On Spring, Solitude and Serendipity

A spring holiday to lovely Vernazza!

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.””

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

It is almost nine and mostly dark by the time we get back down to village.

It’s our second night staying in a house on the cliff 450 steps above Vernazza, one of the famous Cinque Terre of Italy’s northwestern coast. At home in Seattle, Erika and I are avid hikers, scaling the ridges and dipping down to the lakes of the North Cascade mountains that form the backbone of our region. She has come to Europe to visit me during BFA’s spring break, and we’re spending three days backpacking in the foreign warmth and grandeur of Italy.

We woke this morning with only a nebulous plan to “hike around a bit.”  Twenty minutes away from Vernazza, our path ran together with other travelers.  Two we’d met the night before, Australian mothers traveling together after their sons went off to university, and we heard them long before we saw them, their laughter and accents heralding their presence around the corner.  Walking with them were a couple from Southern California, celebrating ten years of marriage with an Italian getaway.

The six of us fell in together, spent the rest of the day navigating steep, narrow paths through the countryside, between improbably soft seas and the bone-dry steps of terraced vineyards.  We stopped for picnic lunch in one village, treating each other to the tastes of the region and dipping our feet into the still-cold Mediterranean before continuing on to the end of the road, the Riomaggiore I loved five years ago.

We drank in salty air, breathed out conversation, telling gradually the stories that had brought us here.  Of children born, educated, learning, leaving.  Of marriages that last and those that don’t.  Of jobs and loves, found and lost. Of forest fires, Alpine backpacking and Australian politics, biking to Versailles and Vespa tours of Florence.

From California, Seattle and Australia, new friends on the trail to Manarola.

We’ve made separate dinner plans to suit the budgets and appetites of three different decades, so Erika and I take a table on the main street, savoring caprese, warm foccocia, and the proprietor’s favorite €10 wine.  It’s only a few minutes before our hiking companions join us, finished with their suppers, ready to pull up chairs, order pizzas, and keep talking.  Vernazza’s already quiet streets hush to a whisper as the conversation continues, long into the evening, leading us to family and future, God and the gifts of being alive and here, tonight.

As we linger in the warm Italian night, sharing life with people who were strangers a day ago, I’m remembering the inquiries of last spring, the concerned refrain that met me at every turn:

Are you moving to Europe… alone?

The shortest answer was always yes, but even then I knew there was more to it.  From starting high school to working at Starbucks to spending a summer on a farm in Ramsau, I’ve done a great deal alone.   Yet in all of those places, I’m only alone for a day or two.  I go to class, learn some names, put on an apron, bake a cake and speak in broken Austrian German.  Though many ways it is a time of solitude, being young and unattached by marriage or its precursors, the lonely spaces of airports and trains, passages between known and soon-to-know, are the only true islands.  There’s a promise that follows me, wherever I go, a promise of God’s provision and affection, gifts that have always included the people He’s created.  Though it’s not always the community I’d expected, I’ve never been disappointed.

In a few days, Erika and I will travel back to Germany, visiting friends acquired in the decades of a Torchbearer childhood.  I’ll think more about the connectedness of the body of Christ, of the spirals that bind us together, the intimacy I enjoy with friends and family, even here on the edge of where I’d imagined life would go.  I’ll stare out of train windows filled with spring green, thinking about seasons of the earth and seasons of life, of the dance of connection and loneliness common to all people.  For now, though, Erika returns from the restaurant with more glasses, and I take a bite of pizza and listen, as yesterday’s strangers become today’s friends, somewhere along the Mediterranean.

Sunset over the Mediterranean Sea



Basel Weihnachtsmarkt

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.

Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”

James 4:13-15

But if we’re really honest with ourselves, our plans usually don’t work out as we had hoped. So instead of asking our young people “What are you plans? What do you plan to do with your life?” maybe we should tell them this: Plan to be surprised.

-Dan in Real Life

Basel in Winter

“Getting to Seattle is quite difficult right now,” a British Airways flight attendant sighs, looking down at a complicated itinerary.  “The next available flight is on the 22nd.”

A calendar floats in the front of my mind.  “So… Wednesday?”  The sun is just rising on Sunday morning, and my roommates and I have spent the last three nights on the phone with airlines, trying secure passages out of snowy Europe.  I count the days until I can get home.  Three.  The sun just rising on Day One, and I’m here until Wednesday.

With an airline-provided hotel room, I know there are worse ways to be stranded.  I’m not sleeping on a cot in Frankfurt or Heathrow, subsisting on airport snacks and espresso.  The three days will pass, as days are liable to do, and I’ll get home soon.  I hope.

On the Bodensee

I spend the next three days mostly in solitude.  Wandering the streets of Basel, weaving my way through the labyrinthine Weihnachtsmarkt, in and out and among the narrow stone streets of a foreign city.   At free concert in a cathedral, Heinrich Schütz’s Weihnachtshistorie (“Christmas story,” a sort of German Messiah), listening to voices that soar to the stone heights which once featured the likes of Calvin and Zwingli.  Riding the train two hours east, through the grey and browns of melting snow to Friedrichshafen, to visit old friends and bask in the warmth of family and community, even when I am detached from the ones I to which I most belong.  Dining alone and people watching, thinking about time and future and past and Christmas, the importance of family and home while I waited for my own to open up.  Eventually flying home, two flights that unfold with miraculous ease and simplicity, despite the raging storms on the continent I’ve been calling home.

I consider, these three extra days in Europe, what we mean by time and plans, thinking about the ways in which I present an itinerary to God and hope for a confirmation, only sigh, petulant and disappointed, when it all turns out so much differently.  Such a fitting end of a year when changes of plans, or the gradual uncurling of my fingers from everything but the simplicity of knowing Christ, have been the major places of growth in my life, in my heart.  How my time, my life, is not mine to begin with, and in the last twelve months God has been teaching me to let go of them, a few years or months or, on this journey, days at a time.

Sunset over the Swiss Alps across the Bodensee

What should I do today, Lord? I ask each of these three days, looking ahead at sixteen unscheduled waking hours.  If I have any resolutions for the coming year, still veiled in unpredictability, it is to live this way more often, hands and heart open to the plans that God has, strange and wonderful, beyond even the most vivid stretches of my own imagination.

Thank You for Your plans, God.  I give You mine, for keeping or changing or using.