Linda has beautiful eyes. Blue, lively, mischievous, with a deep kindness there, too. When I first encountered her, I had no idea those eyes would eventually be the catalyst that would draw me in and challenge me to confront my prejudices and privilege and find a love that brought a richness to my life that I could not have imagined.
Linda and I had been acquaintances for many years. We met in a recovery group. When I first heard her story in a meeting; family in disarray, eight years in the navy followed by a life of physical labor (welding, plumbing, prison guard, HVAC technician), all punctuated with a liberal dose of violence and outrageous scrapes, I made a note to myself to keep my distance. I had been taught to love everyone in our community but that didn’t mean I had to like them all.
During the ten years that followed, I was busy navigating a painful and difficult time; ending a long term marriage, coming to terms with my sexual orientation, figuring out how to become self-supporting, and trying, sometimes falteringly, to be there for my two teenage daughters.
As I emerged from this period I began to allow myself to consider the possibility that I could have a new relationship. The thought filled me with dread. I didn’t know the first thing about how to date a woman, let alone open myself up again to the terrifying possibility of failure. My well-meaning straight friends took me to a woman’s basketball game, hearing that it was a great place to meet potential dates. My lesbian friends brought me a shopping bag filled with old videotaped episodes of the Ellen DeGeneres show and took me on a hike with Tawanda, a large group of lesbian outdoor enthusiasts that terrified me.
During this time, I began to consider the kind of person I would be interested in. She would be extremely well educated, most likely a professor. She would be a feminist. She would be a champion for peace, and social justice. She would be someone who celebrated her femininity and loved being a woman.
As this picture was coming into view, I started noticing Linda again. It’s hard not to notice Linda. She’s strong and stocky, about five foot one with a loud booming voice and a plain way of talking. She walks with a swagger and has an energy about her that is more masculine than, well, than almost anyone I have ever met. And of course, there were those amazing blue eyes.
I had to admit I was drawn to her, but I was more than a little skeptical. So one night, I asked her to tell me three things she liked. “Weight lifting, mountain biking and dogs. How about you?” I answered, “dancing, reading, and cats.” Clearly there wasn’t even a slender thread of compatibility to hold onto. I tried to put her out of my mind, but I was still curious. So, using my leaky toilet as an excuse, I asked if she could come over to repair it. We set a date, but Linda, not understanding my agenda, and being exhausted from the demands of her job during a very cold winter, stood me up. Shortly after my awkward and unpromising attempt, she invited me to dinner and we began a journey that has been one of the most surprising, humbling and wonderful experiences of my life.
Linda knew from the start that I was the one for her. She put it right out there and pursued me with a confident, unwavering determination. Linda brought many gifts into our relationship; a great sense of humor, a contagious zest for life, an ability to be a true partner through life’s ups and downs, and the grace to support me in keeping my children at the top of my list, even if it meant things would unfold slowly for us. I on the other hand, was plagued with doubt, fear, and the thing I most wanted to hide from myself, outright prejudice.
I grew up in a family where intelligence and education were the most exalted of virtues. My family circumstances had exposed me to many different people (professors, artists, blue collar workers, formerly incarcerated people) and demonstrated a surface level acceptance of all of them. However, there was also an unspoken understanding that some people were more suitable than others - that a certain level of education and worldly success were essentials for a serious relationship.
I also grew up privileged enough to have a naive belief in the American Dream; that if you were determined and smart you could become anything you wanted to be. I knew it was hard, and understood to some extent that the legacy of racism in our country stacked the deck against people of color. I hadn't considered though, that there is also a class structure in this country, and it is exceedingly difficult to move through those more invisible walls.
Linda, like the rest of her family, had gotten as far as high school. In fact, she graduated barely able to read, simply because the teachers failed to recognize her dyslexia and were tired of trying to deal with the outrageous, loud and disruptive personality that Linda, a highly popular student and championship athlete, had developed to cover up her academic struggles.
At times, Linda’s grammar made obvious what her education lacked and I was taken aback by it. At other times it was jarring when her family arrived a full hour early for a dinner invitation, while I grew up in a family that was always fashionably late. I reluctantly conceded to myself that I could never have a serious relationship with someone in her circumstances, could never integrate her into my academically oriented family, could never be comfortable with our differences.
While these feelings of discomfort were tempting me to end our fledgling relationship, I began to see beyond some of our surface differences. I became aware that I had rarely encountered a person with the level of emotional intelligence Linda possessed. I began to notice that she had a “green thumb” for people. Old, young, straight, gay, conservative, liberal. People came to her for help, all kinds of help. She fixed their toilets, moved their furniture, gave them advice, offered strong and mighty hugs. Then I began to notice her impact when we were out together in the world. She flirted and teased and embraced friends and strangers alike and they embraced her back. To be with Linda was to be surrounded by love and laughter.
I also began to notice a practical wisdom that Linda and her family possessed, a wisdom that my own family sometimes lacked. While I was busy being polite and diplomatic, playing by the rules, I watched Linda’s family get things done. When her mom was sick, I watched them navigate the medical establishment in ways that would never have occurred to me, getting in the car and physically showing up at every office where they couldn’t get an appointment until they were seen and their questions were answered. It was a whole different way of navigating the world. Not necessarily better or worse than my own approach. Just different, and, if I was honest, at times more effective than my often timid gestures.
I began to understand more about Linda’s deep intelligence. I let my actual experience with Linda, rather than my expectations, be my guide. I was able to face my demons and admit to my deepest self that I had a reservoir of prejudice and privilege inside me that made me question every aspect of our relationship. With the help of several trusted friends, I was able to transform my shame and guilt about my prejudice and privilege into a more accepting awareness.
What has happened since then is such a joy. With the blessing of my daughters, we married and started to build our life together. We leveraged my privileged circumstances, which included a house and an income that could support us both for a time so that Linda could pursue a long-term interest of hers. Linda spent a year of painstaking reading and study to become a certified coach and personal trainer. She left her construction job and we refinanced the house to build a studio. Her practice is growing and includes clients from age 15 to 75. Though they arrive to achieve some fitness goal, I watch them stay to experience Linda’s practical wisdom, her deep kindness, her love and infectious enthusiasm for life.
The joy of watching this phase of Linda’s life unfold is tremendous. She is clearly doing what is meant for her. When I met Linda, she avoided reading. Now the bookshelves at our house are full of tomes on physiology, exercise, inspiration, and Linda is constantly reading and learning. I am aware that Linda has done all of the heavy lifting to get where she is today. But I am also aware that it would have been nearly impossible for her to fully contribute her gifts to the world if we had not mixed our lives together.
I no longer believe in that simplistic promise of the American Dream, available to anyone who is willing to work hard enough. Don’t get me wrong; Linda had achieved a meaningful and productive life long before I came along. So had I. But we needed to mix our worlds together for both of us to become all that we could be, forever changed by our sharing of a diverse set of life experiences. It’s sad to me that this mixing doesn’t happen more often. That, as far as I can see, we remain a country still quite segregated by class and race, and false assumptions.
I am happy that, despite my prejudices and my privilege, I didn’t run away from Linda’s lively blue eyes, her deep love, and her faith that one day, we could enjoy a truly rich life together in a joyous household that has included both a cat and dog.