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.

IMG_20170330_143806
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.

IMG_8919
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.

IMG_8929
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.

IMG_8952

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.

IMG_8936

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.

Stockholm Syndrom and the quest for self-betterment

It’s dark and chilly when I shove my heavy track bag into the back seat and pull out of the drive. Coach isn’t kidding when he say’s he’ll leave you behind if you show up late, and I still have to pick up a teammate.

Kae lives close and we’ve been carpooling for our early morning meets. After several reminder texts, I still haven’t received a confirmation that he is up and awake and ready to go, which is pretty distressing, but I roll with it. For the first time all semester, I’m actually on time, so that’s put me in an insatiably good mood.

The sky is still wrapped in a dark blue blanket of early morning when I pull up outside Kae’s house. I wait a moment, letting the half-a-pancake I hurriedly ate for breakfast roll over in my stomach.

Nerves.

The porch door opens and Kae comes out shirtless and carrying a bundle of blankets, track uniform spilling off the top of the pile in his arms.

“Give me a moment,” he says with a smile, racing back inside. When he comes back out, still shirtless, he’s carrying a pot of chicken, beans and rice and a handful of incense sticks.

“Okay,” he says, “I’m ready.”

I look at him, mouth agape, shock robbing curiosity of its chance to speak.

It’s going to be quite a day.

By the time we crest the hill and wind into the college parking lot, the sun has pulled away the covers of night, steeping the sky in brilliant shades of pink and orange.

Our teammates are arriving alongside us. Several laugh out loud when they see Kae get out of my car, half-dressed and eating chicken and beans.

“And rice,” he tells us.

Serina, the captain of the women’s field team, grabs a set of keys for the shed and sets out for the javelin poles. After stowing my bag onto the charter bus grumbling in the parking lot, I follow her.

“We need a table,” I say. “Coach Lynette wants something to put the food on.”

“There should be one in the shed,” she replies.

We rummage around looking for equipment and the alleged table, finally finding it covered in cobwebs behind the old barbeque.

Trunk open and windows down, with javelins and the rusty table spilling out of the car from every angle, we drive back to where the charter bus is waiting for us, Coach standing just outside the door.

“Got it all?” he asks.

Yup.

This is my second track meet ever. It is going to be a much bigger one than the last and I’m entered in two events, not just one. Our destination: Cal State LA.

I sort of sleep on the way up and when the bus finally rumbles to a stop, I feel drowsy and achy. I am currently rocking three injuries: shin splints, a pulled quad, and an old hamstring thing that resurrects itself every few months when it feels like my life is getting too simple. The bus ride has done nothing for any of my maladies and I fall down the steps onto the sidewalk feeling rather beaten.

IMG_6365

The team meanders through the campus, past the track and onto the baseball field where the check-in and staging takes places. Tents have been set up around the perimeter of the field and athletes are warming up around the diamond. At the bottom of a blue horizon are snow capped mountains, framed by palm trees. The breeze is cool and the sun is warm. It’s a beautiful day in California.

My first race is not until noon. It’s only nine.

We locate the women’s restrooms, spend twenty minutes tracking down milk because Coach brought two boxes of dry cereal, break the rusty table and duct tape it back together, and walk the circumference of the very large track field and its stands which are already filling up with spectators. Janet offers to braid my hair. I agree readily.

“You take care of her today,” Coach tells me, pointing to Janet. “You make sure she pushes through these hurdles.”

I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic because we all know that Janet is the mother in this situation. She’s the women’s team captain, a hurdle monster, and my personal stay for emotional and mental support.

“We’ll take care of each other,” I promise Coach.

When he leaves, I look at Janet.

“You ready?”

“No,” she answers with a smile.

“Me neither,” I say. “I’m beginning to remember how painful the 400 is. Real, physical pain, Janet.”

“I know,” she says with an understanding grin. “We all know. If you don’t feel pain, you’re not running it right. It’s just part of track.”

Noon rolls around quickly enough and I find myself warming up around the baseball diamond with athletes from colleges and universities all across Southern California. It’s intimidating. I feel like a tadpole in a pond full of frogs with really big legs.

From the staging area, we are escorted onto the field. I’m in heat five and I’m freaking out.

I have never run a flat race before. In fact, it’s been weeks since I even practiced the 400. A quarter of a mile is a long way to sprint, even if it is just one lap around the track.

Agustin is standing behind the fence looking out over the field. I walk over to him after the gun sends off the third heat.

“I’m so nervous, Auggie,” I say. He and I were captains of the cross country team last semester. He is different now. More light-hearted. Being just one of the team has made him more laid-back, but I still lean on him when I need some captain-y advice. He’s still got the good stuff.

“Remember,” he tells me, “it’s okay to come in last. Just make sure you look good when you cross the finish line. Keep your form, keep your technique.”

I laugh. To keep form you need to have it. I run a bit like a drunken sailor.

An eternity of very short seconds later, I’m curling into my starting blocks, waiting for a gunshot I hope would never come.  

How many times had I run this race in my head this week? Dozens, at least. Only in every quiet moment of my mind. Push into the curve. Maintain along the straight-away. You’ll feel tired at 250, but so will everyone else – keep going. Hug the bend. Sprint the ending. Finish. Dear goodness, please finish this race.

There was the gunshot. The rest is a blur. My most vivid memory of that race, and it’s not very clear, is the distinct feeling of my quads seizing up during the last hundred meters.

I cross that white line and nearly faint.

IMG_6320
Corey, that dear soul.

Corey comes over, wraps his arm under my shoulders and helps me off the field, back to our tent.

“You did great,” he promises me. “Even Coach said so.”

“What was my time?” I ask.

“Seventy-four seconds.”

I moan. I was shooting for seventy.

At the tent, I can’t get my heart rate down. My breathing is heavy and my body seems to be revolting against me.

“Do a cool down run,” says Janet.

I can barely stand, but I pick myself up and jog lightly along the outfield till I reach first base. Then, isolating myself to a corner near the mesh fence, I plop myself resolutely in the dirt.

My breath slows and my vision becomes hazy as shadowy figures jog past me on their course around the baseball field.

Why am I doing this? I ask myself. It’s a good question. One I have been avoiding for a while. I am no good at track, it would seem. It isn’t a career for me, or even a way to secure a scholarship. It’s just something I’m doing. Something I’m strangely addicted to. But why?

I’m not here because I’m overly competitive, as some have suggested. I don’t tend to do things I’m bad at. Just ask anyone who’s tried to get me to play volleyball. If I was just here to win, I’d have walked away several injuries ago.

And I’m not here because I don’t know when to quit. No, I’m not a quitter, but even a rational person knows when it’s time to move on. So there must be some rational reason for me staying, right? So what is it?
At the end of cross country season, I told myself I was a better person for having chased impossible dreams. That doesn’t seem to be a good enough answer anymore. How is this making me a better person. What am I really learning here?

Why am I spending so much time and energy on something so painful with so little reward? Yeah, I can understand shedding your blood, sweat and tears if you’re in line for a gold medal. But I’m just trying to drag myself across the finish line. And for what?

“Are you okay?”

Kae is warming up around the diamond and sees me sitting in the dirt on the edge of the field.

“Do you need water?” he asks. I shake my head but he comes back around with a bottle for me anyway.

My second race is at 3:30 and it comes too quickly. I have no energy. I’m still shaken from the ‘open four’ and even getting through the warm-up seems like a challenge. My shin splints are practically singing and my hamstring has joined the chorus. All I want to do is lay down and hibernate for a few months, but I have a race to do. A race with ten ominous hurdles.

Janet walks me to the staging area and we put on our spikes. She’s heat one, I’m heat two.

“I’m ready for this to be over,” she says with a chuckle.

Me too.

Her heat takes off quickly and here I am again, pacing out my blocks and waiting for the call to stand at our marks. I’m in lane eight.

Lane eight is for the slow kids. It’s also the blind lane because you can’t see where everyone else is on the track until they pass you or you reach the final hundred meters. But I practiced in lane eight all day on Thursday and it feels familial and welcoming. This lane and I have something in common: we’re both kind of on the outside of this whole thing.

Pop. There’s the gun.

Off I go, with all the grace of a driver who’s been pulled over for a sobriety test. Every time I jump a hurdle, I fall a little into the lane next to me. I have zero energy left and I can feel myself slowing down. Immediately, I realize I am never going to beat my time from the last race: 1:31.

But as I round the second bend, I see hurdle seven lying down in the track. Someone knocked it over in the first heat and it was never righted.

I panic.

Do I jump over it anyway? Will I be disqualified for not having a hurdle?

My pace slows down considerably as I finally decide to hop delicately over the fallen obstacle, but the damage has been done. I am running too slowly to jump the next hurdle, which is standing up as it should be.

My lead leg mostly clears the top but my trail leg decides, in this pivotal moment, that it would much rather do a tango with our hurdle instead. We collide.

Both the hurdle and I come crashing down onto the track, which is still warm from a day in the sun, and my cheek rests gently on the rough, red surface. My knees and hands are burning but I barely feel them. My mind seems to still be racing though my body is pinned beneath a hurdle. All I know is that, for these two seconds, my body is no longer hurling through the air, racing a clock it cannot beat. I’m just chilling on the ground, and it feels pretty good.

The respite is brief. Following a collective gasp from the spectators and fellow athletes around the track, I hear calls to get up, to keep going.

As if I would quit.

I pull myself up and try to pick up enough speed to make it over hurdles nine and ten, which I do, barely.

Later, I my mind would return to those last two hurdles and the complete lack of firepower in my legs and I would think, What kind of spell are you under that you keep coming back to partake in this misery every day?

I sprint wobblingly to the finish where Coach is waiting for me with a grin on his face. As Janet picks me up around the waist and Corey comes over with water, Coach looks into my exhausted face and says, “The first time the hurdle draws blood is your birthmark, everything after that is a battlescar.”

And that’s it. That’s all he says. Now I’m a hurdler.

We go back to the tent and I fall asleep for a while. The rest of the evening passes in din of chatter, trail mix and homework assignments. Eventually, I drag Corey to the stands to watch the men’s 5000. We both agree we’re much happier as mid-distance runners.

IMG_6275
Napping, stretching, eating, doing homework. #tracklife

I’m still feeling defeated. I’m a little ashamed of how relieved I am that I fell over the hurdle, because I needed those two seconds on the ground, because I’m not sure my body could have kept going, because I was worried my time would be so much worse than last week.

I’m still feeling a little detached from this whole experience, still feeling like I don’t belong, feeling like maybe I’m wasting my time here. Maybe everyone’s right – I’m twenty-five and working two jobs. I’m years behind in getting the degree. Why am I frittering away my time with college athletics. Isn’t it time to grow up?
Corey and I climb down the bleachers and cross the field to the start of the 4×400 relay race. Our girl’s team is a bit sparse. Runners one and two are short-distance sprinters. They don’t run the 400 very often. Runners three and four have already done two big events today and they’re tired.

But there they are, all lined up and ready to go.

It’s the same routine.

On your marks, set, gun shot.

I stand there on the side of the track and watch four young women do something incredible. They run together.

Every blood-bursting second of excruciating effort, they push through with unshakable will. And more than with their individual events, they lay out their spirits here because there is a girl at the end of the lap waiting earnestly for them to pass the baton.

This is teamwork.

IMG_6359

Even from the sidelines, I feel myself flying along the track with them and I want so much to be a part of it. I am reminded of why I got into sports reporting years ago, why I feel so strongly that athletics are an important part of our community, why I filled out a request form to join the school’s cross country nine months ago.

This is does make us better people. This turns us into people who are not afraid of pain. This teaches us the irreplaceable value of working together. This inspires us to dream, and then insists that we work to reach those dreams. And if our hopes are disappointed, it teaches us to hold our heads high, walk it off and say, “next time.”

This is whole experience – the pain, the practice, the teamwork, the hopes, the hopes crushed – has made me a fuller person. I can empathize with the human experience in a way I couldn’t before. My perception of people and what drives them has broadened. I have been taken from my high-horse, I have been humbled, I have been broken and rebuilt.

And yet, none of this is why I have stayed in track. We can get life experience anywhere.

I’ve stayed because I love it. For whatever unexplainable reason, I love this.

The grueling three hour practices, the indescribable pain of pushing every muscle to its farthest fiber, the agony of defeat and the alluring promise of a brighter tomorrow, and this team. These people. My coaches and friends.

Maybe it’s a luxury I can’t afford, to spend so much time doing something with no practical impact on where I plan to go in life. But at least I know why I’m here.

When this very special season of my life comes to its early end and I have to say ‘goodbye’ to this team I adore so much, I will hold my head high and find another race to run, another team to love, another impossible dream to chase. Because this is life, the unending search for joy and self-betterment.

 

refusing the bitter cup

I could barely open the door against the rush of the highway and the gush of the winds that raced along the brush of California’s most beautiful coast. Rain slammed the shoulder of the road and I slammed the door, both of us in foul moods. Pulling my coat tightly across my chest, I trudged around the front of my car to inspect the tires.

One was flat. I may not know much about cars, but one tire was definitely flat.

I stood there on a flooding highway halfway between Oceanside and Orange County, suited in twenty five years of disaster experience. I know how to handle misadventures.

Call Dad.

That’s always step one.

img_20161230_114152

It was only noon, but the sky was so dark it felt much later. A single split in the horizon let in streaks of gold through the grey and purple clouds that insisted on drenching the hair had I so carefully coiffed that morning.

Slipping into the passenger side of the car, I pulled out my cracked phone. His cheerful voice filled my ear like a guardian angel.

“Hey kid,” he said.

“Dad, I have a flat tire,” I said, getting right to the chase. He didn’t sound surprised. He has twenty five years of co-piloting my disaster experiences.

“I’m on the 5 heading North,” I said. “Camp Pendleton area.”

“What are you doing up there?” he asked curiously.

“On my way to a little high school debate reunion,” I told him. “Sam and some of the old gang are in town and we were all going to get together. Looks like I’ll be a little late now.” My tone was snippier than necessary. I’ve not been a very nice person lately.

“I’ll call AAA for you,” he said.

“There’s a rest area up ahead. I’m going to pull in there.”

We hung up and I waited for the whooshing traffic to thin before braving a trip to the driver’s side to get in.

The rest area was on a little hill overlooking the Pendleton valleys with tall reeds growing along the curbs and a steady stream of visitors parking, using the facilities and then continuing on their journeys.

I walked around my car several more times, getting a good look at the tires. The left front seemed low as well, but suddenly I worried that maybe this is just what tires look like. Maybe it wasn’t flat. Maybe I was being a panicked female who didn’t understand auto mechanics. I surveyed the bevy of people coming and going around me.

Two chummy looking bikers were chatting by their wheels and I took a step in their direction.

“Does this tire look flat to you?” I asked without so much as a ‘hello.’

They both meandered over, leather stretching and chains jingling, and kindly began to examine my car.

“Naw,” one of them said, scratching his scraggly red beard. “It’s low, but you’ve got some miles on it.”

The other biker knelt down by the tire and pushed a metal something-or-other into a knob on the inside of the tire and listened for a sound none of us heard.

“Nope, this one is actually flat,” he said. “No pressure at all.”

He then proceeded to check the rest of my tires for me and show me where my spare was. The left front was indeed low as well. I silently padded myself on the back for spotting it earlier.

“Have you called a tow?” they asked. I assured them one was on the way. They wished me good luck and I thanked them profusely as they hopped on their bikes and rode out into the storm.

The rain had somewhat settled but the wind was tossing like a frightened horse. I found shelter inside my car while I waited for the tow truck.

I had texted Sam to let him know I had gotten a flat tire, and at some point in the flurry of the last twenty minutes he had called to say he was sorry I was missing the first part of the lunch reunion but that the group hoped I would still be able to meet up with them.

Sam and I go way back. Nearly ten years, we recently realized. He’s one of my few friends from high school with whom I have genuinely stayed in touch, though that’s more his doing than mine. He is the kind of person who is intentional about friendship. I’m the organic, wherever-the-wind-takes-us kind of friend. We get along pretty perfectly.

Two summers ago, I flew out to New York City where he has been working so we could bus ourselves up to Buffalo for Evan’s wedding. Evan just recently moved back to L.A. with his wife and baby girl. Everyone is growing up.

Everyone but me, I thought to myself as I tried to fix my make-up in the mirror. I had been nervous about this lunch anyway. Nervous about seeing all my old friends with their spouses and hearing about their careers and plans, and then getting to tell them all my glamorous stories about community college.

I had tried to make myself at least look like a grown up. I fixed my hair, did my make-up for the first time in weeks. I even put on uncomfortable shoes! Sometimes I wonder if prim-and-proper high school Mary would be disappointed in my life choices these days.

Staring at myself in the tiny frame of the car mirror, I realized how fake I felt trying to impress everyone.

I love where I am. I love my local college. I love that I get to teach and write about sports and compete on a college team. It’s just not the path I had planned on traveling when I was in high school and we were all dreamers together. Certainly not where I thought I would be at twenty-five.

In high school, which I’m realizing now was much longer ago than it feels like sometimes, I had pretty much everything figured out. I knew I was going to get a steady office job, save money, buy a car and eventually an apartment of my own. I figured by this time I would have a husband or steady someone and maybe even some kids. I’d be a grown up. Like the rest of my high school friends are now. The ones waiting for me to join them for lunch.

img_20161230_123140

The tow truck pulled up just as sunshine broke across the sky.

A nice, older man helped me check my tires again and declared my spare “too flimsy.” So I climbed into the truck and watched my little car get hoisted onto the back bed. In minutes, we were sailing back down the highway to Oceanside, farther away from lunch and my impending destiny with my past.

The tow man was quite nice. I feel like the girl I had been in high school would have had all kinds of lovely questions to pass the time with and make his job a bit more pleasant, or at least less monotonous with some light conversation. But I found I had little to say, so we drove through sheets of wet green hills and grey-gold sunlight in silence.

He delivered me and my car to a tire repair shop of the Old Coast Highway and I was told it would be a two hour wait.

I almost cussed. Two hours. There goes lunch.

I’ve been almost cursing a lot lately.

Actually, I’ve just been cursing. As someone who has staved off the habit of swearing for a quarter of a century, the few times I’ve let a bad word slip from my mouth have been more of a surprise to me than to the people who have heard it. It never tastes good coming out, but it’s the overflow of a bitter spirit so what is one to expect?

Just a few days earlier I had been playing pool with some old college friends who have all moved on with life, who I rarely see anymore. As the evening wore down, so did my facade of general gaiety. Finally, someone just asked me out right if I was okay, to which I responded, “This has just been the worst [expletive] Christmas.”

I immediately regretted saying it, but I tried to look natural and composed. I tried to look like I was just over it all – the lights, the fuss, the happy people with happy plans.

“It sounds so much harsher when she says it,” my friends were laughing, still a little awed by my slip up, though not impressed. They curse all the time. I hadn’t done anything except take the sourness in my heart and pour into my mouth. They kept playing their game and I kept stewing in the corner, wondering how I could have gotten here, feeling so far away from the ever-hopeful, ever-gleeful, ever-principled little girl I was in high school.

Mind you, it wasn’t just the curse word that made me feel like I had drifted into unknown waters, like I was becoming someone I hadn’t planned on being. No, it’s been a year of marked choices. A year of giving up ground or giving up hope in small ways, ways I didn’t think would make a difference. But there I was, a stranger in my own body, a ghost in my own future.

From the tire shop, I texted Sam with the update, grabbed a stack of unfinished Christmas cards from my trunk (because it’s never too late to send out a Christmas card), and walked down the street to a diner.

As soon as I stepped in, I knew I had made a good call (one which, frankly, I don’t think high school Mary would have made).

A Mexican-American-Greek menu took up most of the wall surrounding the counter, wrapping around a corner and over the door where a little bronze bell hung fastidiously from its post.

It was nearly one o’clock, but I still hadn’t eaten breakfast so I passed up the huevos rancheros and the gyros and ordered french toast and a coffee.

It was a good choice.

img_20161230_132226

There I sat, next to a large window overlooking a drab street in late December with a plate of buttery french toast and a stack of cards to people I miss.

I felt so at home. For the first time in a very long time I felt a little bit like life was back to how it should be. Back to me ending up in strange places through a series of misadventures. It felt like Prague, like Madrid, like that sleepy town in Ireland where I accidentally found my great-grandmother’s cottage, like that island mountaintop in Greece where I watched snowflakes dance on lonely winds before disappearing into the nether.

I was alone, but not lonely. I was wandering, but not lost.

I’ve been struggling lately. For the first time since I moved back to San Diego from Prague, I have time to think. Since the summer I came home, I’ve kept life so stock full of things to occupy my mind with I haven’t had time to miss the place I left, except in little moments here and there. But as the semester ended, a fresh wave of heartbreak swept back over me for something I left behind a year and a half ago.

It’s a wound that keeps opening back up, that refuses to heal, no matter how much I smother and stifle the emotions that keep it exposed to the sting of bittersweet memories.

It’s been especially hard with the holidays bringing everyone back to town. Everyone with their families and careers. Me without Prague. Without a clear purpose.

Presumably, these are my own insecurities projected onto dear family and friends, but I have this nagging fear that people will see where I am now and raise their eyebrows, or worse, extend to me their sympathies. I’m afraid people will see me at community college working two part time jobs and think, “I guess she peaked in high school” or “Maybe she didn’t belong in Prague either.” I’m not where we all thought I’d be. I’m not where I thought I would be. And worse, I’m not who I thought I would be.

To guard against these doubts of my own creation, I became something I swore I would never be. Bitter.

It’s been building up all year in little increments, propelled forward by my poor choices and in every step I have taken off the Path. Little ways to guard my affections and feelings that started as sarcasm and a few exaggerated sighs turned into cruel judgments and stony expressions.

I don’t like who I became this Christmas. I don’t like who I’ve been turning into all year.

And, not surprisingly, it didn’t protect what was soft and precious and hurting inside. The bristles I used to surround my heart turned inward until I felt hardened all over.

There was not much pain, but there was certainly no joy either.

I walked back to the tire station feeling a little better. French toast and good coffee will do that to the spirits.

They gave me my keys and I called Sam. The group was finishing up and I was still an hour and a half down the road.

“I’m just going to go home,” I said. “We have family plans tonight and I’ll never make them if I get stuck in traffic. But let’s do this again!”

Radio on, engine purring, and clear skies beginning to turn a soft pink, I headed homeward.

And then, because this is me and when have I ever told I story where I didn’t end up crying at least once, I just completely broke down.

I cried from Oceanside to Del Mar. Every bottled up emotion from the last eighteen months came spilling out.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it at least every other blog post: it feels so good to cry.

And as my car found its way down the coast, racing the sunset, I realized I would rather endure the pains of life than be the person I’ve been for the last few weeks. Even if it means hurting and being disappointed, even heartbroken, I’d rather keep caring, keep hoping, keep pressing on with joy. Is that not what we’re called to do as Christians? To hope, to trust, to rejoice always?

But I also realized that it’s a choice we make, not to be bitter. And that’s something I don’t think high school Mary would have understood. As a girl, I had no large exposure to loss, rejection, disappointed hopes, crushing heartbreak, the foils and betrayal of life’s unexpected turns. I have lived through those things now. So I may not be the bright-eyed idealist I once was, but I am better equipped to navigate this winding road God has put me on, this road that looks nothing like I once thought it would.

And if bitterness is something that creeps up slowly over time by natural evolution, a change brought on by our environs and life experiences, then that means that the battle to keep it at bay must happen over and over again during the course of our lives, however long they be.

It will be a choice we make every day to choose to start again, fresh and full of hope.

a return to joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I stared out the window for a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple, really.

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

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

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

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

I’ve lost my joy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philippians 4:4-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I saw it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint George, tea and my wee little star

Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges was a book I was raised on. Beautifully brought to life by the art nouveau illustrations of Trina Schart Hyman, the story captured my childhood imagination with distant lands and faraway places.

As Saint George, mounted on a valiant steed and bearing a red cross upon his white shield, follows the fair Princess Una into a realm terrorized by a dragon, I too trailed behind them, lighted by images of faeries and magical creatures, led by the dim glow of adventure ever on the horizon.

Northern Ireland looks a lot like the pages of that fairy tale. Green and gold fields lie in patchwork patterns, stitched together by rows of hawthorn bushes. Brick cottages line country roads like red-capped mushrooms leading towards a fairy castle. And sunlight, softer than stardust, falls from magnificently clouded skies.

After leaving Prague, which was just as difficult as I expected it would be, I found myself on a bus speeding towards Belfast to spend a day with one of my very most favorite families, literally ever. I like to break up the trip home with a stop in Ireland because 24 hours on a plane is just no bueno, and I couldn’t leave Europe without seeing the MacArthurs.

IMG_2725

They picked me up from the bus stop, drove me southeast into the countryside, put me up in a room inside their beautiful Georgian dollhouse of a home, gave me a spot of tea, and sent me to bed, which was basically the best welcoming reception of all time.

That feathery sunlight woke me up the next morning, which was incredible considering how dark a morning it was, complete with the foreboding winds of a coming storm.

“Victoria’s going to take you around today,” Mrs. MacArthur told me over cereal, hot cross buns and tea.

Victoria seems exactly the same since the last time I saw her 18 months ago. There is something about youth that keeps a person growing, and yet unchanged, like a star that churns in the abyss of the galaxy where time cannot reach its effervescent twinkle.

She’s a pretty girl, sweet and unassuming, with a perfect blend of joviality and tempered enthusiasm. And she’s just gotten her driver’s license.

So it was with mild trepidation that we both began our morning’s adventures, her as she got behind the wheel of a car, and me as I climbed into the left side of the vehicle.

Our first stop was Greyabbey cemetery, and the road that took us there wound through a collection of villages decked with flags and bunting from the most recent public holiday.

“Those are for Prince William of Orange,” Victoria explained. “He defeated someone on July 12, but I don’t remember who. And this used to be a castle we’re passing but I’m not sure who it belonged to.”

Where information was lacking, charm and general pleasantries about the countryside was used as substitution. For Victoria, this magical place is just home. For me, it’s a strange new wonderland and I spent most of the day picturing myself traversing it on a grey horse with a gleaming sword (and a super pretty, probably impractical princess dress).

“Do you ever think that whoever owned that castle could be your lords today if we were still under that kind of governance?” I asked as we pulled into the gravelly car park.

“I guess not,” she said. “I don’t think I really know the area that well. This is actually only my second time to the abbey. I only discovered it a week ago.”

IMG_2742

Greyabbey was built in the 12th century by a group of people whose names we could not pronounce and therefore cannot remember. Most of it still stood erect, minus the roof and about sixty percent of the walls. But the beautiful arches and the front edifice remained. It was huge.

Wandering through the garden, past plants like mugwort and vervain, felt very Medieval indeed.

And then the graveyard. It’s stone markers falling over, crumbling to pieces, it looked derelict and forgotten. Most of the tombstones dated back to the 17th and 18th centuries. These people lived and died before my country was ever born.

We got our fill of nostalgia and wandered back to the car. Next stop: Victoria’s grandparents.

George and Rosemary live in a quaint brick house. A sunroom off the kitchen juts out into the brightest flurry of garden flowers you will ever see. Blazingly orange nasturtiums and baby-pink wall roses nestled between shocks of purple and blue flowers and doves and pigeons lighted in and out of low-creeping tree branches. What a garden!

In the sunroom, a blue-and-white tea table was set with little cups, plates of potato bread, jams, honey, berries and a tea pot snuggled deeply into a tea cozy.

Rosemary led us to a sofa and Victoria took a seat at one end. One more spot was open next to her and a wooden chair sat just beyond that. Suddenly, years of flipping through Norman Rockwell picture books came flooding back to me. This was a real tea. I was expected to sit like a real little lady, probably with legs crossed at the ankle and back straight, as Victoria was already so aptly demonstrating. Thrill filled my soul. Tea time.

I sat down and was asked questions by Rosemary about my life and plans, and when she got up to busy herself around the kitchen, George came out of the garden woodshed and took up her place.

Was I a student? What did I study? Did I work? What kind of journalism did I do in the States? Where was I coming from? Did I like Prague? Had it been hard to leave? Yes…some changes are very hard, indeed.

George led us in prayer before tea began.

“We thank you, Lord, for all these good gifts,” he said, his deep brogue bending wide in sincerity as we approached the feet of our Creator. “And let this food nourish our bodies today – even Mary’s, though she is herself a journalist.”

Temp1_drive-download-20160801T181131Z

And so commenced our tea. Delightful, from the first sip to the last breadcrumb. I especially enjoyed the “traybakes,” a scrumptious compact of biscuits, candied cherries, marshmallows and sweetened condensed milk. But before reaching for a butter knife, stirring my tea or taking a bit of something laid out before us, I would glance over at Victoria first to see if I was doing it correctly.

When tea was finished, Rosemary showed me her collection of tea cozies, which she sells online (and which you should totally look into if you’re at all into the tea scene).

Then she packed us a picnic lunch and filled our arms with gifts and goodies for the road, and we were ushered on our way.

Several runaway strands of sunlight christened the start of the afternoon as we drove past the local lough, which, I later learned, has the largest presence of organisms of any lough in Ireland (or something along those lines. I mostly just remembered that it look pretty).

We parked on the slope of a hill and walked a short ways through a stronge breeze and grey sunshine to the top where Scrabo Tower stood proudly and alone against a pale sky.

Around us, Northern Ireland stretched out like a blanket, covering the world we could see in deep greens and golds. To one side, the Irish Sea sidled along the coast, bringing the Isle of Man and the shores of Scotland just into view.

IMG_2761

“They were going to build a castle here too,” Victoria explained as the wind rattled our jackets (I was wearing a jacket and a hoodie because it was freezing. Victoria barely had a sweater on).

“Why didn’t they?”

“I guess they got lazy,” she said.

The tower was tall and dark, made of thick brown stones and covered with moss around the base. My head filled with images of knights climbing the hill, fully armored, ready for siege or ready for rest. What a world this must have been only a few hundred years ago.

We climbed back down the hill for a spot of tea (again) and lunch. Sandwiches were pulled out of our hamper and chocolate and traybakes were distributed. I rambled on and on about fairy castles and dueling knights as Victoria sat in patient silence.

IMG_2769

“This is beautiful,” I finally said.

“It’s home.”

In an instant, that word brought me speeding back to the Czech Republic, beneath amber rays of sunlight and skies as big and open as the universe. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point in the last six years, home for me became the winding curve of the Vltava covered in hoar frost and the gentle sloping of forested hills and spired villages. The feeling was so powerful that not even the enchantment of a day in a fairy land with my wee little friend could distract me from the sudden rush of heartbreak that welled inside me.

I don’t know what I had been thinking, going back to Prague. Because, although my six weeks in the Czech Republic were a dream, I knew, I knew, leaving was going to break my heart a second time.

Our last stop of the day was a pottery barn where we could hide from the rain that had begun to plop down against the countryside. The weather was beginning to reflect the somber churnings of my mind, so bright colors and sponge molds were a welcome relief from it all.Temp1_drive-download-20160801T181131Z1

Victoria is a pottery pro. Her plate was finished and looking fine a good half hour before mine was. She patiently sat and watched me painstakingly etch out my feelings onto a plate, disguised as clouds and birds and seascapes. I threw in a few faerie mushrooms as well, just because.

When we got back to the house, the heavens had opened up on us and rain was coming down with sincerity.

Dinner wasn’t for a few more hours so Victoria and I agreed we had both earned a nap. I shut the door to the little guest bedroom on the second story, the view of hawthorn trees blowing in the gale framing my window, and fell fast asleep into dreams of home.

Dinner was a wee affair, with just the four of us there to enjoy the delicious food and splendid conversation. Mostly, we talked about other missionaries, some I had met in Madrid when I first ran into the MacArthurs, others I had only heard about from them. Lots of people coming and going from one spot on the map to another, wherever the Lord calls them to serve next.

Finally, we piled into the car one last time and went into town for ice cream and coffee. Victoria grinned eight shades of happiness behind her cone and cup.

Curled up next to a window that looked out onto a street splashed with rain, we continued to chit chat about life and the world. This little family exemplifies Christian hospitality, such that I am humbled and inspired in my own Christian walk because of them.

And it was a good reminder for me.

I’m sure the Lord is using these good people for more important tasks than simply helping one lost Pilgrim find the path of purpose again and the way home, but on this day, that is exactly what they did. They reminded me that God calls us to serve in many places and none of them will be home, for home is heaven.

“The Fairy Queen has sent you to do brave deeds in this world. That High City that you see is in another world. Before you climb the path to it and hang your shield on its wall, go down into the valley and fight the dragon that you were sent to fight.”

-Margaret Hodges, Saint George and the Dragon

Who knows where we’ll be called to go under the banner of God’s Kingdom? To the darkest parts of Africa or the glimmering lights of cities who do not know our Savior, or even right back to our own front door. All these adventures we must first embark on before we can truly go home, and when that day comes, every tear shall be wiped away and all that was lost will be refilled with the goodness of God himself.

And I will rejoice to see the MacArthurs right there with me, joining the throng of the church invisible, brought to completion at last.

IMG_2766

9 things that are worth the weight in your rucksack

Every good adventure includes a rucksack. It’s the standard wayfarer’s pack. It’s the modern-day bindle for the millennial yuppie traveling the winding roads between Paris and Rome or Hanoi and Bangkok.

I’m here to tell you that it sucks.

Nothing is worse than a heavy rucksack when you’ve been meandering around for six hours, even at a “slow pace” (and for those who’ve never met my most recent traveling companion, Katka, “slow pace” really means “quick jog or I’m leaving you behind”).

Katka is helping me write this post because it was a shared adventure (“And we both survived”) so the following advice comes from both of us.

Italics are Katka.

“Whatever, there is such heavy censorship here, I bet barely half of what I say is going to make it in.”

So, here are NINE THINGS THAT ARE WORTH THE WEIGHT in your traveling pack.

SNACKS

IMG_0997
Gelato Rose in Budapest. A good decision courtesy of one Cody Quigg.

Traveling is a hungry business. You’ll be tired, you’ll be excited, you’ll find yourself waiting in train stations and at bus stops and you’ll be hungry.

We suggest snacks.

“But not cheese.”

[*Katka would like to clarify that she loves cheese and that she’s upset that I’m not using exact quotes to convey how she feels.]

We packed a bunch of typical Czech snacks in Prague, including several small rounds of hermelin cheese, and stuffed them into the tops of our packs. Our train left at 5 a.m. and we later caught a bus that dropped us off in Bratislava, Slovakia around nine in the morning.

We were tired (probably mostly because we stayed up too late the night before binge-watching TV shows) and hungry. So we took out our Czech pastries, yogurts, crackers and fruit candies and had a veritable feast on a park bench.

As the week progressed, we refilled our snacks several times (the cheese didn’t make it but we didn’t manage to throw it out for an unfortunately long period of time). In Budapest I discovered Kinley Ginger Ale. Katka seemed to find watermelon in every town we stopped in. Sacks of coconut cookies and local candies found their way into our bags, though not for long.

The 2 liter bottle of ginger ale actually lasted quite some time, but, honestly, it was worth the weight.

UNNECESSARY PERSONAL HYGIENE ITEMS

IMG_1050
Katka enjoying the view in Budapest. “Looking dope.” 

The difference between travelers and tourists, they say, is in how much your luggage weighs.

(“Why are you using italics for that? Italics are my thing.”)

A traveler, someone who is going to explore and experience, has no room for things like makeup or hair dryers, they say.

(:Sigh: “Seriously?”)

We’re here to tell you that for your own comfort and peace of mind, it is so worth it to bring an unnecessary personal hygiene item.

“Speak for yourself, lady.”

I brought a curling iron. It’s small and light. I only used it twice. But it was there when I needed it. When did I need it? When Katka rolled out of bed looking like perfection for the fourth day in a row and I was just sitting there collecting dust and flies. So I showered in our rather difficult hostel restroom facilities, let my hair air dry (which took about two seconds in Budapest, or shall I say the fiery pit of hell, and then plugged in my curling iron. Ten minutes and two missing fingers later, I looked like a human again. It was just the pluck I needed to get out and follow Katka’s break-neck pace for another day.

Sometimes travel is exhausting and you need to look your best to feel your best. That’s not being a tourist, that’s being human. Bring the hair dryer.

NICE CLOTHES

IMG_1460
Candles in a cathedral in Vienna. I don’t know which cathedral because I wasn’t paying super close attention and Katka wanted to leave before I could get the pamphlet.

“You know, just this morning I thought of something else we could add to this list, but then I forgot it.”

Anyway.

For the most part, Katka and I couldn’t afford to eat three meals a day on the road, let alone go to nice places to consume nutrients. However, we did splurge once or twice.

We cleaned up and put on pretty skirts and walked around town without looking homeless.

It was lovely.

I think, to experience a city, you have to see the slums and the skyline. Places are orchestras, complete with harmonies in both treble and bass. To only listen to one piece of the melody would be to miss the song completely.

So do your hippie travel thing with your handkerchief scarves and ratty, been-there shoes. It’s a good way to get places.

But a set of nice clothes that you can stash in the bottom of your bag and pull out for a morning church service in the country or an evening in the pretty lights of a city will round out what you see in your travels.

A BOOK

IMG_0886
The Working Man in Bratislava. He and I connected on a real level.

This may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at how strong the urge is to leave it out when you test out your pack for the first time and realize that it weighs roughly that of a small elephant. When you begin pulling things out and asking yourself, “Will I really need this?” the answer to your book is yes.

I brought my copy of Noam Chomsky’s “Who Runs the World,” that I purchased in Iceland’s quaint excuse for an airport this summer. The book is frankly a mess, but it kept me engaged and interested during every lag in our trip.

“Hey, I was the one who kept you engaged and interested. Why do you think I even went along?”

For example, there was this one time when we were waiting for a train in the middle of absolutely nowhere (and by that, I mean Csopak, Hungary). We had 40 minutes and nothing but fields and a pub we couldn’t afford to eat in to keep us occupied.

Katka decided to go exploring. I stretched out on the grass, kicking off my shoes and diving into Chomsky’s oversimplified opinion of world affairs.

For the most part, Katka and I spent every waking minute together, rambling through the countryside and cityscapes of the former Habsburg Empire. But there were moments when we both needed a break from traveling – be it for the sake of our feet, our minds, “Or our mental health” – and during those moments, I’m so glad I was willing to lug around a book.

STUDENT ID

IMG_1521
From the Rose Garden in Vienna.

This may be one of those things you just don’t think to bring, especially if you are on summer break and would like to think about school never, ever again.

However, we would like to proposition the thought that taking advantage of that otherwise useless and bureaucratic piece of plastic may be the best decision you can make as a traveler (assuming, you are in fact a student).

Where did that ID get us? Into museums, onto buses, and into the sympathetic hearts of people hoping a more educated generation will not screw the world up as badly as we’re likely to.

Okay, cynicism aside, the ID was great. And worth stuffing into your wallet.

“I don’t want to say anything about student ID’s. I hate student ID’s. My picture is the stupidest ever and I just want to forget about it.”

RUNNING SHOES

IMG_1383
Hungarian roadside fowers.

I know what you’re thinking, or rather, how hard you’re laughing. Go running? On vacation? Or, like, ever? Ha. Hahahaha.

No.

HOWEVER, running did several important things for us.

“Really? Like what?”

It got us out of our hostel when we weren’t sure what else to do. When it’s hot and sticky and Budapest or Bratislava feels like the inside of a closed honey jar that’s been left out in the sun, it’s easy to think that waiting life out in your hostel is the best possible option.

But pushing yourself through a run will give you a good look at your new city and you’ll probably find the only breeze available (depending on how fast you run, of course. My run is a like a limpy trot, so not a lot of breeze there).

And you’ll cover a lot more ground than you would have otherwise. Go running on the first day. Get a glimpse of what’s out there to see. Then go back and walk through it all later.

“Also, going running will make you feel like a hero. I feel like a hero. And now my legs look nicer.”

HAND SANITIZER

IMG_1332
The view from a shore on Lake Balaton, Hungary.

Like, I shouldn’t even have to be telling you this. Hopefully this is already on your packing list. But if it’s not, it should be. The road is a dirty place and clean water, soap and towels are grossly underappreciated in America because we don’t realize that the rest of the world doesn’t just give them out for free.

So yeah, hand sanitizer.

That’s all I have to say.

(“If you’re Mary, you’ll bring like eight, at least. You always had hand sanitizer. Remember when that one crazy woman spit on you on the bus? And then you like bathed yourself in sanitizer? And people thought you were weird?”)

. . . That’s all I have to say.

SOMETHING FOR A FRIEND

IMG_1143
Katka and I not killing each other in Budapest.

I brought my crazy intense rucksack (“Oh, I thought you were gonna say ‘friend’”) because I am an American and I believe one should go big or go home. This meant that many of Katka’s belongings ended up temporarily or permanently housed in my pack. Things like running shoes, changes of clothes, weird food things and like, a lot of flack for it all.

Occasionally, during our semi-regular spats (which are par for the course when you travel with one person for more than two days), I considered dumping her things into the Danube or giving them to someone homeless and in need.

We’d walk the streets of wherever – Vienna or Brno – not talking because, you know, friendship tensions. (“Friendship tensions? I can’t believe you said that. Rude.”) Katka would be a half-mile ahead of me and I’d be meandering behind at my own jolly pace (carrying the 80 pound rucksack, mind you, darling). The streets would float away beneath my feet like a stream and I just had to keep following. And I realized anew in every city that we probably wouldn’t be getting lost. Because Katka knows what the heck she’s doing. It’s a new feeling for me, to get to follow the leader and not worry about where we’re going or how we’ll get there. In exchange for an extra pound or two of luggage, Katka lifted a huge weight off my mind. It was a fair trade.

“I can’t believe you’re saying nice things about me. Who are you?”

If you can help your travel buddies carry something, it should be the very least you do for them.

A SENSE OF ADVENTURE

IMG_1538
Vienna’s beautiful roses.

We’re interpreting this one broadly. Adventure could be the cheese we left in our bag for three days. It could be the liter of ginger ale we picked up in the Hungarian lake region. It could be wet clothes we repacked because we had no choice (honestly, 90 degrees all week and it rains the one day we decide to do laundry? What is life?). A sense of adventure, where the rucksack is concerned, is a go-with-the-flow kind of attitude and it has as much to do with you as with your pack (obviously).

Throw caution to the winds. Buy the sandwich. (“The sandwich? More like that whole bottle of wine we took down in Budapest.”) Bring the extra shoes. Carry the extra weight because it will make your back stronger and your memories … um, more intense?

It’ll be worth it. We promise.

Lost in Budapest

We rang the doorbell a second time. After bouncing on anxious toes for a minute, we heard the crackly voice of a man over the intercom.

“Hello?”

I raced to the speaker right above the doorbell, both set into the old stone of a doorframe in Budapest, Hungary. It was almost midnight and it was still hot out.

“We have reservations for a room here but our bus was late and we missed check-in,” I said, the words hurrying out on a wave of concern.

“Sorry, hotel is closed,” said the man.

“No, but we have reservations,” I said. I could feel my blood pressure surging.

I’m getting pretty good at traveling. Contrary to what one might think, being good at traveling is not the ability to get from one place to another in a seamless fashion. Rather, it is the ability to remain seamless in composure as one encounters every conceivable disaster that inevitably accompanies leaving one’s comfort zone. Coming to Europe this summer, I was delayed for three hours in an airport, nearly missed a connection in Iceland, almost lost my luggage in Berlin and barely caught my bus to Prague, all while shouldering a 35 pound rucksack (how to pack a rucksack should be a post in itself). But what amazed me was how easy it all was. The last three years must have made me immune to the gut-churning, heart-pounding, eye-watering feeling of being lost (“It should be called being ‘creatively misplaced,’” a friend in Athens once told me). I have been creatively misplaced a lot.

But not having a room to sleep in at midnight in a strange city was a first for me.

There was no response on the intercom so my friend and I assumed he had hung up on us.

Katka and her family agreed to let me stay with them while I’m in Prague. She and I decided to take a week to see parts of Europe neither of us has been to yet.

Bratislava and Budapest

The bus that morning had taken us from a city we both consider home to the neighboring town of Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. Bratislava is nice enough, but it’s not Prague, and by 6:30 that evening we were on another bus headed for Budapest.

This was not a city I ever planned on going to. Three years ago I would have written it off completely (and did, several times), in the hopes of traveling to more refined locations like Rome, Madrid, Dresden, whatever. Budapest sounded like a ragtag city for wandering yuppies.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

-Ernest Hemingway

A little window slid open in the heavy wooden door we were standing beneath letting a broken beam of pale light out into the dark street.

“Hotel is closed, not open till weekend,” said the man from the intercom, who looked as blearily grumpy in person as his voice had suggested.

“But we have reservations,” I said again, a small whimper escaping my chapped lips.

“New hotel. Not open till weekend,” he repeated before shutting the window in our faces and taking with him the only real light on the street.

Katka and I looked at each other. We both enjoy a healthy dose of adventure, but this was a quite a spoonful and there didn’t seem to be anything sweet to help it go down.

We were both hot, sweaty, tired and sore (I’m in the middle of cross country training right now and Katka is making sure I get my miles in, so neither of us can feel our legs, which makes walking a difficulty).

“What do we do now?” asked Katka, her enormously large blue eyes blinking up at me with question and a trace of annoyance.

I had one job. Literally one. Book the hostel.

“Let’s walk back down the street,” I said. “Maybe we missed something.”

Back down the block, past the sleeping bums who had curled up in front of doorways, past the Sir Lancelot night club that seemed to be open but deserted, past the rows of silent trees and silent cars, past two taxi drivers…

Taxi drivers?

Taxi drivers know everything. If I ever decide to take over the world, I’m building my secret service entirely out of taxi drivers and waiters.

Katka doesn’t like taking the lead on talking to people we don’t know (because she’s smart and likely to be the last of the two of us to get kidnapped and murdered), so I walked up to the two men who seemed to be having a comfortable chat, leaning against the side of their cars.

One of them was thin and wiry, dragging on a cigarette, clothes too big for his frame. The other had a beefy belly and thick arms. His eyes seemed much more alert but a lot less kind. Neither seemed dangerous, but that was probably just because they were wearing capris.

IMG_1029

“Hi,” I said, approaching the duo, realizing that this too was something I would not have been comfortable doing three years ago. “We’re looking for our hostel but it’s not here.”

They spoke no English and the only Hungarian I have picked up so far is the word “Yes,” which I’m still fairly certain I’m mispronouncing.

But, like knights with glistening armor and gleaming swords, they came to our rescue. They talked amongst themselves for a moment before the skinny one pulled out his phone and looked up where our hostel should have been. He followed our well-beaten path down to the end of the block, had the same conversation with our grouchy doorman (but this time in Hungarian), and stopped some random guy entering his apartment to ask about the hostel (that dude didn’t speak Hungarian or English and we were all just like, well, okay, great then).

He made several phone calls, pulled up a number of webpages and addresses on his phone, showing me each in turn so I knew what valiant steps he was taking to help us.

Finally back at the taxi, the larger man gave his friend the smile that said, I think it’s cute that you found these two little strays, but you’re going to have to put them back where you found them eventually.

“We should just go to the McDonald’s and get internet,” said Katka. Neither of us have data and we both hate ourselves so much for it.

I offered our hero 1000 HUF (which is like two and half cents in USD, but infinitely cooler than American currency because they’re called forints, guys). He declined rather profusely and we scooted on our way so he could shuffle in the passengers coming up to the car. I hope he had a bumper night. I also hope one day he gets a castle.

The McDonald’s was basically a castle itself. Three floors overlapping each other with balconies and weird jetties decked with tables and booths climbed downward toward the register in center of the building like and inverse Mayan temple.

An unpleasant security guard (and the only unfriendly Hungarian I have met thus far) told us to order food before we used the internet (which, honestly, would have been reasonable to ask if he hadn’t done it with such lip). We got a large orange juice and pulled up our hostel booking.

“Oh no,” I said, feeling my stomach fall through my seat. “Katka, you will not believe what I did.”

“Really?” she said, calmly sipping the orange juice and looking up other hostels in the area. “Because at this point I think I’ll believe anything.”

“I booked the wrong day,” I said. “I guess I didn’t take into account that we wouldn’t be staying overnight in Bratislava. It was so last minute.”

Katka didn’t need excuses or explanations. She needed a place to sleep and a refill on the orange juice. The least I could do was the orange juice.

IMG_1094

When I came back with a second cup, she had found us a place to stay. Because she’s awesome.

“We might as well stay here the whole trip,” she said. “Can you cancel the other booking?”

I did, swallowing bitterly the 19 EUR deposit I had already paid for.

Once more, we shouldered our packs.

Our new digs were pretty nice and right in a lively pub area where lights and faint chatter carry out onto the street late into the night.

When Budapest woke us up the next morning, we were ready to meet it.

Coincidentally, this hostel (LOL Hostel, for those curious) serves the greatest cup of coffee I have tasted on this continent. Ever.

Budapest is beautiful, as can be expected. We lazed around in a Turkish bath for most of the scorching afternoon, found a quaint little spot for lunch, took a couple of pictures. Took a nap.

When the sun went down, Katka and I both strapped on our running shoes and headed down to the river.

We run at different paces (mine being a bit of a wobble at the moment, and Katka’s rather resembling that of a Cheetah racing to take down something small and innocent). I started off well enough, but she passed me quickly. I looked down at my phone and liked my time (I’m on Nike+ Running if anyone wants to add me – let’s race!). I’m learning that we all go at our own pace. If life is a competition, it is only with ourselves.

Around me, the city was aglow with the love-struck fever of summertime. Couples sat along the stone retainer on the river, their feet hanging over the edge. Families strolled along the path that runs along the bank and bikers and backpackers rested their weary limbs on the benches overlooking the water.

Night had transformed the murky green waters of the Danube into hushed currents of dark indigo that reflected lights from the ferries traversing the river between banks of shadows. A tram crossed over the glistening Chain Bridge, each window lit so that as it slid through the dark it looked like a procession of druids floating through the evening. The castle stood above it, still and lustrous.

Budapest surprised me with its beauty, its culture, its sense of self.

I finished my run with a new personal best time (don’t get excited, folks — my personal best is like a quick walk at this point). Katka was waiting for me on the bank of the river, her own run long completed. We both knew our legs would be sore in the morning.

IMG_1323

As a kid, I always wanted to be a traveler. As a teenager, I always wanted to be a runner. It’s taken a long time, but I’m finally turning into a bit of both.

Nothing else of who I am has been what I expected. I was hoping to turn into someone elegant and refined, much like this cities I once wanted to visit. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and wonder how on earth I ended up being this somewhat clumsy, somewhat lost, very self-deprecating anti-romantic with two half jobs and a tattoo. Sometimes I worry that I turned into the wrong person. Why am I not Paris? Why am I not Rome?

Maybe these are the critical musings of every twenty-something as we struggle to meet our own expectations in the face of a reality we hadn’t planned on.

But this week I realized that I am not as afraid as I used to be. I’m not afraid of getting lost, of losing things, of making mistakes. Because I’ve done all that. And this restless wanderer I have turned into has also made me stronger, bolder and insatiably curious.

So I feel a little like Budapest today, and it’s a nice surprise.