Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

“Nobody really knows this, but being smart is really the only thing I’ve got.”

There they were.  They could have been written by me…ten years ago me…but they weren’t.  They were written by a freshman girl with a wonderful sense of humor and words so beautiful that I couldn’t bring myself to throw them into the recycling.

It’s funny reading someone else’s words and finding your teenage self staring you in the face.  That was exactly how I felt back then – socially awkward, horrible at sports, not pretty…being smart was really the only thing I had.  At least I thought so.

Perhaps that’s why I felt tears well up when I read those words this past June.  Because I knew that the girl who wrote them was wonderful and that she had much more going for her than just “being smart” (although “being smart” is a pretty good thing to have going for you, just in and of itself).  So I was sorry to see that my thoughts were her thoughts.  Because I know that present me has days where I’m still not able to get past thoughts like these.

This past year was a huge example of that.  I spent a lot of time thinking about all of the things that I didn’t have going for me.  And maybe the tears weren’t just about those words.  Maybe they were also connected to the fact that my eyes had grown accustomed to tears that winter.  Maybe they were connected to the fact that I felt that I was leaving a job without feeling proud of my performance, something that I had never done before.  Maybe they were connected with the student who gave me a hug as she headed out the door for summer break, leaving me with the words “I love you, Miss. L-.”  Maybe they were connected with the girl who’s family had decided to transfer her to a new school next year, forlornly wandering the halls long after the other kids were gone, clearly not ready to leave the building that she had been attending since elementary school.

It was probably a combination of all of those things.  But mostly it was those words.  I thought about those words again this past week, when I heard one of my housemates ask another for a hug because she was struggling with self-loathing.  I think about it when I recognize that feeling of inadequacy, of inferiority, of self-doubt, in the person sitting next to me who is struggling with a task.  And I hate it every time I see it.  I want to say “Don’t feel that way!  There’s nothing wrong with you!”  But how often do I say that to myself?

Earlier this week, I was reading an article on Ignitum Today that contained a quote from St. Augustine that I immediately copied down and stuck to my wall.  It was this:

People travel to wonder

at the height of the mountains,

at the huge waves of the seas,

at the long course of the rivers,

at the vast compass of the ocean,

at the circular motion of the stars,

and yet they pass by themselves

without wondering.”

This quote was perfect for me.  I can’t count the number of times that I have wondered at all of the natural beauties of creation.   All of the times when I have thrilled at the great expanse of the sky or stood in awe of the beauty of a mountain or the waves lapping at a shore.  All of the times when I whisper “Thank you, God.  Thank you for making this beautiful world.”

But I can count the number of times when I’ve looked at myself with wonder.  The times when I’ve stepped back and thought “Wow, God, you did a really awesome job when you created me.  Thanks!”  And, yeah, that’s partially because thanking God for how wonderfully he created me seems a little conceited and kind of lame.  But, it’s also because I don’t usually actually feel that way about myself.

I think that I need to start taking the psalmist’s words more seriously:

For you formed my inward parts;

You wove me in my mother’s womb.

I will give thanks to you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Wonderful are Your works,

And my soul knows it very well.

– Psalm 139:13-14

Yes, God’s works are wonderful.  I’ve always known that.  Sometimes I just forget that I’m included in that category.  I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  And my soul knows it very well, even when my brain doesn’t.

Swinging Hammers for Jesus

So, I feel like I’ve been a little negligent on this a-here blog.

And why do I feel this way?

Because I have yet to actually write about the work that I’ve been doing here.

And there’s a good reason for that.  A week before I arrived in Kentucky, a large and experienced group called the Fox Valley Mission Group arrived in the county and tackled several different jobs.  And then they left, with most of the jobs not quite done (the weather did not cooperate while they were here, so they did not get as much done as expected).  So, when I arrived, I hopped around from house to house quite a lot and did a little bit of this and that, here and there.  Hopping about and a little bit of this and that, here and there are all well and good, but they don’t make for a very compelling narrative.  So I haven’t really written about work yet.

But I am now going to start rectifying this problem.

I signed up for Housing with next to zero housing repair experience.  That means that I get to spend a lot of time feeling like a dummy, because I don’t really know what I’m doing a goodly portion of the time.  But I have learned that feeling like a dummy doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  In fact, I signed up expressly aware that I was signing up to feel like a dummy.  But I came here to learn.  And I am learning (although more slowly than I expected).  And who knows?  By the time I’m done here, I might be able to go home and build myself a little cabin in the woods, Henry David Thoreau style.  And then I’ll blog about the joys of being a hermit!  Won’t that be fun?

But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself.

We are currently working on “Brian’s” trailer.  By “we” I mean myself, my fellow volunteer/partner in crime Kristina, and my boss man Clarence (a.k.a. the guy who actually knows what he’s doing).  Brian’s trailer had a lot of water damage around some of the windows and the kitchen sink.  All of his kitchen cabinets were sloping down into the caved-in area that was home to his kitchen sink.  So, we pulled out the cabinets and the bad parts of the wall and the floor, then put in new drywall and insulation, new cabinets and laid down some linoleum (or, as Clarence calls it “the rug”).

A typical day at Brian’s starts when I turn my housing truck off of the winding Kentucky road and into the driveway.  His dog is the first to greet me.  I am quite taken with this dog.  She is very well-behaved – the kind of dog who knows that “no” means “no.”  She tilts her head to the side and I give her a pat on the head, while greeting her with a cheerful “Hello, Dog.”  “Dog” is pronounced in my very special “just for good dogs only” tone of voice (I don’t know the dog’s name.  If I did, I would of course, use her name).  If I only knew how to capture the tone in black and white, I would…but as it is, I shall have to leave it up to your imagination.

We then go into the trailer where we are greeted by Brian and/or his mother.  Brian has been having trouble with his foot (I don’t know what’s wrong with his foot well enough to describe it accurately), but it necessitates that he use either a walker or a pair of crutches.  He is actually going to be having his foot amputated tomorrow.  He thanks us for helping us with his house, especially now when he has so many other things to worry about.  He has a shy little girl who is around the house off and on.  One day, we were working on fixing the door to the outside and he asked her “See that girl (me) with the braids?  Would you like to fix things like her someday?”

Once in the trailer, Clarence shows us how to do certain things and gives us our tasks.  He tasks Kristina with cutting the linoleum for the short hallway and me with screwing in the sink.  I reflect on the awkwardness of finding the right position under the sink and fiddle with screws.  Kristina cuts away.  Occasionally, Clarence checks up on us to give advice, and, as a Kentuckian once put it to me, “pick.”  And by “pick” I mean stare down at me through the drain hole of the sink, poke at me, and say “You know, the sooner you get done with putting in that sink the sooner I can do the plumbing,” grinning all the while.

Plumbing done, Clarence leaves us for a time to check out some houses for WorkFest (a college alternative spring break that C.A.P. is preparing for in March), giving us his list of things to do while he’s gone.  I polyurethane cabinets (which I rather enjoy because it’s a lot like painting.  And, as I have said before, I love painting!), pound nails into trim (and pound my thumb in the process.  I have such highly accurate nailing skills.), and help Kristina put in a piece of drywall.  Clarence comes back to inspect and – Hurray! – informs us that we haven’t messed anything up.  (I’m not going to say that we’ve messed things up in his absence before…but…uh…yeah.  We have).  But this time, we didn’t!  Because we’re learning.

And as I think about Brian, preparing to go into surgery, I’m thankful that we are able to take worries of water leaks and kitchen sinkholes off his mind.

 

 

The Battle Between “Want” and “Should”

Ahhhh. “Want” and “should.”  Two words that work beautifully when they’re getting along, and not so beautifully when they’re having a disagreement.

I have had two rather memorable battles between “want” and “should” while I’ve been in Kentucky.  One took place last month.  One took place this weekend.  And I think there is something to be learned from both.

Last month, my manager Mike W. (not to be confused with Mike O. or Mike L.  or Mike ABC or Mike DEF or…well, you get the idea)  invited all of the housing volunteers in his region to come over to his house for some food and fun.  He sent an e-mail invite about a week beforehand.  I responded with an “Okey Dokey.  I’ll be there.”

Fast forward to the day of the event.  It is rainy.  The get together is at night and I’ve never been to or seen this house before.  The town that I will have to drive through has a parade scheduled right on the street that I need to use (and I don’t really know how to get around it because I’ve only driven in it a couple of times).

Now, this may not seem like a big deal to some people, but I am not some people.  I hate driving.  If someplace is difficult to drive to, I’m not going to drive there, no matter how much I would like to be there.  The more that I started thinking about driving in the dark and the rain and getting detoured down some unknown street because of a stupid parade, the more I didn’t want to go.  In the end, I only went because I had told Mike W. that I was coming, and if I said that I was going to do something, then I should do it.  I left the house very grudgingly.

And then it stopped raining.  The parade hadn’t started yet, so I could still get down the street.  The house was easy to find.  I didn’t get lost.  And then the get together was a lot of fun.  Good company.  Good games.  Good stories to be told.  I was really glad that I went.

Fast forward to this week.  I was in a decidedly sour mood.  A frustration had popped up which inspired more frustration, which inspired some serious negativity about myself.  By the end of the work day on Thursday, I was very decidedly suffering from what Abraham Lincoln once dubbed as “a tendency to melancholy”.  Actually, scratch the tendency part.  I was in a full-blown melancholic state, laying on the sofa.

Enter Shelby, camp volunteer.

“Hey Elizabeth, would you like to help with the teen retreat this weekend?”

Now, normal-state-of-mind Elizabeth would have loved to hear this question.  Normal-state-of-mind Elizabeth would have said “Of course!”

But I was not normal- state-of-mind Elizabeth.  I was melancholic Elizabeth.  What I wanted to say was:

“No.  I don’t want to see anyone this weekend.  I’m such a piece of garbage that I just want to lay around and do brainless activities like watch the boob tube or sit on my pity pot in my room.  And did I add wallowing?  I think I might like to do some wallowing in self-pity.  Oh, and maybe some crying.  Let’s go ahead and add in some crying.”

But what I actually said was:

“Sure.”

Again, “want” and “should” were fighting each other, but I had to let “should” win.

Friday arrived.  The first day of the teen event, a retreat meant to help teens develop into good leaders.  It was going to be starting after I got home from work.  I had been hoping that melancholic Elizabeth would have died in my sleep, but she was still alive and kicking the whole day.  So melancholic Elizabeth dragged herself up to camp.

And proceeded to have a very pleasant two days with a group of really great kids.  Games were played.  Leadership building activities were rolled out.  Some good discussions were had, ranging in topic from how to improve Camp AJ (and what the kids would like to work on for a project to make said improvements)…to the joys of high school band…to what being a leader really means…to the awesomeness that is J.R.R. Tolkien.

So what’s the lesson to be learned here?

Whenever there’s a battle between “want” and “should”…

“Should” should win!

We played this game at Mike W.'s.  Which is why I can now survive anything, including being stranded on the ocean, insomnia, jumping out of a moving car, flatulence, and an avalanche.  And just for the record books, in a worst-case scenario, "should" is still more important than "want."

We played this game at Mike W.’s. Which is why I can now survive anything, including being stranded in the ocean, insomnia, jumping out of a moving car, flatulence, and an avalanche. And just think, “want” almost kept me from learning all of this useful information! This is why “should” is so important, folks!

Christmas Tree Trekking

IMG_2911

There is a field of overgrown Christmas trees that shares a property line with my family farm. Well, it’s overgrown now.  It (naturally) hasn’t always been.

We do not own the Christmas tree infested field.  Which is probably why it took me awhile to make it one of my special spots.  Back when I realized that wandering around in nature is one of my favorite-est things to do, I started to expand my boundaries beyond the 80 acres of our farm to neighboring fields.

When I first started Christmas tree trekking, the trees had already been left to their own devices, but a goodly portion of them were still of an average Christmas tree height.  I could see over some of them.  I used to climb to the highest point in the field and look over the farm.  It was one of the best views of the farm that could be had.  I wandered amongst the trees taking in that wonderful evergreen smell and trying to decide which tree would look the best in our house.  When I was feeling troubled and needed somewhere to escape, somewhere to wander and just think, I knew that the Christmas tree field would be there.

But trees grow.

I remember coming back one summer after college and walking out eagerly to visit the Christmas tree field.  I was ready to feel the comfort that only comes with visiting an old friend.  But as I found myself amongst the trees, I was taken aback.  The trees had grown and now stood above my head.  The field felt like a completely different place.  Rather than a friend, I had found a stranger.  And as I wandered amongst the trees, thinking about how much they had changed, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps I, too, had changed.  And it scared me a little bit – this inability to recognize what once was so familiar.

But we became reacquainted.

I am currently home in Michigan for the holidays, and have paid the Christmas trees a visit several times already.  They are a good place to visit in the winter, because the trees block out the wind that nips at my nose and ears.  My traveling companions usually join me.  My traveling companions can vary in name and number, but there are usually two.

The first is Tilly.  Tilly is the boss cat of the farm. If someone is fighting who shouldn’t be, she breaks it up.  If someone is eating food that she thinks ought to be hers, she gives them a whack.  She is also the best hunter and the mother of most of the cats in the barn.  Traveling with Tilly can be interesting.  Ever alert, it is not unusual for me to turn around and discover her pouncing upon some bit of dinner that she has found…a mouse under a hay bale…a chipmunk at the base of a tree.  Nothing gets past her.

The second is Buddy, grown son of the aforementioned Tilly.  Buddy is a friendly and faithful, but needy sort (kind of like a dog…).  If Tilly and I get too far ahead of him, he starts to meow mournfully.  On one memorable occasion, when I had sat down for a rest, he wandered off into the trees.  When Tilly and I were ready to go, he was nowhere to be seen, so we walked back to the barn without him.  Hours later, when I went to feed all of the cats, he wasn’t in the barn.  Wondering at this, I decided to go back to the woods and see if he was still there.  I told my Dad my plan and he just laughed and said “Oh, Elizabeth.  He’s not that stupid.”  But I went anyway.  And when I got to the edge of the woods, there Buddy was, waiting right where he had last seen me.

Buddy, Tilly and I have wandered the Christmas tree field several times since I’ve been home.

The trees now tower over me.  Once I cross the property line and plunge through their branches, I can no longer see the farm.  The hill no longer grants any view other than clusters of branches.

We wandered the field (or perhaps it should now be called a forest) before the snow fell, following the deer trails here and there.  We stirred up rabbits from beneath the branches.  Tilly watched their white tails bob through the grass eagerly, while Buddy took up the rear, not really paying all that much attention.  I ducked under branches,  sometimes earning a scratch across the face for my inattentiveness.

We wandered the field after the snow fell, flakes of snow falling steadily down on our heads.  The trees looked even prettier dusted in white.  Our tracks were visible in the snow, boot beside paw.  Buddy rolled in the snow here and there, while Tilly investigated a tree stump.  I breathed in the crisp winter air and looked for an uncharted path through the trees, trying to take a different path than I had taken before.  I crouched down low and waddled under branches in order to enter un-entered clearings.  The snow rubbed off a branch and fell down one of my boots as I weaseled my way through branches to get to the top of that hill, the one that used to have the great view.  And when I got there, I smiled.

Yes, Christmas tree trekking is still a comfort.  Even after the years have passed, the trees have grown, and the traveling companions have changed.

Because, after all, a cluster of towering evergreens against a gently snowing sky is still a great view.  And maybe – just maybe – change doesn’t have to be scary…maybe it can add to the sense of adventure.