Broken Heights

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The mountains thrust out their ancient bellies and the valley beneath expanded into a gushing current of wind with every step I took. It wasn’t steep. I wouldn’t have come nearly so close to the edge if it had looked anything like the trails we had been hiking all day – Heights. Ugh.

Gently, the boulder-face rolled into the abyss several yards down, broken by rocks and trees as it followed its roots down to the heart beneath the Sierra Nevada mountains.

I didn’t look back at my friends. Wesley had already taken his turn and Lydia wiggled impatiently on a rock waiting for me to get it over with so we could go back to camp and she could find a ‘bathroom’ (read: tree).

“I miss Prague!” I shouted into the canyon, my voice magnifying for a moment before disappearing into the wind. I shouted louder. “I hate change!”

The mountains looked back at me with eyes they didn’t have and I realized I wasn’t speaking to them. I wasn’t speaking to myself. This was my prayer. My frustrated, angry, confused prayer to God after weeks of radio silence.

I squeezed my fists, not sure of what to say next now that I knew who I was addressing. If you think the mountains make a person feel small, try standing before their Creator.

“But I trust you!” I cried in a betraying tone, the anger welling up in my chest. I wanted tears to roll. I wanted sobs to erupt from my quaking body so God would see just how upset I was. Instead I just stood there, awkwardly clenching my fists. “And you’d better have a good plan!”

No answer. Not that I’d expected one. I was fully prepared to figure out the next step of my life without a word from the Almighty. I was just a little upset that He didn’t even seem to want to put in His two cents. 

I trudged back to my friends, avoiding eye contact, before gruffly muttering, “Let’s go.”

 You will never completely be at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place. –Miriam Adeney

Coming home was so much harder than I thought it would be. People vaguely warned me that reverse-culture shock is a thing and that you can never really “come home” because “things change.” I knew for a long time before I had to leave Prague that it would break my heart. The last three months teaching at the Czech primary school in Lhotka were some of the most precious, most torturous months of my life, followed by two short weeks of goodbyes to all the people I’d grown to love for two years and then . . . home, whatever that means.

The plan was to get back Stateside just in time for Independence Day (although, as I like to believe, every day should be Independence Day in America). I got in late on the 3rd, ate pizza, slept for a solid ten hours, and woke up to a foggy window. San Diego hosts a marine layer in the early summer that we lovingly call “June Gloom” and it was a bittersweet reminder that I was a world away from Central Europe. I could hear Saturday morning noises in our house from the bottom bunk (I fought my little sister for several months via a fierce email chain for rights to the bottom bunk upon my return). Dad was already out on a morning hike – he’s an early riser – but the coffee pot was grumbling downstairs. Brushing pages told me that the younger brother was reading in his room next to us. Mom was shuffling about down the hall.

Home. Minus the last two years, I’ve lived in this house in this room for basically ever. I remember when we moved the huge wooden dresser into the room (we haven’t been able to figure out how to get it back out yet). I remember when we used to raise baby rabbits (and for one horrible year, baby rats) in the back of our closet. I remember when my sisters painted these walls mismatching shades of blue. I remember when I packed up half my things and moved to the other side of the world.

Looking at my room that morning and for the first time not being sure how I got there or whether I belonged was the only time I cried after coming home. Not for a lack of trying. I believe in crying like I believe in mac ‘n cheese, the Tooth Fairy, and the peanut-buttery Spirit of the American people. Some things are just good for the soul.

But I hadn’t expected it to hurt so much, (or be so impractical trying to cry without waking up my sister sleeping on the upper bunk). It was like being spliced down the middle – half my heart in this strange new place I used to love so well and half my heart still very solidly in a sun-filled, sixth-grade classroom on the other side of the earth. We had a family reunion that week for the first time in two years. I had people to meet up with, classes to register for, a driver’s license to renew and tons of Mexican food to consume. So I just decided not to think about Prague until a more practical time when there weren’t gobs of people around to witness whatever would follow (I laugh now at the thought of actually having any control over when I lose my top. It just happens, folks). I knew there were sweet, treasured memories to be cherished from my two years abroad, but currently, they were buried beneath a layer of hurt, anxiety and anger, and getting through that layer would require a very special kind of meltdown. The kind you just can’t have on any regular Tuesday afternoon – though almost getting hit by a bus that one time while crossing the street just about brought it out of me, as did several waiters upon asking, “What would you like to drink?” before I was emotionally prepared to answer direct questions.

In fact, most questions made me feel uneasy. “What’s next?” “What are your plans now?” People may as well pin my nerves to a wall and throw darts at them. I had a prepped answer, of course – something about finishing college and teaching and a concoction of other things that sound age and life-stage appropriate from someone in their mid-twenties. Truth: I’m beginning to wonder if I didn’t just come up with a plan for the sake of having one and the pressure of trying to figure out what I really want to do before classes start feels like unto that of a steamroller gradually running over a cartoon bunny (picture: eyes slowly popping, tongue twisting, exclamation marks appearing circum caput). Of course, I’m much too independent to really admit to people that I’m pretty sure I have no clue what happens next.
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The worry I had now as my friends and I trudged back to camp to join our team of thirteen was that maybe I couldn’t get past that top layer of emotion at all. Maybe I’d bottled it all up for so long that it just wasn’t going to come out now. After all, the past four days of rolled ankles, sunburns and sleeping on rocks hadn’t been enough to push me into it. At this rate, nothing would. I’d just stay like this, blandly plodding through each day. And that was a scary thought, because, for me, my deep perception of feelings that are painful (the ones that come with varying forms of “emotional breakdownage”) is simply the other half of my ability to feel joy. It’s the loss of this second kind of feeling that scares me the most. A life without pain would never be worth living if it were also to be a life without joy.

Everyone was playing cards when we got back to camp. A group trotted up from the lake with tired smiles and wet hair. We gathered for singing and devotions which were interrupted by several deer wandering through camp.

Dinner happened around several cookstoves. We ate, we cleaned, we added several more layers of warm clothes. Then, singing with the stars, we climbed up the hill to get a better view of the galaxy stretching out before us.

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Half our group, the more athletic of us, scampered up the sloping boulder and disappeared in a blink. I just stared up in the dark and thought, “Absolutely not.”

“No,” I told the curly-headed boy next to me, urging me to follow him up. “Dear heavens, no,” adding, “Heights” for emphasis so that he knew I had good reason to stay exactly where I was. I don’t trust my feet (or my hands, for that matter) to get me safely to the top of anything, let alone a veritable cliff face in the dark.

Several false starts led him to a path jagged enough for me to follow and we slowly, and with much grumbling on my part, scaled the spine of the sleeping rock.

(I’ve been having a recurring dream where I reincarnate as a mountain goat and now I understand just how terrifying that would be).

The top was gorgeous and the team had already settled into stone crannies out of the wind with open sleeping bags and shared jacket sleeves. A silent symphony of crystal starlight strummed across the horizon, dipping behind shaggy mountain peaks and meeting in a breathtaking crescendo directly above us.

The stars were worth seeing, all things considered, even if I wasn’t in a state to appreciate them. But when the rest of our group took the chatter and giggles back down the hill to their tents, I snuggled up next to Lydia, with Wesley on the other side of us. We just sat there, minds full of worries and wonder.

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Silence was occasionally broken by a story, a joke, a thought. Slowly, the layers of our hearts peeled away until we were almost bare beneath the limpid sky. And still I didn’t cry. Save a lump of undefined worries sitting on my throat, my chest felt as empty as the expanses of the universe towering over us. No pain. No joy.

“I just wish I’d have this breakdown already,” I said brusquely, wrestling with the sleeping bag that kept falling off my shoulder. “I wish I could get it off my chest.”

“Don’t force it,” Lydia told me, her reassuring voice harmonizing with the pale moonlight cresting the ridge. Under a moon like that, night seemed like day and the cold just pressed us closer together. She gave my shoulder a nudge with her own. “Let it happen when it happens. That’s an awful lot to carry around for so long. It’ll come off eventually.”

I had my doubts.

“I feel bad for shouting into the valley today,” I said. “It was kind of a disrespectful way to address God, you know? The pot shouldn’t talk back to the Potter.”

God had a plan for me, didn’t He? Even if He wasn’t saying. Who was I to challenge it?

Lydia nodded in the darkness and then added, “But I think God appreciates your honesty.”

I’ve been confiding in Lydia since my first visit to Prague five years ago. We were on the same missions team that summer. As far as twenty-somethings go, she is incredibly understanding, kind, wise and long-suffering. Also, and perhaps more importantly, she sounds just a wee bit like Junior Asparagus.  

“You know what I love about Psalms?” Lydia said, “The emotion. They are the prayers of real men who poured out their hearts to God. We’re not really taught to do that growing up, but clearly it’s not a bad thing.”

I couldn’t pour out my heart to God just yet. It was a bit of a mess, after all.

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I spent most of Monday in the back of the line, wobbling around on my rolled ankle, catching my breath every time the trail led us to a pile of rocks to be scrambled over. Being in the rear of the group did as much damage to my pride as the rocks had been doing to my psyche. My pack was heavy and my heart was heavy and my emotional stamina was spreading thin. . . Er, thinner than usual.

For those who don’t think hiking requires emotional stamina, I would gently like to challenge you to try pooping behind a tree for a week. Then we’ll talk.

But Monday was really just the build-up to Tuesday, because it was on Tuesday that we went off-trail. Bouldering.

If you don’t know what bouldering is…

Bouldering: (verb) the progression upwards and/or forwards across large rocks (not all of which are stable), along no particular path, for practice or sport. It can be very easy and fun, or it can be very difficult and dangerous. Tuesday was a bit of both.

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The uphill part of the morning wasn’t so bad. The hillside the near the base had pretty grasses and flowers, and despite the steep incline I found myself enjoying the view of the valley from a higher vantage point. The rocks started small but were tricky to climb over with my rusty ankle and I fell farther behind the group as we plugged on.

Then came the first steep turn. I came unexpectedly around the outside of a rock with a plummeting edge and a narrow foot space, and I nearly lost my breakfast (which, delicious as it was going down, had little promise of being as pleasant on the way back up). The vastness of the space opening up right next to my feet seemed several times deeper as I teetered on my gingered ankle. After that, every big boulder seemed bigger and every drop seemed farther. Half way up the mountain my breath got wrapped around my lungs, refusing to come out (probably just as terrified of heights as I am). My heavy breathing became more sob-like as we trekked upwards and several times the guy behind me, Richard, asked if I was okay. Because I’m fiercely (if even unsuccessfully) independent, I said yes.

But I wasn’t. Because this wasn’t just a mountain.

It wasn’t just a ‘heights’ thing. It was the unexpected uncorking of all my emotions from the last four weeks – grief, confusion, anger, disappointment, apprehension, lostness – like a soda bottle that my little brother would shake in the back of the car the whole way back from the store, they were about to explode all over the side of this horrid mountain.

My foot lodged itself into a crevice of a split rock, my other foot still dangling over a gap in the boulders. Stuck. My hands shook as I held onto the rough surfaces of the rocks, pack weighing down, sweat dripping, eyes watering. The drop between the rocks couldn’t have been that far, though the pack would have exacerbated the impact. For a second I inhaled and tried to pull it together. I could get out of this. I’d gotten through everything else this summer.

Richard called out something I didn’t understand and the guy in front of me stopped and turned.

“Are you okay?” I remember him asking over the rock, extending a steady hand in my direction.

And then I burst into tears.

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I cried all the way up the mountain and most of the way down as he and Richard (and nearly every other member of the team at some point) helped me from rock to rock in what I shall endearingly recall as one of the most humiliating afternoons of my life. They took turns carrying my pack and literally held my hand as I fumbled across the mountain. Every crack that seemed too big, every edge that felt too high, every lizard that gave me a funny look scaled me down to a pathetically small size. And beneath those peaks, small has a whole new meaning. 

Granted, I did try to keep myself together enough to get over the mountain. The term ‘man-up’ can be aptly applied to my efforts for the proceeding two hours. But the bottle had been uncorked and when we picked a place to set up camp, I slipped my Bible from my bag and found a bush near the edge of the lake to hide in. And I melted all the way down. Every anxious thought, every angry feeling, every drop of sadness spilled and bubbled over until the bottle was greatly reduced and the checkered sobs in my throat had subsided to an occasional hiccup.

Lydia’s words resounded in my aching head – real men poured out their hearts to God. Probably not the way I had over the edge of the valley several days before. Probably not with bitterness and anger.

I opened my Bible to the Psalms.

Okay, God, teach me how to pray to you.

Years of underlining came in handy as words jumped off the page of the deeply-moving Hebrew poetry.

When my heart was grieved
   and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
   I was a brute beast before you.
Yet I am always with you;
   you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
   and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart
   and my portion forever.”
–Psalm 73:21-26

  “Search me O God, and know my heart;
         Test me and know my anxious thoughts.
   See if there is any offensive way in me,
          And lead me in the way everlasting.”
–Psalm 139:23-24

The stream gurgled next to me as it followed its course into the lake and I sat there, wet with sweat and tears and the dampness of the bush I’d been sitting in. An afternoon wind blew across the water and made me shiver.

I didn’t feel the way I thought it would. I had no new answers. I still have no clue what happens next. I still miss Prague. I still hate change.

But the thing that was broken, the thing that needed fixing, was my prayer. Of all the relationships I left behind in Prague, the one with my Savior-Redeemer was (and is) the most important. It’s easier to assume that He’s left us behind or turned off His phone than it is to recognize that we’re not talking to Him the right way.

I brushed my face with the back of my dirty hand to clear the tear-tracks and thanked God briefly for being with me – on the plane, in my room, on this trip, all summer. Then I threw a glance over my shoulder to make sure no one could see me in my hiding spot before coming out – there is no graceful way to have a meltdown.

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Lydia, Wesley and I huddled in a tent to play cards after lunch. The wind ripped at the tent fly and the light footsteps and hushed voices of our fellow campers floated about from various corners of our new safe haven. I still had questions about what happens to me next, and a gentle ache hugged the places of my mind where my memories of Prague are tucked away (kept safely until the time is right to retrieve them), but the anger was gone. I no longer felt abandoned. No longer was I a bitter child shaking her fist at the mountains. And I realize now why I had to stumble around for so long, lost in the wilderness of my own will before trusting in His.

In humbleness, in brokenness, God brought me back to Himself – like a cold night that draws us together or the jagged rocks of a mountain the force us to lean on hands that are not our own.

And His hands are not our own.

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