The First Time

Illustration by Tim Jordan

In his memoir 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do (Trinity University Press, 2012), noted Oregon writer Kim Stafford '71, MA '73, PhD '79, recounts a brief but transformative interaction in 1965 with Reverend Jim, an assistant pastor at the Stafford family's church. When the church's longtime leader took another parish posting, Jim was in the running to succeed the pastor, but did not get the job. After making plans to move on, Jim gave one final sermon to the church, a scorcher that got everyone's attention and rendered the congregation silent; it included "I want to talk about hypocrisy—your hypocrisy and mine." But this was only a warm up, part one of Jim’s swan song. Part two—the part that forever changed Stafford's life—was still to come.

The deeper thing, the part that stays with me at my core, happened that evening, at the meeting of the Presbyterian Youth, when Pastor Jim gave his last talk to my brother and me, and to our friends.

We were gathered in the upstairs Sunday school room, and the cookies had turned to crumbs on our laps. Pastor Jim had us in a circle of tan folding chairs. He sat quietly, looking around as we brushed our hands together to shake away the crumbs and fiddled with our empty punch cups, waiting. I was 15. Something about his manner had silenced us.

Then he stood, crossed the room, and closed the door. Once he was settled in his chair again, he looked around the room and smiled.

"I need to tell you something," he said, "that I suspect no one has told you. It's a subject parents may find difficult, but it must be said. Please forgive me if you find this subject awkward. I do, too, but I must go on."

We looked at each other, and then at the floor or out the window. I looked at him: crew-cut, pale blue knit shirt, black-framed glasses. He took a deep breath.

"You must be absolutely alone," he said, "and you must know you will not be interrupted—when you first make love to someone." He paused. His stare was level. He looked at me, at Carolyn, at my brother, Marilyn, Paul, Chuck, Nicolette, all around the circle. He gave everyone his look. "There is only one first time, and no matter where you go from this experience, or who you may be with, after, this time will always be sacred."

In my mind the Bible was on fire, the Song of Solomon was being sung aloud, my dreams were being spoken by this plain-looking man with a clear voice.

"Sacred," he said. "I do not use this word lightly. Sacred. Pay attention with all you have in this time together, as close as you have ever been with another person. Feel what you feel. Be kind to one another. This is one of life's greatest gifts, God knows. So do not hurry."

It seemed there was no oxygen in the room. We lived on some other form of elixir.

"And after, do not brag. This private time will be with you all your life. Feel what you feel. Guard what you learn. Learn to love."

"You must be in a space where there is no hurry," he said again. "I need to tell you this very clearly, because there is so much in our culture that gives you a different idea: You must know that no one will interrupt you, because you are about to enter into a time that is yours alone, you two, and you need to be there slowly, and know exactly what you feel. This is not a place for your parents, or for your friends. This is only for the two of you. Love can happen, and be beautiful, and not leave scars on your heart, if you make it your own, in private, without fear, without ambition or pride. Take care of this other person you lie down with. Sensation is a treasure. It is not designed for the backseat of a car, or a room in the house at a party where others might surprise you. Find a beautiful place and make it holy together. I am talking about love, and spirit, and a kind of light that settles over all the world when you come to this gently."

There was no sound in the room. We were a tableaux of figures. My brother with his lips slightly parted, staring far away. The twins, Carolyn and Marilyn askew, and Paul, the saxophone player from the high school band.

"You may not find the person this first time, the partner you will be with always. But you must find honesty. The first person you are with will always be part of who you are, will shape your loving ever after. Be private, be honest, and feel what you feel."

Then Reverend Jim leaned back, as if shaking off a set of chains.

"I have enjoyed my time with you," he said. "But before I left this church, I felt I needed to say these things to you. I wish you well."

It had rained when we came out of the church, and the parking lot was dark. Some parents came to fetch us home. I looked back at the open door where Pastor Jim stood, watching us go. He wasn't the Reverend any more. Just a figure in the dark doorway.

"We need to hurry," said the driver of my car, someone's father, "get you kids home for dinner." I put my fingers to the textured trim by the window as we drove away.

I don't remember talking with my brother about this amazing feat of telling. It was as if a code kept us in our separate cells of silence. Where does such a sermon, said slowly and in private, reside in a young person's life?

When I hopped a freight at midnight later that spring, to serenade Carolyn with my clarinet, and was chased from her house by the family dog, I thought of Reverend Jim. When our father, before I left for college, told me nothing in detail about sex or women or each lonely man as a seeker after solace, I thought of Reverend Jim. When I kissed a girl for the first time in the winter of 1968, I thought of Reverend Jim. And as that girl and I, my wife and I entered intimacy on our wedding night, dwelt there for some years, then drifted away from intimacy over a decade of slow departure, I thought of Reverend Jim.

The first time. Sacred. The Bible on fire. Feel what you feel . . . guard what you learn . . . learn to love.

Who schooled me in truth-telling? Was it my father, the great poet? Was it my teachers in school? Was it the great books that guided me into teaching? Well, in some ways, yes. But at heart I am still in the presence, in the care, under the guidance of that stalwart teller of difficult things, Reverend Jim.