The Calgary November morning is, as usual, most unforgiving—lung piercing ice air, gray cement sky, energy-sucking wind, nothing alive as far as the ice fog will show. I pull into the driveway of a friend’s elegant home in an upscale neighborhood to deliver a package. Braced against the rawness, I push my body from car warmth into hostile bluster. Then I see her.
On the very next driveway, which ramped into an equally elegant home, stands an ancient woman. Her skin is dark and folded, her body long and lean. She is underdressed in a wildly colored African cloth tied around her torso and shoulders. Her scrawny brown legs stick out, bare, sandals holding her feet. She stands frozen still, the cloth wrap flapping as if a Safeway bag has caught on the side of a sculpture. Leaning on a long pole snagged in a hollow on the cement drive and extending far above her head, she stares, unmoving, into the sterility of the Hamptons. She does not belong here in front of these double garage doors.
The gray-black hair twisted in a wild unkempt ball on top of her head shadows eyes that are slits of pain. I see the question seared on her face: “Where am I?” I catch her attention, smile and wave, and she waves back, oddly flipping her wrist down instead of up like my own. Even her hand movements seem out of place. She should be waving to a laughing child across a field or to a friend bent over a fire cooking a meal. I am the intruder and my breath catches in my throat for the sacred glimpse of sorrow and loss I am encountering.
She stays with me all day as I run there and back again—a displaced woman. Someone brought her to Canada for her best interest, but her best interests are far away. At her age, beginnings like this hold little joy. Somewhere else is home. Somewhere else her best dreams, joys, babies, quarrels and hopes have been buried. She will not find them here. It is her real tragedy to have no personal history to stumble over in the course of a day.
But, the spirit of women is strong, and some will find a way to create good history in new or difficult places. In one sense, the displaced woman is at a significant crossroads. Will she live into the difficult “now” and enter into life, or will she give up and allow her soul to shrivel and dry?
Perhaps the reason this image stays with me is that she pictures a bit of my own journey—and maybe yours, too. I have sometimes stood with my face bitten by a strange wind, wondering where I am. Do you know that feeling? There is a sense in which we are all displaced. We were not created to live in the stress and severity of this culture; we are designed for a garden. And when we are sufficiently quiet, a dream-echo in our souls calls our name and beckons us to come home, only we cannot find our home. “Where am I?” The dream can turn to a nightmare in a moment.
C.S. Lewis writes about this, calling it our “lifelong nostalgia” to be reunited with our Creator. We are never quite at ease, never fully content, profoundly lonely at odd times and sometimes bitterly broken. Real relationships with other human persons soothe this homesickness, but not even the most precious friend is able to cure our primal longing. Inside our souls, some loneliness always remains. The woman’s heart is relentlessly seeking to be at home with her God.
People, so many people: we seek them, they seek us. We cannot help ourselves. But like them, we disappoint. Physical, emotional and relational abandonment is the living death of modern life. Perhaps this is why it is easy to become attached to things. What we own, we can control. Our ‘stuff’ distracts us and provides material with which we can stuff the holes in our souls. It veils our nakedness. It feels good. For a while.
When Jesus walked earth’s soil as God and man, homesick for heaven and one with our human experience, He offered these words of comfort: “Fear not, for I am with you.” We cannot go to Him, so He comes to us. That is His promise.
In my worst moments, I have thought this to be an anemic pledge. I want my problems solved, not just a promise of some ethereal ‘presence.’ But age and experience has changed my understanding. Presence is what we most need. Here is our Emmanuel, our ‘God with us.’ God’s eternal embrace supports our shaky hearts and displaced lives. The real presence of God secures our inner person so we can once more lean into life and birth something good. The real presence of God is transforming us, one by one. The transformation seems to begin with an intensifying of the loneliness, the homesickness. The bleaker the landscape, the more acute the longing. Then, a moment occurs when the displaced woman wants God more than she wants comfort, peace or help. Thus she experiences the crucial point of change, the beginning of Love. The real presence of God becomes the greatest solace, the highest joy, and life renewed.
We are all displaced. Some feel it more acutely than others. We lean on our sticks and wonder where we are. Don’t let your eternal hungers and thirsts be put aside. Use them as a source of motivation to inspire your personal cooperation with God. Everyday life is being torn down, and every day, it is being rebuilt. Every woman chooses where she will put her energy. It is never too late to become a builder and bearer of life. As one poet wrote, ‘God is present and He is dancing on my chaos.’
Marilyn Elliott is a member of Soul Care Collective’s Steering Committee.