I am neither a spider nor a bird

Another journal entry … a few weeks into my return. Even before I came back to the U.S., I had the irrational urge to skip the plane ride home and run as far away as I could.  This desire came in intensifying waves all summer, so I decided to go on a spiritual retreat to a place called the Farmhouse; my hope was to do the same kind of preparation for re-entry that I had done for my year abroad while at Taizé.  Of course,  this preparation came several weeks into the homecoming – and would last only 5 days rather than 5 weeks – but at that point I decided to take what I could get.

August 8, 2011

Last night/evening, I arrived at the Farmhouse.  Walking in was like coming home – to all the homes I knew and loved in Grand Rapids.  Dinner was delicious and the conversation stimulating, and the next-door house with my room, while not as home-like, was comfortable.  But then I took a walk in the woods, and that’s when I realized how wrong things were.  Not with the place, but with me.

I looked through the isles of corn to the small forest with great anticipation – the moon above the trees certainly helped to give it an adventurous quality – but my entrance was less than magical.

It’s funny – all last summer, I missed the cicadas and felt that the season had an empty space without their singing, but this summer, now that I am back in North America, I’ve found the cicadas’ sounds grating and distracting and even aurally claustrophobic.  I felt that way last night, too, and when I entered the woods, the twilight darkness intensified the claustrophobia.  I realized with dismay that my sandals, while sturdy and good for walking, exposed my feet to the poison ivy that I a) hadn’t had to deal with in Europe and b) had forgotten about as a problem to guard myself against.

So I picked my way carefully.  I was beset by persistent flies and mosquitoes.  The enormous dragonflies winding around me in the corn fields had felt like guardians, but these bugs buzzed in my ears with alarming regularity and yet managed to remain uncatchable.  I ran into spider webs, the oppressive heat pressed closer the deeper I got into the trees, and I hurried out on another path short of breath and flailing my arms to ward away everything I possibly could.  I’d never felt my self so fully reject the forest, and I knew I would have to return.

But not then.  I let myself be pushed away into the cornfield paths, rejoicing in the pastel moon and marveling at how my body was rejecting my homeland and seeking to flee.  The same way a body might reject its own organ.  I had hoped that leaving my parents house would calm my urge to run away as far as possible.  But the demons were not a symptom of my location.

I did have one positive experience with the woods, and it actually had to do with the spider webs I kept running into.  I thought about how often the spiders have to rebuild their homes, how it is a part of their rhythms and necessary for their sustenance.  There is such a beauty in their home-building work.  And I thought about how even the word “nesting,” a word used so often by my generation, comes from the lives of birds, and they rebuild their houses every year.

Of course, I am neither a spider nor a bird – I am a human woman – but certainly there is a good deal of beauty to find in this season of my life.  And plenty of nesting to do.

Be ever thankful (2)

This week I was thankful for:

– a long phone call to a faraway friend; sometimes it’s easy to pretend that we’re actually just sitting across the couch from each other

– a mother who lets me decorate for Christmas as part of my rent

– a workplace that lets me decorate for Christmas as part of my job

– clementines; it’s so easy for me to imagine how these little orange spheres of goodness featured so prominently in Christmas stockings of old

– the book The Vigil: Keeping Watch in the Season of Christ’s Coming by Wendy M. Wright; I’ve been wanting to read this book during Advent for probably about 10 years, and I finally pulled it off the shelf in time for the beginning of the season.    This slim but full volume has provided me ideas to rejoice over and chew on, and I probably don’t do it justice by reading it just before I fall asleep.

Advent, the season of waiting and preparation that comes before Christmas; as someone who often finds herself in in-between spaces, it is comforting to know that there is an entire liturgical season that the church has dedicated to in-between-ness.  More on that later.

Two days after a homecoming

It seems to me that there is a lot of information out there about culture shock and a traveller adjusting to foreign cultures, but I haven’t heard a lot of stories about people when they come home.  Perhaps that’s because all the stories are comparatively less exciting and, well, less foreign, but I think ending the sojourner’s story with the flight home is akin to ending a meal before all the silverware has been used: there’s something missing.  It’s not a truthful account of experience.  The return from the adventure is often seen as the last few moments before the credits roll, but of course real life doesn’t work like that.  You can’t edit the rest of a return out of your life.  And I think the confusing return to a homeland has a lot to say about who we are as Christians, as an in-between people.  I don’t pretend to offer any deep insight here; I will just recount experience.  I start off rather bleakly.  Bear with me.  From my journal, after my return to Grand Rapids, Michigan:

June 30, 2011

I’m not even sure where to begin. First of all, I am acutely aware of how anyone in Sparrows [coffee house] could read my writing.  Theoretically, at least.  We speak the same language, even if my handwriting is atrocious.  Not that I think anyone is going to be peering over my shoulder, but it makes me feel very exposed.

For some reason, I am terrible at writing when things are actually happening.  I also don’t know why I can’t shake my desire to catch up, which is never really possible anyway sine the feelings and reactions aren’t fresh.  And what do I hope to accomplish by writing everything down?  Who is my audience?  One thing I do know, however.  There have been entire episodes of my life that had slipped my mind before I read a journal entry about them.  But again, to what purpose am I remembering?

I think, to find a narrative.

This morning when I woke up, the insulation along the roof seemed oppressive, everything felt close and inescapable, and I wondered again why I hadn’t run away to Kazakhstan.

I decided to call my mom.  How glad I was to to be able to pick up a phone, whenever I took a fancy, and explain my thoughts to someone.

I saved up all my emotional disturbance for returning rather than leaving.  There’s no one great thing – other than finding myself in my homeland.  Which is, of course, not my home, just as I knew it wouldn’t be.  Prior to leaving, I wouldn’t let anything hit me because I knew I needed all my stewing energy for traveling.  Any time I did realize the import of every ticking second, I sprung for a book and drowned myself in other people’s strange lives.

Last night I finally felt the crushing weight of things moving faster than I know how to process them.  And even if everything did slow down, I still don’t think I’d know how to process them.  Every step out of Kathleen and Sarah’s house is overwhelming, sometimes to the point where I can’t catch my breath. (Though I’m not sure if that’s the result of overwhelming life or overwhelming comparative pollution.)  When the cashier at Sami’s Gyros complimented me on my bag, I hadn’t the faintest idea how to respond.  [People don’t do that in Eastern Europe.]  I’m afraid of people smiling at me because then I’ll have to expend the energy to smile back, so I put on my best disengaged European face and hope people don’t think I’m too rude.  The fact that I can understand every word people say is jarring and distracting; there’s still a catch in my chest at recognizing a fellow English speaker.  And I have the upmost difficulty not paying attention to what they are saying.

be ever thankful (1)

It’s always easier to be where you are when you know where you are.  (Say what, Yogi?) And what better way to know where you are than to recognize what you are thankful for.  Every week, a new list.  Every day, a new brick. (See be ever thankful tab.)

Things I am thankful for this week:

– improving health (being sick is dumb)

– noodles (especially: the slurping of noodles)

– Miracles on Maple Hill, a delightful children’s book that kept me company one of my sick days

– woolly socks

– a mother whose acts-of-service love language was speaking loud and clear this week

– a flexible and understanding workplace

– the return of sunshine

– a moment during the sunrise this morning when the too-large red sun behind the bare trees started setting upwards behind a cloud

– frost

– peppermint tea

A poem I wrote at various times and places


Movement 1

I stand
in the center of the church
sandstone slab worn smooth
all the cold of winter
(and death)
stored up
comes up from the stones that mark the final resting place of who’s and that’s
I state my case clearly:
God, I am homeless.
And God laughs.
Because He thinks I’m lying.

Movement 3

Eating bread and chocolate
If only what we ate took us back to where we last ate it.

I am the kind of person who is never happy to be somewhere until it’s time to leave.
But what I like most
is coming back
A reunion needs a leave taking.
I’ve taken leave of
but my senses
which persist in lying to me
In telling me
when I taste
the bread
and chocolate
that I am home.
What is the lie?
That I am home?
Or that I have one?
But I think the real falsehood is that the place of bread and chocolate is home.
I didn’t feel at home until the day I left.

Movement 2

I’ve always associated snow with the cosmos.
Maybe it’s the snowflake’s unmistakable star shape
I’ve only seen that shape once
In a cluster on my lilac scarf
daring me
in the face of such extravagant detail
to curse the cold wetness they were causing my feet.

At this moment
by the light of a streetlamp
I’m watching an ever-expanding universe of violent action
move in fast-
then slow-motion
as the foreign sky pours a blizzard
on our corrugated tin roofs
and heads.


I can imagine that I am spinning around with the distant stars blurring and whirling

to look like snow fall.

When I was 17
and dark as only 17 can be
I stood under a confetti fall
of snowflakes bigger than a penny.
The snow held its breath
and floated too slowly to be real
But of course it was real
and of course the snowfall was the cosmos
and each snowflake a star
a nebula
a galaxy
I had been called into the universe
Into the hugeness of God
(which is sometimes a snowflake)
And now that I knew it
there was no going back.

And to find myself here
flung out to the other side of the snowfall
I am ready for the snow to just be
And for the universe to shrink back to size
To fit in a cluster on my lilac scarf
And made no grand claims
about where I am going

Movement 4

The best thing
about the golden hour
is that it never lasts for exactly an hour.
In May
It reaches out on both ends
Until there is enough time to bike to the island
and stretch to the length
of the golden hour itself.
Nettle burrs and dandelion ballerinas:
Plants are in-credible
Because their only purpose is to try for immortality
That seed will take
And then everything will have been worth it.
The dandelions are fallen moon and stars
But the buttercups
It gets to where
I cannot tell the difference between buttercups
and sunshine.

The nearness of the cowbell
rings the hour.
And I am hidden under a white tree with clapping leaves and dancing bark
A tree with no other desire
than to be immortal.
If that were my only desire
the cool slab of headstone
would not turn my feet homeward
the bread and the chocolate
no sacrament of memory
the universe written
in a snowflake
would be a call only
no fear
of infinity
And when I blew off every seed of a dandelion flower
I would not wish
for anything.


Simplified itinerary,
from the homeland outwards:
Taizé, France
middle of nowhere, Ukraine
Abiding time:
As long as it takes.
And if when the time is up
I run away east
of nowhere
(To Kazakhstan, maybe)
It is not because I don’t want to go home
It’s because home became plural
(or more?)
and I wanted to