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

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.

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