Three years ago the time came for a venerable Jesuit professor at Loyola University, veteran of decades of scholarship and teaching, to move from Chicago to the Jesuit infirmary near Detroit. In distance, the trip is only 300 miles, a couple of hours’ drive. In the imagination and in the heart, the trip is very, very long.
To lessen the trauma of the move, the office of the Jesuits’ Chicago Province asked David, a young man on its staff, to help. David worked with planning and office management and was fantastic at it. He was likewise excellent at helping this older Jesuit uproot himself from things that had grounded him for a professional lifetime and move on.
“David, do you think I will need these books in my new home?” the Jesuit asked with confusion or regret, hope or fear. “No, father, I think they have enough good books up there.” “Thanks, David.”
I could have used David’s help in October, when I moved from Chicago to New York. I was not retiring but coming to America. And I too had to dispose of many things accumulated during my 28 years in Chicago and pack up the rest. I would wear my old clothes again, of course, but how many sweaters does one really need? I had shelves full of books, and until I get a Kindle I will actually read and consult many of them.
A Jesuit does not move furniture, of course; but many smaller things, souvenirs or gifts, demanded decision, to take or not to take. And then there were photos. I worked for 21 years at another Jesuit magazine, traveled for stories and brought home hundreds of pictures to illustrate them. Starting slowly, leisurely, I could make good decisions; by move day, I was tossing things into boxes to sort later.
The boxes left Chicago on Oct. 6, and I followed two days later. When I arrived on 56th Street, a crew had just moved them into my new room. Over the next few days, as I cut through packing tape and unpacked, I found myself wondering, “Why did I ever bring this?” and “Where will I ever find that?” I had so much, but so much too was not there anymore. And I was very tired from the strain of moving, disposing of and leaving behind.
I got into a familiar routine in the morning, drinking coffee and picking up books I was working through in my old life. One of them was Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s The Book of Words, a work on Jewish spirituality, from which I read a short chapter each day. Kushner reflects on returning home and photographs, on gifts and losing things and spending time. His words hit home. On my fourth day in New York, after reading about family and images and memory, I grabbed my notepad and wrote simply, “Wow!”
I knew, of course, that the chipped vase a friend had given me many years ago in Cincinnati was not that friend and that my memories would endure without it. I knew that the book an author had signed and dated as a gift was not that friend either. I knew that the champagne glass from a young couple’s wedding I celebrated 25 years before was not their love and their commitment, which has endured and grown stronger while the glass gathered dust on a shelf.
My family are not the gifts or the grade school art they have proudly presented me through the years. (My sisters helped me immensely in September when they gave me permission to dispose of anything they had given me—thanks!)
And I know that love and friendship endure when the photos have cracked and faded, when the clothes have worn thin. “Don’t make idols of images of the Creator,” Rabbi Kushner reminds us. God’s love and human love are greater than their tokens, their reflections. This love outlasts our every move.