A few months ago, I experienced an apt juxtaposition of God and the messiness of life, and the way it all fits together beautifully—even the ugly stuff.
Before we get into that, we should probably back up a few years. It was the summer of 2010 and I was struggling to find my footing in the world and make sense of my existence. Two years had passed since I’d buried the life I thought I was planning for my adulthood next to the person with whom I’d intended to share it.
In that time, I’d relocated twice to two different cities, graduated one college and started at a university I didn’t expect to attend. I’d quit smoking cigarettes in September 2008, and had taken up eating a “family size” bag of M&M’s as a strange supplement to my semi-vegetarian diet.
Beginning in 2008, I spent a lot of time alone trying to figure out the right combination of compulsive and indulgent behaviors to alleviate my grief and anxiety. I had tried nearly every form of self-medication available, including potent religion, recreational marijuana, and shame-eating. Nothing was particularly effective.
By the time 2010 rolled around, I had given up most of the bad stuff, was eating and sleeping regularly, exercising frequently, and taking psychotropic drugs on a schedule. I was a junior at the university, working a couple of jobs, in a serious relationship with someone who helped keep all the Life Stuff afloat so I could focus on keeping my mood stable enough to succeed in school and not walk into a pond with rocks in my pockets.
Then, when I started a new job at a fine dining restaurant and started making friends there, life began to shift. Although I had worked in a bar for nearly five years prior to that, I rarely drank. Once in a while, I would take a couple of shots that people bought for me, I’d “nip” on moonshine or whiskey, and every now and then I would indulge too hard. But an important part of my existence at that time was control, and if I relinquished even the smallest bit of it, I might shatter entirely. So, I kept a white-knuckled grip on myself except on rare occasions and in very safe spaces with trustworthy people. And I drank wine at home alone, which is totally normal for a 24 year old adult.
To put it simply, when I did drink, I got way too drunk and ended up blubbering, being super weird, vomiting, or any combination thereof. The grief I kept so neatly tied up spilled out in slobbery sadness or hot-headed anger. I once pounded on the hood of an unoccupied Mercedes because I believed that whomever owned it must be an entitled tool, since s/he had parked it too close to the walkway I was staggering through and I ran into it. After drinking heavily, I would spend the next several days or weeks wallowing in guilt and shame over my stupidity, exacerbated by the grief I unwittingly set free by getting hammered. And then I would do it again. Because that’s how alcohol works.
I thought maybe I would just dip my toe in, see what it was like to be undone and not in control, test the boundaries, experiment with what drunkenness might be like in an unproven space with people whose care for me was ostensibly limited to our coworker camaraderie. I didn’t love the way booze made me feel. No matter how much I drank the night before, I always woke up panicky, shaky, and uncertain. Probably it had something to do with pouring anywhere from a glass to a gallon of wine directly on top of my psychotropic-addled brain when the drug’s instructions explicitly warned me not to do that. I have never claimed to not be an idiot.
Around the time that I was discovering alcohol, my boyfriend at the time was discovering Jesus. He was raised Catholic and a close relationship with your savior isn’t one of the primary tenets of that faith. Meanwhile, I was floating on a river of booze quickly away from the religion that defined my childhood and was a crutch and safe haven in my adulthood.
I was bent with bitterness at the time, angry at God, the world, and everything that existed. After all, I had been devout, and what had it gotten me? Abandonment, loneliness, death and loss, unrelenting depression, a body and brain that seemed to be ever failing. I was bitter that I had conceded to wanting a life I never thought I would (marriage) and then having the rug yanked out from under me. I was bitter that I had made myself vulnerable, toiled mightily to overcome a lifetime of abandonment issues, and then been abandoned in the ultimate way. I was hateful about the brokenness of my then-current relationship, and my inability to fix it on my own or even come close to effectively communicating my needs.
I was reeling from a loss of identity, a general sense of unease, my own emotional impotence, the idea that I would never overcome circumstances beyond my control that I believed had shaped who I was. It was my fault, it was God’s fault, it was everybody’s fault, it was nobody’s fault. The combination of feeling directionless, hopeless, and like I was galloping breathlessly toward everything and nothing all at once was enough for me to throw up my hands. The use of God as a weapon to support homophobia and denounce other beautiful aspects of life that I believed in was the last straw I needed.
Had I stayed in a relationship with someone who was exploring his spirituality, I may not have lost my faith. Or maybe I would have. Who knows. In any case, during The Summer of the Sauce, I witnessed a connection between my boyfriend and someone else. It was like stumbling on lovers sharing a quiet moment together when they are the only two in the world. It was innocuous on its surface: they laughed together as she tenderly brushed sand from his side after they had played a particularly rough game of sand volleyball. But there was a spark there, one I saw instantly, and several years later they finally explored that dynamic. At the time, it was a final nail in the coffin for me of our square-peg-round-hole dynamic. Though it took me several weeks of bottling my feelings, searching for them in a different bottle, and trying to connect with someone else emotionally before I could muster the wherewithal to end it.
Summer faded into fall and I ended the relationship. Then we tried it again after only a short time apart. And then it was over again by very early the following spring. I descended into a deep cave of self-destruction and sought only those relationships that would support my drunken, self-loathing quest. I began dating someone new immediately, a friend and drinking buddy, and we moved in together right away. That relationship would become more volatile than I even knew was possible, all hooch-soaked screaming and crying and gnashing of teeth.
It was exactly what I believed I deserved at the time: a tenuous grip on any semblance of romantic “happiness”, a hot fire of inward and outward enmity, the two of us brimming with self-hatred so profound it obscured any view of the pain it sought to mask. We had scholarly (if intoxicated) discussions with our friends about the obvious fact that God didn’t exist, and I maintained the calm tenor of an intellectual while I seethed beneath the surface, counting all the ways I believed the God I claimed didn’t exist had wronged me.
My mother was, like most mothers would be, beside herself with worry for me during this stage of my life. She had been an alcoholic, as was my father and her post-divorce boyfriend. Many of the adults in our lives struggled with substance abuse of one kind or another. Despite her own lifelong battle, she wanted better for her children. Do as I say, not as I do.
Numerous instances precipitated my loss of faith, not the least of which was an expectation that life shouldn’t be so goddamn hard, especially for the faithful, not as hard as it had been for as long as I had lived. Further, throughout my life, I had watched closely the complex battles of many people I loved dearly as life or God or the universe or maybe nothing at all repeatedly dealt them shit sandwiches, and they remained humble and faithful even as pain and misery piled up around them. Thank you, sir, may I have another?
Life was so fucked up, I couldn’t imagine that something profound, beautiful, and perfect could abide it all. I couldn’t fathom that divinity could exist in the midst of all this, and if it did, then I couldn’t subscribe to him as a deity I wanted to follow because what kind of creator was okay with all the agony and anguish of this existence?
My mother would remind me of Job. Things were terrible for him. He experienced loss in ways we couldn’t even fathom. She promised that I could question God, be angry, fight with him, call him out… I did not have to denounce him entirely to explore the myriad injustices I believed somehow made me unique in the world.
God can handle it, baby, she would say, Trust me, I’ve blamed him for all sorts of things, people do all the time. Hell, look at David. He was angry at God all the time. I could hear her light a cigarette, anxious.
Still, like a petulant little girl, I loudly and boisterously wore my new-found agnosticism like a badge. There was likely some part of me that reveled in the anxiety I caused my mother. Such is the luxury of a child whose mother is still alive.
I believe in spirituality, I would say, not religion, taking a swig from an overfull glass of red wine. God is a social construct to make people feel better about all the bullshit that happens in the world.
She never wrote me off. She quietly prayed for me, scribbling furiously to God in prayer journals that now sit in my basement in plastic tubs that I cannot bear to open because they smell so strongly of the skin on her neck where I buried my face when I cried for 29 years.
By early 2013, I had graduated college and long since disentangled myself from my volatile relationship and the intoxicated haze with which it was synonymous. I’d culled friendships from my life that I believed to be destructive and based mostly on drinking together, though I did so with a butcher’s imprecision and projected a lot of my self-animus onto people who were complicit in my harmful lifestyle only because I had asked them to be. At that point, I had met the person who would become the father of my child(ren) and whose perplexing grace was an impetus for the softening of my heart toward the God I had excoriated for the preceding several years.
Perhaps most significantly, I had found out that my mother’s death was imminent. It’s really serious this time, Beeda, my sisters each said to me separately. She won’t have the lung capacity test done again, but it wasn’t good last time and that was a year ago. We exchanged deep sighs over the phone. We thought we had until autumn, but she deteriorated quickly, and died in July. I wonder if my thawing might have been more accelerated had I known our timeline.
Earlier this year, just over two years after finding out she would die soon, I stood in the kitchen in our still-new home washing my breakfast and lunch dishes after putting the dog in her big backyard. My swollen belly was still new and foreign to me, almost as alien as the notion that I had landed in this spot in life: a homeowner, a mother-to-be, sharing life with my capital-P Person, in a steady job with a good salary and benefits in a field I love, watching my trusty dog live out her twilight with her very own fenced yard.
I stared out the window into the backyard, my hands sudsy and warm while I watched the dog exploring the yard that was still mostly barren from the winter. I began crooning aloud to my unborn baby one of the hymns I had sung to my dying mother, lyrics about angels taking a weary child home to rest.
One of the hallmarks of my slow return to faith has been recognizing the simple and elegant beauty of the everyday, and finding God in those places: the unfurling of a hearty plant in still-cold early days of spring, watching as a child’s developing brain feverishly solves a problem, the coming together of diversified groups in the wake of a tragedy, an awkward exchange that demonstrates the elemental humanness that characterizes us all above anything else. I will likely never return to the evangelism I grew up in, and I will likely spend the remainder of my existence finding new reasons to recalibrate my beliefs. One of the most important principles I have learned to embrace is that life is a mess. It is sloppy, and fraught with unexpected missteps and tragedies and brokenness and we will all inevitably dine on shit sandwiches from time to time. It is imperfect. And this does not preclude the existing of God, or goodness, or light.
I reflected on this while I stood at the sink and watched my dog and sang to my unborn child, overcome with joy and a sense of fullness at being able to shoulder suffering because I have also experienced a whole lot of good. I raised my voice louder so maybe my baby’s growing ears could hear the song I used to sing to/with his or her Nana.
Through the yeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaars
You’ve always loved me
And my liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiife
You’ve tried to save
And right then, as if on cue, the dog went to stand by the swaying cypress tree and started to wretch, vomiting repeatedly while I finished out the dishes and the hymn.*
*The dog is fine, she just likes to eat grass and vomit once in a while, we see the vet regularly and she’s just got a sensitive tummy (which we offset with specialized dog food).