For a moment it was 1966, my parents were teenagers again, and the Beatles were the cat’s pajamas; they were singing the Beatle’s hit “Eleanor Rigby.” That night we had gone to a concert and heard an arrangement of the song with only guitar and cello. I was about eight at the time, and neither I or my siblings had heard the song, so my parents went on to enlighten their poor uncultured children with gusto. I remember looking out the back window of our van, watching the snow fly in white blurs past the car, and feeling deeply moved in that way one can only feel as a child first encountering mystery and sadness. The song awoke in me a feeling of beauty and of solemnity that I couldn’t quite articulate, but I held onto, not wanting to release the sweet-sick feeling. As my mother and father enthusiastically sang, Father McKenzie and Eleanor Rigby seemed to take form in the white drifts outside my window and look in longingly. The wind whipped the windows with blusterings of snow, and the wind moaned…I fancied I was being haunted by them. They were sad. And I was sad for them.
“All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie have haunted me every since. As I grew I began to articulate the dismay I felt as a child. It was founded on the idea that there are people who’s stories are forgotten. Like Eleanor Rigby, they live, they smile, they long for love, they die, they are buried, they are forgotten. Could it really be so?
I think Eleanor was my first introduction to the possibility of a life that passed without regard from darkness to light and back to darkness. I felt intuitively and strongly that this was a great grief, and I still do. No life story should go untold.
On Tuesday I was making tea in the small basement kitchen of our program’s building. It’s the sort of kitchen where, even if there’s only two people in it, to get anything you have to shuffle and scooch and say “Oh, I’m sorry!” quite a lot to get your mug, tea, sugar, milk and biscuit all in order. One of the women who works in the offices and I had commenced with this complicated social dance, and were now waiting for our tea to steep.
“How is your day going?” I asked out of habit and a dislike of awkward silences.
She then began telling me about her day. She told me about inspections she had to prepare for, and the history of the inspections in the past, and the various personalities of the inspectors. She told me about forms she had to fill out for said inspection. And she told me she was preparing for an academic luncheon,and that there were researches bustling around.
After having told me all of this, she breathed out what sounded like a nourishing sigh and said,
“Thank you for asking! Really… thank you. People usually don’t ask.”
I said “yeah!” and “of course!” and that I hoped she had a nice day. She pulled her tea bag out, we shuffled again, and she was off.
When she left, I was puzzled. I only asked her “how’s your day going?” It was a simple question, and was perhaps more out of habit than of any noble intention on my part. It was so small a thing, and somehow, it unlocked a floodgate that was ready and bursting. It surprised me that it was surprising to her that I would ask her how her day was.
When I worked at a coffee shop this summer, the same thing happened often. A costumer would order their usual, I would swip-swipe their card, and while I waited for their mocha to blend, or the muffin to heat, I would ask them how their day was going. Often it was just a “It’s going well, thanks! How about yours?” But more often than you would suppose, People’s floodgate burst. I learned about job issues, children in jail, health problems, imminent weddings, mouldy basements, overwhelming church events. Sometimes I wondered if I had a look on my face that said “tell me your secrets!” I think, however, that it had nothing to do with me in particular, and everything to do with the fact that most people are bursting to be asked, cared for, and drawn out. Perhaps, I would go so far as to say Most people are at least a little bit lonely.
I believe we have all experienced the feeling of loneliness. The desire to be preferred, seen, asked, known, and the reality that that is not always the case. I have been blessed with a loving family and beloved friends, but I still know the feeling of walking around with a weight wondering if anyone would notice or take the time to ask. Haven’t we all felt that way?
“All the Lonely people where do they all come from?”
We have all felt lonely, and I believe that is why “Eleanor Rigby” is such a powerful song. We all experience loneliness because we all were made for connection, and we live in a broken world where relationships are challenging, and people are broken. Like Eleanor Rigby, we all have desires and dreams of love. Like Father McKenzie, we have passions and ideas we want others to know. We want to be remembered. We are all, or have been, the lonely people.
So what do we do with us?
This summer I read the Gospel of John. What struck me again and again was that many of Jesus’ followers were not drawn by grand miracles, but by the fact that Jesus truly and deeply saw them. I am always moved by the woman at the well’s words: “This man has told me everything I’ve ever done.” He heard her story; he knew her; he asked. And that is the good news of what I believe. Jesus has seen me, known me, and forgiven me. And I am to “go and do likewise.”
Where do all of the lonely people belong? They belong in the Kingdom of God.
We belong with eachother. A part of God’s redeeming work is “to set the lonely in families” (Psalm 68). And having been touched by God’s redeeming work, I too can touch others, see others, ask others.
As we enter this time of Advent, remember Christ’s incarnation, preparing for his eventual return I can think of nothing more fitting than to prepare our hearts by reaching out in love to others. The message of Christ is that, the infinitely perfect, stepped into the imperfect sinful world as Emanuel which means God is with us. Knowing that reality, turning our hearts to be known and loved, naturally leads to an outpouring of love to others. As for me, I want to focus on being with people, asking, and hearing stories. But I am limited, I only have so much heart, and so much time. But in my limitation I will ask; I will ask God for grace to listen, and others the simple, but powerful question: “How are you?”
Every story should be heard.
This is the song that we heard that snowy night. It’s lovely. They’re talented. Enjoy.