The closet I found myself in doing some post-Christmas cleaning in the winter of 2016 was small. There is a tendency, in the midst of a season ending and the anticipation of a new year beginning, to re-organize. Life feels fresh, hope feels unobstructed, and we typically have a lingering tendency to feel like we can make some changes and create some order in an attempt to debrief from a season such as Christmas. For our family, it is typically a calm, unscheduled period to pay attention to what has gone neglected after a season of streamlined focus.
Such as the small utility closet under our stairs.
Which stands about 4' high and has just enough room to crawl in move some things around.
For some reason, in this transitionary period of the year, I felt compelled to take notice to this closet that resembles the room for Harry Potter made famous by J.K. Rowling. The closet hadn't really been touched since we moved in 3 years ago. Occasionally, it would be opened to throw in some cleaning products or retrieve them for use, but, as made obvious by the pile of plastic wrappings from paper towel cases and the conglomeration of random items that had been there since the day we moved in, we hadn't actually been in this small space for some time.
I am able to move from my knees to take a seat in the corner after I clear out a broken broom, a bucket, and a few empty boxes. Scrunching down awakens why I need to do this in the first place - an already difficult space to navigate has gone neglected because we made it even more difficult to navigate. I want to confront the lingering mess that was easy to reserve to the unseen eye so we might actually be able to take some wasted square footage and incorporate it back into the liturgy of our family life.
It was then, once I bludgeoned my way to the back corner where the stairs meet the floor, that the practical and the metaphor of what was happening in that closet became blurred.
Because, tucked away, also since the day we moved in, was a long lost item.
A tequilla bottle. With no liquor in it. Just dirt.
A Shot of Divorce
Now, back in 2010 I had just turned 21. You know where this is going…except for the dirt part…that is probably still a bit unclear. So let me explain. My wife, Vanessa (who was my fiancé at the time) and I were home for Christmas break from college and it was rough. My parents were going through a divorce, my brother, who lived next door, was on the brink of the most difficult season of his life, and it was clear to me that the home I grew up in had dissipated; I felt as a ghost returning to the present with no resemblance to the past I knew.
We still had a couple days before we were scheduled to depart, but my dad, who worries often about the state of motor vehicles and the need to be properly prepared, wanted to make sure my car was fully functional for my return trip. The whole family, which I didn't realize would be the last time we did this, was in our living room watching a movie and the tension was heavy. An argument had happened and no one was really talking and the movie sucked anyway so in the middle of our viewing, my dad says, “We need to go find the air pressure gauge so we can check your tires before you go.” Uncertain of why this had to happen at that exact time, I follow orders, get up with my dad, and we head out to a garage that was shared in between our house and my brother’s house next door that sat detached in the middle of the two homes.
I had been in this garage many times. It was my grandfather's garage and then my father's. The smell of motor oil and construction materials were familiar. The rattling noise of the garage door careening it's way up felt like a nursery rhyme. I walk straight in and begin rummaging through the tools. I didn’t actually know what I was looking for as I have only experienced one type of air pressure gauge in my life and we were only looking for one because that gauge was lost - so I’m basically fumbling around just trying to make it look like I’m being productive. After a couple of minutes, I turn to tell my dad that I’m not having any luck as a way to get myself out of further work and as I locate him on the other end of the garage, I realize he hasn’t been looking at all, either. In fact, he was doing something else. He had taken out an unfamiliar bottle and two really small glasses and was pouring an amber gold liquid into each.
And that is when my dad said words he had probably been waiting to say since I was born:
“Come here. Let’s take a shot together.”
Now, call me a prude, but I had never consumed alcohol in my life. Not that I was against it…it just wasn’t something I cared to do or spend money on. With this in mind, my father had planned well - he also had a cup full of lemonade, something he called a chaser, and put it in front of me next to my small container that has only one purpose - to be thrown back into your throat quickly. He held up his glass, told me to just drink it as fast as I could and immediately follow it with a sip of lemonade. He made a quick toast and we drank.
It was terrible.
My first drink ever was, as I would later find out, a shot of Jose Cuervo tequila.
As I’m blanching my mouth with lemonade, I notice he pours another tiny glass full. Then another. Then I told my dad that my blood felt warm. We sat in the garage and laughed and told stories. He told me of the hell he was going through and the hell he was causing my mother and how he didn’t know what to do anymore; that he would often come out to this garage, the garage he also grew up in, and sit and take a shot. But he also reflected how on that night, being there with me was a really beautiful moment for him and he was grateful I was home.
We went inside, I left for school a couple days later, and several months after that night, my parents were divorced.
A Sort of Homelessness
My home in Ohio became less important to me then. My parents stopped living under the same roof, our family history had been shattered, and there was no longer a “home” that I felt connected to. So upon graduating, Vanessa and I decided to start our lives somewhere far away.
And it was difficult.
I longed for those days sitting around our family pool that we had built, laying each brick intentionally for hours on end. I longed for our home, which my family fabricated by hand for five years of my childhood working eight hour days on the weekends and hours on end at night until we couldn’t stay up anymore. We had created a masterpiece for our family to grow together in.
And then, when that longing was beginning to fade in the palm trees and warm winter months of Pasadena, it got worse.
Not only did I not have both of my parents connected in that treasured house…I got news that we no longer had the house either.
It had been foreclosed on by the bank.
Which meant that the day I left the previous June and said goodbye to my parents in our round, two sided driveway also turned out to be the last day I would see that house. It would be the last day I saw my room that had formed my identity or sat at that table where we shared so many meals or walked around that yard that I would spend countless summer days antagonizing over the details of the lawn to make it perfect for our summer nights by our beautiful, handmade (and hand-dug) pool.
I had already felt the death of the family I had known and loved.
Now I was facing the death of the last piece of materiality that allowed me to still hold onto the life I knew. The wood, the stones from our family's roots in North Carolina, the garden...everything that gave me some sort of memory had also been taken. The final breath of my past seemed to vanquish as I stood on my apartment balcony in beautiful California and received that phone call - not even the promise of warm winter could keep me from longing for that dirt which was the fabric of my life.
A season was changing for me and I had much to re-wire in my existence; in my identity.
But later that winter, in February, my father planned to visit.
We met him at Union Station in Los Angeles - the massive train / subway destination where the whole city meets - and a bus was bringing him from the airport. We watched as various passengers got off to catch their train to their next destination one by one, and then, my father appeared in the bus’s open door to step down onto California soil for the first time since we lived there. He had not yet met his two month old grandson and so the three of us stood there waiting to embrace for the first time in what felt like forever. Then I noticed something. Over his back was a bookbag followed by a suitcase in one hand, but in the other hand, he had brought me something else.
A tequila bottle.
And not a new one - the same tequila bottle we had shared that first drink of back in the garage when our family was falling apart.
And inside that relic of a bottle was something much different than an amber gold liquid…
…it was a bunch of dirt with a note from my father that said how much he loved me, how sorry he was for his contribution in our family falling apart, and that knowing I no longer had a home there, he brought some of that home to me, dirt from the yard that held the last of my memory and my identity and my family.
I treasured that bottle - it represented the experience of my life in a profoundly real way - and I proudly displayed it every where I went knowing that it contained not only a memory that captured such tumult, but it contained a source of my life, my place, and my history.
Then something happened - we eventually moved back to the area I grew up in where I was appointed to a rural community to be a pastor.
how the bottle got lost
Now, being new to this identity, I had this expectation I began to live into of what I needed to appear as and what I needed to do to get those people to like me. I remember moving in and as we unpacked boxes I came across this treasured tequila bottle and I made a decision that I now regret. Afraid of what a religious person might say if they saw such a thing displayed in my home…I hid it. I tucked away not only a family token, but a memory, an identity, a piece of my life that defined my story...and I put it in that small closet under the stairs where it was sure to be seen by no one.
Two and a half years later and I am on my knees rummaging through the mishmash of items in that small space when I come across this tequila bottle and, immediately, I felt a remorse, a disloyalty - to myself, to my family, and to the story that my life was a part of that this bottle so meaningfully captured. I was so concerned about what these other people would think of me, so afraid of having to explain why I had a tequila bottle, so caught up in forcing a pristine image that I assumed they wanted, even demanded, of me…that I hid something that meant and captured more than anyone could imagine. In the elevation of image, I also, therefore, hid my story.
So that day when Christmas ended, I made a choice.
I took that tequila bottle full of dirt, so neglected and forgotten in the corner of that closet floor behind boxes of toilet paper and cleaning supplies and I put it on a shelf next to the last picture I have that my family took together before I left for college.
As the season of the year transitioned, I made a choice to transition the season of my story to its next chapter.
I made a choice to lean into that story.
To be who I was and own it.
That day, my posture towards the world changed dramatically. In that closet the blend of metaphor and reality was visceral. Entering back into the place of my life that I chose to neglect - of the emergence from the chaos of a fractured family, a lost home, and the wounds that accompany such suffering - it was easier to cover the scar and compromise my story for the story the world wanted me to have. It was easier to place the bottle in the back corner of the closet than to let my scar tell its story.
I believe we all lost out when I decided to do that. The people around me lost my authenticity and I lost the beautiful experience of what happens when we allow the soil of our existence to blossom into new life.
Just an old bottle full of old dirt found during a moment of wanting to reclaim a neglected space. I discovered, however, that I wasn’t just doing some post-Christmas cleaning in an attempt to confront a lingering mess in the way of a more full household. I was unknowingly confronting a piece of my life that I had thoughtlessly abandoned in the process.
The pretending, the hiding, and the failure to let the story of my life truly be a part of how my story continued was over — all because I was willing to reclaim that bottle and that dirt that so defined who I actually was in my being.
I sat in that small closet, tears running down my face, and awoke to the deep need to recognize who I was even though I let it sit in darkness for so long.
I made the choice to stop letting expectations define who I tried to be and start, again, letting my life be the beautiful bottle of dirt that it truly is.