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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Hello, 2011…

…you’re not starting off the way I thought you would. But we’ll get to that momentarily.

In January, I made a list of 5 goals for the year. I accomplished exactly none of them. I came close on a few and completely abandoned others. It seems that sometimes life takes unexpected turns. Many of them. Sometimes all at once.

This past year ended in ways that I didn’t expect and began similarly. But let’s review–my goals and my 2010 before I get to speculating about what 2011 will hold for me.

Goal 1: Don’t check my email before I go to work in the morning. Sometimes, I do, but now I’m more careful not to lose track of time.

Goal 2: Read 100 books I’d never read before. Well, I made it to 79, but my downfall was that I re-read a lot of favorites, which took time away from previously unread books. Alas, this is still quite an accomplishment, I feel.

Goal 3: Devote one hour a week to scrapbooking or crocheting. This resolution was made before I was accepted to Gardner-Webb, before I had a semester in which I taught 36 students in 2 sections of remedial writing while working a full-time job and attending graduate school. Yeah, it’s hard to find time for crafting when there is not enough time in one’s week to begin with.

Goal 4: Help my parents organize and clean their house. This is a work-in-progress. A slow one. But maybe one day.

Goal 5: Mark 12 things off The List. I marked 11 off. Close. So close.

Now, let’s see how the year shaped up, shall we?

January: The year started off great. On Jan. 2, Harvin, Ticcoa, Georgetown, and I headed to Savannah, where I marked two items off the list: visiting the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home and climbing the Tybee Island Lighthouse. January also marked the beginning of my second semester of teaching at NGU and an unexpected acceptance into the English M.A. program at Gardner-Webb University, a program that I love being a part of. All in all, a good month.

February: This month brought the beginning of the Lent season, which once again proved to be a great learning experience. Also, at the end of February, my friend Chris and I traveled to Lexington, KY, to visit a New Monastic community called Communality. During that weekend, I made several new, amazing friends, and I learned a lot about how to live in a community of believers who love each other deeply.

March: This month brought several more adventures, courtesy of The List: I went to Jamboread, a children’s author festival at the Spartanburg County Public Library, with Harvin, Ticcoa, and Becky, where we met Lois Lowry, Jane Yolen, and Paul O. Zelinsky. Then, later in the month, Harvin, Ticcoa, Michele, Stephen, and I headed down to Milledgeville, GA, to visit Andalusia, home of Flannery O’Connor, and Eatonton, GA, to visit the Uncle Remus Museum.

April: This month, I focused mostly on school. Working on final papers and presentations, getting my students ready for finals, etc. I also bought a MacBook and attending my cousin Summer’s wedding.

May: Most of what happened in May was also school-related. The end of my first semester at Gardner-Webb, finishing up that class in Caribbean Women’s Writing and starting a summer school class on African-American literature, which was also great. This was also the last concert I attended (how has it been so long?): Civil Twilight and Switchfoot at The Music Farm in Charleston!

June brought my 25th birthday on the 10th, on which I climbed a rock wall, one of the items on the list. The next day, Harvin and I headed to Myrtle Beach to stay with our respective families at the SC Firefighter’s Association Annual Convention. Woohoo! I also visited the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum here in Greenville, marking another item off the list.

July brought the move from our apartment in Greer to our little house in Greenville, so that month was mostly consumed with packing, cleaning, cleaning, unpacking, settling in. That sort of thing. Also, a trip to Filbert, SC, to meet SC writer Dori Sanders.

August: The first week of this month was The Second Annual Road Trip of Epicness. Because Harvin was experiencing back pain, the itinerary changed drastically in the few days before we left, but the trip involved Ticcoa and I driving to Pennsylvania, making stops along the way, and Harvin flying up to meet us at Michele’s aunt house, where we stayed for a few days. My favorite memory of this trip was visiting Antietam National Battlefield, where my great-great-great grandfather was killed during the Civil War. We also visited Philadelphia, touring the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, the Liberty Bell, and Independence Hall.

Upon the return to SC, I started my third semester of teaching at NGU, where I had 36 students enrolled in my classes, more than I’ve ever taught before. I also started my third semester at Gardner-Webb, taking Literary Theory, a class which I really enjoyed.

September was mostly settling into school routine. Balancing teaching all those students with my work in the library and the writing center and my homework for lit theory. The first NGU football game. Apple-picking with Harvin and the Leisters. And, most importantly, my decision to apply for a spot on a mission team to Haiti.

October seems to be the point when my life sped up. The first weekend was the Southern Appalachian Culture Series at Gardner-Webb, my first attendance of a literary conference. Then, on Oct. 12, I applied for my passport. On Oct. 19, I found out I was on the mission team to Haiti. On Oct. 21, I had my first meeting about mission teams and found out about the cholera epidemic in Haiti, and on Oct. 22, I received my passport (marking #100 off the List). In the midst of all of that, I attended my friend Sarah’s wedding, worked a quiz bowl tournament, went to NGU’s Homecoming, graded and editing lots and lots of papers, and did tons of literary theory.

November: So. Much. Work! Grading student essays, working longer hours in the writing center than I ever intended. Writing literary analyses, reading convoluted theorists, drinking lots of coffee, sleeping not enough. Thanksgiving Break with my family.

December: By far, the most difficult month out of my whole year. The end of the semester at North Greenville, and saying goodbye to my students and friends. Getting ready for my own final exam at G-W. Looking forward to Christmas. Then, on Friday, December 10, I got a phone call from my dad, who told me that my grandmother, who had been in the nursing home for 6 years with Alzheimer’s wasn’t doing well. (I’ve written about her before here.) She had stopped eating, and she wasn’t expected to live much longer. I spent the weekend grieving for what was coming, wincing every time my phone ring, waking up early every morning to call my dad and find out if Mama Kat had made it through the night.

On Tuesday, Dec. 14, I was at work, with plans to leave early because my final exam was that evening. Just after 1:00, my mom called to say that my grandmother would die that afternoon. Through the grace and peace of God, I made it to her bedside in time to say my goodbyes. My family was standing around her bedside when she stopped breathing at 4:17 that afternoon. The funeral was on Friday. Maybe I’ll post later about what it’s been like to lose a grandmother whom I love dearly, but not now.

Anyway, as a result of my grandmother’s death, I didn’t get to take my final exam for lit theory. I have an incomplete in the class, and I’ll make up the final later. The student in me hates that this class is still hovering, incomplete; at the same time, I’m glad I made it home to say goodbye to Mama Kat, and that’s worth more than any grade.

After all of that, I still had to get through Christmas while trying to frantically prepare for the trip to Haiti. I’ve been following news coming out of Haiti for a long time, and little of it has been good. Thousands dying from cholera, and many more contracting the terrible disease. Many days of riots, some of even which caused the airport in Port-au-Prince to be shut down for a week. Distrust of foreign aid workers and the Haitian government.

Finally, on New Year’s Eve, I was meeting with fellow team member Eliza to plan our lessons for what we would be teaching in Haiti. I got a message during that meeting from our team leader, telling me that we had new information and were reconsidering the trip. An announcement about the elections is to be made tomorrow, and the potential for rioting is high once more. Yesterday, New Year’s Day, the trip was officially postponed. We may go over the summer. Who knows, though?

Back to the beginning of this post and my expectations for this year and last. I didn’t expect to lose my grandmother right before Christmas (who does?). And I fully expected that my Christmas break would involve much prayer and preparation for Haiti, culminating in my first overseas mission trip. Instead, everything in my life just seems off-balance. I miss my grandmother daily while simultaneously rejoicing that she is no longer suffering. And since September, I’ve been so focused on Haiti and my trip there that I have thought of little else. Now, when I should be finishing packing and on my way to the airport just 12 hours from now, I find myself unsure of what I should be doing. I’m not boarding a plane tomorrow morning. I’m not going to be in the Caribbean this time tomorrow afternoon. Instead, I’ll go back to work in the library this week. Beyond that, I’m just not sure of what my life is supposed to look like right now. I’m feeling all sorts of emotions simultaneously: severe disappointment that I’m not going to Haiti right now; relief that I won’t be caught in the midst of volatile political tension; a bit of guilt for feeling relieved.

Every situation in my life right now is truly out of my hands, and I’m reeling from the experience. From past experience, however, I know that God works the greatest in my life when I admit that I cannot control anything. All I have to grasp onto right now is God’s promise that He will never leave me or forsake me and the knowledge that everything works together for His glory. And while I don’t understand why God would bring me so close to Haiti only to have the trip postponed, I do know that I’ve learned so much by simply being obedient when He called me to go to Haiti. I know that I care so much about Haiti that I can’t wait to be there. And while my traveling to Haiti may not happen during the first week of 2011 as I previously thought, I have hope that it will happen sometime this year. And maybe my heart won’t be changed while I’m in Haiti, but will instead be changed because I’m simply willing to be a part of God’s kingdom.

There will be no New Year’s resolutions or goals. No expectations for the year beyond seeing where God takes me.

Resolutions/Suggestions/Goals

So last night, six days into the new year, I sat down and decided on five things I want to do this year.

1. Don’t check my email before I go to work each morning (unless I’m expecting a vital email about weather advisories or something). Now that I have a functioning laptop again, I can feel that addiction to the internet resurfacing. I don’t always need to know what’s going on in the virtual lives of everyone I’ve ever met. I can wait until I get to work, when I check my work email, to check my personal email and Facebook page as well. I’ll be less inclined (hopefully) to waste precious minutes reading status updates. Plus, I might be on time for work every day.

2. Read 100 books I’ve never read before. Last year, I read 100 books. Well more than half of those were first-time reads, but I want to push myself even farther this year. Re-reads are great, but I have so many books that I’ve been intending to read for years.

3. Devote at least one hour a week to scrapbooking or crocheting. Two activities that I love–and they both tend not to happen when I’m super-busy. If I pledge to be crafty at least once a week, then I know for sure I’ll have a little bit of stress-free time.

4. Help my parents clean and organize their house. I had a great time organizing and hanging out with my parents over Christmas. And they really appreciated my help and encouragement. I tentatively plan to go home every few weeks and help them tackle some new section of the house.

5. Mark at least 12 things off The List this year. That’s an average of one per month, though I’m ahead of the game with two marked off already. Potential items to mark off: #9: Write a travel guide (or blog); #60: St. Simon’s Island Lighthouse; #66: The Greenville Zoo; #81: The Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum; #92: Andalusia; #93: riverboat down the Mississippi. And who knows what else I’ll add and mark off this year?

Call ’em resolutions. Call ’em suggestions. Call ’em goals. Call ’em whatever you want. Most of these are things I would do anyway (or at least plan to). But I’ve discovered I’m much more accountable to a written list.

Any suggestions for more resolutions I should make?

On Spontaneity

Today was definitely one of the most spectacular days I’ve ever had, and definitely the best New Year’s Day ever. And though I’m tired and cold, and my comfy bed beckons me, I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep until I get these words out.

Harvin, Ticcoa, Jess, and I planned a mini road trip to Stumphouse Tunnel in Walhalla today. Walhalla is not quite an hour’s drive away: close enough for a day trip, and far enough to be an adventure. It turned out to be more of an adventure than any of us imagined.

We left around 10 this morning, getting on Highway 11 to head to Walhalla. We tailed this spectacular, red VW bus for awhile, all of us pondering aloud how awesome a vehicle like that would be on a road trip. We listened to great music (supplied by Jess and me, as we attempt to make Ticcoa more music literate). And somewhere along the way, Ticcoa mentioned Toccoa Falls (she’s not named after it, specifically, although her name does mean “falling water”). And the rest of us convinced Ticcoa to be spontaneous and drive into Georgia for a picnic at Toccoa Falls.

The falls were spectacular. Icy cold, of course (we caught some of the mist as we climbed the rocks, even though we were pretty far away). It honestly made me regret marking “see a waterfall” off my List last week, as this one totally trumps the mini waterfall I hiked into the woods in Clinton to see. Jess, our resident photographer, snapped some awesome shots, which I’m really excited about.

After we left Toccoa Falls College, we drove back through the town of Toccoa. We stopped at this parking lot of a mini strip mall, where an awesome old railway car is parked on the side. I climbed on it, Jess climbed under it, and we posed for yet more photos as residents drove past and shot us strange looks. Then, on my insistence, we took a back road following these brown historical signs to something called “Traveler’s Rest Historic Site.” A TR in Georgia? How could we pass that up?!? I know Coa was anxious that we would get lost, although she kept her worry contained very well. And the historic site ended up being on a road that cut back to the highway we needed to be on anyway.

The TR site was closed, but we wandered around the grounds, peered into some windows, made friends with the resident dogs, and discovered that the heat was on in the unlocked bathrooms on the grounds (what a pleasant surprise when it’s around 40 degrees outside!). We’ll definitely be heading back there sometime in the spring when it opens back up. The place was just freakin’ awesome…an old pioneer-style plantation of sorts dating back to pre-Civil War era. I’m looking forward to it already.

In my opinion, the best part of the day came next. As we left Toccoa heading back to Walhalla, we crossed a bridge over the Tugaloo River, and we glanced downstream at the other bridges in the distance. One of them was this fantastic rusty, abandoned bridge, and the middle section was missing. We pulled off on the side of the road once to get a glimpse, and then decided to get closer. We ended up turning down this side road to a fishing site that took us directly to the bridge. Despite the anxiety about some sketchy cars coming and going on what Jess thought had to be drug deals, we had a fantastic time. The river is much, much narrower than it used to be, and the riverbed is cracked and scaly in some parts and overgrown in others. We climbed down the side of the original riverbank and did some exploring. We took pictures on the old, dead trees on the bank and wandered around while we waited for all the sketchy folks to leave. Then we climbed back up to explore the bridge.

Seriously. I love bridges so much, and this one was one of the best I’ve experienced. Rusty. Abandoned. Like something out of a post-apocolyptic movie scence. Desolate and spectacular. The best part, though? We left our mark…sidewalk chalk first. Then, Jess printed out a small picture-sticker of the four of us on the bridge with this little portable photo printer that she has. Then she and I walked back to the bridge, where I stucked the sticker to one of the posts. Someone will probably take it down, but at least we know we left our mark for a little while.

Finally, we left, as Coa reminded us that we didn’t want to get stuck at Stumphouse Tunnel at dark. All this adventure, and we still hadn’t reached our original destination yet! We finally arrived there a little after 3 in the afternoon. Seriously…yet another awesome place. The tunnel was original part of a railway tunnel being built before the Civil War, but they ran out of funding, and the War happened, and it never got finished. Later, it was used to store bleu cheese (yeah, random). Now, it’s a historic site. The tunnel is fantastically creepy. Cold, wet, pitch-black dark. We carried in a flashlight…and Jess’s light saber, which Harvin had way too much fun with, and all the other visitors found amusing. After we exited the tunnel, we walked out to a lookout at the Iseequeena Falls (two waterfalls in one day!), and of course, took more photos.

When we left the tunnel, we still weren’t finished. On the way to Toccoa, Jess and Coa had started talking about the fish hatchery in Walhalla that they’d visited before. They mentioned that it wasn’t too exciting, but maybe we’d like to see it. The best part, though? I only know one thing about Walhalla: that the fish hatchery there was built by the WPA, and my grandfather worked on that project when he worked for the WPA in the 30s. That, of course, sealed the deal: we had to see it. Unfortunately, we arrived at 4:30, and the fish hatchery closed at 4. Still, we loitered around outside the gate, wandered off down the trail a little ways, and decided we’d definitely come back again. Because, well, my grandfather worked there. And I never knew him, as he died in 1964, but he was there. All the massive trees in the woods were there when he worked there. Those roads, he probably traveled. I love connections to my past.

I also love that I started the new year off on this grand adventure. No, it wasn’t Europe or Route 66 or any of the big items on my list, but Stumphouse Tunnel can now be marked of f (and that makes my 10th completed item!). And we were spontaneous, and we convinced Ticcoa to be spontaneous with us, and Jess took almost 400 photographs to commemorate the occasion. And I had a wonderful day with some of my best friends.

How could 2009 not be remarkable after such a great start?