Orion’s Belt

It some ways it seems impossible that very much time has passed since that summer. But it is now fully half my lifetime since I was fifteen. I spent two weeks of a very muggy July at summer camp in Tennessee. The sun burnt down, even through the haze. I remember mostly single impressions and conversations now. The nights sounds walking back to the dorm in the thick air. A Saturday spent splashing in a shallow river. The awkward bus ride back in a wet suit. Smiling and waving at a guy who, it turned out, was actually waving at the girl behind me. A halting attempt at small talk with one of the speakers. They play a bit like mental gifs, not just an image, but fragmentary and drained of some of their original life.
It was the bookish sort of college prep summer camp, and, for perhaps the first time in my life, my obsession with reading was a social asset rather than a detriment. At the time, the fast intense friendships one makes at camp were a brand new experience and quite heady. The buzz of conversation filled everything after the first few days, and email–then not a task but a first grasp toward my social autonomy–promised the indefinite continuation of fellowship.
The last night was filled with frantic picture taking and laughter. Inside jokes I’ve now forgotten were re-played endlessly. But there was one moment of stillness in the social whirl. Two of us sat behind the chapel, outside of the glare of the street lights and looked up at the stars. She was in my dorm wing and we shared a first name. I’m not so much ashamed as I am amazed to realize that, at this point, I have no recollection at all what her last name was. She was an MK from Ivory Coast and could tell stories about a world that was very far from the muggy stillness of those Tennessee mountains. And yet, the pictures from that night show her looking much more polished than me, her cute polished bob next to my disheveled ponytail. She had been in the States for the summer, but would be going back to Abidjan in August. We didn’t know very many of the constellations, but we found Orion and promised to think of each other whenever we saw the tight cluster of his belt. The stars, after all, looked down at all of us.
I don’t remember how long we exchanged emails. Certainly not into the great disruption of life that is starting college. But long enough to get her account of the coup that happened in 99, adding a mental image of her looking out a window at turbulent streets. How much do those fragments add up to a real person? Life has given her another fifteen years as well. I have no idea where she lives now, if her forgotten name has changed, if any of things we dream at fifteen have come true for her, if she has children that might someday end up in a summer camp friendship too. But I do think of her every time I find those stars, suspended between Africa and North America, fifteen and somehow my friend.
This January, I walked out from having had supper into the sudden darkness of an equatorial night. We were far away from any city lights and the new moon left room for millions of stars. Ruaha, Tanzania is 4,000 miles from the city in which she probably no longer lives, but much, much closer than under DC’s always shining lights.
Emily, I haven’t forgotten you. And Orion’s belt still has three stars.


He’s twenty-five now. Whatever age gap separated my life from his has closed fully. Our love of surfing has led to real conversations as we wait between sets, and his advice is often good and wise and comforting.

Sometimes he even calls me just to chat.

“How come we’re such good friends all of a sudden?” I ask over the phone as we make our respective commutes home from work.

“Because you finally like surfing and stuff. I had to wait for you to stop being so boring and become an interesting person.”

What he probably doesn’t realize is how much I owe my un-boring-ness to him.

Without him, I might not be totally boring. I would still love the beauty of the world and still have the broad curiosity that served me well in my academic pursuits. But without him I’m pretty sure I would observe and comment from the sidelines.

Left to myself, I would be a distinctly unadventurous person. I have the oldest child’s over-responsibility mixed with a natural caution and tendency to worry. Left to myself, I might have developed a penchant for luxury and comfort. I might have been the sort of woman who talks about having an “active lifestyle” when what she means is that she runs to stay thin and her biggest adventure is the local 10K.

But I’ll never know, because I wasn’t left to myself.

The thing is, no matter how frightened you are that your Dad will push you over (again) when he’s trying to teach you to ride a bike, you can’t let your little brother learn before you. And when you are not-quite-seven years old, standing on the high dive and the pool looks like it is miles and miles away, the only thing that really forces you to work up the courage to jump is the knowledge that he’s been begging the swim instructor all week to let him jump, even though he’s not-quite-three.

But then the thing is, when you jump off the high dive you aren’t thinking about the baby at the foot of the ladder any more. You’re thinking about the speed and the breathless excitement and the smoothness of your entry into the deep water. And even though you proved yourself in the first jump you find yourself jumping again for the sheer joy of the adventure. And then you try to dive.

And as you grow up the same thing happens again and again – plummeting from cliffs into cool mountain streams, climbing trees, taking the steep hill on the mountain bike without using your breaks, skiing down slopes you’re pretty sure you aren’t ready for, scrambling up a boulder, dangling your feet over the edge of a precipice.

For a long time you’re doing things to keep one step ahead of your little brother. But eventually that is no longer possible – he’s a man now, taller and stronger and faster and more athletic than you by far. But that’s okay because each of those adventures he “forced” you into developed your own sense of adventure.

Now I know the thrill of paddling out into big waves, the excitement of the speed down the face (and even the exhilaration of falling). It’s not that I am no longer afraid of things high or steep or fast (although I’m pretty sure he actually isn’t). But I discovered I LIKE that sort of fear, somewhere along the way I became adventurous in my own right.

I will always love long walks, long books and long conversations. There’s adventure in the quiet things too. But I’m glad I’ll never quite be satisfied with those. I’m glad I wasn’t actually left to myself.

O Love that will not let me go

Since that day it has never been quite enough to say that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world; since the rumor that God had left his heavens to set it right.
~GK Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

We started this blog  (almost a year ago, aren’t you proud of us?) to remind ourselves, each other, and anyone who happens to read our stories of the gift of love in a broken world. For many, this time of year offers particular encounters with both love and loneliness – time with friends and family in the cold darkness of winter, the New Year with its fresh promises but also with its reminders of longings still unsatisfied and hopes still unrealized.

It seems appropriate in this season, to take a break from the stories to remember the Story, commemorated in these Holy Days of Advent and Christmas, of Emmanuel: God come to us, dwelling daily with us, deeply knowing us.  Love that will not let us go.

May these hearts prepare a place
For God-With-Us will come to save
And surely he shall comfort those he loves
And so we wait.

~Young Oceans

For both of us, “Emmanuel” is an increasingly precious word. We did a shorter version of the following reflection in church a couple weeks ago and it sent me back to my concordance (and, in a few places, back to the Old King James) to seek out the source of each verse of the hymn as a winter’s meditation.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Matthew 1:23 ~ Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

1 Corinthians 1:30 ~ But of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us Wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.

O Come, Thou Wisdom from on High
Who orderest all things mightily
To us the paths of knowledge show
And teach us in her way to go

Isaiah 11:1 & 4 ~ And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. . . with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From death’s dark hell thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave

Luke 1:78 ~ Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the Day-spring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight

Isaiah 22:22 ~ And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut and none shall open.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high
And close the path to misery

Isaiah 11: 10 ~ And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.

O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.

Haggai 2: 6-7 ~ For thus saith the LORD of hosts: Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, saith the LORD of hosts.

O come, Desire of Nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease
And be Thyself our King of Peace

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

City Winters

Early December in DC swings back and forth between actually cold and only looking cold. In front of Union Station, the taxi line snakes through the dusk under the big Christmas wreathes. At a little side table in one of the coffee shops inside, two women are sharing coffee and optimistically wintery deserts: warm waffles and rice puddings. Their conversation is about moves, jobs, babies, and visits from faraway friends, the extraordinary moments of fairly ordinary lives.

Rachel is a few years past what counts as young and just starting out. Years of living on a semester schedule in an apartment in the big city have accumulated; the odd tangle of a life quite connected to a distant family in a small hometown and one of single independence in the less than stable world of academia has had its tensions smoothed by habit and routine. But usually early December finds her a bit disheveled in appearance and with stacks of papers waiting somewhere.

Sophie’s brightly colored green scarf is carefully knotted and she carries herself with a grace that reflects a love of beauty thoughtfully invested in all areas of life. Her softly accented speech tells stories about moving boxes with as much charm as those of her life as a girl in Holland.

Last Christmas we could have found them also together, with carols playing and friends gathering to gild pine cones and cut paper snowflakes and drink pots and pots of coffee. Sophie’s daughter, Julia, was Rachel’s school friend and fellow wanderer through the tumultuous decade that followed their first bonding over exams and the trials of dorm life in a small liberal arts college. Julia was married by candlelight on a day that flooded by short-lived December sunshine. And then she moved away, leaving the capital city a bit lonelier for both of them.

January brought an invitation to watch Shakespeare for an evening, and soon there was friendship blossoming in its own right. The generation between then is quickly covered by shared loves: first for the absent Julia, but also Shakespeare and his age. They sigh at the drama that was Anne Boleyn’s shocking short reign, discuss Elizabeth’s manipulation of continental powers, and laugh at Falstaff. Evenings of conversation ebb and flow, comfort and affection grow. After Elizabethan politics, talk turns to students, research, career, family and faith. And it turns out one of last year’s best Christmas gifts was a friend to make Monday evenings more enjoyable and life a bit more beautiful.

A Different Sort of Disney Love Story?

Neither of us have seen Disney’s Frozen yet.  Though we tend to like animated movies, we’re also currently a part of the social demographic that doesn’t generally pay to see them in theaters . . . but this review sounds intriguing:

The trolls warned the family that Elsa’s great enemy would be fear—how other people might react to her magical power. Yet, it also turns out that her family’s proactive steps to protect Elsa made her insecure—fearful—in her alienation from others. But, Frozen doesn’t go for an easy, overly ideological subtext. Younger sister Anna’s over-eager enjoyment of freedom outside the protective kingdom walls leads her to fall in love with Prince Hans, whose supposed instant love for her masks a more insidious plan.

Some critics have accused the film of setting up its tricky reveal a little too perfectly. But while the sheer goodness of Hans’ actions for most of the movie may be over the top, I’m fine with over-selling the problems with first-glance infatuation. Hollywood has too often sold the same experience as “true love.” Ironically—and perhaps too tragically—it’s Elsa’s wisdom about her younger sister’s folly which especially ices her separation from everyone.

The trolls inform Anna and her new pals—ice trader Kristoff and his reindeer buddy, Sven—that only “an act of true love” can free the people from their eternal winter. It would be natural to assume that an act of romance, of love at first sight, would save the day. Instead, the act of true love—the perfect love which casts out fear in Elsa’s heart, you might say—is accomplished by Anna, who endlessly seeks reconciliation with her big sister.

Another Family

It is not the nicest drive on a dark winter night, dark even before you leave the office. The canyon is pleasant enough in the fading twilight. But then comes the freeway,  slow crawl amongst headlights and taillights  – loneliness exacerbated by the abstract crowd around you. Then the busy city street through the San Fernando Valley which certainly doesn’t look like its going anywhere you’d want to go: past a low, square building selling tombstones and masonry, bright neon lights of fast-food restaurants and corner liquor stores, a strip club on the right advertising discount lap dances.

Once off the busy street you find yourself in a dark neighborhood with bland mid-century houses: utilitarian, unimpressive. A couple rights and lefts more and you pull up in front of a house that you recognized even on the first visit. This one is set apart from the others by attention and love – welcoming landscaping, bright light pouring through the frosted glass ichthys (ichthyses? ichthyss?)  in the wood-framed front door.  You ring the doorbell and then there is an open door and open arms and a welcome home in the darkness of winter.

It is their home, but as long as you are here it is your home and this time of year – and this time of life – it is nice to find home wherever possible.  It is a good home to find when you come on your own to talk about life, when you need to be comforted or corrected. And it’s also a good home to find when you come along with the rest of the family and you don’t need anything in particular except love.

On that sort of a night there is laughter and chatter and rich Cuban accents. The daughters and sons-in-law ask about your work and your family in genuine effort to know you better. The grandchildren are happy to have a new playmate, a new ear for their stories, a new seat-mate at supper.

The meal is loud and full of laughter as the daughters tell stories on their mother, interrupting each other with details and she laughs at herself along with the rest.  The older of the grandchildren listens with increasing skepticism as her grandpa tells a story. Even if a grandfather is a priest, you still can’t believe his tall tales. And you grin at him and say “she knows who to trust in this family” and he laughs “She knows to trust no one in this family” and she says “uh huh! Grandma!”

And with desert there is a frosting fight between the uncle and the five-year-old and she comes to show you the smear of sugar on her nose, dimples deepening when you pretend like you’re going to lick it off for her

These  friendships are still new, and you are a little surprised at your own comfort. You’ve heard before and said before, that the church is a family; words like “brother” and “sister” tossed around until they seem trite.  But tonight, almost for the first time, that doesn’t feel like an idea or an analogy.  Tonight it seems like mystery and reality.

Behind the reality of fellowship and the joy of laughter, all the stresses of life remain, different for each but real for all (except, perhaps, the five-year-old).  Being together doesn’t make them go away, but it is good not to bear them all alone.  And as you say goodbye after dinner, you thank them and you thank God that, for tonight, your sorrows and joys were welcomed into the mix.

The Garbage Truck

On 6th Street in Arlington, the trash gets picked up at about 11:30 am on Fridays. I know this at all because, for two little boys who lived in a modest, bright two story house on that street, this moment was a genuine highlight of the week. When they could hear the truck coming, slowly making its way down the street, they would run to the glass storm door to watch. And when the men jumped off the truck in front of their house, they would begin to wave madly, grinning and jumping, until their adoration was acknowledged by their heroes in navy coveralls.
I wondered nearly every week what those men thought of this little ritual. Little boys often like trucks and loud noises. But more often, the objects of such joyful admiration are firemen or perhaps construction workers. Maybe in this case their attentions were captured because the garbage men were there every week, only steps away from ordinary life for small people in an ordinary house. I am sure that when they were hired these garbage men did not expect any groupies at all, even if they were very short and sometimes sticky ones.  They probably expected smell, grime, weather and daily drudgery–a hard job with almost not cultural appreciation of its difficulty.
I no longer spend Friday mornings in Arlington. But I think of the waving and the grins whenever I start (a little impatiently) to follow a slow garbage truck down a city street. Heroes. And my mind drifts a bit further back, to an aquired memory, not even properly my own.
See my family drives Fords because my grandfather worked for the Ford factory in Buffalo. Even though the necessities of the Depression stopped his education after eight short years, by his retirement he was doing a job that now requires a degree. But there were earlier years when there were five children and not very much money. And so, after shifts at the factory, he worked another job, too, as a garbage man on small town NY streets. An image of him on the back of the truck, taller perhaps than he was in real life and straighter than my last memories of him, plays over the mental soundtrack of one of the last conversations I had with him, which was how to work hard in a new job you didn’t like yet. 
I like to think those boys were also cheering for him.