My “Thankful” Journal

I sat down at the computer, armed with a steaming cup of instant coffee. In the midst of my morning routine of simultaneous web-surfing, podcast downloads, and lacing up of my running shoes, I saw evidence that Jenn had once again failed to sleep through the night. My RSS feed reader showed that her blog had been updated during the night.

Her most-recent entries contained three specific things she was thankful for that particular day. Reading each of those reminded me that I used to also maintain such lists myself, in a journal that I handmade from raw materials.

Although we had recently moved and many of my older things were still in boxes. I knew exactly where that journal was. So before I headed outside for my morning run, I dug it out of the closet and inadvertently journeyed eight years back in time.

The first entries were in 2000, inspired by my friend Ellen and her suggestion that tough times are easier to navigate when we remember what’s most important. In fact, she wrote the first entry, listing her five “thankfuls” that particular day:

May 1, 2000:

1) Brown eyes
2) D Milk
3) Horns
4) No fear of dog spit
5) My health

The next day, I started writing entires on a regular basis, each day trying to list five things that I hadn’t previously recorded. Some of my specific “thankfuls” require little explanation, and they all apply today:

“Poptarts and coffee — the breakfast of champions”

“A nice set of boobs”

“Being a Skeeball wizard”

“Knowing it’s not always my fault”

However, the context for others have faded with the passage of time. I once wrote “That Zoe has such good friends.” I have no idea who Zoe was, but I hope she’s doing alright. And I can only imagine the fun I had the night before I wrote “Not knowing where I was when I woke up!”

For a good stretch, I was dedicated enough to write five “thankfuls” per day. However, the entries began to peter out around July of that year. That was the month before I relocated to Austin — perhaps I had packed the book away in preparation for the move? If that was the case, it was eventually unpacked, as entries resumed again around October.

However, the last entry was dated October, right before I returned to Denton for my college’s homecoming:

October 4, 2000:

1) Hope that I’ll find love again
2) Pajamas
3) Big baby eyes
4) Celis White
5) Historical perspective

No more entries after that. It was during the following weekend I found out that Rebecca was engaged to marry someone else, as big of a kick to my spiritual nuts as could ever be given. I imagine that’s why I stopped writing altogether.

Yet as I reread that distant final entry, I winced at the thought that I had lost the ability to count my blessings. Obviously since then, I’ve rediscovered this resource, and nary a day goes by where I’ve not motivated by how incredibly freakin’ lucky I am. My homemade journal was so beautiful. Handbound with needle and thread, with a cover of delicate rice paper and rose petals, it would be a shame for this piece of art to continue gathering dust. That just wouldn’t do.

So I pulled out my pen and wrote the first of hopefully many new daily “thankfuls”:

May 21, 2008:

1) My home
2) My health
3) My wife

Nice Backpack

Jenn wearing her backpackIn college, I was sure I had met the girl I was going to marry. Then we broke up, and my life went into a tailspin.

Being the heart-on-the-sleeve romantic that I am, I honestly thought that I had missed the most glorious of kismet and would never be again be fortunate enough to experience love. Years later, I was working as a travelling IT consultant. The job’s lonely existence served me well, giving me the world to experience while my heart mended. One of my projects took me to a small town in southwestern Missouri, whose downtown consisted of some boarded-up shops, liquor stores, a few fast-food restaurants, and a Super 8 Motel. This motel was my home for well over a year.

One night in this extended tour of duty, I felt lonely and began to troll the internet for someone–anyone–to talk to. I eventually stumbled upon the search feature in Friendster. My criteria was quite specific: look for single females located in Dallas, between the ages of 25-35, interested in relationships or friendships. I clicked “Search”, and on the first results page results was the first time I ever saw Jenn, my future wife.

She was wearing that silly little plastic backpack of hers — the one scrawled with the motto “Totally Me”, with a glance towards me that suggested just looking at her photo was only scratching the surface. I was hooked and sent her a message.

Imagine the paths of fate that had to intertwine for the two of us to find one another. Just a week before that night, Jenn had been hanging out with her co-worker Brooke. She was on Friendster and begged Jenn to sign up and be added to her friend’s list. Although Jenn had long ago had her fill of meeting people online, she signed up anyway to help Brooke out. And seven days later, there was a one-line message waiting in her inbox from someone named Matthew.

“Nice backpack,” said the message. And that was it. Even more mysterious than the message is the fact that Jenn actually replied. The next email led to exchange of IM handles, then phone numbers. After a month of talking nearly everyday on the phone, we decided to meet face-to-face. On February 20, 2004 (yes, I am one of those rare men that remembers the most-important days of his life), we arranged to have dinner together at a nice sushi restaurant.

When I first saw Jenn in the flesh, I stopped to take in the picture before me. She was a beautiful petite woman, with raven-dark hair streaked with fashionable red highlights. Her magenta blouse had a bold tone that reflected well against her olive skin. What pictures failed to convery was how great her smile was — one of those deep grins that radiated warmth to my cool heart. I remember everything about that meal: what we ordered, where we sat, the intensity of her green eyes. I found out silly little details, such as the name of her dog (Cali) and that she was in love with the movie “Seabiscuit.”

That evening, the Dallas Museum of Art was celebrating their 100th anniversary by staying open 100 consecutive hours. I wasn’t yet ready for our date to end, so I asked Jenn if she cared to check out the art spectacle. Thankfully, she said yes.

Although neither of us came to the evening with romantic intentions, our friendly dinner was turning into a great date.

A month had passed since Jenn and I started dating. Although it was early in our relationship, there was a spark that told me what we shared was significant.

One Friday night along the way we made plans to go out for the evening. Before I walked out the door to go pick her up, the phone rang.

It was Jenn. She was calling to tell me that she couldn’t go out with me anymore.

I asked why, and Jenn told me it was because I was an atheist, that someone who was Catholic and faithful couldn’t see herself with someone like myself.

Needless to say, I was speechless. Up to that moment, I had expected to be galavanting around town with my cutie. Instead things seemed to be over as quickly as they had begun. I hung up, then laid down on my bed. I was still wearing the nice shirt I had put on for our date. I cradled my head in my hands and stared at my ceiling. There I brooded all night, pondering over in over in my mind how a childhood decision would forever subject me to a lonely existence.

Although I am sure they believed in God, my parents never raised their sons to be religious. Sure, we were baptized, but never once did we attend church together or say grace. I was young, after all, so it’s entirely possible that I am fuzzy on the details. I do remember one thing with perfect clarity: the moment I decided that God didn’t exist.

I was seven years old, and my family was on a houseboat vacationing at Lake Powell, Utah. One night, I was hanging around the kitchen with my family. I was off in the corner eating some hotdogs, while my brother was helping mom mix up some powdered milk for dinner. It was when I was by myself that I had my first-ever revelation. I thought, “There’s no such thing as God.”

I hadn’t pondered the question of His existence before that moment, but that answer to an unasked question provided me with absolute comfort even as a kid. And for next three decades, I grew up knowing that things were right in my universe.

My beliefs weren’t seriously challenged until after I left school. In college, it was easy to nuture my atheism because of the rich diversity of people (and like minds) I encountered during my six years. But following graduation, I dated a woman from a large, traditional Catholic family who often was offended by my atheism. She assumed that because I believed in my atheism so strongly that someone as faithful as her must be foolish or at the very least stupid. She assumed this because she herself thought my lack of belief was ridiculous and offensive.

I honestly never thought such a thing, because I didn’t consider people of faith being wrong. I drew comfort from the choices I made; if someone else choose to believe in a higher power I appreciated such decisions. Although they weren’t choices I would make, who am I to judge others? Like any believer in the Golden Rule I hoped they would offer me the same respect.

I thought I had such respect from Jenn. Then that phone call changed my mind.

All of this is what I thought of over and over that one Friday night, lying on my bed with a broken heart.

The next morning, on Saturday, I was woken up by a phone call. It was Jenn. In an emotionally-frayed voice, she asked if I would come over to her place.

Just the night before, Jenn had cancelled our date because she was unable to accept my atheism, so you can imagine my confusion at her request.

I was grateful for the phone call. I told her that I would be up there as soon as I could and that I had some good news to share…

Jenn grew up in Baton Rouge, the oldest daughter in a family possessed of significant Catholic traditions. She attended Catholic school from kindergarten to 12th grade and went to Mass every Sunday with her parents. Jenn’s grandfather was heavily involved with the Knights of Columbus and, along with her grandmother, never missed daily Mass. Even her great-aunt devoted her life to service in the Dominican order.

During our first weeks of getting to know one another, Jenn and I would chat about our families and childhoods. At first, Jenn found my atheism intriguing. Yet, the farther she fell in love with me, the more distressed she was about the future because of the incompatability of our beliefs. Due to past experience dating religious women, I misinterperted her concern as judgement and would sometimes snap at her in frustration. I often asked, “I don’t question what you believe. Why can’t you accept my beliefs in return?”

Jenn wasn’t offended by my beliefs as much as she was worried. In response to my question, she would say, “When I am old and on my deathbed, I want my husband to be at my side reassuring me that we’ll be together in heaven — not that this is it and when I die it will be all over.” She would then ask me to put myself in her shoes and answer, would I want the same thing?

As I lied on my bed the previous evening, brooding about our cancelled date and apparent breakup, that question of Jenn’s kept coming back into my head and wouldn’t leave me be.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my choices and what they meant, not just for me but for those I cared for. After all, when someone becomes an atheist, they are defacto declaring themselves the highest level of their existence. In effect, they are making themselves God; after all, if there isn’t a supreme being, who else to take up that mantle than yourself? It breeds egotism and self-centerness, both of which conspire to prevent you from ever truly being able to love someone. Such thoughts resonated in my mind over and over that night, and I came to experience only the third revelation in my life.

For the first time, I honestly had the feeling that there was something beyond me, something superior with a greater understanding. I believed in God for the first time.

After her call that Saturday morning, I drove north to Jenn’s apartment in Addison. The late winter day was gray and gloomy, and after arriving I discovered her mood matched the weather. We ordered a pizza and sat down to talk.

When I asked why she wanted me to visit, Jenn explained that something about how we met, how we were touching each other’s souls in ways that noone else had, was screaming to her that she couldn’t walk away from this. That despite her religious upbringing and my lack of faith that things weren’t supposed to be over.

I smiled and told Jenn everything that had passed through my mind the night before. Her question about death and love touched me in ways few others have. It made me realize what is important…it’s not myself, but the love & good works that I share with Jenn, my family and friends, and God. Such soul-searching had finally led me to the greatest of loves.

Somnambulism and Somniloquy and Randomness, Oh My!

Sleepwalker Issue #1 CoverThis morning, before heading out to the airport, I woke my wife up with a kiss and told Jenn that I loved her. Soon enough, she was giggling about something I said while sleeping. Bookended by sleepy muttering and snores, I said something like this:

…they always make you wear the seat belt on these flights…I always take it off as soon as I can…but they come by and make you put it back on…but don’t worry, honey…after they go away, I’ll take off my seat belt so I can get next to and touch you…

None of this surprises me, for I have said and done far crazier things during the night.

When I was a kid in northern Chicago, I lived in two-story house with a basement. My bedroom was on the top floor, at the receiving end of a long, steep stairway. The cellar featured a similar flight of stairs and was secured by an unlocked door.

Late one night, my mother was having trouble sleeping, so she went downstairs to get a glass of milk. The kitchen was dark, illuminated only by light belching from the open refrigerator door. Suddenly, she saw something that made her gasp loudly in fright. As the door creaked open further, it lit up the corner of the kitchen where I stood, still as a lamppost, with my eyes wide open and glazed.

This was how I discovered that I am a sleepwalker.

Apparently, I had woken up in the middle of the night, strolled downstairs, and found myself behind the breakfast table. How I had done this without waking anyone up or breaking my neck is still unexplained. And the next morning, I had absolutely no memory of ever having left my room.

Another night shortly after that, my dad was woken by a loud noise coming from downstairs. He discovered me sitting on the living room couch, perched in front of the blaring television. I was looking at the television, but I wasn’t watching it. The next day, my father was at the hardware store, purchasing barriers for blocking the stairways and new locks for the basement door.

Episodes similar to this would occur off and on through the years and could only be blamed on sleepwalking because I was living alone. Once, I woke up and discovered that my pillowcases were missing. Further investigation found them in the living room, sitting on the couch folded up. And although I’ve been guilty of tossing and turning from time to time, one morning I awoke to find myself completely upside-down in the horizontal sense — I was lying with my feet pointing towards the headboard, propped up on my pillows.

The sleepwalking eventually faded away, only to be replaced by something more imaginative and random.

In 1995, I went camping at Enchanted Rock with the college gang that consisted of Reece, Daisy, and Bob. We had two tents. Reece and Daisy occupied the first, Bob & I the second. On one of the many red-wine-soaked evenings, I was sleeping yet boomed the following pronouncement

“Motion! You can’t see it, you gotta feel it! WOOOOSH! Didyoufeelit?! DIDYOUFEELIT?!”

Although it was dark, I imagine that everyone was staring at one another in disbelief. Reece asked me, “Matthew, are you awake?” to which I sarcastically replied, “Well, I’m talking to you, aren’t I?!”

Reece was annoyed and grunted, “Yeah, Matt, fuck you. Go back to sleep.”

I woke up to discover everyone was in a rather pissy mood towards me. Funny, I thought, since we went mad about anything before going to bed. I wondered what bug had crawled up their asses. I once again had no memory of my nocturnal activities. I didn’t believe that I was a sleep-talker. The accumulation of witnesses would soon convince me otherwise.

In 1997, I set out on a road-trip with my college buds Dan and Cary. During the trip, we shacked up at an Austin hotel. Dan and Cary shared one bed while I slept in the other. And once again in the middle of the quiet night, I made my presence known:

“Cleo’s feet are lunging necessary!”

In the dark, Dan was lying on his back — he couldn’t believe what I just said and was thinking that he must have heard things.

Then his bed started to shimmy. Cary was giggling silently and causing the mattress to shake. “Dude!” Dan said to Cary, “Did you hear that, too?!” Cary then burst into laughter said, “Yeah, dude!” Dan leaped out of bed, knocking over trash cans, chairs, and other non-secured furniture while searching for the pen and paper needed to record my words.

The next morning, I asked Dan where he got the fresh bruises on his shins.

Just a year later, I fulfilled a life-long dream to visit Great Britain. Traveling with my friends Jim and Monica, we rented a tiny car and wandered the countryside for two weeks, visiting such scenic locales as Warwickshire and the town of Battle.

Being a scholar, I soaked in all of the history I could. For example, Warwick is home to a splendid castle which remains largely intact. It served as the home of Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, famous in Shakespeare and history for playing a major part in the deposition and elevation of English monarchs. It was the prestige from such feats which afforded him the moniker of “The Kingmaker.”

Days later, we steered south and visited the town of Battle. One might think that Battle is a peculiar name for a town until they learn that it played host nearly a thousand years ago to the Battle of Hastings, where the Saxon warlord William the Conqueror bested Harold the Hagrid, the English king. Harold was felled on the field of battle by means of an arrow shaft to the eye. Such display of long-range weaponry proved to foreshadow English use of such weapons hundreds of years later at Agincourt.

Afterwards, the three of us returned to the B&B we were staying at. It was a small, charming establishment owned by our friends Ted & Gilly. While there, we received close to a royal treatment, as Ted was locally famous for both his culinary skills and taste for fine Scotch. After a fine meal of roasted lamb, we retired to our room.

Jim, Monica, and I shared a tiny room that caused us to remain in close proximity once asleep. The peaceful silence surrounding this evening’s slumber was shattered when I began to boom the following in my sleep:

“The French! They’ll never be able to withstand our longbows! We need to fetch more lances for the Kingmaker!”

Jim furiously tried to mute me with swats of pillows to the face and finger-pokes in my side, but to no avail. Soon enough, our fellow lodgers on the same floor were up and about thanks to the commotion I caused.

The next day, I heard of some slight grumbling. I dismissed such criticism; after all, what self-respecting Englishman wouldn’t want to be alerted to the fact that the French were coming?

Photo credit: Comic Book Resources

Lessons of Love

I’ve known Jenn for only five months, and already I cannot envision the future without her. If you don’t know her yet, you should — silly, artistic, adventuresome, beautiful, and in possession of a wisdom that most 60-year-olds lack. And it is this wisdom that is serving as a catalyst for important and necessary changes in my life.

For many years, I was incredibly self-centered. If you were to convene a “Matthew McGarity Past Lover’s Convention,” besides serving punch and pie you’d likely want to know why I had accumulated such a huge roster of ex-girlfriends over the years. I’d bet you good money that the most-common reason they’d say we broke up would be, “because it was always all about him.” Yep, all about what I wanted and how I had to have it, even if it upset the person I was with. Years ago, I recall having my company offer me a voluntary opportunity to work overseas for three straight months while I was dating someone seriously stateside. Guess what I decided to do without seriously consulting that girlfriend — and guess who is no longer said girlfriend. This person knows who she is but has never heard me apologize for it, for I didn’t feel sorry for that until recently. So‚ I’m sorry and wish I’d said something to that effect before now.

But why am I sorry now? When I left Jenn’s apartment this morning to catch a flight, I left her a sweet note (attached to a batch of fresh-baked cookies!). In the midst of writing, I told Jenn that the most important thing I’ve learned from her is how to be selfless. This was a difficult lesson to learn, for the best friend of my self-centeredness is a stubbornness which kept me from getting past myself.

For many years, I did not believe in God and this was a comfortable choice for me. It felt good to decide something even if it was to not believe. And it was a hard decision, for I knew it might preclude me from settling down. Jenn, born and raised Catholic, continued to talk to me, convinced that I was not truly atheist.

But one of the most-humbling nights of my life was the one Friday Jenn and I were planning to go out — and how she called me to say that she couldn’t see me anymore. She called things off because she couldn’t let herself become more involved with someone that did not believe in God. I remember lying on my bed, still dressed in my nice date clothes, and brooding. The last time I stared that much at the ceiling was 11th grade English, and all night I despaired because I might be alone for the rest of my life if this continued.

I must say that the sweetest thing Jenn has ever said to me was when she told me that I was the answer to her prayers. For years, the girl suffered through some tough times and persevered because of her love of God. And for years, she waited for Him to provide her with some ration of happiness — and along came Atheist Boy here. To her, it had to be a sign. Very early the next morning, Jenn called me — she had reconsidered because she couldn’t walk away from someone that might be what God had steered her way. And since then, I have seriously questioned all of my choices. She still marvels at the fact I read the Bible now, and last weekend we went to church together for the first time. And hopefully not the last.

So I am terribly happy because I am finding a peace which has eluded me for years. I’m in love.

And speaking of going to a church with Jenn, notice anything sparkly on my sweetie’s left hand?

I love you, darling!

For the Grandkids

Last night, I had the opportunity to hear a speaker from out of town who might be the perfect stranger…you know, the friend you haven’t met yet. Jenn and I drove all the way to Ft. Worth to hear Ira Glass, host of “This American Life“, speak to a room containing every liberal-minded, Honda Element-driving, venti latte-sippin’ Texan known to exist. And believe it or not, it was more than a dozen!

His speech was interesting, and not just for the expected entertainment value that comes from a live reproduction of the wit and reverence heard on the airwaves. Mr. Glass was able to make all of us feel that we were engaged in a personal exchange between us and the speaker. And although I’ve heard moments like this many times on his show, I found the poignancy of certain parts of the talk to be truly edge-of-the-seat listening. I hate the fact that I waited so long to talk about this night (this post was completed over a week later), because specific examples escape me. And that reminds me of my eternal New Year’s resolution to stop being such a fucking flake…

During the course of the evening, as I heard advice and examples on how to present stories, I began to think about my own writings. This blog is an experience in story-telling for me — although, let’s be very honest…there’s precious little on this website that means jack to anyone besides myself and the people mentioned. And as much as a deride the typical blog, most of which are bulleted lists of what a person did and ate during the course of the day, my blog skirts the frontier between that extreme and something with a larger universal appeal like “TAL”. And I began to feel that my content was rather unworthy of the time and expense of publishing it electronically (in case you are wondering, this website costs me $40.00/year and never-ending nights of typing). My blog’s most important purpose is giving me some space to write…perhaps I will get around to completing that great American novel someday.

At the end of his musings, Mr. Glass briefly made himself available to entertain questions from the audience. Within a second, that trademark sly smirk came across my face. I leaned in close to my girlfriend and muttered, “I have a question.” Jenn, without much hesitation, took my hand, interlocked her fingers between mine, and proceeded to guarantee that we’ll get my question asked.

Ira Glass takes the first question. By “first”, I mean “first four” questions, as the opening querier did his best to ask every question he was ever going to ask for the rest of his life.

Next chance for a question — and Jenn and I fling up out of our seats! We sling our arms above our heads and bounce with that third-grade-like “Ooo! Ooo! Ooo!” that always seemed to get the teacher’s attention back in the day. Despite our attempts to draw as much attention to ourselves as possible, Ira picks a different victim.

Another question! A different person than me! Frustration mounts!

Then, after those three questions and an equal number of demonstrative displays on our part, Ira calls on us. Jenn lets go of my hand and snapped back into her seat…and it’s just me standing in front of thousands. And before I became too nervous, I started to ask my question — only to be interrupted by Mr. Glass, who has some questions himself for the two of us!

“Wait a minute,” he interjects. He directs his attention to Jenn. “You stood up so he could ask a question?” Giggles and tension mount all about, and he continues. “Are you two married?” “What does she get out of this?” Etc.

I finally got my question out — I wanted to know if Mr. Glass was interested in blogs, if he found any worthy comparisons between that medium and radio, and if he found room for improvement. Interestingly (and somewhat surprisingly), he was something of a fan of such sites…while he didn’t always have the opportunity to pursue them, he did equate their impact to an earlier statement he made about radio &#151 radio succeeds because it enganges the imagination of the listener who most compensate for a lack of imagery, and that this focus lends itself to the dynamism within a one-person audience that the stories being broadcast to are being told directly and only to you.

The whole evening proved to be an interesting intersection of interests for me. Between sating my desire to interact with celebrities I admire and my appetite for time with the woman I love, I had a very fulfilling night. Jenn and I are running along an accelerated course, one that comes from two people in their 30s being in love, having a good idea of what they want, and not wanting to bullshit around too much before making a life together.

As the show let out, violent lightning could be seen through the convention center’s windows. Jenn and I briskly proceeded to Kilgore. As the rain began to come down in hot, large blobs, I pointed to an awning and boomed, “Go hang out under there. I’ll grab the truck and meet you there!” The air soon filled with the white noise of pounding precipitation…I ran hard, got to the car before becoming too soaked, and then drove forward to the awning. A short red light interrupted my path, but soon I pulled up…and Jenn was not there! I called her cell phone and received voicemail — her phone was off because of the performance! I began to panic, thinking I had lost my girlfriend in the slums of downtown Cowtown.

It was then looked to my right and saw one of the more pitiful yet hilarious sights in recent memory: outside my door was one water-soaked Jennifer, drenched down to her skin by the heavy rain.

I come to find out that when I told Jenn to hang out under the awning, she said something equivalent to, “Screw that!” and ran after me. My long legs outgunned her in getting to my truck Kilgore, and as she herself reached the vehicle, I drove off without knowing she was outside! Jenn screamed my name and ran after me…picture a beautiful, dripping-wet woman running down the middle of Commerce St. in high-soled sandals! And she almost caught up with me at that red light, only to watch me speed away when it turned green.

So Jenn was laughing her guts off when she clambered inside, and I was in classic profuse-apology-mode. And through the tears, we both agreed that this night’s tale was definitely going to be one for the grandkids. And we wouldn’t be surprised if that was true someday.

p.s. — by the way, in case you were wondering…flight. Definitely, flight.