A continuation of reflections in the season of Advent.
It begins under a big top. The stage is dark, the people silent.
Drums pound, fiddles sing, the brass comes in, trumpets trilling high notes. A giant silver steed enters from the back; as he gallops toward the foreground, a woman in yellow is lowered from above. She begins running midair. By the time she hits the stage, legs still spinning, the woman has grown wings and the music has risen to a climax.
Luzia was my first Cirque show and one of the most dazzling displays I have ever seen. I did not know that the body could be so beautiful. I did not know that humans could work and move and play with one another in that way. The music, costumes, stage, and lighting; the amazing acrobatics and beautiful artistry all came together to form something other-worldy—a community in harmony.
Mid-November, California was still reeling from the recent election. We were and are a nation divided, in so many ways, on so many levels. Before the performance I was taken backstage to speak with a few of the acrobats. The circus, they said, was their family—a team of 44 performers from 15 countries all brought together for a singular celebration, this blending of circus and stage, light and water, sound and color. Harmony.
A troupe of acrobats must hit their marks and know their cues. They must read each other’s bodies, trust one another’s movements. If they don’t, the results could be perilous. If they do, it allows them to fly about freely, to dance midair, minds clear of all else.
If only we could do that with our hearts. If only we could read each other’s needs and sync them with all we can offer. If we could bring our sufferings and our sorrows, our surprise and satisfaction, maybe then we would sing in one song in many parts, and together become a beautiful harmony.
After spending the night in the city, I go to morning prayer at Grace Cathedral. I am stunned at the size of the structure and somehow comforted by its French Gothic features—the cross shaped pattern of the nave and the transept, tall arched windows filled with stained glass and saints, the labyrinth laid out on the floor near the baptistry. As I wander through the building reading plaques and pondering piety, I am arrested by a scene on a small stained glass window.
In the back of the cathedral, past the Chapel of the Nativity, there is a hallway that connects to the sacristy. In it is a window depicting a story of a woman and a well and a man who comes to drink.
“Give me a drink,” the man says, implying that he is thirsty, though we don’t really know if he is. We don’t know if he’s parched from the journey, though we read he is weary. We don’t know why he asks, but we know what he offers.
“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again,” the man tells her, “But whoever drinks of the water that I give will never be thirsty again.”
“Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty.”
Between the man and the woman, it turns out he may not really be the one who is thirsty, and water may not really be the subject of their exchange.
When the woman tells her friends about the encounter, she doesn’t talk about the water, she talks about the man, the one who knew her whole story.
“He told me everything I ever did,” she tells them.
Everything she ever did—all of the discovery and excitement, the childhood wonder and young girl innocence, the moments unseen, bathing songs and daisy chains, the joy and delight of learning to love, the heartache of loss, the ugly mistakes, the pain of repeated failure. Everything.
I long for that kind of closeness—for someone who would carry my whole story, share my moments and cling to my memories, for intimacy that would allow me to be fully and wholly myself, even if the other knew all that had happened. Everything I ever did.
I look at the icons captured in glass, symbols of a story I wish felt more human. I wonder if the tale is true. I realize that I am thirsty.
It’s been a hard week. I can’t begin to say why, but I will say that anxiety is a very real and oppressive demon. In moments of quiet, I have been trying to remember how it feels to be safe, how it feels to be sheltered, how it feels like to be loved. I lie in my bed under piles of blankets (because it’s actually cold in California right now) and stare at the tiny twinkling Christmas tree I have had since age seven. I conjure the Christmas of my childhood and sink easy into memories of flannel nightgowns and crackling fires.
I carry it with me as I drive across town, playing the Nutcracker Suite when I get stuck in rush hour traffic.
I’ve started playing movies while I’m washing my dishes and making myself dinner. Yesterday it was Rudolph. Today it was Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. (Let me pause to say that 1980s Sesame was an AMAZING display of diversity, community and every value I want to instill in small people, or big ones for that matter.)
Towards the end of the show, Big Bird goes missing (he’s on a quest to find Santa, though that doesn’t much matter). Maria presses Oscar the Grouch, who is partially to blame and they have the following exchange:
Oscar: He’ll come back. Besides, what’s the big deal; he lives outdoors anyway.
Maria: Now look here Oscar, the nest is something different. That’s his home. He’s got an electric blanket and heating pads and he’s around all of the people that he loves.
What is it the makes a nest? A shelter? A home?
It has something to do with physical space, with returning to the same familiar shelter after braving a day in the rest of the world. It has something to do with the things therein–the favorite blanket and familiar dishes, the smell that your stuff makes when it’s all living together. But it also has something to do with belonging. Shelter can be given by a heart that has space, by a friend who offers dinner, or a lover who opens his arms. Shelter is the place where anxiety goes silent, where there is nothing left to prove and nothing left to fear.
Four years ago, I quit the only full-time job I’ve ever held. I did some traveling and exploring and eventually went back to school, which provided a temporary answer to a wayfarer’s most dreaded question: So what do you do?
I have been a post-masters freelancer for over 18 months now, and after countless failed job applications, I am realizing this may just be my new normal.
Still, I talk about getting a “real job” as if the work I do now—writing and tutoring and stringing together contracts—doesn’t count. I talk about someday starting a career as though I haven’t.
It isn’t that I mind being a freelancer or living in a stopgap shoe-box apartment. It’s just that none of it seems secure. It feels like vapor, like I’m just getting by.
I keep waiting for something to make my life seem more solid—a job, a relationship, a title, some sort of status change that will serve as the mark that I have finally arrived and can work toward the stability I associate with real life.
But what makes a life “real”? The number of hours worked? Salary earned? Home ownership? Marriage? Children? A savings account? Owning a KitchenAid Mixer? (You laugh, but I’m serious)
The high school students that I work with, the refugees that I teach, the homeless woman that I spoke with outside of Walgreens last night—are they not “real” people? Do they not have “real” lives, rife with real struggles, real joy, real feelings and real accomplishments?
Real love is not real because it fits a traditional standard or script. And real friendship, real fear, real pain, real suffering—these are not made real on account of whether or not they fit into a preconceived schema. They are real because they are.
In C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce, the narrator describes heaven as a place where things are more real, more substantial, not because they tick the check boxes but because they are infused with love, with God.
When I get down on myself for the ephemeral nature of life as I now know it, I am reminded of a man whose life also did not meet traditional standards. Who taught students and studied a trade, but never went into business for himself. Who dined with the exalted and lowly alike, but had no place to rest his head. Who dwelt among great crowds, then went to quiet places to drink deeply of God, to be infused with a love that made him more substantial, real enough to breathe the breath of realness into others.