We have been living in the Mess Hall at the camp for months when Christmas rolls around, and I am excited by the snow. My siblings and I are all struck silent and still by the prospect of being confined, although we don’t know to call it that. We are huddled at the top of a dirt road, safe in the Mess Hall, relieved that it is impossible to drive down to get to the main road and make the 95 minute trek to Communion. So here we are.
Trapped, but safe.
I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to be in this winter wonderland, away from the possibility that my parents will be summoned to preach or teach. I don’t want anything for Christmas except for to stay here forever, to stop driving down the hill, to never have to drive down the mountain again, for this cocooning never to end.
The Mess Hall is one large room with a concrete slab floor, and we are fortunate that there is a 1947 stone fireplace, where we can dry wet things and hang stockings. We have stockings made of felt, with felt images, pieced together by women who have been called by the Lord to work with their hands. We are told that coal or oranges are traditional gifts, relegated respectively to children who are either naughty or nice. Now that we’re living as if we belong in another century, we believe this, having almost forgotten there was ever a world before now, that we once lived on a street, with neighbors, in a house with a toilet and a shower.
The night in our bunks is cold, but we are full of hope.
“The man in the moon is watching us, Mikey.”
My brother looks at me with droopy eyes, like he’s been ordered to nod off, but refuses. I point out the window, toward the glow of the moon, noticing the pine needles strewn across the field of snow like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs, marking the way home.
“Is that God?” he asks, “Is that where God lives? Or Santa Claus?”
“God lives in Heaven,” I explain, “Santa lives at the north pole.”
“Is the north pole on earth or in heaven?
“The north pole is where the magic happens on earth. God saves his magic for after we die.”
“Are you going to die?”
I’m only four years older than he is, but I look at Mikey with maternal confidence, like I know what I’m talking about. “Santa won’t let me die tonight. But if I do, if I die before you, I will ask God to make sure Santa takes extra good care of you.”
“If God can do that, why doesn’t God just take care of us now?”
Our parents rustle in together, en route back from the outhouse.
“Lights out” our father barks, and darkness descends as if from the hand of God.
We wake up to sun reflecting on snow, the pine needles too numerous to follow in any one direction.
Underneath the stockings are four suitcases: yellow for Lori, pink for me, blue for Wendy and brown for Mikey. We will live out of these suitcases for the next ten years.
My siblings and I spent the rest of our childhoods (every weekend, most summers, and whenever we missed our ride back up the mountain) at whatever home would take us in. I learned to pack lightly, to come and go, to conform to whatever subculture I entered for the time it took to sleep and be fed, and then to leave and try not to come back too soon. I learned to be polite and ingratiating, but not get too attached. I learned what love looked like, how it manifested itself, how intimacy was expressed in so many different ways in so many different homes, but I also grew to understand that love was for the families who lived there and I was always a visitor. I learned to come and go without asking for anything, to avoid being noticed, to take what was given, whether I wanted it or not. I learned to live with disappointment, without attachment, to travel lightly and to exit quickly, before I could see the visible signs of being unwelcome. My escape hatches were pre-planned and well-rehearsed. At one home, I would jump off the garage roof to slip out the back gate onto an adjoining field. Occasionally, I slept out there on the grass.
The first man in my adult life who loved me made quesadillas with avocado in his mother’s kitchen, food he enjoyed and wanted to share with me. No one had ever done that before. The second man who loved me stocked his refrigerator with foods I liked, so when I came over, there was always something for me to eat, without asking. These were more than kind gestures. These were concrete illustrations that they wanted me in their space.
I returned their love largely because I felt claimed.
I’ve begun a meditation truth practice. For one month, I have been committing to sit with whatever truths come up about myself. This practice doesn’t require me to share these truths with anyone. If something feels relevant, I may write it down. But the practice is merely to show up and feel what comes up, without running away. Every day.
Showing up for myself has been far more difficult than manipulating exit strategies. I’ve always been ready to jump off the roof of my own life. Staying on the ground is harder.
Certainly, there are things I’ve been mindful to build, and I am proud of the home, career and relationships I have spent decades cultivating. But I am the kind of person who would rather walk than wait for a ride. I am more comfortable with physical discomfort than with nurturing, and I would rather sleep outside in the rain than ask anyone to take me in.
As T.S. Eliot reminds us, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
There is always the return.
I still find it difficult to know what foods to choose for myself, to have any idea what I want or need, to see self-nourishment or self-care as activities worthy of my time.
But I’ve come to know what is mine.
Almost a thousand years ago, Hildegard of Bingen, a visionary who worked in seclusion in a monastery rather than accept the limitations of a woman’s traditional life trajectory, reminds us, “We cannot live in a world that is not our own, a world interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.”
You cannot disown what is yours, no matter how many times you walk away. Wounds that heal still leave scars, and sometimes all we have to follow is a trail of blood. I would rather keep moving than sit around waiting to be claimed. Over and over, when things start to settle down, when I begin to feel too comfortable, I look for the exit sign.
But now, when I throw my things in a suitcase, restlessly searching for the next transition, I know how to find my way back home.