It is 113° in Redding, California, and the Carr Fire continues to burn, destroying boats at the marina and buildings to the west, and filling the sky with ash and smoke. Those who haven’t been forced to evacuate stay inside to keep from breathing it in.
Blood-red skies and flickering horizons bring perspective, especially if it’s your family holed up in a motel hoping their home is still their home at the end of it all.
As all fires worth knowing about tend to do, this one leapt out of control quickly. As far as I know there haven’t been any casualties at this time, but there are no guarantees.
A week ago, I dreamed that I died. It wasn’t a dream of monsters chasing me, but it felt as real as those nightmares often do. I was in the liminal space between death and life; time had stopped, the time had come, and I was about to find out what really happens when you die. I only knew it was a dream when I woke up, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“Have you ever almost died?” It’s a question that surfaces on social media and road trips, and like others I have stories I dust off for just such occasions. Those of us who haven’t gotten nearly as close as we think we have laugh about our near-misses, but it’s only a temporary reprieve. I am a future dead girl.
Those who were once living wrote about beautiful and terrible places in their sacred books, but whether they have gone to those places, I don’t know.
We will all die, but we don’t like to talk about it, except in the wispiest of language. Maybe that’s why we love stories of resurrection so much. In fact, I’ll be telling one myself soon, with my fancy editing tools, and with my body. The camera will find me lying on a table, still and gray, then it will move close to my face, and, just as we planned, I will open my eyes.
Ten years ago, I thought it would mean everything to see my favorite voice actors on a stage from a distance and in an autograph line for a moment. But that didn’t mean everything. The greatest gift came when they gave their time in hotel lobbies and conference rooms, letting us witness their own reunions with each other, and inviting us into their lives.
And if you know my story with Adventures in Odyssey, you know how the gifts kept piling up: gifts of time, of words, of moments, of remembrance, with these very same voice actors, and with others who work with them, others who love them.
June 17, 2018, wasn’t August 16, 2008, but then again, it couldn’t be.
Other than those Adventures in Odyssey actors, there was never really anyone famous I wanted to meet. Well, there was one. If he ever came to town, I knew I would pull out all the stops to be there, but it was a dream I didn’t think would come true. But then he did, and so did I.
It meant the world to me to meet David Tennant at Denver Comic Con. He is every bit as lovely and generous with his fans as I hoped he would be. I stood at the front of the second overflow line for twenty minutes, which meant I had a clear view of him shaking hands with people and listening and signing bits of cloth and paper. And I saw the looks on those people’s faces when they walked away. It was beautiful to see his commitment to being fully present to hundreds of people, even though he would never see them again.
Memories are still beautiful even if only one person will remember them, but they are also bittersweet.
Celebrity is a strange thing. How much we will pay for 10 seconds of conversation, or a greeting and a flashbulb that gives us a glossy photo to pin to the wall. How much I paid for these things, and how I kept grasping for ways to be remembered: a clever word, spoken; a hundred words, written and given.
But there was not enough time, or words, or moments, or remembrance. This is how it is. But I still couldn’t help repeating our conversation to everyone who would listen, in hopes that I would remember every word. And I can’t help the tears in my eyes now.
It’s only natural to want to meet someone whose work has made its mark on us, whose art has tapped into something deep inside of us, or even someone whose life seems to overflow with goodness. We feel like we know them, and we want to meet them and tell them why we are different people because of them, but we have only seconds, and we are not fully ourselves for even those seconds, because we are weighing every word, we are starstruck, we can’t believe it’s really happening.
There’s not enough time, I thought while driving home, in the throws of an emotional hangover. There’s not enough time. And then I realized that I wasn’t thinking about my favorite actor anymore.
I am saying goodbyes now, as I prepare to move to New York in a few days, but I am in denial. I am giving a clever word, spoken; I am giving a hundred words, written. These are the words that matter most. David Tennant is a wonderful person, I’m sure, but he has people who are actually in his life to tell him this. He doesn’t need my card, even if it does encourage him. He doesn’t need my wit, even if it does amuse him.
But the time, the words, the moments, the remembrance, matters so much more when they are shared, when they are building a house for both parties. When we can be fully ourselves. When it is up to us to speak life into the person across from us, because they are our loved one, or because they are one who needs love, or both.
I treasure the memories of those flashy days, those once-in-a-lifetime handshakes, but they aren’t the only beginnings to celebrate. I most want to remember the beginnings that led to middles of new faces becoming familiar and small talk lengthening and days turning into nights and all the while we are together still.
There’s not enough time.
June 17, 2018, wasn’t August 16, 2008, and neither of those days was the one when I drove to the northernmost reaches of Denver to attend a meet-up group, or the one when I was one of two people to bring strategy games to a party-game gathering, or the one when I braved the snow to visit the nearest house church. But then again, they couldn’t be.
Two years ago, I flew to Nairobi for a dear friend’s wedding. It would be a whirlwind trip with only five days on the ground in Africa, my first visit to this continent. I would spend three days meeting Gracie’s new Kenyan family and friends, frosting cakes, and, finally, putting on a red dress and curling my hair to be bridesmaid. But for those first two days, I would take a bus to Mbale, Uganda, to meet Brenda and Remmy, my sponsored children.
My flight arrives late evening, and I only get a few hours of sleep before I have to get up to catch the bus. We drive as close as we can to the station, then make our way through the crowds, Gracie and her fiancée, Ken, seeing me safely on the bus before leaving.
I take one of the closest seats to the door, the stairs down and below my feet, the sun destined to bake me through the windows once it has fully risen. I am carrying two child’s backpacks, each stuffed with toys and school supplies and toiletries, along with my own clothes and my camera. I am bringing no books to read, only my journal and nine Advent cards with a picture on one side and a one- or two-sentence reflection on the other.
The day wears on, the sweat accumulating on my back and at the bridge of my nose. I see zebras on the side of the road once, and monkeys, and an egret and a cow lying down nose to nose. Short trees cover the oh-so-green rolling hills, and plots of land are marked as “NOT FOR SALE.”
I order the beans and chicken everyone else is ordering when we stop for lunch, and I struggle to understand the heavily accented English around me.
I catch snippets of bus announcements, and after a while, when the conductor mentions Kampala but not Mbale, I start to worry that I am not on the right bus. The conductor knows only a little English, so I call Ken on my basic phone, and he talks to the conductor, and then Irene, my local contact at the center, talks to the conductor, but the accents, rendered difficult in person, are nearly impossible for me to unravel over the phone.
Finally, I break through the communication barrier and learn that my first inkling was correct: We are driving north now, as we should be, but when we are still two hours from Mbale, the bus will not take that turn but will instead veer west, bound for Kampala.
I approach the conductor again with my phone, and after he speaks to Ken or Irene in their shared language, I press the phone to my ear, hearing all but understanding very little. I repeat this scene again and again, sometimes with another traveler instead of the conductor, and I piece together more and more of the plan we’re forming, while simultaneously second-guessing everything I think I know of that plan, worrying that no one else understands the situation as I do, that I will be stranded and forgotten.
But in between the phone calls, in between the stops, while this is still the road I am supposed to be traveling, I have nothing to do but watch and wait.
I see Kenya from my window, hundreds of people living their lives: Women selling potatoes on the side of the road, men sitting on the hillside while their sheep or cows or donkeys graze, children playing soccer and holding hands, people walking, walking, always walking. Sometimes, a child skips instead of walks, and my heart skips too.
When I’m not looking out the window, I pull out those Advent cards from the small cloth purse tucked in my bag. Today is day 7 of Advent, and today’s picture is of a full moon in a star-speckled sky presiding over a mountain range. A lightness at the horizon promises that night will soon end. Alicia Heater drew this picture, and on the other side, Cara Strickland wrote, “In my family, we set out the nativity scene on the mantel, without Jesus. The lonely manger reminds me that in this season we embrace waiting empty.”
I read and reread that card and the six that came before it, filling myself with pictures of small lights in the darkness, of snatches of carols and Bible verses about the Incarnation, of words about hope and waiting, memory and silence.
“‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask the Israelites. ‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask Zechariah and Elizabeth. ‘Have you forgotten me?’ I ask.”
I think about how I’m waiting for this long day to end, and how I forget about people in developing countries until they’re right in front of me.
We stop at the border near sunset, and the crossing takes hours, standing in lines in first one building and then another, filling out forms and getting my visa stamped, and then lots of waiting, milling around on the red patches of dirt, waiting for our bus and then waiting for our driver.
Night is falling by the time we start up again; I see very little of Uganda in the darkness.
We reach a busy intersection, and the bus slows across from a hotel. They are stopping for me. “This is it!” people are saying, everyone now aware of my plight, my confusion, my anxiety. I gather my bags and thank the conductor. A man walks with me across the street while the bus waits for him.
I sit in the dimly lit lobby, surrounded by my possessions, for another two hours. Others notice me waiting and offer to help, but I am now where I need to be. Finally, Irene arrives and we drive the rest of the way to Mbale. I can now relax. It is nearly midnight, and a trip I thought would take six or eight hours has taken 18.
I fall asleep in my fancy hotel room thinking about the kindness of strangers, and I awaken to palm trees and a fancy buffet breakfast and excitement.
I meet Brenda, a teenager on the verge of adulthood whom I have been sponsoring for more than 10 years. She is almost as tall as my 5 feet, 9 inches. I meet her mother and stepfather and siblings, and I see where she goes to school. She is wearing an ankle-length blue-and-black dress, and I recognize her immediately. I can tell she recognizes me too. She can’t stop smiling. She shows me old letters and pictures I’ve sent her over the years. She speaks less English than I expected, but someone is always there to translate.
For weeks, I didn’t know if my other sponsored child, Remmy, would be able to come. He is from another part of Uganda, at least half a day’s journey away. I was planning to mail him his gifts once I was in the country, but then I found out that they would be able to bring him to Mbale after all. He is here with Godfrey, a former sponsored child himself, and they also came on the bus. He is eight years old and shy and doesn’t smile for the camera at first, but eventually we bond over selfies, and he delights in taking pictures of everyone and everything with my DSLR camera. He is wearing a tan suit and dress shoes, but seems more comfortable, more himself, after he takes off the coat.
We eat a meal together, and the center staff share Brenda’s file with me, and then we take the van to her family’s house and I meet everyone. Remmy is there too, sandwiched on the couch between us and treated as part of the family. They open their presents, and then they give me presents I had not expected: a purse with black and white and red beads that Brenda made for me, and a letter from Remmy’s mother that means more to me than I can say. I wish I could have met his family too.
The day fills me up to the brim, worth every twist and turn it took to get here. Before I know it, I am waiting on the side of the road for my bus. Brenda and Remmy and I sneak in a few more pictures, a few more memories, and then the bus arrives and we say our hasty goodbyes.
The return trip is uneventful. I sit next to another American all the way to Nairobi. Through the night, I sleep and I wake and I cross back into Kenya and I sleep again. I am not alone and this time I don’t need my Advent cards to comfort me.
So many of my experiences with Christianity have soured, but the season of Advent remains sweet to me. I have a soft spot for “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and the candles and the waiting. I don’t know how much is true and how much is myth in the traditional Christmas story, but somehow, for a few weeks, I’m able to suspend my cynicism and let my heart expand in the darkness.
Advent has never been more special to me than it was that December in Africa, and especially that day when all I had to keep me company were those cards, when I was waiting in the unknown and could only gaze at the pictures and the words and think about all the others who have also felt lost and forgotten.
I dreamed about the eclipse several times before August 21st. Sometimes they were happy dreams: The sky did strange things, things that would never happen in the waking world, but I was there to see them. Most of the time, though, they were anxious dreams: I wasn’t able to find a place to stay along the path of totality. Traffic held me at a distance until it was too late. The weather was bad.
And it wasn’t just my dreams that held a sense of dread. I, who had known about this event for ten years, I, who should have known better, didn’t think to find a motel until most of them were gone. The eclipse was still months away, and I was already doing it wrong.
It was no longer a little secret between the sun and me; now, everyone knew, and they were just a little bit faster.
I was still an eclipse apologist, converting people and counting the days, but all the worst-case scenarios hung about me, the reminders that foreknowledge was no guarantee.
So there I was, spending the night on a field in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska, hoping like everyone else in this 60-mile stretch from coast to coast that I had won the weather lottery.
I wake up engulfed in cloud. Dribbling fog hides the sky, but there is hope, stronger than before, that the sun, the wonderful sun, will burn it all off long before midday.
Living in Denver, Colorado, the sunshine is our most familiar meteorological feature. Rain and even snow are welcomed as visitors, but the sun melts and dries and acts as if nothing else ever was or would be.
The beginning of an eclipse isn’t First Contact, when the moon takes its first, tiny bite out of the sun. No, it’s that morning when the sun comes up over the horizon, it’s when the clouds part and the sun, the whole sun, fills your world, and it’s a better pick-me-up than coffee, and The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” must have been written for this time.
For the sun to disappear, it must first appear.
Less than ten thousand people live in Alliance, Nebraska. The main street is long and wide, and to the south is the train yard. As another train, probably a coal train, thunders by, I wonder aloud how many young people growing up here had, at one time or another, wished to take a train Somewhere Else.
The evening before, everyone seemed to be Somewhere Else. Traffic was light. A roadside booth and a K-Mart clothes rack showcased eclipse souvenirs, but otherwise the town was going about its rhythms with little interference, unless you knew where to look for the tents and the RVs.
And now, Monday morning, everyone is Here. Our makeshift campground begins to fill and the downtown coffee shop is already full and out of food.
You can’t see the sun from the big windows there, but you can see above the storefronts, and the ratio of blue to white is tilting in our favor. I sip hot chocolate or tea, one of the two, and I duck out once or twice to call my parents and look up.
My parents are with extended family in Albany, Oregon, doing the same thing I’m doing. They are an hour behind me, but today they are roughly half an hour ahead. I don’t reach them, but then it is time to put away the board game and get off main street, time to drive fast to the outskirts, me in the passenger seat opening the sunroof and tilting my head back, watching, watching for The Moment, but it is still minutes too soon, and we don’t miss anything at all.
Here comes the moon, do do do do.
A man on a loudspeaker announces First Contact, and for a few seconds I can’t tell which direction the moon is coming from. And then there it is, and the orb is no longer quite an orb. It is like seeing the moon go through its stages, only faster and more dangerous.
I have never seen a partial solar eclipse before. The closest I got was in Shanghai, several years ago. An annular eclipse would begin in southern China after sunrise, then cross the Pacific Ocean and pass over my hometown in northern California before sunset. I was thrilled at the chance to see the same celestial event my family would see from the other side of the world, even if only in partial form, but it was not meant to be. City lights and city smog shielded the sky, but perhaps it was just as well as I had no way to look at the sun safely.
Today, I have my eclipse glasses and they have theirs. We have both traveled to see this sight, and it is now that I reach them, for a few minutes when I am seeing a small sun and they are seeing one smaller still. We watch the waning together, and then I leave them for their totality and wait for mine.
I sit and stare for a few minutes, and then jump up and put on sunscreen, or throw a bag in the car, or look around at my fellow sun-gazers and this bit of green we are choosing to remember for the rest of our lives. It is about an hour and fifteen minutes, this pre-show, but it goes by so quickly.
Little by little, the lighting begins to change. There are no trees to cast strange shadows, but it is as if it is overcast, the sun behind a thin cloud, and then a thicker cloud, but all the actual clouds pushed to the edges, the sun high and alone at midday but for the moon. I need my sweater and I can’t contain my joy.
All that light becomes an ever-more-focused sliver, and it looks a manageable orange through my glasses, not the fiercest yellow that ever there was. And there is so much strength even in this tiny ray.
I know in my mind everything I’m meant to be watching for, everything I want my surroundings to be so everything will fall away, everything except the sun and me, and we will have our little secret again. At some point, I forget about my lawn chair and it’s impossible not to be standing.
In the last seconds, the light goes slant and otherworldly, the sky darker but the ground brighter, like sun and smoke, or sun and storm, and then we can look up unprotected, or nearly, as the last of the fierce yellow glint disappears.
And there it is, the black moon, backlit by the sun’s corona, a soft whiteness that in some ways resembles the nighttime moon, but is its own wild and beautiful animal, not a reflection but a reveal.
We are caught somewhere between dusk and nightfall. It is pink at each horizon, and we are the epicenter, suspended just before birth or death or both. For right now we are in the front row seats, and there are no rows behind us. The world had changed slowly, almost imperceptibly, for over an hour, and then everything happened at once, and now time is stopped for almost two and a half minutes.
If I could only look at you for two and a half minutes, how much would I remember of the features of your face?
Is that enough time to memorize the features of the sky?
Everyone around me is talking or taking pictures or both, but I am silent and my hands are still.
This new world is only ours for seconds, and then everything will happen at once, again, and it will be gone.
When the sun comes back, the sun I knew before, there are fractions of a second when it doesn’t seem so bright, when I can take in the light on the edge, before I have to tear my eyes away for their own sake.
We are ready to leave and so we do. I open the sunroof again and watch the sun grow back. I call my parents and we are mesmerized together by our memories. I keep looking up, and the saddest part for me is when the partial eclipse ends, and wherever you look, it is as if nothing has happened.
The first time a friend of mine went skydiving, I was 17 years old and relieved I was too young to join her. But I put it on my bucket list. I wasn’t sure if I would ever have the courage to initiate such an adventure, but I knew there would come a time when people I knew would look to the sky and ask me to come along, when there would be an opportunity to say yes or no. And I would say yes, I was sure I would, one day.
I was also 17 when the sky drew my attention in a different way. I found NASA’s website on eclipses, the world maps with the splashes of red and blue that can turn anyone into a dreamer. No one knows for sure what her life will bring even tomorrow, but I knew what the sun and the moon would be doing in 10 years’ time, and I was determined to be there to see it. Long before anyone called it the Great American Solar Eclipse, I was joining my first group in the early days of Facebook and committing the far-off date of August 21, 2017, to memory.
And then I settled in to wait. Wait for time to pass, wait for courage, wait for other dreams to emerge, to incubate, to come true, to die.
There is romance in the narrative of dreams fulfilled. Until fulfillment was almost upon me, however, I didn’t realize how much I wanted them to be fulfilled in certain ways. It wasn’t enough to be in the right place at the right time, or to do an activity that hundreds or thousands of people do every day. I needed to bear witness to everything, everything happening around me and within me, every nuance of light and shadow, of falling and flying, of fear and joy and sadness. It’s a fearful pressure, an enormous responsibility, a catch-22 that inspires me to be more fully present while at the same time the fear of missing something can make me too anxious and preoccupied to be fully present. To trust that by “just being” I will gain everything I need to know and remember is a dance I have not fully learned.
Skydiving involves less than a minute of freefall, and then it’s a canopy ride. The total eclipse is bookended by hours of waxing and waning, but only two-and-a-half minutes of the high drama of darkness.
When a decade’s worth of anticipation is all over in a matter of seconds or minutes, will you remember what it looked like, what it felt like, or will you just remember the anticipation and the aftermath?
I saw the total eclipse in August, and I went skydiving in September.
My drive to work is nothing special. It starts with a nondescript road, grey and industrial and mostly quiet except for the semi trucks that sometimes congregate at the stoplight. Only, if I remember to look down when crossing the river, down and to the right, I smile.
It’s my recurring phenomenon across the suburbs, across urban and residential areas, across the very heart of the city.
Certain intersections are dear to my heart, certain crosswalks and parks and even train stations. I once made meticulous plans to be at those intersections, to be at those crosswalks and parks and train stations, and when I find myself there again by accident, it feels like a secret and a surprise.
I should venture out of the city a little more. I should seek out longer stretches of dirt and fresher air and closer proximity to the mountains. Denver is big, but it’s not that big. It’s beautiful, but it’s not that beautiful.
But I love it. I love this way of discovering my town. I love making my own loops and dipping into tiny parks and looking in vain for a sign with my last name on it. I love involving public transit when I can, fiddling with my armful of gear in the mornings and keeping downwind from other people in the afternoons.
More than anything, though, I love the stories that write themselves when I run — memories upon memories, tied to place: This is where I saw the deer, on that side of the snow-covered bridge in Cherry Creek State Park. This is where I almost cried listening to The Liturgists Podcast, these two laps around City Park on that hot March day. And the most common story: This is where I went the wrong way and got lost.
But I was always finding things too.
Some I found simply by going to certain places at certain times and paying attention. It’s the feel of the wind at night, warm and wild against my face, hours before the storm hits and the snow blankets everything. It’s the sight of the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen on the morning of my first marathon, a beauty undiminished even though everything else went wrong that day. It’s a series of quacks and rustlings and big skies and horizons. It’s life at its zenith, in me and out there.
I found within myself the usual things people find when they spend months training their bodies in strength and stamina, all the exhilarating and painful and confident and exhausting and stubborn things. I found a clarity that surprised me, an ease in decision-making while on the trail. I learned what I was capable of, and I learned when it was worth it … and when it wasn’t.
Not everything about running has been glorious or even good, but for many of the months I’ve lived in Colorado, it’s been one of the truest parts of my life. Even in the staggering and the struggling, the long middles and the early mornings, it was the X that marked the spot. So I look down and to the right, and I smile.
Is it strange that I miss the darkness that sucker-punched my soul?
This was four years ago. I was living overseas, six months split between two continents, saturated in Christian community that was young and fiery and expectant. I was young and fearful and depressed, but this was my chance. This could be my cure.
One day, we left our drafty English manor with its roast dinners and familiar faces and small groups for the Midlands, for Coventry, for Evangelism Week.
During the day, we threw ourselves into creative evangelism and indirect evangelism and woo-woo evangelism. At night, friends and strangers slept beside me on the carpeted church sanctuary floor, but I couldn’t sleep.
Do I really believe what I’m trying to get everyone else to believe?
The door was opened, and oh what blew in! I lay on my half of the air mattress and tried to keep my breathing steady and my body silent. For the first time ever, I was seriously considering walking away from Christianity. And my soul gaped and gasped and trembled as it realized what all that would mean. This wasn’t a drill.
At the time, I would’ve given anything to close that door.
Now, I want to open it again.
The darkness was wild and terrifying and bleak, but it also blew away illusions and assumptions and meaningless hypotheticals, at least for a time. I learned how to be honest with myself and others, how to be awake to my own soul. What I learned in the dark, I carried with me into the light. The darkness was fierce, but so was the light, and I wonder if they needed each other.
Today, I’m so tired. The darkness is not a sucker punch to my gut anymore, but rather weights on my chest that keep getting heavier and making it harder to breath.
Every so often, something breaks through the fog. Every so often, a Lenten hymn or a line in the Creed will catch in my throat, catch on something inside me, and I won’t feel quite so tired that evening. But all too soon, I’m drifting off again, and it’s getting harder and harder for anything to rouse me.
The loop starts again, that cynical loop, whenever anyone bumps the “Play” button. But by now I’m bored by the sound of my own voice. I’m dragging, dragging, dragging, and experience tells me that nothing will happen unless I can somehow make it happen. Someone asks me if it’s faith or fear that keeps me here, and I don’t know, it’s all tangled together. I’m too tired to try anymore.
This is not the darkness that blows open doors and knocks me flat, for good or ill. Rather, this is the darkness of closed doors and stale air. Maybe one day I will find good in this too, but I can’t help but think that the door needs to open again, whatever may lie behind it now, even if it scares me. Even if I die a sort of death in the process.
Who knows what the morning will bring, or the evening.
The illusion is broken: I can’t always trust myself. Sinking deep into the beats and even the palpitations of my own heart was always my saving grace, my peace and my candle and my anchor.
Maybe it’s just that I haven’t had enough time to sift and plunge into the clamoring silence with my bare hands. Maybe I didn’t go deep enough, maybe my eyes weren’t clear enough, maybe I wanted it too little, or too much. Or maybe not. Maybe it was always going to implode, no matter what I did or didn’t do.
I’m always trying to convince everyone, myself included, that I’ve got this. I don’t need you, at least not in the way a dripping, panting person needs water, the way a purple, choking person needs the Heimlich. No, I only need you in the way the organizer of the world’s largest bake sale needs another plate of cookies: “Sure, if you want to fill that tiny corner of the table, go right ahead, but by all means don’t trouble yourself, we’re really fine with what we’ve got. But while you’re here, can I interest you in a macaroon?”
I am unraveling because I’m realizing that taking every feeling and sticking it under a magnifying glass, or carrying it headlong through all the corners of my mind, or simply staring it down in a confined space, sometimes muddies the waters instead of clearing them.
I’m unraveling because I’ve run out of road.
I’m unraveling because I’m considering the very real possibility that I have fewer inner resources than I thought I did to combat everything that is kicking me from the inside out. And, horror of horrors, maybe those “inner resources” are taking a few swings at me too.
What do you do when you’re afraid to lean heavy on anyone’s shoulder, but you also can’t lean on your own anymore?
This is where faith comes in, they say, I’ve said. You can lean on God’s shoulder. He will “never leave you nor forsake you.”
I’ve held onto the slim trunk of a water tree with one hand, straining and reaching out with the outstretched fingers of my other hand. I’ve turned full into the wind and let it flatten my face, let it sting my eyes, let it enter my lungs. I’ve cried and prayed and written thousands upon thousands of words. But after a while, my eyes dried up and my pen dried out and though I didn’t give up, exactly, I didn’t know how to sustain such desperate hope. Especially when I couldn’t hear anything certain coming back to me across the gap except my own voice, thinner on the return.
All I know to do in times like these is shut my eyes when everything else is dark, and open them again when light returns. I find ways to stay warm and I look for that which nourishes me. And I try not to spend too much or too little time with only myself for company.
How quickly light can turn to shadow. How sudden seems the unraveling.
I know loneliness very well … both the loneliness of a crowded room and the loneliness of my own room. I know the loneliness of being the only one and the every one.
I know longing too.
Many words are associated with these four weeks before Christmas, these four weeks they call Advent: Expectation. Anticipation. Hope. Waiting. Arrival. Come. Longing.
One quarter of December I will spend simply getting from one place to another. Another two quarters, roughly, I will spend being in those other places. And this doesn’t count all the time spent preparing and recovering, the prologue and the epilogue.
This month, I will be spending a lot of time with the new and the old and the in-between. I don’t know if this will make the longing heavier or lighter than if I were to pass the time in my new home, in my new normal.
The longing that unites us Christians is the longing for Christ, the longing for all to be made right in a shitty world. I think of these words from Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
But there are other longings: For that to end which has plagued us for far too long. For that to begin which has evaded us for far too long. For grace in the long, long middle. For purpose. For peace. For love. For knowing deeply and being known.
The season of Advent is the first season of the church calendar. It is a beginning, of sorts, but it also meets us in the messy middle. Whatever longings we’re carrying when we light that first candle and sink into the cold and the light, the invitation is the same: To name it and sit with it. To not hurry past it or push it down or change its name, but to say, “This is what I’m desperate for. This is what I’m feeling around for in the dark. This is my ache.”
At least, that’s the invitation I hear, when I slow down enough to listen.
And after all the preparing and the packing, once travel is underway and there is little to do but wait and sit and be carried to distant lands, if you let yourself, time will slow down. You may find in yourself someone other than a list-maker, a doer, a blur among other blurs. You may find longing again.