I believe in purgatory. I’ve always expected that I would spend some time there after I died. I never knew though that, like heaven and hell, purgatory starts here and now, and I never realized that it looks exactly like Tallahassee. It’s my own fault for getting here. Five years ago, I did something very bold…and very stupid. I told God, “I will go wherever you want me to go.” I didn’t realize he would actually take me up on the offer.
My purgatory began in June 2002 when my wife and I packed up our Corolla and moved across the country from San Diego to Florida. On my last day of work, a man in the elevator looked at my box of belongings and asked, “First day on the job?” I shook my head. “Last day. I’m moving to Florida.” I still can see the incredulous look on his face and hear his one word question to me. “Why?”
I simply smiled back at him, my confidence unshaken. I knew the answer, or to put it better, I had felt the answer. It was a thump. As we drove east for the last time on Interstate 8, and I watched California fade in my rearview mirror, I laid the palm of my hand on my wife’s pregnant tummy. A subtle thump reverberated against my hand. Three and a half years prior, we had made the move from Florida to California, in the same Corolla, just the two of us. Now we were headed back with an extra passenger. Florida was home. Florida was where family lived.
Tallahassee was never at the top of our list of cities to move to. Come to think of it, it wasn’t even on the list.
A lot had happened in those three and half years besides getting pregnant with our first child. My outlook on life had changed. When we had moved to San Diego, it was all about me and what I wanted. I remember turning on the radio during our drive west and hearing a song that was popular at the time called Lullaby. The melody and the lyrics are distinctly Californian, and they fueled my delusions of grandeur. Goodbye boring Sunshine State. California here we come.
San Diego certainly didn’t disappoint. My job was in the heart of downtown, and for the first year, we lived in a high rise apartment mere blocks from my office. Oftentimes after work, I would sneak up to the rooftop of our apartment building and bask with pride at the skyline of the city I now called home. This was the life I had dreamed of having. I had arrived.
For my wife though, our first year in San Diego was more nightmare than dream. She was a middle school teacher in Tampa, and my job relocation had required her to say goodbye to her students midway through the year. As she tearfully packed up her classroom belongings on her last day, I reassured her that San Diego would be a great move for us. What I really meant was that this would be a great move for me. Shortly after arriving in San Diego, my wife discovered that she was not certified to teach in California and that she would have to get a masters degree. She was devastated. No matter. I was having an excellent time.
I had naïvely built my marriage on a feeling. Feelings are like the wind though. They change.
A year later, we managed to buy a small, 2-bedroom condo in an old streetcar suburb of town called University Heights. Given the ridiculous nature of San Diego real estate, this was no small feat. My wife enrolled in graduate studies at San Diego State University, and I continued to enjoy my chic, urban lifestyle. Though I could not walk to work anymore, I was still close enough to ride my bike, and my morning ride would take me through Balboa Park, the emerald jewel of downtown. On many of those mornings, the fog from the marine layer would cover the park like a soft blanket. As I rode past the museums on Del Prado Boulevard and biked over the Cabrillo bridge, I would admire the Spanish colonial architecture, and I would say to myself, “I will never leave this.” That pretty much summed up my whole attitude. It didn’t matter to me that I yanked my wife out of her classroom in the middle of the school year. It didn’t matter that I had accepted the job offer before discussing it with her, or to make matters worse, that I accepted it for less salary than we agreed was sufficient. Moving out to San Diego was what I wanted, and now that I had it, no one was going to take it away from me.
And then something happened. My wife convinced me to go on a Marriage Encounter weekend with her. After years of being absorbed in my own interests, my marriage had hit the rocks, and I thought divorce was inevitable. I am a child of divorced parents, and several of my family members have divorced also. I had always sworn to myself that this legacy would end with me. Yet when the dark night of the soul came to our marriage, I was the first one looking for the door. The irony was bitter. It was my wife that refused to go down without a fight.
As I sat in the conference room where the Marriage Encounter weekend was being held, I crossed my arms and listened skeptically to the presenting couples. I don’t remember much from that weekend, but I do remember one specific statement that the husband on one of the presenting teams said. “Love is not a feeling. Love is a decision. You have to decide to love your wife each day.” Now there is nothing spectacularly revealing about that statement. I am sure that I heard it several times before. But that simply shows how you never know what impact a simple word or two can have on someone. Because for some reason at that particular moment, in that particular setting, those words said by that particular person were like a hammer and a chisel to my hard outer shell. I had gone into marriage with the expectation that the romance I felt on my wedding day would always last by virtue of the fact that I was “in love”. I had naïvely built my marriage on a feeling. Feelings are like the wind though. They change. When our romance started to fizzle, I started searching for affirmation elsewhere, particularly in my career.
Do I love this woman? I was terrified because I didn’t know the answer.
I don’t remember anything else that was said that day. The presentations moved on to other subjects, but I was fixated on that one simple phrase, “Love is a decision.” I glanced over at my wife, who was sitting next to me and looking straight ahead at the presenters. Do I love this woman? I don’t feel any love for her. Can I decide to love her? For a brief moment, I was terrified because I didn’t know the answer. And then something occurred to me. If love is a decision, it follows that it is my decision. I can’t control my feelings, but I can control my decisions. What had driven me to the despair of contemplating divorce was the perception that I had no control over the downward spiral of my marriage. But when this man described love as an act of the will, suddenly I wasn’t looking for a parachute anymore. For the first time, I felt hope that I could pull our marriage out of its nosedive. As the presenting couple continued to speak and my wife continued to watch, I said to myself in silence, “I will love her.”
I don’t want to give the impression that everything has been smooth sailing since that day. The vices that I have spent a lifetime accumulating are now like squatters. They are quite content with the place they have found in my soul and are in no mood to be evicted. My worst squatter is pride for that is what drove me to accept the job in San Diego without any consideration for my wife. Pride is different from his cousin, vanity. With vanity you’re obsessed with what others think about you, but at least you care about something. With pride though, you don’t care about anyone but yourself. C.S. Lewis wrote that the problem with pride is that you spend so much time looking down on others that you never stop to look up.
Our Lady of the Rosary was a good antidote for that. OLR, as the parishioners call it, is a small Catholic church nestled in the heart of San Diego’s Little Italy. It’s one of those churches that make you look up, literally. Above the altar, across the entire front wall is a painting of the Crucifixion. At the back of the church, along the opposite wall is the Final Judgment. High above on each side wall, the apostles and evangelists keep watch from their perch, and if you are bold enough to arch your head straight back and look up at the ceiling, you will be greeted by scenes from the various mysteries of the rosary. Only the hardest of hearts could gaze at the Crucifixion scene above the altar and not be pierced with sorrow. Only the proudest could look at the scene of the Final Judgment and not say, “I am dust.”
There was no theophany, no burning bush or pillar of fire. But over the course of the next year, things began to change.
After our Marriage Encounter weekend, I made a point of popping over to OLR during my lunch hour for the noon Mass. It was only several blocks from my office. It was on one of those occasions while sitting in the pew that I said to God, “OK you’ve got my attention. I’ll do what you want me to do. I’ll go where you want me to go. Just show me.” There was no theophany, no burning bush or pillar of fire. But over the course of the next year, things began to change. I started getting disenchanted with my job, and for the first time since moving out there, San Diego began losing some of its luster. I didn’t know it at the time, but my wife had been saying a similar prayer herself. The change that happened for her was that she began having thoughts of starting a family, a subject that had always been a source of tension between us before then. The more we talked, the more the subject of Florida kept coming up, to the point where we decided it was time to move back.
And they lived happily ever after… Well, not quite, or at least not yet. As we drove east across the California desert, the lyrics to a familiar song played on the car radio.
Welcome to the Hotel California…
You can check out anytime you like,
But you can never leave…
I didn’t realize at the time how true those words were. I had thought that my struggle with selfishness was over, but in fact, it had just begun. After a brief year and a half in Orlando, we moved again, this time to Tallahassee to be closer to my wife’s sister. Tallahasee. They say it’s a nice place to raise a family. I’m convinced that’s what people say about a town when they can’t think of anything else nice to say about it. My wife and I are from large cities, me from Baltimore, and she from Cleveland. We like large cities. It’s in our blood. So Tallahassee was never at the top of our list of cities to move to. Come to think of it, it wasn’t even on the list. But when my job in Orlando began to keep me away from my family for weeks at a time, I knew something had to give. There’s a famous line from The Sound of Music. “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” I’ll give him credit. He certainly did a good job of closing doors when I was interviewing for a new job. And then one night, a window opened. My wife showed me a job listing in Tallahassee that she had found on the Internet. The application was due by midnight the next day.
It has been two and a half years since I hit the send button on that application. I wish I could report that our move to Tallahassee has been a blissful conclusion to our tumultuous journey, but I’d be lying. Mr. Don Henley was right. You can check out of the Hotel California, but you can never leave. On more than one occasion I have gone online and found aerial photographs of my old neighborhood in San Diego. I miss it. I want it back. What “it” is though is something I am still trying to figure out. Is the “it” I desire something base like my carefree lifestyle from before I was a father? Or is “it” something noble like the friends we made through Marriage Encounter and Our Lady of the Rosary? To be honest, it’s both, and that is what makes my struggle so difficult. The chaff and the wheat are intermingled.
When this man described love as an act of the will, suddenly I wasn’t looking for a parachute anymore.
I believe Tallahassee is my purgatory, or at least part of it. It has a Dante-esque quality to it given my idolatrous obsession with having a big city lifestyle. Though hopefully I am less selfish than I was before, I would never delude myself into thinking I have been purged of all my selfishness. And therein lies the problem. Every last bit of it must die. The squatters have to be evicted. I believe God is using my time here in Tallahassee to do just that, and my purgatory will not end until he has finished his task. How quick or long it takes will depend on how much I chose to cooperate with him.
I trust that I will get through this. What I don’t know is what comes afterwards. When God gets done purifying me, will he release me from Tallahassee and allow me to move my family back to San Diego where my heart longs to go? Am I wrong for even having that desire? As I typed those last sentences, is God looking down on me from heaven and saying, “You still don’t get it do you?” Or will I be such a different person when God is done scrubbing me clean that I will look upon Tallahassee with new eyes and have a good laugh at the fool I was for ever wanting to leave? I don’t know. I can only repeat with hope the prayer of Thomas Merton. “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end…Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost…you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”