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.

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.

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.

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.

Verona

You found that you slept in later in Verona. Perhaps it was the soft, November light, filtering through a sky that was not sunny nor cloudy but simply grey.  Perhaps it was the coziness of blankets and the coldness of tile floors, or the way your friend left so quietly without waking you and there were no sounds of conversation or traffic to let you know it was morning.

But eventually you did wake up and then there was rich espresso in a tiny mug and a slice of a traditional Christmas cake for breakfast and time for reading and time for prayer and when that was done a city to explore. You had your own key and turned it four times in the lock and walked down the stairs and onto the street which was old and led across the bridge to the medieval church and from there opened into other narrow, cobbled streets between ancient buildings past frescoed chiesas and through crowded piazzas where street vendors sold roasted chestnuts and cups of fruit and cheesy souvenirs of Romeo e Giulietta.  And in the morning it was fine to be surrounded by the people you could not talk to and to listen to the flow of a language you did not understand, and eventually to make your way to a coffee shop and shyly order a ciocolato calde.  Then you were overwhelmed by the barista offering flavor options in Italian and you ordered caramello not because you love caramel, but because you understood the word, and when you shyly asked “e panna, por favore?” you were relieved, when you got the steaming mug, that it did come with a generous serving of whipped cream. 

But when you were done with your thick chocolate you began to feel a little lonely in the crowds of strangers and then it was good to walk home and to find, when you turned your key in the lock that someone was already opening the door from the other side, and there was your old friend to welcome you back and years of conversation and silence to catch up on.  Long ago, you had lived together in a crowded dorm with many other girls and the conversations and pranks and tears and whispers had been taken for granted. Now you each lived on your own in quiet apartments that were sometimes wonderful and sometimes lonely and for this week you were both glad to have a roommate again. 

In the afternoon you wandered out together through the city and now you were not lonely in the busy streets because you had a friend and because your friend was also your bridge to the rest of the people. She could explain to the man behind the counter that you were Americans and where you were from and could translate for you the flavors of gelato or the items on a menu and would order for you when you were not sure what to say. And when you were tired in the evening you would wander home together and sip tea or Prosecco and nibble on dark chocolate as you read together silently and companionably, but then again the silence never lasted long, because what you were reading would remind you of something and you would read it aloud and then you would be an hour into a conversation that had meandered across years and continents and subjects. And sometimes you would have no response and the conversation would fade to silence and other times you interrupted her and other times she interrupted you but that was okay because the interruptions were as good as the silence and the silence as comfortable as an answer.  And around midnight you would go to bed and whisper together a bit more before you fell asleep, like children at a slumber party, and then you would say goodnight and sweet dreams and she would say sognid‘oro and you would sleep well and soundly and wake up the next morning to begin again.