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.

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.

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.

Adventure

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

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.