And so, Saturday arrived — the end of a long first quarter of seminary studies. Test done, papers in — check. Suitcase packed — check. Boarding pass printed, hotel reservation in folder — check. House cleaned, refrigerator full — check. Everything in the car, off to the airport — check. Getting on the plane and heading to London — oops.
That’s right, I didn’t go on my trip. Halfway to the airport, we turned around and came back home. Why? Well, it is complicated. But the change between “I can’t wait to get on that plane and have an adventure away from here” and “what was I thinking booking this trip” began to take shape last Friday afternoon when the electrician finished installing our new living room light fixture.
That’s right. A new light fixture. Some people experience their explosions of self-realization and spiritual insight when surrounded by nature or when on retreat and focused on God. That happens for me too, but I’m also apparently deeply stirred by home renovations. Okay, that is a little silly, but this time, it is true.
I didn’t realize it at the time — I had things to finish, test papers to write, and I had to get it all done so that I could get on that plane. After all, that is part of my identity, right? International traveler every spare moment devoted to adventure and new experiences, often with intrepid spirit venturing off to parts unknown (or in this case, known but missed) without companionship, the adventure itself more important than sharing it with anyone….this particular identity has been a big part of me and my life for the last 15 years.
And in the middle of all of this activity, came the new light fixture. Who says that things don’t change…
The question of identity is apparently THE question of a seminary education, at least at the Virginia Theological Seminary. I must admit that I thought it was a little silly when one of my Church History professors began his first lecture with the question “Who are you?” The question worked perfectly with the following discussion of the early Christian martyrs, but I did not understand at that moment that the question was fundamental to everything that I would do over the months, and quite possibly over the years, that followed. Everyone tells you that seminary study will change your concept of your own identity (if not that very identity itself), but until you start experiencing that change, you simply cannot understand the directions in which it might take you.
You see, the past few days have been a big lesson in the answer to that identity question…not only the answer to the question “who are you,” but a lot of answers to a lot of little questions that explained a lot about “who I used to think I was but apparently no longer am or maybe never really were…”.
Here’s what I learned about myself. I have used travel for a long time, as a total escape. And I needed to escape because, well, I felt really trapped. I’ll be totally honest — I felt trapped by a life in music and a whole lot of other decisions that I had made over the past 15 years. And more and more over the past five years, I have felt that I simply couldn’t breathe. That feeling of suffocation had many manifestations, not the least of which was a desperate attempt to find a new physical house last spring and early summer. I didn’t succeed in that enterprise, but travel always remained an option. Any moment possible, often by choice alone, I would get on a plane and go somewhere. It was like coming up for air literally…travel was freeing, it took me out of the what I perceived to be the strictures of my daily living, it allowed me to see things from a different perspective and dig deep into my inner workings. It was, for me, a fundamental part of my identity, that alone I would hop on an international flight, go and poke around a strange or familiar place (I often chose London or Berlin), and well, catch a big breath of air.
And so, last summer, as I felt increasing constricted by the idea of going back to school and by the thought of figuring out how to balance the responsibilities I already had with the new ones I was taking on, it became even more difficult for me to breathe. So I desperately searched the schedule for the first moment that I could escape and I thought I had found it. And so I booked a “getaway”.
Fast forward to the month of October and the last three weeks of the quarter of study, and I would tell you that I really couldn’t catch a breath. But it was a different experience — I couldn’t catch a breath because every single waking moment was spoken for in some way shape or form. But in my mind, I was holding on to the idea that I would finish my work, pack my bag, and head to the airport.
And now, again, enter the new dining room light fixture. It is funny the things that cause our mind and spirit to come together in an act of understanding.
I finished. I was exhausted. I realized that I had been exhausted for weeks. I realized that I was feeling a kind of exhaustion I had never before in my life felt. But I packed that bag and headed for the airport anyway, thinking I would find solace in a cup of tea at the Muffin Man in Kensington and then finally I would be able to rest.
But then some unexpected things happened. First, someone said to me that they were going to miss me while I was gone. And then, other good friends said that they had missed me that day while I was writing my test instead of joining them on a special trip to the Zoo. And then, someone said to me, “You know, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to…” because they could see how exhausted I was. And then, quite literally, I saw the light.
Yes, in the car, exhausted, questioning my choices, I kept seeing the new light in the dining room. And I realized — my identity had changed. And I realized that, exhausted as I was, I didn’t need to leave home to be able to breathe.
I am not totally clear about what happened — that’s what meetings with spiritual directors and journals help you discover over time. And, after 48 hours of rest, do I regret not being at the National Gallery in London? A little bit. And don’t get me wrong — I’m not done with travel, but next time I will stick to my original instinct and allow myself a few days rest before I embark on a trip. But I do not regret the self-knowledge gained nor do I regret that I have seen the light and breathed the beautiful air of home and friendship in ways that were never before possible for me.
So, if you need me, I’m at home. At least for a while.