It’s a Matter of Words

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Who said that Britain and America were “two countries separated by a common language”?   Was it a)Winston Churchill?  b)George Bernard Shaw?  c)Oscar Wilde?  d)Bill Bryson??  Whoever said it, it’s a great quote that highlights a great truth, as anybody who has ever had to learn more than one version of the English language will know.

My own adventures with my native tongue began in earnest with a simple request for a glass of “ice water” at a coffee shop in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

“What’s that?” asked the waitress.

” A glass of ice water,” I repeated, thinking she hadn’t heard me clearly.

Still puzzled, she said, “Is that on the menu?”

“No,” I laughed, “Water!  You know, it comes out of a faucet.”  Which only confused things further as faucets don’t exist outside of America, only taps.  I had never felt so helpless at explaining myself.

Eventually, I got my glass of “ice watter”, but only after spelling it and re-pronouncing it correctly, “wah-tuh.”  I might as well have been speaking an entirely different language.

Since then, my years in South Africa and England have taught me all kinds of new words and exotic ways of saying or spelling old words.  In South Africa, I stopped at “robots”, not traffic lights, and quickly found out that wearing a “costume” to the beach did not mean dressing up for Halloween, but putting on a bathing suit.  In England, car hoods and trunks became bonnets and boots (something to do with Queen Victoria?), cookies turned into biscuits, dessert was pudding, and some words were just irreplaceable, like cheeky, dodgy, roundabout, and lollipop ladies (the lemon-coated ladies who help schoolchildren cross the street by holding up a gigantic lollipop–by far, my favorite/or is it favourite).

I also learned there were words you do not say.  The first time Chris and I hosted his parents for dinner in our South African honeymoon cottage, I responded blithely to their kind offer to help wash up with, “Oh, don’t worry, the brownies will do it!”  I meant the fairies, but their raised eyebrows quickly taught me that old girl scout phrase just wouldn’t go down in post-apartheid South Africa!

Nowadays, language seems to get us in more trouble than expand our understanding of cultural differences.  We have to tiptoe around ethnic and gender name labels as if they were land mines.  It can get really complicated.  An Indian is from India and should not be confused with a Native American.  This came home to me in my own country in a surreal way almost thirty years ago.  I was asked to do some dramatic readings at a church women’s event.  Somewhere along the way, I understood the theme to be an Indian one.  So, I found some interesting tales of tigers and Indian princesses and showed up in the beautiful sari I had recently brought back from my first visit to Durban.  I was alarmed to find everyone else dressed up for a Western hoedown.

“Oh dear,” I apologised to the head gal in her cute cowgirl boots.  “I guess I’m your token Indian.”

Fortunately, she thought the whole misunderstanding was hilarious.  Looking back on it now, it seems even more appallingly funny to me in an era when it’s deemed offensive to wear someone else’s national dress.  I was neither Indian nor a “token” anything else.

Language connects as well as confuses.  I think I know what a glass of ice water should mean to someone who speaks English until I am met by a blank stare.  Suddenly, I am no longer in my own country, but lost in a sea of assumptions.  I assume communicating my desires will get me what I want.  If I joke about brownies cleaning up my kitchen, I assume my in-laws will envision fairy wings, not hard-working African maids.  Language is all about the assumption that if two people found themselves stranded on a desert island together, the most important discovery between them would be that they spoke the same language.

But language is a shifting kaleidoscope.  What I assume my words mean within my own context, are up for grabs in someone else’s.  When you make that shift, all different kinds of colours and shapes appear.  You begin to realise, for the first time maybe, that words have a far greater meaning and impact beyond your own version of them.  Words that are not taken for granted any longer expand your horizon when you learn to understand them from a different perspective.

I am a lover of words.  Without words, there are no stories.  All words have hidden meanings, and sometimes the stories are in what is hidden.  Listening becomes the key.  If I only listen to my own interpretation of what is being said, I can easily miss the fact that an entirely different meaning is being conveyed.

Children make a game out of this called “Telephone” in America and “Chinese Whispers” in England.  It involves a large group of people passing on a secret message by whispering it into the ear of the person next to them.  As the message gets passed on, the assumption is that mistakes will be made in the listening so that the last person to receive it will come out with an entirely different, and supposedly hilarious, version of the original.

Ian tried teaching English by using this game with a class of Japanese students in Tokyo.  They couldn’t understand that it was meant to be funny.  They took it as a serious listening challenge and kept passing the words back to make sure they were getting it right.  When the last person got it, they all cheered at their success.  Listening had become a team effort.

I have to ask myself, how often do I listen that way?  Words can be exchanged like small gifts in so many different ways.  “Is this what you meant?”  “Can you show me?”  “I don’t understand, but I really want to try.”  They show people they matter.

So, who said the English and the Americans were “two countries separated by a common language”?  The right answer is nobody actually knows for sure.  It’s not a documented fact.  The answer lies somewhere in the vast ocean of words between us.

 

 

 

On Pilgrimage

Are you a pilgrim or a tourist?  It’s not something I ever thought about until I went on pilgrimage to Israel earlier this month.  I went because I wanted to see the places where Jesus lived and walked,  to experience firsthand the physical nature of his life and environment.  It was a common desire expressed by many of the fifty-one of us travelling with the joint organisational team of Westmont College and Footstep Ministries.  Not one of us said anything about wanting to be a pilgrim.  Yet, the first thing our leader, David Sparks, said to us was “We are pilgrims, not tourists.”

So, what is a pilgrim?  My only encounter with pilgrims throughout my youth was a bunch of somberly clad people in tall, funny hats who showed up once a year with some Indians around the Thanksgiving table.  It wasn’t until I discovered John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that I began to have a different picture of the word.  The pilgrim is Everyman on the journey of life.  For the Christian, this is a journey of faith that begins at the Cross.  It’s not a word that appears in the Bible.  But when Jesus sent out his disciples, he told them to “take no bag for the journey.” (Matt. 10:10).  Tourists require baggage; pilgrims don’t.  To be a pilgrim is to be unencumbered.  The first thing that happens to Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress is the jettisoning of his baggage, his burden, when confronted by the Cross.   Still, I have never really thought of myself as being a pilgrim.  If the Christian life is a pilgrimage, then just about everyone in the Bible who followed God’s commands was a pilgrim.  Even Jesus.  The whole Bible is about pilgrimage, the long journey from the Garden of Eden to the Garden Tomb.  Life for the believer is all about that journey, joining the ongoing stream of committed travellers throughout the ages, and sticking with it no matter how dark and difficult the road becomes.  So, the first thing I do is look at my enormous suitcase and think, “I travel with far too much stuff.  Unburden me, Lord.”

We can be single tourists, but we are not meant to be solitary pilgrims.   Our group quickly became a community as we sang and prayed daily together.  We were a mix of all ages, families and singles, with international backgrounds that included Costa Rica, Egypt, Great Britain, Poland, and South Africa as well as the U.S.  “…all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honour the name of the Lord,” prophesied Jeremiah 3:16.  The real beginning of our “all nations” pilgrimage for me, however, happened in a boat as we crossed the Sea of Galilee.  It was our second day and the Fourth of July.   Without any announcement, the American flag was immediately hoisted as we set sail and the National Anthem had us springing to our feet with hands across our hearts.  So, there waved our star spangled banner next to the blue and white Star of David over the waters where Jesus walked.  What an incredible way to celebrate the birth of a nation!  But it was more than just a heartfelt patriotic moment.  It was about being a people, leaving one shore to reach another, the Children of Israel crossing through the Red Sea, the Mayflower Pilgrims crossing the Atlantic, the countless numbers who have and still are climbing into boats in search of new birth.  Jesus knows our crossings, our yearning for safe havens.  He knows the waters and He calms the storms.  This is where new birth begins, launching out upon the waters of pilgrimage and baptism.  Our Fourth of July began on the waters of Galilee, but ended up in the waters of the Jordan.  We were baptised at the end of our travels that day, one tribe among many nations, all making the journey to Jordan.  The heat was intense (in the 100’s!), so the water was cooling, refreshing, restorative.  Nobody got out.  One by one, we came up from the water in our dripping white robes and sat down together in the Jordan River until every pilgrim had been immersed.   It wasn’t planned.  When you’re in the spirit of pilgrimage, community happens.

God knew that when He called His people to Jerusalem.  They were to come on pilgrimage three times a year (Deut. 16:16) to worship in His Temple.   They still come, only the Temple is no longer there.  All that remains is a wall.  So, they come to the Wall to pray, not to the wall, but through it to where the Temple once stood.  I didn’t expect to be allowed access, but all are invited to come and leave their prayers wedged inside the cracks.  It is a symbolic act for the Christian because Christ, the Lamb of God, has replaced the Temple with his own body and blood.  There is no wall between us and the courts of heaven.   We are called to come daily into His presence whether in Jerusalem or the farthest depths of the earth.  Those who have rejected Christ weep at the Wall for what they have lost; as Christian pilgrims, we rejoice in the love of our Saviour.

I came unprepared for the beauty of Jerusalem.  It is a gleaming oasis surrounded by desert, a former kingdom whose elephant in the room is Palestine.  No wonder Jesus wept over this city.  He foresaw her destruction, the hatred of her people and the walls of division.   My pilgrim heart is saddened as much as it is opened to a profound love for this sacred land as I learn of the suffering that still goes on here in the midst of such beauty and abundance.  A tourist moves unaltered from place to place, but a pilgrim is changed.

What should my response be?  What kind of pilgrim am I?  God’s command to His people coming to Jerusalem was “No man should appear before the Lord empty-handed:  Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.”  (Deut. 16:16, 17)   My response then is this–May I continue to journey as a pilgrim in this life, not a mere tourist, that I may not come before the Lord God empty-handed.  Trim me of the burden of excess baggage and fill these hands instead with gifts worthy of Your blessing.

 

 

Florence–A Room with a View

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The English have had an undying love affair with Italy for centuries, and in particular, Florence.  They are drawn to its warmth, the golden hues of its palazzos and countryside, and the culture and easy charm of the people who know how to savour life like a fine wine.  But there’s also something transformative about Italy that changes one’s perspective.  One of my favourite authors, E.M. Forster, describes this transformation so deftly in A Room with a View when Lucy Honeychurch comes back from Florence and tells her emotionally repressed fiancee, Cecil Vyse (such perfect names!), that she thinks of him as always being in a room, but one with no view.  In Florence, she’s given a room with a view, literally as well as figuratively through her encounter with George Emerson, a man who is unafraid to love her.

I first went to Florence on a high school tour in the summer of 1973.  I was sixteen years old, experiencing Europe for the first time, and rather overwhelmed by it all.  How do you even begin to take it all in at that age when your world has been so small in comparison?  What I remember most vividly about our brief stop in Florence was this iconic view of the city and its magnificent domed cathedral while eating watermelon at the top of the Piazza Michelangelo.  Forty-four years later, I am seeing it for the second time, and proud to say I hiked up there!  I was disappointed that the watermelon stand was gone.  Now, there are hordes of tourists up there, hundreds with their selfie sticks, and kiosks selling souvenirs and lukewarm drinks at inflated prices.   We escaped the sunset crowd by climbing further up the hillside to San Miniato, a medieval church and monastery that sells its own honey and homemade peach preserves from a little shop tucked underneath a bower of jasmine.  The tourists may have taken over Florence, but the views are still astounding.  It is a view that follows the Arno down through the centuries and expands in so many ways.  This city, above all others, reminds me how much love opens the window of our souls.  Not in a romantic cliche kind of way, but love that is sacrificial, life-giving, extravagant beyond all reason.

At the heart of Florence, of course, is the Renaissance.  People come to see what lies at the centre of the view, when artists like Michelangelo and Botticelli strove to define both the human and the divine through sculpture and painting, and an architect named Brunelleschi designed the greatest of Europe’s cathedral domes, called simply The Duomo.  When Michelangelo sculpted the David,  he was only in his twenties.  He took an abandoned block of marble which had been partially carved then rejected as inferior, and he loved it.  He gave himself to it, chiselling such beauty and perfection into it that no one who sees it can doubt the mastery of its creator.  There are imitations of it everywhere in the world so that it has sadly lost its mystery.  Love has many counterfeits that obscure one’s view without knowing it.  Until you see the real thing and understand the difference.

For me, though, the view of the David was not complete without seeing Michelangelo’s unfinished Nicodemus Pieta displayed in its own room in the Opera Museo opposite the Duomo.  Now a museum, it was once Michelangelo’s workshop.  There are no great crowds there, and yet I found it the most moving of his works.  It was carved when he was old and nearing death and he meant for it to be placed on his own tomb.  The figure of Nicodemus bears Michelangelo’s own face looking down on the body of Christ being held in Mary’s arms.  It was meant to reflect his love for Christ which had come to mean everything to him at the end of his life.  In frustration, whether through diminished ability or his own spiritual conflict reconciling his love of art with love of his Saviour, he gave up on it and even tried to destroy it.  In one of his many sonnets, On the Brink of Death, which is written on a gold plate opposite the statue, he wrote these words:

“…finally I see how wrong the fond illusion was that made art my idol and my King,               Leading me to want what harmed me

“…Let neither painting nor carving any longer calm my soul turned to that divine Love         Who to embrace us opened His arms upon the cross.”

Love is a room with a view that allows us to see not only beyond ourselves, but the light that exists behind it all.  Love always opens us up to see beyond the counterfeit to what is real.  We are all that half-chiselled block of marble in need of a master who knows what we are capable of becoming.  The love of Christ is so profound in His understanding of us that in the end, not even Michelangelo could portray it.  He could only worship and love back.  It is an extravagant love, costly beyond all measure.  No one could make it up.  The greatest artists in history could only try to imitate it.   The view is meant to stretch to eternity.

I wonder what 21st century creations are being made to stretch that far?  How has so much passion and glory and awe been lost in what is created and built today to reflect that extravagance?  Perhaps, instead of asking for a room with a view, we settle for the gilt trappings instead.  On another hilltop outside Florence is the small town of Fiesole.  There is an old Franciscan monastery there founded after the Order of St. Francis of Assisi, a young nobleman who gave up his wealth to serve God.  You can see the tiny rooms where the monks used to sleep and the beautiful little church and garden where they still worship today.  There is a simple peace and quiet about the place.  But the view takes your breath away.  You can see all of Florence with its red-tiled roofs and the Duomo rising up towards heaven in the centre of this ethereal city.  Beyond the city are the Tuscan hills which embrace her, covered in a lush paradise of vineyards and olive groves.  It is an eternal view that begins with a garden and ends with a city, stretching through the extravagance of love.

Is it possible to both create and love the Creator?  Did Michelangelo feel he couldn’t do both, that the eternal view didn’t stretch that far?  I think St. Francis put it best,

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is sadness, joy; where there is darkness, light.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; not so much to be understood, as to understand; not so much to be loved, as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Rendezvous at The Wolseley

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April 29, 1989–  That cake!  Those glasses!

There’s something thrilling about having a secret anniversary rendezvous with your husband.  After all, why can’t Same Time Next Year be about a love affair that started twenty-eight years ago with the man you married?  Too much change, too little mystery?  Here is how you arrange it:

  1.  The Setting and How to Get There— It can’t be anywhere too close to home.  This is vital because you can’t run into people you know, so you have to make an effort to get there.  It has to be in a big city preferably.  London is ideal,  you melt unnoticed into the crowd, and you have to go there by train.  All great love affairs involve trains–cue Rachmaninoff theme from Brief Encounter.  The vastness of train stations, the architectural grandeur where the glories of the past meet the present, the adrenaline rush of departure and arrival are essential elements of the bygone era of romance that must accompany your journey.  You cannot imbibe this kind of emotion sitting in your car on the M25 or jumping through security hoops at airports.  Sadly, the Casablanca days of  “Here’s looking at you kid” and prop planes whirring in the background are gone forever.
  2.     A Bit of History—  “We’ll always have Paris” adds another emotional aspect–the    importance of history in your relationship.  When I arrive at King’s Cross Station, alone, I am one of thousands of unnoticed faces and unknown lives surging in all directions.  But London is no longer a city that overwhelms and bewilders me as it did over twenty years ago when Chris and I first lived here.  We have a history here together in this larger than life city.  We only lived in London two years, Chris was involved in a stressful research project and I was pregnant and nauseous half that time, so it was hardly a romantic, starry-eyed history.   But we lived in the centre of Bloomsbury at the William Goodenough House, a residence for post graduate students from around the world.  Our London was a colourful United Nations of doctors, musicians, academics and theologians studying and playing together as a unique international community.  We were happy living there.  Other people like us, far away from home, were also having babies.  Everything was new and exciting from the latest baby to Chinese New Year celebrations to royal visits.  We learned the meaning of Commonwealth, of shared values and language while embracing each other’s cultural differences.  That was twenty years ago, but the London of those Goodenough years will always be the London I love best, where we started fresh, began our family, and encountered the world together.   There are bridges here.
  3.   Be On Time–As I thread my way through the underground, a stranger among strangers,  the names of the tube stops have a comfortable familiarity about them—Russell Square, Holborn, Covent Garden, Piccadilly…  It’s important to know where you’re going.  Getting lost is not an option.   Do not be late.  It only creates anxiety.  You end up spending those precious first moments of meeting with frantic excuses.  I get off at Green Park and am swept along in a sea of anonymity as I look for an opening to cross Piccadilly Street.  The Wolseley is on the opposite corner from The Ritz.  I see Chris through the blur of faces.  He is standing just outside the grand Art Deco entrance with his back to the wall, looking in the opposite direction.  He isn’t looking at his phone; he is looking for me.  After twenty-eight years, he still watches for me, and I fall in love with him all over again.  I see him again for the first time the way I did on top of the Ubombo hills in Northern Zululand, a young doctor who loved Africa and flying and was gifted with healing hands.  I never tire of his profile, of the way he enters a room, of his stillness in the midst of a jostling crowd.  There is much to learn from observing how someone waits for you.  I sneak up on him.  We are surrounded by hundreds of people, traffic, and city noise, and yet, we are deliciously alone.  He smiles and kisses me.  It is 5:30.  We are exactly on time.
  4.   The Venue—And so we go inside.  The Wolseley was originally built as a showroom for The Wolseley Car Company, but it’s hard to believe that its double-story ceiling, marble interior and linen-clad tables set amidst white columns was ever intended to be anything but the perfect place for a high tea rendezvous with your lover.  I wish I could have worn a jauntily angled little hat, long white gloves and pearls.  But no matter.  We are still treated by our impeccable waiters as if we’re Lady Mary and one of her dashing amours escaping from the confines of Downton Abbey.  We order the champagne tea, of course.  Twenty-eight years ago, we uncorked our first bottle of champagne in the limo on the way to the reception.  Champagne is an essential.  Just nothing else will do.  Ever.  We clink glasses.  Cheers, my darling.  Perfectly chilled!  I am in heaven!  Soon, our three-tiered silver tea stand arrives with freshly cut sandwiches on the bottom, hot scones to follow under the domed top, and exquisite mouth-watering little cakes and pastries causing a mini sensation in the eye-level middle.   Our wedding cake itself was a sensation, a tiered extravaganza of cake and cream and strawberries a la American style.  I am still in love with cake, and the man who loves it with me.  The Earl Grey leaf tea is steaming  in its silver pot and we sip it slowly, not wanting this sumptuous feast to end.  But it’s a moveable feast, one that began so many years ago.  It is a feast that changes, of course, as we have and do.  But it continues.  After all, that’s what a rendezvous is for.

A recent article in the New York Times (“To Stay Married, Embrace Change”, April 29-May 1, 2017, International Edition) stated that change is inevitable in any marriage, and learning to adapt to different versions of your spouse is key to an enduring relationship.  The author said she became concerned when she and her husband transitioned from being an urban couple to a domestic country-life couple.  The fact that her husband was able to frisbee a plastic bowl across the room and land it on top of a fleeing rodent renewed her admiration and respect.  Seriously?  My husband once took hold of the back end of a giant python as it tried to escape down its hole in the African bush.  Even our children were impressed by that one!  He doesn’t play tug-of-war with pythons anymore.  He just eradicates giant spiders instead.  We all change.  Life changes us, for good or bad.  I’m not sure that the ability to land a rodent with a fling of the wrist signals anything much.  Chris and I have experienced a lifetime of change together, leaving behind family, home, and countries.  You have to learn to meet change halfway.  It’s like getting on a train and travelling through time and space to a large, bewildering city in search of that one familiar beloved face and finding it waiting for you outside The Wolseley.  Then, you go in–together.

 

 

In Search of Bluebells

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One of the constant delights for me about living in England are the hidden treasures one can regularly discover here.  There are no blaring billboards to direct you every five miles as to where they are, so I often get lost in pursuit of them.  But I don’t mind getting lost because that’s often when I discover such treasures.

It usually involves a sudden twist in the path, and there it is–something that catches your breath, makes you gasp out loud, “Oh, look!”  It often happens in a garden with an unexpected herbaceous border bursting gloriously full of colour as you come around a high hedge.  Or else, it’s a stunning vista, discovered by taking an untrodden path instead of the main road.  Sometimes, it’s just a moment when you are looking up at the sky perhaps, and a swan comes gliding in over the river, the water tinged with gold from the sun on a silky summer evening that seems eternal.

This week I discovered bluebells in Gransden Wood, not far from Cambridge.  I had heard of this spring phenomenon and seen many pictures of them.  After living in this country for over twenty years, I had never seen them.  But then, I didn’t go looking.  My friend Caro suggested the walk and I eagerly agreed.  The best discoveries are always made either alone or with just one other person, never a crowd.  She took me along a country path until we reached one of those nearly invisible passageways at the edge of the woods that only local people use.  In an instant, we were in fairyland.  Swathes of bluebells stretched across the woodland floor for as far as we could see.  It wasn’t just a patch here and there.  It was an entire sea of blue and green undulating waves throughout the trees.  So much beauty and majesty, and we had it all to ourselves!  Or, so we thought.

Suddenly, out of the blue, quite literally, a big wet dog bounded towards us.  Like most bounding wet dogs headed your way, the intention is to eagerly shower you with a vigorous shake and greet.

“Whoa!  Somebody’s been in the water,” I said, preparing to dive off into the bluebells.

“So have I!” answered the smiling boy in dark glasses who was following him with a long white stick.  He was blind and was accompanied by his mother.  The dog didn’t shake after all, but on hearing the boy’s voice, obediently stopped and waited for him.

It was an extraordinary encounter, this heavenly vision of blue all around us, and a young boy’s inability to see it.  Yet, the joy on his face was unmistakable.  He was experiencing what was hidden from him in other ways.  He could still feel the warmth of the sun filtering through the tree canopy and the wetness of his dog from playing in the stream.  He could no doubt hear the woodland birds calling to each other and smell the spring scent of earth and wildflower.

How much remains hidden from us just because we can’t see a thing clearly?  We can’t see beyond our troubles and difficulties, and so we give up on joy altogether.

Today is Good Friday and I am struck by the “hiddenness” of Easter Sunday from Jesus’ disciples.  Jesus’ body was hidden and sealed away in a garden tomb while the disciples themselves hid away in despair in a locked room.  As far as they were concerned, it was over.  The joy of what they had in Christ was gone and there was no future.  Even when the seal was broken and the tomb nothing but an empty, gaping hole, nobody knew what to think because nobody was looking, nobody had listened.

What does your heart search for?  Like the disciples, I search too much for what I’ve lost and what is past.  I need this “hidden” message of Easter–“Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!”

The hidden joys of nature continually point me towards resurrection.  Keep looking…

“I once was lost, but now am found;

Was blind, but now I see.”

 

From LaLaLand to LammasLand

img_0411Have you ever had the same bewildering, heartstopping LaLaLand moment when you thought your life was about one script, only to find it was about another?  The disastrous finale to this year’s Oscar night just gave me another reason to love LaLaLand.  It’s a film about dreams, after all, those that come true and those that don’t.  It doesn’t matter that it didn’t win Best Picture in the end; it’s a film that outshines, regardless, and will become a classic everyone remembers.

Here in EngLand, the Brits somehow don’t get LaLaLand.  They think it’s overrated and don’t understand what all the hype is about.  One reviewer called it “banal.”  Banal?  I guess they didn’t grow up on the LA freeway like I did and think turning all that traffic into  a song and dance number was the most joyous opening scene in movie history.  Was I the only one out there who wanted to get up on my seat and dance on top of the cars with them? (I even applauded at the end and said out loud, “Yes!” to a packed cinema—oooh!)  I suppose they never went to the planetarium at Griffith’s Observatory as a schoolchild, either, and sat gazing up at a curved ceiling full of stars.  Maybe they didn’t have a grandmother like mine who took me to old movie houses on the LA city bus just because it was a different kind of thing to do.

I had a magical LA childhood, and that is the nostalgic pull of LaLaLand for me.  Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music were my LaLaLand and I dreamed of Julie Andrews and becoming part of the magic (even though I couldn’t sing).   My grandmother even arranged for me to meet a Hollywood agent who suggested I come back when my teeth were sorted out.  My front teeth came in crooked which meant braces, and then we moved to Michigan.  Bye bye, LaLaLand.

But I moved back, and so did my dream.  I pursued it, the endless auditions and casting calls in which I was just another face in the crowd.  The magic didn’t last, though, and neither did my dream.  It’s not the lost dream that haunts me, but the lost magic.  In LaLaLand, the bright, vivid colours, songs and dancing among the stars are not a response to dreams being fulfilled, but to falling in love while in pursuit of them.  As soon as the lovers in the story go their separate ways, the colours fade.  By the end, she is dressed in black, the color of mourning.  Her dreams of success, although now fulfilled, re-emerge in a brilliantly colourful alternative dream sequence with the love she gave up and lost.  The magic was never in the dream, but in discovering love.

Certain people create magic in our lives just because of how they love us.  My grandparents were such people.  My Southern grandmother with her “Hey Sugah!” accent took me to the movies on a bus and made it an adventure.  My Wisconsin grandfather and I made up stories together.  He smelled of cigars and rural manhood, a past world that only ever existed when I was sitting on his lap and learning where stories came from.  We all need and long for that kind of magic, not just when we are very young, but throughout our entire lives.  It’s why we go to the movies, after all.  We never outgrow the love of stories that color our world and take us somewhere beyond the ceiling of stars.

I left LA a second time in search of a new script for my life.  It eventually took me to ZuluLand and now I live near a place called LammasLand.  It’s a green country park in the middle of Cambridge in which cows sometimes graze next to the River Cam.  There’s a huge children’s playground along with an equally vast paddling pool which is a major attraction during the summer months.  My children grew up playing there along with frequent picnics.  It’s the first place we go with any visiting friends who have small children.

Now, of course, our LammasLand children have ironically flown off to LaLaLand to seek their dreams.  What stories will further script their lives remains to be seen.  I find myself dreaming of beach walking in winter, the coastal drive to Santa Barbara, blue skies and strawberry fields, horseback riding in dusty foothills washed emerald green overnight by rain, and I long for home.  LammasLand is a long way from LaLaLand.  It was never part of the script, but that is the story of my life.  I look back more and more at where I came from and can only be grateful for the journey.  Who knows where it will lead next?  The magic of stories will always be important for me.  I will always be a LaLaLand girl.

 

What is Your Mountain? –A Death in Cambridge

In Cambridge this past week on the 21st January, friends of ours buried their 22-year old son. He was descending from a mountain summit in Norway on New Year’s Day, lost his footing, and fell to his death. His funeral was attended by hundreds of the best of both Cambridge and Oxford, where he had finished with a first in history only last year, bringing together a unique mix of people to mourn the loss of a brilliant young man who had a passion for mountains. His greatest achievement was being part of the 2016 Oxford team who retraced the historic 1923 Spitsbergen exhibition to an unexplored part of the Arctic. He dreamed of being an explorer in an age where it would seem there is little left unexplored on this planet.

Yet, as long as there are mountains and those who are drawn to them, there will be explorers. The phrase “because they are there” seems to be a uniquely Western concept. Westerners are a restless, inquisitive lot, seduced not so much by “because they are there,” but “because we can.” Westerners have a long history of striving to conquer the unknown, not just externally, but within, to live at the outposts of one’s dreams and prove we are capable of doing so. The mountain of achievement is huge in the Western mindset. We throw ourselves at it in so many ways. Some of us get to bask in the light and rarefied air of the pinnacle, having reached the summit through much hard effort and perseverance. Most of us are happy just to get to base camp.

But there are others who in the past have regarded the mountain as unapproachable. The Maori people, for example, don’t go “trekking.” The mountain is tapu, sacred, and who are they to challenge it?  Likewise, when God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai, fire and smoke surrounded the mountain and the Israelites stood back in fear and trembling. They were a sinful people, unfit to enter the presence of a holy God on His mountain.

Many people believe God is still up on that mountain, remote, forbidding, and angry. But He came down to us in the person of Jesus Christ and gathered those who would follow Him on the side of another mountain. There would no longer be a barrier between God and His people.

“Blessed are those who mourn,” he told them, “for they will be comforted.”

What is your mountain? It could be grief, defeat, discouragement, or even pride. Something so solid and implacable, you can’t even begin to climb it.  But Jesus also told his followers that even if their faith was as small as a mustard seed, they could not only take on the mountain, but move it because with even the smallest seed of faith, “nothing is impossible.”

What is your mountain in 2017?

My year has started out with the death of a young man living on the glorious brink of a promising life. It has rocked the community in which I live so that the inauguration of a new American president went by unnoticed and unremarked. And yet, in the same week, I was reminded of a different kind of American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his last speech before he was assassinated said,

“We got some difficult days ahead…But…I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve seen the Promised Land…I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Dr. King scaled the mountain of fear and hatred, leading his country with him, because of where his eyes were fixed. He was a weak, and ultimately mortal man, who gave his mountain over to God in faith. And God moved it.

What is your mountain? If you are having difficulty climbing it, take time to consider. You may think your faith is inadequate, or even non-existent, but all that is required is a seed. In the midst of tragedy, I am encouraged by the coming together of so many people here in Cambridge to love, support, and pray for this family. A seed has been planted in the sorrow and anguish, and I am watching it slowly take root. Faith doesn’t flourish on its own. It needs community to nurture and strengthen it.  The loss of a child, a life, is irreplaceable.  But it is still possible to reach the mountaintop, to grasp hold of the promises of God, and to dwell in a place where those who mourn are comforted.

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