Tiptoe......................peeking through the gate

Eve and Zoe, Lifelong Friends


            Put an uninhibited avant-garde poet together with a shy Victorian and what do you get? Lifelong friends. It’s a bit unlikely, but it really happened at a study center in the English countryside back in 1974.

            The morning we met I was walking from the dining room to the kitchen at the old Manor house, distracted by the kettle of blackberry jam I was about to make. England was out of sugar, and I’d been trusted with a precious, hoarded five-pound bag and an equal weight of blackberries to make preserves for an upcoming wedding.

So, I was minding my own worrisome business that particular morning when Zoe strode into the foyer and threw down her duffel bag. The new student called over her shoulder. “Where do the bags go? Could you give me a hand?”

I was annoyed. This sturdy person looked four times stronger than I felt. With cropped auburn hair and a commanding voice, she seemed boyish, alien.

“Hi,” I said without warmth. “I’m Eve. Your bags should go upstairs in the girls’ room.”

“Oh thanks. I’m Zoe. Wanna’ show me the way?”

Grabbing the duffel with both hands, I lumbered up the massive staircase while Zoe followed with her knapsack. The girls’ room on the second floor held seven beds. Mine was one of a pair lying close together in a nook just inside the door.

I was happy in my little hideout. Private and shy by nature, I’d always liked corner seats in restaurants and alcoves in old houses. As we passed through the doorway to our room, I looked anxiously at my familiar space. There was only one available bed—the one beside mine. Dropping the bag there, I suddenly felt sick in my core. My beloved nook was about to be ruined.

The Manor house was a relaxed place, and swapping beds was allowed, so I glanced around, trying to remember who was leaving next. Jan from South Africa was going soon, maybe before Christmas. Although her bed was tucked into the drafty built-out bay window, I decided to claim it right away. With that settled, I offered Zoe a quick tour of the property and then went to the kitchen, where I turned up the gas too high and within one hour burnt all the blackberry jam.

            After lunch and a vague confession about the smoke-flavored preserves, I retreated upstairs, hoping to read a little before study time in the afternoon. In my absence, several pictures had appeared on the wall next to the new girl’s bed. I leaned forward to see what they were, then stepped back in surprise. Tacked up in our little nook were half a dozen black and white photos of nudes—one of a bare-breasted woman who looked like Zoe.

            Nude photos never would have hung in my family’s home. My parents were so opposed to sexualizing little girls they’d forbidden me to take ballet lessons, fearful of tutus and bare legs. Certainly they had carried the skin issue too far, but staring at a nude photo of the woman in the next bed was….weird.

            As if the photos weren’t trouble enough for one afternoon, my new roommate plopped down uninvited at the end of my bed.

            “Are you a Christian?” she asked.

            That was a painful question. I told her yes, but added a string of qualifiers. I was raised in a Christian family, in a church that took the Bible seriously. But I was having some problems finding God for myself. Some kind of barrier kept me from him. That’s why I was here.

            At my church, we had a word for telling other people about God. The term was witnessing. I’d been trying to witness for years, without much success. Absolutely certain that God existed and that he could help everyone but me, I often pushed through my natural reserve to tell people that a loving God was alive and would like to enter their lives.

            In English class my senior year of high school, I’d sat in an alphabetically-assigned seat next to a girl named Gail. While our teacher was lecturing away about Elizabethan stage costumes, Gail whispered to me that she’d taken a bad LSD trip the Friday before. Dozens of worms the size of snakes bored into her brain and writhed around. She’d tried to claw her head open to pull them out. The horror show lasted for hours.

            Whispering behind my hand, I told this pretty party girl that she didn’t need LSD; she needed Jesus. I wrote down my phone number and handed it to her. Please, I pleaded, call me before you ever do this again. I’ll come get you; I’ll do anything to help. If she’d give God a chance, I knew he’d help her.

            Now the roles were reversed, and I had someone asking me how to find God. I didn’t like Zoe, but I couldn’t turn her away. The witnessing habit was strong in me. And she was determined, pressing her way into my space and, ultimately, into the Kingdom of God.

            But that didn’t mean I had to like her. Or to be her friend. Just before Christmas, Jan packed her bags for South Africa and I moved my things across the room. The bed in the bay window was only fifteen feet away, but it felt like a blessed mile. There were two beds in my new spot. Moira, a rugged Scot, slept in the other one. She began each morning by throwing open all the windows and exclaiming, “Good fresh air!” None of the Americans thought we needed more air in the month of December, in an unheated house, but nobody said a word to Moira. I was colder than ever, but quite content.

            Zoe wasn’t alone for long. Within days, a new student moved into my old bed. Temperamental, redheaded Jane was a former witch who played the cello and refused to get out of bed in the morning—just the kind of person who might enjoy nude photos on the wall.

            I wanted to move on and I tried to move on, but Zoe kept coming around, wanting to talk. She was there on the end of my bed every night. She even urged me to come into the bathroom with her during her weekly tub, so we could keep talking during her bath. Everywhere I went, there she was.

            By January, I’d had enough. One night I went to bed in the freezing bay window and shivered in my sleeping bag while talking to a God who always seemed off for lunch somewhere.

            Still, I argued with him.

I can’t be around this woman any more. I’m through! I don’t like her!!! Send someone else to help her! I can’t even figure you out myself. Why does she need me?

Something mystical and urgent seemed very present. It said, over and over, No, you are not through. I want you to be her friend.

Again and again and again and again, I said No, I can’t!

The monotonous dialogue continued without interruption until about 4 a.m. Weary of the whole business, finally, with very bad grace, I said Yes to the firm Voice.

It is now 39 years later, and Zoe and I have been friends for all of them. She has been loyal and loving all the years of our friendship. And she was our first guest after we moved in to Eden’s Gate a week-and-a-half ago.

Here’s what Zoe is like today, 39 years after Jesus found her.

There is a crippled saleswoman at the garden shop in our little town. One leg is so stiff and straight the woman appears to have a prosthesis. I have interacted with this woman before and felt sorry for her. But, when Zoe was in the garden shop with me last week, as always, she went straight to the heart.

At the checkout counter, she bent toward the woman’s ear and whispered, “May I ask what is wrong with your leg?”

I cringed. Zoe always moves in bold strokes. That hasn’t changed.

The woman looked startled, but she answered in a soft Southern drawl, “I have terrible arthritis. I can’t even bend it.”

“May I pray for you?” Zoe said.

The woman nodded. Zoe put her hand on Nettie's shoulder.

“Dear Jesus, I ask you to come to Nettie and heal her leg. Please take out the stiffness and make Nettie all well. You have the power to do this and the love to do this. We ask you for a healing!”

Nettie looked up, grateful. She reached toward Zoe.

“May I ask you to pray for our finances, too?”

Zoe took Nettie’s hands in hers and prayed that God would step in to her family’s financial troubles and show them a clear way out. Softly, Nettie thanked her.

That is my friend Zoe, the friend I fought God over in the bay window 39 years ago. I couldn’t see the gift in her, but he could. I’m so grateful he won the fight.