Hanging in Mid-Air
“The experience of being in between—between the time we leave home and arrive at our destination…is like… when a trapeze artist lets go the bars and hangs in midair, ready to catch another support…” 1
As our train pulled out of the East Station on that September morning in Budapest, Trent and I collapsed into each other’s arms and sobbed.
We were leaving—had left—our home of sixteen years. We had left saddened neighbors on both sides of our back yard, and now we were leaving tearful friends and colleagues who had accompanied us to the station. We were leaving our son and his young wife, standing forlornly on the platform. We were leaving the life we knew and loved.
I wanted nothing more than to undo it all and go back and have everything continue as it had been.
We were—so to speak—hanging in midair. We had let go the bars, and the next support was shrouded in dimness. Where to catch hold?
Paul Tournier, Swiss psychiatrist and physician, writes in his book A Place for You about the meaning of the places we humans occupy. We invest places, he says, with something of ourselves. Far more than just where we “hang our hats,” our houses become homes when we infuse them with purposeful daily life. In fact, to deny a person a place, he writes, is to render that person less than human. Even a temporary home—or a solitary room—can become a “place” in the real sense, if we invest our life there with intentionality.
That Hungarian train, as well as subsequent trains in Germany and England, bearing us irrevocably away from home, became our place over the next two weeks. We used the time to reflect—on the people we had just left, on the now empty house that held so many memories of the life infused into it. It held joys and cares, laughter and tears, people and prayers and hopes and longings—filled to the brim with living.
And now, we had consciously chosen to take those weeks before sailing to America to visit some of the people we hold dear in their places, to get a first-hand glimpse into the lives they were building.
We went from a solid German three-story house where our friends occupied one spacious floor, filled with musical instruments and the accoutrements of family history, to a sumptuous castle built by a 19th century baron in an out-of-the way, tiny village, where those friends were caretakers. They occupied, with several children, a few decidedly-un-castle-like rooms. From there, we visited a family of four whose home comprised four narrow floors in an apartment building with a postage-stamp-sized backyard in a large city.
The settings contrasted greatly, yet they were filled with lives that thrived over decades.
Then the train took us across the Channel to a house in the English countryside where work was going on to update antiquated pipes and fixtures, bathrooms and kitchen. Our friends had a view to welcoming people into their home and had already—even before the remodeling was done—gathered their neighbors into a camaraderie which had not previously existed in the neighborhood. Two more English homes awaited: one in which I could honestly say I felt “at home” as soon as I walked in the door. The other was of a more recent friend, a single young woman who occupied three rooms and was grateful for a place of her “own,” though she does not own it, but where she could invite friends and cook for them—us!
“Cooking—that’s the best!” protested one of our German friends, when I mentioned that I wanted to save his wife from preparing a meal after being out all day. He meant it—and he was in the kitchen, too. I wrote in my journal afterward: “I liked that. Our homes are meant for shelter and for nourishment—not just putting food on the table but delighting in putting food on the table. There is an art to that delight, and we experienced it in the houses of our friends.”
Finally, we literally reached “mid-air” by getting on an ocean liner that would take us from the familiar support of our European way of life on a seven-day hiatus over the body of water that propelled us into an unknown future. For seven days, we would not see land. We were changing places, and the borderless expanse of those seven days made it particularly graphic how drastic was the space in between.
The “space in between”—whatever it is we have left behind: a house or a friendship or a marriage or a job—can be fraught with insecurity. Puberty, that space between childhood and adulthood, is notably insecure. In each case, we have to eventually land somewhere. But not just anywhere. Tournier continues: “…it is a time of danger, of expectation, of uncertainty, of excitement, or extraordinary aliveness.” 2 It is worth the time it takes to find—or make—that secure place.
Just before boarding the train, I said to my son and daughter-in-law, “Be a home for each other. You are each other’s home.”
Now—it was true of us. We two were the only “home” we had.
Homes, marriages, and friendships are each built over time and trust, wading through failure and forgiveness, ordinary sameness and new discoveries. When Trent and I eventually found the house we were to call “home,” it still took time and energy, thought and effort, living through a myriad of experiences, doubts, and the eventual realization: This is home. This is where we will invest our life and welcome it as it comes.
Such is marriage. Such is friendship.
And the friends and the houses we left behind? Were we “re-placing” them?
Amy Carmichael, who made India and the poorest of the poor her “place” for all her adult life, wrote, “All that was ever ours is ours forever.” 3 She may have agreed with Paul Tournier that, when we have invested our lives in a place—or a friendship, or a marriage—we leave something of ourselves in that place or in that person. Our places change us, and we are forever different for having been there.
The farmhouse that was the place of my childhood through my late teens was torn down to become the site of a housing development. Our German third-floor flat of ten years and of our children’s childhoods was divided up into two flats. Our Hungarian house of sixteen years was gutted and remodeled, with nothing left of our imprint. But those places, and the life we lived in them, are still ours.
We have gathered “friends for life” in the places we lived, even though we are now separated from them—in some cases, by thousands of miles. But there is a certain security in knowing that we have shared histories which we will never lose, as well as the impact of those histories on our direction, our outlook and even our character.
There may be in-between places, of one sort or another, in this changing life.
Trapeze artists learn to grab hold of the support in mid-air. They must—their life depends on it.
The richness of the support of past places can help give us the confidence that we will
catch hold of the next and land in a place where we can thrive.
1 Paul Tournier, A Place for You
3 Amy Carmichael, Mountain Breezes poetry collection