While their parents were in Hawaii, Cathy and I spent ten days with our twin four-year-old granddaughters. Shortly before we returned them to their rightful owners, I was lying in bed listening to their rhythmic breathing. I thought, “Who will these little peanuts become? What will they learn that I cannot even imagine? What offering will they make with their precious lives?” Already they know more than we are willing to name. We want for them an innocence that is already gone. As I was getting ready to leave the bedroom, Ava awakened and said, “Oh good GramPaula, we’re not by ourselves. You’re here.” “Yes Ava, I’m here.”
Ava is a wise little soul. She has already figured out we arrive alone and we depart alone. To be sure, there are those waiting for us on the platform when we make our first appearance, and others will be waving wistfully as we take our leave. Still, the crossing of each threshold is solitary. Humans expend great energy trying to avoid this unsettling reality. Carl Sandburg suggests as much in Limited, one of his Chicago Poems:
I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains
of the nation.
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air
go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men
and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall
pass to ashes.)
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he
For most of my life I have not minded being alone. I found myself to be more than tolerable company. When flying, I seldom struck up a conversation. I enjoyed long road trips, just for the silence. I was alone but rarely lonely. Over the last few years, however, I have heard the faint whistle of the train. I have made the acquaintance of loneliness, with its stiff emptiness in the pit of the stomach. Even when speed and busyness were my constant companions, I could not escape the nighttime, when everything came to a halt and the truth played its pulsing song in my exhausted ear.
When my entire work world suddenly disappeared and I truly tasted loneliness for the first time, I discovered there were voices whispering. They said, “I know this place. It is a land called Lost, and yes, Lost is a place too. It is all right to stay here awhile, alone. Jesus did, for 40 days and nights. He made it out all right.” These voices are not the riders on the Limited Express who, when asked where they are going, reply, “Omaha.” These are contemplatives who listen for the space between the notes, people with a rich interior life who look beyond the obvious. These are friends and family not afraid to be lost and lonely alongside me. Through my dark night, these were the people who kept me alive.
When my train eventually pulls out at journey’s end these same people will be running on the platform to the very last inch, waving and blowing kisses and holding my gaze into the fading light. Crossing the threshold may be solitary, but the road there is shared with voices that whisper, “Yes Paula, I am here.” And I’m discovering that is enough. In fact, it is more than enough. It is a precious gift.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Yannick Soler