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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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.

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.

The Feast

Often she finds going to her parents’ rural church an exercise in extreme self-consciousness. She feels herself a poorly constructed appendage of her familiar family, showing up for holidays and occasional longer trips, but having been gone for far too long really. After the service, everyone gathers for coffee and baked treats. Here are the kind, inquiring faces from childhood, who assume things about a life in a city, about jobs. Another explanation that, yes, she was still in school seems almost unbearable. There is the embarrassment of trying to justify obscure study in a blue-collar world.

And yet, such discomfort seems self-involved, even in the moment. The “Sister” who hugs her and casually mentions (as she has for the last decade) what her grandson is up to, has known her for her whole life and genuinely means the set cultural phrases of greeting: “It’s good to see you.”

There is an old phrase for this still common practice of eating together after gathering for worship: a love feast. Here is it is humbly translated into mediocre church coffee and pretty good brownies or coconut bars. There is the buzz of voices, male and female, darting children, routine conversation about the week ahead, and sometimes continued prayers or tears.

And just before, in the adjoining room, there has been another meal, one that joined them all together past the awkwardness and the routine chit-chat. They had each gone to the front, one by one, and eaten and drank of that mysterious food, which presented in tangible form the highest love. And each face, some tired, some much worn by the world, some youthful and innocent, had encountered that love. It reached down into the despair of addiction, the pain and terror of abuse, the isolation of arrogance, and all of this ordinary, sometimes unpresentable humanity.

The words spoken, so familiar, so radical, recall a broken body and spilt blood. Which made communion between all these many people.

Snow in April

It is a grey Saturday. The dark clouds and the chill mask the nearness of spring. From Doris’s window in the nursing home, you can see light snow swirling in the wind, never seeming to settle.

She has been a teacher and a mother, an artist and a traveler. Six decades of marriage slipped painfully into widowhood last fall. Now her hands cannot grasp a brush or a pen, and her hearing, well, conversation is hard now. She worries that her hair has not been properly done in months, but she tries to find a way to feed her visitors, the old language of hospitality still fighting to survive.

Her son is there to see her. A black and white picture shows him as a toddler, with fair hair and a melting baby smile, but now he owns a business and misses his children and his dark beard is speckled with grey. He brings news about the kids, and says he talked that week to her old friends, George and Nancy, and had told Nancy he would help his mom call. There is a phone with text; it is supposed to help with hearing.

They have been friends for so long. A long time ago there were glamorous dresses, although carefully paid for. And those years of marriage when kids and busyness seem overwhelming. The progression of their families through births and graduations and marriages and moves is interlaced with the progression of history through those decades. (The election of a president smaller in memory from this perspective than the birth of a single baby.)  The cars and houses and hairstyles slowly change, but throughout there is Bob and Doris, George and Nancy, at dinner parties and over card games and, later, in Florida for the winters.

Their conversation is halting and interspersed with confusion at times. (“I hope you will be stronger soon” is heard as a wish for strawberries, and launches a discussion of when the season will begin and the prices in New York.) The information exchanged, about a move to New England, about getting better from a cold, is basic.

It would seem a small piece of dialogue in a strange and underdeveloped final chapter to this friendship, but when the son talks to Nancy at the end of the call, she tells him she was so glad, so glad just to hear Doris’s voice.