Local Food Dating Leads to God
Joanna E S Campbell
November Menu for a New Life
Mac and Cheese made with Beecher’s cheddar
Parisian bread from The Essential Baking Company
Yukon gold potatoes roasted with onions and garlic
Hard ginger apple cider
Pandora Radio set to The Avett Brothers
Black diamond earrings, red lipstick, short leather boots – that’s what I’ve been wearing since I married a priest. Dennis plays Americana songs on his guitar and wears worn out cowboy boots passed down from the Episcopal Archdeacon in Arkansas. It was Dennis’ kiss on the porch across the street from St. Peter’s that got me. And then it was through my belly with his good cooking. Chili, gumbo, fish, barbecue – he does it all. One of Dennis’ college friends told him that her mother instructed her not to date the boys in Trumann. If I had known boys from his hometown had such big hearts, I would have blazed a trail to the Mississippi River delta decades ago. I proposed marriage on the third date.
Dennis tells me it was the night I took him to the turkey slaughter that he knew he wanted to marry me. We both had to step back to keep the feathers from landing on us. Or maybe it was the Amish-Mennonite wedding meal we attended earlier in the evening way out in Bellville. The Stutzmans built a fire outside after dinner, and we sat on hay bales beneath a coal black sky. Either activity offered enough evidence that there was something more than good kissing. I hadn’t planned on impressing him with such a fine date. It was all luck and having a sheep farmer as a neighbor. I couldn’t pass up Ed’s invitation for a homemade meal with the Amish-Mennonite family I had been working alongside at the farmer’s market.
Or maybe it was the first date that sealed the deal. Dennis invited me to a fancy Italian restaurant in Conway, midway between Little Rock and my home on Petit Jean Mountain. I didn’t know it was a date, but his offer of Mike’s Place stirred up butterflies in my stomach. Mike’s Place is full of romantic ambience with real linen table clothes and individual olive oil dispensers. “How about we go to La Lucha instead?” I asked, “It’s in this young couple’s home at a busy intersection, they serve local food, and people can make donations in a basket. Oh, and the parking is terrible.”
“That sounds like the adventure option,” he said, “Let’s go for it.”
Dennis later told me he looked La Lucha up on the internet, and the only information he could find related to Mexican wrestling. He wasn’t entirely sure about what he was agreeing to.
It turned out La Lucha was also the new watering ground for Conway’s local chapter of Green Drinks, the social hour for people interested in environmental issues. When Dennis and I walked through the front door, we were greeted by people who all knew me – professional colleagues from my day job at the Rockefeller Institute. They assumed we were there for Green Drinks. Dennis says looking back that it felt like we crashed someone’s dinner party. The dining room table was fully occupied, and, frankly, I wasn’t there to discuss enlightened topics of that nature. Dennis and I split the single square of lasagna left in the Pyrex pan and hunted down plates and cutlery in the kitchen. Our only seating option was a loveseat in a side room.
Fact: When Dennis kissed me, I was stunned. He parted his mustache, leaned in, and scooped me into embrace.
“Dennis, I need you to understand something about me.”
“Yes,” he patiently responded.
“I may have grown up in the Episcopal Church, but I didn’t always go to Sunday School. In fact, I’m pretty sure my dad took me to Shipley Donuts most of the time. I have a natural spirituality. The church has always been there for me, but I haven’t always been there for the church. The point is, I don’t know all of my Bible stories, and I’m not sure I really have my colors or chronology straight on the liturgical seasons.”
“Joanna,” he paused, “Do you think I’m interested in you for your Biblical knowledge?”
Well, I thought, you are a priest. Don’t most priests want to marry Bible scholars? Boy, was I naïve.
The kiss felt good. Really good. Two parts of me collided. The first shot up guardrails and ticked the reasons why this trajectory could be a mistake. The second raced my heart. At 35, I had paid my dues and knew there was a difference between hormones and connection. Between lust and a deeper undercurrent. The kiss sparked a glimpse into something entirely new.
My next concern lighted on a memory from childhood. I saw dozens of visits with my mom to the Laura Ashley clothing store in the mall. Logic dictated that marrying a priest equaled wearing floral smock dresses. My rational mind knew enough clergy couple examples to deflate the stereotype. But I still saw the buxom priest wife play the organ, bake for charity, organize bazaars, sing perfectly in the choir, hold her own authority over the flock, and wear floral print dresses from Laura Ashley. (I also know spouses who are artists, doctors, professors, lawyers – all strong, independent types - people I would feel lucky to call friend.) Still, what the heck does it mean to fall in love with a priest? Can you cuss and shout the Lord’s name during sex? Do you have sex? These matters are never discussed in church. I kissed him back.
“Joanna, I’m getting ready to move to Seattle. I don’t want my feelings to worry you. It’s not like I’m going to park a VW bus in your driveway and hold vigil. I just needed to get honest with you.”
“Thank you, thank you, for being so honest. I’m moved and overwhelmed and cautious, and I feel something too.”
“You just need to know that I’m in your corner.”
For our third date, Dennis ducked out of the evening portion of clergy conference on Petit Jean, and we drove to Stout’s Point.
“You wanna get married?” I asked.
“You wanna marry me?”
Dennis and I are married three months later during the Sunday service between the sermon and the peace. I wore a handmade, raw silk dress the color of emeralds and a Japanese-inspired patchwork robe. Dennis wore his favorite tie designed by Gerry Garcia. Our families join us, and we are lifted up and held by our new congregation. Three weeks prior, Dennis was released from Swedish Hospital after five weeks of fighting a staph infection. The doctors do not know why he succumbed to septic shock, but death skirted the edge of his ICU room for weeks. His wedding suit hung on his thinner frame, but I did not notice this until a few months later when I looked at our wedding photos.
My physician parents say it was a miracle that Dennis survived. He recovered from septic shock, but I went into spiritual shock. Before Dennis’ near death experience, I had a knack for carving redemption out of pain, sadness, frustration, and uncertainty. Even in darker times, I had settled comfortably into a spiritual space that said, All will be well, no matter what. You are strong and full of life. This message was a chariot through divorce, another failed relationship, and living alone on a mountain’s edge in central Arkansas. I felt held and assured. I felt God’s support pulsing through all creation. Even the clay and sedimentary rock cleaved to my house as if it were cradled. After Dennis’ illness and full recovery, I still knew all of these things, and believed them, but I was left with the question, So what?
Joan Didion found security in geology after her husband died suddenly. In what can be known and touched through the movements of rock, water, and wind. Then she found the Episcopal liturgy. Then the beautiful intentionality of creating a home life. Patricia Hampl writes: “Death is central to the usefulness the spirit seeks as its true identity.” Dennis didn’t die, but something else inside me does. My childhood notion of God.
During the Feast of St. Francis mass I realize my understanding of God carried an unconscious assumption that God would shelter me from terrifying, soul-shaking events just as my parents offered protection in a safe and nurturing home away from the world’s evils. That I was somehow special, shielded from the really scary stuff. I even pictured a golden, shimmering armor around my body.
Three years have passed since our local November meal at La Lucha. The Mt. Baker neighborhood is now our home in the Pacific Northwest. St. Clement Episcopal Church is part of my family, and I am part of them. I am a clergy spouse. There have been no sightings of Laura Ashley shops in Seattle. My new identity includes making Bloody Mary’s at coffee hour, learning the art of Ukrainian Easter eggs, sharing in dozens of home-cooked meals, hiking through rainforests, singing Swedish at a St. Lucy service, and attending my first-ever burlesque version of the Nutcracker. All with parishioners. They’re a great bunch.
The gift of living in a rectory means there is a sanctuary in my backyard, and each time I go to church, a small miracle occurs. A spark of insight, a feeling of warmth, a smile, a child’s innocence, a sense of the Holy Spirit present in the congregation – something happens, and I leave with a full cup. So, why do I not sing and dance for every opportunity to attend services, to deepen my spiritual practice? Why do I have days where I feel more inclined to lounge on the couch and surf the Internet? I am still trying to understand this new God, a God whose promise I want to believe is for healing. “Sounds like God is messin’ with you,” Dennis says. In the meantime, Dennis and I create our home with treasures found at thrift and consignment shops. We dance in the living room. We cook gourmet meals. We invite friends over for dinner.
As I go about my days in Seattle, there are moments when I tell myself to remember the words from the Feast of St. Francis mass. I didn’t feel like attending mass that Wednesday. I was content reading in the comfort of my den. Dennis called on his cell phone from the sanctuary and asked if I’d be willing to come over. Father Bob, the associate priest, was leading the service. I slipped on my short leather boots and a fleece sweater and ran down the steps of the rectory toward the church. I crossed myself with Holy Water at the baptismal font and walked down the carpeted aisle toward the chancel. Sometimes I can bow at the cross, usually when I know the congregation may be looking at me, and other times, like now, it’s harder to bow. I sit down in the pew next to Dennis, and we begin. We pray, read from the New Testament, the Gospel, and then Father Bob delivers the homily. Though I’m sure I’ve heard these thoughts hundreds of times in sermons, I hear Father Bob’s words as if I am entirely un-churched. I hear that people are transformed by prayer. Actually changed. They become new selves. To become a new self. I want that. I want the So What to disappear. It’s quite simple. Gaze upon Christ, consider Christ, contemplate Christ, imitate Christ. These steps become a pathway. If only I can remember them.
After the service, I am haunted by Patricia Hampl’s words: “Obedience belongs to necessity, not to a willful search for purpose.” She later asserts, through her study of Simone Weil, that our purpose is to consent to the existence of “all that is.” How can a person ever truly do that? Maybe there are moments, but to live each day with this acceptance is a tall order. Does All That Is include grace and miracles? If so, then maybe. In the meantime, friends are arriving for Sunday dinner. We must prepare.