Berlin hates me

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I shook Sarah awake.

“He wants to see your passport,” I said. She fumbled through her backpack as the German border patrol agent checked mine. We were sitting in the very back, so when he finished with us he got off the bus and we continued on our way.

Sarah went back to sleep. I thought about how much I was dreading this trip.

Honestly, I should have tried sleeping too. We had spent the night before hailing in the New Year on Petřín Hill in Prague, watching fireworks, sliding down icy walkways, singing songs to ourselves and trying desperately to keep our fingers from going totally numb. We got a bus back home at 2 a.m. but I stayed awake packing for a while. Then we were up at 7:30 to catch this bus. We hated ourselves for our ambition, but friends had invited us to spend a few days with them in Berlin and you’re not often young and in Europe.

Full confession, part of me went just because I knew no other circumstances would ever convince me to return to that horrid, awful city and I needed some closure. I had already turned down several opportunities to visit again, but this time Sarah was with me and we’d be meeting friends. I’d be safe.

We got to the bus station as tired and drained as you can possibly be after a five hour trip and literally no sleep.

We waited around for a while as huge grey buses pulled in and out, crowds of holiday travelers loading and unloading.

Finally we spotted three figures. One tall, two short. One brunette, two blond. One German, two Czech. All three of them shivering, hungry and giggly.

Hugs and introductions followed.

Katka and Sarah had already met. Anika, our German sweetheart, and Kačka, our Czech mischief-maker and adventure-taker, introduced themselves with stories of their New Year’s shenanigans (which included a fake engagement to someone – an elephant was loosely involved).

“Before we we come back here tomorrow,” I told the girls, “We need to eat at Andy’s diner and bar, okay?”

They all agreed. And so our first plan was made.

Sarah and I were still nursing our car-sickness when we trooped off to find the nearest U-Bahn, getting lost in the parking lot on our first attempt (a clear indication that Berlin recognized my presence and was saying ‘hello’).

We found seats headed in the right direction and the above-ground tracks gave us a gorgeous look at the city, all wrapped up in the chill of January and the wreckage of New Year’s Eve.

We made a stop at Alexanderplatz to find a coffee shop with internet. We were unsuccessful. In the whole square, all four coffee shops (including the one inside the mall) were full up and / or didn’t have wifi.

“Why do we need wifi?” asked Anika.

“Because the girls don’t have a hostel yet and need to book something,” said Katka.

“It should be easy,” said Kačka. “I wouldn’t worry about it yet.”

It was 4 p.m.

“Besides,” she said, “I’m sure Abi will let you stay with us. Then you can watch the Bollywood film with us too!”

Abi was described to me as a rather reluctant host, a friend of Kačka’s who’d agreed to let her crash at his place while she was in Berlin, but had little space to offer. She had already brought two pals – I wasn’t so sure he’d be okay with two more.

“Let’s get waffles,” said Anika.

There was a round of whoops and ‘yes!’s and we marched off again, still hostel-less.

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The waffle place was hard to get to and overcrowded. We waited outside (in the cold) for a table to clear up and then ended up squished at a “table for two” against a wall which had plates and cups from the last several guests that still hadn’t been cleared (“They didn’t finish their waffles!” said Kačka. “I bet they’re still good! Pass ‘em over!”). The five of us, with scarves, coats and bags spread between our laps, dined on decently-priced, fairly delicious waffles topped with various combinations of chocolate ice cream, hot cherries, whipped cream and applesauce.

It was all lovely and happy and warm, but my head was fuzzy and the sugar was making me feel sick. I was definitely in need of some hardy sustenance – a burger, a steak, a turkey leg…

I can’t remember what exactly we talked about because I fell asleep at the table. I’m also not totally sure how long we were there. All I remember was waking up with that sinking feeling that everyone was standing up and I had to too.

It was dark when we stepped outside. They practically dragged me back to the U-Bahn. We walked past bottles and empty boxes recently filled with firecrackers and fireworks. Streamers lay in soggy heaps across the street. Confetti was everywhere. Europe does New Year’s Eve well.

From the underground to the apartment (“Don’t worry,” said Kačka. “I know I usually get us lost, but this time I really do think I know where I’m going.”) we meandered through the cracks and crannies of Berlin.

“Shouldn’t we get a hostel first?” I said. “It’s getting late.”

“I’ve got a plan,” said Kačka. “We’ll get there and tell Abi that we’re going to find you a hostel and he’ll see that you guys are normal and cool…” She stopped and looked at me. “Well, he’ll see that Sarah is normal and cool and he’ll want you to stay!”

I doubted that this would work, and even more, I doubted that it was a good idea, but I’d lost the energy to fight and Kačka always has fight in her. She’s like the Rocky Balboa of college-age girls.

We got to Abi’s apartment and he was not there. ‘Apartment’ is a generous word. It had a kitchen and a bathroom. There was a hallway by the door with lots of books and shoes. And then there was a space with a bed, couch, table and clothes rack. In that very restricted space, we plopped ourselves, our bags and our plans for the next hour. Some of us tried to figure out how to get wifi. I feel asleep again. That floor was the most comfortable flat surface I have ever been on.

When I woke up, a new voice had chimed in on our conversation. I opened my eyes (both begrudgingly and embarrassedly). Our host was sitting on the edge of his bed next to Katka talking to the girls spread out across his floor.

“Hi,” I said.

“Finally woke up?” said Katka with a grin.

“Sorry,” I said to our host. “I was just making friends with your floor. I’m Mary.”

Not my greatest self-introduction ever. But I set about in earnest to find a hostel for us. Katka was on her found, also looking. Eventually, Abi pulled out his laptop to help.

The problem with Berlin over the holidays is that it’s like Bethlehem over the original holiday – absolutely no room in the inn. The few places we found were either too far out of town to be worth it or couldn’t be booked for a single night – and we weren’t planning on sticking around for a second or third evening.

At some point, Abi did offer to let us stay at the flat. Three could fit on the bed, one on the couch, one on the pull-out and one of the floor. I’m not a princess, but that was not the kind of sleeping arrangement I had in mind.

“Why didn’t you guys book something earlier?” he asked. I felt stupid admitting the reason – I know better, with as much traveling as I’ve done, than to go into a city without accommodations locked down for the evening.

“Katka said Kačka knew of a cheap hostel,” I said.

“Why didn’t you book it?” he asked.

We all looked at each other awkwardly.

“Because Kačka said there might be room where she was staying…” I said. “So we waited until we had a better picture of the situation.”

Everyone glanced around the room, which now just looked like a massive laundry basket. You couldn’t see the floor anymore.

Sarah whispered, “Let’s just dump some money on a nice hotel room. I don’t mind the splurge and it’d be good to get a full night’s sleep.”

I should have taken her up on it. We should have ditched the whole scene and slept for 12 hours straight. We already knew that Abi had to catch a plane to go back home to India in the morning – we’d be up at 6:30 again.

But I didn’t, because I hate spending money I don’t have – because, in Berlin, 5 Euros turns into 20 before you can say, “Nein!”

“I told you guys,” I said, closing the computer lid. “I told you. Berlin is awful.”

Abi looked up.

“What?”

“Mary hates Berlin,” said Kačka.

“No! Berlin hates me!

“Mary, just because you had a bad experience here once, doesn’t mean it’s a bad city.”

“You guys don’t understand,” I said. “This city is the bane of my existence.”

“That seems a little unfair,” said Abi. “How long were you here last time?”

“Four hours,” I said quietly.

He rolled his eyes.

“We need to show you what Berlin is really like before you say you hate it.”

It hates me!”

We left the apartment ten minutes later to find pizza, still pretty vague on the sleeping plan, but pretty set on getting some real food.

We found an Italian hole-in-the-wall and Kačka spoke to the waiter in her broken German (even though we had an actual German with us…Anika’s a bit of a pacifist).

The waiter sat us around a ‘reserved’ table.

“Do we have reservations?” I asked her.

“I don’t think so,” said Kačka, settling in. “But he asked if we did and I said, ‘sorta’ and here we are. Enjoy!”

Turns out it didn’t matter where we sat, but I felt bad until we were able to corner the waiter and clear up the misunderstanding.

We ate pizza and talked about the culture differences between the USA, the Czech Republic, Germany and India – drinking ages, hospitality, portion sizes, party etiquette. Weddings and elephants got brought into conversation again, but I forgot how.

I was getting more and more tired. My head hurt and I was worried about where we were going to end up. We were all pretty deep in conversation but I wasn’t swimming as well as everyone else. Eventually, I said something that came out badly and Sarah ended up at the wrong end of it.

If there was one point in the Berlin trip that was lower than the rest, this was undoubtedly it. I sat there at the table, unable to escape either my headache or the shame of my big mouth.

Faking a general appearance of cheerfulness, I followed everyone back to the flat.

Misery.

Berlin makes me crazy.

I thought about curling up in the stairwell with a book until everyone was ready for bed, but they insisted I watch the Bollywood film with them.

Can I just say that if there was a high point to this trip – or to the holidays in general, or maybe even to the year – it was this movie. It was this crazy, ridiculous, hilarious movie about forgiveness, second chances, friendship, love and every other cliche in the book. I loved every second of it.

It had actually put me in a pretty good mood when we all started getting ready for ‘lights out.’ Short-lived joy.

I spent the night dreading the morning. Sleep was hard to keep hold of because I was right next to the wall which is basically an ice cube with a thin plaster covering. And although there was bed enough for three of us, there was not blanket enough. I went without. Somehow Sarah went without as well and we’re all wondering why… Kačka.

6:00 could not come soon enough. Kačka was already up and hogging the bathroom but I shoved my way in and washed my face and hands and anything else I could possibly get the “sleep” feel off of.

Slowly, people got up and we helped Abi put his apartment back together. Kačka promised she’d make us eggs, but that never happened.

“Someone should finish the rest of my ice cream,” said Abi. “It’ll just be bad by the time I get back.”

“I can do that,” I offered, finally feeling helpful. Kačka, Katka and I polished it off as we cleared the kitchen counters and washed and dried the dishes. Sarah and Anika remained mostly stationary for much of the morning.

“I don’t do well without breakfast,” Sarah muttered at one point.

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Abi eventually kicked us out so he could finish vacuuming – after Anika helped him get a taxi and we took the worst group selfie of all time. We said our ‘goodbyes’ and not nearly enough ‘thank you’s and began the next adventure: finding food.

The girls knew a great place but Kačka and Anika needed to drop their bags off at their second host’s house. We split up and decided to meet them at the breakfast joint.

I dragged myself through Germany’s public transit with the hope that a warm place to sit and eat was close by. It wasn’t close by, but I dragged myself anyway.

It was closed.

We went all that way and it closed.

Katka walked down the street a ways and motioned for us to follow her into a small, though nicely furnished, cafe.

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I claimed the wall seat and we sat ourselves around a wooden table with multilingual menus. The waiter came around and lit our candle for us. We ordered food. I was feeling so sick that I just asked for  ‘cornflakes,’ which I was a little surprised to even find on the menu.

The girls’ meals showed up piping hot and emitting savory smells. Bacon, eggs, vegetables, toast with jam.

I got a small bowl of purple mush.

Purple mush.

I don’t even fully know what it was. It was like purple oatmeal that was the texture and consistency of eel eggs. The fruit around it was a nice touch but it in no way compensated for the main dish.

Like, I’m not exaggerating here. It was actually purple.

“Wow,” said Sarah when she saw my meager breakfast. “Berlin does hate you…”

I fell asleep again.

Kačka and Anika eventually found us and we all set out for the Berlin Wall. We’d been walking about five minutes when I reached for my phone to find it missing. I searched my pockets and my backpack.

“It’s definitely gone,” I said. “I must have left it at the restaurant.”

The girls groaned and I ran back for it. I was so frustrated and flustered. The waiter and an old lady went out of their way to help me look but we couldn’t find it. I went down to the bathroom to see if I left it there and then I felt it in my inner coat pocket.

Not that I didn’t already know what idiocy feels like, but this was a strong reminder.

Berlin

The girls sang their way to the Wall and I joined in when I knew the words. But the sight of the Wall took my breath away.

It doesn’t look spectacular. Just a wall. Just a wall with a lot of graffiti. The girls marched ahead of me, arms linked, still singing. Sarah and I lingered behind, taking it in.

“Let’s get a selfie!” said one of the girls when we caught up to them.

“In front of the wall?” I asked, appalled. “Isn’t that disrespectful?”

“How?”

“People died here!”

“People die everywhere.”

“But,” I stammered. “People died here for a reason.”

“And now look at that reason,” said the girls. “Look at what we’ve done to this wall. We’ve stripped it of its power. It’s just a wall now.”

They had a point, but I still felt irreverent snapping the photo.

We found a place to buy souvenirs and we walked to the Brandenburg Gate and got some more selfies. Sarah almost burst into tears when she saw the American embassy across the street and we both stared at the flag fluttering outside for a long time. The girls remained chipper and sing-songy but I was fading fast. My head hurt and I was so, so tired. To make matters worse, everyone kept saying things like, “Cheer up!” or “It’s okay, be happy!”

“I am happy,” I tried to tell them. “I’m just not feeling well. But I’m having a good time, I swear.”

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I could tell my personal raincloud was dampening the parade so we decided to go back to the bus station early and wait at Andy’s diner and bar. It was one of our stops anyway. Who cared if we got there two hours earlier than we had planned.

Why Andy’s diner and bar?

Not just because real American burgers sounded really, really good. No, it’s because Andy’s diner and bar saved my life a year and a half ago.

I fell asleep on the U-Bahn on the way over and woke up with a splitting headache. We missed our connection and decided to walk. We got lost. It started to rain. But I could feel my resolve strengthening. We were so close.

And then, there it was. Like a beacon of hope, just across the street from us, modest and homey. Just like last time.

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We found a booth in the middle of the floor with a view of the street through the almost floor-to-ceiling windows. Everything inside was either brown leather or red, white and blue fabric. Burgers, real nachos, real chili. And yellow Fanta.

“Why are you getting that?” asked Sarah.

“This is what I got last time,” I said. “I need the closure.”

“What was so bad about last time anyway?” asked Katka, dipping into the nachos.

I sat back and sighed.

“I had just landed in Europe,” I told them. “I had no idea how public transportation worked, no clue how to speak German, and was terrified out of my mind. My connecting bus to Prague was several stops away from the airport and I had a fifty pound suitcase with me and a forty pound accordion – without wheels, I should add. I got lost. It was raining. I walked up and down the stairs of like a hundred underpasses because this part of Berlin doesn’t have crosswalks, lugging my suitcase and accordion with me. Then some Romani guy tried conning me out of twenty Euros which was hurtful, embarrassing and traumatizing in equal measure. I ended up only giving him five, but still…” I trailed off for a second, smiling miserably as I remembered that horrific encounter. “And then I found this diner. It was right next to the bus stop so I settled in and ordered the least expensive thing I could find – yellow Fanta. I cleaned up in the bathroom below and felt so much better. And everything had home written all over it. I was so nervous about moving my whole life over here, I think Andy’s diner was the final push I needed to get me all the way to Prague.”

We were all quiet for a moment and then Kačka said, “Well, you have us now, so you don’t need this diner.”

True.

And Berlin, despite it’s bleakness, is bright enough with friends around.

So maybe this isn’t my best city. Maybe we’ll go through places in life that we know will be trouble-magnets. Maybe the headache just has to stick around and the rain has to fall and you have to be lost to realize that places are made beautiful by the people who see them – like guys willing to lend you a bed, waiters and old ladies wanting to help search for something you’ve lost, and friends who sing and dance and beg you to smile because they can’t be happy if you’re not.

I’ve been worried that 2015 might not be a good year for me – odd numbers and all. But if this year is my Berlin, I know exactly what to do.

Spiders, sparrows and a minor meltdown

Time: approximately 9 p.m. on Sunday the 14th of September.

Location: third floor hallway leading towards the bathrooms.

Situation: precarious.

Life in Zbraslav 2014-15I traced the hallway to its end, fully aware that this time of year – in this region of the house – is known for an influx in hostile forces. Time and training – and brutal personal experience – has taught me to look under the bathroom door frame before stepping through it, check the shower drain before climbing in, and shake the towel before using it. There is no telling when or where a spider may stage its attack. Constant vigilance is required to survive here.

This understood, the bathroom tends to be more of a danger zone than the water closet (a water closet is where Europeans keep the toilet because having a John and a sink in the same room makes no sense, whatsoever). It was in the direction of the W.C. that I was headed, so although I was wary, I was not prepared – mentally or emotionally – for what was about to cross my path.

I crossed the hearth of the small room. It feels like a bomb shelter with its low ceiling and narrow walls – except, of course, for the toilet at the end and the lace curtain in the window.

Sleep was already getting the better of me and the house was quiet.

And then. Then it happened.

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Find your inner lumberjack

IMG_1315Close your eyes. Seriously do this.

(Okay, I realize you can’t read this with your eyes closed, so metaphorically do this).

Close your eyes and picture newly harvested wheat fields rolling out below your feet. You can see yellow stubs barely escaping from earth that is soft and dark, covering the hills like a shaggy, golden carpet. And you can feel the flutter of the summer’s last few insects around your ankles. Now turn slowly, breathing in the freshness of the air, and look behind you where the seam between the fields and the forest is sown up with moss and sapling trees. The heart of the forest is deep and still. You can hear it sighing as it prepares for its winter slumber.

And it doesn’t matter what time you picture yourself there because this little corner of the earth probably hasn’t changed significantly in centuries. The years have rolled by like waves on a forgotten beach, uncounted.

It was here that I found my inner lumberjack.

On a cool Sunday afternoon I traveled by bus to Liberec, a town within a day’s hike from the borders of both Germany and Poland, to visit a Czech family for my last few days of summer.

This particular family likes to spend their free days going out to their farm to clear wood, maintain the buildings on the property, and shoot airguns. Mr. K is Czech and Mrs. K is so very British, and all four of their sons are a delight. So our time was sprinkled with things very Czech, very British and very delightful.

Monday, just after a lovely lunch of homemade stuffed puff-pastries, we trekked out to the countryside with tools, a picnic basket, warm jackets, a dog and some little neighborhood boys. The boys – about 10 and 12 – were very excited to join the expedition and the three of us sat, giddy children ready for an adventure. (The boys’ mom had just gotten back from the hospital with their newest sibling and Mrs. K thought it might be good to lighten her load, so to speak). Also along to help was sweet Eliška, a friend of the K family and a friend of mine.

We were a motley crew, the lot of us. But we were greeted warmly by the co-owners of the farm and their flock of sheep and goats. (Necessary selfies were taken with the farm animals).

My family did 4-H for years so stepping out of the van into the smell of manure and old hay was a bit like stepping back into my childhood, minus the pigtails and that obnoxious horse that, I swear, was out to kill me.
The farm has been jointly owned by the K family for 86 years, broken up briefly when it was seized by the Nazis and then controlled by the communists. The property has seen hard years, but the Ks have been working hard to keep the place running and useful. They lease out the fields to the co-owner and take care of the large shed and barn which have both seen damage from floods, thieves and the ever-turning hand of time.

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IMG_1289DSC_6909And every week, they drive out to fix, clean and log (and shoot airguns), which the youngest son tells me, without bothering to hide his frustration, is a bit of a drag.

“Anything gets boring if you do it every week for eight years,” he repeated to me several times during the course of our walk through the fields to the river and up the wooded hillside (The men had driven the van ahead of us through the fields – we went up the back way to take in a bit of the property). “I don’t see any reason to do all this. It makes more sense to stay home and play video games.”

Ah, the wisdom of twelve year olds. And he reminds me of mine back home.

Not even the incredible view of the pastures and the tree-laced slopes that towered over the right side of the path seemed to perk up his spirits. I tried to dampen my excitement for his sake, but there was no getting around the fact that this day was an adventure I have been dreaming of my whole life. Farm animals. Old buildings. Harvested wheat fields. A FOREST WITH TREES TO BE CUT DOWN. The Paul Bunyan in me (that secretly lives in every American) was crying tears of joy as we began our climb up the steep slope of the hill.

We found the guys taking down old trees and sawing them into chunks. Pulling on our gloves, we then carried them over to the edge of the forest where they were loaded into the van.

Some of the logs were light because of rot and others were cumbersome or sticky with sap. Like any good lumberjack, I sat on the heavy ones until they behaved themselves. Bunyan would have been proud.

We couldn’t have asked for a better work environment. The forest was beautiful. Tiny pinecones hung on tree branches like ornaments and red berries brightened the deep green boughs. It looked like my sister had gone in there and decorated the whole place for a pre-Christmas hot cocoa party.

I was amazed at how dark it was in the forest. Those trees stretch up to the heavens with thick leaves fleshing out their upper branches. But down where we walk around, all we see are trunks or dying limbs, spots that are decaying or that have been rubbed raw by the wild boar herds that roam around. (Yes, you read that right, there are wild boar herds here). But when you walk toward the clearing, towards those golden fields, the sunlight pours down like champagne – it glitters and bubbles and warms you right up.

I will always find it amazing, how powerful the sun is.

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It’s difficult work, actually. Carrying bundles of wood is hard on your arms, your legs, your back and any dignity you thought you had. I dropped things on my toes. I found myself struggling to carry wood in the most awkward positions before realizing I probably could have just made two trips. I nearly died several times after discovering a spider(s) upon my person.

One glove didn’t fit properly so things tended to slip from that hand. And my glasses cut off my peripheral vision so I walked into more than one tree during the course of the afternoon.

“Have a drink, Mary,” said Mrs. K. She held out a turquoise cup – plastic, like the kind my grandma kept in her bottom cupboard for the grandkids when we all came over. I took it gratefully, noting that the youngest K boy and one of the neighborhood chums were both taking a break also, their handsaw and pile of logs resting peacefully behind the back tire of the van.

I was surprised when I took a sip of what I had presumed was black tea. The sweet, tingly taste of Dr. Pepper burst onto my tongue, like a distant memory that becomes brighter when revisiting old pictures and songs. I don’t remember the last time I had a Dr. Pepper and I don’t think I even cared for it that much in the USA. But now I’m pretty sure it will always taste like nostalgia.

We kept a steady pace for several hours, until the light turned the color of grain and the sky began to pale. The boys kept sawing, Eliška and I carried (and dragged, when necessary) wood to the growing stack of timber, and we all ate cookies. Also, I chopped down a tree.

Wait, let’s go back to that last one.

I CHOPPED DOWN A TREE.

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For a moment, I stopped halfway between our worksite and the fields. I looked about at all the dying wood that needed to be cleared. The Ks may never be able to finish this. They may never see their dreams for the roofless barn fulfilled. They may toil on this land till they wither and die like the trees. And it will still be good.

This is humbling work. It is hard work. And I can see how, after many years, it can feel very unimportant.

But in what other way can we so directly fulfill God’s calling to be a steward of the earth? With dirty hands and sweaty faces we are giving a small sacrifice of obedience to the Creator who has given us so much.

“Content to fill a little space, if Thou be glorified.”

Those are some words, aren’t they? I always forget the name of the hymn, but that one line comes back to me often. This forest is one of the little spaces where the K family is faithfully glorifying God.

We loaded the rest of the wood, ate the rest of the goodies in the picnic basket, and then made our way back toward the farmyard. We sent the neighbor boys and the dog back through the forest with youngest K boy, his earlier wishes to stay home and play video games melted into sap-slicked hands and vivacious laughter.

The van bumped along slowly, loaded heavily with our tools and the last of the wood. From the window, those rolling hills looked like sleeping dragons whose golden scales rippled beneath the pull of the evening wind. And I thought of my own little space. My place of toil.

I closed my eyes and pictured it. I pictured the warm, soapy water I mop the floor with on Saturday mornings. I pictured the grouchy little faces of students I sometimes run out of patience for. I pictured long, long walks home from the bus when I’m cold and tired. I pictured those moments where I doubted or, worse, begrudged the work I have been given.

Somehow, understanding that our daily chores and responsibilities are like woodlands that need to be tended – and if not by us, then by whom? – makes it easier to pick up the ax and saw with a smile. Not saying that the work becomes any less difficult or the forest any less dark, only that it’s so much easier to see that the place you’re laboring in is really very beautiful when you know the purpose for which you’re toiling. And my, that sun is powerful. IMG_1344