I want to begin by saying that I have no intention of titling every post henceforward and forever after Innocence Mission songs. It just so happens that I’ve had a lot of poignant moments lately—some happy, some not so much; all under the Mercy—that Karen Peris’ lyrics have been a literal soundtrack to.
One for sorrow, two for joy…
If the sorrow of May was our loss, then the joy of it was a retreat to the seaside in our 1962 Airstream.
“I’m fleeing as a bird to my island,” I told Philip as we sped over the causeway, the same road to joy that has led me back into peace and quietness and all those “dearest freshness deep down things” times out of number since the days of my girlhood. And never more so than now. There was healing in the very brace of salt wind that tore in at the open window and wrenched my hair from its moorings. I closed my eyes and opened my soul to the goodness of God in its salute.
“The cure for anything is salt water,” wrote Isak Dinesen, “—sweat, tears, or the sea.”
I certainly had my share of tears and sea in those blessed days. (And perhaps I got a bit dewy sitting on the beach. ;)) But there was another cure in that merciful sojourn, and one which I hadn’t even thought to look for: the strong goodness of human contact. Crossings both likely and unlikely; the balm of those who knew everything and of those who knew nothing.
We had traveled with some of our best friends in the whole world: a real, old-fashioned Airstream caravan of our ’62 Tradewind and our in-laws’ borrowed ’58 Safari. Five teenagers and a barking dog. Four bicycles and a tent to house the boys and about 8000 beach chairs and jelly jars of peonies and roses clipped from our gardens and Debra’s copper tea kettle and my little brown pot. What a sight we must have been, clambering into the campground at dusk—a sight, doubtless, to strike dismay into the hearts of all the dignified 65-and-older “full-timers” with which the campground was populated at that point in the season.
The first night our boys got a friendly reminder from the camp host that they needed to ‘keep it down’ after 10. But by the end of the first day we’d been, if not endeared to our neighbors, at least graciously welcomed. The lady in the Montana across the way invited me in to see her new dual-fuel refrigerator and meet her dachshund, Maggie. Sean struck it up with our gentleman camp host from Boston and Philip renewed acquaintance with the owner of the ’58 Globetrotter whom we’d met the summer before, and learned that his Airstream had been part of the famous ‘Capetown to Cairo’ caravan of 1959! Before the morning was out Philip and I had been visited by a couple in their 80’s on bikes, who wanted to know ‘what year is your tin can trailer?’ and ‘is the inside original?’ Moved by the earlier example of my neighbor, I invited the wife in for a tour where we chatted ninety-to-nothing for about five minutes.
“What a fascinating lady,” I told Philip as they pedaled away.
“How much could you possibly have learned in that amount of time?” he grinned.
“Well, not much. Only that she was a schoolteacher. And that she and her husband met in the Egyptian Ballroom at the Fox Theater and that he taught dancing and that they have a son and a daughter and that she is the most blessed mother on earth and that they are fixing up a ’68 and that they got stuck in their camper once on the New Jersey turnpike outside of Newark and that her husband kept giving directions to the same English lady that kept coming by over and over again and she wishes that they hadn’t waited so long before they had children—,”
Waiting at the airport on my suitcase,
a girl traveling from Spain became my sudden friend,
though I did not learn her name.
And when the subway dimmed
a stranger lit my way.
This is the brotherhood of man.
Laughing around the campfire at night with our precious friends was the warmth of sunshine. It was good to know that I could actually laugh again—there are times in life when we all doubt it—and I just wanted to hug those teenaged boys for reminding me. And I doubt there’s a shoulder to cry on in all the world more sympathetic than Debra’s. But there was the coolness of moonshine, no less lovely for its remoteness, in the kindness of the strangers that surrounded us, and when Sean and Debra and their brood had to break camp early and head back home (only to establish themselves at our house to give us a few more days’ refuge and rest) we felt the sudden joy of kinship with people with whom at first glace we had only our humanity in common.
And humanity, as I realized with a stab of vicarious pain, is enough. I remember watching people walking hand-in-hand on the beach smiling at one another, and thinking with a lunge of compassion, “They have suffered because they are human.” I saw the couple across the way from us coming and going, playing with their dog, feeding the squirrels, and thought of what they had told us about the husband’s impending heart surgery: “They have known pain, and not only of the intangible variety.” I talked with the wife of our camp host, a lovely Vermont lady and erstwhile sheep farmer who said she almost came over to our campsite one day and joined me at my needlepoint because she “missed that common bond with other women”. I wish that she had. I know there is much that she could teach me—and not just about sheep.
We are in the wind, planting the maples.
We meet an older man who seems to know
I miss my dad.
And he smiles through the limbs.
We talk easily with him
until the rain begins.
This is the brotherhood of man.
There’s so much I love about my dear Silver Turtle. And not the least of which is the connection it affords with people we might not otherwise be privileged to meet. We’re still glowing over the connections of last summer: the little man with the cleft palate at the convenience store that rode by on the bright yellow golf cart and told us with joyful candor how many states he had visited since his retirement and exhorted us to “travel all you can while you’re young!” And the lady in the Walmart parking lot in a tiny south Georgia town who stopped to ask us about our Airstream and chatted long enough to discover that she not only knew my kinfolk several towns over, but that her nephew worked for my cousin!
But this time people were coming over to tell us goodbye when we left. And as we lumbered out where we had rattled in a week-and-a-half earlier, I was waving out the window, my silver charm bracelet jingling, and new friends were calling their farewells to our dog by name. If only they could have known what it meant.
We made a pit stop somewhere in lower middle Georgia and talked for half an hour with the gentleman who was pumping gas beside us. He was English (he was interested in our camper; I was interested in his accent) and without knowing anything about us, he told us that he had been a fourth–generation shepherd in the Yorkshire Downs. Now he raises goats, but he patiently fielded our questions about shearing and laughed good-naturedly at our feelings of inadequacy over the whole thing.
“But you know,” he suddenly volunteered and without warning, “there’s just something about a goat. They just can’t stand to be alone.”
I teared up, and shot an anguished look at Philip.
“No, goats are social creatures,” he went on, unconscious of my painful association. “Why, I’ve even seen a goat lie down with a dog!”
His unconscious kindness, it seemed, spilled over even to my Puck and my Diana, lonely goat and dog at home, learning to be one anothers’ comrade.
“Thank you,” I said. But what I meant, of course, was God bless you.
I never can say what I mean
but you will understand,
coming through clouds on the way.