Paris, Summer 2019.
Paris, Summer 2019.
All of a sudden it’s October, the richest season, but I haven’t gotten used to the words around me, the words that make perfect sense. Outside my window I am greeted with red leaves, overcast skies – the first signs of a ripe season coming to a close, ready to be picked. Change is in the wind, the cold time you’re not used to (yet it thrills you in an overwhelming and beautiful way).
Only two months and a few days ago, I was still in Romania, and I felt like there wasn’t enough time to tell all the things I wanted to. I couldn’t stop seeing faces at home pass through my dreams, and wanting to share with them what all I saw and was learning. Now, what do I say, after all?
One day in Romania sticks out to me, vibrantly as if I had never left it. I was in the mountains, surrounded by the beautiful countryside. It had been a mere twist of circumstances that had led me to that place.
I was sitting alone, for the first time in a sum of time. The sun was setting, golden grass hiding me from the rest of the world. Voices echoed nearby, ones I couldn’t understand yet ones I longed to listen to forever. I pondered what had gotten me there, to that place, and I could barely find words.
“This is it,” I remember thinking, “This is the ‘wherever, whenever’ I’ve prayed so many times.'” There I was, somewhere only a sovereign God could bring me. So far, yet it felt completely right as if I had planned it my whole life.
What was there for me, in that valley, was perfect. It was promised. It was His will. I felt every vibrant confirmation of that looking out to the sky. It was very, very good.
A lot’s changed since then, and I haven’t quite grasped it all. I’ve watched life unfold in front of my eyes. I’ve rejoiced with people I love, and sorrowfully watched people abandon truth. News articles have spread tragedies to disasters, one after the other. I’ve personally fought the daily faith-testing trials of my own from car troubles to living four hours from my family for the first time. I’ve felt completely, and recklessly alone and I’ve felt the most full: looking out to the city lights and the mountain tops in abundance.
All of it: it never quite goes the way you think, or plan, assume, or dream. I’ve been learning that’s okay for a while now. Yet sometimes it’s easy to rest in the nod of a head. Answering questions with “yeah, life’s good” because you feel ashamed to say otherwise when you have nothing to complain about in the grand scheme of things. But inside, you miss too many things and even good things can feel crowded and confusing.
But God always brings you back, and reminds you what’s it all about.
Last weekend, I went back to the mountains, back to a stretch of land I’m particularly fond of and I’ve gone back to many times throughout my life. The moment I looked out the window of the car, and smelled the air, I was brought back to that hillside at golden hour two months previous.
Those glorious moments I was reminded of, tucked in the mountains of Brasov, where nothing seemed untouchable. Those are the moments when your heart cries: “This is it. This is what you prayed for those years. Don’t you see it?”
Those aren’t every day. But God is good every day. And every day he answers those “wherever, whenever” prayers. Some days, he calls us to the mountain tops. Some days, he calls us to the long and lonely drive home. He is ever present there, ever completing his will.
While in the mountains this past weekend, I sat on the bridge where God first broke my heart, and I first wept over my sin. I sat in the room where I first encountered grace and found myself singing some of the same songs I first sang that night and meant them.
Long ago, in that wooden room, I prayed for the first time that God do as he will with this life of mine: not sure what I was saying but knowing it was true. Whatever he requires, whatever he chooses to give or take away, I pray it still. Wherever, whenever: the mountains, or the in-between.
When Jonah believed he was running from God, God was not afraid to follow him through the rough waters of the ocean in order His will may be complete. He will not let his children forsake the places he wants us to go, even if they’re the ones we want to go the very least.
That’s where I’ve been and where I’ll be: somewhere, drinking a cup of coffee while trying to write something, resting in the knowledge that the grace that has led me safe thus far, through the mountains and back again, will lead me safely home. Resting in contentment, resting in grace. Resting while looking at the sky above, wondering what will be revealed to me next in that imperceivable expanse above us all.
A car honked window around 8:45 in the evening, and I looked up from the book in my lap. Startled, I quickly realized I wasn’t home. It feels hard to grasp I haven’t been here for very long, yet small things still startle me: a weird combination of discovering and settling in.
It’s been two years this week since I first stepped foot in Romania, and today while walking, I passed the building where I spent many hours of my first trip here and it silenced my thoughts a bit: what a journey it’s been, what love I’ve known in this city. This city has seen me in many different hours, hours of lacking, and hours of feeling as if I didn’t lack one single thing in the world.
A year ago I knew, sitting on a bench watching the sunlight glaze the mountains in the morning, that there would be more time for me in this country yet. I didn’t know then that by the end of the day, I would already be talking to people about this summer – still an abstract idea, but I knew then there was no mistake in thinking it. The Lord certainly led me here, years before and his purposes are still unfolding today. This trip has been the greatest means of grace in my life in learning to follow him, and I can barely comprehend I have a lifetime ahead of continuing to listen and to follow, by grace and grace alone.
How to describe this trip, so waited and prayed for, so lengthly written about in short letters and long journal entries, so perfectly orchestrated from every tiny detail I couldn’t even consider myself – seems impossible. There’s so much I want to tell, so much, and to so many people in particular; faces cross my mind constantly sunset after sunset, people who have been here with me, and who have prayed for overwhelming faithfulness for this country and for my time in it, which I can now write and say I have known.
I arrived in Romania on Saturday, after the quickest and easiest day of traveling. Navigating airports is surprisingly peaceful, quiet, and uneventful. The nine hour plane ride consisted of the guy beside me sleeping the entire trip as I didn’t sleep a second, but instead watched and cried over a movie for the first in years (the tears were about many things, I’m certain), drank lots of water, tried to sleep, eagerly waited for the lights to return so I could read properly, and watched the flight tracker for too long. I arrived early to Bucharest, exhausted, and after a day of slowly getting back to Craiova, I made it to see the first sunset of my trip. Moments after arriving, I was welcomed into the sweetest surprise of my life with my dear friends from previous trips (words from missionary Adoniram Judson come to mind: “If such exquisite delights as we have enjoyed with these now in paradise, and with one another, are allowed to sinful creatures on earth, what must the joys of heaven be?”).
Monday, I started at the school where I’m instructing. I met students, who have already given me a thousand stories to tell (yes, there’s so much I’d tell so many, so much), and teachers who have been nothing but helpful in helping me learn the ways of the English school from showing me where to pour coffee to how to walk home. Following school, I come home to the young couple I’m living with asking me to join them for dinner. On free days, I’ve had such sweet meetings with some of the girls I met at the student camp last year, letting them show me around the city and tell me all that is happening in their lives.
“There’s so much I want to tell you,” several of them have said, and yes, I understand.
And that’s life: life here, which is not a list of accomplishments or highlights from a two week trip. Living here, if only for a summer, is different but in a way that is crafted morning by morning. Two weeks here, and I’ve just begun. I’ve just found the shortest walk home from work, and the prettiest. I now recognize the smell of the flowers that line the sidewalks. I’m learning what water to drink, the different names for different common foods.
Of all the things I so want to tell so many people, one stands out most of all that I’m discovering: the best thing you can do is to go somewhere far from the streets you’ve always known, not just for the views, and live there. Let it not be what you planned, but everything you hoped for. Learn what trees to pick fruit from, pick up words of the language from conversations. Keep your eyes plastered on the windows, as you drive through countryside and take note of every grand house and every lowly shack. Never forget how the sun rises, and sets, at different times. Listen to people of another tongue speak and sing of this grace. Go with little, come back with less, don’t take much anything for yourself, but come back with everything stored up in a far more precious way.
Not even two weeks in, and there’s much more to lose, so much more to gain.
Manhattan has always been sort of a mecca for me, a place I go not only with the intent of visiting but with the hope it’ll capture me up.
The last time I was in the city, it was a profoundly healing time. It was the end of my senior year of High School, the year I more or less discovered a whole lot of who I wanted to be through much redemption of two years fighting myself and doubting the very thoughts that uphold my life. Being in the city and learning to navigate the streets, I found peace in one of the busiest places in the world.
Now, more than a year later, I was anxious to visit to see what else I could find, what new revelations would resonate. Like many trips, the trip striped back the surpassed layer of life that I often forget to peel away, burdening me with the bitter cup of this world. Yet it was such a time to be alive: to see my nine year old brother (the same age I was when I first visited) have his eyes excitedly lit with the lights of the city, to spend time with my family – whom I love with such a deep, overwhelming love that no time cannot make up for – before some time apart, to hear the wisdom of my Father who knows the city and life in a way I long to, and to walk the streets with my older brother discussing all things from the fine art that lines the walls of the MET to hip-hop.
Here is New York, captured by my camera in the way I choose to see it: bold, brave, tender, and wild:
Today at around 9:54, I underlined my thesis of an in-class essay and walked out of my last final of freshman year. I walked outside to an almost empty campus. It’s strange to think that this time, last year, I hadn’t yet walked the streets of UT’s campus or changed in all the ways my first year would mold me. Today, I ran through campus and reflected on the thoughts and moments I’d spent walking those streets. This year was full of living, hours shaped by shadows and concrete. Living in different places: places to think, places to talk, places I’ll hold and remember and want to tell you about. Here are a few of the places that shaped my freshman year.
i. the amphitheater: My first day of college, I woke up feeling remarkable hopeful, swearing I had zero expectations but holding plenty. I picked up my orange journal, and I wrote about the light coming through the window and my Mom at the door, and how I realized one day I’d miss mornings in my room like that. “I never want to forget morning like these, ever,” I wrote. Hours later, I was in my first English class, and walked outside with a few friends to sit in the amphitheater outside the Humanities building. It felt all kinds of exciting, and I was still a bit unsure where I was going at all times (I walked to my next class forty-five minutes early because I didn’t yet know how far it took to get from one place to the other). Now, if I walk on those grassy steps, I always see someone I know. I can barely spend a moment alone there, and that view is one I associate with sweet community I’ve found. My hope was not displaced, this year has been the most wonderful I’ve known, and it’s because of people that have transformed my idea of life, love, and had conversations between classes and over coffee that opened my eyes and heart.
ii. the stairwell behind the art building: I took an art class my freshman year because I knew it was something I’d regret not doing otherwise, or not have the time later. While it took most of my time, I was grateful to be pushed as an artist in ways I normally don’t create. One afternoon, my professor told us to find a spot outside and sketch, so I ventured for a while until I was on the stairs, looking at the shadows on the wall. Sketching and I don’t get along well, so like most days, I ended up writing poetry instead, my fingers covered in granite. That three hour class flew by, as I wrote and enjoyed the peace of not having to rush anywhere as I watched the shadows grow longer in sweet solitude. This past year has made me enjoy the luxury of quiet far more when it’s granted to me in small packages.
iii. the JFG sign: one day, I decided to find the parking lot behind this sign, the opposite view of Knoxville from 11th street. It’s a place I also spent many hours talking, looking out to the city lights. Sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own city, but sometimes I feel like it’s forever home. Sitting under the JFG sign, I find it always the later.
iv. suttree park: My dear friend Emma took me to Suttree park on an evening I particularly cherish where we watched the city lights, and read lists of life loves we’d written in Asheville the weekend before. It was cold, and we were wrapped in quilts from my car. I’ve only spent a couple more evenings there, watching as the sun goes down, how the lights grow longer on the water. The way they sparkle, reminding me of other cities I’ve loved and people and moments I’ve loved inside, is something I never want to forget. Dusk is my favorite time of day, especially when paired with walks and nature overlooking buildings as their windows go on, and streets beneath coming to life.
v. this drive: Traveling has always been my therapy, my happy spot. I love feeling wind I don’t recognize brush my face from an open window, heading somewhere. Sometimes you just got to drive a tiny bit into a nature, another like minded soul by your side listening to folk and smelling that unknown yet so familiar new air. Sometimes fifteen minutes is all you need, and these corners we’ve driven on one particular drive are some of my favorite.
This past year has been full of uncertainty: I didn’t expect to be broken in certain ways, I didn’t expect to lose stability in the way my life was shaping up. Yet, I feel the Lord kindly whispering to me daily, “I’m good to not leave you where you were.” There is safety in what he is asking us to give up, and so often that is comfort. I’ve been learning a lot about loss. When he asks for us, he asks for all of us. When he asks us to forsake this world, that’s more than five star meals and possessions. He asks us to give up success, for circumstances we hold tighter than life, for safety, for our very will, for emotional baggage, for the bliss of all the time in the world with friendships, for time, for our wanting, for cities we’d rather be lost in, for not running after earthly love and answers, for our very selves. Yet, “indeed I count everything as loss”. My soul rests in my taken life.
That’s why I like traveling with destination, or driving to places unknown. That’s why so much of this past year has been full of escapes, as my heart escapes previous notions. It reminds me of the story the Lord is writing for me, and I’m falling in love with such a story unknown and wonderful as that. We’re always going, we never know where.
vi. 11th street parking garage: My favorite place, and there aren’t sufficient words, really. I’ve often found myself on the 9th floor, starring at the city scape full of thoughts. The Lord’s been kind to give me trials I’ve cried through up there, and prayed through sad and confusing hours. There were people I brought up there, ones I didn’t know existed or knew at all when starting college and I then talked to for hours pouring out moments that shaped us. I’ve journaled up there, writing some of my favorite words. The last day of my first semester, I spent an afternoon eating a donut and celebrating. The last day of my second semester was this morning, and I drank cold coffee and peacefully reflected.
One thing college will try to teach you is life is defined by seasons: moving out, joining a certain amount of clubs, you do this at this point, you apply for a job at another point, you make this friend and go to this formal on this day, and so on and so on. But Jesus works differently. I’ve been learning to mark my own seasons, not defined by time or worldly gain but by grace and awareness of the Lord’s hand in my life.
My favorite moments of this past year were probably spent on a parking garage, looking out to the lights and the way they look in other’s eyes. It was on a parking garage, I felt my heart break, had to bear burdens, and felt forever dissatisfied. It was on a parking garage, I cursed and doubted the very vessel the Lord’s granted me. It was on a parking garage, I realized the Lord wants so much of me than I ever dreamed. It was on a parking garage, I realized how lovely hidden places such as towers of concrete were, and how Lord uses even those places to teach us about life – about cracked and shadowed things – and the way his glory is in and of all things. It was on a parking garage, and many other places around downtown and The University, I filled the last pages of an orange journal and began and ended that first year.
That is my own very season, defined by grace. It has been good, and I have such confidence it the Lord is preparing only good for me – good that looks different and is shaped differently in small and wild ways. And I? I get to learn it all, day by day. In the words of a college-aged Elisabeth Elliot: “God can surely give me abundant life. May I never turn aside.”