Driving for hours, he started to imagine that the road stretching straight was endless, his anxiety building—like the first time he tried to grasp the idea of “forever,” or envision the universe expanding outward—into what, into where? Colors and shapes blurred and faded together: tree branches into sky; grey gravel edging the road into fields of yellow cornstalks. Wispy clouds lined the glowing horizon at sunset as he travelled west. This was how he remembered it in the cold season.
He was going back after so many years. He didn’t know what he would find, but he would close the circle “whose center was everywhere and circumference nowhere.”*
Early next morning, he saw it: the house rising darkly against a brightening sky. His eyes fixed on it as he turned onto the narrow dirt road. The fence around it was broken in some places, missing in others. Some of the once-sheltering oaks trees were gone. They had been living only in his memory, but the ones on either side of the front porch still stood guard over the farmhouse with its wooden steps, unpainted and sagging into the damp earth. Tall weeds, brown twisting bramble and vines had obliterated the many gardens that once grew in sunny spots.
Ahead loomed rusted parts of yellow and green farm equipment abandoned near the barn, whose roof had partially collapsed on one side. There was the familiar, though weather-faded image covering the top half of the barn facing the house. It was the first thing he had seen each morning from his bedroom window: a red cross against shafts of light, over which floated the words,
GOD IS LOVE.
GOD IS LOVE.
He sat in the car for a long time with his eyes closed until he shivered from the cold. When he emerged to make his way to the house, he observed the broken windows and warped siding. Fallen roof shingles all but blocked the path as he made his way to the back door. He hunched over in a forced gesture of humility as he entered through low doorway.
In the kitchen the wide stone hearth still held charred ends of logs across a blackened grate. He passed through to the room where he half expected to see the long table that he and his sister help to prepare for Sunday dinners. He stopped, putting his hand over the place where it had been. Moving on, he took in the whole of the front room, scanning it camera-wise, but recalling it as it once was. The long windows lining the wall to the west were coated with a fine yellow film diffusing the morning light through the empty room, which smelled of earth and cold and felt like pain.
There he would read in the late afternoons stretching out on the window seats—a warm breeze lifting the white curtains like sails above his head, imagining he was drifting to a sun-soaked Greek isle.
He saw , not an empty room, but as it had been on the summer’s day he left, with no words spoken, no forwarding address given: a rocking chair on one side of the fireplace; a book shelf on the other, the bottom half of which held a radio reserved only for listening to hymns broadcast on Sunday evenings. A sofa was opposite the fireplace, a wooden straight-backed chair with the black, crackled leather seat stood next to a marble-topped table. On the table had been a lamp with a frosted globe painted with peonies like the ones on the wall paper—now worn in places down to the plaster.
All the while, his mind was projecting a tableau of random, intimate vignettes from the past into the room as he remembered it.
He had arrived—returned from another world to speak to his God-fearing family who had fed and clothed him, raised him to work on the land, made sure he was educated (at least enough to be able to run the farm). Gone now, they had waited years for his return, but he believed that here, in this room, in some way, he would be heard by those who needed to hear and still awaited a reunion. He would fill this room with his singular presence, where once the family had gathered.
Outside, the wind was kicking up, blowing through the house with a shrill, whirring sound, jarring and rattling the remaining shutters. His fingers, though gloved, were numb with cold. He headed outside where vortices of golden dust rose up here and there, as he looked for bits of kindling among fallen branches. Inside he built the final fire to blaze in frigid house, and, as he stood in its growing warmth, he conjured his imaginary family with thoughts of truth and reconciliation: his mother seated at the windows gazing out, his father standing at her side, his sister Anna curled on the rocker next to the fire, his abandoned lover waiting on the threshold of the room with her back to him. He could not recall her face, only her despair.
He had wanted to say, “Call me Ishmael, Gilgamesh, Oedipus. I have seen the white whale, entered the cedar forest, solved the famous riddle.” Those were inner experiences; they would not understand. He would speak in plain language. Still, he felt those epic figures were part of him, the foundation for thinking about life and the world. Though he did not think of himself as a hero, he did believe that simply living life is a heroic adventure—a struggle to contend with all of the forces coming against it. Those who managed to survive still have far to go.
He thought of himself as battle-weary, as one who had sought to his own path to consciousness and conscience. He was more certain of and clearer in his judgements and actions precisely because he had set out as those great heroes had, freed himself to leave the known for all there was to be discovered. He had acquired a vision of what it means to be human, which his youthful readings and musings had begun to suggest. He had striven toward that vision, though he was flawed, still so flawed, he knew. These things he wanted to convey as he unraveled his tale, partly in sorrow without remorse, partly in victory without joy. He himself needed to hear it, to grasp it, so in some feeble way, he might atone for the pain he had caused.
He wanted to say that he wasn’t ungrateful, or at least never connected what he did or didn’t do with ingratitude. Early on, he refused to be a replay of the old record of his father’s life. He wanted to acknowledge that he had abandoned his sister, after all the confidences they had shared. Was she left utterly alone in the life they both hated? He would kneel before his mother, asking forgiveness for his mysterious disappearance, for her never having seen him again, for his not having fulfilled her reasonable expectation that her family remain near with life going on in the same way ever after.
He would say he was sorry to his young lover whose beauty and innocence he knew must have longings faded. He thought of her of the last words to him she had screamed to him. "If you leave me, I’ll hang myself from the barn rafters.”
“No, no you won’t,” he had shouted back at her. “You're not going to hold me hostage to save you.” The next day, confused, but determined, he did the thing he had to do.
He did not regret veering off the trajectory set for him or creating his own course, though he had been blown off it many times. He was compelled to travel to where he would see water that was not just in irrigation ditches, or the small stream of the river (that was not a river) running through the nearest city (that was not a city).
He had thought this place as God-forsaken, though his mother had said to him so many times, "God is everywhere the eye can see and the heart can feel—horizon to horizon." If that were so, he would believed he would recognize Him in other lands and landscapes—ones that would better serve to shape and grow something still small inside himself. He would see the blue ocean, stand before and climb mountains, meet and get to know people not like him, people who might be God and angels in disguise—strangers who would become his guests.
When he finally arrived on that island in the wide Hudson, he felt he had found his place, where some rode in long, black limos stopping at hotels, theaters and restaurants. He found his way among them, but preferred to mingle with those who had lost their way, but not their souls—those who carried the sum of their lives in carts or plastic bags, disguising their sainthood beneath blank and somber stares.
He began to speak out loud to the conjured visions now assembled for his homecoming.
”Here I am, come back to…to say I know what I did, what I had to do…trade the predictable for …for what might be possible? Here, yes, I was secure and comfortable, but…I didn't want that….I….I didn’t know what I wanted…but I needed the unpredictable. Mother, you said I was a selfish dreamer, a fool, a doubter, a lazy sinner. Father, you said I was a bad influence on Anna, with my wild talk of journeys and trials…that I was wasting my time reading what you called those ‘foolish books.’”
He paused, more aware than ever how the ideas in those books became ideals to be acted upon—light-filled thoughts that opened up all the colors of dreams that initiated a plan of escape for body and soul.
“When I was a boy, I loved this house, the picnics, Sunday prayers and the hymns, and I always loved you, knew what you wanted for me, and I wanted to be good, to be grateful…for God for everything around me.” He remembered that he tried to obey and honor his father and mother, the commandment he had been told was most important.
As time went on though, he believed more in the burning deep within him to feel alive—to live life as it came to him. “I guess I…I had to learn things the hard way. I tried, but I just couldn’t believe all the things I was told…or live up to what was expected of me.”
Now he believed in something as firmly as his mother had trusted in the Word of God, and he spoke it, “We do not come to earth to fulfill the expectations of God or man.” Yet, he knew that through his rebellion he had, nevertheless, by default or destiny, managed to achieve the self-same thing.
He reasoned that an all-knowing God would have known Lucifer would rebel, that Adam and Eve would be disobedient, that they must be cast out of the Garden to lose their innocence, as he had, in order to become fully human. He spoke the truths he had lived, maybe more to himself than for those whom he had left behind: “To be human is to….choose the good in freedom, not out of command or fear. I became one with the Father. If I didn’t leave, how else would I know good and evil—how they’re all mixed up together, how one can be mistaken for the other because one often results in the other, no matter what we intend.”
He came to think God allowed a Satan to roam the earth, and it was not for us to simply resist temptation. He had once read something he knew was as true as any Bible verse: “Evil is not something to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.”
“Can you understand, I had to live with the mystery of good and evil—even though I thought I left everything to find fulfillment, and for a time, I thought I had.”
He found it with the red-haired woman he loved too much. “There was a woman who painted my portrait in blue with a gold halo around my head. That was before our son was born with his spine outside of his body. On the first anniversary of his death, I came home to find….” A sudden realization came to him. She had vanished, just as he had from the sad farm house in which he now stood. He had never spoken about it out loud and his voice drifted off—his last words, “she was gone,” were only mouthed into the cold air.
He burned the portrait, along with the letters he had written to her every day for a year, with nowhere to send them. What would he do with the remaining love for a woman and a dead child? He lived alone with that mystery until he took in the young man in rags with wild, violet eyes who danced nightly in the streets of St. Mark’s Place, asking nothing for his performances of grace and beauty, but a witness.
He could say no more of the years of roaming the streets of the city to find others in need and would return again to the city after this pilgrimage to the past.
“Please,” he said, “maybe some souls are content to remain in the place where they were born. I…I’m a wayfarer in the world, even if on the narrow path of my own limitations. I found fulfillment once….then it was gone, but somehow, I found what I was meant to find…to do. I left to find life, but, I guess it found me….”
He had meant to speak his whole story and all of his thoughts into the quiet room to those he imagined had waited and were now listening. But, when he started to speak again, his voice was hollow and weak in the gaunt, high-ceilinged room. Suddenly, somehow, all he had experienced appeared before him as a sacrifice, forfeiting simplicity for the sublime, the facts for hard-won truth.
With this vision, a warmth and calm filled him. His frosted breath became visible when he spoke, "I am sorry for the pain I caused…and…I hope you are at peace…now and forever.” He felt it was so.
The fire had gone to embers; the wind had died down. Across the fields, the evening sun was low, but shone through the darkening room as he allowed the imaginary figures to vanish in its illumination.
*“whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” paraphrased from “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” attributed to multiple sources, including Dante and St. Augustine, with the earliest being Empedocles (490 - 430 BC).