I have some of the strongest memories locked inside my brain. Images, random and detailed, like a giant patchwork quilt of varied fabrics and disparate patterns all attached by the crazy-stitched thread of my life.

When I close my eyes, they appear. Without prompting and without warning. Some warm and welcome, others not.

Last night, a couple of sisters appeared from the deep recesses of repressed memories. I was sitting in the pew – if you can call aluminum-framed, hotel conference chairs with nubbed upholstery lined up hip to hip a pew –  but anyways, I was sitting in the pew behind them. Someone was preaching. Someone was always preaching. And I was trying to underline the scripture in the same, perfectly inked slices as the blond teenager on my right, whose family had followed us out to Texas from Mississippi.

I remember the first time I saw her – yet another random memory. I was in first grade; she was a bit older. Her hair, woven in two braids, the tips fringed and skipping across plaid-shirted shoulders as she herself skipped through the halls of the elementary school. She reminded me of a favorite character from a Disney adventure movie. I can’t remember who or what movie now. That memory is gone. But my girl, skipping with hay-colored hair woven in precise and pretty farmgirl plaits, was only missing a straw hat to make the allusion complete.

Anyway, this girl always underlined the scripture while the preacher – do you call him a preacher when everybody else calls him Brother, and nobody ever actually refers to him as reverend or minister or preacher (or anything, really, beyond Elder and Brother), and you find him repulsive and his eyes beady, and he licks his thin lips almost constantly leaving tiny beads of milky spittle in his meticulously trimmed beard and mustache– I don’t know… I don’t want to call him a preacher. But anyways, I tried my best to underline my bible in perfect inky slivers like my curly-headed blond neighbor. No longer braided.  Branded, though. She’d been branded. She was theirs.

But back to those sisters sitting in the pew in front of me — their heads full of curls as well. But those curls were tight-rolled – turned and twisted into spindles of cast iron Aqua Net sculptures. Sausage curls riding atop waves of cream satin dresses with puffy sleeves, wedged collars, and fabric buttons.  Whipped cream slaves to the Cult of Domesticity. Already. At ages 11 and 9.

And me, I was trying to copy, to imitate, to forge. To sell myself as authentic and stay off the radar of that preacher behind the pulpit — actually hotel podium turned pulpit. So I pressed my pen to the soft tissue of the Living Word and sliced.

Why do I remember these girls, so buttoned up and branded and boxed in? Why have their curls floated to the surface of my wacky, whip stitched brain?

I honestly have no idea.

Yesterday, it was sausage curls.

Today’s it’s sausage fingers… with scarred knuckles, sliced up with threaded white lines at the top center of his fist underscoring their importance. Their power. Their tenderness.

And tender, they are… to speak like Yoda. Like the Yoda he loves. He is hard and soft, this man with sausage fingers and hairline scars surfing the mountain ridge of his fisted knuckles.

His hands are mountains. And they live in my present, not my past, helping me hoist up the heaviness and fear and cover my naked vulnerability.

And its not the sausage curls or the stark lines etched in stony scripture or even the spittle-flecked beards themselves that upend my security blanket and leave me shivering and cold.  It’s the batting underneath it all – a woolly foundation of guilt sutured on with aged and brittle sanctimony. It snags when the memories slip for half-a-second, and then it unleashes its infection and stench.

But that’s where the man with mountains for hands — sliced and ridged and ready to rumble — comes in. He brings balance when the dark and twisty lines of metallic, make-shift church pews and underscored bible verses push their way back into my present.

It’s not that he saves me.  Not at all. I’ve learned in the past ten years – because this week marks ten years with him, ten years of finding balance and bravery – I’ve learned in these ten years, I’m no damsel in distress. Far from it.

I’m a woman with a weighty past, absolutely. With baggage that slides like sewage into the present and stinks it up for a bit, that’s for damn sure. But a damsel in distress? Nope.

Not this gal.

But I am somebody who now has a dedicated partner with hands like mountains who works with me to lift and redistribute the guilt and to wring out the sewage when it seeps out of my seams. Together, we clean it all up again. Because it’s a never-ending process, rinsing the demons out of the dark underbelly of my life.

But I don’t want to erase the darkness; I just want to keep it clean. Because that dark background is part of what makes my life so beautiful.

Without darkness, who could recognize the light?  Without hard, who could appreciate the soft?

And me and my guy, we clean up quite nicely, if I do say so myself…