a return to joy

trainclouds
Speeding on a train from Kutná Hora to Prague. Photo Credit: Eli Hirtzel.

“Did you get any rest?” Rachel asked me, lowering herself into the deeply cushioned chair next to my corner of the couch.

“Not really,” I said. Early evening light filtered into the livingroom of the house I had once lived in for two years. The day was hot and muggy and we were both glistening, despite the coolness of our new surroundings. It’s a long walk from our hotel rooms on top of the hill to the house at the bottom (during the late summer evenings, you can sometimes see fireflies along the path in the forest, but I’ve not managed to spot any this trip).

Rachel tilted her head sideways and eyed me, looking every ounce the schoolteacher she is.

“Why not? What were you doing all afternoon?”

“Mopping up the bathroom,” I said. “And crying.”

Rachel smiled. Not a happy one, but a knowing one. She understands, about the crying at least.

“Why were you mopping the bathroom?” she asked.

One of my roommates, a girl from the American team who had come to help with the English Camp, had had a disagreeable moment with the shower in our hotel room and we didn’t have time before church to mop up the lake left in the wake of their dispute. So following Sunday lunch at the house, I trekked up through the forest alone to our room and found myself knee-deep in water, wet towels and something unexplainably sticky.

Then I rehung all my laundry around the open window, hoping they’d dry out better in the fresh air than in the dank of our bathroom before I packed them for a final time in the evening.

Then I broke the bathroom hairdryer trying to shortcut the hang-dry process with a pair of shorts.

Then I stared out the window for a while.

Then I sat on my bed and cried. For about two hours.

I don’t know why I came back to the Czech Republic, to be honest. Technically, I came to help with an English Camp the church puts on every summer. Technically, I came to see my former students and fellow teachers one last time before their school year let out. Technically, I came to catch up with a few dear friends I had to leave behind when I returned to San Diego last July after living and working in this beautiful country for two years.

But I couldn’t tell you what I was really coming to find. Peace? Closure? The missing remnants of my broken heart so I can piece myself back together before resuming my new life in San Diego?

Why had I come back to Prague? What a truly awful, horrible, stupid idea. Because I knew this moment would come. This afternoon when I’d be sitting on this couch for the last time, wishing with all my heart I could stay, knowing I’d have to leave.

I wish I could explain why leaving Prague last year was so devastating to me. It’s a question I have thought about a lot this summer as I have revisited forests, fields and the homes of friends I know so well. My breath still vanishes when I cross Charles’ Bridge. My eyes still linger on the horizon whenever St. Vitus Cathedral stands against it. Prague is always new for me. But it also has the feel of a very old friend, one who knows me perhaps better than I know myself.

Every sidewalk I traversed this summer led me down a thousand memories of the city and its people, each in a different season. Every friend I visited refreshed my mind and loosened my tongue to the Czech language (which, sadly, I have only been able to speak with my cat for the last year, and she’s not much of a conversationalist). And every day, I remembered anew why this place feels so much like home.

Which is unfortunate since I don’t live here anymore. And I find myself asking God, “Why would you give me this just to take it all away?”

“Have you ever thought about moving back?” Rachel asked me, echoing a question I’ve heard maybe a hundred times.

Of course, is always my answer. I’d give my right leg to be here forever. Sometimes I wish I was Czech or wonder whether my Czech friends feel special to belong to a people and a place like this.

In fact, even the difference between returning to San Diego, which was difficult and stressful, and returning to Prague was shocking to me.

They say you can’t go back. You can’t go home again. That was totally true for me. When I moved back to San Diego, it felt forced and awkward. I had become a stranger in the town that raised me. I had chased a different wind and had changed with the current, such that the old seas felt rough and strange to me upon return.

Okay, I realize this all may sound a little over-dramatic, but I just don’t know how else to explain how I’ve been feeling for the last year. Not that I haven’t adjusted, made new friends, started new ventures. But in the still moments before sunset, the walks from my car to the house when the stars are out, the muffled laughter of people enjoying themselves right here, I find myself somewhere else. Somewhere far away, in a time that almost seems imaginary, as though I fell asleep for two years, dreamed a wonderful dream, and woke again to a world that has moved on without me. And it leaves me feeling heartbroken and lost.

I thought ‘coming back’ would be the same with Prague. I had been away for a year after all. Would I recognize this place? Would it remember me?

Prague surprised me. I instantly felt pieces of myself fall back into place as I immersed myself again in a culture and a language. I visited my school and saw my students and fellow teachers. It felt like I had never left. Like I had been gone only a day.

And I’m wondering if this is because the ‘Home’ where we begin is a launching point, setting us up for flight and a future. To return is impossible because it represents the past. But the ‘Home’ we create on our own is our future. Coming back is easy and natural, like finding your way back to the path that leads you onward.

So why don’t I just move back? Get a teaching position again? Make my own way of things?

Simple, really.

I first considered moving to Prague in 2010 after a short term mission’s trip when it was obvious that there was a need for workers in the field. I felt so called to go. For three years, I waited, planned, prepared. Finally, I was accepted to go as a missionary associate for two years, with the possibility of extensions. It was so hard and yet so easy to struggle through those two years (five, if you count the three years in San Diego it took to get me to Prague) because, at every step, I knew that this was where God wanted me to be. And in my heart I knew I wouldn’t leave Prague unless God sent someone to replace me or made it very obvious he wanted me elsewhere.

In a way, He did both. So I left.

I’m in San Diego because it’s pretty clear to me that God wants me there right now. And I’m not unhappy.

Not unhappy, but I’ve been missing something. For months now, I’ve noticed the lack of something very important in my life, something I long to have back.

I’ve lost my joy.

I’ve been missing the delight of waking up every morning and knowing I’ll get to see all my students, I’ll get to walk through fall leaves or winter snows, I’ll get to learn new words and practice old ones. I’ve been missing my friends from school, the women who opened up their lives and hearts to me. I’ve been missing impossibly clear Czech skies, feathery forests and wayside flowers. I’ve been missing the life I had and all the joy that came with it. I have this fear that my two years in Prague were the best I may ever get, nothing will ever be quite so golden. And even though I know in my heart that this is probably untrue, it’s hard to fight the feeling. Especially sitting in a house that was once home, looking out a window into what was once my world and my future.

“It is hard having your life in one place and your heart in another,” I finally said.

Rachel gave her head a little shake, sympathy in the highest degree, and we waited for the evening devotional to begin.

The dear man who led us through Scripture and then prayer began quickly and finished quietly. We read only three passages, each about the sacrifice of the Christian life. For us, living safely and happily in the first world, the Christian life doesn’t require many sacrifices. Certainly not the pain of death. Not torture, not imprisonment, not persecution.

Literally, all I have to do is live by the Word of God and follow His direction in my life. And in return, He has given us a peace that passes understanding.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:4-7

All this I know in my head, but it has taken a year for that knowledge to work its way into my broken heart.

Suddenly, I felt a lifting of my spirit, a calming of my soul.

My world of hopes and dreams here in Prague seem like an awfully small sacrifice to make for the One who gave me all.  

Sitting there in that living room, I suddenly felt myself breathe for what felt like the first time in a year. The idea of being able to bring a sacrifice to the altar of the Lord brightened my soul in a way I didn’t expect.

Prague is not something God is taking away from me. It is something He has given me, which I should be delighted to return to him to make room for the new plans He has for me whatever or wherever they may be.

Logically, it doesn’t make sense. It is very truly a peace that passes understanding. And, although it didn’t come all at once, that evening I began to realize it personally.

I trooped back through the forest to the hotel that night with another friend from the team.

“I really want to see fireflies,” I told him. “This is my last chance before I go home.”

In the dark, I could hear him laughing, but he made a point of staring into the abyss of the shadowy creek for bobbing lights with me. We found none.

I sighed. Not even fireflies? Like, I understand that God gives and takes away as he pleases, but not even one little firefly? You know, as a consolation gift? Is that too much to ask for?

We kept walking, my friend bending the conversation as softly as the curves in the road.

And then I saw it.

Glowing unmistakably, it flickered a few yards in front of us. Beating nearly as loudly as my friend’s heavy footsteps, my heart seemed to pound uncontrollably as we slowly approached the little creature.

“It’s not a firefly,” my friend said, crouching on the pebbled pathway near the grass where our new acquaintance lay blazing like a supernova.

“No,” I said, entranced. “He’s a glow worm.”

A dozen memories of Czech mountains and Czech children and all the glow worms they’ve brought me over the years blinked before me.

“Should we take him with us?” asked me friend.

“No,” I said again, feeling a smile spreading warmly across my face as we watched the only glowing insect in the whole forest beaming before us. “His place is here.”

He’s not a firefly, but he’s something – a reminder from the Lord that he hears me. That I’m not alone. That he’s sending me back to San Diego for a reason. Just like he sent me to Prague for a reason.

Prague is my glow worm. Beautiful, magical, moving, but not mine. Prague and the people in it belong to God and it is time to let go of the idol I have turned them into, to give them back and trust that they will be just as safe in his hands as they’ve ever been.

Coming back to San Diego was no easier this time around. I still feel so deeply sad to leave a home I hoped was mine. But my heart is healed, fully back, not inside me, but in the hands of my Savior. I’m ready to love again, adventure again, find a new home with a new people, if that’s what he asks me to do. What a little sacrifice, to live this life God gave me unto him and no other.

And with that readiness has come the return of my joy.

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