October 10, 2022 § Leave a comment
At the end of summer, I packed the car with a cooler, a plump duffel bag, and two paper sacks of medicine. I got up early, and with a thermos of hot coffee in hand, hit the highway west out of Dallas.
I was headed to the desert. But I was not sure if I would make it.
The last two times I had attempted a trip of this magnitude, I’d canceled at the last minute because of my poor health. This time, I felt stronger. But it wasn’t until ten hours later, when I parked in front of a small cottage in the heart of a canyon encircled by dry desert mountains, that I realized I was stronger. Strong enough to make it all that way.
I’m pretty sure there were more wild javelinas than people in this Far West Texas outpost. It was quiet, but not still. I watched the long grey ears of a jackrabbit disappear into the underbrush. A stag paused beside the tangled thorns of a mesquite tree. Dozens of birds clustered in the juniper bush outside my bedroom window—red cardinals, blue jays, hummingbirds.
I was there to write, and read, and rest. But mostly I was there to see if my body could withstand it.
On day three, I attempted a drive down the mountain to visit the one grocery store in town. The car bottomed out on the dirt road just as the sky started spitting rain. I was convinced I’d punctured a tire on one of the road’s sharp rocks. I turned around at the nearest pull off.
Back at the cottage, the Internet was out. It was raining hard now. Thick ribbons of hot water streamed across the road. This is flash flood country. The dry ground can’t soak up the rainwater fast enough, and rivers appear in minutes where before was only dust and stone.
All the fear from my years of illness—of sudden, unexpected, and debilitating catastrophe—flooded my mind, creating an empty crevasse where common sense normally exists. I held my phone up to the window in search of service that was as elusive as the mythical jackolope.
As quickly as it came, the clouds cleared. I looked out the window at the chirping birds.
I thought, Look at the birds of the air.
I thought, Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
There, hanging like a Crayola drawing between two mountain peaks, a shimmering rainbow appeared.
I am not one who takes much stock in rainbows as signs. But there was something comforting about this bow, which evoked the happiness of a carefree child, the kind of peace that really does pass understanding. I decided to believe in it. To believe that, as the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich put it, All shall be well.
Julian would have earned that phrase given she lived during the Black Plague, which wiped out something like half of the European population. All shall be well meant something deeper than, “everything will turn out all right.” It meant the very matrix upon which creation rests is moving toward flourishing. It meant that, despite many signs pointing to the contrary, at the heart of the universe lies a profound and trustworthy love.
The next day, I hiked for two miles. My body worked in ways it hasn’t in over a year. It was cloudy all weekend, so I never saw the Milky Way. But that rainbow lasted nearly all afternoon.
This post originally appeared in my September newsletter.
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August 1, 2022 § Leave a comment
Recently, I told a dear friend, “These days, I feel about God the way my kitten seems to feel about me after I give him a bath.”
I had been giving my new kitten a bath every few days because he came to us with ringworm, a potentially deadly but easily treatable diagnosis for a kitten, and regular baths with special antifungal shampoo were supposed to help.
Most of the time, the kitten can’t get enough of me. He’s either attacking my foot or sleeping on my stomach, and any time I leave the room, he trots along in my wake. My husband calls him a Momma’s Boy.
But during those first few minutes after the bath, when he looks more like a wet rat than a tiny black kitten, that little guy wants nothing to do with me. He slinks off to some dark corner of the house to lick his fur, and anytime I pass, he eyes me warily.
“I haven’t lost my faith in God,” I tell my friend. “I’ve just had enough of Him and the world He’s made to last for a while, and I kind of wish He’d leave me alone.”
Sometimes, when I say things like this, I wonder if it might be better if I kept my thoughts to myself. After all, a thought like that doesn’t exactly encourage a sense of tenderness, let alone love, towards God. If anything, it enhances a kind of confused distance between our challenging lives as creatures and our (sometimes) obtuse creator.
But then I remember the time roughly a year and a half ago when another friend invited me to use her late husband’s prayer shed. That day I was having a flare-up of my Lyme symptoms, and I was angry. I was not at all Zen or pious, like I figured one should be when preparing to use a prayer shed. Instead, I was mad at God, and fed up with a world that included a microscopic creature with the power to make my life a living Hell.
But when I stepped inside that quiet, simple prayer shed with the woven rug on the floor and the wooden icon of Jesus on the wall, I heard this faint whisper: You can be angry. In fact, I have given you an entire room to be angry in.
I am convinced God gives us plenty of space for unpleasant emotions. He wants all of us, after all, including the parts of us that don’t exactly look or feel good.
The kitten is chasing his tail around and around in violent circles, so I leave the house to sit on the front porch and pray on the phone with another friend. She is going through a hard time which has lasted far longer than we ever imagined, and it seems impossible that God could be anywhere near her life right now. Certainly, she cannot feel Him. Is He even there?
An image comes to us as we pray: my friend standing in a pitch-black room with no doors or windows. Her eyes are open, but she can’t see a thing, which means she can’t see Jesus standing just a few feet in front of her, holding out His hand.
It could be a cheesy image—Jesus is still there! In the dark!—but it isn’t. It’s exactly what my friend needs, and frankly, it’s what I need also.
It’s often tempting to want to tie up our hardships in a bow, to turn them into some kind of purposeful, triumphant event, and sometimes we do understand what it all means in the end, but more often we don’t.
More often what we have is Jesus standing with us in the dark, reaching out an invisible, scarred-over hand.
This post originally appeared in my July newsletter.
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July 12, 2022 § 2 Comments
Last month, I had a draft of my newsletter ready to go when something happened. I had a flare-up.
This flare-up wasn’t exactly unexpected. I had recently started another treatment for my ongoing Lyme disease, and my doctor had warned me that as we killed these “bad bugs,” as she calls them, I might feel worse before I felt better.
Feel worse I did, and Sunday evening found me lying on the couch trying not to move because movement exacerbates the nerve pain in my arms and legs (pain I once described to my husband as akin to the Cruciatus Curse in Harry Potter).
It sounds bad, and it is, but I’m also used to it. I have these flare-ups about every few weeks to every few months, and I’ve learned some tricks to manage them.
I cancel everything for the next few days. I schedule an appointment with my favorite osteopath. I take medicine that usually alleviates the pain within 36 hours. And in the meantime, I wait. I do my best to limit the TV (truthfully, there are only so many times I can watch even my favorite shows before I start to feel my life slip away). I perhaps write a few words using the dictation software on my tablet. I pray a little. I read.
This time around, I found myself returning to an irony that struck me early on in my experience with Lyme: as hard (read: at times, horrific) as it’s been, this battle with illness has pushed me further toward Truth with a capital T than just about any other event in my life.
Why is this ironic? Because (with some chagrin) I’ll admit that not too long ago I was convinced I should devote my entire life toward knowing the “Truth with a capital T.” This was why I got a philosophy degree. To some extent, this was why I became a writer (I would write my way toward Truth). All this even though at the time I was also convinced there was no way to be certain about anything (think, Matrix-style: could this all be a dream?).
A lot has changed since then (conversion from agnosticism to Christianity, for one; maybe I’ll write about that another time). But what is this so-called Truth that having Lyme disease revealed to me?
The truth is nothing new, not really. It’s that the world is broken. Or wrong. Or somehow off. You choose the phrasing. Whatever phrase we use will likely sound like a platitude anyway, something tossed around so many times its lost all meaning. Nonetheless, there’s something to it. There’s a reason it’s been said so many times.
When we are not going through a crisis, it’s easy to walk around like everything is basically fine, like you and I and the rest of the world are not deeply messed up (I could use another word here, but I won’t). It’s like when my flare-ups cease, and I have a hard time imagining I was ever in that much pain. Could the world really be so bad that I could hurt that much?
But having a disability or an illness, when the brokenness is your very body, you can’t escape that. You can’t free yourself from your own physical form. You’re forced to reckon with the reality that something is very wrong within the created order, you know it in an embodied way, in your very bones.
And this, in turn, reveals other truths. You see with new clarity that all along your life was tied up in the lives of others, the ones on whom you are now so clearly dependent. You see that at the end of the day you need something other than yourself to save you. You need medical intervention, to be sure. You may very well need God.
What’s neat, of course, are the moments when this brokenness is made right. When a bit of the Kingdom of God, if I may, breaks into a sick body. As in, when the meds start to work, and I can go back to yoga. Or when I have a “good day” and can cook an entire meal standing up in the kitchen. Or when I can type this letter to you without my hands hurting. All of a sudden, we have the resurrection inside our very veins. We feel the difference between the wrong way and the right way, and know how easily it could all go south, but for just this moment it doesn’t, and grace takes on a whole new meaning.
There is a lot that’s terrible about long-term illness, and I am fighting tooth and nail to get better. Though I have a lot of hope for my future health, it could still just as easily be me who’s sick for a lifetime. For now, I find these kernels of reality, of truth, a kind of consolation.
Next month, maybe I’ll share that neatly edited essay. For now, what I have is this musing hastily written on my iPhone late at night. I’ll end with yet another platitude that’s nonetheless true: I do hope you’re well, wherever this note finds you.
This post originally appeared in my June newsletter.
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January 13, 2021 § Leave a comment
He is the radiance of the glory of God.
~ Hebrews 1:3
Recently, I have felt God speaking to me through the moon. During the hardest parts of my struggle to diagnose and overcome Lyme disease, God was to me the waxing moon, each day growing bigger and brighter, until He was the full round moon, so bright, I could not escape Him. His presence was so real, to disbelieve in Him would have been to rip the organ of reason from my mind. I saw Him everywhere. His radiance was bright upon my skin during one of the darkest nights of my life.
Then, health. How wonderful to recover this most precious of gifts! The strength to walk. The relief in my back. The easing of the sharp pain in my fingers. And just as the pain seeped away, so too did the moon of God begin to wane. “I believe He is still there,” I would tell my husband, “just like I believe the moon is still there, even when I cannot see it.”
So it goes with so many of us. We see God most certainly in the hardship. This the paradox, the mystery we hold, but who can understand? So thin did God become to me in my newfound health, He was like the new moon, His light no longer present, no longer illuminating even a single blade of grass. I would go outside, and look up at the sky, and see a great blackness.
But why be surprised? The spiritual life has its pattern, just like the natural world has its circadian rhythm, the rotation of the earth, the steady repetition of the seasons.
At the beginning of the month, my husband and I braved a plane to Antigua, an idyllic island set like a green jewel in the pristine blue waters of the Caribbean. A respite at last from what has felt like a merry-go-round of madness. While we were gone, some people stormed the capitol, but we heard about it later. For just this moment we were blissfully unaware of other people’s opinions and the movement of disease and the mad vying for power. I stood at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, and the sun shone, and the waves fell relentless. The natural world is so indifferent. Sometimes this scares me. Other times it feels like relief.
This morning, I read in Hebrews that Christ is the radiance of the glory of God. I pause. I let the words settle. Radiance. The sun’s bright rays. I cannot look directly at the sun without being blinded, but I can feel its warmth on my skin as I bathe in its downpour. I can see the water and the sand and the metal mast of my parent’s hardy sailboat reflect its luminescence. Christ like the rays of the sun: warm, illuminating, observable. I know the truth we too often gloss over: when I cannot find God, I can look to Christ to know Him.
Now, we are back home. Back to routine. Back to a new year and work and play. I miss the sun and the salt water. I even miss the manchineel tree, beautiful to look at, poisonous to the touch. But despite the low temperature out my window and the frost on my resilient broccoli plants, the sun shines here also. My skin is browned in places, red and itchy in others. A tangible reminder, at least until it fades. A physical, temporary locus of a hope which ebbs and flows, yes, but remains.
February 14, 2019 § Leave a comment
Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed following the trajectory of the cross-generational music partnership, Liturgical Folk. They’re the unexpected artistic pairing of a retired Anglican priest who writes remarkable religious poems and a young songwriter who composes unique folk songs. If you missed it a while back, I wrote about them for The Dallas Morning News.
This past week, I published a follow-up story about their latest albums and the success of their project overall for Christianity Today. As it turns out, Liturgical Folk is part of a broader trend within the Anglican community right now — revitalizing music in the church with liturgy, poetry, and personal response.
September 20, 2018 § 1 Comment
For the past few years, I’ve accumulated a variety of potted plants. Sea green aloe vera. Flat-leafed jade. Spindly fire sticks. Some were gifts from friends; others, clippings from the cacti in our backyard; and still others, splurges bought at Home Depot and the local nursery when my soul was hungry for something green.
I am fairly good at tending them — so far, I’ve only killed one, and that from overwatering. Lately, though, I’ve realized that almost every single one of them needs repotting. They’ve outgrown their old pots, heavy leaves drooping over the lips onto my windowsill, long stems jutting up, up toward the window and the sky. Some of them are three times the sizes of the pots they call home.
It’s high time for repotting.
It is still hot in Texas in September. Sweating, I haul a large pot from the tangled mass of unused pots in our backyard, along with a bag of fresh dirt and rocks to line the bottom. First up: my zz plant, also known as a Zamioculcas Zamiifolia. It lives in a tiny, round, grey clay pot, five thick stalks covered in glossy flat leaves. Sturdy. Healthy. An easy first go.
Easy, I think, until I attempt to remove it. The plant won’t budge, and soon I know why. When I finally manage to pry the zz plant from its pot, I realize the whole bottom half of the pot is thick with fat roots wound tightly around each other in a massive ball. Finally freed, the roots hang down a bit too much like ropy worms than I would like, the roots nearly as long as the plant is tall. There was hardly any dirt in that pot at all, I realize. Mostly, it was just roots growing steadily in closed darkness.
A longing stirs in me as I stare at the zz plant held in my hand, white roots dangling above its new pot half-filled with fresh dirt. I feel my own limitations, the constraint of my own tight space pressing against my metaphorical thick ball of roots. How many of you, like me, need a new pot? Space to spread our roots, to sink deeply in rich soil, to stretch ourselves toward the sun? How many of us are cramped deep in dark spaces?
Like the zz plant, we grow substantially, faithfully within our limitations. Like the zz plant, when we’re set in our big, new pots, we will be ready, ready to prosper, flourish, ready to thrive. In the meantime, we grow quietly.
I set the roots of the zz plant deep within its new pot, giving them room to lengthen, to widen. I imagine the plant is happy because it can suddenly breathe deeply again after its many years of constraint. I wonder what it is like to have space to be fully what it was meant to be. I set the zz plant in a prominent spot in my room, a green reminder of what’s to come.
September 18, 2017 § 3 Comments
Lord, have mercy on the artists.
Have mercy on the ballet dancer who’s memorized the steps for her upcoming audition so perfectly she dreams the movements in her sleep, her toes pointing and flexing beneath the sheets. She arrives early to the audition, her tired pink leg warmers drooping along her calves, her worn point shoes tied at the ribbons and slung over one arm, her eyes shining with the hope that maybe, just maybe, this time she will get a part in the dance.
Have mercy on the painter who wakes early every Saturday morning to catch the golden light at the dawn of day. She arranges her paint brushes, canvas, and easel at the edge of the water, listens as the birds begin to chatter, watches as the sunlight first touches the lake. During the week, she works as a waitress, balancing trays of ice water and fried fish with a strong arm that now holds her palette, but when people ask her what she does she lays claim to her true nature and in the face of their skepticism (How do you make a living painting landscapes?), she answers boldly, I am an artist. It is a labor of love.
Have mercy on the pianist who’s taken private lessons in the living room of an elderly lady with shock white hair since she was three years old. She volunteers at her church now, playing old hymns that still tingle her nerves, her fingers flying across the chipped black and white keys. She dreams of one day playing on a Steinway at Carnegie Hall. And why not? Her parents always told her she could do anything. And it isn’t out of vanity or ambition that she practices arpeggios and scales day after day, but because she loves the clear and complex sound of the chords as they progress gracefully. She only wants an audience for her music, an audience who appreciates the great composers like Beethoven and Shostakovich. She wants to perform well, for the music to transport those who listen.
Have mercy on the actress who cannot decide whether she should stay in her small hometown where she teaches acting at the local high school and performs starring roles in the community theater or move to Los Angeles where she might attend audition after audition and never receive a single callback in ten years. She fell in love with theater when she was thirteen years old because the theater kids were weirdos too, and she thinks she has real talent, thinks she might actually be somebody someday. Her motivations are mixed: she loves theater, enjoys it for what it is, but she also wants to be rich and famous, a true Hollywood star. She doesn’t move because she’s afraid of this monstrous ambition hidden deep within her, and yet, she probably is talented and hard working enough to catch the eye of any producer.
Have mercy on the writer who wakes every day before the sun, brews strong black coffee, lights several candles and a stick of sweet incense before sitting hunched at her laptop, stringing word after word, spinning stories out of smoky air. On her good days, her imagination carts her off to magical lands where she meets strange and interesting characters who come to life on her computer screen. But on her bad days, she is full of fear, a fear that keeps her from that other land, a fear that says, Nothing you create is worth anything. It is all the vanity in Ecclesiastes, words dispersing like fine blown dust.
Lord, send your grace upon these your people. In their failures, in their ambitions, in their needs, remind them that You love them. Remind them that You are pleased whether they do anything or not. Remind them that the tasks set before them are worthy. Remind them that You bear their disappointments with them, that they are not alone. Remind them that they have something to offer. Remind them that they are, simply, children of God.
August 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
Well, here I am.
Finally, another blog post.
Last week, I turned 26, and a birthday seems as good a reason as any to sidle back to this small (and lately, neglected) corner of the Internet to set down a few of the thoughts bouncing around in my head. After all, what’s the point in having a blog if you don’t use it as an excuse to formulate some of those fleeting ideas that strike you on the drive to work, in the shower late at night, over a beer with a friend, during an overpriced yoga class when you should be focussing but, let’s face it, can’t.
So, here I am.
Last year, I wrote about turning 25. This year, instead of writing about turning 26 (really, it was uneventful in a good way), I’ll share some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. These ideas have helped me navigate some unfamiliar territories — a new job, the usual relationship drama, my own inner neurosis that have plagued me forever and probably always will (don’t lie, you know you have them, too!).
Maybe these ideas will help you, too. Or maybe not. Maybe they’re kind of interesting. Or maybe you’d rather read something that’s definitely interesting, like that time a few months ago when I got lost in the Himalayas in the dark. Either way, here’s to another year of trying to make it through this weird, confusing, often difficult, but definitely beautiful, world.
A friend once told me that all of life is simply a series of decisions. While I suppose that’s rather reductive, I think he’s onto something. In a given day, we’re required to make a number of decisions, from slightly inconsequential decisions about where to eat lunch to more important decisions about who to date, where to work, and what to believe. Decisions are mandatory, and learning how to make a decision well is a surprisingly useful skill.
But if you’re like me, choices can be paralyzing. Not necessarily whether to eat that second piece of cheesecake (the answer is always, yes, definitely eat it), but whether to live here or there, whether to take this job or that job, whether to befriend this person or that person. What makes these decisions so challenging is not that one choice is the boring but morally correct choice and the other the exciting but morally wrong choice — that’s a different scenario. Rather, both choices offer potentially good outcomes, and choosing one over the other necessarily cuts off a potentially good thing from happening.
In other words, as another friend pointed out, we can expect an element of sorrow in every choice we make, because making a choice by necessity requires losing out on something good.
Why is knowing this helpful? By accepting disappointment and sorrow as a given in every decision we make, we’re empowered to act. We can enjoy the fruit of our decisions while simultaneously realizing that something is lost — and that’s sad. It’s not how it’s meant to be, even if it is that way on this side of heaven.
on going slow
I spent the summer working in a bookstore, and you wouldn’t believe the number of titles piling up on our shelves that are all about slowing down in an age of distraction, in an age of busyness (or maybe you would believe it; busyness is rather endemic in America, after all). All of these books offer something valuable — tips and tricks for leading a less hectic, more meaningful life. But I would like to take the idea of slowing down a bit further.
Often, we find ourselves in situations we don’t like. Maybe it’s a relational situation. Maybe it’s a difficult job. Maybe it’s being fed up with the same old miserable problems day after day. Often, our response to challenging situations like these is to violently end them by lashing out, quitting, or simply shutting down. Sometimes, of course, this needs to happen. But other times, a more prudent, slower response is better.
Lately, I’ve been reading Jesus’ parables (and an excellent book about them: Tell It Slant by Eugene Peterson). Jesus’ parable of the fig tree struck me in particular. The fig tree isn’t growing or producing fruit, and it’s owner wants to cut it down in anger and despondency. Instead, however, he decides to give it one more year, puts a bit of manure on it, and waits. Adding the manure is banal. It’s a bit gross. It requires patience to see what happens. But that little bit of manure may make all the difference in a tree that’s barren and a tree that’s ripe with fat, sweet figs.
In the same way, making small adjustments to disagreeable situations and waiting with patience to see what happens is often wiser than shutting something down. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe the same problems will bother you next year. Or maybe, just maybe, that little adjustment was all you needed.
Maybe, you need to go slow.
If you got this far, maybe you’re interested in some of the other things I’ve written lately. I frequently write for The Well, a nonprofit in Oak Cliff that helps those who struggle with mental illness. Here are several of my latest pieces, including one on how pets help the mentally ill and another on the importance of community for the mentally ill.
April 4, 2017 § 9 Comments
Just when you think it’s over, the mountains try to kill you again.
Emma and I are ecstatic to make it to base camp at last. But could it be possible that we’re just as thrilled to return to Kathmandu, a city that, three weeks ago, felt foreign and frightening, but now feels safe and civilized? I’ll admit it: being at this high altitude, sleeping at almost 17,000 feet, makes me paranoid. We have barely felt it, and yet, seeing an Iranian woman lying unconscious beside me as I eat my dinner of fried noodles, watching as a helicopter arrives to fly her down to Kathmandu — I’m glad to be going down the mountains, too.
Going down should be easy, right? But isn’t it funny that we walk for so long to reach a certain destination, only to turn right around and make the same journey back? Everybody talks about the way there; hardly anyone attends to the return home.
Like every other day on this trek, each day we hike back to Lukla, where we will catch a flight to Kathmandu, brings another challenge.
In Pheriche, the elderly Nepali woman who gives us a room in her tea house asks if we would like a fire. Oh, yes, we say. It’s freezing.
But the woman doesn’t seem to know how to light her stove, and we spend the evening with the rusted thing rumbling ominously in the center of the room, spouting billowy clouds of kerosene-clogged smoke into our blood-shot eyes. We open the windows so we won’t asphyxiate and eat our dinners of fried potatoes and pizza and hot tea taking turns sticking our heads outside.
The hike from Pheriche to Namche Bazaar begins pleasantly, with clear blue skies and the towering form of Ama Dablam looking over us. Most of the Sherpas view these mountains not as inanimate piles of rocks, but as spiritual beings, as goddesses to be honored. This whole trip, it’s felt as if Ama Dablam has been watching over us, her arms open wide in welcome, in love.
But the hike soon becomes grueling. We walk this day what we did in two days on the way up. By the time we reach Tengboche, where we see a monk clad in rust red robes painting Om Mani Padme Hum in clean white on a gray boulder, our legs are heavy with fatigue, our stomachs rumbling with hunger. And we are only halfway there.
My knee begins to hurt. Our packs seem twice as heavy as they did on the way up. As we contour around the mountains, a thick fog fills the valley, shrouding everything but the few feet of path in front of us. We know there is a sheer drop on our left, but we can’t see it. Rounding every corner feels like walking off the edge of the world.
An owl hoots. A monal, a turquoise and emerald green pheasant which is the national bird of Nepal, waddles across the path and disappears into the woods. Several lone cows lumber down the trail, the metal bells around their necks clanking. Porters laden with toilet paper, beer, tin pans, bars of Snickers, all stacked in bamboo baskets on their backs and strapped around their heads with cotton strips, appear silently through the wall of fog, not looking up from the ground even to acknowledge us. How much farther, we ask? Did we really come this far at all?
Many times during the trek, I have prayed silently to see something, some glimpse of God, some vision of His face in the mountains. After all, isn’t this the place to see it?
In this trek through the mist, the sun momentarily slits through the clouds high above us, and there, where only blue sky should be, are the towering snow peaks of the Himalayas, floating as if baseless in a murky sky. This, I think, is what we see of God. A brief, majestic glimpse that’s fleeting and sudden and only visible if you lift your tired head from the dirt trail.
Less than a minute later, the mountains are hidden once more. After eight hours of hiking, we reach Namche.
There are some things the mountains do to you, and other things you do to yourself.
In Namche, we count our money. We have been pinching pennies ever since leaving Namche the first time, when none of the ATMs in that cobbled stone town worked for us.
Once again, none of the ATMs spew money, and we realize we barely have enough to get back to Lukla, and only enough to stay in Lukla one night. In other words: not enough if our flight to Kathmandu is delayed, which is a real possibility.
We want more than anything to go out to the Irish pub down the street for a beer, but we can’t afford it. I vaguely wonder what it would be like to beg for rupees from strangers, good-willing trekkers from foreign countries, Nepalis with little cash to spare. We kick ourselves for not being more careful. We console ourselves by saying, really, we were. We say a prayer before curling into our sleeping bags, worried.
I think about the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. I think of manna raining down from heaven. I think of the five loaves of bread, stretched miraculously to feed five thousand. We’ve been shown our pure state: vulnerability. Now: will we be shown provision from above?
I think about the Buddhist monks we heard chanting low and earthly to a clanking wooden rattle in the red monastery in Tengboche several days ago. I could use some of their wisdom right now.
“I need to be more like a Zen Buddhist today,” I tell Emma. “I need to live in the moment, to enjoy this final hike, instead of simply wanting to get it over with. I need to accept what comes, to take both the good and the bad of life equally, instead of worrying so much about this money situation.”
Actually, I am fairly Zen for the first half of the day, when we hike down the steep slope from Namche, cross wobbly suspension bridge after wobbly suspension bridge over the frothy mint green water of the Duhd Kosi. I am especially Zen during lunch, when we enjoy the best dhal bhat — lentil soup with cilantro, curried vegetables picked straight from the garden, white rice, and chapati — for lunch at a blue-painted tea house.
But in the afternoon, as we turn corner after corner, climbing higher and higher up endless stone steps to the mountainside village of Lukla, when it seems like the trail will never end and my backpack is crushing my spine and my legs feel like heavy weights I must heave out from under me — then, Emma and I ask each other, “Where the hell is this place?” I just want to get this over with.
So much for six hours. We hike for over eight. A group of trekkers from India tells us it’s been over 12 miles since we left Namche — all up and down steep inclines and clambering over large boulders and gravelly slopes. We walk the last few feet straight uphill to the crumbling arch that marks the entrance to Lukla, and have only enough energy to smile wearily, shake our heads, and say, “we did it.”
And just like that, we wake early on a Wednesday morning to muesli and hot milk served by a Nepali woman in the dark downstairs of her tea house. She goes upstairs to wake her son who is supposed to walk us to the airport in Lukla and help us buy our plane tickets back to Kathmandu. There is some confusion, and Emma and I think the plane leaves at 6, when really it doesn’t leave until 7 — if at all. The weather is precarious in the Himalayas, and these tiny propeller planes land by sight.
The Nepali woman climbs the rickety stairs to wake her son. We hear her berating him in Nepalese. I don’t know what she’s saying, but I can imagine. Sometimes, cultural barriers are thin.
The son leads us down the empty, cobbled streets of Lukla. Soon, the streets are not so empty. Other trekkers step out of lodges, backpacks slung on their shoulders and battered trekking poles clutched in their hands. They snap last minute photos with their porters and guides. They walk wearily up the mountain toward the airport on the side of the cliff.
When Emma and I were planning this trek last fall, the thing that scared me more than anything else was the flight out of Lukla. If you google “the most dangerous airports in the world”, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla is always at the top of the list. There have been a number of plane crashes at the airport over the last few decades, most notably in 2008, when a Yeti Airlines plane crashed upon landing, killing all 18 passengers and crew. Only the captain survived. There is a chipped and faded white stupa in Lukla honoring the victims, which we passed on our way back from base camp.
Back in Dallas, the thought of flying out of this airport terrified me. Even knowing flights flew safely in and out every day did not help. Even hearing about friends of friends who entered and exited the mountains through Lukla did not help. It was my biggest fear about the trip. I even had nightmares about it, waking in the middle of the night with one thought: I cannot fly out of Lukla.
Now, after completing the trek, after surviving the harrowing ten hour bus ride to Shivalaya, after managing by ourselves in the mountains for three weeks, flying out of Lukla seems easy. I am not nervous at all.
All flights are delayed because of the weather. A thick cloud bank fills the steep valley at the end of the runway, shrouding the airport from sight. Emma and I buy our tickets and go through security. There are two lines: one for men and one for women. The men’s line is a string of trekkers that fills the room. The women’s line is mostly the two of us. For every ten male trekkers, there is maybe one female. This makes Emma and me feel good.
The security lady at the front of the women’s line asks us, “do you have any knives or scissors?”
“No,” we say, and ever-trusting, she ushers us through.
We sit in the crowded lobby until an hour later, when the sun burns off the clouds in the valley and four tiny propeller planes land one after another. We are shooed out onto the narrow runway and into the first plane that lands. A stewardess hands us balls of cotton and a hard malt candy each, and then, we are off!
For a moment, my heart thumps bright red with fear and I clutch Emma’s arm. Then, we are rolling down the hill and only seconds later lifting off above a sheer drop. What scared me for months is over in a few wild heartbeats. Now, we soar above the clouds and one more time I see the snowy peaks of the Gaurishankur Mountain Range out the window. As we fly over, I think: we walked all this way.
Kathmandu is jarring. The mountains, for as difficult as they are, were peaceful. Life in them is getting up, freezing, eating bowls and bowls of soup and rice and lentils, hiking, hiking some more, thinking you will never stop hiking, staring in amazement at a mountain and realizing there’s more mountain above that’s folded in billowy grey clouds. It’s falling asleep, hard, and not waking until morning.
But Kathmandu, this city is a bustle of dogs snarling and car horns honking and construction workers clanking away outside. It’s a shower, yes, though not as hot as we’d like. It is heavy ceramic pots of fresh brewed coffee and creamy, sugary masala tea. It is a quiet, flowered garden. It is dodging motorcycles and taxi cab drivers trying to sell you a ride, your shoes muddy from the streets that are muck after a heavy rain.
Emma and I move into a popular hostel in Thamel, the city’s tourist district, and suddenly, we are surrounded by young, hip travelers from all over the world, eating veggie burgers and smoking cigarettes and reading Siddhartha on the roof in the sun. Justin Timberlake plays over the speakers. There is good, strong WiFi and a restaurant that serves Western food.
It seems too soon. I’m not ready to be friendly. I’m not ready to swap stories about lives lived on separate continents with adventurous strangers who travel the world. I escape down the street into a Tibetan and Nepali Buddhist bookstore, and flip through tomes about this foreign religion in a momentary quiet solace.
I wish I were going home. I wish Kathmandu weren’t so busy. I wish I didn’t have to act like a normal person just yet. I wish I could see the mountains once more.
After going and going and going every day, my body doesn’t know how to be still. I am sore and still scraping the dirt off my skin. I am a rush of emotions that hits me all at once, so tangled up I can’t discern one from another.
We go out for pizza at a ritzy Italian restaurant, Fire and Ice, popular amongst trekkers who’ve just returned, and I think about the porters carrying huge loads of beer and tents and chairs up the mountains to base camp. So many of them travel through the night.
In the morning, I go out for coffee at a trendy spot down the road and read the Kathmandu Post in English. On the way back, I see a beggar dragging two useless legs in the dirt behind him. He sticks up his hand, reaching out gnarled fingers to me, unable to fully lift his head to meet my eyes. I don’t know what to do, so I keep on walking.
March 29, 2017 § 4 Comments
In the morning, we wake in the Hotel Yellow-Top, a tea house owned by a 26-year-old climbing Sherpa who summitted Everest last year and will walk to base camp to prepare for another summit in just five days. He carries around his 13-month son, laughing and rocking the boy and coaxing him to place his palms together and tell us, “Namaste.” The little boy is shy, though, and he hides his face in his father’s down jacket, the father only too glad to hold his son a moment longer before he leaves for the ascent.
We ask our host how long it will take to walk from his lodge in Bupsa to our day’s destination, Lukla. He looks at us, thinks about it.
“Seven hours for you,” he says.
We don’t ask how long it would take him; we know it’s much shorter.
The path takes us up and down a forest of red and pink and white rhododendrons blooming in clusters as big as both my fists. Above us, the mountains are cloudy and dark. Emma and I see a Nepali man hanging from a towering, twisting tree over an open cliff, chopping away with a dull machete at leafy green branches which glide to the forest floor. We see a white-faced monkey swing from another tall conifer, seeming to fly from limb to limb until his small grey body disappears in the thick foliage.
We stop for Sherpa stew and hot ginger tea and, yes, a can of Pringles at a lodge owned by a friend of the climbing Sherpa. In the golden sun, with the hot stew and hot tea to warm our hands and bellies, we are content.
The trouble begins in the late afternoon, when we reach the last ascent to Lukla. It is a series of stone stairs cut straight into the side of the mountain, described in my Lonely Planet guide book as “brutal steps!” The sun has already begun to set, and the mountains are a haze of blues and greys. We stop to snap photos. We readjust our packs. We dream of the hot shower and Internet connection and pizza that awaits us several hundred meters above.
We are so close to Lukla, that larger village in the Himalayas where most trekkers headed to Everest Base Camp begin their trek by flying into the shortest runway in the world. But we are not close enough to outwalk the sun, and when the last of the light begins to fall, we dig through our packs to find our torches.
What a difference hiking in the dark makes. The forest, only moments before awash in soft blue light, is suddenly sinister. We climb, and climb, and climb, nothing but the light from our torches upon the slick stone steps. I am hemmed in by darkness. I am one small person on the side of a mountain high above the rest of the world. Our German trekking companion is a formless shape before me, Emma I only sense at my back.
It begins to sleet. A crack of thunder roils across the black sky. Faint lights from shanties on the mountain appear on our right and left. People move about inside. I smell incense and curry cooking and hear the murmurs of men and women within, but they seem far away from me in the night.
We reach a fork in the path, and do not know which way to go. What at first felt like an adventure suddenly is pure terror. My mind flickers back to a news story I wrote several years ago about a hiker who died when he slipped on rocks much drier and less steep and more visible that the ones I’m on now.
We knock on the side of a nearby hut, asking for directions from a Nepali man who does not seem to understand English. Another crack of thunder and lightning splits the sky. A dog — shaggy and grey and more like a wolf than I would like — darts across the path before us.
“We need to get out of here,” says Emma, and I totally agree. I’m aware that we are exposed on a mountain during a storm — holding metal trekking poles in both hands.
The Nepali man finally gives us directions, and we continue up. My breath fogs the cold air before me. White flecks of snow pelt my eyes. I am aware of my friends, though I cannot see them. When I turn to check on Emma, my torch falls upon the red eyes of another dog. My heart is pounding and with every step I am alternating between the Jesus prayer and the Psalms; “you hem me in, behind and before.”
When Emma and I were back in our warm, luxurious hotel in Kathmandu, we commented to each other about trekking during Lent. “It’s a very penitential thing to do,” said Emma, and I agreed.
Now, hiking up the muddy slope, I wonder if we are witnessing a glimpse of the reality of Lent, which is really the reality of this world now: walking through the the cold and the wet, with others before us and others behind, so close we can see their breathe but so far that really, we are alone. I have a sense of the deep, mysterious shadow that Christ walked in and we walk in, and it fills me with fear and also an understanding that perhaps on this stony mountain, vulnerable and frightened as we are, we glimpse something true about the nature of the world.
Finally, we reach Lukla. But Lukla is a labyrinth of stony alleyways where Nepali families live behind flapping curtains embroidered with the geometric Tibetan knot. Where do we go for shelter? Where is our hot shower, our pizza, our Internet?
We come across a group of men building some kind of stone wall in the rain. I ask them, “Do you know where we can find a lodge?” And one of the men, dressed in flip flops and a puffy jacket over nothing but thin rags, not only points the way, but leaves his task to lead us through the narrow alleys, up and down slick steps, past dogs and coughing children eating dinner on damp front porches until we reach the warmth of the Alpine Lodge.
There, at last, are beds with thick blankets and a hot shower and down the street — a pub! We order pizzas and burgers and fries and beer and inhale it all while disappearing into our phones where, for the first time all week, we have Internet.
I have never been happier to be warm and safe and sheltered. I am glad our penitential walk — at least this part of it — like all penitential journeys, has come to an end. I fall asleep in a cocoon of down, a hot water bottle warming my feet.