April 11, 2006

40: Incense and willow

I went to church Sunday morning without showering, in my t-shirt and jeans and hiking boots, thinking it would be just the four of us like last night. Of course it wasn’t—there was a full congregation in their Sunday clothes, looking at me I felt a bit askance. I determined not to think about it, that this would be one more instance of grace given me on this trip, if reluctantly given on their part.

The church filled with the musky sweetness of incense, thick fragrance pouring out of the Abbot’s swinging censer, overwhelming the small space. I thought I might throw up, and decided instead to try to drink it in like the grace I desperately needed. Dom Andrew spoke on patience and trust. During prayers, the Abbot repeated, “Lord hear us” and we all replied, “Lord, graciously hear us.” It was just what I needed to pray.

I had woken up sick again. Actually, I woke to a noise in the middle of the night—someone going down the hall to the bathroom. I was jarred by the realization that there was no lock on my door and turned on my light for a minute although I knew that would push me into waking. Everything was more awful and terrible and wonderful then, all of my certainty and uncertainty about Jack. For hours after turning the light off, with my eyes closed, trying to sleep, I dreamed and feared—afraid and full of wonder at what my heart already knew, that my life could change so much and so suddenly.

Overwhelmed with emotions and exhaustion, I ended up in Juliet’s room after breakfast in tears, feeling ill and anxious and overcome. She was wonderful. She prayed with me, and walked me through the garden behind the Abbey, to a bench by a lily pond, under a willow.

Jane said that being here on retreat can bring to mind things one doesn’t usually think about. She was mourning her brother, and Juliet mourning a brother who committed suicide years ago. Somehow, in all the quiet, it was the grace of God that overwhelmed me, like my challenge here was to be able to accept good things from his hand. And yet I struggled with what it means to trust God—the God who gives both beautiful and terrible things.

I began to regain my appetite over roast beef, potatoes and Yorkshire pudding at lunch, and then the best lemon meringue pie I’ve ever had. Sunday became a lost day, a day to recover. I had planned to go to Steventon, but I knew I needed rest. I prayed God would heal my body and comfort my heart.

That afternoon I went back to the bench under the willow to journal. The truth was, I concluded, I couldn’t count on Jack. What I knew for sure was that he’s not sure he wants to get married—someday, perhaps, but now?—and that he just started sort of dating a girl from North Carolina, and that officially we were just hanging out.

It felt like so much more than that. And I’m convinced he felt the same things. He never said as much—like Willoughby, it was never spoken but everywhere (or perhaps often) implied. The way he looked at me, watching me walk down the stairs or just paying attention to what I said. He made sure I was next to him. When we didn’t have time to talk about everything he would tell me that he wanted to hear more about what I thought, later. He carried my backpack, and walked on the outside of the sidewalk wherever we went, in that protective southern way.

There was that communion, those myriad unspoken signs that exist between two people, that claim you as each other’s. If he was talking to someone else when I walked in the room I immediately had his attention. Or when I pulled on my white hoodie between classes, he reached over and rescued one of the ties that had gotten stuck inside—taking care of me, putting me right. When I said goodbye to Paul, he watched while trying not to seem to be watching, to see just how close we were, like he imagined there to be competition.

People who didn’t already think we were engaged assumed we were dating or that we would be soon. Everyone believed it—believed in us. Other guys noticed and kept their distance. (Perhaps my active imagination generated this impression, but that was how it seemed.)

So why did he send me off with this kind of uncertainty? I could only assume it was because he was uncertain himself, and that I couldn’t entirely trust it, no matter what I felt.


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