Once upon a time, I considered pursuing a degree in philosophy, an assistantship. I enjoyed the philosophy class I took in college, my professor encouraged my interest, and I loved the idea of being surrounded by people who loved to think and being underwritten to pursue the search for wisdom.
As the story developed, however, I answered another call and moved to Italy, pursuing a quite different path to wisdom. This involved first a move out to the wide-open land and piercing sunsets of west Texas and then up to a Connecticut city near the bustle of New York.
Recently while reflecting on the course of my life, I realized that beginning at age 18, in less than one decade I called thirteen different places home.
A friend I shared this with responded, “From tumbleweed to rooted plant.”
Tumbleweed, for sure! And rooted plant, because I’ve now had over two and a half decades of putting down roots in a single city, almost all in one zip code. But it’s time to move again. For now, it’s a small move to a smaller space, just ten minutes away, in preparation for moving back to one of those homes I lived in earlier—my husband’s beautiful homeland of Croatia.
We’ve been blessed with the option of making the move gradually, a great gift that lessens the stress. Even so, it is stressful. For me, harder than the packing and decision-making stress is the pain of saying goodbye. It may not seem such a hard thing to move ten minutes down the road, with family and friends essentially no further away than they are now, but I’ve always been a person who attaches strongly to places. And besides that, this small move is a reminder of the bigger move ahead, when family and friends will be much further away.
We’ve known for more than a couple of years that we were heading in this direction. During that time, I’ve had many moments of standing in a certain spot or driving by a certain place and thinking, “I will miss you!” and feeling a wrenching sadness at the thought of leaving behind a place I’ve lived in longer than I lived in my own hometown. And especially leaving the people.
At some point in the past year, when these moments started coming more frequently and the emotions began growing more intense, I realized I had to come up with a way to handle the continued parade of “lasts.” The gift of having time to say goodbye was beginning to feel overwhelming at times. This is the last Thanksgiving we can have in this house. This is the last time I’ll see the daffodils coming up in that spot in these woods. This is the last winter I’ll see those huge Christmas ornaments hanging from the trees at that house on the corner. This the last time I’ll get to be with these people in this place?
“I’ll miss you. . . . I’ll miss this . . . .I’ll miss that. . . .” I wondered if I would even remember these things, these times, in years to come, in a different place, speaking a different language, surrounded by different people, and gathering new experiences, new memories.
I don’t remember when or how it came to me, but it did—this gift of an idea. Instead of focusing on “I’ll miss you/this,” when such moments came, I would focus on the object or the experience with the intention of savoring it, soaking it in as much as possible, but also of offering something in return. And I would shift from missing to loving—which is, of course, what causes the missing. I began to say, for example, while looking at the pine trees and blue sky out the window over my prayer desk,
“I love you, and I’m thankful for you.”
When I walk in the neighborhood park and look across the small lake at the stone bench under the huge oaks and bright green cypresses, instead of wondering wistfully how many more times I’ll see it, I look hard, taking in its shape and that perfect peninsula of land it sits on, surrounded by water so that when you sit there or lie down to look at the branches and sky above, you can imagine you are on a tiny island. I think about the people who created the park, the lake, the bench, and I say, “I love you. I’m thankful for you.”
As the sun bounces off the rippling lake, I notice the magical shimmering of light on the cypress needles making the light dance in the trees in waves. I pause to soak it in and say, “I love you. Thank you for slowing me down to notice over and over.”
The ducks in the water, turning upside and bobbing with their comical little behinds in the air; the Muscovy duck who used to follow me around and has been here at least ten years; the cypress knees that look like prairie dogs at prayer around the edge of the lake; the southern magnolias with their shiny leaves and heady scent; the birch leaves with sunlight shining through, an impressionistic painting come to life; the cattails along the shore; the smell of cut grass as the workers mow. All these and more have in the past brought me nearly to tears as I thought about leaving them. But more recently, they bring a sense of joy as I focus on them with love and gratitude.
Back at home, when I play my baby grand in the evening, slightly out of tune as it is, and significantly out of practice as I am, I feel the weight of its keys and hear the rich sounds the long strings make. I think of my many students who’ve sat on this bench. When that wistfulness begins because the piano cannot come with us, and I don’t know whether or not I’ll teach piano again in the years to come, I say to it all, “I love you. Thank you for being part of my life.”
And joining the piano, the sounds, and the years of students, come the teachers I had over the years and my parents and grandparents who paid for the lessons until it all becomes a rich silent symphony of gratitude and joy.
Sitting outside on the deck, on the bench that came from Grandmother’s house, feeling the late summer breeze and hearing the evening songs of the cicadas and their companions that take me back to childhood summers, when the thought comes that the insects in Europe are different, I open my eyes and ears, and my heart, wide to this poignant twilight. “I love you. I’m thankful for all these years of hearing your songs.”
Through the classic wooden window panes of our bedroom I look out at the little stone path in the backyard, its gentle curve the only thing we’ve really done to the yard in this topsy-turvy decade, but always a reminder of the joy of simple beauty. “I love you, little path, and green grass all around. I’m thankful for you.” And suddenly I’m thinking of my husband, who had the very practical idea of the path and made it happen, and who has always been open to combining a touch of beauty with his sensible ideas.
I do wonder from time to time when the next strong wave of nostalgia will hit, and I kind of dread thinking about opening all the boxes and creating a new home in the new space. Due to the coronavirus, our bigger move is shrouded in mystery as far as planning a date goes, but we know it lies ahead, with the big changes it will bring. Opportunity abounds for anxiety about the future and the sadness of anticipatory loss.
On the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale, which I sometimes use in my work as a therapist, the upcoming months will qualify me for at least eleven of the items on the list—a list which doesn’t mention moving to a new country and speaking a foreign language among the items. Because of a couple of past experiences when moving to a new place, I’ve had some real concerns about the months ahead and how I would navigate them emotionally. And that was before the pandemic and extreme social unrest entered the scene, adding stressors we didn’t imagine.
This focus on love and gratitude has powerfully changed the past several weeks for me, however, as I gather in these images and memories even more intentionally than before, with such a different approach. I have to believe it will somehow help with the future also.
Not long after making this shift, I began re-reading a wonderful book by Olaf Blum and Joshua Hochschild, A Mind at Peace. And one morning I read,
“The question is not whether we will remember things, but which things we will remember. . . . We must beware of how we allow our memory to be formed and take responsibility for what we experience and how we experience it. . . . We should labor to cultivate a healthy and rich memory.”(112)
And a page earlier they remind us of how “classical thinkers . . . conceived of the memory as an internal space, filled with rooms that could be traveled through.”
That’s what I want to do with these days. I’ve even bought a journal (on sale!), made in Florence, Italy, with a specific plan. It has enough pages that it should last me from now until whenever I get back to Florence after we move to Croatia. It has become a sort of anchor to ground me, a thread to tie together these parts and places of my life. I take it to various places here in Memphis—our back deck, the retreat center I love, the bakery across from my office, the church where I go to pray—and write about the places and the memories. Assuming I don’t lose it, I will eventually write in it in the airports and in Croatia, and one day back in Florence, where my life originally took this unexpected turn, and where I knew I would not be going back for that philosophy degree.
It struck me the other day, though, as I was thinking about Blum and Hochschild’s words, that they are both philosophy professors.
And then I came across an article by a Dr. Mark Dooley (a philosopher, it turns out) in an article about his last visit with philosopher Sir Roger Scruton:
“When we lovingly behold another person, or when we contemplate an artwork, listen to music or marvel at a beautiful building, we experience something that transcends its material constraints. That ‘something’ is not separable from the material or biological order which contains it. But every time we gaze into the eyes of a loved one, or whenever we savour our favourite symphony or pray at a beautiful shrine, we encounter ‘personality and freedom’ shining forth from what is ‘contingent, dependent and commonplace’. We see the fabric of the world perforated by light from another sphere. In this point of intersection of the timeless with time, we catch glimpses of the transcendental and receive intimations of the infinite.”
God has given me a different path from the one I considered over thirty years ago when I for a time dreamed of studying philosophy as a way to grow in wisdom. In the tumbleweed years and in the time of growing roots, He has given me glimpses of the transcendental and has perforated the fabric of my life with light from another sphere. He has taught me to lovingly behold, to contemplate, to listen well, to gaze, and to savor.
I still remember in junior high school discovering and memorizing the verse from James 1:5, from the red RSV my wise father had given me: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him.” I was desperate for wisdom at that point in my life, and this verse became a comfort, a source of courage and hope.
The longer I live, the greater the need for wisdom becomes. Right now I am thankful for the wisdom given in recent weeks, the wisdom of focusing on love and gratitude and not just sadness. I’m thankful to be adding to my store of “healthy and rich memories,” interior rooms to travel through in the years ahead.
And with or without a degree in philosophy, I’m thankful for the philosophers whose words and wisdom walk with me along the way.
The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Sheila Vamplin learned early to love God through words, music, and people. Her English degree, piano study, and choral singing somehow led her to Italy and then to Croatia. Landing back in the U.S. after three years of war, she earned a counseling degree. Now a licensed marriage and family therapist with a DMin in spiritual formation, she has concurrently taught piano students and has sung with the Memphis Chamber Choir and the Rhodes Mastersingers Chorale. Her current focus is translating the Italian memoir of beloved friend Tosca Barucci Chesi. As a counselor and spiritual director, Sheila has a heart for artists and those in professional ministry. She loves Gerard Manley Hopkins. With her husband she plans to return to Croatia, anticipating more surprises and trusting that the Holy Ghost will continue brooding over the bent world, even and perhaps especially there.