Too Long

“It’s been too long since I’ve had a conversation like this,” he said.

It was one of those cold gray days that would be miserable come February but that in November still carried a sort of crisp promise of the impending Christmas season.  The perfect sort of day for long conversations over cups of espresso. We settled in accordingly, curling up on sofas and armchairs, nibbling on sweet-spicy, cinnamon candied almonds.

We knew one another well or barely at all.  The guys had been friends for a long time. She and I had as well, though our friendship was recently renewed after years apart. I’d met the others  just this weekend.

But this morning we’d shared bread and wine in the bare sanctuary of the little Evangelical church, and this afternoon we’d shared bread and wine (and pasta and soup and home-made tiramisu) in the cheerful sanctuary of the homey kitchen.  And shared worship and shared family time make for quick familiarity even with the barrier of a foreign tongue.

Now, with our hosts busy about their afternoon business, the other young people spoke English for my sake.  I envied their easy fluency in two languages, but was thankful not to be straining my ears and my memory to follow Italian.  In English, our conversation could range from the church service to our travels, from plans to anxieties.  We discussed loneliness and the desire for belonging as comfortably as we speculated over international population density and the materials of home-architecture in different parts of the world.  Ideas and opinions about music and art and literature, philosophy and government and theology, all flowing into one another through that near-mystical association that sometimes arises so spontaneously in the “right” mix of personalities.

And in the conversation I was happy.  But the joy was edged with sorrow, with a knowledge that we all live so far apart, that this perfect fellowship between the four of us would last only a few hours, would probably never exist again.  There is something, in such moments, that highlights the loneliness of so many other moments, moments of being alone, or worse, not alone but still outside.

But then, “It’s been too long since I’ve had a conversation like this,” he said, and I saw that the others were thinking the same.

And I realized, the pain of the joy also is shared. Here, at least, I was not being admitted into a world of fellowship that was common to the others. I was not the only one who felt more often out than in. And somehow that made the loneliness less lonely.  It had been too long. It would be too long again.  But it would not be forever.

For each of us there would be other moments, in other places, with other people where we would again think “it’s been too long.” We can’t hold on here to that easy feeling of belonging, but someday we’ll know it again.  And for this afternoon, at least, that hope is enough.

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In Writing

The campus writing center is hardly a likely location for a love story. It is brightly lit, and the furnishings are dominating by serviceable tables and bookshelf full of style manuals, guides to technical writing, and the occasional anthology. Conversation usually revolves around refining thesis statements and discussing the finer points of comma splices and academic diction. Sometimes things are very wild, and after talking about structure and organization, we try increasing the rhetorical punch of a conclusion.

He is a freshman, finishing up a mandatory paper for first year ethics class, in which he must give and defend his “life mission statement.” The professor, bless him, has offered extra credit for a visit to the writing center, and over the past week most of the class has trickled through our doors. It is the sort of assignment that seems great in concept–mission! values! fufilment!–and, in fact, this sort of self-knowledge can be the sort of thing that animates a life. But purpose is better to have and to manifest than to talk about.  In the hands of conscientious but inexperienced freshmen, the prompt has largely produced pages of untested cliches, the realest moments places where doubt seeps through.

He is nervous about grammar and offers the customary disclaimer that he’s bad at English, as though the tutors of the writing center stand ready to judge his soul on the offense of a misplaced comma. But his life mission starts not with “traditional values” or “giving back to the community,” but in the well-traveled experience of six younger siblings. Leadership, he says, matters to him because he cares what happens to specific people. And when I ask him to clarify a connection in one of his paragraphs, I can watch him seeing them.

Forty minutes later, his comma nerves are (somewhat) soothed and his organizational structure strengthened. I ask if he is going someplace warm for spring break. His smile is full of confidence: “Oh, I’m going home. It will be great.”

Tea and Rain

I arrive ten or fifteen minutes early. It will be awkward if my hosts are still settling in after work. But the steadily falling rain precludes the possibility of a stroll and ten or fifteen minutes is a long time to sit in the car. Enter the ubiquitous corner Starbucks.

It is not quite 8 pm but the little shop is already closing (this is obviously not the neighborhood for exciting night life). The door is still unlocked, however, and the boy at the register looks up welcomingly enough.

“What’re you having?” he asks.

“Well . . . I was just gonna get a hot tea, but now I’m not so sure.”

He grins, “Get something more fun than that. It is raining after all.”

Anywhere else the justification would have ben a non sequitur, but this is Los Angeles. Rain is as novel and exciting for Angelinos as the first snow day of the year is to 6-year-olds or warm sunshine is to Seattleites. I laugh and let him talk me into a spiced tea latte. He charges me fifty cents – “we’ll call it a refill; we’re closing up for the day and have poured the milk already anyway.”

I accept the small gift and his light flirtation. The other barista is slightly older with a dark scruffy beard and joins in as he makes my drink. They are charming and attentive, and though I know their efforts are as much a good-natured competition between them as any tribute to me, I’m not in the least immune to their flattery.

All three of us are in high spirits because of the rain, all three of us quite happy to have something to fill what had looked to be a boring quarter hour, all three of us quite willing to suspend our disbelief – to accept the concern and interest of the other without question.

So we talk about rain and disasters and earthquakes. “Did you hear,” offers Scruffy Beard, “about the lawsuit in Italy a few years ago, against scientists who failed to predict an earthquake?” This leads to a discussion of Italian government and politics, which leads to a discussion of travel. We share anecdotes about our experiences overseas as if we had large repertories to draw from, politely avoiding any attempt to disillusion ourselves, to discover that the others’ experience may be less impressive than it sounds.

It’s an exchange like a hundred others each of us has had, completely insignificant in its own right. We each, no doubt, have more important things to think about – friends we care deeply for, romances realized or hoped for or lost.

But in the midst of navigating the high stakes of life, there is something comforting in the attention of strangers. It is something to feel that you aren’t always alone in the crowd, to connect and to care, if superficially and momentarily, with strangers, not as abstractions but as individuals worth knowing.

The Feast II

The lines of the church are long and clean. There are bare walls, and simple straight benches. Apart from strings of colorful triangular flags that crisscross above our heads, the only complex forms in the entire building are the people. At the front stands a tall, thin man in clerical robes. Though I do not understand most of his words, the rhythms of his speech sound familiarly pastoral. I follow along with the order of service, the Book of Common Prayer. Even though these vernacular prayers are not in my “mother tongue,” I can pick out parts simply from their form: the creed, the Lord’s prayer. Bwana, I know, is Lord, and it punctuates sentences as much in Swahili as it does in English.

The place and the worship seem very familiar and yet I know that the church–like the city in which it sits–is filled with lifetimes of experiences and words that are, at least for now, veiled from any real understanding on my part. I have heard (parts of) the stories of (some of) the people sitting here beside me, and my privileged access to education, health care, and safe roads hangs uncomfortably close to me.

But then the service moves to a meal. The bread and wine we are about to eat and drink have been taken, received, consumed, by each of us before and by so many others. It is not too mystical, perhaps, to think we are all reaching forward now to take it, separated by miles and centuries and oceans. There is a prayer of gratitude, in words I don’t understand, but from hearts I do. And a man in the chill of an Italian winter, with sandals on his feet and the threat of death in the air outside, prays. The music begins. The tune is Nothing but the Blood–the words I can only guess, their echoes in English are inside my head and sometimes slipping from my lips. A woman, living and breathing in the hot grime of nineteenth century Philadelphia, hears the claim “as white as snow” as she prepares for her turn to receive. At the front, we kneel, hands cupped. Two English men, one at a table, the other an altar, receive with joy. The voice I don’t understand tells me, I know, that this is Christ’s body, broken for me. In Mexico, in the midst of the chaos of revolution, a thin girl drinks, knowing this is Christ’s blood, shed for her. Next to me, a friend of my sister, her beautiful face full of faith, rises, knowing she is forgiven.

We are loved, and so we love. We are drawn into a union so complete–despite the fact that almost all of the accidental elements of our lives are so different–that this union is the inviolable integrity of one body. This is the love story of the church.

Loss

While flipping through old albums at my parent’s house, I came across a photograph of two little girls posed on the steps of a grand Kentucky farmhouse, each clutching a flower-girl basket in white-gloved hands. One smiles boldly at the camera; the other smiles admiringly up at her. In some ways the scene was just as I remember; in others, the discrepancy between memory and reality is laughable.

In my memory she is sophisticated, almost grown up. In the picture she isn’t more than six years old. I remember how elegantly she scattered the petals, and that while I ran out half-way down the aisle, she still had a good reserve of flowers in her basket as we turned to watch the bride process. Sure enough, the photograph reveals one very empty satin basket, and one covered with a layer of rose-petals.

She was taller, of course, and I remember thinking her dress was very short and feeling sorry for her, that she didn’t get to wear a long gown. But the dress in the photo is a very respectable tea-length. Mine, to be sure, sweeps the ground, just a bit too long for my three-year-old frame.

I remember very little about the wedding, but I remember adoring her. I was the oldest in my immediate family and not used to being around bigger kids. She was kind, holding my hand and teaching me what to do, full of the maternal confidence of a small child with a toddler. I remember being aware, when the wedding festivities were over, that I would never see her again. We’d been friends for only a couple of days, but it was the first strong never of my young life, my first foretaste of the grief of later, more significant separations.

More than a year later, my family took a sailing trip in the Chesapeake, from Baltimore to Annapolis, where we stayed several nights on the boat. In the mornings I would stand on the deck, supervised by an adult cousin, and watch the ducks paddling about the marina, feeding them with scraps of bread. “Have you named them?” my cousin asked me.

“Only that one,” I said, pointing out a large drake whose iridescent head was just cresting the water, and giving the name of the other flower girl.

He laughed, “That’s a boy duck, you know.”

I was indignant. He was right, but the biology lesson spoiled something more significant, something ritualistic, a belated tribute to that first separation, that first hint that sometimes love doesn’t conquer all obstacles and goodbyes are forever.

Even at four years old, of course, I knew that the naming a duck would not make me miss my friend any less. I don’t know quite what significance I attached to the christening; perhaps no more than a desire to substantiate my grief. A silly and wholly insufficient gesture, of course. But then, in all the ensuing years and losses, I’ve never found anything better

Dear Sister. Comma.

I still remember the day we first met. The night before I was strangely nervous, wondering what you would think of me. Had you heard enough stories to have any expectations? Did you want to like me too?

We met in the cafeteria of a Smithsonian, which was then more your home territory than mine. I don’t remember which one, or what we ate, or even anything about my brother besides that he was there. Mostly when I left I felt relieved. I didn’t know if he would marry you, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t hate you if he did. Selfishly, my first criteria had been whether you were one of the impossibly polished girls who made me feel like I’d failed Glamour 101. You looked like you could be our normal, which wasn’t actually very normal at all.

Later I visited the two of you on the hillside campus where you went to school. Then I thought that I could talk with you and laugh with you. Those were big pluses, too. And then I found out you didn’t have pierced ears either.

By the time he called, one hot July night, to tell the story of how he asked and you said yes, I was glad for more than just his sake. But I don’t think I grasped that summer, or even for years afterward, just how glad I was.

Maybe the first time I realized for sure was when you and he showed up together, met me, laughing, at my car when I arrived to a family function to show me the card that I’d filled out at your wedding. I gotten down a “dear” and then your names and then a comma. Nothing more. Distracted by something in the rush of the pre-wedding morning, I’d stuffed the card in an envelope and given it to you anyway. This belonging together started working itself out then; you forgave me, laughed, and will never let the story die.

Flash forward a few years. There is one awful Christmas full of funerals and car accidents and snow that keeps coming and coming. We are together in a car going to one of the family events where there will be tears and food and another step through weariness and toward an attempted Christmas. Suddenly, the wind shifts and heavy snow becomes an unyielding wall of white. The car is surrounded. I yell, I can’t see anything. You say, I know, me either. There is time enough for ripples of fear and then it clears and we go on.

Then this fall. My semester schedule means I probably won’t come home till Thanksgiving. Over the phone you say, aww, you should come back before the semester is really busy. We want to see you before then. I take the we as more than polite syntactical maneuvering. The two of you want to surprise me with long-awaited news, but the fact of mutual company is so established it doesn’t occur to me to be suspicious.

See when he married you, you were then part of my life too. I realized this in theory, but not in fact. As the years go, we move, sometimes with hesitation but always forward, into this fact. And so from strangers to sisters, part of always there.

Two Years Later

First she was a rumor.  A guess, extrapolated from snippets of telephone conversations that I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on. It was none of my business and I speculated without seeking confirmation, a little embarrassed to have overheard at all.

Then she was a secret, one I was forbidden to share even with those who had more right to know.  And though my confidence was a matter of professional necessity rather than privilege, I was nevertheless pleased, gratified by the evidence of trust, excited by the sheer magnitude of the knowledge I was privy to.

After that she was an announcement:  weight, length, gender, and name.  She was The Big News, shared around the office: initially statistics, then a face in a photograph, wrinkled and red with dark eyes and a remarkable mop of straight black hair. I fell in love with her in those first pictures, received by email and text message. I was no relation, but somehow felt as possessive of her as an aunt – a kinship born in the days when I shared the secret of her impending arrival.

Finally she was a small, present person, cuddled close and cooed over, the recipient of little gifts and bestower of imagined smiles.  Her parents took it for granted that she would love me, and when she was old enough to know who I was, she seemed to take it for granted too.  We played clapping games at her first birthday. When she was taking her first unsteady steps we spent a summer afternoon exploring the campus. She fell in the fountain under my supervision, but both she and her parents forgave my negligence, and really, it was a fine adventure.

Now, at two years old, she’s growing up.  She is tall and thin – like her parents – and precocious and happy .  She is the joy of her family, the answer to years  – indeed decades – of waiting, the culmination of hopes and prayers.

As her mother and I visit over lunch she eats her macaroni patiently, occasionally inserting her own oddly-relevant observations. Ours is a quiet, intense conversation between women who know the struggle (to paraphrase Eliot) of waiting without hope of the wrong thing and clinging instead to the presence and promises of God, the working out of all things truly to good.

The little one glances up with a smile to repeat a word she likes, oblivious to the catch in our voices or the deeply aching love in the words of her mother who lays a hand on the head of this long-awaited child, “look what He’s given.”

And as I look I am offered broken crayon: “Atshee fix.”  I peel away the paper so that she can use the colored wax and hand it back to her. She bends seriously over her child’s menu, carefully scribbling blue in bold strokes. Will she know, I wonder as I watch her, just how much of a blessing she is – not just to her family, but to all of us who know her?  She is, like Isaac or Samuel, a tiny, perfect sign of God’s faithfulness and goodness to those who love him and are called according to his purposes.