Atlanta, Georgia has been called the ‘capital city’ of the south, and rightfully so. With a mosaic of buildings – skyscrapers, high rises, and others – lining the downtown streets, Atlanta is a busy city. It is the location of several city, county, state, and federal government facilities, sporting arenas, corporate headquarters, conference centers, and an array of tourist attractions.
The downtown area – called the historic center – offers an urban atmosphere, well-known attractions and restaurants, and of course, the tourism department says, it offers, ‘undiscovered gems.’
There is always something going on in Atlanta, or the ATL as it is nicknamed. According to the last official count, there are about 499, 000 plus people who call the ATL home.
So, you’d think that in such a busy city you couldn’t be lonely, right?
Let me introduce you to Jennie Pennington, age 50. She is single, white, a little overweight, and a creative writing professor at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. Active in her church, a semi-professional photographer, and the youngest of her parents’ four children, Jennie has a busy life, and friends – most of whom are married or lead different lifestyles than she does. She was engaged once, but it didn’t work out, and now has a boyfriend – a man who is 10 years older. They both are incredibly busy and have their own ‘things’ so it is not like they are together 24-7, but they are together.
She is the one who plans get-togethers, calls people on the phone to check on them, sends encouraging texts, uses her social media as a platform for sharing positive stuff, visits the elderly from the neighborhood, goes to lunch daily with a colleague or a student or meets one of her cousins in town. Jennie is not wanting for company.
Yet, in the middle of the busiest city in Georgia, Jennie got hit with a bout of loneliness that started to carry her into a deep, dark pit.
Do you see her there at Starbucks’ kiosk? She is the one with the blue jeans, the baggy sweatshirt, and turtle neck – her hair is pulled back by a headband, and she has on dark-rimmed glasses and a navy backpack. Yeah, I know, she doesn’t look 50, but she is. Don’t let that smile and that Southern drawl “Hey, How are you?” fool you.
You might find her story relatable once you figure out what it is. Once, Jennie figures out what it is.
This is her world, and we are just guests in it … who am I? I guess you could say, I am her guardian angel …
So, sit back. Let’s pop in on her class. Imagine a typical college classroom with 50 seats, designed like an ‘atrium,’ with a teacher’s desk and podium at the front. There is Jennie, sitting on a stool behind the podium.
“OK, Ms. Pennington, how many words did you say?” A male voice called from the back of the classroom.
Jennie sighed, “Billy … Listen to me and not the baseball game.” She pointed to her ears. The student took out his headphones. “I need 1,000 words minimum, and 3,000 words maximum. Turn it in on Friday. You guys are dismissed.”
A few students popped up in front of the classroom to ask Jennie some questions. She listened as patiently as she could, and gave answers.
Jennie looked at the clock. She was ready to go. Once the last student left the room, that is when she noticed him – the man with a slight goatee, thick dark hair, a pair of blue jeans, and slip-on shoes with a black shirt under a brown leather jacket. He was sitting in the back of the room, watching her every move.
“William, how long have you been there?” She asked as she gathered up her belongings, zipped up her backpack, and slung it over her shoulder. Jennie walked up the steps toward where he was sitting.
He being Dr. Will Davis, her older brother’s best friend, and dean of Jennie’s department. Will and Jennie had started dating a couple of years ago, and despite the decade between their ages, it seemed to be a perfect match. Both of them enjoyed the same hobbies, except for cooking- that was all Will.
“Long enough to watch you take Billy to town for not paying attention … he does that in my class too. How has your day been so far?” He reached out and touched her hand as she stood right beside the chair.
She shrugged, “It was OK … ready to go home and get some comfy clothes on and curl up on the couch with some Chai and some Chinese though.”
Will eyed her, trying to figure out what to do about Jennie. She had not been herself in a while. Yeah, she put on a good poker face in public, but privately, it was like there was something off. But Jennie wouldn’t talk about it.
He cleared his throat, and asked, “Would you mind if I came and hung out tonight? I will bring the Chinese and even go get the Tom and Meg set to watch.” He stood up, towering over her by a few inches.
Jennie sighed, “You know, I don’t know how much fun I would be, or talkative either.” Will rolled his eyes. Jennie had been good at making excuses lately.
“Tom and Meg – you are going to pass up your favorite movies with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?” Will feigned shock. He continued, “And to spend some quality time with me?”
Jennie smiled slightly. “Well, I guess you could come ...”
Will took her hand, and guided her to the door, “Girl, we have got to do something to get you out of your funk.”
“I am not in a funk … what are you talking about?” She stopped and looked at him. He had his hand on the door.
Will dropped her hand for a minute and took his hand away from the door. Putting his hands in his pockets, he faced her. “For a while now, there is like something going on with you. We’ve talked about this several times, but you say there is nothing wrong, what is it?”
Jennie bit her lip. That’s Jennie’s way of hiding her emotions … to keep from crying. I told you I am her guardian angel. “Nothing is wrong. Come on.” She walked through the door.
Will followed her. As they stood in silence, greeting students and other faculty who pass by with a nod or a Hello, Will watched his girlfriend. Her posture, her facial expressions, and her lack of energy all gave way to the signs of depression or sadness or loneliness.
Loneliness … He couldn’t believe that would be it. Living in the ATL, with all the stuff to do, all the people, doing everything Jennie does, and they were together a lot. She couldn’t be lonely.
Or could she be?
The elevator dinged, and the doors flew open. Once they stepped on and were headed to the lobby, Will leaned over, and said, “I love you.”
Jennie peered up at him and smiled. “I love you too.” She stood on her tiptoes and gave him a quick kiss on the lips.
They parted in the parking garage and went their separate ways with plans to meet in two hours.
Will stood and watched her as she got in her SUV. He knew her well enough to know her brain was full of thoughts, and he was pretty sure those thoughts were not good.
He walked to his car, dangling his keys in his hand, wondering how to help her.
Will is a pretty smart cookie, but I think I might have to detour him a little here so he can find his answer. Watch!
Will turned on the car and flipped over to his streaming podcasts. Jennie Allen, a Christian writer, was talking about her book, ‘Get Out of Your Head.’ The book is about getting control of your thoughts and getting rid of toxic thinking.
As he drove and listened, Will thought of his own Jennie. And that is when an idea struck him.
**** Two hours later, Jennie’s house in Buckhead. ****
When Will arrived, he let himself in the backdoor. Jennie’s Shih Tzu, Ramon, met him with barks and wags. “Hey, Ramon! What is shaking, little man?” He reached down and gave the dog a pet, which sent Ramon into a dance of excitement.
The television was on in the den, and Will could see Jennie, sitting there. She was quiet. “Jen.”
He heard a sniff. “Hey!” She turned around and waved.
“You want the food in there?” He asked as he moved to her bar.
Jennie got up, and he noticed she was in her flannel pajamas and house shoes. Her face was a little red – probably from crying.
“We can eat in here.” She said, scooting across the floor.
Will put the food out and set out the bottles of water. “Yours is right there.” He pointed.
“Thank you, baby. Ramon, are you hungry too?” Jennie smiled at her dog and walked to the pantry, where she found some dog food.
Will sighed. He turned around, “Jennie, we need to talk.”
“OK, shoot.” Jennie was pouring food in Ramon’s bowl. Will walked over and took the bag from her, put it up, and guided her to the bar stool. “Sit.”
Jennie sat down, and said, “This doesn’t sound good.”
Will looked at her and cleared his throat. “Jennie, tell me what’s going on? You have been mopey and out of sorts for a while.”
She said, “You will think I am crazy.”
“Talk to me.” Will wasn’t going to let her not tell him.
“I realized something the other day … no one, but you and my mom and dad, calls me regularly. I get no texts unless someone is responding to me. I never get encouraging texts or messages from people – I am not counting you, mom, and dad. My Facebook posts rarely get likes.” Jennie was serious. She had tears in her eyes. “I just figured I have messed something up … I don’t know. Maybe it is my insecurity or I don’t know.”
“We do what we do, you and I. We hang out. And I love it, and I love you,” Jennie put her hands on his arms. “I have tried to figure it out, but I just don’t know.”
Will asked “Are you depressed? I see it sometimes in your eyes … I hear it in your voice … there is like this tone … it is not a normal Jennie tone … almost like you are lost in space or something.”
He continued, “I can see the wheels turning in your brain. You have never been vain or liked credit for stuff, but you have always had confidence in yourself. Lately, though, it is like that spark that makes you you is gone, and you question your worthiness.”
“Do I do it where others can see?” Jennie asked, opening the lid on her bottled water.
Will shook his head. “No … But you forget, I mean, we are here, we are a couple.”
She sighed. “I am lonely.”
Will stepped back, he was not ready for that admission. “You are lonely in the city of Atlanta, Georgia? You are lonely and you teach more than 100 to 150 kids a semester. You are on a ton of committees here and at church. You are one of the youth and college leaders. You have got your parents, me, and your photography side gigs.”
She nodded. “It sounds crazy, right? But it is how I feel right now. I know it is wrong. I have all these crazy thinkings that run through my mind, especially when someone doesn’t call me or text me … I get paranoid. Then I get lonely.”
“You are not alone. There are a lot of folks, myself included, who’ve been where you are or are where you are. You know what it is?” Will asked.
Jennie sighed, “I miss Liv.” Tears started streaming down her face.
That sentence stopped Will cold. He hadn’t thought about that before. Jennie was grieving the loss of her older sister, Olivia, or Liv.
I told you there was more to the story.
“I didn’t realize how much I missed her until I moved back here … She has been gone for three years. I love you, Will, I do. But she was my best friend.” Jennie wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve.
Will stood up, and walked over to Jennie, and wrapped her In his arms. “Girl, I love you. Olivia loved you. She wouldn’t want you feeling all mopey, and what would she tell you if she knew you had all that stinking’ thinking going on? That toxic stuff in your brain?” Will broke away from the hug and touched her head with his finger.
Jennie looked up, and sniffed, “She would tell me that it is all in my head and that I need to get that junk out of my head.”
“Exactly, and the best way to do that?” Will asked.
“Pray about it,” Jennie said. “I have been praying about it. I am reading that book. I am doing Bible studies.”
Will walked over to the window, and then turned around, “Ah, but are you listening to God? Are you waiting on God to do His thing? Or are you trying to control your situation? Trying to fix it without Him telling you?”
I told you Will was pretty smart.
Jennie put her head down, “I am trying to fix it.” She whispered.
Will walked over the bag on the counter. He slid it over to her. “I heard a podcast about this when I was in my car today. It is not really about grief and all, but ...”
Jennie opened the bag and slid out a hardback of Jennie Allen’s ‘Get Out of Your Head’ book. She looked at the cover and turned it over.
Will sat next to her and started eating. “Apparently, there is a Bible study that goes with the book too.”
Jennie sighed, put the book down, and Will said, “I think I am going to contact the preacher and see if he can recommend a grief counselor too.”
She hadn't realized it, but the feelings she was having, and the funk she was in, was a product of grief she had over her sister's death that she hadn't really processed through. Until she was ready to admit out loud, she was not going to move forward ... Will figured that much out.
Jennie looked at him a little surprised, “You think I need one?”
“Yeah … I don’t like you feeling this way … lonely … down … When Liv died you had so many things we were dealing with, I think you just shut it all down and didn’t deal with it. I was not sure exactly what it was until today … But you are lonely because you miss your sister.” Will took his fork and took a bite of rice.
“I guess you are right,” she said, diving into her own food. Jennie wiped a tear away. Will leaned over and gave her a kiss on her cheek.
He said. "You won't be lonely in the Big ATL anymore now."
I like Will. He is a decent guy, and you can count on my word as a guardian angel, and as Jennie's sister. Yeah, didn't I tell you? I am Liv or Olivia.