330 Miles of Freedom: On Bike Camping and The Paths That Teach You

Photo: MO

Photo: MO

Sometimes the path to freedom is clumsy, achieved only by trial and error. That was the case for me one rainy 60 degree Thursday in May. A few friends and I were going on a four day bike camping trip from DC to Pittsburgh, that is, if I could figure out how to bike with all this stuff without tipping over. I never made it to REI to buy a sleeping pad, so I experimented with different angles in which to slide the cot poles into my makeshift milk crate bike rack.

I first slid them sideways, like a mini jetliner, silver poles akin to three feet long airplane wings. Tipping over, neighbors waiting at the bus stop peered over with a look of confusion. I then tried length wise, airplane wings traded for airplane streaks hanging off the back. I tipped over again, this time neighbors lightly chuckling through their perplexed grins.
I rested my heavy bike against the porch, while all five tent poles slid through one of the crate holes. “Damn it!” I shouted, chucking bagels and bananas from the crate to the porch. I leave the groceries I bought at home, taking just enough food to get through the next 24 hours, grabbed my sleeping bag and a blanket, and left the house.
Stepping onto my bike, the first few pedal stroke felt liberating. My sole task these next four days was to simply bike on wooded trails with apertures to mountains, gurgling streams swimming with us, with nothing but my backpack and crate, plus the camaraderie of a few friends until we reached Pittsburgh 330 miles later.
This is freedom, at least, one form of it: to have all you need to get you until just beyond the next day, so that you might truly take your days one at a time. Freedom to feel movement, momentum, the wind on your face, sun to your skin. To bear witness to light and water and air, fresh air. To hear the owls, lay beneath stars, and simply be. It’s not always easy to reach this place, and many thoughts of my unknown future would try to bite at the outskirts of this space. But my feet are pedaling, I was in motion, the thoughts and fears of the future trying to lurk in the shadows of mile markers simply couldn’t keep up. Because I was moving forward into sunshine lit gravel paths, not turning back.
                                                                   . . . .

Thump, thud, thump. “What was that?” I asked, hissing from my back tire answering back. I took out my headlamp and began to fix my flat. “I believe you forgot this,” David motioned, holding up my can of dented vegetarian chili, one of the few food items I brought that also took a beating from the pothole. We burst out laughing and pitch our tent in the dark, trying to make sense of terse instructions with inadequate pictures, poles poking out of corners, until we reached sleep.

. . . .

The next day brought more flats, fixes, and an unsuccessful stop at a meager bike shop, followed by a successful one. “That’s a lotta gear you got,” the owner greeted us, welcoming us into his small town shop. I bought two tires, having been the only one to not consider beforehand just how worn mine were. The owner invited us back to his work area to tackle the tires. Sensing our slow progress, the owner bent down, “I usually go like this, ” he said, trading levers for bare hands. He told us about his nine year old daughter and all of the bike maintenance skills she could already do, while the other shop owner told stories of when he made this exact trip. “But you all are crazy camping. We did bed and breakfasts.” We laughed and soon were on our way, saying goodbye, warmed by small town kindness.

“Listen, baby, ain’t no mountain high,” Devan sang.  “Ain’t no valley low,” I responded, until the three of us sang away on fresh tires. Devan would be a source of optimism, joy, a beacon of unflappable positivity throughout this journey. She’s that kind of friend, both on and off the bike. The one who gets you outside of your head, until you’re singing or dancing, whatever the moment calls for. She takes both the ordinary and extraordinary experiences, and gives them just a little kick, by befriending strangers, by whooping and hollering on bikes riding through the city streets at night. I’m not sure where I will end up when my fellowship ends in a month and a half, but I can’t imagine doing life without this friend, and vow to keep in touch no matter where we both end up.

. . . .

We pitched our tents in the dark again, only slightly faster than the night before and fall asleep exhausted and content.  We churned out sixty miles in the daylight and at dusk, we took turns leading our pace line. The sun set into a dim light until headlamps and bike lights were necessary. I turned mine on and picked up speed a bit, glued to mile 114, our resting point for the night. We were quiet except for the occasional “woah!” exclamation that happened when an owl swooped down beside us to pause on a branch and each time we reached an aperture from the woods into grassy openings that gave way to the stars and heavens above. Away from the illumination of the city, our lights and headlamps shed the way 10 feet at a time. It dawned on me, as I continued to ride steady, that I didn’t even want to try and look more than 10 feet ahead. I couldn’t see beyond there no matter how hard I tried, and might miss something important if I attempted– like the unexpected tree root or rock or quiet fox that brushed against the space between trail and grass. It occurred to me how many times I’ve tried tracing shapes out of the shadows, trying to figure out the shapes and contours of the future, when all I really needed- and all that was really beneficial- was what was right before me- those precious 10 feet of light wrapped in the ambiance of quiet, cool fresh evening air. In 2010, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a future focused orientation to life that detracts from the present. Since then, every change, every decision was often met with a system of checks and balances, wanting to ensure security and assurance in a world that cannot promise that. But here, on these quiet bike trails, this stream of light pouring from my bike reminded me of the new way in which I wanted to orient myself with the world. I end a year long fellowship in two months and feel convinced that this is the time to travel for a few months and figure out the whole career thing when I return. It doesn’t feel natural to not know what’s next, and I somehow feel irresponsible for taking a timeout to learn from the world. But here, the only thing that feels more irresponsible is to not take advantage of this natural break to taste more of this world and the people in it. These trails speak of a freedom, an unconventional way of life that’s countercultural to societal norms of work, marriage, home ownership, and family in a linear fashion, as though that molded timeframe is supposed to fit everyone. If these paths could speak, I’m sure they would whisper just one word, “Freedom… freedom…” gently but firmly, over and over again until the word and all its possibilities hug me on the shoulders like a wise parent who guides and then sets free. 

We reach the end of the canal and find our way uphill to a YMCA campground consisting of an open soccer field, port-a-potty, and a nails-on-chalkboard loud train on a small hill above us about 20 yards away. We fell asleep and woke up several times to that stupid train, until it was morning and Devan greeted me with a cheery, “Good morning!”

“Uhhh,” I groaned back, cursing the morning light, clamoring for sleep instead of embracing our third day of adventure. A few caffeinated gels later, I perked up enough to speak in respectful sentences and we began our second leg of the journey into the Allegheny. Our 80 miles take us uphill, downhill, and back up again; exhausting, but hope filled. If I ever need to have my faith restored in humanity, I will remember the rural Pennsylvanians who shared free water and a place to rest along the trail, the many people who offered us food and even rides to our campsites “in case you don’t make it before dark,” and these friends who shared chamois creme when my butt was on fire. We reached our campsite in the dark, where another friend met us for the final leg.

MO 2015

MO 2015

Our last morning began with sliding down a natural waterslide in 55 degree water. Invigorated, we pedaled onward. We reached mile 270 by afternoon, and I was already grieving the journey’s end. The circus I performed for my neighbors trying to balance a cot on an old crate I found in the basement. The night we showed each other planets and other parts of the sky that we didn’t pay attention to back in the city, until we’re laughing on our backs about things that really wouldn’t have been so funny if we had not been biking 80 miles into the 10 PM night sky. Funny how you can want it all back- the saddlesoreness, the rough starts, the bugs that hit our jackets like raindrops. The down trees that force you stop until you decide to take a much needed beans-from-a-can dinner break. The flat tires that get changed much faster when its you and three friends, each teaching one another a pointer we learned along the way from some other cyclist, until by the time our fifth flat arrived, we had an assembly line of sorts down pat.

MO 2015

MO 2015

Evening sun illuminated bridges and tall buildings off in the distance. Pittsburgh. I thought about others’ journeys to freedom, like those souls that constructed the highest point of the bridge, then walked across for the first time, and what sense of freedom that must have felt like. And for how many, now well over a century later, find leaving across this bridge to be a form of freedom from a quotidian routine, and for how many, entering this city is a different kind of freedom, one of return, arrival, a sense of home and hope. There are so many kinds of freedom out there. We raised our bikes above our heads from the bridges into the sunset. I did not think of the future, and I was free.

Photo: MO

Photo: MO

Advertisements

The Space Between Rootedness and Exploration

“Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.” -Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts
Photo: Firlefanz, Pinterest

Photo: Firlefanz, Pinterest

I never thought I would come to love this city so much. In fact, when I moved back here after backing out of my Peace Corps assignment, I felt ashamed. For four years, I lived In the Baltimore surburbs as an undergraduate. The world felt big and wondrous. I planned to spend two years in Africa with the Peace Corps and then two years in Colorado for grad school. Never was it in my plans to live near here again. But in 2010, after my mental health tanked and I needed to say “no” to my Peace Corps dream, I received a job at Johns Hopkins, living in Towson for another year before spending another three in different neighborhoods of Baltimore. In 2011, I moved to an underserved neighborhood with a friend and while I could never bring myself to say hate- I detested Baltimore. This neighborhood. My job. Didn’t see what this city had to offer, where its life was.

But then I moved to a quirky neighborhood, that, while not particularly racially diverse, is an eclectic source of artists, hipsters, cyclists, social advocates, a few old white men who never seem to leave the bar, and, of course, your standard Bawlmer Hon. I began going to a liberal Church that particularly focused on LGBT inclusion, learning much from my pastor who is a married lesbian. One meaningful connection led to another, as so often does, and pretty soon I began meeting these funky people in my neighborhood. We made videos on being people of faith who support marriage equality, paraded monthly through diverse neighborhoods of the city on bikes, gathered together for Tuesday night discussions on spirituality and social justice. I biked with triathletes through beautiful farmlands and open spaces. I became friends with a 60 year old Jewish woman I met in jury duty. I began going to holiday parties, meeting more and more friends who felt like “my” people in which I could both be accepted and challenged to become my best self in the community and the world. Sitting on the ledge of the front porch one night swinging my legs up and down, I looked up at the moon feeling so grateful for people and places of beauty and belonging. I don’t even recognize the me who once felt ashamed of living in this city with amity in my heart.
So in June 2014, when it was time for me to move to Washington DC, a mere 42 miles away, I sat back on the ledge of that front porch, feeling bittersweet about an exciting fellowship I’d soon be starting, and moving away from a city I began to love like a mother-nothing-can-stop-me-from-loving-you-do-you-hear-me kind of love. Sure, it would be easy for me to come back. But I reckoned it wouldn’t be the same.

And same it wasn’t, because life wasn’t created for sameness. But it has been good. And now, with a few months out in the horizon, I will be facing another transition. My fellowship in DC will end and I have no idea where I’ll live or what I’ll do. But in processing decisions I will soon have to make, I am struck by two orientations: rootedness vs exploration. Rootedness is what caused the latter half of my Baltimore experience to be so good. It’s those on-going deep conversations with people that only comes from meeting time and time again. Staying somewhere long enough to be able to laugh about an event with a group of friends that happened ten years ago… 10 years worth of stories, tears, ends and beginnings, a history so rich, you lost track of when you called these people “friends” instead of family.
I stopped looking for ways to leave this place, this “family,” given over instead to a desire to not just stay, but to connect with as many people, places, and activities that moved my heart. Some people call this “settling down,” a term I’m uncomfortable with. A phrase that brings to mind homogeneity- white fences in the suburbs with a spouse, dog and kids. A description that creates a binary- that you are somehow “unsettled” if you don’t take on this narrative; immature, wasting your life on the pleasures of the world instead of doing important adult things. Whatever you call it, though, it’s being able to say, “This is what I want. This is where I want to be. This is who I want to be with. This is what I want to be doing.” 

But what about those parts inside that long for new experiences, to learn as much from the world as possible by setting foot in all of its pockets and contours. That discovers career opportunities in other parts of the world that would be stimulating, yet would require leaving. That longs to say I spent my twenties (thirties, years, decades, whathaveyou) catching sunsets from different latitudes and longitudes- beyond travel? That wants to explore everything? That’s had enough of the fast-paced productivity-driven culture of DC and remembers, well, then you can simply leave?

I know this isn’t black and white, but I somehow feel as though one has to choose between rich relationships spent in community versus discovery and excitement that comes from living in many new places-a year here, a couple there, etc.

But what I’m slowly discovering is that space between. Not a cliche you-can-have-it-all space, but a space that celebrates meaningful relationships while also celebrating freedom and exploration. That’s fearless to leave, not afraid of packing up and charting anew, that won’t stay somewhere because it’s safe and convenient, but because your heart can truly echo, “This is where I want to be right now.” 

Rather than watching friends leave, a voice inside you wondering, “Gee, am I supposed to be leaving too?” Instead, knowing it’s perfectly acceptable to stay too. If I only ever lived within a 3 hour radius of my hometown, what does that say about me? Will I have missed out on some grand experience every young adult is supposed to have before marriage and family (if that’s even in their life plans)? Will it say I haven’t ventured out far enough?

Maybe, maybe not. But I won’t base the quality of these years on where I did or did not live. Maybe I’m never meant to officially move outside this 160 mile radius. Maybe the only time I will have wasted is time spent being somewhere, not fully there. That forgot to recognize this rootedness-exploration pendulum looks different for each person. Perhaps it looks like leaving before you can talk yourself out of it. Perhaps it’s staying engaged in a community and place you love, while feeding your heart’s longing for exploration through travel and diverse friendships, staying far from ritzy hotels and tourists traps and getting lost instead in people’s stories, culture, and off-beaten paths that await. Perhaps it looks like leaving and staying in touch. That setting aside money for a plane ticket back to the city and people you love once or twice a year is a worthy investment. Perhaps it’s simply the orientation that nothing is supposed to stay exactly the same.

I wrestle with this space, this space I know actually exists if your heart really wants to find it. I treasure this space. I celebrate this space.

Where are you going next? Where will your final resting place on Earth be? I can’t tell you that. Where will your friends go, your family, those you met on past travels? Will you ever be able to pinpoint on a map where “home” is anymore? Can’t tell you that either. I can only ask my soul, your soul, to open your hands wide enough to prepare for when that next step comes, that always-hard-at-first moment of transition. To look up at the sunset no matter what latitude or longitude you find yourself gazing from, and find it beautiful. To create community wherever you go, especially by vulnerably speaking your musings and experiences while listening to others as they do the same. Our hearts are big. But they’re also small when you compare it to our limbs and bones. The world is huge. But it’s small enough that there’s room enough in your big heart to hold the people who make it beautiful to you, and as your world expands, the people inside will squeeze in tighter, but in an sacred embrace they wouldn’t experience otherwise. Root. Unroot. Re-root. Transplant. Sprout. Or leave the ground altogether. And treasure that blessed space between.

I’ll see you between the water and the ledge.

mel cliff jump

Photo: MO 2010

 

 

“Yes” in Every Season: Thoughts & Longings on the Last Night of Summer

MO 2014

MO 2014

Outside the last night of summer
Sweeps through my open window
A warm breeze
A slow, steady chirp of crickets
Whose bold summer sonnets
now play early autumn decrescendos.

 I close my eyes and lay by candlelight.
All I can see is still shot goodness of the day–
Looking up into my sister’s smile
With deep blue sky all around
A warming sun on our skin
A far out whisper in the wind
Reminding us that shifting change is coming all too soon.

Familiar drives through open spaces and new places
That leave you looking out the corners of your eyes as much as possible
While still keeping your head straight toward the road.
The beloved old
The uncharted new
All of this feels like home.

MO 2012

MO 2012

I’m at the end of a day that’s left me reignited as to how big and beautiful the world is.

And how all I want to do is learn from the stars
by exploring underneath them
or through high powered lens
Gaping mouths gasping soft “woah”s.
Aware of everything
The slow in and our of our breaths
My desire to touch hands in fully alive love

MO 2014

MO 2014

All I want is to throw a few things in a backpack
Drive out somewhere
And wander these trails with no destination
Just grateful for the world outside
And friends like you.

I want songs with sweet, dripping lyrics
and ambient melodies telling us a story
that wouldn’t be heard the same way
if it were dulled with words.

Give me poetry.
And chocolate.
And all those things our hearts beat for,
each syncopation relishing, “yesssss.”

I don’t like when summer wanes
but the longings of my heart
are happy to start this fall
With a new feel in my heart

Filled with wonder
Craving the world
Loving this Earth
And the incredibleness of community
Reminding each other

there is “yes” in every season.

Free Hugs and The Art of Burning Like Fabulous Yellow Roman Candles

I’ve always been enamored by idealists, the dreamers. The mind-speakers. The norm challengers and status-quo re-writers. The people of second and 99th chances. The ones who stomp in puddles and sing in the rain while everyone else is inside dry, … Continue reading

Finding My Voice (and a little pep talk for the young girls out there)

keep the earth below my feetI had a professor in college who taught us about the “principle of leaving and entering,” i.e. one cannot move forward to the next [life stage, opportunity, job, city, destination, you fill in the blank] without making peace with what you’re leaving behind [be it college, your hometown, you get the idea]. At the time, I was dreaming about volunteering abroad after college, and ready to leave behind the America I knew. But what I didn’t realize at 22 is that the next stage of life would be just as much about putting things behind as it would be about pursuing new things.
A couple years after college, I burnt out.
I. simply. Couldn’t. keep. Up.
I lost myself and become bitter and cynical towards much of what I saw around me.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I realized just how many voices of the past were still lingering in my head, like flies in desperate need of a fly swatter. Voices of a spiritual community that said women were to be submissive, to “let their husbands lead.” Churches that said males were to be “pastor, provider, and protector” of his wife. Voices that said being a female pastor was a sin. Voices that made sure everybody knew what Christianity stood against, but left the world puzzled as to what we actually stood for. Voices that tried to rescue souls from hell, while ignoring the literal hells and Gehennas in the world going on right now. Sexual slavery. HIV/AIDS. Extreme poverty. Orphans without homes. Should I keep going?

In 2012, I began a journey towards freedom- freedom of religion, of dogma, of other people’s demands, of paved paradises- into a personal journey of development and enrichment. It’s looked like lots of open spaces, lots of gathering ’round the table over wine and sweets and savories, lots of finding and losing myself on bicycles. In this freedom, it’s as though God took me by the hand to lovingly, but firmly, (because the lesson was too important to miss out on) teach me that the thing about the past is just that. It’s in the past. It cannot hurt you again. It cannot continue to hurt you or frustrate you unless you let those voices zap your energy from the present moment.
For far too long, this woman’s listened to voices of the past that were squelching life, joy, zest for the moment. Alas, I looked myself in the mirror, a good ol’ stare yourself down, straight-up-talk, with a little bit o’ lovin’, and a lot of bit of firmness. I looked in the mirror, and noticed a cynic. Ugh. I hate that word. To me, it’s synonymous with a passive, complaining, do-nothing-to-change-anything kind of persona. So I asked God to silence those voices, the ones that were slowly, painfully, hauntingly taking away my joy, my peace, my resolve, and silence them one and for all, to free me from the people and places and noises that were no longer helping me become the person I want to become. I asked God to change me from cynicism into activism. Hurt into compassion. Bitter to better.

Somewhere in the process, I learned that I don’t need to fight anymore.. not against those voices, at least. A little whisper breathed into my heart,
You’ve been freed.
Let your load feel lighter, your burdens from heavy rocks to little pieces of shiny yellow sand.
Put the boxing gloves down.
Breathe.
You no longer have to defend, nor strive, nor try to make yourself understood.”

I thought it would feel easier. But then I realized that that’s not quite the way it works. The moment you stand for something, there is something you are implicitly standing against. The more and more you become the person you want to be, the voice that isn’t God’s will try to steer you off course. When you become YOU, not someone else’s version of you, you will disappoint people. But let me tell you something, you will become the person you were made to be. The more you will realize that the very people still standing beside you are there because they really do love you, they really do care, and they really do desire God’s peace and love and blessings upon you, not out of pity, nor spite, but out of a selfless kind of love that has found its way through the broken chains of redemption, giving voice and beauty to the very fact that you and I are both humans, composed of flesh and blood, and you and I have both been created in the womb.
I am freed now from what’s been zapping precious energy, and I can’t wait to learn, and love, and do, and grow, and experience with this new found freedom what God can finally place in my life in the thoughts and corners and crevices of my heart that were once holding onto hurt, bitterness, and a seemingly endless desire to be understood. I am free. I can only imagine what will go in those pockets of my heart now. I can love without mountains of expectations or fears of being hurt.
I can express bona fide joy—my smiles will no longer be a veil, hiding a voice that’s afraid of being mistaken as impolite, too afraid to speak up.
I can operate out of a place that points to the horizon and feel alive in my soul, and my bones, and my eyes; to live the story, full and raw, not dependent upon things be one way or another, but ever confident that this risk of living a better story is so much better than living in the choking weight of others’ voices that try to drown out the one true voice of who you want to become.

Go point to your horizon.

MOVE.
You don’t have time to respond to your critics.
You simply don’t have time.
Be you, the REAL you, ALL of you… that’s what the world needs.
Go seek.
Go ask.
Because what I hope that the girls of new generations come  to realize is this: that if ever there was a time for women to rise up and unite, the time is now. Oh yes, I’m thankful for my sisters who gave me the ability to vote. For women who went to college and challenged typical professions. But there is so much work we still must do.

Advocate.
Preach.
Lobby.
Dream. Louder.

May you listen to that one constant in your heart.
May you give voice and flow to all that longs to leap inside of you.
May your songs be peace, may your dance be love, and may your love bring freedom.

Because you have a voice that’s no one else’s.
We’re ready to hear it.

“This is the only time in your life…”

“This is the only time in your life when you can focus on your sport and your sport alone,” his stolid words echoed through the natatorium while writing today’s workout on the whiteboard. Sounds like hell, one side of me … Continue reading

A few telescopes, some friends, and plenty of stars.

Saturday, June 8th, Solider’s Delight Natural Environment Area:

“That doesn’t look like a swan,” someone in the group mutters aloud.

“Well, you have to have an imagination. Remember, when the Native Americans, Greeks, and Arabs named the stars, they could see them billions at a time; there was no light pollution to inhibit their view,” an astronomer whiz shares with us.

It’s late Saturday night, and some friends and I are at Soldier’s Delight for a stargazing night put on by the Westminster Astronomy Club. Volunteers set up their elaborate telescopes for the community to use the second Saturday evening of each month. And this month, some friends and I decide to not miss out on the opportunity to look up in wide-eyed wonder.

“That’s M21 out there, you see it, to the right?” our instructor, Skip, motions.

“No, but what’s M83?” I ask.

“One of the galaxies.”

“Oh.. it’s also the name of a great band,” I share, feeling some celestial connection of music and stars.

The stars elicit questions a mile long.

What was the transit of Venus all about? What was the most memorable stargazing experience you’ve ever had? What’s the difference between a red dwarf and a brown dwarf?

“How many satellites are in the sky on any given night?” I ask.

“Well, it depends, you might be seeing an in-tact satellite, or a glove falling from a satellite, or just general space junk…” Skip muses.

“Space junk, is that anything like Space Jam?” my friend Rajni asks. We all laugh from the ground, bodies sprawled out on grass and cement in wonder and gratitude.

It’s 10 PM, which segues into 11 PM, but time is put on hold for now, and I try to stay here in this moment, in this solitude, underneath this sky, with these friends that I yearned for when I moved to inner city Baltimore a couple of years ago, lonely, and wondering what the hell I was doing was with my life.

A warm gratitude relaxes my body, like a soothing cup of hot tea, and I lay my head onto the grass. It’s amazing how many satellites you can trace with your finger across the night sky if you sit down long enough to look up.

We take turns looking through high-tech telescopes, pointed at double stars, galaxies, and Saturn. I peer into the lens. Inside, a round, pale yellow circle enclosed by a thick ring stares back, a distant object the size of my pinky fingernail.

“Woah!”

“Wow.”

“Awesome.”

Each phrase becomes a prayer, connecting us to the universe around us, back to a Maker, a Creator, that larger presence that some of us don’t mind calling God.

I find hope, awe, wonder, humility, and faith looking into each telescope lens, scientific tools enabling us to learn and unlearn of a world we cannot understand, of a largeness and vastness that just keeps going and going and going to… where? I don’t know.

But up above our heads gracefully dangle bands of gas that have swirled together to sustain a planet light years away, light from something so far away that we’re merely looking back in time to what it was lightyears ago, a time-space continuum that baffles my mind, like Back to the Future, or traveling back in time, a perpetuity I’m half-scared and half-ecstatic to enter to into, wondering if you were catapult yourself into this space, what time would it actually be?

A few telescopes, some friends, and plenty of stars bring my mind into the past and the present and future all at once. My memories drift back to the night sky of Botswana, Africa in August 2007. My 20 year old self is sleeping under the African sky with a tent full of snoring “macoas” (white people) and crickets. Just on the edge of the horizon, The Southern Cross peers out, playing a peek-a-boo game with sky and Earth. Alas, in winter solstice, that’s all we see of it this night, though hardly a disappointment. There’s stars everywhere, and they shine like the smiles of each child I met over the past two weeks here, some in orphanages, some in villages, some walking back home from school, waving jovially.

I enter back into the stars of the present, my night at Soldier’s Delight with friends, my heart drenched in melancholy for Africa, a pining so emotive, I remind myself of the promise I made to myself: to return to Africa by the time I’m 30, and I re-commit to it with alacrity.

I guess that’s what the stars do to us: awaken our sense of curiosity and wonder, our desire to learn more ponderings of how we got here, and what does it all mean, and this can’t be it, right? A pep talk sans spoken word, just twinkling of molecules daring each of us to dream bigger and surround ourselves with people who will believe in you, who will nurture the restless adventurer inside who never ceases to explore, ready for another question, a brand new musing.

And so tonight it seems there is much to be thankful for. Friends, genuinely good people, the ones I’d been trying to find in this city for the previously lonely past couple years. My life feels rich and full and like it’s about to exciting, because these dreams in my mind refuse to stay quelled as a mere idea, no— they’re ready to leap out into daylight, into air, into existence in movement and dance. I want to see it all unfold. New visas. Plane tickets. A life of making merry and mess and saying what I want to say even if  my voice trembles. I want to experience a love sopping wet with life and adventure, disheveled wet drops pouring over two lovers who view everyday by asking, “How much fun can we create today?” One dream lending itself to another, another one birthing out of the completion of the former.

Alas, we drive home, but my mind is still creating new possibilities. I pay attention to car headlights meeting cement, occasionally glancing to the side to check for deer along the tree-filled roads. My friends and I talk quietly in the car, softly, sleepily, but my mind is somewhere else— Still grappling with the fact that the planet I learned about in middle school science class, drawn in a text book, not only hangs above us in the night sky, but is able to be viewed by our little eyes if only we stop to look. It’s in the sky, right now, as I type, as you read this; it’s so so far way away, appearing like a mere sticker through a 150 power telescope. But it’s out there.

Hope.

It’s out there.

Peace.

It’s out there, again and again, night after night after night after night; these sunsets, these stars, these planets, all hovering above us, never shouting, nor demanding our attention, but exuding a captivating pull, begging us into a story of wonder and awe.

I’m back at the house, eyes closed, trying to fall asleep. All I can see is the ingrained image of Saturn, an image I know will come back to me time and time again as I live out this next week. A soothing image massaging my shoulders, whispering a loving, “Don’t you worry, Child,” to all who ponder its mystery. “I won’t,” I promise back. Tomorrow, maybe, but for right now, I won’t worry. And if I’m lucky, Saturn’s image might come back in and speak that love song of serenity into my soul, into my toes, into my finger, oh I’ll live blown away…

Photo Credit: Wellington Astronomical Society

26. (I’m Still a Dreamer)

I had a conversation on a plane last week with a woman who lamented, “I just feel like I haven’t accomplished anything and I’m 65 years old.” This woman, mind you, runs her own business, volunteers with her Church, has raised 3 daughters, is active in the lives of her grandkids, and has poured out her painful experience of divorce to support other friends who’ve walked the same crestfallen lines.

“I thought I’d be married by now,” I heard another friend say.

“I thought I would have been more successful at this point in my life.”

“I thought I would have accomplished more by now.”

Do you hear voices you know in those sentiments? Have you ever felt that way?

I turned 26 a few weeks ago. From the get go, I knew it would be a hard number for me. Throughout college, I talked non-stop of serving in the Peace Corps in Africa post-college and then attending grad school immediately after. “I kinda know what I’m doing with the next four years, or so, at least,” I shared with a friend a few weeks out from college graduation. “I’ll spend two years overseas and then two years in grad school, and by that time, gosh, I’ll be 26!” I remember exclaiming, and wow, did 26 seem much older then.

Peace Corps was my dream. My passion. The thing that drove me to put all my energy into swimming Division 1 athletics now, because one day I would be on a plane headed off to Africa. I saw the faces of women and girls I met on a short term trip back when I was 20 in Botswana. I dreamed of meeting more of those animated smiles. I scribbled “Peace Corps” all over notebooks, especially my senior year, when I was tired of learning about people and just wanted to be out in the vast, wide open world with people. I’d dream about which country I’d get selected for. I poured over University of Denver’s Masters in International Human Rights program with vigor, glancing on their website when I should have been writing papers. Life seemed big, seemed open, seemed exciting and filled with possibilities and wonder.

Until that stopped.

It was January 20, 2010, 10 minutes before the close of business on the day before I was supposed to leave for South Africa with Peace Corps. I had knots in my throat all day and stared at the phone until 4:50 PM, pacing my room with trepidation, sadness, loss, fear, and most notably, uncertainty. My mental health had taken a downward turn. During my sophomore year of college, I developed anxiety for the first time in my life. I began to withdraw from my daily activities, including friendships, then entered in anxiety’s menace counterpart: depression. Throughout college, I attended a couple of clinical counseling sessions (but couldn’t afford to do a series of consecutive sessions that would have enabled me to really address my issues) and relied on my anxiety/depression medication and prescription sleeping pills. It was something I hoped would get better, would go away. I didn’t think it would turn into something that would take me away from the dream I’d been building.

But it did, and I made that painful phone call to say I wasn’t going to be leaving tomorrow. After receiving a few minutes of condolences and logistical instructions (“You can expect your passport to be mailed back to you in approximately 4-6 weeks”), I bawled my eyes out. My dream lie crushed, broken, smashed on the floor, like a million photographs shredded into one thousand pieces, all within a matter of a 5 minute phone call.

Now what?

First thing was to schedule an appointment to see a psychiatrist. It was the best gift I ever spent on myself. Through medication and  counseling, I began to gain new footing and spent my days writing cover letter after cover letter, wondering if anyone would even read the text over which I labored.

But sure enough, I had a job interview one long month later, and within two weeks, was hired as an HIV research assistant for a start date in April, giving me one whole month to re-focus, re-gain strength, and most importantly, breathe in the beauty of the spring air around me underneath the solace of Magnolia trees.

So many wonderful things have happened over the past four years; things I could have never foreseen at 22 when I said “no” to my Peace Corps dream. I spent 10 days in Cambodia with a women’s advocacy group. I began weekly therapy sessions, finally able to crawl out from underneath the rubble I felt like I created. I began writing and even got a few articles published. My family celebrated my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, bringing together all of my cousins who are scattered across the US.

But I knew 26 would still bring back memories of realizing that I never accomplished the life goals I had for myself at 22.

Which begs the question…

What do we do when our dreams get smashed? When your dreams are taken from you? When your dreams become trampled upon, left for dead? When that gaping whole in your heart where your dream once was pangs with emptiness and longing for the dream to return?

To find that out, I went back to water, my first love.

I headed out to a reservoir with one of my best friends on my birthday, gathering small rocks and stones scattered along the shoreline. We wrote each of our regrets, fears, worries, and uncertainties on the rocks with a sharpie. All of the things we needed to make peace with. The things we thought we would have done by now- the way it was “supposed” to turn out– and we tossed each and every one in the water. Sunk them. Skipped them. Hurled them like a shotput, letting all of the shame, disappointment, and fear of the future go with the rocks we now released into the water.

It was a holy moment.

A freeing moment.

To acknowledge crushed dreams and to affirm that my dreaming spirit never died; it just got revamped.

The thing I’m learning about dreams is that they are changeable, moldable, adaptable. They are resilient, yet flexible. True dreams offer life, not shame. They guide you but don’t harness you in. True dreams don’t immobilize. They recognize the wind and waves, and move with you, not against you. A passionate current that allows you to be washed over and over again with hope.

It’s that hope I think about when the Bible talks about “turning swords into ploughshares.” I’ve always been fascinated by the symbolism of taking something negative and turning it into something positive, useful, something better and more beautiful. I think that’s what God longs to do with dreams that never came into fruition. To take our crushed spirit and set us on a new trajectory, one that is more open, and free, and ever-passionate. One that accepts that things change, and don’t turn out the way we think they are “supposed to.” Ones that don’t feel too heavy because we can hold onto them tightly enough to put in our blood, sweat, and tears, but loosely enough to let the light in, let in air, let in matter, creativity, open-mindedness, and acceptance.

Right now, I say I want to get married sometime in my 30s and adopt a child in my 40s. But I hear a little bit of my obstinate, so-sure 22 year old self in there. I’m learning that dreams change, including timelines, and to not get so hell-bent on insisting things turn out the way I want them to right now, because who knows, that 22 year old girl who was sooo sure of the future has learned a thing or two now.

And so what about you?

It doesn’t matter if you’re 26 or 36 or 96 or too afraid or too scared.
Your dream is still there.

Oh sure, it may have changed shape since you first dreamed it up, but there’s still something tugging at your heart, calling you into life each day.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve said “no” to opportunities that you just weren’t ready for.

You still have the heart of a dreamer and that can never be taken from you.

May we have the fortitude to express our disappointment in not accomplishing what we thought we would, without shaming ourselves.

May you have eyes to see the amazing things you have done, though perhaps not your main dreams, the things that have shaped and molded you, and given meaning to your life.

May we come to understand that dreams shift, dreams change, and may our hearts be open to new directions, confident that there is something bigger going on here, things that if we were to see ahead of time, all at once, we could hardly contain ourselves in joy.

I’m 26 today…
IMG_1498

  
  

… and I’m still a dreamer.

                                  

   

     

          Have you ever lost a dream? What was that process like?
             How did you gain a new vision for your life?

A Love Letter From God In The Midst of Confusion ((Part II))

Just some words of peace and love that I imagine God whispers in our ears in the mist of confusion or change. You are that Dear Child of God.

 We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot
       

Dear Child of God,

Together, you and I have journeyed these times through and through. Every time it seems as though you face a new intersection, it’s tempting to think you’ll be alone, but let me assure you, you will never be truly alone. I will be with you always and I will send you love and kindness through the people around you. I promise. Choose to encourage yourself in the moments of un-joy that I am orchestrating things you just have no idea about yet. Yes, I will have beautiful new opportunities ahead of you.

I know it’s tempting to avoid and ignore feelings of pain, confusion, discomfort, anxiety. But there’s something bigger here, if you dare to look deeper in your bravest moment. I hope you can look back on my faithfulness and realize that every time you run away instead of facing the uncertainty of things unknown, you lose out on an opportunity for growth. There’s something here for you. Look again. Too big? Too scary? Gently lift the covers away from your face while I hold your hand. Child, while I wipe away the exhaustion from your face and plant a tender kiss on your forehead, I pray you’ll free your tarried mind from the burden of “why.” I can see the road ahead. You cannot. I know that frustrates you. But when you free yourself from the burden of having to have it all figured out now, have all the “whys” answered, you create space for my peace to enter in. It yearns to have room in your heart, your chest, your eyes, your smile, your soul. But inside of you, it’s crowded with the “why’s” and the secret fears that I already know of. There’s no room in the inn of your heart but I will find a way to make room to slip into your soul, through the cracks of your despondency as I melt your fears away like the wax from your midnight burning candle flickering in your dark room right now. I’ve come to bring light to your darkness. Let me in.

I know you’re afraid of rejection, of not being accepted by the people you meet. That your task-oriented, introverted personality tempts you to avoid investing in deep relationships. I assure you. Be yourself. I will give you new experiences of my love as you meet new people, find friends of freedom that you’ve been longing for. But you need community. And I want to show myself faithful to you in this arena. So leave the house. Put the keys in the ignition. Go meet someone new and get lost in their story. It will help shape or touch yours, anyway. Each of you have something to teach the world. When you’re feeling lost or confused or feel as though you can barely figure out how to make peace with the changes coming your away, check in on a friend and realize that they’re probably going through some of these same things too. Choose to be in it together. There’s going to be days that hurt, break, make you cry out in the dark. So speak gently to one another. Speak love to one another. Speak hope to one another. Speak of the strength with which I clothe you.

I know you’re trying to figure out where I’m leading you. I know it might seem like the steps you have to take are a giant waste of time. Just be faithful to the journey. Don’t get too caught up in it. Just go, one step at time. That a girl (that a boy). See, it’s bright and beautiful out there, isn’t it? I promise not to waste your years. The only moments you waste are those when you step away from Me and get distracted by your discontentment but sit there, on your floor, too afraid to try something different, to make a change. I see where you’re trying. I honor all tries, attempts at trying, successes and failures. Pick up your bones and shake the dust of your feet, child. Your shoes have some walking to do! To new places, to new faces, to the things I’ve put on your heart, if only you’d be courageous enough to follow through.

So go listen to that still small voice in your heart, whatever it’s telling you. Maybe it’s time to take another stab at your studies. Or go grab your bike and get on the open road. Or take that flight. Or meet up with that new friend you’re fond of. Or apply for that new position that keeps resurfacing in your mind. And when all of your life and career and relationships and choices seem to jumble into mass confusion, wanting your full attention, don’t forget to head outside and take a look up at my Pleiades. You know the Big Dipper looks awfully close to the kite you flew last spring. Trace its outlines with your finger toward the sky. Feel the edges of each star from 50 million miles away. My hands crafted these lights out here, and now, as you finish tracing the shapes of the stars in the air, pull those hands in close to your heart, for I am holding them.

I’m here.hampton beach

I’m here.

I love you, all of you, every day.

Your Maker

Hallelujah. (A song if you like to sing. A poem if you like poetry.)

So many questions I ask
So many thoughts that I ponder
So many glimpses of you
In the ones they pushed aside

But I find you out here in the fringes
Wide valleys
With fields open wide
These faces and stories remind me
There’s room right here in your Kingdom
No, This door has never been closed

So when I go another way
That looks different from the safe confines of home
And I question all that is “true”

Hallelujah
I know I still run to you
Hallelujah
Yes I know I still run to you

 When I don’t look for you in Churches
And re-define “quiet times”
But still experience your presence
And don’t fall out of your arms of love

Hallelujah
I know I seek you again
Hallelujah
Yes I know I will seek you again

 When every footstep is sinking
And visions of love smash in sharp fragments
But I feel your hand uphold me
No, You never once gave up on me

Hallelujah
I know I will see you again
Hallelujah
Yes I know I will see you again

When the next impossible enters the junction
And this dream’s nothing more than a dead dandelion
Still I’ll know you create life out of crushed spirit
That’s where the essence of life becomes found

Hallelujah
I know I will find you again
Hallelujah
Yes I know I will find you again

Hallelujah come find us again

hands