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.

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.

King’s Cross to Cambridge

They are sitting opposite me on the train from King’s Cross to Cambridge: a family travelling. Bags, and a stroller, and two small boys are apparently also a hassle in the UK.

When they enter, the man, whose accent is British (though my ear for levels of poshness is not very well-developed), asks me whether this is the train to Cambridge.

I am glad that British people also find this place and it’s paucity of platform signs confusing. I give a qualified yes; a middle-aged man eating a sandwich a few rows back nods a confident yes at both of us.

I notice them more particularly when the woman addresses the older of the two boys in Italian and then speaks to the man in heavily accented English. In the US, I would have placed him as a construction worker from my hometown. He is what they call wiry – thin and muscular together – with a farmer’s tan and boots I’m pretty sure were worn to distress and not bought that way. She is is chic and pretty, despite looking rumpled and bit tired. She pulls the slightly whimpering toddler onto her lap and asks whether he had called to let his mother know what time their train got in. It appears to be an unaccustomed journey, even for him.

My mind begins to fill in a back story, but as the woman and younger child settle into the light, restless sleep of the traveler, I am more struck by the man and the older boy. He pulls out a stack of magazines, the label on the top one is FOOTBALL. In a soft, don’t-wake-the-baby-voice, he starts talking to his son as they leaf through one together.

The conversation on both sides is enthusiastic and joyful, engaging in the sort of friendship that comes from participating in the shared object, growing together by looking toward the same thing. There is a subtle differentiation of roles; the man explains that one player is not as good as could be because he always looses his temper and gets carded. But his enthusiasm is boyish, and the boy’s careful questions are informed and curious. Their subdued happiness sits brightly amid the monotony and hassle of travel, a story in its own, even if only beginning.

For Fathers’ Day

Sometime around midnight, somewhere on the Great Plains.

The late-night shift was mine as always. Tonight there had been no fight for the coveted “shotgun” position; my siblings (and mom) were perfectly content to sleep in the back of the van and leave me to keep Dad company.

Part of me would have liked to curl up with them – I’ve never been a night-owl. But time alone with Dad was a thing to be coveted.  And at eight years old I had already discovered the particular charm of conversations after midnight. Later in life, I would decide darkness and sleepiness have much the same effect on conversation as a glass or two of wine, but  more natural, more honest. And late nights on the open highway are better yet, lending themselves particularly to the long silences that are, not an interruption, but an essential part of the best conversations.

Tonight he leaned on the steering wheel, face dimly lit by the dash-lights, and peered up at the stars, an endless blanket above endless fields. We talked of how some of the stars we see have already burned out, so far away that their light still travels to reach us after thousands of years.  We pondered time and space and the God who created them, the hierarchy of parent to child overshadowed by the magnificent and humble equality of shared finite humanity in contemplation of the Infinite. Such conversations were my first foray into philosophy and theology, my first fumbling attempts to describe ideas and my first encounter with the miraculous way that another’s words could express my own thoughts.

I’ve never been sure whether such discussions were possible because Dad spoke to me as if I was an adult or as if he was a child.  Or whether that matters at all. I do know they have guarded me against the notion that sophistication requires disillusionment. A love of wonder and a sense of adventure don’t come naturally to me.  They are lessons I have had to learn.  Thankfully they are lessons Dad taught (and teaches) well.

He is the one who woke us all up at 3 am to watch a meteor shower, who forced me down the difficult ski slopes.  He is the one who listened to my analyses of history and philosophy, encouraging (perhaps unknowingly) my love of and confidence in academic endeavors.  He’s also the one who, when I felt guilty for not pursuing a PhD, reminded me there are other important things in life – like surfing.  From him I inherited my work ethic and over-developed sense of responsibility, but from him I also learned never to be too busy to enjoy a sunset.  He once yelled at me when I was in the shower, and when I asked if it could wait said “No.” I emerged dripping wet and wrapped in a giant towel to be greeted by an ugly, snuffly, runaway pug who had somehow found his way to our back porch, and whom, apparently, it was imperative I see immediately.

I was always one of those children whom people described as being born an old soul.  If that’s true, I’m glad I have a father who could teach me to be young.

A memory of England

It was as if Britain had made a concerted effort to fulfill every expectation of two decades of daydreaming. The girls woke up to day after day of halcyon perfection: skies scattered with lamb-like clouds, gentle breezes stirring the leaves of the chestnut trees that shaded their picnics. “It isn’t like this, usually,” locals admitted, rather as you might after warning a friend about crude Uncle Ed only to have the latter behave like a perfect gentleman all through supper.

There was, it is true, one drizzly day in London, but even that was a warm, half-hearted rain, the city condescending to stereotype for a few hours to allow the young tourists a foggy walk along the Thames and a view of St. Paul’s against a foreboding sky. For the rest, the girls walked from deep shadowed alleys and cool towers of Oxford into bright sunshine, encountered the verdant wilderness of Wales in the full glory of late summer, and explored the clear, silent expanse of Dartmoor with its purple heath, wild rock outcroppings, and herds of feral ponies.  They sat up late in ancient pubs talking to local boys over pints of cider, read poetry in the ruins of Tintern abbey, knelt for prayer in the sanctuary of medieval churches.

In these final days of their adventure, they were staying on the coast of Devon with distant cousins of one, who welcomed both as blood relations. Now, as the afternoon shadows lengthened, they curled up on a love-seat overlooking the sea, laps piled with journals and post-cards, tea with milk cooling on the coffee table in front of them.

For California girls, the ocean was far less exotic than other things they had seen on their trip, and it was with a comfortable familiarity that they gazed out over the palisades and traced the lines of the currents, commenting to one another on the similarities and differences between this coastline and their home.  “The shape of the cliffs and palisades are similar, only the dirt is so red.”  “And so many more woods leading down to the beach; the ocean is not as blue here, but the land is so green and colorful.”  It seemed incredible that, despite the familiar touch of the sea breeze, the familiar cry of gulls and the smell of the salt, they were gazing into an unknown world – that summer haze hid, not Catalina, but the coast of France.

Their host sat in a straight-backed armchair with his own tea.  He was a tall, thin man, older than middle aged, but not yet old, with gray hair and gray eyes and a quiet, gently accented voice. Earlier that day he had led the girls on a long ramble, full of local-interest stories, delivered in tones of soft enthusiasm that reminded the girls of a university professor.  Now his attention was divided between his newspaper and his guests who were spending far more time commenting on their surroundings and re-capping their adventures than working on correspondence or confiding in their journals.

A break in their murmured conversation, a silence that was almost a contented sigh.  “You know,” he said with a smile, “watching your friendship has been one of the great pleasures of this visit.”