Flying North | Part Two | On Remembering

I visited my grandmother at her nursing home last week. It’s been almost three years since I saw her last, and I wasn’t prepared for how much she had deteriorated. I mean, I knew she had dementia, but as I sat by her bed holding her wrinkled hand I struggled to connect the rosy-cheeked, cheerful woman I remembered with the pale and skinny form lying next to me. 

She didn’t remember who I was and I didn’t expect her to. In fact, she slept almost the entire time I was there. To help pass the time a nurse mentioned a hymn-sing scheduled for 2, which pulled a bright memory to the front of my mind. 

I’m sitting on a piano bench next to Mom-Mom in the sunlit study, fumbling through “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The chords feel too big for my hands, but she belts straight through my blunders with the determined gusto of a freight train. Yes, let’s go to the hymn-sing.

We wheel into a room that smells like mothballs and stale breath. There’s an old piano in the corner that Doris, the home’s chaplain, will play. She’s a tiny, elderly black lady with the energy and enthusiasm of a five-year-old. The piano is her throne, the room her kingdom, and she knows each resident by name. I’m enchanted. 

Doris starts off with “Oh When The Saints’” in an upbeat bluesy rasp that animates the room. The lady in front of us is particularly excited, waving her worn fingers back and forth. Her pale pink nails glimmer whenever they hit the afternoon sun, as if reaching out for something in front of her that only she can see. We sing a few more hymns, and I glance at my grandmother— even in the midst of the music she’s fast asleep. 

It’s an elderly gentleman’s 90th birthday, and after we sing to him, Doris asks if he has anything special to say to those gathered. Even though he relies heavily on a walker, there’s something graceful in the way he pulls himself erect. He adjusts his position so he’s facing the audience, and with the seriousness of a soldier, he begins quoting Churchill.

Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.

It seems a strange thing to say in this context, and the words drop in the silence. A slight, almost awkward pause, and then Doris is thanking him and plowing into the next song. My lips follow automatically with the lyrics, but I’m still chewing on those words, letting them fill up my skull. 

They stir up something that’s been in me for quite some time—an uncomfortable feeling, like I’ve eaten too much candy and it’s not sitting right on my stomach. Perhaps its the result of getting older or that death has started stealing my ties with this generation, but I feel this owing. And not in the specific sense he’s referring to, but in a wide and incomprehensible way, like a thousand tiny threads of previous lives and past sacrifices have woven together to compose all the intricacy that is me. It’s a debt of existence, of heritage, of livelihood, and I don’t know how to properly appreciate it. I feel like a child who can’t remember to say thank you. 

As the music crones on in the background, I look at my sleeping grandmother. I’m overwhelmed with a rush of gratitude, and I affectionately squeeze the hand of this woman who gave life to my father, who has given life to me. It’s not an owing to make you feel guilty, no, it’s an owing to make you remember. I think this is the best way I can respond, by remembering.

I want to hear every story, I want to chase down every thread connected to my existence. My grandmother may not be able to remember, but I can. And my children can. And so on and forever, a heritage of remembering. 

Flying North | Part One

So I’m en route to DC where I’ve got twenty minutes to catch a connecting flight to Philadelphia. I’m in a strangely wakeful state despite the early hour, a cocktail of adrenaline and caffeine pumping through my system. We’re descending. They’re going to turn the cabin lights on soon. 

I crack my window a sliver because most people are still sleeping and I don’t want to be that person. A ray of red peeps out, reflecting a squarish blotch on the back of this guy’s head in front of me. It’s very red. If I push my face against the cold pane I can see a small section of the sky and land.

I’m traveling to see my dad’s family in southeastern Pennsylvania. His mother is 93, and I haven’t seen her in a few years. She has dementia, and her mind has slowly declined. She will not know me when I see her. In fact there is much of her life she no longer remembers.

The cabin lights flip on and I slide the pane down with careless abandon. The sun is just coming up, the Potomac shiny gold as it curves and slips through the world beneath my feet. It’s very dead, the land that is. It reaches out against the pinkish-red light, like arms stretching in the morning, recalling routine. 

I feel like I’m holding the tension of my aliveness and my mortality somewhere in the pit of my stomach

I’m struck by its permanence. Soon the land will change from brown to green, the bare trees blooming full, the harsh cold fading to new warmth, obediently following a familiar pattern of flow and existence—years upon decades upon centuries of wakeful remembering.

Thoughts of my grandmother and this perpetual earth beneath me have similar effects. I feel like I’m holding the tension of my aliveness and my mortality somewhere in the pit of my stomach and I have this desperate urge to remember, to talk to everyone around me at once so I can hear as many stories as possible before it’s too late. 

The plane hits the runaway, and I look up. The red blotch is no longer on the man’s head in front of me. I wonder where he gets his hair cut. How long does it take? Does he go to a barbershop or a hair salon? What does he talk about while he waits? 

I sneak a down glance at my watch. Fifteen minutes before my next flight boards. I quickly slip my bag over my shoulders and maneuver myself into the aisle. I’d better hurry. 

La Bonne Aventure | Part Two | On Coming Home

I’ve been stateside for almost a week, and it’s taken me just about this long to process my entire trip. Full of adventure, excitement, drama, emotions, rich conversations, and sister bonding, it really has been a “bonne aventure” so to speak. 

I’ve had a thought smoldering away inside that I’ve struggled to understand. It began small and innocent, but I’ve chewed on it for the last few weeks and it’s become much bigger. In the midst of my explorations — through all the train rides, gorgeous countrysides, cheese platters, and v. good glasses of wine — I felt this nagging apartness. I was thrown into different cultures and experiences, gloriously appealing in their diversity and refreshing in their newness, an adventure high. But even though I was being swept away by these once-in-a-life-time experiences, I couldn’t shake this feeling that something was missing.

And would you believe it, as disgustingly cliche as it sounds, I think I was missing a sense of home. 

I don’t like staying put. I’ve got an obsession with change, wanderlust, a boredom phobia, call it what you will, I’m on a constant search for new experiences. Always have been. But I guess growing older has grown in me an appreciation for the stability and comfort found in the knowing and being known by the people around you. 

During my travels I got to do amazing things. I listened to nuns’ voices echo through Sacre Coeur as the ancient walls rang with reverent singing. I watched the sun fade behind the Scottish cliffs, the light dancing on the dark blue water crashing below. In a word, it was incredible, the entire trip. But I deeply missed being known. I missed community. 

Greenville’s a great little city. It’s growing, and surprisingly full of corners I haven’t discovered yet. But I didn’t come back for the city of Greenville. I came back because this place has become home. There’s weight in having a space where you are loved for who you are, where you are surrounded by people who care about your soul. I think that’s quite rare, and I wouldn’t trade it for a million European adventures. 

La Bonne Aventure || Part One

I’ve spent the last ten days tramping through Oxford, London, Paris, and Hamburg with my dear sister, Nat. We’ve had quite a few adventures, from desperate train journeys to retrieve absolutely necessary travel documents, to running out of money to pay our hotel bill in Paris. I’m a little surprised we’ve made it back to Durham in one piece.  

During my travels, I’d hoped to discover God in a new way. Sometimes I struggle to connect with the massiveness of divinity. In the midst of routine it’s difficult not to get stuck in the duty of religion. So whether it be in the art of Paris, a cathedral in Durham, or the German countryside—my heart sought beauty like a secret. I would discover it, and I would be awed to tears. 

I cried the first time I saw the Seine. Nat and I had been wandering the avenues of Paris, weaving our way through a myriad of buildings and busy streets. We turned a corner and voila! there she was flowing sweetly past the Louvre, like she’d been doing it for a millions years. A sharp intake of breath and my eyes got blurry. The fleeting sunset accentuated the ancient buildings with a painting of pinks, an original never to be seen again. I could have stood there forever. In that moment I knew there must be a God, and he must be beautiful. I felt very small in comparison.

I knew there must be a God, and he must be beautiful

The next day we went to Notre Dame. One thing I’ve discovered about cathedrals is that they’re a bit ridiculous in presentation. Not in a bad way, it’s just there’s so much sacred that it’s almost frightening. You walk in and feel like you have to appreciate every detail—the high archways, the intricate stain glass, the archaic paintings of saints, it’s a lot too take in. It’s holy, overwhelmingly so. 

I was pondering this while walking around the cathedral when Natalie pointed out a wooden panel that had several important biblical scenes carved into the wood. We tried to identify each one, and when we got to the middle section, we found a depiction of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. For some reason, I couldn’t stop looking at it. 

I am very aware of my inadequacies, especially in contrast to the beauty and holiness encountered over the past few days. I couldn’t shake that feeling of smallness, of weakness, of an inability to love the way I wanted to. Even in simple interactions—I wanted to be kind to Natalie, but when frustrated my remarks were short and harsh. I thought perhaps I just needed to try harder. Excuses are such sweet temptation.

If we allow this grace to sink into our core, I think it can be revolutionary

The wooden block of Jesus brought me back to reality. If God is Notre Dame, he is holy, beautiful, too sacred to touch, too above to be known. God of Notre Dame exposes my weakness. I cannot be like him, be near him, no matter how hard I try. But if God is Jesus, he is humble, accessible, loving. He takes my weakness upon himself, he washes my feet. I think that’s why I was so moved. God is both. Big and beautiful as the magnificent towers of the cathedral, as intricate as the stain glass, and as powerful as the beams and archways. And yet, he is humble, on his knees, washing the dirt off my feet so I can experience and partake in this overwhelming holiness. 

It’s deeply mysterious is it not? But if we grasp it, if we allow this grace to sink into our core, I think it can be revolutionary. That, my friends, is a good adventure. 

 

The Beginning of an Adventure

                                                                        The East Coast train line that passes by Natalie's Cottage.
                                                                        The East Coast train line that passes by Natalie’s Cottage.

Welcome to my online journal, which is not a blog. Blogs are things I never remember to do, but journaling is a discipline. For starters, I’m still living in Greenville, South Carolina and am in the midst of a job transition. There being six weeks before I start my new job,  I decided to visit my sister in England, stopping in Paris and Germany as well. I’ve been here since Monday and it’s all turned into quite an adventure.

Natalie and her husband Francis live in Durham, where she attends university. They live in a quaint railway cottage just off the moor (another name for fields?) and have two devilish bunnies that sometimes escape into the donkey field next door. The cottage, like everything else in England, is small and compact.

I’ve discovered that England is exactly like it is in the movies. People actually say “brilliant!” and “where’s the loo?”, and they constantly “put the kettle on” for tea. Some of the students at Durham live in the castle, and they wear robes and belong to houses (they call them colleges) just like in Harry Potter. 

Everyone here walks. Not like “go for stroll” walk, but walking as THE primary means of transportation. It’s revolutionary. They walk to work, they walk to the pub, they walk to the station, walk to the grocery store, they walk in the rain, they walk in the cold, they’d probably walk to America if the ocean didn’t get in the way. I was not prepared for this, and I think I’m getting shin splints. And no one thinks it’s abnormal! Today I absolutely refused to walk home from the botanical gardens, and when we asked the lady for a taxi number, she instead gave us different options to get home, all of which involved walking. Natalie doesn’t think I’m going to make it in Paris. Apparently they walk a lot there too.

I also was unaware there was a difference between a cathedral and a church. On my first day, Natalie told me to meet her at the cathedral, assuming I couldn’t get lost it being the biggest landmark in the area. Well I managed to get lost, but I saw this lovely old building with a tower and steeple and assumed it was the cathedral. False. It was a very large church. So I kept walking and saw an even bigger and lovelier old building with a tower and steeple and thought, this must be the cathedral. Again False. Not to be outdone, I decided to follow the general direction everyone else was going, and lo and behold came upon an enormous castle, which is apparently the cathedral. I tried explaining that we don’t really have buildings like this in America… but oh well.

Anyway, check out the pics above, will do my best to keep these regular!