Monday, December 06, 2010


I always wore my unpierced ears with pride, flaunting them whenever possible, almost as a medal of honor. I explained to people that the money wasn’t worth the trouble to me, described in detail to friends how repulsed I was at the idea of something permanent sticking through my skin.
            And then I met a boy—well, a man, really—and I didn’t “meet” him in the sense that most people would assume.
            It’s a long story.
            I should start at the beginning.
            After I graduated from university, I volunteered and lived on a messianic moshav (communal settlement) in Israel, from June through October 2010. I went with a headful of sightseeing plans and a heartful of secret romantic dreams. I told myself—and others—that this trip was a symbol of how I’d grown, a glorious culminating proof of how God had taught me to live a brave and fearless and content life.
            But I arrived in Israel, June 19, and was terrified. I had few close friends; I spent most free days alone. I was afraid of Jerusalem (a mere twenty minutes away), I was afraid to start conversations with fellow volunteers or moshav members, I was afraid of my roommates, I was afraid of ESLers, I was afraid of my boss. I feared what others thought of me, my ideas, and my thoughts; so I kept silent. I was especially frightened of the boys and men of the moshav. They were stronger in every way, more sure, than the males I was accustomed to, and I wasn’t quite certain how to deal with this strength. Being so petrified of, well, everything crippled my ability to form any relationships. I began to live my “dream trip” as I’d lived my freshman years in high school and university—put your head down, walk fast, don’t let your eyes betray your emotions, don’t open your mouth, and never ever ever fling open your heart.
            I was miserable.
            On July 8, a new male volunteer arrived at the moshav. I was on the way to Jerusalem with a friend, and as we were rushing through the reception lobby, we caught sight of him. He appeared as a tall broad-shouldered strong back, clothed in a striped sweatshirt and topped with thick dark hair. He turned and met my eyes, but I nearly didn't stop because I was in such a hurry. But I put on a smile and put out my hand and said, “welcome.” We learned his name (Reuben) and his home country (Colombia).
            “It’s good to meet you,” I said, then I flew off to Jerusalem and didn’t consider him for the rest of the day.
            I saw Reuben around the moshav in the next couple of days, but didn’t say much to him. He seemed solemn, serious, and I was timid in the face of the depth I sensed in him. I learned that he would be working in housekeeping—the sole male volunteer in that department—and I wondered how he’d be.
            To my surprise, he held his own with all us girls. He made beds and mopped floors; he ran errands and used his Hebrew skills to mediate with angry Jewish guests; he carried heavy baskets and moved boxes. I wasn’t so afraid of him anymore, but I didn’t work to know him more deeply either. He was just Reuben—houseman and enigma.
            Three other girls and I were planning a short trip near the end of July, and one day one of them mentioned that she’d invited Reuben to come with us. I was fine with that—a wee bit relieved, maybe, because then he could drive and use his Hebrew to read road signs and ask directions and such. Then, the day before we left, she dropped the news. Reuben as driver and I as credit-card holder were going to have to go into Jerusalem early in the morning to pick up the rental car and bring it back to the moshav to begin our trip.
            I was irritated. No, more than that, I was upset. Not only did I have to get up early on a day off, I had to spend over an hour alone with Reuben—this tall serious quiet trilingual Latino who still intimidated me in many ways. But, if that was what I had to do to get that car, to go on that trip, I would.
            So he and I arranged it all, met at breakfast, walked to the bus stop in plenty of time, caught the bus with no trouble. We got settled in our seats, then Reuben turned to me and said,
            “Do you want to pray?”
            And all of a sudden, all my irritation and upset and anxiety melted and I knew that here beside me was a very good man.
            All the way to the car rental office, we talked and shared our faith stories (at his initiation). The more we spoke, the less I found myself hesitant and nervous, and the more I felt empathy and kinship with him.
            They wouldn’t rent us the car; they said I needed to be twenty-four in order to rent it. Through a crazy series of events and bus rides and another car rental service, we (all five of us!) made it to our destination. The whole way Reuben kept reminding us that God had the perfect plans in mind for us, and for our journey.
            Of course, he was right. And after that trip, those two days and one night, I learned that I had been far too quick to make up my mind about Reuben. He was serious and soft-spoken, but he had a hilarious sense of humor and a strong sense of leadership. Over the next weeks and months, I began to seriously adore Reu. I asked him hundreds of random questions, beginning conversations about family and culture and faith; I was curious about his opinions and thoughts and personal history. Through our talks, I grew to respect him more than any other man I’d met.
            One day at work—a bad day, one where our boss was gone and Reu was in charge and there was too much work—I trudged to the housekeeping office with my feet bare, a laundry basket on my hip and a pile of sheets under my other arm. Reu came out and met me in the middle of the road, asking me what rooms were finished, if we needed anything else. As we spoke, he reached out and took the bulky sheets away from me. It wasn’t flashy or meant to impress, but gentle, almost unplanned, and given out of a servant’s heart. And in that moment, that tiny gesture, I realized that of all the men I’d known, Reuben best helped me practice my “wife skills”—how to love and respect a man, accepting his service with grace and thankfulness, stepping back and truly listening to his words.
            Then there was another day, when just the two of us were cleaning a room. I was cleaning the bathroom, and leaned out the door to ask him a question about his feelings on a topic relating to marriage. It wasn’t the first time I’d asked such a question, so Reuben wasn’t surprised. His back was toward me as he dusted the room, but I saw him shake his head.
            “Why do women think about this so much?” he asked. I laughed, then sketched the stereotypical reasons—the desires to be beautiful, loved, secure, safe. He turned a little bit toward me, glancing at me from the corners of his eyes. “And do you think you’ll find that with a man?” I shrugged, grinned a little, then verbalized what I’d long known.
            “No. I don’t.” His dark eyes met mine full-on and he tilted his head, calculating.
            “But you—” I knew he meant me, personally. “—you think about this a lot, don’t you?” His question was gentle, unaccusing, but it pierced my very soul. I saw in a sudden flash not only my deep foolishness, but above that, how my skewed focus amounted to idolatry. I managed to answer, honestly—“yes”—but the smallness of my voice kept him from pushing me farther on the matter. The truth was, I’d never been confronted on the practical idolatry of my heart. Reu’s question made me reevaluate my patterns and focus. The disappointment that I saw in those eyes I respected so much pushed me to change. I was shattered at both the realization about myself, and about his disappointment, but I was grateful, too, for his candor.
            Even though I loved Reu so deeply, I found myself clashing with him again and again. One of our most frequent arguments was over “Christian” holidays. Since his heritage was Jewish, his family celebrated the biblical feasts—Sukkot (Tabernacles), Pesach (Passover), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and so on. My family celebrated American/Christian “feasts”—Christmas and Easter and such.
            “’Easter’?” he snorted at me once. “What is that?” I explained. “All right,” he continued. “But ‘Easter’? What does that word mean?”
            I googled it later, with him peering over my shoulder. I skimmed the first page that came up—“the goddess Eostre,” “Anglo-Saxon paganism,” “pre-Christian beliefs.”
            “Okay,” I announced, closing the browser. “This isn’t important.” Though I was laughing, he knew I was embarrassed.
            “It’s pagan, isn’t it?” he inquired. My quick nod confirmed, and he shook his head at me.
            Weeks later, the topic came up again, this time focused on Christmas. I argued with Reuben all the way from the room we were cleaning to the dining hall. Paganism, Judaic tradition, the Medieval church, God’s commands—back and forth and back and forth we went. I was frustrated, angry—furious, actually—and near the point of tears. Reu threw one last challenge at me.
            “Well—do you celebrate Halloween?”
            Define “celebrate,” I wanted to say, or Well, not really, or Yes, but . . ., or just plain no. I wanted to lie, to make excuses, but as I looked across the table at him, I knew I couldn’t. Those dark eyes demanded total honesty of me.
            “Yes,” I said. “I do.” He nodded, as if not surprised. I was stung. The pain in my eyes must have been clear, for he raised his hands as if in a gesture of peace.
            “I still respect you,” he told me, and my battered soul snatched at and clung to his words as if to a lifeline.
            “No, you don’t,” my traitor tongue snapped. I wanted to reel back the words. He widened his eyes.
            “Yes. I do.” I shrugged, as if it didn’t matter.
            “You don’t have to,” I told him. “It doesn’t matter to me what you think about my decisions.”  Even as I said the words, I knew they weren’t true.
            Like the wise man he was, Reuben let the matter drop. He didn’t treat me any differently than he had before our “discussion.” The only way I knew he remembered was the way our glances would meet when anyone mentioned Christmas. And I knew he stood by his statement—I still respect you—by the way his lips would twitch into a tiny smile and he would hold his silence.
            There were many other little moments—the times he gently mocked my accent, or tried to explain Hebrew pronunciation; the party where each of us only knew a few others and we clung to each other almost unconsciously; the way I could read what he needed from the office desk (pen? phone? paper? computer?) even before he told me; the afternoon I watched him share the Gospel with two little Orthodox Jewish boys, who threatened to stone him for even saying the name Yeshua; the times he encouraged me to learn Hebrew, reminding me that “if you learn, God will use it”; the amazing day-trip with another dear friend, my first time at Matsada and the Dead Sea, a day that healed much brokenness in my heart; the sound of his laughter when I’d announce, “All right—random question.”
            The absolute truth was I loved and respected and trust him more each day. I knew him to be a honest and good and honorable man, someone who didn’t flirt or treat others carelessly, and that made me respect him even more.
            A few weeks before I left Israel, I was once again cleaning a room with Reuben, asking him all sorts of questions. This time, my questions were focused around one topic. I’d decided to get my left ear’s cartilage pierced, but hadn’t found a shop that would do it for me. When he was younger, Reu had multiple piercings in each ear, and in his face. He’d done some of them himself, so I knew he had some knowledge on the subject. In the middle of the conversation, Reuben stopped, shook his head, and grinned sideways at me.
            “Do you want me to just do it for you?”
            I considered—I knew he had the experience and the necessary steadiness. And I realized, yes, that was exactly what I wanted.
            “Yes,” I told him, and that settled it.
            Reuben told me what I needed to get for the piercing, and finally, one night, everything was in line. I brought the jewelry, the needle; he brought the anesthetic, the gloves, the medicinal supplies. When he took the needle in his hand, his brow furrowed.
            “I think it’s too small,” he announced, but I was so disappointed and the earring itself so small that he agreed to try.  He checked and marked the spot for the earring, then we sat down on the couch and he iced my ear and gave me a small shot of anesthetic in my ear. He let me sit quietly, my legs crossed in front of me, my head leaning against the wall, my hands loose on my knees, as he cleaned my ear and the needle and the earring. Then he knelt on the couch in front of me, his leg pressed against mine, and pushed the needle into my ear.
            I could still feel my ear. Despite the ice and the anesthetic, I could feel everything. I felt the needle go in; I felt it lay there as he picked up the earring to push it in behind the needle. The more time it took, the more I felt. My ear hurt like nothing I’d ever known. I wanted to clench up my hands, to pull away, to shriek. But I couldn’t—I wouldn’t—after I’d begged Reu for his help. Without my orders, my right hand crept up from my knee to his side, pressing itself there, molding my fingers to his ribcage. I pushed back a whimper I felt rising in my throat. Reuben must have felt it, too, for suddenly his voice was whispering.
            “It’s okay, Katie, it’s okay, it’s okay . . .”
            Finally, he withdrew the needle, declared it no good, gave up. I was crestfallen. But then, another girl produced a thicker needle. I showed it to Reuben, excited over the new possibility. To my surprise, he threw up more excuses. I didn’t understand until a Hebrew-speaking friend questioned him and explained to me.
            “He doesn’t want to hurt you.”
            He’d heard my throaty whimpers, felt my trembling, seen my blood; and he’d hated it. He’d hated it so much that my begging could barely convince him to try again.
            But try again he did, after re-cleaning and more ice. I leaned my head against his shoulder as he prepped, drawing steadiness from his warm solidity.
            That second time, he was quicker. I was quieter, understanding that my pain hurt him. But when he knelt in front of me, as before, I could feel his knee trembling as it pressed into my leg.
            The earring finally went in with a small pop.
            And that was that.
            But it wasn’t, really.
            I left home a scared, shy white girl who didn’t dare trust. I returned with highlighted hair, a tan, and a tiny silver Magen David in my left ear.
            I think back to that evening, and I know some things for certain. I know that I would have let no hands but Reu’s do that to me, inflict pain of that level, without shrieks or stormy weeping. Because I knew his character, his honor—his mettle, I suppose—I trusted him.
            This piercing is far more than jewelry; it is a story-teller.  It tells of a girl who let fear run her life, who never wanted to offend or disrupt, who was terrified of others’ opinions, who made snap judgments based on appearances, who obsessed over marriage, who was crying out within her heart for gentle unconditional love without demands. And it tells of a man who helped her, just a little bit, believe that she could be strong; who showed her what kind of life she could live; who pushed her to do and be more; who tolerated her when she was ridiculous; who taught her to accept his serving her with his strength; who showed her that not all strong men are arrogant and flashy; who answered her worried and silly and serious and personal questions; who prayed with and for her; who let her weep out her grief on his shoulder; and who helped her believe that maybe, indeed, God had more planned for her than she could ever fathom.
            My piercing tells a love story . . . but not the typical romantic cheesy type. Instead, this piercing tells the story of a weak scared little girl who took a few more steps toward being a woman. It tells the story of a good strong man who saw her faults, yet remained gracious and gentle toward her. And it tells the story of a brother who loved his sister enough to help her push past her terror—even if it involved something so trivial and unpleasant . . .
            as piercing an ear.

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