Ginger and I have spent today unpacking.
Yes, I know we’ve been in Durham for a year and a half, and in our house for over a year. But we’ve had a stack of boxes sitting in the shed in the back yard all that time waiting for us to make room: boxes of books and CDs and the stuff I have to paint with and to make cards and candles. Now things are out of the boxes. The books and such have found shelves on which to sit, but the studio/office is filled with stacks of papers and boxes of paints and paper scraps. And then there are the boxes of photographs and affirmation cards – the real treasures.
In the summer of 1983, I went to youth camp with First Baptist Richardson, thanks to my friend, Gene Wilkes, who was the Youth Minister. The first morning of camp during the Sunshine Show, which was thirty or forty-five minutes of music blared across the camp to let everyone wake up after breakfast, the kids began to gather in the worship area and several of them went to the microphones and began calling names for mail call. The cards they were handing out were “affirmation cards,” notes they wrote to one another with messages of encouragement, hope, and friendship. When I moved on the be Youth Minister at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, I took the practice with me, and then on to churches where Ginger served in Winchester and Marshfield, Massachusetts, and my last stint as the Youth Guy at First Congregational Church in Hanover.
And I think I’ve hung on to almost every last card that I received. If I don’t have them all, I have most of them. I know. I found them again today, along with stacks of pictures that flooded my mind and heart with stories and memories.
And music. Along with the pictures, I found some CDs, among which was Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends:
A time it was
It was a time
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you
When we studied the grief process during my CPE days, they told us a normal grief cycle lasts eighteen months to three years. Though we landed in Durham doing about seventy-five miles an hour, both starting work within forty-eight hours of driving into town, and finding ourselves in a place where we feel a great deal of resonance and acceptance, we left behind almost two decades of friends and memories in Massachusetts, which is where we had spent all but about three months of our married lives. Perhaps the boxes had to sit in the shed until we were ready to unpack the last — and some of the most self-defining — things we own.
I’m not sure we could have gotten to it any sooner. And we tried.
Thumbing through the pictures and affirmation cards helped me realize what has replaced the grief is gratitude. I still miss Massachusetts. This week, after reading Facebook notes about old friends heading to camp again, I still miss it. It’s not so much that the yearning for disappears as, it seems, the grief is replaced by gratitude for the tether of love and memory. In the face of the hard realities that we cannot all be together in the same place and life moves on just as we do, I find myself sitting with stacks of colored index cards and photographs that remind me there is a dimension to our existence that runs deeper or wider or higher or whatever word would describe a direction we cannot completely comprehend that lets those words and images that are now years old still have life. Real life in real time.
One of our new favorite TV shows is In Plain Sight, which centers around Mary Shannon, a US Marshall who works with the Federal Witness Protection Program. It is a show about people who have to move without being able to take their memories, or anything else for that matter, with them. A couple of weeks ago, the show ended with this paragraph of monologue that has stayed with me:
Before the Big Bang, before time itself, before matter, energy, velocity, there existed a single immeasurable state called yearning. This is the special force that on the day before there were days obliterated nothing into everything. It is the unseen strings tying planets to stars. It is the maddening want we feel from first breath to last light.
I’m grateful I am able to miss those with whom I used to share laughs and tears, meals and movies and the strange rituals of friendship. I’m grateful for the yearning to be with them again, because the creative power of that love is stronger than the grief that comes with loss, strong enough to let me unpack those memories in my new home, my new place, and begin to write new messages of love and hope to the people who surround me here.