Recently, I bequeathed one of the very few prize heirlooms from our family – the McGee couch. For 20 years this extra long and extra wide plaid couch adorned either our game room, living room, or study. When my parents moved to a smaller house in the country, it ended up nearly consuming half my dad’s office. Some subtle and not so subtle hints were dropped for a year or so of its upcoming demise unless one of its heirs would rent a truck and pick it up.
I’m attached to very little objects from my childhood, but this couch is one of them. I remember puzzles being made by myself and my siblings on this couch; I remember hard conversations about relational infidelity taking place on this couch; I remember bible studies and games of pool taking place on and around this couch; I remember guzzling a large glass of milk and watching the College World Series as an elementary student on this couch. I don’t contain many memories from my childhood, but many of the ones I hold dear, revolve around this soft, comfortable couch.
When the expungement was finally near, I couldn’t resist the urge to make the drive up north and attempt to cram the couch in my small apartment. To nap once again on this familiar couch, to rest after a long day of teaching and coaching on something that embodies who I was and who I am, was too sentimentally pleasing for me to pass up…
I was sitting on the left side of the couch, like I had been almost every day after work for the past 3 weeks, and I began to wonder, “Do I need to shift to the right side? To balance out the saggy cushion on the left?”
The thought left almost as soon as it entered the light of my mind. Re-runs from The Office flashed one after another on the screen while I mindlessly scrolled through and refreshed my Facebook timeline on my newish smartphone. I gave my attention to it all; I gave my attention to nothing. I adjusted my legs, so I could be propped up more, already forgetting that if I just scooted over a foot or two, my positioning would be much more comfortable than it currently was.
As an introvert, these moments alone are cherished. After a long day of teaching and coaching, after a long evening of some church activity or catching up with a friend, the hour or so I get to spend alone before I go to bed is precious – no one talking to me, work or volunteer responsibilities ignored for a bit, relationships put on hold. I need this time.
Over the past 10 years or so, I have filled these times up with reading, writing, thinking, praying, walking, or playing a sport. My heart, my mind, my body, my soul would be filled up after giving and pouring myself out for much of the day, and a sensation would wash over me affirming a time well spent; it was as if it was saying, “Yes, Justin. This is good. Do this. For you. For your sanity. For your love.”
I love how Virginia Woolf’s narrator in To the Lighthouse explains Mrs. Ramsey’s similar feeling, as a seeming extrovert, when a dinner party she hosts is just right:
Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right…there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out…in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made to endure.
Instead of the rest, the peace, the enduring quality of using my time alone for my own good, I have chosen the quips of Jim and Dwight, of Liz and Jack, and of Barney and Ted to sustain me for the next day. For an introvert like myself, it is as if I am pounding a bowl of Skittles, experiencing the rush of pleasure a good red Skittle can bring, only to feel sick and lethargic soon afterward – worse than when I began the gorge.
So, why, when I have seen Mrs. Ramsey’s ruby, do I continue to choose the red Skittle?
I used to say to Ruth, in all those tortured months before I left my husband, that what I feared most was loneliness. Not being alone, which I often find perfect and peaceful, but loneliness, which makes me want to die, which makes me think I will die, which I will do anything to avoid feeling: call a friend; go shopping; pedal endless, frantic miles on my stationary bike; pour another drink; take another sleeping pill.
What Ruth says is: Maybe I should try to stay in the loneliness, just for five minutes, just for ten minutes. Maybe the loneliness has something for me. Maybe I should see what that something is.
I feel as if I have two options in my life. I can use this hour of free time to “avoid feeling” as Lauren says, and choose baseball tweets and deadening TV shows; I can fill my schedule up to the brim with “righteous” activities that make me feel and look good – for a moment –, but in the end, I numb myself to the world and people around me, and what I hate the most, I fail to emotionally and spiritually connect to those in my life who hurt and are in need of a touch of God’s grace.
But, I often forget that I have another option to choose from. I can choose loneliness. I can choose to sit in the loneliness, a loneliness I used to sit in so well, a loneliness which taught me empathy, a loneliness that taught me how to love God, a loneliness that taught me how to be loved by God; this is a loneliness that hurt like hell, a loneliness that casted me into despair, a loneliness that made my insides churn to such an extent I would have to flee my everyday life on occasion. But, in sitting with this loneliness, and asking what it has for me, I learned who I was in Christ and who I was to be in this world.
Maybe the loneliness can teach me again…
As Lily Briscoe enters into this same loneliness in To the Lighthouse, its same duality is seen in her desire to paint what it is that she actually sees, yet all the while being attacked internally to give up her whole charade of life:
She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself—struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see,” and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her. And it was then too, in that chill and windy way, as she began to paint, that there forced themselves upon her other things, her own inadequacy, her insignificance…
May God grant me the courage to sit in the loneliness, to ask it what it has for me, to choose the activities which bring me life even at the risk of “demons” and “a thousand forces” which wish to tear me away from them and which wish to contort the good into something bad.
May the divots in my family couch be restored, and if not restored, be indicative of a well-nourished soul by life-giving activities.
Image Credit: https://afremov.com/BY-THE-LIGHTHOUSE-PALETTE-KNIFE-Oil-Painting-On-Canvas-By-Leonid-Afremov-Size-24-x40.html