August & September : Polaroids
The sting of goodbyes, softened.
Dear God, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.
— The Breton Fisherman’s Prayer, Little Prayers for Children
Our plane at 30,00 feet, photographed from below by our dear friend.
Two weeks before leaving family and friends in the UK to return to Perth I began to feel the familiar tension in my body of being caught in-between two places. Anticipating goodbyes. Leaving behind the seasons I’m used to. Preparing to bridge time zones with phone calls.
One day before leaving, a simple devotional book lay open on the breakfast table, reflecting on the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples on the road to Emmaus:
Here two disciples, confused and despondent, walk home…A stranger joins them, essential to every pilgrimage. This third pilgrim is the principle force for movement; from where I am to where I need to be...Pilgrimage is always travel from what I know towards what I have yet to learn.
Understanding my upcoming travel as a pilgrimage shifted my perspective. But, if this was the case, and we were indeed about to embark on travelling from our old selves to the new, who would the stranger be?
In July, before we left Perth for our time in the UK over summer, we had made our baby a flight logbook so that the pilots of our planes could map the nautical miles he was travelling, log the aircraft data and include a personal message to him from the flight deck, if they wanted.
During transit in Singapore, I received a message from a dear friend who had been tracking our plane using a flight tracking app. She sent me a photo of our plane passing directly over her house a few minutes after take-off. Even from 30,000 feet, as we were tiny, travelling, leaving, crying, we were seen, we were farewelled, comforted.
As miniscule as we were from earth, and as fast away as we were moving, a loved one was still waving.
The pilot of our second flight boldly wrote the words of Psalm 139 in our son’s logbook:
If I ride the morning winds to the farthest ocean,
even there you hand will guide me, your strength will support me.
In the pilgrimage, love found us.
Whatever we think about Queen Elizabeth II we can agree that she was human, like us in some ways, very unlike us in others. Maybe we can agree that she was myriad shades—like us— of the miraculous and fallen, the exceptional and the inexcusable, brilliant light and secret shadows. Perhaps we are all ‘glorious ruins’ as Francis Schaeffer once said.
‘Grief is the price we pay for love,’ the Queen reflected as her words were read at the prayer service in St Thomas church, New York following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Most of us have, or will, experience this to be true. These past few weeks my ‘goodbyes’ have trembled with both the fullness of love and the questions of grief. After living through strict border controls, my mind is trapped by my own worries: When will we return again? What will stop us next time? When will my son next see his family? How will my parents age?
C.S. Lewis drew a parallel between the duty of a monarch and the lifework of each of us. He wrote to his friend about the Queen’s coronation day, “The pressing of that huge, heavy crown on that small, young head becomes a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself: humanity called by God to be his vice-regent and high priest on earth yet feeling so inadequate. As if he said, “In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are, glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding.”
Each of us may be asked to respond to a call that, perhaps, we did not imagine, or wish for. I didn’t ask for a chronic illness to invade my body. I didn’t imagine having to grieve the death of friends who died young.
Maybe each of us are witness to glories and dangers beyond our understanding. Maybe we must practice saying goodbyes to something else we had imagined.
Queen Elizabeth II’s reign began and ended with a rainbow set against dark skies. Ancient scriptures say that rainbows are a reminder of humanity’s inadequacy and heaven’s hope.
We are only made from dust, carrying heavy crowns.
Memory is tied to many things – our language, our objects, our senses, our cultural frameworks and much more. For two and a half years a shoebox of my field notebooks, journals and letters, was thousands of miles away.
My memories somehow grew textures and sounds again when I could read through old books and journals stored in my parent’s attic in the UK. Mirrored back to me, were moments I had forgotten, like light shining through water droplets.
Kenyan author, Ngugi Wa’Thiongo writes, “Language is the collective memory bank of a people’s experience in history,” he writes in service of his own mother tongue: Kikuyu. “Words are the food, body, mirror, and sound of thought. Do you now see the danger of words that want to come out but are unable to do so?”
Making a connection between the safety of home and the harm of cultural and colonial control, Wa’Thiongo explains that language sustains our freedom,
“A house which does not have a way that links to other homes would no longer be a home. One of the most serious things that can happen to a homestead is when the way in or out…is controlled by another. If we think of colonialism as a whole process of alienation…we can argue that the most serious was alienation from the cultural environment. It is what tells people who they are. To alienate a people from their way is to deprive people their way of connecting to the world. The way [in and out] is carried by language.”
Language is a map to help us remember who we are. Language helps us retrace and remember what has been lost. Language gives us freedom.
Language also influences our vision—quite literally—it changes the way we see the colours refracted in a spectrum of light. How see colour depends on what language we speak and the culture through which we view the world.*
Maybe, wherever we are, like a rainbow spanning a mournful sky, language can span our untouchable grief.
You watched from your pram as I swept around a stack of bamboo fencing a roll of artificial turf and a pair of hedge clippers, leaning against the wall. A trail of mouse-chewed shreds circled the concrete between the machines, dormant during winter. I lifted the clutter and stooped to find a congregation, a home made from scraps of the worst of us; twisted wire and mown grass and the cardboard case of a lithium battery a tag reading save our forests printed on plastic. Hollowed-out snail shells tinkled spectacularly along the ground as they rolled then crunched under my feet. Could we co-exist together with no harm done? But my decision is made when I see scraps scattered on the kitchen floor. If my home was a field it could stay, so why on earth is my home not a field? I knotted the nest— without its architect— inside a compostable bag and it swung, a hammock in my hand. May you find a meadow and live long, I hoped. You were suddenly still as I lowered the bag into the darkness, of the wheelie bin, guilt knotting my stomach. All that I had destroyed with my own hands you watched disappear. Your brown eyes creased in the light as I lifted you from your pram, aching May you find a meadow and live long.
*Some of you might know that I am writing a book about sight and splendor and suffering. Why do we look? How do we see? What shapes our vision? are all central questions to the book. Over the coming months I’ll be sharing some more in-depth essays exploring some themes from the project. The first is called Watching War: How can we look - or should we - when the war is not our own? The tone is a little different from the polaroid diaries, which I’ll continue to write every two months, so let me know what you think!