The woods are wild in the late German summer. Grass inches toward the road, creeps over the pavement, reaching for the concrete. Trees grow into each other from opposites sides of the road. Shades of green are everywhere. Deep, dark fir, jade vines, brighter chartreuse on bushes, celery-colored leaves.
It looks overrun, like the gardener took a vacation and didn’t have anyone to cut back the growth while he was away. It looks like the forests could spring out the gobble up roads and cities, but it happens fast, the turning from abundant, unfettered growth to the bare branches of winter. All it will take are these last few weeks of fall, and these green leaves will turn yellow, orange, red, brown.
The forests will be contained again, leaves will not fight each other for the sun and the light will shine through the naked, wooden gaps.
No one guts its growth. The cold that changes a leaf’s color will send it to the ground, buried with its millions of brothers and sisters. The carpet of leaves will turn into the next layer of soil. Branches will shrink back from the road.
The changing season prunes the forest.
What fall begins, winter will end, and somehow this picture of limited life in a limited universe comforts me. Nothing lasts forever. Not us. Not the trees in the forest.
It was a solid concrete mass of a highway that got you there. Straight on Highway 412, a right onto Holly Street and then a slight left on West University Avenue. On the left across from the cathedral is a graveyard. Concrete tombstones dotted the green field, there were trees and a gravel path that wove between the plots. You went there to run and to think, brown and red leaves crunching under your feet in the autumn and frozen air burning up your lungs in the winter. It was a quiet place for your thoughts. No one would know about the fear, the anxieties, the despair. The graveyard was almost always empty.
University started when you were 19, a Sri Lankan missionary kid from the Philippines. Your mother hugged you goodbye on the concrete pavement in front of the women’s dorm, and you walked inside, into an American life on a small, Christian campus. There were daily classes, the all-you-can drink soda machines in the cafeteria, shopping at Wal-Mart and chapel services twice a week.
It has taken us 12 years since graduation to begin unraveling the space between the days.
Your life was going to be a mistake-free, dead straight road, heading in one direction. Jesus, heaven, peace. Was that the destination? There were visible off ramps and some detour signs, but you couldn’t possibly take a break from the straight road. If you did, you were lost with no way back. Your certainty was your security.
I see your fears, the ones that keep you inside the four walls of your dorm room. You’re afraid of making a mistake, of failing, you’re afraid of sin. Earning your way into belonging and love is the only way to satisfy your fears, but you can’t cope with the work it involves. So you wait through it. There is an unknown world of culture and calling right outside the door, and you don’t know how to navigate it. You think that by living less, by limiting your decisions, by staying safe you will keep yourself away from the unknown towns on the side of the highway.
One day you get off the straight Arkansas road, fly to the far side of the sea, travel around the world. You get married, you have children, and as the days tick over, you fight to live.
But I need you to know that there are so many mistakes, so many failures, and sin that so easily entangles, and I’m sorry, but this is life.
It is full of darkness.
You learned to fear the things that seemed big, so you stayed away from a second drink and didn’t date, but no one told you that selfishness breeds loneliness and pride only leads to destruction and your years can waste away in bitterness. You have no idea how much you will struggle to be truly honest with the man you love, how easy it is to lie about the small things, how easy it will be to not keep your word. You will not always be honest with friends, you will play a role you were not supposed to fill, and when you can’t take it anymore, you will run away from expectations you cannot meet. You will fail so many people.
Darkness will wrestle with you. It will not win, but it will be there. It has to be there. You cannot know the light until you’ve sat in the darkness.
There is a life waiting outside the highway. It will often look like a wilderness, but someone else is there. Did God grab hold of you? Did you grab hold of him? Theologians spend centuries debating how it works, and all you know is that you don’t know, but you are not in the wilderness alone.
His love and his truth remake you away from the straight road, in your mistakes and failures and sins, he is working.
It looks like asking for forgiveness. Often. You will have to learn how to belong to friends, community, husband and family, and learning how to belong to people when you make mistakes is a painful, beautiful lesson in grace. You learn that you don’t have to trust everyone, that building a friendship takes time. Endings become comfortable, you know now that not all things, not all people, not all relationships last forever.
I need you to know that the mistakes and failures lead to redemption and hope – this is the long road of wisdom and experience that you cannot see in a fall and spring semester. But when you turn around and look at the decades, you see the dead things made new, the ashes turning into beauty. It takes time for the spirit of despair to become a garment of praise.
So go ahead and live. Take the back roads and the tree-lined boulevards. Skip on gravel paths, fly down the autobahn, you cannot get lost because you don’t travel alone. He is leading you home.
Fun giveaway time!! I’ve got two copies of English Lessons to giveaway to anyone living in the US, and one copy for someone in Australia (apologies to those in Europe and Asia!). The giveaway is open until Friday, June 9.
To enter: Just leave a comment on this post and tell me, what’s one thing you would go back and say to your younger self? Please also indicate if you are in the US or Australia.
Update: The giveaway is closed, and the winners have been notified. Thanks!
Autumn in Melbourne has been a few months of beauty and hard. March was probably the hardest month I’ve had in years, and it’s taken a few weeks to recover, but I am always, always amazed at the richness found in the seasons of difficulty. It becomes fuel for the seasons to come. Here’s what I learned in Autumn 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.
I want to live in Melbourne. Maybe forever.
It’s too long a story to share here, but we had to deal with some administrative paperwork related to my husband’s Australian visa this autumn. Having to stare in the face the reality that living in Australia together is not guaranteed is the first time I realized there is nowhere in the world I would rather live than Melbourne. I guess you don’t know what you want until it feels like someone is going to take that away.
Take away social media, add in something else.
I went off social media for Lent, and it was not nearly as restful as my previous social media sabbaticals have been. Instead of surfing Facebook and Instagram, I watched Stephen Colbert’s Late Show monologues every day, I started watching The Crown and SeaChange (an Australian drama from the late 90s). What I learned: Media is easy to consume. Whatever that media may be.
Homemade hot cross buns are a thing of wonder.
Easter morning was insanely delicious. No need to elaborate.
Music makes miserable moments a bit better.
Hubby started making playlists, and he finds the best music, and one of my kids is calmed magically by tunes, the other one is obsessed with playing DJ. We have music on most mornings, evenings and afternoons now via Spotify, and it has been a delight. Music has been bringing tears to my eyes, levity to difficult moments and dance party fun. Some of my current favourites are Stay Alive, Fools Gold, and for something sassy, Hey, Soul Sister.
Don’t just say yes to a project.
I said yes to a writing project without thinking too much about whether or not I could write it. Saying “Yes” was easy, I was flattered, it involved a contract and pay, but when I got to writing, I felt out of my depth in a way that I did not expect. The deadlines were around some of the personally darkest weeks of the autumn season as well, I could not have anticipated that, but I wonder what would have happened if I had actually sat down, weighed the work and seen. Can I do this? Am I supposed to do this? I won’t be taking on another writing project without having a strong sense of “Yes” to those two questions.
One of my sons had a birthday last week, and our neighbour brought him over a gift while he was sleeping. When he saw it the next morning, his brown eyes ignited, the smile stretched across his face as he excitedly talked about finally owning his very own fidget spinner.
For the uninitiated here’s my best fidget-spinner explanation: It’s a piece of metal somehow connected at the centre, and the blades spin fast. This is apparently a source of endless fascination for children, or at the very least, a good source of income for toymakers.
But for my son, this red, white and blue piece of metal is something else entirely. He leaned over to me and whispered in awe, I’ve been wishing for one of these, Mommy.
Wanting to understand what he meant, I prodded. He had never asked us for one. This was my first time to hear of it. Fidget spinners, it turns out, are a popular commodity at school. Several of the boys in his class have them, he’s been watching them for weeks and the seed of desire grew in his heart. Even though he didn’t tell us, he wanted one.
See, I smiled at him, God knows – but the words stuck in my throat, silencing me. I started talking without thinking, and I could feel grown-up fear fighting the words back down.
You can’t tell him that God gives him what he wants, what if he grows up thinking he’s entitled to whatever he wishes for.
You can’t teach him to expect good things when you know bad things are always around the corner.
But I ran my fingers through his brown hair, looked in his eyes, and pressed into territory that feels dangerous and somehow wild and unknown.
God knows what you want before you even say it, I said, he loves giving you good things.
A small postscript: I have not done much research into fidget spinners, but I appreciated the thoughts in this article, “What the fidget spinners fad reveals about disability discrimination.” It’s well worth the read, we all need to be more sensitive, knowledgeable and helpful toward adults and children in our lives whose minds are different from ours.
When I was four-years-old, my family moved to a large house on a dirt road in a small province in the Philippines.
The leaves of mango trees were glossy green, and coconut trees reached their branches for the clouds. On the hot days of the dry season, we felt the sweat trickle down our necks as we sat in front of electric fans. Wet season brought with it daily rain and regular typhoons, the kind that blew trees and electric lines down. Our basement would flood, and we had an assembly line passing buckets along until we emptied it.
We told the tricycle drivers to take us to Guadalupe, and directed them after a fork in the road to go right, down a slight hill, and stop at the rusted brown gate on the right. Like most houses in the Philippines, there was a tall wall all around the property. At the top of the wall, broken glass pieces had been embedded into the cement when the wall was built, a supposed deterrent to robbers and drug addicts scaling it at night.
To the left was our neighbour Ka Loreng who had a sari-sari store (literal translation, “variety of things” store) where people bought shampoo in sachets, candy, corn bits in little orange bags and on the hottest day of the year my mother would take us there to buy soda, which Ka Loreng poured into plastic bags. We sipped it out of straws while we walked down the road.
Across the street was Evie and her three kids, a bit further down the road was her sister-in-law Jubi and her kids. There was a large field next to Evie’s house with corn crops and sometimes, sugar cane.
To the right of our our house was a plot of land, and three families lived there in several ramshackle huts, in the Philippines they were called squatters. I remember the women, Nanay Ange and Teri, and a girl a little older than me, Leah. The walls were flimsy pieces of cardboard-like wood nailed together, the roofs, corrugated metal. There were no ceilings, some of the floors were long pieces of bamboo patched together, some of the floors were the earth of the ground, flattened slightly. Each hut was one room, mothers, fathers, children all lived together. There was no electricity and no running water.