The Light & the Dark (Revisited)

It’s been a year and three days since I returned from Haiti on one of the greatest experiences of my life, since I saw such beauty and chaos, such light and such dark, existing side-by-side in a country I have come to love dearly. One of the greatest lessons I learned was how distinct the boundaries between good and evil are. It’s tangible in Haiti, in a way that it isn’t tangible in our cozy, comfy, middle-class American lives.

A year later, I’m even more thankful for my experience. It’s not been an easy year.

Five days after I posted that blog about Haiti, I received a terrible phone call. I was in the checkout line at Publix when my dad called. I hurriedly answered and said I would call him back, then walked out to my car. From the way Dad had said “Hello,” I knew this would not be an easy phone call. In my car, in the darkened parking lot, gripping the steering wheel, I listened to my dad tell me that my uncle–his sister’s husband, our neighbor, our loved one–had taken his own life. The gasping, aching hole was immediate, the sobs wrenching. I was, fortunately, on my way to my small group at the time, so minutes later, after I’d composed myself enough to drive, I headed straight there, to my family who comforted me and prayed with me, even while my biological family grieved far away.

The next night, I made the three-hour trip home, moving between numbness and uncertainty to crying and questioning. When I pulled into the driveway late at night, my parents came out to meet me. They had news, updates: my uncle, who had long been an evolutionist, had been attending church with my aunt and cousin. He had accepted Christ just two months before and was scheduled to have been baptized the following Sunday.

I collapsed on the ground in grateful tears. Here, then, was the light in the middle of so much darkness. Here was the sliver of hope. For whatever doctrine exists on suicide and unpardonable sins, we at least had hope when there had been none before. God’s glory was brighter than the darkness.

Just two and a half weeks later, however, the darkness threatened again. Another phone call from Dad, another intuition from the “Hello.” My grandfather–my mom’s dad–had been found dead that day of a massive heart attack or stroke. My only grandfather–my Papa Ting, my funny little old grandfather–was gone forever. The man who’d been proud to have me as his first grandchild, the man who’d financed much of my trip to Haiti, the man whose imperfections often made his family life difficult–was gone.

I made the trip home again, and this time I arrived physically sick–dizzy, nauseated, weak. I felt the effects of the compounded losses to my bones. The next day arrived, filled with trips to flower shops and the funeral home, and finally, the visitation, where I stood in a line for three hours, greeting hundreds of people, each of whom had a different story. I smiled, I laughed, I explained who and where and what I am now. Visitations aren’t for the family to grieve; they’re for celebration. And they’re exhausting.

The next day was Valentine’s Day–cold, rainy, gray–perfectly ironic for a funeral. The tension between grieving for my own loss and supporting my mother and grandmother, for whom the loss spread over decades and generations. And the oddness of smiling for photos because–for the first time in years–the whole family was gathered together, even in such a harsh setting.

The next day was the hardest of all: leaving my family, terrified that yet another loss would happen and I wouldn’t be there. Driving back to teach a class I wasn’t at all prepared for. Driving back to deadlines for my thesis, wondering if I should even bother trying to finish (after all, I’d attended the funerals for two loved ones before finishing chapter one–what else could happen before I finished all five chapters?). I almost emailed my advisor to withdraw and then realized I needed something tangible to lose myself in.

My thesis became my life. I wrote fast; I wrote long; I wrote well. One hundred pages in six and a half weeks. Finishing my thesis, graduating, and another ending also felt like a loss even as other celebrated with me. My purpose was gone alone with so many other losses.

The darkness of those few weeks in January and February–even though they were tinged with so much light–still managed to overcast the rest of my year. I didn’t care about much, and my heart felt aimless and wandering. In the fall, a hectic semester and students who weren’t always appreciative made me question my sanity and my calling. Did I want to teach ungrateful students for the rest of my life? What was I working so hard for? Would any of this ultimately matter?

Then, at Thanksgiving, when I was cherishing the time with family, we learned of another loss: my mom’s pastor, who’d been fighting brain tumors for two years, had finally passed away. At his funeral, I felt the love of so many people for him and I also profoundly missed my grandmother, my uncle, my grandfather.

And New Year’s Day, I awoke to a text from Mom. My cousin Todd, just a few days younger than me, had been wheelchair-bound his whole life after being born with spina bifida. He’d had surgery for an abdominal infection a few weeks before, and his health had been declining. He passed away the morning of New Year’s Day, just 27 years old. I missed his funeral but got a full recap from Mom: a celebration of a life that was worthy, even in the midst of hardship.

Here, in this new year, I’ve found myself reflecting on one of the toughest years of my life. So many losses, so much pain, so much hardship. In my life, in the lives of my family and others I care for, in the world. I’ve sensed the darkness in so much: the global disasters and tragedies, the national government issues, the scandals, the brokenness.

I’ve never felt the darkness so profoundly before. I know this is because of Haiti. You can’t walk through the streets of Jacmel or drive through the streets of Port-au-Prince and not believe that evil is real and present and powerful. And I cannot live knowing that evil is real without understanding that God’s power and might are greater and stronger and more beautiful than anything I can even comprehend. This year of darkness and brokenness has sometimes overwhelmed me; however, the good that’s come out of it is beautiful and wonderful and worth it. For the first time in years, I feel unity within my family–on both sides, my mom’s and my dad’s. The Gambrells have returned to our tradition of celebrating Christmas together, which fell by the wayside when my grandmother, our matriarch, was ill. The loss has brought us together again, and now we celebrate the next generation that will come when my cousin Whitney has her first child in March. On my mom’s side of the family, we were all together on Christmas day, and I heard for the first time in a long time “I love you” pass from sibling to sibling; I hugged cousins I’ve rarely seen in past years, and I feel a bit of hope that my grandfather’s death has brought us all together again. I’ve seen my family take care of one another and love one another, and while I’m sad that it’s taken loss to make this happen, I’m grateful that it’s happening nonetheless.

I have spent much of this year fearful, anxious, and worried about what the future holds and how much my life matters. I’ve seen a lot of the brokenness and wondered if wholeness were possible. I’ve questioned tragedies and grieved loss.

And now it’s a new year, a time of rebirth. And while life is hard and sin inflicts pain and hurt, God is real and true. I have seen darkness and death point toward life and light and love. I have seen unity come out of the pain. God’s love is strongest when it overcomes the pain of our fallen world. I found this truth in Haiti and carried it back home with me. In those few weeks in early January last year, when I wondered why I had to return to America and how I could hold on to what I learned in Haiti, I had no idea what was coming. I certainly didn’t expect the year that I had. But I’m grateful for His timing, for His mercy, and for the way He cares for His children. I’m grateful for a new year in which to see His glory shine and to worship him in new and unexpected ways. And I’m so thankful that His life shines so brightly and overcomes the darkness of this world.

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Unchained

The evening began with a story of a man and a woman meeting in a bar. I wasn’t thrilled to learn, shortly thereafter, that the evening’s stories would be a celebration of love. The raconteurs were even traveling by bus on a thirteen-city tour that was heart-shaped when plotted on a map.

I have stopped watching most romantic comedies. I have found solace in the science-fiction/fantasy/dystopian world where love is rarely a first-rate plot device. I have wondered if, perhaps, romance and relationships are not for me. I–I–was sitting in a room with an intimate crowd of 200 to listen to storytellers celebrate love? I’ll admit that I rolled my eyes.

I was reassured, however, that we would be celebrating all kinds of love.

The first storyteller regaled us with a story of growing up with a twin brother with a slight case of Down’s Syndrome. When she suffered an injury that ruined her college running career and her Olympic dreams, her brother’s love and care for others convinced her to re-imagine her future and her goals. A celebration of the love of siblings…and a story that, as a big sister, I understand.

The second storyteller spoke in an utterly unique accent–part Southern Savannah gentleman, part Eastern European gypsy, parts of dialects I’ve never encountered–all strangely, shiveringly delightful. He told of his high school experience attending a Catholic military school, a story focused on a boyhood experience that was, if not aligned with the theme of the night, certainly engrossing, humorous, and intriguing.

Intermission arrived then, and I hurried to the back of the venue to chat with my late-arriving friends–newlyweds, entirely appropriate guests for the evening. We discussed the evening thus far and our excitement for the upcoming, final speaker–the one we’d all really come to see.

The third storyteller was the one who’d begun with the brief story of the meeting in the bar. Those were his parents, and he went on to relate the story of how he and his wife met. A story of an unlikely boy and the girl he dreamed of, perfect in its crudeness and humor, and encouraging in its ultimate truth that one must seek out and hold onto whatever life one desires.

Before the final storyteller, three audience members who had signed up to tell stories were called onto the stage to tell one-minute stories relating to love–one about a boyfriend from elementary school, one about a man meeting his (very sassy) wife of 30 years for the first time, and another about a cat at a homeless shelter.

Then, finally–finally–the man we’d been waiting for. The man whose books we have devoured, whose blogs and tweets we have so studiously followed, whose worlds we have emerged ourselves in and called our own.

Neil Gaiman’s quiet, even voice; his British accent; his dark, slightly rumpled clothes; his demeanor. He’s real. He’s wonderful.

He began with a story he’d heard from a woman who’d worked at the circus. The elephants at the circus are trained, from a young age, to be chained. This prevents their escape. As a calf, an elephant is tied to a chain every night, and he cannot escape no matter how hard he pulls. As a grown elephant, he has become so used to the chain that, even though he could be free with merely a lift of his giant foot, he is still imprisoned–bound, mentally if not physically, by the chain.

Mr. Gaiman then moved, without transition, in the way of a talented storyteller, into the story of a period of his own life, when his marriage had fallen apart, when he was alone in a large house with no companion, and when he was driving down the road one night and rescued a muddy dog in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. He took the dog home, cleaned him up, and then carried him to the animal shelter to be returned to his owner. He missed the dog, but the dog could not be adopted. A few days later, the phone rang, and he heard the story of the dog’s owner, a farmer with a disability who couldn’t care for the dog and kept him on a four-feet chain, only letting him off the chain for 20 minutes a day. That day, the dog went home with Mr. Gaiman, who called him Cabal.

Then came the story of when Mr. Gaiman met a musician, with whom he spent three days exploring museums and attending shows, of talking and getting to know one another. Then, an abrupt ending and her uncertainty and his wondering whether she would ever call.

We, his fans, know how the story ends. We know that Cabal is his companion at the gazebo where he writes. We know that he and Amanda Palmer are married, happily.

Sometimes, the chains fall away. Sometimes, we are rescued.

The evening has followed me throughout the week, the memories staying hidden until quiet moments when I shake off the responsibility and the looming to-do list. I’ve found myself, at times, thinking about my own chains.

On Monday night, I sat, thinking about my students, thinking about how I need to be strict with them, about my frustrations and doubts as an instructor, wondering if it’s possible to lose one’s ability to love. The heartache makes it seem that way sometime–the heartache of feeling like I’m constantly telling people what to do or what not to do, the heartache that my grading responsibilities and schedule won’t allow me to visit my family for weeks if not months, the heartache of the relationships gone bad.

I curled up on my bed, cried a little, and asked God to remind me of how to love people. The next morning, a student came in my office, a student with whom I’d had little contact, and he told me his story. And I understood his silence, his absence, his reticence. The next afternoon, an old friend stopped by, and our friendship was restored, and I apologized for my own absence, my own silence, my own reticence.

Here, then, was the answer; here are the people I am called to love. And I’ve felt those chains, at least, loosened.

Today, my dad and I talked, and we discussed a conversation in which an old classmate had asked him how I was doing and how many kids I have. My response: “Next time, tell her I have 46. They just all happen to sit in desks in front of me.” For this is my calling, this is my family.

Thank you, Mr. Gaiman and the rest of the Unchained Tour. Thank you for reminding me that love comes in many ways, in many varieties, at many times. Thanks for the reminder that chains exist, but that they don’t have to. Thanks for the reminder to squeeze everything I can out of the life that I lead.

(Thanks, too, Mr. Gaiman, for signing my poster and getting excited about seeing the Threadless t-shirt–designed from your poem–in real life. Thanks for an evening that I won’t soon forget.)

The founder of the Unchained Tour and the raconteurs

The fangirl face and hands while pointing out my t-shirt to Mr. Gaiman

He wanted to inspect the back of my t-shirt. Of course, I said yes.

Remember that time I met Neil Gaiman?

Reflection on a Solitary Evening

I worked late this evening in White Hall, the lovely building on campus that houses the English, History, and Christian Studies departments. My last colleagues, April and Debbie, had left sometime before 6 p.m. I grabbed a quick dinner from the bagel shop across the street and ate while I finished a PowerPoint for my lecture tomorrow morning.

My to-do list seemed to be miles long, and I was feeling anxious about how to cram all the information I need to teach into the time allotted. Although this is my fourth year teaching, I’m teaching Composition & Literature for the first time this semester, at 8:00 in the morning, which is a daunting hour for even the most experienced instructor.

I was sitting at my desk, finishing my Diet Pepsi, listening to Moby, and tackling my to-do list when 7:30 rolled around, and I heard the familiar sounds of the campus security officer closing up the building. I’ve worked late enough times to know the routine: he would secure the downstairs, make his way upstairs to check all the office doors, and stop at my open door for a bit of small talk.

That’s exactly how it worked. I turned in my chair to face the door, and the officer–not the usual one I have encountered in previous semesters–stepped through my open door to say hello and run through the drill. “I’ve locked this side door and the one downstairs. Everything else is closed. Turn your light off and pull the door behind you.” He checked my door, which was already locked and ready to be closed up when I left.

I assured him that I would do that, and he turned to the door, noticing the name plate. “I noticed you’re not Tim Hendrix,” he stated. “May I ask who you are?” I told him my name, explained my many jobs on campus, and said, “I don’t get a name plate since I’m only adjunct. I have to share.”

“Well, Ms. Gambrell,”–so polite!–“you’ll be safe here. Stay as long as you need. You’re right at home.”

Indeed, I was. For nine years, there has been nothing in my life as unwavering as North Greenville, and White Hall in particular. I spent four years attending class in the now non-existent classroom 109. I’ve had many conversations–both serious and frivolous–on its rocking chairs and sofas, gracing its doorways, roaming its hall. When I began teaching English three years ago, one of the greatest joys in a semester full of joyous events was preparing for class in the early morning while drinking coffee and watching the sunrise over the mountains. In recent months, I have seen more sunsets than sunrises, on those late evenings like tonight when I have, unaccompanied, written pages of my thesis, read novels and theories, created quizzes and handouts, graded essays and journals.

In White Hall, I have shed tears of joy and of sadness. I have smiled, laughed, hugged.

I have taught. I have learned. I have loved and been loved.

“Stay as long as you need. You’re right at home.”

Hospitality to the Stranger

I’m back at work after a wonderful weekend at the school for conversion in Lexington, KY. I have so much to tell, so my blog this week might be a series of stories about this weekend. I feel in some ways that words are too limiting to describe my thoughts: the joy I felt at being part of a family for a weekend; the heartbreak of leaving new, dear friends; the lament of being part of a culture that is broken and lost; the tension that still exists in trying to figure out how my community can glorify the Father best.

Before I launch into my experiences and how this weekend changed my life, I’ll tell you a story.

One of the marks of new monasticism is hospitality to the stranger. We must be inconvenienced for the sake of loving and serving others. Part of this involves opening our homes to people. Part of hospitality is also letting others be hospitable and serve us. It’s learning about grace through the kindness of strangers.

The Gladdings were our host family at Communality in Lexington. Sean and Rebecca opened their home to us, and I enjoyed every minute of my stay with them. Additionally, they have two young children who really showed me what it means to be hospitable and to love one another. Maggie is almost six years old, and Seth is four. The two of  them seemed to immediately attach themselves to Chris and me. Maggie eagerly ran to me each time she saw me, and she climbed into my lap with no hesitation. Yesterday morning, during our next-to-last session, the children were upstairs, and during the break, Maggie ran down to give me a picture she’d drawn of a rainbow and a rabbit. It’s safe to say that it’s something I’ll treasure for a long time.

Maggie and Seth showed me what it’s like to fully welcome someone into your life. What would happen if we threw aside all hesitation? If we loved one another with reckless abandon? If we shared a meal and risked getting too close to one another, being vulnerable? Life would be beautiful, indeed.

The most beautiful moment, however, came when we took communion. Mary, who led the communion, began by serving one of the other guests. She held out the loaf and the juice, saying, “This is Christ’s body that was broken for you, and this is His blood that was shed for you.” We then continued to serve one another. When it was Chris’ turn, he turned to Maggie, who was sitting on my lap, and offered her communion. She then took the loaf and the cup and turned to me, saying the words perfectly and looking straight at me. I took communion and then passed it on, and then I thanked God for showing me His love and grace through the little girl sitting in my lap.

I’ve never experienced such love from people I’d never met before. I’ve never known the feeling of a family to develop so quickly, as it did with the members of Communality and the guests that arrived from around the country (and Canada!) to attend the school. I hated leaving Lexington yesterday, and I’m eager to return to the city to visit all the new friends I made. Despite all the tension and anxiety I originally felt about attending the school for conversion, this weekend was one of the best experiences of my life. God has revealed Himself to me in really awesome ways, including taking communion with a five-year, and I’m so thankful for this experience.

How Not to Ask a Question

I went to my parents’ for the weekend, mostly because this afternoon, a friend from high school was having a baby shower. Keri is exactly 4 days younger than me, has been married for three or four years, and is expecting her first child in four and a half weeks. I’m very excited for her and her husband, and it was so good to see her. I also saw a lot of people that I haven’t seen in months or even years. On trips home, I mostly just see my family or a few family friends, so when I walked into the church building this afternoon, I was pretty thrilled to see so many ladies who were very important to me before I moved away: my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Rast; elderly ladies whom I visited with Mama Kat when I was young;  even high school classmates whom I haven’t kept in touch with very well.

Of course, I got lots of hugs and kisses on the cheek. Many of them haven’t seen me since I was diagnosed with diabetes and subsequently lost 70 pounds, so a few claimed to not even been able to recognize me. People asked where I lived, if I’m still working at the library, what I’m doing for grad school. Just your generic, small-town small-talk. I enjoyed it, and to be honest, my pride always gets a little inflated when I return to my small town and get to talk about my plans to get a Ph.D. and teach college English. Ph.Ds are rare in a town filled with blue-collar workers.

I’m almost 24, though, and the question that people really want to ask is Are you dating anybody? While I was only technically asked the question three or four times today, other ladies seemed to hint in that direction but never asked when I didn’t take the bait. That’s to be expected: of the numerous friends my age who were there today, only one hasn’t been married for several years…and she’s getting married in July.

It’s a pattern in a small town: graduate high school, go to a tech school or (if you’re ambitious) get a bachelor’s degree, find a job, move back home, get married. Obviously, I started on that course, but quickly veered off.

Twice, when I was asked that question, I merely smiled and shook my head. Once, the conversation changed course, and another time, the elderly lady merely hugged me and told me that in time, I would find the right one. Her grandson (who also graduated with me) did, after all, so why wouldn’t I? 🙂

The first time I got that question, though, it went a little differently. I was talking to a girl named Morgan, a girl whom I once considered my best friend before I knew what that term could actually imply. Although we did everything together–yearbook co-editors, president and VP of the senior class, prom planners, etc.–our friendship was always shaky and bordering on mere acquaintanceship. I haven’t bothered to keep up with her since we graduated high school, and this is only the third or fourth time I’ve seen her in those six years. She was always one of those girls who peaks in high school–whose life seems to be completely fulfilled at 18. She commuted to school, married a man she met there, and now teaches high school English, but doesn’t really like it.

She stood there, asking me about living in Greenville, working in a library, why I decided to pursue a master’s in teaching instead of library science, when suddenly she slipped in a question that still has me angry:

So, still no boyfriend?

For the record, that is not the same questions as Are you dating anyone? I hated her in that moment. But more so, I hated my response:

No, I’m still single. But, you know, I have lots of friends.

LAME! Now, she is sure to infer from that answer the truth: that all these years later, I still haven’t dated anyone, or even been on a date for that matter. And what is up with my answer? Do I really need to validate to her my vacant love life by telling her how many friends I have?

I wish I were a quick thinker and could have made up some awesome boyfriend on the spot. But I’m a terrible liar, so that never would have worked. More than that, though, I wish that her question hadn’t hurt so much. I wish I didn’t want so badly to prove to people who don’t even matter that I’m better than they think I am–that I’ve changed significantly since those terrible high school years, that I don’t need a boyfriend to make me complete. [There’s the raging feminist in me. 🙂 ] But I still find myself trying to fit into that small-town mold. I feel that these people–Morgan specifically, but maybe others–are asking themselves what’s so wrong about me that, at 24, having seemingly shed that overweight-nerdy-girl reputation, I still can’t get a boyfriend.

I had a two-and-a-half-hour drive back up here this afternoon, and I spent most of that trip stewing over this question, wondering why it affected me so much. Probably because that question seemed to irritate all those insecurities that lie dormant much of the time. I was born in a small-town, and graduated from a small, Christian college, so for the first 22 years of my life, I lived in environments where I was expected to marry young and live happily ever after. Now, I’m adjusting to the mindset that it’s fine to be single at this point in my life. Granted, I’d like to be in a relationship, but I love my life. I love my friends (and you’re not lame, I promise), and I like being independent. I’m in no hurry to get married.

But, of course, there’s always the scared girl inside me who’s trying so hard to be better than just a small-town girl. And she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s not doing a great job. She doesn’t want to let anyone down or make them think that she’s inferior. She wants to feel like she’s not missing out on life–even when she knows there’s so much more than that.

I Am Still Running.

I jokingly tell my younger brother that, of the two of us, I am the perfect one–while he was the troublesome child, I was a model of decorum. We joke that if he’d been born first, my parents would have been so dismayed they never would have had a second child. Unlike many children, including my brother Berry, I actually liked to follow rules. When I started school, I enjoyed homework, so getting it finished before watching TV wasn’t a difficult choice. At bedtime, I might have asked for five more minutes, but if Mom and Dad said no, I wasn’t one to argue.

My brother was an entirely different matter. He infuriated teachers in elementary school when he never turned in homework and fell asleep in class, but when asked a question, he could amaze them with his intellect. And bedtime was a constant battle. Frequently, he’d sneak out his bedroom into the hallway and peer around the bookshelf where he had a perfect view of the TV. Often, my parents would find him curled up on the floor asleep when they finally went to bed.

My mother likes to tell an anecdote about the two of us. As an infant, if I were upset or tired, my parents needed only to put me into my crib. Being confined in that safe, enclosed space was enough to calm me down and put me to sleep. My brother, born three years later, was never satisfied with being enclosed. He was the child who climbed out of the crib and balanced on top of the bars. He was the one to take risks in order to escape.

Looking back at my life, I can see that this desire for safety, and the necessity of being in control, ruled my life. One day, when I was perhaps three or four years old, I was walking down the sidewalk back home from my best friend’s house next door. A strange man was walking across the street and moved to cross it. All I knew was that he was a stranger, and strangers were bad. As I walked up the driveway to my house, I could see my father through the latticed fence, but that fence separated me from him. And I knew that fence needed to separate me from the stranger.

I screamed. I ran. I struggled to get the gate open, and I felt the strange man walking closer to me. Finally, the latch released, and I was able to get inside, to safety. I still remember the immense feeling of relief as the gate slammed shut behind me. I remember running inside, running to safety. Just running.

My brother and I are both in our twenties now. Berry’s a firefighter. Not much has changed for him. Safety actually dominates his life and his profession, but he still must be that risk-taker he was as a child.

Not much has changed for me either, actually. I’m still bound by safety. I want guidelines. My life is frequently dominated by control. And often, I find that I’m still running. Searching for safety. Grasping for control.

* * *

August 2001

I imagine that a major goal of every sixteen-year-old girl is to discover something about herself. She may not state that explicity, but each day as a teenager seems to be marked by a quest to discover one’s identity. I was certainly no different.

August 2001 was a culmination of a year of soul-searching and decision-making. In September 2000, I had received an invitation to apply to the Governor’s School for Science & Mathematics, a two-year residential high school for gifted students. As an awkward, intelligent student in my very rural, small-town high school, I saw my chance to escape. I grasped an opportunity that I knew I could not let pass me by.

The day in February that I received my acceptance letter was the happiest day of my life, to that point. I took a week to decide, but I knew what my choice would be the moment I read the word “Congratulations” on that letter. I was getting out of my hick town. I was running . . . towards something better. Towards the future.

When August arrived, I was a basket case. Excitement. Nervousness. Extreme fear. All of it was there, battling it out inside my heart. Leaving home must be the right decision. The Governor’s School could offer me so much more than would ever be possible in my small town.

I lasted six days. Six days, marked by the most intense roller coaster of emotions I’ve ever experienced. Six days of working diligently to convince myself I’d made the right decision, followed by moments of terrible heartache at knowing that it had instead been the wrong decision.

So I ran again, back home, to the place that was familiar, even though, less than a week before, I had run away from that very same place. I was only six days older, chronologically. But my life had taken a dramatic turn down an entirely new path. I had been intelligent before, but now that intelligence was accompanied by something else: a fierce motivation to be better than my circumstances, a desire to prove to the world that good things can come from a dying town.

I was running again, albeit in a different direction. This time, instead of running away, as I had so often before, I was running towards the dream of finding a place where I truly belonged. It had not been in Hartsville, at the Governor’s School; it wasn’t in North, my dying little town. But I knew I would find that elusive location eventually; I just needed to work really hard to get myself to that point. And so I pushed myself, and I kept running.

* * *

December 2007

After dropping my friend Nicole off at North Greenville, I drove back home to my little house in Travelers Rest. As I drove down the darkened highway, admiring the Christmas lights that were starting to appear on various houses, I thought about the conversation we had just had.

I was twenty-two years old, a college graduate, and utterly dissatisfied with the state of my life. I disliked my job and dreamed of moving home, saving money, and starting graduate school, with the hopes that being back in school would make me feel as though my life were actually going somewhere. I was also angry, bitter, and single at a time when seemingly every girl I knew was getting married. God and I were not on speaking terms, although no one knew that. I had built a wall around my heart, and I struggled everyday to maintain some semblance of control.

Somehow, in the course of our lengthy conversation, Nicole had seen through a crack in that wall. She peered into my heart and honestly and lovingly rebuked me. “I’m going to pray for you to be broken, Haley.”

I nodded through the tears in my eyes. I let pieces of that wall crumble in front of me that night, and I knew she was right. I also knew it would be painful, and I wasn’t ready to take that step on my own. So I kept running for the moment, holding that facade in place, not knowing that just a few weeks later, something would happen to shake me to my very core. Brokenness was coming.

* * *

January 1, 2008

It seemed like a cruel joke. No one should start the new year off in ICU, strapped to machines and unable to move because of all the needles emerging from her arms. At 12:04 a.m., the nurse woke me up to give me yet another pill. She wished me happy new year, and I wondered where my friends were. How they were celebrating. If any of them knew that my life had changed completely and irrevocably.

Diabetes is the fastest-spreading disease in America, and I had just joined the ranks. But reality had not set in yet, and I was so relieved to just be feeling better (thanks to the shots of insulin and the continuous fluids being pumped into my severely dehydrated body).

Nearly twenty-four hours later, I had nearly made it through the first day of the new year, and my first full day as an official diabetic. I was moved out of ICU, and I spent a relatively uninterrupted night in a lonely hospital room. The relief had begun to fade, only to be replaced by a desolation I had never known.

The tears ran down the sides of my face to my pillow, as I wondered what would happen next. Could I be diabetic? I knew enough about the disease to know that everything had changed. Syringes and vials of insulin would be my constant companions. I would never be able to touch another Mountain Dew. And who knew what else? It seemed too much to handle.

I marveled at what I imagined to be God’s sick, twisted sense of humor. I knew that my lack of trust, my tight reign on control in my life, was a sin. I imagined that God was punishing me for this sin. I had suddenly, it seemed, been stricken with a disease that required absolute control over every aspect of my life. It seemed that God had given me exactly what I desired. In the midst of my tears, I laughed bitterly at the irony of it all.

My anger, fortunately, didn’t last long. It couldn’t. In the midst of all my pain and fear, I realized that I had very little strength. I also knew that I would soon be leaving my family, to return to Greenville, and I could not rely on their strength, either. God was all I had, and I realized I finally had to stop running.

* * *

It’s been a long journey, these eleven months. But it’s been so worth it. I’ve learned more about myself than would ever have been possible had I not been tested and stretched. I’ve also learned a great deal about God’s love and strength and how He provides for me. I’ve come a long way, and while I still fight to let go of control, and I still try to run on occasion, more and more, I find that I’m running towards something now.

“Give me a home inside Your open arms, the only place I ever will belong.”

-Jon Foreman, “I Am Still Running”

Redbirds

I bought a Christmas ornament yesterday…a beautiful redbird made in Indonesia from pressed bamboo. I picked it up from the basket, twirled it between my fingers, and admired the beautiful, fragile piece of art that it is. Then I thought about how much my grandmother would have loved it. And so I bought it, in honor–and in memory–of her.

*****

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a child, my family lived in a large house divided into two apartments–our side and Mama Kat’s side. The beauty in this arrangement is that, at Christmas, we essentially had two houses to decorate. Twice the fun!

Mama Kat loved Christmas, as well, and held fast to traditions. Every year, the artificial green tree sat in the same place in her living room. Every year, she wound white Christmas lights around it, as I waited anxiously to place the ornaments on the tree. Every year, she lovingly unwrapped each ornament, slid an ornament hanger on, and handed it to me.

I was very particular even then. All the similar ornaments needed to be spaced far enough apart so as not to appear cluttered. The seemingly hundreds of crocheted white snowflakes needed to cover the tree. Her collection of ornaments featuring “The Night Before Christmas” must also be spaced accordingly. And the special, individual ornaments needed to be placed so everyone could admire them.

One in particular stands out. The flat, round ornament had a beautiful redbird displayed on its front. I knew how much Mama Kat loved birds of every size and shape, but redbirds seemed to be her particular favorite. I always hung that ornament in front.

When we finished decorating the tree, I sat and stared at the white lights. My parents always decorated our Christmas tree with colored lights and eclectic, homemade ornaments, as well as ornaments commemorating each Christmas my brother and I had experienced. I always thought the colored tree was the more beautiful tree, until I opened the door separating our side from Mama Kat’s. The green tree with the bright, white lights and all the white ornaments seemed to glow in a supernatural sort of way. It seemed so classy, so old-fashioned; it seemed to embody all that was Mama Kat.

Last year was my first Christmas on my own, and when Christmas approached, I searched for the perfect ornaments to hang from my very first Christmas tree. But as I stood in the store and stared at the boxes of lights, the choice between colored and white seemed like so much more than that. And when I chose the boxes of bright, white lights, I imagined Mama Kat’s tree, and I imagined myself as a little girl, sitting beneath it in a darkened living room, enraptured. I imagined that she would be pleased with even my simple choice of white Christmas lights. But even more so, I imagined that she would be pleased with the woman I’m becoming.

*****

Mama Kat will turn 88 years old in a little over a week, but she won’t realize it. She won’t celebrate it. She’s been in a nursing home for the past four years, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I saw her about six weeks ago for the first time in ten months. She did not recognize me. I could find nothing to say to bring a familiar spark back to her dull, lifeless blue eyes. I could find no trace of the woman she once was. She is a shell, a fragment of her old self.

Tonight, at Radius, the discussion was about suffering. And my first instinct, as usual, is “Oh, no, I’m just fine.” As Stuart continued to talk, however, the image of my grandmother came to mind. And, suddenly, I was grateful for the darkened room. Thinking of her brings tears to my eyes and a stabbing pain to my heart. I can barely think of her without crying, and tonight, I wept silently as I prayed for my grandmother.

It seems that everytime I think of her, all I can ask is “Why?” Why her? And where is she? Where is that essence, that embodiment of my beloved grandmother?

After I saw her the last time, I cried on the phone with my mom. Then later, I called my dad, my grandmother’s son, and cried again. He listened to all my questions, let me cry, then confessed that he had not visited her for the same reasons. Then the conversation got significantly harder to handle, as my father told me that he’d been praying for God to be merciful and let her die.

At that moment, I told him that I was too selfish for that. I could not bear the thought of praying for that. But tonight, as I thought about suffering and Alzheimer’s and little redbirds, I finally prayed. I prayed for my grandmother’s suffering to end. I thought about how it would finally be for her, to be free from her ravaged mind, to meet Jesus and be whole again.

In the meantime, I have my cherished memories, and white Christmas lights, and my own little redbird to remind me of her.