Fully known

“Are you gonna be okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, of course,” I said, confident in my answer. This was not my first bridal shower. I’ve been to a decade of them. And I’ve been to weddings. Last year, I went to eight of them. Eight weddings in one year. (Remember weddings? Before COVID?)

“I know these things can be hard,” my friend said, measuring my expression for sincerity. 

“Yeah, they used to be,” I admitted. “But it’s been a good year and God has been so faithful to me in everything, and I’m okay – really. I am so at peace with this rich, full life God has given me.” 

It wasn’t a lie, although I have had to explain the truth of it so many times recently I sometimes wonder. I can go to a wedding and dance my heart out and feel nothing but joy. I can look forward to bridal showers and baby showers and not feel that painful sting of disappointment that someone else has received a blessing I so dearly wanted. Do I occasionally loiter around the cake and coffee for a little extra emotional support? Absolutely.

But mostly I’m fine. 

“Alright then, can you carry in the Jelly Beans?” she asked.

I nodded. 

Dancing the night away with an old friend at the first of eight weddings I attended in 2019. PC: Jessica Castellano, jesscastephotography.com

Michelle and I had parked a few blocks away from the house that, in an hour or so, would be Grand Central Station for bridal buzz. I carried the box of candies and we hurried down the sidewalk in our nice dresses and pretty shoes, excited for what the afternoon would hold. 

I wasn’t officially part of the set-up committee, but I had spent the night at Michelle’s house and had therefore been drafted into the pre-party team. I didn’t know either of the ladies already at the house, plumping cushions and rearranging tables for the expected guests. Both women were sweet and earthy and incredibly welcoming. I love people like that. And they were both good huggers, which – even in those pre-COVID days – was a quality I appreciated. 

“Mary, if you’ll just strip these branches down and then place them around the tables for decoration, that would be so helpful,” said the hostess. 

Decorative branch placement is, I’ll admit, not something I feel qualified to do. Some women know how to put a room together – I am not one of them. 

“This is not my gifting,” I whispered to Michelle as I awkwardly tucked the branches around the salad bowls she was placing on a white tablecloth. 

My gifting, I think, is to keep the pot stirred enough that the comfort levels of my friends and family never quite settle. You know what they say: if you can’t be sanctified, you sanctify. 

Okay, I made that one up. But it feels true. 

“Hello everyone!” 

The bride’s sister waltzed into the room in a confectionarily sweet rush of positivity and smiles. Rachel is a cheerful saint. 

“I still have stuff in the car if anyone can help!” she said, her tone nearly as bright as her smile. I jumped on the chance to let someone else fix the boughs of whatever plant this was and followed her outside. 

“I didn’t know you’d be here,” Rachel said. It’s hard not to feel warm and loved when Rachel talks – she makes you feel like you’re the person she’s been waiting to see all day. She gave me a snug little squeeze. “I’m so glad you can help! How have you been?” 

In snippets, we tried to catch up, but eventually we both got pulled into the whirlwind of party set-up. The Jelly Beans found themselves in tiny bowls around the house, which was a gorgeous home that felt like a cross between a day spa and a log cabin. Someone had fixed my branches and the salad bowls were now accompanied by sandwich plates and platters for dips and dressings. Things had been elegantly draped, labeled and touched with a grace of forethought I most assuredly do not possess. 

And then we waited. 

With little left to do in the house, we found ourselves headed back outside to enjoy the sunshine of early March. I took a seat on the steps and Michelle and Rachel joined me on the beautiful brick stairway.

“Have you gotten any feedback for your article?” Rachel asked.

Ah, the article. That small work which has led me down a year-long quest to better understand and further engage the Christian community on the issue of singleness. At that time, I had only just posted the blog a few weeks before, and in it I laid out the case for greater introspection on the issue of singleness in the church. It was a strongly worded letter, as far as blogs go, and I had definitely received feedback. 

If you can’t be sanctified…

Writing it hadn’t been hard (though it came from some hard-earned experiential wisdom). It was the bevy of conversations which followed that had been difficult.

“I think people who are happily married felt a little attacked,” I said slowly, choosing my words delicately in the presence of these dear married friends of mine. “People who haven’t had to walk a long season of singleness or haven’t had to live through the effects of growing up in a community where marriage is valued the way it is don’t fully understand it when I say, ‘Marriage is not the source of joy’ because, for many of them, marriage certainly has been the primary channel from which God has poured joy into their lives. When I say, ‘marriage is being overvalued and it’s hurting our congregations,’ they don’t want to believe me.”

“But marriage is valuable,” said Michelle with a tender firmness. She and I had spent a lot of the previous night and this morning’s breakfast talking about singleness, marriage and women in the church. It had been productive and insightful. But that’s just Michelle all over: productive and insightful. 

“It is,” I agreed, feeling tired already. 

The more I have dug into this issue, the more I have realized how many people in the Christian community don’t understand that our words and actions can sometimes create a culture where marriage looks like the fulfillment of things that can only truly be found in a relationship with God, things like identity and purpose and worth. And things that are implicitly taught can be so hard to identify and uproot. At first, these conversations had been riveting – it is such a privilege to be able to engage hearts and minds – but I was beginning to feel small beneath them. 

“Marriage is such a blessing,” I said carefully, trying to measure my words again. “But it shouldn’t be valued above singleness – both are equally important callings of God to serve his kingdom, just in different ways.” 

Our hostess joined us on the steps and listened with a thoughtful expression right as I launched into my “life of purpose” spiel. It’s the one where I drag out Jeremiah 29:11 where God says “I know the plans that I have for you… Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans for a future and a hope.” And then I mention the verse in Ephesians where we are told God has prepared good works for us to do. This isn’t conditional, we aren’t promised a future and a hope and a purposeful life only if we find a spouse. No, this is a promise for all of God’s children, wherever they are on the road he has placed before their feet. 

And what a promise. 

I believe these words with my whole being but by that point, “the marriage idol” and the question of the identity and fullness of the single Christian felt like a worn out topic in my mouth. Some days I’m ready for a battle, and some days I just want to sit on the steps and eat Jelly Beans. For once, I wasn’t really feeling like being a pot-stirrer. 

I let Michelle take the reins of the conversation and Rachel gave me a look that gently seemed to ask, are you okay? 

Of course I’m okay. I have all these promises of God to keep me company.

The bride arrived with another wave of cheer. Like her sister, she is a calming fount – but where Rachel bubbles, her sister gently streams. 

Hugs were given, pictures were taken, conversation was had. Like most parties, the guests began to arrive slowly at first and then all at once. The quiet, beautiful home turned into a space bustling with laughter, smiles and the gentle hum of joy. 

If I learned anything from the eight weddings I attended last year, it’s to treasure the fellowship afforded at celebrations like this (and to always clock the cake table). Women from at least five different churches embraced and encouraged one another, enjoying each other’s company. Some I knew well, others I have simply seen as a constant backdrop to the church gatherings and events I have been to over the years. 

Trying to say hello to everyone was impossible. A few people were already tucked deep into conversations or were too far across the sea of faces to easily reach – like the girl I had recently met at a fellowship meeting, or the golden-haired mother of one of my friends, or the silver-crowned saint from a neighboring church… Life is too short to spend enough time with all the people in it.

After the obligatory consumption of sandwiches and salad (and Jelly Beans), we played bridal shower games. 

I am good at these. 

My competitive nature, combined with the number of showers I have attended in the last eighteen months, has made me a force to be reckoned with. Give me the toilet paper and I will make you a bridal masterpiece that could walk itself down a runway. (I’m also pretty good with gift bingo, but that wasn’t on the agenda at this particular gathering). 

“Time for the bridal quiz!” Rachel declared, her voice tinkling across the room like a chorus of little bells. With the bride snuggly in a rocker and a slew of girls gathered around her feet like packages about a Christmas tree, I found a corner in the back of the room by the hallway occupied only by a young woman and a bowl of candy. 

“Hey, how are you?” I whispered to her as I maneuvered closer to the bowl of sweets (the cake had not yet appeared, so I was making do with what was available and Jelly Beans are an eternal joy). 

She smiled at me with buttery blue eyes that made me feel warm to my soul and responded back in a whisper as someone tried to edge around me to get to the hallway bathroom. I never quite know where to stand for these things.

“I liked your blog post, by the way,” she whispered as the bridal quiz began in the living room. “I’d love to talk more about it.” 

She would be a good person, I thought – the epitome of a servant-hearted woman who has walked through the season of singleness with purpose and grace. I added her to a mental list of women interested in sharing their experiences, but I didn’t push the topic there – I was feeling a bit talked out on singleness and my hand was a little more emotionally attached to the Jelly Beans than I had expected it to be.

“We asked the groom some questions about the bride and she has to guess what his answers are,” Rachel was explaining to the enraptured room that was bursting with giggles. Leadership is one of Rachel’s giftings – she executes the role with the same grace some might use to place a decorative bough on a salad table.

“How are you doing?” the young woman in the corner asked me as Rachel continued the instructions, and I could see the same kind of concern in her eyes that had been in Michelle’s and Rachel’s earlier. It was that ‘are you okay?’ look I was beginning to know so well. I shrugged. 

“Just waiting for the cake,” I smiled. 

We both turned our attention to the game and laughed as our friend tried to figure out what her betrothed thought his best gift to her had been. What an interesting thing, I thought, to be known by someone. What must it be like to have someone who can read your mood at a glance or know just how you like your coffee or share the same favorite moments with you? 

And just then, unexpectedly and out of nowhere, a painful throb I thought I had long-conquered found its way into my chest. It’s an empty ache, the kind that longs to be filled by something. For all my talk of a purposeful life and my unresting march toward changing our perspective on singleness and marriage, I sometimes forget about the very real desire to be known by someone.

Are you gonna be okay? I asked myself as the ache spread from my chest toward my finger tips.

Unsure of my own answer, I left my friend in the corner and meandered into the kitchen, out of the line of sight of the quizzers, and found the coffee spread. 

“Hiding?” asked a voice behind me and I turned to see my friend’s golden-haired mother, a woman with a sweeping blonde mane and the world’s softest smile. I tried not to blush at getting caught avoiding the festivities, but I suppose some women just understand these things. 

“It’s quieter in here,” I said, pouring myself coffee. 

The hostess came over with a plate of lemon bars – the cake! – and she showered me with the gentlest look I have received in 2020. Gentle looks and good hugs must be among her giftings, for they certainly blessed me many times that day.

“Thank you,” I whispered before she disappeared to distribute the lemon bars to the other guests, leaving me and my friend’s mom alone in the kitchen. 

“I wanted to talk to you about your blog,” my friend’s mom said in a low voice. I sighed.

Her son is one of my dearest and oldest friends, thoughtful and kind and unusually intuitive – I suspect he gets a lot of that from the woman who was standing before me. I was talked out on singleness, and a lump in my throat had developed since the quiz game, but I wanted to hear what she had to say. I leaned in.

To my surprise, she didn’t say anything about singleness or marriage. She wanted to talk about what it meant to be a woman – that was it, just being a woman in the eyes of God. Who did God want us to be? What were we to him? How should that affect how we live our lives? 

It was a refreshing take on an old topic, and honestly, the real root of the conversation I’ve been trying to have with people. What does it mean to carry out man’s chief end? How do we glorify God and enjoy him forever? 

I felt somehow the answers there had a lot less to do with marriage and singleness than we typically ascribe. 

“It’s good to hear your perspective on it,” I told her as we sipped our coffee quietly in the kitchen. “I feel like I made a lot of people feel uncomfortable with my initial article and I’m trying to understand where everyone is coming from.”

In truth, this crusade I have found myself on to get the church community talking about our treatment of marriage and singleness is proving more complicated than I had anticipated. Not the least of reasons why is that I have begun to find people inspecting my own life to see if it matches the sentiments I espouse – if being single is such a good and godly calling, why are you still making spinster jokes and stuffing your face with Jelly Beans at bridal showers? It’s hard to convince people that I am content on the path of singleness when my heart still occasionally lurches at a hope unmet. It’s hard to explain that disappointment and joy can indwell the same moment, and that the promises of God provide a scaffolding for building ourselves up beneath the gravity of pain but they do not take the pain away. 

Convincing the church that God has a plan in calling his children to walk seasons or lifetimes of singleness is hard, but it’s not as hard as it can be trying to persuade my own heart. And that – that, dear friends – is why I wrote the blog in the first place, because I need help reminding my sinful heart that this life is not my own and God’s plans for me are good, even when I find myself lonely and hurting at a bridal shower.

We talked in hushed tones in the kitchen as the bride opened up her gifts and I watched from over a countertop with a longing eye – not for the gifts nor for the implied groom, but for the sisters at her feet. They knew her, too, perhaps better than her intended did – for now at least. 

Oh, to be known! To be loved! To be full! 

Like most parties, it ended slowly and then all at once. Michelle was tugging on my arm, ready to get home to continue her busy day as a wife and mother. I grabbed a couple of Jelly Beans for the road and followed her out the door. 

We drove back to her house where my car was parked and she gave me a squeeze. 

“You’re always welcome,” she said, and I know she means it. Hospitality must be one of her giftings, like some people are with decorative branches or gentle glances or cheerfully leading a group in organized fun.

I pulled out of her drive to begin my two-hour trek home as the sky erupted in a magmatic flow of color. The confidence and peace with which I had walked into this bridal shower had withered into doubt and disappointment.

“Am I gonna be okay?” I asked God, speaking out loud. 

No answer, obviously. 

For all my talk about the value of singleness and its place in the body of Christ, there was no denying that it can be a lonely road from time to time. 

“Is it too much to want to be known?” I asked God again. My words were lost in the blarrings of the radio I had cranked up to drown out the ringing in my chest. The sky melted further into burning reds and oranges, and I melted with it into my own burning worries and wants. 

My mind searched desperately for the promises I know God gives for comfort and hope in times like these. I knew they were there. Hadn’t I just this afternoon heralded the truth of God’s Word, all those pages of Scripture filled with the promise of purpose, redemption, peace, hope and joy?

All these things I know. They are etched onto my aching heart. But as much as I long for a life filled with purpose, I long to be known, too.

I let the road absorb my tears for a little while and then I turned down the radio. 

I thought of the girls at the foot of the bride. We can be known by anyone. How many of the women today had proven that to me – understanding when I might need a hug or a lemon bar or to hide in the kitchen – and how many of my friends would ace that bridal quiz? I am known.

Something in my mind clicked. 

Isn’t that a promise, too? Doesn’t the God who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs, who hems us in behind in before, who knows each word on our tongues before it is spoken, who tests our anxious thoughts and leads us in the Way Everlasting – doesn’t he know us? Doesn’t he know us perfectly? 

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12)

Brushing tears from my face, I blinked up at a sky now green and gold with dusk. For all the fuss I make about people looking for things in marriage that only God can perfectly give, I had certainly called this one wrong today. The desire to be known in relationships and in marriage is natural, but it is only a glimpse of what it is like to be known by God. 

God knows who I am – he made me. He made someone who will latch onto a controversial issue and boil it down to its bones and then spoon-feed it to people until it is fully consumed. He also made me someone who cannot place a decorative branch to save my life.

And God knows what he made me for. He has paved my road with his own plans. It is cobbled with blessings, even if marriage has not yet been one of them, even if it never is. 

What a great God we have. And he did not do all these things because he knows me fully (though he does), but rather because these things are meant to help me better know him, that he might be glorified. And one day, I will know him fully, and I will enjoy him forever.

I smiled in the dark as tail lights from traffic turned my dashboard red. 

With a sigh, I realized I might need to keep stirring this pot a little longer. It may be an annoying gifting, but it’s the one I’ve got. I know I’m not the only Christian struggling on the road God has ordained. This Christian walk is a constant practice in trust and patience and faith. Rediscovering God in our low and lonely moments is a life-long process and all too often we look in the wrong places. But what better desire than to seek to understand who we are before him and what he expects of us, man or woman, married or single?

And if we seek him with all our hearts, he will be found – that’s his promise. That’s the second part of the verse from Jeremiah, so often overlooked. After God tells us he has plans for us, he promises that if we seek him he will be found by us. The real hope is not of plans and future blessings in this life, not the hope of marriage or of joy in singleness or of purpose in service. The hope is Christ, and we have him already.

I popped the last stolen Jelly Bean into my mouth and thought with a smile, just a few weeks till the wedding! I bet they’ll have cake and dancing. (There wasn’t because of COVID, but that was part of God’s sovereign plan, too.)

Evening stars blinked above my windshield and my pretty shoes lay on the passenger seat next to me.

What a rich, full life God has given us to live, and what a comfort to be known. 

Every step homeward

I’ve never minded coming home in the dark. I used to walk home all the time in Prague. The bus would roll up to our stop at the edge of the village and the doors would open with a loud sigh, leaving me on the stone sidewalk beneath bare tree limbs and bright stars. 

That short walk up the hill to the old home in whose attic I resided for two years was one of the best parts of my long days in Prague. There was contentment in putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that each one was taking me closer to somewhere I belonged. The peace and purpose that comes from simply walking the path before me was impervious to the influence of wherever I had been and whatever was waiting for me up ahead, good or bad. 

I don’t live in the moment as well anymore. 

Post-hat wedding shot. PC: @loveisradco on Instagram.

“Really?” I said to the large semi merging in front of me on a crowded Bay Area highway with not enough lanes. This was two summers ago and I was headed to a wedding.

On either side of me were cars backed up for miles. And they say LA traffic is bad. I had been stuck in Bay Area rush hour for two hours and as the time on my GPS readjusted again, I realized I might be cutting this wedding a little close. 

Leaving my sister’s house had been harder than I expected. Not that I wasn’t able to get ready early enough – in fact, she even took the kids outside so I could use the bathroom to primp without being interrupted a dozen times. 

But once my dress had been donned and my hair done up, I stood by the patio door and watched her and my niece and nephews soaking up the sunshine of late June on Berkeley’s greenest, most bee-occupied lawn. 

Deborah caught my eye and walked over with her three-week old – a bundle of pink wrapped in nylon hair bows bigger than her head. 

“You look nice, Mefs,” she said to me. 

“Thanks,” I said. “The outfit looks alright without the hat.”

This wedding invitation had asked guests to wear hats and fascinators and as I haven’t owned a fascinator since I lost the one I bought for the 3 a.m. live streaming of Kate Middleton’s wedding, I went with a hat. It was large and conspicuous and I wouldn’t have done it for anyone other than Lina. 

“The hat’s not so bad,” Deborah said as I tried to fit it over my heavily sprayed curls. She stepped inside into the kitchen and I followed her.

“Whose wedding is this, again?” she asked. 

“Lina,” I said, knowing a name wouldn’t help. “She was the one I met right before I left for Prague and then we were penpals.” 

“The same one you visit sometimes when you’re up here?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Her.”

My family hasn’t met the amazing, mousy miss Lina, whom I have always affectionately called “Dinky.” 

Deborah bounced the newest addition to our family on her hip while putzing around the counter, clearing up from our lunch. 

Ten years ago, all I wanted was this. I wanted a little home and a gaggle of kids and a person to live my life with. I think a lot of girls who grow up in the church want that. I think we want it naturally, but I also think we’re implicitly taught that marriage and kids is our purpose in life, our calling. So I’ve spent large periods of the last decade feeling like I haven’t arrived yet, like I’m on hold and, no matter how nice the “please hold” music sounds, all I really want is to talk to the person waiting on the other end of the line. 

(It should be noted that I never felt that way in Prague. Not for one second.)

And, in the face of not getting what was once my dearest hope and desire, my aim of late has been to figure out how to gracefully age out of one dream and into another without retaining any of the bitterness that so often accompanies disappointment. 

“You’ll be late if you don’t get started,” Deborah said. “Traffic up here is pretty bad.” 

It was hard to pull away. I hesitated one more moment, breathing in the quiet joy of her happy home, and then I grabbed my shoes and headed to the car. 

It took me the better part of three hours to get from Berkeley to San Juan Bautista, but driving my snazzy blue rental car into the tiny Northern Californian town was worth it. The main street was lined with old store fronts and antique facades. Off the main street were neighborhood lanes (I got lost down a couple) with “children at play” signs. The blooming gardens and the well-kept homes were evidence that people here cared about the life they were building. 

Suddenly, I felt very much like someone passing through – not just through the town, but through life. If I have a home or garden or roots of any kind, I couldn’t tell you what they are. 

A narrow street off the town center strip hailed me over with long-limbed oak trees and I parked. I was early, even after all the traffic, and the venue was a five minute walk away, according to my GPS. I took a deep breath and opened the door. 

Getting out of the car took considerable effort, given the hat, but I made it out and was immediately swept up by a strong breeze, the kind that knows where it’s going and pushes you out of the way in a hurry. 

One hand on my hat and the other firmly on my dress, a la Marilyn Monroe, I sauntered as conspicuously as one can up the quiet lane, past a man in a T-shirt and shorts who gave me a quizzical look, and then onto the main street. 

Time to find a drink. 

Now, I’m sure San Juan Bautista has some decent bars, but the closest one to the venue was a small, four-stool dive on the adjoining end of a Mexican restaurant. 

Three of the stools were already occupied by a few comfortably-dressed locals. My hat and I sat down in the fourth.

A very friendly bartender peered over the counter at me with a smile I thought I recognized and asked, “What can I get for you?”

I leaned in close and said in a low voice, “I’m about to go to a wedding and I have to wear this hat.”

He nodded with a grin and said, “I know what you need.” 

I don’t know what he ended up giving me – something with lemon and vodka – but it did the trick. Within fifteen minutes, I was chatting with the other patrons and making smalltalk with the bartender. 

“Joe,” he introduced himself, and suddenly I realized I knew why he seemed so familiar. His godfatherly reach around the bar, his gentle tone with servers who came up asking for drink orders or buzzing with a question they couldn’t answer, his commanding presence behind the counter, his jolly and affirming interactions with any customer who approached him for a drink or a friendly word – these were all qualities possessed by a Joe of my own. Joe from the diner, our graveyard buser and personal diner coach, always ready to give a pep talk when things get harried at 2 a.m.

Joe helped me get my hands on some chips and guac until I finally worked up the courage to walk down the block to the venue, hat still perched conspicuously on my head.

It so happened that, as I was walking down the main street, Lina and her entourage were walking up it. 

My friend is a beautiful woman who shines from the inside out, glowing like stardust and exuding a cool and conquering spirit like she’s Disney’s most down-to-earth princess. She’s translucent, a fae in human form. Seeing her there, silhouetted by a dipping sun, backlit by golden rays, slightly windswept in flowing ripples of white and crowned with flowers, I nearly lost my breath. 

“I’m so glad you wore your hat,” she said emphatically to me as we brushed by each other.

I did this for you, babe

The venue was a patio garden, draped with lights and decked with all the trimmings of a millennial wedding – a chalkboard with seat assignments, a churro truck… You know, the basics.

Mentally counting hats among the other attendees, I found a seat and waited for the ceremony to begin. 

It was short and sweet, which was fine with me because I was hungry and the hat was giving me a headache. I only knew a handful of Lina’s friends, but one of them was also at my table. We were of comparable age and life stage, so there was enough to chat about as we awaited our fellow table mates. 

An L.A.-based writer in her late twenties or early thirties, a Los Vegas-based script and screenplay composer in her late twenties or early thirties, a self-made fitness coach in her late twenties or early thirties… The pattern became clear fairly quickly.

“This is not the Singles Table, is it,” I said. It wasn’t a question. It was a statement.

The Singles Table was clearly two down from us with all the younger women and single men. 

“Yeah, no. This is definitely the 30’s Table,” said one of the girls over her drink as we watched the other table. “We’re no longer single girls, ladies. We’re single women.” 

There was a moment of silence as we listened to the polite laughter and awkward giggling floating from the singles table – that necessary social grace required when sitting next to strangers at a wedding. 

We had had very little of that at our own table – most of us had dropped into deep conversation pretty quickly. Why are relationships so hard and why do we decide to stay or leave them? How much do you put on the line for a dream job that has small odds of ending in success? When do you throw away caution and when do you abide by it? What do you do when life gets lonely? And how the heck do you stick to a nutrition plan when you have roommates with terrible eating habits (”and what if you’re that roommate?” I asked).

Our laughter wasn’t awkward, and neither were the moments of vulnerability we all seemed to share so openly. 

We all agreed to take our hats off, and when some of the girls were ready to find the bar, I went with them. We came back with Dirty Shirleys and cosmos and something super pink. Our table was one of the last to be called for food and we had a good time joking about the wait. No one felt up for dancing until one of us did, and then we all went onto the floor together. We checked in on each other as the night rolled on, unfolding in merriment under crystal stars and warm breezes.

“How are your feet holding up? No shame in going barefoot if you need to, girl.”

“Hey, are you doing alright? Do you want company or would you rather have a minute alone?”

“Can I get you a lemonade, babe? I’m going that way now.”

“You wanna dance? I wanna dance. Let’s go.” 

It felt good to be cared for and to care for others.

The girl gang dancing the night away. PC: @loveisradco on Instagram.

At some point in the evening, we all shared our “So how did you meet Lina?” stories. Most of us met her through a friend. 

I met her in a parking lot. I was picking up campaign signs for my boss – a political guru during the 2012 election cycle – and she was riding around with her friend while her friend delivered the signs to various drop off points. The three of us had talked for a minute in the parking lot, made the exchange and gone our separate ways. 

Then I got a text from Lina saying, “Hey, got your number from my friend. You seem cool. Let’s hang out.”

That’s a paraphrase, but not much of one. 

She hounded me for several weeks and I eventually ran out of polite excuses not to see this stranger. So we met up at a coffee shop with another one of her friends and we worked on our laptops for a few hours… And that was it. We have been friends ever since. 

Eight years, dozens of international letters, a few baseball games, numerous cups of coffee and hundreds of deeply sincere and meaningful conversations later, I was here at her wedding. What a life we live. 

“I’m starting to think she did this on purpose,” said one of the girls at our table. “Like, she didn’t make a 30’s Table, you know? She just made a table with all of her friends and she wants us to meet because that’s what she does. She introduces women to other women and we all become deeper and stronger and better for it.” 

That sounded like our Lina. 

And it was nice attending a wedding and not worrying about whether I’d meet someone on the dance floor or in the cake line or in the seat next to mine at the table. Instead, I spent five hours with these incredible women – handpicked for me to meet by one of my best friends. They oozed cool and confident and carefree while being tender and sweet and strong. They made me proud to be a woman and they made me want to be a better one. 

How much time do I waste looking for a man to spend my life with and end up missing out on the women who have been there all along? 

Platonic relationships are so undervalued. 

I thought of Joe from the bar as I sipped on my last drink and he made me think of Joe from my diner in San Diego. Friendships abound all throughout life if you make the effort to look for them. I’m a lucky girl.

We all exchanged contact information and said our goodbyes in waves of retreat, each of us passing into the dark in due time to find our cars and our ways home. 

Keys in one hand, hat in the other, I found my blue rental beneath the spreading limbs of moody trees, each bathing peacefully in starlight and shadows. 

And then I drove home in the dark. 

The four hour commute in traffic was barely two hours long at midnight. And I thought about life the whole way home – how good it is to surround yourself with friends, how lucky I am to know the women I do and how sweet it is to have somewhere to go even if it’s just one step at a time, like a drive in the dark, a walk back from a bus stop on the edge of the forest, or a day in an ordinary life given to us by an extraordinary God. 

There is contentment in putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that each one is taking me closer to somewhere I belong, and that somewhere will not be here in this life. As sweet as it would be to have a blooming garden and a kitchen full of kids and someone to hang up their hat on my wall at the end of the day, all of those aspects of home are temporary. They will turn to dust in time, like the rest of the world. We do not belong here.

So I will keep my eyes on my heavenly home, knowing that every day is a step toward it, all while rejoicing in the journey and the friends that join me on it.

Christmas on the kitchen floor

Trio
The trio of us, now separated by a six hour plane ride with a layover probably somewhere terrible like Dulles airport.

“We should play Christmas music – put on something cheerful,” Aubrey joked. It was the kind of joke that means to be sincere but comes out sounding sad despite itself.

“I have a Christmas station on my Pandora,” I offered up, putting the kettle on as Aubrey started dropping dumplings into a sizzling pan. 

“Put it on,” she said.

“Really?” I asked, surprised that she jumped on my offer. “You know it’s August, right?”

I said it as a formality. I have literally zero problems playing Christmas music during the year – a conviction by which the Mary of three years ago would have been scandalized. 

“Yes, really,” said Aubrey.

The kettle grumbled in its corner and I fetched my laptop. That’s right – not only do I still use Pandora, I only use it on my computer. 

Aubrey put a lid on the dumplings and I started lining up our bowls of instant ramen noodles as sweet tendrils of holiday music filled the air. 

Our ramen collection was quite a haul. Aubrey had never been in a 99 Ranch, which was a serious failing on my part as her older sister and guide to the real world. 

Nathan had just left that morning for a college located on the opposite side of the country, and so the two youngest siblings in our family’s tree, who have been attached at the hip these last seventeen years, were parted indefinitely (or until the holidays, at least). I was doing my best to help Aubrey emotionally through this transition. 

(If you’re laughing at the picture of me being anyone’s emotional guide, I’m going to need you to understand that she had no one else at this point.) 

Winter Wonderland trickled into our steamy kitchen and Aubrey and I distracted ourselves with whether or not to add the seasoning packets before or after the water and why something smelled like fish food (that turned out to be the flakes for the Udon). 

It’s true that I get a lot of flack (in good humor, I’m sure) from friends who hear that I’ve been blasting Dean Martin’s “Marshmallow World” or singing Presley’s “Blue Christmas” at the top of my lungs in July because I will have a blue Christmas without you, thanks very much. And it’s also true that a few years ago, I would have hung a weighted nutcracker around the neck of anyone decking the halls before Thanksgiving and thrown them into a bottomless vat of eggnog. Like, let Turkey Day have it’s moment, please.

Sorry… Give me a second… I distracted myself with the thought of bottomless eggnog… 

Okay, back

I think we can also agree that 2020 has made most of us a little more lenient on the Christmas music front right now because we’re all just trying to survive this year. Let the people find joy. Is it a pumpkin spice latte? Drink it up! Is it new pajamas for the home office? Rock it! Is it the complete Mannheim Steamroller collection? Just let me enjoy this, okay? 

The kettle began to boil and we began the arduous process of not making a mess. Success was elusive. 

Eventually, we both had bowls of spicy ramen and crispy pork and leek dumplings. Aubrey slid to the kitchen floor with a sigh, her bowl nestled between her knees. Her bright eyes grew soft and her bubbly spirit stilled. For a moment, absorbed in noodles, we were both quiet. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” lilted over the countertop from my computer.

I remember the first time I heard “Hark the Herald” – I mean the first time I really heard it. A Christmas classic both in Christian circles and in the secular world, it’s a hymn that’s hard not to hear growing up in the United States of America. 

To be honest, I never really liked it. 

But one year, having drifted through months of religious apathy and a slew of personal heartbreaks and disappointments, I found myself on the verge of dropping out of school, with nothing but pennies in the bank, and wrestling with overwhelming depression. And I walked away from my faith.

More appropriately, I lost it. I woke up one day and found it was not there. But I think it hadn’t really been there for a while. I think I walked away for a long time in small steps, not realizing that one day it would be out of view completely.

I don’t think that’s the saddest I’ve ever been, or the most desperate I’ve ever been, but it was certainly the most hopeless. 

It’s a long story, most of which I have already written about, but God eventually brought me back. He opened my eyes. He softened my heart. He returned to me my faith. He restored my soul. 

And the Christmas that followed, I heard “Hark! The Herald” with new ears. 

/Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings/

Healing. How I needed it. How I still do. It’s hard to live in this fallen world without being pierced and broken by its fragmented pieces.

I had spent most of that year rediscovering what it meant to be a Child of God. Things I had known in my head since childhood, I was beginning to understand in the deepest crevices of my heart. Scripture I memorized as a kid suddenly took on a whole new life. Truths I had believed about God’s grace and peace and mercy were made new and I could feel them – for the first time – in the very marrow of my soul. 

Forgiven? Redeemed? Restored? It is one thing to know these academically, but to feel them, to be the recipient of such incalculable grace is enough to make one want to sing joy to the world at any time of year.

And I have found that returning again and again to the Christmas season with this new experiential understanding of the grace of an Almighty God has been like arriving at fresh water after wandering in a dry place. When the disappointments of the year begin to mount, I find myself longing for the Christmas season – not for the trimmings and lights and holiday festivities, but for the focused reminder that the Son of God was born a human into this broken world to save us – to save me, to save you. 

/No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found/
(“Joy to the World”)

The idea that the world is cursed is a strange one. We don’t often speak about curses. Perhaps it feels too quaint and medieval, too detached from this modern scientific world. Not even Christians who believe in the fall of man and the shackles of sin talk about the curse

Maybe 2020 was meant to remind us that this world we live in is indeed accursed. Our world is plagued with illness and death, catastrophe both churned up from the depths of an aching earth and boiling over in the hearts of sinful men. 

DumplingsAnd looking at my sister, slurping up our conquest from her place on the kitchen floor, I remembered that while this year has been generally hard on everyone, it has been personally hard on many of us too. We have been separated from friends and loved ones, cut off from family by distances necessarily great and small. Some have been unable to say last goodbyes. Others have experienced their first goodbyes. All reminders of how much we need Emmanuel – God with us – the God who is with us always, to the very end of the age, with whom goodbyes are not needed. 

This year has been wearying. Friends, I am weary. And I know I am not alone. How I long to sing the words of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” 

/O ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing./

“I forget sometimes what this promise is about,” Aubrey said as “Hark! The Herald” wrapped up. She looked at me, which we had been trying not to do because something in the noodles or maybe the music – but definitely not how much we were missing Nathan – was making us cry. “I forget what a big deal it is that the Son of God was born like us, to die for us. We should play Christmas music all year long.” 

Finally, someone other than me has said it (does it still count if we’re related?). 

The ache in my heart – over Nathan, the pandemic, the civil unrest and injustice, and the secret pangs of loss that have speckled my own life this year, still unhealed – nearly exploded into my ramen. Grief and sorrow are not to be ignored, my friends. And they do not pair well with dumplings. 

The world is telling me to wait for Christmas and I am saying no

I watch people struggle in isolation, grappling with the fear of contagion and facing the reality of death that has previously been so easy to ignore. I see my nation writhe beneath the pain of injustice and unhealed wounds. I listen to my brothers and sisters in the Church as they bear the heavy weight of disrupted fellowship, an unknown future and the friction of living out this high calling to be ambassadors of the Lord to a dark world.

And what a Lord he is. I want to sing of this Lord. I want the world to know him. I want his hope to be shed like light in dark streets, like we sing in “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.”

/Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight/

Keep the holly and the snowflakes. Save your inflatable snowmen and the Christmas lights you have to untangle for an hour before pinning them over your garage door. I don’t need the Christmas season. I need Christ. 

It is a blessing to be able to sing his promises put to beautiful music. Music! – a common grace we do not deserve. Christmas hymns feel like a manifestation of Psalm 84:

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you,

    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baka,

    they make it a place of springs;

    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.

They go from strength to strength,

    till each appears before God in Zion.”

Christmas is a place of springs, the hymns are autumn rains that cool, they point to the promises that bring us from strength to strength: God and sinners reconciled.

/Hail! the heaven-born
Prince of peace!
Hail! the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth./

I know it’s barely September, but my weary, sinful heart needs Christmas right now. The angels are probably still singing glory to the newborn King, and so shall I. 

Aubrey and I finished the ramen and turned on a movie, not sure what to do with all the space in the living room without Nathan in it. We ate some mochi. We snuggled some pillows. We tried to pretend like losing people, even for a short time, isn’t hard. But we both know that one day our true brother and king, our friend and Savior, Jesus Christ, will return and wipe away every tear. Change and decay will be no more, and our burdened hearts will find rest.

That’s the kind of jolly I need stored up in my heart.

It’s trite, but it’s true. ‘Tis the season all year long. 

 

Caught between two glories

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I felt Esther roll over and then sit up. After a few more deep breaths, I heard the tent unzip and a flush of cool air enveloped our already chilly sanctuary of mosquito-free space. 

I am not a morning person. 

We were four days into a backpacking trip through the Sierras and it was my day to run KP. The evening before, as the embers burned down on our little campfire, I had told my dutiful team to be up and ready early, but I was wondering now if I’d be able to drag myself out of my sleeping bag to meet them. 

It is important that you understand two things about this trip. Firstly, know that I hadn’t been sleeping well because I grabbed the wrong sleeping bag from my dad’s cabinet on my way to meet the team in Fountain Valley – a mistake I regretted every night of the trip as I felt my body stiffen like a frost-covered log until each dawn began to finally thaw me out again. 

We tried everything. The team lent me spare shirts and jackets. I bundled up in so many layers, and in so many variations of layers, I might as well have given out laundry tickets. Someone lent me their silk cocoon and someone else suggested overlapping my outdoor mats below my sleeping bag for insulation. Esther suggested I wrap my feet in a sweater and Eli – the team’s leader – helped me fill a hot water bottle one night (that method was met with surprising success, but we made such a mess in the process that it was never again attempted). 

The second thing you should know is that I actually haven’t been sleeping well all summer. There’s been a lot on my mind, and like the mountain air that creeps in and steals the warmth from the body, my thoughts have stolen the warmth from my heart. 

After sitting in a fetal position for several moments, I mustered the will to untangle myself from the previous night’s concoction of wrappings and flopped out of the tent. Soft pines rose above me like guardians keeping watch on little beings and the sky was pale with early morning. Yesterday, Eli had led some of the team in a polar plunge into the lake at the literal-crack-of-dawn, but today everyone seemed to be sleeping late. 

Only Esther and a few others had risen early enough to fish. Trout was on the menu for breakfast. I shuddered at the thought. 

I have a few traumatic memories of cooking fish and something told me I was about to add a few more. 

It seems unlike myself to withdraw from the specter of a challenge. I’ve spent a lot of this year trying to bring awareness to the community I grew up in about how we talk about singleness and marriage, and the emphasis we often place on our identity in relationships, rather than rooting that identity in Christ. In general, the suggestion that our churches have room for improvement in this area has been met with significant hesitation. Have I retreated from the criticism leveled against my crusade for a greater understanding of truth? Have I backed down when others have said I’m chasing a minority issue, that I’m off-base or overcritical in my analysis of the Christian community, that I’m misrepresenting the situation, that I’m sitting on a toy rodeo ride outside a grocery parking lot and acting like it’s a war horse?

Until recently, I would have said no.

There is always room for improving means of communication, but thus far I have not been deterred from the message, despite the growing uncomfortableness of being seen as a contrarian. 

Not just in this, of course. Anyone who knows me knows I will gut an improperly constructed sentence in the name of good grammar. I don’t hesitate to point out imperfect measures or failures of protocol in everything from parking to the lunch line to casual banter. 

I find joy in process and the pursuit of perfection, but I am learning that not everyone else does – just like many find joy in eating fish before nine o’clock in the morning, whereas I find such an endeavor both repulsive and unsanctimonious. 

And yet, here I stood, with my two helpers flanking my sides as we stared down a griddle, a set of pots and gas stove tops and a plastic baggy bearing the label “fish flour,” the ominous foreshadower of our morning’s responsibility. 

“You guys filter water for hot drinks and oatmeal,” I said. “I’ll find the fish.” 

They sat down on rocks and began the laborious process of filtering the silt, sediment and possible giardia from our drinking water (because the only thing worse than a day that begins with an early fish fry is one that ends with six months of diarrhea). 

I clambered down the bank in my socks and scanned the lake edge for our fishermen. The surface was still and glassy, and the peak we had been sleeping under rose up into the crown of dawn only to be reflected down again on the silky waters below it. No breeze rippled the face of the water, no bubbles ruptured its tranquility. It was a picture of uninterrupted calm, much like the woman I was looking for. 

Esther was nowhere I could see, though the circumference of the lake must have been nearly a mile, with divots and peninsulas variegating its shoreline and offering a multitude of hiding places for persons with bait and line. 

Tucked an arm’s length below the water in front of me beneath a sturdy sunken log, a plastic bag with several fish glinted in the clear lake, caught the night before. I cringed. 

Their open eyes and open bellies looked equally unappetizing to me and I felt a surge of relatability with these creatures, living their lives as fish one minute and then cut open and exposed the next. 

My friend Lanie would say both the fish and I need to practice being antifragile. She accompanied us on this trip under the official title of “Mama Bear” for her ability to fix just about any problem with an air of unflappability that I can only aspire to, and antifragile by her definition means being able to take the wounds of others and use them to build yourself up rather than letting yourself be torn down. 

Looking at these fish, immobile in a bag of lakewater, I wondered if it was possible to build oneself back up after such a gutting. 

By the time I drained the fish juice from the bag and returned to camp, my helpers had filtered enough water to get us going and had begun boiling it for our freeze-dried eggs. Our pastor looked up at me from a rock next to a stack of coffee filters and asked if I wanted a cup.

“Yes,” I said emphatically, still holding the fish with an outstretched arm. 

“The cook eats last,” he said with a wink, “but always drinks first.” 

I chuckled, but only because I knew how much caffeine I would need emotionally to do what the morning called for. 

Lanie was up and about and gave me a pleasant smirk as she watched me fumble with the fish. 

Quietly, in her supportive way, she helped me line up the skillet and pie tin and flour on another rock. Our assembly line was ready. Now for the fish.

“Would you mind doing this?” I asked her in a hush. I had barely had the strength of will to dissect my crayfish in tenth grade biology class, and I paid a kid a week’s worth of Snickers to skin my rat the same year. I am not above handing off responsibilities such as these. 

Lanie can (and has) deliver a goat with her bare hands and then eat a warm cookie right afterward. I figured she’d be up for the task. 

“Sure,” she whispered, taking the plastic spatula from me and reaching into the bag of dead trout. 

Esther and another camper returned with their own catches and began the arduous process of cleaning them out. I found something else to do. 

I’ve been cleaned out enough this year. I don’t think I’m a fragile person, and being antifragile seems like a very good goal. In fact, I’ve welcomed the cleanings – invited them, even. I’ve tasted rejection in several forms this year (it’s been… a long year) so I took stock at the beginning of the summer to figure out if the problem is me. That’s always a possibility, you know? I think we forget that sometimes. 

So I’ve asked my friends and family, “Am I who I should be? Can I be better than this?” 

I don’t ask these things to make myself a more compatible future spouse (despite how strongly some of the advice given to me might imply that future spousing is the ultimate goal in self-improvement). I ask these things because I want to be a better friend and sister. I want to be a better messenger for God’s truth, because the only thing that should be offensive should be the gospel itself – not the messenger nor the means. 

It’s been a painful process, much like being gutted at someone else’s hands, to be told you’re not enough – or more often in my case, that I’m too much. The critique, coupled with the initial waves of rejection and criticism, has left me feeling smaller and more exposed than I have felt in a long time. 

Maybe you, too, have asked yourself these questions – the nagging ‘why’s of our existence and our persons that create some inward, unreachable ache.

“Why can’t I be more agreeable?” I ask myself. “Why can’t I let things go? Why do I have to push for perfection and process the way that I do? Why can’t I stay quiet?”

It is not even a matter of building myself back up, or of being antifragile. I wonder if I should build myself back at all. Through the critique, levied at me in love, I see myself as difficult, pestersome, pot-stirring – the things about myself I was once proud of I now see as the reasons why, in many ways, I feel so alone. It is a great contradiction to me, that the things I am most inclined toward – using my process-oriented mind and this loud mouth of mine to help identify areas of needed change in my community – might actually be the thing that makes me so distasteful to some. And as I feel others become weary beneath the efforts of my crusade, I become weary with myself as well. And I long to be any other fish than the one I am.

I am empty. I am lifeless on a rock in the cold morning with an open belly and open eyes, and no spirit left in my bones. 

Slowly, campers crawled out of sleeping bags and tents, rubbing sleep from their eyes and dressing their faces with smiles that none of us could get rid of, despite the cold and uncomfortableness of our circumstances. Thankfully, the mosquitoes weren’t up yet.

With the rest of breakfast carrying on smoothly, I approached Lanie.

“I can take over the fish,” I said. She looked at me over her long, elegant nose with eyes that pierce and said in a teacher-like tone that could have inspired a petrified log to life, “Okay, this one’s yours.”

The pastor turned on his rock to watch me, an amused grin on his face. He had done most of the gutting and cooking of fish this week. 

I put my bronze Sierra mug down next to me, the coffee half-consumed, and reached for the next fish. It was already in the tin, powdered with salted flour. So much hesitancy arrested my hand that it took nearly thirty full seconds for me to actually make contact with the little dead trout. 

The pastor smiled gleefully as I squealed, lifting the fish by its thick spine and flopping it into a pile of flour. 

“Let’s cover your eyes,” I said to it, dusting its gaping expression with more flour. “And let’s give you a name.”

“You can’t name it,” one of my helpers said. “That’ll just make it harder to cook.”

“Never stopped me,” the pastor muttered under his breath with a grin.

“I have to name it,” I said resolutely. “It’s a sign of respect. It gave its life for our breakfast; the least we can do is give it a name.” 

I floured that fish – Zephaniah – and the four others brought by Esther and the other fishermen. Those fishies had been alive and swimming when I woke up that morning, a thought I tried not to think about as I doused them in flour and butter. They were each given the names of major or minor prophets in the Bible. It took effort, but I was able to muscle down my urge to flee, or worse, vomit. 

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This time a week ago, I was cooking freshly caught fish over an open fire for breakfast. I know, thank goodness for Cheerios.

The griddle went onto our campfire and flames licked the sides until those little fish arched their backs, begging to be flipped over.

“I know, I know,” I said, pressing them back down onto the pan, not at all phased to be talking to dead trout in front of my fellow campers. “I’m not any happier about this situation than you are, but there’s no getting around it now – Haggai’s ready, who wants him?” 

Eli sauntered over, looking far too awake for this hour of morning, and claimed both Haggai and his eyeball, which had popped out and seared itself onto the grill. 

“Disgusting,” I said with a smile, tipping the sizzling trout into his Sierra cup. But I was proud of myself for doing what needed to be done. In a small way, it felt like being my old self again.

The KP crew cleaned up from breakfast and Eli helped us burn down and bury the fire before we packed out down the mountain. Someone came around and asked for a balm for mosquito bites. We were all getting eaten alive this trip, and the question, “Why did God make mosquitoes?” had appeared in more than one of our conversations.

At some point, I snuck away to roll up my sleeping bag and brush my teeth. With the fuss of the fish behind us, I let my spirit sink low again, as it has been much of this summer. 

Why am I the fish that I am? Why this lake to swim in? And why so often alone? 

Suddenly, the warbling sound of show tunes burst through the forest. Eli stood on a boulder cap a hundred yards away. (The guys had claimed the top of the boulder and the ladies had taken the forest floor for setting up tents). He stood with toothbrush in hand, bellowing out old timey songs in his 1930s radio voice for all the woods to hear. I smiled and kept brushing my own teeth.

Eventually, he switched to yodeling. 

Between brushes, he would exchange deeply felt, hearty yodels with other campers, each trying to mimic his bravado from the trees below his rock. 

As I squatted in the dirt, clutching my toothbrush and water bottle, I thought for a moment that this friend of mine must be such a rare glimpse inside the mind of our Creator, for what kind of God but ours would delight to make such a human? Who but the Almighty would be glorified in the creation of a person who yodels while brushing his teeth in the white rays of early morning on cold mountaintops, after eating fish, no less. 

To my left, Lanie was packing her bags – always one step ahead of the rest of us, always with one hand on the job that needs doing before anyone else sees that it needs to be done. She can walk into a room and pick up the faintest hints of whiskey or clover. She is the kind of friend who checks the air in my tires and brings me slabs of dark chocolate – one as much an act of service as the other. 

God made Lanie too. How he delighted to make this woman who sees the world and desires to save it. 

If he made Eli’s heart of joy and Lanie’s soul of purpose, did he not also make my mind? 

Is he not a God of perfection? Is order not a hallmark of his handiwork? Am I not following in his footsteps in my pursuit of these things? 

And though there may be sanctification ahead of me, this person God made me to be is good. For me to wish to be someone else – another, less particular fish in the lake, maybe one who makes fewer ripples – would be to reject God’s design in making me. And I don’t need to put myself back together – nor can I when I am gutted and dead – because God will do that for me. Nothing in my own efforts, not my guilt or despair or self-consciousness, can redeem me or give this little fish value. It is only God’s purposes in my life, unfolding as they are through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, that will fill the emptiness in my belly. 

I sat in the dirt, back toward God’s yodeler, and cried. 

Mountains and valleys rolled out before us, each painted down to the smallest flower by the mindful eye of our Maker. Sunburns and blisters and mosquitoes awaited us on the trail and fellowship around each night’s campfire. And the thought of being intentionally designed by God stayed with me, slowly lifting a weight off my heavy spirit until, on the last night, I lay under a canopy of crystal stars and breathed freely. 

Lanie, Esther and I had agreed to layer our ground mats outside, snuggle together (for warmth) in our respective sleeping bags, and then lay the flat tent and fly over top of us. 

I was already buried in the middle of our set up when they came back from bear bagging our food. Their flashlights cast shadows in the woods and the moon illuminated the soft white flowers growing around our mats. Above me, the stars blazed – a work of perfection and process, millions of miles away, declaring the glory of God.

How I would like for my life to be like a star, or a fish, or even one of these mosquitoes we couldn’t seem to rid ourselves of. Just to exist, and by existing to proclaim the great glory of the God who made me – what an honor. 

Of course, it is more than just existing – it is being made into the image of God’s son, Jesus Christ, through struggle and sanctification. So then I am caught between two glories – being made in the image of God and bearing pieces of that image as they are reflected in my love of process, order and perfection, and being continually transformed into the image of my Savior as all those aspects of reflection are themselves being perfected. 

“Are you warm enough?” Lanie whispered as the three of us huddled close together on midnight’s softest grass. 

“Yes,” I whispered.

And I slept till dawn. 

Church and the marriage idol

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The bouquet toss at a friend’s wedding, Oct. 2019. Photo by Melissa Jill.

We sat around a warm fire that crackled softly beneath a dark canopy of night and the first early stars of autumn.

Nine of us, from five different churches, talked and laughed and sang hymns as if we were all back at our presbytery’s high school winter camp where most of us met for the first time. We would build on those friendships for a decade during backpacking trips and missions teams. Now we found ourselves together again – this time for the wedding weekend of a dear sister in Christ. 

Perhaps it was the reason we all found ourselves in Dewey, Arizona or perhaps it was simply because this is an oft-spoken of topic, but we spent much of the evening following the ceremony talking about marriage and singleness. 

We had two young married couples in our group and a smattering of people who were dating. And then there was my friend, who like myself, was very, very single, but younger by a few years. 

Over the course of our discussion, I watched her wrestle to describe her frustration, confusion and discontentment to the rest of our friends. She ran the gauntlet trying to put into words – to explain to people who married young – why it is frustrating to find yourself single beyond the years you had expected to remain so. 

When one of our friends finally referred to her frustration as “angst,” I decided to speak up – not to scold or to chide, but to gently describe a problem the single Christians in our pews are facing (one I know well) and how the body of Christ can better extend the love and care of God to these sisters. 

While I am certain single men struggle with their own issues, for my purposes here, I will be drawing on my experiences as a woman in the church. I think it is important to understand that the pressures facing single men and single women are different. Understanding that singleness in the church is an enormous topic is also important, and I am only going to address what we talked about at the campfire that night: the effects of prioritizing marriage above God’s calling to singleness, be that calling for a season or a lifetime.

I have been single for nearly three decades and marriage has been a fervent desire since my earliest memories (as a girl, I used to design my own wedding invitations, and every stuffed animal in my collection witnessed ‘pretend marriage ceremonies’ on a weekly basis for…a long time). I understand that the desire for marriage in many cases – certainly mine – is a natural inclination of the heart. 

But by the time I had begun college, marriage had become an idol for me. Something good and godly had been twisted into something vain and self-affirming. I wanted to be married to a good man because it would show that I was a good woman, that I was gifted and talented and worthy. Instead of finding my worth in Christ, I looked for it in a ring. I didn’t recognize this in myself at the time and I wonder how many other women don’t see it in themselves either. 

In 2013, I moved to the Czech Republic to serve as a missionary associate. I struggled with the idea of never getting married – a notion not helped by people in the church who said all the good young men would be gone by the time I came back to the U.S. 

God, however, took those two years and used them to fill my cup with purpose and joy and, eventually, I surrendered my idol of marriage to him. I promised God that I would be content in the work he gave me to do, even if it meant living a life very different from the one I had pictured for myself, and in return he gave me a peace I had never known. It was a peace that passes understanding, but one that was nestled in purpose and revealed in opportunities to serve his kingdom.

Upon returning to the US in my mid-twenties, I found my resolution difficult to stick by – not because of a change of heart, but because of the change of scenery. 

I do not blame the church for my sin of idolatry, but reentering the Christian community brought into sharp awareness a blindness the church has towards its daughters. 

Within a week of my return, four people in the Christian community had asked after my romantic prospects. The years that have followed have been full of set-ups and suggestions that I get to know so-and-so or visit this church or that because of their youth groups full of other singles. It all came from good intentions, but it created a bubble of pressure around an area of my heart that I knew was weak from sin already. 

If a wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, I wanted to be that crown. Who wouldn’t?

But more than that, I felt overlooked by the workers in the harvest field. Why weren’t people asking me about how I could continue helping our church or our community? Why weren’t they encouraging me towards service instead of always towards the nearest single man? Why was I seen as someone to be married off rather than someone who could help the church right now with my available time and talents?

For girls especially, growing up in the Christian community can have a very one-directional effect on our values – and not necessarily the right direction. 

From our earliest days at Sunday school, we are taught about Abigail and Ruth, women who were rewarded for their faith with godly (as well as rich and powerful) husbands. The Proverbs 31 woman is a frequent topic at Bible studies – “An excellent wife, who can find? She is worth far more than jewels.” Our mothers diligently prepare us to take care of homes and children, never assuming that we might not ever be blessed with such, or that God would ask us to wait a long time before giving us families of our own. 

All of these can be sewn together under the common thread of what I like to call “marriage prep,” and growing up, that’s certainly what it felt like. 

But they could also be tied together with another thread: service. Somehow, that message tends to get lost in the telling. Abigail wasn’t rewarded with a husband (any woman who has read 2 Samuel can attest that David was no award-winning spouse) – no, her reward was an opportunity to continue serving God and his kingdom as the wife of the king of Israel.

Even the well-intentioned efforts of friends and family to bring young people together can be misconstrued – “it’s only because we think so highly of you.” (As an important side note: I’m not saying that we can’t introduce godly Christian singles to each other, only that the manner in which it is done is important.)

Marriage to a woman in the church can look like affirmation, like achievement of some grand goal. It can look like finding approval from family and friends and finally having a visible role to carry out in the church as a wife and possibly as a mother. 

If a wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, I wanted to be that crown. Who wouldn’t?

It’s no wonder my friend sounded “angsty” as she tried to express her frustration. She has been taught, though by no means on purpose, that her worth in the church and her calling in life is to be a wife, an easy-to-believe message when it lines up with the natural desire of her heart.

I am not the only one who made an idol out of marriage. The Christian community has put marriage on a pedestal as well. 

“But marriage is a good thing,” one of the young married men replied as we sat around the campfire. “Why not put it on a pedestal?” 

“Because nothing belongs on the pedestal but Christ,” I said.

“But marriage is a picture of Christ and the church,” he contended.

“Yes,” I agreed, “but only a picture. The picture is not Christ. And only Christ belongs on the pedestal.”

We make idols out of marriage. The world makes an idol out of singleness. And, to be fair, we sometimes make an idol out of service as well. Anything that helps us feel worthy and happy and blessed. And while God does use earthly things as channels for his blessings, our worthiness and therefore our true joy comes only from Christ’s remarkable work on the cross. 

That’s what we need to be conveying to our women, from the day they enter our Sunday school classes as little girls of the covenant. Our worth is in Christ. Our calling is to serve him.

When we die, when we draw our last breath and cross the river Jordan, when we see our Maker face to face, each of us – married or not – will be alone. No spouse, no child or family member, nor any friend will accompany us. 

This should be a comfort. It should be a comfort for single and married women alike – for women who have not yet been blessed with husbands or who never will be, for women whose marriages have ended in death or divorce, for women whose marriages are not what they hoped or expected. 

Before we were knit together in our mother’s womb, and when our eyelids close in death, before all and after all and through all, Christ is our ever-present, unchanging companion. We are his bride and he is the prize. 

I think the Christian community does a disservice to all its members by replacing Christ’s altar with the marriage altar. We should be encouraging our sisters towards kingdom work, as Paul would have done. As we teach and train young ladies in the church, the focus both in the home and in the pew should be Christ and obediently following God’s calling whatever that may look like. 

The years have still found me occasionally lonely and disappointed, but never frustrated as I was before. And that is my hope for my sisters in the church, married or single, that they find themselves filled with purpose – whether that means serving on a foreign mission field or caring for someone at home, whether it looks like being a helpmeet and a mother or an encouraging sister to the body of Christ. 

I rejoice that God has blessed me with good works to do, that my road is set before me and that, though I cannot see its every bend, Christ walks each step of it with me.

Prodigal Daughter

Snapchat-1412695388Honesty usually comes easily to me, but telling this story has not.

I think many of us can relate — my brothers and sisters who grew up in the church, in Christian families, steeped in good doctrine and surrounded by friends in the faith. It’s hard to admit that we’ve fallen away.

I never thought I would willingly walk away. I’m an obsessive rule-follower. My skirts go to the knee. I still address adults as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ The only tattoo I have is a Czech phrase taken from the statue of a martyred reformer which stood in the village I lived in while serving as a missionary associate for two years. Both my parents play visible roles in the Christian community, so if ever there was a poster child for what a good Christian young adult should look like, I was it.

For the greater part of my life, I could honestly say that, though I have struggled in aspects of my Christian walk, my faith has never wavered. Not once.

I cannot say that anymore.

When I lived in Prague, I commonly hosted friends and acquaintances who were meandering their way through Central Europe. Kids I knew in high school, people from church, some of my brother’s friends from college — the routine was the same: we’d meet up, I’d show them the city, and sometime between the hot coffee or the spiced wine and the sweeping views of majestic castles and steeple spires, we’d talk about God.

I had never felt closer to my Maker. It was clear I was where he wanted me to be, serving him in a beautiful place with people I fell in love with so quickly. I had purpose, I had contentment, and I had joy, and on the other side of the world from the community I grew up in, I felt none of the pressures of singleness or job security or social status. I could feel God in everything, and even though it was by no means a simple two years, his presence was so tangible and his provision so evident that I felt refreshed and revitalized daily.

But many of my friends were struggling. They didn’t feel connected to God or the faith of their parents. They were afraid to let people in their church know they had doubts. They were afraid to tell their families. They felt like hypocrites and many of them were considering leaving the faith altogether because, like an Irish goodbye, it would be easier to slip away unnoticed than to cause a very public, very humiliating stir in the community. You can only pretend for so long.

At the time, I didn’t understand. I told them that they should talk to someone, seek accountability, pray, draw near to God. After all, I had a great relationship with the Lord, so clearly, it could be done. It was all so clinical to me, someone who had never been through a spiritual drought.

One summer, in Prague, a Christian friend and I were discussing the story of the prodigal son. I never really liked that story because I always related to the older brother who stayed at home and did everything he was supposed to do. It seemed unfair that some Christians should have a better welcome into the fold just because they had a better conversion story. Sitting on the steps of the garden, surrounded by plump tomatoes and the stillness of the muggy afternoon, my friend insisted that I was misunderstanding the point of the story — we are all the prodigal son.

“The sons represent the elect, not the unsaved,” he said, as hot summer thunder clouds boiled over our heads. “Both sons are already children of God, but one walks away for a while — and, at some point, so will we all. The older son represents the Christians who are still leaning on their own works to win their inheritance, not realizing that everything the father has is already theirs.”

I didn’t fully agree with him, mostly because I still felt like the older brother. I had never walked away. I never planned on walking away. What a stupid thing to do.

But the point is that neither son understands the father’s love — one does what is right out of obligation and not out of gratitude for the father’s generosity, and the other assumes that he can return and earn his forgiveness by working in his father’s house as a servant. They both believe their inheritance depends upon their own merit. Yet the father treats both his foolish sons the same way, with unconditional love.

What a father. What a God.

But I think I left a lot of my relationship with God in Prague.

Almost immediately upon returning to San Diego, I was swept up into college and work and making new plans for the future.

And I was lost. There were no road signs from God, no clear direction. In a lot of ways, I felt like he had just backed away completely, like he didn’t need me anymore now that my time in Prague was done.

My Bible reading was the first to go. It was followed closely by poor decisions at school.

I wasn’t making bad decisions — I’m the rule-follower, remember? But they were worldly choices, things that drew me away from the Lord rather than to him. And, like the prodigal son, as I began to recognize the trouble I was getting myself into — especially as I felt myself falling away from the Lord, I assumed I could work my way out of it. I could do it on my own. I could earn my faith back.

Small sins became habitual, big sins began appearing.

It amazes me, looking back at the last two years, to see how God sustained and protected me, despite moments where I consciously decided to step onto a path that I knew would lead me away from the God who carried me through my time in Prague, the God for whom I went to Prague in the first place, the God who was feeling farther and farther away from me every day.

There could have been so many devastating earthly consequences to my actions, and yet there were none. It both emboldened and embittered me.

Rebellion is not a characteristic I would have associated with myself, but this was full-on, unapologetic revolt. I wanted to see how far I could push myself down the wrong path before something went really wrong. If I hadn’t witnessed the progression, I would never have recognized the person I had become — a person that was still parading around as a put-together Christian, leading youth group events and explaining to my non-Christian friends that “my faith is everything to me.”

What a lie.

A few months ago, I realized just how hallow those words felt coming out of my mouth. I came home from work late one night, sat on the floor and desperately opened my Bible, like someone who has been walking aimlessly for years only to wake up one day and realize they are hopelessly lost and need a map.

But it had been a long time since I had sincerely searched Scripture and I didn’t know where to start. I had a devotional tucked in the back cover of my Bible, so I pulled it out and read the first page. A voice in my head interpreted every line with bitter, cynical mockery. It was a voice I had never heard before — certainly not mine! I loved the Lord, I loved his Word, I believed that this was the Truth, so where had this voice come from?

I closed the book and tried to pray only to find my heart empty of words and my mind doubting that my prayers would find a listener. God wasn’t there. He was gone. I had walked so far away, he had disappeared entirely from view. For the first time in my life, I found myself cut off from my Savior.

I was alone.

Suddenly, I understood what my friends travelling through Prague were going through. I had both consciously and unconsciously let myself be pulled away from the faith, through wordly priorities and the cultivation of destructive patterns, by starving myself of Scripture and prayer. I was sickened by myself. I was a hypocrite, drenched in sins that had grown to consume my life, separated from God.

And worst of all, I really wasn’t sure if God existed at all. Sin I knew I could be forgiven of, but if there was no God, then there was no hope and no purpose. The world as I knew it was wrong and everyone I loved and trusted was a fool. I was a fool.

Falling through the next two days like a wounded animal searching for water, I questioned everything. What if God had just been a figment of my imagination for all these years? What if I had been brainwashed by a group of narrow-minded people who were believing a lie? What if these mountains I always assumed belonged to the hand of a Brilliant Designer were in fact merely the product of billions of years of evolutionary change? There was no God and I had no reason to be here. Right and wrong did not exist. Purpose, irrelevant.

Those were agonizing days.

In hindsight, it strikes me that even the shame of my sin was swallowed by the fear of a life without God — that is the true devastation of disobedience, after all, the original consequence to sin: separation for our Creator.

In that initial moment of despair, the night I found I couldn’t pray, I had two options.

The first option, of course, would have been to give in to the despair and walk away for good. In so many ways, it would have been easier. I was so far into the world already, and I desperately wanted what it offered — status, opportunities, fun, romance and relationships I had not been able to enjoy yet.

I thank God that he gave me the grace to choose the second option.

Crying on the floor, unable to even look at my Bible, writhing in the physical pain of my spiritual loss, with the clock on my wall blinking just past one o’clock in the morning, I picked up my phone and sent three text messages.

One message to three friends, and they all responded before morning with verses and prayers and promises to meet up. And for the next three weeks, they were God’s living witnesses, displaying through their actions his faithfulness, his kindness, his mercy, his strength, his love. And they held me tightly with arms, like His, that would not let me go.

One friend met up with me in person multiple times — a half hour before work, a quick cup of coffee at the end of the day to pray and read Scripture together. She sent me articles to read and told me to meet up with godly people at my church to broaden my circle of accountability and seek out the wisdom of our elders (which I did, and it was equally difficult and rewarding).

One friend sent me Scripture verses, almost daily. He challenged my doubts and questioned my devotional habits with unbending tough-love. It was uncomfortable and humbling, and I needed it.

The other friend — my prayer warrior — messaged me daily, “How are you doing? I’m praying for you.”

And slowly, slowly I started to find the pathway home.

God still felt far away, but I was reading Scripture every day, I was actively fighting the sin that had built up in my life, and I was praying again. I was drawing near to God — toddling closer with the clumsy steps of someone learning to walk for the first time. And this time I understood what was hanging in the balance.

For the first time in my life, I truly understood what grace was. I understood why we refer to our Christian walk as the ‘good fight’ — because it is a fight. It is spiritual warfare that we must consciously engage in, and we must win. And only by the grace of God will we.

The good news, of course, is that for those of us who do don the armor of God, the fight has already been won, our souls purchased by the blood of the Son of God himself.

I share this story, not because I am proud of any of it — not the fall from grace, nor even the return, for it was not my doing, but the Lord’s.

I share because I know I am not alone. I know that those of us who grew up in the church will one day be put to the test, if we haven’t already, and I want you to know that you are not alone in this fight either. The body of Christ, fellow saints and believers are struggling too, and they are here to pick us up as we stumble — in sin, in doubt, in fear, in grief, in loss.

It is easy for Christians to pretend that we do not stumble, to waltz into church on Sunday in our best clothes, singing with our loudest voices, while hiding the sin and hurt and pain that is welling up inside of us.

The facade of the perfect Christian will kill the church.

If you assume that the people sitting next to you have never struggled with temptations, never failed in their walk with the Lord, never doubted their faith or their assurance, how likely are you to share your own struggles with them? And if we do not confess to each other, we cannot build each other back up. We cannot edify and heal the body, so it will rot.

God uses a broken church to work out his sovereign grace, which means we need to swallow our pride, face our shame, and ask our brothers and sisters for help.

I share this story in order to shatter my own self-crafted image as a poster child for the Christian community — me, the missionary associate, the youth leader, the camp counselor, the school evangelist, the Christian blogger or whatever false idea exists about who I am and who I am not.

I am a sinner, ransomed and redeemed, lost and found.

I share this story so that you, too, might share yours with those who need to hear it or those who can help you through the battle, to the glory of God.

The story of the prodigal son isn’t about the sons, you see, it is about the father. It is about his faithfulness — and how great it is! New every morning, with strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

I realize now what it means to be the lost sheep — all those years in Sunday school learning the story, and I finally understand how it feels to walk away from the pasture, how it feels to be scared and alone and wonder if you’ll ever find your way back, how it feels to be wrapped in the tender arms of the Shepherd and brought back to the fold.

So, I share this story because I want you to feel this too. I want you to know that our God is so good to us. That his grace is sweet and his mercy is free. That you are his forever. That, even though the road home can look long and feel empty, you will not be walking it alone. Christ will be shepherding your footsteps all the way, until you reach the end and find our Heavenly Father waiting to receive you with open arms.

Mary vs the impending zombie apocalypse

“I don’t think you’d make my zombie apocalypse team,” I said matter-of-factly, pulling the car out of park and starting towards the dark street. Woodstock’s Pizza glowed behind us in bright letters and our camera equipment rattled quietly in the back seat.

“Why wouldn’t I make the team?” Zach asked.

“I just don’t know what skills you would bring to it,” I pondered, fingers tapping the steering wheel.

“I’d be the one who’d die first, give you guys a fighting chance,” he said. “You know, I don’t see myself surviving the zombie apocalypse anyway.”

“See,” I said as we turned on to College Avenue, back towards the newsroom, “I just can’t have that kind of attitude on my team.”

IMG_20170927_004440_939
Zach, AJ, Tony and I trying to keep it together while filming the DA Preplay.

It’s pretty safe to say that I am more prepared for the zombie apocalypse than I am for finals.

It’s a growing paranoia, my fear of the zombie end-times. On some level, I know it is completely ridiculous. But that doesn’t stop me from checking the backseat of my car after dark before getting in to make sure there isn’t a member of the living dead waiting for me. It doesn’t stop me from turning off the night lamp in the kitchen because zombies are attracted to light. And it certainly has not stopped me from devising a complete zombie apocalypse survival plan should we be in an actual crisis.

I’d rather be in the ranks of the foolishly over-prepared than join the legions of the undead.

Transferring to San Diego State University in late August shook up my life in all the expected ways: longer commute to school, fewer viable food options, more homework, less sleep, etc. The most aggravating change by far, however, has been the need to completely reorient my zombie preparedness plan. My home and former schoolmates are too far to realistically call upon during a breakout.

I have a new ground zero. And now I have to establish a new team.

“This office is woefully ill-equipped for an escape,” I mourned from my swivel chair. We had returned from shooting our pregame show at Woodstock’s Pizza on El Cajon, and now the staff was in the throes of ‘production night.’ I was rendering video, which is my new least favorite thing to do because you just have to sit in a chair and wait for the computer to finish doing whatever it does.

That’s a lot of my life, these days. I render video. How I managed to get myself into an editorial position that required me to do video, I still can’t figure. I don’t like being on camera, I miss writing terribly, and I am just as ill-equipped to edit film as our office is to providing a viable means of escape.

“Firstly, this is a basement,” I said, mostly to myself because as soon as I mention zombies people stop listening. “And although zombies are unlikely to get in, neither will anything else — food, water, light, clean air. We’d die down here. I’d give us 72 hours after we lose electricity.”

“Come on, York,” said Brian gruffly from his chair. “You know this isn’t the worst place you’ve been.”

Brian would know. He’s been with me to most of the worst places I’ve been, including that pirate-themed bar in National City. He also gave me a survivor’s guide to the zombie apocalypse last summer (because this is a paranoia that needs feeding…), so he’s got a credible grip on my zombie background.

And it’s true. Hands-down the worst place to be when the break-out happens is SDCCU Stadium. Not only would getting out of Mission Valley be a nightmare, but at any given Aztec football game, that stadium can have 30,000 people in it.

That’s a lot of zombies.

SDCCU Stadium
SDCCU Stadium

I’ve been on the field during games a number of times this semester. It’s one of the best parts of my job. The guys get settled up in the press box overlooking the stadium and I saunter down several floors by way of a rickety elevator that sometimes doesn’t quite make it all the way back up to the media level at the end of the night. Then, I crawl through the blue and grey passageways under the stadium, lit by flickering lights that Dean Spanos never thought to get replaced, and down a long walk-way that spills out onto the field and into the roar of thousands of fans.

Sometimes, when I’m on the field with a huge camera propped on my shoulder, when the game is in between plays and the cheerleaders are making the most of the screen time to flip and bounce around, when all I can see is black and scarlet in the stands and the bright stadium lights washing over the endzones, I stop and imagine how funny it would be to be chased by a zombie from the tuba section of the marching band.

No really, at least once I game, I ask myself if I’d really make it out of the stadium alive. I’m still not totally sure.

It has become a game, of sorts. Every new corner of campus I find myself in, every classroom or parking structure or campus garden, I ask, “How would I escape?”

And there are a lot of new places in my life right now.

In fact, I haven’t had such a massive change of scenery since I moved to Prague. SDSU is hugely new to me. Not just the campus, but the people, the pace, the lifestyle. To be honest, I’m not sure I like it.

I don’t mean to sound like a whiney older person here, but being surrounded by 19-year-olds all day is exhausting. Granted, they’re not all bad, but some of these kids have no concept of real life — jobs, rent, taxes, family responsibilities — they’re basically glorified high schoolers who still think they’re the center of the universe. Did you know sorority girls don’t even wash their own dishes?

No, I can’t. Don’t get me started on sorority girls. My only hope is that the zombie that finally gets me is not one of the 10,000 vapid, clueless bottle-blondes on this campus.

“They’re actually very practical,” Cami was trying to explain to me. At some point in mid-September, following one of my sorority girl rants (which are becoming more vitriolic) as we trekked down the winding staircase outside of the Education and Business Administration building to the newsroom basement, she had taken it upon herself to defend the basic girls on campus. “I mean, the shorts and the tank-top are a staple. What else are you going to wear when it’s this hot? And the flannel tied around the waist is for when it gets cooler later. See, practical?”

Cami would probably make my zombie apocalypse team because she’s like human sunshine, always bright and full of ideas.

“The shorts I just won’t ever understand,” I said obstinately as we neared the foot of the staircase. “Also, have you noticed how this stairwell, the footbridge to the parking lot and that little sidewalk along the slope are the only ways out from here? It’s not easy to escape in narrow spaces like this. I prefer open ground.”

I say it like I’ve been there before, like I’ve fought off zombies at some point in my life and I’m just back here at college because someone finally convinced me I needed the degree to ever get a job.

No one’s going to need degrees post-civilization.

“You just need a bargaining chip,” Tyler explained to me. “For example, if the zombie apocalypse happens, I would trade Will for gasoline.”

Will lifted his head rather quickly.

“I”m sorry, I’d rather not be bartered,” he objected.

“Too bad, I’m bigger than you are and we need gasoline.”

“You are not allowed on my zombie team, Tyler,” I said, crossing my arms. I have taken to occupying the couch in Tyler’s corner of the office — billing or ads or whatever it is he does. Tyler is a decent conversationalist, but I really do just come for the sofa. “How can I rebuild civilization if my people have no moral compass? No values?”

“We don’t need values, we need gasoline,” he reminded me with a chuckle. “You’ll see, Mary.”

It’s funny to see the warlord come out in Tyler, and the hesitant victim in Will. Normally, Tyler is the office sweetheart, the guy who makes coffee in the morning and says “aw, I’m sorry you’re having a bad day” and actually probably means it.

Will is the secret service, the armed forces and the mad scientist all in one. I mean, he’s the news editor.

DA franzz
Will, Ella and Jasmine hijacking my computer with love, friendship and the office knick-knacks.

Will would definitely make my team.

AJ wouldn’t. He’s one of the smartest guys on our staff and he’d be a great asset, but I don’t think he’d listen to me — he’d have too many of his own good ideas. I’m nipping insubordination in the bud and just not inviting him in the first place. He can make his own team. I’m sure they’ll do just fine. He and Tyler can hoard gasoline together.

Jasmine couldn’t be on my team because she’s also an Alpha. But I’d miss her, because she’s lovely and kind and fierce.

Justin would make the team because he does what I tell him to and because he’s a baseball player so I’m assuming he’s good with a bat.

Tristi makes the team because she’s chill when I’m not, and I need a right-hand man like that.

David and Jocelyn make the team — they’re sweet but they’re fierce.

Andrew doesn’t make the team, but only because he laughs harder than anyone whenever I mention the impending doom of mankind. One day he’ll regret that.  

Ella makes the team because I just wouldn’t leave her behind. Ever.

I have surface streets mapped out for escape routes out of town, I know where we would pick up supplies and which of the school’s vans we would commandeer to get out of Dodge quickly. In every room I enter, after locating a viable means of escape, I pick a weapon to fight my way out with (Zach’s golf clubs, the whiteboard ruler, that steel-framed stool in HH 210 that looks dangerous to sit in). For the 24-hour, 48-hour, and week-long waves of realization, reaction and post-apocalypse re-establishment, I have a plan.

And it’s nice knowing that no matter how much people laugh at me for this, or say through tearful chuckles that I’d never survive a zombie attack anyway, I know what I’m doing.

I wish I had that confidence in life, because for the last three months I’ve been wandering around campus lost and horribly unprepared. The strong, determined, resourceful person I know I can be never seems to come out at school and I can’t figure out why.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the floor of the newsroom (or on the sofa in Tyler’s corner of the office when he lets me), staring at the ceiling wondering how to pick up and keep going. Everytime I think I’ve found the bottom of this semester, someone throws me a shovel.

I wish I could win friends into my life as easily as I can add them to my imaginary zombie-fighting team. I wish I could have prepared for the heartbreaks and disappointments of the last three months the way I seem to be able to prepare myself for the destruction of all mankind.

Like, seriously, something is out of whack with my sense of prioritization.

Maybe actual life is just harder, though.

Maybe I dream up nightmares because it’s a lot easier to be brave when you’re facing a zombie than it is to be brave when you’re facing people who don’t believe you can do what you say you can, or don’t see the value in your efforts; when you find yourself playing catch-up and missing opportunities just because life took you a different way than it took most everyone else, like when the coach of the rowing team says, “I’m sorry, but you’re too old to walk on — you’ve missed your window.” 

It’s hard to see yourself as a fighter when you’re three hours into a closing shift at a gym, or when you’re dragging yourself to school the next morning for an 8 a.m. class. It’s difficult not to feel small when someone else gets credit for your work, or your scholarship application gets returned in the mail after the deadline has passed, or you come face to face with the side of you that realizes how easy it would be to cheat your way through the online class you keep forgetting you have and the coward wins.

And when someone says, “Sorry, I’m talking to someone else,” the zombie-fighter inside you just shrivels up completely and that powerful space it filled in your chest turns into a huge, aching, cavernous vacuum.

Honestly, I’d rather have the apocalypse.

But who I am now is who I’ll be in the end times, too. We don’t get to choose our own character for this. When civilization comes crashing down, the person I am in college, the person I was in Prague, the person I am in traffic on my way to school or on the campus sidewalk after a long day of let-downs, that’s the person I’ll be in the apocalypse. And I do have control over that person. Every day can be a practice round for me to be better, stronger, more determined, more hopeful.

We dream up perfect plans and perfect people to have in our lives, but the truth is that the only thing we can really control is the people we become, and there is no point in having the ideal individuals around you if you can’t give something back to the team.

So, tomorrow I start over. I plan to be ready for the apocalypse and for all the life that happens before it begins.

the truth about new beginnings

harpers ferry 2010
This is a picture of me at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in April, 2010. It is ONLY relevant to this story because I’m wearing an SDSU jersey, which I still own. Long before I ever thought I’d become an Aztec, I was repping the colors. Funny where time takes us.

I guess I’ve gotten used to early mornings.

It’s not like I’m a fresh-faced college student, blissfully unaware of how much gas costs, when taxes are due, and where to go to do laundry. The 7 a.m. class doesn’t scare me anymore because I have taken them and lived to tell the tale. Moreover, I’ve lived as an adult in the real world. I’ve had real world responsibilities. 

So, walking back onto a college campus for a student orientation feels a little weird.

Part of me, the part that had no intention to grow up ever, wanted to skip down the SDSU sidewalk cheerily in the mists of pre-8 a.m. fog, saying ‘good morning!’ to everyone. The other part of me, the part at the helm of my self-control, just glowered at the student guides in their red shirts, saying, “I’d be better with more coffee,” when they asked how I was doing.

I sauntered up to the check-in line, battling between the urge to pull out my front desk smile or to drop a snarl, and picked up my folder and nifty little SDSU bag. I tried really hard not to get excited about the bag but drawstrings are my new favorite things and this one even had a zipped up pocket!

Orientation was inside Montezuma Hall, a large rectangle room jutting off a long, elegant hallway. The hallway, accessed by a tall flight of stairs, was magnificent. The ceiling was pulled back with dark wooden beams and the walls echoed with the ghosts of a hundred scholars eternally roaming the hall in search of greater knowledge.

Nope, that was just my excited half momentarily staging a coup.

A sticky name tag with my identification printed neatly on the front began lifting off my shirt by its corners and I humphed. These things are so stupid.

The cynic was back.

Truth be told, I never thought I’d be here, at a student orientation in a grand hall at a real university. I’m not sure if university was never a desire I had growing up because I just wasn’t interested in getting my degree or because I knew I’d likely never get one anyway. It’s easier to just be indifferent to joys outside our reach.

It’s a romantic notion, admittedly, the summoning of a new faculty of academic minds to help them make port in an institution that will become a home and a source of identity. It feels so Oxford.

Student orientation, however, is one of many things in life in which the reality does not even begin live up to the ideal. The first two hours were filled with repeditary information and unnecessary applause breaks. Anyone who read any of the thousand emails the school sent out this summer would have already known what was said from a crackly microphone a thousand times that morning.

The seat next to me was occupied by a brightly dressed woman with matching personality. I could tell by her mannerisms that it was killing her to have to sit quietly. I could also tell there was an underlying level of snark buried in the granules of her person and it felt akin to my own feelings at that moment. Misery loves company.

When she got up and scooted past me during the middle of the second hour, the part of me that was still drooling slightly at the mouth to be sitting here with a cute little official name tag in a beautiful old building was scandalized that someone would be so disrespectful as to get up and leave during the middle of a presentation. But when she came back with a cup of coffee from the campus Starbucks, the other part of me was like, “Man, she’s a smart one.”

Respectful nod.

By the time the members of the student government got up, I was pretty over orientation day. It was almost lunch time, and I didn’t need these twenty-year-olds telling me how transformative the college experience has been for them because they decided to “get involved.”

Are you kidding me? I’ve been “getting involved” since high school. Political movements and election campaigns, volunteer teaching and coaching. I moved my life across the world for two years to work with a church and a school. And you want to tell me about “life changing” ways to “get involved?” No thank you.

My pretentiousness levels have never been so high, nor my patience so low.

The romance of student orientation and my visions of cardigans and Oxford blazers had vanished completely and I found myself sitting in an uncomfortable chair, suddenly feeling like maybe I didn’t belong here.

Between the on-campus student health initiatives and the three-part video about consent, someone tried to explain the effects of too much alcohol. That’s when I got up to look for that Starbucks.

Through a pretty courtyard and around a corner that overlooked more courtyards and walkways, a fairly sizable Starbucks brandished its summer drinks promotion sign. Inside was quiet and only partially full. The barista was clearly in training. Laptops and notebooks were out at every table. Summer classes are still in session.

Coffee in hand, I stepped outside to look at the campus. It’s pretty, I’ll give you that. I’ve driven by and around this university my whole life. My grandma lives right down the street, and several family members are Aztecs. SDSU has always felt like the family school, but this was my first time on the campus grounds. This was the first time I realized it would be my school.

A tour was in progress and I found myself side-stepping quickly to avoid getting dragged along by the group of gangling looking 18-year-olds. College is an adventure to them. To me, it’s just another brick to lay in this life I’m building.

Caffeine helped me survive the rest of morning orientation. They announced lunch and excused us by our colleges. On the way out, I recognized an old friend from high school. She was one of a handful of people who sent me a care package while I was living in Prague. Even though we don’t see each other often, I count her among the friends I most respect.

She lit up with a beautifully freckled smile when she saw me. We commiserated slightly, fell in line with the rest of the Arts and Letters transfer students for our meal tickets and then, finally, found seats on a shady curb in the courtyard.

She’s had a journey similar to mine. Similar in that it is far, far removed from the regular course of college goers. We’re both language majors who fell into our degrees of choice somewhat by accident. We both have international experience, a burden for bi-cultural communities here at home, and zero tolerance for how drippy the watermelon served with our lunch ended up being.

“I’m trying not to be too excited about this,” I told her. “This whole experience. I feel like I should be too old for this by now, you know?”

“What, you’re not going to go to the keg parties?” she laughed.

For a minute, we both could have been high school girls again, eating our lunches on the ground, talking about the future and our place in it. The part of me that wanted to be happy to be here, that had been trying so hard to enjoy this day, lifted her tired head and listened.

Breezes chimed against golden sunshine. Shadows danced along the sidewalk from the branches of sprawling trees. Gentle chatter floated around us. This was nice.

Lunch ended and we joined our college of Arts and Letter group into a smaller lecture hall to meet with our dean and then into even smaller groups to meet with course advisors. If all went well, in three hours we’d be registering for our first semester of classes.

“You okay?” my friend asked as we took our seats.

“I’m trying to play it cool,” I said, suppressing a girlish squeak. My inner cynic was becoming complacent, now well-fed and ready for an afternoon nap.

Our small groups narrowed the fifty or so people in the room down to groups comprised of single digits. There were seven in mine, and one of them I already knew! A woman from my last Spanish class at Southwestern. She’s a mom and wife going back to school. One man was a Chilean-Canadian transplant looking to get into interpreting for the UN someday. Another just got out of the Navy. Everyone had a different story and a different goal. But we were all here, and we were all going to study Spanish.

It took a while for the ice to break, but there’s not a lot that can’t be done in three hours. By the time we were set to register for our classes, it seemed like we were best friends.

We were giddy as we trekked through campus to find the computer lab so we could meet up with the rest of the Arts and Letters students. We got lost along the way, which only bonded us further.

Registered, ID cards picked up, and a long day behind us, we stood awkwardly for a minute on the white plaster balcony of the student services building.

“I guess we’ll be seeing each other in a couple weeks,” someone said. The pressure diffused and a few of us laughed.

This isn’t the end of anything, just a beginning.

And even though I’m used to beginnings, I’ve lived a life full of changes, I’ve faced my share of challenging experiences, this one is new for me. I haven’t ever attended a university and it’s something I’m genuinely so excited and so grateful to be able to do. It would be a pity not to see the adventure in it all.

I said my goodbyes and slung my drawstring over my shoulder. The walk back to the car was a quiet one. All the greeters had left. The late afternoon sun was silent and warm. My inner cynic had settled down peacefully, unable to criticize anything on our walk back to the car, and the part of me that was excited to be here was fully awake, uncontested, blinking in wonder at the new day.

blue collar princess

IMG_0617.JPGIf I close my eyes, I can still feel Irish winds blowing my hair atop the bulwarks of Blarney Castle.

Two days into a nine-day trip where I traversed the Emerald Isle with nothing but a few bus tickets and a backpack, my inner nomad was already climbing high upon a throne of wanderlust. Through rain slicks, three days of fever, the moaning grey ghosts of the Irish winterlands and countless pubs in search of the Golden Harp, I reveled in the challenge and the bliss of the open road. That was three years ago. I’ve been there and back and elsewhere, since.

But for the last year, I’ve been home and now I’ve got itchy feet again. I’m ready to move. Ready to walk the new road, fight the new fight, claim the new castle. I miss my roustabout days when I could buy a train ticket to Santa Barbara or hop on a flight from Prague to Madrid in just a few hours. Fresh places, fresh faces. A world of people and color at my fingertips.

But losing my teaching position to the school’s closure, a rather undramatic car crash that I do not want to talk about, college bills and a bottomless gas tank have left me absolutely penniless. And you need pennies to travel.

So I’ve spent my summer looking for gainful employment with varying levels of success. And by “varying levels,” I mean, no one would hire me.

I have a weird resume. I’ve never had a blue collar job in my life. I jumped into marketing, politics, journalism and law right after high school. So when I sat down for my interview at Denny’s in June, the manager looked at me with a quizzical tremble of her upper lip and asked, “Why do you want to work here?” And it wasn’t the typical, “tell me what you love about this company” question. She was literally judging my life decisions so hard. It’s hard to go from executive assistant to “I’ve never waited a table before but please hire me anyway.”

Not that I never wanted to be a waitress at a diner or something equally quaint and romantic.

For years, I’ve had this crazy impulse to run away to somewhere exotic and extreme, like Uzbekistan or the Florida Panhandle, and become a bartender. How great, to just be there for people. An entire job centered around making someone’s night better with a smile, an open ear, and a little liquid company.

I would be the world’s greatest bartender, of this I am completely certain.

I have no idea how I’d get to Florida without a car, though, so I’m stuck with the hometown job this summer.

Unfortunately, the temp agencies couldn’t find me a job either. Law firms need someone with a more recent paralegal certification (mine is a couple years old) and everyone else simply looked at the last four years of my work experience (teaching and freelance writing) and said with simpering smiles, “As much as we’d like to stick you in a closet to backfile our employee reports for us, we’d like someone with more filing experience.”

All for the best. I couldn’t spend the summer in a filing closet. I’d go mad.

I nearly gave up on the job search. Maybe, if I just curled up in bed with a good book for the summer, rent and car insurance and my eight dollar Netflix subscription would all just disappear. I had a really good book too! Spain’s Golden Queen Isabella by Iris Noble. Queen Isabella was the last great ruler of the age of chivalry and knights. She was a warrior of a woman, too. By 23, she was already a queen, a general, and a mother besides! She would race across Spain clad in armor with banners flying high, gathering support for the crusades into Andalucia or the war with Portugal. She prized the goodness of mankind, the nobility of the mind and heart, the gentle strength of bravery. And she set the standard with her own courage and conviction.

If I couldn’t let me feet wander the world, maybe I could let my mind go instead. But the sad truth is that you can’t hide from rent.

Desperation is the mother of miracles, so after dropping off my resume at restaurants all morning, I walked into L.A. Fitness. I had left my resume with the club in Eastlake about once every two weeks since late May and hadn’t heard anything, but there’s one much closer to my house that I had never been in before (at least, not with the intention of applying for a job). If being stuck in the Moscow airport for 18 hours taught me anything, it’s that if you don’t ask, you’ll never know whether that guy eating smoked fish out of a plastic bag was aware that he was publically consuming the entire corpse of a once living Oncorhynchus Mykiss, or if he just assumed nobody would mind the smell. Moral of the story: I walked in, flashed a smile, and handed over my application. Two weeks later, I was signing the hiring paperwork and sitting through employee training.

Actually, first they put me through first aid training. That was a long afternoon.

Then they asked me to cover a few shifts in the Kid’s Klub — thirty little kids running around half-crazed because it’s after 6 p.m. and they’re tired and want to be at home. How do you babysit thirty children at once for four hours? You play lava monster. You play a lot of lava monster.

I forgot how much I love tiny people. This last year, I only taught high schoolers. I miss my fourth graders from Prague. I miss their silly games and big opinions and tiny acts of heroism. Kids Klub reminded me just what an adventure the pre-teen world can be. A toy dinosaur can be a monster, a superhero, a truck driver or a baby, depending on whose imagination is at the helm. Hide-seek-can is still exciting enough to invoke shrieks of laughter and screams of terror alike. The world isn’t little to kids, it’s big. And stepping into their world for an evening makes mine seem a little bigger too, even if I’m just here in a playroom in San Diego.

Finally, I got a two-hour employee training session with our amazing operations manager.

The thing about employee training is that it can only prepare you for about two percent of the chaos that actually goes down at work, which is a lot like traveling, if you think about it. You can book all your tickets ahead of time, but if you miss a train or you get lost and can’t find your hostel in the middle of the night in a town where no one speaks any of the one and a half languages you know, you’d better know how to improvise.

They told me how to answer the phone, how to transfer a call, how to check people in and service their accounts. And then they gave me the closing shift on a Saturday night and left me to sink beneath the weight of my own incompetence.

I’ve done that before. Just ask anyone who has ridden a bus with me literally anywhere.

“So sorry to bother you again, but do you know where I get off?”

Anyway, what they didn’t prepare me for was how to pay off multiple accounts at once in cash, how to put a call on hold and pick up the other line without dropping both of them, where the ice packs are when someone drops a weight on their finger, which key unlocks the customer safe, how to respond when a member starts shouting at you over the phone, how to respond when a member starts shouting at you in person, how to respond when a member asks you out on a date, or how to use the intercom system with even the most basic effectiveness.

Actually, they did teach me how to use the intercom. Apparently some skills can only be learned through fire.

“I’m already getting compliments on how friendly you are,” my supervisor said as she showed me for the millionth time how to transfer a phone call.

The affirmation of my front desk persona came as a huge relief because I’m so terrible at the rest of this stuff, I’m going to need all the job security I can get.

Following a particularly bad day during my first week at work, I showed up to my next shift dressed up extra pretty. I did my hair and stole one of my mom’s black cardigans.

“You look nice today,” said one of my coworkers. “Dressing for the job you want?”

“I’m compensating for yesterday,” I told him with an exasperated sigh. “Just dressing for the job I’m desperately trying to keep.”

But I am good at part of this job. I am so, so good at welcoming people. If only I could sit there on my little stool all day and say, “Hi, how are you today?” or, “Bye, have a nice afternoon!” If that were the sum total of the job, I’d be amazing. It’s literally my favorite thing to do. There are so many people who come to this gym. And I love people.

Some of the gym members have started to become familiar. I can feel myself being drawn into this community of gym rats, fitness geeks and old people who just want to use the pool. People will grin back when they see me smile, or actually answer when I ask them how their day is going. Even the people in a hurry are pretty nice. And more than one member has taken the time to stop and compliment my smile. Mom and my dentist would be so proud.

Funny how far a smile can go in someone’s day, especially at a gym.

When you go to the gym, you’re taking a day’s worth of troubles, successes, and distractions with you, and the first person you see is the girl at the front desk. In a way, she’s the bartender. If you want to vent about your day for a minute, she’ll listen. If you want to get straight to business, she won’t take offense. If you sigh a little, she’ll understand. No judgement, just a smile and a sincere, “have a good workout today” as if she’s sliding over a gin and tonic on a cream colored napkin.

It’s been a few weeks. I’m feeling more comfortable behind the desk now. I don’t get rattled as easily. I had my first late-night this week. We close at midnight, so I brought my book about Queen Isabella just in case things got too quiet.

But work is its own little crusade, a challenge to make the day better for everyone who comes through our doors, if even in small measure. As I perched on my stool behind the front desk, like a lady in a tower, smiling on her subjects as they pass, I felt like a princess. Struggling with our computer system and my thin but growing level of competency to answer people’s questions and solve their problems, I imagined myself to be a general, commanding troops and winning wars.

And walking through the dark halls of the gym to close everything down, then locking the doors and stepping into the humid night, I felt like a queen shushing her kingdom into peaceful sleep.

When I lived in Prague, adventure was waiting right outside my door, ready to whisk me away at any moment. But the truth is, that lofty temptress has followed me across the world. Even in San Diego, even in my home neighborhood, even the dull humdrum of daily life, like working shifts at a blue collar job to pay off car repairs and tuition fees, there can be fields of war and palaces of gold. Always, there will be new people to discover.

So here is where I will be. My itchy feet are dancing off their nerves in this castle of new experiences. And proudly, I’ll fly my banner above its bulwarks until the wind catches my wings again and new roads open before me.

throwing away other people’s memories

IMG_7769

Once a teacher, they told me, always a teacher.

Who said that? Was it the women from my first teaching post, back when I was still in college and had no clue how to manage a classroom, even one with just eight students? Or was it my TESOL instructor shortly before I left for Prague? All the teaching lessons in the world wouldn’t have prepared me for Prague. Maybe it was those ladies from Prague…My dear, lovely Czech mothers who wrapped me up in all my mistfitted enthusiasm and showed me what real teachers look like.

Somebody said it. Somebody who knows what it’s like to be a teacher.

But this isn’t ever something a teacher wants to do — packing up the classroom, putting away the colorful whiteboard markers, taking down the preposition posters and the Spanish calendar, cleaning out the desks. Clearing out the classroom — not just for the summer, but for good — feels like packing up a piece of your heart and putting in a back closet with a neat label, and then shutting off the light, closing the door and walking away for good. It hurts.

And after welcoming students through these doors every September for forty-one years, the teachers and staff here who are now facing the school’s final closure…Well, they are feeling a hurt I know well.

I’d only taught at Covenant for one year, and it was only part-time. It wasn’t Prague. Nothing will ever be Prague, and I’m coming to terms with this. But beginning my days in this little room was good for me, I think. Stabilizing. The board’s final decision to close the school meant I would be out of a job, it meant I wouldn’t be teaching for a while and I knew I would miss that, it meant not seeing my fellow teachers and my students (who have wiggled into my affections with the most persistence I have ever seen), and it meant I was back to not knowing what the next step was. But for the teachers who’ve dedicated years to this ministry, the students who have grown up here, the staff who have watched generations of children, including their own, flourish and bloom within these walls, the process of saying goodbye was much more difficult.

June gloom had disappeared for good and were spending the our summer holiday in shorts and T-shirts, clearing out four decades of memories.

“There’s ice cream in the freezer,” said Sherry. Her voice tinkled with its usual cheeriness, despite the difficulty of the week. “Several boxes, actually, so you should take a break at some point and help us clean that out next.”

Celeste and I looked at each other. Ice cream.

But first, we had to finish the project at hand. My classroom was being turned into temporary storage and the P.E. closet had to be sorted before we could move in tables — by the end of the week, my room would be an unrecognizable library of books and bobbles, stacked floor to ceiling with historical knick knacks, geography maps, art and science equipment, and at least one version of every board game that came out of the ‘80s.

The P.E. closet was a treasure trove. Celeste and I had moved out all the boxes and laid them in the middle of the floor, sorting the contents one box at a time. She has been a teacher here for years and years and years. In fact, most of my first three months teaching the underclassmen were spent trying to live up the name she made for herself among the students. I will say now, everyone agreed she did a much better job decorating the class for Christmas. Anyway, you get the picture. Big shoes.

But Celeste and I go back to a time that is precious to me for a different reason. We met the summer I moved to Prague. For a few weeks, a few life-changing weeks, she was a very good friend to me.

And now we were both smelling old volleyball jerseys and deciding whether or not to put them in the ‘donate’ pile or the trash. I don’t think either of us thought we’d be here: her, closing up the school she loves and me, back in San Diego.

It was getting hot in the classroom. The humidity was not helped by the mountains of old jerseys and practice uniforms surrounding us. Celeste could tell which year most of them were used, who wore which number, every story behind every yellowing shirt. All I saw was a jersey that had seen it’s last game and smelled like retirement had not been kind. I suppose it’s true what they say about one man’s trash.

It felt odd, holding up pieces of the aging uniforms and asking if we should keep them or not. It was a practical decision to me. To Celeste, it was a personal one.

“I almost feel like I shouldn’t be allowed to be making these decisions,” I said, holding up a white practice jersey against the dusty sunshine from the window to see if it looked better with backlighting. Celeste just shrugged her shoulders, tears gathering in her eyes. It must have been the dust.

The school banner, weird ribbons whose purpose I never figured out, a sheet that someone wore like a cape at every game and award ceremony — memories were so deeply entrenched in the things we were clearing out, things that now served no purpose, things that had lost their value except to make us reflect on a time when the people and places close to us were just that — close to us. Throwing away the old jersey is like throwing away the memory. It’s like saying it never happened, the last living trace of yesterday removed from our today, our tomorrow.

We needed ice cream.

The freezer was loaded with bars and cones and sandwiches. Caramel drizzles, chocolate swirls, nuts and vanilla. Food for our weary souls.

We sat in the kitchen and ate our treats. Celeste had started reminiscing and once the floodgates opened, it was story after story of the most heartwarming, entertaining and hilarious moments of this school.

It made me think of Prague.

Every teacher has a closet of stories stored up for days like this. My closet is bursting at the seams and most of them I know I’ll never tell. Because I never had this — this closure. I packed my classroom up in a day and half and rushed straight from our last day of school to the airport and onto a flight that would take me away from my kids, my friends, my life. I wish I had had a week to sort through class papers and school performances, to rehash the war stories and remember the good ol’ days. I wish I had been able to share it all with someone who had been there, who understood even a little. But I was in Prague alone. I came back alone. And I have no one to share my stories with.

After ice cream, we pumped up volleyballs, moved kiddie chairs that had the weight and cumbersome nature of small tanks (when the zombie apocalypse happens, I will return to melt them down for their metal), and one of us had an infuriating run-in with a spider. It was me.

Then we got more ice cream.

Over the course of the week, the school transformed. What a sad metamorphosis to watch, to be a part of.

Not without adventures. I nearly had a mental breakdown trying to get the carcasses of dead flies and one mostly dismembered spider out of the crevice in the window sill. Rachel was not helpful. After I emotionally fortified myself, she shoved a fetal pig in my face, leftovers from biology class. Jackie excused me from having to clean out the science lab upon seeing my skin flush several shades of green. Besides, Rachel was only too happy to play with the dead animals.

I went through the library, the after-school room, the history class. Books were moved. Games were packed away. Globes and dictionaries and pictures of presidents were brought to what was once my classroom. Most of it would be given away, divided up like remnants of a conquered nation.

And I did start to feel the sadness of it. Already, I missed my students. Already, I missed those early mornings and the coffee that barely got me through fourth period English. Already, I missed what could have been: a future here at this school. Already, I was longing again for that thrill of life, that rush of joy, that slow trudge of building tiny humans into great people.

It’s not Prague, but I’ll miss this place. Once a teacher, always a teacher, I guess.

I can’t remember who said that.

Does it matter who said it? The women at my first teaching post in college, my TESOL instructors, those dear ladies from my school in Prague, the family of teachers and staff at my latest venture right here in Chula Vista — they have all lived the same basic truth, because the fundamentals of teaching are the same world-wide. You pour out your heart into the tiny hands of freshly minted humans and hope that you can equip them body, mind and soul for the journey ahead. What a responsibility. What a privilege. And what a hope and peace to know that it is God who opens each classroom to us, just as he closes the doors of others; writing our stories just as he hears us retell them.