Growing up I was convinced that the house I lived in—1539 Chicago Avenue, in Downers Grove Illinois—was the ugliest house in America. I still believe this. A split level with a garage door facing the street like a giant green maw and a mansard roof (nod to McDonald’s circa 1981), it interrupted the I’m-in-love-with-this-town vibe that surrounded it like a gnat on sheet cake. The floors were covered in yellow shag and through the thin walls you could hear every footfall, turn in bed, and toilet flush. In short, not only was it ugly, it was probably built in two days out of staples and Styrofoam.
But one of the benefits of 1539 was that in my bedroom every night as I was falling asleep I could hear Tchaikovsky. It floated up from the family room where my father lay on the couch reading one of his enormous history books with names like The Napoleonic Age and Churchill and The Great War , and I remember thinking that one day I would read a book like that, something that stuck in my brain and informed my small world filled with girl scouts and swim teams into something expansive, broader, with more substance and power. I asked Jesus for that, a life that meant something.
When I was sixteen I learned that once it was dark I could climb out my window onto a small ledge, hang off it, and jump ten feet to the ground. It wasn’t a trellis covered in roses but it did the trick and once down, the moonlight felt like freedom incarnate.
Perhaps it was the moonlight. Or how much I hated the yellow shag. Regardless, I just plain wanted out and after that first jump I kept at it. I was the kid who took the parents car when they were gone and drove it through cornfields. I raced another car down Highland Avenue until I fishtailed to a stop. I drank Peppermint Schnapps till I couldn’t climb stairs. It's a miracle I’m alive but there was the moonlight. And I was free.
As free as a prison hour in a prison yard, huddling in prison clicks and talking prison war, trading prison cigarettes for prison icky food, and doing whatever prison time lets prison people do.
So yeah, as things in this world tend to, that jump into the moonlight eventually morphed into metaphor. I had jumped from the innocence of my childhood faith into what looked like freedom but ended up ugly as cinderblock. The monologue taking place inside my head began to fade.
David Foster Wallace, in his famous commencement speech said, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Turns out there wasn’t much to worship once I quit 1539. Peppermint Schnapps made me ralph in the morning and what’s the point of driving through cornfields? As fun as I thought those years of rebellion were, I finally came to my end.
Jesus says “the truth will set you free.” He also says “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Once my monologue about moonlight and such nonsense died out, the truth began to set me free. My life changed. It was expansive, broader, it had substance and power.
And God sent me out into the real world.
I went to ugly places, like New Brunswick, New Jersey where you’re never more than 50 yards from an interstate and trucks make your hair whip with exhaust and the streets are littered with bottle caps like Mayberry has acorns.
And Orlando Florida, where hurricanes can come three in a row and houses have rats (I kid you not, a garbage bag full of dead ones), and termites and burst pipes and sometimes ducks fly into your living room (again, true story).
He sent me to breast cancer, and he sent me to trauma.
And he sent me here, to a big yard and a white house and maple trees green in summer.
I don’t know where I’ll be five years from now. It could be beautiful or ugly but I gots me freedom, I’ve learned to listen, and Tchaikovsky’s still playing.
Katherine James and her husband have been on staff with Cru for 30 years. She has her MFA from Columbia University, where she received the Felipe P. De Alba Fellowship. She’s a member of Redbud Writer’s Guild and has essays, poetry, and fiction in various journals and anthologies. Her forthcoming novel, as well as a memoir, will be published by Paraclete Press this September. She blogs at northhillsdrive.com.