When I left for Idaho one of the things I was seeking the answer to was, what makes love last? How do people make it stick?
I kept crashing headfirst into the reality that it isn’t years that produce success; it isn’t stability that creates longevity. Finding out these were not the answers started to blow my world apart. I always believed these were secret ingredients that my millennial generation couldn’t grasp with our microwaves and fast-food upbringing.
Waiting to board my plane to Boise, I met a man with a bright red backpack; his stories had me leaning in with awe.
“I got divorced a few years ago. It took some time to get my stuff together after that, but now I just travel all the time.”
His pain was visible. I asked him what he did before he got divorced, before seeing the rainforest, kayaking in Belize, or racing motorcycles in the desert.
He once built beautiful homes that were stable and strong. He built one for his wife. I sat there willing to bet they had muffin tins. I imagined his wife baked dozens: blueberry, chocolate chip, and pumpkin. But after years inside that home, they still didn’t last. Now that house sits empty on acres of land. He told me that he doesn’t know how to let go of it. It is lonely and empty, but he can’t let it go.
I had plans to find him when our plane landed. I needed to ask him what he would have done differently.
But he was at the front and I was at the back. By the time we touched down and deplaned, it was too late. The man with the red backpack was long gone.
It isn’t the house. It isn’t the stable job and the keeping our feet on the same piece of land. That’s all I could think as the doors opened and Idaho greeted me with her sunshine.
It isn’t the muffin tin. Heaven help me, if there’s one thing I’m learning after my break down in Kroger, it’s that. Those aren’t what make it last. It isn’t the perfect life that we build and never move our feet from. It isn’t an illusion of stability that we can fit inside of cabinets and between four walls. That won’t keep us in the arms of another person. It isn’t just forty years of furniture and picture frames that keep it together.
So I set out on this restless adventure across what I anticipated to be the most boring state in the continental United States. And it was nothing I expected. It was an incredible mix of learning how muffin tins are not the answer, but they are not the things we can blame for why we fall apart.
I don’t think I found a secret ingredient or all the answers. Still, I found something I needed, but not until the trip ended and I was crying at the gate waiting to fly home.
I sat watching a man and his pregnant wife. He was so exhausted that he could not keep his eyes open. She was far enough along in her pregnancy that she could barely see over her baby bump.
She attempted to put her shoes on, but it’s not an easy task when you cannot see your own feet. Immediately, her husband slid to the floor and began to help her. His eyes so heavy, his mouth opening with a yawn. When he seemed certain that she was mostly settled and could finish the task, he slid back into his seat and shut his eyes. I could tell he was literally seconds from falling into a nap.
A few minutes later she exhaled with frustration, struggling as she reached to finish the final stretch of tying the last shoe. Almost there, but not quite.
He heard it. He knew the sound of her. Without even opening his eyes, he slowly slid back onto the floor without hesitation. When his knees hit the carpet, he cracked open his eyes. The sweetest and softest smile covered his face. He tied the shoe.
She giggled. He laughed. I cried.
I thought of my friend with the red backpack. I thought about all the trips he’s taken this year. I thought about how he is getting older and how one day he’s going to be sitting at Gate C2 and he will sigh because his bones will be aching.
Connie won’t be there to help him tie his shoes.
The big strong stable house might be standing, the muffin tins might be inside of the cabinets. The plane tickets might take him to all the places he resented his marriage and house for never letting him go, but they will not tie his shoes.
We’re all looking for something to give our lives for. Something worthy of sliding onto the floor, digging our knees into the dirty airport carpet for: something worth the words and the fight.
A life that looks perfect and stable will not make us stay. Good jobs, paychecks, houses that have bay windows, and the years we spent building them will not be what make us stay in their arms.
Somewhere in the stretch of those few seconds that her husband almost fell back asleep, there was a building in my chest as I watched her struggle to put that shoe on. But when that man fell to his knees to help her, despite the fact that he had just been down there minutes earlier, despite his exhaustion, regardless of the ungodly germs on that airport carpet, that’s when I realized that it isn’t years, it can’t be.
It’s something more like not letting the years pass.
It’s realizing that sometimes only seconds pass before it’s our turn again.
I cried in that airport because I realized that I don’t always know the kind of love that takes another turn a few seconds later. The kind of love that doesn’t have to follow a perfect rhythm of give and receive.
Sometimes it all goes out of order and you don’t tally it up. Sometimes the clock ticks by and you don’t remember who owes what and why. Sometimes you’ve been the one to slide to the floor the last eight times. Sometimes you’re the one in the chair and their sleepy brown eyes are staring up at you. Sometimes you’re the one learning how to let go and receive the help your tired body needs.
Friend with the red backpack: I hope that you will forgive yourself for the years in between. I pray you find people whose shoes are worth tying on airport floors and who will slide to the carpet when you can’t tie your own. That you come to find God and see the way He ties our shoes when we’ve taken our lives to gates where no one else knows our names. That you’ll come to know your loafers are worthy of a good double knot and that it might be time to let that old house go.