Monday, January 5, 2009

On surviving the return to normality

After four month living and studying in the UK, I've been back in America for one month.  The readjustment has not been easy, and I'm sad to realize how quickly I've fallen back into the monotonous patterns of day-to-day existence.  I was spoiled with almost constant stimulation: literature, theatre, conversation, and an ever-shifting environment acted like a giant poking stick tapping me on the head saying, "Hey you! Wake up!  There's a hell of a world out here, let's go!"  It's terribly dangerous (and expensive) to rely on poking sticks like a trip to Europe, or even to the theatre, for that spark of joie de vivre.  But once you've experienced the reality of a Thoreau-ian mentality by living deliberately, and have sucked the marrow of every moment, it's pretty impossible to go back to a life that feels uneventful and unchallenging.  In the four months I spent in the UK, I glutted myself on every poem, every play, every person, and every place I encountered.  Now I've come home mentally fat and sleepy, like after a big Thanksgiving dinner when all you want to do is nap in the warm haze of a full belly.  I'm left with the leftovers, memories whose flavors develop with age to be different, but still delicious.  

Yesterday, I was craving a nice poetry-sandwich, so I pulled my book of T.S. Eliot off the shelf: one of the poets who truly came to life for me last semester as I visited the places that inspired his work.  As I read his Four Quartets, crowded on the page by my enthusiastic underlinging and marginalia, I was back in that drafty church in the English countryside, reading the poem out loud with the dear friends who walked the road with me.  We laughed at the new irony of the line "If you came this way taking the route you would be likely to take" after we'd gotten terribly lost on the way to Little Gidding.  That was one of the days I almost took for granted.  It was another long ride on a coach with clashing rainbow colored seats to another literary landmark that meant getting out in the cold; we were tired and grumpy for some reason or another, maybe lack of sleep from one of those dawn deadlines for an essay.   But in that church, for me at least, the union of the poetry and the place and the people cut so deep I could feel it heavy in my gut and light in my head.

Parts of the poem rang out like a vague narration of our trip; one line specifically hung in the air like the memory of the last notes of a trumpet call: "You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity, or carry report.  You are here to kneel where prayers has been valid...Here the intersection of the timeless moment is England and nowhere.  Never and always."  It felt like our anthem.  Yes, we were students on a college semester abroad learning about literature and theatre, so of course we were verifying, instructing, informing, and reporting like crazy.  But that was not why we were there.  It was for the timeless moments like that one in Little Gidding, which will never happen again but that we will always carry and that we will return to just by opening up an old book.  

After we finished reading the poem, the group filtered out to explore the grounds, while a few of us stayed in the tiny church, touching the stained glass and kneeling at the alter, where Eliot promised that prayers had been valid.  That was one of the rare and beautiful times in my life where I prayed with every ounce of my self, but not words.  And I knew it was valid. 
We came together again to eat lunch in the main house.  It was a simple meal in a simple room: soup made from vegetables grown in the garden out back, homeade bread with butter so rich and creamy I was looking outside for the cow, fresh fruit, and a variety of cheeses.  It was all spread out on long tables where we sat on short wooden chairs, with pictures of flowers on the wall and lots of country light streaming in through the windows.  We had eaten together every day for almost three months at that point, and were far past the friendly small talk of our first jet-lagged group meal in Edinburgh.  And yet there was something different at that Little Gidding lunch.  If I had to pin down a moment, I'd say that's when I knew we were family.  It was the easy happiness of watching Ben ask sheepishly for a third helping of soup and Carrie delight in the discovery of improving her meal with crumbled crackers while Elizabeth brooded over the cheese plate; it was the fullness of looking around the room at the bright eyes and smiling faces of people who knew each other in the real way, people who learned and laughed and cried together; and it was the heavy lightness of knowing that, like all beautiful things, that this too would pass. That lunch was more than sharing a meal; it was a time of breaking bread.

The addictive element of travel is the sensation that not a moment must be wasted because there is so much to see and do and think and be, and so little time to do it.  The challenge is applying this same mentality to the normal days.  Then the real challenge is realizing that there is no such thing as a normal day.  Every moment is precious and bursting with potential, even the empty-house Mondays in Redding and the middle-of-the-week stressful days when the temptation to shift into auto-pilot is so strong and so habitual that you hardly realize you are doing it.  But stop, look around, breathe.  Thank God that there is more to see and more to learn and more to be, and that he has given us the time to do it.