Alone in Africa {A Story of Waiting and Advent}

Kenyan countryside
Kenyan countryside, from my bus window.

Two years ago, I flew to Nairobi for a dear friend’s wedding. It would be a whirlwind trip with only five days on the ground in Africa, my first visit to this continent. I would spend three days meeting Gracie’s new Kenyan family and friends, frosting cakes, and, finally, putting on a red dress and curling my hair to be bridesmaid. But for those first two days, I would take a bus to Mbale, Uganda, to meet Brenda and Remmy, my sponsored children.

My flight arrives late evening, and I only get a few hours of sleep before I have to get up to catch the bus. We drive as close as we can to the station, then make our way through the crowds, Gracie and her fiancée, Ken, seeing me safely on the bus before leaving.

I take one of the closest seats to the door, the stairs down and below my feet, the sun destined to bake me through the windows once it has fully risen. I am carrying two child’s backpacks, each stuffed with toys and school supplies and toiletries, along with my own clothes and my camera. I am bringing no books to read, only my journal and nine Advent cards with a picture on one side and a one- or two-sentence reflection on the other.

The day wears on, the sweat accumulating on my back and at the bridge of my nose. I see zebras on the side of the road once, and monkeys, and an egret and a cow lying down nose to nose. Short trees cover the oh-so-green rolling hills, and plots of land are marked as “NOT FOR SALE.”

I order the beans and chicken everyone else is ordering when we stop for lunch, and I struggle to understand the heavily accented English around me.

I catch snippets of bus announcements, and after a while, when the conductor mentions Kampala but not Mbale, I start to worry that I am not on the right bus. The conductor knows only a little English, so I call Ken on my basic phone, and he talks to the conductor, and then Irene, my local contact at the center, talks to the conductor, but the accents, rendered difficult in person, are nearly impossible for me to unravel over the phone.

Finally, I break through the communication barrier and learn that my first inkling was correct: We are driving north now, as we should be, but when we are still two hours from Mbale, the bus will not take that turn but will instead veer west, bound for Kampala.

I approach the conductor again with my phone, and after he speaks to Ken or Irene in their shared language, I press the phone to my ear, hearing all but understanding very little. I repeat this scene again and again, sometimes with another traveler instead of the conductor, and I piece together more and more of the plan we’re forming, while simultaneously second-guessing everything I think I know of that plan, worrying that no one else understands the situation as I do, that I will be stranded and forgotten.

But in between the phone calls, in between the stops, while this is still the road I am supposed to be traveling, I have nothing to do but watch and wait.

I see Kenya from my window, hundreds of people living their lives: Women selling potatoes on the side of the road, men sitting on the hillside while their sheep or cows or donkeys graze, children playing soccer and holding hands, people walking, walking, always walking. Sometimes, a child skips instead of walks, and my heart skips too.

When I’m not looking out the window, I pull out those Advent cards from the small cloth purse tucked in my bag. Today is day 7 of Advent, and today’s picture is of a full moon in a star-speckled sky presiding over a mountain range. A lightness at the horizon promises that night will soon end. Alicia Heater drew this picture, and on the other side, Cara Strickland wrote, “In my family, we set out the nativity scene on the mantel, without Jesus. The lonely manger reminds me that in this season we embrace waiting empty.”

I read and reread that card and the six that came before it, filling myself with pictures of small lights in the darkness, of snatches of carols and Bible verses about the Incarnation, of words about hope and waiting, memory and silence.

“‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask the Israelites. ‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask Zechariah and Elizabeth. ‘Have you forgotten me?’ I ask.”

I think about how I’m waiting for this long day to end, and how I forget about people in developing countries until they’re right in front of me.

Advent cards
The Advent cards. Artwork by Alicia Heater, reflections (on back) by Cara Strickland.

We stop at the border near sunset, and the crossing takes hours, standing in lines in first one building and then another, filling out forms and getting my visa stamped, and then lots of waiting, milling around on the red patches of dirt, waiting for our bus and then waiting for our driver.

Night is falling by the time we start up again; I see very little of Uganda in the darkness.

We reach a busy intersection, and the bus slows across from a hotel. They are stopping for me. “This is it!” people are saying, everyone now aware of my plight, my confusion, my anxiety. I gather my bags and thank the conductor. A man walks with me across the street while the bus waits for him.

I sit in the dimly lit lobby, surrounded by my possessions, for another two hours. Others notice me waiting and offer to help, but I am now where I need to be. Finally, Irene arrives and we drive the rest of the way to Mbale. I can now relax. It is nearly midnight, and a trip I thought would take six or eight hours has taken 18.

I fall asleep in my fancy hotel room thinking about the kindness of strangers, and I awaken to palm trees and a fancy buffet breakfast and excitement.

I meet Brenda, a teenager on the verge of adulthood whom I have been sponsoring for more than 10 years. She is almost as tall as my 5 feet, 9 inches. I meet her mother and stepfather and siblings, and I see where she goes to school. She is wearing an ankle-length blue-and-black dress, and I recognize her immediately. I can tell she recognizes me too. She can’t stop smiling. She shows me old letters and pictures I’ve sent her over the years. She speaks less English than I expected, but someone is always there to translate.

For weeks, I didn’t know if my other sponsored child, Remmy, would be able to come. He is from another part of Uganda, at least half a day’s journey away. I was planning to mail him his gifts once I was in the country, but then I found out that they would be able to bring him to Mbale after all. He is here with Godfrey, a former sponsored child himself, and they also came on the bus. He is eight years old and shy and doesn’t smile for the camera at first, but eventually we bond over selfies, and he delights in taking pictures of everyone and everything with my DSLR camera. He is wearing a tan suit and dress shoes, but seems more comfortable, more himself, after he takes off the coat.

We eat a meal together, and the center staff share Brenda’s file with me, and then we take the van to her family’s house and I meet everyone. Remmy is there too, sandwiched on the couch between us and treated as part of the family. They open their presents, and then they give me presents I had not expected: a purse with black and white and red beads that Brenda made for me, and a letter from Remmy’s mother that means more to me than I can say. I wish I could have met his family too.

The day fills me up to the brim, worth every twist and turn it took to get here. Before I know it, I am waiting on the side of the road for my bus. Brenda and Remmy and I sneak in a few more pictures, a few more memories, and then the bus arrives and we say our hasty goodbyes.

With Brenda and Remmy
With Brenda and Remmy, right before I left Mbale.

The return trip is uneventful. I sit next to another American all the way to Nairobi. Through the night, I sleep and I wake and I cross back into Kenya and I sleep again. I am not alone and this time I don’t need my Advent cards to comfort me.

So many of my experiences with Christianity have soured, but the season of Advent remains sweet to me. I have a soft spot for “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and the candles and the waiting. I don’t know how much is true and how much is myth in the traditional Christmas story, but somehow, for a few weeks, I’m able to suspend my cynicism and let my heart expand in the darkness.

Advent has never been more special to me than it was that December in Africa, and especially that day when all I had to keep me company were those cards, when I was waiting in the unknown and could only gaze at the pictures and the words and think about all the others who have also felt lost and forgotten.

 

Alicia Heater’s illustrations can be found at slightlystationery.com, and Cara Strickland’s writing at carastrickland.com.

The Sun and the Sky: Finding Magic (part 4)

Skydiving
Photo by Skydive Switzerland

When I first watched my skydiving video, I couldn’t help but cringe a little. Even now, I find myself wishing for the removal of some frames and the addition of others.

The angles aren’t great, I stick my tongue out at one point, and I’m gaping and gesturing like a child. I’m embarrassed that I’m embarrassed, because isn’t it enough that I went skydiving and it was magical?

I want to control the way I look when I’m feeling a lot of emotion, or at least control how I look in the images meant to capture that emotion and carry it out into the world. I want to look open but not too open, happy yet composed, and please no awkward facial expressions or ugly crying or anything else untamed, unkempt, unhinged.

But the most moving photography of humans captures the real, raw moments. I have rarely seen such unbridled joy on my face as I did during the freefall, but I find it hard to see the beauty, to be moved by my own childlike, unmitigated wonder. I worry what others will think, that they will laugh or be uncomfortable, that I will laugh or be uncomfortable and miss out on every re-experience of Magic.

I wasn’t worrying about it at the time, but I was worrying in Alliance, Nebraska, a few weeks earlier. This was the day of the total solar eclipse. I wasn’t worrying about how I looked, but I may as well have been.

It’s hard to capture a moment and still remain fully present to that moment. That’s why I didn’t even try to photograph the eclipse. But I did want everything to be just so. I was aghast that the people around me proceeded to talk through all of totality, that cameras were clicking and distractions abounded. I wished I were on a hilltop, alone. I wished everyone was reverent and solemn in the ways I thought they should be reverent and solemn. I wished to fall into a sun-trance, but I seemed thwarted by externals.

Sometimes everything comes together splendidly, and yet it’s not enough. We feel too much or too little, or we look like we feel too much or too little, or our attention is diverted just enough that we feel, somehow, that our experience didn’t count.

I can never, it seems, experience something just once and be satisfied. The high demands I place on Magic are hard to fulfill.

And yet, Magic, Magic is everywhere. I have always loved the true stories of breaking through what we thought were barriers of the natural world, of going beyond where we thought we could. Apollo 13 was the first movie I saw in theaters, at age 6, and in college I jumped at the chance to take a niche course on the Space Race of the 1960s.

I am thrilled to the bones, moved to tears, by stories of these explorers and risk-takers. In these stories, there is a First around every corner, one moment and then another of breathless anticipation and water in the eyes. I watch my own skydiving video and I attach it to the more dramatic music in the company’s promo video, I attach it to Launch music and Leaving Port music and every other song I can think of that bespeaks adventure, so that the moment when the song reaches its crescendo is my Moment of leaving the plane.

 

No video or picture I’ve ever seen has done justice to the magic of skydiving, the magic of a total solar eclipse. They say a picture is a worth a thousand words. Dare I believe that collections of a thousand words could be worth pictures?

 

This is part four of a four-part series.

Part 1: Beginnings

Part 2: Eclipse

Part 3: Skydiving

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The Sun and the Sky: Skydiving (part 3)

You will remember the buildup and the aftermath, but will you remember the freefall?

Skydive: Walking to the plane

I’m worried that I’m already forgetting what it was like to skydive. Skydiving is not like riding a rollercoaster. It is not like anything but itself. I watch the video of me, plucked from a handcam, plucked from the sky. I see big-eyed surprise and wonder, then joy, then contentment on my face, but in some ways it feels like I’m watching another person. Fear, too, makes it hard to remember what came after the fear.

But I remember enough.

“I’m going skydiving,” I would say, sounding nonchalant and confident. And I was nonchalant and confident, mostly. The continuum of fear, when so many continents and weeks lie in between, is barely a blip, makes it easy to sleep at night, at the beginning.

I do not sleep well, though, the night before. I writhe in the covers and chatter into the darkness, and even the peace of an alpine cliff top does not permeate.

Then the uncertain morning weather reminds me that nothing is inevitable, and after seven hours of working myself into a lather of anxiety, I am not sure if I want the delay to be temporary or permanent.

 

Finally, I arrive at the hangar in Interlaken with sixteen other people from at least four continents, not including the one we find ourselves on. We put on blue jumpsuits, gloves, and then the straps around legs, waist, and shoulders that will connect us with our other halves. We lay on our stomachs on the floor and practice tilting, bending, gripping. We watch the experts look at the sky, and we exchange rumors, and we wait. I meet people from Australia, China, Saudi Arabia, North America. I become less nervous, even as I meet very nervous people.

One plane holds about a dozen passengers, or six tandem pairs, or four tandem pairs and a few “fun jumpers,” or some other combination of novice and experienced. At last, there is more blue in the sky than white, and the rain is over, and we are moving in Swiss Time again. I will be taking the second trip up. I wait more than half an hour, watching people leave one way and return another, looking at first for the black dots in the sky, and then the blues and oranges and reds and whites of the parachutes, and the numbers always match.

My other half, Dave, is a man of few words, a 25-year veteran of the skies, someone to ease all manner of worries.

I am first on the plane, which means I will be the last off.

Skydiving: On the plane

My nerves crackle to life again as we assume our positions on board, as I pass through the door that will open again at 13,000 feet. It is me and a handful of American college students, now suddenly quiet. I smile for the camera, I peer out the window and try to admire Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, the peaks Jungfrau and Monch and Eiger, but then we are practicing positions for the jump, then the straps that had been attached at takeoff are tightened, then I am given a pair of goggles to wear that instantly fog up.

And now we are above the clouds that have been teasing us all day. The light goes on, the light that turns from red to green to tell us that The Time Has Come. The door opens, and each pair scoots to the edge for their Moment. There isn’t much time before my turn, only seconds. Not long enough, or maybe too long.

We move to the edge of the plane, the gaping hole, and I am being moved by someone else as much as I am moving myself. I know I won’t drop prematurely, we won’t leave the plane until he and I are ready.

It is not “jumping” like walking to an edge and moving my body into empty space.

I am compliant, somewhere between active and passive. For this to happen, I must walk and then crawl to a point, and then relinquish my semblance of control. I do not see where I will go, but I know where I will go.

Knees bent, hands gripping the straps at my shoulders, head tilted back, and I am ready for the freefall. I won’t see when he lets go, but I will feel it. There are a few seconds of hanging, of waiting, and then we fall.

We are upside down, but then what is upside down when you’re tumbling toward the earth? It isn’t as scary as I thought it would be.

I was afraid my heart would be in my throat the whole time, a mighty lurch, a reenactment of the falling nightmares everyone has, that I would have an iron grip on my straps, the compulsion to scream away my fears, because that’s what it would be like if the drop tower amusement park rides reached 13,000 feet into the sky, hellish Towers of Babel that really climbed into the heavens. Would I be breathing heavily and laughing nervously at the end, round-eyed and shaking and only glad it was over?

It’s not like that at all, not for me.

Skydiving is not 0 to 100 mph in seconds. You are on a plane, as you have been on many planes before, and then you make a directional shift, your horizontal journey becoming a vertical one. It is gentler on your insides that you would expect.

 

My heart jumps a small jump, then settles. I might be screaming a little, but if so the sound is lost in the wind, the wind that ripples my cheeks and whips my hair back and makes me grateful for the gloves. The world stretches out beneath me, more breathtaking than any concrete-sky jumble at amusement parks, and I have the thrill without the fear, or at least with only a low-grade sort of fear that tapers off. After a few seconds of holding my shoulder straps, I can let go, and then I am smiling big, arms outstretched. We are parallel to the ground. We might as well still be flying. I posed for the camera in my pre-interview, on the plane, and later after the parachute opened, but I was not posing during the freefall.

Skydiving: Right After the Jump

Skydiving: Upside Down

Skydiving: Freefall (mountain view)

We are even with the clouds now, level with white and blue and the yellow glow to the west where the sun will set in an hour or two. Close at hand are mountains with ribbons of snow, and others, farther away, that are full white and glorious. And below, getting bigger and bigger, is a carpet of green, grass green and tree green and blue-green, and it is hard to look anywhere other than down.

And then it’s time to slow down, after 45 seconds or forever. I’m jerked into a sitting position, and now I’m cruising along the sky, mountains now in my line of sight, conversation now possible. The dipping and spinning Dave now commences reminds me that it’s been entirely too long since I’ve had anything to eat or drink, and my stomach isn’t as strong as it once was, but it all works out.

 

I’m not an extreme sports kind of person. I don’t like downhill skiing or snowboarding. I’m not a fan of climbing rocks or jumping off rocks, and my particular history makes me pull back even from water skiing. I’m not usually someone who takes upon herself feats that others fear to do.

But if there’s anything that can give me the courage to leave a plane mid-flight, in a foreign country and surrounded by strangers, it is a chance to be among the wildest of beauty. Switzerland is the most beautiful place I have yet seen. Mountains are the most beautiful things I can think of, be they near or far, be they towering above me or under my feet or on the other side of the sky. This is the place to be my bravest self. If not now, then When?

 

After gliding in to a smooth landing, Dave asks me if I would ever do this again. Half an hour ago, I thought this would be a one-and-done type of thing. I surprise myself with the immediacy of my Yes.

“I’d rather be scared than sick,” I always say when describing my lesser-of-two-evils at amusement parks. But for that glorious minute, while falling to the earth, I was neither scared nor sick.

 

Skydiving: Freefall

 

All photos by Skydive Switzerland.

Video by Skydive Switzerland here.

 

This is part three of a four-part series.

Part 1: Beginnings

Part 2: Eclipse

Part 4: Finding Magic

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The Sun and the Sky: Eclipse (part 2)

I dreamed about the eclipse several times before August 21st. Sometimes they were happy dreams: The sky did strange things, things that would never happen in the waking world, but I was there to see them. Most of the time, though, they were anxious dreams: I wasn’t able to find a place to stay along the path of totality. Traffic held me at a distance until it was too late. The weather was bad.

And it wasn’t just my dreams that held a sense of dread. I, who had known about this event for ten years, I, who should have known better, didn’t think to find a motel until most of them were gone. The eclipse was still months away, and I was already doing it wrong.

It was no longer a little secret between the sun and me; now, everyone knew, and they were just a little bit faster.

I was still an eclipse apologist, converting people and counting the days, but all the worst-case scenarios hung about me, the reminders that foreknowledge was no guarantee.

So there I was, spending the night on a field in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska, hoping like everyone else in this 60-mile stretch from coast to coast that I had won the weather lottery.

Sun peeking out of clouds
8 a.m., three hours and 49 minutes before totality.

 

I wake up engulfed in cloud. Dribbling fog hides the sky, but there is hope, stronger than before, that the sun, the wonderful sun, will burn it all off long before midday.

Living in Denver, Colorado, the sunshine is our most familiar meteorological feature. Rain and even snow are welcomed as visitors, but the sun melts and dries and acts as if nothing else ever was or would be.

The beginning of an eclipse isn’t First Contact, when the moon takes its first, tiny bite out of the sun. No, it’s that morning when the sun comes up over the horizon, it’s when the clouds part and the sun, the whole sun, fills your world, and it’s a better pick-me-up than coffee, and The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” must have been written for this time.

For the sun to disappear, it must first appear.

Less than ten thousand people live in Alliance, Nebraska. The main street is long and wide, and to the south is the train yard. As another train, probably a coal train, thunders by, I wonder aloud how many young people growing up here had, at one time or another, wished to take a train Somewhere Else.

The evening before, everyone seemed to be Somewhere Else. Traffic was light. A roadside booth and a K-Mart clothes rack showcased eclipse souvenirs, but otherwise the town was going about its rhythms with little interference, unless you knew where to look for the tents and the RVs.

And now, Monday morning, everyone is Here. Our makeshift campground begins to fill and the downtown coffee shop is already full and out of food.

You can’t see the sun from the big windows there, but you can see above the storefronts, and the ratio of blue to white is tilting in our favor. I sip hot chocolate or tea, one of the two, and I duck out once or twice to call my parents and look up.

My parents are with extended family in Albany, Oregon, doing the same thing I’m doing. They are an hour behind me, but today they are roughly half an hour ahead. I don’t reach them, but then it is time to put away the board game and get off main street, time to drive fast to the outskirts, me in the passenger seat opening the sunroof and tilting my head back, watching, watching for The Moment, but it is still minutes too soon, and we don’t miss anything at all.

me viewing partial eclipse
11:02 a.m., 47 minutes before totality.

Here comes the moon, do do do do.

A man on a loudspeaker announces First Contact, and for a few seconds I can’t tell which direction the moon is coming from. And then there it is, and the orb is no longer quite an orb. It is like seeing the moon go through its stages, only faster and more dangerous.

I have never seen a partial solar eclipse before. The closest I got was in Shanghai, several years ago. An annular eclipse would begin in southern China after sunrise, then cross the Pacific Ocean and pass over my hometown in northern California before sunset. I was thrilled at the chance to see the same celestial event my family would see from the other side of the world, even if only in partial form, but it was not meant to be. City lights and city smog shielded the sky, but perhaps it was just as well as I had no way to look at the sun safely.

Today, I have my eclipse glasses and they have theirs. We have both traveled to see this sight, and it is now that I reach them, for a few minutes when I am seeing a small sun and they are seeing one smaller still. We watch the waning together, and then I leave them for their totality and wait for mine.

I sit and stare for a few minutes, and then jump up and put on sunscreen, or throw a bag in the car, or look around at my fellow sun-gazers and this bit of green we are choosing to remember for the rest of our lives. It is about an hour and fifteen minutes, this pre-show, but it goes by so quickly.

 

Little by little, the lighting begins to change. There are no trees to cast strange shadows, but it is as if it is overcast, the sun behind a thin cloud, and then a thicker cloud, but all the actual clouds pushed to the edges, the sun high and alone at midday but for the moon. I need my sweater and I can’t contain my joy.

All that light becomes an ever-more-focused sliver, and it looks a manageable orange through my glasses, not the fiercest yellow that ever there was. And there is so much strength even in this tiny ray.

I know in my mind everything I’m meant to be watching for, everything I want my surroundings to be so everything will fall away, everything except the sun and me, and we will have our little secret again. At some point, I forget about my lawn chair and it’s impossible not to be standing.

In the last seconds, the light goes slant and otherworldly, the sky darker but the ground brighter, like sun and smoke, or sun and storm, and then we can look up unprotected, or nearly, as the last of the fierce yellow glint disappears.

 

And there it is, the black moon, backlit by the sun’s corona, a soft whiteness that in some ways resembles the nighttime moon, but is its own wild and beautiful animal, not a reflection but a reveal.

We are caught somewhere between dusk and nightfall. It is pink at each horizon, and we are the epicenter, suspended just before birth or death or both. For right now we are in the front row seats, and there no rows behind us. The world had changed slowly, almost imperceptibly, for over an hour, and then everything happened at once, and now time is stopped for almost two and a half minutes.

If I could only look at you for two and a half minutes, how much would I remember of the features of your face?

Is that enough time to memorize the features of the sky?

Everyone around me is talking or taking pictures or both, but I am silent and my hands are still.

This new world is only ours for seconds, and then everything will happen at once, again, and it will be gone.

 

When the sun comes back, the sun I knew before, there are fractions of a second when it doesn’t seem so bright, when I can take in the light on the edge, before I have to tear my eyes away for their own sake.

We are ready to leave and so we do. I open the sunroof again and watch the sun grow back. I call my parents and we are mesmerized together by our memories. I keep looking up, and the saddest part for me is when the partial eclipse ends, and wherever you look, it is as if nothing has happened.

 

This is part two of a four-part series.

Part 1: The Sun and the Sky: Beginnings

Part 3: Skydiving

Part 4: Finding Magic

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The Sun and the Sky: Beginnings (part 1)

sky and clouds
Photo by Martin Duggan, Flickr creative commons

 

The first time a friend of mine went skydiving, I was 17 years old and relieved I was too young to join her. But I put it on my bucket list. I wasn’t sure if I would ever have the courage to initiate such an adventure, but I knew there would come a time when people I knew would look to the sky and ask me to come along, when there would be an opportunity to say yes or no. And I would say yes, I was sure I would, one day.

I was also 17 when the sky drew my attention in a different way. I found NASA’s website on eclipses, the world maps with the splashes of red and blue that can turn anyone into a dreamer. No one knows for sure what her life will bring even tomorrow, but I knew what the sun and the moon would be doing in 10 years’ time, and I was determined to be there to see it. Long before anyone called it the Great American Solar Eclipse, I was joining my first group in the early days of Facebook and committing the far-off date of August 21, 2017, to memory.

And then I settled in to wait. Wait for time to pass, wait for courage, wait for other dreams to emerge, to incubate, to come true, to die.

There is romance in the narrative of dreams fulfilled. Until fulfillment was almost upon me, however, I didn’t realize how much I wanted them to be fulfilled in certain ways. It wasn’t enough to be in the right place at the right time, or to do an activity that hundreds or thousands of people do every day. I needed to bear witness to everything, everything happening around me and within me, every nuance of light and shadow, of falling and flying, of fear and joy and sadness. It’s a fearful pressure, an enormous responsibility, a catch-22 that inspires me to be more fully present while at the same time the fear of missing something can make me too anxious and preoccupied to be fully present. To trust that by “just being” I will gain everything I need to know and remember is a dance I have not fully learned.

Skydiving involves less than a minute of freefall, and then it’s a canopy ride. The total eclipse is bookended by hours of waxing and waning, but only two-and-a-half minutes of the high drama of darkness.

When a decade’s worth of anticipation is all over in a matter of seconds or minutes, will you remember what it looked like, what it felt like, or will you just remember the anticipation and the aftermath?

I saw the total eclipse in August, and I went skydiving in September.

This is what it looked like and felt like.

 

This is part one of a four-part series.

 

Part 2: Eclipse

Part 3: Skydiving

Part 4: Finding Magic

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Running into Story

My drive to work is nothing special. It starts with a nondescript road, grey and industrial and mostly quiet except for the semi trucks that sometimes congregate at the stoplight. Only, if I remember to look down when crossing the river, down and to the right, I smile.

It’s my recurring phenomenon across the suburbs, across urban and residential areas, across the very heart of the city.

Certain intersections are dear to my heart, certain crosswalks and parks and even train stations. I once made meticulous plans to be at those intersections, to be at those crosswalks and parks and train stations, and when I find myself there again by accident, it feels like a secret and a surprise.

I should venture out of the city a little more. I should seek out longer stretches of dirt and fresher air and closer proximity to the mountains. Denver is big, but it’s not that big. It’s beautiful, but it’s not that beautiful.

But I love it. I love this way of discovering my town. I love making my own loops and dipping into tiny parks and looking in vain for a sign with my last name on it. I love involving public transit when I can, fiddling with my armful of gear in the mornings and keeping downwind from other people in the afternoons.

running selfie
My favorite selfies are the ones that bookend my runs.

More than anything, though, I love the stories that write themselves when I run — memories upon memories, tied to place: This is where I saw the deer, on that side of the snow-covered bridge in Cherry Creek State Park. This is where I almost cried listening to The Liturgists Podcast, these two laps around City Park on that hot March day. And the most common story: This is where I went the wrong way and got lost.

But I was always finding things too.

Some I found simply by going to certain places at certain times and paying attention. It’s the feel of the wind at night, warm and wild against my face, hours before the storm hits and the snow blankets everything. It’s the sight of the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen on the morning of my first marathon, a beauty undiminished even though everything else went wrong that day. It’s a series of quacks and rustlings and big skies and horizons. It’s life at its zenith, in me and out there.

sunrise
A sunrise so beautiful that even an iPhone photo does it justice.

I found within myself the usual things people find when they spend months training their bodies in strength and stamina, all the exhilarating and painful and confident and exhausting and stubborn things. I found a clarity that surprised me, an ease in decision-making while on the trail. I learned what I was capable of, and I learned when it was worth it … and when it wasn’t.

Not everything about running has been glorious or even good, but for many of the months I’ve lived in Colorado, it’s been one of the truest parts of my life. Even in the staggering and the struggling, the long middles and the early mornings, it was the X that marked the spot. So I look down and to the right, and I smile.

Choosing the Freefall

freefall
Photo by Toma Toshi on Flickr’s creative commons.

Choosing to be brave is choosing the freefall.

It is the moment when you sheepishly return to the party you left 20 minutes ago, the one where you hardly knew anyone, the one where you stayed your usual amount of time and then slipped away. When the door closed behind you, though, you realized you didn’t actually want to go home, that you weren’t tired, that you weren’t quite done, but you kept walking because you had made your choice and that was that, right? But then, halfway home, you turned the car around and changed your story.

It is the moment when you say, “Yes, I do have something to say, can we talk?” to the person who intimidates you, or the person you might disappoint, or the person who would rather not hear what you have to say.

It is the moment when you pull your car to the side of the road and call the friend you just said goodnight to, the friend you’ve never prayed with before, and ask her if you can maybe come over and pray.

I didn’t plan for any of these moments, but they all found me over the space of two weeks. And as the same scenario seemed to unfold again and again with different players and different stages, I felt the deja vu and I saw my agency, pressed against the glass of my mind’s eye, neglected for so long. Would I keep doing things the way I’d always done them? Would I keep avoiding conflict and fearing what people might think and staying in the safe zone? Or would I take the risk to find out what would happen if I kept the curtains open and stayed on the stage longer than I’d ever done before?

In almost every one of those stories, I landed on my feet almost immediately. My face was flushed and my heart was racing, or I felt foolish and awkward, or I was afraid of disappointing people, but soon, very soon, my feet were on sure ground again, and the new landscape was bright and welcoming, and I was happier, and I felt braver.

And then I did not land on my feet. The fall was longer and the wind made my eyes squint and water. I slammed into the ground and I came away bloody. I still felt like a fool and I still felt afraid, and this time I wanted to take it all back, and this time I needed bandages, and this time I was not happier and I did not feel braver.

But I was still brave.

Bravery looks different for everyone. For me, though, it almost always looks like speaking up or turning around when it would be easier not to. It looks like finding my voice and using it. And it sometimes looks like trembling hands and clumsy words and misapplied shame.

Whether you are standing on the edge with shaky knees, or standing in the victory of a safe landing, or barely standing with dripping wounds, take heart. It will get easier, and it will get harder, and it will be worth it, even if you can’t see it now.

Running into Shame and Grief

Crossroads: success or failure
Photo by stockmonkeys.com via Flickr’s creative commons.

I ran a marathon last week, and it broke my heart.

“It was hard, but at least I finished,” I tell the people I don’t know as well. With others, the words “excruciating” and “demoralizing” and “disappointing” might make their way into my answers. But I’m still smiling as I list the reasons why my race was all those things.

I’m not very good at letting people see my grief. I know this because sometimes they’ve laughed when I’ve told them about my race, and I’m sure they thought they were laughing with me.

One week ago, I was shivering in shorts and a T-shirt and marveling at the colors in the morning sky. It had been a long week and I knew it would be a hot day, but I had no misgivings, no latent fears that my body might fail me.

It was Easter Sunday when I first put my hair up and ran a few blocks down the street and back. Before the month was out, I had all but decided that this would be my year to run a marathon. I printed out a training schedule: 168 boxes with 168 assignments.

I was an outstanding pupil, waking up while everyone else slept, strapping water to my waist, filling my weekends with running and recovery. Little by little, running became my life in a way nothing else was.

I can write, but I haven’t written much this year. I have people I love, but there is almost always some sort of distance. I love to talk, but fear has kept me silent. I have dreams and desires, but I slip into nothing and everything.

Running has been my constant. I can run, and I did run. I hated always getting up early and running the same routes until I was sick of them and taking the bus to yet another street corner. But I did it. This was my success story, my purpose, maybe even my identity.

Every so often when I wondered if I would really be ready come October 18, the stars would align on the trail and I would be smiling through the sweat and my confidence would rise.

And then October 18 came.

The first half of the race went as expected. The second half did not.

I must have started too fast. I must not have eaten enough that morning. The sun did not relent. And then pain slowly took over my pelvis.

I virtually stopped running by mile 18, but by then even just walking was hard. I almost cried at one point because I was so miserable. I don’t know exactly when I realized that I would not be bouncing back, that it would not be getting better, that there would be no glory in this day, but I know that by a certain point I wasn’t just physically shattered; I was heartbroken and ashamed.

I texted my roommates, who were waiting at the finish line with homemade signs, that I would be much later than expected. How low I have sunk that I’m texting during my marathon.

I passed people holding signs and cheering. They must think I didn’t prepare for this at all.

I thought of the pin I had proudly purchased at the Expo two days before. I can’t imagine wearing that now.

I turned the last corner and saw the finish line just ahead. I started running so that I could finish with at least a modicum of dignity. It’s barely even accurate to say that I ran a marathon.

It felt like a cruel trick. I had done everything I was supposed to do since May. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. I felt no sense of accomplishment when I crossed the finish line, when I posed for a picture with my roommates, when I answered excited questions later. Rather, I cringed and cried heartbroken tears and wished I hadn’t told so many people about the race.

And then I decided I had to redeem myself by running the Colfax Marathon in May. Never mind all my reasons to take a break from distance running; I had to fix this mess as soon as possible.

This is where I am right now: grieving, grateful that the questions are subsiding, and realizing that my identity is clipped onto my ability to run longer distances than most people I know. I’ve had moments of joy on this journey, but it’s all been too dependent on what happens on a single day in October. If I end up running the Colfax Marathon next year, I want it to be for the right reasons.

But for now, I am letting myself be still and grieve.

10K in 2009
My first race: a 10K in 2009
Marathon in 2015
My latest race: a marathon in 2015

Embers

embers
Photo by Javier Rodríguez on Flickr’s creative commons.

Work might be saving my life right now.

On one side of the weekend, the happier side, I sigh and let go and sink backwards into a soft chair. But then I don’t get up, not really. The loneliness and the depression are always waiting to welcome me back.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here

I wake up on Tuesday, the feet on my back and chest still there, the sugar comas and screens still fresh in my mind in a hazy sort of way, and it is with the usual Monday dread that I think of my office, waiting for me. I pull my sluggish self up, I try unsuccessfully to pray in the car, and then I unlock the door and turn on the lights. Amid the piles of papers and the blinking red light on the phone, what’s waiting for me — again — catches me by surprise — again: relief.

Maybe I’m just losing myself in busyness, but I’d like to think there’s something sacramental in the movement of my hands, the microcosmic rhythms of meaningful work, the ebb and flow of order and chaos. Either way, this is my balm.

Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

As usual, the sun shades are pulled low over the windows, and I can only see dark shapes from my swivel chair. September did not feel like fall, but it was cold enough in my car this morning to turn the heat on intermittently, and it was cloudy enough to set aside the sunglasses. I hear the rain, sometimes, and I write October 6, 2015 on forms, and I think that “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

Hours later, the coffee shop next door closes for the day, sequestering itself behind its metal wall. The chairs are empty and the staircase is empty and there is no movement behind most of the doors. Real darkness descends beyond my shrouded windows, but I am not there to see it. Instead, I am in my windowless cubby of a file room, separated even from the idea of people by two sets of doors, and I am softly singing Christmas songs.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

I marvel at what a difference twelve hours can make in reanimating ashes, turning back the clock to make live coals pregnant with promise once again. But maybe the clock isn’t going backwards but forwards; maybe this is a resurrection.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

I am singing louder now, in my car, and it’s yet another reminder of what music is capable of doing, how it fills and quickens and whispers. And yet it isn’t music that is saving my life, and it isn’t work. But maybe, just maybe, there is something in the pulse of both that holds the key to resurrection.

Running into Grace

shoes
Photo by Fe Ilya in Flickr’s creative commons.

I am standing at a street corner in the predawn blue. A gas station to my right outshines the few remaining stars, and behind me the green-yellow-red rhythm regains its usefulness. We are all waking up.

Ahead, the sidewalk curves into a trail along a river, where I will see deer and rabbits and ducks, and I will keep looking to the right, past the highway to the eastern horizon, and I will be grinning.

Most runs aren’t like this.

Mostly it looks like waking up at 5:30 and sticking band-aids on my blistered toes and putting in the time so I can cross off another box on my marathon training plan. It feels like sweat dripping into my eyes and wanting to stop.

I can feel the way my body has changed, I can close my eyes and taste glory, I can pat myself on the back for my dogged determination. But I can’t make it all feel worth it in the moment.

“I’m so over running,” I was telling people and telling myself. “I can’t wait to have my life back again.”

But then, once in a while, something happens as I go through the familiar motions of strapping on the waistband and the armband and curling my fingers around the water bottle. And then this something, this brightness and hope, carries me into the thick of it and whispers, “Remember.”

Remember that your body knows how to do this. Remember how strong you are. Remember that you have been preparing for this and you are ready for this.

On that 20-mile run, I remembered.

Two hundred and seventeen minutes after the gas station and the traffic lights, I saw the bridge that doubled as my finish line that day. As I passed into the shadow underneath and slowed to a walk, it was with the deepest sense of awe and completion. I felt not only the usual relief of being done, but the power of every step that had brought me to that bridge, of the birdsong and iPod-song that had kept me company, of the amazing thing this body of mine had done.

Maybe October 18 will mark my last race. Maybe distance running is my today, but not my tomorrow. Maybe these shoes, figuratively speaking, don’t fit me as well as others I have worn and will wear. But there will always be shoes that are even harder to squeeze into, seasons and circumstances that will burst upon me, that will blindside me, that will stretch me thin and turn me inside out.

And yet, even in the middle of the pain and the barely-hanging-on, the blisters and the ragged breathing, may I catch glimpses of grace and remember.