Abandoned National Road

I can hardly believe that my old friend Michael and I made this trip nine years ago along the abandoned National Road (US 40) in Illinois. I wrote about the trip on my old static-HTML site here.

It looks like I won’t get any road trips in this summer. I sometimes feel a little bummed about it, but I’ve filled my summer with so much other good and important stuff that I’m not letting myself stay bummed for long. When I started exploring the old roads in 2006, I was freshly divorced and looking for ways to escape. I needed to get away from my sadness and hitting the road worked great. I still love the road, but I don’t need to escape anymore. Life is good.

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Photography, Road Trips

Captured: Contemplating the abandoned National Road

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Personal, Stories Told

The Christmas bellwether

This is the third in a short series of stories from 10 years ago. A sad story for Christmas Eve, but with a hopeful ending. Just one more story to go after this, next week.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, having Christmas as a family. It was our last.

I couldn’t see, didn’t want to see, that my marriage was over. How did I miss it? She wanted me out; I had holed up near our home in a one-room apartment. My wife was lighter, happier without me. She changed churches, she made new friends — this was what moving on looked like. It frightened me.

What did I say that convinced her to do Christmas together in our home? I can’t remember. Perhaps she wanted a show of normalcy for our sons. Maybe she wanted one last memory with my mother; they had been close. I can’t believe my parents were willing to come. They had to convince my brother. They did it for me, they did it for my sons, even though they knew, even though it would be anything but comfortable.

I recall only random details. There was dinner: not elaborate and overflowing as in years past, but a routine Sunday pork roast. Decorations were sparse, with no tree, but gifts were piled up for our boys. I bought my wife a gift, pajamas, something I knew she needed, the kind she liked; “I told you not to buy me a gift.” I slept on the couch, my parents on the futon. There must have been breakfast; there had to have been. I don’t remember everybody leaving.

But I remember being back in my apartment that morning, alone, the whole day after Christmas before me. I sat on my bed for hours, pain and loneliness pinching my face, loss pressing into my shoulders, grief crushing my chest.

Divorce hurts. Have you been through it? I can’t speak to yours, but mine was so destructive that it took me years to recover from it. I’m not ready to tell those stories yet. But I am ready to say that I remember that Christmas, the one that foreshadowed a terrible year to come, a year of loss after loss, of anger, of agony, of tears.

Opening a Christmas gift in my childhood home

Opening a Christmas gift in my childhood home

I remember better the Christmases that followed. My sons and I spent the next one in South Bend, comforted to be with family in my childhood home. That next year, stability crept in and I found solace; the grief and pain eased some.

By the next Christmas my church had invited me to live in its parsonage. I invited my parents and my brother to share Christmas there; it is where our family’s Christmas spaghetti tradition began. A year of rebuilding followed, of figuring out our new family ways, of making new traditions.

By the next year I had bought the little house in which I still live. We’ve had seven Christmases here, my parents, my brother, my sons, and I, and we will enjoy our eighth tomorrow. For a few years, each Christmas was better than the last, foretelling a better year to come.

But three or four years ago, I felt it: we had a routine Christmas — wonderfully good, full of food and family and closeness. But that had become the norm. And I knew our lives had recovered, and we were just living again.

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Personal, Stories Told

Three hundred square feet

This is the second in a short series about the most difficult time of my life, ten years ago right now. I told this story once before, in November of 2009, but rewrote it for today.

She wanted me out, just for a month, just to clear our heads. Ten days later, the double-cross: don’t come back.

I ached over losing my family, but more urgently I needed out of an awful extended-stay hotel as it racked up debt on my credit card. Most of my paycheck kept my children in the home they knew; I had to live on what little remained. Affordable apartments were few, small, broken down, in bad neighborhoods. I chose the place closest to my children, especially tiny at just three hundred square feet.

Lease signed, key in hand, door open, six steps completed the tour across stained carpet, along the worn counters, past the gouged bathroom door. I startled at an electric roar; the heater had kicked on. I sat down on the Murphy bed and felt the springs in the thin mattress. I felt dizzy, nauseated. How could I be living in a place like this? Were my sons okay? What were they doing? Did they know what was happening? I wished I could see them. I didn’t want them to see this place.

I took a breath, and then another, and purposed to accept. I took it day by day, as I couldn’t imagine still living in this hole on the last day of my six-month lease. I didn’t know then that I’d renew twice: my wife filed for divorce but then refused to negotiate. Our case went to trial in a horribly backlogged court.

Three photographs capture almost everything:

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apt2

apt1

I would come to terms with my marriage’s end here, in anguish and anger night after night. I wished I could hole up, cut out the world, let the pain rage until it was done with me. But I still had to work to pay for everything, be a father to my children, and do considerable preparation for the trial. I had never known such crippling stress. I hardly slept. I lost 20 pounds. Xanax kept me from stepping over the edge.

Thank God for friends and family who prayed for me and took my phone calls at all hours of the day. They propped me up, then built me up. I had compromised my integrity so often in the marriage, sometimes from my shortcomings and sometimes in desperation to keep my family together, that I had utterly lost myself. Slowly, inner strength returned.

I began the hard work of rebuilding. My little apartment became the safe place I needed to do the work.

That’s ironic, because the apartment complex wasn’t really a safe place. Two neighboring apartments saw a dozen visitors a day, eyes darting about nervously as they sought a fix. And it was whispered that a prostitution ring was being run out of some apartments in the back. Yet the drug dealers were respectful when we encountered each other at our cars (mine a cheap Toyota; theirs immaculate white Caddies loaded with gold trim). And one of the alleged prostitutes kept knocking on my door asking for money until I said, “Are you hungry? I’ll take you to the store and buy you whatever you need,” which chased her away for good. Word got around that I had cables, so I jump-started a bunch of hoopties. And I was awakened late one night to call an ambulance for an ailing neighbor who couldn’t afford a phone. This place knew the problems of poverty. But unless someone knocked, I never knew they were there. My room’s silence was broken only when a washing machine went off balance in the laundry room next door.

And so in that isolation I took inventory of myself. Not sleeping gave me time to do the work, and having no amenities and little money made it hard for me to distract myself or run away. I buckled down, took a hard look at how far out of true I had gone, and made slow but steady progress back to myself.

Me_In_Apt

I learned to accept the pain and let go of my marriage. I found ways to snatch a little serenity here and there. I started to manage the stress more effectively. I began to look forward to my future. And best of all, my sons and I forged tight new relationships. We used to fold up the Murphy bed and play a rough game on the floor where I’d get on my knees, the boys would try to run past me, and I’d reach out and tackle them on their way by. I can’t explain it, but that game was a tonic for us, singlehandedly building trust and good feelings.

I drive by a lot today; it’s on the way to the grocery store. My sons used to remark on our time there, about how they hated sleeping on bedrolls but loved to play our game on the floor, but the years have dimmed their memories. I thought I had left the apartment with more good memories than bad, and I felt grateful for my recovery there. Yet not long ago when I stumbled upon the photos I’ve shared here, deep echoes of pain flooded my mind and body, echoes that took days to subside. How crushing the stress. How close I came to breaking. I don’t know how I managed to function. I have no explanation other than I was in God’s hand.

I’ve shared very little here about my ten-year journey since the separation. My blog has mostly been about who I’ve become since those awful days — an expression of joy in having found myself again and regained my integrity. I hope this story provides context for the rest of what I write here.

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Faith

Not-so-instant gratification

Life deals serious difficulties to everyone, I think. Losing a child, chronic illness or pain, injustice, infidelity, loneliness, addiction, and divorce – expect slow and painful recovery from such things. I’ve had plenty of serious difficulties in the past several years. I’m recovering, but the path has been crooked – after a few good days, another wave of pain hits. I don’t want to have to experience these waves of pain, even though I now know that they are part of healing. I find it helpful sometimes to distract myself for a short while so I can come back refreshed and better able to cope. So maybe I’ll buy myself something small, or eat something I really enjoy, or rent a movie. But it’s possible to turn such things into a crutch, using them impulsively and compulsively to avoid the pain. I can consume an entire large pizza by myself, and this has become the first thing I reach for when I’m struggling. I’ve eaten probably a dozen large pizzas by myself in the past six months. It soothes me for a while, but leaves me bloated, and I can’t escape that this is gluttony. Thank goodness for my blast-furnace metabolism or I’d be a hefty man. I’ve used other things to find this kind of relief, too; some of those have created more serious problems for me. I think this is a form of instant gratification, this seeking easy, if temporary, relief. But God asks me to wait for him to bring the strength I need to push through. Isaiah 40:28-31 (NASB) puts it in a way that offers such hope:

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired
His understanding is inscrutable.
He gives strength to the weary,
And to him who lacks might He increases power.
Though youths grow weary and tired,
And vigorous young men stumble badly,
Yet those who wait for the LORD
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary.

But that’s so hard! How long do I have to wait? Days? Months? Years? Am I supposed to just lie around doing nothing while I wait for God to magically heal me?

Butterfly at Turkey Run State Park

I have learned that we wait as long as it takes for God to use it to shape us for His service. The process of waiting, of enduring, strengthens us.

I have also learned is that God gave us our abilities for a reason, and there are sometimes things we can do to help ourselves. All of us can pay attention to the basics of caring for ourselves, and build support networks of people we trust who care about us and will pray for us. If you’re sick or in pain, you can go to the doctor. If you’re lonely, you can get involved at church or in a singles group. If you’re grieving, you can read books about grief and join a loss support group. If you’re addicted, you can start 12-step recovery. If you’re any of these things, you can get a therapist. But God remains in control, and your healing is largely up to His timing. And even when we are at the end of our rope, God is working in our lives to bring us greater peace, strength, and joy, if we’ll just wait for it.

A woman at my church went into the hospital one day for a hip replacement – and contracted a terrible infection and was in the hospital, with no hip, for more than a year. It was brutally difficult for her most of the time, lying in bed day in and day out, tethered to a machine that dripped powerful medicine into her hip socket. She told me she felt like a prisoner in the hospital. She couldn’t do anything without help, and she fought daily to keep her low morale from collapsing entirely. That time finally ended, way past the point I thought a merciful God would allow. But everyone who knows her can see how she is remarkably more confident and poised. She resolved to wait. She had no choice, really. In my opinion it let God work in her to cause her to grow. As Paul wrote in Philippians 1:6 (NASB):

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

And as James wrote in James 1:2-4 (NASB):

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Here’s the point: When you look for the quick fix or the easy out, you could be robbing God of the opportunity to shape you to be more and more like Christ. So trust that at the worst times God is very close to you, waiting for you to turn to Him.

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