I miss my magnolias tonight as I gather my thoughts to compose on a veranda off the kitchen of my oldest brother’s Italian villa style house in Greenville, South Carolina. Spring Break afforded me the opportunity to visit David’s family, play school with my niece and nephew, and exchange thoughts with my sister-in-law and my brother.
When I opened the door and entered the house a couple of days ago, the familiar scent of their home sent me back like a time machine to a season I try hard not to remember. It was in this house in David’s man-cave with theater seating and a big screen that I first seriously considered leaving my husband. It was here that I came clean with my family about the problems in my marriage and came clean with myself about the depression I could no longer manage alone. In the safety of my brother’s wisdom, I was able to face a reality that my mind could not process otherwise.
I remember spending a day at a children’s museum with my niece and nephew, watching them play grocery store. At that time, daily tasks no longer made sense, and the absurdity of children practicing for the future responsibility rendered me practically incapacitated. We eat, we sleep, we dream, we shop, we school, we play, but why? Why? The question resounded regarding every action that now seemed trivial and meaningless. Years before, having children was my greatest desire; now, I watched the kids playing and could only question the act of reproduction. Why do we keep furthering generations? I did not want children. I did not want anything anymore.
I had come to obsess over the meaning of life. Having long before adopted theologian John Piper’s revision to the catechism that the chief end of man was to glorify God by enjoying him, I had lived with that aim at the forefront. During this particularly dark winter, I devoured book after book attempting to derive the purpose for human existence to begin with. Sin entered the picture not with man, but with the angel Lucifer who rose up against God, Angels could not die, so in order for God to defeat sin, He needed to create a species in His image that would sin, so that He could send His Son in their image to die and therefore defeat sin, and with every answer I found I had only more of the same question: why?
In the months that followed that trip to Greenville, I announced my intention to divorce my spouse, moved to Syracuse, and lived in my old bedroom. I use the word “live” loosely, because more accurately, I was only existing. I ate, slept, dreamed, and eventually started going to the gym. Without a job or home or family to care for, it was often my only obligation save for weekly visits with my psychologist, Dr. Bogin. Running into old acquaintances there only heightened my awareness of the nothingness that was my being, and with the support of my parents, David, and Dr. Bogin, I shored up enough courage to apply for my dream job in Greenville as a Technology Facilitator. I would be doing what I’d gone to graduate school for: working with teachers to implement technology and media in their classrooms.
The last time that I was here, I interviewed for the position. In the car, my then five-year-old niece prayed for me. “God, please give Auntie Laura Joy this job so that she can read me Amelia Bedelia books every night,” the child pleaded before I went in the building. I had prayed fervently for this job. My parents’ small group had prayed. Even my niece had prayed. It was on the flight back to Syracuse that I received the email thanking me for applying and explaining another candidate had been selected.
My obsession on why and purpose then shifted to the function of prayer. We had all prayed so hard for my fresh start at my dream job in a new city, but the prayers were denied. At first it seemed an unkindness – I had gathered all the courage that was left in my bones to take this risk only to have my tiny hopes shattered. Was it my will verses God’s will, His divine will and permissive will, the desires of my heart verses God’s will? I became entangled in a web of my own making that found me unable to complete a simple prayer without a schizophrenic inner dialogue akin to, “God, I really want… well, I want if it’s what You want… well, I know that you give us the desires of our heart, so this is the desire of my heart, but You already know that desire, so do Your will, but You will anyway, so…” Why pray if the outcomes were already determined?
It was after that last trip to Greenville that I stopped praying, and not long after that I stopped opening my Bible at all. The words no longer spoke to me or gave me comfort. I tagged along with my parents to church, but I felt nothing when lifting my voice in songs of worship that used to bring me to tears. I recall one session with Dr. Bogin where I admitted that for the first time in my life I was questioning the fact that I’d hinged my entire existence upon the death and resurrection of a man that lived over two thousand years ago. Jesus seemed foreign to me.
In essence, it has been nearly two years since Jesus seemed real. I went through the motions of attending church for a dual purpose: to please my parents and to experience an epiphany. Ultimately, neither was achieved. Upon learning the truth of my divergence from faith, my father was enraged that I had given them and God lip-service for so long. Absent an epiphany, I elected to stop trying altogether.
The sun has set and I cannot see beyond the bars of this veranda, and the imagery that dances behind my eyelids is that of my own backyard in Virginia. The man who chopped up the wood never returned to collect it, so there is firewood littering the entire backyard. While I’m grateful to only pay the lawn boy for the front yard this week, the dead wood still concerns me. Will he be back? Should I gather it myself and sell it or give it away, and how would I find people who need it now that winter is but a cold memory?
Perhaps my faith is like that wood, once alive and thriving, now still and silent, its future in question. Yet, these logs have more potential than the branches discarded on trash day – there is still a chance that something useful will become of them in time to come. It occurs to me that I could ask why this grand tree met its demise, but what’s the point? A dozen unanswered why’s from two years ago brought me to my disbelief. Why ask why at all?
Why do humans walk the earth? Why do flowers bloom? Why do we procreate? Why do we need sleep and food? Why do we play sports? Why do we work jobs? When I stopped asking why, I rejoined the living. I took a job in Syracuse, learned how to golf, made new friends, and found enjoyment playing Candy Crush Saga on my smart phone. I took a chance on a teaching career and landed in Virginia. Countless nights helping my older brother with his infant twin girls leave me feeling useful.
Two years ago, I had no desires left for a family of my own, and though I may have lost my faith in religion, I have regained so many other parts of me. If I am a Peony, I’m still newly planted, and I cannot expect the vibrancy of a fourth-year plant from a mere seedling. I’m teaching, writing, laughing, and dreaming again. Perhaps I will regain faith in year two or three. For today, it’s enough to know I’m living again and not consumed by the why’s that once debilitated me.