Three days blind

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One of my most vivid memories of my early teens was driving home from the optometrist with my mom and oldest brother, marveling at the leaves on the trees, leaves I had never before seen. I think my mom felt like a bit of a failure for not noticing that Scott and I needed glasses – he was 16 and I was almost 13 when we finally got them. It wasn’t her fault. I hadn’t noticed either. It’s amazing how much of life you can go through without realizing you can’t really see anything.

Ten years have slipped by since the last time I went a day without contacts or glasses (the contact lenses are a horror story for another day). You can imagine my despair and the Mary-esque fit that was thrown when I realized, after tossing out my last set of contacts, that I had lost my prescription (which the eye-doctor had handed to me and said, “Now remember, don’t lose this”). To further excruciate the problem, my glasses, after four years of faithful service, split down the middle.

I pondered the level of humiliation I would face if I returned, prescription-less, to the eye-guy (a son of a colleague at school) as I taped my glasses together on my bedroom floor amid the scrapbooks, borrowed novels, colored markers, sticker pads and empty soda bottles that decorate the carpeting of my bachelorette pad. I gave myself a tentative glance in the dusty mirror propped against my wardrobe (because I can’t figure out how to hang it on the wall). The Harry Potter look de-aged me by about eight years (though the floppy shoes and cardigan probably don’t help my desperate attempts to look old enough to teach middle schoolers).

Unfortunately, the tape only worked for about six hours, after which point I resigned myself to squinting and walking as nonchalantly as possible with one hand slightly extended.

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How bad is your eyesight anyway?

Great question!

I’m not blind. Though now I have a better understanding of what exactly that might mean. I can see just fine till about the tips of my fingers, and then things begin to get fuzzy. A few feet and I can’t see the whites of people’s eyes. A few yards and their outlines become blurry. Much past that, especially if the lighting is bad, everyone looks like colorful, faceless ghosts. Reading street signs, tram numbers, or just about anything else is impossible, which makes public transportation a bit of a nightmare.

Thankfully, my first afternoon as a vision-impaired individual was spent with a friend. She’s fifteen and as clever and opinionated as she is wispy and fay-like. I was taking her out for her birthday to the only Frozen Yogurt place in Prague. I almost didn’t notice that I couldn’t see in the shopping mall. We stayed focused on things directly in front of us – shoes, clothes, jewelry, flowers.

It wasn’t until we said our goodbyes at the train station and I waited for my bus in the dimming evening that I remembered how disadvantaged I was. I squinted at each approaching bus to check the line number and rocked impatiently on my heels under the immense sensation that everyone could tell I was uncomfortable and unable to see squat.

The following day was perhaps the true test of my sightless nerves. I went to a doctor’s appointment by myself, which is a scary thing in itself. Czech hospitals are not like American ones which are equipped with cozy waiting rooms, magazines, and an easily-accessible receptionist to answer all of your questions.

Our doctor is Zbraslav is a general practitioner. You show up at the clinic and wait in the hallway outside her office in the queue of people that informally (yet very insistently) keeps track of who’s next. The receptionist is on the other side of a door that only opens from the inside.

I was supposed to have an appointment but didn’t know how to tell her. I waited in the hallway and the queue’d patients included me into their number. My name was never called. My appointment time came and went. I could feel my palms sweating.

I don’t think having functioning glasses at this point would have helped me in any way, but the fact that I knew I couldn’t see anything had already done a number on my emotional stamina. And anyone who knows me, knows I have the emotional stability of an ice cube.

In Czech, I let the woman across from me know that I had an appointment but wasn’t sure what to do. I was so nervous I could hardly think and spitting out those three-ish sentences was the hardest foreign language experience I have had to date. I’m not sure she fully understood me, but she told me to just wait with the rest of the queue.

Did you ever get lost as a kid? You’re terrified but you stand perfectly still like your parents always told you to – don’t move, they’ll find you. They always do. And as you’re standing there in this stream of people and life that is rushing by, desperately holding on to the promise that your parents will find you, you feel like the whole world knows that you’re lost. You can feel the tears coming, despite how hard you try to reason them away. It’ll be fine. I’m fine. Everything’s okay.

Sometimes you get found and you brush the fear off your face with the back of your hand. And sometimes you have the meltdown before your parents can retrace your steps. They find you sobbing like a two year old as some kind stranger attempts to comfort you, even though it’s just making life more embarrassing and miserable.

That’s how I felt.

Finally, a woman with an actual appointment showed up (right before I was supposed to go in), knocked on the door and told the receptionist she was there. Then she waited in the hall.

That’s what I should have done… I kicked myself mentally, feeling the tears rushing through my skull to the front of my eyes.

My turn in the queue came but the receptionist called the woman’s name and she got up to go in front of me. I was worried I’d missed my chance completely. My appointment had been an hour ago. What if I’d really blown it?

I quickly walked to the door where the last patient, receptionist, and the lady with the appointment were all convening.

For a moment, I tried to explain in Czech that I had been waiting, I tried to focus on eyes that I couldn’t really see, I tried… And then the moment was gone – as was my ability to speak in any language – and I just stood in the doorway sobbing. It was a meltdown of epic proportions, my friends. Just me, crying for no apparent reason in front of three perfect strangers who have managed to keep their lives together. I was so at the end of my rope, I wasn’t even as embarrassed as I should have been.

Everyone was taken aback (‘cause, duh) and they let me slip in before the woman with the appointment. After explaining what was wrong with my foot (and taking several minutes to regain my speech) the doctor looked at my sympathetically.

“I’ll take a look at your foot. It should be okay. But, why were you crying?”

Why were you crying?

I was overwhelmed? I was nervous? I’m coming off a messy couple of weeks? I can’t see anything? I haven’t learned how to be an adult yet? Pick one. None of them are great.

I walked back home in the sunshine and the fuzzy world about me became clear in a different way.

Sights melted away into sounds and smells. The feel of the brick sidewalk beneath my feet became visible for the first time and I finally saw how the orchards smell in early spring.

Why was I crying? What is wrong with being a little blind?

I spent the next 48 hours stumbling through a whole new Prague. It’s a Prague that has whispering friends around corners that you hear before you see and laughing families in restaurants behind curtained windows. Birds sing. Music plays. And where all these things come from, I’m not even sure. But they’re there, and they’re gorgeous.

I can’t make out shapes well without glasses, but colors stand out even more. The city looked like a watercolor painting, every shade dripping into the one below it, washed over by a blue river and a golden sky.

And when the light began to fade, I was the first to notice, because everything went from gold to grey and the lights turned on.

I can see lights. They look like fairies. Lampposts, bus numbers, headlights, apartment windows – they all look like bubbles of light floating in a darkness that grows deeper and deeper. The rest of the world fades away into indistinguishable shades of grey and black, but the lights get brighter, surrounding me like a grand, starry host. Even the moon was a fairy that night.

It was with some trepidation that I finally found myself back at the eye doctor, taking a new exam, getting a new set of sample contact lenses. I met up with a friend for a bite and put the contacts in at our table.

The world jumped back into view, just like it had never left, or I had never been gone. The feeling that I was a ghost like the ones I’ve been seeing, that I’m slightly invisible, vanished in a blink. And in it’s place sat the usual comfortableness of being able to see the strangers I look at, the places I go, the book titles sitting on shelves in the store.

Zbraslav from my window that night looked itself again. I could clearly make out the houses and the streetlights and the river that wound through the darkness, running its tireless course to Prague and beyond. What a gift our sight is.

And what a gift it is to lose it.

I hope I never judge someone who cries in public or has a meltdown – even adults can feel like lost little children sometimes. But I also hope that they take comfort knowing they will be found again, and will appreciate the sight of safety so much more for it.

I hope I never lose my sight again, just because it’s kind of a hassle and my mental health is already working overtime. But I also hope I don’t forget to focus on the beautiful things right in front of me that I can see, rather than worry about the dizzying world in the far-off, unclear future. I hope I never forget what it is to live in a world with light and darkness. And that for those who don’t have the proper lens, the darkness can be overwhelming and the light, a savior.

I hope I never lose sight of my Savior. When I feel myself becoming a ghost, lost in an indiscernible dance of shadows, when the tears start to brim and I stand paralyzed in fear, rooted in hope, I know my Savior will come for me. Because he always has.

Revelation 7:17

“For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water,’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

What if we’re all bullfrogs?

Some days are deep-pond days. When the afternoon sunlight is clear and warm and stretches lazily across the deck where you sit eating cake, truffles and braided raisin cake; when your head feels swampy from the springy perks in temperature and the richness of your coffee; on those days the smallest things will reveal the deepest meanings.

Friday was a deep-pond day.

I had been meaning to visit the ‘P’ family for weeks but holidays and school schedules kept getting in the way. It was all for the best. Friday turned into one of those days which required an escape from my usual routine of going home, cleaning up, and putting in a few more hours of work till sundown. I needed a break.

So off the train to the small village, one stop outside Prague, and into the ever-open arms of Mrs. P, I literally ran. She’s been my mom-away-from-mom for two years now (one of several that I’m blessed to have here in Prague, actually. Life Tip: endear yourself to loving adults – they will scoop you out of messes you don’t even realize you’re in).

The moment I walked through the door, I was given a second lunch (mucher better than the first, served in the school cafeteria) and a tall glass of Kofola. For those who don’t know, Kofola is the Czech version of Coca-Cola. It’s decent enough, though not as sweet as American Coke, and I have quite adapted to its gingery taste. I’ve known the P’s since 2010 and they’ve never failed to feed me into oblivion.

After I finished eating the dumplings and sun-dried tomato-stuffed chicken, my water glass was topped off and Karel brought me a caffe latte.

I met Karel when he was just sixteen. He has turned into a sharp, smart, driven young man studying at the most prestigious University in Prague, but I still see the sweet boy with mispronounced English showing us Americans all of the city’s oldest sights.

His younger sister, Jana, is a darling. I gave her English lessons last year and she’s improved immensely, although I doubt I can take much credit.

The four of us – Karel, Jana, Mrs. P and myself – lounged on the shaded deck around a wooden table covered with a colorful spread of desserts and coffee trimmings. The sunshine washed over us like cool waves on a tired beach.

It’s hard to admit, especially for young people, I think, that we get tired. That we’re at the end of our rope. That we need a break. We are not the endless stores of energy that we thought we were in college (and now that I’ve given up the energy drinks and napping through Astronomy class, I’m beginning to feel it). It’s not just a physical thing. It’s emotional too.

I feel old even saying this, but I’m learning how important it is to take care of yourself – of your whole self. This Friday afternoon with this lovely family was part of my treatment.

Eventually, we left our chairs and moved over to the pond.

“We have maybe twenty frogs in here right now,” said Karel. I didn’t make it all the way to the fish pond at the end of the garden. About a foot from the water’s edge I collapsed into the soft grass, barely able to see the water glistening in front of me. It was silky smooth and I much preferred lying on it to looking for bitty, web-footed jumpers.

“There’s one,” said Jana, her sweet, school-girl face dancing with a smile. “Do you see him?”

I looked at the glassy surface. All I could see was a pool of green, blue and brown rippling beneath golden fingers of sunlight. No frogs.

Karel reached his hand into the pond and pulled it out.

Let me first say that frogs are not a creature I have a lot of experience with.

Let me add that this was no petite, little tree frog.

This was a bullfrog. It was massive. And as soon as I saw it, suddenly the whole pond came into better view. These green mammoths were swimming, darting and pawing at each other all around the basin. For a split second, I contemplated running away or bursting into tears, both of which are totally normal reactions and I judge no one for thinking the same way.

I think at some point in my life I would I have been okay simply standing around the pool, counting them (we got to about 28 before deciding that we’d never find them all hidden beneath the scum and algae). But I’m realizing that I’m a different person than I thought I was. Time changes us and we don’t notice it happening till it’s done. I’m realizing I’m now a kind of person who doesn’t mind frogs so much.

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Some of the frogs were dark green, others were nearly white with muddy brown speckles. None of them turned into princes, though Jana and I tried to convince them it was in their best interest to do so.

Into the clear, cold water, my hand dove and reached for a chum. It was about half the size of my hand and slimy to boot. Pushing aside the wives’ tales about warts (isn’t that toads, anyway?), I pulled out my very own croaker. He was gorgeous.

He stayed still for about two seconds before diving back into the pond. Again and again, Jana, Karel and I coaxed and prodded frogs into our hands, sloshing them gently about before letting them return to their underwater homes. Some of them had surprisingly strong grips, and several sang sweetly for us before hopping away.

“They come from the forest,” Karel told us, pointing to the trees just beyond the field outside their garden. “They’ll just be here long enough to have babies and then they’ll go back to the woods.”

I watched a dark green bullfrog soar through the water, a lighter, smaller frog clinging to its back, like Superman and Lois Lane.

“They’re gonna have cute kids,” I said.

“They’re gonna have 300 cute kids,” said Jana.

“Three hundred? Really?”

She looked at me and smiled, not understanding that my question was sincere.

“Why so many?” I asked.

“Well, some will get eaten by snakes and birds,” she said. “They won’t all make it back to the pond.”

I looked at the bullfrogs below us. These were the lucky ones then. The ones who made it back just long enough to love somebody and produce heirs to their froggy world before heading back out into the great beyond to do whatever frogs do.

Is this all there is? I wondered as we left the pond and retreated to another round of coffee, chocolate and fruit inside the house. Is it just this? Finding someone to hold on to? Is this what we live for?

For a moment, the thought was comforting. How nice to be a bullfrog. Bad days, mess ups, failures can all be pushed aside because they don’t matter. All that matters is that we love and are loved by others.

WRONG.

Please excuse my bluntness, but that mode of thinking is exactly what screwed up my Friday in the first place.

Frankly, it’d be pretty depressing if love was all there was to this life, because I haven’t found another bullfrog yet (and I’m totally willing to settle for one that doesn’t turn into a prince). And, anyway, being loved by humans is a broken, fleeting blessing that comes and goes with the tide of human emotions and the ebb and flow of life’s unstoppable current. Just like the spring ends and the frogs return to their woods (to be eaten, most likely), so our relationships – fragile, imperfect, finite – will not be lasting, will not have an eternal significance in their own right.

But the thing is, we’re not frogs. We’re people. We are made in the image of God and God has a plan for each of us that extends beyond living and loving and dying. We were made for a purpose. Our relationships – with spouses, family and friends – have significance because they are woven into the purpose that God has for each of us. We are tools to build one another up and help each other down the God-given road.

So even if we don’t all make it back to the pond; even if we get a little lost in the woods; even if we swim in that pond alone; even if we have really, really awful Fridays that turn into awful years, we are more than just lost, lonely frogs.

We are children of the Living God, caretakers of His world. We are His hands to the poor and His voice to the lost. We are His ambassadors and His soldiers. We are His people.

And that means the mess ups and the failures and the bad days do matter, but only inasmuch as they draw us closer to Him, showing us our need for His grace, and reminding us that His love and his power to heal and make us whole does not come and go with the seasons.

It is eternal.

For Goodness’ Sake

There it was, laying face up on my chair like a cheery piece of sunshine. Unaware that it was Valentine’s Day – or even what that meant – 2nd grade-Mary bent down to examine the token of friendship bestowed anonymously to each member of first period choir class. She was floored, as any eight year old would be by a purple card with pink hearts and a cheap lollipop glued to the top. But instead of delight, she felt jealousy. She was envious of those girls who had something to give out, who had the power to make people feel special with their flimsy purple cutouts and cheap candy, because she had nothing.

IMG_0325That was my introduction to Valentine’s Day, a holiday I have always loved because I’m a hopeless romantic and because CHOCOLATE AND PINK EVERYTHING.

Obviously, the first thing this proves, is that even eight-year olds have a sin nature, and mine hasn’t changed much since 1998. I have always been a little obsessed with being the ‘goodest’ person in the room, not for goodness’ sake, but for my own vanity.

In 2013, Sarah and I – stranded at a drugstore in Irvine – bought several bags of those cheap Valentines cards and heart-shaped pops. We sat on a curb in the parking lot and signed every single one, and then handed them out to our friends. It took most of the weekend, but it was the best Valentine’s Day adventures ever. Partly because I do genuinely enjoy giving, but also partly because I relished the powers of bestowing ‘specialness’ upon those I deemed deserving of a Valentine and being worshiped as an exceedingly thoughtful and kind human being in return.

How we do set ourselves up as gods.

That was the last decent Valentine’s Day I had. The day has expectations attached to it and frankly, I found myself buying chocolate in bulk for personal consumption after hours at Target more than once. It’s just hard for any day (let alone one that parades around in red teddy bears and CHOCOLATE AND PINK EVERYTHING) to live up to the standards we set – a day where we feel completely loved and special. Ha, a day about us, essentially. (Ergo, I don’t feel as guilty as I should about the buying of chocolate en masse on my own at midnight).

Valentine’s isn’t really celebrated as pompously in the Czech Republic as it is in the USA. But I decided to make the best of it this year anyway, because you can’t waste an opportunity to put hearts on every available surface.

I got up early to make mini cinnamon rolls (pink, because, obviously). Despite my turbulent history in the kitchen, they came out alright – fluffy and sticky and sweet enough to not need frosting (which I forgot to make because, obviously).

I cleaned the kitchen and the living room, stuck little hearts on the window and piled craft supplies on the dining room table.

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Once a month, my church here in Prague hosts a ‘Girl’s Club’ for 11-13 year olds. I do a lot of the organizing and prepare the devotional. Many of the girls who come are from the school I teach at. It’s a really good opportunity for them to practice English because my Czech taps out after ten minutes, but Marilyn helps with translation when needed, especially for the Bible study.

The girls arrived promptly at ten o’clock, coming up to our front door, bundled in hats and mittens. It’s cold outside.

Warm cups of fruit tea (pink!) were passed around in flowered china mugs. They sat around the coffee table for a few minutes, thawing out by the fire, as I tried to explain what cinnamon rolls are (because they don’t exist in this country).

Then it was on to the craft: puff monsters. These are direct proof that some good things do come from the hours I spend on pinterest. In 45 minutes, eight girls went through all four skein’s of red, white, purple and pink yarn. Most of the fake eyes were used and a lot of the brightly threaded pipe cleaners. Lots of giggling, lots of nimble fingers, lots of focused eyes. Once they got going, talking faded out as they concentrated on winding string, tying knots, and placing pipe-cleaner. I’ve become a firm believe in crafts. Working with your hands. Producing something that you can give. What a lost art – giving.

The table looked like a colored thread factory ransacked by chimpanzees by the time we moved on to the devotional. Honestly, it’s a good look for a table.

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Bibles opened to John where we read about the woman at the well. It was sweet to see girls learning how to find things in the Bible, many for the first time. Numbers for pages, numbers for chapters, numbers for verses.

The woman at the well has become a relatable character for me as I get older and lose more and more of my self-righteousness. I see a lot of myself in her. Five husbands? I can see a parallel universe where that ends up being me. Desperate for love, desperate for fulfillment, desperate for meaning. And in my community, meaning and purpose for women is marriage. That’s what we’re taught. Family. Raising the next generation. And I want it. I want that. I want to be wanted and to mean something to someone and to have an important, fulfilling job – to have a purpose.

So that’s what we talked about, me and these little girls. Love and purpose. Did the woman at the well find what she was looking for?

No.

Did all those relationships make her happy?

No.

What changed?

We opened up to my favorite Psalm (139) and read about God – because some of these girls know nothing about Him. We read that God knows us better than we know ourselves, that we can’t hide from him. We read that he formed us, created us by hand, unique. And we read that he can lead us in ‘the way everlasting.’

What changed? She was found by God. She was saved. She was shown her purpose – to glorify God! What does she do? She goes back into town and tells everyone about the man at the well and through her testimony, others are led to Christ.

That’s purpose.

We answered questions and closed in prayer. Tea was refilled and several girls made me promise to send them the recipe for the cinnamon rolls.

Then on with the hats and mittens. Out the door into the cold. Literally, the most perfect little Valentine’s Day morning ever.

I spent a half hour washing mugs and sweeping up bits of colored yarn. Time to think about Valentine’s Day and the sweetest party I’ve ever been to.

This year has been so different for me. I keep telling my Mom it’s because I’m not in the American pressure cooker that insists you’re not anybody unless you have somebody. But it’s the same everywhere, really.

What changed?

When did this day stop evolving around me?

I think what happened was moving to Prague. It was seeing that my life will feel like an unsatisfactory let-down – like a boring Valentine’s Day – if my focus is myself. Not that moving across the world helped me focus on and serve God better – I could have done that in San Diego. But I have no excuses here. My faults are spread out like butter across bread for everyone at the table to see. Vanity visibly gets in the way of my work here so I’ve learned to keep it at bay. And God is faithful. He has shown me that my best efforts to be gracious and good, when they have been to please myself or impress someone else, feel empty and fake. He has shown me that when I labor for him, his glorification is reward in itself.

So, like the woman at the well, I find my purpose. I find my fulfillment. I find love at its very source, in its truest form.

And Valentine’s becomes special in a way I could never have imagined. Not because I’ve learned how to be a better giver, but because I understand what it means to lay your heart before the Lord as a humble receiver.

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