Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Home on the Train

Sleeping next to a stranger, while hundreds of Texas and Arkansas miles roll away beneath you, is something to ponder.

Waiting for the train. July 2007.
On my last several trips to Indiana, I have taken the train.  At Christmas, I sat next to an elderly gentleman for most of the nineteen-hour ride. He had been in Louisiana visiting his sister, and once the train pulled out of the Longview station, he began to tell me stories about his work as an architect, restoring old buildings in an old city. We discussed the politics of the Methodists (his church), and of the St. Louis synagogues (his wife is Jewish). We talked about colleges, and the kinds of education that change people. He told me about his sons, settled somewhere in Nebraska. The train was cold by the time we each drifted to sleep.

In some ways, it is a kind of homeless feeling, being so physically close to a person whose history and cares you hardly know. It makes you think of the ones you would like to have near you on a journey through the night, and how far away they all are. It can even be frightening, as I once learned on a bus ride from Memphis to Indianapolis. It can make you swear that there is nothing worse than traveling alone.

Such a strange night can also teach you some things about home.  The Texas Eagle pulls into St. Louis at seven o'clock in the morning, and as the train slowed, I woke. To my surprised, I found I was covered with a man's suit jacket. My neighbor the architect was already awake, and as I rubbed my eyes, he smiled apologetically. "I hope you don't mind," he said. "But you were curled up so small and tight -- I thought you must be cold." I smiled and thanked him. The train stopped, he collected his bags and his coat, then stepped off the train.

He never told me his name, but that dear man reminded me that "home" means much more than caring for the people we love--or even the ones we know. It means watching over someone who travels alone. It means sharing what we have.  It means kindness that is bound to no province, place, nor name.

Tomorrow, I take the train again. As I travel from one home to another, I hope I will have the courage of my friend the architect, who built a little home for a stranger on a train that was speeding through the night.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Moving Out

It's hard to feel at home when all your worldly goods are packed in boxes. Familiar rooms begin to look strange when the walls are bare and boxes have replaced most of the furniture.

Sometimes we know a place is a home because we are sad to leave it, even if we are leaving for good and joyful reasons, as I am this summer.

Like many young adults, I've moved fairly often in the last five years: from Tennessee to Indiana, from Indiana to Texas, from one apartment to another, and now, once again, from an apartment to a new place.

In an upcoming post, I'll explain why I am moving this summer, and why I am so excited for what this move will teach me about home. Tonight, however, I will allow myself a modest measure of nostalgia.

I moved from my Maple Avenue nook three years ago, after Mary asked if I would like to find an apartment with her. That invitation was, in itself, a milestone in my understanding of home. After living alone for two years, I was surprised and honored that someone wanted to live with me. After two years, Mary found a permanent roommate (in the form of a husband), and so I had the opportunity to invite another friend, Adrienne, to live with me.

This is a good place. It is on the river, and when I open the windows, all our rooms fill with wind and sun.  This is the place I have hosted two Easter dinners and one Thanksgiving. This is the place I stopped feeling like a child play-acting at adult life, and began to enjoy the freedom and responsibilities I have as a friend, daughter, deacon, scholar, and teacher. This is the place I tended a garden.  This is the place I learned to prepare a meal for fifteen without worrying.

Many of you have been my guests in this apartment, and if so, you have blessed me with your company.  But whether or not you ever  knocked on our door, I hope you will enjoy these glimpses of the place I've called home for the last few years.

A place I studied, read, and wrote. 

A place with bright windows.
A place where friends shared a meal. 
A place for the wind to come in.
A place on the river. 
A place to spend the night.
A place to walk.
A place I will miss.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Ties that Bind

Graduations are bittersweet.  Though most occur in the spring, the ceremonies always create a kind of autumn feeling in me. Joy from the completion of a Good Thing mingles with the sorrow proper to any ending, even (or especially) a beautiful conclusion.

Having grown up around the culture of universities, I observed graduations for years before I experienced one myself, and this year I have watched a number of friends receive formal affirmation for years of training and hard work.  Keith and Janice are now Dr. S-- and Dr. M--, physicians I would trust with my own life.  Adrienne and Laura have the funny hats to prove they are PhDs in English Literature, while Martin has become Herr Doktor F-- by finishing his doctoral work in high energy physics. Last night, I attended the commencement ceremonies at Truett Seminary and watched Jon (along with many other faithful, talented young leaders) receive an M.Div. I even received the graduation announcement for a young man who was my student when he was a freshman. He will begin law school in the fall.

This year's graduations have been more-than-usually poignant for me. Next year I plan and hope (i.e. pray, pray, pray) to be among the graduates, robed in Baylor green and receiving my PhD.  Even more, this is the fifth year since my own graduation from college. That anniversary has me thinking about what distance, change, and achievement mean for the friendships that have taught us the meaning of "home."

You might say we were a little excited.
In many ways, May 13, 2006 was a joyful day.  Seeing my friends looking their best, feeling proud and silly in my black cap and gown, and receiving congratulations from the faculty are just a few of the reasons I looked so absurdly happy in all the photos our families-turned-paparazzi snapped that day.

After the commencement exercises, my parents loaded up my wordly goods and headed back to Indiana, while I climbed into the car of my best friend and roommate Rachel (far left in the picture). Our dear friend Mark (second from the left) was getting married the next weekend, and it didn't make sense for me to go all the way to Indiana, only to return a week later. Rachel and I planned to fill the week with a short road trip through North Carolina, but first we headed back to her hometown, an hour or two east of our campus.

As we drove away from campus, we were silent. I felt that I was choking, as though I had tried to swallow something much too large.  We made most the journey in silence and decided we should stop somewhere--anywhere--before arriving at her parents' house.  Rachel parked on a quiet street, and we wandered for a block or two before entering the prayer chapel of a large downtown church.  The chapel was quiet and empty, with a few wooden pews and stained glass windows.

We sat together on the second pew from the front and took out a hymnal.

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

Rachel has a beautiful alto voice, and I do well enough as a soprano, but anyone who overheard would have had to listen carefully to discern the words through our very undignified sobbing. Even when garbled by crying, however, these verses express so much of why college was home to me.  It was the first place where "the fellowship of kindred minds" was an everyday blessing, and I learned that the most important cares, hopes and comforts were those I shared with others.

But now we had graduated.  We were leaving.

When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

Living in that hope has been one of the real challenges of life since college. John Fawcett published the words to this hymn in 1782, and since then, a modern postal service, cell phone plans, and facebook have made it much easier to maintain active friendships from a distance.  But it is still hard.  Some days it feels so hard that I doubt it is worth the effort.

With this year's graduations,  many more friends are parting asunder.  Watching them head to North Carolina or Chicago doesn't cause the visceral heartache I felt five years ago, but it does make me sad and hopeful and watchful. If home depends as much (or more) on people as on place, what do we do when our people leave?  Or when we leave them behind?

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

 Today, that hope is strong, and I feel my courage reviving even as I prepare to bid Adrienne, Jon, Steph, Mandy, Mary, Martin, and Margaret farewell. I know that to strive and grasp, to demand that home be all here, all now, would be selfish and futile. For all my pouting and fatigue, I have learned ways to sustain deep friendships across five years and hundreds of miles.

Other days, the promised reign of "perfect love and friendship" seems much further away than the homes I have left in Indiana or Tennessee. On those days, I want to return to this reflection and read your thoughts about when and how to sustain friendships across time and space.

What is "the tie that binds" you to your friends? What are some practical ways you strengthen that tie? Have you found it easy or difficult to sustain friendships when graduations (or other life events) have distanced you from your friends? 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Write a Letter Today

Shortly before Christmas, I issued my "Letter-Writing Challenge," and the responses I received delighted me. A few people even took me up on my offer of a letter, including dear Miss (now Mrs) Kt, whose lovely missive started a friendship that continues to grow.  If you haven't written anyone a postcard, note, or letter recently, I would encourage you to do so today.  If you lack epistolary confidence, you can check out my earlier post for inspiration and ideas.

I'm also renewing my invitation to receive some handwritten mail from yours truly.  Whether you are an old friend or an anonymous reader, I'd be happy to write you.  Just click here and let me know how to address the envelope!

Have you received or sent any good mail lately?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Shelter from the Storm?

“At least I’m going to die with people I love.” This was my anchoring thought as I watched my first Texas storm mount the horizon, its black clouds racing over the clear-sky blue.  
In retrospect, my reaction seems melodramatic, but as I felt the warm April air give way to a cold fury that day in 2007, I really thought my friends and I might be swept away.  We--mostly friends from my church lifegroup--had gathered to watch one couple’s son play in a Little League game.  No forecast had prepared us for the rapid storm, and I doubted aluminum bleachers would provide much shelter from a tornado. I don’t think we actually saw any funnel clouds, but I, true to form, jumped to the most interesting (and, in this case, terrible) conclusion: that we were all going to die in the storm. 
I quickly realized, however, that no one else seemed to share my resignation. Everyone else, including my friends, were rushing themselves and their families to the our nearby cars. I realized that I, too, would have to get into my car and try to drive back to the city.
Only then did I begin to panic. Grabbing hold of a friend’s hand and waiting for the storm didn’t terrify me, but the prospect of driving home by myself did.  This reaction certainly had something to do with my temperamental passivity, and also with the fact that, at the time of this storm, driving made me nervous even on halcyon days.  Even more, I was deeply troubled by the idea of enduring a storm alone. As a child I had waited out tornado warnings with my parents, and once or twice in college the residents of our dorm would be ordered into the basement when the weather raged.  Those storms had worried me, but they did not make me feel as wretched as having to outrun danger on my own.  
That first storm was on my mind last Thursday, when news of tornadoes compelled the residents of Waco to seek shelter in closets, halls, and bathrooms.  My roommate and I were both home when the sirens began to wail across the river, and our friend Steph joined us in our makeshift storm shelter.  We waited for nearly an hour, listening to the wind and hail. Fortunately, the storms passed with little damage, and the three of us were almost merry (or perhaps a little giddy) as we waited for news that it was safe to emerge. 

Steph snapped this photo from her couch-cushion fortress in our bathroom.
I am eating a fajita, while roommate Adrienne distracts us from our storm-worries. 

This time, I did not think we were going to die, but I was grateful to my core that we were together, and as we stepped into the bathroom, I had a strange peace about the possibility that maybe, just maybe, my worldly goods, or my car, or my walls and windows, might be gone when I came out again.  At the same time, I wondered how many in my apartment complex, neighborhood, and city felt alone as they listened to those sirens.
Home--we often say--is a place we find shelter from the storm. This saying is wise and good. But tornadoes remind us that those shelters can and will fail. Our walls can give way to winds, our churches can hurt us, and our friends can never give us all we need.  Thus, like the bewildered disciples, I am beginning to wonder if home must be something else: some love that stands unshaken as the storm makes black the sky.