catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 16 :: 2007.09.07 — 2007.09.21


Danyale’s wedding

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.

Flannery O’Connor

I went to Danyale’s wedding last December. If you know my friend and former student Danyale, then you probably like her. If you’ve just met her, then you already know her pretty well. That’s because Danyale wears her personality inside out.

If she’s feeling anything at all, you’re going to find out about it. For example, a couple of years ago, she announced to my wife Karen and me that she had decided to go to graduate school.

“I’m going to study acting,” she said. Those were the words:  “I’m going to study acting.” She said them quietly with a smile on her face. But along with the words were all the horror of a decision ill-made and all the hope of doing for the rest of her life what she loves so much and does so well.

“I’m going to study acting.” And we all burst into tears. Danyale has that effect on people.

When she walks into a room, she brings her whole self with her. This makes her a great actor, and it also gets her into trouble sometimes. She tends to be so totally committed to the present moment that she’s probably going to be late for whatever moment comes next.

While she was a student at our college, the phone rang at our house some time after midnight one night. It was Danyale. She had been working in the quiet solitude of my office at school and had gotten caught up in her writing, and she had forgotten that they lock up the building at midnight, and could Karen or I get dressed and come and unlock the door so she didn’t have to spend the night there?  Again.

It was this latter feature of Danyale’s personality that made us wonder what we would find when we went to her wedding. I wondered, only half-facetiously, if she’d actually make it to the church on time. And Karen and I both wondered about this young man whom we had never met and who would marry our surrogate daughter. Ironically, Danyale’s mom is also named Karen. Danyale’s parents divorced early, and Danyale spent much of her childhood with grandparents. By the time she graduated from college, she had acquired a stepdad she barely knew, and all this made home a very complex word. She lived with us for a year and a half and so transitioned from student to friend to member of the family. 

But now enters Jesse. Who in the world was Jesse?

Jesse was the young man Danyale had met on a trip to Washington State. Jesse. A person who shared her passionate faith, but a person confused by her love of the theatre. And so he wrote us a letter and asked, “What place does a Christian have in the theatre?” More specifically, “How can Danyale be in that Tennessee Williams play at graduate school?  How does that glorify God?”

Danyale also wrote us letters and called on the phone. She affirmed that Jesse’s questions were real. They were not self-righteous attacks. It was just that he had discovered pieces of his beloved’s personality that were, from his perspective, worn outside in. He wanted to know them, but they were hidden. She didn’t have the words. What could she say?  “What is theatre supposed to do?” she wrote. “Is it different for us who call ourselves children of God?  What theatre does God look upon with delight?”  

Danyale had studied with us for four years. She had lived with us. We had talked for hours on end about these very things. She had chosen art over craft, drama over skit, irony over blatancy, and poetry over rhetoric. She had embraced what the writer and Christian Flannery O’Connor calls art that “reveals as much of the mystery of existence as possible.” But Danyale was struggling to summarize the journey for Jesse who had not had the benefit of the experience.

I thought of Arthur Holmes, philosopher and Christian. He wrote, “All truth is God’s.” And later on down the page, “All beauty is from God, no matter where it is found.”

I also thought about my college professor Harriet Whiteman. One day I asked Professor Whiteman if she would tell me the titles of some religious plays I should read. She shot back, “All great plays are religious.” I pretended, at the time, that I knew what she meant, but I didn’t. I know now that one of the things she was saying to me was, “You want to take the short cut, sonny, but you can’t. You’re gonna have to read them all.” I had no shortcut for Danyale to give Jesse either. And I wondered if this young couple was moving dangerously close to the edge of an old, old battleground—the off-again, on-again war between the arts and the church.

Karen and I did pray for Danyale and Jesse. Praying for them did not make the suspicions go away. What if Jesse turned out to be like the girlfriend I had in college. When she discovered I was playing a character in a play who carried a cigarette, she was appalled. She said, “What if Jesus came back today, would you want him to catch you with that cigarette in your hand?!!” Her theological basis for telling me to stop playing characters who do “bad” things was from the verse in Philippians four that says whatever is honest, just, pure—think on these things. If she were writing a paraphrase of the Bible, her version of that verse would read, “Think only nice thoughts.” Her Bible would not include the rape of Tamar. Or Herod’s slaughter of the children.

Was Jesse like my girlfriend? Would he insist that Danyale choose between her art and her faith? Who was Jesse?

In the spring, Danyale wrote to say, “The struggle Jesse and I have over theatre is not over, but,” she said, “it is a hopeful struggle and maybe even a necessary struggle for both of us.” Then in the fall, the wedding announcement came.

We still hadn’t met Jesse. Now we would meet him for the first time at the wedding.

Danyale asked Karen to sing at the wedding. I was thrilled. I was thrilled because she hadn’t asked me. I think Danyale has heard me say that I hate to sing in weddings because they make me too nervous. I’m always afraid I’m going to make a mistake and fifty years from now, this old couple is going to be looking through their wedding album saying, “There’s that guy who messed up his song and ruined our wedding.”

The wedding was set to take place up in the mountains north of Seattle, close to the Canadian border. As we drove up from the Seattle airport, I continued to think about Jesse and about what he thought about Danyale and the theatre. I was listening to the radio, and a commercial came on. “Come to Christian Supply for the goodness in your life!  Come in for books and gifts and prints from your favorite artists. Hot new music. Learn why thousands of northwest shoppers come into Christian Supply!” I remembered my recent trip to the Christian bookstore back home. It had a framed, matted painting for sale—a lighthouse with a beam of light cutting across the waves with words painted in the beam, “He is the light that shines in the darkness.” And then in teeny tiny print, “John 1:5a.” As I stood there looking at the wall of prints and paintings, I started shaking my hands to try and relax myself. Then I noticed that the clerk was looking at me really funny, so I left. But on my way out, I noticed that none of the art was there as art itself. It was always there in support of an idea, usually an idea plastered on its surface in the form of a Bible verse. It was like being handed a beautifully layered lasagna with a sign superglued directly on top of the cheese reading, “Lasagna is tasty and filling!” You get the idea of the lasagna but it kind of ruins the experience. I wondered if that was the kind of art that Jesse was hoping Danyale would aspire to. Who was Jesse?

On Friday evening, we arrived at the church for the rehearsal. The rehearsal was set to begin at 6:00 PM. We arrived on time. The little country church was practically empty. Jesse’s mom, Linda, was there putting up garlands of evergreen. The tiny wedding choir was practicing the old hymn of Emmanuel’s land:

Dark, dark hath been the midnight,
But dayspring is at hand.

No Danyale. No Jesse. We worked for a while, helping Linda put up evergreens. Suddenly this guy who looked like—well, he looked like a high school kid—walked in the back door. He walked up to me. I said, “Are you Jesse?” He said, “Yeah.” I shook his hand. I said, “I’m Jeff.” And I couldn’t think of another thing to say. So, I didn’t say anything. And neither did he.

We stood there, silent. I was trying to figure out if he was as tall as Danyale. Finally, I said, “Well, gotta get the garlands up.”

Danyale finally arrived and all was well. There were lots of people to meet but little time for substantive interactions. “How old is Jesse?” I whispered to somebody. “You can’t go by appearances,” she said. “Everyone in his family looks young.” 

The next day was filled with busyness. In the early afternoon, Jesses’s mom called to say, “Please come over to the church building to help finish decorating. I just realized that the wedding starts at 5:00 not 7:00!” We hurried over to the church to help, and then, before we knew it, it was 4:00. Karen dropped me at the reception hall to help finish decorating. She went back to change clothes, pick up our kids and get my clothes for the wedding. When everyone left the reception hall at five minutes until 5:00, they asked me if I wanted a ride back to the church building. I assured them that Karen was coming back for me and that I should wait. I did wait. Five o’clock came and went. No Karen.

At 5:20, I started to walk. I was not properly dressed for the bitter cold. I literally began to be afraid. But I was caught between the hope of Danyale’s wedding ahead of me and the warmth of the reception hall behind. Suddenly I saw familiar headlights on the road. Karen. She had been sitting at the church building waiting for the wedding to begin, wondering what was keeping me. It had taken her awhile to realize that everyone was there from the reception hall. Except me. I frantically changed clothes in the van while Karen drove us back. The thought occurred to me that we should establish precisely whose fault it was that we were the ones who were late.

An inner voice said, “Jeff, be quiet. Is it not enough that you are riding safely with the love of your life to Danyale’s wedding?” I said, “Yeah, that’s enough.”

When we got there, the church was silent, waiting. The evergreen garlands looked glorious in the candlelight. Karen and I crept down to the front. As we sat there catching our breaths, I couldn’t help thinking, “There’s going to be this old couple fifty years from now, looking through their wedding album. And they’ll come upon my picture, and they’ll say, ‘There’s that guy who was late and ruined our wedding.’”

The wedding began, and Jesse and Danyale had prepared a thing of beauty. The tiny wedding choir sang their hymn so well.

The bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear bridegroom’s face.
I will not gaze at glory,
But on my King of grace.

There was an elderly man with a gray beard seated directly behind us. He seemed odd and out of place. He wore blue jeans and a tan winter coat. Every two minutes he turned to the woman next to him and muttered, “Do I stand now?” Danyale’s mother and stepdad were in the front row. Danyale had chosen to walk the aisle alone. “Do I stand now?” said the man. Karen’s solo went fine until she glimpsed Danyale’s handkerchief moving to her face; then those two hearts embraced from across the room, and the quality of the musical tone was no longer the important thing. “Do I stand now?” said the man, and the woman said, “Yes, now.” The man stood with a Bible in his hand. His voice became miraculously strong and secure, passionate and bold.

“This is the word of God,” he said, “Our creator, our redeemer. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.” Somehow, he said it as if Paul were his own brother.

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection or sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love.

He read for some time. When the man in the tan winter coat sat down, I suspected that I had just heard the best reading of scripture I ever heard in my life. I had not met this old man, but I felt as if I knew him:  he seemed to be wearing his faith inside out.

The pastor stood up and said, “Well, Jesse. Danyale. Now you’ve done it. You’ve gone and got yourself a Christmas wedding. As if your friends didn’t have enough to do this time of year.” He gave a very fine wedding sermon. I especially appreciated the line, “Christian discipleship is seldom tested more completely than in marriage.” That line carried a special poignancy when Jesse’s dad, an ordained preacher, stood up to administer the wedding vows. Most people in the room were aware that Jesse’s mom, who sat in the front pew, and Jesse’s dad, who stood on the platform, had not so long ago been divorced. They were less than five feet away from Danyale’s mom and stepdad. Jesse’s father looked at these two young people and said, “You two know brokenness.” We knew what he meant. There would be no hypocrisy here, no sweeping under the rug—thinking only nice thoughts. Only a gentle stepping forward, broken promises and brand new promises existing side by side in the presence of a mysterious grace. The old man behind me leaned forward in silence. 

Late that night, Karen and I went over the day together. We relived our open-mouthed wonder when at the wedding reception, Jesse and his brother were lovingly remembering their days as gymnasts. At the insistence of the crowd, Jesse strode to the middle of the floor and, with his brother’s protective hand resting lightly on his belt, popped off a freestanding backflip, wedding tuxedo and all. And Danyale’s roommate, Casey, was there. She had flown in from Ohio, where Jesse and Danyale would return so that Danyale could finish graduate school. Casey stood up and told us all about a day that Jesse called for Danyale. It had been a blue day for Casey, so Jesse sang her a song over the phone, just to cheer her up.  

Karen said it was Casey’s story that finally convinced her that it was going to be okay. For me, it was the image of Jesse twirling around backwards in his wedding suit. Somehow, this young man had done a backflip into my heart. It was a reminder to me that there is a dramatic difference between the idea of something and the thing itself.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus