Leaving Them Behind

It’s booked: Dublin to Warsaw.

Friday morning I plan to fly to Poland, to teach English for two years. I look deep into my nephews’ and niece’s eyes, and stroke their hair, and try to absorb their light and dimples and smiles. I weigh suitcases, deliberate, and cull. And run my hands over the spines of books I need to put back on the shelves. I’m needing to leave my friends behind. And I don’t mean only the friends who walk and breathe and love me and pray big, magnanimous prayers for me.

My books are my friends too, and I wish I could take them with me, to enjoy repeatedly and share. But like real friends, the books will remain a real part of my life, even though we will live in separate countries.

I don’t know how to transport my life in two suitcases and leave behind what is familiar and embrace what is strange, and do it well. Part of it is to make hard choices and leave some things behind. It will be ok. I’ll make new friends there, and keep the old. Both the kinds with hearts and the kinds with pages.

My Saviour has my treasure, and He will walk with me.

A Day in the Life

She’s a little old widow, and I used to see her every day when she came for milk and bread, walking from her house around the corner. Now she lives in town, and it’s probably been a year since I’d last seen her. She looked well, but sad, and in her own world. Was she too old and forgetful to remember me anymore? “Carol!” I said. “I haven’t seen you for ages! I have to give you a hug!”*

I rushed around the counter to her, and as I held her for a quick moment, she murmured against my shoulder, “Oh, I love a hug!”

Then we chatted quickly, because there were other customers waiting, and as she went out the door, she said, “And thanks for the cuddle!”

Oh, Carol, that was the easiest thing I’d done all day.

Later, I was watering the flowers outside and Tony, an older gentleman, a family friend, came up and chatted and told me crazy stories like he always does, and made me laugh and laugh.* Just before he left, his voice softened and he told me of his sixty-eight year old brother who’s an alcoholic and not been well for years. And now the brother met a twenty-five year old girl in the far East, and he’s dead set on going to see her, and Tony is worried for the brother and himself, because there’s substantial money and risk somewhere in there.

Tony loves to share his sail boat with his friends, and promised he’d be in touch later in the summer. “When I get the mast back on her, we’ll take her on a spin to the next harbour,” he said.

Listening to his stories, crazy and sad ones, in exchange for a ride on a sail boat? An easy trade, I’d say.

Shop keeping isn’t always that delightful, but these two people came in on the same day this week, and made me smile and made my job easier.

A line from Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God often inspires/paralyzes/convicts me. It is when he’s talking about his friend who wants to see God, and asks for visible proof that God is there. Philip says his friend will likely never see God’s hand writing in the sky, or some other dramatic move. He will only see me, Philip says.

How can it be, that the infinite God allows fallible earthlings to tell each other that He exists, that He’s not a figment of imagination, that He is the giver of good things? I wonder if Carol and Tony know that God is real, and that I love Him. They will probably never hear His voice thunder from a cloud. They will only see me.

This is why there is dignity and purpose in being a store keeper.

*Names have been changed.

Happy Returns

I crack up every time I think about it. About six months ago, I was at work, and a business man was outside talking with my dad. I guess they were talking about their families, as family men do, and then they came in and dad introduced me to the man as his oldest daughter.

“Oh, nice to meet you–how old are you?” the man asked me.

In this country, you don’t ask a lady her age, and if you have the audacity to do so, she would still never tell you. So his question took me aback because I’m not used to the question, plus for a couple seconds, I honestly couldn’t remember my age.

So I stammered a little bit, and finally remembered which of my thirties I was in, and because I don’t always abide by protocol, I didn’t mind telling him I was thirty-five.

And then he stammered and hemmed for a couple seconds, poor man. I guess the men had been comparing children and ages or something, and he explained that he thought I was in my upper teens. Which of course was very flattering if unbelievable.

But now every time the big man bustles in, I want to giggle at the funny, awkward memory. But I think I’ve refrained so far.

So yesterday I couldn’t say I’m thirty-five anymore. I still quite enjoy birthdays, and think June is the best time of year for them. I like the chance to look at a milestone and try to take stock of the year, and think about what I’ve learned in the last twelve months, and what I want to aim for next year. I proudly count two new white hair, which I’ve gained by honest means. I’m glad I’ve learned uncountable, intangible things that will shape me for life, and hopefully I unlearned other things.

It was a lovely birthday. My sister worked for me in the afternoon and freed me to go to town and meet two friends for a long, leisurely coffee. In the evening, four of us went to Dunmore, got locally-caught fish, and chips (with salt and vinegar–ahhh!), and ate them on the cliffs in the wind and song of the sea. Back home, we took a good long walk then played a fun round of Scrabble, and at the end, a family from church walked in, carrying a strawberry-decorated bun with a lit candle, singing Happy Birthday, once in English and once in Polish.

I think it will be a good year, being thirty-six. Even if someone asks me how old I am.

A Re-read

Books are like friends. You get attached to them, and keep going back to the ones who tell you things you need to know.

On Sunday, four of us took a picnic out to the cliffs to enjoy the sea and the sunshine. We watched a sailboat sit for awhile for lack of wind, and it reminded me of Sheldon and Davy Vanauken’s fanciful plans for their “Grey Goose.” Together, my sister and I recounted for our friends the gist of the story of A Severe Mercy which was fun because she remembered details I’d forgotten.

I know some people who think the story is about two spoiled children. Maybe it is, but I still liked it from the first time I read it, fresh out of high school. Our discussion on Sunday inspired me to go back to it again for the umpteenth time, and now I’m enjoying it again. There’s nothing like revisiting words that delighted you before. This time, I can understand how it could be seen as a spoiled child’s story, but it is still a powerful account of love, faith, and grief, beautifully told. I don’t mind admitting that Sheldon’s way with words completely charms me.

Back at age fifteen or sixteen or so, I didn’t know what he meant when he said that beauty has an ache, a pang. I couldn’t follow all the British terms from their time in Oxford and friendship with C.S.Lewis. The years have increased my understanding and experience, and now I comprehend more of what he says. “Severe Mercy” was Lewis’ phrase in a letter between the two men, referring to the grief that deepened Sheldon’s faith and love for God.

Vanauken’s second book, Under the Mercy recounts more of his professor days in Lynchburg, VA after Davy died, and shares some papers he wrote in those days. I’ve frequently gone back to the chapter on “The Bachelor” because he writes so eloquently of the historical place in society and the dignity of the single person. He writes about feminism and political protests in DC, and eventually of his “crossing the English Channel” and becoming a Catholic. The second book is good, but doesn’t carry the immediacy of the first.

This is an excerpt from A Severe Mercy that has become part of my world-view:

…we have not always been or will not always be purely temporal creatures…we were created for eternity. Not only are we harried by time, we seem unable, despite a thousand generations, even to get used to. We are always amazed at it–how fast it goes, how slowly it goes, how much of it is gone. Where, we cry, has the time gone? We aren’t adapted to it, not at home in it. If that is so, it may appear as proof, or at least a powerful suggestion, that eternity exists and is our home.

Lengthening the Cords

This article from Boundless this morning rang a deep chord in my soul. The themes of travel, the far horizon, passport stamps, and ethnic food makes my heart sing. And I love how the article wraps up with a picture of heaven. There is something timeless about exploration and sharing food with people. We were created for this, and will continue to enjoy it in heaven.

It is always a dramatic moment for me to fly trans-Atlantic with two passports in hand. One maroon, one navy. American and Irish. It is a huge gift to me, and nothing that I have earned. When the ticket agent in Pittsburg asked me to confirm that Dublin is my final destination, my friend thought it was an amazing idea. Another friend emailed me later: “Really, Ireland must be a novel place to live.” I have lost some of that wonder; some of the novelty has disappeared into the mist. But I hope I never lose the awe of being handed this gift.

The wanderlust comes from generations before me. I have two grandfathers who had the same kind of itchy feet that I inherited. One learned Spanish in middle age, took his family to El Salvador and would happily have stayed for the rest of his life. People there still call him “Papa Juan.” All his children have spent time in service in foreign countries. My other grandfather loved to tell us minute details about his globetrotting in Australia and Russia. My parents love to travel and explore new places. Their open, interested minds shaped me and made my world big.

Now my generation, my cousins, are living and serving in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Ghana. My sister teaches school in California, which is like another country too, isn’t it? And this summer another cousin goes to Liberia, and I go to Poland.

We make our own choices, but we are products of our background. I want to say here how proud I am of my grandparents and parents whose life goals were not to stay comfortable and build up the family farm/business, but who valued people who looked and spoke different from them, and who cared about them enough to pour out their lives in their behalf.

This kind of living is not pleasure-driven, but there is pleasure in it. There is delight, joy, and “ah-ha” moments where we realize again that all people on the globe share the Creator’s stamp, and at the deepest level of our beings, we hunger and long for the same things. We’re not so different from each other after all. The cords on this tent enclose a big family.

Recommended Christmas Story

It’s been a frantic week of shop keeping and baking and carol singing. It’s been good, but frantic, and during yesterday’s duties I felt particularly as if I was moving in a slow, creaking gear. “Little smiles and little tears are all we’ve brought” was the line that repeated itself in my brain. It was my line, the only thing I could offer to anyone.

It’s the line from the poem “How Far is it to Bethlehem?” by Frances Chesterton. The line is the one Elizabeth Yates uses in her lovely Christmas story “On That Night.”

This morning I was part of the city market crew, to sell cakes, bread, and scones. I learned again that I am solar powered, and can sell things well. If the sun shines, anything is possible and everything is wonderful. And I can talk people into buying things because I’m enthused and happy.

Town was wonderful. I fell in love again with life and with Waterford City. The air was crisp and cold, and did I mention, bright? People met my eyes and smiled and/or waved and drivers were polite to each other. I rode the bus back to the bakery, to bake apple tarts and lemon tarts, thoroughly revived and ready to work for another week. This time as I worked, the little smiles and little tears were gone, and instead I sang and laughed and joked. Yup, I’m solar powered. The Romans used to call this country Hibernian. After 13 winters here, I understand why they did.

This evening six of us young ladies sang several songs as part of the carol service in St. Andrew’s Church in Dunmore East. It was a lovely evening of Nine Lessons and Carols, with a huge crowd of friends and neighbors packing the (drafty) pews. As we meandered out into the cold crisp night, I thought again of Yates’ “On That Night” and the magical, gentle night when the characters in the story left their prayer time, went out in the snow, and found what they’d lost. I hope we get snow now too.

Next week, hopefully things won’t be quite so frantic. I hope there’ll be an evening when we sisters can sit by my fire and take turns reading “On That Night” to each other. I love the wistful, gentle, worshipful story written by a gifted lady.

As far as Christmas stories go, I can’t choose my favourite between that one and “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Twomey.” Both deal with love and loss, grief and miracles, and have parts where I choke up and parts where I smile every time I read them. Do yourself a favor and read at least one of them this week.

The Weekend Magazine

Part of my Saturday ritual is to read the Irish Times Weekend Magazine between taking care of customers. Today’s edition had an exceptional article of an Irish lady’s take on Thanksgiving. It made me laugh and nod in agreement several times. Enjoy!