On being all there

I can smell the woodpile outside our house burning. The accumulation of dried brush, old leaves, and a tree felled a few months ago. The bonfire crackles in the smoky, damp evening, and suddenly, my stomach lurches, and I’m flung back across the ocean, across time, to Indiana cornfields. To pumpkins and to leaves so flaming bright it turns everyone giddy, as they decorate themselves in scarves and their front porches in scarecrows and ghosts and jack-o-lanterns. There are no real autumn colors here in South Africa, where I live. There is a difference in the air, though, come fall. It turns crisp; there’s twinkling frost some mornings, and the beginning of bright, blinding blue sky days. And just like that, I’m lurched back to the present, to the bonfire and my two children running back and forth to toss new twigs onto the blaze.

This happens to me often, having grown up between two countries in two different hemispheres. Christmas memories of snow and jingle bells. Christmas memories of sprinklers and watermelon. Christmas memories of laying in swimming pools while dreaming of ice skating and snowmen. It all reminds me of Christmas. 

And because it was my childhood, it’s mine. I’ve always had the blessing of experiencing both realities, and always had the accompanying ache for whichever world I’d left. Laughing at a Thanksgiving full of friends and roast chicken in South Africa one minute, then pausing at the hitch in my throat, thinking about real turkeys and all my scattered extended family gathered in the U.S. without me. Feeling nostalgic at Easter for the three-day long isiZulu services full of music that were my childhood, while also feeling relieved that our American church services only last an hour before the egg hunts for Reese’s peanut butter cups. 

I remember a saying, growing up: “Wherever you are, be all there,” attributed to Jim Eliot, Patron Saint of Intense Missionaries. It was said to the new arrivals, as a way to help them accept their reality. Build new relationships. Practice gratitude. Cut the never-ending, whiny comparisons. And there was a bit of self-righteous holiness to it, as well. The good missionaries sacrificially adapt, giving up the familiar world for the new one. Pack your clothes in your coffin. Burn the bridge between your world and this one.

Turns out, I am not a good missionary. I am just a missionary’s kid. Growing up in the 90’s in South Africa, we had pen-pals, expensive international phone calls, and even more expensive screeching dial-up internet. I left for the States right as video calls began, and by the time I returned to South Africa with my Minnesota husband four years later, we all had smartphones. The internet in our pockets, the promise of a permanent bridge between the worlds.

This bridge holds so much potential to connect us. But over time, we’ve found that it also divides. My grandmother knows how to Skype, so my kids know who she is. But my husband’s grandmother, Renee (Nay Nay), wasn’t as capable with technology, so she remained a photo in a photo book. When interacting with screens, my kids still prefer Youtube videos of trucks and pressing the shiny, red “hang-up” button more than they enjoy talking with their overseas family. 

And then: a global pandemic. Suddenly, the bridge between the worlds looked different. My parents who live four minutes down the road were now locked-down and on a screen just like Minnesota Grandma. My son baked cookies each week with his cousin and Gran: one was in Indiana, the other right down the street. In lockdown, technology tethered us together, and suddenly it didn’t matter how many kilometers apart we were. Churches closed, and my scattered family could all stream the same service. At pandemic Thanksgiving, instead of gathered relatives passing our virtual faces on the phone right alongside the turkey, we each ate alone then had a massive group call with everyone’s virtual faces. We enjoyed this new level of connection, and yet we all thought it wasn’t enough. It didn’t replace a real touch, or the actual smell of Grandmom’s pecan pie, or the inside jokes and sarcasm that repeat themselves over a weekend spent together. This ache is familiar for me, but now I find myself with millions of other people all across the world, who have been shoved into dislocated pandemic bubbles, socially distant from the ones they love, all longing to hold, or taste, or gather. We’re all clutching this disembodied rope called the internet, homesick for something real. 

One night in early January, I was putting the kids to bed when my sister-in-law, Ann, called my husband in tears. With sobs catching in her throat, Ann told my husband that she had just watched their grandmother Nay Nay pass away over a video call. Nay Nay hadn’t seen the family except through the window of her nursing home since March. She was weeks away from receiving her second dose of the vaccine, and getting a real hug. The nurses had called my mother-in-law down to the hospital, but she didn’t get there in time. 

Ann had started a video call when the nurse told her things were looking bad. She had been sent to the ER for a complicated infection, not related to COVID. Reassuringly, the nurse thought she saw Nay Nay respond when Ann and her son started singing hymns and playing instruments, but minutes later she passed away peacefully. 

My husband, 8900 miles away, was the first one Ann called once she was certain her mother and aunts had heard the news. We continued singing hymns while waiting for my husband’s mom to arrive at the hospital, and then kept singing as we waited for different family members to join the call, the normally off-putting asynchronous zoom singing comforting everyone. My husband played guitar while we waited for the funeral home staff to arrive. Whether minutes away from each other in Minnesota, or time zones away on the other side of the world, the whole family was equally isolated and equally together due to the pandemic. It was an odd, precious gift, getting to be as present as everyone else, even though we were so far away. 

But it was not enough. 

I used to think that this feeling of homesickness I constantly carried could be conquered, silenced by being perfectly present in one place and shutting out the other. It doesn’t work that way. I used to think this feeling was unique. But now I know it’s not. Whether or not we live in a pandemic, in our own culture or as a guest in someone else’s, we all feel it, even when things are most perfect. 

The taste of Grandma’s sugar cookies welcoming me after stepping off a 23-hour plane ride, the joy of splashing in their backyard fire-hydrant as a child, the complicated secret language we created with our cousins, the baptisms, the weddings, the hugs, the road-trips with my siblings, catching glorious sunsets and armfuls of memories at the same time –shimmering just on the other side of these moments of deep connection is the spectre of grief. Time runs out, death still comes, reminding us  these things are “only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” as CS Lewis said. 

We’re all lurching back and forth between worlds. We are all homesick and unsatisfied, clinging to technology to cable us together, while longing for something permanent, something real: true communion, unending joy and connection. 

It’s never enough. It never will be. Not until every last one is gathered around a table as long as the outstretched arms of Christ, our bridge between the worlds.

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