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.
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.