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.

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

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.