A reason to go

March 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

“Why are you going?”

It is a question I should expect from my friend. After all, she is the kind of friend who wants to know the Why’s, not just the Who’s, What’s, When’s, and Where’s. She wants to know the meanings underneath it all. She wants to know the deeper truths.

But I don’t know. When she asks, “Why are you going?” I don’t have an answer. Or at least, I don’t have the kind of answer I usually have for an international trip — I’ve always dreamed of seeing such-and-such place; I’m volunteering for such-and-such charity; I’m writing about it for such-and-such publication. I tell my friend, “Well, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” and of course, it is.

When the opportunity to travel with another friend you haven’t seen in years to a country that’s far far away, a remote country that happens to be the home of Mount Everest, the home of those giants the Himalayas, of course you go. You hesitate long enough to make sure you have enough money in your bank account, and then you reply with a resounding, “I’m in.”

But when you are on a plane flying between Singapore and Kathmandu, when you are exhausted from two full days of travel, when you are wondering what Nepal will be like and feeling a little bit scared of it all, your mind wanders back to your other friend’s question, which you could not answer adequately four weeks ago, and you ask yourself again, “Why are you going?”

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Nepal is 25 percent Buddhist, according to the Nepalese driver who picks me up at the airport and ferries me to my hotel through the smog-filled streets of Kathmandu. In fact, the Buddha himself was born in Nepal in a region called Lumbini.  My driver has a silver Buddhist prayer wheel fixed to the dashboard of his van. He points to it and tells me, unlike the large prayer wheels in the city and up on the mountains, his silver model does not spin.

I knew about the prevalence of Buddhism in Nepal and so, in preparation for the trip, I brushed up on this ancient religion. While reading, I came across the term Bardo. It is a Tibetan word which means “intermediate state”, and, according to Buddhist teaching, it refers to the state of existence between one’s death and one’s rebirth, a time supposed to be especially ripe for spiritual transformation. Some also use the term loosely to refer to other spiritually ripe periods in life, such as when one is suffering from an illness or spending time deep in meditation. All these are moments when a person experiences something shocking and new, which can teach him something about the truth of the world, transform his mind, or move him from one way of thinking into another, clearer way.

Now, I certainly don’t want to be that naive Westerner hijacking the serious Buddhist phrase, but I will say this: the term struck me. I wonder if the idea of a Bardo — a transitional time in one’s life that opens a space for realization — might be akin to travel, especially travel to a country quite different from one’s own. Couldn’t travel be a kind of “Bardo”, a kind of transformationally potent moment?

The sudden shift in environment; the new smells, the noises, the tastes; the different, indistinguishable languages; the motorcycles stacked with pallets of bananas; the rickshaws with their rickety, faded gold and green seats; the children laughing incoherently beneath their parents who cook momos, little brown dumplings, on the side of the road — all of it sharpens the senses, makes you more alert to yourselves, to others and, perhaps, to God.

Could this be a reason to travel? To simulate an experience similar to the Buddhist Bardo?

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I am just beginning this journey, so I don’t know. I don’t know if waking this morning to the sounds of crows cawing and dogs barking and motorcycle horns blaring, to the smell of a faint whisp of smog and sweet incense smoke through my open window, I don’t know if that could stimulate a kind of Bardo, but I wonder if it might.

One night in South Sudan

October 26, 2016 § 4 Comments

squarepromo_3-2A year and a few months ago, I visited South Sudan with the Dallas-based microfinance nonprofit Seed Effect.

I wrote this story about my first night in South Sudan a while back, but wanted to share it now in anticipation of Seed Effect’s fundraising event on Thursday, Oct. 27. If you’re interested in attending this event or learning more about the organization in general, please let me know!

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When a small African country appears on the pages of an international newspaper, the news is almost certainly bad, and if that small African country is South Sudan, you don’t need to read the headline to know that the story is proclaiming horrific calamities far beyond the scope of most Western lives.

South Sudan has been in the news a lot recently, with stories coming out about rape, mass murder, and the dislocation of millions. As a result, most people who discover that I visited the country within the past year are, at first, shocked that I had the audacity to go, and then, shocked again to realize that I returned alive.

“I can’t believe you went there,” people say. Or, “Isn’t that a war zone?”

I never know quite how to respond to these questions.

After all, I was only in South Sudan for two weeks, which hardly makes me an expert on the country, and while any visit to South Sudan is somewhat dangerous, during my short stay, I remained within the confines of a small village in the south, while the violence occurred far to the north in an area only reachable by poorly maintained red dirt roads. As one of my fellow travelers put it, getting from our village in the south to the violence in the north would be like trying to drive from Dallas to Oklahoma City without a car or a road. She was exaggerating, of course, but you get the gist.

When people ask me what South Sudan was like, I usually, once again, find myself at a loss for words.

Sometimes, I describe the town where I stayed.

Kajo Keji is lush and green, I say, with rolling cornfields and leafy trees. Goats are tied to stakes along the road. Many South Sudanese live in mud huts called tukuls. Children collect well water in plastic buckets. Men ride motorcycles through town. Women cook chicken over fires with babies strapped to their backs.

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Other times, I talk about the war.

It’s caused by two tribes fighting in the country’s oil-rich north, I say, quoting what I’ve read in the paper. And while all of the atrocities you read about are true, the South Sudanese I met were fundamentally joyful. They were generous and gracious and tremendously faithful, and I admire them very much.

Usually, people want to know whether I felt safe. To which I reply: yes, and also, no.

Yes, I felt safe in Kajo Keji. It was safe enough for me, a twenty-something-year-old American woman, to wander away from my fellow travelers in the market and buy avocados from a South Sudanese woman with a baby in her lap. It was safe enough for me to eat some unknown meat prepared over a fire in an outdoor kitchen. And it was safe enough for me to walk alone amongst the tukuls on a Sunday afternoon while barefoot children skipped beside me shouting “Hieee!” and “Galatot!” – Kuku for “white person.”

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Yet, it was not safe enough for us to sleep in a concrete bunker at night without a South Sudanese man guarding the place with a bow and arrow. It was not safe enough to prevent one of my fellow travelers from observing toward the end of our stay that he was glad we were leaving soon – he’d recently heard that soldiers from the north were moving into Kajo Keji in case of a coup.

And it was not safe enough for us to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan without being stopped in the dead of night by soldiers with vicious-looking semi-automatic rifles.

*

I’d been fast asleep against the square window of the Cessna Caravan, the small propeller-powered plane flying us over the rural countryside of Uganda, when we began the descent. I awoke just in time to stare in awe at the thatched roofs of the tukuls, the smoke from the outdoor fires, and the children running through the bush.

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We landed on a bumpy grass field which served as the airport in Moyo, a small Ugandan village on the border of South Sudan. The field happened to be located beside the village school, and as soon as the propellers stopped turning, dozens of children of all ages crowded in a circle around the plane. Though many of them weren’t wearing any shoes and most of their clothes were more like filthy rags, some of the teenagers owned flip phones, and they unabashedly took photos of us as we stepped off the plane.

We’d left Dallas over forty-eight hours earlier, but Moyo wasn’t our final destination. We still had to drive over the Ugandan border into South Sudan, where the twelve of us would spend two weeks working with Seed Effect in Kajo Keji.

Originally, we’d planned to fly into Juba, the country’s capitol. But the day before our planned departure, news of possible violence and travel moratoriums in Juba caused us to change plans. We were now entering South Sudan through Uganda by bus.

We were a group of Texans of various ages and backgrounds with one thing in common: we’d all felt a spiritual call toward South Sudan.

As for me, the decision to go had been fairly easy. Ever since I first learned about microfinancing in my high school world studies class, I’d admired how it empowers individuals in low income situations. As a budding journalist, I would be able to write a profile of the organization’s founder for my local newspaper. Plus, I love traveling, especially traveling to exotic places, and though I was wary of using this personal enjoyment as a reason to go, I must admit that it came into play. I never felt God whispering in my ear, “Go to South Sudan,” or anything like that, but I’d been told that God doesn’t always talk to you in your dreams; sometimes, the right path to take is simply the one laid out in front of you.

Now, however, I was doubting all of my reasons to come.

We’d waded through the throngs of Ugandan children to climb aboard a mud-splattered bus with the words “reaching the unreached” scrawled in faded blue paint along the side. I’d sat in a window seat toward the back with the intention of getting a good view of the African bush. It was a short distance from Moyo to Kajo Keji, and if we’d been on a paved road in the U.S., we would have reached it in less than an hour. But the roads in these parts of East Africa are not only unpaved, they are dusty and full of potholes.

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Our ride would be bumpy and slow, and we had to stop three times before we reached South Sudan: first, when a Ugandan soldier on a motorcycle with a machine gun strapped to his back gave us a ticket for breaking some mysterious law; second, at the Ugandan border, where we relieved ourselves in a shack built over a cement hole and were told by a Ugandan border guard that we needed to pay him a good deal of money for Visas to leave the country; and third, at the South Sudanese border, where we sat on hard benches in a hot room watching a monkey tied to a stake turn circles around himself while we waited for the South Sudanese border guard to finally tell us that the Visas we obtained in the U.S. were now worthless and we would need to purchase new ones – at a high price.

By then, the sun had set, and when the sun sets in South Sudan, it is pitch black. We stumbled through the dark, most of us only half lucid, and climbed back onto the bus to begin the final leg into Kajo Keji.

I was just beginning to consider using my duffel bag as a pillow – after all, I couldn’t see any of the tukuls or leafy trees or sloping hills in the dark – when lights flashed on the road ahead.

The bus pulled to a stop.

We were immediately alert. The driver and our South Sudanese escort whispered to one another in the front of the bus. Outside, I saw the outline of several tall, lanky South Sudanese men in camouflage standing in the headlights, holding semi-automatic rifles.

Our escort, a young woman in khaki slacks and a magenta button-up, got out of the bus. When she returned, her expression was unreadable.

We’d been stopped by the soldiers, she said. They wanted to search the bus. Everyone had to get out.

Oh my God, I thought to myself as I followed the rest of the group down the aisle. Today is the day I am going to die.

My mind flashed back to the many news articles I’d read in preparation for the trip, stories about mass rape and murder. We’d been assured that violence of that kind rarely happened in this part of the country, but what if we were the rare exception?

I saw us lined up against the side of the bus and shot. I saw us kidnapped for ransom. I couldn’t imagine what rape would be like, but I wondered if that might happen, too.

As we huddled together in the dark, the South Sudanese soldiers encircling us with their guns held loosely, black barrels jaunting to the side, I began to pray.

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More often than not, when I take the time to pray, my prayers are accompanied by the voice of doubt, which wonders whether prayer has any real efficacy at all. I mean, when all is said and done, sometimes it seems our prayers are answered, but other times, it seems they’re not.

Sometimes, the circumstances in our lives line up so perfectly that wonderful miracles happen. Other times, the circumstances in our lives line up so unfortunately that inconceivable tragedies occur. How can I equate one to the answer of prayer without simply turning a blind eye on the other?

But the voice of doubt was not in my head that evening as the South Sudanese soldiers forced our vulnerable group to circle the bus. It never is when you’re really in trouble. I prayed ceaselessly, relying solely on the fervency of my prayer and the hope that God was listening. After all, what else did I have to protect myself if the situation made a turn for the worse? I’m not sure I had ever really prayed in my life until then.

The soldiers wanted each of us to remove our suitcases from the back of the bus.

The first member of our group to bravely step forward was a lady who loved Disney more than almost anything in the world, and when the young soldier aimed his flashlight down at her bag, the barrel of his gun swinging precariously, we saw that the suitcase was shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. And when the soldier gestured for her to open it, we saw that the insides were chalk full of blow-up balls and candy bracelets – gifts she’d planned to give to the South Sudanese children.

There we were in the dark, in the middle of South Sudan, with Mickey Mouse grinning up at us and the soldiers with guns leering down at the candy inside his head. If the situation hadn’t been so terrifyingly surreal, I would have laughed. As it was, I was too busy praying.

So it went. One by one, each of us opened our suitcases on the dirt road while the South Sudanese soldiers loomed over us with flashlights blazing, guns ominously clanking. After about the fourth suitcase, the soldiers decided they’d had enough and waved us back onto the bus.

I did not feel safe again until we were barreling down the road away from them. Another half an hour later, we pulled into the compound at Kajo Keji, which would be our home for the next two weeks.

Later, after a solid night’s sleep and a breakfast of scrambled eggs and a thick flatbread called chapati, we would speculate on why the soldiers stopped us, finally deciding on what seemed the most plausible answer: the soldiers in the south were bored and jealous of their compatriots in the north, who got to see all the action.

Scaring us was a way to pass the time.

*

When people ask me about South Sudan, I am always wary of sharing this story of our crossing the border because I fear my telling of it will come across flippant or opportunistic: flippant, because the event was so frighteningly strange any retelling of it becomes comical, and opportunistic, because it was a brush with danger that makes a great adventure story for me, the American who made it home to her house in the suburbs, while for the South Sudanese I left behind, the life-threatening dangers remain.

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Though I only spent two weeks with my South Sudanese hosts in Kajo Keji, I feel close to them. I am Facebook friends with a number of them, and every time they post prayer requests about friends who have been bitten by black mambas, relatives who’ve been injured in motorcycle accidents, or nearby villagers who’ve been wounded in violent massacres, I feel a combination of powerlessness and a desire to do something, anything, to help. I care about them, I guess is what I mean, and I want every story I share about my time in South Sudan to reflect that.

Yet, I’ve felt compelled to share this story nonetheless, seeing that I add the above caveat, because it’s an example of what it’s like to live a life so obviously prey to forces outside one’s control.

The South Sudanese live at the mercy of so much: unstable political forces like those which caused the soldiers to stop us in the night, as well as every unpredictable force of nature you can imagine, including illnesses like malaria, wild animals like the poisonous black mamba, and even the rain, which they rely on to water their crops and fill their wells.

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Reading articles about South Sudan these days, I often feel a chill, partly because, in some small way, I experienced what it’s like be at the mercy of these forces, and partly because I wonder if our Western lives are much less under control than we’d like to think. In many ways, the South Sudanese know this truth – that we are fragile and dependent creatures – better than we do, simply by virtue of where they live.

I suppose that’s why, when I listened to them pray again and again during those two weeks, praying over bowls of fried chicken, praying inside overheated churches, and praying under the shade of leafy palm trees, I always felt the voice of doubt had little air to breathe.

After all, when faced with your own vulnerability, it hardly ever does.

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A quarter of a century

August 26, 2016 § 4 Comments

A few days before my 25th birthday, several of my older friends admitted that on their 25th birthdays, they’d woken up feeling rather like someone had punched them in the face. They were no longer in their early twenties. They were 25 now. They needed to get their lives together. They needed to grow up.

These were honest, innocent admissions, not meant to bother me, the one nearing this momentous occasion in her life, but they gave me pause.

At 24, I’d already experienced my fair share of difficulty: rough moves, disappointing jobs, and unexpected grief. I did not need the additional hardship of simply turning one age to another. Yet, as much as I tried not to give in to this myth of the quarter life crisis, I found myself waking up on my 25th birthday with the stark realization that where I was in life was not at all where I wanted to be.

I wanted so much more.

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Not that my life lacked for good things. Quite the contrary. I have traveled some, taking to heart the advice I once read that when you are young, you should travel cheap and far and wide. I am full to the brim with deep, lasting friendships, for which I am ever more grateful day by day. I am perfectly healthy (well, except for that recent bacterial infection from a manicure — a first world problem if there ever was one).

And yet, I am not satisfied.

I want. So much. More.

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What is this urge, this deep desire within me?

I wake with it in the morning. It ceases momentarily while I sit at my computer to write (this is, I’ve come to believe, one of the reasons I love writing). Then it is back as I drive across the city, as I work in coffee shops, as I walk my dog in the evening, as I fall asleep at night.

It is an urge to get up and go, a sense that if I sit here, alone, for too long, the whole world will pass me by. It is a sharp desire to rise and flee. It is a vague longing within the center of my chest. As I told a friend lately, I feel like a deep cavern of need.

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Lake Michigan

I could write down a list of all of the particular things I want at this moment. Actually, being the overly-organized person I am, I already have. This list includes normal things any 20-something-year-old wants, both within reason (money for monthly yoga classes so I can stay in-shape) and without (an upscale flat in Paris where I can live with several obscure, but exceedingly rich and brilliant artists).

But I’m not convinced that any of these things will actually fulfill my cavern of need. I think my cavern of need is like an ever-growing pit: the more you fill it in, the larger it grows.

Half of me thinks I should cultivate contentment: don’t let your greediness for more taint the good things you already have!

But another part of me thinks I should press into this neediness: the world is full of so many lovely things, and we ought to be greedy for all of them.

I guess this life is full of contradictions. I guess both things can be true at once. This is the beginning of something I’m learning in my 25th year.

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Central Michigan at sunset

Life these days: a few links

July 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

It’s summer in Texas, and that means life these days involves traveling north as often as possible, eating Blue Bell ice cream on the back porch in the sun, and befriending anyone you can think of who might have a pool. It also means staying inside your room where you can type away at your computer while the friendly air conditioner hums.

Here are a few things I’ve written inside my air conditioned room this summer.

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I recently began writing for several nonprofits in Dallas. One is The Well Community, a small but stellar organization that serves those who struggle with mental illness in Oak Cliff, a borough of Dallas.

I’ve written about their weekly event Thursday Night Life, where Well members — those who deal with mental illnesses — are invited to fellowship with one another and volunteers and staff; a short profile of one of the Well members who battles schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness that has features of both schizophrenia and a mood irregularity like major depression or bipolar disorder; a peek into life at the boarding house where several Well members live; and a look at how The Well Community has become a family for the marginalized among us.

This nonprofit is wonderful, and I highly recommend it to anyone in Dallas or elsewhere wanting to help those in need.

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In May, I traveled to Iceland, a country which is becoming increasingly popular among tourists these days (for good reason, as you can see below!).

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If you’re interested in why it’s become so popular, as well as some of the best sites along the Ring Road, I wrote two travel stories for The Dallas Morning News based on my experience:

Iceland may be the coolest place to visit right now

The 6 most magical waterfalls of Iceland

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These days, I write for a number of nonprofits, startups, and other organizations. If you’re looking for a writer to help you on a project, big or small, please don’t hesitate to drop me a note! I would love to hear from you!

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Meditation on a glacier

June 13, 2016 § 3 Comments

Over the past few weeks, since returning from a long-anticipated trip to Iceland, many of my friends and family have asked how it was and what was my favorite part. To which I usually reply by sharing the story of the glacier.

Funny enough, when I think about the most enjoyable parts of the trip, my encounter with the glacier isn’t one. Most of the trip was just plain fun. Get three good friends together in a car driving around an island chalk full of stunning vistas and waterfalls and weird volcanic rocks, and of course it’s going to be fun. In fact, barring the usual annoyance of long layovers in crowded airports and jet lag, the trip was seven days of bliss — except, for me at least, the encounter with the glacier.

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It was the near the end of the second day of the trip, and as we drove along the Ring Road, the nearly-deserted route which circles the island, we began to see white tendrils of glacier slipping out between the surrounding black-green mountains. They were part of the Vatnajökull Glacier, the largest glacier in Iceland and one of the largest in Europe. On a whim, we meandered down a gravel road, crossed a rickety wooden bridge, and wound our way toward it. Incidentally, this is how we discovered many incredible sites in Iceland: by following the curve of a gravel road to see where it led.

This road happened to end at the edge of the glacier.

We got out of the car. We were in the middle of nowhere. It was freezing and silent expect for a faint crackling: the sound of the glacier melting.

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A narrow, rocky path ran adjacent to the glacier, overlooking the striated walls of ice jutting high into the overcast sky, brown pools of frigid water below. We walked along the climbing path for some time, until the height made me dizzy. I let my friends go on, content to stop where I was, leaning against the cold stone wall, staring out at the massive glacier. Soon, I was completely alone.

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In trying to describe the way it felt to sit there by myself in the silent cold, overlooking what appeared to be a massive block of ice, but was really only the tiniest finger of a glacier that expanded far beyond my sight, I always fall short.

I say that it made me feel small. I say that it astonished me to contemplate how old that glacier must be. I say that because it was so old, it made me realize my life is just a tiny blip in comparison, inconsequential really, and certainly not the center of anything. I say that it made me feel vulnerable, and helpless, and fragile, and needy. I say that because the glacier was so cold and so big, colder and bigger than anything I’d ever seen before, it felt otherworldly, and because it felt otherworldly, it made me afraid.

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It made me think about god, not as a squishy, found-in-a-Hallmark-card god who answers prayers and is always there, but as something far more expansive and mysterious than anything I had ever thought of or experienced before. It made me think of the fear of god, the fear of the wildness, the otherness.

Later, at the evening’s hostel, I would write these observations about what the glacier made me feel in my travel journal: danger, mystery, that cold wind off the glacier, darkness, where is god?, ancient, left out of the equation, alone, what it evoked based on its inner being, the birth of the world, didn’t make me feel good.

A few days later, when talking about our experience at the glacier, one of my friends would observe that it’s no wonder the Nordic gods are depicted the way they are, so fierce and foreboding — their myths reflect the lands which surround us.

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I suppose we all have moments like the one I had at the glacier. In fact, if I’m honest, I’ve definitely experienced something like this before. These are moments when a thing outside of ourselves reaches through us and wrenches us open to the reality of an existence other than, an existence which lies beyond.

It is not necessarily a pleasant feeling, but it is a powerful one. It is one that sticks with you long after a return flight home.

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Lenses of gray

April 26, 2016 § 3 Comments

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.


I suppose it’s a personality quirk, this tendency of mine toward melancholy. In fact, all of the personality tests I’ve ever taken (Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, all of those free tests on BuzzFeed) tell me so.

If some people see the world through rose colored glasses, I see the world through lenses of gray.

Where others might find hope, I see a shattered world. Where others might find abundance, I see only what could have been.

Sometimes, this melancholy is warranted. Certainly, there are times when it’s appropriate to grieve, to feel downcast, to be sorrowful. But other times, this grayness can get the best of me.

Other times, I need to remind myself that while, yes, there is much to lament over, there is much to rejoice over too. There is so much goodness in this world. There is so much to give thanks for.

Which is why I’m reminding myself today: If a sacrament is a sign of God’s love in the world, then this life is flush with them.

*

It is eating bowlfuls of my grandmother’s tortilla soup, simmered to spicy perfection. It is long walks in a green-canopied neighborhood that smells overwhelmingly like sugar-sweet wisteria. It is planning trips to a ranch in West Texas and a gravel road in Iceland and a lake town in Northern Michigan for a dearest of friend’s wedding. It is being asked to be maid of honor by another close friend.

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It is creamy lattes and bright green matcha tea and sour popsicles in the heat. It is morning sunlight illuminating my room like a sunbeam. It is hot black coffee and the friendly fern growing beside the windowpane. It is warm, shorts-wearing weather. It is looking above a concrete apartment complex to see a sky streaked in lavenders and blues.

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It is Blue Bell ice cream eaten in the starlit sun room of an old yellow-painted house. It is green-sprouting vines growing along red brick walls and making friends with a local barista. It is fresh mint in Earl Grey tea and evenings of hot yoga.

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It is this, all of it. It is a sign.

And it is good.

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Pine trees and cold water

March 22, 2016 § 11 Comments

“And you’re by yourself?”

I look at the park ranger.

“Yes,” I say. “I’m by myself.”

This is the third time she’s asked in, oh, five minutes. I see her raise her eyebrows, shake her head.

“It’s going to be a cold night,” she says.

“I know,” I say.

She hands me a parking pass. Is it incredulity I see on her face? Or am I simply projecting my own self doubt? Do I really believe I can make it a night alone in the woods?

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I foresee all the ways this night could go wrong. I’ve read my fair share of Stephen King: The convict watched as the girl unzipped her tent, all the while sharpening his blade against a rough stone. And I’ve read those news stories (actually, I’ve written a few): Police and community volunteers continue searching the woods for the girl who went missing last night. They discovered her campsite, but no remains…

How the hell am I going to make it through a night alone in the woods with thoughts like these?

But the parking pass is in my hand and the ranger has turned back to her computer. She doesn’t look so worried, so skeptical anymore. She just looks bored. So, I pocket the pass and head outside to the car.

*

The idea for a solo camping trip began last fall, when I went camping out west with one of my dearest friends. I love camping and, introvert that I am, I enjoy being alone. A solo camping trip sounded like a great combo. But I didn’t have anything planned until last week. That’s when I realized I needed to get out of the city, needed to breathe the crisp woody air, needed to watch the sun sparkle over cold water.

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It was a need for beauty.

It was a need for solitude.

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Over the last two years, I’ve looked at my life and seen a lot of metaphorical death. I moved to Dallas for the dream of a job that didn’t happen the way I hoped. I watched a relationship crumble from the inside, realizing too late how desperately I wanted it to work. I grieved over the lost community and natural beauty I left behind in Southern California.

One of my friends once told me that solitary retreats allow space for thoughts hidden deep within us to sprout, to bubble forth, to surprise and overwhelm us. I have found this to be true. I’ve set aside long weekends for silent retreats before, and have found myself weeping uncontrollably one minute and overwhelmed by a sense of peace the next. This is what I went looking for on my solo camping trip. Perhaps a lot to ask of a 24-hour excursion, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never receive — or something like that.

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The park ranger gives me a site by the lake, a lovely spot to read and think and otherwise do absolutely nothing. It is a late Sunday afternoon, and I’m the only one in a campground of over a hundred sites.

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That afternoon, I’m only scared once.

A hiker decides to use a nearby picnic table for his post-hike snack. It shocks me to look over after setting up my tent and find him sitting so close. There’s nothing Stephen-Kingy about him, though.

But then again, there usually isn’t until it’s dark…

*

After a dinner of cold sandwich halves, sweet blueberries, and an avocado eaten with a plastic spoon, I go for a walk. The sun has begun to set, and my side of the lake is already deep in shadow. But when I turn a corner my breath catches in my throat, my heart leaps into my mouth.

The light! It’s everywhere! Golden light. Dazzling, resplendent sunlight shattering thin green leaves, throwing golden warmth over everything; over tree bark, over scraggly brush, over pools of water, over my wan skin. The world is shot through with glory, and I’m standing in the middle of a sunbeam.

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I cross a wooden bridge, the planks split open by the sun. As I walk, tiny birds rush out ahead of me, flying seemingly from nowhere. A squirrel hunts for nuts in the hardened mud below the bridge, his normally dull fur turned luminous by the falling light.

I could stay here forever, transfixed by nothing more than the flickering shadows dancing across a single slice of sunlit bark. I do stay here for a long time, watching, listening, hidden away in an illuminated wood.

But eventually, the sun sets. Eventually, I walk back to my side of the lake, where the woods are chilled and growing darker.

The park ranger is right: it’s a cold night. Luckily, I brought a trusty below-zero sleeping bag. It’s like a heater, keeping me toasty as the temperature drops.

And who would believe it: I fall asleep. I curl up with the sleeping bag snug around my head, I read for a little while, and then am fast asleep. Not once do I consider the imagined and real horrors outside my sheer shelter. I don’t wake until morning, when hundreds of birds outside my tent explode into song.

*

Here’s something I didn’t know: birds chirp loudest just before sunrise.

Which means, when I unzip my tent, I step outside to a frigid morning — a “cold-as-a-bullfrog morning”, as my grandmother might say — fog rolling in shivery sheets off the quiet water and the first lavender light smearing the sky.

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This Texas beauty is subtle. It’s the kind of beauty that sneaks up on you, catching you by surprise.

It’s unzipping a tent in the morning to find a world awash in creamy blues.

It’s watching a flock of ducks stream noiselessly across glassy water.

It’s staring absently at a log only to realize it’s actually a knobby turtle.

This is the gift I receive in the morning. This is the gift of facing my fear.

And this is what I’m learning: I’m learning to peer closer, to realize the fecundity of life right before me, to live with eyes open wide. I’m learning to face the fear of sleeping alone in a wooded forest, fully expecting to wake up astonished, and ever more alive.

*

For any interested campers, I stayed at Tyler State Park, a lovely spot with pine trees and a small lake just an hour and a half from Dallas.

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