Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings are connected to endings, and endings to beginnings. Every time something is born, something else passes away. This past weekend, my husband Michael, and I spent our time moving to a new apartment. Our move was only one floor above, not a very big move, still it seems new and different. Since the move was so close-by, I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought about the move being much of a change other than wondering how we were going to manage to find the time to pack and then unpack with so little time left in India before we would be leaving for the summer. Nevertheless, as the opportunity to move opened and I carried box after box up the stairs, I found myself repeatedly thinking about how this phase of my life was ending–my time in the apartment with its idiosyncrasies of the toilet pipes that run and then stop running on their own, the particular scent of the rooms, the tree leaves grown thick over the window–all that was over!

One phase of my life was complete but another had begun. Sunday night we went to dinner with our friend Kamal, and her family, in celebration of her acceptance into the teaching program at a university in Calgary. To become a teacher is Kamal’s dream, and she is entering a new phase of her life as she sets off for college in a city and country unfamiliar to her now. It’s all so very exciting, but at the same time, a bit scary because of its unfamiliarity.

Since I’ve moved many times in my life, I’ve often wondered what it is like for people who stay in one location their whole lives, or for those who have rarely moved. What is it like to grow deep roots in one place? How might it change the way you see the world? Imagine having friends who have known you your whole life, who have seen you grow and change, who have watched as you developed new skills, and who were there to encourage you along the way! You would have friends you share a long history with, who know you well enough that you could sit with them in silent communion. That would be a rare gift. You would also know a landscape intimately–its myriad shades of sunlight and shadow. A good steward of the land, you would have taken care of it through all forms of weather and seasons. The land itself would your trusted friend.

That is one version of what it could be like to stay in one place your whole life. My life has not followed this path, though. Instead, I have repeatedly stepped into the unknown or semi-known. Doing this gets more challenging as you grow older and feel greater pressure to save up financial resources for the years when you will not work and yet need to go on paying for your living expenses. Adventures involve the unpredictable and the unexpected, and moving into unknown territory often is not easy, as you never feel fully settled in any one place. On the other hand, the advantage of moving frequently is that it has served as a bell that reminds me to repeatedly come back to the idea of how precious the time is in each place I live in or travel to. Often, I only have a brief time to be with old friends from my hometown each summer, or just a hand full of days with family members every few years, so those days and whatever they contain are dear.

Quite a number of years ago now I read Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, a book that helped me see the value of life of a migratory life in a new way. Chatwin explains, “As a general rule of biology, migratory species are less ‘aggressive’ than sedentary ones.

There is one obvious reason why this should be so. The migration itself, like the pilgrimage, is the hard journey: a ‘leveller’ on which the ‘fit’ survive and stragglers fall by the wayside.”

Chatwin says our “real home is not a house, but the Road, and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.” This is a terrific promotion of the value of walking, and the view of life one gains through the pace a journey takes when on foot. I’m intrigued, though, by the notion of life itself being a pilgrimage, a hard journey.  If we can recognize that those walking beside us as fellow travelers, young, old, rich, poor, of different religions and different cultures, we can learn from each other and can better understand how to find our way.

Our “way” has something to do with understanding how these mundane things of our lives, like packing up our house and moving, or walking to work or standing in line at the cafeteria, are what life is. The every day events and conversations and how we carry them out, are what make the fabric of our lives. In the commonplace of our lives lies the journey itself. It is a pilgrimage where the inner journey meets the outer that occurs whether we leave home or stay in the same place our entire lives. One reason I continue to pick the transitory life is that it forces me to continue to think about the place where the inner and outer journeys meet and to make myself take note of how I am walking.

This time of year in the world of international schools, the environment I live and work in, many people are moving away, both students and teachers. Thirteen years spent in one place, perhaps, and then that someone is gone. Last weekend, as I sat in the room with a group of friends singing, I was looking at the faces of three people I will not see again here next year, Vicky and Ron and Deanna. They are such a natural part of my world here that it is very difficult to imagine them gone. Even though we speak of it, though we have going away parties, though we talk about their plans, and look forward to them enjoying their new experiments in living, my mind goes on affirming their presence. I suppose that is because they aren’t quite gone yet, and because I know we will still be in communication after they are gone. But as Vicky says, they are “history.” Their influence on my life will no longer be the way it was. Still, the influence of their presence on my life continues. I know I have quoted Buechner several times already on these postings, but Buechner says it well, “When you remember me, it means you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. I means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.”

Good-byes are a kind of death, it is true. There are always too many things going on when they occur, and we are never quite ready for them. But they are also a beginning. The Hindus demonstrate this understanding of the cycle of life and death in their god, Shiva, who is both the creator-destroyer. The Jewish scriptures of Ecclesiastes say, “There is a time and a place for everything under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die.” The Celts in ancient Ireland began their new year in winter. For Christians, Jesus’ death brings life. In the midst of death, life is being born. When you are carrying the weight of boxes up stairs for hours on end, it’s just plain hard. Your feet get tired and your back as well. But that’s the way new things get born– step by step you carry your load to the new location and set it down. Of course, it’s always very nice when someone can help you carry the weight. We are on this road together, we can do that no matter where we are. As fellow pilgrims say on the road to Santiago de Compostela, “Buen camino,” happy travels.

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One Response to Beginnings and Endings

  1. Lisa O'Hara says:

    Anna, this is beautifully said. Much to consider–the Chatwin quotes are just perfect. Thanks for this. Love.

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