In the grocery store last week, I wandered the aisles. Not because I romanticize grocery outings, but because County Market is the exact opposite layout of most stores in Jersey, and it really confuses me, like driving on the left side of the road. So I get very lost. And while I’m lost, I wonder about everyone in the store. The old people in electric wheelchairs. The mom buying Twinkies, meat and potatoes (I want to throw some spinach in there to save her children’s lives). And I wonder if they are happy, and if they feel loved every day, and if they ever feel trapped. I thought about the meaninglessness of buying groceries over and over again, and the routineness of it all.
Having grown up in Queens, where everything is small and tight and close together, and you can hear your neighbors’ conversations and your yard is as big as your kitchen table, I am unsettled by large open spaces. I was driving back from watching a movie last night in the rain with a carload of quiet friends, which freed me into this weird existentialism that I always find myself when I’m alone. The emptiness of Pennsylvania is so depressing to me. I drove through empty, one-stoplight towns, empty stores, giant fields full of nothing, and I wondered where all the people were. I drove past a house with its lights off and imagined the small family inside asleep. I wondered if they ever felt isolated. I wondered if they knew any Indian or Korean people. I wondered what the dad and mom did for a living, and if they liked it or hated it. I wondered if they thought this life was the only one they had.
I went to the library and in the 10 seconds between walking into the stacks and sitting down at my desk, I thought about all the books surrounding me. I thought about proud mothers and fathers sending their kid off to grad school, and I thought about each author having dreams and ideas that took thousands of dollars and mentors and professors and friends and colleagues and editors to tweak it and refine it. I thought about years of bitter, hard writing, of late nights at a computer or a typewriter, of living off of cheap soup and noodles for two years, of conducting research even when no one believed in them except their spouses. And I thought about each of those men and women, with their dreams in the thousands of books in the library. And it just felt so meaningless. Some of these books have never even been read here, or were just arbitrarily cited to puff up a page count in someone’s paper. No one remembers their work. It’s just sitting here in the library.
Needless to say, the emptiness of life apart from God has overwhelmed me recently. Empty fields, empty libraries, empty houses, empty grocery stores. The routine of buying milk, bread and eggs, driving your car to work every day, of writing a book that not a lot of people will read. The emptiness of a long country road in the rain at night, and being trapped in the middle of leaving and becoming the woman I wish I wasn’t and the woman I hope to be.
Those who don’t know me very well will read this and worry about me. I’m not sad. Realizing this emptiness actually has made me delight in the Lord so much more! Last night I cried myself to sleep, but it wasn’t because I was angry or lonely or hurt, it was because I was tired and wanted Jesus to come back. (Then I laughed at myself, because it’s probably the best thing to cry about and pray for, more than anything else in the world.) I’m glad to see that God is working inside of me in that I’m crying myself to sleep because I want to see Jesus face to face, and not because a boy doesn’t like me or something didn’t go my way.
So I’m not depressed. I guess I’m just looking at life with “what does it all mean” glasses. Why do people drive to work every day? Why do people get into their cars after having breakfast and getting dressed, drive to work, do something for a few hours, drive home, make dinner, watch TV, call their mom, clean the kitchen, and go to bed? How do people do that for 30 or 40 years until they get tired? How do people manage to avoid their terrifying emptiness by staying busy with mundane tasks until they die?
I wonder all these things for myself, too. I am very afraid of being normal. Not in the way that I’ll go and try to write the next great American novel or found a nonprofit organization. That is a relatively simple way of avoiding the emptiness. I am afraid of waking up in the morning and not knowing the reason for getting out of bed and making coffee. I am afraid of pushing aside the emptiness and, instead of filling it with the Lord, filling it with a rush to the next small thing that will distract me from the vast unwritten book that is the rest of my life on earth. I am afraid of inventing my own meaning for life, because that is not my job. And most of all, I am afraid of waiting to ask myself these questions ten years from now much more than I am afraid of them now.
This whole “what does it all mean” thing might affect me more than other people because I’m very goal-oriented and also I think very deeply about everything, which is inconvenient. I’m not content to drift along and just let life happen. I don’t think I should apologize for that and calm down. I don’t think I should avoid goal-setting because that will make me more of an accessible and relatable woman. I don’t think I should stop wanting or feeling things just to be a less overwhelming person.
I guess I’m saying that I’m wondering what to do with my one precious life. I’m wondering what exactly that is, and how to do it, and why it matters that I do it. And I’m not okay with not having an answer to any of those questions for very long.
The emptiness of a life waiting for the Lord’s direction and tender guidance is much like the emptiness of a field plowed bare under a grey spring sky. More than ever in my life, I am ready to be sown with new things, and to let the next season be one of harvest. I want to learn to really love the people around me and not let my kindness be dictated by my personal energy. I want to learn how to receive love from others without needing to run away. I want to learn what to do with my life and why I should do it. I am empty. I am bare. I am ready. I am waiting.
That’s why I cried last night about Jesus coming back. Wanting to be in his presence forever is the longing that I am unashamed to say defines my life. Wanting him is in every moment of my life. I want him in the library, and in the grocery store, and on the dark drive back home.
I want his purpose and his presence.
I want to do what he wants me to do.
I want to embrace my emptiness as the new place God can reveal himself and glorify himself in and through me.