This I Believe: Rad & Linda Decker (2007)

Our life together started in Houston, Texas in January of 1996 when I was one of Linda’s 70 students in a country western two-step class. We both remember the first time we saw each other. (A little easier for me than for her.) We started dating later that year and married in November of 1997. Our lives were filled with work, friends and Linda’s family. For two strong-willed and middle-aged people, there was a lot of adjusting to be done, but our life together gradually became smoother and richer. When 9/11 occurred, I was at a meeting in Wisconsin and Linda was home. Those of us at the meeting pulled together for the 5 days that we were there. On the final day of the meeting, I met a man from Minnesota and asked him for his card. I had attended graduate school at the U of M and would enjoy returning to the area. He gave me his last card as he was saying “Let me tell you about a job …..”  I wasn’t looking at the time, but, after much encouragement from Linda, I decided to risk leaving great co-workers and a comfortable job and apply for this new position. I started at 3M Pharmaceuticals in February of 2002.

When we moved to Minnesota, I left behind deep roots in Texas:  my children, our grandchildren, my siblings and their families, as well as friends, co-workers and neighbors. I left with tears streaming down my face but full of excitement for this new, mid-life adventure with Rad.  We were clueless about what lay ahead. We still are for that matter.

Mary Catherine Bateson in her essay Composing a Life writes:

[some] “people can . . . tell their life stories as if they were following on this statement:  After lots of surprises and choices, or interruptions and disappointments, I have arrived some place I could never have anticipated.”

I never anticipated living in Minnesota, or being active in a UU church – or any church for that matter.  My parents sent us kids to Sunday School at the Methodist Church. I wanted to go, but I never felt like I quite belonged. Mother and Daddy didn’t attend church with us children and had never had us baptized – it just wasn’t important to them – but it was to me; not being baptized made me different. And as a young person, I just wanted to be like everyone else, to fit in.

When I was 19 I married “that Catholic boy” who went to church every Sunday with his mother and brothers; I don’t imagine any of them ever gave a thought as to whether or not they belonged.  I was baptized and converted and spent the next 12 years of my life (and the total of that marriage) actively involved in the life of the church community.  But deep down inside, I knew that I was an imposter – I didn’t belong there either.

After my first marriage ended, I spent the next 20 years basically un-churched, but my spiritual life deepened, sometimes consciously – most of the time, however, I was just trying to survive as a single mom and a returning college student.  I spent as much time as possible in nature – the only place I ever felt like I truly connected with that something deeper inside of me that I no longer called God.  I read a wide range of books of a spiritual nature, meditated occasionally, wrote poetry and went into therapy where I was told that I didn’t believe in God because I hadn’t had a loving, benevolent father.

I too had been “un-churched” for most of my adult life. I was raised Christian Scientist and enjoyed many things about it. There were weekly lessons to be read and discussed with each person bringing their thoughts to the lesson’s meaning. There was also an understanding that people were at different levels of applying Christian Science in their lives and there was not a “rigid” dogma that defined “true believer”.  However, I came to realize that I did not and would probably never have strong enough faith to follow the principles of Christian Science. Through marriage, I did participate in the Catholic Church, enjoying the pageantry but never converting. I knew I was unwilling to become a follower of the traditional religions with their creeds and clergy who were the interpreters of those creeds.

When Linda and I first met there were so many things to occupy our time:  my friends, her friends, our friends, our families, work, etc. With our move to MN, we lost a lot of the “noise” that had dominated our lives in TX and realized this was a time to explore a new place, a new community and a new time in our relationship. We started looking for community to support us in this exploration.

We were fortunate to move into a wonderful neighborhood. We became especially close to one family who just happened to be religious leaders in their Evangelical Free Church. They were warm and friendly and they loved to play Scrabble at our house when they could find a babysitter.  One Sunday they hesitantly invited Rad and me to their church and we hesitantly accepted their invitation. 

We were warmly greeted and welcomed into the spacious foyer; everyone was smiling and hugging. This was September and the pastor was starting a series of sermons about what was required to become a member of their church.  We attended four of those sermons.

Many of the things they said fit our ideas of community and faith until it was stated that we must accept Jesus Christ as our personal savior. I could feel Linda lift from the chair, preparing to bolt from the church right then. But she did not, and we politely waited until the end of the service to make our escape.

But my appetite for a community was whetted; I was determined to find a place where we could each, separately and together, feel a sense of belonging and somehow I knew that it should be a church.

We knew a little about Unitarian Universalism and thought it might be a better fit for us – a couple with differing and sometimes vague theologies. The following Sunday we sat and listened to Victoria speak and as the tears ran down my face, I knew that I had found a home and I hoped that Rad had too. And although I intuitively knew that this was what I was looking for, it still took time for me to believe that I belonged here.

That first Sunday, I was moved by the call to worship. Each time I hear it, I am still moved. Imagine a place where you can be accepted for who you are. It is one of the things that instantly made me feel at home. Victoria’s sermon that first Sunday was about the life of this congregation. She spoke of the church as a river where each of us is a stream, adding a fullness to and an influence in the course of the church. Both Linda and I felt that we had found a home. Little did we know that we would be welcomed so completely.

The next Saturday, friends invited us to a work day splitting firewood. We arrived at a house where we did not know anyone and were enthusiastically welcomed. We worked through the morning, chatting and getting to know the people we were working with. I heard a Massachusetts accent. I had been on the east coast and asked him if he had ever been in New Haven, CT. It turns out we both had lived there at the same time. He said his wife had been attending Yale Divinity School and was the minister of a small church in Mahtomedi. I asked which one and he said WBUUC. Small world! We told him that we had been there last Sunday for the first time and enjoyed it. It turns out this was Jeff Janacek and Sally Colwell’s house and everyone there, except the friends who brought us, were members of WBUUC. It also turns out that Sally did a pediatric fellowship with my good friend’s wife and Al Mitchell graduated from a very small high school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with Linda’s sister-in-law. The universe was definitely telling us we had found a home.

When someone said it looks like your being here was ‘meant to be’ I didn’t know how to take that.  What do people mean, what do I mean, when I say that something is meant to be?  Is there some blueprint for our lives?  I don’t think so, but there seems to be some kind of order to things, maybe you call it synchronicity or coincidence, but I think that if we pay attention, if we notice and then if we’re brave enough to do the next thing before us, then life will reveal the next thing and then the next.

I found it very daunting to go into coffee hour where so much was happening and so many people seemed so connected. But we were lucky to be welcomed by the Janacek/Colwells every Sunday. Jeff would seek us out and talk with us and introduce us to new people.

After a while we began to explore ways to become more involved in the church. We volunteered for the Habitat for Humanity work day and a Circle Supper. In the Spring we participated in a Sharing Circle. It was wonderful to get to know people more intimately and to share thoughts and feelings on topics that made us all delve a little deeper into ourselves. I went on to become a Sharing Circle facilitator because I thought this was a way I could contribute to the life of the church and ensure the success of something I found to be important.

We also took Victoria’s “Building Your Own Theology” class – twice.  This was the catalyst, sort of my permission if you will, to compose my own theology, to put a name to what is true for me.

Again, that appetite of mine was whetted and I wanted more. I attended spiritual exploration classes and discussion groups (both here and elsewhere) and read and read and read. I reclaimed the language of religion that now held so much more meaning for me.  I began a dedicated practice of meditation a couple years ago and while it’s still difficult sometimes to shut off my monkey mind, I have more peace in my life now.

Eckhart Tolle in the book A New Earth writes:

People . . .look upon the present moment as either marred by something that has happened and shouldn’t have or as deficient because of something that has not happened but should have. And so they miss the deeper perfection that is inherent in life itself. . . .

Living in the present is difficult for me and it does take practice lots of it. I’ve spent my entire life struggling against sometimes overwhelming anxiety. And while I haven’t given up my meds, and may never be able to, by practicing living in this moment, I find that I am always just fine – right now.

Linda’s spiritual journey has carried mine in its wake. Being a part of her spiritual journey has allowed me the freedom to release some of my own spirituality and to express it in my day to day life. We often light a chalice when we sit down to meals or when we are concerned for families and friends. We have a purple lava lamp in the feng shui abundance corner of our house. We turn it on to celebrate the abundance we have in our lives and to remind us that we do not live in scarcity.

I also learned from Linda about the rhythm of life. I think of this rhythm as breathing. There will be times in our lives when we breathe in, focusing on the needs of ourselves, the inner spiritual work and the physical work of building our own lives. Then there will be times when we breathe out, focusing on the world around us and the spiritual and physical needs of others.

It took me awhile to realize that Rad is my perfect spiritual teacher. I’m a quiet introvert who has a difficult time finding just the right words to express myself. He’s a noisy extrovert who makes sense of his life by talking and talking and talking.  I used to complain that I just didn’t want to hear every single detail of who said what while he was at work, every day. And then one day last year he came through the door from work and he quietly said hello and nothing else.  He hung his jacket in the closet, sorted through the mail and no words came from him, not a sound.  It didn’t take me long to become concerned – something was terribly wrong.  When I questioned him about his silence, he said he was just giving me space to talk.  He wasn’t doing this out of pettiness; he was trying to give me what I said I needed. Now the pressure was really on, and as usual, I was speechless.  That was Monday. By Wednesday the experiment was over and things were back to normal, except I was different — on the inside. I had missed him: his talking, his frustrations, his exuberance – I had missed his spirit. I had had a glimpse of what my life would be like if I managed to squash that spark that makes him who he is, and I didn’t like it.

Now I listen as best I can, being fully present to him – at least for a little while.  It doesn’t matter that I might not understand what he’s talking about – he knows, and if my listening to him with a soft heart will help – as I know it will, then I can do that.

And sometimes now, Rad sits with me in silence – breathing in and out. And we notice our breath and our thoughts and the feel of the air on our skin and the sounds and smells around us.  And we are a little stronger, a little braver, a little more prepared to face what life offers us.

Becoming a member of this church has also helped me in my spiritual journey. As I listen to sermons and interact with the members of this congregation, I realize that being a UU, for me, means to be open to new ideas and new paths to a spiritual existence. It means holding our experiences and interactions with each other in a sacred place. It means seeking out differences and finding common ground. I love going to different UU churches in our travels because, while each church is unique, we are always welcomed.

I spent much of my life before Linda saying I will enjoy life when I do, I complete, I finish, I achieve etc. My current work is to learn to live in the present, to understand my past and learn not to regret it or be embarrassed by it. By being present, I open myself to all the wonderful things around me and the abundance I have in my life. I try to notice the sunrises and sunsets, the sound of the birds, the colors in the clouds, the winter quiet and the warm smiles of those around me.

I’ve come to see the composition of this talk over these past few weeks as a metaphor for how we’ve composed our life together.  Before we had any sharing of ideas or any discussion we spent time writing – each in our own voice, our own style, our own perspective.  Only after that did we sit down to read our stories aloud to each otherRad lit a candle and we decided that with this first reading we would listen with our hearts and not our editor minds. Since then, we’ve combined our two stories into one document, yet two voices are still clearly evident.  It’s been hard work and challenging and we’ve gone through several drafts as we’ve emailed the revisions back and forth – attempting to practice what we’re preaching by trusting that the others’ story needs to be told just as it is written. And it’s also been fun and kind of sweet to create this talk together. I trust that the story will continue to tell itself.

We are now living in a time of uncertainty and are beginning to compose a new chapter in our lives. In April 2006, it was announced that my division would be sold by 3M. While there was a chance that the buyer would take some of the current employees, I knew my chances were slim. In the first days after the announcement, I was afraid for my future, sad to be leaving the co-workers, angry that all my hard work had been for nothing and worried about the futures of the people in my group. I talked and Linda listened to me during this time as I began to get past these first emotions and see that I was at a place in my career where I was employable and that there were opportunities out there for me. I began to contact recruiters and to discuss the possibilities with my managers. Linda even found a book with the subtitle “Spiritual and Practical Keys to Navigating (and Surviving) Job Change”. One of the key spiritual lessons in this book is that there are abundant opportunities out there.

So, during this time we turn on our purple lava lamp (and light additional candles if we are feeling particularly uncertain about the future) to remind ourselves that we are lucky in all that we have and to focus on what we need to do in the present. By staying in the present and not playing the “what if ….” game, we can face the uncertainty knowing that there are plenty of jobs out there and we will find the right one at the right time. Where does this certainty come from? For me it comes from the knowledge that every time in the past when I thought I would not survive a change forced upon me, I have survived and gained in each instance.  My physical and spiritual journey has always seemed unplanned. Linda often calls my career the Magical Mystery Tour. Yet I have been lucky enough to have wonderful moments of synchronicity, like meeting my boss during 9/11 and that fall day splitting wood. I know that if I stay present with my eyes, physically and spiritually, wide open, I will be gifted again with unforeseen opportunities and joys.

Somehow, by grace I think, we have been able to support each other through these past several months of uncertainty. However, we all live lives of uncertainty – we don’t know what life will present with our next breath.

As Rad and I prepare to leave, I am reluctant to let go of this safe harbor we’ve found here – I want to cling a little longer. I think it’s okay to cling sometimes – to each other — in fact, it’s necessary for our survival. Ironic, isn’t it? I’ve finally found a place where I feel like I belong and I have to leave. But because of this church, because of each of you and all of you, I know that we are not alone, either in our staying or in our leaving. 

Richard Bach writes:

“The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

We stepped into this river – this great river of a congregation – and you changed the course of our lives.

The End (or The Beginning!)