In last week’s post, Return to Jekyll Island, I’d made a stop in Georgia, retracing steps from my first intentional solo journey, and was headed on to my final destination of Florida. This is how I introduced the reason for my trip:
“I’ll be reunited with a friend from the Netherlands who I met at the Abbey at Iona, Scotland five years ago. We were in a retreat group of forty from around the world with the focus theme, “The Pilgrimage of Life.” I had no idea then that I was making a friend, a mentor and mentee in the faith, one who had a deep love of Skye, Scotland– a place that I would come to know.”
To best describe how this friend from the Netherlands and I met, I’ll go back to a blog post written in the month after I returned Southern Drawl October 2017:
Each night after our worship service, we gathered for tea and oatcakes in our dining hall. On that first night, I arrived early along with a few others across the room and a man sitting at a table near where I entered.
I felt a nudge to talk with the man who was from Holland — and maybe ten years younger than me. His name was “Aldo” and soon after we started talking, he suddenly stopped.
“Your voice, the way you talk,” he said, with a confused expression, “It’s so weird!”
I couldn’t help my habitual knee-jerk reaction to someone commenting on my accent, my face responding to his comment, my first time hearing my voice labeled weird.
“I don’t mean that in a bad way,” he continued, concerned that he’d offended me. “It’s just I’ve never heard someone like you before. Where are you from?”
“North Carolina — in the States. I’m from the South. That’s the region where my weird voice is from.”
He chuckled, then continued telling me about his life. We talked for almost an hour about our faith and what we were looking for in our time at the Abbey.
Later, I remembered that conversation and thought of a rebuttal.
“You think I sound weird and your name is Aldo. In the States, the only thing close to that is the name in the title of a children’s book, Where’s Waldo?“
But who could be offended by the spontaneously honest fellow with the huge smile and broken English–not that I have the Queen’s English! I was drawn to his frank conversation about how he struggled with his relationship with God–because of his experiences with oppressive men of the faith. I’d never heard a male express his thoughts and feelings so openly. Whenever we talked throughout that retreat week at Iona, I always came away feeling that I’d had a real conversation. I can’t say that I’ve felt that often–especially not in church fellowship groups where people often hide their true feelings–afraid of being judged, sometimes paralized by shame.
More conversation followed at points during the week. When we shared our meal and household duties on the Seal team, we talked about less menial things while we scrubbed out showers and emptied trash cans. We spent a day walking the island as a group, learning the stories of ancient fairies that became angels when Christians arrived. How invigorating to climb those hills and to witness together the beauty of the Inner Hebrides. Later, Aldo would tell me of the grandeur of Skye–the largest of the islands, where he took solo journeys. We both understood the language of pilgrimage, the need to draw away to take the internal journey that pulls you to God and toward the center of yourself and who you’re created to be.
When we ended our retreat at Iona, we all went away with the ability to stay in touch via emails and Facebook. But as often happens, over time those connections weaken and communication decreases and then eventually, stops. I’ve maintained occasional emails with a couple of other people from Iona, but Aldo is the only one that I’ve communicated with through Facebook messaging. He’d shared with me five years ago about his solo journeys to Skye and what an impact that had made on his spiritual growth. Two years later, when my cousin, Kim asked me to go with her to Skye to spread her mother’s ashes, I knew it would be a special place.
In the five years since Iona, I’ve gotten to know Aldo through reading his writings–just as he’s read mine. While he’s happily married, he’s been an empathetic friend and supportive as I’ve gone through divorce. I’ve encouraged him as he’s ventured forth to do life coaching and have been able to draw from my experience and training in that area. Through Facebook he’s seen pictures of me as “Grammy” with my two grandsons, and I heard about how his sons’ motorcycles were stollen from their yard in Rotterdam.
Earlier this year, he told me he’d been invited to lead a men’s retreat in Sanford, Florida. He asked me if I could come there to visit while he was in the States, that it would be so nice to talk in-person.
I remembered how much we enjoyed talking at Iona– how communication is so different in person versus online or by emailing. I remembered how much I’d learned and grew from sharing with Aldo, how his European perspective added to the richness of that conversation. I agreed that if he could get to the States, I could get to Florida; somehow we’d work out a time to visit in the days before he led the men’s retreat.
Like with all adventures, all my solo journeys, my initial enthusiasm and certainty of my course is followed by my internal, critical, doubt-producing resistance. There’s a hesitance to “cross the threshold” from the Known to the Unknown. No matter what I’m called to, I go through a time of feeling like, “Is this what I’m supposed to do?” It’s easier to not put yourself out there and use your energy to go beyond those safe boundaries of what you know. I was making a commitment to get in my car and drive the 9 hours to Sanford, Florida and spend time with a friend–who is male, and actually sixteen- years younger than me, whom I hadn’t seen in-person in five years. Would it be as easy to spend time with him Florida as it had been in Iona? Would it look weird for a woman of my age to make such a trip with that purpose?
Like it is with all my solo journeys, I prayed about my uncertainties and asked God for direction. As the time for Aldo’s retreat grew near, I felt assured that I was to step out into the unknown of this journey. I didn’t know what God had in store for me, or for Aldo–but it was the path I was to take.
I arrived in Florida late Sunday afternoon. How wonderful it was to finally see my friend, to hear his voice with that great Netherland’s accent! It was as if we’d seen each other the day before instead of five years ago.
Over the next two days, we had no schedule, no people we had to meet with, nothing required of us. Our time was focused on visiting with each other, sharing what was happening in our lives; and we did. We walked the downtown of Sanford and ate dinner at a German restaurant–with Aldo advising me to try the schnitzel. His home is about 260 miles from the German border.
On Tuesday, we drove to Daytona Beach to spend the day. Riding there, I was surprised to learn that Aldo loved tractors. He’d spent a couple of weeks in the summers on a friend’s farm. He even knew the difference in an International Harvester–the company that made the Farmall that my family owned, and the John Deere–that had that “putt-putt-putt” sound of a Diesel engine. How happy he was to take a swim in the warm Atlantic on that unseasonably hot day–even by Florida standards, compared to the chilly waters of his part of the world. We finished off the day with a great meal at Rossellinis Italian Restaurant.
In between walking on the boardwalk and the beach, were conversations about discoveries we’d made on solo journeys, ways God showed up in the people we encountered on our paths, how to lean into the mystery of our Christian faith.
I could see so much growth in Aldo since that first night we’d talked at Iona. My life had taken an unexpected turn since then. Aldo helped me to move further in my acceptance of the “not knowing” of all the “why?”
It was sad parting–not knowing if or when I’d see Aldo in-person again. What rich days we spent together. It didn’t matter that we’re from two different countries and of two different generations; faith and friendship have no boundaries. It’s only in our small ways of thinking that we limit who we can share life with, who are acceptable friends or appropriate mentors of our faith in God.
Last week I closed my post asking the questions:
What fresh lessons does God have on this journey? How will this be a time of refreshment and renewal?
I found those answers as they unfolded in Florida–moving by the Spirit of God rather than trying to be in control.
I hope that you’ve found answers, or better yet, questions to live into over the past week. It’s in the Unknown, that we meet God and we find ourselves approaching our center.
Blessings to you as you step forward in the week ahead.
The sanctuary at the Abbey at Iona, Scotland–where pilgrims from around the world worship and experience the vastness of God.