confessions of a ragdoll athlete

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

Hebrews 12:1-3

javelin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then it all unraveled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I promised I would.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s the foot coming?” he asked me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The breath in my lungs vanished.

“And hurdles? Or the 400?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

No answer. It was just me and the grass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My heart stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you got back up! You finished!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Do we get to keep these?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10

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

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

 

Mary vs the javelin


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

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Me and the javelin.

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

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

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

I knew what was in this box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immediately, Sarah and Serena were at my side.

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

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

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

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

“Scratch,” said Serena. “Try again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Warming up.

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

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

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

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

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

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Picking with my Lady Jags.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It stuck! Coach, I’ve got a mark!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

what I have learned as a college athlete

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“Hold still, Mary,” Ernesto said as he adjusted the lens of his very spiffy camera. “This is the last time I bring you a pumpkin spice latte before the photoshoot.”

I was jittery.

Cold sunlight was just beginning to break over the concrete tips of the football stadium and where we stood on the red and gold turfed endzone it was still chilly. My cross country uniform wasn’t doing much for warmth and the PSL hadn’t settled my nerves the way we had both hoped it would.

“I just feels weird,” I said as Ernesto finished setting up the lighting tripod. “The whole team is wearing this uniform right now because they’re at an actual race, and here I am with the uniform on getting my photo taken like a fake, wanna-be athlete.”

“The school thanks you,” said Ernesto crisply. He works for the PR department and was doing a favor for his latest project. We’ll see in a few months how much I’m going to regret it.

“What’s it like anyway?” he asked me, adjusting some knobs on his camera and then directing me to stand closer to the lighting pod.

He must think it’s odd, watching me make the transition from fully-fledged nerdling to almost-athlete. Those are two different worlds and we’ve both spent a long time in one, giving quizzical looks at the other.

“I mean,” I paused. “It’s different. I’ve been injured for most of it so it’s hard to say.”

“What have you been learning?” he asked as he directed me into position. “Tilt your head. Besides running, of course. Hand on your hip. Or do they even teach you that? What do they do? What do you do at practice? Okay, too much hip, Mary. Calm down.

I let him push me around from this angle to that and thought about his question. What have I been doing? What have I been learning?

It’s a question that has followed me into every practice, every ice bath, every hot shower, every evening class I sit through with nothing but food and sleep on my mind. And, eight short weeks later, as I sat on a sunny slope in Irvine, the bib number from my very last race still pinned to my jersey, it was there still.

For weeks since then, I have tried to write everything down. I’ve tried to explain what this season has meant to me. And I can’t. There just aren’t words for it.

So instead, for the sake of just finally getting this off my chest, I’m going to answer Ernesto’s question as best I can in just a few highlights.

As a nerd, trying to be an athlete, this is what I’ve learned from one semester of college cross country.

Firstly, ice is amazing.

Ice is the great healer. Pulled a muscle? Ice it. Feeling sore? Ice it. Shin splints? Ice it. Break a leg? WHY DO YOU KEEP GETTING INJURED? GET YOURSELF TOGETHER, KID!

I have been injured so much this semester, so I would know. It’s painful, strapping an ice pack to your leg for twenty minutes or immersing your body in a frigid whirlpool till your skin is all red and numb. But I guess sometimes the healing process requires a little pain before the gain. And there is so much to gain.

Secondly, the “Dumb Jock” stereotype is a lie.

My grades have really taken a hit this semester. ‘A’s used to come so easily to me. This semester I’m relieved if I pull out a ‘B’. I used to think that athletes who were allowed to slide by with ‘C’s were just “dumb jocks” – probably just laziness or poor priorities or too many hits to the helmet region. I was wrong. It’s hard to be a student athlete! It’s not just that you’re losing three to four hours every day for practice that you could be using to do homework or study, it’s that after practice, all you want to do is eat and sleep! I don’t think I’ve been awake for a full biology lecture all semester and I spend half of Spanish class distracted by how hungry I am. I eat all the time and I feel like I should be sleeping a lot more than I have time to.

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Exhausted after a race.

Last week, I heard some of the football guys talking about how stupid they all were. I turned immediately and reminded them that anyone who balances athletics and academics is superhuman and they should all be super proud of themselves. Someone had to say it.

Thirdly, every second counts.

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Sprinting the finish of the Pacific Coast Conference Championship.

After every race this season, I have spent the next several days reliving each moment, trying to scrape out the missing seconds. Where could I have gone faster? Where could I have pushed harder? The obvious truth is that every step of the race matters. This becomes painfully clear when you look at winning times separated by fractions of seconds. You think, why didn’t he just push a little harder during mile two? Why didn’t she concentrate on her technique a little more – over the course of a 5K, that would have made a winnable difference!

Learning this lesson on the course has been brutal, but applying it to life has become a joy for me this semester. Details mean a lot in the real world too. If every day is a long run that you have to get through, technique becomes important and it is produced by force of habit and continual concentration. Things like being nice to people. Assuming the best. Trying your hardest. If remembering to pace your breathing gives you an extra edge on your race, appreciating the pina-colada scented shampoo in the girls’ locker rooms is the extra edge your day needs. So are fresh towels and packed lunches and Sergio, the rubber ducky who floats in the ice baths in the trainer’s room. Little things make a winnable difference.

Fourthly, the human body is literally just so cool.

I eat a lot these days. I have portioned out a part of my budget for protein bars and gatorade and calcium supplements. I fastidiously pack lunches every night. I stretch. I do yoga. I sleep literally whenever life doesn’t insist on my being conscious. The harder I run, the more I realize where and how my body needs to be strengthened. And I think that’s pretty cool. Despite the injuries, despite the exhaustion and the extra work of trying to care for this body that I’m running into the ground, the decrepitation has been delightful. God gave me this amazing body that functions like a machine – the better the materials I put in, the better the product that comes out. I don’t take it for granted anymore when all my muscles and joints work, when nothing hurts. I don’t take it for granted that I can run right now. What a precious gift, to have a body that allows me to do that.

Fifthly, ego is not your friend.

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You may have picked up on the fact that I’ve been injured most of the season. I don’t know, maybe I’ve mentioned it a few times.

I’m super competitive and I joined Cross Country to compete. And I compete to win. It’s not like I’m expecting first place (though that is always what I aim for, and I’ve had visions of crossing the finish line for a first place medal since June), but my “reasonable target” was to make the top twenty in a race. I need about a seven-minute mile for that. With hard work and blood and sweat and tons of tears (because it’s me, and I cry over everything), I thought a seven-minute mile was doable.

Well guess what. It’s not actually super doable if you spent the whole season sitting on ice packs in the trainer’s room.

This season has not lived up to my hopes for what it could be. Mostly because when I am able to run with the team, I’m not fit enough to keep up with them, and I’m always nursing an injury so I haven’t been able to chase after their times.

This has been one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned this season. My ego – my desire to be running with the front of the pack – will not help me win a race and it will not help me heal my legs. Why? Because ego is what stands between you and the critique you need from a coach to improve. Ego is what stands between you and the rest you need to power up. Ego is what stands between you and the people who could be your friends, friends you will need when the race gets tough and the season gets long.

Let passion be your fuel, and wisdom your coach, and leave your ego off the field. There is no place for it here.

Sixthly, everyone has a voice inside their head.

The few times this season I have been functioning well enough to join in team practices have been the few times we have been doing the most ridiculous workouts. Sprinting up the football stadium’s sixteen stairwells for forty-five minutes (that’s how I got my second injury this season. Goodbye soleus!), 500 meter sprints, Indian runs, etc. I think that’s when I began to appreciate how hard Cross Country really is. It’s not just running. It’s not just endurance. It’s not just toning and speed and technique. Cross country is a mind game, and you can be prepared for the distance, the heat, the waves of competition, but you cannot begin to understand the battle that will happen in your mind until you’ve been in it. This incredibly loud, convincingly desperate voice will tell you to hold back, to take it easy, to give it your all next time, to stop, to quit, to give up. It will tell you that you cannot do it. You must prove it wrong.

Seventh-ly? They’re not kidding about team bonding.

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Picture day! Trying out our new uniforms for the first time.

It’s hard to explain the dynamic of team spirit. It sounds like such a cliche. I never would have thought that genuine friendship could actually infuse strength and energy into a team, but it does. As soon as we all started making an effort to get to know each other, to spend time together outside of practice, to invest in each other, our times started improving. Our energy picked up. Our drive improved. It was like, suddenly, instead of being alone on the course, there were these forces of goodwill pulling me along, insisting that I believe in myself, because they do.

There has not been a single day this season when someone from the team hasn’t come up alongside me and shown me what it means to be a teammate. Sergio taught me how to spit while I’m running. Janet taught me how to breath properly. Jesse taught me to fight through the injury. Cristal taught me to keep pushing. Joe taught me how to pull my shoulders back. Agustin taught me how to open my stride. Melissa has beaten self-confidence into me with a horsewhip and then given me a good kick just to make sure it sticks. And everyone else has just been there, every day, all season.

So I make time for the outings. They want to go play laser tag on Saturday or carb up at a restaurant before a race? Count me in. Weekend runs? Let’s do it. Heck, they even talked me into getting a Snapchat, which I more or less regret. But there’s just not a lot I wouldn’t do for these guys. They’re my team. They’re the first one I’ve really ever had. And they mean a lot to me.

Lastly, disappointment and failure are not the same.

This season feels like a disappointment to me. When I first thought about joining the team in March of last year, I had visions of being competitive, of being a dark horse coming from nowhere to sweep up. All summer long, I trained nearly every day, despite travel and extensive time-commitments. And the more I ran, the clearer I could see myself crossing the chalky white finish line to take first. I’ll be honest, a lot of what I saw myself accomplishing may not have actually been physically possible, but I’ve always had my head a bit in the clouds. I may still be telling people I just wanted to be in the top 20, but I wanted first. I compete to win.

So the string of injuries, the missed races, the increasingly frustrating practices made for a long, sad season. And up until the last moment of the last race, I still had my sights set on qualifying for state. As a team, we had qualified for the Southern California Championship, and as we warmed up in the foggy morning, the other girls joked about blowing their times so we wouldn’t have to go to Fresno in two weeks. So many better things to do with a weekend.

“No don’t,” I whimpered, even though I knew they were mostly kidding. “I need you guys to qualify or I won’t be able to go!”

The girls laughed, but I could hear they were tired. They were at the end of a long season, one of many they had had. This was my one and only, and I had only been able to race half of it.

“Qualify as an individual,” they told me. “You only have to be in the top hundred.”

So from the moment the starting signal sounded to the last pounding beat of my heart as I crossed the finish, I argued with that voice in my head. I want this, I said. I want this as much as the girl in front of me. I want it more than she does. I want to go to Fresno.

I finished tenth from the bottom.

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Disoriented after finishing my last race, I was escorted from the finish line to a water table where I promptly threw up behind a nearby tree. What a way to finish.

Coach walked up to me with a smile on his face and said, “Well, did you have fun?” And that’s when I knew my season was over. And this incredible sinking feeling clamped onto my stomach and it hurt.

It hurt because I fell so far from where I had hoped to land. But it also hurt because the end of this season means the end of this time I’ve had as a college athlete, and I have so loved every minute.

Maybe thinking I could jump into college sports was a ridiculous notion. Maybe seeing myself as a state champion was laughable. And maybe the disappointment and the gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing frustration and heartbreak of this season could have been avoided if I had been realistic from the start.

Why did I even join Cross Country? I thought to myself on that sunny hillside in Irvine, the race finished. I had walked away from the rest of the team, sat down on the edge of the course, and stared out at the big, empty hills in front of me. Ernesto’s question from early September still simmered in the back of my mind. At least this time I wasn’t just wearing the jersey for a photoshoot.

How short the season has been.

I shook my head. It’s easy to feel sorry about the outcome. Easy to fall into despair. Easy to feel like I have nothing but disappointment, foolish hopes and a couple of big “I told you so’s” coming my way. But I know better.

This season of running has challenged me. The struggles with injury have pushed my boundaries, opened me up to new possibilities, helped me forge friendships and inspired me to levels of humility I didn’t know existed. The pursuit of this unachievable goal has driven me to the peaks of self-mastery and instilled in me patience and persistence. The failures, setbacks and losses have taught me kindness and empathy, and I am stronger for it.

I may spend the rest of my life on a continuous wave of disappointments, but this season has taught me for certain that I am a better person for having chased impossible dreams.

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Mary vs. Olympic shoulder angels

Forty thousand feet in the air and my mind was tracing a dirt path on the ground in worn out sneakers. Over and over again, I saw myself round the track, hit the final grass stretch before the finish line and blaze into a first place medal. Not even the turbulence could stop me.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything competitively. My last high school speech and debate tournament was an unmitigated disaster (by my own standards, at least). I was second in the State going into that national tournament. I finished somewhere in the teens. After the awards ceremony, all my friends went out to watch the fireworks over Mission Bay. I just stood there and cried, colors bleeding down my face and across the black bay water. I was so disappointed. Six years of pushing myself towards this one goal and I had fallen short.

I don’t often feel defeated because I’m not a quitter, and as Babe Ruth says, it’s hard to beat a man who never gives up. But that night, I felt defeated. I felt defeated for a long time.

Needless to say, I am nothing if not over competitive.

I stopped competing formally in college. Too busy to join the debate team. Then life and work and the real world kicked in and I never had a chance to go back to anything that might put me on a path towards a podium and a medal.

Not till this summer.

As some may know, I have been working as a sports reporter for nearly a year, and it has been brought to my attention that I may broaden my abilities as a journalist in this field if I actually had some experience in athletics (which I don’t, unless you count some intense games of ultimate frisbee, or that summer my church insisted on playing volleyball every Wednesday and I was named the MVP for the opposing team three weeks in a row).

So I signed up for the cross country team. They spent this summer training. I spent the summer in Europe. Aware that I would need to keep pace with everyone, I asked the coach for some things to practice while I was traveling around.

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Running through Czech forests, summer 2016.

In Prague, in Budapest, on the silver shores of Lake Balaton, Hungary and in the majestic mountains of Šumava, Czech Republic, I ran. I did 300 meter sprints that nearly killed me, again and again. I raced up hills. I ran for miles through forests. I’d get up before my friends to finish my workouts so we could spend the day together. I ran my way through Europe.

Coincidentally, I also ran my way into a bit of a hamstring problem.

One night at the English Camp I volunteered at, we watched “Chariots of Fire” (everyone was getting pumped for the Olympics two weeks down the road and Chariots of Fire is like, the greatest Olympic movie of all time).

Irish missionary Eric Liddell and self-made man Harold Abrahams are running these 100 meter sprints in ten seconds and because I’ve been doing sprints all summer, I know just how ridiculous that is to do. You guys have no idea how long 100 meters is when you’re running hard.

I really relate most to Abrahams. He has an intensity I resonate with when it comes to winning. He lives and breathes competition, so much so that the anxiety and the pressure of it seems to shake him to his core, but it’s what drives him forward too. And although he has something to prove to everyone else, you just know he really just needs to prove it to himself.

But when I would be in cold sweats outside a semifinal round, it was Liddell my dad would remind me of as I wrung my hands and paced the floor. Dad loved Liddell’s quote about God making him fast and that when he ran he could feel God’s pleasure.

That was Dad’s way of reminding me that I do what I’m good at not to prove that I’m good at it, but because when I exercise my God-given strengths, God is glorified in it.

In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.”

― Eric Liddell

By the time I touched down in the USA this summer, my leg and I were not on speaking terms.

I stretched, I iced, I ran again, because I am not a quitter. And because I didn’t know what else to do. Coach wants us to be at 12 miles by the time the season starts and I can barely manage eight.

Sitting on my sister’s couch, watching the Olympics and sitting on an ice pack, I thought to myself, I want to feel that thrill. Not even the thrill of winning, just of getting to compete again.

“Are you going to see someone about your leg?” my sister asked.

“Naw,” I said, shifting on the ice-pack under my thigh. “It’ll get better.”

Besides, I had other things to worry about.

All new athletes have to get a physical from the school medical staff. I showed up with like 50 wanna-be football players and spent the day having my blood pressure taken, my weight measured, my balance examined and my eyesight checked. It was all rather new and glamorous to me. I’ve never felt so cared about by strangers. This must be what being a princess feels like.

“You’re 5’11,” said a nurse measuring my height.

I gaped at her. There’s just no way I’m 5’11, ma’am.

“Let me see that,” I said, bending over her petite shoulder to see the chart. The stocky jock behind me snorted.

“Can I have a few of those inches?” he asked.

I’d trade, I thought as I walked to the last examination station. Thirty of us waited in a crowded line in the sun for the examination. Behind me, several football players were making some low-key cat calls (I’d like to assume they were directed at me, but they were probably intended for the blonde soccer girls a few heads in front of where I was). The guys were rowdy. The day was warm. And I was tired of standing on my bad leg.

But I was just so excited to be in this new, seemingly glamorous world of athletics that I didn’t even care. Also, I’m not a quitter.

We must have waited in that line for half an hour, and by the end of it, I’d been invited onto the football team as an honorary member (they said they needed a kicker).

Then it was my turn. I was almost done. So close to having everything I needed. Just one quick sit-in with the doctor and I would be finished!

She checked my vitals and said some friendly things that I don’t remember. Then she looked at my chart and asked, “Have you had chest pains during exercise this summer?”

Yes, I had checked that box. It was just once, I explained to her, right after that first round of horrible sprints in the summer heat. Just an ache. Only lasted a few minutes. No big deal. I’m not a quitter.

“You’re going to need to get an EKG before we can clear you,” she said.

My heart sank.

Instead of getting out of there, I found myself in another series of lines to have my insurance checked, my medical history reviewed, and my options clarified.

During the process, we discovered that I was one academic unit short of eligibility.

“To compete, you need to be a full-time student,” they told me. “You need 12 units. You have 11.”

My mind roared in frustration. How was I supposed to find another unit? I’m about to transfer! I have no classes left to take! And where am I going to find the time (or the money) for another class? I’m already working two jobs and I’ll be training all afternoon every day. Most of my night classes don’t end till 10 p.m. anyway.

I left with a piece of blue paper that had the number of a clinic in Chula Vista, a printout of my current class schedule (11 units circled in red) and a few fraying threads of my resolve to do cross country. I could feel my hamstring wincing all the way up the stairs to the parking lot.

But I’m not a quitter.

I spent a week trying to set up an appointment for that EKG. I found a 7 a.m. yoga class (which is full, but I am on the waitlist and I’m ruthless. So…). I also started going to the neighborhood hot tub to soak my leg (which is some mighty dedication to recovery, given the 90 degree temperature we’ve been scorched with this month).

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Hiking to church with the fam-bam, August 2016.

On Sunday, we hiked to church for evening service. My dad has done this periodically since we were kids. If the afternoon is too restless, we walk to church. A good way to simmer down before worship. And truly, one of the prettiest corners of San Diego you’ll ever see, especially in the golden stretches of evening.

It’s only two and a half miles and we were only walking, but when we got to the church, my hamstring was practically singing. I tried stretching it out a little with no luck. Fighting back the urge to cry, I washed the dust off my face in the bathroom sink and went to find a seat with my family in the sanctuary.

On Monday, I still hadn’t heard back from the doctor regarding my EKG, and now my coach was sending me emails asking if I had been cleared to run yet. I called up the receptionist again (who knows me by name now because I have called her every day for a week and a half). She said she’d personally inform the head nurse of my message.

It’s been a long summer and I felt myself running out of steam. I just wanted to compete again. How hard could this possibly be?

“Maybe God is closing this door?” my pastor said gently. I’m sure it would have been a helpful nudge to anyone less of a hardhead than myself. When people tell me I can’t, the Harold Abrahams in me rises up to say, Oh yes I can!

It’s possibly one of my worst qualities and has gotten me into more than one traffic citation.

“Why not just drop this?” my dad asked.

“I can’t,” was all I could think to say back.

Why not? Because I spent my whole summer abroad training for this when I could have been sleeping in or hanging out with my friends a little more. Because I can basically feel the blood shooting through my veins when I even think about running competitively, vying for a medal, aiming to win at something again. And because the idea of coming back to San Diego to compete in cross country this fall was one of the only things that soften the very difficult goodbye when I had to leave Prague again this summer.

I really needed to be able to do this.

So there I was, lying on the ground with my mind up in the air, somewhere floating around the sewage of lost dreams and abandoned ideas. I felt very much in a haze, the way Abrahams looks when he’s lost a race (which he doesn’t do often, and frankly, neither do I).

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All iced up in the field house at school, a week before the start of the fall semester, 2016.

All the anxiety built up on being able to compete and win was taking the fun out of running. And running is something that I have always loved to do.

Eric Liddell sat down next to me, taking the fuming Abrahams’ place. “God made me fast, and when I run, I can feel his pleasure.”

More prone to turn God-given abilities, these divine gifts, into my own self-serving aims, Eric’s perspective is one I have to fight to hold on to. I learn because God gave me a brain and it glorifies him for me to do so. I teach because God gave me a big heart and a steady hand and it glorifies him for me to do so. I run because God gave me long, healthy legs and a passion for movement and it glorifies him for me to do so.

I pulled myself off the floor and immediately drove over to school.

I sat on the examination table and let a trainor bend and prod my leg in all directions. Then I sat on more ice and was told not to run till the start of school. So much for 12 miles.

But I felt better.

It has been a wonderful experience to compete in the Olympic Games and to bring home a gold medal. But since I have been a young lad, I have had my eyes on a different prize. You see, each one of us is in a greater race than any I have run in Paris, and this race ends when God gives out the medals.”

Eric Liddell

The nurse from the clinic called back and I scheduled an appointment for the EKG. Hopefully it comes back clear, but if it doesn’t, I know I’ll find a different race to run.

Because I am not a quitter, and not every race is on a track.

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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The World Behind Me

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

-Mark Twain

 

Self-admittedly, I have always been a little self-righteous. It began innocently enough – as most sins do – something good rooted in a sinful nature that eventually turns into something not so good.

I grew up in a home that taught me to love knowledge, love truth, love the practice of it. And because of that, a very large part of my identity is founded on a pride in knowing and following the truth. I build up a castle of facts around myself so that when I am faced with conflict or adversity, I have ground to stand on.

Truth is my fortress.

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Several years at college, in the workforce and then on the other side of the world have done a lot to change my view of the world. Issues I used to take for granted, used to stubbornly defend as the absolute truth, I am seeing are more complex than my 16-year old mind could have understood at the time. The details aren’t important beyond mentioning that only what I believe about my faith has remained completely unaltered.

Since coming home, I have begun to see much more vividly how far I have branched away from the views of my family and friends (and now I understand why they say never to discuss religion and politics at the dinner table).

It has felt isolating, to be honest. No one prepared me for that. I certainly still align myself more with the views of the community I grew up in than say, the far liberal left. The unfortunate result is feeling like I don’t really fit in either group.

Maybe other millennials are feeling the same way. This is what our parents wanted, right? They wanted us to grow up and become our own thinkers.

But I’m afraid I have played the part of the bitter idealist for too long. I have been the tortured, enlightened martyr in the fight for perspective and balance that every secretly hates talking to for more than four minutes lest I begin another rant. And it was yet another journey that has begun to cure me of my own self-importance (which, though much less self-righteous in nature, has manifested itself similarly).

Athens is quite a place to experience. What a city of paradoxes. Greeks are a people divided by a courageous compassion for those washing up on their shores and a fearful self-focus, making them apathetic to the needs of humans in the throes of great tragedy. It’s a ruined city built around a city of ruins – both of which are celebrated in their own way. And it’s a city with ancient people and modern people; tourists, foreigners and refugees.

It’s an amazing place to build a church.

I visited three churches while I was there, all of which were freckled with different nationalities, different worship backgrounds, different theologies. It was uncomfortable for me and my frigid protestant background.

My self-righteous spirit was much more awake during those services than my humility ever was, as it critiqued and criticized every aspect of the worship. There is a Biblical way to have a church service, there is order and method for a reason. The liturgy, the depth of our hymns, the fencing of the table, the preaching of the word all has ordained structure! I’d be screaming on the inside as I sat through a messy fifth chorus of “Good, Good Father.”

Following one of the services, the congregation of Greeks, Americans, Sri Lankans, Iranians and North Africans piled into cars and drove to the seaside. It was time for a baptism.

Now, I was raised as a paedobaptist, which means we baptize our infants as a sign that they are born into the covenant family of God, whether or not they are elect believers. I have seen several adult baptisms, one in a backyard pool in the Czech mountains and another in a church baptismal in the South.

This one was different. Perhaps because I was already feeling so rigidly defensive of my own beliefs and practices.

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We spilled onto mushy white sand, which was littered with trash and seaweed. A huge storm had rolled over the night before. The debris seemed to suggest that the sea had gotten sick and thrown up whatever was in its belly onto the beach.

We picked our way to the water’s edge where four Iranians stood, ready to give us their testimonies. They were all refugees. Some had left their homes seeking God, others had found him along the way. Some had been rejected by their families and spouses because of their faith in Christ. Some had left good jobs and good lives to come to Greece. Each one had made a dangerous journey. Each one had had to leave the community they were born into to join the family of God. Each one gave up their world for the next.

The sun was still low in the late-morning sky and it turned the water into a silver sheet of ripples. So bright were its rays, so clear was the sky, that all we could see were the silhouettes of our new brothers and sisters as they were lowered into the water and brought back up, new creations in Christ Jesus.

An African woman to my left began to sing a song I have known since childhood. It’s one of those songs I have written off as shallow and repetitive, but in the context of this baptism it took on new life.

I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back, no turning back.

The cross before me, the world behind me
No turning back, no turning back.

It was a long way down for me that morning. You don’t realize how high your horse is until someone clubs you in the stomach and knocks you off.

I am so narrow-minded.

The impatience I once had for people who grew up with different values than I did, I now have toward those who don’t apply these values the same way I do. My stubborn insistence that I am right has made me unkind and uncaring. Some child of God I am.

We should seek the truth, but we must speak it in love. Our castles of fact will not serve us well if we cannot learn how to invite others in with winsomeness and charity.

God’s people come from all over the world – in it, not of it. We are born into different cultures and traditions. We will disagree on how to be good stewards of this earth or godly citizens beneath the authority of men which God has placed us under. We will even disagree on what it looks like to be a child of the Risen King. Our churches will have different flavors and our Christian walks will be the varying tunes of a mighty orchestra that rises in harmony to the ears of God, the Great Composer.

And if the beauty of a broken people united and made perfect in Christ were not enough to strip away self-importance, the reminder that we are all refugees in the eyes of God, washing onto the world’s shores with nothing to give brought me back down to my knees.

In the damp sand of an ancient shore on a very clear day, I remembered the second greatest commandment. It is not, love the truth. It is love your neighbor.

I am a Jelly Butterfly

I really did think that I would magically be a better driver upon my return to the good U.S. of A. That the days of panicking every time I have to merge onto the freeway were over; that I’d gotten my last traffic violation; that I would no longer be a human wrecking ball, careening into objects solid and stationary at speeds so awkwardly unimpressive that I couldn’t even really turn them into good stories later on.

Not so, my friends. Not so.

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Two years away from home and one of the first things I noticed coming back was how much I changed while I was abroad – changes that were excruciatingly highlighted by the old habits I fell back into oh-so quickly.

The Saturday before my first week of school found me driving the winding back roads of San Diego County in absolute hysterics as I desperately searched for the turn-off that should have been on this hick-ville, dirt-road excuse for a major thoroughfare. (Sensing a little bitterness? Just a little? Wait, there’s more).

I actually maintained my calm surprisingly well, at first. I survived the London Underground, surely I could manage this.

A glance at the dashboard clock told me the Bridal Shower I was headed to had already begun. It wasn’t my fault that I was late, of course. It was simply that Google Maps had told me a bold-faced lie. (Google Maps has gone to absolute pot since I left the States, by the way. Totally useless).

But after driving narrow, sharply curved roads for half an hour (and passing signs that said “Welcome to Jamul” followed some time later by “Welcome to Dulzura”) I decided my best course of action would be to stop and ask an elderly motorbiking couple for directions. They were very sympathetic, considering the circumstances (they told me not to cry at least twice – if only they knew…) and pointed me back down the road I had just come from.

I drove for two hours before finally realizing that, even if I did find this place, the party would long be over. THAT’S when I started the water works. It was like college-Mary all over again.

“Whyyyyyy c-c-can’t I eeeeeeeeeever find a-a-aaaaanything?” I sobbed out-loud to myself, choking slightly and seriously distressing several passing drivers as I struggled to stay in between the white lines through my wailing. “You’d th-th-think I’d be a-able to find one st-st-stupid a-a-address on one st-st-stupid road in this st-st-stupid country! How h-have I not gotten ANY b-better at th-this in the last -[hiccup/sob]- TWO YEARS! It’s like I’ve gotten worse, like I’v-v-ve DE-AGED. . . I’M B-B-B-BENJAMIN BUTTONING!”

My walk of shame from the car to the kitchen with my un-gifted wedding shower gift was one of the most humiliating I have ever taken. Not that my family was very surprised.

“You should have just called me,” Dad said as I dropped the cumbersome present onto a chair.

“Admit that I got lost my first time back behind the wheel of a car?” I laughed bitterly. “Never. That’s just not okay.”

That was a low point.

Considering how rough the summer was (though not without a daily ray of sunshine!), it was really just par for the course. It’s an odd-numbered year. Those are the bad ones. If I can make it to 24 in one piece, I’ll consider myself on dry ground.

Community college, however, may stop me from doing just that.

And for those of you just now joining, here’s a little context.

I’ve already done community college. I’ve served my time. I went in as a naive little girl who couldn’t afford actual college and came out with an Associate Degree, an education in people, and a triple-shot venti-sized boost in confidence, street smarts and weight-gain (the Freshman Fifteen is real. . . The Sophomore Ten I may have invented out of necessity).

The same could almost be said of my return from Prague (if you change the Associate Degree with TESOL certification and the weight-gain with slightly healthier habits), except that the trip back from Europe included something I hadn’t expected. Reverse culture shock.

For those who don’t know what reverse culture shock is (and I certainly didn’t when I came home this summer), lend me your ears.

Reverse culture shock is when a person returns from abroad (or away) to find that ‘home’ as they remembered no longer exists – both their former environment and their former selves have changed in such a way that neither fully recognizes or fits into the other. It can range from being amusingly uncomfortable to emotionally jarring.

For me, it has come in waves of both. Although tipping drives me nuts now and I suddenly don’t understand why we don’t take our shoes off inside (and I’m OBSESSED WITH DRINKING FOUNTAINS), the most notable change has been the race debate.

Racism exists openly in the Czech Republic to an extent that would shock most Americans. If you are from Eastern Europe, chances are you will have fewer friends in school. If you are from the Middle East, chances are you will get teased. If you are Romani (“Gypsy”), you will be treated like a second class citizen your entire life. This mindset exists almost unapologetically across the generations currently living in Prague, from my youngest 4th graders to the most beloved elders in the community.

Coming back to the States, I felt annoyed at how much racism has become an issue since I’ve been gone. I read about Baltimore and Ferguson when I was in Prague. One day I opened up facebook and it was literally in flames. Those same headlines danced before my eyes in Czech on newspapers read by fellow passengers on the bus or the metro. “Is the American Dream Burning?”

But, I told myself, these people have no idea what actual racism looks like.

I take the bus to school now which means leaving the house before it’s fully light. It’s a ten minute walk and then a ten minute wait followed by a twenty minute, standing-room-only ride to campus.

Public transportation in Europe is wonderful (in varying degrees), and everyone uses it. Rich or poor, housed or homeless, everyone rides the metro, regardless of color, creed or background. It is the great equalizer.

In San Diego if you’re riding the bus, it’s because you can’t afford a car, which creates a class distinction. I am by no means rich, nor is my family, but I can afford the new backpack I brought to school and the new jeans I’d bought the week before when I was visiting friends in New York City.

Waiting at that bus stop, I felt like a fish out of water. I felt very conspicuously white. And that feeling stayed for most of my week on campus. It’s not that anyone said or did anything to make me feel uncomfortable – I just felt different. I felt like I didn’t belong. Unlike what some might have us believe, this is not a feeling owned by any specific race in America – it’s a universal human feeling which, justified or not, can be isolating and traumatic.

Thankfully, for me it has just been another new sensation. Another wave of culture shock I didn’t expect. The tone has changed in my neighborhood and race matters. The more of this I noticed, the more I felt like the naive little girl who first showed up on this campus five years ago.

That first week, I assured myself that everything would be okay. Except for missing a bus home and walking six miles to find a Dollar Tree, nothing had gone horribly awry. I found all my classes, I bought all my books, and I only stress-ate once.

One morning, I filed onto the bus with the twenty or so other people headed towards jobs or classes. We were a tight fit and an elderly gent in front of me was encouraging us younger students to keep backing up.

“Bus driver says, ‘back up!’ then you back up! We all got to fit on this bus, now,” he said with a laugh. “You young people hear him say, ‘back up!’ and you just look behind you like, ‘Oh what, me?’ Yes you! Back up!”

Those of us around him couldn’t help but chuckle at his vivacity. It was so much better than coffee. I’ve always loved friendly people.

Standing next to him were two boys – maybe around 20 years old – and he noticed with a grin that they were enjoying his commentary.

“You know what?” he said, turning his address to the young men specifically, “America’s finest do a really good job here. You know who I mean, of course.” He laughed again. “America’s finest will lie to your face your whole life. Try to keep you down! But you know what? It’s your responsibility to stand up for yourself.”

One of the boys was grinning and nodding, the other took a very small step backwards.

“You know who America’s finest is, don’t ya? Caucasians.

The word turned into a brick which knocked the smile from my mouth and landed with a thud in the base of my stomach. There were a few more chuckles. People were enjoying the spectacle, but I couldn’t tell if they were laughing with him or at him. He was so close to me that my nose nearly brushed his shoulder. He went on a few more times about white people holding everybody else down when finally I said, “That’s such a lie.”

I didn’t say it accusatorily. But the simpler, younger version of myself – with bright eyes and a bushy tale – was ready to bring justice to this situation. In hindsight, that may not have been the best opening argument.

He turned around on me slowly, as if seeing me for the first time. After giving me a sweeping glance he scoffed and turned his back to me.

“You’re a child,” he huffed. “I’m not going to talk to you. I’m 50 years old. I’ve lived. I have experience. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ll talk to your parents before I talk to you. What are you even doing on this bus? Can’t you buy a car? Surely someone in your family can buy you a car.”

There was more laughter and I realized I had thrown myself into a needless, pointless debate in front of a whole bus who not only thought I was crazy for engaging this guy, but probably racist for defending white people. I felt my face grow hot, and not because we were all packed in and sloshing about in this MTS tin can.

I wanted to point out that I was wearing duct-taped sandals or brandish my useless pre-paid phone at him. Instead I just turned red and mumbled something unintelligible. I remembered that this isn’t Europe and race and class disparities aren’t viewed the same way.

“You come back and talk when you’ve spent ten years in jail for a crime you didn’t do, lost your wife and your kids. That’s what happened to me.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said quietly.

“Sorry? You’re sorry? What’s sorry gonna do? Is it gonna get my ten years back? You think you can fix anything with your ‘sorry’?”

“No, but -”

“I’m going to college to make myself better, get myself a job.” He showed me his shirt which said, ‘Everyone deserves to shine’ on the back. Proudly, he told the younger fellows next to him about his car-washing plans. Then he turned on me again and said, “I wasn’t even talking to you in the first place. You think this is all about you? I wasn’t talking about you. I was talking to them.”

I couldn’t seem to get my thoughts to come out in words and as I felt the eyes of the whole bus on me I struggled to keep from crying. Wouldn’t that just be the cherry on top. Crying in public.

The problem is not what he said, but how he said it.

He bullied me into silence, I thought. He denied me a voice because of my age and my color. And I have a voice. Sure, I wasn’t there to defend ‘white people’ or demand justice for his remarks (which, frankly, I really wasn’t that offended by). I wanted those boys – and that whole bus full of students that were listening intently – to know that not all ‘white people’ are trying to hold them back. And to say so is an injustice to our community of people (of all ethnicities) who will bend over backwards to help young people like us (regardless of our own ethnicities) to make it in the world. The lie he was spinning will do nothing but breed more hurt and distrust.

If I’ve learned anything in Prague, it’s that racism isn’t simply the oppression and harm of one people group by another people group, it’s the oppression and harm of humans by other humans that creates barriers between us all.

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends. –Maya Angelou

But I didn’t say any of that. I just stood on the bus, hid my face in my arm, and prayed that the next ten minutes would go by quickly. The old-Mary was humiliated for having jumped right back into her habit of self-righteous declaration of the good, and the new one was wishing she had the wisdom to handle the situation more gracefully and in a less public setting.

The rest of the afternoon I walked past people on campus who had shared that bus ride with me. Some sniggered, some looked purposefully away, others just stared.

Becoming a social pariah the first week of school was definitely not my intention. The race debate may have changed since I’ve been gone, but people haven’t. And apparently I haven’t either.

What am I doing here, I wondered on the bus ride home. Why am I back at community college? Why does it feel like I haven’t learned anything in the last five years? Seriously, God, what’s your plan here? The culture shock, the pathetic tendencies I thought I got rid of – how long am I going to have foot-in-mouth syndrome or lose my way to bridal showers? WHY DOES IT FEEL LIKE I AM GOING BACKWARDS HERE?  

I felt like stress-eating my weight in cheese puffs.

As another Saturday rolled around, I found myself at the party of a friend-of-a-friend. I didn’t know most of the people there, but there was an ice-cream bar, so I made myself at home.

The patio was trimmed with white lights and deck chairs. Music floated through the air and a few people were dancing on the lawn.

After consuming a brownie and an indecent amount of whipped cream, I found myself sitting around a firepit at the end of the patio, across from the black-green lawn and the swimming pool which reflected the strings of lights in a twinkle of soft ripples.

The young women around the firepit introduced themselves. We were all mid-college or post-college or going into college. We were all coming to the close of long summers – some good, some bad. And they all seemed very excited to hear about my life in Prague and my plans now that I’m home (of which I have none). It was a bit like telling ghost stories around a campfire as we all ‘oooh’ed and ‘awww’ed around the firepit (except that ghost stories aren’t nearly as scary as being a twenty-something in 2015). The air was like a warm breath and the inky-blue evening peeled back a layer of clouds to give a few optimistic stars the chance to glimmer half-heartedly in the L.A. sky.

I had an attentive crowd, so I told story after story. When those ran out, I eventually talked about how hard it was to come home and how I have no clue what to do next. I admitted that I’d put aside my plans to teach and that being plan-less and directionless was almost as bad as the culture shock. I told the bus story.

I didn’t say that I feel as though my developments as a human being all got left behind in Prague. I learned how to be an adult in Europe. Now I have to learn it all over again in America.

Learn how to use directions. Learn not to cry when you get lost. Do not engage strangers on the bus. Don’t assume you know everything about people. Stop thinking everything is about you. Stop judging your own self-worth based on the plans you make for yourself. Maybe use less whipped cream in the future? We’ll work on that one.

For a moment, I could feel myself behind the wheel of a car, driving into nowhere. Directionless and lost. The conversation lapsed into a quiet hum of unspoken reflections.

Then suddenly, like an oasis in the desert or a signal bar in a tunnel, the girls opened up their hearts to me, one by one, and revealed a life-changing secret: they are lost too.

They all seemed to get it. No matter who they were or what their background was, they all knew how it felt to be headed down a road with no clear destination. They each had a story and now it was my turn to sit and listen, enraptured.

“It’s like how a caterpillar changes into a butterfly,” explained one of them, her cherry-red lips forming a smile in the firelight. “When the caterpillar spins its cocoon, it essentially becomes jelly inside as all the parts reassemble themselves. It’s not a random process – they have all the cells they need to become butterflies from the time their mother lays their eggs. But while they’re in that cocoon, they have no definite shape.”

A round of giggles followed this analogy as we imagined little jellified insects hanging from petaled branches.

She looked at me sweetly and said, “My guess is that you have changed a lot in the last two years and that you’re going to a change a lot more. You’re in the jelly stage right now, but you need to be here if you want to become a butterfly.”

I thought about what it might mean to be a jelly-butterfly. I thought about what a gift it is to be able to listen (another aspect of culture shock – adjusting back to English!).

The drive home was long.

I thought about the old man on the bus. He didn’t have a car.

I am extremely fortunate to have been given the life that I have. Fortunate to have spent two years in Prague. Fortunate to have the time to figure out where I’m going next. And none of this is random. These things are gifts from God, both the things that look like blessings and the things that don’t. They’re all part of the cocoon that I’m wrapped up in right now.

I know I’ve come a long way, but I have a lot more to learn. And that’s okay. I have a voice already, but if I listen more than I speak I can strengthen it with broader knowledge and a greater sense of empathy. I can be silent. That’s okay.

I won’t always be lost, but I am right now and that’s okay. I can ask for help, and that’s okay too. And if this winding, wondrous road is what I have to take to reach the feet of my gracious God, it’s a path I delight to take.

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.