The original title for this blog post was going to be “Walking Into Heartache With Eyes Wide Open” but that was back almost a month ago when I wrote the first half.
A few times this year I have been asked to think about my expectations for this year of service. Toward the beginning, I didn’t know how to go about identifying my expectations. I knew I should try, but I didn’t know how. Really, I had to just wait and see. I had to wait until I was disappointed or upset or confused, at which point I could look back and say, “Ah, that must’ve been an area where I’d had a certain expectation that wasn’t met.” One of the only expectations that I could identify early on was more of a hope: I hoped that I wouldn’t make it out of this year unscathed. I hoped to be changed, made new, transformed; I expected to be uncomfortable, to learn some things the hard way, to experience growing pains.
At YAGM orientation we heard and reflected on (parts of) a poem called “Passover Remembered” by Alla Renee Bozarth, the full text of which can be found here: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/passover-remembered/
One part of this poem that echoes in my mind frequently is this:
Some of you will be so changed
by weathers and wanderings
that even your closest friends
will have to learn your features
as though for the first time.
Some of you will not change at all.
The first time I heard this stanza, it terrified me. All of it. The prospect of changing so much as to be unrecognizable upon my return? Terrifying and heartbreaking. The prospect of not changing at all? Terrifying and heartbreaking. There wasn’t a lot that I knew for sure but I knew that I would rather be unrecognizable when I go home than return having not changed at all. Ideally, I think, it would be somewhere in the middle.
Part of who I am is all wrapped up in who I love. Back in August, my mindset was “YES! I am READY to go and LOVE MY NEIGHBOR because that’s what GOD SAYS TO DO!” How is it possible that I did not acknowledge at that point that this was going to hurt and it was going to hurt badly? How did I not think about the fact that loving people isn’t something that you can just do for a year? Yes, sometimes a relationship will run its course in less than a year, but what about relationships that are intentionally formed to be deep and lasting? What happens when you put an end date on those relationships? How did I not recognize that in choosing to go and love some new people that I was also choosing to love and leave?
Every day, Faiza (the office administrator) leaves the office an hour or two before I do. As she packs her bag to go she says, “Well, I shall love you and leave you.” I shall love you and leave you. The leaving doesn’t diminish the love. It’s not “I love you but I’m leaving you.” It’s not “I loved you and now I don’t love you and also I’m leaving.” It’s simultaneous. I love you. I’m leaving. Fortunately, I always know that I’ll see Faiza again the next morning. But sometimes her daily comment reminds me that I too shall love and leave her and everyone else here. I don’t like being reminded of that. I don’t like being reminded that when I leave here in August, there will be a whole host of people to whom I have to say goodbye (maybe forever) and that’s heartbreaking. I don’t like being reminded that when I go home I will never be able to explain to people that I’ve been so changed simply through the experience of loving and being loved by some people in England. I will never be able to articulate what these relationships mean to me. Nobody but I will ever understand the intricacies and the nuances of the ways that I have been changed by these humans. I don’t look forward to trying to explain it.
I can’t believe I wrote these words less than a month ago. And in the 48 hours between Monday morning and Wednesday morning, I said a bunch of those goodbyes. For most of them, I didn’t even know they were goodbyes when I said them. All of that heartache that I was talking about before? It took me completely by surprise, five months early. I am at a loss trying to describe this devastation but I will try.
On Monday morning I was told, “You’re going home sometime this week.” That evening I was told, “You’ll be home by Sunday at the latest.” Sunday is a long time away from Monday. I potentially had four or five or six days to say my goodbyes and wrap up some tech things at the church so that they could carry on without me. On Tuesday, I went to work as normal, because what else could I do? I attended my last Morning Prayer without knowing it was my last. I sat in Liz’s office and drank coffee with her for the last time without knowing it was my last. I went to Dulwich Village Infants’ School for (what I actually did know was) the last time and said goodbye to the staff and students. I attended a staff meeting at the church and then went for a walk. I went over to John’s house (the vicarage) because some of the youth group girls had come over so that we could talk about the situation and so I could say my goodbyes to Lilly and Carys. I didn’t know how much longer I’d be in Dulwich but I was pretty sure this would be the last time I saw them. At about 5pm I went back over to the church to pick up my backpack and that’s when I got the email: my flight was at noon the next day. Noon. The next day.
When Faiza, Katie, and Riccardo had each left the office earlier in the day, we’d said, “Probably see you tomorrow, I hope!” I hadn’t seen Dawn in days. On Friday, I hadn’t said goodbye to the Junior Choir or the choristers or the other kids in the youth group. I realized that with the church transitioning immediately to online ministry (no public worship), two things were going to happen: first, the congregation was going to get a whole lot of mind-boggling information all at once (you can’t come to worship on Sunday, here’s a link to the Facebook page where we’ll livestream it, and also Emily has gone). Second, people who don’t have access to internet or who haven’t given St Barnabas their email address will have no idea what’s going on with any of these changes. And in five months, people are going to be wondering where I went and others will have to tell them “oh, she left without saying goodbye five months ago…” and I am incredibly upset about that.
I’m glad that I had already started doing the emotional work of acknowledging how much it was going to hurt to leave my newfound family in Dulwich. But doing that “leaving” with about 14 hours of notice was probably the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do.
I was thinking about Matthew 5:4 during my first plane ride: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I posted on social media that I was coming home not for attention but because I didn’t want to be that person who suddenly starts posting from the other side of the world with no explanation so that people will be forced to ask them about it. My friends and family have been accompanying me on this journey and it would have been unfair to exclude them (you) from this really important part of it. What I didn’t expect (and totally should have expected) was that I was going to be showered with comments and messages from people expressing how sorry they were and telling me that I can reach out if I need anything. It was honestly very overwhelming. But as I said to one of the people who’d messaged me, it’s good to remember that while I’m leaving behind friends and people who love me in Dulwich, I’m also going back to a place with so, so many friends and people who love me, and that makes it a little easier. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. I mourn. I am comforted. And I feel blessed.
One of the most incredible things about the past three days has been the support I’ve felt from the other YAGM. When this all started going down on Saturday with the news of the departure of the Madagascar cohort, I was immediately really emotional; I broke down crying as I was walking home from the Watsons’ house. It was heartbreaking to hear that a cohort was going to have to leave because I knew I wouldn’t be able to bear it if I were asked to leave early. In a flurry of messaging, I got in contact with several YAGM from different cohorts and YAGM who’d reached out to YAGM in other cohorts to find out if anyone else knew anything. Nobody did, really. But we agreed that it was horrible and that we hoped no one else had to be evacuated.
As our futures started looking more and more uncertain, more and more of us started reaching out to each other within the UK cohort and across more of the country cohorts. When the news finally broke that we’d all be going back to the US, we were there for each other. Nicki from my cohort was actually physically there in a coffee shop with me for a couple of hours, so we started to try to process what was happening. Even on Wednesday as I was sitting on the plane while passengers were still boarding, I got a message from a YAGM I haven’t spoken to since orientation. We mourn with and for each other. We comfort each other. We are blessed by each other.
In my last few days in Dulwich, I spent a lot of time with people I love. Last week, I was becoming increasingly stressed out by social media and the news of campus closures in the US and all sorts of other things so Louie (one of John’s kids) and I decided to make a trip into London to visit a museum. We wanted to take our minds off of COVID-19 and I especially wanted to stay off of social media for the better part of a day. We went on Saturday, and it was so comforting to wander the Natural History Museum, look at all the cool things that have existed in the world, and marvel at Creation. We mourned the state of the world and all of the uncertainty. We comforted each other and were comforted by dinosaur bones and sparkly rocks and vegan bacon ketchup and delicious burgers. #blessed
On Monday, after I found out that I would be leaving, I was immediately invited to both Liz’s and John’s homes. I accepted both invitations and soon found myself surrounded by people I love. I got to chat with Liz’s son, Bill, and I got to hang out with Liz’s dog, Bob. Then I got to sit in John’s living room while he, Jackie (his wife), and Liz chatted. I got lots and lots of hugs (against the current health advice, oops). I ate a meal, sat in the same places I always do, and spent time with people who comforted me greatly. On Tuesday evening, after I found out I’d be leaving in just 14 hours, we cried and we comforted each other. I went home to finish packing and then came back to the vicarage to spend the night so that we could leave for Heathrow early the next morning. And we mourned. And we comforted. And we were comforted. And in that comforting were blessings to each other.
Mourning doesn’t feel good. I wish we didn’t have a reason to be mourning. But I am grateful for the opportunity that mourning gives me to be comforted and blessed by my many communities.