Month: June 2011

bottled summer

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This is what 15,000 people look like.

The meadow has been re-carpeted, the grass tucked away under a multitude of colors. It’s all bare feet and dresses and sweaters and blankets.

There’s something unifying about music. One would think so many people commingled in such a small space would hold the lot of them one trip or shove from a riot. Instead, people dance and smile and weave among each other.

There’s the girl who lies on her back, her arm over her eyes, seemingly oblivious to the throng that tucks her in on all sides. There is the group hopping and waving their arms in the air. There is the guy with shaggy hair and a dog to match. There is the girl on her boyfriend’s shoulders. There is the guy in the Abercrombie hat with his back to the stage, looking for someone to make eye contact with.

People hop from the foot-sized patches of grass between blankets. No one gets annoyed when someone stops to look up at the stage. Everyone simultaneously does their own thing, and somehow it all fits together.

They sing in one voice, songs that everybody knows.

It’s puzzling that this is possible in a group so infinitely different.

The performers feel it and capitalize on it. They encourage sing-a-longs and extort cheers in between bass solos. They play covers when they have a full quivers of their own music.

The sun shines warmer in this pocket, warmer than elsewhere in the city, where the wind has more direct access. A girl with dark curls rolls up her pants. The worst thing about her day is that she’s not wearing shorts.

The last chord rings in a mass exodus, when everything goes back to normal. There’s jostling on the subway and arguing on cell phones. But some still hum the notes the singer coached them in.

For a few hours, they had bottled summer, and the memory of the taste is still sweet.

the wedding

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It’s a hotel lobby, the kind with the beige, orange and burgundy in swirls across the carpet.

I look down at my dress, tucked in puffs that descend from my waist. Incredibly, taffeta billows from my shoulders like wings.

Hmm. How did I ever let someone convince me wear this for anything other than Halloween? I ask myself.

My wrist is looped through the crook of my dad’s arm. We pass by a table, where a man is still sticking irises into green blocks of foam inside a vase. We both stare at him as we pass by.

“These joints generally run a little behind,” dad explained.

We pass by rows of plastic folding chairs, only half full, and continue up the isle. A list of people not present in those chairs scrolls through my mind. I’m puzzled, but move on.

The few that are peering back at me block my view. I wonder with mild curiosity who he will be. When I get to the alter, he’s sitting on the steps. He looks up and we smile in recognition.

Huh. I think. It makes sense that it’s him, of any of the rest of them.

I marvel at how nonchalant I feel. After all those years, here it is. I really blew it on the planning, I think. And I’m a planner. I don’t remember booking those tables. Choosing those flowers. I don’t even know where this hotel lobby is.

I compare the drab casino-like feel of this venue to the elegant weddings of my friends. Most baffling are the vases of irises, sticking out of that green stuff like porcupines on tables scattered among the folding chairs. And I wonder why there are tables. I hear a soft ticking above, and look up at a wobbly ceiling fan.

Well, I think as he stands and we face each other. Here goes the rest of my life. I feel powerless to stop it. Again, the ticking distracts me.

I open my eyes to the circling of the fan above my bed and feel that familiar wash of relief that it’s just a dream.

sophie

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We sat at a round table as she talked, her Dutch accent seasoning her story.

I scribbled her words down in my notebook.

Tales of war. Of espionage. Of persecution. Things we don’t live through here and now.

She spoke German, so we traded a few words over our tea cups, just as practice for us both.

“I wrote down my story,” she said, her eyes brightening. She left and went into the back room. The sounds of rifling followed. Then she produced the thick pad of paper full of words and sentences, double spaced.

“It’s my manuscript of the time.”

I nodded and thumbed through the pages.

She was remarkable. At age 89, her mind was still sharp. Her boyfriend, who would have been her husband except that the logistics of a ceremony were too great at their age, sat nearby in a wheelchair listening.

She gave detailed stories of her escape from the Germans during World War II. She told of watching loved ones be dragged away. She told of traveling alone through snowy fields by herself. She described how a she used a passing flirtation to become a spy for the underground. It was a little lipstick that helped her find out that it was safe for an Allied weapon drop.

I listened rapt, wondering if I would have been capable of her bravery.

Her courage had left its scars, in the form of a fear that resurfaced at odd times, such as when I asked for a photo for the story I was writing. There might be some who still seek to harm the Jews, she explained, as she declined.

After I had filled the lines and rows of my notebook with her words, she turned to more personal matters. She handed me a dusty German novel.

“Will you read it?” she asked. I nodded, but wondered if I could, my German having rusted without consistent use.

She turned back to the manuscript. She needed an editor, she told me. Would I be willing? I hedged, but said maybe. She asked me to visit. It’s lonely in this small town.

With the lines of journalistic ethics tumbling in my mind, I held her at arm’s length. I smiled and said goodbye in German. I took what I had and wrote the story.

Months later, she called. Her husband had just died, she said. “I am alone now.” I told her I was sorry, feeling the pity wash over me. She again brought up the manuscript, urging me to stop by.

“I will try,” I said, my conscience tapping on my shoulder. I thought I would. I intended to. But the town where she lived was out of the way. I seldom had reason to go there. Maybe I could stop by one Saturday afternoon, I thought.

I never did.

One day I stopped to snatch a fax off the machine. Obituary information. Nothing out of the ordinary. I let the paper flutter onto the news clerk’s desk, but caught the name before it came to a rest.

It was her.

Suddenly all my good intentions deflated like a beach ball pricked with a pin. She died alone, her manuscript collecting dust in the back room. I wondered where that bundle of papers was now. I wondered if anyone would ever read it, or if it the details of her life would end up on a shelf somewhere, unedited.

I’m sorry, Sophie.

sleep

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I’m like a toddler at bedtime.

I’m not tired, I think, as fatigue lays latent in my veins.

So I write and roam around on Facebook and find other equally unproductive ways to sit in front of a screen. I start new projects and dream new weekend getaways.

Five more minutes, I think. Then 20 tick by. And 30. An hour. Suddenly it’s past my optimal bedtime that I never have the self-control to stick to. That time is more an imaginary line without meeting. A good idea I never act on.

I’m like a teenager in the morning.

I hit my snooze button repeatedly. I groan in protest and cover my eyes from the light streaming in through my windows.

I’m so tired, I think, willing the time between alarms to stretch into eternity. Why did I go to bed so late? I wonder. I am not 21 anymore.

I sink deeper into the pillows of clouds and float away on the wakes of my down comforter. A nanosecond passes, and the nagging of the alarm sounds again.

Five more minutes, I think.

sun

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The sun for me is like a drug.

Maybe because I spent so many years in withdrawal.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the sun is in its full garb of yellow glory. I lay with my eyes half open, its heat melting all tension from my shoulders.

My thoughts thaw into a nonsensical puddle. The breeze patters a silent drum beat on my back. The murmur of conversation beside me fades into distant horizons. I feel blades of grass looping through my toes.

Only a week ago, we were ducking under umbrellas and huddling under  blankets snatched from their neat folds on couches. Mini rivers divided the roads and sidewalks. Summer seemed like a myth while winter held onto its reign.

A friend’s child asked her if it is almost Christmas.

But Sunday gave us hope. Hope of flip-flops and shorts. Hope of barbecues on patios. Hope of driving with the windows down with the radio blaring.

Suddenly, summer seems like a possibility instead of a hope.

I feel the energy that the rain robbed of me oozing back in breaths. All else fades into shapelessness in the glare of the light. My world, overexposed, seems so much more manageable without shadows or shading.

I close my eyes and watch it fade into semiconsciousness with me.

balancing

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For awhile, I held on with white knuckles, trying to keep it all together.

Every Friday, I would lay my hands open, and give it back to God.

Then Monday, I would pick it up again.

It’s not our usual trip.

Three teams from our own church going into remote Fijian villages that it takes three days to travel to. A complex budget that looks like a calculus equation. A layered leadership hierarchy that somehow I found myself at the top of — in two different roles at the same time that are difficult to explain.

But that’s not why I was so determined to keep it from falling apart.

A year and a half ago, my role in missions was nothing but a seed God planted in my mind. I watered it and cared for it and it sprouted into my first trip ever.

Now the people who I helped lead are leading others. It’s blossomed from that seed into a vine that has grown beyond our ability to prune it. And I stand back in awe at all the people who came together to make it happen.

We fought for so many of our team members to stick with it. Our original number dropped, then stabilized then threatened to drop again. We argued and coached and coaxed. We worked nights and weekends. We tossed out texts and emails like candy. We crunched numbers as if we liked math. After all that, I still look back at my role and see the flaws in my leadership, like cracks running through cement.

Tomorrow, they leave without me. As of 11 a.m., I will have outgrown my usefulness. They will take the journey with other capable, and most likely, better, leaders.

It’s funny, after I calculated and recalculated the fundraising numbers. After I twisted them and looked at them in different lights. After we finally came up with the answer we were waiting for, I didn’t feel excitement or relief. It was like I was too tired to care about what undoubtedly was a miracle.

Instead, I set down my pen and moved onto the next task.

People ask me why I am still doing it. This side of missions isn’t my calling anymore. I now work on the other side in a broader context. I tend to blame others for roping me back in, but the truth is, I couldn’t let it go with no one else to step in. I cared too much. I wanted this team to see the change that I saw on my first trip — in me and in others.

Maybe we bit off more than we could chew. Maybe us plus them doesn’t equal the program we were striving for. But when we factor God into the equation, it balances.

the bus

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It was white with a rainbow down the side. My dad tried to paint over it, but the faint hues of red, yellow, blue and green still glowed through.

It was our home for a couple of years — a Dodge school bus with a Hemi engine converted into a living space. It even had a bathroom and bunk beds my dad built for my sister and me.

I think of how rugged life was in those intermittent months between cold. We bathed in the lake. We had an outhouse. We chopped firewood. I compare them to the luxury I live in now, where everything operates on dials and switches.

I have a handful of vivid memories of that time.

I still remember waking up on my fifth birthday in that bus, the voices of the radio guiding me into consciousness. Under the heaviness of crocheted quilt I recall thinking happily with my eyes still shut, I am five today.

I remember being sick to the point of delirium and my dad bathing me in a metal bucket through a fever-induced haze.

I remember pounding nails in two-by-fours alongside my dad with a hammer as long as my torso. I was small then too.

I remember the afternoon my sister cut my hair with my dad’s silver hair trimmers, carving out a neat box in my bangs. “It will look pretty,” she promised, just before she lopped them off and took a chunk out of her own hair.

I remember my pink jellies — the ones I blame for shaping my toes into the awkward twisted mess they are now.

Through it all, I lived a life sheltered from the painful and heavy roll of responsibility my dad held.

I have a window to it now that I share the title of “grown up” with my parents. I hear about ill-health and the perpetual struggles of parenting a teenager and the stresses of work, and my heart breaks for them that it isn’t easier. They deserve a life of retirement and travel and all the perks that come with an empty nest.

I wish I could fix it and sweep it all away. I wish I could win the lottery and give them $10 million. I wish I could mend the hard starts to life my adopted siblings had, which in turn might cure the brokenness that exists today.

The 1,000 miles that span between them and me render me helpless. So a phone and Skype serve as the lines that string us together. Somehow, no matter how hard it gets for them, they still are there to boost me up when my life has its minor turbulence.

I’m thankful I have them and that bus to put life into perspective.