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.

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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

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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.

how to ruin a wedding in ten minutes

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Photo by the amazing Alba Hueso!

The first thing I heard was that the groomsmen missed their bus from middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma to San Diego. This was Sunday morning, five days before the wedding.

“So, are they coming?” I asked Tyler, the fiance, groom-to-be, future brother-in-law and one of our most indubitable friends from childhood.

He laughed.

“They’re trying to decide who’s junky car to take across the country, but they’ll be here.”

As a blood-member of Team Bride, I held onto my unspoken misgivings about the surety of our groom that his guys would indeed make it.

Nine months to plan a wedding, and here we all were scrambling around at the last minute — all of us except Sarah, who remained as calm and cool a bride as has ever existed. Mom was running point with the church coordinator, assembling center pieces for the tables at the reception, and ironing all the bridesmaids dresses (ah, the dresses. We’ll talk about them more later). Dad did the airport pick-ups. Deborah had just come down from Berkeley, bringing my two gorgeous nephews with her, and took it upon herself to finish the party favors — a flower creation of ribbon, lace, Jordan Almonds and wire nets chiffon nets. Bouquets and bobbie pins and last minute champagne runs for the Bride were my territory. As Maid of Honor, I was responsible for all the loose ends.

Sophia, one of the bridesmaids, and another childhood friend, had taken the lead on planning the bachelorette party, accepting my contributions here and there (like the Harry Potter theme, complete with Hogwarts House bachelorette sashes, a sorting ceremony and home-cooked Great Feast). The guys went out to the desert to shoot guns or something for the bachelor party that same night, we heard, but they didn’t have butterbeer, so I think we still came out on top.

And yes, of course it was a competition. With the exception of the two missing groomsmen from Oklahoma, the entire bridal party basically grew up together, friends since middle school, basically. Austin, Tyler’s brother and the Best Man, had married Sara (one of the bridesmaids). They were high school sweethearts and we watched the romance unfold first hand back in the day. Sara became one of Sarah’s good friends (and their in-laws are going to spend the next sixty years confusing Sara and Sarah, and I find that hilariously gratifying). The rest of the groomsmen and bridesmaids were siblings or friends. We were literally all in the same debate club, took the same biology classes, crashed the same Denny’s at midnight after long tournaments on the road. And here we all were, most of us grown up.

So, naturally, there was a little groomsmen vs. #bridesquad rivalry going on.

The groomsmen didn’t earn any points for having two of their party still missing in action the Sunday before the wedding.

But I had other things on my mind at the time. For nine months, we’d been planning a wedding revolving around a mint green theme. Let me be the first to admit that I was not the ideal Maid of Honor when it came to rolling with the color. Have you ever tried looking for a bridesmaid’s dress in mint green? Options are minimal.

I spent hours digging up dresses online, creating pricing spreadsheets and then emailing options out to the other bridesmaids. The votes came in with little agreement. Finally, Sara (the other one) emailed back with an additional option, a mint green dress with adjustable top.

I hated it immediately.

Not just because she had cast aside all my hard work with the flick of an opinion, but because I’d seen the adjustable top dresses at a previous wedding and they were horrible.

My Sarah had taken other Sara’s suggestion to heart and ordered a dress in my size so I could be our bridesmaid-dress guinea pig. In keeping with my worst nightmares, the top of the dress was as sketchy and difficult as I had warned it would be. The skirt, which actually had some redeeming qualities in its fullness and shimmer, went about waist-high and then turned into two long trains of material meant to be wrapped around the wearer’s upper torso. We twisted and tied it and the varying end results either made me look like a nun or a harlot. Having jumped into a swimming pool after Deborah’s wedding in an attempt to get my revenge on that horrible bridesmaid dress, I just wanted one wedding where I could get through a night of dancing without having to worry about my dressing malfunctioning.

“Please, Sarah,” I had begged the bride, “Any dress but this. It’s going to look so tacky and I’ll spend the whole evening trying to make sure it doesn’t unravel.”

Five months later, there we were, ironing out those dresses.

I had made my peace with the sure-to-be disaster long ago, but in the back of my mind I hoped that if anybody’s dress did have an unfortunately timed accident, let it be the Other Sara’s.

This week, though, the mint green had arisen again to cause everyone problems. Somehow, the wedding favors, the napkins, the dresses and groomsmen’s ties had all turned out to be different shades of mint green.

“Maybe we can just switch out the napkins,” Deborah suggested as we dug into the basket of ribbons and almonds to painstakingly assemble the wedding favor flowers. “Or maybe we could leave the favors in a basket by the entrance so no one notices they’re a different shade.”

“Let’s just focus on getting them finished first,” said Sarah, nonchalantly. “We’ll figure out something when we’re done.”

The piles of ribbons and candied almonds looked up at us mockingly and several tubby fingers appeared over the rim of the table, making a move towards the mint green chiffon. Deborah scooped up the baby (nephew #2) and Sarah and I continued wrestling petals into lace cocoons.

“Hey,” I said, looking up. “Whatever happened to the groomsmen?”

“They’re taking Cal’s car,” Sarah answered, not looking up from the almond petals in her fingers. “They should be here by tomorrow, if the car doesn’t break down.”

If.

Monday, Day Three in the wedding countdown, arose in a layer of grey. June Gloom had descended upon us in earnest making our summer wedding in San Diego feel like a December wedding in Northern Michigan.

Things were running smoothly, all things considered. Plans for the bachelorette party were coming along swimmingly, half the wedding favors were done, and the missing groomsmen, Cal and Tony, made it into town just in time for the family bonfire at Coronado Monday night. So, except for the incident with the bird flying into the house — which Sarah took care of for me — there was a surprising lack of upsets.

Tuesday went similarly well. Aubrey and I piled into my car as soon as I came home from work, dragging along a crockpot, several chilled balls of pie dough, and butterbeer ingredients, and we sped off to Sophia’s. When we arrived, the place was decked out in Harry Potter memorabilia, including a stream of Hogwarts acceptance letters strung between the fireplace and the ceiling and a sign that said From Muggle to Mrs.

Not only did our shepherd’s pie and pumpkin pasties turn out splendidly, but it was fun to prepare with Sophia, Hosanna and their sisters. I mean, they’re basically my sisters. We’ve all grown up together, staying close despite years and distance. And here we were, setting up candelabra’s and trying to figure out how much bourbon to add to our butterbeer.

Our gaggle of girls, including the Other Sara and Tyler’s little sister, who is not so little anymore, made quite a night of things, though it was distressing to see just how little everyone actually knows about Harry Potter.

Other Sara even demonstrated different ways to wear the atrocity of a bridesmaids dress she had forced upon us and they all looked good on her lanky, gorgeous frame. I was skeptical that they would have the same effect on me.

Day two of the wedding countdown ended with six women and two teenage girls who are growing up too quickly falling asleep on a bed, a coach and one and a half air mattresses at two in the morning with wet nails and the occasional unrepressed giggle — like the next day wouldn’t precede a wedding, like we didn’t all hate that mint green dress, like we hadn’t spent years cultivating our own bubbles of personal space, like our lives hadn’t changed a day since we all met ten, twelve, fifteen years ago. It was kind of nice.

One day to go and we began it with whipped cream-topped coffee and what was left of the bourbon.

The chilly day melted into a cool evening and eventually we all found ourselves at the chapel for the wedding rehearsal.

Attached to the package of the church and preparation rooms was the stiffest, most entitled wedding coordinator of all time. It took all of six minutes for her to turn our calm, cool, collected bride into a seething, livid mess. Suddenly, everything that had not been a problem exploded. There’s not enough tool to divide the pews in the church, the wedding favors still aren’t finished, we don’t have any mirrors for the changing room, the ring bearer (nephew #1) probably won’t make it all the way down the aisle, none of the mint greens seem to be matching, “and that woman is awful.”

Tyler, in what was the most reassuring demonstration of his capabilities as Sarah’s future husband yet, sat next to her while she vented, nodding in agreement when necessary. He didn’t offer to fix anything, or find the silver linings. He just agreed that it was all upsetting and Sarah had every right to be mad.

Ladies, if only we could all find ourselves men like that.

Anyway, I had a job to do, as Maid of Honor. I had to save the wedding, of course! Mom and I went straight from the rehearsal to WalMart and the yardage store to find full-length mirrors and tool — and for the first time in nine months, we found both in the same shade of mint green. After the rehearsal dinner, I stayed up till past midnight finishing the wedding favors while Mom created bows for the church pews. In the morning, the parents went to go oversee the reception hall set-up and I re-watched a billion youtube videos on wedding hairstyles.

The first time we tried doing Sarah’s hair on March, it was a complete failure. This was our second attempt and we were both understandably nervous.

But her hair turned out marvellously. We packed her suitcase into the back of my car, I sent out a million reminder texts for the bridesmaids to bring the “just married” decorations for the car at the reception, and then we hauled off to the church. (Actually, we made a stop at VONS for champagne and pastries that we planned to smuggle into the church because the wedding coordinator said we weren’t allowed to bring food or drink into the rooms and Sarah was feeling especially vindictive).

wedding 2
Photo by Ernesto Rivera.

As the bridesmaids began showing up, I got a text from Best Man Austin that Cal and Tony had run out of gas 200 yards from the church in their sad excuse for a car. (“It’s because the gas gauge doesn’t work,” Cal explained.)

“Well, we won’t tell Sarah any of this,” I said, happy that my bridesmaids were clearly helping us win the groomsmen vs. #bridesquad competition. “Now, take the ring and please don’t lose it.”

Austin gave me a soul-quenching look in return. Lose the ring? As if.

I had put my ring in the lining of my dress because there were no pockets (because when has any article of female clothing had usable pockets? Just another feature to hate about this tacky, underwhelming bridesmaid dress). It was safe and sound.

Inside the prep room, the girls were getting dolled up (the nightmare dresses were looking pretty good after we all agreed to sell our souls to safety pins and fabric tape). We were eating the contraband pastries and drinking mimosas from special wine glasses customized with our names and #bridesquad printed onto the sides, having a marvellous time.

If I must say, I was doing a bang-up job of being Maid of Honor. I straightened Sarah’s train for every picture, adjusted her veil and hair, fixed her bouquet, and ignored her increasingly snarky attitude (which got exponentially worse the longer she had to stand upright in a fifty pound dress). And I was all over the place, running boxes and bags to the car, passing out fireworks and party poppers to the groomsmen for the reception, and intercepting well-wishing friends and relatives outside the changing room. All the while, the ring was safely in the lining of my dress, the skirt of which was heavy and billowy in a glamorous 1930s kind of way that I was trying not to get excited about.

Ten minutes before we were supposed to leave for the church, I slipped into the bathroom and dug into the dress lining for the ring and closed it over my pinkie finger. Curling my finger tightly around the ring and then taking the bouquet in the same hand, I figured it would be safe. But outside the restroom, I was met with more boxes to move to the car and a paper bag that had split in half, dumping contents all over the floor. No sooner had I gotten those cleaned up, someone’s heel got caught on the train of Sarah’s dress and we had to untangle them.

When I finally stood up and looked for my bouquet, it was time to hurry into the chapel. There was just one problem, a problem I didn’t notice until we were actually inside the building.

The ring was gone.

My stomach lurched. The procession had lined up. Our grandmothers were already being walked down the aisle. The bell boy was there tugging on the ropes of the church bells, sending sonorous notes peeling across the churchyard.

Grabbing the tails of my silky dress, I dashed outside, dragging one or two of the bride’s brothers with me.

“I lost it, I lost the ring! You have to help me find it!”

There was a mad scramble which provided no ring. Now heads were peeping curiously out the back door to see where the Maid of Honor had gone — Maid of Dishonor is what it felt like in that horrific moment.

I went back into the church where Sarah and Dad were sitting on the edge of a table behind the door. They both looked unreasonably calm. Very thoroughly English of them.

“I lost the ring,” I said, trying not to cry but wanting to express how serious I understood the situation to be.

Dad just chuckled and Sarah sighed and rolled her shoulders.

“We’ll fake it,” she said.

Losing the ring was all the gossip as I returned to the line of whispering bridesmaids outside the sanctuary door who thought the situation was hilarious.

And so we faked it. All the way down the aisle and through most of the wedding ceremony, only the bride, the #bridesquad, and a selection of family members knew there was only one ring on that stage.

wedding 1
#bridesquad trying to “fake it.” Photo by Ernesto Rivera.

Sarah was an example for us all. Statuesque and elegant as ever, she only let out one exasperated giggle when the preacher said, “And do you, Sarah, have a ring for Tyler?”

I went red and we faked a handoff behind the bouquets I was holding. Tyler, who now had first row seats to the plight of the missing ring, also went red. His eyes went from Sarah’s hands, which were holding ring-shaped air, to Sarah’s face, which I imagine was a edifice of strained composure, and then straight to me. Sweat beading slightly by his hairline, smile plastered coolly behind his blonde beard, Tyler gave me a look that said, “Mary, please tell me you have the ring somewhere. Please tell me you didn’t lose my wedding ring.”

But I had. And by the time the preacher gotten to the part of the vows that said, “With this ring, I thee wed,” Sarah had about lost her reserve of emotional fortitude.

First, her shoulders started to shake. I immediately recognized this as the pre-giggle fit trembles typical of York females.

Tyler was turning redder by the minute and he too was having trouble retaining his grin. Silence filled the church in curious hush, followed by a wave of whispers.

Next thing we all knew, Sarah had doubled over at the altar, laughing uncontrollably. Tyler was doing his best to keep things together, but Sarah was a lost cause. In her gorgeous wedding dress and perfect hair, nine months of planning climaxed in a missing ring and it was just too much.

Confused chuckles popped up around the pews and the preacher asked, “Did you drop it?”

“No, we lost it,” Sarah finally exclaimed. “We lost the ring!”

My sister’s have covered for me a lot growing up, but I will always remember that Sarah could have thrown me under the bus in front of all of our friends and family and chose not to. Like a real team captain, she said “we lost the ring.” We.

#bridesquad.

Everyone laughed and the moment turned into something sweet and memorable.

As soon as we got out of the church, Austin and I were scouring the courtyard, the changing rooms and the hallway for that ring. He and the groomsmen were now definitely winning the bridal party competition.

I’d been all over the place in those last ten minutes before the ceremony started. Where could a ring escape to? My mind pictured it dropping, bouncing and rolling in slow motion, Disney-animation style, across the courtyard, down the stairs and then into a lone bush or rain drain.

I was rifling through bushes when I looked up to see Tyler pulling up the grate of a storm drain, looking into the hole for his missing ring. My heart sank.

“Tyler,” I said, walking over with tears brimming up, “I am so sorry. I’ll find it. Or I’ll buy you a new one. I promise!”

Tyler just wrapped me up in a big hug, shushing my frantic apology with a promise of his own, that everything was going to be okay. And that’s when I realized what had happened today — we had made Tyler a part of our family. He wasn’t just some kid we grew up with. He was one of us now.

The bride and groom took off to finish pictures and the groomsmen continued to help me search the premises for that stupid, doggone ring.

I was losing it. Crying, shouting, snapping the skirt of my dress like an angry cowboy with a lasso.

Man, that silly bridesmaid dress was really beginning to grow on me.

“I cannot believe I lost it,” I was yelling to whichever groomsman was nearest, whoever that was digging in the dirt near the bushes by the parking lot. “It’s not fair that we don’t get pockets. How was I supposed to hold onto the ring all that time? Ten minutes! I couldn’t even keep it for ten minutes!”

Pulling open the back seat of the car, a yelp escaped my mouth. There, on the black leather seat, in plain and perfect view for anyone to see, was the ring.

Within seconds, four of the groomsmen were at my side hushing me as I burst into tears.

“Don’t let anyone know you found it,” Josh said.

“No, I’m telling Tyler right now,” I responded, trying to push past them.

“You can’t,” Ryan insisted. “We have to give it back at the reception when they’re not expecting it! We’ll make a show of it!”

“Yeah, we’ll stick it in Tyler’s drink,” Josh suggested.

“That’s great, then I can lose his ring and be the cause of his choking to death on his wedding day,” I said, crossing my arms and sniffing away the last of my tears.

“We could sing a song or something.”

“Maybe slip it onto his plate?”

“What if Austin brought it up in his Best Man’s speech?”

They were grasping at straws.

“I want to return it now. Besides, Austin is going to think this is a horrible idea.”

We asked Austin. He loved it.

By the time we all made it to the reception hall, the plan was set and the ring was safely stowed in Austin’s pocket.

We bridesmaids finished off what was left of the champagne in the parking lot of the country club where the reception was being held — a grand, old building with beautifully carpeted red velvet stairs in the entryway and large windows framed in richly-toned wood all along the inside. Someone also found a bottle of vodka and I took a swig of that straight from the bottle. Nerves.

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Signing the marriage liscense. Amazing that they trusted me to do this after losing the ring. Photo by Ernesto Rivera.

Except that Sarah was a little distant with me during dinner, no one seemed especially upset that the ring was still “missing.” One of our uncles pretended to find the ring and that caused a number of hearts to race, though for those of us in on the real find it was harrowing and confusing in a different way. Any guests who had missed what had happened during the ceremony knew most of the story by the time Deborah and I stood up for our toast.

My accordion was waiting for me in the hallway and I retrieved it from its duct taped trunk as Deborah grabbed the microphone.

“I’m Deborah, sister of the bride,” she said.

“And I’m Mary, the other sister…and yes, I lost the ring. Let’s just get that out of the way now, I’m sorry, okay?”

People laughed, but I hadn’t meant it as a joke. I already knew this was something I would never live down.

As we tag-teamed our speech, using the accordion for dramatic effect when necessary, I remembered just how effortlessly easy it is to be sisters with these two women, both the beautiful mother-of-two standing next to me with the microphone and the picture of grace and accomplishment sitting next to her new husband.

wedding toast accordion1
Photo by Ernesto Rivera.

We turned over the microphone to Sophia and when she finished, Cal stood up and took it from her before anyone could stop him.

Like a deer in the headlights, Sarah froze, clutching Tyler’s hand and looking about as livid as she had when the wedding coordinator told her someone had painted the white wedding steps for the chapel black by accident.

“Sarah doesn’t want me to give a speech tonight,” Cal began as the whole room tensed up. “But what she doesn’t know is that I’m basically the … ringleader of the group. When Tyler needed a Best Man speech, they should have given me a ring and I’d have done a ringer of a job.”

Cal went on with what seemed like an endless list of ring puns and I snuck up behind Austin who placed the real ring in my hand. No one noticed. They were all watching Cal in absolute horror.

“Anyway,” Cal said, seemingly wrapping up the speech after two very intense minutes of ring puns, “Even though you broke up our Fellowship of the Ring, I still have a wedding gift for you. Actually, it’s from all of us, especially Mary.”

All eyes turned from Cal to me and my outstretched hand with the golden band lying safely in my palm.

Applause exploded from the tables and, as Sarah and Tyler stood up to put the ring on properly, a chorus of awww’s fell in behind. Amazing, that one huge mistake turned into such a lovely moment, and it couldn’t have happened without the help of people who love the bride and groom as much as I do. But I suppose that’s life all over for you. We don’t do this alone.

wedding 5
Photo by Ernesto Rivera.

The night disappeared. I don’t know where it went. Between coordinating dances and bouquet tossing with the DJ, helping Sarah with the transition from wedding dress to party dress, passing out our party-poppers to guests and ensuring that the bridal party found and bedazzled the getaway car in good time, the evening simply flew.

At one point, as I hurried from the crew in parking lot drawing “just married” in lipstick on the getaway car to find the Father of the Bride in the reception hall, I realized how rom-comy this all felt — the wedding favors we spent all week making lying half-eaten on tables, groomsmen blowing up balloons in the dark to stuff inside the car, extended relatives shooting whiskey from the bottle in the parking lot, the Other Sara and our glowing bridesmaids looking like a million dollars in moonlight-flushed mint green. 

Man, I thought, swishing my skirt in glorious billows as I pranced in my heels up the red-velvet steps of the grand clubhouse entrance, I love this dress.

Bride and groom made it to the car in a flurry of bubbles, confetti and gunpowder (that’s what happens when you marry a Texan). Guests filed out in a steady stream until it was just us, the bridal party and siblings of the happy couple. Except for the two Oklahoma groomsmen, we’re the same group of friends who have been hanging out since high school. So we did what we did back in the day. We went to Denny’s.

The whole lot of us trooped in, order coffee’s and sample platters and nachos and pancakes. We ate and talked and laughed.

My ride had to leave the after party early so the Oklahoma boys promised to drop me off at my house in their car. The final goodbye’s should have been hard to say, but they weren’t, because they’re not really final. Half of us are related now, thanks to Sarah and Tyler. Time may keep us apart, but we’re all family and that’s not going to change.

“You can sit in the front,” Cal said as I reached for the door handle of the infamous car that nearly didn’t make it here. The doorframe nearly came off the car when I pulled it open.

Sitting in the front seat was like sitting inside a carpeted tin can. No AC, no radio, no rearview mirror.

“How did you guys make it here alive?” I asked in shock as the engine choked and sputtered and Cal said a prayer under his breath that the car would start.

“What can we say?” said Tony from the back. “We just love Tyler.”

I smiled and the car jolted gracelessly forward.

Sarah and Tyler. What confidence and dedication they inspire in their friends. It’s a loyalty well-earned by two selfless, loving individuals who have just become one. The groomsmen vs. #bridesquad war is over, if it was ever really on. We’re all on the same team now —

And in for quite a ride.

 

roots and wings

graduation cute 2017

“Why so fancy today, Miss York?” my students ask as we wrap up our Friday tests. I laugh and shake my head. The sun is shining through the partly closed blinds, sending dusty rays of light across our 2016/17 academic year calendar pinner neatly to the board.

“I’m going to commencement,” I say, absentmindedly wiping my chalk-dusted hands across my freshly ironed graduation dress. “I have an art final, an athletics banquet, and a graduation today, so you have no excuses not to get your homework finished this afternoon.”

They chuckle because they know I won’t be assigning them any homework. The school year is wrapping up. Things are coming to an end. And when I think about how long ago everything started, I marvel at how I ended up here. Here specifically, in this classroom, inside this body, heading into this future that seems so different from what I had expected it would be so many years ago.

***

I was eighteen when I took my first class at Southwestern College. Dad dropped me off at the base of stairs in the bottom parking lot, wished me good luck with an endearing smile, and then left me there to figure out adult life on my own. That was a long time ago.

Homeschooled my entire life, stepping onto a community college campus was like walking into a strange new world. For starters, I’d never really been to school before. I literally asked a professor if I was allowed to chew gum in class. I found a tree on campus and sat under it every day for hours doing homework and journaling until one day someone asked me for a cigarette…then I started using the library because I didn’t want people to think I did drugs. My obsession with hot pockets may have directly coincided with this particular semester.

But I was unused to the culture and customs of the general public. Everything I knew about people outside my community of conservative Christian homeschoolers I learned from TV and talk radio, and the former was pretty limited. People amazed me, disgusted me, surprised me. Stereotypes were fortified and broken down at equal paces and I spent much of that first semester feeling like fly on a very big wall, silently observing, unnoticed by humanity, an outside observer who didn’t quite belong in the fluid chaos of existence on campus, awkward in my own skin.

In some ways, it’s precious to think of how ardently principled and idealistic I was then, my convictions untested, untampered, untouched by the world and its realities, my direction unclear, the person I was not yet fully-formed.

***

I skid onto campus and park in the lot beside the tennis courts, across from the newsroom. I find this fitting, seeing as I spent the better part of four years in this corner of campus.

First stop: Athletic Banquet.

It’s been weeks since I’ve worn heels — months, even? Whenever the shin splints started… Trodding across the pavement in my tan pumps now feels alien. I miss my running shoes.

Chewy is waiting outside the banquet room in the athletic building. He’s wearing a tie.

I remember when they built this building. I remember writing story after story about the Corner Lot, the public bond money, the fraud and embezzlement, the District Attorney’s investigation. And then the debate about football favoritism on campus, abuse of the baseball team’s self-raised funding, illegally recruited basketball players from the Bronx. My year as the news editor of our student paper in 2011/12 was quite the adventure, and the bleed-over into the world of athletics provided a pivotal introduction to something that would become an obsession.

And now, after all that fuss, here stands the multi-million dollar project — the Home of the Jaguars field house. For the briefest second, I hear chuckle of irony waft on the breeze blowing by as I am welcomed by a structure whose creation I was once so adamantly against.

Chewy sees me and smiles, bus bag schlopped over his shoulder.

“There you are,” he says.

Inside, Melissa is sitting with her boyfriend and family. Ed shows up with an entourage, looking sharply pressed and suave. I almost don’t recognize Dae — the sprinter is polished up like a new penny. And Coach is there, all smiles. In fact, the whole room is filled with people I recognize. Athletes from the women’s soccer team, men’s basketball, football, volleyball. Coaches, trainers, administrators. And I feel like I owe everyone something, because I can pinpoint specific moments this year where each one of them has done something for me — offered athletic advice, supplied important encouragement at game-changing moments, extended the hand of friendship. Without even knowing it, these people have shaped my whole year.

The coaches call us up by teams and present each of us with a golden stole that says, “Student Athlete,” and my heart swells with pride. I earned this.

IMG_20170527_164418

***

Those first two years at school…What an education in life. I learned how to use the bus, how to find the best snacks on campus, how to make friends in class…

Ah, friends. The real gem of my college experience. I have met the most amazing, talented, kind, interesting, loyal people at Southwestern College. I am proud to say I have made friends of students, professors, coaches, faculty and governing board members alike. I almost made friends with some of the campus police as well…They ticket me often enough…

In fact, after three semesters as an editor for the student paper and a year as president of the paralegal club, when I graduated with my Associate’s in 2012, I felt oddly nostalgic. Southwestern felt like a second home. I felt like it had developed my passion for writing, tested my independence, and challenged my beliefs and perspectives enough to reaffirm what I knew to be true and sand the sharp edges off the rest. And for the first time ever, I had started doing something unexpected — I was learning about sports.

It started as baseball game briefs and quickly turned into photography and season coverage. And to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I loved every second of it. It was empowering to discover something I enjoyed doing — and was slowly becoming good at — that fell so far outside what people, especially myself, expected I would be interested in.

But, as a writer, I respect the closing of chapters. And life is full of so, so many chapters. So I turned the last page of my college story with the tassel on my graduation cap, vowing to never look back.

 

Pictures8

***

My heels click over the sidewalk as I race from the banquet to my art final. I still have to show off my portfolio.

When I walk in, the class is halfway through presentations, but they stop to cheer as I swoop in, breathless and still wearing my student athlete sash.

“You look so nice!” they say, cooing over my graduation dress and commenting on the cap and gown I have tucked under my arm. No one fully expected me to show up today. They all know I have graduation this afternoon. They’re also used to me flying in halfway through class, still dressed in my practice uniform, or hobbling in late with my boot or ice bags. And yet, their patience never seems to run out.

They go back to the portfolios on display and I sneak over to the potluck table. I ate almost nothing at the banquet and it’s going to be a long afternoon. Unable to find any forks, I pick unceremoniously through the remnants of the feast with my fingers and I watch my classmates on the other side of the room. They have been so fun to learn with, the perfect mesh of ragtags and misfits.

Seven years ago, I might have felt uncomfortable among such openly awkward human beings who aren’t sure how to wear their opinions, backgrounds and social make-up — honestly, people in the same stage of development I was in when I first came to school. I wouldn’t have understood. I wouldn’t have known how to cultivate friendships with people so different from myself. Some of them are that way with each other, not knowing when to forgive, or overlook, or rise above. As it is, we all get along splendidly now. I love them to pieces. And some of them really need some lovin’, so I’m only too happy to give it. What a small gift to offer in return for the wealth of joy and friendship they’ve given back.

One hand in the chow mein, the other holding a piece of chocolate cake, I wonder where I learned how to be a good friend. I wonder if it is perhaps because, so long ago, people here were a friend to me.

***

I worked for a year in San Diego after graduating with my A.A., covering college baseball as a freelance writer in my spare time for a local paper, and then, in the summer of 2013, I moved to Prague. A lot of life happened in Prague, most of which I’ve already blogged about extensively. All I will say here is that, moving back to San Diego was the hardest thing I have ever done. It literally broke my heart. And, upon discovering how little it felt like I belonged back in my old stomping grounds, and how much I missed Prague, I returned to the only place I knew would welcome me back without question — Southwestern College.

But instead of the bright-eyed idealist who first walked onto campus on a muggy morning in late-August, 2010, it was just me, complete with broken heart and battle scars. I was struggling, cynical and more than a little lost. The person I was in August 2015 felt more like someone who’d been put through a blender and then asked to walk home, dripping anxiety and dragging the shreds of hope and purpose gracelessly behind.

And yet, there was Southwestern, waiting for me with open arms. It didn’t matter that my friends from high school had all moved on and moved away. There were new people here — people who have become some of my dearest treasures.

And it didn’t matter that I didn’t know where I was going next, because neither did anyone else. And we all just sort of took our time and let the doors open one at a time. It was humbling and empowering and beautiful.

***

The heels come off. I left art class after presenting my portfolio and washing down the cake with a dixie cup full of Dr. Pepper. Everyone sent me off with waves and well-wishes, and it was actually a little difficult to turn my back and walk away from my raggamuffin art friends.

But I have somewhere to be.

Running across the deserted campus barefoot in my dress feels oddly appropriate. I’ve been here long enough to feel comfortable getting comfortable.

The newsroom bursts into view and my heart flutters a little. I may have forsaken its walls this last year in my pursuit of athletics, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t all start here. For three years, I worked in these walls. This is where I fell in love with languages, where I discovered a passion for sports, where I broke out of the shell I grew up in.

I have lived through four generations of writers who graced this building. That’s the nice thing about The Sun. It’s a family. Everyone is welcome back, and most of us never really leave for good. So the editors who taught me how to be a journalist back in 2011 are still spoken of in hallowed whispers by this year’s staff who were trained by people I once trained.

So flying through the doors now, cap and gown in tow, feels like landing a biplane on the same little island airstrip that I’ve always used to refuel before long trips. I know these palm trees.

“Ooh, pretty dress,” says Ella from her computer as I walk through the sliding glass doors.

One second I’m standing and saying, “thank you,” and the next I am sliding on the floor, lying on my back looking up. It’s ritualistic at this point.

“Aw, is this your last official Marydown here?” Ella asks me. Alyssa comes out of her office with her phone.

Fullscreen capture 6262017 124128 PM.bmp

“We have to Snapchat this,” she says.

 

So, here I am. Lying on the floor while my phone buzzes — Melissa and Chewy want to know why I’m not in the graduation line at the football stadium.

Maybe I’m not quite ready to go down there yet. Maybe I’d like to soak in the memories of late-night production week madness, the feeling of being surrounded by people who love and appreciate me even when I don’t really deserve it, and the thrill of knowing what is waiting right around the corner of tomorrow, even if it’s just another story to tell.

“Better get your cap on,” Ella says. “You don’t want to miss your own commencement.”

She helps me pin the cap on and waves me out the door before turning dutifully back to her own work at the computer. And so I leave the newsroom one more time, knowing somehow that it won’t be the last.

marydown

***

I think I was surprised by how unchanged Southwestern was when I returned. Sure, the new stadium was finally up, and what a beauty! The faces on campus were new, for the most part. But the feel was the same. The trees still flower in purples, pinks and creams every semester. The sun still sets over the buildings with breathtaking drama. The parking is still only barely tolerable.

The sameness of the college highlighted the changes in me. When I stepped foot on campus again for the first time in three years back in 2015, I felt changed, different from who I had been when I graduated in 2012, or took my first class in 2010. And I the feeling strikes me again as I wind my way towards the back of the football stadium, into a sea of black caps.

***

“We were worried you wouldn’t make it!” says Melissa. My cap and gown were eskew from running down the back end of the stadium to where the graduates were being held. Chewy let me use the reflection in his sunglasses to fix everything. I have an extra tassel for graduating with honors, and a medal to show that I’m a transfer student. I’m proud of that too.

There we all were, suited up and looking sharp.

 

Ernesto was in and out, taking pictures of everyone. He works for the school now. To think he used to be my assistant at the newsroom, and now look at the two of us. Time flies in weird directions.

The ceremony takes forever, and we’re pretty much in the last row. After nearly two hours, it’s our turn to stand up and move down to the stage at the end of the football field. Coach is all gussied up and ready to give us our diplomas. I hear several people call out my name from the crowd of graduates. People I’ve met over the years.

Under the corner of the stage, sunlight bending in ribbons over the field, I realize how much time I have spent here. Nearly every day of the last year, I have walked down the steps onto this field for practice or to go to the locker rooms or the trainers. In the process of becoming an athlete, I have developed immense affection for this place and the chorus of life that resonates in echoes of possibility through the stadium.

More than that, I watched football games here in 2010 during my first semester. I didn’t know how football worked back then, and I didn’t have anyone to watch with. But I wanted to belong to this school so much. Isn’t that what we do? Go out and support the home team?

The home team.

The thought brings tears to my eyes, because this really is my home team. This is my school and these are my people.

I get lost in the twists and turns of life so frequently, battered and beaten by a world too rough for bright-eyed idealists, and Southwestern has been the safehaven. Not for my ideals — those have been challenged and tested. But it’s been a safe place for them to be put under inspection, a place where the voices raised in opposition are raised in friendship.

In fact, as I mount the steps to shake coach’s hand and take my certificate of completion, I realize that I haven’t really changed at all, as much as I feel like I have. I’ve developed, grown, broadened my horizons. But the core of who I am on this stage, in these awful heels with cap slipping off, is really the same as girl who walked onto campus alone one morning in August. The journalist, the athlete, the idealist, the friend, all culminating in this person I have become.

I have memories in the very fabric of this campus. Reminders that what I am and what I believe are holding steadfastly. But from the roots I have cultivated here have sprouted wings. The metamorphosis has taken place. I can see it from where I’m standing and I can feel it in my heart, held together by the healing bonds of home.

graduation diploma 2017

 

confessions of a ragdoll athlete

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow wearyand lose heart.”

Hebrews 12:1-3

javelin

The sad thing is, my season was over before it ever really began. It all started with that stupid hamstring injury I got while doing off-season training on my own in Europe last summer — born out of my enthusiasm to begin something new and my unquenchable desire to be good at it. The story about how I ran myself through Central Europe with starry-eyed dreams of coming home ready to take my place as a cross country champion, or at least a contender, has been told before. But the story doesn’t end with me sitting alone on a hillside in Southern California after the season’s final race, shouldering the immense disappointment of unsalvageable failure.

In fact, if I had known then how much farther my quest for success would take me, and who it would turn me into, I would have taken a much deeper breath that afternoon and braced myself for the longest, most grueling seven months of my entire life.

Coach was the first one to suggest I consider track in the spring. He kept saying, “With those long legs of yours, maybe I’ll stick you in the steeplechase.” At first, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t planning on doing track. Real life beckoned.

But I’m nothing if not extremely competitive and, as I’ve said a thousand times, I compete to win. So when I realized that these silly injuries had robbed me of a proper competitive season in cross country, I decided that perhaps a season of track would be good for me. I needed to do it. I just didn’t feel like I had finished yet.

So, all Christmas I trained with Coach and a handful of dedicated athletes who, like me, were determined to begin the season with one foot already in the blocks. And, just like the summer, I found my holiday season disappearing into a rigorous practice schedule. The day before Christmas Eve and the morning after Christmas itself, I was out on the field with Coach and the gang. (Christmas Eve I spent stuck on the couch because the lactic acid build-up in my thighs was so intense I literally couldn’t move).

And the practices weren’t easy. I’d run myself stiff on the field and then walk over to the weight room, nauseous and weak, and begin lifting. Deadlifts, hang cleans, and other various forms of addictive torture became a regular part of life, as did protein shakes, balanced meals and 64 ounces of water daily(ish).

IMG_20170310_145402When the season officially began in January, I was ready to go. A 59.59 quarter mile, making State Championships — my goals were set, as usual, unachievably high. But I wasn’t worried, because now I was used to pain. I knew I could push past that barrier in my head that said it was too hard. I had mastered the little voice that says it’s okay to quit. I was ready to put in whatever was needed and there was nothing standing between me and that medal podium.

And then it all unraveled.

It started out innocently enough. The deltoid muscle in my ankle tightened one day during the second week of school while I was practicing 650 meter repeats with the distance kids. I couldn’t finish the last few laps and the distance coach sent me to the trainers. During that all-too familiar walk across the parking lot from an uncompleted practice to the trainers, I prayed, God, please don’t let this be like last semester. Please don’t let me spend a whole season injured and on the bench again. I worked so hard all of Christmas break and I really want a chance to win this time.

Screenshot_2017-03-04-23-28-52A few days after the deltoid, I pulled my quad. It only kept me out of practice for a week or so, but I had to wear a sleeve and now I was spending extra time at the trainers before practice to get my ankle wrapped and do rehab on my leg. Moreover, the quad injury forced me to switch lead legs going over the hurdles. It was a death sentence for my season, I just didn’t know it yet.

“Back again?” Dennis and Stacey would ask every time I hobbled in on weak legs with a weak smile. “You’re just a regular humpty-dumpty, aren’t you? We’re just going to have to tape you together entirely one of these days.”

When we began practicing at the Olympic Training Center on a real track, I found myself jumping real hurdles and all the excitement was just a little too much for my right shin, which began a regular habit of lapsing into splintering pain midway through each warm-up. Once the quad injury forced me to lead with the right leg, I found myself careening over hurdles and thudding to the ground on a splintering shin.

So now my stunts at the trainers included taking care of my shins and popping 800 milligrams of ibuprofen before practice to curb the pain and inflammation.

None of this I minded — I loved spending time at the trainers because they are kind, interesting people with super cool, space-agey gadgets that do the most incredible things to help the human body. No, the problem was that I finished work at noon and practice started at one o’clock, which meant I had only an hour to get to school, change for practice and still get a substantive workout at the trainers. So, I was usually late for practice.

But I also had class at three every day, which meant, either I lost time at the front and back end of practice or I was late for class as well.

My level of respect for student athletes has multiplied a hundredfold in the last year. That needs to be said. What these kids are able to balance is amazing.

IMG_20170202_162406I was doing a decent enough job managing the stress of trying to be in four places at once, all things considered. But, even though my times were getting better little by little, I was frustrated that I seemed to be missing out on getting a full practice in. As the realities of being an injured student-athlete who also has to pay bills began to sink in, so did the nagging spirits of doubt. Maybe it’s not true that you can be anything you want to be if you work hard enough. Maybe sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day, or your body just physically does not have what it takes, or the window of possibility has closed already. The more time I spent on a table at the trainers, knowing I was missing warm-ups again, the more keenly I felt my chances at State slipping away. And with our first meet a week away and my quad still wrapped in a sleeve and mounds of tape wound around my ankle, the fear that this season might actually be just as frustrating as the last one tightened its grip.

So then, my prayer changed — God, please just let me compete this year. Even if I don’t win anything, please just let me compete.

And, for reasons that I would question for the next nine weeks, God said, “No.”

Halfway through our second meet of the season, immediately following my 400 meter race — a nerve-wracking thrill of an experience in which I distinctly placed dead last — my shins began their usual song of shrilly-sung misery.

“It’s really bad,” I told a teammate as we laced up for our next event — hurdles.

“Everyone gets shin splints,” she said. “You’ve just got to muscle through it.”

And it’s true. Most of the athletes on the team have complained about shin splints at some point this season. So I put my spikes on and I finished my last race of the day.

Fullscreen capture 5112017 103335 PM.bmpI wish I had known then that it would be my last hurdle race of the season. I wish I could have savored the feeling of soaring into the air, moving forward with purpose and poise, and the rush of my heart as we careened around the track. But I didn’t. I was too busy trying not to come in last place, worrying about whether Coach would be disappointed if I got a bad time.

The next morning I woke up and couldn’t walk. On Monday the trainers told me to get my shin x-rayed and I spent a week doing my workouts in a pool so I wouldn’t be putting weight on my leg. I limped around campus until Friday when the doctor saw me and immediately put me in a boot.

“We’ll check on it again in about two weeks,” he said, giving me the number for a physical therapy place to call. The prescription said, “Twice a week, five weeks.”

Five weeks put us into April and dangerously close to the end of our season.

When I told Coach, he folded his arms and sighed. I think he knew then what he never once said to me: my season was finished.

“Well, what do you want to do?” he asked.

I was quiet for a minute. What did I want to do? I wanted to rewind to the first week of January when I was still hurdling pain-free. I wanted to go back to sprint workouts in December, the heaving and hurting and harried breath. I wanted to run.

“The doctor said I can do javelin if it doesn’t irritate the leg.”

Coach just nodded. “OK,” he said. “But I want you to keep doing your pool workouts.”

I promised I would.

So that was that. Now, I began my mornings extra early, heading to the gym to practice sprints in the pool before work, then hurrying to the trainers before javelin practice, and hitting the gym again in the evenings after class to get an upper body workout in to supplement the javelin routine. And, somehow, I still managed to squeeze in those physical therapy appointments twice a week (my therapist informed me that my shin splints were a reaction to the hamstring injury I had gotten over the summer, which never really healed. Each following injury was, to some extent, a domino effect from that first pulled muscle). My day was planned down to the minute. Heaven forbid I forget to pack a lunch or leave a book at home. I basically lived out of my car. My gym bag was a veritable zombie-apocalypse survival kit.

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Every day was more frustrating than the one before. At first I had hoped that, with the alternative workouts, maybe I’d be able to keep up with everyone else and still have a shot at qualifying for SoCal Championships (I had all but given up on State, even in the unrealistic version of my dreams). I was even practicing static hurdle drills at home, using an intricate jimmy-rigging of my livingroom furniture.

Yes, I understood that the chances of being able to get out of the boot in time for one last race was almost non-existent, but as soon as that thought crept into the back of my tired mind, I pushed it away. I didn’t have the strength to think about the odds. I just needed something to hope for. I needed a reason to not give up. So I hoped for one final, magnificent race.

But as the weeks dragged out miserably and my leg showed little improvement, I stopped hoping for a quality race and just started hoping for a race, any race.

Oh, the conversations I had with God this semester… Questioning, accusing, pleading. All I’ve wanted to do all year was run. Why would He keep refusing such a simple request? Such a little thing in the grand view of the eternal cosmos, wanting to run. Why would He deny me that when I’ve worked so hard? I was hurt, confused, and discouraged. I would drift into the trainers and try to match the cheery smiles of Dennis and Stacey, but by mid-April, my spirits were failing. It didn’t help that the javelin workouts had begun a whole new set of sore, bruised or strained muscles.

“What are we going to do with you?” Stacey would ask with her fix-everything smile.

“I don’t know,” was all I could manage. “I think I’m just unraveling.”

IMG_20170216_145151That was me, emotionally and mentally thread-bare and physically unraveling at the seams. And all the while, I felt like I was drifting away from the team and my teammates. I rarely saw anyone anymore.

I still drove up to meets on the weekends to support everyone. I’d see them in the trainers after a practice. But it wasn’t the same. Even fondly being known as “the girl who’s always injured” by my fellow athletes on campus didn’t make up for the fact that I was missing a second season — my last season.

But every time I was tempted to give up, whenever I felt overwhelmed by the madness, the hopelessness of it all, I would tell myself, “This is just the last curve in the track. This is the 300 meter mark and after this is a straight sprint home. You just gotta keep going.”

So I did.

The week we were preparing for the Conference Championship, Coach asked the throwers to practice with the sprinters at the local high school (it still felt weird, being a thrower and not a runner). I was in and out of the boot that week. My movements were limited, but I could walk and trot as needed. One of the interns at the trainers had taped up my ankle a little too tightly and as I limped onto the track, I knew it was going to be a problem.

I hobbled around for a few minutes before resigning myself to the fact that the tape was just going to have to come off. A teammate tossed me my keys and I sat down on the twenty-yard line and tried to cut the tape away from my ankle with the jagged edge of the metal.

“Mary, what are you doing?” Coach asked from the side of the track where he was surveying the team.

“The tape is too tight,” I answered, trying to keep the frustrated tears from my eyes, gingerly wrestling with my ankle as I watched another practice slip away. Coach does not believe in crying, so I try not to do it in front of him.

Walking over with lanky strides, his large, friendly gait silhouetted in the bright sunshine of the hot spring afternoon, Coach took up a spot on the turf next to me. He spread his legs out into a ‘V’ like a big, twelve-year-old boy and pulled my ankle up onto his knee.

“Here, give me that key,” he said. The gentle lull of his voice was coated in his usual chuckle, amused at my propensity for getting into scrapes, like a cat that always finds itself up a tree.

“How’s the foot coming?” he asked me.

“I have a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday morning,” I said. “I’ll find out then if I’m cleared to run.”

“Wednesday,” he said. “That’s the day of Conference Semifinals.”

“Yes,” I said hesitantly, “But they were all booked up this week — it was the soonest I could see him. And it will be before the races start. It’s a morning appointment.”

Coach didn’t say anything, but I knew I was cutting it close.

For the next few minutes, as Coach tore at the thick fibers of the tape, the world seemed to take a deep breath and I felt the relief. Around us, my teammates were still sprinting in their lanes in flashes of maroon and black. Janet and the hurdlers were racing around the track, bathed in sweat and sunshine, and a part of me yearned to be out there with them. But strangely, part of me was content to just be here, injured as a I was, simply resting in a moment’s pause from my usual hurry of commitments. And what a coach, I thought as I watched him slice away at the ankle wrap, to take the time to sit here and help me with such a menial thing. It was small, but it mattered so much. It made such a difference to me that day to know I wasn’t forgotten.

Whatever emotional respite those few minutes gave me were all that sustained me through the last big trial of my long, long season.

Friday afternoon’s team meeting was moved from 1:20 to eleven o’clock. I rushed over as soon as I got off work, but they were already finished and filing out of the parking lot when I arrived. I found one of the throwers and asked her what I missed.

“Just assignments for conference,” she said. “Coach put you in javelin.”

The breath in my lungs vanished.

“And hurdles? Or the 400?” I asked.

“Well, no,” she said, looking a little confused. “I mean, you’re not cleared yet so he can’t.”

I don’t remember if I said ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’ to her. I think I may have just drifted away. I meandered over to the school’s track field where my cross country season began nearly a year ago. Looking out over the lonely grass where I learned how to be a runner, heart aching, I burst into tears.

Weeks and weeks of pool sprints and physical therapy and driving myself crazy trying to keep up with everything, all for nothing. My season was over. My last race had been run.

July’s dreams of being a cross country champion, the early hopes of December and January all seemed ridiculous, vain. All my efforts washed away with one, unforgiving blow — a blow that happened months before I even knew what a hurdle was. Like the invisible gears of a broken clock, closed behind little golden doors, the muscles and bones of my body continued grinding out of place until something finally snapped, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put me back together again. At least not in time for my last race.

Sobbing into my hands in the middle of that empty field, I asked one more time, God, why? Why would you bring me into this only to know from the start that you were going to take it all away?

No answer. It was just me and the grass.

I had a few days to calm down before I saw Coach again. He didn’t say anything about my season, so neither did I.

The doctor did clear me to run on Wednesday morning. “Probably not hurdles, but if you were to run a 400, if it was just one race, that would be okay. It might set you back a week or two in the healing process, but I can understand why you would want to, seeing as this is your last season.”

It didn’t make any difference, of course, even with the little slip of paper, all signed and pretty — registrations closed for conference a week ago. But I told Coach anyway when I showed up at conference semifinals that afternoon, and then I got ready to throw javelin at finals on Saturday. By that point, I was just happy to still be in a uniform. Happy that the championships were close enough to home that my parents could finally see me compete. Happy to be out of the boot and walking around on my own two feet. You don’t wish you could win races when you can’t even walk — you just wish you could get up stairs.

The fierce winds that had kept my sails blowing all year had finally died down to a whisper. It was calmer. Quieter. I felt empty, but at least I was at peace.

I threw my final round of javelin and it was decent enough. Nothing special, but I hadn’t been hoping for greatness.

“How’d it go?” Coach asked me as I rounded the corner by the triple jump, a flurry of school colors and officials’ whistles in the backdrop.

“It was okay,” I said. “I got a new PR, but I didn’t make the final round. So that’s it. It’s been a good season.”

“Well,” he said slowly, “Your season may not be over. We need someone to fill in a leg of the 4×400 relay. Were you serious about wanting one last race?”

My heart stopped.

“Coach, are you serious?” I asked, barely enough energy left to even hope for it. “Yes, yes, I’d do anything!”

“I know you would,” he said with a bemused chuckle. “Go talk it over with the girls, they’re warming up now.”

The bounce in my step as I rushed over to the relay girls gave away my enthusiasm.

“You are way too excited for this,” said Jessica as I bounded over to their circle next to the sand pits. The girls were sprawled on the grass in their warm-up suits with their spikes laying next to them.

“This is my last race,” I tried to explain, attempting to contain the smile that had etched across my face. “I’m getting my last race!”

“Have you even done a relay before?” Jessica asked skeptically with a knowing smile. I shook my head.

“Alright, go warm up and then I’ll show you the hand-off,” she ordered, flipping a long braid over her shoulder and giving me a catty grin. I did as she told me to — no one says ‘no’ to Jessica.

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My warm-up was short, we didn’t have a lot of time. Just jogging around the empty baseball field next to the stadium felt amazing. My legs, so long dormant, were delighted to have blood pumping through them again.

Had it really only been eight weeks since the last time I ran? It felt like years.

Jessica and Jennifer showed me how to do the hand-off — that was the part I was really worried about — and then Janet came over with orders from Coach. I was fourth leg, I was the anchor.

“Coach wants us to give her a good lead,” said Janet. The girls all nodded. We haven’t been competitive in the relay all season. In fact, I don’t think we beat a single team all year, so it didn’t really matter who ran which leg, we were going to come in last anyway. Hypothetically.

But Coach had a plan, so we went with it. And I didn’t really care where we placed anymore. I was over the moon just to have spikes on my feet again.

We took our places at the starting line, Janet in her blocks, Jessica waiting behind her at the mark, and Jennifer and I on the sidelines.

The gunshot sounded and Janet took off like a rocket. Janet is fast. She ate that first lap like a piece of cake. Jessica successfully took the baton and widened the lead, which was quite a feat considering she’s a short sprinter normally. Jennifer was still issuing me instructions when she took her place on the starting line, seconds before grasping the metal rod from Jessica’s steady fingers and making the loop herself. Jennifer is a 400 runner, so the sizeable lead we had grew into something magnificent and suddenly I found myself standing at the starting line of my first race in eight weeks with a tiny possibility of actually winning.

But I wasn’t thinking about that. I wasn’t thinking about the fifty-meter lead the girls had just earned us. I wasn’t even thinking about how painful running this race usually is. In fact, all my nerves were gone. I was cool and calm and ready. As soon as Jennifer slid that metallic-red baton into my hand and I felt it firmly beneath my grip, the world slipped away.

My feet took off beneath me, fierce golden breezes beat down on my back like wings, and I was flying. For the first time in two months, I was racing down a track again, hugging the bend and plunging into the straightaway.

I laughed out loud — mid-race, I actually laughed out loud, it felt so good to run again. Joy and adrenaline shot through my body as I dove into the 200 meter stretch. I could hear Coach from the sidelines telling me to breathe, the same thing he’s been saying to me since September.

Everything else was clockwork. Like riding a bike, it just all came back. Dorsiflex, open stride, shoulders down, elbows at ninety degrees.

Even headed into that dreaded 300 meter mark, I felt good. If there was pain, it didn’t register. My mind was too full of stars and sunshine and freedom.

Somewhere in the stands, I could hear Corey shouting that the girl behind me was catching up, and as I turned the last curve and headed into the final stretch home, the roar from the stands told me my place was in contention.

My opponent, quickly closing on me, had won the open four earlier in the day. She was a bullet, and now she was shooting past me. Seventy-five meters from the finish, I felt my legs start to cramp. I still had air in my lungs and energy in my body, but eight weeks of not practicing on a track finally caught up to me. Every step was like running waist-deep in mud, until finally, fifty yards from the finish line, my legs locked beneath me and I toppled to the ground.

The bullet-girl whizzed past and I could feel my muscles seizing. For a minute, I wasn’t actually sure if I was going to be able to stand up again.

Lucky for me, I have had an entire year of practice when it comes to falling down, so I know first hand that you can always find a way back up.

Heaving myself back onto my feet, I shot a quick look over my shoulder to see where the third runner was. She was nowhere in my peripherals, but I wasn’t taking any chances. With every last ounce of stamina I possessed, I pulled myself across that finish line and into the arms of my teammates before sinking to the ground once more as my legs gave out beneath me.

Within seconds, half the team had filed onto the field to help lift me up and carry me off the track. All these kids I hadn’t seen in weeks were there hugging me and congratulating me on what they considered to be quite the finish.

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“I’m sorry for losing the lead,” I kept saying, but Jessica would shush me.

“But you got back up! You finished!”

Janet made me lay down so she could stretch the butt-lock out of my glutes and one of the guys brought my shoes over so I could change out of my spikes. I tried standing but felt the overwhelming urge to puke, so I stayed bent at the waist for several minutes, trying to let my body calm down. My elbow burned from where the track had shaved off several layers of skin during my spill.

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The next thing I knew, amid the blur of congratulations and the ever-present urge to vomit, I was being pulled onto a medal podium.

“What’s this for?” I asked, head still spinning slightly.

“We got second place,” Jennifer told me as they put medals around our necks.

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They took our picture and I had to use most of my remaining concentration to not fall off the podium. It wasn’t until we were back on the grass that I looked at the medal.

“Do we get to keep these?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Jennifer excitedly, her big, beautiful smile dressing her face with glee. “You get that for running. We got second place, Mary!”

That’s when I lost it. After all that, after my expectations and aspirations of winning had long been put to rest, here was the long-awaited medal in my hand.

All year long, God has closed every single door I’ve tried to walk through. From that first hamstring fiasco in July that cut my off-season workouts short, to each of the subsequent injuries that prevented me from practicing or competing, every time I thought I found a way to do it on my own, God said, ‘no.’

It wasn’t until I had been humbled to the point of surrender, stripped of my pride and steadied in the contentment of His will that he finally said, ‘yes.’ And then I understood that this medal and this race were His and not mine.

Suddenly, something much greater clicked into place. A point of doctrine that I learned as a little girl in Sunday school, a functioning of my faith that I have always understood technically but never before had context to: that we obey God because we love him. As Christians, God calls us to lives of sacrifice and obedience, in big ways and in small. It is a long, difficult race to run, but there is no fear of failure because we already know that a victor’s crown awaits us at the end — not because of our good works, but because of His. And so the race we run as Christians is not one of dread and misery, it is a race in which we set forth with joy and perseverence. Joy, because we know our pardon is sealed and the race is already won — perseverence, because we want to live up to the high calling given to us by our God. 

And so too, my hopes for track were no longer those of personal ambition. I was running a race I knew was a gift to me, a race I didn’t necessarily deserve to be in. Coach had given me the chance to run one last time, so I ran not just with delight for the privilege to participate, but also with determination to redeem the honor Coach had won for me in hopes that he would be delighted too. And those 70 seconds might just be forever emblazoned in my heart, like words of promise in stone. 

We could have come in last place. I could have tripped every three meters of that track and I still would have been happy at the finish line. How much my attitude has changed since November. How humbling this season has been for me, to learn that everything I am able to do, each moment of my day and effort of my life is a gift from God. 

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The joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10

Suddenly, on that golden field, surrounded by people I love — people whose love I’m not sure I even deserve — all those closed doors made sense. God had not forgotten me. How amazing that, in the grand scheme of the cosmos, he would take the time to carefully walk me through this year — not just shutting doors, but providing people to help me bear up beneath the weight of discouragement and despair. Friends who took time out of their practices to teach me how to throw, trainers who patiently and cheerfully treated my every injury, a Coach who never, not once gave up on me.

If this year as a college athlete has taught me anything, it is, firstly, the peace and fulfillment which comes from embarking on life’s grand journey with steadfast joy. Secondly, it has reaffirmed the absolute certainty of God’s loving hand in my life. Like a toymaker carefully stitching together a doll, not leaving out a single button or seam, or a busy coach who takes time to tend to the very least of his athletes, He will not forget me.

 

Mary vs the javelin


In the dark, I nearly tripped over it. Someone had left it tucked under the lip of our doorway and as I stepped into the dimly lit hours of early morning, my foot snagged on the corner, sending a panicked shudder through my body.

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Me and the javelin.

My feet are precious to me. For five weeks, I have been trying to heal from a stress reaction in my shin (basically, a bunch of little hairline fractures running from my ankle halfway to my knee). For most of those weeks, I’ve been toddling around in a boot, which has limited my ability to do some pretty basic stuff. In the last week or so, I have been able to walk around without the boot from time to time. But it’s tricky business because my ankles are feeling pretty paranoid at the moment. The last thing I need now, I thought to myself with duffle bag in hand and tracksuit fitted snugly beneath my school sweater, is another accident.

Letting my eyes adjust to the dark, I searched for the culprit of my imbalance and made out the shape of a package. As I picked it up to place it in a less life-threatening area, I noticed it was addressed to me, from Northern Ireland.

Another shiver ran down my spine, only this time it spread warmth and excitement.

I knew what was in this box.

But I was running late and Coach will leave people behind, so I tucked the package beneath my arm and hobbled down to my car. No boot today. Today was my first javelin competition.

The story of how I went from nerd to athlete is almost as long and coincidental as the story of how I met my friends from Northern Ireland, but my transition from a hurdler to a javelin thrower is pretty simple. I got injured.

When I pulled into the parking lot at school, Marcus, Sarah and Serena were already there, waiting in their cars. Gold and red lights shone off the black pavement from the neon “Home of the Jaguars” sign above the field house entrance. I turned off my car and slid the package onto my lap. This couldn’t wait any longer.

Inside the well-taped box, tucked into layers of foam wrap, was a ceramic plate decorated with butterflies, fairy mushrooms, and a brooding castle against a wild sea. It was a plate I made last summer when I spent a wonderful day outside Belfast with some dear friends. Immediately, I was swept onto the wild breezes and grey sunshine of the Irish coast. Castles and country lanes danced before my eyes as my memory floated me back to a place I miss.

A door slammed and I saw Serena getting out of her car. Coach had driven up behind us in the school van. Time to load up.

“You guys excited?” I said, clambering into the middle seat — I had stowed the plate neatly in the back of my own car before climbing into the school van. My enthusiasm was greeted by some half-hearted smiles and a snore. It was still early.

Normally, we don’t go up on Fridays. It’s hugely impractical. Most meet events are on Saturday — all the track events, the jumps, and most of the throws. This particular weekend, hammer and javelin were the day before. Javelin happens to be my only event right now, and I haven’t had the chance to compete yet, which means I won’t be able to attend the conference championship at the end of the month. This weekend would be my only chance to qualify.

“Coach,” I had said during practice that Wednesday, “If I can’t compete this weekend then there was no point in my practicing javelin for the last two weeks.”

He heaved a big sigh, gave me an exasperated smile and then showed up at the crack of dawn on Friday morning to take me and the other four throwers to Los Angeles.

My sole ambition as a composer is to hurl my javelin into the infinite space of the future.”
-Franz Liszt

We drove to the shed on the edge of campus to load up our equipment, fog lingering over the grassy field. Marcus had spent the better part of two weeks teaching me how to throw a javelin across this field and the stretch of lawn above it.

Leaning against the shed were our practice hurdles. Even in the excitement of loading our javelins and hammer wires into the car, I couldn’t help but feel a little tug in my chest at the sight of those rickety, wooden frames. It’s been too long since I’ve been over one, too long since I’ve been able to run at all.

Equipment stowed carefully away, we began our trek north. By the time we hit the highway, Coach had awakened enough to be in good spirits. The girls found their chattiness, too, so the drive up was mostly a lively one — Marcus slept in the back seat.

It’s been a rainy winter so, these days, the hills of Southern California are dressed in the bright yellows and pinks of wildflowers. My favorites to see are the mustard plants. They are soft, yellow bunches that grow on pale green stems. They grow tall and thin, texturing the hill with waves of brilliant bulbs of color that parade back and forth to the rhythm of the wind. From a distance, they almost look like fairies flocking the hillside.

And fairies always remind me of Ireland. Of course, there they are known as the Little Folk, as I was told by my Irish friends.

My wee little Belfast family are more than friends. They came into my life at a pivotal moment. They appeared when I was in the middle of a painful transition. Opening their home and their hearts, they served as a wayside shelter, a reminder that God provides, that he promises good to us and he is faithful to fulfill.

That is a reminder I have needed this semester, which is why the plate they sent meant so much to me.

When El Camino College finally greeted us with the open arms of opportunity, I was ready to greet it back.

For context, I have been training with the javelin for a week and half. The doctor finally approved me to do limited activities on my boot and javelin made the most sense to me. So here I’ve been, a wanna-be-hurdler with zero background in sports and a hefty injury on my right leg, learning how to throw a spear with three weeks left in the season.

Coach sauntered out of the parking garage towards the sunshine and the rest of us scrambled along behind, carrying poles and wires and metal balls (and, in my case, an enormous box of Cheezits).

Only four or five other schools showed up over the course of the morning. It was a small crowd. Track meets host hundreds of contestants, but the field side of things — especially when only half the events are being thrown — is understandably smaller.

“Should we take bets on how far Mary is going to throw today?” Coach asked. He was fully awake now and his proclivity for teasing had arisen with him.

“I already know,” I said, standing up on shaky ankles. We were sitting on the cement slab where the bleachers were set up. Across from us was a cone shaped field with a runway on one end and a hammer cage tucked away in the middle-right side. I stepped onto the edge of the red-track runway where a thick white line ran across the width of it and counted out thirteen loose footsteps into the grass. Turned to Coach, I said, “About here. This is my margin.”

Immediately, Sarah and Serena were at my side.

“But watch out for the line,” they said. “If you step over that line you scratch and your throw doesn’t count.”

My head jerked up instantly. I hadn’t heard this rule.

“You can’t even step over it as you’re walking off,” they said. “You should probably do some practice leads just so you get it.”

Lining myself up, I stepped out with my limited range of motion (even without the boot, I don’t have a lot of give on my right foot) and threw and imaginary javelin into the air. But I had to catch myself as I leaned forward and my feet ended up well past the white line.

“Scratch,” said Serena. “Try again.”

The second time I went through the motions on the right side of the line, but exited in the wrong direction.

“Scratch,” said Sarah. “Wait for your javelin to hit the grass, too.”

Suddenly, my head was spinning. I was having trouble just remembering to block and release up. Now I had to worry about the stupid white line too?

As the girls busied themselves with the Cheezits and Marcus took off to warm up for the hammer, I slipped away down the sidewalk, out of view.

For twenty minutes, I walked myself through blocking movements. Step out. Pivot. Pull. Block. Push. Follow-through. Release. Don’t step over the line.

Using the cement blocks in the sidewalk as markers, I ran through the steps until the soccer players in the field next to me had all but forgotten there was some weird girl doing Karate Kid motions by herself in the middle of campus.

Pausing to give my shoulder a rest, I was struck with a feeling of loneliness. I missed my hurdlers. My distance kids. My gang of misfits and rabble-rousers. I missed warming up with everyone and running in circles around an unforgiving track, telling each other we’ll be better people if we can just survive the day. It’s been such an incredible experience, being part of a team, and having to sit on the bench for the last few weeks has been isolating and discouraging. Half the reason I signed up for javelin in the first place was just to have a reason to keep coming to meets. Anything to stay in the uniform, you know? (The other half is that I’m fiercely competitive and I don’t like being told to quit).

My perk from the morning had disappeared into nerves and loneliness. I sat back down with the girls and listened to their cheerful banter as we watched Marcus throw. They explained the finer points of the hammer event and helped me wrap my bad ankle with the medical tape in our first aid bag. It was a shoddy job, but it held together.

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Warming up.

The morning passed away serenely. At one point, I fell asleep stretched out on the concrete and upon waking up, I discovered Coach had balanced a Cheezit on my forehead.  

Coach came and went. He knows everyone, so this meet was a busy social occasion for him.

At last, the time for women’s javelin had come. It was the last event of the afternoon so the remaining athletes and coaches collected near the field to watch.

“Okay Mary,” said Coach, pulling me aside. “This is just the warm up. It’s called picking. Just practice throwing a few feet in front of you. Throw at the same time as the other girls in the line. You wouldn’t want to hit anyone.”

His deep, gravely voice was a familiar comfort. I don’t know if every coach is given an internal fear detector to help them locate which of their athletes needs a pep talk the most or if it’s just my coach, but he always seems to know when to remind me that he’s right there, that we’ve got this.

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Picking with my Lady Jags.

Serena and Sarah made space for me between them in the picking line and walked me through the process of spotting my mark and aiming for it.

The tall girl next to us was panicking almost as hard as I was. It was her first time to, but she didn’t have teammates here to help her like I did..

My last few picks were horrible. I could hear Coach from the sideline saying, “Pretend it’s your ex-boyfriend and you’re mad at him. Throw it, Mary!”

Next came practice throws from the runway. I was a mess. The javelin wasn’t even sticking in the grass when I threw it. It just sort of hit the ground and slid a few feet, like an underachieving lizard on a poorly constructed water slide.

And, of course, everyone was watching. At least in track most people are too busy watching the winner to notice the loser.

But the tall girl was struggling too, so I commiserated with her and we had a good laugh. Then I complimented some girl on her American flag muscle tape and another girl on how pretty her throw was, even though it didn’t stick (“You’re like my mom today, thanks,” she said with an an appreciative smile).

The official called us over and asked if anyone wanted the rules explained. Everyone — not just my teammates, the whole flight of javelin girls — looked at me.

“Yes, please,” I said with a sheepish giggle.

Fully aware that everyone had recognized me as the baby of the group, I held my head high. I was the first to throw — also terrifying — and I could hear my teammates cheering me on.

All I had to do was get the javelin to stick in the grass and I would have my mark, I would get to compete at the Conference finals in two weeks.

Step out. Pivot. Pull. Block. Push. Follow-through. Release. Don’t step over the line.

I lifted my eyes just in time to see my javelin plunging into the earth, tail still skyward. Instinctively, I clapped my hands and looked for Coach amid the several dozen smiling from the bleachers.

“It stuck! Coach, I’ve got a mark!”

It wasn’t just my own teammates applauding me. The whole flight of throwers and most of the crowd were laughing and clapping their hands. Not because it was a great throw — it was the shortest of the round — but because they knew I had accomplished my goal. I got a mark. I made a start. I had begun.

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My second throw was even better, and I got another cheer when my javelin passed the first mark by a foot. The third throw swelled farther out still.

The fourth throw was flat and came down short, but at that point, I was happy anyway. Happy to be in a uniform. Happy to be part of the team. Happy to be in the sunshine doing new things in new places.

I cradled the half-empty box of Cheezits all the way back to the car. Coach said he was proud of us so he took us to his favorite burrito joint in LA to celebrate. The food was delicious and portions were big. I had already decided not to finish mine when Coach informed that I couldn’t be a thrower unless I could eat like one. My teammates nodded in agreement silently as they chowed down on burrito-y goodness, the deepest contentment etched across their faces. So I sighed, reexamined my plate, and strategically conquered the whole thing. And the throwers officially claimed me as one of their own.

With food on our stomachs and a long, long morning behind us, the ride back was fairly quiet. I slept for a lot of it. When I did wake up, in those first few moments of almost-consciousness, the jumble of the school van down California’s golden coast reminded me of another coast and the familiar bus ride that took me from Dublin’s airport to my lovely wee friends in Belfast. They, too, claimed me as their own. For reasons I’ll never understand, they just opened up their hearts and let me walk right in.

Since leaving Prague two years ago, I’ve been struggling to find a place where I belong. Maybe that’s why I’ve taken to sports so intently this year. But every time I think I’ve found my feet beneath me again, something trips me up. It’s been one injury after another for two seasons now. I’m doing everything I can just to stay fit for a race in two weeks I may never get cleared to run. All my pool sprints and now bike workouts and gym hours — I know very well it might all be for nothing if the doctor says I still can’t run on this leg when the time comes. And that’s been so disappointing.

Harder still is having to shoulder the disappointment alone. Because I do my workouts separately, I never see my kids anymore. Janet, Corey, David, the distance boys and the hurdle crew and all those rag-tag sprinters who’ve wormed their way into my affections so steadfastly this year — I don’t see them now.

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But for two weeks I have been able to train with the throwers, these crazy wonderful kids who have turned into sweet friends. I have been able to learn a new skill, one I have been interested in but never thought I’d have the time to try. I’ve walked into a whole new world, right here at the end of the season. What an unexpected gift.

It’s as if God is reminding me once again that he will never leave me empty handed. That, even though my life might not unfold the way I envisioned, it will not be barren or bleak. It will be filled with his grace and mercy, overflowing with blessings like sunshine, roadtrips and Cheezits, like friends in unexpected places and ceramic plates that show up outside your door like rainbows after stormy weather, like teammates who will cheer you on for not falling over the scratch line and coaches who will give up their Friday to drive you three hours north so you can throw a spear into the ground and make it stick.