jake

It’s hard to remember who I’ve been. It’s not that I don’t remember, and it’s not that I can’t remember—have amnesia or somethin’. What I mean when I say it’s hard for me to remember who I’ve been is, that it’s not altogether a pleasant experience. I don’t much like the rememberin’. It’s kind of embarrassing, but that’s not quite it, ’cause it’s not just me bein’ ashamed—it’s me actually feelin’ bad for other folks. It’s me actually feelin’ sorry for what I’ve done. An’ not out of any fear of getting’ caught, but out of some sense of it havin’ been wrong—some sense that it hurt folks. I can’t really explain it, but it is difficult to look back and consider what all I’ve done and to who all I did it, let me tell you. So it is, in fact, hard to remember who I’ve been.

See, I lived my life with all my attention on me. Lookin’ out for number one, right? How else you goin’ to live life, you might ask, an’ I’m not real sure. I hadn’t had any experience at that, but I do know I’m not satisfied with the choices I’ve made. I do know there’s got to be somethin’ different—somethin’ better, even if I don’t know exactly what that is.

Meetin’ Uncle Laban way back then, was like meetin’ a me grown old—with my ways of bein’ and doin’ written harsh into lines ’round his eyes and mouth. It was like lookin’ in a lookin’ glass and not really likin’ what you see—wishin’ what you saw wasn’t really you. But you know when you look in a lookin’ glass and see an ugly face—you’re pretty much plumb out of luck. Ain’t much you can do about that! But what I didn’t like about me—things I thought of lookin’ at Uncle Laban—was all things I could change—things I could fix—if I really wanted to. But I’m gettin’ ahead of myself.

He seemed real nice when I first met him—him and the rest of the family in Haran—real interested in Mom and Pop, Pop bein’ his cousin—even more interested in Meemaw and Pop-Pop, Pop-Pop bein’ his uncle. He hadn’t heard much at all. They didn’t really keep up. So for the better part of that first month, we just swapped stories. He was real interested in mine, and he assumed I was just as interested in his, and I wasn’t about to let on that he could talk as long as he wanted ’bout whatever he wanted, as long as I could watch Rach sittin’ ’cross the table from us.

Don’t know exactly what it was ’bout that girl, but from the time I first laid eyes on her, I could feel change happenin’. And it was ’cause Rach was sittin’ ’cross the table from us that I didn’t exactly tell Uncle Laban everythin’. It was strange, but things I’d been proud of before—my schemin’, connivin’ side Esau used to call it (with some additional colorful language)—I didn’t want Rach to find out about. Maybe if I’d let Uncle Laban know a little more about the kind of fellow I’d been—if I’d let Uncle Laban see a little bit more of himself in me, things wouldn’t’ve worked out the way they did. But I was busy hidin’ those parts of me that for the first time ever, I wasn’t proud of.

Then, as it started lookin’ like I might stay a while, I started pitchin’ in—helpin’ out with the chores—particularly Rach’s chores. And he noticed. ’Cause he came up to me and he asked “Should you be workin’ for nothin’ just ’cause you’re kin? Name your price.” I thought he was bein’ thoughtful—thought he was bein’ nice. I thought he was bein’ upfront—upright. I didn’t think of him bein’ the kind of person who thought strictly in terms of winnin’ and losin’. Didn’t think of him bein’ the kind of person to take note of my interest in his daughter and figure out how he could work that to his advantage. In other words, I didn’t think of him as bein’ the kind of person I was. Strange, huh? ’Cause this was really the first time I wasn’t thinkin’ in those terms myself. This was the first time ever I wasn’t schemin’ and connivin’. This was the first time ever I didn’t have a plan for winnin’, I was just enjoyin’ bein’.

Up till then, I always had a plan to win. Up till then, see, it’s like I was fightin’ my whole life long—like my whole life was some kind of wrestlin’ tournament—I moved from one match to another—win Esau’s birthright, win Esau’s girlfriend, win Esau’s gun collection (that was huge! I got rid of my favorite weighted dice after that just so Esau wouldn’t ever find them …), win dad’s blessing, win mom and dad’s inheritance. If you’re wrestlin’ with someone, you either win or you lose. There ain’t no other options. So I’d never even thought about things any different. Everythin’ was ’bout winnin’. Everythin’ was ’bout not losin’—’bout not getting’ beat. But when it came to signin’ on for seven years of hard work for Rach—I didn’t think twice—didn’t try and figure how I might get her for less. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t thinkin’ in terms of winnin’ or losin’—but ’bout what I wanted more than anythin’ else in life—knowin’ Rach wanted it just as bad, and knowin’ that that was more important than any game—that it would cheapen something precious to think of it in terms of winnin’ and losin’.

There’s a difference, turns out, ’tween winnin’ and havin’ things work out the way they should—the way they’s supposed to. When things work out—when they don’t have to be manipulated, then things is perfect. Just perfect. Hard work, sure, but I got to hang out and get to know Rach better, and I wasn’t havin’ to scheme—which was nice—new and nice—and I wasn’t afraid all the time. Again, for the first time ever, I wasn’t all worried ’bout whoever figurin’ out what I was really up to. aAnd I spent all my free time—unworried—with Rach, and seven years passed like maybe they was seven days.

Like I said before, turns out Uncle Laban played with that same win or lose approach to life and relationships like I always had. ’Cause he was only interested in winnin’, he played fast and loose with the lives of his daughters. He played fast and loose with the happiness of his family. Probably not as uncommon as we’d like to think. I’d certainly played fast and loose with Esau’s life—with his happiness. Never gave it a second thought. Not till now, at least. Now I couldn’t stop thinkin’ ’bout it. Because Laban played fast and loose with Rach and with Leigh, I was thinkin’ not only that somethings were too important to play around at, but also that winnin’ wasn’t maybe what it was cracked up to be.

I found myself considerin’ people other than the players—other than me—never done that before. Lookin’ at what he was up to (once I’d figured it out), I could see that while he won my labor for fourteen years, he lost both his daughters. In winnin’, he lost. And for the first time, I thought about how in my winnin’, I’d lost. In winnin’ a birthright, a few kisses, a gun collection, a blessin’ and money, I lost a brother and a father … and my mother. Winnin’s not all it’s cracked up to be if there’s that much losin’ wrapped up in it. Took me a right long while to see that though. Took me a right long while to figure out that’s why my winnin’ so often felt like losin’.

Kind of strange that moment when you discover there’s somethin’ more important than winnin’ or losin’. Especially after your whole life was lived otherwise. An’ it wasn’t actually something more important—I don’t know that it’ll actually work with something. Things don’t tend to pop you out of that approach to life. It was someone—someone more important than winnin’—someone more important than me. It was Rach.

At the tail end of seven years of hard work—after seven years of waitin’—hopin’—expectin’—anticipatin’—after the veils at the wedding—and the libations—and the dark tent that dark night, the light of day lit up a very embarrassed Leigh and a very angry me. I wanted to light right into Uncle Laban, but I like to never found him. He didn’t show up for breakfast. He didn’t show up for lunch. Now I know we was up late, but I got to thinkin’ he was hidin’ from me. Then one of the stablehands told me he had took off lickedy-split late last night for the pastures clear on the  other side of his land. But he couldn’t hide forever. Took a while, but I found him.

“Didn’t I play by the rules? Why are you tryin’ to take advantage of me?” Soon as I said it, I winced—thinkin’ ’bout Esau and dad. But that’s part of life, ain’t it? Realizin’ at some point what you didn’t know—what you couldn’t’ve understood before that point? Feelin’ sorry for what you’ve done and knowin’ you won’t ever do the like again. It’s called growin’ up.

Uncle Laban, now he had his excuse all ready. An’ he gave it to me all pompous like, “My boy, it is customary in these here parts for the older daughter to marry before the younger ones are allowed to.” Well, what could I say? It was customary in the parts where I grew up that the older son should receive the birthright and the blessing. The customs I’d cheated now had their way with me. Turnabout’s fair play, some say. Birds come home to roost, others say.

No question that I lost. It was strange though, ’cause it wasn’t really the losin’ that mattered so much. Rather, somehow, it seemed that what was supposed to be wasn’t no more. Like things had gotten off track somehow.

Anyhow, I agreed to work another seven years, an’ Laban allowed me to go ahead and marry Rach. I guess that was generous, but is it really generous if he got everythin’ he wanted? I ain’t at all sure ’bout that. Seems to me quite a stretch to call someone generous when it’s someone else footin’ the bill. An’ that was some more bill. Two wives in one week and sisters to boot. Let me tell you, more happened in them seven days than in seven years twice over! And seven days passed by like maybe they was seven years.

Them second seven years didn’t go by as quick. An’ I can’t help it that I didn’t feel the same ’bout the two of them. You can’t make what I felt for Rach happen. It’s there or it ain’t. You know, I hear folks talkin’ now ’bout how ugly Leigh was, like that’s some kind of excuse for all this—like if she’d been prettier, I’d of felt the same ’bout the two of them. But she wasn’t—ugly, I mean. I thought Rach was prettier, but it ain’t that Leigh was ugly—she had the most gorgeous eyes—you could get lost in them. She just wasn’t who I fell in love with—ever since I walked up an’ saw Rach takin’ care of her horses.

An’ I never made no promises to Leigh—never made eyes at her. I’m real sorry she got hurt, but I never made no promises to her. I got enough folk I’m responsible for hurtin’ to add more that ain’t my fault. Leigh got caught up in her daddy’s scheme to win. Again, it probably ain’t as uncommon as we might like to think. I feel real bad ’bout Leigh, but I can’t help the way I feel, can I? I knew it wasn’t a good thing to have two wives and to love one and like the other. I’d grown up learnin’ those lessons in partial lovin’. But I can’t help the way I feel. I like Leigh fine, but I love Rach. I like bein’ ’round Leigh fine, but I want to be with Rach all the time. I find myself lookin’ for her, if she isn’t around. Once upon a time, I didn’t think I needed anyone. I was goin’ to make it on my own—lookin’ out for number one. Now I think that would’ve been a sad way to turn out. I need Rach, an’ what’s more, I’m glad I do.

Every now and again, in the deepest parts of the night when the stars are bright and the world’s asleep, I remember that dream I had ’bout God’s ladder. I remember wakin’ up an’ namin’ that place Bethel, the house of God. I remember makin’ a little altar thinkin’ if this is where the ladder from heaven alights on earth, we need an altar here. Now I find myself wonderin’, what if that ladder didn’t just come down to that one place—the place I named Bethel? What if I didn’t understand that dream back then right? What if God’s ladders are like the ones at the library—with wheels—so they go wherever you need ’em to? Or what if God’ s got millions of ladders? What if the whole world should be named Bethel?

That’s kind of what I think about everytime I remember those words—that promise God made: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” And I’d wonder. What would it be like to have that ladder around all the time? Earth and heaven touchin’? What would it be like to have God be a part of everyday—every decision? What would it be like to have someone know you like that? To know someone like that?

Never made no sense to me till Rach. I just plain never thought ’bout wantin’ someone ’round all the time. Never thought ’bout wantin’ someone who knew me quite that well. But if it made me feel good to think ’bout Rach bein’ there in my comin’s and goin’s, and if I liked the idea of Rach knowin’ me that well, well, then I had to reconsider this whole God thing. If I found myself lookin’ ’round wherever I was—hopin’ to find Rach there … well, maybe you got to look for them ladders—hope to find ’em. Maybe they’re always there—just waitin’ to be seen—waitin’ to be wanted—waitin’ for someone to hope ’em into bein’ or hope ’em into bein’ seen.

That was a revelation, let me tell you. To think of God like Rach—to think of God as someone to teach me ’bout bein’ loved and ’bout lovin’. To think how good it made me feel to have Rach come up behind me and slide her hand into mine. What would it be like to hold the hand of God? To have earth and heaven connect—to have me and God connect that way? If thinkin’ of Rach that way made me feel at home in a way I never had before, what would it be like to think of God that way?

Well, that got me to thinkin’ ’bout home. I mean that got me to thinkin’ ’bout Esau an’ Mom an’ Dad. In that ladder dream, I told God to fix things up at home so I could go home in peace. But maybe that was up to me to do. Didn’t know how. Just that things weren’t how they was supposed to be. An’ maybe it was up to me to do somethin’ ’bout that. Up to me. New way of thinkin’—let me tell you!

I like who I am. I don’t necessarily like who I’ve been. Maybe not as uncommon a thing to say as we might think. Has to do with growin’ up. Fact is, who I been got me to who I am. Go figger! Maybe the way you handle the worst parts of you go into determinin’ who you’ll be—whether you’ll end up bein’ the worst of you or the best—or at least weighted in the one direction. I could’ve turned out like Uncle Laban. He never changed. He never growed up. I was all set to turn into Uncle Laban. But then there was Rach. Then there was love. Rach’s love. My love. And maybe God’s love. An’ love changed me. And if love can change me …!

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