentioned in Chapter One, I had one more “aha” moment during my rereading
of Peck: I suddenly realized how the whole idea of praying for changes in our
circumstances fit together with Peck’s theory of pain-induced spiritual growth. Since
God lets bad things happen in order to stimulate us to make the choice for growth, it
follows that if we want God to remove the bad things, we must first undertake whatever
bit of growth they were meant to bring about. If we do that, and then ask God with faith
to change the circumstances, God will be glad to. But if we pray for changes in our
circumstances without seeking to transform ourselves accordingly, then God is most
likely not going to deliver, since that’s the whole point of having the unwanted stuff there
in the first place.
This insight proved to be the next big piece of the petitioning puzzle. As I’d known
for years, forgiving others, in our hearts and minds as well as with actions and words, is
a universal requirement for getting prayers answered, which makes perfect sense since it’
s a way we become more like the God who is love. But other changes of heart or habit
may be called for too. (You identify these by listening to God and your conscience, as I
demonstrate throughout this book.) (You may not be able to make the changes yourself,
but you can make the decision to turn them over to God.)
Armed with these answers—and VERY thankful for all these wonderful truths!—I
went on about my business, but also kept on asking God regularly to help Belinda choose
the good as she decided what kind of adult she was going to become.
If this whole thing seems too clever or pollyannaish—well, it shouldn’t, because
Jesus prayed all the time and told us to pray all the time, which really makes no sense
unless prayer can actually do something. What’s more, Jesus also said things like we’re
now adopted as God’s children, just as he is God’s son, and God will give us anything
we want if we truly ask in Jesus’ name. Also, all that stuff about spreading the kingdom
of heaven, and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven—in my view, this is one of the
main ways we can do that, by cooperating with God to bring about more good on earth
than we could make happen on our own power. Also, since in this whole process we are
continually becoming more godlike ourselves, it all seems to me to be right on the level of
what Jesus meant to jump-start with his good news that “the kingdom of heaven has
come near.” Also all that stuff about joy and abundant life—believe me, both those
qualities are most definitely ours when we make the decision for growth and use prayer
to get God to help us with everything!
About three months after the apartment debacle, Belinda wrote and said she was
sorry for the way things had ended, and that she’d never intended to drive me out of her
life completely. This didn’t mean the old Belinda was back, but it was a start, and she
said she wanted to keep in touch, so over the next two or three years, I wrote her pretty
regularly and called her sometimes when I was in Baton Rouge. Belinda and Audra were
together, tumultuously, for about another year, and according to Belinda Audra was
jealous of me, so whenever Belinda and I decided to get together, she always wanted me
to come see her at work, where there was no Audra.
The few times Belinda and I did this—maybe three or four—weren’t terrible, but
they weren’t great either. Mostly, we talked about her career choice; she was thinking
she’d like to be either a lawyer or an FBI profiler. We also made a lot of small talk, which
I’d never much cared for with anybody, including Belinda. All this time, I suppressed my
desire to know what kind of progress she was making in her personal development. I just
tried to be there for her, and to keep sending up petitions for God to help her. It wasn’t
much fun, but it was better than not being in touch with her at all.
These three or four not-terrible-but-not-great meetings were the high points of
Belinda’s and my relationship during these years. There were also plenty of low points,
the lowest of which was probably the fall of ‘98.
Belinda, after a final breakup with Audra, was living with and working for Nita, a
thirtysomething bar owner, while still taking courses at LSU. When some letters I’d
written Belinda came back undelivered, I put them all in a big clasp envelope and mailed it
to her at the bar. But that package also came back undelivered, with “NO SUCH
PERSON” block-printed rudely over Belinda’s name. Woo, boy, was I pissed! I made a
half-assed effort to calm myself and pray for wisdom, but all I could think about was
getting those damned letters into Belinda’s hands.
I was teaching a linguistics course on Monday nights at a branch of Mississippi
State, and working hard the rest of the week as a freelance editor, but that didn’t stop me
from taking off one Wednesday morning, driving to LSU, getting Belinda’s schedule from
the registrar’s office just as if I were still an instructor there, and stationing myself on a
staircase across the hall from the classroom where she was supposed to be the next
period. When the previous classes let out and the hall was suddenly jam-packed with
students, I leaned against the wall opposite Belinda’s classroom and tried to get a look at
everybody who went in.
Suddenly the hall was empty again, and no luck! Had I simply missed seeing Belinda
in the crowd, or was she cutting class that day, or had something happened to her,
which was why she hadn’t gotten the letters? I didn’t think she was merely late, because
back when I’d taught her, she’d always been either ridiculously early or absent.
Well, I wasn’t about to give up on my stalking so easily. So I sat on the stairs,
opened my book bag, and started working on my lesson plans. I could easily sit there the
whole hour and ten minutes, and then try to catch her on her way out. I begged God to
calm me and help me.
About fifteen minutes later, I’d actually gotten pretty absorbed in my planning when I
suddenly looked up to see a tall, slim figure hurrying toward the room, practically
scraping the opposite wall in an apparent effort to stay as far away from me as possible.
I could see her just well enough—and no more—to recognize those familiar long ivory
legs beneath a barmaid’s black miniskirt, and the even more familiar waist-length auburn
hair in a sloppy ponytail falling down the back of a pleated white blouse. “Belinda,” I said
quietly but urgently. “Belinda.”
She whirled to a stop, clutching to her chest some report she must’ve been about to
turn in, and looked at me briefly and nervously. “I have to go to class; I’m late.”
“OK, I’ll wait,” I replied. She hurried on into the classroom, no doubt shocked out of
her gourd to have run into me in the middle of what I later learned was one of her
cocaine-fueled twelve-hour workdays at the bar.
When class let out, I was ready with the big envelope of letters, but Belinda walked
out of the room side-by-side with a male classmate, apparently trying to slip past without
me seeing her. I hurried to catch up with them. At first she tried to put me off. “Sara, I
can’t talk, I have to go back to work NOW,” she said firmly, then turned and kept on
walking toward the staircase at the opposite end of the hall, the guy dutifully doing the
I caught up with them as they went down the stairs, and instinctively went on the
offensive. “Just five minutes, please? I drove all the way down here to give you these
letters, so if I could have your attention for five minutes, PLEASE?”
At that, Belinda told the guy to go ahead, and turned to me impatiently, though also
with the slightest perceptible air of apology. I said, “These letters keep being returned to
me, and I want you to have them, they’re important.”
Without even looking at the envelope with the NO SUCH PERSON notation over her
own name, she protested, “That’s not Nita’s writing. I don’t know how it happened, but
that’s not Nita’s writing.”
“That doesn’t matter,” I said. “What does matter is that you keep these and, I hope,
read them, for the sake of the long-term future of our relationship. I think you care about
that, even if right now someone doesn’t want you communicating with me. Please. For
the long-term future of our relationship.”
At that point, she looked me in the eye for the first time. Her eyes seemed smaller
and darker brown than I remembered them, and distant even in the moment of contact,
as though Belinda was really somewhere else. And she was careful to keep the boundary
up, answering simply, “OK, but I really have to go now. I’m late for work.” I said OK,
and she took the envelope and put it in the back of a three-ring binder, then hurried down
another hallway, this time toward the back door of the building.
What a load to digest, I thought as I stood there with my mouth literally hanging
open. The fresh-faced Belinda who was always already in the classroom when I walked
in, sitting peacefully in the second row reading a novel! The youthful Belinda with whom
I’d shared my love of poetry and God and writing at the end of that glorious semester!
That Belinda was nowhere to be found in the overworked, unkempt creature I’d just
encountered. She seemed to be staying in school by only the thinnest of threads.
Back at home that night, I had to struggle just to make myself think about my
experience instead of blocking it out in my shock. I think my biggest fear was that Nita,
whom I knew nothing about, would steer Belinda away from a real career and possibly
even away from her writing. I worried some about the drugs, too, which I thought were
part of the reason for Belinda’s unkemptness even though I didn’t yet know that for sure,
but the work situation was, in my view, a much bigger deal. “God,” I said, “I know there’
s nothing I can do to get Belinda out of this job or this relationship, but please show me
what attitude I ought to have about it.”
As I sat there, I suddenly realized there was one thing I could do, and that was to
pray for Belinda as hard as I ever had, to ask God to help her choose the good, at least in
the future if not right away. I also saw that choosing to do this rather than to despair was
the decision I had to make between the good and creative versus the evil and destructive.
This idea that there was something I could do made me feel some hope. So I got
down on my knees, feeling very small and humble, and took deep breaths with my head
bowed and my hands clasped together, saying Please! really hard, then I threw my head
back and opened my arms and hands to the heavens, like a flower opening to the sky to
receive its light and life. And I said out loud, “God, I choose to be faithful and to keep
praying about everything, but I need your help with that, too. So please help me stay
positive and faithful, and then do what I’m asking with that faith, that you help Belinda
choose the good!”
I think this act of choosing the good, loving attitude over the negative, destructive
attitude is something we all have to do every day, usually many times a day. Do you—like
me—have to choose whether to tackle your work with a good attitude or to
procrastinate, whether to worry or have faith about your long-term financial security,
whether to wallow in resentful thoughts about people who irritate you or to rise above
your resentment and let God change your heart? And this is on days when nothing big is
On the days when something big is going on, like my stalking of Belinda, then the
challenges of the big thing take the place of the everyday challenges. Either way, the
choice is ours.
In the months that followed that meeting in the hall at LSU, I tried over and over
again to make the right choices when it came to the subject of praying for Belinda.
Always starting out by asking God to help me maintain my faith, I prayed for her at least
once a day, or whenever I found myself thinking about her. I didn’t try to write her
anymore, but I kept on praying.
To Chapter Three