The Seduction of Sehnsuht

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“I understand your loneliness,” he told me.

I was in a meeting to discuss an issue at school. It morphed into a conversation where three people were telling me how their spouses help give them perspective and advice about their issues and idiosyncrasies. I said I have no one like they do to lean on and ask for insights when I’m puzzled, so I feel very alone.

When he said he understands my loneliness, I wanted to shake my head and wail, “But you just told me your wife helps you with your blind spots, and you know I’m single—how can you understand?”

But I stayed quiet and did my best to pour grace into his words.

My gentle friend went on to say that even their healthy marriage carries an emptiness in its core. The cave inside doesn’t mean something’s wrong with the relationship. It’s just the way things are.

Later, it came to me: I’d been talking about my practical, tangible loneliness, and he was talking about existential loneliness, so I had felt like we weren’t understanding each other.

Existential loneliness, I’ve learned, is the ache of emptiness that caverns inside every human. It’s the thirst after every pleasure and the whimper at every dream come true.

There’s an old German word, Sehnsuht, that explains it best to me. Everyone feels it, but it seems only the bravest, most honest writers, artists, and composers try to express it. They explain it as the inconsolable longing for a place you haven’t seen but know as home. You could call it nostalgia, or homesickness, except that it’s the reverse of that, a hungering for a place we haven’t been to yet. The emotion is so profound and intense that sometimes we’re aware of the ache, but don’t even know what we’re aching for.

Sehnsuht is the tendency to demand presence and availability from someone who can never ever be big and wonderful and sensitive enough to fill the holes in your soul. It’s the drive to go further and longer and higher into uncharted horizons because maybe just out there is the place that will fully soothe your soul. It’s what keeps you talking and discussing and pushing for concepts that solve all your dilemmas perfectly.

The Sunday school answer to this insatiable thirst is that Jesus satisfies it. Happily, it’s true, but it can be hard sometimes to know or experience how it’s true.

God, in His inscrutable design, created us with this cavernous loneliness without creating something that fills the cavern. Only He, the Infinite, can fill to overflowing, satisfy, and soothe the Sehnsuht He gave us.

God also thought up countless creative, beautiful ways for us to live whole, full, rich lives. We are awake to textures, colors, sounds, flavors, memories, dreams that constantly entwine with incredible, gifted, winsome, deep, whimsical people around us.

But Sehnsuht still haunts us.

I read an interview of a playwright who said, “All the best stories have to do with loneliness.” We connect best with what what’s been our experience, and everyone has experienced loneliness, so the stories that include that theme are the ones that become enduring. Sehnsuht crept out of the theater stage and connected with this playwright’s audiences because it connects with every human.

You’ve seen the same hunger demonstrated in your friends in their life choices, in the characters in your favorite novels, and the lyrics of your go-to music. Many people can’t put Sehnsuht into words, but Bono was brave enough to call it for what it is when he sang “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

The search drives alive, sensitive people to breathtaking thrills. I can’t scorn the lady who endlessly pursues expensive exercise regimens and takes any man who gives her attention. Or the man who loses himself in games and adrenaline. Their search is part of being human, alive, and honest about their thirst. But they short-circuit the search when they settle for something less than Infinity.

This post concludes tomorrow. 

Country Mice and An Elegant Waiter

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A couple years ago I lived in Poland and taught English with a team of energetic, fun young people: Jewel, Sarah, Dervin, and Marlin. It was Marlin’s birthday, and he wanted us five to celebrate with a concert at the Philharmonic, and dinner afterward.

We chose Chianti Tratoria, a restaurant that I would never have chosen for a group dinner because it looked so romantic and other-worldly. Like, way out of my league. I’d walked past it for several years, always wistfully looking in the door, reading the menu, admiring the candles in the tall hurricane vases on the step. It’s the setting for the scene I describe in this devotional. But it was always out of reach, never for me. Until that night when we walked down the steps off Foksal Street and into the basement restaurant.

It was all so elegant and classy that we felt like country bumpkins, but the staff was gracious and welcoming. Our waiter was Michael, and he was everything a waiter should be. He answered all our questions about the menu and consulted the chef about the latest updates. When he knew we weren’t ordering wine, he swooped off our goblets. But one elbow caught a goblet and it crashed on the tile floor, and Michael swore so cheerfully that it made us laugh.

We were mission volunteers, poor as church mice, and ordered the most frugal entrees, and split some orders, but even so, it was delectable. My seafood risotto was perfection, except I couldn’t manage the baby octopus, so Marlin ate it for me.

Michael kept checking up on us, chatting whenever he could, maybe wanting to practice his English. He was elegant, and friendly, but not invasive. At the end of the meal, we told Michael that we weren’t going to order dessert with our coffee ( we didn’t tell him we couldn’t afford it). Then he cajoled the chef into giving us a plate of dessert samples for us to share.

While Michael was out of ear shot, Sarah said we should write him a thank you note to leave on the table. Someone had a piece of paper, and we all signed it with little notes.

It had been a most delightful time. On the way home, we kept talking about Michael and how much he’d done to make it a splendid time. Jewel wrote a review on Trip Adviser and mentioned his great service.

A couple weeks later, our little group was in Warsaw again. It was dark and rainy, and we were sloshing down the sidewalk, hurrying to make the train. We were passing Chianti, and just as it was behind us, I jerked back: Michael! He was outside the door having a smoke. We had recognized each other at the same time.

“Hey, good to see you! I remember you! Thanks for the note you all left for me–and you left a review on Trip Advisor too!” We were delighted to see him, told him we’ll be back when we can, and kept walking to the train in the rain.

I love remembering the delight of that evening, and of the serendipitous meeting in the rain. We were country mice, and he was an elegant waiter, but we impacted each other in ways that lasted longer than the meal.

These days, I’m not so good at enjoying people who are less than elegant in places of business. But I think I should try to notice the good things in them too, and affirm them. They work hard–at least some of them do–and they deserve recognition, and my world expands significantly when I engage with them.

Join me?

The Work of My Hands

Most of my day job requires sitting at a desk and working on a computer. It’s all good, and I enjoy it except when I get tired of being in an office by myself, when I go trotting up and down the halls looking for someone to talk with.

When I get home in the evenings, I want to avoid the computer. I want to do something with my hands, something tactile and less flat than paper and a monitor. Recently, that compulsion became very intense. I felt a deep, driving need to make a big layer cake. I’d never made a caramel nut cake, but I found a recipe on Pinterest, and simply had to make it. It was going to be a big, fancy cake, and I was going to take it to the fellowship dinner at church. Because whenever I make a lot of food, it becomes a small problem when my housemate and I can’t or shouldn’t eat all of it.

I bought the nuts one evening. The next evening, I made the caramel sauce for the icing and toasted the nuts in butter. The next evening, I made the four cake layers. That took me to Saturday, when I made the icing and put the layers together. I used to make small layer cakes to sell, and it was fun to find that my fingers still knew the motions.The steps of making it aren’t important here but they demonstrate how it was something to do with my creative, nervous energy every night and that I had to strategize how to manage the project. People who think single women have lots of time to do stuff don’t think about how all hosting and cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and appointments has to happen outside long work day hours. But I digress. This was about baking a cake.

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The icing was complicated and didn’t turn out like the recipe promised, so I improvised and evolved an icing that tasted like the moon and the stars but will be impossible ever to replicate. The cake didn’t look like I’d imagined, but when I drizzled caramel all over it just before serving it, it looked mostly like the ooey-gooey, fancy, whopping cake I’d wanted to make.

Never mind that when I cut it into slices,  a quarter of the pieces toppled over onto the table. It was still a yummy, scrummy, rich, delectable cake that people picked off the table and licked off their fingers.

The point here is that I HAD to make a cake–a big, crunchy, meaty, caramelly, mile-high cake. I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I made it. It didn’t look like I intended to, and it actually tasted better than I’d imagined, but the point was making it.

I’m a process person. I often like getting to a place almost more than arriving. Those nights, after intense days at the office, all I needed was to work with my hands and handle butter and nuts and hot, soapy water. It unified all the layers of my self, and relaxed me, maybe because it was something I could DO.

Several years ago, in another intense season, I felt the same kind of urging but with a different medium. As that day progressed, I knew that I had to go home and paint a pineapple with chalk pastels. It was going to be a big, colorful pineapple. That’s all I knew. I’d never painted a pineapple before, but now was the time.

When I was ready to start, I discovered I didn’t have the size paper I needed to make the pineapple as big as I needed to make it. So I went on a search. Newspaper would do the job very well. I took the paper and my pastels and some Google images to the picnic table and started sketching. This is what happened.

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There was pink in the pineapple, because I intended it to be an expressive, whimsical pineapple. It turned out to be a lumpy, textured, prickly pineapple, larger than life, which is just what I wanted. My favorite feature, apart from the pink, is the defining black strokes here and there.

I’m sure any art teacher would criticize how the darks are on the wrong sides of some leaves, but I don’t care. In that moment, I was using my fingers to create colors and texture that soothed my soul. I can’t bring myself to throw away that yellowing paper hanging in our kitchen because it always takes me back to that sweet, fun, surprising evening.

I’m learning to pay attention to the times when I feel my face scrunched and puckered into a tense lines, as well as the moments when I breathe deep and slow. Those are the moments when peace and rest seep into the cracks of my heart and make me feel newly-made.

Some of my friends feel their tension melt away when they work with soil and green things, or walk their dog, or ad lib at the piano, or watch the stars, or knit complicated patterns, or clean windows (which will never happen to me). What I love about doing things with my fingers is that it unifies the physical and emotional layers in me, focuses me on the project at hand, and I lose myself in it. For a little while, nothing else matters. This is not about escape. Neither is it about perfection, mastery, or being Instagram-worthy. It’s about being self-aware and entering into the ways we function best.

I wonder how God felt when He made things with His fingers. I wonder if it’s anything like I feel when I make stuff with my hands.

It’s not the same thing for everyone, but I think everyone should find the thing that makes their soul sing, and make time for it at least once a week. Only, I won’t make a huge cake every week.

Related post: Battery Recharging

All in the Family

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When my Grandpa Mast was 45, he sold his business, they packed up their stuff, said good bye to friends and family, and he and his wife and 4 children moved to El Salvador. (Their oldest was my mom, who’d married 3 years before.) Grandpa was deacon at their church, so the church ordained someone else to take his place. There was no reason they couldn’t go, he said. Business, church responsibilities, teenage children weren’t reasons to stay.

Some of my earliest memories are connected to visiting El Salvador. I remember holding a bowl or basket on my head and screeching “Quiere papusas!” through the house when we got home because I was selling them like the ladies outside the bus had done. Grandpa learned to preach in Spanish and became Papi Juan to lots of children and locals. He would happily have stayed the rest of his life, but Grandma couldn’t settle there, and the family came back after five years.

They were back, but El Salvador marked them for life. Their world and their hearts extended way beyond their zip code. In Indiana, my aunts worked for the ministry of Georgi Vins, immigrant from communist Russia. One of them travelled to Europe and brought back egg cups and showed us how to eat soft boiled eggs in them.  Now when our extended family gets together, we have food featuring the Middle East, El Salvador, Europe, Belize, Paraguay.

My parents and aunts and uncles trot off to serve in other places whenever they can. Last year, reports came in from Haiti, Iraq Greece, Romania.  In our last family gathering, the aunts talked about their time being house parents in Iraq. They compared books about girls who’d been with ISIS and women who helped them. And one aunt served us tea like this.

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I’m so proud of my aunts and uncles. They have big worlds, but they value the person beside them, and prioritize things that matter, and release their children to serve. One cousin wrote from Iraq this week and told us of friendly shopkeepers and drinking chai with families in Internationally Displaced People camps.

When my dad was 45, he sold the business, they packed up their stuff, we said goodbye to everyone, and dad, mom, and us six children moved to Ireland. I was the oldest and 21; the youngest turned six the morning we landed in Dublin. Dad was deacon in our church, and the church had ordained someone else to take his place. There was no good reason that we couldn’t go. Business. Church responsibilities. Teens who would miss their youth group. None of these were reasons to stay.

That was 23 years ago. The move to Ireland has marked us.  Now my parents and siblings live in the Middle East, Greece, and Ireland. I’m the only one in the US. We are Third Culture Kids, not at home here or there, but mostly at home there. People who speak other languages and eat other comfort food are like our family. We claim each other because our relatives are far away, even though they’ve loved us the longest.

Now it’s me who’ll be 45 this year, but I have no plans to pack up and relocate just now, though this kind of action is in my genes from the last two generations. It’s an odd mix. This belonging and not belonging. This lifestyle of new horizons and home.

Though I make my own decisions and ask God daily to guide my feet, it’s clear to me that the person I am is largely shaped by the generations before me. If it weren’t for my parents and grandparents and siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins, however distant in miles and personalities, I’d be a vastly different person.

I didn’t choose them. They didn’t choose me. But somehow, we benefit, learn from, and shape each other. I’m rich and grateful beyond words.

Related post: A Tribute to Grampa

My Unfair Life

Scene 1

I approached a tall metal gate with my sister. She showed her ID to a guard. Dust swirled around us.

“Can my sister come in with me?” she asked him. “Just for 10 minutes?”

“No.”

I tried to make it easier for him to say yes. “Just for 2 minutes?”

“No. No ID, no entry.”

It was the day before Christmas, and I was at the entrance to Camp Moria on the Greek island Lesvos. Refugees milled around us, wrapped in coats, talking on cell phones.

My sister, working in the camp with her husband, had done the required paper work and could go in and out of the camp when she showed her ID on the lanyard she wore. I waited at the gate while she went in to talk with Butterfly, the Iranian friend she wanted to invite to cook a meal for us.

I stood outside the gate, my eyes taking in everything they could. I squinted as wind swirled the dust around us. A tall chain link fence with razor wire towered above us. I couldn’t be angry at the guard for refusing to let me enter because this place held hundreds of vulnerable people who needed protection, and even though the razor wire looked dehumanizing, it gave a semblance of safety for the ones inside.

I waited and watched. Bright sun. Clouds of dust. Cold air. Umpteen nationalities and ages. Then an African man stepped up to me and asked what I was doing and where I was from.

“I’m from America. I’m waiting on my sister. She works here.”

“Oh! You have come a long way! Why are you here?”

“I came for ten days to be with my sister for Christmas.”

In that moment, I felt the immense weight of injustice fall onto my shoulders. This man had probably risked his life to come here, and I got to jet in and out like any other pleasure-seeking, happy-go-lucky tourist. There was no justice between our stories. The man had every right to scowl at me and resent my privilege.

“Oh! You did a good thing. You must love your sister very much!”

“Yes, I do love her very much.”

I blinked in the sunlight as the man kept smiling, nodding his head and repeating his words. “You did a very good thing.”

His grace and joy crushes me. I don’t know why he was so happy for me. I don’t know why I got to travel in ease and go back to a steady job that automatically deposits money into my bank account.

There is no justice in this scene.

Scene 2

Several days later, I stood at the same chain-link gate again with my sister, and she asked the guard if I could come in for ten minutes.

“Only for ten minutes.”

So we walked fast.

She took me to the info tent, the hub of activity that EuroRelief organizes. In the portable cabin behind that, sealed off with chain link, I saw stacks of hats, coats, and gloves. I noticed white boards and diagrams and numbers that kept track of spaces and families. It looked like organized mayhem that does its best to give the barest basics to the neediest. I’m so proud of the men and women who pour their souls into this overwhelming, gritty, endless work.

We walked up the hill. Tinny Turkish music blared from a radio. Pieces of clothing stuck into the chain link to dry in the cold sunshine. A few sullen faces glared at each other and us. Are they angry? Let’s get out of here. Past the latrine. Past the fenced-in family compound where a friend stood to guard the door so no unauthorized person would come in. He must have been freezing and bored, but he grinned and waved at us.

Tents lined the gravel path, four or five deep. They were a mass of billowing, flimsy canvas, roped to any available stable surface.

Then the scene that seared itself onto my brain and replays itself endlessly: two hands reach out of a little tent, fumbling to pull in the thin layer of blankets that poke out onto the gravel. Fumble. Pull. Shake. Yank. Get the blankets in and the zipper closed. A pair of sandals lies outside the zipper because someone doesn’t want dirt in their tent. Someone sleeps on a very thin layer of blankets. The padding can’t possibly be warm enough or protect from the gravel underneath.

Ten minutes is up. We walk out of the dusty gate that has razor wire over it.

Reflection

All good stories have a conclusion but this one doesn’t. Greece broke me in a way that I’ve not recovered from. These scenes are still with me, over 2 years later. They part of the texture of my life of ethnic food, colorful people, and stimulating conversations. Are they also inciting incidents that will usher me to another chapter of service and care?

I don’t know.

I only know that it’s right for me to be thankful. Every night when I lie on my thick mattress and under my feather duvet, I don’t have enough words to say how grateful I am. And when sit in front of a fresh, colorful meal. And when I buzz down the interstate in my car or walk onto a plane.

I know that, after seeing all those flimsy tents and thin blankets, I should never again complain about living in a swampy area that has 6 months of winter. I also know it’s right to use my resources to nurture His kingdom that stretches all over the globe.

But I don’t know what that will look like.

 

photo credit, a refugee artist in Moria Camp: https://www.facebook.com/riadh04

This post was first written for Daughters of Promise, and was first posted on their beautiful blog.

Camp Moria, about the size of a large Walmart and its parking lot, was built as an army barracks to hold 1,500 people. Right now, about 7,000 people are crammed in it, with more arriving.

Giving and Receiving Life

Recently at work, when sending an email to over 60 people, I made an innocent but dreadful, mortifying mistake. While I was writing the message, intending to send it with Mail Merge, I didn’t realize Word was tracking all the changes, and the message went out with red lines and replaced red words all over it. It looked like a something a child would do. It looked confusing and ugly and awful, not like an informative message.

I saw the first message in my sent items, in shock and disbelief and horror, and started wailing. Loudly. Luckily, the office was empty except for Lucy, who came running. I showed her the garbled messages, still trickling into my sent items. “I’m so sorry,” she said, and started rubbing my shoulders. “It’s really going to be ok.” But I couldn’t believe her, and the shoulder rubbing wasn’t calming me down.

Then my phone rang. It was one of the recipients. “I just got your email, and in case I was the first person you sent it to, it looks like there’s some problem with it.” I wailed and whimpered to her, and she was very sympathetic, and while we were still talking, my inbox pinged. It was from another recipient: “Am I supposed to respond to this?” His bluntness and confusion tickled my fragile emotions, and I started howling with laughter. Thankfully, it was a perfect storm in that my message showed simple, honest editing, and nothing incriminating.

But still. It took me at least 24 hours to recover.

Later, Lucy told me, “I felt so bad that I couldn’t help you feel better and that it was someone else who made you laugh.”

But Lucy was wrong because she HAD helped me enormously. She’d run to my desk the second she heard me wail. She’d asked questions and heard me out. She kept me from needing to process the stress alone. That was what I’d really needed in that moment. Later that evening, she brought it up again to see how I was.

There are older and wiser people who’ve said this with more explanation and insight, but my simple way of saying it is: Women need to talk about their experiences, and an experience isn’t complete until they talk about it.

What Lucy did that evening is one example of what many good, wise, solid, life-giving people have done for me all my life.

Talking is how we experience life. We tell about the details, the best parts, the worst parts, the emotions, and our responses to an experience. We tell the back story and the spin offs and the lingering questions. Sometimes we get a bad rap for it and sometimes we deserve that, but usually we’re just women experiencing life more broadly by talking about what just happened.

We tell someone about what just happened because we can’t just stay quiet about it. It happens every day all over the world:

  • letters, texts, and status updates
  • school children coming home from school talking about the day
  • pictures and crummy, topsy-turvy, jerky videos sent to friends
  • strangers talking to strangers in waiting rooms and grocery check out lines
  • phone calls and Whatsapp voice messages

I hear and read:

  • in a Facebook group post: “This is off topic, but I just had to tell someone.”
  • “Can I tell you about what happened when I was at home?”
  • “Thanks for listening. I just had to talk about it. I feel better now.”

The internet takes this to another level and feeds on our inherent narcissism and loneliness, but I want to say that it also taps into what is innately human: that we are more whole and balanced when we tell someone else about our experience.

I’m not promoting navel gazing and endless self-expression. I’m not encouraging everyone to start an Instagram account. I’m saying we are better people for getting out what’s simmering inside, and when we tell someone about it.

That’s why journaling is so therapeutic. It’s why children want to tell about what they saw on their walk to the barn. It’s why I tell my friend how blue the sky is. It’s why debriefing after a traumatic or unusual event is so healing. (It’s why I LOVE Whatsapp: I can talk to my friend about what’s going on and she can respond when she has time, and I don’t feel like I’m imposing on her.)

Sometimes you don’t have time or energy or opportunity in the moment to talk about what’s troubling you or making you ecstatic, but at some point, it needs to come out. There are women who talk all the time only about themselves. That’s not wise or healthy. There are seasons when you feel consumed with your latest crisis and be more needy than you like, but hopefully that’s a season, not the shape of your life. In the talking and processing, it’s a good rule of thumb to talk to someone, or write them about whatever is simmering, or journal it out, before putting any of it on the interwebs.

There are two sides to this kind of life-giving exchange: the speaking and the listening.

If we live life better and more fully when we talk, we also offer life to others when we give them opportunities to talk. It’s very simple. It just takes time and ears and lots of heart. Oh yes–and staying quiet and not finishing the other person’s sentences are skills I’m working on. I think the most whole woman has people she talks to and people she listens to.

I think about what I’ve heard from those inviting me to talk:

  • I want to hear what happened yesterday!
  • You said something about ________. Tell me more.
  • What did you mean when you said that?
  • What are you feeling now?

We can give life with words like these.

Women are good at talking and we are designed to be life-givers. What would happen if more of us would give and receive life by inviting and listening well, and also giving ourselves permission to talk to someone else?

I wonder.

What I Like About Guys Mills

When I told my wordsy and brainy friend Shari that I felt stuck and unable to blog, she gave me a list of things I could write about. That list will likely be the spring board for future posts like this one.

When I first started thinking about what I like about Guys Mills, the tiny crossroads where I’ve been living the last 3 years, I wanted to be snarky. I wanted to say that the good thing about Guys Mills is that there are roads leading out of it.

But when I started looking for the genuinely nice things about this swampy outback, I found several endearing qualities.

My very favorite thing about this place is that when I’m outside at noon and 6:00 PM, the church bells play a hymn and chime the hour. It heartens me to know that someone is beautifying the world that way.

The bells are in the cupolo on on the far horizon in this picture that I took this evening on my walk home.

Another thing I love about Guys Mills is that the post mistress is the happiest, smiliest lady I’ve ever met in a post office. The place is dingy and very ordinary a far as post offices go, but she is beaming and positive and beyond helpful. “I LOVE my job!”she told me. “On Saturdays I do some things around the place then go across the road and drink coffee with my friend on the front porch of the store while I watch for customers.”

Except she’s not on the front porch during this polar vortex, but she’s still happy in her job and serving us superbly.

If I’d have a new drone to try out around here, there are locals who would shoot it down first and ask questions later. When I walk around the block, I’ve seen enough shady characters that make me always stay vigilant. But at the most decrepit house, the owner always waves politely at me and shushes his barking dogs so they won’t bother me. And the snaggletooth mechanic has given me excellent service for which I’ve been deeply grateful. And another mechanic up the road treats my car as if I’m his daughter.

I’m seeing a pattern here.

The people who program and maintain and care about the church bells.

The delightful post mistress.

The respectful, rough-looking man.

The careful mechanics who make sure my car is safe.

The things I love about this sleepy little place aren’t things but people.

I kinda like that. Because maybe it means that even if it’s winter for 6 months and the deer are constant threats to road/car safety and the sky isn’t big where I live, there are people around, and where there are people, there’s a significant level of dignity and beauty which is really what my soul is hungry for.