A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter 17 “California”

abandoned church

(The previous chapters can be found by clicking on A Godless Fundamentalist under Topics on the right hand side of this page. To receive email notifications whenever subsequent chapters are published, hit the follow button.)

by John Ellis

It didn’t take long for my reason for moving to San Francisco to morph into my theatre career. With a vibrant regional theatre scene that includes Berkeley Rep, American Conservatory Theater, and the Marin Theater Company, along with a host of smaller houses like Shotgun Players and Cutting Ball Theater, the Bay Area seemed like the ideal place for me to finally put down roots. That gave me a purpose, a plan; something to hang onto during my moments of darkest despair. I clung to the thought that my hope and salvation were going to be found in the vibrant theatre community of San Francisco. Sadly, that belief freed me to embrace my worst impulses with little thought to anything else.

When not partying and living for self, I threw myself into researching the Bay Area theatre community and planning how much money I would need to move cross country. My brother, who was living in Antioch, CA, a bedroom community about forty miles east of the City, graciously offered me a room at his house until I found a place of my own. The one hitch was that I needed to be out in June before he, his wife, and their infant son would be flying to South Carolina for a couple of months. Looking at my bank account and my large stash of assorted substances ready to be sold, I told him, “No, problem. I can be there by then.”

Having a plan and a purpose also seemingly released me from much of the existential angst that had driven me onto that bridge. My growing optimism couldn’t completely shield me from the despair that lived in my soul, though. During my final months in South Carolina, three events shone as unwanted lights exposing the hollowness I still felt. The first, as I explained in the previous chapter, was The Passion of the Christ. The second was an unexpected argument over Psalm 14 with my roommates.

I walked into the living room just in time to hear one of my roommates smugly sneer, “Even the Bible says there’s no God.”

His audience responded with a mix of skepticism and delight at having their rejection of God validated by the Bible, of all places. The jeers of laughter added to my annoyance.

I’m not sure what annoyed me the most: his disregard, albeit unintentional, of any legitimate literary analysis or the fact that I was bothered by the exegetical damage being done to the Bible. “Why do I feel the need to defend the Bible?” I wondered, but I waded into the discussion anyway. For his part, my roommate was visibly shocked that I took the Bible’s side over his. After I sighed, “the Bible doesn’t say that, man,” he protested that it was in one of the Psalms. His refusal to let go of his contention that the Bible says there is no God forced me to go pull the Schofield Reference Bible my dad had presented me as a high school graduation gift out of its hiding spot in my room.

Turning to Psalm 14, I quietly handed the Bible to him and waited. I could tell he wasn’t happy with me when he shoved it back to me after reading, “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’”

The ensuing argument about the proper exegesis of the verse didn’t last long because the majority of those present immediately understood the verse’s point. My roommate spent the rest of the night sulking, as did I. Him, because he was embarrassed. Me, because I was mad at myself for feeling compelled to stick up for the Bible. While no longer an atheist, I still rejected God, believing that He was lying to us; a belief that had propelled my boast that I hoped I was the Antichrist. I genuinely believed that God could be defeated and pulled off His throne; at least, I believed that some of the time. Other times, though, a new fear began to grow in me.

As I prepped for my move, my theatre career once again moved to the front burner of my priorities. That caused me to take stock of where I was and whom I’d become. On one hand, it was mostly irrelevant; outside of “retiring” from my short career as a drug dealer, my theatre goals didn’t really require much lifestyle change. On the other hand, evaluating myself confronted me with how out-of-step with respectable society my lifestyle had become, much less out of step with the conservative Christianity of my family.

Over the previous six years, my family’s love was one of the hardest pricks I had to kick against. Whenever we gathered together, my parents and siblings never once did anything to make me feel like I was considered a lesser part of the family. In fact, they went out of their way to communicate their love for me. And you want to know what love is? My mom and eldest sister eating the vegan lasagna I occasionally cooked for family gatherings, that’s love. Even as a vegan, I never deluded myself into thinking that soy “cheese” tastes good. But I was committed to animal rights, so, I ate soy “cheese.” Unlike me, though, my mom and sister were not members of PETA and had no moral qualms about eating real, delicious cheese. Thankfully, they were committed to loving me and making me feel welcome, even in what most people probably consider small, unimportant things .

No matter how loving and welcoming my family was, though, it was never enough to cover over in my heart the obvious fact that there was something that caused me to be existentially estranged from them. Deep down, I knew why. And I knew that they hadn’t changed and, so, I never blamed them. However, I did mourn that existential alienation from them and was never able to fully shake the desire to bridge the gap. During the buildup to my move to California, I concluded that my spiritual and existential alienation between my family and I had grown too wide to ever be bridged. Finally surrendering to that was important, I believed. Along with that, I felt that it was incumbent on me to release my siblings from any responsibility towards me. At the time, both of my sisters lived in the Greenville area, and I met with both of them individually.

My prepared speech was the same for both: my lifestyle was now too extreme to keep hidden, I confessed. As stoically as I could, I explained to them that I would understand if they wanted to shield their children, my nieces and nephew, from me; that I wouldn’t blame them for that nor ever harbor any ill will. “I know you love me,” I said, “and I wish things could be different.”

My emotional response upon leaving both my grieving sisters, who were left wondering if they would ever see me again, bothered me. Or, rather, it scared me. For the first time, true doubt about the value of what I wanted began to reveal itself. Even during my lowest moments, even during times of dark despair, I never lost faith in my idol of complete freedom. Crying out in pain at night, I faulted everything but what I wanted. Even recognizing tradeoffs, like an existentially whole relationship with my family, I had always concluded that sovereignty over my own life was worth the price. Now, though, I began to wonder if that was true.

Those three pricks that I was forced to kick against aside, my final weeks in Greenville were mostly angst-free. For one thing, I was too busy making moving preparations and saying goodbyes to think about much else. My final goodbye was reserved for Christine. Neither one of us were sure if we were still a couple or not. She still professed her love for me, and I didn’t run from the fact that she meant far more to me than my one-night stands; in fact, I allowed my feelings for her free rein.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see what a colossal manipulative jerk I was, to put it kindly and in family-friendly terms. At the time, I rationalized my treatment of her by reminding myself that she had angrily broken up with me a few months earlier because I broke my promise to move in with her after my cross-country trip. Of course, that required me to ignore the fact that I knew that she longed for me to commit to her and that my actions and words allowed her to believe that we were closer to resuming being a legitimate couple than we were.

Driving south on I-85, I looked forward to seeing Christine and found myself contemplating asking her to move to California with me. Since she had one more year of college left, I knew that was doubtful and mentally shelved the idea. However, she had the same idea, just the exact opposite direction. Unlike me, though, she had not mentally shelved it.

Sitting in our favorite café, she nonchalantly pointed out the “For Sale” sign in the window. “Stay here with me. I can buy this place,” she pled, her muted tone failing to hide her urgency. “You can run it for me; and,” she added, gesturing to the small stage, “We can make theatre here.”

I didn’t know if she could follow through with her suggestion and buy the café. I knew that she had money. Or, rather, I knew that her dad had money. A lot of it. And I knew that out of guilt for having left her and her mom when Christine was a baby, he bought her whatever she wanted and kept her bank account stocked. She’d gotten a house and a brand-new car out of him, but I had no idea if she could’ve played on his guilt to the tune of buying her a café.

Her offer was tempting, very tempting, and I silently mulled it over while trying to avoid her gaze. “I don’t know, Christine,” I finally said. “I think I need to go to California.”

For the next two days, she pleaded with me to reconsider, reminding me that I could have everything I wanted with her. She wasn’t necessarily wrong. Even if she couldn’t have bought the café, the Atlanta theatre market is excellent and production on movies and TV shows was starting to ramp up in Georgia. Plus, I genuinely liked her and enjoyed her company. On paper, it made sense. But I couldn’t shake what appeared to me to be an undefined need to move to California.

The next few days were tense, but we attempted to make the best of it. She even offered to move out to California to live with me after she graduated. I think we both knew that was unlikely to happen, but it became something to hang our relationship on and it helped us salvage our final days together.

After saying my final goodbye to a distraught Christine, I headed north to Bloomington, IN, my next stop. Assuming that once I made it to California it would be years before I ever made it back East, I wanted to spend some time with my grandmother. As “luck” would have it, my parents were visiting her, too.

After my grandfather had died, my grandmother moved to Bloomington to be near my Aunt. Considering that my parents were on the road much of the time, the move made sense. By June 2004, it was becoming evident that my grandmother was nearing the end of her independence. That conversation was one of the reasons behind my parents visit.

While in Bloomington, I stopped by Indiana University’s theatre department and had an encouraging chat with a few of the professors. Being a university town, Bloomington was full of restaurants that catered to vegetarians, a fact I took full advantage of while exploring downtown. Sifting through the stacks of the Caveat Emptor, a used bookstore to beat all used bookstores, finding interesting clothes in dowtown Bloomington’s myriad vintage clothing stores, and meeting interesting, like-minded people, I began to wonder if maybe I should stay there. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I could enroll at IU and live with my grandmother, helping her out until the time came when she would need actual professional care. After I excitedly told my parents and Aunt and Uncle my plan, I was stunned to hear my mom’s response.

“Thank you for being willing to take care of your grandmother, but your dad and I believe that you should move to California.”

She added that the decision was mine, of course, but I was no longer really paying attention. I assumed that moving to California to restart my theatre career in San Francisco would be the last thing my parents would want me to do. Even in hindsight, it seems odd. I hadn’t told them anything about my struggles nor that church. When I told them that I was moving, I told them that it was for theatre and to be near my kind of people, which required me to completely ignore my dismay at what I had found in San Francisco the year before.

Before she died from cancer, I asked my mom about her surprising response to my plan to stay in Bloomington. She smiled and said, “I don’t really know why. I just knew that God wanted you to move to California.”

My Aunt has since expressed a similar sentiment to me. At the time, after I shared my change of plans, she didn’t really say anything, other than to thank me for my offer. Since then, she told me that she didn’t feel any need to add anything to what my mom said. At the time, neither my parents nor my Aunt and Uncle knew how perplexing my mom’s reply was for me. I defiantly hid my feelings when I doubled down and insisted on following through with my new plan (I don’t know, though, you’d have to ask my Aunt, maybe I didn’t hide my feelings as well as I believe).

With my new plan stated and settled, I turned my attention to my new hometown. My grandmother was happy to hear the news, and I began the business of finding out the necessary steps to enrolling at IU. The day following the conversation with my parents, I went to dinner at a Fazoli’s with my Aunt and one of my cousins. While waiting for my cousin and her kids to arrive, I went to the bathroom. Standing in front of the sink, an unexpected urge to go to California washed over me. Unexpected, as in, I had no idea where it came from nor what was driving it. Prior to that moment, I was happy with my decision to stay in Bloomington. More than happy, in fact. It was a great idea; one of the best ideas I’d ever had, I believed. Yet, staring at myself in the mirror of a Fazoli’s bathroom, I knew that I had to go to California, to the point where it didn’t feel like I had a choice in the matter.

Rushing out of the bathroom, I breathlessly explained to my Aunt that I couldn’t stay. At first, she thought I meant the restaurant and she kindly suggested some other restaurants. While I did mean the restaurant, believing I needed to leave that very moment, I also meant more. I don’t remember the reason I gave her for flip-flopping my plans so suddenly – I don’t know what reason I could’ve given her – but she took my abrupt change of plans in stride and gave me a hug goodbye while telling me that she loved me and that she’d be praying for me.

Back at my grandmother’s house, my parents didn’t ask any questions when I announced my change of plans, again, but seemed oddly pleased. It felt like everyone but me knew a secret about my life, and it irritated me a little. For her part, my grandmother told me that she was sad that I had to go but that she understood. Which was more insight than I had because I didn’t really understand why I had to go. Within the next fifteen minutes, I had repacked my car, said my goodbyes, and found myself on the way to California.

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