I accredit my appreciation of the abandoned to a combination of being raised with a Southern sensibility, a love of Southern literature, and a childhood faith steeped in the stories of the Saints. Perhaps I am doubly compelled as a Southern Catholic to seek beauty hidden in abandonment. It is in the beauty where we find God. Used as a verb, abandon means to give up completely or to cease supporting another. To “be abandoned” conjures images of desolation, seclusion, and despair; however, when used as a noun, abandon discards those epithets in favor of a lack of inhibitions often described as reckless or wild. In my opinion, neither definition adequately convey the aftermath of abandonment. While there may be, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “far better things ahead,” what is left behind bears remembering
For most of my adult life, I have relied on humor and a healthy dose of avoidance of anything unpleasant to keep me moving forward. But at age 51, my coping mechanisms failed me, and I couldn’t shake the overwhelming sadness that had taken a foothold on my life. I was crippled by thoughts I could no longer push aside. Eleven years of swallowing self-doubt and wounded pride, without addressing the toll of such actions, had insulated me from the full impact of the divorce and my daughter’s abrupt departure one year later. I had managed to patch my heart and limp about the business of taking care of Michael. Several years later, after the minor setback of a broken engagement to the wrong man, my determination to appear resilient had fooled even me. After all, I had worked through many of my insecurities by writing them down and giving them clever titles and neatly tied up endings. Self-deprecating humor and vulnerability had been my salvation. I had failed to see the beauty and missed God in the process. I found myself believing my heroine’s indomitable spirit was my own. I wanted to be Charlotte who took it on the chin and came back stronger. She was the embodiment of a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Michael’s leaving for college just as I took on a new role at school had coincided with my being diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. To add insult to injury, the relationship I believed to be my chance for a “happily ever after” began to unravel. The negative thoughts I had so adeptly kept spinning like plates out of reach began crashing around me, and for the first time in a long while I was completely overcome by doubt. Try as I might, I couldn’t put a positive spin on any aspect of my life now that Michael was out of the house and I was alone. I was forced to confront the abandonment issues I had carefully dodged, and I was in danger of becoming the epitome of a pitiable woman. What was worse, I couldn’t write the woman away due to an impressive flare up brought about by my RA. By mid-October, I was imagining a future punctuated by elastic waistbands, sensible shoes, and living close enough to Michael so he could take me to Mass on Sundays.
One October Sunday, while I didn’t require a chauffeur in an effort to quiet a restless mind, I set out in pursuit of finding something beautiful to photograph. Not having any particular destination in mind, I got in my car and began driving. Minutes into the trip, I recalled reading an online article listing some well-known haunted sights of Georgia. The most haunted was Milledgeville’s Central State Hospital. After the last few months, a haunted insane asylum didn’t scare me, so I set my gps and headed off in search of ghosts. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the choice began the process of excising the ghosts of my past.
As I drove onto the grounds of Central State, I was surprised by the chill that came over me. I couldn’t pinpoint what had caused the sudden change of temperature. It wasn’t fear, so perhaps it was a response to the enveloping quiet or the weight of so many untold stories. The campus was much larger than I had envisioned. With each abandoned building I passed, it became clear I was the only living person present. For a brief moment, I entertained the thought of turning my car around and going home, but I was drawn to the buildings that stood in varying states of decay. They were both imposing and forlorn. Even in their dilapidated state, there was a beauty in how the weathered bricks appeared laced together by overgrown vines.
Parking my car in front of one of the oldest structures, I got out and began taking pictures. I imagined the patients who had been housed within the now crumbling walls. Had there been benevolent doctors and nurses to care for them, or family members willing to visit? The longer I lingered in front of the building, the more I wanted to know what had transpired in this place. With each picture I framed, I wondered if I was being watched. If so, was I viewed as an interloper or welcomed guest?
After an hour or so of roaming the manicured lawns wanting a glimpse of something more and not finding it, I returned to my car. Driving back to Macon, my mind crowded with thoughts of the vacant buildings and the forgotten patients who had inhabited them. I was anxious to upload my pictures and see if the beauty of the abandoned hospital had been captured by my camera lens. Even if it hadn’t, the adventure had served as a welcome distraction from the loneliness of living alone for the first time in 51 years. In the pursuit of something lovely among the ruins, I had begun my ascent from the ashes. I wasn’t alone. I was being lifted by the transcendent beauty of every event and person who played a part in my story, even those I had tried to forget. In acknowledging the beauty, I was open to seeing God’s presence where before, I hadn’t seen Him.
It is human nature to want to be chosen. Death, divorce, broken relationships, or failure of any kind weaken our ability to trust and cause us to doubt our value. The child in each of us cries out, “Choose me!” The beautiful abandon occurs when we let go of our inhibitions and choose ourselves because we were first chosen by God. We answer the call of “deep calling to deep.” (Psalm 42:7)