“Love is bigger than you think.”

When I was 13, I bore witness to the death of my great-grandmother.

Slowly, she curled up into herself in those last moments. She was in her late 80’s and so her wrinkly, dry skin held her together like an old leather saddle left in the sun on horseback. Her last breath was ragged and soft. I touched her hand before her soul departed, perhaps hoping to hold onto the last piece of life she could give to the world around her. There were numerous family members circling her bed, including my own grandmother who would pass away a few years later. The air smelt still, pungent, and sad. I felt stuck; I couldn’t look, but I also wasn’t able to look away. I knew this woman, she was family after all, but I did not know her well. So, my heart grieved her life with a kind of distance that is both awkward and strange.

It was the first time that I had seen life leave a human being.

It was a haunting moment.

It was humbling too, reminding me that despite the pervasive differences soaked in the human experience, all of us must wrestle and reconcile the inevitability of our mortality. That is a weighty topic for a young teenager, but in many ways, I was ready to engage with it. I asked (and journaled) about my own life. What would I stand for? What was my purpose? If my life would end someday, what would I want people to remember?

If nothing else, I knew then that life was precious.

*

Three weeks ago, I had to face the reality of death again, but in a very different context.

As I’ve become an adult, I have learned that death, though bringing about the same outcome, looks different in the life of each person. Some individuals, like my great-grandmother, die in hospice of old age. Other deaths come more unexpectedly, through accidents or painful diseases. Other times, a person suffers for long periods of time, unsure when the end of their life may come.

As it happened, I was visiting a friend and professional contact of whom I had connected upon launching the Denver location of The Women’s Bakery in January 2015.

We laughed more than we talked when we first met, and I knew she would be a positive resource for me as I began to build my professional life back in Denver. With more than 20 years of experience in the legal arenas of business and finance and active involvement for women’s issues in the community, I respected her insights, opinions, and ideas. As 2016 unfolded, we met three times: all for wine. Over deep red merlot and cabernet sauvignon, this woman shed light on what her life had been like and how she had woven her career into the other areas that life offers us.

There was no wine during my most recent visit.

This woman had cancer and she was dying.

Months ago, after we sipped wine on a summer afternoon in the urban enclaves in one of Denver’s trendy neighborhoods, I emailed her about getting together again. Radio silence ensued. Eventually, she responded to my emails and invited me to her mother’s home, where she was now staying, to talk.

I knew it was serious when I saw the long, lingering tubes at the front of the house, connecting to a plethora of oxygen tanks. I knew it was serious when I saw that all her long, bold, red hair had fallen out. I knew that this woman would not continue to live when she looked me in the eyes and admitted to herself and the world that her battle would be coming to an end.

I sat on a chair across from her, silently praying that I would be able to show her all the love, comfort, and dignity that I possibly could. I was scared.

We spoke for 49 minutes.

“I’m so sorry this is happening. How are you getting through this?” I meekly asked.

“Friends. Family. Normal things. I am trying to stay connected as I can. It keeps me grounded. And since the diagnosis, I have been able to talk more openly with people in my life than I have in years.”

Her diagnosis was just a couple of months ago. And, the most recent CAT scans told their own story: she would be dying soon.

Wow. Why do you think that is? How can you feel free to talk with people in your life like that?”

She hesitated, but only for a moment.

“It’s about healing. And there’s been a lot of it. Take my mom. We didn’t talk for years. And with this, we have reconciled and acknowledged where we have both been wrong over the years. Situations like this bring experiences like that about.”

In an effort for true empathy, I mentioned a difficult conversation I had coming up with some people in my own family.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what is it about?”

I told her the truth. I told her everything.

And she smiled. Slowly. And then, she spoke words that I can still hear echo softly in my heart,

“Be patient. Love well. You are being exactly who you are supposed to be. But remember the journey you have traveled in this experience – others must take it too. Remember to have compassion on those that may not understand. You’ll see. Love is bigger than you think.”

I nodded. I felt encouraged. I was relieved.

I handed her an old black cardigan and a reading light.

She pushed me further in conversation.

“You are a woman of faith. Have you always loved Jesus?”

I was honest about that too.

“I’ve been a Christian for a while. 10 years, maybe. But only in the last couple of years have I understood what it is to be free of the rigidity and system of religion. I didn’t know that loving God was inherently a relationship. But when I knew that I was free from perfection, acceptance, and proof of worth because of Jesus’ love, my life changed. When I discovered that knowing God is far more of a relationship, I began to be free of my own fears.”

She seemed to agree willingly and quickly, “Fear. I think religious systems promote this more than anything. And let’s be real, we all probably need a savior. From fear, and, I think, from ourselves.”

I pursed my lips in soft agreement.

“You’re right. That’s the crazy thing; modeling a life like Jesus is far more radical than a lot of churches like to admit. Recognizing the impact of real, living grace is powerful. It’s not about following a set of rules. It’s a changing of heart. It’s a transforming of a mind. Jesus has provided me the freedom to love God, myself, and others. I can’t really describe it.”

I must have described it well enough.

One week before her death she sent me a short email.

“Dear Heather, thanks!  I also wanted to let you know that I consider our conversation to be the time I accepted Jesus as my savior!  Like I said, we all need one.  I already treasure our friendship!”

My mouth dropped and I cried.

*

I took her wisdom as I’ve entered difficult and important conversations in this season. I’ve held tightly to her word: compassion. It’s a word that has been repeated to me, time and time again, and so I suppose that’s what I’m learning: compassion creates pathways for healing and growth. It’s painful, but my, it’s necessary.

I learned of her death while driving late last Friday afternoon into the southern range of the Rocky Mountains. I pulled over. I exited my car, holding on the ledge for balance, and breathed in the chilly air with a new kind of heaviness.

Death had taken her early. Still, she left me (and I presume many others) with advice and hope to keep going.

We never know what life might teach us. We don’t know what death can teach us, either.

What I do know is that each person on this planet, friend, enemy, foe, colleague, neighbor, or the annoyingly slow driver ahead of us can teach us something. We are all teachers. We are all students.

I miss this friend of mine. I miss her quirky-sassy attitude. I mourn all the lives that are lost early. And I hope, fiercely hope, that we don’t take for granted the people around us for this very reason. As I learned when I was 13, life is fragile. Beautifully fragile. May we see it, and may we know it.

teeth-cleaning, life-giving, kind-of conversations.

Naturally, I was late for my bi-annual dentist appointment. Wrongly assuming I was some sort of a traffic god, I gave myself three minutes for a 15-minute drive. Slightly frazzled, I walked through doors that I have walked through since I was a little girl.

Dr. Long has been my dentist – well, forever.He’s a good one but it’s kind of always like this:

lalal

He gave me a retainer, helped me get my braces in tip-top shape, fixed a chipped tooth, and most times, cleaned my altogether decent teeth.

Escorted back by the hygienist, the tension was palpable due to my late arrival.

To mitigate this, I quickly commented, “I’m really sorry for being late.”

Nothing. Except for the whining of the ultrasonic cleaning instruments that dentists frequently use. What a pleasant background noise.

Great. Now the woman about to clean my teeth with a razor sharp tartar scraper is less than enthused because of my tardiness. Less than ideal.I really, I mean really, need to work on being on time to things.

Delicately but without much sympathy, she put the bib around my neck so that the spit, toothpaste, and general dentistry-grossness didn’t get all over my shirt.

She was still silent.

Quick! Say something! I couldn’t think of anything.

She nudged first, “So, how has your summer been?”

I paused. Answer with grace. Grace, kindness, grace, enthusiasm, and still more grace.

“Well, first of all, I can’t believe we are nearing the end. It’s kind of crazy. I’ve been working and doing some trips around the country. Trying to have as many outdoor adventures as I can. It’s been a good summer. What about you?”

She told me about her big move into a suburban community from her previous home of 16 years on a southeastern Colorado farm.

We bonded over the mutual experience of boxes and settling into a new neighborhood. She softened, and told me about her upcoming anniversary – her wedding one – honoring 15 years of marriage.

I’m always about asking the deeper, thicker, molasses-heavy kind of questions, so I posed, “Did you change a lot in those years? With your spouse, I mean?”

“Of course I did. You – we – always will. I got married late. 36. I had resigned to the idea that I had been blessed with the gift of singleness. Just when I gave it up, like a boomerang, it came back to me.”

“I guess you never know, right?”

“Exactly. That’s exactly it. I kind of think that the right thing will always happen. We just have to be willing to loosen our grip and you know. Let it go, I guess.”

With crumbs of plaque resting idly between the crevices of my teeth, I moved my tongue to ask the next question that had popped into my mind –

“Are you a Christian?”

Her eyebrows pointed downwards quickly in a bit of shock, disbelief, and uncertainty. Mostly, suspicion. What business did I – a patient – have asking in the middle of a cleaning appointment?

I asked because her spirit, sentiment, and largely, her vocabulary choice ruminated and dabbled slightly in Christianese you often hear in the church. The “gift of singleness” is an idea or phrase I’ve only heard in that context and so, frankly, I just had to ask. As usual, my curiosity got the best of me.

She laughed hesitantly and looked at me like I was no more than 10 years of age.

“Aww, you’re cute.”

Wait! No! I’m not about to whip out the bridge to Jesus or some device or tool to convert you to a particular brand of faith! Literally, she just struck me as someone who was probably deeply spiritual.

“So – let me tell you first. I don’t like that question – “

I interrupted her.

“It’s the wrong question. I don’t ask that of you because you have to fit in that label, necessarily, I ask because you seem like you know God. From the way you are talking. I should ask, something like, do you know God?

“I’m a seeker. I’ve been seeking my entire life. I go to church, I take part in bible studies, and I desperately want to know God. But, Christianity carries a lot of meaning that I’m not sure I can also carry that word with me. It’s full of hate, honestly, and that really scares me.”

Totally fair. And, she didn’t have to explain all of that, but she did. And honestly, I understood exactly what she meant. I got it.

“I struggle all the time. There’s “Christians” who live lives full of malice, judgment, and narrow-minded ideologies. There’s also “non-Christians” who are revolutionizing communities for positive movements. What I’m trying to say, I think, is that it’s essential to love what God loves. Faith is an active part of life. It’s more than what you label yourself. It’s how you are living.”

“Yes! That’s it!”

She softly, much more openly, laughed again and mumbled that I was “adorable.”

“How old are you again – 27?”

“Yes.”

“Oh for heavens sake! You are a baby. Just a baby. Are you dating anyone?”

“No, not right now.”

“Well, no rush. Like I said, it all happens for a reason. Don’t give up.”

I gargled, spit, and smiled. My front row of teeth were now sparkly clean – glowing from the removed coffee stains of the past year.

The best advice I have read is that everyone is our teacher. Thus, if everyone is our teacher, then certainly, that should (and can, and will) include dental hygienists.

My teeth are smoother, cleaner, and my love for authenticity in in the world is a little higher, too.

Own what you are. Share it. Listen to others. Even from a dentists’ chair.

I love living a life of faith because it presents an opportunity to reclaim the identities placed upon us. I’m a Christian. And I’m so, so ridiculously imperfect as a human. But, I also choose to believe God loves me exactly for who I am. He created me, after all. If you start believing this – really, fully, in your bones believing – than it becomes less scary to function in this world.

My authenticity was made good on a cross. Label or not – that cannot be taken.

Perhaps we can consider what it would look like to reclaim this word “Christianity” – so that instead of being seen for the hatred played out in the world, people would instead find a faith rooted and made right in love.

That’s what I think about when I sit in a dentist office. That’s why life is so cool.

IMG_4364

*

 

 

John.

My offering is a torn and used instant oatmeal box stuffed with goldfish, crackers, candy. This, passed from hand to hand, is in Park Hill, on the Northwest corner of City Park.

Any local paper is guaranteed these days to evoke fear, concern, and confusion on an incline in gang activity just a bit further North; the numbers don’t lie. 19 names are listed on the Denver homicide list on the 7Post’s website, and there are numerous articles with testimonies to what it has been like in the various neighborhoods and “territories” affected (Surging Gang Violence -the link here also includes a powerful video from a local pastor who preaches to the Cole neighborhood, one of the more highly affected areas.

Yet today, I don’t see that, and I don’t think John does either.

*

Following the last of my sessions on travel writing, I left our workshop with my laptop and keys in hand. A new wine bar was opening that evening, just off Colfax, but I bowed out of peer pressure from my writing acquaintances. Wine with writers breeds good stories to be sure, but so does exploring our city on foot. Plus, the sunshine was just too lovely not to enjoy.

I packed my car – good ole ‘Rhonda the Honda’ – and put my hair in a messy bun. Sniffing the fresh-lemon infused, spring air, I headed East, towards City Park. The largest urban park in Denver, it’s something like 300-plus acres. On site, it has the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Denver Zoo, and a large boathouse that hosts summer concert series so outdoors-enthusiasts can catch evening rays before the stars arrive.

With a multitude of storms the prior week, the soil was damp, but I was not deterred.

citypark

I began one of the park’s loops, passing joggers, kickball competitors, and cyclists as I gabbed incessantly with Jordana, my spunky, loyal, and comrade best friend from Hendrix. For something like 8 years we have been friends, and so talking comes smooth and easy.

I was close to finishing my first lap around the inset of the park when I passed an elderly couple laughing with an openly friendly homeless man on a green park bench. I smiled, waved, and continued. Approximately 10 feet later, I stopped immediately in my tracks. Trailing backwards – literally – I told Jordana I would have to call her back. I had thought to myself, “wow, how nice for people to be talking, to be laughing, with anybody at the park,” when a quick, clear, and definite command came through my mind. You can do that too. So, I did. Like a rope pulling me backwards, it was a moment that I know had been impressed upon me, is this what the Holy Spirit feels like?

“Hi there, I’m Heather.”

“Well hello, I’m John.”

“I was just passing by…and I saw y’all talking…smiling…I just felt like I needed to come over and say hi.”

He chuckles. “I’m so glad you did.”
Something else then pressed upon me further.

“Will you be here for a bit? For maybe…another 20 minutes or so?”

“I certainly can be. I will be right here.”

“I, uh, I have some food in my car that I would like to share, if that would be okay. Can I go get it and bring it right back? I promise, I won’t be long.”

Smiles. “Of course, I’m just enjoying this beautiful day.”

*

More curious than anything, I’m sure he stayed because he just had to see what this random girl was up to. He was headed somewhere himself; the large black trash bag with clothes supported what he would later tell me – he was laundromat bound.

John, 51, Denver native with family in the Bayou, used to be in a gang, once suffered a broken heart from a woman who left him, and is a fierce believer in God.

“I am blessed. Blessed beyond belief. I wake up every morning alive. It’s enough. You never know what God has for you; any day that you have life you can encounter anyone, anything…I sit here, I see people, and I know with great certainty that we are all called to be disciples of Jesus. You – me – this is what can make your heart good.”

He shared more as I handed the torn box full of random perishables over.

His grin was gangly but inviting. He hardly looked a day over 40, but his response to questions of age was simple, “you reflect the heart within you – it doesn’t matter the number of years you have lived”. I wanted to start taking notes right then and there as he spouted words of wisdom that genuinely seemed to be intricately pulled from his value system, world-view, and life story.

I sat with John for an unexpected amount of time, right as evening was entering between the rippling green leaves from the calm breeze of early summer. Dog walkers and other aimless nomads meandered by and inevitably turned their necks to catch a glimpse and prove their suspicions correct; yes, that old homeless man on the city curbs of North Denver is hanging out with a young girl from the ‘burbs. It shouldn’t warrant a glance, you know.

In fact, the reason, I think, I even stopped myself was because the two people ahead of me paved the way. They treated John like a human being – like an equal – that he is, and in turn, I felt it on my heart to do so too.

It’s not about romanticizing or idealizing nice people. Especially nice people who are homeless. That’s a dangerous road. John would be the first to stake claim to the mistakes he has made. He told me them. And that’s the kind of brutal honesty I think we are missing in the world. It’s the kind of honesty that I crave, that I seek, and that I hope that as a community, we can become more cognizant of. Openly honest people; that I suggest is really what I was drawn towards in this situation. John remarked in the early parts of our conversation,

“You see, it makes me sad. Hearing in the news and seeing our city like this. Park Hill is my home. Yet, I was in a gang when I was younger too. I was young, I was stupid. People want to be here, in Denver. What an incredible place to be. But violence can destroy. Money destroys too. The sooner people realize that money does not hold the power they think it does, they can be free…the only gang you will ever need is the disciples you have in your faith.”

I nodded and remarked with a firm, “amen,” and he pressed further,

“Heather, keep that open heart of yours. I see many people on these paths. Many are hardened, shut off from the world and from life…keep your heart open. You will see what God has for you.”

I sighed, not out of irritation, but out of extraordinary humility, out of deep surprise. I had handed this man a box of some items, in return he sat with me for an hour, sharing his faith, his testimony, and exhorting me at the age of 26. I wasn’t expecting that. Before I left he said one more thing,

“You go and do good. Be bold, but be safe.”

When Jesus says, therefore go and make disciples of all nations he maintains the authority. So, to do this, we must not only act, but see. Speak, but listen. And when you see the world as it is in heaven, go there, celebrate, and embrace this life. He will always reveal this, always show this, and always promote this.

I want to be a part of a “church” (in a larger sense) that shares, intimately listens to stories, and is unafraid to care for people who are persecuted, shamed, and full of fear. And just because we are doing this, doesn’t mean we don’t admit our own shortcomings, weaknesses, and mistakes. But in Him, we are free. When living from this place, you will sense a deeper kind of love.

I no longer want to be afraid of where I have felt this deeper sense of community; where I have felt it calling me to. Because, surely, I am with you always, to the very end of age (Matthew 28:20).

*

 

the awkward post-peace-corps-life-thing

*

Okay, so here’s the deal.

You’ve returned from a life abroad for two years, find a job, get a car, adjust.

Or, you at least attempt the whole adjusting thing. As most Peace Corps Volunteers would agree – adjustment doesn’t really just happen. It takes a while. Maybe it never really happens. I don’t know, I’m still figuring it out.

But regardless, life happens and you find yourself settling back in, awaiting your next big life move. Your life could go a hundred different ways in just a couple of months. You might go abroad again, you might study in the fall, you could take a job in another state, or you could pursue something you never thought you would. Crazy enough, your path could even take you to Rwanda again at some point. You really have no idea. I suppose that’s the beauty of being your mid-twenties with open doors all around you. It’s stressful, uncertain, but it’s kind of fun. When you’re in a good mood, anyway.

You spend most days at work. But you also read. You actually have a strange obsession with checking out a ridiculous amount of library books. You should probably talk to someone about that. You run a hell of a lot. Many days, several miles, at least.

And…?

That’s right, a social life would be nice.

You join match.com.

Yep.

*

I joined match.com about two weeks ago. I joined to meet new people, if nothing else. Turns out, when you are gone for two years, life goes on, and when you come home the friends you have had at home have gotten married, work full-time, and are even starting families.

And the other friends you have live all around the country. And so, I figured why not? I am interested in joining the dating world. I don’t really have a strong interest in getting married anytime soon (there’s quite a bit I want to do first) but it might be nice to see what is out there and find someone who shares similar interests in the world.

So you join. You creepily peruse the pictures of all sorts of men online. You feel strange. You laugh at the absurdity. You are messaged by complete creeps: “hi my sweetie you look so nice” and one guy is relentless in his messages. But for the most part, people look, well, normal. You find some prospects who like being outside, who like to travel, and are at the same point of life that you are.

You exchange some long-winded messages. You feel awkward.

Eventually, they ask for your number and you arrange a date.

A DATE.

Hold the phone. You haven’t been on one of these in quite a while. Moreover, you haven’t been on one of these in America in a really long time.

Peace Corps gives you a lot of skills, that’s not debatable. But when you spend the last years of your life trying to integrate into a rural African village and spend your nights alone writing letters, cooking, listening to the radio, and watching episodes of Friends, you lose a dash of social competency. This is for those volunteers.

I always joked with my friends in Rwanda that I would come home, start dating, and write a blog about all the mishaps, awkward moments, and glimpses of hilarity, courtesy of the incredible social skills that Peace Corps equipped me with. Well folks, here it is.

*

I went on a couple of dates last week.

The first one was at a small, homey Sushi restaurant. We shared a delicious meal.

I gawked at all of the choices and explained how overwhelming it was to see. I explained the various noises that Rwandans communicate with. Yes, noises. I proceeded to do a live demonstration of the “mmmmhms” and “eh-baba-wes” and “yesu weeeeeee” that makes up a large portion of Kinyarwanda communication. I asked way too many questions – just like a classic Rwandan mama. I thought a piece of the sushi was wrapped with bacon, not raw salmon like we had so obviously ordered. A main point of conversation was my fascination with American highways and how so many people drive alone and not together in cars. My eyes almost popped when he commented “to be honest, I’m not sure that I could ever travel to Africa.” Oh boy.

That was just date #1.

Date number two took place at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in Denver.

Avoiding my tendency to run on Rwandan time, I showed up 20 minutes early. I grabbed a table and waited. And waited. I drank a margarita and read The Poisonwood Bible. Finally he calls and he’s gone to the wrong restaurant. In Lakewood. Say what? He comes, but an hour and a half after I had arrived at the restaurant. But here’s what he didn’t understand: I literally didn’t care. Doesn’t he get it? I am totally used to things starting late. In Rwanda, if you speak a time, you always tack on 2 hours. No big deal.

He’s tall and cute and I definitely stuttered a bit. Ummm…? I’m used to conversations about the coming of the crops, explaining life in America, and why the cows are the way they are. Now, a guy’s sitting in front of me talking about water purification (his job as a chemist) and mortgages and paying off his credit and all of these “grown up things”. I sit across from him thinking about how we are the same age and yet two very, very different people. Or at least we are in two very different walks in life. He’s well-traveled but tells me about five-star restaurants that his company caters him to. I tell him about pooping in a latrine 20 feet from my house. He smiles, but I think he’s completely freaked out. He asks me the tired, old question of “what was Rwanda like?” and I have a hard time answering. He also asks about what I like to do on the weekends. And the answer is so easy, and yet I feel insecure answering. Doesn’t he understand? Yeah, I love traveling, and reading, and writing, and being with my friends, and eating burritos, and running….but I’m still getting my bearings on living here. And so I don’t feel settled quite yet and I’m still trying to adjust from what I was doing on my weekends in Rwanda to what I do on my weekends here. But you can’t necessarily go into these details on a first-date and so I simply say, “oh you know, relaxing, and spending time with my family, and just exploring.” Which is true, but feels quite inadequate.

Still, we have a great time. And both of these boys, ahem, men, ask me out again. Apparently they liked me enough.

So we’ll see what happens.

*

But I want Peace Corps Volunteers to know this about re-entry: IT IS AWKWARD AND TOUGH AND WEIRD AND STRANGE AND DIFFICULT AND YOU OFTEN WANT TO RUN TO THE BATHROOM AND JUST CRY. But.

Persevere. Own your experience. It does add up to something.

That’s the thing – in dating and in just building other relationships since I have been back—I sometimes feel a bit weird explaining the last couple years of my life because I know people might not understand. It’s not flashy and it isn’t anything like what some of these guys have been doing – closing million dollar deals and building a career in sales and finance. I lose the words to say what it was like and how can you explain the kinds of things you learn from living in some of the most rural and isolated parts of the world?

So instead, I recommend just telling your stories. Because the people that care, will listen. And when it comes to dating, I’m seeing that guys that really want to understand will try. And even if they don’t, they’ll ask questions and be honest about what they think about what you did. And I think in the end, they respect you. Because you apparently did something that a lot of other people might not have any interest in doing.

And the guy you should want to date – or at least the guy I WANT to date – will be a guy that wants a kind of life that values what other parts of the world have to teach us. He will want to help and live a life of service. He will be a man of God and will at least understand that driving force behind what I would like to do with my life. So, I’m not sure I found him on these last couple of dates, but you never know. And there’s a lot more out there and so I won’t be deterred.

I’ll continue to be myself, be proud of what I have done, and you know, own it. And as far as being awkward goes, well, I just like to think that’s part of the package.

*

spending my friday night with my peace corps buddy, suzi. she get's the awkward-post-peace-corps-life thing.

spending my friday night with my peace corps buddy, suzi. she get’s the awkward-post-peace-corps-life thing.