Sailing Friendships

My phone vibrated from across the room, something it rarely does since I removed all the notification alerts.

It was a phone call and I instantly recognized the name sprawled across my screen: Miranda.

Miranda was one of my closest friends here in North Carolina. She was one of my adventure buddies, cut from the same theatrical cloth I was. She’d been on my mind recently, as we hadn’t spoken in quite some time. She moved away several years ago and I still miss her dearly.

With all the work stress building up and just the heaviness of life, I found my thoughts drifting back to those sweet days when we were all together.

There were so many nights like this I can’t keep track, but it would go something like this:

Miranda and her roommate Charlotte had a darling apartment in midtown Wilmington; I’d pop through the door – there was no need to knock, these ladies were practically family and I’m chronically early as I’m predisposed to be. Charlotte was the foodie of the group, she always had something yummy cooking and as a fellow coffee snob, she always prepared the best. She was a kind hearted lady with a calming presence who always had something uplifting to say. Miranda was usually attempting to open a wine bottle with her electronic wine opener that worked only half the time (I could never figure it out and always went for the manual method). Miranda set the mood with lighting and decor, always dressed perfectly for the occasion. Her sense of hospitality inspired my own: she’d pour me a glass of wine and ask how life was, and actively listened to the reply. As the three of us chit-chatted, the door opened again, and Samantha, the gorgeously tall bubbly blonde would walk in and that’s when the party started. I never thought I would be friends with a sorority girl like Samantha, but her beauty went soul deep. Samantha was incredibly intelligent, yet she came across as the girl next door, friendly and sweet.

Our foursome was complete.

We’d sip wine and talk – no subject was off limits – we all had different perspectives, thoughts, vocations, and upbringings; because of this, we meshed so well together.

But back to the evening: Miranda was always inventing weird dishes, like pizza chips – tortilla chips with spaghetti sauce and topped with cheese – that was born out of the need for snack while slightly intoxicated at my house. Did you know that peanut butter M&M’s in popcorn is an amazing combination? Miranda’s Texas roots also required her to make her famous queso. Charlotte would make cookies or something more traditional. I brought games. Samantha brought more wine. It was a party.

After snacking and opening the bottle of wine Samantha brought, we’d settle into a game. With the four of us, it often turned into a silent laugh fest, as we were laughing so hard, we could barely play. It wasn’t just the wine: these ladies were downright hilarious with their quick wit. I’d much rather be one of the guys, I’ve always struggled to have female friends because I am not your typical female. Yet, this was the first group since college that I could hang out with, being my carefree self and truly enjoy their company. It was a rare find, this combination of amazing ladies.

All of us were Christians, too, bonded by the love of Christ.

Our shenanigans were many: we’d go downtown (sometimes til 3am), jump out of airplanes, see a play, travel halfway across the deep south for a surprise bachelorette party weekend, exchange Christmas gifts (and host our own Christmas party!), go to festivals, go out to dinner, walks, naps – we did it all and then some.

And then like all good things must come to an end, we slowly unraveled. Charlotte got married and military orders to move several hours away. The three of us still got together, but it wasn’t the same without our Charlotte. Miranda always promised she’d move back to Texas and kept her word. Then it was just me and Samantha. Both of us moved to new neighborhoods that are a solid 40 minute drive apart: Samantha got married and became a mom too, so her world radically changed as well.

I’m the only one who didn’t change.

And yet, I miss us; sometimes achingly so.

And who’s to say that even if we all still lived here in North Carolina that our group wouldn’t have changed with the times?

Back to the phone call, I answered and we caught each other up on life. I told Miranda that I really missed the nights when the four of us were all together, laughing and just enjoying each other’s company. I had to pause for a moment at one point, as I choked up realizing all of this was merely a memory and the four of us couldn’t meet up because of husbands, children, distance, and the flow of our current lives. I mourn who we used to be.

Miranda reminded me that hope was not lost. Nonetheless, I am without solid friendships in this period of life. I had a few other friends, but they have all relocated as well. I’m once again where I was in 2009; adrift and contemplating moving to a big city.

The only thing keeping me here is the Atlantic. And even that I chart alone.

I’m not sure what my next steps are. The homeschooling moms at church are so beyond me and my womanhood, I feel like a college student with them, despite the fact I’m older. The older ladies are far too much in a box for me, locked into causes that still elude me. There aren’t many spaces for my demographic of married without kids in my 40’s – a non-conformist to boot.

I hope to find another friend core group where I fit in seamlessly with the others. And soon.

To See, To Hear, To Feel

I’ve always been a seeker of peace; it took me awhile to admit this was part of me.

It started in 8th grade: due to split shifts because of overcrowding in our district, I didn’t start school until 1045am. That meant at 6am, my parents and sister were gone. I had the place to myself. As a loner and one who lived in a very high strung and loud household, I began to understand my need for peace. I found it and ran with it.

Every Friday during this period, I would do what I would call a Spa Day: I woke up at 7am and went for a run. Then, I would come home and draw myself a bath: complete with bubbles, a candle burning, and a the most chill CD I could find. I’d play music and soak – it was heaven. Then I’d do a deep conditioning hair treatment and put on a mud mask on my face – a capstone to my peaceful morning.

And then, I’d head to the bus stop.

After my bout with COVID, I decided to repeat the experience.

On my last day of quarantine, after my husband left for work, I went for a run. The dreary days of winter were here, but it didn’t stop me. I went much further than I usually would, to test my lungs and stamina – sitting on a couch for ten days was not good for one’s fitness. I felt fine. I returned and drew a hot bath into the master bedroom’s soaker tub. I dumped a bunch of epsom salts in it and lit an unscented candle in a visually pleasing holder. I also put in a bath bomb – the label said it was lemon scented – but I only noticed it turned the water a relaxing shade of yellow-green. With my bluetooth speaker, I played a YouTube binaural beats track to further relax my soul. Even thought it was 9am, I poured myself an airplane bottle of Crown Royal. I don’t keep alcohol in the house, and why I had two airplane bottles of Crown – I don’t even like Canadian whiskey – was a mystery to me. I sipped it neat as if it were a vintage cognac. I couldn’t taste it, but I could feel its warmth in my mouth.

I sat in the tub for awhile, until the hot water turned cold. I had every intention to read my latest novel, taking place outside of Ypres in 1914, but I never picked it up. I simply sat and enjoyed the three senses I had left: hearing, sight, and touch. Tears fell from my eye and I let myself feel every inch of the sadness that was permeating through me. Sadness of losing the last ten days to sickness. Sadness of not knowing what would happen with my job. Sadness at my loss of taste/smell. Sadness for being at a loss of control. For someone who was accustomed to calling the shots, this was a lot to take in. The candle and water color appealed to my sense of sight; the 100mL of Crown and the warm water, my sense of touch. The binaural beat of the relaxing tones, my sense of hearing.

This is my new reality.

And I’ve decided I need to do this once a week – sans alcohol – I’m really quite serious about not keeping it in the house.

I must say after the epsom salt soak, I feel renewed.

Onward and upward, my friends.

Tic, toc. Tic, toc.

A year ago, I got COVID, despite vaccination, from vaccinated relatives who attended a wedding of non-vaxxers a week prior. I was the only one who got sick: my three other compatriots, including my husband, managed to escape the fate. After results of my positive test came through my phone and the words that came out of my mouth were not exactly Christian in nature, I locked myself in my sitting room, to wait out my 10 day quarantine. I slept, ate, rested, sniffled, and only left for bathroom facilities and food, which I brought back to my room. Anytime I leave the confines of my prison, I was masked to protect my husband.

My prison was curated by me, so that was one thing that’s been on my terms.

It’s the only thing that was on my terms.

Tic, toc. Tic, toc.

This is the rhythm of my day – as it’s always been, I suppose; I’m just usually too busy to notice the seconds ticking away. The clock on the wall, the metronome of my time in here, is one I made in shop class circa 1994. I got a B+ on it. I recently replaced the gearbox with oversized hands and I love it – I can see it better in the dark.

Tic, toc. Tic, toc.

I have called out THREE times in my 17 year career. I’ve gone to work sick, even with the flu. I always push through the work day. But this time, I couldn’t just throw on a surgical mask and call it good enough. I was out, like it or not. I’m not good at being still or taking care of myself when I’m sick.

Tic, toc. Tic, toc.

It started off slow, this disease, mild nasal discomfort. Then it progressed into a sinus infection with a large dose of malaise. The nightly headaches were just for fun. NyQuil ensured I slept twelve hours a day. I was miserable – I’m not sure if it was the virus or the fact I couldn’t go to work – but I was breathing on my own.

I counted this as a win.

Tic, toc. Tic, toc.

I spent the first few days of quarantine angry. When I get angry, I get silent. I did everything right: I haven’t been to church recently or hang out with friends or go out to eat; I mask in all stores and yet I got this. I was seething over it. I barely read, I barely watched shows, I barely moved from my spot on the couch. I was content to glare out the window in silence, mad as hell that I couldn’t go to work because I was sick. I didn’t tell anyone because I know how it would go: “Well, you know, [insert their political leanings + a story of someone who had it/recovered/had issues/had no issues/died + a commentary on their primary sourced research]” and I couldn’t handle it. My powder keg fuse would have been lit and I didn’t want to regret any words.

I barely spoke to my husband.

I abstained from social media.

I isolated emotionally from family and friends as well.

Tic, toc. Tic, toc.

I lived with the windows open, to keep the air moving, hoping I could at least attempt to protect my high risk husband. I’ve woken up to the wind blowing leaves in the middle of the night; I know my neighbors’ coming and going more than I’d like to. I know what birds frequent the area. It’s been a strange case study.

Tic, toc. Tic, toc.

I’ve been able to escape without leaving my room: I’ve sailed to Portugal via the English Channel with a privateer, his crew, and the lady he kidnapped; I’ve explored the American twentieth century patchwork quilt on the rise of Christian nationalism; I’ve been behind the scenes on a cable news show in New York; and perhaps worst of all, I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time combing the forests outside Forks, Washington. Of course, I’m always checking into my favorite hotel in Lüneburg, Germany – about the only thing I’ve pulled from my life before the quarantine.

The sunlit room makes up for my stormy disposition.

I don’t do well confined.

Tic, toc. Tic, toc.

Losings one’s sense of taste and smell has pros and cons.

Con: Enjoying life via a coffee, dessert, tea, cocktail, or a well seasoned roast is no longer something I can do, which sucks so bad that it caused me to call my medical provider of a sister, crying. She assures me my taste/smell will come back – hopefully within the year – but much like getting pregnant, I’m not holding onto hope. I’m just left with this large cavity in life – and I get to look forward to “hot water” (tea) in the morning. My meals are now defined by temperatures and textures. (“Do I want something crunchy or mushy for dinner?”) Refrigerated bananas are among my favorite texture/temperature combinations.

Pro: I don’t care what I eat! I hate mushrooms, but not anymore! I managed to eat a mushroom loaded pizza the other night without batting an eye, something that would have sent me into fits before. This is going to be great for my waistline, I’ll be bikini ready next month at this rate.

I had four decades of great flavors and lots of memories in many different places, I’ll hold onto that until my senses return or I smell the sweet incense of Heaven.

R.I.P my taste and smell receptors
1981-2021
Gone, but never forgotten

I dream about drinking lattes in coffeeshops with strangers – I can taste and smell the coffee there.

Tic, toc. Tic, toc.

After my 10 days of cutting myself off from the outside world, I worried about lung damage, I decided to do a two mile brisk walk to the Intracoastal Waterway – one of my favorite places. I have full lung capacity and I wasn’t winded. Praise God! My sense memory of clear salty air is so strong, I swear I can smell it, but I know it’s just a memory masquerading as a scent.

Tic, toc. Tic, toc.

I learned another family member was also at this wedding — she’s struggling to breathe right now with pneumonia from this stupid virus. A country doctor ensured she was able to get an antibody IV and oxygen at home, as she refuses to go to a hospital, despite the fact she can’t get enough air into her lungs. We’re propping her up in prayer.

The only lasting effects for me appear to be my taste and smell and the possibility I might lose my job over this: FMLA doesn’t apply to those of us with less than 1200 hours of work for the year. And yet, I’d take this any day over my husband having to call my parents up north saying: “They put Sim on a vent today, you need to get down here.”

Tic, toc. Tic, toc.

A fond saying among the medical community in dealing with burnout is “This is a chapter, this is not your story” to give perspective at the bad times.

I’ve taken that to heart during this time of confinement.

Milksop

I made up my mind to go to the party, despite the fact I had disappeared months – a year? – earlier. I don’t remember. First COVID hit, shots were fired, and then I became a mess.

I arrived too early, like usual, and decided to wander around downtown Wilmington in search of an iced coffee drink to take the edge off.

What I really needed was double shot of Jaegermeister, but I thought better of it.

I took my time. I parked far away so it would force me to walk and reflect. I arrived at the old coffeeshop where we used to meet and got my iced coffee. I took the long way around, checking out the construction – how is the gazebo still closed? – new shops I bookmarked in my mind. I’m never downtown anymore. As I walked in the direction of the party, I couldn’t remember the order of the cross streets and like a tourist, Google maps showed me where to go. How did I forget this?

Why did I park so far away? Despite my sun dress, I did not take into account the sun mixed with humidity.

I walked into the venue, not expecting to see such a large crowd. April saw me and gave me a quick tour. Last time I was here, it was a construction zone and now it would make HGTV proud. I was in a time warp.

I wished Rob could see this, but Rob is still in jail.

I knew virtually no one. I met Chad, who was so kind, he was an old soul with a story I didn’t know. A guy named Jeff introduced himself and thought I was related to the host. I was not, but you know how white girls look alike. “You looking for a place to stay?” he asks. I knew what he meant, he thought I was homeless. “No, I’m housed,” I replied. Yikes, I know I didn’t wash the salt out of my hair after this morning’s surf session, but I didn’t think I looked like I was outdoors. He asked why I hadn’t been around and I waved my hands in the air like a damn fool. COVID. Life. I couldn’t look away from the deconstruction and reconstruction. His questions were probing deeper than I want to go with friends, let alone a complete stranger. I was thankful when he walked outside for a cigarette.

I ate some cake in the far corner, away from the huge crowd of people. I have to get out of here.

As soon as I decide this, Mrs. H. walks in and hugs me. Our small talk barely scratches the surface, she was just being nice. As soon as I move away, Sally walked up to me: two years thrown out in a conversation: got all the details of good, bad, and ugly news. Isn’t that how life always is?

She said my busy work life was a season and not to do this forever. I wanted to scream. Make that three shots of Jaegermeister. I wasn’t even feeling the iced coffee.

I finally saw the host. Say hi and leave, Braden.

I walked up to her and hugged her, wishing her the best. My life was forever changed because of her – my view of God and the church twisted on its axis because her strong faith. There was a lot of heartache intertwined in that too. It was all difficult to acknowledge. And then, I did the unthinkable: I got choked up. What the actual? I never cry. I’m completely losing it in this room of complete strangers. We exchange lyrics to a rock song as I walk out, before anyone can stop me to talk or ask if I’m okay.

I’m clearly not okay.

I had known it for awhile, but now it was crystal clear: I was unmoored in a longshore current. The reality hit me like an unexpected head high wave, as I summersaulted against my will in the surf.

I’m in a desert. I am officially in the wilderness, alone, away from all the community I once held dear.

I walk pass where I got married, it’s closed now, all under construction. Good God in heaven is nothing the same anymore? I stood there awhile, going back in my mind’s eye to my wedding day.

My guideposts were gone. The scenery isn’t familiar anymore. Here I was in Wilmington, North Carolina, crying like the milksop I was.

I kept walking around the streets of downtown until I was calm enough to drive home.

On my way home, one of the gentlemen I passed on my walk was panhandling at the intersection.

The light turned green and I kept moving forward.

The Root of All Sin

When I became a Christian in high school, I remember pastor talking about “ripping sin out by the root.” After all, just like a weed, if you just pull out what’s at the surface, the root will just regrow the plant. It’ll be a constant battle, better to just rip it all out and out be done with it.

I believed this for many years – both in my spirit and in my garden – until I discovered permaculture and matured in my faith.

When we bought the house we’re currently in, I remember pointing out the small clump of bamboo in the corner of the backyard to my husband. Our first date was at a Japanese restaurant, so based on sentiment, I decided it could stay. Also, the bamboo made a beautiful green screen and needed no love and care to grow.

I quickly realized the previous owners did not plant it. Our neighbors did. And what’s worse, it was running bamboo. Instead of forming clumps, it formed lines and traveled. Every spring it would send out roots the size of ropes you would use for docking a boat, and from those, the canes would spring up. You’d see a cane one day as a cute little shoot, a few inches high; less than a week later, it was taller than me. The root, nourished by the photosynthesis of the cane, would send out more roots and canes. If left to its own devices, my yard would quickly be overrun with bamboo.

Pastor’s words echoed in my mind: pull out the roots of this sinful plant.

Every spring, I’d go out with my forest axe to chop the roots – the only thing in my arsenal that would work on these tough-as-nails plants – and pull with all my might to rip the root rope out of the earth. Sometimes I’d hit what I call a junction – one bamboo root growing over another bamboo root. I’d have to stop and hack through that and figure out where its source was. In short, most of my backyard looked like a war zone, completely upended in the name of controlling bamboo.

I once killed a blueberry bush because it popped out of the ground while chasing a particularly deep bamboo root.

This was my reality for several years, yet it worked; I kept the bamboo in check.

And then, I discovered no-dig gardening and permaculture.

No-dig gardening is just that, not tilling the soil because the web of microbes that are making your soil fertile will be destroyed (ever notice the Lord never tills in His creation?). Permaculture, introduced to me by my atheist cousin, is really just letting nature do as God intended without pesticides, without fertilizer, and caring for creation: everything I nourish my garden with was made by God. It goes beyond the “organic” gardening movement.

As I embraced this form of agriculture, I was still left with the bamboo problem. Not only was it hard labor, but I kept resetting my soil to year zero every year. No wonder my orchard wasn’t growing well! And yet, I couldn’t allow the bamboo to reign.

I also thought about how I handle sin in my life. Even if I kept myself in a Christian bubble, only interacting with other Christians, consuming only Christian media, and only reading my Bible or other books written by Christians, I know I’d still manage to sin. There would still be bamboo roots growing somewhere in life, despite my best intentions of digging out that root of sin. I lived in said Christian bubble for three months straight without access to the outside world and it didn’t make me more holy.

What’s a non-cloistered girl to do?

When sin comes into our lives, sometimes it just shows up and it wasn’t invited in, like my bamboo. It’s there. It’s going to be there. I can’t control my neighbor’s yard, only my yard.

So this year, contrary to pastor’s advice of “rip out the roots,” I thought – along the lines of permaculture – what if I just starve the root? After our first big rain of spring, the shoots popped up all over the place. On my daily walk through the garden, I’d pull the bamboo shoot out. It popped out easily, and I’d lay it on the ground so it would become part of the soil. Within five minutes and minimal effort, I pulled all the shoots. A few days later, more shoots arrived. Pop, pop, pop. Those shoots were gone. The root was still in the ground, but it takes a lot of energy to make a shoot and the root was tired – it needed the food the shoot would provide once it leafed out into a proper cane.

That root gave up.

I won: my yard is on year two of soil web fertility (my orchard is healthy and strong!) and my yard is bamboo free, except for the corner where I want it. I’ve found bamboo makes lovely tomato cages and for extra fun, throw some in the firepit: the nodes explode with a loud bang.

I’ve taken the same approach to sin: it’s up to me to take stock of what’s going on and when I find a shoot, pull it. Yeah, the root will try again, but it’s not worth me pulling it out and destroying everything to get to the root – it’ll return next season, regardless. And for those places where a shoot becomes a cane, I’ll cut that cane down. Of course, I’ve given the root a charge, it’ll try again soon, but at least I know to be on the look out for shoots in that area.

The more I garden and the more I walk with Jesus, I see how much it is all intertwined.

And Scene

“You wanna walk downtown for a drink?”

I don’t normally head to bars with other men, but since my Dad asked, I said yes.

I was in my hometown by myself at the house I grew up in and downtown was a mile away – an easy walk. I wasn’t prepared for the night chill in the air, but the walk and cocktail I’m sure would warm me up.

There are several nice drinking establishments nestled in the downtown area, which takes up two city blocks in total. Our first stop was a what used to be a lawyers office, and while the name hasn’t changed, it’s a bar now. We walked around to a side entrance and found it was closed for a private party. My Dad wanted to jump in anyway – here I was, a teenager again, dying of embarrassment – trying to get him to not go inside. As this was unfolding, two girls and a guy walked in: the girls were in heavy make up, tiny poofy skirts and cropped shirts; the guy was in what could only be described as a speed-do and go-go boots. Our jaws dropped. This was not my hometown. Who were these people?

I grew up in a county that was redder than red: we were all white, conservative, and Christian. I’m sure a few liberals lived in town, but they were closeted. Whenever someone moved into the neighborhood that wasn’t white, conservative, and Christian, they were shunned. In the mid-1990’s, there was a proposal to build a country music venue that would host bands, dancing, a bar, and could be rented out for events. My hometown went ballistic in stopping this. This business would bring in non-white, non-conservative, non-Christian people and they would be consuming alcohol – we’d basically become the south side of Chicago with drunk driving accidents every few minutes, according to the Letters to the Editor in the local paper. We ran the developer out of town.

This was running through my mind as my dad suggested we head a different spot. The last time I was there, it was a bait shop, as it sits right on the river. And now? It was a club.

The bar was outdoors in the back of a restaurant, great for these COVID times. A DJ booth was set up, blasting the latest hiphop hits – not the radio edit versions – complete with multi-colored stage lighting going every which way. The bass was turned up so loud I could feel it in my chest. My dad turned down his hearing aids. A decent amount of people were there for an Indian Summer Saturday night; I expected to run into someone I went to high school with, but I did not recognize anyone. I had been gone too long.

My dad got a beer and I got a Long Island Iced Tea, as we shouted our order to the bartender. We took our drinks and sat in some Adirondack chairs on the far side of all this. I took in the scene: all middle class looking white folk, just as it had always been. A few MAGA hats dotted the landscape. Road signs depicting roads and places I could tell you stories about where strewn up around the fences. The large overhang by the bar with its Italian string lights gave a cozy vibe, contrasting with the DJ booth’s bright lights. The fenced in yard had tables and chairs set about. Everyone had coupled up, no one was dancing.

Clubbing with my father wasn’t on my bingo card.

“What do you think?” asked my Dad with a nonsensical smile on his face. (Although in the accent of his adopted hometown, it came out more like “Wha-dya th’nk?”)

“I did not expect all this,” I replied with another sip of my Long Island. Finally, I was starting to warm up. I was still a bit befuddled that my hometown had a semi-legit club. While my dad can throw down when he chooses, this was not his scene. We finished our drinks and he was ready to head home.

If you would have told me in high school that I would walk home buzzed from a club with my dad in my hometown in 25 years, I’d have said you were out of your ever-loving mind.

I’m looking forward to doing this again next time I’m in town.

You, Me, and the Lights of BloNo

“You, me, and the lights of London.”

The line was coined by one of my favorite characters, John Bentall, from Alistar MacLean’s The Black Shrike. It was said to his MI6 partner Marie, whom he was developing feelings for during a high-stakes mission. It was a hope for the future, a spoken promise of returning home, and being together, which became a running line throughout the novel. She is eventually blown up with the enemy, but nonetheless, this phrase became intertwined with my high school sweetheart, who introduced me to this book.

With neither of us having been to London or ever admiring the city lights from anywhere, really, since we grew up in darkened cornfields, it resonated like John Bentall’s empty sentiment of it.

And yet, not long after we broke up because I was leaving for college, the words rang true.

One of the main reasons Bloomington-Normal, Illinois is tied to my heartstrings is because it was the first city I made my own.

I’m an independent person, bordering on an almost criminal sense of solitude. I’ll do anything by myself and I don’t need the adoration or permission from others. I’d be just fine on a deserted island.

In high school, I drove through BloNo on my inaugural road trip to Decatur. Going there, I took the I-55 bypass; coming home, right as the sun was setting, I took US 51 – the main drag through town. Like seeing a handsome guy from across the room, this city gave me a head nod as I passed Illinois State University’s campus.

Through a series of unfortunate events which can be directly sourced from my low ACT score, I ended up in college at ISU because I had a bank account, a pulse, and an acceptance letter into my field of study.

Yet when I arrived, I couldn’t wait to explore.

My independent streak had never been tested, growing up in a very strict household where I didn’t have a car. Instead of going hog wild like my floor mates, I lived the sober life and leaned in to what would be my life thesis: to live well mixed with adventure.

Every Friday night I explored one campus building I had never been in. It became a tradition until I had the entire university mapped out in my head. I quickly figured out the city bus system to get to the mall in Bloomington. I had never ridden a city bus in my life. Looking back, it’s almost comical how I had no idea what to do; I watched what others did and pretended I knew what was happening.

I explored on foot into the sleepy downtown (or “uptown” as the locals say) Normal — I still have the Indian blanket I bought at the local head shop (I had no idea what that was at the time). I rented movies from the Movie Fan, watched old and independent films at The Normal Theater, and was a card-carrying member of The Normal Public Library. Years later, I’d get my first tattoo and body piercing here as well. The Coffeehouse became a constant in my life; I fully intend to return there and finish my novel with an iced mocha on stand-by.

Yet, the lights still found me.

It’s difficult to find solitude in a dormitory, but I managed.

I lived in Manchester Hall, on the east side of campus. It’s an 18 story building, a practical skyscraper from the rural farm fields I was raised in. I lived on the third floor with a unexciting view the dining commons. But one night, bored and in need of an adventure, I walked up the flights of stairs to Manchester 18: the top floor. Two graduate student apartments were there, the rest of it was a quiet lounge, no one ventured up here. Hallways with fluorescent lighting and full length windows lined the perimeter, giving me a panoramic view. The north side gave a dim view of more farm fields and Interstates 39 and 55.

The south side however, gave a spectacular view of Bloomington – big city lights as far as I was concerned. Mesmerized by the view, I used to come up here whenever I was in need of some peace and gaze out at the sprawling city. I would come up here to write, to dream, to lose myself in the bustling glow of Bloomington.

It could have been London for all knew. I’d never had this bird’s eye view, well above the trees, and I was captivated.

I was able to pick out landmarks like the large radio tower that marked the gateway into downtown, which had a big city feel compared to the small town feel of Normal. But mostly, I was there for the glow of the lights. I know now that Bloomington, Illinois is rather small. With my limited world experience at the time, I was looking at a metropolis. “Has it always been this small?” I asked a friend as we were driving through a few years ago, struck at how quickly we crossed town, as I had always recalled it was bigger. “Yes, Sim, it’s always been this size.”

I never expected to be the one who changed.

I’ve seen London at night. I’ve seen Paris at night, which now sings to my heart as Bloomington once did. Last time I was on campus, I was locked out of Manchester Hall – I couldn’t get through the front doors, let alone the unlocked front staircase – even though I longed for another glimpse of that Bloomington view.

Perhaps in the future, I’ll be able to log into a camera and see those lights in real time again.

Or better yet, grab my laptop, a chair, and prop my feet on the vents under the windows and write my heart out as the lights of BloNo burn through the night – just as I did so many decades ago.

Authentically Strong

It’s been sold to us that in order to be a strong, athletic and healthy person, one must have a gym membership and show up several times a week for an hour or so: cardio, weights, and other strength training. In fact, it might be best to get a personal trainer.

The strongest, most athletic person I know is my father. At 72, he can out-do me in almost any physical capacity. I walk two miles on my lunch break; he walks at least six a day. The last time we went on a twenty mile bicycle ride, I was out of breath, but he shrugged. This was a warm up for him who easily covers about 80 miles a day.

He’s never set foot in a gym in his life.

His career was spent as a team member of a publicly traded company, so his working days were in a windowless cubicle. He was outside every moment he could be. He spent the summers roller blading, biking, kayaking, and canoeing. In the winter, he cross-country skied or went on hikes with snowshoes with a group of other like-minded individuals. In between, he did all the house yard maintenance for himself and a few elderly neighbors. Consequently, he’s in great shape, so agile, that he outweighs me only by thirty pounds. Sure, he’s battled frost bite, dog bites, heat stroke, and pulled more than a few muscles over the years, but it hasn’t stopped him, it’s only made him stronger, more resilient. He has no interest in gyms or repetitions of strength exercises. I once asked if he’d ever join a gym and he made a face and said, “Why? I get a much better workout in the great outdoors and it’s free.”

I think a lot of about this in terms of the Christian life.

Like working out a gym, many Christians believe living the Christian life and becoming strong in the Lord centers around church: serving in a role on Sunday morning worship and attending traditional church events: bible study, choir practice, and business meetings. To me, so much of this is like working out a gym. You’ve got your weights, your treadmill, and circuit training. Yes, you’ll break a sweat. Sure, you will get strong. And yet, it is all so sterile, like wiping down the gym equipment after you use it.

All those miles logged on the treadmill got you no where. You were probably listening to music or watching TV as you ran – not even using your full muscle strength because the machine propels you forward. You never feel the sun on your face. You never notice the trees changing, as you go along your route. There’s no turning back for a warmer jacket as the winter chill rushes in a few weeks early. There’s no amazing sunsets or cloud formations to see. But it’s safe, which is paramount in our culture.

“I go to a place to keep my fitness.” We’ve put everything in its box: spiritually, that place is church. Physically, that place is a gym.

It never occurs to us that we don’t need a building to accomplish these things.

When I think of the strongest Christians I know – the ones who are the real deal – they’re more along the lines of my dad. They’re not in a temperature controlled environment that encourages their comfort. They’re not limited to a room with equipment they need to succeed in their endeavors. They don’t have a laundry list of things they do at church for church people. They’re not on half a dozen committees or design crafts for elementary school children (which I think is a huge waste of time, resources, and energy). They’re the ones that show the love of Christ not only to fellow believers, but outside the church too. They don’t wear suits and carry a Bible around everywhere they go; they demonstrate their love for Jesus with their words and actions. They often host people in their homes, sharing their bounty with others. They’re the ones you can call at 3am. They’re the ones who reach out to the poor – in the moment – without peddling capitalist bootstrap mentalities, white washing them as “ministries.” They’re the ones that really listen and provide basic needs without statements of faith, an often thankless job. They’re also the ones who hurt the most, who’s heart gets crushed when someone they’ve been walking with decides to leave the faith or overdose or doesn’t “stick with the program.”

And the Lord calls us to so much more. The Bible doesn’t mention any of these churchy things. The Bible does speak often about showing the love of the Lord in community.

I want that. While I am far from wise, the older I get, the more I lean into the nuance, the more I look to live in the tension of living the Christian life.

Another Friday

It was suppose to be a seamless day: go to work for a few precious hours at my desk, whittle down my to do list, and be gone by lunch. I was suppose to meet a dear old friend I hadn’t seen in ages for dinner. I was positively giddy at the prospect of the good food, beer, and company that awaited me.

And suddenly, my coworker became sick. Not Covid, thankfully, she managed to catch some other virus that’s going around and I sent her home. Unfortunately that meant I stayed until the evening – such is life when you’re the boss.

Good-bye dinner plans, hello troubleshooting things at work that wouldn’t work. I wasn’t upset by the time I got home, I was just done. Instead of a night out, I figured pajamas and a book would be a decent consolation prize. I needed quiet and peace.

Home was not the calm oasis I envisioned. My husband wouldn’t stop talking and seemed upset that I wasn’t willing to hang out. He kept pressing the fact I didn’t eat dinner. This was not going to work.

“Mind if I pop off for a bit?” I deadpanned in British slang with my full American accent, after he encouraged me to take my kinetic energy elsewhere.

Today was just not going to go according to plan.

I ended up in a lifeguard chair at Carolina Beach with my tablet and bottle of water. I read my book and I watched a bit of a show I had downloaded. Wasn’t ready for the cold wind and early sunset, however. I hunkered down best I could, making a mental note to grab the blanket in the trunk next time I do this.

The constant crash of the waves was salve to my weary soul. It was low tide and from my vantage point, the waves looked a bit rough, but surfable. As I scanned the beach, I saw a bright light. Coming from land, it appeared to be a massive floodlight which illuminated the waves, so the wave crests were highlighted and a section of the beach was caught in a pool of white glow. I tried to capture it on camera with no luck. I’ve been down on the beach many times at night and never saw this crazy bright light. What was it?

I totally get the wise men following that star now. I had to investigate. Also, my butt had fallen asleep and I needed to move to keep warm.

I walked a little ways down the beach and then I saw it: A massive white light on a crane wrapped a diffuser. I smiled. That could only mean one thing: they were filming.

Sure enough, I found myself on the boardwalk by a parking lot full of semi trucks and trailers, obviously a filming crew. I have no clue how they got all them so orderly, but they did. I walked until I found what the light was illuminating: they were actively filming a scene. I watched them do several takes.

The adventures of today were never ending, but this was pretty cool.

They wrapped and I got back in the lifeguard chair to read some more. I didn’t have the calm peace of mind to pray or quietly reflect. My brain was still in overdrive, I needed the distraction of my book and the waves.

I left for home not long after and was in bed stupid early, grateful that His mercies are renewed every morning.

Let the Reader Try to Understand

This week, I found myself missing the church of my youth. Like homesickness, a lump formed in my throat when I recalled those days.

The church worked like a family unit and I was a parentless youth there. The message of the Gospel hit me like a 2×4 to the face; I remember thinking, how could anyone hear this message and not come to Christ?

I miss that it all made sense. The Catholics could have their false beliefs of “holy mysteries.”

The Bible was clear about nearly everything.

Pastor preached so elegantly and straight forward, there was no doubt in my mind where I stood on all the issues; of course, they were products of my white middle class midwestern culture, but I didn’t know that.

My brain let me gloss over things like, “You have to pray the sinners prayer and let Jesus into your heart, especially after the age of accountability” – not in the Bible – but yet, my heart was sinful and I should not follow it, lest it lead to the pits of hell. So which is it?

Fruits of the spirit included self control, yet if my shorts were too short, I (me!) was causing men to stumble in their walk with my Jezebel spirit. The body I have apparently, given to me by God, causes men to sin, so I have to cover it up. Yeah, because back then my unconditioned wavy – no, poofy – hair, unplucked caterpillar eyebrows, and pear shaped body that I hadn’t grow into yet coupled with painful awkwardness was apparently driving men wild with desire and it was up to me to stop them. I did my best to hide my body by wearing oversized shirts and men’s jeans that hid my curves so I looked like a box (I was a size 4/6, wearing size 10/12). I would be a freshman in college before I realized I could actually wear women’s clothing in my size and accept my curves.

Yet, I was responsible for the self-control of others. Jesus didn’t say that.

And then I met a man who got off on women in baggy clothing. It’s impossible to win at this game.

How come men never needed to cover up? How come there were no talks with the boys about not dressing to catch a girl’s eye? The church taught that all women were demi-sexual (one cannot be sexually attracted to someone unless they have a strong emotional bond to the other person): yet, that wasn’t my story and it certainly wasn’t me. Whenever the church described the sex-on-the-brain guy mind, they described me.

I’m really bad at getting with the program and staying in my lane, even back then. That’s why you’ll always find me on the margins, away from the kids who have it all together.

The church of my youth – a very conservative southern baptist outfit – had all the answers. This is sin. This is not. Stay on the narrow road. Don’t question. Just do. Like Jesus. It’s all here, it’s all been thought out for you, all you have to do is discover it, internalize it, live it, and then tell it to your children. Black. White. There was no gray. None.

I couldn’t do it now.

I need community, not a list of items to check off. And unfortunately, so many Christians are bent on checking boxes in the rule book and never engaging in relationships which are messy, imperfect, and complex.

And the thing is, after walking with the Lord for over 20 years, I have more questions than answers; in my youth, I had more answers than questions.

Once upon a time, we hosted a pastor in our home for three months and didn’t tell many friends. Once they saw who he was – a bleeding heart liberal – they would have pulled me aside to say I had no business housing this sinner, because the the Bible is clear: he is on the road to perdition.

“But my spiritual gift is hospitality!” I’d have retorted and probably have bruises from the Bible thrown at me.

I miss the days where everything was laid out for me in perfect understanding. I long for the days of “Because Jesus” and other pat answers were enough. I miss the times where I didn’t have conflicting experiences or friends or thoughts or read a Bible verse and went “Huh, that’s an odd thing to say here.” I never want to return to the days of “Us” and “Them,” but I must admit it was much easier to live that way.

As I continue to blunder through life, despite nearly half a century of rotating around the sun, I find solace in the margins of scripture. I lean into the nuance.

We’re all familiar with the story of Job.

But I wonder, did he ever think back to his first family and muse, “My son would have been a man now.”

There it is: the nuance. Some would say I’m adding to Scripture, but the more I meditate on it, I wish we knew the depths of his story.

My best friend is fond of saying that current happiness doesn’t automatically erase the past pain. I wish I knew how he dealt with that.

All this to say, I have no answers. In recent years, I’ve found it best to accept my low intelligence as a blessing.

The Lord ain’t through with me yet.