In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the central characters first enter Narnia by way of a massive and surprisingly deep wardrobe at the back of which they find themselves standing in a strange and foreign winterland, next to a lamppost. That beacon becomes a kind of homing device, the red shoes they have to click together; the place where they find that portal between conjoined gaps in the skins of two worlds. The lamppost is the sign that they’ve left home and the wardrobe behind, but also the hope that home and the wardrobe are nearly theirs again.
My “lamppost” in New York has always been Columbus Circle, dating back to the very first, May 2002, visit when I emerged from an inbound V train to goggle at the Trump Hotel globe and then dash into the safety of a nearby Starbucks. I had flown into LaGuardia by night, and stayed in Queens: that exit from the station, coming up out of the ground into Manhattan, on the southwest verge of Central Park, was a memory marked down vividly.
And sometimes, now, as the restlessness of time grown long and threadbare, I am drawn back there to wonder. Drawn to feel again the place that I first came from, as if fingering a geographic navel. “The omphalos,” it was called in ancient cultures. It usually referred to the local mountain, believed to be a connection point with the gods or forces that brought a people to life. It was for them a reminder that they came from something else, just as our belly buttons are the long-healed wound of having mothers, drawing life from someone else.
Sometimes now I go back there, to my lamppost/New York navel as if it could take me back “home” again — wherever that might be — and transport me out of here, for good. Lately I’ve been temping near Rockefeller Center, a few blocks south and to the east on 51st and Sixth (Avenue of the Americas, as it’s called in that section). The mandatory hour lunch break doesn’t leave much time to linger once I’ve walked up to the park, but there’s time enough to wander back to the other side of my wardrobe. Only now it seems the entry point’s sealed up, that I won’t be able to get back out.
And lately I want to, badly. One day recently my mom told me my brother would probably have to be reactivated in the fall, at which he’d be sent to the Middle East. Probably for 18 months. Only one or two months after my sister is deployed to Iraq. We were chatting over IM, and the tears just suddenly spilled out, like an overfilled water glass slightly jostled. “That’s it. I’m out. I’m done. There’s no way I’m staying here,” I said a bit rashly. (A summertime move had been a much-talked-about option.)
My lunch break came then, and I wandered up “Avenue of the Americas” to the park. A few blocks south of it, I remembered there had been a Schlotzsky’s in that area. I knew the cross street was 57th, but couldn’t recall if it was at Sixth or Seventh. Schlotzsky’s used to be one of the two places my family would eat out, when I was an Arizona adolescent. Raising a family of four children on the income of one worker isn’t easy, so such restaurant meals were always a special splurge. The New York Schlotzsky’s always had a weary feel to it, but I didn’t go there for the verve; I went for nostalgia. When I saw the familiar sign across the block on 57th and Sixth, my heart eased briefly. I know it’s bad to lean on food for comfort … but that day I didn’t care. It wasn’t about indulging in too much food after all, just going someplace I associated with my youth.
But Schlotzsky’s had closed for good, a discovery that oddly seemed fitting to the strangeness of my afternoon. Sometimes you can’t go back the same way that you got somewhere. The Narnia kids found other portals in later books.
Ah, but there it is. Just because the children reached the end of the first book did not mean their adventures had ended, or that their time with Aslan was up. So, too, did it prove with my New York adventures. After much soul-searching and more than a few head-congesting weeps, I decided to stick it out here another year or so. I’d been fighting God on this a long time and not fully yielding to what He was asking. My motives for leaving weren’t wise (to the degree I’d sorted those convoluted spaghetti strands into a neat row of noodles).
There’s more to life than just doing what you want or chasing down dreams or leaving a city you no longer love. Character counts for much too — and sometimes it’s the missing ingredient necessary for the dreams you hope to realize. Though it felt like the primary “blessing” of staying longer was mostly the character sculpting to follow, I had confidence this was indeed the right choice. And come to think of it, if it’s a “new Narnia” I’m someday bound for, there’s going to be some struggle just before I break through. After all, when Lucy first entered the wardrobe there were lots and lots of coats she had to push through right before she reached the lamppost. Maybe leaving this city takes just as long and just as much work — if not more — as it did to get here. We might care about the destination, but something tells me God cares more about the spiritual “muscle” we develop in that struggle — for it’s the one thing we’ll take with us to heaven. That next earthly destination will survive just as a memory.
That out-of-business Schlotzsky’s stood for many things, I guess. The nearing close of a chapter, perhaps a book, and the close of certain kinds of security enjoyed by my family. But also, too, the retreat of a self that once faced pain and struggle with only self-pity. There were days in a long-ago anguish when I thought myself a modern-day Job who had everything stripped away. But then I had a steady, if small income! Then I had a structure to my life, provided by school. Then I found my faith in God a terribly painful burden. Now I’m probably pressed on a whole lot more (having been unemployed for nearly a year), but am less overcome.
Lately I’ve been text-messaging with a friend out in California. As I started to send a message on that day when brooding about my brother (though it later turned out that he wouldn’t have to go — this time), I realized my reply was incomplete: “But even in this, I have to say God is good.” Not because suffering and death are somehow God’s goodness well-disguised in a crummy package — calling evil good is after all the heart of what is sinful — but because the character of God is constant. Though I may not understand what’s going on, why the last several months have been a kind of “character boot camp” (as I’ve dubbed it), that doesn’t change the character of God. And if my hope and happiness is based on Him instead of changeable and volatile life events, I can take much more.
It turns out I didn’t need a Schlotzsky’s lunch to lighten my heart; I just needed to text that little sentence. “But even in this, God is good.”