As I drove down the interstate and crested the hill, I saw a sight that I had seen for nearly four years. Just behind the skyline of this small mountain city lies the backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains. Even though I had seen this sight for nearly four years, I was amazed how it just never seems to grow old.
Even though it’s been nearly eight years that I have been gone from Asheville, North Carolina, there is still a connection there that’s kind of hard to explain. I have been back to Asheville a few times in those eight years, but this time, for some reason, felt different. Maybe it was that I was traveling alone. Maybe it was that a lot had happened in those eight years that I had been gone, both in me and in my life, and I hadn’t really processed it all. It just felt different this time around.
As I thought about it, I formulated a theory in my head about it. I am a passionate and emotional person and I have a hard time hiding my body language when I feel strongly about something. I think that there is a tendency for people like me to throw themselves into things deeply. When passionate and emotional people get involved in projects, build relationships with people, and spend time in places, they can have a tendency to connect themselves to those things emotionally. But there will come a time when that person moves on; maybe the project ends, maybe the relationship ends by death or some other means, maybe they move from that place, however it happens, there will be an end to projects, to people, and to places.
When that end comes, it will feel like a loss, a death of sorts. Projects end and there is a bit of a letdown. I feel this every Sunday that I preach a sermon. I’ve worked for hours on a sermon and when I go home at the end of that Sunday, there is a bit of a letdown because it’s been preached and now that time, that moment, is over. Relationships end, we lose people, that is part of life. We move, our world continues to grow smaller and smaller as we have become so transient. That transience can, however, still create a bond with places for us, maybe even more so because of the tendency to move on to other places as frequently as we see.
When those transitions happen, those people can leave a piece of themselves behind with the projects, the people, and the places. It’s not a matter of the duration of the connection between them and the project, the people, or the places, it’s more a matter of how much heart, effort, energy, and passion was put into it. No matter the duration when this happens, be it 6 years, 6 months, or even 6 days, there will still be a connection there, a connection that will always evoke some kind of strong emotion every time they think about those things or are reminded of those things.
That’s what I felt as I crested the hill and I saw the Asheville skyline. I felt as if there was something in me that would burst, and to tell you the truth, I was a little surprised at just how strong of an emotional response that I had to that sight and to being back in this place where I had spent nearly four years of my life.
Now, it would be prudent to tell you that there were a lot of things that probably made my connection to Asheville stronger. When we moved there, my wife and I had not even celebrated our three year anniversary yet. I had left a career in which I had been working for nearly a decade and had gone into full-time vocational ministry as a pastor. We were living a twelve hour car ride from our families, which for us felt like we were clear on the other side of the world at times, especially when struggles came. All of those things contributed to my connection with Asheville and ultimately set me up for the very response that I experienced when I drove into town.
When my wife and I moved to Asheville in the Spring of 2004, the only family that we had there was the family that we inherited through our church. That family and the bonds between us and them grew stronger as we experienced difficulties during our time there. That’s kind of a natural process in relationships, when relationships are put under pressure and stress they respond in one of two ways: they either break or they grow stronger. We felt like many of the relationships that were forged during this time grew stronger. Were there some that broke? Absolutely, regardless of the strength of the people involved in a relationship, that relationship just might not be able to sustain the pressure caused and created my difficulties.
So, there I was, overcome by emotion as I drove through the city and over the next 24-30 hours I would see some of those very people who had made this city such an important place to me. Each in their own way had made an impact on me. Each in their own way had made me feel like I had a connection to this place. Spending time with them all was something old and new all at the same time, reliving the moments that we had with one another and yet forging ahead and making something new, something different.
I ran a decent length trail run with a friend and spent a lot of time with him talking through what had happened all those years ago. It was incredibly therapeutic, I think for both of us. I had coffee with another friend and caught up with his life, stopped by another friend’s office to catch up with him, had dinner with some other friends, and stopped by the church that I called home for nearly four years, seeing some very special people there as well.
At the end of my brief time there, I began to realize that a piece of my heart was still there. It was left behind when I left and I don’t think that I fully understood that until that moment.
Life passes us by quickly and is full of moments that we will either shirk and waste or embrace and remember. As much pain might be involved in embracing places, people, and projects, I can’t think of any other way for me to do it. As Tennyson wrote, “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
Out there in the mountains of western North Carolina, there is a piece of my heart which I gladly left there. After all, knowing it’s there always gives me a reason to go back and see it again.