Last week marked the one month deadline I gave myself to settle in. Pictures hung, lamps plugged in, there was no more work to do to get the house in order. I knew that the distractions of my ‘to do’ list had helped me to feel anchored, but I also knew that my efficiency would quicken a feeling of being lost. I was scared of feeling purposeless once the last box had been unpacked. Last Monday I woke up to a sunny day, hustled Shane to work and Jack to school, then thought, ‘Now what?’
Call it obsessiveness, but when in doubt, I walk. Walking calms me, exhausting my body so my mind won’t spin all day. Monday morning, I started out with the intention of making a long, 3-hour circle by walking through our new neighborhood, crossing the Potomac heading east then circling south along a Georgetown canal path, before veering back towards home. After crossing the river, though, I decided to head east farther into D.C. where I hadn’t been. I figured I could explore the neighborhood near Union Station, grab lunch and then hop the Metro back to Arlington. Enjoying the sun and distracted by a podcast binge, I realized about 45 minutes after crossing into D.C. that I was nowhere near the train station. You can’t exactly be lost in the age of the smart phone, but I certainly wasn’t where I intended.
If you check google maps on your phone, almost any birdseye view of D.C. shows an icon for the National Cathedral. You have to zoom out practically to New Jersey to get that icon to disappear. Looking at my phone, I realized my pulsing blue dot was very near the cathedral. I couldn’t see it through the web of fall foliage still on the trees, but a few quick steps and I was smacked by the 6th largest cathedral in the world.
If you know me, you know I studied church history in England, have lit candles in every church I’ve ever been to and have wept rainbow tears sitting in Sainte Chappelle. As I walked up to the gothic cathedral, I realized my morning ‘plans’ to wander were delusional. I had been heading to the cathedral all along.
I paid the $12 entrance fee then turned to my immediate left to read the first plaque. The words were of Lincoln’s impromptu speech to his hometown of Springfield, IL when he was boarding the inaugural train leaving for D.C.
My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
It is vain to suggest I felt Lincoln understood me, and yet… 150 years ago, this man facing the greatest crisis of our country, was describing identical emotions to my own. He talked about leaving his hometown, gratitude, parenting, grief, faith in the divine and ultimately hope. “Let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.”
His words tunneled to my deepest fears and dug them out. Leaving the Bay Area has been one of the hardest things for me, and yet it was a choice I fought for. The constellation of emotions I have been juggling include my struggles as a parent, grief over my dad’s death in March but also a fundamental faith that everything would work out.
I walked around the cathedral thinking about how I could turn Lincoln’s message into something lasting, something personal and purposeful. As I contemplated all of this, I noticed groups of people touring the cathedral. The groups were led by docents describing the meaning of the iconography, pointing to particular stained glass images and connecting all of this to biblical and American history. It was suddenly so clear: I left home last month feeling sad, but hoping there was a purpose for me in Washington. Since I was 19, I have read historical tomes, studied in one of the great cathedral towns in all of Europe and always harbored a desire to teach. When I left my graduate program, I gave up my aspirations to teach and at some fundamental level have felt like a failure ever since. As I listened to the docents, I wondered: what if I don’t need a Ph.D. to in order to share stories of the past?
As giddy as that idea made me, I immediately began to doubt myself. These docents seemed wise and ancient (all 3 of the ones I saw were at least in their 70s). Their knowledge was clearly born out of decades of study and experience. Did they all have advanced degrees? How grueling were the qualifications? How rare were the openings?
I drummed up the courage to go to the visitor’s desk. “How does one become a docent?” With a gleam in his eye, the helpful man said, “Do you have a minute? Come with me.” He led me to a back office hidden by the heavy stones. “Jenn, we have a live one!” he called out to the program director.
Within a few short minutes, I learned that they trained docents once a year. That the annual training was on Saturday, only 5 days away. 24 of 25 spots had been filled. They were looking for volunteers who could commit at least one weekday and most appreciated young-ish docents because so many of the tours were for student groups. Qualifications included a passion for history, art and architecture, but no Ph.D was required. I could self-study, pass a series of tests, lead qualifying tours and then be free to ‘craft my own tour.’
My mom has a saying, ‘When you’re going in the right direction, doors open before you.’ I believe deeply there is a purpose to life and a divine spirit most present when we act on love. That’s what I call faith. Without it, we cannot succeed. With it, we cannot fail. Let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. Will you come with me on a tour?