My Friends Michelle and Barack

Michelle and BarackThis summer, two Pekin ducks appeared in the lake near my house. On evening strolls, I passed the newcomers.

“Hey, guys! You’re so cute. Where did you come from?” They looked at me with a sideways glance and did not respond.

A woman walking near me theorized that someone had dropped them off because they didn’t want them. I wondered if the owner had considered that winter was on its way.

The ducks loved their new home. They bossed around the brown ducks, who had lived on the lake for generations, and commandeered the floating island that the turtles and a heron named Kevin used to lounge on. They were quite popular with people, and received countless catcalls and treats. I once spied a child tossing them Doritos straight from the bag.

The Pekin pair had so much personality that I had to name them. One day, as I took photos of them, their names came to me. “Hey, Michelle and Barack!” I said. They looked at me, and again, they did not respond.

I enjoyed walking by Michelle and Barack all summer. “Did you miss me?” I’d say. “You look so cute today, guys!” Then, I would whip out a slice or two of bread and waved it in their direction. This was how I convinced them to love me.

In time, Michelle and Barack would greet me with a quack or two. When he was really happy, Barack would lift himself out of the water, poke out his chest, and flap his wings.

“Lovely to see you!” I’d respond and display a slice of wheat. “How are things? Barack, be nice to Michelle. You better share the bread.” I ripped off a piece and threw it in Michelle’s direction. “There you go, boo. That piece is for you.”

I’d linger for a moment or two and move on. As I walked away, I worried. Winter was coming, and I knew they were too domesticated to fend for themselves.

The nights soon became cold. On Thanksgiving, before dinner began, I walked by, breadless. Michelle shivered on the floating island, her head tucked in her breast.

“Oh no, Michelle! Are you okay? You look so cold. It’ll be a little warmer tomorrow. I checked the weather.”

I worried that Michelle would not survive the winter. I took walks in the morning before work and came with bread. Michelle lost a lot of weight, and Barack did too, but not as much. I wondered about what to do. Bread was not an ideal diet.

At night, tucked in my bed that was lined with warm, flannel sheets, I thought about Michelle and Barack. I knew I needed to help them.

Today, it was my neighbor, who I had chatted with about the birds’ poor health, who prompted me to call. She said she might call animal control, and I decided I would, too. Perhaps one of us would be successful.

About four phone calls later, I found a group—a volunteer arm of the SPCA. The woman on the line recorded my contact information, my summary of Michelle and Barack’s life, and said that a volunteer should respond before the end of the day.

About an hour later, an orange Subaru BRZ I did not recognize drove down the street. I knew the driver was here for Michelle and Barack. A man got out of the car and walked toward me.

“Are you Rachel?”

I stopped raking the leaves and escorted him to my friends.

“Hey guys! How are you doing?” I said when we arrived at the bridge that overlooked their favorite part of the lake. They lifted their heads and responded with several loud quacks before returning to their hunt for food.

“They certainly know who you are!” the volunteer said, chuckling.

I laughed. That’s because I feed them.

I pointed. “This is Michelle, and that is Barack.” Then, I explained their ailments and mentioned that one of the birds had a fishing hook caught in its beak this summer. The volunteer was not confident that they could take the birds, but he said he would consult with others and update me.

Around 4:00 pm, I received a call. Its was the volunteer with the orange sports car.

“I wanted to let you know that we got the birds. We assessed the situation and agreed with you that they needed to be relocated. The one that had the hook in its beak has discolored feathers around his beak.” Barack might have an infection. He added that Michelle was not well either.

I felt relieved. The fear that I would walk to the lake to find Michelle’s dead body floating by and encounter Barack’s lonely, distraught face lifted. I will miss my friends and their loud greetings, but I am glad they won’t sleep on the lake tonight. It’s 37 degrees.

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I Miss Christmases of My Childhood

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Christmas 2009

I often miss childhood Christmases when an eternity passed before Christmas arrived, and Christmas Eve moved so slowly that I could count each minute. Even in college, I was desperate for Christmas to come and savored campus traditions like Yule Log and Grand Illumination.

Something happened after college. I started working, and suddenly, Christmas emerged like an unwelcome guest. I always felt unprepared for its arrival. I began to long for the days when I lived with my siblings and my parents. My mother had the gift of decorating the house in such a way that the decorations seemed to become part of the organism that was our home.

I often wonder why I no longer relish the anticipation of Christmas. I miss that feeling the way I miss friendships I have lost. I realize now that the expectation of Christmas was not about gifts or other tangible things that come and go, but rather, it was a desire for the community of family and that inexplicable cozy and secure feeling that accompanies the holidays.

Each year, I try to discover that feeling, but I usually fail. This year, I bought a bright red bow with red glitter all over it from the Dollar Tree and hung it in my room. It looks festive, but it did not bring the cheer I recall from my youth.

Sometimes, I feel guilty that I am not excited about Christmas—about the day of Christ’s birth. Certainly, his birthday is more important than my feelings, and ideally, I should be as excited as an adult as I was as a child, but I am not. And while I love Christ more now than I did then, I do not know how to reconcile this love with this longing for the past.

Maybe this childhood anticipation I cannot redeem is merely a sign of my age. I am not the child I once was; I navigate challenges that my pig-tailed self knew nothing about, and because of that ignorance, she was free from the distractions that emerge with time.

But maybe, this year, I’ll find her again. I’ll start by relocating festive bow I purchased to the spot above my desk so that I can see it from where I sit on my bed.

 

 

2017 in Review: Thankfulness Emerging from the Shadows

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A highlight from summer 2017: I drove a tractor in flats while wearing a huge grin.

As members of the same nation, we share a common consciousness and will likely agree that the events that occurred within our borders make 2017 an interesting—and quite frankly exhausting—year. The first year of Donald Trump’s presidency has been a peculiar one, characterized by bumps, hiccups, and glitches with which we—and the world for that matter—are not accustomed.

In addition to the confusing political drama that unfolds daily, there were several horrifying and unnerving mass shootings. The most egregious was the Las Vegas shooting in October, which sadly and ashamedly, already feels like a distant memory. There are also the dramas over healthcare, taxes, immigration reform, racial and ethnic inequality and climate control that we inherited from the previous administrations and generations. These conflicts swirl about us, real and yet strangely untouchable, creating an atmosphere that is thick with confusion and anxiety. In this climate, we also attempt to navigate our own personal problems: family drama, significant other drama, work drama, bills, illnesses and psychotic drivers who faithful emerge on daily commutes to top off an already complicated day.

All of this makes me feel exhausted, and when I look into the eyes of the people I see regularly and hear the tone that casts grey shadows on my far-away friends’ texts and phone calls, I know that they are exhausted too. We tired of tears and bloodshed and politics and all the other things that plague our minds when we stare into space, forgetting the tasks at hand.

We are on edge, expecting the worst because past events have conditioned us to anticipate evil rather than good. We prepare ourselves for the appalling unknown because it easier to stomach evil events when we know they are guaranteed to emerge in a matter of time.

I feel this evil cast grey shadows over my life. I stare at these shadows. I do not rebuke them (though I probably should), but I do wonder how they arrived here, with whom or what they came, and how long they will stay. Many of the shadows are not my design; they crept in from the outside world, interrupting my thoughts and distorting my understanding of God and how life is supposed to work.

I talk to God about the shadows. How I  hate them. How they make it hard for me to believe that He is faithful, honest, and all the other adjectives that describe His benevolence. In response, He tells me to be thankful. But I know that to combat these shadows, I cannot give thanks silently in my mind. Rather, my gratitude must be coupled with action. So, I made a small poster, which I taped in the middle of the giant map of America that hangs by my bed. In the middle of that poster, I wrote “thankful” in large cursive. Around that word, I wrote all of the big and small things for which I am grateful.

I am glad for taste buds and good food, without which life would be far less exciting. I am thankful for my Christian parents because I would be a very different person (and not in a good way) without them. I appreciate birds and snow, which make me smile and remind me that God hears my prayers. And I am thankful for America, which despite its obvious issues, is a good place to live. There is no agency in birth, and I could have been born in a place without the amenities and rights I consider basic, but I was not.

My expressions of gratitude chase away the shadows that creep in from the chaos that occurs all around and help me view my life through a new lens that highlights the golden moments of the past 12 months. Since December 2016, I have had more travel adventures compared with any other time in my life, and they have been quite fun. With a smile, I realized this morning that a few more adventures with friends await. I have established new friendships and strengthened existing ones. I drove a tractor. I began a new job that challenges me and never fails to keep my mind entertained. As an added bonus, my supervisor is hilarious, and there is rarely a dull moment at work. I will not lie and say the year was perfect because it was not. It had its own share of frustrations and disappointments. It had numerous moments of tears.

For a while, I focused on some of those disappointments—the toxic political drama and depressing racial and ethnic division that plague our country, and other, personal events that I will not mention here. As a result, I adopted a grim perspective of life for a time. I’m glad the Lord encouraged me to look up, take my gaze off the shadows, which are, in many ways, far beyond my control, and recognize the multitude of blessings I have encountered since late 2016.

Whether the future holds clouds of grey, fierce storms, or clear, blue skies—I will look up. Because no matter the season, there are still blessings in abundance that I will only recognize if I give thanks.

Dwelling on the Blanks

Lake Michigan

My mind dwells on blanks. I want to know when all the things I’m praying and hoping and seeking and waiting for will come to pass. Much of the time, I’m thinking about my future rather than my present.

The other day, a scripture I used to read often, Isaiah 30:21, came back to me and caused a sudden flashback to my last year of college when I didn’t know what would happen next.

“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”

As my thoughts sped through my senior year and how everything worked out the more I focused on God, a picture popped into my mind. A train surrounded by light traveled in a straight line. It was partly full with things, but as the train zoomed along, more things were put inside.

I saw those things as the blanks in my life that I want to be filled, but none of the packages had a date of arrival.

My inability to track the deliveries is the most important part. I could feel God nudging me. “Look straight ahead. Follow me. Walk in my way. Don’t turn to the right or left, and all of those blanks will be filled exactly when they need to be. For now, focus on what I’ve given You today.”

I thought about what God’s placed in my life for that day and the next, slowly nudging my brain from the sidelines, looking for packages, to the tracks in front of me. Life is about faith, patience and consciously choosing to walk out God’s present rather than fill in the future.

Going Natural: Returning to My God-given Roots

FullSizeRenderI’ve decided to stop putting strong chemicals and heat in my hair to make it straighter than it is designed to be. It’s been about 3.5 months since I’ve used chemicals and about three weeks since I last flat ironed my hair. Instead of doing these things, I’ve adopted a new routine.

I braid my hair each night, and I unbraid it each morning. With the help of water and gel, I achieve a wavy look that has a lot of body. This process and my decision are not new. Many women with naturally-textured hair have been returning to their God-given roots for years now. They’re done with chemicals, and they’re done fighting nature.

I’ve learned a number of things in this first week that I did not expect or consider. First, big, wavy hair is hard to tame, and Virginia’s humidity can be counted among life’s two constants: death and taxes. Therefore, when it comes to natural hair, frizz happens. I can do my best to keep frizz at a minimum, but on days in which I spend time outdoors, I should expect my hair to slowly expand around my head, envelop my face, and learn to be comfortable with that.

Second, I’ve felt like myself in a way I have not before. I feel like I am wearing “Rachel hair” even though the majority of the waves are not my natural hair texture and I will have to wait many more months to truly know what lies beneath the years of chemicals (about 20!) and flat ironing my hair. I feel like my hair is happy hair that matches my large grin. I think my big hair compliments the size of my head, which is not huge but is also not small. I feel like my hair causes the bold and quirky qualities that I often do not let shine to emerge.

I thought of the scripture, “But by the grace of God I am what I am…” (1 Cor. 15:10). And, I wondered what it would be like if we all walked around confidently expressing who God designed us to be without fear of what others think, shame, anxiety, or conforming to society’s expectations. What a beautiful sight that would be.

Embarking on a natural hair journey—becoming who you were designed to be—is a scary process. I attempted this hair process in 2015, but I gave up. I was overwhelmed by the amount of hair I have, and I was scared to encounter what lied beneath. Since then, I have met many ladies who have gone natural, and most of them have encouraged me to try again. One day, I asked the Lord what he thought, and he asked me a question in return, “What do you want?”

Almost immediately, I responded, “I want to go natural, and I want to wear a cool red lipstick with my big hair.” Initially, my response surprised me, but I realized that I was really saying that I want to me be me. I want to see what lies beneath and experience the hair the Lord desired I have. I want to embrace that hair—frizz, waves, curls, volume, and all—because it’s me. And I want to pair red lipstick with my hair because I think other ladies who wear it look very jazzy. When I think about it, this journey really isn’t about my hair: I want to be me, and I do not want to hide who I am. I want to be free.

I lean not on my own understanding.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” – Proverbs 3: 5–6

I’ve been thinking about the path the Lord has established for my life and the decisions I have made along the way. The longer I stay on this path, the more I realize that the Lord will lead me into both good situations and not-so-good situations. Sometimes, the latter makes me question the Lord’s voice and His benevolence.

Often, I become frustrated with the Lord because I earnestly follow Him but the path is treacherous. I write statements like this one in my journal: “I try so hard to listen to your voice and do everything you ask of me, yet I encounter and I am stuck in these awful situations that are no fault of my own. I’m just following your voice—doing what you ask me to do—and I am miserable because of it.”

Later, the Lord showed me that if I had known what I would encounter before I encountered it, I probably would not have gone. I would never experience hardships that forced me to rely on the Lord and no one else, I would never meet people who became my close friends, and I would never learn the lessons and gain the tools that would equip me for future experiences.

The Lord knows that I will obey when He says “go” or “wait” or “stop” or “slow down” or “move faster.” In the past, I went even though I was completely clueless about what would happen along the way. In my naivety, I believed that nothing bad would happen to me or that I would not be disappointed by opportunities or people the Lord wanted me to encounter.

Many years have passed since the Lord and I first began this journey, and I am learning that some situations the Lord leads me into will be filled with disappointment, failure, or constant struggle. But experiencing challenges does not mean that He did not lead me or that I went the wrong direction. Nor does it always mean that I have sinned and am being punished. When the path is difficult, I am learning to remember Proverbs 3:5–6. I will not lean on my superficial understanding of the path. Rather, I will trust that there is purpose in the Lord’s direction and begin to ask Him about the lessons He wants me to learn so that I make the most of every experience.

Psalm 37:23 says, “The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him.” Sometimes, those steps may lead to battle, but I will be victorious because He led me there and is with me. Other times, those steps may lead to a great joy or an abundant harvest. He is with me in those times, too.

It is not easy, but I am learning to be satisfied with wherever the Lord directs my steps because the path He has established for my life is not necessarily about my happiness or comfort. Rather, it is about obedience, trust, a refinement of my character, and partnering with the Lord to accomplish His plan for the earth.

Do you remember when you fell in love with Me?

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On Tuesday, I was preparing  for work and listening to worship music, but I was not focused on the Lord. Countless anxious thoughts raced through my mind, and the Lord spoke, interrupting me.

“Rachel,” He said. “Do you remember when you started to fall in love with Me?”

“I do,” I said, and I smiled.

“You would sing to me when you walked from the library to your dorm late at night after you finished studying. One day, the time came when you didn’t stop singing when someone walked by. You sang anyway, even though you’re not a great singer.”

I remembered those days.

“And your senior year in college, you would stay up until three in the morning reading your Bible and journaling even though you had to wake up at seven.”

I remembered that, too.

“And when you worked in Washington, D.C., you would go out of your way to pray for others because I asked you to. And you would lay on your floor and listen to music about me, and I would be there with you. And when you took the long, dark walk to the metro after really hard days at work, I held your hand. Do you remember those days?”

I remember those days very, very well. Although those days were years ago, they feel like they happened yesterday.

By reminding me of our history together—those days when I fell in love—the Lord reminded me of the foundation I should stand on during all times of life. For too long, I have stood on worries, fears, and anxieties about situations that are far beyond my ability to repair or control, and as a result, I am swallowed alive. There is only one structure to stand upon, and that is the Lord’s love. It is a foundation He has proven mighty, faithful, and indestructible throughout our years together. He is always kind, and He has always been there. He’s my faithful friend.