Days 19 – 24

Day 19: Pentecost

I receive communion from the Archbishop of Canterbury. The bread and wine are sweet as if to counteract the bitterness I’ve felt toward God for some time now.

A man on the street sings a strange rendition of “Hallelujah” and rails about the heartless passersby who won’t even stop to smile at him.

In the crypt and the gardens surrounding the cathedral, I feel the heavy, heavy weight of God’s presence without being able to react to it. I can’t see Him. I can’t hear Him. I know He’s there but somehow this isn’t comforting to me.

We arrive in foggy London that evening and I have a panic attack at 11:30.

I long for renewal even as I tire of fighting.

***

Day 20: Cold and Wet

The little ones keep asking whether or not the museum artifacts are real. I evade the question “Why didn’t they want them anymore?”

I’m reminded that a world exists outside the dark one in my head, and walking through the rainy streets as M trustingly holds my hand fills my heart with peace. Her sweet innocence restores me, however temporarily. Caring for her takes my attention off of myself, cutting across the spiral of despair. I lift her little umbrella over both of us and find a smile stuck to my face as I explore the museum with her. She’s resilient, curious, and hilarious.

I spend thirteen pounds on an umbrella which is far too expensive but I have no regrets.

My passport is a little crinkly around the edges now.

***

Day 21: Stone, Glass, and Paint

There’s an American man visiting the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey who doesn’t know who either Jane Austen or Shakespeare is. That makes me want to cry more than the awe of seeing memorials to some of my favorite writers all in one place. Why don’t we care more about art?

I walk around the Tate Britain aware of every security guard’s eyes boring into my soul. Sometimes I wish I didn’t look the way I do as I scurry far away from certain tourist groups. There’s all this talk about “fitting in,” but my face will never “fit in” anywhere even if my heart does.

There is so much to see and no time to write it down.

The painting of the Tenth Plague makes me want to cry.

I surrender.

***

Day 22: Movement

How is it that history is always more interesting than the past? These Greco-Roman statues, crumbling in our museums, stand as a tribute to the way things used to be and a part of me wishes I could have been there, back in the days when art was one of the most highly valued things about this world, right up there with religion and family. Now, if you want to be an artist of any kind, you’re accused of dreaming.

Jared finds a bookshop in the basement of a building near our hotel. There’s an old, old copy of Charles Lamb’s “Essays of Elia and Eliana.” I don’t buy it because it’s seven pounds and I probably will never read it. I’m still thinking about it. Maybe I should go back and hope to goodness it’s still there.

I get to see “Wicked” on West End and it’s my first encounter with live theater so naturally I have chills the entire time, even during the confused hubbub of intermission. I cry during “I’m Not That Girl.” I really should have bought a program, but at least I have my ticket and the stars lingering in my eyes.

***

Day 23: Filled, Slowly

Our first stop is Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. I don’t have the patience to wait in line, which may only be because I read the series after I graduated high school so, alas, it did not have any impact on my childhood.

We walk into the Treasures of the British Library and I’m not sure I’m still breathing. I almost cry when I see the old handwritten and hand-decorated Bibles from a thousand years ago. There are first folios, Jane Austen’s writing desk, Sylvia Plath’s journal and original handwritten draft of her poem “Insomniac,” and the Magna Carta.

A snippet from the journal:

“I’m still struggling to respond to anything, but for a moment I stood in awe, however fleeting. Maybe it’s okay that words keep failing me. Maybe it’s okay to sit and receive without doing anything in return.

“Maybe that’s all I’m supposed to be. Filled. Yet the numb emptiness pervades every corner of my existence and I don’t know how to receive these things. It seems they’re placed in my open hands only to fall out again.

“I still don’t feel emotionally present, and I’m still anxious and a little disembodied (last night I was sitting on my bed talking to Maddie and I physically felt the room move away from me, or me from it), but I think God poked a tiny hole in the black cloud of despair I’m stuck with, and maybe that’s supposed to be encouraging. Maybe it’s better to catch fleeting glimpses than no glimpses at all?”

***

Day 24: Quaint

Today is a free day which I choose to spend exploring bookstores around London with fellow book-loving friends.

Bookshops open at 10:30am. We arrive at our first stop around 10:28am and there’s a short queue of well-dressed Brits patiently waiting for the door to open. Enchanting. Imagine any layperson in America waiting for a bookstore to open. Can’t? That’s what I thought.

I stumble upon a lovely old copy of “Sense and Sensibility” in Henry Pordes on Charing Cross Rd, but I don’t fall in love with it no matter how hard I try, so I put it back and keep my twenty pounds. I will try again in Oxford.

Later in the afternoon I order a mocha and sit in the window of a lovely cafe. Here are some of the thoughts that ran through my mind as I listened to moody music and sipped my coffee.

A pigeon just walked past with only one foot. The poor fellow.

Some men are pinning pink and green pennants all the way down Lamb’s Conduit Street. I wish I knew why.

I’m so glad I bought a pair of black jeans before we left.

I don’t understand why I didn’t like these shoes in high school. They’re amazing and I want to wear them all the time.

I’m thankful for friends with whom I can share comfortable, chummy silence.

I’m starting to feel more complex emotions again, more than “sad” or “numb.” It scares me a little because I can’t remember how to deal with them, but I’m glad. The fog is starting to clear.

I miss home. I don’t want to leave here.

There’s a grandmother wearing grey joggers and smoking a cigarette. I’m finally in a place where I can write “grey” and not be judged for it.

“There’s No Way” by Lauv seems to haunt me whether I’m in the States or here in England.

A young lady is helping her grandmother walk down the sidewalk.

There’s a group of young people across the street carrying what appear to be very heavy boxes. I wonder what’s inside.

 

Day 18 – Adventure

Dover Cliffs

Today was so dreamy I don’t know how to write about it in a way that will hold your attention as much as it held mine. But I will try.

We explore Dover Castle – buffeted by the ocean winds, climbing the steep stone stairs, wrestling backpacks and tourists and cameras – and picnic in a ruined, outdoor tower area. Egg and cress has become a staple.

The bus takes us to the cliffs after a couple hours later. I fall in love at first sight. Kailin and I realize there’s no way we can only spend one hour here, so we ask for permission to wander on our own while the rest of the group goes into town to get dinner. It’s the first time I’m doing anything of the sort and I have no fears or doubts about it, though I chuckle to wonder what my parents will say when they find out I’ve done something so scandalously rugged. Nonetheless, permission granted, we hike, stopping occasionally to pick wildflowers, stare, giggle, and hop over puddles. The ground is rough, rocky, raw.

We climb a little higher and reach the lighthouse where we indulge in cream tea for five pounds fifty pence.

Longing to feel the wildness of it all, we leave the gravel path and descend into a low valley, clinging to the stones as we make our way through sprawling grasses.

Sitting there, watching the ocean wash in and out against the white cliffs, I feel sorrowful. As I look out on the vast beauty that surrounds me, my mind feels the pressing presence of God but my heart can’t seem to grasp it, drink it in, or be overwhelmed by it. I know He’s here but I can’t convince my heart this is true. I feel numb, like my heart is so heavy that it cannot properly respond to encountering God’s glory. But what is proper?

My heart nods in God’s direction rather than beating for Him.

Staring up at the cliffs, I realize just how far we have to climb to get back to the main trail. Coming down didn’t seem so difficult, but it’s a steep hike up with no clear path to follow.

We walk to the grassy face and scan for trodden ground. There are spurts of rough steps cut into the dirt wearing puddles filled with muddy water. We start to climb like hobbits.

I panic when we get to the steepest part of the climb. My limbs cease to feel like my own and my breath comes in little gasps. I make the mistake of looking up. It feels like there is still much left to go and all I see is sky. Kailin speaks to me in a low voice and when I anxiously stop, holding a root with white-knuckled grip, she patiently urges me onward. I’m convinced my heavy backpack will send me toppling to my death, or else weigh me down so I can’t reach the top. Kailin’s strength and encouragement are the only things holding me together.

I focus on each tiny step in front of me, trying to ignore the building nausea and the fear of dying. I can’t have a panic attack here; that would not be romantic. When we finally scramble over the corner and onto flat ground again, I realize I’m trembling.

From the journal: “Leaving the valley is hard. It’s scary. It’s necessary. We can’t [get stuck] in the sadness. I don’t think I’m out of the valley yet.”

It was worth it.

High on adrenaline, we make our way back to the visitor’s center and walk a little over a mile into town to meet up with the rest of our group.

I’m still not really sure any of this happened; if I didn’t have any photos and you told me I had dreamed it all, I would believe you.

IMG_5596

PC: Kailin Richardson (in the back you can see the cliff we had to climb!)

Days 14–17

Wifi is unreliable and time is not always available in generous helpings when traveling. Although I will continue to document things everyday, I will end up having to post them in sets like this one. Bear with me on the longer posts!

Also, I will no longer be posting my daily photo challenge here on this blog. But if you’re interested, you can still keep up with it over on my Instagram photography portfolio page here: instagram.com/elianagrace.photo

Day 14: Forgiveness

The thing about close friendships is they matter so much you’re willing to fight for them even when things are awkward and miscommunication abounds.

We sit around the apartment talking long past midnight.

***

Day 15: Epiphany

It’s easy to fill in the blanks. When we’re so desperate for something we make it up in our heads and convince ourselves that our imaginary world is reality, which makes it all the more painful when we realize the difference. But there’s a difference between moving on from something merely constructed in your head and something someone manipulated you into believing.

Psalm 107 contains a refrain of God’s people crying to him in their trouble. He hears them. He delivers them.

He has always been faithful and He is faithful now.

Even when we fall.

***

Day 16: Traveling

I wake up with five hours of sleep and a lot of anxiety. But there’s much to be done in the six hours before the bus comes to take us to the airport, so I throw myself into packing and cleaning, desperate for a distraction. Lunch comes around and in that brief lull I realize my entire body is shaking. I can’t eat anymore than a few bites of spaghetti.

The bus that’s supposed to take us to the airport is 45 minutes late.

Airport security is more or less a breeze, and before long we’re gathered outside our gate, with various groups making trips to Starbucks, McDonald’s, and the bathroom, the three most necessary aspects of waiting for a flight. When the crew begin the boarding process, I feel lightheaded and sit down.

I sleep maybe forty minutes on the plane. I only watch one movie (“Hidden Figures” is amazing and you should all watch it if you haven’t already). The rest of the time I spend shuddering in and out of dozing fits while thoughts spastically flit through my mind, reminding me of all the things I need to do but can’t do anything about at this particular moment, suspended and hurling through the sky thousands of miles above the ground.

Every time I think about a particular situation, I find my heart saying, “I surrender.” It doesn’t begin conscious or intentional choice on my part, but it soon becomes a habit.

***

Day 17: Canterbury

As soon as we land in Heathrow my eyes brim over with tears. I can hardly contain the overwhelming awareness that for the first time in my life I am finally here.

Nothing feels real. At the same time, everything feels right. It’s crazy to think I’ve never been here before but it all feels familiar. It’s like I’ve finally come home.

Apparently, customs officials are very suspicious of students claiming to be here for a study abroad program. When I’m finally waved through, I’m a flustered mess.

SIM cards are confusing.

It’s a two-hour coach ride to Canterbury and I accidentally fall asleep for an hour despite my best efforts to stay awake and beat jet lag.

After dropping off our stuff at the youth hostel, we grab a quick bite to eat and wander around the city for three hours. It’s positively dreamy, but does get pretty stressful having to travel in a large group and navigate the narrow roads. It rains here and there, but we’re blessed with cool, sunny weather for the majority of our walk.

By the time dinner rolls around, most of us are completely wiped out and ready for bed. We’ve reached the point of total exhaustion and everything is funny, which leaves us in breathless, crying fits of laughter back in our rooms. It’s a nice change of pace from the panicked moments that inevitably come with traveling.

As I write this, it’s around 9pm and everyone else in my room is trying to sleep. There are new arrivals to the hostel, though, and they’re thumping around like nobody’s business upstairs. Our room is right next to one of the hostel entrances/exits, which makes for an interesting time.

Canterbury is gorgeous. It’s medieval. We see Augustine’s Abbey which, the professors tell us, is where Christianity got its start in England.

The green here is softer than the green in the States. It’s more welcoming.

It still doesn’t feel real. When will it feel real?

Day 13 – Folding

In her prayer to open the class time, Megan misspeaks and says “before You go” instead of “before we go.” It strikes me that such a simple change of phrase can bear such comforting meaning in a time of stress.

God goes before us. God is already in all the places we are about to be. He is preparing space for us to be.

***

The first words my heart cries, hands outstretched with surrender and desperation to be filled: “God! You are worthy, you are good, you are all I’ll ever need.”

***

Singing (screaming) Dodie’s “If I’m Being Honest” in the apartment basement while doing my laundry makes me feel better and worse all at once.

***

I realize I really need to let go. I keep asking God for healing and he keeps asking me to let go of some things and I keep holding on. I want healing but I can’t stand the thought of letting go of what or who I once held dear.

***

We make a late night Target run to stock up on odds and ends as we prepare for six weeks traveling around England. We blast “so tired” on the way and it’s never felt more real. Kailin and Jared buy pizzas that we pop in the oven as soon as we return.

The apartment fills with smoke.

If you open the oven the oxygen will rush in and feed the fire.

“Lopez! Do you know how to use a fire extinguisher?”

“I don’t think so. Why?”

***

Day 12 – Alive

Today I feel alive.

I spend the afternoon sprawled in the grass, listening to my summer music playlist, and reading “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The bees buzz around my feet, and little green bugs leap onto my arms searching for a friend. I let them. Maybe they desperately need a friend. Maybe they pray every night that a human wouldn’t be afraid of them. Maybe their greatest fear is rejection.

Kailin, Maddy, and I wander downtown to the music festival. The air reeks of beer that we do not drink. When the security guard opens are backpacks crammed full with books she chuckles and says, “Oh, you’re college students aren’t you? I can tell without even asking!”

We splurge. Maddy gets a frozen strawberry lemonade that tastes like chemicals to me. Kailin and I spend five dollars each on small cups of cookies and cream and mint chocolate chip Dippin’ Dots. It’s just what we need to get us back to our apartment.

Fresh fruit. Fancy salad. Cookies and cakes galore. Sandwiches with apple slices and gouda cheese. A game of tag. Getting locked out of the building. Climbing trees. Togetherness.

Despite my best efforts, I get overwhelmed pretty quickly and retreat inside. I crawl into an arm chair and brood, feeling ashamed of myself and trying desperately to show myself grace in this situation.

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” is a movie most dear to my heart. The cinematography is a masterpiece. The story is beautiful.

“We’re so single,” my friends say as the credits roll.

I realize I miss a lot of people.

***

Day 11 – Angst

Waking up was disgusting. There was a frog in my throat, bloating in my face, and zero comprehension in my mind. In this disoriented state, Maddie and I met Tori for lunch at Chick-Fil-A, which made it all the more disorienting. The last time we were there together, Tori was our boss, and we were preparing to be in the office into the wee hours of the morning on publishing night. But it was lovely to hear about Tori’s summer, and it brought a smile to my face to hear country music on the radio, as much as I don’t tend to seek out that genre of music on my own.

I spent the rest of the afternoon fighting malaise and working on a manuscript project for Medieval Literature. We’re supposed to go back to the Old or Middle English of a text we’ve read in class, and copy down several lines in the original font to step into the shoes of a scribe (just with much more advanced writing utensils than were available to them). I got frustrated very easily, despite my voluntary choice to freehand the entire page. Still, it made me wonder what I would have been if I had been born in a different time.

A storm brewed in the air as we ate dinner by the window and sipped tea while eating the most delicious shortbread cookies half-dipped in chocolate. Our conversations circled around London fashion, cafeteria food, high tea, and other odds and ends. We made a break for it right before the clouds opened up with heavy sighs.

Kailin and I wandered around the apartment basement, taking photos and experimenting with the storage cages and laundry machines. It was beautiful. It was the best way to channel angst. Two friends creating art together: a dream.

We gathered around the coffee table to watch “Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again.” I didn’t like it as much as I liked the first one. Perhaps my expectations were too high. But Lily James will always be my hero.

***

Day 10 – Outside of Self

The train screams on the hot metal tracks. We throw open the window to chase away the sticky humidity that seeps under our skin and lingers. A cool breeze filters through the screen, to tell us stories of where it’s been and where it was made, between the four corners of the world and within the hands of God.

***

When I dissociate it’s impossible to think of anyone besides myself. All I want is to come back to myself. When I’m present it allows me to disentangle my heart from my heart and tune in to someone else’s. It feels paradoxical. Contradictory. Necessary.

I miss myself. I miss the way I used to be able to see the world. That vision is clouded now, and I’m still not sure what happened. Maybe nothing happened. Maybe I happened, or stopped happening.

Why?

***

“Heartbreak sucks.”

I’m sitting in a chair and everyone is watching. I stare at the ceiling, at the wall, at the floor, out the window, anywhere but people’s eyes. I can’t stare into their eyes.

I don’t want to be there, but for whatever reason God thinks I should be there. So I sit, and I share, and I shake. I pray at least one person know they aren’t alone.

It’s not supposed to be about us.

***

We talk about a single line in a poem for two hours, and even then the questions aren’t resolved. A couple of us continue scattered conversation throughout the rest of the day, but it’s not satisfying. There are no answers, but we keep trying to find them. That’s where the beauty is. That’s the art of the thing. This constant striving. If we give up seeking and discovering, well, I don’t really want to know what would happen.

Meaning is already there. We don’t make it. We perceive it. We seek it. We discover it.

***

Megan and I walk across campus to see the baby bunnies. We’re enthralled. We tip-toe closer, disregarding anyone who stops to wonder what two young women are doing in the middle of the path, staring into the bushes and squealing under their breath. Mama Bunny watches us with the whites of her eyes, her ears swirling at our every step.

She starts to eat.

Baby Bunny is the size of a leaf. When Megan goes to make a phone call, I creep closer with hearts in my eyes. It’s completely oblivious to my presence, not even flinching when I bring my eye to my camera and try to capture some of the magic. Of course, I’m not successful. You can’t capture that on camera.

***

I journal with my face to the sun and my hair piled on top of my head with careless twists and turns of the fragile elastic band holding it all together. Sitting in the grass, my friends read Tennyson aloud to each other. There are mushrooms growing beneath the tree that stretches its limbs above our tired heads.

***

Day 9 – Getting Through

From the journal:

“Why can’t I enjoy a warm, summer day? Am I so numb and apathetic that I can’t be invested in pursuing joy and finding contentment in things that once made my heart sing and set my mind free? Am I so tired that I can still feel sad on days like this? Am I so hurt that I can’t even take in how lovely life is?

“Maybe I just don’t feel happiness as strongly as I used to. Or maybe it’s still there just not in the same way it was before.

“The birds are singing. A few steps away from my bench a speckled orange butterfly clings to a purple allium flower, feasting to its heart’s content. Steph just walked by and we chatted for a little . . . A girl in a blue dress just sat down at the bench across from mine. She’s kind and I want to befriend her. My glasses cast a rainbow on the page.”

***

I know if I don’t write it down it’s gone forever. Hence the rush to document even the little things. If I don’t, it’ll pass me by. I’ll barely stumble my way through this life and not stop to pay attention to anything for fear of what I might find. I’m forcing myself to pay attention.

I’m forcing myself to pray.

***

Dr. Kriner asks me if I want to take a walk with her. She lets me know she wants to listen, to hear me, to see me, to know who I am and what I’m experiencing. She says she’s been praying for me (and each pilgrim on this trip) and God gave her the sense that something wasn’t quite right. So, she reached out.

Now we’re downtown, getting ice cream and talking about depression. We’re talking about strawberries and bunnies and golden hour and writing and what it means to suffer as an artist and a creative. We’re talking about adulthood, and how nobody is really good at it.

We’re talking about fear.

***

I choose to write my close-reading paper at 1am. Relationship and vulnerability are more important to me at this moment than a rough draft due at 7am before class.

The three of us talk about heartbreak. We want this pilgrimage to bring us healing. We want this pilgrimage to bring us freedom. We want this pilgrimage to bring us peace.

We’re not alone in this.

We can’t leave anything behind. All our baggage is coming with us. But I hope and pray that through our experiences, through our conversations, through the art we encounter, through prayer and journaling, we will be able to leave small packages of pain along the side of the road. I pray we will have the strength to let it go, that we will be ready to let it go.

I can’t hold on to certain things or people anymore. I think that’s a good thing.

Oh, God!

***

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Day 8 – Reminders

Sleeping in, even if it’s just an hour or two, is a rare privilege. What follows are slow mornings in peaceful solitude, give-or-take blasting your favorite music while you brush your teeth and dancing around your empty apartment like a happy fool, without toothpaste dripping from your chin.

I made a list of simple meals I’m planning to make next school year. I can’t wait to choose to avoid the anxious, chaotic space that is the college cafeteria. Today at lunch, I hid at a small window table and stared out the window, letting my thoughts wander far, far away from the half-decent chicken salad I’d scraped together from the limited summer menu.

***

A particular bench on campus is my favorite place to sit when the weather is nice and I need some time to journal and spend time with God. Today I reflected on the importance of prayer, my need for both solitude and community, and what it means to guard my heart (a cliché saying, I know, but one that has become increasingly important to me through the years).

We had class outside on the chapel steps despite the whirring lawnmowers and the grating sound of trowels as men planted flowers nearby. The sun soaked straight through my dark-wash jeans, black t-shirt, and black hair, but I relished the feeling of warmth on my skin. I’ve been so starved for heat after last winter that I didn’t even mind the sweat gathering on my forehead and the potential for sunburn. Nonetheless, after class, Kailin and I went back to the apartment to change into shorts before walking to the grocery store. This was a dangerous adventure, marked with great risk. We walked in hungry and desperate to drink something cold, preferably lemonade. Somehow we slipped out with only $12.68 worth of snacks and no lemonade or ice cream — a true miracle.

***

I finished editing photos for a shoot from a couple weeks ago, sent them off, and proceeded to read a (very confusing) 40-page play. The evening took an unexpected turn when I reacted more strongly than usual to a conversation topic, and ended with my sobbing into Maddie’s arms and trying to process some old hurts from years ago.

***

Almost everyone else is asleep. I’m hunched over my laptop, tapping away in a half-lit living room, listening to the Head and the Heart (again, don’t be surprised) and relishing the consistent sound of the air conditioner. I wish this contented state could count as sleeping. Maybe it does.

Be still, my soul.

***

Day 7 – Senses

From the journal:

“I haven’t had a sense of smell in two weeks [for various reasons]. Today I realized it’s starting to come back, but every time I inhale a deep breath outdoors, I highly dislike the smell that assails my senses. It smells like polluted air. It’s not sweet. Like freshly cut grass mixed with saw dust and exhaust fumes, or body odor mixed with moldy vegetables.”

***

The Head and the Heart released a new album earlier this month and I somehow didn’t know about it until two hours ago. It’s incredible. Their music never disappoints.

I miss my guitar. I miss songwriting. I miss trying to teach myself tabs and failing miserably every time.

Didn’t you know?

***

Chocolate ice cream isn’t nearly as satisfying as chocolate ice cream swirled with vanilla ice cream. Stale cones don’t make the experience any better.

***

We visited Special Collections today. I felt unworthy to run my fingers over centuries-old parchment, to hold Ethiopian copies of scripture bound with twine between blocks of wood and hidden in a box, to gaze upon the micro-drawings in the margins of a Psalter, to behold old music notations beneath protective plastic sheets. I was a geek and a scared puppy all at once.

***

T.S. Eliot is objectively one of the best poets. I’m not so sure about some of his essays, but gosh. His poetry robs the very words from my mouth yet compels me to speak and explain the throbbing that rises to the surface of my consciousness.

***