When I was 22 years-old, I attended l’Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, France. Montpellier is a city in southern France, west of Marseilles, quite near the Mediterranean Sea. Paul Valéry is one of the oldest universities in Europe.
Montpellier is renowned the world over for something else: l’Ecole Supérieure d’Oenologie; in other words, the School of Oenology. It is considered to be the most prestigious school of oenology in the world. France’s most celebrated wine families send their children to this school to ensure that the family’s winemaking traditions are learned, and, thus, continued. Montpellier isn’t a huge city; I met quite a few of these young, blue blooded vintners in the making. I’m sad to say that they were true to every stereotype–young, snobbish, relatively good-looking, horribly entitled, and xenophobic. If they would deign to speak to you, then you were sure to be insulted. I thought it was humorous. In America, we simply don’t have these sorts of families–one family defined by a profession, generation upon generation upon generation of one craft passing down through the ranks. Our country is simply too young! France’s oldest wine-producing company, Château de Goulaine, was founded in 1000 A.D.! Clearly, my worldview differed from that of these young men.
Thomas was a Californian attending the School of Oenology. He came from a wine family, too, but he wasn’t a wine snob. I met him through another American student in Montpellier. Thomas was in his early 30s. He was very well-educated, and I could never understand why he was in France. He was highly employable already. He was the guy that built the vineyards. He understood grapes, soil, weather, the fermentation process…everything! He had already built a name for himself in Napa Valley. For some reason, however, he thought that attending the most prestigious winemaking school in the world would look good on his CV. He was probably right.
Thomas and I became instant friends. We didn’t see each other often because our studies were rigorous, and he lived on the opposite side of the city. He was ten years my senior, and, I think, he found my friends a bit annoying. They drank too much and talked too loudly. One night, however, we made a date to have dinner and see a movie– an American movie in English! I’m not a huge Quentin Tarantino fan, but “Pulp Fiction” was music to my ears after being forced to listen to the French language 24/7 for months on end. Thomas and I went out for pizza and wine after the movie. It was one of those enchanting evenings when conversation flowed. Everything was just easy, and there was a real depth and connection. We laughed together, but there were moments of true intimacy (as in “in-to-me-see”). It was not romantic in the least. We really were just friends, but, for whatever reason, all pretenses were dropped. Authentic communication and connection happened. I reveled in it because I recognized its evanescence. Thomas walked me home. We hugged. I left France shortly thereafter, and I never saw him again.
This is the way of human interaction, it seems. I don’t know if everyone yearns for authenticity in their relationships, but, if you do, then I suspect you’ll find that it isn’t a constant. There seems to be a tidal quality to intimacy (again, think “in-to-me-see”) in the many and varied forms that human relationships take. There are times when I see my girlfriends, and the conversation is superficial. We don’t bridge the gap very well between each other. Other times, we bypass the shallow end of small talk and dive directly into the deep end of “Tell me how you’re really doing.” Eye contact is easy. We need that hug, and it’s a pleasure to give. Other times, we feel guarded and wary–unwilling to “go there” with anyone. We don’t want anyone seeing into us. We have our reasons.
Sometimes, an intimate, authentic spark occurs between two strangers in the oddest of places. It can be a genuine smile. A short conversation about a book. A compliment. An unexpected conversation at a café. Or, even in virtual conversations through blog comments. In any case, you’ve met a kindred spirit of sorts, and the pleasure of that brief connection washes over you. In that moment, you aren’t alone in the world. You’ve been understood, and you’ve had the chance to extend understanding, too. It goes both ways. Along with the pleasure comes the grief because as soon as it begins, it ends. These moments in time are ephemeral.
They ebb and flow in my own marriage. My husband has been waiting for the latest video game installment of The Elder Scrolls–Skyrim.
While he hasn’t been ignoring me per se, he has been heavily preoccupied with this game. Admittedly, it’s a very cool game. If I were a gamer, I’d probably be preoccupied, too. Alas, I am not a gamer. Let’s just say, since Skyrim has entered our house, he hasn’t touched me in the bedroom–in any way. We have this tradition. You might laugh, but it’s kept our marriage on track. He tucks me in. He’s a night owl; I am not. So, whenever I go to bed, he stops what he’s doing, and he tucks me into bed by kissing me goodnight. It’s our daily check-in. If something is wrong, if we need to talk, or if we simply need to connect, then this is when we do it. It’s the final connecting point of the day. Since I became a Skyrim widow, he has stopped tucking me in. Marriage is full of opportunities to long for intimacy and connection, isn’t it? It’s also full of lost opportunities. Sometimes it’s bleak. Sometimes it’s full and overflowing.
Recognizing the genuine connection when it happens is important because it reminds us that, in part, we were made for it. It’s also important to recognize them because they are so fleeting. Thomas was a kindred spirit, and I was able to enjoy his presence in my life albeit for a very short time. There are other kindred spirits I’ve known for very brief moments, but I’ve enjoyed the time. I’ve also felt the sadness of their loss, too. The darkness that follows the bright spark of connection appears darker somehow if only for a while.
I wonder if Moses felt like that after he asked God to pass before him. It is written in Exodus 33 that God said that he would indeed “let all his goodness pass before him”, but Moses could only see his back. We are human beings, wired for deep connection, but only allowed to see the back of God. I do wonder sometimes if that accounts for the tidal nature of human relationships. We can be such contrary beings, wanting and fearing at the same time. We reach out, we pull back, just like the tide. What moon is drawing us in and pulling us out? Over and over again.
I have no profound words of encouragement to offer. I’m feeling thoughtful and melancholy today. I’m also grateful. I’m grateful for every opportunity I’ve had to connect with another person however brief that connection may have been. I’ve always come away enriched and bettered in some way. Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and I want to be thankful. While I do, at times, struggle with loneliness and melancholy, I do feel that the only way I can temper that is to glance at the landscape of my life and deliberately give thanks. I may feel grief over loss, but I also felt joy in those places, too. We all have journeys to make, and, one way or another, I must learn to sojourn, progressing forward, under the shadow of the back of God.
May your Thanksgiving be blessed, rich, and graced with the Spirit of gratitude, and may your upcoming year take you into territories unknown, full of new adventures, new intimacies, and genuine relationships.