“It’s been a long road from there to here. Don’t get me wrong, I feel I am a long ways off from my destination. I’m the last person to claim that I’ve arrived. All that I know for sure is that I’m not there anymore.” – Erika Rae, Devangelical
From the moment I first laid ears on “The Way Home,” a gorgeous bonus track on the European release of The Airborne Toxic Event’s Such Hot Blood, my overriding impression was that of a journey.
But it took me months to realize that it was, in fact, my journey.
I’ve said before that my connection to The Airborne Toxic Event does not stem from shared experiences. Much of the band’s subject matter is foreign to the life I’ve lived for the past 40 years (give or take 15 months).
But that’s not entirely accurate. At the core of the group’s work, and Mikel Jollett’s lyrics in particular, lies the notion of struggle. And though my specific struggles may have come wrapped in different packaging, the fact of struggle is fundamental to the human experience, and certainly something that I hold in common with Mikel, and with every human being – which, I suspect, helps explain why so many people from so many diverse backgrounds find the band to be so eminently relatable.
If “The Way Home” is indeed a journey, it’s a journey through struggle: a path marked by confusion, question marks and the lack of a clear destination. The traveler knows not where he’s headed; only that it must be somewhere far away from here.
It’s a path I know all too well.
I’ve always been older than my years would suggest. The hyper-responsible eldest child, I was forced to grow up altogether too quickly by my parent’s ugly divorce and the decade of soap-opera-worthy turmoil that followed. By the age of 16, I had found the girl I knew I was going to marry; by 19 we had made it official. By 24 we had lost our first child to stillbirth (a second such loss would follow four years later); by 29 we had our first special needs child (a second such blessing would follow seven years later).
All told, by the time I hit my mid-thirties, with a family of six and an income that couldn’t quite keep pace, I felt like I’d packed a lifetime of living into less than four decades. So perhaps it should have come as no surprise when my mid-life crisis arrived about fifteen years ahead of schedule. Still, it caught me off guard; and when it struck, it struck hard.
Lying still, head awake, eyes closed tight and thoughts ablaze,
It’s coursing like a river going through my mind, just taking hits from the hands of time.
It’s always driven my wife nuts: my uncanny ability to lay my head down on my pillow at the end of the day and fall asleep almost immediately. Some nights I hit ‘PLAY’ on my TATE playlist as I settle in; almost always I’m out before the first song bleeds into the second.
So it was unusual, seven years ago, when I began to find myself unable to sleep. Body still, eyes closed tight… but thoughts ablaze. Questions, contradictions, confusion, all coursing like a river through my mind: swirling, tumbling, sweeping me away in the bubbling current.
For a guy who was accustomed to having all the answers, the ceaseless questions were unsettling to say the least.
Silence can be so odd, it’s like looking around for the eyes of God,
There’s a truth somewhere that I just can’t find, taking hits from the hands of time.
I thought I knew The Truth. I had embraced it when I was 16 and never looked back. I built my life around it. My worldview. My career. My friendships. My finances. My marriage. My parenting. My foundation.
I diligently fortified that Truth. Memorizing the stock defenses against any ideas that dared challenge it, and shielding myself from anything that could potentially threaten my predetermined perspective, I wondered how others could be so blind to something so patently obvious.
So how was it that I now found myself wrestling in silence, searching in vain for the eyes of God, grasping for an elusive Truth that suddenly seemed out of reach?
And I wonder if you were here right now, would you sit with me beneath this darkened shroud?
In this prison built of bricks of shame, I want to tear it down to the frame.
Such a lonely journey, this. Would those I most loved – my friends – my family – my wife – be willing to sit with me, enveloped as I was by this shroud of darkness? Would they truly listen, or would they only try to coax me out of my funk with the same pat answers I’d dispensed to others so many times before? More to the point: would they accept me where I was at, darkness and all, or would they view my doubt as an act of treason – a betrayal of the life we had built together?
Too terrified to find out the answer, I soldiered on in silence, locked in a prison of my own making.
If you smash your life up against the wall, you want to break it like a bottle and just let go,
But I don’t know if there’s a God at all, I just know I can’t live like this no more.
I just know I can’t live like this no more.
Two years of searching, reading and thinking brought me no closer to answers, save for one: I just know I can’t live like this no more.
It’s not that I didn’t believe, necessarily; just that I was no longer certain, and uncertain that it was even possible to be certain. For most people, that may not pose a huge problem. But for a person whose job it is to be certain on matters of faith, and to convince others of the same, well… it’s a problem indeed.
The time had come to stop pretending. The time had come to smash my life like a bottle against a wall, and see where the pieces fell.
I can hear the birds, see the light outside, stand up like a man and swallow my pride,
I can write these words down in a rhyme. They’ve been beaten from me by the hands of time.
I don’t know why it’s always this way, and I hang my head low in the light of day,
All I know is I’m tired of being afraid, I’ve got to walk this road on these bricks I’ve laid.
No more being afraid. I would own my journey, stand up like a man, swallow my pride.
One tentative step at a time.
Step One: The Wife
It took every bit of courage I could muster. My approach was exceedingly cautious: my cards, rather than being slapped down in one swift motion, were hesitantly revealed one by one.
As it turned out, I had little to fear, at least from her. One, because when she said “till death do us part,” it just so happened that she actually meant it. Two, because she is neither blind nor dumb, and what I thought were my secret struggles weren’t such a secret after all. And three, because unbeknownst to me, she had embarked upon a journey of her own that, while not identical and perhaps not as extreme, was at least running along a parallel path of transformation.
From now on, we would journey together, as we had promised we would a lifetime ago.
Step Two: The Job
I had passed the point of no return, as far as my career was concerned. Though I still had no idea where this journey was leading me, it was evident that its conclusion was in no way imminent, nor was it compatible with the mission I had signed on for. No matter how far I walked, the horizon never seemed to get any closer; if anything, with each step forward that I took, the finish line took two strides back. It wasn’t fair to my employer, to those who backed our work financially, or to myself, to continue on like nothing had changed.
I needed a way out, and after six months of searching, I found one. I knew almost immediately that it wasn’t a permanent solution, but it provided the escape I was increasingly despairing of finding. I held my breath, and I walked through the door.
All the trumpets and the marching bands, the thunder claps and the trembling hands,
All the people stood up in the stands, and I just felt so alone,
‘Cause the halos looked like rusted chains in the light
As we screamed in the dark, I just wanted to find a way home…
It’s amazing how isolated you can feel in the midst of a crowd. Twice a week I took my assigned spot, surrounded by friends, yet utterly alone. Familiar faces suddenly struck me as strangers. Did I have anything in common with these people anymore? Once-shiny halos began, to my eyes at least, to exhibit signs of rust – not least of all my own.
I had taken the first and most important steps out of my self-constructed prison, but I couldn’t yet bring myself to fully emerge. I wanted to scream the new truth about myself, but in an environment that often both discourages and whispers about those who question the party line, I bit my tongue. I dropped the occasional hint – a “devil’s advocate” here, a “what if?” there – but mostly, for six years, I kept my mouth shut.
The truth is I’m not brave or sure, I just know I can’t live like this no more.
I don’t know what I’ve been waiting for, I just know I can’t live like this no more.
I am far from brave, and even farther from sure. But I know I can’t live like this no more.
And so I got brave… at least, a little bit. With my journeying partner at my side (or, more accurately, a couple steps ahead of me; she being the more courageous of the two of us), we started having the hard conversations. First with our kids, then with our friends and family, and then with those who are more distant still. We made some difficult but necessary decisions, and our journey took another turn.
And I don’t know if this road will end at your door, I just know I can’t live like this no more.
I don’t even know what I’m heading for, I just know I can’t live like this no more.
I just know I can’t live like this no more.
The journey is not over. Perhaps it never will be. Seven years in, I still have more questions than answers. I don’t know for sure what I’m heading for, or where exactly this road will end. But I know I can’t live like this no more.
There are those who think that I’ve taken the easy way out; too weak to count the cost of staying on the narrow path. But if there is one thing that this journey has not been, it’s easy.
Nevertheless, I’ve realized: the journey isn’t such a bad place to be. And perhaps I’ll find The Way Home yet.