Worlds

Machete swinging, back bent over logs twice as tall as me.

Feet the kind of dirty that sinks into my skin, sap stains from the wood stand out, darker still, on my ankles.

Skin fair, pale in comparison to the millions around me, I stand out in the streets. Whistles I ignore. I meet the curious, sometime apprehensive gazes of the women, the children. Smile, nod, wave, sometimes.

Spanish the soundtrack of my days, I’m aware, attentive to language barriers around me. Listening for new words, phrases, I translate for those who speak less than I do, spend the hours mentally reviewing my own mistakes, cataloguing ways I can improve yet more.

Ladle in hand, I scoop black beans into bowl after bowl. Tens, sometimes hundreds of children pass the table, dark fingers offering me their dishes; I greet them, pausing a moment as the savory beans settle into their dishes. I meet their eyes, trade words like handshakes, repetitive yet unique, and then they move on.

Guatemala.

The air is calm as I walk home, and I sink, a little relieved, into the anonymity of one among diversity. Yet I’ve traded the excuse to cordiality in exchange for this ability to blend, and nearly alone on a wide, quiet street, I pass others almost awkwardly; I don’t know where to look, and here we don’t greet.

There’s English, of course, but I catch myself creating Spanish responses in my mind, feeling mildly unsettled, paranoid that I might forget what I know, that I might lose words that rarely grace my tongue.

There are buildings all around, tracing the backbone of the lake. The clouds feel higher, my own vantage point lower, less like a bird, more like a mouse.

That’s Chicago.

Tomorrow, it’s another plane. Another ascent, rising higher, far beyond the flat underbelly of fat white clouds. Another descent, the rush of the plane roaring down the runway, brakes heavily engaged, in the fleeting moments after landing.

Tomorrow, it’ll be mountains once more, this time Californian peaks forming a green ring around Lake Tahoe.

And there will be cousins, aunts, uncle, grandparents. Beach days on the hot sun, alongside brilliant blue, toe-chilling water.

That’ll be Tahoe.

And it’s 2am on the one day spent between two other worlds, and the thread I find, the thread I pull and hold fast to, pulling it like a uniting line between Guatemala, Chicago, Tahoe, is the bunkbed I occupy every night.

Guatemala, Chicago, California: we eat and we live and we sleep. And all these places, all these worlds, I climb, late, into the top bunk, pulling blankets to my shoulders. And my ear pressed to the mattress, I imagine I can hear- or maybe I really do- the breathing of the ones beneath me, the ones living, sleeping, around me.

~Natalia

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Palms Up

I’m so excited for you, she exclaims, pulling me into a hug. Grinning, I thank her, my exclamations matching her enthusiasm. Then I pause, shrug, palms up in surrender; I really don’t know what we’ll be doing, I admit, chuckling a little at the excitement and the possibility and the not-knowing.

She leans forward slightly, reminding me of the many times I watched her kneel, step closer, come into the lives of the women and children of Guatemala. Her pale hair, neatly coiffed, swishes as she laughs, shakes her head ever so slightly.

You didn’t have any idea last year either, and that trip was wonderful! She exclaims, her soft hand on my arm once more.

And I nod in agreement, laughing a little.

She’s right. I got on a plane first to Virginia, then Guatemala without the slightest idea what I would be doing there, and spent the first two plane rides learning the names of my teammates, save the fair-haired doctor who connections lead me to the trip in the first place.

Accustomed to learning by observation thanks to all those months spent living in Mexico, I learned Guatemala, learned Xenacoj, by watching, listening. I opened my hands, palms up once more, to the opportunities, tasks, requests, before me. And God was kind to allow what I had, what I did, what I said, to be done for good, to be done well.

I returned from my week in Guatemala emotionally exhausted, worn ragged from the unexpected weight of constant translation, but, as Summer 2013 marched rapidly on, I knew I wouldn’t change it for anything.

And I wanted to go back.

And tomorrow, beginning with an alarm set for 4:21am, I’ll begin all over again. Do I know what I’m doing? No. Do I know who I’m working with? Not everyone. Do I know who I’ll meet? What I’ll learn? How I’ll be challenged? What will break my heart? What will bring me back, all over again?

Not at all.

But God does.

So I check through security, slipping sandals off into the dingy grey bucket, I step down the jetbridge to the waiting plane, I step through customs, out into the Guatemalan air, and open my hands, palms up, ready for what comes next.

Whatever it may be.

~Natalia

A Fleeting Wave

The sand is cool, still damp from the rain that pounded the earth this morning, heavy drips still falling lazily from tree branches when the sun came out, light refracting through fat water droplets. I sit on the packed sand, bare feet in front of me, arms wrapped around my knees in the cooling lakefront air.

Before me, beach volleyball nets stretch neatly into the sky. The nets, hung two months ago when the calendar hinted summer, even though the weather resisted, have loosened. No longer tight, stretched taut between the white painted poles, they hang slightly slack, and stray volleyballs don’t bounce off of them, but rather slide, anticlimactically, to the lumpy sand below.

Beyond the nets, the lake laps the shoreline, leaving layers of darkened sand where the water has permeated the fine grains of rock. It’s evening and the lifeguard stands have been deserted; NO SWIMMING the red signs say, hanging where they’ve always been on the backs of the tall stands.

It’s past swimming time, and the beach slowly begins to empty, as the thick clouds in the sky are alternately outlined by the gold, orange, and crimson tones of impending sunset.

I dig my toes under the dark, wet sand, feeling the tiny grains between my toes, digging my feet deeper under the weight of the cool sand. A stray volleyball lands just beyond my feet and I look up, my gaze drawn from the sandy white ball to the cloudy, water color vibrant sky.

There’s movement on the sand then. Yards away, the sand rises slightly, creating a ridge between beach house, next to the road, and shoreline, at the end of the sand. A young boy runs, white swim trunks long around his calves, white shirt vaguely pink in the light of the evening sky. Eyes raised, I follow his direction, his line of vision, to the little group he’s running towards, reduced to silhouettes by my low vantage point and the sky’s glow.

Feet tucked under the sand, I watch the child run, his small body framed against the backdrop of watercolor clouds, drifts of sand woven with thick, hardy plants, the multicolored rocks of the breakwater, far beyond him. And the 8pm warning horn sounds, echoing over the lake, and the sailboats dotting the space where blue lake meets colored sky begin their slow retreat to the boat house once more, and I lean down, pull a handful of sand into my hand, and hold as long as I can to the beauty of a moment that I know is as fleeting as a wave on the water-soaked shore.

~Natalia

Two Camp Shirts

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Friday morning, 7am. We’ve one more day of camp left, our time in Michigan, moments with WOW Campers measured in mere hours. Around me, down stairs, the girls in the house are beginning to move, to prepare for their last day with little campers. The sky, peering brightly through the thin curtains lining the window, glows pale blue, cheerily welcoming the day.

I’ve a list next to me, initials of the nine high school girls around me scrawled in red ink on a miniature note pad. A nightly ritual, I sit in the near-dark, the room illuminated in soft yellow, and go around the room: When are you getting up? What time am I waking you up? I’m the only one with a phone, the leader in the room, and this is my job. Now, at 7am, they’ve all been awoken but one. Face buried in blue sleeping bag across the room from my own bed, she breathes evenly as the day gains momentum around us.

Slipping off the thick mattress, I step down the stairs, each sandy wooden step creaking loudly. The bathroom is warm, the air heavy with shower steam and the smell of toothpaste. Water has pooled on the counter, and girls lean cautiously over the surface, careful not to drop makeup, clothes in the stagnant counter puddles. Clustered in small groups in front of the dual mirrors, I greet the gathered girls before I lean close to the reflective surface, my own eyes wide in the face of focused mascara application.

In the upstairs bedroom once more, I wake the last sleeper, return to my own suitcase as she sleepily shuffles through her own bag. Pushing sweatpants, jeans aside, I grasp the corner of the royal blue camp shirt I’ve been wearing since Monday. Pulling the ruffled shirt from under the pile, the July morning sun reveals a multitude of wrinkles and two faint stains in the rumpled blue cotton. I hesitate as two girls creak up the stairs, swishing into the room to pull sweatshirts over their own blue camp shirts, before stomping down the stairs once again, on their way to breakfast.

Not a minute later, the schoolhouse bell rings, signaling 7:30am and breakfast. Leaving the mussed shirt on my unmade bed, I pull a sweatshirt on, following the last of the girls down the stairs, out the backdoor, to the schoolhouse.

Inside, it smells like bacon and burnt toast, and the line stretches to the screen door that’s just slammed shut behind me. I slip between two high school boys, their hair hidden under hoodies pulled haphazardly over sleepy brows, and settle onto the worn couch under the window; I’ll wait for the line to subside.

A hint of fresh blue cotton peeking from inside a bin next to the couch catches my eye, and I stand to investigate. Pushing the half-closed lid aside, I find a small collection of brand new camp shirts, along with two sharpies, a red crayon, and several unused lanyards, the week’s schedule still dangling from their ends. Pulling a shirt from the stack, it’s a pleasant surprise to find it’s my size.

Bacon, a bagel, and an hour later, I’m standing at the camp check-in table, the sun’s hot on the shoulders of the brand-new camp t-shirt. I’ve permission to take the shirt, am not the only one who’s done so, but I feel vaguely selfish, as if I’ve taken a thing that someone else might have enjoyed more, might have needed more.

But it’s Friday and we’ve facepaint, music, and the waterslide. We’ve schedules to maintain and decisions to make and cleaning, preparing to do before the evening pig roast which will end our night, our week. Between cleaning the grounds- picking sticky popsicle wrappers off the grass- and organizing the sound podium, I hear they’re giving the extra shirts away tonight. I’ll just throw them into the group of kids, the local director says, shrugging happily at the idea of their sure excitement.

I stop, glance down at the still-clean shirt I’m wearing. I could change, I could give it to her, to be given away. I think about it. I picture a child proudly wearing the brilliant blue shirt, a memory of our wonderful week of camp. But I don’t change, don’t think about it, and soon enough, it’s 10pm and the pig roast is over and I’ve changed into the tank top, sweatpants that have been my evening uniform these seven days, two blue camp shirts laying discarded in the chaotic pile on my bed. I’ll give one to my sisters, I tell myself, to placate my still-whispering conscience.

But a midnight Facebook check reveals a red flag on my home screen, a message from a school friend, recently met, easily befriended.

It looks like you’re at camp, she says, in response to pictures freshly posted. She tells me about her sister, obsessed with Toy Story. Is there any chance that I can get her one? She asks, humble. Hopeful.

And I can’t just say coincidence, because this feels like sovereignty and grace and something that I can trust. Because God is gracious and kind and things like this, they make Him smile.

~Natalia

WOW Camp 2014 Comes to a Close

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We’re back in town after a wonderful week of challenges, excitement, teamwork, laughter, and hard work at WOW Camp 2014.

It won’t be long before I’m back with stories and pictures from our week in Northern Michigan.

~Natalia

Driving Out

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Waking up early,

strapping into the cars,

driving through the green…

We’re going to WOW Camp tomorrow!

{I’ll be back in a week.}

In the meantime, it would mean so very much

if you’d join us in prayer

for weather and safety

and relationships built,

and hearts turning to Jesus.

Because that’s why we do this

WOW Camp adventure

in the first place.

Have a wonderful week, friends!

~Natalia

Reading House

I asked a little boy, seven years old, if his mama read to him.

He shook his curly head, shrugged his little shoulders;

No, not anymore.

And slowly I’m realizing that it’s a privilege, a treat, a blessing

To live in this house of books,

With the shelves full,

Boxes of books in the basement, too.

This house where the mother reads nearly every school day,

Stories from the Word and novels, too,

Stories stretching an hour, longer.

And they go to the library and they pull books off the shelf,

And at home, in the evening, she opens her books,

And she reads.

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~Natalia

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