The truth about New Years

This time last year I was 16 hours into one of the worst years of my entire life. Sick, exhausted and extremely rumpled, I was lying on a wooden floor in an apartment that belonged to a stranger I hadn’t met yet. My sister Sarah and two Czech friends were making the best of a saggy couch and the German girl with us was nodding off on the edge of an unmade bed. It was a small apartment.

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Berlin ate me whole, that week. For the two-ish days that we were there, I felt miserable, physically and emotionally. The physical I could understand. Sarah and I had stayed up till 3 a.m. the night before to celebrate the new year on the icy flanks of Petřín Hill. We shivered on a wet bench for three hours to watch the city below fade into an ever-growing cloud of smoke till we could no longer see the fireworks that were popping off all around Prague. Our cider tasted like dog food, our jackets were insufficient and both of us are much more comfortable with 10 p.m. bedtimes. Only the countdown, which the crowd around us shouted out in four or five different languages, and the slippery hike through snow and ice back down to the trolleys (during which we were given a free sparkler by someone we didn’t know) redeemed our frigidly wet adventure.

We got up the next morning at 6:30 to catch our bus to Berlin and I was dreading the return to a city I knew loathed my existence.

We have never been friends, Berlin and I.

Our friends met us gleefully that afternoon at the bus stop and fed us waffles. We walked through the confettied, fire-crackered streets. I hadn’t booked a hostel because they promised their Indian friend had room for us at his flat.

He didn’t. I realized this as I rolled in and out of moody consciousness on his hard floor. When I woke up fully, he was sitting on the edge of his bed next to our German friend. As far as first impressions go, I have made better.

He had not been expecting us, but was taking it all in stride. When you’re twenty-something and life throws you a sticky mess and a headache, the answer is nearly always pasta. So we went to the Italian place down the way and procrastinated on our decision about housing.

Sarah began to wane in the seat next to me surrounded by a pile of pizza crumbs and pasta plates and I finally insisted we figure something out.

We didn’t. We just went back to the apartment and watched a Bollywood film. Most of us fell asleep before the film ended and we ended up sprawling over the couches and bed of the very tiny apartment, only to be woken at 6 a.m. to help him clean it so he could get to the airport on time.

By 7 o’clock, we were on our feet and out in the cold again, looking for somewhere to eat.

Over the course of the day, I was dragged from parks to monuments with stores and souvenirs in between. I wanted to die.

The emotional misery I have less of an explanation for. I tried not to be a downer, but I certainly wasn’t maintaining my normal level of cheer. Life is peaks and valleys, and while my peaks are high and often, my lows can be a long, long way down.

Looking back now, the trip is one of my favorite memories from 2015, even if it was dreadful to live through. I think I knew even then that it was a precursor to the twelve months ahead of me, though I couldn’t have known how familiar I would become with the valleys of my mind.

It’s been a year, folks.

Last night, I rang in the new year with friends I didn’t know six months ago, people who have become very dear to me. There was a lot of bitterness in my voice when I said farewell to 2015, but I don’t think there should have been.

This year has shaped me. Sometimes I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself. If I hadn’t been there the whole time, I may not have believed just how much I have changed.

I am so anxious about the next twelve months. Actually, for the first time ever, I am so anxious about the rest of my life. I am no longer the girl with the plan, another part of the aftermath of 2015.

I decided as I drove home last night in the early hours of a year in the making that I wouldn’t be scared this time. To live in Christ is to live boldly. If I truly believe that there is a God who created me with a purpose and has a plan for my life, why should I be anxious?

We make promises for the new year, like going to the gym, drinking more water, reading more books. The goal isn’t to drink more or read more, the goal is to become healthier and to broaden our minds.

My goal is not to be unafraid, but rather that my lack of fear will be a reflection of my conscious decision to trust the Lord with my future every day this year, just as he has taken care of my past.

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Berlin was not kind to me, but if I could go back and choose to avoid our first few meetings, I wouldn’t. It uniquely prepared me for a journey I did not realize would ask so much of me.

If 2016 is another 2015, I won’t complain. I don’t need the years to be better if I am the one changing.

Things I’m thankful for in 2015

Spending the last two Thanksgivings away from home was one of the hardest parts of being an expat. Christmas is fairly universally celebrated, at least in Europe. But Thanksgiving is the American holiday. Like, good luck even finding a turkey.

Suffice it to say, I’m happy to be back home this November.

When you come home, everything has to be discovered again. Roads are revisited. The running path in the park has to be beaten into by feet it has long-forgotten. Crisp skies and the San Diegan winter introduce themselves again. And while it takes some getting used to, meeting the familiar as if they were strangers, the upside to “coming home” has been seeing with new eyes all these things I once took for granted.

This Thanksgiving I have a lot to be thankful for.

  • Mexican food – Los Panchos, Lolita’s, Chili’s. I have missed real spices, real beans, real tortillas, real rice and real avocadoes. I waited a long time for this fiesta.
  • Hand sanitizer – You may think I am crazy – and I am – but hand sanitizer makes my life 100 percent more manageable. And if it’s not the little things, it’s not anything.
  • A nephew – As if this needs an explanation.
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  • My 14-year old brother – More specifically, my 14-year old brother who ties his own ties, speaks primarily in a deep Scottish brogue and has a running playlist of Irish folk music on nearly all the time. Dear sir, I love you.
  • Water fountains – I’m sorry, but I can’t get over this one. Free water. Everywhere. This is America.
  • Sunday mornings – Every single Sunday morning as we drive to church, as our car crests the big hill on Sweetwater road and Mt. Miguel comes into view, my dad will say softly, “Doesn’t our mountain look great today?” as if it has always belonged to us. Then he’ll say a prayer as the car winds beneath the evergreens towards our little church. Every Sunday.
  • My 12-year old sister – Thank you for letting me borrow your clothes.
  • “Jacket weather” – I know San Diego doesn’t have frosted forests and white-tipped steeples, but it’s nice having to put a jacket on after the sun’s gone down. Like, yes, we do have cold-ish weather.
  • My Dad – When we drive somewhere and he breaks the conversation to say, “How many shades of green do you think are in those trees?” When he engages in a pun war or a game of Boggle and reminds us all what happens when you subscribe to Webster’s online dictionary ‘Word of the Day.’ When he suggests watching Disney cartoons on Saturday nights. When he believes in the plans God has for me even when I struggle to believe them myself.
  • The Sun newsroom staff – I never expected the welcome I was given here. I never expected to feel so immediately part of a family again. God has been so gracious in putting you all in my life. And you have been gracious in putting up with my “Marydowns.” I thank you. And P.S. — there is no Thanksgiving like a Sunsgiving, is there?
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  • The radio – You guys have no idea. Two years without a radio nearly killed me. I was like, this close.
  • Turkey – I’m all about that baste.
  • Friends who stay in touch – It’s hard to sit down and write a letter or make time for a skype call when life throws you into the current of the everyday madness. I love my friends who freely give me precious pieces of their time.
  • Rachel Platten – Don’t you dare judge me.
  • Opportunity – Trying to figure out what to do next with my life has been the ongoing challenge of this year, but I’m thankful to live in a country where I can make that choice. Where it isn’t made for me by other people, by the government or by my circumstances.
  • Immigrants – All my great-grandparents on my mom’s side are immigrants. They came over in the 1920s and ‘30s, some to a country where they did not know the language. They faced poverty, fear of the unknown and futures full of terrible possibility. They shaped this country with their lives. And because they lived, I live. Irish and Italian immigrants were heavily discriminated against when my great grandparents first came to America. Today, that mantel of mistrust and fear is born by other people groups. I am thankful for them, too. Thankful that they’ve been able to come to the safe harbor of our golden shores, and I hope that they will help us make our country better. I hope that we never become so fearful as a people that we close our doors to our brothers and sisters around the world, that we wouldn’t be willing to risk our own personal comfort to help the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
  • God – How can I not mention my Lord and Savior? When I have felt most lost this year, when I have felt most empty, when I have felt most fearful, He has been there, for He is the greatest Comforter. What a Prince of Peace.

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I’d forgotten about this.

I’d forgotten that there’s a physical adjustment period when you move somewhere new and your immune system is hit with a host of little bugs it hasn’t had to deal with before and it has a meltdown (not unlike the ones I have on a semi-regular basis). It packs a bag, grabs the last of your dignity, and says, “See ya’, pal. I’m checking out.”  

I tucked my legs in the space between the seat and the airplane window, wishing I could figure out how to my make seat recline, and sneezed pathetically into a goopy paper towel.  

All things considered, it’s been worse. The first time I went to college I got Whooping Cough. Twice. I was basically sick for an entire year. This I attributed mostly to jumping from 18 years of being home schooled (where the few germs that missed Mom’s weekend bleaching routine were basically on a first-name basis with us kids already anyway) to spending 10 hours a day on a public campus.

Then I moved to Europe two years ago and spent another 10 months with violent fevers and a perpetual cough. My neighbors told me it was the weather – always wet, always cold. My Czech friends told me it was probably just that I wasn’t used to European germs yet. My fellow teachers told me that this happens to most first-timers who haven’t yet built up their immunity to the biological minefield that is a Middle School. It was probably a bit of everything.

Three weeks into the semester and I’m remembering now. . . The American Germ Association has had two years to regroup in my absence and they’re throwing me quite a ‘welcome home’ bash.

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Coming in over San Francisco was breath-taking (not that I had much left to spare). Soupy clouds spilled out around the feet of the mountains that stuck out into the bay in jagged, broken lines. A patchwork of marshes, flats and waterlines rolled away beneath us as the plane lowered in elevation. To our left, a Delta flight was descending in sync with us. Sometimes we were ahead, sometimes we were behind, but the sleek airliner never left the small frame of my window, finally touching down on the runway four seconds before our own wheels thumped onto the solid ground of San Francisco’s airport tarmac.  In my head, I counted down the minutes standing between me and my nephew.

My phone buzzed with alerts as I turned it back on. People following up on school assignments, someone inviting me to a concert, a friend asking me about my thoughts on the Syrian conflict.

Coughing and sneezing, I inched my way into the aisle, avoiding eye-contact with the guy who had asked me earlier which seat I was in, to which I had replied, “Number A” (You are in college, Mary. You know ‘A’ is not a number).

I stared at the BART map for ten minutes (unable to find the very clearly labeled SFO airport), before buying a twenty dollar ticket and asking someone how to get to Berkeley. In the haze of my exhaustion-wracked mind, directions weren’t processing well and I ended up halfway to Bay Point before realizing I had missed a connection.

To add to the general stress of things, because having your lungs leak out of your nose in public isn’t traumatizing enough, I forgot to add money to my pre-pay account this month, so my phone wasn’t doing so hot. Between me, my immune system, and my poverty-stricken phone, we were one miserable mess on the Richmond-bound train.

Deborah picked me up at the train stop with a hug and a baggy of homemade cookies (at least one of us is figuring out adult life). Her son (my incredible, adorable, perfection-incarnate nephew) giggled at me from the back seat of the car. He is eleven months old but we have been acquainted for only the last two. It’s a budding friendship.

I told Deborah bits and pieces about the trip (she was curious to know why I was so late and hadn’t called her, etc), but the desire to breakdown in the comfort of her clean car with a mouthful of cookie seemed out of place. Perhaps part of me was still enjoying the gentle rocking and sweeping views from the train window, perhaps I was just too sick to care anymore. I like to think that a small piece of me still hasn’t given up on the struggle to one day turn into a real adult.

I remember the night Ilias was born. I was still in Prague – nine hours ahead of the rest of my family. He actually graced our planet with his presence in the morning, I’m told. But past the first message or two that he was officially on his way, I didn’t end up on the loop of family text messages that were circling space for several hours. That happens when you live on a different continent. No hard feelings, fam.

He’s the first grandbaby in the family and we’re all a little twitterpated.

After waiting patiently for about six hours, I finally sent several pathetic messages to various family members, begging for information. My own evening had stretched on past my usual bedtime in the hopes that I’d know something for sure before going to sleep.

My brother-in-law sent me a quick note with Ilias’ weight and time of birth. Family filled me in on the details in waves over the next few hours, but I was already asleep. All I had needed to know was that first assurance that a new life was in the world.

I find it amazing how much a baby makes the world seem bigger and brighter, like the road is open and endless.

We got back to Deborah’s apartment just before noon – the train station was only about a ten minute drive away. Her husband is a student at Berkeley and the family-oriented neighborhood they live in off campus is packed with children riding tricycles and young parents bouncing fussy babies to sleep along the winding sidewalks.

Deborah gave me something from the medicine cabinet for my fever and I collapsed on a bed for several hours.

I think I needed that nap, regardless of the coughing, semi-comatose state that I was already in. I barely had time to get settled at home before I lept into community college courses and coaching commitments. I went from getting up at 5:30 to teach darling little Czech children every morning to waking up at 5:30 to drool in pre-dawn college classes every morning. (Not a fair trade, in my mind). I’ve spent weeks figuring out San Diego’s bus system, countless days trying to put my finances in order, and at least an hour and a half wondering what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life. Like, at least.

It’s hard, not knowing what happens next. There is a huge (mostly self-inflicted) pressure not to waste the life you have and there are so many things to do. How is one supposed to pick just one direction? Especially when one still struggles to follow basic directions on a color-coded transit map?

I came back to America and realized how few people know about the Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Europe. I was bombarded with two years of pop culture that I missed while away and I found it shallow and embittering. And I am still blown away by the phenomenon that is the American Drinking Fountain. FREE, CLEAN WATER and it’s EVERYWHERE!

I want to be useful. But with a world that needs so much help, where does one even begin? What could I really do? So I dig wells in Africa. So I teach English in Asia. So I work in orphanages or hospitals or poor houses. So what? Tomorrow will bring another drought, another war, another problem. And I won’t be there then.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give my body over to hardship that I may boast, but have not love, I gain nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:3

Admittedly, and this is important, the desire to help others is inherently selfish. The urge to do great things is born from a very small need to have value. To be needed is to have purpose. And to have purpose is in a tiny way to keep yourself from disappearing into the vastness of time.

At one point last week I found myself sitting on the edge of the living room coffee table, crying into my hands as my Dad looked on helplessly from behind his book. (He should basically be used to this by now, but I think he may have expected me to be past this particular mode of expression by this point).

“I just want to be useful,” I blurted out. Between shaking fingers, I clutched several torn-up pieces of paper with lost opportunities inked into their margins. I may pretend like I’m living the hobo dream, but it’s really just to disguise how badly it hurts to walking barefoot and blinded down a road you don’t know.

“You will be useful,” my Dad reassured me simply. He would know, I imagine. Who can spend their evenings reading the short stories of James Harriot and not know that life will eventually work itself out.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a real nap. I woke up to the flushed-red feeling of a broken hibernation and the sounds of my sister chattering away somewhere nearby. Navigating myself through their tiny apartment, I found her on the patio with a phone to her ear and a child on her knee. She was talking with our brother and Ilias was chewing on a basil leaf.

“Yeah, she’s here,” Deborah said. “She finally woke up.”

I grinned. I have a bad habit of visiting my siblings and spending most of the trip asleep in various corners of their respective abodes. This brother had an especially comfortable bean bag…

Berkeley is much cooler than San Diego right now. The Bay Area is chillin’ around the mid-seventies, which is a lot more reasonable than the sweltering crock pot that is currently my home town, thank you very much.

Deborah wrapped up the phone call as Ilias crawled his way into my lap. We both sat on the concrete beside the sliding door to the small, square patio, his little hands tugging at my bigger ones. I hope I don’t get you sick, pal, I thought. (Spoiler: I did).

“Ready for dinner?” Deborah asked, picking up the toddler clinging to my shirt and leading the three of us inside. She’s a good mom to all of us.

As my sister chopped and peeled and washed and simmered things in a chorus of perfectly timed kitchen-esque pirouettes, I grabbed the little guy and took him outside. Beyond the knee-high wooden gate circling their small patio, over the cold sidewalk, our barefeet found a patch of green grass with dandelions.

Ilias sat between my knees as I picked one flower after another. He’d crumpled the gifts between his chubby fingers and let the lacy seeds grab onto tendrils of the Autumn breeze and lift off, leaving us on the earth below.

Afternoon sighed one last warm breath before fading into a silver evening with cool winds and rustling leaves. The pale light brushed through our baby’s hair and he smiled as a handful of dandelion tufts left his palm in a flurried dance onwards and upwards.

The sunshine stroked my face softly and I thanked God for Vitamin D.

I remembered the night he was born. How immense and beautiful our futures had suddenly seemed because he was in them.

It’s easy to get lost in the mire of tragedies that carpet the world over. It’s easy to fall into despair, to lose your road, to lose your faith. It’s easy to see yourself as a dandelion – here and then gone in the impossibly fast skip of a heart beat. And as a dandelion, what can you really accomplish anyway?

But Ilias makes the world look different to me. He has great grandparents from Europe, from America and from the Middle East. His ancestors are a collage of stories from varied points around the globe. Some had harder lives than others. Some ended in joy, others in sadness. But would any of them have guessed that a hundred years after their own births, a little boy with twinkling eyes and an ineffable grin would sit on the grass beside the San Francisco Bay? A boy with an entire life of opportunities ahead of him.

No, just a life. A life that is his.

A friend of mine reminded me today that growing up is a gift denied to many.

I’ve never really cared for the idea of growing up – especially since I’ve not proved to be particularly good at it. But it is a gift.

Every breath that comes from lungs which pump air with blood that races from warm hearts to warm hands, every flicker of light that dilates our eyes, every sound that sends melodies ringing through our souls, it’s all a gift we don’t deserve.

We will help. We will find ways to save the world, one day at a time.

I hate to say it, but love is the answer. The love of a mother, a neighbor, a friend. The love of a God who sent His Son to die for a people who refuse to love Him back.

There is a change that is lasting, a water that doesn’t dry up, a shelter from the fray. The love of God.

My Dad would know better than anyone that heroes are not always the people who slay the biggest dragons. That being useful can mean spending your life as someone small and unnoticed in the same corner of the world you were born in. For that matter, my sister knows this too. They are the ones who teach and build, live and learn and die. They are the ones who love. They are the dandelions, spreading pieces of themselves across a vast period of time, planted deep within the hearts and minds of those around them. And even though they may seem to disappear in the wind, they will grow again.

Broken Heights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had my doubts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you don’t know what bouldering is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I burst into tears.

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

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

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

I opened my Bible to the Psalms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And His hands are not our own.