A week of the worst jet-lag I've ever experienced. I came back from Washington, poured myself into my bed and have been taking it easy ever since. I do not recall it being this bad in my youth but my memory is not what it was. Yes, I know that I'm not even 50 yet but this body and brain have gone through the cancer wars and I feel it every single day.
I did however make it to church yesterday. I was there at noon sharp and it did me a world of good. It was exactly what I needed to shake off a week in the States and to put my priorities firmly back in the right order: faith, family, friends. Everything else gets what's left of me once those things are taken care of.
Just a few short years ago the French church was a mystery to me. The Mass in English was one of the last things I was still holding on to after a couple of decades in the Hexagon. After I became a lapsed agnostic and returned to the faith of my childhood in the U.S. it was familiar and comforting to head into Paris to the anglophone Catholic church. Truth be told it was not exactly like going to church in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Yes, the language and the ritual were the same but the accents, the community, and some of the customs were different. Still, it was as close as I was going to get here, a few thousand miles away from where I grew up. As my father used to say, "Good enough for government work."
For some reason I started thinking about all that as I was sitting/standing/kneeling in the chapel. After all that angst and fear and trepidation - after making such a Big Deal about the whole business of going to Mass in French - here I was as comfortable (and happy) as I could be and not missing one beat, one response, one gesture.
When I went looking for a local francophone church here I think I was expecting a repeat of the original experience when I first moved to France with all the negative emotions that I associated with that. It was "living in the wreckage of the future" and expecting it to be hard with a dash of uncertainty: What if I can't do it? Yes, I wondered about that. Why, since I was reasonably successful in integrating, did I have so much fear around something as simple as going to a new church?
Because it meant leaving my comfort zone. You can live in a country for a very long time but that doesn't mean that dark and dangerous areas do not exist for you. A country is cut up into regions and towns and a culture is filled with sub-cultures - worlds within worlds. Even when we look back with nostalgia to the place we were born and spent our formative years, at some point (one hopes) the light comes on and we realize that our experience was very limited in so many ways.
For example, how well do I really know the United States, the place where I was born? The truth is not very well. I was born and raised in a particular part of the country and if I am honest, places like New York or Texas are complete mysteries to me. I don't know the people there and what they think or how they live. I have impressions but those were formed primarily by what I hear on the radio and see on TV. I am just as ignorant about them as any non-American who has never set foot in the States. Furthermore, those worlds have moved on since I lived there.
Other countries and cultures are the same. The Hexagon is not just one world or one culture, it is many. At some point in the integration process, you get comfortable and have the illusion that you now know all you need to know to survive and thrive. But inside there is an awareness that there are deeper different waters out there - that you have simply skimmed the surface of all that this particular place and culture has to offer. But having achieved a sort of stability, you don't want to venture out of your comfort zone. Who knows what's out there in the wilds of Brittany, at that church in the center of town, or even just next door?
But life is a moving river of experience and the harder you try to make things stand still, the more it slips through your fingers. An image I read recently that I really liked was one of trying to take that river and pack it up in a box to Chronopost it to a friend. The moment you trap the water, it ceases to be a river and becomes still water in a plastic jug.
If you can think of languages, countries, cultures and sub-cultures as moving rivers it changes everything. It's not a question of aggressively tackling the unknown and trying to achieve some sort of stability. In fact that may be the worst strategy of all because the more you wrestle with the river, the more likely you are to drown. It's more about jumping in feet first and letting the current carry you along.
And that was how I joined a local French church. I just got up, got dressed, and went to Mass one day. And to my delight (and surprise) people were very welcoming and kind. For the first few months I was a bit lost. It wasn't just having to learn the responses in French, it was also about diving into this world within a world which was very different from anything I had experienced previously in my life here. Their perspective on France, the church and many other topics was one that I only knew through others' opinions and prejudices. You might not agree with their take on things but, for me, it was well worth getting my feet wet. I still don't understand everything about this country I live in (and never will but then I don't really understand where I came from either) but I now know more than I knew just a few years ago and I find that some of that understanding seeps into other parts of my life here - the other worlds I belong to.
In retrospect the fears I had seem so ridiculous now but as I contemplate other barely known worlds that exist just at the periphery of my vision, I find the same fear lurking underneath my curiosity whether it is here in France or in the United States or any other place. Why?
Surely part of it is the possibility of drowning - not all forays into different worlds end well. But I think there is something else going on here and that is losing our sense of self. To think of oneself as a cork in a river being swept downstream is a vision few of us like since it engenders feelings of helplessness and loss. That if we allow life and experience to have their way with us, we will no longer have an answer to the question, "Who are you?"
And the true answer to that is that you and I are not the same person as we were yesterday and we will all be something different tomorrow. That would be the case even if we never learned another language or never went further than five miles away from the place of our birth. There are rivers one can choose to dive into that can change our lives, but all of us already live in rivers of experience that are constantly moving us along without us even being aware of it. And all we are at any one moment is the sum of all those experiences. When we try to stop the stream and hold it in our hands and hearts and heads, it has slipped away and we are already something new. Something other than what we were just a few moments ago.
That means that not only do we live in moving rivers, but that "I" itself is one.
We can respond to this by making our worlds as small as possible in order to keep as much of the change at bay and our sense of control alive for as long as possible. Or we can kick and scream and grip the bank of the river with our fingernails until we muster up enough courage to swim.
Or we can let go of the illusion that all of this is under our complete control and live in the ever-changing present. We are less than the gods and more than the beasts and "we suffer from the delusion that the entire universe is held in order by the categories of human thought, fearing that if we do not hold on to them with the utmost tenacity, everything will vanish into chaos." (Alan Watts)