Commonsense Dating, Part II

When Tricia Lott Williford’s And Life Comes Back was released in 2014, I reached out to her as a fellow widow and author, and she graciously responded. Her next book Let’s Pretend We’re Normal resonated with me as I struggled to cobble together something that resembled a “normal” family with the pieces left behind after a husband and father’s death.

As much as I’m ashamed to admit it, once Tricia found love again and remarried, I stopped reading her books. It was too painful to see yet another widow remarry, while I remained alone. I wanted to love again. David had wanted that for me. This wasn’t the first time I’d envied another widow or widower. I once unfollowed a friend on Facebook for a good year after he remarried, because his beaming face in the wedding photo that served as his profile picture caused sharp pains of envy every time I saw it. I felt guilty about my envy of Tricia and my friend. How dare I begrudge someone a second chance at love!

Because of that guilt-induced discomfort, when Tricia put out a call for people to be on the launch team for her new book, I offered to participate, even though I wasn’t sure what the book was about. When the bubble mailer arrived in mail, I’d let it sit on the floor near my recliner.

For nearly two weeks.

Until that endless Saturday as I waited for Sunday, and my second date with a man I couldn’t stop thinking about, a man who had agreed to pray with me at the beginning of our next date. There was no getting anything done that day. I’d tossed and turned the night before. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t think straight for thoughts of Nick.

I decided to read Tricia’s book. Tearing open the mailer, I pulled out This Book is For You: Loving God’s Words in Your Actual Life, and began reading. I found it interesting that the introduction addressed some of what Nick and I had been discussing during our first date. A lump formed in my throat and tears stung my eyes when I got to page 38.

Nick and I had talked about these things on our first date:

How my husband David and I had almost lost one another in raising eight children.

How we’d found each other again during his cancer in 2006. Just in time. Six years later David died.

It was so hard and so sad for so long for both of us.

God is near to the brokenhearted.

By page 90, I was sobbing. Tricia had written about all of the faith topics Nick and I’d discussed during our first date: Jeremiah 29:11, the verse on my wall I’d pointed out to Nick. A dependence on devotionals. I’d told Nick how much I depended on devotionals and offered him one of my favorites. How to live in the Word of the Bible. This book wasn’t just for me. It was for both of us!

READ IT TO HIM. Once again, a clear directive I couldn’t make sense of. I was to read a book to my date? Who even does that? READ IT TO HIM. I couldn’t get around it. I was being asked to read to another adult, something I’d never done or imagined doing. I was a bit apprehensive about the idea. First, against all common sense, I’d invited a strange man to my house. Now I was to propose reading a book to him? What would he think?

Nick arrived, bearing flowers. We held hands for the first time as we prayed together. He asked what I’d like to do that afternoon. Then this wonderful, amazing man didn’t even blink an eye when I replied I’d like to read to him, and explained why. We got through the lengthy introduction that first day of reading, an introduction that included these words:

“You are holding this book in your hands. That means that I am inviting you, but far more important, God is inviting you. He has chosen you. Not because my particular book is a divine tool of any kind but because God can use anything he wants- from divine texts to absolute drivel- to get your attention. And if these first pages have pricked your heart, if you feel even remotely interested in falling in love with God’s words in God’s book, then I daresay God is getting your attention.” (page 5)

God was definitely getting our attention. Not just through the book, but in the nine hours of conversation that followed that day. The ease in which we talked, the sparks that flew. More dates that included prayer and extremely deep conversations. Nick and I began questioning the intensity of our feelings for each other. Can this be real? Because commonsense would tell us us that it couldn’t be. It didn’t make sense.

Until it did.

Cecil Murphey, 88-years-old, is my spiritual advisor, mentor, and friend. I shared our unlikely friendship in the March 2021 Reader’s Digest magazine, in a story on unlikely friendships.

Cec smiled through my entire saga of this new relationship, my strong feelings, my fears. How I didn’t trust my feelings. Privy to my struggle with loneliness, Cec has been praying for me to find a Godly man for several years now.

“Why are you surprised, Mary?” he asked. “This is exactly how love happens when God is in it from the start. Trust your feelings. They are a gift from God.”

I wasn’t sure I could trust my feelings. But I do trust God.

I have shared photos of this page in my 2018 journal during my expressive writing for healing workshops, demonstrating how I covered up writing that was too private for my comfort. Twice during the summer of 2018 God had asked me to pray for a man I did not yet know. One of those prayers was dated July 25, 2018, the other August 22, 2018. I’d resisted when God told me to pray for a man I would someday love because it seemed so presumptuous, but I finally obeyed, so the prompt could have been days before those dates.

I sat down next to Nick on the couch during one of our dates. “There’s a prayer in here I want to show you,” I began. “It was so private, I covered it up. I haven’t looked at it since, but every once in awhile in the last few years I have wondered where that man was God asked me to pray for so many years ago. Where the man was that he promised me.”

I uncovered the prayer and began reading to Nick, words still too private to share on a blog, except these few:

I’m praying that God brings us together in a way that we will see Him in it. I have seen Him in everything these past years. If we are meant to be together, He will be in that too. I pray that you already have a relationship with Him, that you are surrounded by family and friends who love you.

“I knew the man was going through something, that God would ask me to pray for him that summer.”

Nick’s eyes widened when he noted the dates. His voice thick with emotion, he said “My wife died in April 2018. Her birthday was in August. That summer was the worst summer of my life. Do you think that man was me?”

“I wouldn’t have shown you if I didn’t think so,” my answer was a whisper, but he heard it. He took my hand in his.

Commonsense says you can’t fall in love in mere days.

But we don’t serve a common God. Our God is awesome and amazing. He delights in his children. He hurts when they hurt. He asks a woman to pray for a man she does not yet know because that man needs prayer that summer. He promises her love in 2018 and delivers it in 2021 in a way that she will recognize it. God writes a love story that this man, and this woman, watch unfold, in awe and amazement.


Commonsense Dating, Part One

I’ve been journaling for over nine years, ever since the death of my husband David in March 2012. Each journal is chosen carefully, with meaningful covers. I have previously written about my process of choosing journals HERE.

Because journaling was my way of working my way through things, I panicked when I realized I’d run out of journals at the beginning of the pandemic. I definitely needed to write my way through the gamut of emotions I was experiencing. Realizing the absurdity of my panic, (I did have reams of paper inside the house, after all), I called the local bookstore and had them walk through the store, describing various journals available. Though I wasn’t thrilled with the “Alice in Wonderland” themed one the saleswoman mentioned, I was intrigued when she told me it was a “novel” journal, with words pulled from the text as lines. I ordered it. When I pulled up to the curb and put my window down, the salesperson, gloved and masked, approached. We both laughed when she threw the bag through the open window. When I got home and opened up the journal, it seemed the perfect choice for that period of time. I filled it in three months.

I’ve filled several journals since. But at the end of May, with in-person programming beginning at my workplace once again, and a sense of normalcy returning, I picked up another “novel journal,” this one with words of H.G. Wells sporting both pages and cover. Wait for the common sense of the morning, the words on the cover say.

On June 4, I copied these words from Henri Nouwen’s book on spiritual discernment into this journal: “When we are rooted in prayer and solitude and form part of a community of faith, certain signs are given to us in daily life as we struggle for answers to spiritual questions. The books we read, the nature we enjoy, the people we meet, and the events we experience contain within themselves signs of God’s presence and guidance day by day. When certain poems or scripture verses speak to us in a special way, when nature sings and creation reveals its glory, when particular people seem to be placed in our path, when a critical or current event seems full of meaning, its time to pay attention to the divine purpose to which they point. Discernment is a way to read the signs and recognize divine messages.”

On June 26, I wrote in my new journal: “I’ve been thinking about Vicki Jolene’s advice to me regarding finding love again. She asked if I’d prayed to David yet, to help guide me to the man he would choose for me. I know God asked me twice in the summer of 2018 to ‘pray for the man that would be my husband’ because he was going through something tough at the time, and I’d obeyed, though I’d felt foolish. I’d written down those prayers and covered them up in my journal, embarrassed. At the time, I believed he was promising me a husband, but so many years have gone by, I just wonder if I’d misheard him. But pray to David? Pray to a dead spouse? Is that even Biblical? I know that David told me he’d want me to marry again because he knew how much I loved hugging and holding hands and he’d want me to have that again, but to pray to him to help me find it?

Vicki Jolene, trained as a Methodist minister, was well aware of my struggle with loneliness these past years, my prayers to God to protect my heart and his clear answers whenever my romantic self imagined something might be happening. God had consistently done just as I’d asked, protecting my heart by making it crystal clear when a certain man I might be entertaining romantic notions about was not for me.

Yet my heart ached with loneliness, especially at night as I cried out to God, asking why other widows I knew had found love, but not me. Why I was still alone. What was so unlovable about me? Yet even as I prayed, whined, and lamented, I knew, without a doubt, God was working in me, changing me, that I was becoming all he wanted me to be.

I seriously considered Vicki Jolene’s advice, finally deciding it would do no harm. So I “prayed to David,” through Jesus Christ, if he could help guide me to the man he would choose for me, could he please do so. I don’t know how Heaven works. Maybe our loved ones do watch over us. Maybe they can help us.

Just days later, I connected with a man on Catholic Match. I’d decided to give the website one last try because my son had recently met a nice girl online. Their experience made me brave. I was about ready to delete my account after a couple of what I call “creeper encounters,” men who either sounded too good to be true (because they weren’t) or those who were downright scary. So I was appropriately wary when Nick messaged me. He gave me enough information I could do an online search and figure out he was telling the truth. He was visiting his sister in AZ at the time and she’d encouraged him to join the site where she’d met her husband. Nick and I messaged back and forth several times before he asked if we could meet in person when he got back to WI. I chose a public space. We’d meet after I got off work on a Thursday at Panera Bread.

While doing a devotional Thursday morning, I was thinking about my date that afternoon when I clearly heard I was NOT to meet him at Panera Bread. I was confused. Why not? And if not Panera Bread, where?

AT YOUR HOUSE. Now, if you are a new Christian, or have not yet developed a relationship with Jesus, this kind of directive could easily be ignored. But because I have been living in the Word and I can discern God’s voice, I should have known better than to disobey.

But it made no sense to me. Why would God be asking a single woman to invite a strange man to her house? I decided I had misheard the directive.

INVITE HIM TO YOUR HOME. At work, the message got stronger and stronger. I was jumpy with the ridiculousness of it. Invite a strange man to my home? That’s insane. It’s the exact opposite of the advice I would give to my daughters or any other woman. I tried calling my oldest daughter so she could talk me out of it. She didn’t answer the phone. The message became urgent. INVITE HIM TO YOUR HOME. I couldn’t take it anymore. Okay, okay! I threw up my hands in despair. I will obey.

I messaged this stranger, telling him exactly what had transpired, including the spiritual directive, and how I didn’t understand it. I waited. An hour passed, and no message from him. He would be leaving soon to get to Dubuque in time. Oh, no, I scared him. He must have thought I was a total weirdo. I sent a quick message “We could meet at Village Inn if you’d prefer.” He replied “No, it’s fine. I’ll plug your address into the GPS and be there at 4:30.” I ordered Panera Bread to be delivered to my home. All the way home, I was praying, “God, I don’t understand. Why would you ask me to invite a stranger to my home? This doesn’t make sense.”

The food was on my steps when I arrived home so I put it in the fridge. Nick arrived shortly after. When I saw him walking up the stairs, it was the first time I realized he had the neatly-trimmed goatee, broad shoulders and kind eyes I’d added to a list for my “ideal man” I also kept in my journal after someone had advised I tell God exactly what I wanted in a man.

“Did you think I was crazy, inviting you to my home against all common sense?” I greeted him as I let him in the door.

“No, it told me something about your faith that you would follow God’s lead like that,” he said before adding, “But it was crazy and you shouldn’t have done it, and your children would kill you if they knew what you had done!”

We sat down and began talking. And talking. We talked with ease about everything. And nothing. We couldn’t stop talking, and it seemed as if we’d known each other for years. Our talking was interrupted suddenly by a noise outside. I looked out the window and my oldest son Dan was there, fixing my stair railing I’d asked him to repair weeks before.

“My oldest son is here,” I told Nick, and then realization dawned on me. “Do you think that is why I was supposed to invite you here? So you could meet my oldest son, or him meet you?”

Because, suddenly, that made perfect sense. Dan has taken care of me since his Dad died. He has worried about me, fixed things around the house, has known of my loneliness. We share a special relationship in which we can sometimes feel each other’s pain.

“Dan! I didn’t know you were coming,” I step to the door and call out. “My friend Nick is here.”

“On the phone?” he says. “I’m just here to fix your railing.”

“No, my friend is in the house,” I stepped aside as Nick comes to the door. They exchange pleasantries and Nick and I went back inside, to return to talking. We discuss faith, the Bible, our spouse’s deaths, our children. We talk with an ease I’ve never before experienced, realizing we intimately share the loss of a spouse who will forever be a part of our lives. He asks about the Bible verse on my wall, Jeremiah 29:11, and I explain how it has been my life verse since David’s death. Remembering my summer 2018 journal entries and the prayers for a man I did not yet know, I get a tiny shiver down my back when he mentions that his wife died in April 2018 and the next few months he experienced the hardest time he’d ever had in his life.

At some point, I realize I have forgotten to feed him and my son is still outside, working. Dan finishes up his work and talks to us for awhile as we eat our salads on the couch. Only later do I realize I hadn’t heard a word Dan said because I only had eyes for this amazing man sitting next to me.

Hours have passed when Nick stands up to leave and I give him a hug. I’m not sure which of us asked for the second hug, but by the time Nick got to the door, we both wanted the third hug and I said yes to a second date that Sunday.

Neither of us got much sleep that night, tossing and turning. In the early morning Friday hours, we texted each other, wondering at what had just happened. Commonsense tells us that people don’t feel like that about each other after one meeting. Commonsense tells us we must be imagining things. We both forget to eat that day. Sunday suddenly seems so far away. As we talk on the phone that evening, marveling, wondering, confused, we come to the same conclusion. Before our date on Sunday, we must pray together. We need to ask God into this relationship.

By Saturday morning, we are miserable. We haven’t gotten much sleep. We miss each other even though that makes no sense. We’ve met only once.

We have no idea what God is going to ask of me that afternoon, a request that once again, makes no sense at all, a directive that makes me feel foolish and uncertain.

How do I tell a grown man that I am to read a book out loud to him?


Welcoming Woods

I learned what loneliness really meant when I was sent home to work in mid-March 2020. My youngest daughter, sixteen-year-old Abby, less than thrilled with the arrangement, spent most of her day alone in her room, refusing to discuss the virus, or much of anything else. Her response to my good night greeting was barely a grunt. I lamented that I’d been forced into lockdown with the only one of my eight children who refused hugs. At least working at a spirituality center, I’d experienced a semblance of human contact that included daily handshakes, pats on the arm and the occasional hug.

It was sometime in July I read that people in Iceland were hugging trees to alleviate loneliness. Desperate for human contact, I snuck out of the house at dusk for a clandestine meeting with the big tree in front of the school across the street. My arms flung around the trunk of the massive oak, I leaned into the bark and closed my eyes. I felt nothing but embarrassment, looking around furtively before rushing back indoors.

As August approached, I looked forward to the day my newest book would arrive on my doorstep. Despite the challenges of a pandemic launch, it seemed fitting the inspirational book chronicling the legacy of a creative mother would be released ten years after her death. Her handwritten words would appear as epigraphs for each chapter. When the box arrived, I knew immediately where I would open it. Mom had loved her woods. She used to joke that if anyone ever wanted to put her in a nursing home, she’d escape to the woods and live out the rest of her life within the shadows of the trees. My son Michael had purchased the house and land and my children and I had started meeting in his yard for socially-distanced outdoor visits, so it wasn’t unusual to ask my children to meet me there in August.

I arrived first. Pushing a wheeled cart that held the unopened box, I headed directly to the woods area where Mom used to sit, noticing how neatly my son had kept it clear with a mower. He’d even left the metal chair she used to sit in, now rusty with seasons of rain and snow. I moved it in front of a tree, away from the direct sunlight. Then I pointed my phone camera towards my face to host my first ever Facebook Live video. Breathless with excitement, I announced the opening of the box and shared my first look at the pages.

opening the box in the woods

Replaying the video as I relaxed in Mom’s chair, I was surprised to see a look I hadn’t seen on my face since my husband’s death, one of pure, unadulterated joy. Basking in the warmth of the woods, listening to the birds, I sensed the quiet spirit of my mother.

Hearing the voices of my children in the distance, I stood, turning quickly to hug the tree that had served as my video backdrop, feeling a deep peace as I did so. This tree seemed to welcome the embrace. That day was a turning point for me in the pandemic. Wanting to immerse myself in more of the woods experience, I asked Abby to go hiking with me.

Broken trees fascinate me. When I captured this one, I also captured my daughter gazing at the sky.

Several times a month we’d drive to a nearby park and explore the trails. It was during those walks she began talking to me. By the time I returned to my office seven months into the pandemic, she couldn’t stop talking. Now, we end up on the couch every night, sipping tea and discussing our day. She still doesn’t hug, but I smile every time I open her bedroom door to say good night and get a verbal reply.

It seems I rediscovered both my joy and my daughter in the woods.