Letters From Abroad – 17 JUN

Dear Family,

I don’t know what I’m supposed to think about this whole travelling phenomenon. I don’t know what I’m supposed to think when I’m dropped into beauty and madness and community and isolation and the contradictions of being a student abroad who doesn’t want to come home and is extraordinarily homesick for countless unnamed things that don’t even constitute as home.

In case my last post didn’t give you a hint, I’m trying to put into words my inability to just be; to experience without littleness or ignorance. I’m trying to name the beauty around me, trying to put into words how other this is, and yet how normal. I spent today watching sunlight and shadows in a place that is older than the country I both love and uncertainly miss.

I’m struggling to process what I encounter, as it feels so disloyal to describe these places in terms of what I know. A cathedral that echoes of France, an edifice crumbling like Romania, a corner table that feels like Chicago, a smell that drifts from Israel, and a sunset with a Nebraska breeze. I want to speak of this place on its own merit, but every place is somewhere else. The more that I travel, that I experience, that a place settles into memory, the more I speak of these new things in terms of the old. And it doesn’t touch my soul.

And maybe that is why. Maybe it is because it doesn’t matter if the street is quaint or the façade impressive…I haven’t allowed it to mean anything more than an old memory in different colors. I’m in Europe, one month in, and that is extraordinary in a way I have not been able to comprehend, let alone describe.

But I’d like to try, try to tell you one of the stories of today in its own many words. Can I? Here.

Today I ventured to a new place, a staunchly Swedish coffee shop, two-story glass windows and shaker furniture, with hot yellow sunshine and little cappucinos. It was firmly in the university district and far enough outside the town center to abut buildings of glass where the only old things were the cobblestones between them. It was also close enough to the university district that everyone entering the shop came with a painted cheek and inadequate clothing, draped in rainbow flags and hair color as loud as their voices. I wondered at these people and what their lives would look like. Where do the fishnets and crop tops go after college? Where do those who march and cheer take their hoarse voices after this day is done? It was a strange question to ponder in a corner table with my colored pencils in hand and a blank castle waiting to be shaded in. Somehow, amidst the bustle of others’ activity and the quiet strokes of ultramarine blue, I still felt guilty for finding a new place in which to stop counting the minutes of a day.

A meander along the cobblestones brought me to one of the market areas with tilted tables of fresh fruit and Italian cheese, plaid neckwear and leather bracelets, set between the bars and restaurants and cafes. There was a circus act at one end and a magician setting up his table and scarves between. I wandered into a vintage clothing store; a flea market for clothing someone else once loved. There was a row of plaid kilts ready to greet you as you entered, and a dusty life-sized Egyptian coffin, the color of old gold and navy, guarding the steps up to the rooms at the back. It was a cacophony of color; old hats and glitter fringes hung from the ceiling, rows of dresses labeled by era (“1950’s” “1970’s” in Sharpie on ivory tags), colors and fabrics of magenta and gold and canary and forest green. A row of olive and tan tweed jackets hung above a packed rack of slacks in dark green and navy blue, and stuffed underneath them were scuffed shoes with worn straps and old shoelaces. The interior of each fitting room was plastered in some bold graffiti, with a garish curtain to pull across the front. The roof of the fitting rooms was actually a shelf, “For Display Only,” piled high with creased shoes, leather bags, the breastplate of a tarnished suit of armor, the tartan hat and kilt of some unknown heritage. There was not a single space left uncolored by yesterday’s styles. It was gloriously overwhelming. I touched the silks and fibers and shoulder pads of decades-old clothing and bought nothing.

I followed the uneven streets to an art shop with prints of Edinburgh framed in matte white cardstock. The castle was the prominent feature, mostly in gray and taupe and olive, but some artists rendered the city like a child’s picture book, with blond, round-faced-and-peach-skinned occupants posing in front of pastel shops and the castle in pale baby-blue shades under a faintly yellow sky. My favorites were the ones of whimsical Edinburgh–known places and streets in bold, shaded colors, touched by the fantastical; a goblin with an elephant balloon on a string in front of a red coffee shop, yellow windows bright against the night; large feet in blue striped stockings draped over a window ledge and a tasseled red cap nodding over the sill a few stories higher; a fox huddled under a sign pointing to the highlands with the faint impression of snow and a definitively red telephone box behind him. It was a child’s imagination printed on cards. I looked, smiled, and left them to settle in my memory and not my hands.

I trekked back to the main thoroughfare, all busy tourists and hissing buses, chasing one another back and forth along the gardens and monuments and green places below the castle. The street behind it was called Rose Street, criss-crossed overhead with strings of pink triangles. It was mostly restaurants, which my tongue could not taste but nose could not miss. So I drifted the length of the street with a new scent at every step, carried by the sounds of fellowship and the plink of silverware and the sorts of memories made over glasses of wine and bowls of heaped pasta. It was a feast of sight and sound and smell and it, for a wistful and forgotten moment, was enough.

Back on the main sidewalk, still swimming with people and beckoning stores, I found my first new bookshop, all piles of clean titles and crisp colors. It was a three-story delight of displays and vibrancy and endless possibility. There were immeasurable pages to read, but the sheer infinitude circled back on itself and I had no place to begin. So I climbed the staircases with their delightfully thick dark wood railings and creaky treads and found the sunlight pouring through the windows of the coffee shop. I settled at a table that overlooked the activity of the street and drank a latte from a homey gray cup and picked up my pencils again. Across from the big windows was the great brown castle, imposing against the stiff blue sky. From its cliff the castle looked down on the green swath of gardens, the street with its buses of maroon and gold, and the people busily counting the minutes of the day and giving them over to the stores and shops in hand with their pounds. With violet and indigo, I shaded in my castle roofs and brushed the curling shavings into the saucer, crumbling bits of color against the gray.

I spent the afternoon with coffee, pencils, and time that did not care. With the sky fading towards evening around the castle, I left the bookstore and ended at a park. It was full of people, with a movie projected on a screen the size of a small building. The people were the sort I’d seen all day; the rainbow-draped students in the morning, the children who had chased bubbles near the magicians in the market, the men and women who had sipped bottles and sauces on Rose Street, the bag-and-bustle-laden shoppers of that afternoon. I bought my own little container of ice cream and leaned on the iron fence around the park, watching the ending of a movie I didn’t care about while the sun colored the sky with its own pink pencil and the world slowed down to a few moments that I did care about.

And then I stepped aboard a bus that softened its hiss to a gentle shush and took me home along a skyline of pink and blue and just a touch of violet.

Not every day is so full of delight or so empty of things that must be done, but neither can every day be described. I wish you could be here to know the fullness of this life, even in its emptiness, so maybe it is you that I miss.

~Rae

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Letters From Tour – 01 JUN

Dear Family,

What is beauty? We talked about it last night, the sort of night that is the last night on earth even when you know it isn’t. We talked about it in the dark blue dusk of evening along the Danube, with the bright, old yellow of city lights on cathedrals and Parliament and ordinary buildings across the water.

Forgive the sentimental prose for a moment so I can ask this: what is beauty?

There has been so much beauty on this tour. At every turn I wanted to tell my Gypsy: your country’s normal is so beautiful. But do I say that rightly?

What is beauty? What is the beauty of crumbling history? What is the beauty of a disintegrating human face carved between windows and around doorways? What is the beauty of cracked stone and streaked gray brick? Romania and Hungary still carry the leftovers of Communism, and I think they may struggle to answer this question, as well. What is beauty when it was meant to laud human dominance and the subjugation of man? There is a beautiful statute in Budapest, high on a cliff overlooking the Danube. The woman holds a branch aloft with both arms, a palm leaf flung up to catch the wind – and the light. There used to be two more statues below her: communism in metal, honoring a false freedom. They were called the statues of Liberation, this collective. The Soviet statues were relocated to a hated and historic wayside park, and the lady is called Liberty now. It’s a semantic tightrope across the Danube; once you are on the other side, you see the view and wonder how you ever could have thought that both sides were the same.

What is beauty for its own sake? What is beauty made by sinful man? Was the tower of Babel beautiful?

I wonder if our creation of corrupted beauty speaks of our identity as image bearers – imprinted with a reflection of the beauty of our Creator, spun outwards in statues and structures in an attempt to replicate what our souls long for.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they 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.”

What is beauty? I have been far to quick to assign that to things I see and experience – far too quick to catch my breath and say “Ah, what a thing!” and far too slow to say “Ah, what a Creator!” Is the world beautiful in a way that delights my eyes, or is the world longing in a way that speaks to my soul? Or, possibly, is it both? Threads of a fabric woven in perfection and stained by sin, drifting music played by a child in hopes to replicate the soul-song he cannot quite hear, eye-catching colors in the faded shades of Paradise, monuments of and for and by man. God crafted a world of beauty and placed within man the longing for the reality of it. Our ability to create beauty is continually frustrated by sins, personal and collective, but we know we want it. These desires are as twisted as ourselves – our sinful hearts covet the greatness of other men, wishing that statue was of, for, by us…and our image-bearing souls recognize the diminished beauty that achingly cannot capture the greatness beyond it.

I love the beautiful things too much, I think. I wish to know better the difference between the beauty of this world and my longing for what it mimics. I wish to know when my self shakes hands with a sinner and lusts in rebellion against God’s beauty, and I wish to know when my soul is gripped in mutual longing for the beauty beyond the now. I wish to recognize the towering craftsmanship of these little Babels, to decry the sinful lusts of twisted longing, and to direct the ache of my soul to the author and satisfaction of true beauty. I wish to say, truly, with the Psalmist, as a cry from the sinner and saint:

“One thing I have desired of the Lord,
That will I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the Lord,
And to inquire in His temple.”

Psalm 27:4

 

Missing you and the beauty of the far country,

~Rae

#JOY

Sometimes this world is cold
Once high and then we’re low
Don’t need a pot of gold
Just love
A smile or even hey
Can make a better day
Open your eyes
And look around

Let’s fill this world with Joy
Let’s fill this world with Joy
Let’s fill this world with Joy
Let’s fill this world with Joy

Just turn around and say hello
And let me know they’re beautiful
Let’s spread the love and let it go
We are each others miracle

Empty hearts and souls
All across the globe
All they need is a little bit of love
A smile or even hey
Can make a brighter day
Open your eyes
And look around

Let’s fill this world with Joy
Let’s fill this world with Joy
Let’s fill this world with Joy
Let’s fill this world with Joy

Just turn around and say hello
And let me know they’re beautiful
Let’s spread the love and let it go
We are each others miracle

Let’s fill this world with Joy
All we need is a little bit of love

 

P.S. This song is your standard hopelessly unfulfillingly postmodern song that expects each other to be each others’ joys, as if the drops in our cup could fill what is lacking in one another. But it does speak accurately of the longing we have for cheer and for community and for the way we speak into each others’ lives. I just wish we hadn’t learned to settle for self-manufactured joy and “a little bit of love.”

P.P.S. Also, it’s catchy, and I heard it in both a taxi and a host vehicle in Romania, so…memories

Letters From Tour – 31 MAY

Dear Family,

I’d like to tell you a story. A story of colors and first things. This tour has been full of firsts, but last week’s wasn’t my favorite: an ambulance ride.

Prologue: it wasn’t my favorite night, but there were still good things about it. We were in Gypsy’s hometown, she and Lady did everything, her mother drove, we were at a church with a very gracious nurse, I was able to go home that night…many good things. Many less than, though; and to be honest, I don’t entirely remember everything from that night. Mostly pieces and colors. Here they are, disparate and disassembled.

Black: I wore my Chorale dress the whole night. I tried to sing the first set (ha), came off for the second, and tried again for the third. The last song I had enough oxygen to sing was The Lord Bless You and Keep You, even though the world was already spinning by then (per usual). It’s a good song to end on.

Blue: I remember getting into Gypsy Mother’s car afterwards (being handed in, mostly), and being cold and it being very dark out. I thought it was funny that they always wheel you out in a wheelchair yet somehow expect you to get home alright. I also remember being annoyed at how much clothing I was wearing when Lady and Gypsy helped me get ready for bed.

Green: Green and blue and dirty-looking but almost overwhelming? There was too much already, so when I think of the color of the ER now, I’m glad it was muted to that side of the color wheel. My eyes and mind couldn’t really take much more. I wanted to sleep and couldn’t really and for a long time they didn’t want me to close my eyes, then they said I could, then I didn’t want to for the things that happen when you close your eyes without breath. Funny how an oxygen mask can’t convince you that you aren’t suffocating.

Red/Orange: I don’t remember the ambulance people, but their vests were orange and there were red things around. I still had people telling me to open my eyes when they came, or maybe it was after… I only remember the pricks of early tests and those slices of color and far, far too much noise that still sounded like it was coming from far, far away.

Pink: the color of the sky for the sunset I didn’t see. I think Nae Nae and Mountain Man had said it was beautiful, but by the time the concert ended I was heading out of daylight pretty fast. I wanted to catch my breath so I could go see the sunset, and I never found either.

Ivory and Brown: I think of Nae Nae in those colors, when the world went nope and turned into mud colors and went sideways. Her lap was soft and felt so safely unhurried when everything went very fast. I have never realized the measure of confidence one receives when one is heard and understood. Lady, Nae Nae, Gypsy…the Lord placed them under my head and around myself and somehow, they heard me and there was never a time when this highly verbal person did not feel like her voice was not heard through the fog.

White: the nurses and people with the cold and gooey EKG stickys and the one who kept telling me to look straight ahead when I was trying to leave and the world still wanted to tilt and I couldn’t squeeze his finger even when I tried. It’s amazing how frustrated you can be with the kindest of people when whom you are really frustrated with is yourself. I do recall the relief of leaning into someone and not having them push you away because at that point, you’ve returned to a body that feels as hollow and unfamiliar as a seed husk that was ground underfoot.

Gray: that’s the color I remember most of the night. Gray hands that didn’t work and were the sort of all-encompassing pain that made me forget everything else but that couldn’t be distracted away themselves like all the others; the sort of bewildering force that is almost too great to be responded to with something as little as tears. Gray lungs and body that folded up like creaky billows that get stuck and never quite open up for air. Gray self that spent itself like water wringing out of a towel and managed to hurt when there was nothing left to hurt. I was proud of this analogy that I said (and remembered!) from the ER: I am a juice box. One that is emptied out and all twisted up and can’t be undone yet. I’m still undoing it.

Epilogue: so there was my night, in the full spectrum of color. Except yellow and purple. Yellow was the color of Lady’s hair when she smiled at me and made the downhill slide feel not quite so fast. Purple wasn’t a color I remember, but maybe it’ll come later, like most of these pieces have.

I woke up sometime in the dark that night, still looking for that elusive breath, but the Lord, with His gentle hand that wastes nothing, taught me once more how to pray.

With all the dizziness of mind and disembodiment that comes with pain, somehow the thing that keeps me tethered to myself is this called prayer. I once would have said prayer is an ethereal thing; a paper crane that cannot fly. But when it is your soul and self that wants to fly away and make it stop, prayer is a tether strong enough to keep a kite in a hurricane. Is it the meeting of heaven and earth, the way prayer takes the physical self to the throne room of God and keeps your soul on its knees when the walls tumble down? Is it because it doesn’t matter whether or not the trembling walls are the skin that holds us together or the soul that shakes us apart?

When we return to these husks and hollows of ourselves and find that the muscles and mind and lungs don’t work like they should, prayer draws in the lines that should be there, returning the loose cotton to these empty cloth dolls, knitting soul and body together with prayer and breath, holding our fragile seed husks with hands we cannot see that work better than our own.

I remember my father’s hand, so large and heavy, and the way it felt to pick it up and draw his arm around my shoulders. That night, prayer began without the strength to pick up the Father’s great hand and place His arm around me..but in that yawning nothingness of my own strength, I found, underneath, the everlasting arms.

In the shifting prisms of graying color and the ungrounded firsts of that night, that was all I needed.

~Rae