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.

See you at the wedding

The old missionaries say that in their day, the 3 week boat trip was part of the grieving and transition process– the first half of the trip was spent saying goodbye to one country, and the second half was looking forward to the new. We’ve had lots of goodbyes this past week, and we’re looking forward for some time to process it all on Camino. In light of that, here’s something I wrote in the throws of all the goodbyes last week- not very edited or anything, since I’m sitting in Brussels right now about to get on a train to the start of Camino, but I thought it would be better if I shared it now rather than in a month.

We had our last day at Christ Church today.

We led worship with James. We practiced the night before, practiced the songs we’ve sung and played together for the last year. Songs that feel familiar, like putting on an old comfy jersey, but always new, because when I enter inside of them and really sing them, I’m always surprised at how I see the face of God staring back at me, like I’m a baby playing peek-a-boo. Of course I would see God, that’s the whole purpose, but it always takes me by surprise–like rounding the corner on the hill heading down into Sweetwaters, and the sun is shining bright green on the mountain and your breath catches in your throat and you’re hit with it like the first time you saw it.

Last night we finished practicing and none of us really wanted it to be over. Everything this past week has been the last: the last trip to the DVD shop (what a novelty, in the US, we’ll just stream everything online- much more convenient, but this guy actually knows our name), last time buying fresh bread from the Spar and slicing it while hot, the last time getting petrol put into our car at the full-service petrol stations.

And now the last worship practice. How many times had we dragged ourselves into practice after a long day of David chasing belligerent basketball boys and me getting headaches from computer screens, and walked into the strange dim light of the church, where James would be hunched over the piano, with just one light perched over the music, and sheets of discarded song selections scattered around the floor, hammering out songs till the air and the piano strings vibrated with glory.

And we’d start standing around the piano, tired and bleary, wondering why practice had to drag on so, and really the timing was just fine—but by the end we’d go home singing in the car, knowing it had been good.

And so after we’d picked out and practiced the songs, we sat around and none of us really wanted it to all be over, so we talked about the ethics of data mining, and all of our non-existent plans for the future, and in every awkward pause when someone needed to say, “Well, time for us to head out,” none of us did, because instead we managed to think of some new mundane thing to say that hadn’t been said yet.

And so this morning we sang in church, and heaven didn’t come down, but it was good. And then Pastor John called us up to be prayed for, and as we stood there and I saw the faces of the people who have supported and prayed for us over these past two years—people who have sometimes frustrated me, but people who have loved me and trusted me to sing, and to teach their kids, and have prayed for me and for kids in Sweetwaters. And it was humbling.

I think leaving is like getting cancer or some terminal illness. It’s a good thing to go through every once in a while. It reminds you why life is worth living and all those mundane people and irritating habits melt away when you step back a few miles and see what an impact they’ve made on you. It’s like the montage at the end of the new ‘The Giver” or “It’s About Time,” those mash-ups of ordinary, everyday moments that when paired with soaring music suddenly seem very wonderful and beautiful.

Like our going-away braai. It was raining (of course it was raining, this is Hilton, you can’t have a braai without rain), and so we all crowded into our almost empty cottage in folding chairs and ate off of paper plates and drank out of borrowed cups and there were kids running in-between people’s knees, and Zulu and English and Irish and American accents and utter chaos and lots of laughing.

Or the next morning when Kate and I sat drinking Milo while the boys played some stupid game and we all ate scrambled eggs, and then paid our whole bill in one Rand coins. Nothing special happened, there were no moving speeches or profound words, but the whole thing was profound because it was so ordinary.

And after we’d been prayed for, and after the kids had surprised me with cake and balloons and hugs up in Sunday school, and we’d sung the last song as everyone led out of the sanctuary, and David had strummed the last chord, we all looked at each other and that’s when it hit me.

So this is it.

It’s really over now.

 And it hurts like graduation day.

The day I graduated from college it was so hot I felt smothered in my long black robe, and it didn’t help I was running on about four hours of sleep because the day before had been filled on either end with seeing my family that had travelled all the way out to see me, and David’s family who had travelled all the way out to see him and me, and professors, and cleaning out the apartment, and the closing events for work, and honors, and departments… and all I wanted to do was sit around one more time with all my Taylor buddies at the Hayes house eating crappy pasta dishes made from the vegetable bits we could steal from the Grill and drinking budget Cola and talk about life and sports and predestination and what we were going to do with our lives.

But instead we were forced through these hot hours of pomp and ceremony, and when it was done, I hugged some of my friends outside the gym, then waved as they walked away and all of a sudden it hit me that this was it.

It was really over now.

This wasn’t just, “Oh, bye until next semester.” This wasn’t even, “Let’s see if we can meet up at Thanksgiving.”

This was it.

I was getting married and we were moving to South Africa.

This was the end of living three minutes away from all your best friends, the days when you could take naps in the middle of the day and then go hang out until 2am talking about American evangelicalism and whether Nacho Libre counted as a profound work of art.

And so I was walking through the hallway and I saw Felicia, one of my professors and friends, and I guess everything was written on my face because she opened her arms, her gown billowing wide and said, “Are you okay?” And I started to say, “Yeah,” but couldn’t even get that far because I was sobbing so hard. She sat me down and gave me a bottle of water and listened to my garbled mess of, “This is it and we’re leaving and I’m not going to see these people again and it’s all over.”

And she hugged me and said, “You’ll be okay. You’ll see them all at the wedding.”

It was true. And it was a comfort. In a month I’d see most of my friends at our wedding.

And I did see them and it was wonderful.

It was just for a day, but it was sweet. On that day I cried again, not because everyone was going, but because everyone was there—friends and family from South Africa and from America all in one place. It was wonderful, but too short. In a few hours everyone was gone.

Oh, but there’s going to be another wedding.

That’s the wedding where we can argue about philosophy for hours, and our South African friends can play touch rugby and then football with our American friends, and we can have a corner dedicated just to laughing so hard our stomachs feel like they’ve run a marathon, and Jesus himself will be there (like he always is when we do these things, but more real and lots more fun). And then when we’re tired we can all just eat and sit around and quoting Nacho Libre and Jesus and poetry to each other.

So that’s what I cling to now, again, when the world is shifting once more under my feet, and the tide is sucking me away from friends that have cooked in my house and then washed my dishes, sat on the trampoline talking about the ethics of acting in Les Miserable, let me hold their new-born babies, tolerated my rants and my chameleon accents, lent us furniture and helped us move, prayed David into a work visa and prayed me out of mono.

I don’t want to leave. I want it to be a normal Thursday night again where we’re dashing back up the hill to music practice ignoring the fact we’re 45 minutes late and moaning about how disorganized James is.

I hate saying goodbye.

So I guess I’ll say see you at the wedding.