I don’t know if he lived there before, and I don’t know if he has lived there ever since. But for four months at the beginning of 2010, I swore we were roommates. I found out that year our half-million dollar house was foreclosing. That was also the year I found God in the basement.
Living room, bar area, bedroom, and all of them were overweight in their own way. Suede sectionals, shag carpet, a sound system in the living room; a plasma TV, hardwood floor, felt-top poker table, and tall leather chairs bellying up to a granite surface in the bar area. There was always a thick coat of dust somewhere, no matter how hard you tried.
My brother got angry once and kicked a hole by the wood bed frame. It was covered up when we switched rooms. Apart from splotchy Sheetrock and dust, the basement was crafted to suburban perfection.
When we think about a brave life, it seems the scenery is either wild or urban; either chasing wanderlust amid hulking hills and interstate highways, or combating all manner of injustice among skyscrapers and stadiums. But I have been wondering recently if it is possible to live a brave life in the suburbs. I don't know where bravery hides. But before I die, I hope mine eyes have seen her glory in between the white picket fences.
Everything scared me shitless back then. I was afraid because I had towering standardized test scores and nothing else. I was afraid of football players and whether my pipes were big enough. I was afraid girls wouldn’t like me; I was even more afraid that they would and I wouldn’t know why. I was afraid I didn’t have what it takes. I was also afraid I’d never find out what it even was.
I first suspected something in the middle of winter 2010. His presence was thin and soupy, so spare you could write it off as vague superstition. A creak in the maroon walls, a rustling in the other room. I was pretty sure it wasn’t anything, but I started cracking open the book of Proverbs before sprinting for the bus stop. Under the triplet poker lamps hanging on chains overhead, I crammed a proverb and tucked it in my head until a lash of winter wind wrested it out.
As questions first crept inside, they felt like termites bent on destroying all the frameworks I spent early years shaping. I dreamt of the good life, what it was and how I would know I had arrived. Running alongside manicured lawns, the beam of 10 am sun peeking over half-million dollar mammoths, waving at Tommy Bahama-clad neighbors: this was the composition of my most powerful dream. Childhood was meant for this, and these fantasies are productive when they're held by cupped hands that hold them in sacred regard.
When I didn't have these hands, I constructed these frameworks on my own. And when the questions came to tear them down, I sat on a black leather poker chair in the basement, confronting them with the same loneliness, like a haggard old man chasing teen scoundrels off the house he wished love would make home.
As the ground was thawing out in February, my weekends were freewill offerings at the altar of these questions. They were an all consuming fire. I'd waste whole biology lectures in the back left corner trying to stomp them out with my mind and a wide-ruled notebook, seclude myself on the bus soaking in audiobooks and sermons, writing syllogisms to draw makeshift conclusions. Every question felt like a larger web of questions. Questions of philosophy and religion, of evolution and transcendence, of evil and meaning, of love and chaos.
My God-in-the-basement superstitions weren't going away. The floor creaking, the ceiling settling, the ice-dispenser churning: they all seemed to be whispering a name. I couldn't sit down to address my questions without hearing them. I leaned in, an audience member gripped and grasping for a resolution. I stood in cavernous church services on Saturday afternoons, basking in darkness and light shows, feeling utterly alone in captivity to my questions.
One night in late March, I stole away to gaze at the night sky. The grass was still muddy, so I stood barefoot on a rockbed by the side of my house, looking across the suburban landscape. It was bathed in milky white light, even as the moon drew behind a curtain of thin clouds. My eyes grew teary and my mind composed thank-you notes, but I filed them away, unsure I'd ever find the address.
By springtime, the questions were warping. What was once a private jousting match between my mind and its questions was now an open forum about my wrongdoings and the fractures in my relationships. The non-stop interrogations shifted their focus away from philosophy & theology to shame & hypocrisy. I made a framework, based on the dream of a convenient suburban life and furiously aware of my responsibility to craft the image of OKness. And I watched helplessly as the question-termites ate to the dream's public collapse.
C.S. Lewis writes of two kinds of faith. One holds to its convictions when it is inconvenient, or it doesn't feel true, or when you hear bad news. The other says, with varying tones and at various crossroads, "You must do this. I can't."
These words became autobiography one Saturday night in mid-May. I was in my basement, sure enough. I had kicked my legs up on the poker table. I had paced around the hardwood floors, barefoot and eyebrows furrowed. I had tried to piece together the universe, scribbling on a wide-ruled notebook by the bar. I hadn't fell to my knees. Not until that night.
And when my knees dropped, the basement static composed itself into the single song, whose name was Jesus.
Yes, Jesus, the one who faced death on splintered Roman wood with nothing but a naked question and found God on the other side. The one who thought he'd been forsaken, only to be found beloved.
From then on, I have believed that it was possible to live a brave life in the suburbs. It is brave to brush off the shiny suburban lacquer, to ask wobbly questions that interrupt its regularly scheduled programming.
I used to think these questions came to steal and destroy. It's brave to ask these questions because they are God's way of piercing a vacuum-sealed world that has its own secret aches. All questions are mile-long wicks that end with God. Questions are God's version of hide-and-seek, and each one draws us higher up and further into the Kingdom we never knew we belonged in.
photo: raygen brown