Thursday, March 10, 2011

Looking back, looking up, looking down

On my first full day in Barcelona, Judy and I wedged ourselves into a crowd of people in the plaza outside the main Cathedral of the city. The parade of giants wound its way through the plaza and exited by way of a narrow street. 

Between us and the parade were groups of people wearing matching shirts. Large groups. Men and women. Old and young. Big and small. Tall and short. Greeting one another with hugs and high fives. After spending some time in small talk, slowly and deliberately, they wound long strips of heavy black material around their midsections. I was immediately intrigued. 

An hour or so later, we wedged our way into another crowd a few streets away. The giants had taken up residence around the perimeter of the plaza de San Jaume. They too wanted to see the spectacle of "the castellers." What are castellers? They are human towers. Not pyramids that merely stand still, these towers form in one place and walk to another. 

Those hugging, high-fiving teams became an awe-inspiring constellation of balance and strength and determination and beauty. High above each human obelisk was a child, a little girl, standing tall, arm extended above her, proud to be held aloft by her cast of supporting actors and actresses. Actually, they were more like stuntmen and stuntwomen than actors and actresses.

So many arms and hands at the base. Holding up. Pushing. Bolstering. Sustaining.
And all the while, the entire group of people was in motion.

I suspect that most eyes in the plaza that day were riveted on the little girl at the top of each column. One team in particular appeared to be remarkably unsteady, and we all gasped more than once as we watched that tiny child perched on the wobbly shoulders of the woman below her. That tower leaned and weaved and shook - but the little girl didn't fall. Nor did she look the least bit fearful.

I found my eyes kept falling to the bottom of each tower. I watched those hands, those arms, quivering but strong. Some hands grasped the thighs and legs of the lowest rung on that human ladder. Some hands hold those arms aloft. Still others held onto the waists and shoulders of the people whose hands were more directly involved in the ascension. Only four people were visible in the air, but thirty or forty made up the entire casteller team.

After each team made its entry into the plaza, they began to form larger pyramids. Instead of bases of one person held up by thirty people, they began with bases of six or seven people with fifteen or twenty people in supporting roles. Then more than one person ascended to the top. Two tiny girls would scamper up the backs of their teammates, cross over each other's backs at the top, and then slide back down. It looked like great fun - for the tiny tots. Every one else seemed to be straining and holding on for dear life.

One of the most daring configurations involved starting at the bottom. The first team member to appear above the crowd was the tiniest one. She sat patiently on the shoulders of the two people below her.

Then an entire level was pushed up beneath her. Clinging to the leg of someone on that level was another small child.

The crowd gasped as yet another level appeared - fully formed. Then the girl holding on to the left side of the rising tower climbed to the top, crawled around the shoulders of the one already up there, and both came sliding down - a lot like firemen descend the pole in a firehouse. Breath-taking.

And profoundly thought-provoking. 

My life feels a whole lot like those casteller groups. I meet up with my life team in unexpected places. We all come from various walks of life, various sizes and shapes, colors and patterns, yearnings and desires. We find each other. We wrap love and grace and encouragement around each other, and then we set out on a tower-building adventure. 

Together, as friends, as family, as soul companions, we form teams. We lift one another up. Strongest ones at the bottom. Most daring ones at the top. Sometimes one of us reaches an otherwise unimaginable height, hands raised, spirits soaring. And down below, our team of supporters wobbles and weaves, clings to one another, and all without complaint or resentment. Each of us has had a turn up there, looking around, seeing far beyond all that we could ever see with our feet firmly planted on earth. Those who have not yet had a chance certainly will. 

I have been a part of very wobbly teams. I haven't always done my part to support the ones above me, and when I pull back, entire systems wobble. After hearing heartbreaking stories of betrayal and loss, I have suddenly stopped calling people that matter a great deal to me. Perhaps I am afraid that their tragedies are contagious. Others have pulled away from me during my own times of need and loneliness, and I too have been left to find new means of support for remaining upright. 

Far more frequently, though, I have felt the undeniable love and support and undergirding of people who have carried me through deep, dark, and shaky moments in my life. As my family approaches the ten-year anniversary of the death of my father, I am reminded of the team of hundreds that supported us through his illness and passing. Looking back at the eight years we have spent here in Charlotte, I am reminded of the friends and neighbors who bid us farewell when we left Connecticut and welcomed us with broad smiles and hot meals when we arrived in North Carolina. More recently, while I stood there on that Barcelona street corner, here at home, a team of friends and family members, supported my husband and our children while I gazed up with astonished eyes at the human pyramids that so closely parallels my life. I remain grateful beyond words for the strong ones, the prayerful ones, the funny ones, the serious ones, the loving ones, the near ones, the distant ones who have drafted themselves onto the team that makes my many adventures, large and small, extraordinary and quotidian, possible. You show up right when I need you. You take hold of my from below and lift me to heights I could never attain alone. You write and call and text and meet me at Starbucks and Genaro's and 131 Main. You go for walks with me and car rides. You invite me to walk alongside you, to join your team, and raise you up so you can stand on your own mountains. Thank you, thank you, thank you to each of you and to all of you. My life's journey would not and could not be what it is without you in it. I thank God daily for the amazing people He has brought into my life. Daily. 

As much as I love "my alone time," the marvel of those brave Cataluñan souls in that plaza four weeks ago this coming Saturday served as a visible and visceral reminder that I am never alone. Whether I'm at the supermarket searching for perfect bananas - none of which I grew or transported to Charlotte - or searching for the cheapest gas in the area - none of which I extracted from the earth, refined, or unloaded into those underground tanks - or reading, writing, praying, or crying at my desk here in my study - which I didn't build, paint, or furnish on my own - or 35,000 feet up in the air somewhere out over the frigid North Atlantic Ocean strapped into my seat in an enormous, monstrously heavy steel tube - which I don't know how to fly or operate or maintain in any way - no matter where I am or what I'm doing, 
I am constantly reminded that I am part of the great human casteller team. 
Each one of us pulls another one along. 
Each one supports one another. 
Each one prays for one another.
Sometimes we are on the move. 
Sometimes we are standing still. 
But always, always we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, past and present.
Watching, cheering, gasping, laughing, weeping.

At Madrid's Barajas Airport on Sunday, February 20th, after passing through customs and passport control, I approached the escalator leading to the terminal where I would spend my last 90 minutes - and also my last euros - on Spanish soil. At the base of that moving staircase was the following advertisement for a company called Ayesa. I don't know what they do, nor do I care. But the words echoed and confirmed the message that I had received from so many people during the previous ten days. I did the only thing I could do: stop, pull out my camera, and snap two photos.  

"Don't go alone."

The lesson of that trip, that day, and that hour, was simple.
I was not alone.
I am not alone.
I have never been alone.
And ultimately I was told in command form in this advertisement:
"Do not go it alone."
Whatever "it" is.


Lisa said...

I've read this post twice now ~ and marveled at the amazing photos! I even brought this fascinating festival up in conversation at a potluck gathering last night.

LOVE your words and sentiments; and how you tied it all together. :)

Thank you for supporting me, encouraging me to climb to new heights ~ and for allowing me to do the same for you!


Michele said...

so true - thank you . . .