Mystery on the Line
“You woke up screaming aloud
A prayer from your secret god
You feed off our fears
And hold back your tears, oh
Give us a tantrum
And a know it all grin
Just when we need one
When the evening’s thin
You’re a beautiful
A beautiful fucked up man
You’re setting up your
Razor wire shrine
‘Cause you’re working
Building a mystery
Holding on and holding it in
Yeah you’re working
Building a mystery
And choosing so carefully…”
(“Building a Mystery” – Sarah McLachlan)
In a few weeks, I will turn fifty-four. Knowing what I’ve had to survive, that’s a fucking miracle on par with Jesus at Cana kicking in over one hundred gallons of top grade vino at the end of the night to keep the wedding party going strong. If I were a fisherman, I’d say that God has mystery on the line by casting the hook into the deep waters of my life with a pursuit of my heart. I recently found myself hearing the still, small whisper of the Spirit inviting me to pick up a book – a journal volume written at the age of seventeen – as if an explorer handling the ancient and magnificent map that could keep me from sailing right off the end of a flat and dangerous world. Just touching it, opening its worn cover, handling its pages seemed, well…holy and utterly terrifying.
The title I bequeathed upon it with testosterone and unbridled hope in 1980 was Journal One: Prologue to a New Life (Summer’s End). Words – and writing – had been a close friend since I was a young boy of five or six; I would make up stories, scratched out in pencil on ruled paper, based on the black and white Universal horror movies I was fascinated and scared shitless by in our fifth floor walk-up apartment in the Bronx. Television, movies and music became a boyhood trinity of idols. Years later, I would craft stories where my literary alter-ego became a hero who won the girl, an adolescent clothed in shame and masked in fear and desperate to hide the emptiness of heart (…love…) that fed on the fantasy and forced it into the margins of reality.
This journal…the beginning of a lifelong journey and passion with chronicling and capturing my stories…was born in the early summer following my high school graduation in Louisville, Kentucky. Both a deep sadness and trauma over the death of my paternal grandmother earlier that spring – along with the overwhelming anticipation of leaving my dysfunctional family behind in just a few months and returning to New York and freshman year at Manhattanville College in affluent Westchester County – circled my life as if hawks in the far reaches of sky. Born and raised in New York City and its Catholic crucible of violent nuns and spiritual show business, I survived as the youngest of six children by relegating God to what I pictured as the guy across a poker table from me who may or may not fall for the bluff that none of the arrows to my heart really mattered. To me, it didn’t…long before that summer I had made a vow that no matter how broken my family was I literally would pray that God would cause me unhappiness if he would only make my parents continue to stay together and pretend, if necessary, to be happy and love one another.
Leafing through its early pages and entries, I found journal passages highlighted years earlier, as if these ancient paths were being surfaced by God for me to discover clues to a map of where He wanted to venture now:
“We live our lives on that line everyday – some of us having the nerve to step forward and reveal ourselves to a stranger…outright and without hindrance. Others grudgingly, shyly or overpowering in attitude take one step out, hiding behind a mask or just simply losing confidence in themselves once they have lost the security of the people standing next to them and the line underneath their feet.”
That summer I was transfixed by and pierced in heart with a teenager’s crush for a national touring company actress and dancer from A Chorus Line while the show appeared in Louisville. She played the character of Diana Morales in the musical and sang the moving ballad “What I Did for Love.” After seeing the show on opening night from a front row center seat, I waited outside the theater by the stage door to have as many of the cast autograph my program. Gay was the most enthusiastic about it, lighting up with smiles and praise for it seemed no one on the other tour stops had yet bothered to do something like this. Buoyed by her gratitude, I set about a plan to write a small, freelance article about the show and open auditions they were holding for the company while in town. Attending one of sessions later in the run, I ended up meeting and asking Gay Marshall (the dancer playing Diana) to a dinner interview at the Hyatt Regency hotel she and the company were staying at downtown.
As God unfolded more of the story, I began to feel my eyes wet with tears. They moved over words written decades before but still held meaning in my heart with memories of sitting in the balcony of the empty Macauley Theater watching her practice some dance moves on stage before the next round of auditions she was helping lead:
“Suddenly she was alone, dancing to the mirror, going through the opening jazz combinations from ‘A Chorus Line.’ Gay started working on some ballet moves, and the pure beauty of her there, alone, picked me up out of my seat and I found myself downstairs walking past the stage, when a crew hand came out to talk to her. Going around backstage, I waited until the guy was coming off, and I couldn’t believe how easily I walked on…for there she was, dancing for no one…just herself. She lit up when she saw me, and it all came true right there. We talked for about five minutes, just about the article and stuff, and Gay told me how professional my approach was. So, we made a date for five o’clock at the Trellis Lounge at the Hyatt and I walked off the stage, simply bursting.”
Today, thirty-six years later, I’m currently on point to finish my forty-fourth journal. God, it seems, wants to build a mystery using all the words, stories, bricks and mortar from my head, heart and soul to seduce me back into the Larger Story he needs me to participate in.
As I alluded to in a recent podcast, I am blown away at how God is using mystery to call my heart back to life. There were many times over the decades where I almost discarded my journal collection. I considered throwing them away or, perhaps in a more dramatic fashion, burning them as a symbol of getting rid of the past and cleansing myself of all the “old stories” they represented. But God – in His mystery – wanted me to hold onto them. The winsomeness of Jesus to take me back into my stories is something, like faith, that I am learning to trust even though I cannot see it standing in front of me. In the story with that summer crush, I remember feeling as if those emotions were coming from somewhere outside of me – a call to intimacy and heart that had its origins in something more.
And part of the smaller story that I’ve lived much of my life in hates mystery…shit, I’ve abandoned friendships just because it was too much work connecting with the other person due to their need to cloak themselves in “mystery.” The God of my Bronx childhood was mysterious, too, but in a dark way – judgmental, abusive, and threatening if I didn’t have my act together, always ready to drop the hammer on me and my never-ending “sins.”
Add in the physical, verbal, and emotional abuse that was perpetrated against me as a child and I began to set up – as the lyrics from Sarah McLachlan’s song Building a Mystery alludes – a “razor wire shrine.” In other words, yes, try coming close to me, my life, my story or my heart and you are going to get cut, hurt, and you will bleed.
But God, in His perfect love, is coming after something more in this season, through His mystery. I laugh…not because any of this is amusing…as I’m sitting here putting the finishing touches on this entry my computer jukebox (set to shuffle) just began to play Building a Mystery. Grace is amazing as much as it’s right on time. Perhaps living in the mystery on the line isn’t so much about “choosing carefully,” but more so choosing to trust the Maker of the mystery in how it is meant to call my heart alive for a freedom to live in God’s Larger Story.
JOHN FONTAINE, Writer @ Large