The last few weeks have been an amalgam of emotions. I have been helping people move. In a casual sense, this is simply packing one’s belongings up and placing them in a new space. Over the course of our lifetimes, we move our belongings several times. The place we choose to live is intimate, a sanctuary perhaps, and reveals much about the things we choose to surround ourselves with. That is why the first move has been so difficult.
About five years ago, my gregarious grandmother began to exhibit strange behavior. I went to visit her and introduce her to my new addition (my dog Lucy) when I noticed how she would stray from the topic of conversation unexpectedly. She began to cry about the loss of her husband, who had died three years prior. She seemed to handle it well despite her grief, but it seemed that the foundation which had supported her strength had collapsed, tumbling beneath the weight of some fresh and enigmatic misery. After visiting the doctor, she was diagnosed with dementia. Dementia is a subtle thief. At first, she would seem disoriented and confused. She once told my mother, in a moment of clarity, that it was a great tragedy when she couldn’t trust her mind anymore. She struggled to distinguish fiction from reality, claiming that her first husband, who died nearly 35 years ago, was still alive and being unfaithful. Mental atrophy kept punishing her until she finally required daily assistance. A vacancy replaced her previous vibrancy. We were beginning to lose her, perhaps not physically but mentally. After enduring a long fight to keep her home, the family decided to move her permanently into a retirement home. As we began to clean out a lifetime of memories to prepare the home for sale, I recognized how brief life can be. The Bible says life is a vapor. Job 14:2 states:
We blossom like a flower and then wither. Like a passing shadow, we quickly disappear (New Living Translation).
Her home is full of artifacts which have taken a lifetime to accumulate, relics of a long past and of a life well-lived. But all this will pass away. The things we cling to in life will eventually suffer our absence. Either we will pass these on to others, our children will sell them to strangers, or someone will dispose of these items. We cannot hold on to these things forever. This is why the Bible suggests that we store treasures in Heaven; the brevity of our lives prevents us from keeping our possessions infinitely. So as I dig elbow-deep in my grandmother’s memories, I am reminded of my own memories of her. Pictures, spools of thread (she was a seamstress), her vast collection of frogs – all of these things are symbols to a life of laughing often and loving consistently, of laboring proudly and living faithfully.
A few days later, I found myself applying a new coat of paint to a master and guest bedroom. Our friends recently purchased their first home, and as the sun blazed down on us that summer afternoon, the humidity could not exceed the excitement and anticipation our friends felt as they moved from their apartment to the new house. There is something lovely about new beginnings in this respect. We embrace it – it’s the page of the new chapter we long to read.
It’s moments like the latter which make the former so painful to endure. We know every beginning has an end, but not everyone accepts that these ends usher in beginnings. Not everyone believes in life after death. I do, but this hope does not insulate us from the pain of loss and/or separation. There are fragments of my grandmother which are lost (in this world) forever. As I mentioned a few posts ago, homesickness is proof that we are made for another world. A sense of restlessness is easily diagnosed as an inherent desire for a world beyond ours. As I pondered the past while clearing my grandmother’s home, I thought of C.S. Lewis’s remarkable sermon The Weight of Glory and the echoes of Heaven we experience on Earth. There are moments of beauty that arrest us and transform the lens with which we view our world. As time passes, we may long for that feeling again, even returning to the place of the occurrence. Lewis warns us to prepare for disappointment; only God can satisfy these desires:
Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them, it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard , news from a country we have never yet visited…our real goal is elsewhere. (31)
Two years ago, I returned to the campus of Berea College. I spent my first two years of college there, developing personally and academically. So many memories rushed through me as I approached campus. I exited my car and walked around for a few minutes, recalling special moments with friends, of the life between classes – it was the backdrop for my bildungsroman, my coming-of-age. However, as I looked around, I saw strangers. There are new students matriculating through Berea now, new locals, new businesses.
Time is always moving. Moving denotes a sense of motion; it suggests that we are in essence always pursuing a path, even if we elect not to choose one. Neglecting to choose, you see, is a choice in itself. Every minute we are walking these paths. We experience joy and we keep moving. We also experience pain, but we keep moving. Whatever our next “move” is, we understand that we are always in motion. Beginnings lead to ends, which lead to beginnings. If we observe our world, we see how God creates and utilizes cycles – the seasons, nature, even our own lives (Shakespeare called growing old a “second childishness”). Why would God disrupt this pattern when it concerns our eternities? If the rain feeds into oceans, which later evaporates into the sky, why would we doubt that God has prepared something greater for us, the children He loves and adores? Consider the lillies??
A time will come when someone will be elbow-deep in my possessions, but one cannot dwell on such mundane realities. If life is A-Z, use B-Y to do something valuable for present and future generations. Your beneficiaries will eventually sift through your belongings, but what legacy will you leave them? Approach your life with optimism and contentment. If you have stains in your past, know that there are always opportunities for beginnings. Wake up tomorrow and strive for greatness. You’ll be moving anyway, so why not reexamine your life and aim for something extraordinary?
A wise and undeniably poignant reflection. You’ve captured what we’re experiencing as we plan our move to Alaska in a few months. A lifetime of memories to sort through, a pause, a sigh, a loss, a connection to eternity. Painful, compelling, needful. Your great prose is therapeutic and comforting. Aha–someone knows what this is like.