Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening

Preamble: Compared to what’s going on inside, I actually speak very little. This surprises some who might think me loud and longwinded. I am an interior person and a spectrum introvert. I go inward for my refueling. And I live a life—a comfortable one—largely alone in my thoughts and emotions. I have (and need) very few close friends—my Friday night would be more likely spent reading and writing than out drinking with “the guys”. And while I love serious conversations (from the head, the heart, or preferably both), I’ve long learned that this is not that most people are interested in, and any part of me that might otherwise step out of my comfort zone is vanquished for the most part “because,” I tell myself, “nobody cares, or they can’t keep up with what you’re dropping anyway.” We live in a sound-bite culture—and I am a stranger in that land. We live in a culture of comfortable boxes—I am a sojourner there. Bold and even comfortable in front of large crowds speaking, I am capable of nervousness and I am not immune to feelings of anxiety. I’m both right now and have been for many days. What I have to say matters, and while I have played much of it out for the last three years in my head, it always had a perfect ending—that vision that was there like many things floating around as I went about my business. But nothing has gone according to plan yet—so I shouldn’t be surprised. I beg for your patience, should you choose to continue. It’s not too late to look the other way. You’ve done it before…

Justin Augustine Lee

Part I: Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know

Supposing my life’s experience thus far is demonstrative, this will not be the last time that I sit down to write about a matter of import that brings about both freedom and frustration. The last few years of my life have proven that the need to step out of silence and into some light (before again retreating into my safe, introverted space) will often come with an imperfect balance of less than ideal options, mingled with the liberty which accompanies speaking the truth. And yet, I have always been one to embrace “tension”—to hold or at the very least attempt to hold in balance greyness along with my deep appreciation for black and white, while others gravitate toward the clarity of the latter and, quite often, manufacture the reality that greyness doesn’t exist, if they don’t take it a step further and manufacture their own black and white. So here I am again, comfortable in discomfort and communicating things that I was equally if not more comfortable living out silently as one of the many crosses my Good and Gracious God has found it opportune to place squarely on my shoulders (while simultaneously providing the grace needed to carry them).

The truth of the matter is that I am not only in love with one of my oldest and best friends, have been for a very long time now, and was long before I ever verbalized it to her, equipped only with the true and sincere acts of love that a good friend could offer—forced to communicate love in a way that reflected our mutual stations in life. Her name is Ellie. Many of those reading this may know her. I’ve known her well for 20 years.

And while time and changes around have permitted me to be more open to myself, to her, and to a very select few other people, I was more than willing and prepared to take that love with me—that sweet cross that all love is—to my grave and continue as I was: adamantly opposed to the destruction around me (indeed, around each of us), and quite fine (perhaps too fine…) being alone.  

I am a hard-truth person. Many, and arguably most people are decidedly not. We love our cultivated realities. We go out of our way into the realms of unacknowledged, let alone appreciated, cognitive dissonance to avoid the implications of our choices. This is not me. It has never been me—at least not in the long run. And God forbid that it should ever change. I have paid the price for my own serious attempts to live an authentic existence, dismantling by my very breathing, let alone words, the tidy packaged boxes people seem so comfortable existing in. I will take the backlash, and I have the scars to prove it, marking my heart, my soul, and my mind, if not my body.  

The hard truth of loving a woman as a Catholic man who is civilly divorced and not married is obvious to many, and less so to others—even to supposedly “good Catholics” (or ones supposedly aspiring to be “good Catholics”). I not only understand this but could (and perhaps will) articulate the difficulties as well, if not better, than most. How does one honor their marriage in the Church while in the midst of an annulment process, yet in the reality of a civil divorce, while simultaneously being authentic about the reality of the love they have for another woman who happens to be their best friend?

Yikes. Heavy.

Well… to handle this you might have to be a person comfortable with hard truths and “tension”. You might have to be extraordinarily patient. You might have to be the kind of person who strongly believes that principles are more important than expediency—even if it costs you everything. You might have to speak my language.

Few do.

Ellie does, and always has (one of the many things I appreciate about our “relationship” is the fact that I don’t have to do any post hoc analysis about how “perfect we are for each other”—people have been doing that on our behalf for two decades…).

I am not a person who looks hard for appreciation or understanding—even while knowing that I can at any time (and could at any time for the last several years of my life) ensured that the vast majority of people would want to jump aboard my train. If people want to take the time to jump on, they are welcome. But the train is leaving and has always been leaving whether they are there or not. It works quite fine without patrons.

Then why say anything at all?

While I do not seek understanding, I do wish to be heard. For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, what I have to say matters and I am confident that some lessons, both good and bad, can be gleaned from what I have to say. 

While I do not seek understanding, I do wish to be authentic with myself and do what I feel is necessary and right given the circumstances around me—to be true to myself and what matters to me.

While I do not seek understanding, I am cognizant of the reality of “scandal” and the requirement that I have as a Catholic to try and set a good example for others—and all the more given that I have very publicly apologized for my poor example in the past. 

And while I do not seek understanding, I vigorously wish to protect a person and a relationship that means more to me than those reading this could possibly comprehend—not hyperbole, but a statement of absolute fact. This is a love that is rooted in a depth that few will ever know. A love between true old and best friends.

The greatest thing, however, that pains me (and the list is actually quite long…) is the fact that I can not be authentic and truth-full about my own story and life in a way that makes sense to a reader without necessarily bringing other people into it and, to one degree or another, hurting them at the same time. The only surefire way to protect other people from their own decisions and mistakes would be for me to be absolutely silent—to practice the kind of silence that I have for much of the last many years of my life, enabling others to continue to make not only poor decisions, but enabling the ignorant masses to be comfortably… ignorant—a place of false “bliss”. It is a practice that I have almost perfected—enabling ignorance by my silence, that is.

I had and continue to have principled, faith-based, reasoned, and very strong disagreements with the choices that “Sara” (I am not using her actual name in this post), my ex-wife (or as I like to say “wife-ex-wife”) has made on my behalf and on behalf of our six children. Sara and I don’t simply come from different planets, but from different planetary systems. While my feelings towards her are (how shall we say…) acute in many respects, there has always been and there remains a deep love for her. In fact, it has only grown in some respects (new ways) over the last couple years as the heatedness of a multi-year separation and divorce moved into the “no-man’s land” of “divorced but no annulment”—a land of “broken clocks” (of “time-less-ness”) as Ellie and I have long named it. Sara is the mother of my children. She is the primary influencer of my children. Where she goes, so go they. As such, I would have to be cruel and out-to-lunch to want anything but the best for her. And I do—I do sincerely. It’s not something I have to muster much strength to bring myself to—its quite natural by this point. To wish her anything but he best is to wish less than the best for my own children (though we have very different opinions at times about what is “best” for her and the children).

In the only letter from the last many years that I penned to “Sean”, Ellie’s “husband-ex-husband” (I am not using his actual name in this post), which was copied to Sara and Ellie, dated April 14th of this year, I wrote:

[Sean], Ellie is the mother of your seven children. You and I might have significant differences with our “ex-wives”, but they are the most important people in our children’s lives. We need them to do well if for no other reason than the effect that it immediately has on our children. We need to—even if it is hard—treat them with respect, especially when and where our children can see and hear. And our children need to know that we expect them to love, cherish, appreciate, and respect their mothers. And we need to show them that we can disagree with them—even adamantly—without crossing a certain boundary. What is the boundary? Simple: how do we want our children to respect their mother? That is the boundary for us. Love your children by nurturing the relationship that they have with her. Build her up. Support her. Let your children know that if they mess with her they are going to have to answer to you. And know that your children will be all the more a mess if they can’t lovingly develop that relationship—and so will we. 

The occasions for that letter were Sean’s multi-year-long mission to do anything in his power to mess with Ellie (to put it lightly), to take two children away from her based on blatant deception (he ended up with one more than that), and to explain my initial reasoning for not battling Sara’s proposition to move the children back to the Ohio valley where we met, etc. The letter was quite long, and quite sincere. Sean wrote back only three words, “Cool story, bro.” That was the last time we ever spoke. Perhaps our respective words sufficiently conveys the differences between us. Indeed, Sean, perhaps that is the “cool story”.

[Sidebar: I most certainly have not always lived up to these standards that I spoke of with Sean. Anyone who knows me can appreciate the fact that I am not going to allow my own failures in execution prevent me from acknowledging what is right—nor should it, as the examples of Peter and Paul provide. What many know—and certainly Sara knows—is that I do, can, have and will always apologize—reality is sufficient. And this, perhaps, is one of the most seminal differences between who Sean is and who I am: I have never seen Sean offer meaningful apologies for his multivalent and troubling treatment of Ellie—the mother to his seven children. Yet I have read almost every message between the two of them (along with every court document, text, and the like) in the last three years. But I digress…]

Sara is, however, much more than the mother of my children. She stands out in another significant way: only Sara will ever enjoy the purity and seriousness of my entire life’s trajectory. I chose Sara and nobody else to marry with the intention that this marriage would last a lifetime. I chose Sara and only Sara to be the mother of my children. It was Sara to whom I gifted my life’s intentions—even if that gift was defective. This can’t be taken from her—or from me. She has a singular place in my life, and she always will. I care deeply about her.

I wish her nothing but the best—it’s not only the right thing to do but wishing her anything but that would be to wish ill on my children. Facts. And truly, I wish her love. I do not want to see Sara live a life of loneliness, even if I can not wish for her impropriety.

But equally factual is that I cannot speak coherent and contextual truth about my life without simultaneously speaking about her—without it saying something about her. And yet, this story isn’t about Sara, regardless of how enmeshed she is in my life. I am not yet prepared to fully pull the “ignorance” out of her audience—and I willingly choose, then, to continue to unjustly, though predictably suffer from that grossly ignorant backlash.

At least for the time being…

Part II: Darkest Evening of the Year

I met Ellie about 20 years ago.

I was working a pro-life table at Clark College in Vancouver, WA in the Autumn of 2000 not long after I returned from an internship that summer at Catholic Answers in Southern California. The connection was immediate. We both knew it, even if the conveyance of such knowledge was silent and respectful. She was already engaged to Sean, whom I would soon meet. There are times in your life when you meet someone at the wrong time and you simply accept this. That’s just life. I was able to easily balance the reality that Ellie and I connected in a way that I rarely did with others, and yet she was a friend and was not available—and never would be. She came as a package—as she does today.

While Sean and I shared little in common we all became friends, even if my friendship with Ellie was the more significant connection, as it would always be.

Before Sean went off to boot camp, it was I who shaved his head at his parent’s house. We all went camping together in Florence, Oregon. We hung out and had great conversations. I ran with Ellie at the track at Hudson’s Bay Highschool. Ellie (and sometimes Sean) would come visit me at the coffee stands I worked at.

We were all close.

December 1, 2001 I flew back from Franciscan University of Steubenville, where I was attending college to participate in their wedding ceremony. My girlfriend at the time was also in the wedding, and my mother bought one of the dresses. Mom even came up with the idea for where to go for their honeymoon! Sean’s “bachelor party” (not much of one, to be honest…) was in my parent’s basement. It would have been awkward, of course, for me to be a bridesmaid (I don’t look good in tight women’s clothing…), so I was a groomsman and when Sean’s brother failed to step up to the plate for his best-man’s speech, I gave an impromptu one. I do not remember much about it, except for a line that we have all laughed about over the years since, when I jokingly said, “be fruitful and multiply”.

They did, too. Good job, kiddos!

I’ve never been one to need constant or even regular communication with my crew of good friends, and so it wasn’t surprising or meaningful in any sense at all that our contact over the next couple years lagged while I was busy across the country, and she was in California starting her new life with Sean. When we were all in the same area, we would be sure to meet up.

On September 16, 2004 I married Sara after a fitful, discordant, dramatic, and ill-conceived dating period that had as many, if not more moments of extreme pain as it did joy. It wasn’t until we were almost engaged that we actually lived by each other. We essentially didn’t “date” at all until we were almost engaged. And the ups and downs weren’t over once we were engaged. Suffice it to say that we were not prepared for marriage, hardly knew each other in an appropriate manner, and failed to listen to the advice of our respective parents and many friends warning of this fact and the fact that we were not a good match—we weren’t. We also failed to listen to the groans that each of us were having about the problems of our relationship. Said, I did love her—there are different levels to love. Sara is a charismatic and attractive person inside and out, and few are immune to the magic spell she casts when walking into the room for the first or fifteenth time. I was most definitely not immune. Despite the chaos she brought, I was quite smitten. By the time the chaos became too much, I was already married. It was too late. It was too late for each of us.

I remember where I was in the living room at our apartment in Steubenville when I introduced Sara to Ellie on the phone. I invited very few people to my wedding—family or friends. I didn’t expect and didn’t want to ask people to travel from across the country to attend what was already going to be a well-attended wedding. Sara and her family are very popular and very well-connected—we had well over 400+ people there already and to make room in the church I personally added about 75 chairs (the fire marshal wasn’t notified, thankfully). Yet it was important for me to introduce Sara to my small crew of close friends outside of the Steubenville area, and Ellie was tops on that list. I knew that they would hit it off, despite their rather significant differences. Both were committed Catholics wanting to rear children in similar ways, and married mothers or mothers-to-be in that sub-sub Catholic community tend to connect over things that guys are not particularly interested in: picture books, homeschooling ideas, cloth diapers (or not), some book that few of them have actually read, whether vaccines are right, how to nurse a child and for how long, what kind of baby carrier is the best one. You get the idea. Such are the bonding matters for lady Catholics in that community, and this became the predictable foundation of friendship between two very different women, yet similar enough to unite in a meaningful way. That and the fact that Sara had a friend who knew her husband, me, quite well and could appreciate the good. And the bad. A mix it is, and a mix it will always be. I am who I am…

Not long after moving back to the Pacific Northwest with Sara and our oldest son, Aidan, in 2006 we connected, and I appropriately bowed out of the friendship quantity-wise—though never bowing out in quality, which is not something you can ever turn off. Sara and I became Sean and Ellie’s third son’s godparents. They became our second son’s godparents. Ellie and Sara started a blog together, titling it Coffee and Diapers, which later turned into Soul Gardening in 2008 or 2009. For much of the next many years they would have been identified as the friends (though with me or others acknowledging that “Ellie and I knew each other first!”), with Sean and me dragged along, as is the case in most couples’ friendships. But there was always a deep connection and friendship between me and Ellie and it was something identified by others many times—including our spouses.

Sara joked on several occasions over the years how Ellie and I would have married “in another life”. Later Ellie’s sister, who didn’t even know me other than in name, noted that we were like “twins”, expressing how strange it was (in a good way…). And the confidence that Sara and I had together (there was never a hint at impropriety and Sara knew that despite my long list of negative qualities as her husband, I was committed to her) and the longer connection I had with Ellie made it perfectly appropriate for me to note on a few occasions that we were, yes, like twins and that yes, in “another life” we could have easily married. As I said above, you meet people when you meet people—Ellie was taken, and there are no do-overs in life. Male or female, I had never connected so well with another person. Everyone was quite free in admitting this. It wasn’t news at all, and it was never inappropriate.

This closeness had familial angles to it; she was in many respects like a sister to me, and I allowed her the space to offer critiques that I wouldn’t permit to many others. I knew they came from a place of love and, importantly for me, actual knowledge of who I am. She was allowed to comment on my struggles with pride and arrogance—few others would dare to, and less would get away with it. We were close. And she was, after all, completely right, and she often is.

Sara and Ellie were connected. Our families were connected and got together regularly enough. Ellie and I always loved to catch up and discuss deep things and laugh—sometimes with Sean and Sara joking that they couldn’t keep up with us. Sean and I were fine-enough friends, even if we never clicked well (it’s not a knock—I click with very few people). I brought Sean to Alaska with me in 2014—he was and remains one of the most acceptable rookies we have ever brought there and learned the ropes of camp and fishing quickly. I have fond memories of that trip, and it was the last time we ever really spent time together. Sean even bought my old truck, which I bought when Sara and I were engaged. Last I saw, you could still kinda see my name and company name printed on it. Now that’s poetry I can get behind!

2012-2016 were very dark years for me, and the light that I could always see in Ellie’s eyes when we would see each other turned to a kind of sadness at times. I knew that I was letting her down, not to mention others in my life—most importantly my wife, my children and, ultimately, myself. I was in a very painful chapter, and it became a major catalyst for a separation that started in 2015, a year and a half before Sara and Ellie’s.

Once separated, Sara and I never had a sustained reunion. We tried Retrouville, and were in marriage counseling for months, yet nothing worked. We connected in all the wrong ways and failed to connect in the ways that mattered the most. Both of us were emotionally starving and unable to communicate our respective needs in a way that the other could hear. The things we ignored or couldn’t see well enough during our ill-conceived “dating” period had long caught up with us and by this point we were seemingly incapable of anything but holding to the threads of our physical attraction for one another and the threads of our Catholic principles that “divorce was not an option”.

During this period I barely spoke with Ellie and Sean. I barely spoke with anyone. Most of my relationships were strained or fell apart. People didn’t know what to do with me or with my marriage situation. Most still don’t. Sara was always the vocal and likable one and people naturally gravitated to her—all the more, now, that she was becoming a “single mother of six children”, which is a sympathy inducing card that one need not even play to benefit from. And I did my best to squash out the few people who tried, at the very least, to shake me from my darkness. I knew about the situation with Sean and Ellie, but I was in too much pain to reach out to them or even respond to Ellie’s attempts to be a good friend and slap me around—her few bids for connection at that time period by email and the like went unanswered and I shied away from responding to our old connection or her attempts to be a good friend when we saw each other. She looked towards me, and I looked the other way. I also, however, knew that Sara and Ellie were close, and I didn’t want to get in the middle of that. I respected it and valued the fact that Ellie was and remains a significant observer of All Things Sara and Justin: nobody knows each of us as well as Ellie. Combined with the fact that she is an extraordinarily observant person and sober in analysis should be enough to give anyone pause when it comes to appreciating the mess of Sara’s and my marriage fallout. 

Years after the darkness in my life commenced, two years after my initial separation, three months or so after a divorce was filed, and a month after my sixth child (Ruby) was born (yes, she was conceived in the midst of a separation and born after a divorce intent had been filed), I broke in July of 2017, went to confession and was given several penances. Among them, I was asked to apologize to those who I—once a relatively public figure that people looked up to, so I didn’t have to say or do much to significantly influence people—had affected. Ellie was at the top of that list and she became one of the many recipients of my long, penance-originated letters. She immediately contacted me (most didn’t respond at all) and we agreed to meet. 

We met up at the Spar Café in Olympia. I went into more depth about my life, the pain that I was in, how distraught I was with what was happening to me and my children, etc. We both cried. Especially me. I was ashamed at what a wreck I had permitted, and ashamed at having let Ellie down, who so looked up to me back when I had met her in 2000 and through the years. I was her first “cool Catholic friend” as she would explain. I hated that I had disappointed her. And I apologized for hurting her friend and my wife—Sara. I vividly remember communicating so freely with her, as we always had, but avoiding eye contact, while she made sure, as she does, to keep her eyes fixed in my direction. I turned to her, naked as I could possibly be, and remember her blue, penetrating eyes, welling up with tears and staring back at me. I’ll never forget that look. 

We continued to barely talk after leaving Olympia. Our connection never required lengthy and regular communication, as I noted. That, and I knew that she and Sara had by this point formed an even greater trauma-bond as their respective marriages were falling apart. I wanted to respect that.

In February of 2018, still not divorced (I am pretty stubborn…), yet on the heels of a potential reconciliation again, I discovered that Sara was involved in what any actual-Catholic would have identified as an extra-marital affair. Indeed, Sara would have—because even if it wasn’t physical, I was there in my office (in the midst of our own separation) when I learned from Sara herself about the “affair” that Sean, Ellie’s husband, was engaged in—Sara’s words, not mine. So… applying Sara’s own standards to… Sara, she was in an extramarital affair, and any lingering questions about it would be vanquished when I met the man later at The Grotto in Portland and he admitted to it, answered all of my questions, offered a detailed picture, was sincerely apologetic, and asked for my forgiveness—he received it immediately. Even though I exercised extreme restraint and patience on the matter, and even though her boyfriend thanked me several times for my graciousness, his own decision to heed to my request that their disordered relationship stop (time and place, Sara…) was met with written f-bombs and erratic behavior from Sara who said that I had destroyed her true love, and took from Ruby, then 9 months old, a “shining star” in her life. He’s gone now, but the matching dragonfly tattoo they each got remains. Truth is stranger than fiction…

I was just trying to do the right thing at that time. I have many regrets for how I handled it, but look… there are no roadmaps for how to handle much of the pain that Ellie and I have handled in the last many years of our lives. In the midst of trauma and loss we have each made serious mistakes. We bleed real blood. We are fallible.

The divorce process, which Sara had wanted to finish off, motivated by her relationship with another man, continued on, technically speaking. I knew that I couldn’t do much to fully prevent a divorce if that is what Sara wanted, but I knew that I felt compelled to try. I dragged my feet. I stalled. I offered a full relocation tp Ohio. I fought for my marriage. That’s what I am supposed to do, right? For better or worse. In good times and bad. In health, and sickness—even mental and spiritual sickness. I took the affair and threats of divorce as signs of “sickness” and a direct challenge to me and my Faith as a Catholic. I was supposed to fight, forgive, and try.

Ellie was instrumental as well. I knew she would be a good friend to each of us and she tried to reach out to Sara. However, she would find out what many found out: if you don’t take Sara’s “side” she will cut you out. In fact, she has told at least three people I know (including my mother) that you must “pick sides”. Look… one of the things that I think aided in the problems of our marriage was Sara’s lack of experience in having a relationship of any kind. “Picking sides” was a card I would have pulled out when I was in middle school. Sara was doing it in her late 30’s. Weird…

In April of 2018 Ellie made one of her attempts, sending Sara the book Primal Loss, and writing her an email. I will quote it at length:

Three days ago I was in the mindset of looking FORWARD to the inevitable divorce that [Sean] will file. And the annulment. I desire freedom desperately. Peace. He has been unfaithful. He has been psychologically and emotionally and verbally abusive in shocking ways. He and his girlfriend have helped spread rumors state-wide that I may be a danger to my children. I am crazy, unstable, cruel and abusive. He ripped my kids away from homeschooling and has tried to drive a wedge between them and our church community. I have lived in fear of him showing up unannounced to my house or seeing our children playing at the park and calling CPS on me. I feel sick to my stomach at every turnover and the idea of sharing a home with that man fills me with horror and repulsion… so violently and unceasingly has he sought to destroy me and punish me.

I want nothing to do with him ever again.

Today something is different. My feelings towards him have not changed. But I do not long for a divorce. When I stated to my friends that I “wasn’t seeking an annulment, but I certainly wouldn’t fight one!” I was challenged to read the book that you’ll be receiving in the mail today. I was angry at this challenge…. I felt misunderstood. And bitter.  “I already know divorce is wrong and awful… I don’t need to read stories about people who’ve lived through it as kids! This is out of my control!”  It’d be like forcing a pro-life person to stare at the photos of aborted babies… why?! They already know!  

But I have learned something about myself through all this debacle: when I feel very defensive, I tend to lose my objectivity. And I want the whole truth, regardless of how I feel about it…. I went ahead and read the book with resentment. For the simple reason that I hoped it would give me a better understanding of the experiences, I could expect from my children as they go through this.

[Sara], I hated reading the book. Hated it. I was angry and horrified during much of it. And yet, I read it because it is a tremendously IMPORTANT book. Every person, everywhere should read it. There is nothing like it out there. Giving voice to the voiceless…  I have ached as [my oldest son] has felt so powerless and voiceless in this whole fallout. The others certainly too, but he has been expressive about it to me. And I have felt helpless. This isn’t just between [Sean] and me. This is THEIR family. And a divorce will willingly place them at risk for the rest of their lives. The trauma will echo through generations.

I am offering another olive branch to my husband… to a man who has ruthlessly tried to tear this family apart and has zero contrition nor has he expressed any desire to recommit to his wedding vows. He doesn’t want me back. This may very well be out of my hands. And the olive branch will likely be broken in half and thrown back in my face with vile words.

But I have to try. God doesn’t desire our happiness nearly so much as He desires our holiness. And I believe that even if I have a massively difficult, HARD marriage with Sean for the rest of my life… authentically living this vocation is the path to true joy. More importantly is the stability and wellness this would give my kids… to have us intact. His grace is sufficient for me. And it is a real, REAL, bursting with blessings gift, granted to us in the sacrament of matrimony.

I urge you to please read this book. You won’t want to. And whatever happens next… even if you do still choose divorce and annulment, you will at least have a full, clear picture of what to expect not just for the next 18 years with your kids… but for the rest of their lives and your grandchildrens’ lives.

I love you.

Pax et Bonum,

Ellie

So much of that email is Ellie—her raw, unrelenting willingness to state the truth, while simultaneously willing to accept the pain that the truth often brings. And in it I can also hear my own influence, for by this point Ellie and I were speaking regularly and helping encourage each other to keep extending those “olive branches”. When she speaks about the marriage belonging to more than just her and Sean, that’s me. I’ve long said that divorces don’t simply break apart a marriage, but a family—and the family belongs to more than just the spouses. This is true. It truly disturbs me when I hear people say, “well, you should never stay together for the children.” Please. Some 50% or more of first marriages end in divorce. Pray tell, if our society is running around “considering the children”, what then would the divorce rate be if they weren’t!? 75%? Higher? We don’t have a problem of people taking children into consideration. Rather, we suffer from a problem of people not taking children into consideration enough. Sean and Ellie’s marriage belonged to more than just them; it belonged to their seven children, just as my marriage to Sara belonged to our children as well. These are the most immediate “stakeholders” in the marriage, but not the only ones.

Sara never read the book, I assure you. Primal Loss was actually sent to her twice—the author herself sent it at the request of another good friend who likewise was cut off from Sara when she dared to reach out. The list isn’t long, but it includes a host of people who knew Sara long before they knew me.

By this point we had been separated for more than three years and in the midst of separation Sara and I had each made grievous mistakes—and only one of us seemed capable of admitting them. And the initial divorce petition had been put into the system well over a year prior. I was adamantly opposed to the divorce and any prospective annulment and would remain so on principle, not because of love for Sara.

My love for Sara in that respect was gone, and by July of that year I finally admitted to myself in writing that I loved another principled, articulate, faithful, wounded, beautiful soul and one of my best friends. I was in love with Ellie.

There were three major turning points for me that summer that got me to admit this: one was a conversation with an old friend (Brian), another with my mother, and something I wrote.

The conversations with Brian and my mother were harmless in their own right. I had been pressing on the  matters of divorce and annulment and how I would never accept any of it—how I would simply watch my wife and children become another man’s family, move to the woods, grow my beard out, and murmur to myself about some conspiracies or the like. I was quite bold and confident that I would be alone for the rest of my life. Each of them in conversation asked why I was so sure of myself. “Maybe you’ll be open someday. Perhaps you’ll change your mind.” When it seemed appropriate, I said, almost jokingly, “Fine. Tell you what. One of my best friends is going through the same situation right now. If we find ourselves in the same position someday and are available, I would marry her. Otherwise, I’m not interested.”

I don’t think that I can adequately convey how significant it was for me to admit to someone even the possibility that I would ever in my wildest dreams be open to another marriage. Bother! I’m far too comfortable alone, far too confident in my own positions and far too stubborn to change them. More, that’s way too much work! Who would want a washed up man with six children? Nobody. And I wouldn’t blame them. I am no catch! Seriously… I’m not.

But Ellie? Yes.

It was frightening for me to admit and yet it was natural. Remember, “in another life,” Justin, “you would have married Ellie.”

There is no other life, is there?

I was so conscious about how much Ellie and I talked that I felt like I should avoid it to a degree. On July 3 of 2018 I bought a journal and began writing to her in it—never expecting that she would ever see or read it. It was just one of my journals, addressed to her. In the same space I write “to her” about much of the anguish I am going through, how adamantly opposed I am to my divorce, how I would never accept an annulment and, finally, that I loved her. Something she would likely never hear, let alone read:

“… There are many things that attract me to you—things that have always attracted me to you. But among them is the feeling that I am with someone that truly sees me, hears me, understands me and loves and accepts me for who I am in a world where I have always felt isolated from; a world I have never fit into. It is like being in a ‘safe space’ where we have this secret understanding. This doesn’t mean I don’t disappoint you or that you don’t have constructive criticism to offer. No, it means that such comes from a place of love and empathy. You know and understand my strengths and weaknesses because we are so similar in our personalities and that has been time tested. But in all of our quirks, there is more—look at our shared experiences in life, especially in our marriages which have ended so similarly and at the same time. When I am with you or talking to you I feel like I am in the midst of one of the few people that gets me, knows me, loves me and appreciates me. And me, them. You have no idea how differently I see you and get you and hear you and respect you. I am mildly scared to say this, and I am not scared as well. But I must. Ellie, I love you and, though always appropriately suppressed, I feel as if there has always been a part of me that has. I love you, Ellie, and while I hate what is happening to us and our children, I hope that a day comes in our lives when I can say that to you and hear it from you. I love you, Ellie. Yikes.”

This was July 24, 2018. I remember where I was sitting when I wrote it. And I would keep these words and feelings completely to myself for over another year. Not weeks or months, but for over a year.

Part III: Promises to Keep

The ups and downs of the divorce process continued. It wasn’t until the Autumn of 2018 that we even had Temporary Orders on how to handle children and finances—a solid 1.5 years after the divorce was filed, and 3.5 years after initial separation. My “stall tactic” was working quite well. My feelings for Ellie were irrelevant in the grand scheme of things—I had to do what was right, even if I failed in execution at times as I lost everything (stress and anxiety does a number on you…).

Autumn turned into Winter. Winter into Spring of 2019. And Spring turned into Summer.

Finally, on the 17th anniversary of the day that I met Sara, I signed my divorce papers. It was July 16, 2019, and the papers were finalized by the Court days later. As far as the eyes of the State was concerned, my marriage was over.

I will always look back on those hellish four years and two months with some regrets, wondering if I had only done this (or failed to do that) whether I could have saved my marriage and my children’s family. What I know, however, is that I fought harder and longer than most anyone would—and I did it long after my love for Sara (in that sense) had died off.

But divorce only has so much meaning to a Catholic. I was now simply entering a new space where I was married in the eyes of the Church, yet divorced in the eyes of the State—the no-man’s-land of “broken clocks”.

By Summer of 2019 the mutuality of our feelings for each other became more evident, though never once inappropriate—ever. We were best friends. Old friends. And we continued to challenge each other on how to handle our new situation as divorces were finalized against our will. In early August we met up and spent the day together for my birthday, driving up around the Olympic Peninsula. Talking about important things, as we always did. Laughing at our geeky inside jokes, as we always did. And spending a lot of time in silence. It was a memorable day, and, perhaps, only the third or fourth time I had seen her in person that year. 

By mid August I felt like I had to finally say something. I penned a letter on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, and told her that I loved her and that while I didn’t know if I would ever be in a position to act on that love, that it was very real and very true nonetheless—and that she needed to know. I read it to her the next day over the phone and cried. Not sad tears, but happy ones. I didn’t think I could ever do anything about the matter, but I felt strongly that it was time to let her know—that she needed to know the depth of the love that I had for her. She laughed at me a little. And she heard me, as she always had.

October 13th we met up in Seattle. I drove, and she took the ferry over from Bremerton. We spent the day doing Ellie and Justin things: coffee shops, book stores, silent time in a cemetery, time at the Cathedral, dinner. When she hugged me that night to leave, I could tell that she held on a little longer than normal. And that was abruptly ended and we immediately turned in the opposite direction and walked away.

That night she sent me a song by Ben Howard, “Depth Over Distance”.

In late October, just a couple weeks later, we met up again in Olympia—back at the Spar Café where over two years prior she watched me cry in pain and embarrassment. After a long pause, I looked her this time directly in the eyes and said, “Ellie… do you love me?” I knew she did. I wanted to hear it—I had waited a long time to hear it. After a few seconds, she told me that she did. This was October 26, 2019. As anyone who knows me knows… I remember dates.

And we cried again at the same spot that we did over two years before.

In the time since, that love that I first admitted to myself 2.5 years ago, and mutually over a year later, has only grown—despite the fact that it seems as if it has reached depths we couldn’t possibly outmatch before. But before our love for each other, there is a deep friendship and space that nobody else is permitted into, and few could understand. And before there is a friendship, there is our shared Catholic Faith that must be kept in the forefront of our minds and hearts. 

Part IV: The Woods are Lovely Dark and Deep

Ellie and I have spent the better part of the last 1.5 years now in love. We share life together—and we share life together as good friends. Our children may have made jokes about it (mine have proposed Ellie as an excellent match more than a few times and I always laugh it off—even Sara proposed the match in the summer of 2019 and I asked her to never bring it up again…), but those were empty and meaningless—and certainly we have never given them any fodder to believe that we were anything other than old friends, as they have always known us to be. And if anyone ever saw us together they would have no basis to speculate. We have been silent, and gone out of our way to be above reproach and dignified as we balanced the dual, yet not contradictory realities of our lives—that we are best friends and in love, but are not able to do much, if anything, with that. And we may never be able to. Marriage is discussed regularly—it is a fait accompli with a paradoxical host of significant contingencies. We are as serious as you could possibly be, and enough that it would be reasonable to state that “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” and “dating” or anything like that are terms that are, to be honest, beneath us. We are much, much more than that.

We have wanted—desperately wanted—to be intentional in this friendship. To put our Faith first. To never bring our children, who have gone through so much, into the matter. In fact, I was so adamant about this that I was writing about it over a year before Ellie even heard me admit to her that I loved her. Our children have been put through hell, and neither of us had or have any desire to add to the damage that their other parents have intentionally inflicted upon them.

And while we would have preferred to keep this significant relationship private and appropriate, Ellie and I were shocked to learn this last week that Sean had announced to his and Ellie’s children that Sara and he were dating.

I was in the hospital that night, actually, and Ellie asked me to call immediately, explaining that her oldest son had called her in tears saying that the night before, December 1st (sadly, the 19th anniversary of Sean and Ellie’s marriage!), Sean had taken the oldest three boys to the side to tell them that Sara and he were “dating”.

My heart was racing. And there was dead silence on the phone.

“How could we possibly have missed this?”

“Why on earth would he bring the children into this?”

“This can’t possibly be happening!? We have been so prudent and intentional with something so profound and deep for so long, and suddenly Sara and Sean were announcing to our children that they were dating?”

“Sara was literally just in a significant relationship with another man. It literally just ended. How could she bring someone else into her life and the children’s when she just ended another relationship?!”

So many thoughts and questions. So many conversations. 

Ellie and I anguished for much of the last week about how to handle this. Should we keep silent? Should we say anything? Should we confront them? Should we ignore it all and go about our business as usual?

All options seemed to be on the table, but we did feel that perhaps she could reach Sara. And Ellie, again, tried. What we didn’t know, however, when Ellie wrote to Sara, begging her to leave the children out of this, is that my children had already been told a week before. Astonishing. And completely irresponsible. 

This changed everything, and we ultimately decided that the best choice out of all of our less than desirable options was to essentially “come out”, if you will. 

We decided to do this for two primary reasons:

Our Children: we thought carefully about whether it would add their short and long term problems if we were to announce our now-old relationship with them. And honestly, when isolating the children alone I don’t think that Ellie or I came to a strong opinion one way or another about it. We have long maintained that our children would never know about us until and if we had annulments in full, and, importantly, annulments we both accepted. We would then and only then bring our children into the situation. With such a stance, we seriously considered continuing in absolute silence about these matters and would not have discussed anything with anyone, letting Sean and Sara go about their business. But the fact of the matter is that the children, however important, are only one of the considerations, and we decided that the second matter moved us to take things in a different direction: we will let the children know, and go out of our way to show them how to do this appropriately. More on that later… 

Our “Relationship”: While I was a bit stronger on this front than Ellie, I think we both consider this a threat to our relationship furthering into a marriage. Should Sara and Sean continue their relationship for months, or even into marriage, I considered it highly unlikely that we would as well. Look… I am not interested in being on the Jerry Springer Show: Catholic Edition. When you marry someone, you marry them for more than just “love”, and I honestly think that coming out about us months or even a year down the road would be seen by our children and others as an “us too!” moment that I would likely pass on. Just being honest.

Given our lengthy list of shitty options, this is what we have decided to do. We might question it. Others might as well, I’m sure. But we do feel that by coming out we have the opportunity to give appropriate witness to our children, our families, our friends and our community about how to handle these matters, while simultaneously doing our best to set our relationship up for a marriage, should we find ourselves in that position.

Part V: Promises to Keep, and Miles to Go Before I Sleep

Ellie, A year ago I gave you a gift. A rock, hand painted with the words of Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. When I first reread that poem, in the context of this deep love that I have for you, I was startled by how apropos it was. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but I do have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. 

We both do. 

I can’t promise you my life. I can only promise you that if there comes a day when I can truly give my life to you, that I will be giving it away freely, and without looking over my shoulders wondering what, if anything, I failed to take care of. I want so badly to give my life to you that I must make certain that I am free to do so in my conscience.

For over a year I loved you deeply and was silent, only showing you love in my actions. How few are given such an opportunity? 

And for over a year and a half since, I have loved you openly, focusing on the ways and means available to me now. Again, how few are given such an opportunity?

It has been and remains a gift.

Whether we are afforded a life together or not, we have today. We have this moment. And there is no person on this earth that I would rather battle the demons before us with than you. 

Keep moving forward with dignity, intentionality, and mutual respect. And trust that God, Who is a loving Father, has a plan for your life and mine, and nothing that transpires happens without His providence. 

You are deeply loved. You mean everything to me.

Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sound’s the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost

Part VI: (In-)frequently Asked Questions

“What’s the deal. You’re divorced. You’re in love with your best friend—something few people ever experience, even if they like to say that when they get married. Just marry her.”

All true—more true than most can possibly appreciate. But before I am in love with my best friend, and before I am “divorced”, you need to understand and appreciate that I am a committed Catholic—as is Ellie. “Divorce” is not a category for Catholics—marriage is forever. In fact, it’s even stronger than that, as the Church doesn’t recognize “divorce” for anyone—including non-Catholics. “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder,” as many know. Yet for a Catholic that has a sacramental marriage, the bond is seen as doubly serious. While the Church recognizes “good and natural marriages” in society, the marriage between two baptized persons is raised to the level of a sacrament. Many people—including, unfortunately, most “Catholics”—recoil when they hear such language. We humans aren’t too good at being told what to do, are we? And when we don’t like something we try to find convenient reasons to maneuver. “You’re in love with your best friend and you’re divorced—marry her.” I wish I could. Truly. But to just up and marry Ellie would betray my own conscience and violate the principles that we love so much about each other.

“Ok. So then you need to get an annulment—the Church will invalidate your marriage and you can move on.”

Well… we will see. But first, it’s clear (and perfectly normal) that you don’t understand what an annulment is.

The Church doesn’t “invalidate” your marriage, and the word “annulment” can be confusing because it tends to be read as an act imposed upon a marriage that breaks it apart. This is not the case. The proper term is “declaration of nullity”, but I will use “annulment”. Since valid marriages (sacramental or not) are permanent and, thereby, there is no such thing as “divorce” (especially in the eyes of a committed Catholic), an annulment does not break apart a marriage. Rather, it is a process that looks into the marriage, especially the periods immediately before and after the point of the contract (the wedding), to determine whether there was something lacking that would have made the wedding little more than a great party (and I must say that mine was, at the very least, a really awesome party!). 

Let me give you some examples that could be demonstrative: 

1. Some years ago (and this actually happened) a well-known actor got married in an Elvis Chapel in Las Vegas. He filed for a civil annulment—something that some States (and some countries) have. Why? Well, if he wasn’t ever actually married in the eyes of the State he wouldn’t be required to divide up his wealth and the like during a “divorce”. In this case, when he went to marry he was drunk and, being drunk he was incapable of actually entering into a free contract with the woman that he attempted to “marry”. The contact was “null” and “invalid”. There would be no reason to divide assets as a “marriage” never occurred.

2. If you go to the title company and attempt to sign on the sale of a home, the title officer is not allowed to have you sign the paperwork if they think that you are incapacitated for any reason. If you are demonstrating manifestations of dementia, for example, you can’t freely sign a contract of such importance.   

Marriage Tribunals, then, in the Catholic Church are tasked with looking into the marriage to determine whether there was anything significantly lacking at the time that the vows were exchanged. If so, a declaration of nullity might be granted. This doesn’t post hoc invalidate a marriage. Rather, it states that a marriage never existed. Importantly, the contract of marriage requires both people to enter into it freely. If Sara, for example, was incapable of consenting to the vows, this says nothing of my disposition or intention. 

“Ok. This makes sense. But I have a different question: why is it important to you to discuss any of this? Can’t you and Ellie just do your thing and forget other people?”

I’m actually pretty good at ignoring people, truth be told. But most people (and most Catholics, too) tend to forget the fact that marriage isn’t simply a “private matter”—it has public and social dimensions to it, and that fact is acknowledged both in civil society along with the Church. There are reasons why, for example, witnesses must be involved in a marriage. And we can all easily come up with examples of how society and the State itself has a vested interest in marriage as a public institution. These things matter. Because I am a committed Catholic and a knowledgeable citizen, I can’t join others in pretending that I don’t have a responsibility to the “stakeholders” of my marriage—children, family, friends, and the Church and society at large.

“I’m Catholic. The annulment process is abused, you know.”

Yes. I’m aware.

In fact, I would be more than happy to bolster your opinion on the matter with significant statistics and facts that would make your blood boil. I’ve read every book in the English language that matters on this subject—and many that don’t matter at all. For years I have poured my heart and soul into the subject. I know precisely what it is like to complain about abuses in the annulment process.

I also know what it is like to have informed opinions on the matter.

It was over a year after our initial separation that Sara first told me that she wanted a divorce and an annulment. I commend her (and us) that the “d-word” (divorce) wasn’t used once in our marriage until we had been separated for over a year and when it was finally used, it was used in the same sentence as “annulment”. I was shocked. Separation was one thing (and a horrible decision). “Divorce” was another. But an annulment? I couldn’t believe it. My immediate response was that I would battle that to the very end. I would have been the first to say that the annulment process was unstable and abused, and that there was no chance at all that I had an invalid marriage—I would be compelled to fight her on that ground until I died, and if she ever obtained an annulment I wouldn’t accept it. And I had at that time an understanding that is much more informed than the average Catholic Joe, as theology is my “jam”, as Ellie might say.

For the next four years I read and wrote on the matter. I didn’t simply read most every book printed in English on the matter, but dozens of academic and lay periodicals, and spent hundreds of hours watching every annulment related video I could on YouTube (I have an entire channel dedicated to the subject, with well over 125 videos).

Not days. Not weeks. Not months. But for years I agonized about how to handle the annulment process should it come. In fact, I was still in full-fledged battle mode when I was simultaneously admitting to myself that I loved Ellie.

“If you are this aware, then why would you ever accept an annulment?” 

I don’t know if I will. 

99.6% of all annulment trials that are brought to judgement are granted in the United States. In some dioceses, it’s 100%. These are facts.

Also a fact: I am bound to my conscience more than I am bound to the judgements of an American Tribunal (though this matter of conscience can be abused easily by people who wish to… abuse it, being rules and reality to suite their needs). If I do not accept the results, I won’t accept the results. This could lead to a situation, then, where Sara moves into another marriage and is technically allowed to, while I don’t accept the results.

Ellie knows this about me. 

In fact, I don’t even know if I will accept an annulment if Ellie gets one.

Heavy. 

I am not interested in shortcuts in this life. I can’t move forward in my life constantly looking over my shoulder wondering if I or those around me have cheated their way through it, taking advantages of a system rife with abuse. 

But here’s the twist: as time has gone on, I have simultaneously found myself wanting an annulment—that I can accept. My motivations have changed.

How?

Everything in the annulment conversation is about “freedom” and “consent”. If I want to marry Ellie, which I do (understatement), then I must be able to do that freely—I can’t be looking over my shoulder wondering if I’m only with her because I cheated the system, or wondering if I only got an annulment because I failed to participate fully. No! That would make me questioning the very freedom I had, then, of marrying Ellie, and would thereby be grounds for another annulment.

As such, I have approached the annulment process (currently almost a year old) with as much diligence as possible. While I didn’t petition for the annulment, I am also not “fighting it”. Rather, I am functioning a bit differently as a “respondent”. My paperwork to the Tribunal was 192 pages. Yeah… 192 pages. My list of witnesses for the case included 33 people—it was annotated, and over 25 pages long. And the process isn’t over. I have many options, and I am honestly not sure what I am going to do as time moves forward.

In the coming weeks I will have the option (if I choose to do it) to participate in the petition—essentially joining the petition that Sara put forth at the beginning of this year. If I do that, we could request a so-called “fast-tracked” process from that point forward, and the matter could be final in a couple months or so. I highly doubt that I would do this, however pleasant that sounds.

If the matter is brought to judgement and an annulment is granted, this does not mean I will accept it. If I find sufficient reason to think that any point of the matter was compromised, I can appeal the judgement to the Roman Rota where it could be tied up for years.

And if we became statistical anomalies and Sara and I were not granted an annulment, that would not mean that the matter is over and that we are “married”. Remember, there is never anything more than the “presumption of validity” in a marriage. As strange as it sounds, you can only presume validity. This means that being denied an annulment only means that the Petition was denied for the grounds upon which the case is litigated. If I or Sara decided to keep going, we could start the process over again under different grounds.

That’s me and Sara. What about Ellie and Sean?

I have long maintained that I didn’t know if I would accept an annulment between Sean and Ellie. I was in their wedding. I was there. I was there beforehand. I am a godparent to one of their children. Fight me.

In August of 2018 Ellie and I learned that Sean had gone to the parish he was married in to get the paperwork for an annulment. Mind you, at this point I was deeply in love with her, and yet she didn’t know that (or, at least I hadn’t said that). Ellie was still happily trying to convince my wife, and her friend, that she was making a tragic decision and destroying her family. We assumed for months that Sean would be filing the paperwork and getting on with it.

Months later Ellie asked him during one of their children-exchanges when she should expect it. At that point, months later, Sean’s response was simply that he hadn’t gotten around to it yet—not that he wasn’t going to do it.

More months went by, and finally it became clear that Sean wasn’t going to take the time to follow through with his paperwork—and it would be very unlikely to assume this had anything to do with convictions. Rather, he probably was just too lazy to get on with it.

Things shifted to whether Ellie could or would petition for an annulment herself. As I do, I took the devil’s advocate position and essentially told her that her level of understanding on the matter was at about the level of sixth-grader (perhaps higher than most people’s in my book, so that’s not a knock on her), and that I would never support her filing for an annulment (let alone accept it) if she didn’t spend more time working through books and other materials on the subject and could sufficiently articulate to me why she would possibly question the validity of her marriage.

Ellie’s a smarty. She read the books I recommended, watched the videos I advised, and handled months of my grilling and questioning and, finally, “graduated”.

Sean, unfortunately, couldn’t even be bothered to respond at all—he decided that he wasn’t going to participate in any fashion whatsoever. That’s unfortunate, as he will now have to spend the rest of his life questioning that decision while, no doubt, manufacturing some clever ideas about how the process was beneath him and he wouldn’t want to dignify it by dropping his hoodie, sitting up straight in his chair, wiping that perma-smirk off his face and spending time on something as meaningful as his marriage to the mother of his children. I couldn’t fathom that. I simply can’t compute that at all. Like I said, Sean and I are very different men.

So, back to the question: I do not know if I will accept an annulment.

What I know is this: I want to accept one. And my standards on the matter could not possibly be higher, and I could not have possibly taken this process more seriously. We will see how it plays out.

“If you take marriage and annulments so seriously, why are you dating Ellie?”

I’m not.

Before that sounds saintly, it should be noted that in saying that “I am not dating Ellie” should be taken to mean this: “dating” Ellie would be to do violence to the significance of our relationship. We are not “dating”. Ellie is not my “girlfriend”. It’s much, much deeper than all of that.

But let’s back up and ask whether “dating” after a divorce, and before an annulment is ok in and of itself.

It’s grey. And that’s the honest answer.

Just weeks ago, Sara ended a relationship with another man that she was open about in front of our children—and even me. I never once said a word to her about it and in and of itself I didn’t consider it wrong—even if I was uncomfortable with how my children were involved. She must have known that I knew about it because he came to my two oldest sons’ Confirmation and beforehand she came up to me, already feeling awkward and out of place, and said, “Ruby [our youngest child] needs to go to the bathroom—’John’ can take her, or you can.” I politely smiled and accepted the invitation to wipe my own daughter, mildly uncomfortable with her mother’s boyfriend doing it. Yup… that was how Sara introduced her boyfriend (whom I already knew about) to me. But I didn’t say anything about him to her or anyone, and when a couple people came to me with concerns, I stopped them. “Sara is free to love another person or be in a relationship to one degree or another. That’s not an invitation to impropriety. All of us are called to chastity in any station of our life. And we are bound to the laws of the Church. If she isn’t doing anything ‘wrong’ being in love with someone, even if I might have problems with the way that she goes about doing it.” When he decided to move and their relationship ended just weeks ago, I expressed regret to her—on my own. I truly felt bad. My children really liked him and he comes from a good family. I’m passed the point of fighting the reality that my children won’t grow up in a home with their only father. Absent that, Sara and the children would be better off with another (good, dignified, responsible, honorable, truth-full…) man in their lives. I mean that sincerely. But there is process, order, appropriateness, and the like involved as well. Somehow, just weeks later, she is suddenly in not only a relationship with Sean, but openly with our children? Sorry… that’s too much.

Ellie and I have been very close and connected friends for 20 years, even if at times she was superficially closer to Sara as they trauma-bonded together while their marriages fell apart. Ellie and I didn’t ask for divorces—we fought them, and we encouraged each other to fight them. Ellie went out of her way to try and stop Sara from doing this. We have never once discussed the matter in front of our children—and not for days or weeks, but for over 1.5 years now (and for me, much longer than that). Our children only see propriety, and it isn’t just them—anyone who has or will see us together would only see two friends—old, good friends (even if, perhaps, they wish to read into that—though they would be stretching credulity).

This is a singularity. While Sara might be fine in my books “dating” to one degree or another, I most certainly would not be “dating” anyone. I am far too comfortable being alone, and it would be discordant for me in particular to “date” anyone with as strong of feelings that I have about the annulment process and wanting to be dignified in this time period.

Ellie and I didn’t ask for this. But we accept it and meet the reality we have in front of us, regardless of the difficulties it presents.

“So… you guys have 13 children. You know this right?”

Haha. Yeah.

We have 13 children that need an enormous amount of support and love and are prepared to give that to them to the extent that we can and the extent that we are permitted to (we don’t have all of them all of the time).

“Ok. What happens if you guys don’t get an annulment or you don’t accept one or both of them? In other words, what happens if you can’t move forward at all in your relationship.”

That would be sad. And that would be what we do.

Ellie and I have had our lives robbed from us. We have both become quite accustomed to it. We have both had to learn how to function in less than ideal situations.

We are strangers in this world. We are promised nothing.

What will remain, however, no matter what is a deep love, connection and friendship—one that few will ever understand and nobody can take away.

“The greatest lessons you have learned in the last few years?”

There are many—some are harder to hear than others. But all are important.

In August of 2018 I went on a road trip around the Olympic Peninsula, passing right through Bremerton, though never stopping to say hello, even though I was invited. Ellie’s children were home, and I was then, and remain, extremely intentional in how much I see them and the contexts in which I see them. I didn’t stop. Ellie recommended a book by Viktor Frankl then, which many have, since, heard each of us quote. I read it on that trip, and have read or listened to it now well over 15 times.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl

Here was a man who was in a concentration camp. He lost his wife. His family. His finances. All material possessions. His home. His power. His trajectory. Everything was gone. As he explains in the book, they wouldn’t even let you keep your hair or the differentiating facets of who you were vs. the other people in camp—so you were shaved from head to toe. You were nothing more than a number if you avoided the various “selections” and were “lucky” enough to “live”.

Yet they couldn’t take away his ability to respond to the situations around him. This struck a chord with me immediately, and it became easy for me to sort of “baptize” Frankl and combine it with my Christian Faith.

In the last many years I have lost everything. I have lost my marriage. My children. My family. My finances (I make six figures, yet give all but less-than-minimum-wage to Sara and the children and the government). I’ve lost my home and my ability to live on my own. In my 40th year on earth, I live in my proverbial “parent’s basement”. I have pennies to my name. I don’t even own a car. I have nothing.

Yet, I am happier now than I have been at any point in the last 20 years. There are parts of my life that Sara can not take from me regardless of the power that she has wielded for far too long. She can not take away the dignity that I have before God. She can not take away the meaning that I have in my life and the valuable lessons I have learned in finding true and meaningful happiness in the midst of deep pain and chaos and loss.

And yes… she can’t take away the fact that, no matter what, I have experienced a kind of love that I fear she will never have, let alone appreciate.

I have lost everything, and yet I have meaning and happiness. And I have loved a woman unconditionally. My life is complete.

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NB: While this post can be read alone, it is intended to be read in conjunction with Ellie’s three part piece titled The Last of Human Freedoms, which I will link to below:

Part I

Part II

Part III (in this part she discusses our relationship)

Justin writes from his parent’s basement and hates cutesy blurbs at the bottom of posts such as this. You can contact him using the contact form. He might write back. He might not. That’s kinda how he is.

On Aging

I chuckled a bit to myself this evening when taking a break and partook in my love/hate relationship with Facebook, noticing the ads and “group” posts: Men’s Health is dominant (in all of “health’s” facets…); Dad Jokes (group); multiple career related groups; and on and on.

I’m not a kid anymore, am I?

I seek out dad jokes on Facebook and have basically perfected the art of telling them (something my kids mock, making me relish in it all the more, truth be told…).

I have ED medicine, from Roman to Hims, shoved down my throat constantly (any visual images just projected were entirely unintended, as was my projectile pun…).

I spend most of my time reviewing the group posts of strangers discussing air conditioners and electrical panels.

What I emit are ramblings that seem inspired by Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. Get off my lawn!

Yay me?

How does this happen? When? It seems like yesterday my Facebook feed and “ad experience” was rife with rock bands, guitars, skateboards, and the like. And one day… it was dad jokes and prostrate cancer warnings!

The truth is that I feel it too.

It isn’t simply Facebook reminding me that I am as close to 60 now as I am to 20; my body says the same thing. My upper neck hurts constantly. I’ve had lower back, pelvis, herniated disc and sciatic issues for years now and I don’t even remember what it is like to not be in pain and experiencing dysfunction. My knees, fingers and joints ache. I can’t throw a baseball hard more than a couple times without elbow pain, yet I used to excel in all sports. I even skateboarded and biked—I’ve fallen down flights of stairs and other heights, yet I’ve never broken a bone. And yet the prospect of jumping off my tailgate onto the ground below is met with mental projections of pain or injury. My mind does indeed feel like I’m 15-20, and yet my body is losing its ability to respond to what is in my head.

Not all is lost though as I enter my “middle ages”.

My mind is sharp. I think more clearly than I did 20 years ago. I have learned to value experience, now realizing why I would have dismissed its tutelage back then: because I had no experience, and had no idea what was missing. The merger of knowledge and experience is, in many respects, when one becomes wise. I’m wiser. Oddly enough, I am more comfortable in my own skin than I was back then. I may have been hardheaded and bold—vastly more than I am now—but I was still so “becoming” in my life. How can this not be true? I was yet to be married. Yet to have children. Yet to be divorced. Yet to have a career; still in college. I was barely out of high school and out from under my parent’s wings. Frankly, I didn’t realize how uncomfortable I really was back then, despite the comfort I had or seemed to. When life throws you as many hard balls and curveballs as it has me, it forces you to change. Hopefully for the better. Sometimes not. But it is the clash of ideology and experience that should hopefully lead to a net gain and, thereby, a greater comfort with who we are as individuals. It should also strip of us of our idealism, bringing us to a greater awareness of ourselves and reality.

Good things.

I miss the innocence of idealism, stripped of all experience. I miss the innocence of thinking that all that one needed was the right thought and the right conclusion—experience be damned! I miss what it feels like to not be in pain, or the confidence that I can, yes, jump off that cliff into that water below and be fine. There is something to be missed as these parts decidedly rest in my past.

I’ll still take the older me. Along with Facebook’s Men’s Health ads. If there must be a trade, then I think it’s a fair one.

+J.

You’re Mist, Not a Fireman (or a ‘Church’)

It’s common enough that it has entered into our cultural conscience: when boys grow up, they tend want to be firemen, serve in the Army or aspire towards pretty much anything involving something dangerous. I’m confident that more than a few psychologists and evolutionary biologists have sufficiently handled the reasons for this fact (and there is a lot of fact there…).

But this wasn’t true for me.

In fact, I don’t ever remember having any aspiration as a youngster that one would aptly call ‘conventional’. Never desired to be a police officer or in the CIA; never wanted to drive race cars or explode things.

No, I wanted to be a ‘church’.

A church?

Yes.

I was about five-years-old or thereabouts when one day at mass I notified my mother that I would be a ‘church’ when I grew up. Unsure what that meant, she asked and in answer I pointed to the priest up front. ‘Like him,’ I said.

I never became a priest. A hellion teenager, I went through a conversion around 18 years of age and once I was in college I did in fact entertain a vocation to the priesthood, but with the help of a few people, including more than one priest, decided that wasn’t my calling.

In fact, nothing that I ever ‘wanted’ has panned out over time in my almost-forty years on this earth.

Before ever entering the undergraduate program in theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio) I wanted to get a PhD in theology and teach, but abandoned that idea when I met the woman I would marry—sacrificing my life and desires for her desire to be a stay-at-home mother in a two-income-earner society.

Never became a ‘church’, and few if any of the major wants or plans of my life have gone according to ‘plan’, or at least according to my desires. I find myself wondering if the career I took on for her sake is what I will be doing in the years to come.

Such a cold reality is certain to resonate with at least some of my readers.

You knew you were going to have a family in the same small town that you grew up in, yet you find yourself across the country and your parents rarely see you or your children. You knew what your gifts were and you got the degree or degrees needed to work in the field, but a few events, one ‘opportunity’ and a decade later you find yourself in an office daydreaming of what might have been. You found the love of your life and knew that you would make it through the modern obstacles, provide a stable environment for your children to grow up in and live out your days with your ‘best friend’, yet you find yourself divorced while your spouse runs off with her lover and takes your children with her—and with that, your ‘family’. You couldn’t wait to hear the first cry of that baby, yet the joy immediately turned to concern and your life yet-lived flashed before you as you realized that this child’s disabilities would require your aid for the rest of your life.

Life throws us those curve balls. We make mistakes and despite our sincere repentance, we can not control the fallout. There are few constants on this road.

Yet, regardless of what happens, we must have faith that God is provident in our lives. When pain and evil greet us, we can be confident that even there God can and will direct all things to good (Rom. 8:28).

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘if the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” (James 4:13-15). [1]

This isn’t a call to a life of immobility—we must do the ‘next right thing’ as an old friend of mine would say. We are called to work, to pray, to do what is right. But we must be careful projecting too far into the future, assuming that we are in control of our own destiny. We aren’t; God is. And He is there even in the midst of the pain and confusion that surrounds you—He can and will direct it to the good. Be attentive and listen for His whisper. [2]

[1] See also: Proverbs 3:5-6; 16:9, 33; 19:21; 20:24; Jeremiah 10:23; 29:11; Amos 3:6; Luke 22:31; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; 1 Thess 5:18; Luke 9:23; Micah 6:8; Hebrews 10:6; Romans 8:28

[2] That, and mingle in, if you would like, a bit of Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy. His book Man’s Search for Meaning should be near the top of your reading list.

Quick Thoughts on Jordan Peterson and his reading of Nietzsche

Having been lightly perusing Jordan Peterson for the last year (I have not read his two books–I’ve only listened to some 200 hours of his lectures, interviews, podcasts and the like), I was surprised by how often he refers to Nietzsche, and in a manner that often puzzles me. I admit without hesitation that I am not well-versed in Nietzsche’s thought, but knew enough that I thought I would do some Googling and ran into this post. I think that the author makes some good points and he is enjoyable to read, which is always appreciated. – J

KRONSTADT REVOLT

As rare as it is for me to have interactions with Kronstadt Revolt (KR) readers, the few times it does happen it’s exclusively occurred outside the actual confines of the blog (i.e. mostly emails and private messages through twitter).  My best guess is that due to my low posting frequency they want to make sure there is actually someone still typing away at a keyboard behind the dashboard menu before fruitlessly putting a comment into moderation limbo that may never be read or approved by anyone (as an fyi, comment settings are set to only moderate the first comment you post, to make it easier to control spam from bots; after that first-time approval showing you’re human, your subsequent comments should post automatically).  Never mind that my twitter updates are about as (in)frequent as my blog posts, it is the trend that has developed, and I’m happy to interact with…

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Wendell Berry’s “Nature Consumers”

“It is maybe most of all … silence that they are so intent to guard themselves against. And there is indeed a potential terror in it. It raises, still, all the old answerless questions of origins and ends. It asks a man what is the use and the worth of his life.” — Wendell Berry

Updated 4.29.2019

It was probably ten years ago or so now when I first picked up a copy of Wendell Berry’s wendellberrybyguymendescollection of essays, The Long-Legged House at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland with a good friend, now deceased, who had introduced me to Berry’s work some years before. Cliché, but I was immediately captured by the timelessness of his concerns articulated in this 1965 publication—a theme that runs through much of his work. His essay found therein, titled ‘Nature Consumers,’ along with chapter two, book one of Thomas A. Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, is among the few most influential pieces of literature I’ve ever read, having revisited each of these chapters dozens of times. It doesn’t have to be brilliant—it need only hit you at the right time and space.

They have each become so ingrained in my psyche that I find myself regularly quoting them and referencing them without actually referencing them—you know, when something becomes so familiar to you that it is less a reference than it is your own exhale. Many have heard me say, “We are all frail; consider none more frail than yourself,” which comes straight from that chapter in Kempis’ Imitation.

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On Life and Death: Mildred Ornellas

life-cycle-picture

Note: Ten years ago my little family and I were caught in a whirlwind (pun) of ‘life and death’. In the course of just a few short days, I learned that my wife was pregnant with our third child, visited my grandmother for the last time, flew to Houston just hours later for a wedding that occurred during Hurricane Ike and came home just in time for her funeral, then celebrated my fourth wedding anniversary two days later.

Below is a slightly edited and updated version of the eulogy I gave back then. I was 28 years-old at the time. I’ve tried to leave it in its original state as much as possible, focusing instead on making it readable, as opposed to notes for a presentation in front of an audience. Whether you knew grandma or not, it’s worth a read as so many eulogies and obituaries are, yet this one comes with extra… umph. – J.

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September 16, 2008

I don’t really know what I am supposed to say here; my experience with funerals is fortunately limited.

But, I was asked to give and I wanted to give some of my thoughts and memories concerning my my maternal grandmother. I had to prepare this on a whim last night at 3am (with mild jet-lag) so bear with me… I’m working on two hours of sleep, and the last many days, as you will see, have been… intense.

I have few childhood or teenage memories that don’t include my grandma. Indeed, I was very close to her. I feel lucky to have been able to really have two mothers in my life; blessed to be counted among her extended children.

These childhood memories do not go back far enough to remember any other home of hers than the trailer she lived in down by LaCamas Lake in Camas, WA—a very humble home; one that would act as my second for over 20 years. It was a home that I entered into too young to understand the social stigmas that come with the ownership of a ‘house’ that has wheels underneath it. It was in this home, with this woman, that so many of my memories were created. It was there and with her that much of who I am was formed.

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Cleanse the Temple: The Sex Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church

One would need to be living under a metaphorical rock to have not heard about the most recent Catholic priest sex abuse scandal, which is shaking not only the Church in the United States, but has reached all the way to the up the highest levels of the of the Church.

This problem isn’t new, of course.

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On Autumn

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Officers Row, Vancouver, WA | by Justin Augustine Lee | 9.2018

Like clockwork, but one that accepts fine-tuning every so often, autumn arrives to Portland, Oregon.

It’s a season that is marked less by the turned-page of a wall-calendar or the orientation of the earth to the sun as told by the stars, than by the final bursts of color the leaves give, asking that you acknowledge them one last time before bowing out after their closing act; or the crispness of the night, which works feverishly to regain control in its bout against the heat and the light of the summer—a season that will murmur just a few faint sounds until it becomes the past. All the land and its various parts which make up this orchestra—all the movements that mark this score—is busy in its preparations for rest, for darkness and for the cold and rain which will come. Continue reading

A Glance From My Father

cropped-20180904_201502.jpgIt seems that the majority of parents, mothers and fathers alike, succumb to the notion that our children will primarily or exclusively remember the major events in life: the big vacations to Disney Land, some grandiose birthday party or that ‘really amazing gift’ from Santa Claus that one Christmas. And because of this, we tend to focus on these kinds of things and events, putting in so much effort and time and money on the event that we can forget the little people that it was supposed to be for. And we forget how and what they remember. Continue reading