Splashing

It rained on the night of our first date. Light, soggy drops that fell past the towering Chicago high rises all around us and made my hair frizzy, plastered his to his forehead. We walked down Lasalle to Gino’s East before the rain began, emerging later onto a late fall night slick with water. The streets shone black, the streetlights reflected in the puddles growing along the curbs.

We didn’t have an umbrella. I didn’t- still don’t- believe in them. Instead, we walked side by side towards the lake, stepping under Chicago Avenue awnings wherever we could. More often than not, the steady drip from the awning’s corner hit one of us, a trickle of cold water running down head, ears, neck.

We walked everywhere that night, as the rain waned, only to pick up once more. He bought me an ice cream cone that I couldn’t finish at Ghirardelli, and then we slipped into the Dunkin Donuts under the train tracks. The same train tracks we’d stand next to, kissing, for our engagement pictures five years later.

The rain had finally stopped as we walked to his car at the end of the night. Huge puddles rippled at each corner, tiny murky ponds at the intersection of street and sidewalk. I jumped over these puddles, my legs stretching wide in an exaggerated leap.

His car sat resolutely in the visitor lot, rain water on the windshield glistening in the bland yellow glow of the streetlight above. One crosswalk away, I picked my foot up, swung my cracked boot though a puddle. For an instant, I watched the spray of water fly from the puddle, from my shoe. Then it landed, leaving the dark marks of moisture on his jeans, his sweater, the sleeve of the arm he’d thrown up to protect himself from my barrage.

We were still caught, then, in the uncertainty, the unfamiliarity of a relationship just barely beginning to form. I didn’t know, as my foot skimmed the puddle, gathering water and momentum as it swung, how he’d react. He laughed, of course. Laughed and came after me, his body shifting towards me, moving across the puddle, through the puddle.

Moments later, I had fled beyond the reach of the puddle and his own splashing feet. His jean hems were wet, his shoes heavy with an evening’s worth of rain water accumulation. Our laughter faded in the hush and lull of goodbyes, tentative agreements to text you later. Minutes later, I had watched his little car disappear around the corner into the big city, and I could feel the stiffening cold settling around my sopping toes.

I know him more now, five years later. Exponentially more. I tease him, still, and sometimes remember the text he sent me later that night, after we’d both gone home and changed into the welcome warmth of dry clothes. My mom loved that you splashed me, he had said. I had grinned then. Chuckling to myself that it was my silly, impulsive moment of daring flirtation that garnered this response.

There’s a weight that comes with knowing him more, now. A responsibility. I’ve a copy of Sacred Marriage on my desk, bookmarked halfway through as I prepare for marriage to this same puddle-splashing man. Speaking about marriage’s knack for reflecting our own sin, drawing attention to flaws we may previously have been able to hide, Gary Thomas challenges readers to not only renounce that sin, but to take steps to do the very opposite thing.

I sat in my kitchen today, unfocused eyes sliding towards the sunlit living room, as I thought about Thomas’s charge. Where do I see my sin most just now, when it comes to this man that I love? And then I knew. In the same way I knew he wouldn’t be mad when I flung that cold puddle water towards him, I knew the way I needed to grow. I knew what my opposite was.

Selflessness is the word I wrote in the book’s margin, tucked alongside the myriad other notes I’ve written there in blue ink. The kind of selflessness that lays down my anger, even when it feels justified, and I can almost taste how good it would feel, just for that fleeting second, to let my temper go. The kind of selflessness that opens my gripping fingers, spreading the palms where I’ve gathered tightly all the things I feel I’m entitled to from my fiancé, and drops them right there on the ground. The kind of selflessness that might still sigh when I see him wrestle with hard things, not because his struggle means less attention, less time for me, but rather because my heart hurts for him, and his pain becomes my own.

There will be more rain for us, in the days and years to come. Real rain, bringing the fresh green of spring, and sometimes the floodwaters of a late summer storm. And figurative rain, bringing blessings we didn’t know we would have missed, and challenges we can’t imagine now. But I can say now, and I’ll say again on my wedding day, and in the days and years after, he’s the one I want to splash with, the one I want to laugh with, the one I want to be selfless with.

~Natalia

Under the Same Skyline

What’s your favorite thing about Chicago? He asks. We’re sitting, or maybe it’s hiding, on the third floor of the Michigan Avenue Crate&Barrel when he asks. Bodies tired from a day of el commute, meandering amongst the masses in the downtown drizzle, we’ve melted into the wide for-sale couch, feet perched on the coordinating ottoman before us.

David and Meghan have left their bags with us, our feet sharing the ottoman with an assortment of plastic retail bags, distinct logos emblazoned across each one. Their bags left carefully under our care, the couples wanders the store, steps tracing a haphazard loops through displays of dishes, dressers, and a plethora of miniature life-improving devices.

And we sit on the couch, with the January night settling cold and wet over the city, and he asks me what I like best.

I think, for a second. Because I want to have an answer, of course. But then I shake my head, shrug my shoulders ever so slightly. I don’t know, I tell him slowly, unsure of my own uncertainty.

I glance around the store, for a moment, then. Eyes sliding, unfocused, over the books they’ve used to line the for-sale shelves, the hallway lined with 2×1 foot carpet swatches in all manner of color and pattern. I try to find my answer as I look, as if the secrets to the intersection of my heart and the city of Chicago lay hidden in carpet samples and never-read display books.

It’s not long, though, before he answers his own question. He’s a habit of doing that, sometimes even over text, and I wait and listen, because I know that a question he’s asked is often a question he’s already answered, and I want to hear what he thinks.

I think I like the blend best, he says. One hand moving in the air ever so slightly as he describes the mix that is present in the city we both grew up with. Mix of people, mix of places. Mix of occupations, interests, options, opportunities. A mix of everything, really.

And outside, the cars fly up and down Michigan Avenue, while the people from all different nations move in and out of all manner of buildings, and the needs and the wants and the languages and the voices are all so very different, and here we are in the same rain-shining city.

~Natalia

Crisp Pages

Little girl, leggings and pigtails, my daddy took me on dates to the bookstore. Barnes and Noble on the corner, we’d pull comic book collections off the shelves, order tea, hot chocolate- biscotti, sometimes- from the cafe. The chairs, heavy metal, little round tables, lined the upstairs window, and we’d sit across from each other, flip through books of For Better or For Worse (him) and Foxtrot, Zits, Garfield (me).

He’d chuckle, sometimes; sitting there with one leg crossed loose over the other, leaning back, book in hand. Often, after chuckling, he’d put the book on the table, facing me, point to the strip that had so amused him. I loved those moments, that’s what I remember the most about those years-ago bookstore dates. I’d sit there, my own book on the table in front of me, and lean forward, follow his finger to the comic in question. I felt important, exhilarated, to be included in his amusement, proud that my daddy would want to tell me something that he found to be worthy of noting, chuckling over.

Sometimes I understood the joke, saw the humor, in the book. Sometimes I didn’t. Often, I offered a genuine, if somewhat unsure, hum of amusement at his book. It didn’t matter to me, really, if I understood or not. It was good just to be sitting there, burning my tongue on tea that I’m still to impatient to wait to sip. To be listening, waiting, hoping- a little- for my daddy to show me a page, show me what he thought was good, was funny, was important. That was enough for me.

I’ve been to Barnes and Noble again, recently. Twice. Dates, again, though not with my daddy. Once, because we’d just eaten outside at Flat Top and it was October cool and Barnes and Noble was close, warm, bright. So we crossed the street, pushed through the tall green doors, into the vast store, air scented thick with fresh-printed novels, magazines, so many, many pages.

It’s a new location, across the street, from my childhood bookstore, and we rode the escalator long, up to the second floor. And I stood a step above on those moving stairs, stretching tiptoe to grin, momentarily taller than a date who looks over my head by 12 inches. We stepped off the escalator, and it’s past 9pm, of course there are no little ones around, we step slow, easy, through the children’s section.

And he finds a book about Legos, world monuments recreated in those little colored bricks, and we sit in the reader corner, under a Winnie the Pooh mural, and flip through all those Lego creations.

Saturday, mere days ago, we’re back again. This time because we want to; drove here. Because it’s warm. Because there’s a Starbucks downstairs and we bought a blueberry muffin (his) and a salted carmel cookie (mine). Because last month, the end of that first evening, we looked back to that Barnes and Noble reading corner, back to Lego books and standing around a display, side by side and quiet, pulling books off the shelves, paging through, and we smiled.

So we went back. And this time it’s a children’s book about crayons (my choice) and a book about dinosaurs who wear underwear (his) and they’ve filled an entire wall display with Christmas picture books; I pulled a Christmas I Spy off the shelf, settled in under that Winnie mural.

And we read the crayon book, the dinosaur one, too. Quietly, side by side. The book on my legs, mumbling lines and smiles in a funny bookstore whisper when we liked something, smiled at something, wanted to share something. And then those brilliant, chaotic I Spy pages, and I won, rushing to point out a white bunny, a miniature pinecone, a snowman.

But we weren’t keeping track, of course. And soon, the intercom buzzed, a store-wide announcement: closing soon. And we finally found the fifth red bird, elusive amongst those Christmas ornament pages, and we stood, gathered books, replaced them on shelves. Rode the escalator down again, back out into November-turning-winter.

And later, of course, the father who took me on those first date, daughter dates, will hear about this one; this boy and this story and all these memories. And it’s a circle, really, of books and treats and smiles and relationships growing as those crisp pages turn.

~Natalia

What’s Now

Sitting in the Admissions Office, waiting to give a tour. I always do the same thing in those quiet moments before tours and information and questions and answers; sit on that grey couch, crack open one of the old Moody Arch yearbooks scattered across the coffee table, page through.

I’m paging through a commemorative book of Moody’s 125th Anniversary when the door behind me opens, a fellow Admissions ambassador steps in, settles onto the couch opposite me. Then how was your weekend, he’s feeling sick, there’s something going around. Everyone’s under the weather, it seems.

Then: there are only a few more weeks of the semester, he says.

Of course, the days are ticking down. I know that. There’s a calendar on the wall by my desk and I cross off assignment as the hours go and the pages turn and it doesn’t feel like the time is going fast, really. But he said just a couple more weeks; until Thanksgiving, until Finals, until Christmas. And suddenly, I felt guilty, worried.

What have I done with this semester?

What have I learned?

How have I changed?

How have I grown, gotten better?

How have I made these weeks matter, used the time to leave a mark that says This matters, this is good, this changed?

This fall semester, my third of the kind, has been unlike any other. Fall 2011, my first months at Moody, brought with it everything new. New school and new room and new roommate and new friends and new classes and new teachers and new homework and new food and new schedule.

Last fall, 2012, began weeks after a summer-long relationship ended, leaving me shaken, confused, and sensitively emotional at all the times I wished I wasn’t. I needed the rhythm of class, work, homework, to keep me moving and keep my mind away from re-thinking, re-wondering, re-hurting. I look back on last fall, and there is good there, of course. Late night skyping with friends states away. Hours spent in the library, reading, writing, kicking my legs under the desk in silent energy, silent focus, silent emotion. I also look back and see fear and uncertainty and the mundane of a trip to the mail room torn apart by an unexpected encounter, tears tracing down my cheeks in a near-empty classroom while I eeked out a plea to a kind listening professor that I just wanted life to be normal again.

And in time, it was. But last fall was a semester full of very good moments superimposed over moments of sad and hurt and frustrated, rolled together for a wide, varied, scattered, deep, growing kind of semester.

This fall? I don’t know, really. It feels different. Feels like I’ve wasted time- too much of it. Feels like I have not done much work, although I’ve not missed an assignment, always turned pages, papers, books, in with the date on the front: on time.

This fall is work, of course; I love that swim coach job, and the coworker friendships, little athlete blessings it’s brought with it. There’s a youth group, too; all those high school students I so love, the same hearts who I have watched work, learn, grow, change, through WOW Camp over the past years.

Maybe I’m making excuses, though.

Making excuses for a semester that’s moving towards ending, a semester which feels like a spot on the screen, moving fast, whipping me by, all the while I wait for something bigger, something better, to arrive. Maybe that’s why it’s felt like an odd fall; maybe every day that I go through, counting the hours until the next day, has added up to nine weeks of skimming through days that seem unsettled, weird, straining towards what’s new, hoping desperately that new is better.

But maybe in all those nine weeks, I missed the good- the best, even- in each of those days.

But there still are five weeks here- maybe six, depending on how I count- and I think now, now that we’re ticking down, I’ll take these days, these hours, these moments, and live them well, live them full, live them joyful, joyous, because what’s next can only be as good as what I’m making of what’s now.

~Natalia

To Guard You Heart

The general Christian population is fairly familiar with the phrase “Guard your heart.” I grew up to the soundtrack of this admonition, and mentally stashed it away with other tidbits of information I received that had very little to do with people who were not in romantic relationships and therefore had nothing from which to guard their hearts.

I still remember the day that the idea of guarding hearts made sense.

I was 19, living in Mexico, working, playing, cooking, being, at the Casa Hogar. A friend I’ve written about before, a dear, vibrant, beautiful girl just a year older than myself, was upset about something. Wrong had been done, she had been hurt, broken people- we’re all that way- create broken relationships; that’s just how it goes.

I was standing outside the office, in the shade of the second floor balcony, when Hermana Tere called me into the cool, white-tiled room, to where my friend also sat. I stepped inside, joined the pair at the table. Hermana Tere’s tone, gentle, soft, was serious; I’d heard the same tone before, when she told me of the abuse of children, the breaking of tiny hearts, the reasons many of the children came to the Casa Hogar.

I sat and listened, quiet.

You need to guard each others’ hearts, Hermana Tere said. I am sure that my eyes widened, my head tilted to the side; listening intently. I had never heard the guarding of hearts spoken about this way before- there were no boys involved now.

The things you say, she nodded to both of us, affect each other. They shape how you each thinks about other people, what you say to them, how you see them. Both of you have scars, memories, experiences that hurt you, shape you, too. You are friends, you share things, and that is okay, but you need to guard each others’ hearts in what you say, how you say it, how you push each other to act.

And she was right. There is a part of guarding your heart that is keeping it close- but not closed- in romantic relationships. There’s a part of it that is not letting too much out, nor too much in, when attraction turns serious and it’s not “just friends” anymore.

But it’s also so much more than that.

Guarding my heart is knowing that the music I listen to, the books I read, the word I hear and the conversations I have are shaping the way that I think about myself, others, God, and the way life works. Guarding my heart is letting, asking, begging, Christ to be the one who decides what stays, what takes root, in my heart.

It goes beyond me, too. I guard my heart, and I guard your heart, too. I guard your heart by thinking of what I say, considering how my words, my thoughts, will affect how you think, feel, relate. I guard your heart by keeping to myself that which would hurt you, that which will weigh your heart, that which will mar, taint, color who you see, how you see them.

Because it’s not guarding anyones heart when hurt turns to poison and my scars become your prejudice.

So I guard my heart, and I guard yours, and together, we grow to be whole, to be wise, and to be more like Him, broken and all.

~Natalia

Cut on my Finger

Romantic relationships, once ended, have a habit of souring. I’m not an expert in this field, of course, but I’ve seen it and I’ve heard it and I’ve lived it, a little bit. I’ll not attempt to explain the intricacies of bitterness, or the line where attraction darkens to resentment. I just know that, good-byes said, possessions returned, relationship status changed, things sometimes get rough.

I’ve lived this, a little bit. No longer connected, no longer relationally attached, I didn’t choose to resent, to look back with a short laugh, with scorn. I just did. It could be a part of moving on, I suppose. Could be caused by culture: of course we come out bitter because so does every star in every media-celebrated celebrity romance. Could spring from sinful nature, my own. Could be anything, really.

It feels protected, of course. There’s not a lot of vulnerability in rolling your eyes. It feels like power and security and control, a little bit. But there’s a sour taste of anger, of disappointment, of sadness, too. Memories that you know held some good come back stained: only the bad stands out. I know that I had fun, smiled, laughed. But the end came and the bad swallowed the good, and slowly, that’s all that I remember.
~~~~~

June 2012, the end of the month. We were in the middle of summer, and the middle of a relationship, too. It would be over before the calendar hit August, but we didn’t know that, yet. I flew to a wedding from Michigan. Left a missions trip halfway through, two car rides and two plane rides later, landed in the breathtaking beauty of Lancaster, PA. Friday night, Saturday wedding. All day Sunday I rode in the middle seat with four other Moody students for the 10-hour car ride back to Chicago.

He was in Chicago, working. It’d been some days since I’d seen him, and maybe that evening, as I rolled into the city after eight days of travel would be a good time to say hi. He had work, soon. Needed to leave at 6pm. We drove through Pennsylvania, Ohio, into Indiana, then Chicago. I texted him, somewhere in Ohio. He asked where we were, our estimated arrival time. I told him, best I could. I asked if I’d see him, between arrival and work. He must have said yes, I suppose.

Skyscrapers and steel hold heat, and the city was hot and stuffy when we arrived. I was tired from an early wake up, worn in the funny way that sitting in a car wears you out. Suitcase and backpack next to me, I laid on the concrete next to the car. Arms spread to my sides, my car ride companions laughed, shook their heads at my rather dramatic demonstration. Grinning, I got up, left suitcase, shuffled across the Plaza to the bathroom.

He was waiting for me when I returned, his bike already unlocked, ready to go to work. We talked, briefly. Plaid shorts, a black t-shirt. How many times did I see the same shirt that summer? He must have asked questions, I must have answered them. Part conversation, part pre-determined set, the same words we exchanged throughout the summer. I had cut my finger at the wedding, a long, narrow slice from a cake cutter. I held up the bandaged finger, he inspected, approved of my battle wound.

Then it was over. I collected suitcase, headed home. He got on the bike, went to work. Almost exactly a month later, it was over for real, and he walked home and I rode the train home and in the days after, that’s when the good memories began to fade and the bad grew stronger, bolder. But recently, I remembered that June evening after a week of travel. Those five minutes standing in the Plaza. Nothing bad taints, no resentment stains, that memory. Just him and me and a suitcase and a bike and a cut on my finger.

~Natalia

Holding My Heart

The world is not ending,

my heart keeps on beating,

But in that moment, I’d rather not be feeling what I am.

I’d prefer to feel normal, feel comfortable, feel better.

I’d prefer not to be on the defensive,

sifting through every emotion, every interaction,

weeding out the painful, the hurtful, the hard.

I’d much prefer that.

But weeks pass and things get better.

The sharp wears to dull,

denial rolls into anger, and slowly,

both of them wash away to the soft sadness underneath.

Weeks pass and I’m learning and growing and

things really are getting better.

Right?

But words and a look and hours later,

and I’m frustrated that normal seems so very unattainable.

My way, the way I want things to be, must be the right way,

and I can’t get over that my way might never be.

I’ve set high standards for normalcy,

and the realization that we may never reach those standards

leaves me saddened, and frustrated, too.

I know how to fix this, I think.

When circumstances and wills, minds and hearts, all line up to my way,

things will fall right into place.

But wise words are spoken softly,

wisdom I need to hear.

Wisdom says let it go.

Wisdom says under the hurt and the unsure and the maybe-this-is-awkward,

under all this, through all this, somewhere,

there is reality.

Wisdom says find reality, hold to reality,

and let it go.

And I do.

A little.

I drop impositions,

drop expectations I wish others would take on for themselves,

and I find reality in Christ,

in my own heart,

and to this I cling.

But I’m planning, too.

There are words I’ve never said,

emotions I’ve not let myself own until recently,

and now; now I want to speak.

So I plan and wait and keep my eyes open for just when I’ll say.

Chances and opportunities and not right now and just missed it.

Nervous, nervous. Nervous and determined.

I know the words and I’m determined to fix this well.

But chapel hour and an illuminated phone,

contact and a conversation and God says,

I’m in this more than you think.

Nervous all over again,

but peace grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me still.

Hours later, words spoken; hearts months hurt sit across from each other

and I catch a glimpse of healed, and I feel healing in me.

And it’s over and over, and God’s so real to me,

I can feel Him breathing on my face.

Why do you doubt, child?

Why is what’s now not enough for you; why am I not enough?

Be still and know means be still and know;

I am who I say, and I keep my promises

and I’m the One holding your heart.

And when healing is meant to come,

it will come.

~Natalia