These pointless, invaluable things

I live in a studio over a garage, built before (evidently) they’d invented insulation. Winter is in full swing, and when I get home from work—which, these days, is around 6:30 or 7:00—it’s about 50 degrees inside my apartment. I set down my bags, crank on the wall heater, and plug in the space heater I bought last year, thinking it would shave some money off my electric bill. It didn’t, but on nights like these, I’m grateful to have two sources of heat, working together to fill my home with warm air, most of which floats up into the vaulted ceilings, to keep the cobwebs nice and toasty.

I’ve been thinking a lot about futility, the things we do that seem to have no point, or make no lasting difference. I remember, when I read The Bell Jar, it was the endless repetition of mundane tasks that got to Esther, the main character, as depression stole more and more of her mind. What began as a grand existential dilemma distilled down to her inability to get past the fact that if she washed her hair or made her bed, she’d just have to do it all over again the next day, and the next, ad infinitum until she died.

I get that. Sometimes, I can’t believe how often I have to go to the store, make meals, clean my apartment (not that often), clean my clothes, clean myself. Sometimes, I’ll be at work and wonder what difference it would really make if I didn’t add these pages to this website or place this ad on Google. It’s hard not to get bogged down by it all, especially if you’ve been saddled, like I have, with a go-go-go mentality that insists you work as hard and as fast as you can, as well as a mega-introverted personality that wants nothing more than a quiet room and time to write. Sometimes, I look at my life and wonder what sort of Dr. Frankenstein pieced it all together.

In my younger years, existential crises were a daily, if not hourly occurrence. I don’t have them as much anymore, and it’s not because I’ve figured it all out or because I’m living the life I always hoped I’d lived, fulfilled in every way. It’s because, after years of watching everything I thought I wanted catapult away, I finally admitted that I didn’t and couldn’t know everything—or really, much of anything—about how it all would play out. I could make good choices, make time for what I wanted, but beyond that, I didn’t have a whole lot of say.

My dad died five months ago. I don’t know why. Sometimes, I don’t think I realize that he’s dead. I mean, I do. I realize it when I have a question about health insurance or my car or how to soundproof my skylights so the rain doesn’t keep me awake, and I can’t ask him. I don’t realize it because I live a thousand miles away from my parents’ home, and I think a part of me still believes he’s in that recliner, talking to customers or watching politics or both, because I can’t conceive of a world where that isn’t the case. I realize it when I’m driving or typing or going about my day, and suddenly, it hits me, like the earth gave up its gravity—he’s not here, and there’s nothing I can do to change that.

Death is a funny thing. Nothing makes you question your existence more thoroughly than coming face to face with the end of someone else’s. When my father died, I didn’t know how I would return to the life I’d been living in Portland, not because I hated it, but because in those first weeks, it seemed impossible that anything could go back to the way it had been. Slowly, I’ve been finding my footing. I expect it will take quite a bit longer, though I’ve given up on the idea that things will ever return to “normal.” I live in a different world now.

And in this different world, I’ve asked myself, “If you knew you would die tonight, tomorrow, in a week, in a month, what would you change?” And every time, I have the same answer: “Nothing.” Not because my life is perfect. Not because I don’t ardently hope that, before I die, I’ll have the chance to be married, to maybe be a mother, to get my writing out in the world, to have more time for creativity than what I can squeeze in on the weekends, between laundry and cooking and cleaning, and on weekday evenings, when I come home late to a cold apartment and summon the energy for a precious hour of writing in my bed, before I fall asleep. No, I wouldn’t change anything because I trust my God.

My pastor told us about a woman he met on a trip to a third world country, who was crippled from birth, but so full of joy. The two of them talked about the vast difference between Christianity in America and in her country, and she told him, “God is bigger to us here because we need Him more.” The more hardships I endure, the more setbacks I experience, the more tragedy I watch bleed the life out of what and who I love, the more I am convinced of God’s power and provision, the more I understand what it means to have a peace that is not of this world. It seems so backwards that this would be the case, but then, God works in paradoxes.

I don’t know why I have the job that I do. I don’t know why I’m not married or published. I don’t know why my father died. But I do know that, if I’d had any other job with any other coworkers than the ones I have now, I would not have been able to return to Portland after his death. I know that life is like a giant painting, and we live it with our faces smashed against the canvas. We can’t see the whole picture. God can. And it may well be that my present life—down to every pointless email and futile endeavor to heat my apartment—is teaching me something invaluable for what He has in store for me next, even if that something is just learning to trust Him more and to get hung up on myself less. Even if it only serves to show me just how big my God can get.