2014 Snapshots: Christmas Cookie Overdose

{From now until the new year I am sharing daily vignettes from 2014 as I attempt to share some of my stories and photos from this year}

December 2014

I grew up in a little brick house that sat on the edge of a big green field. It was an old and ordinary place, with yellow carpet that must have seemed groovy in the 70s and a big bay window that encompassed thirty percent of the living room wall. The couch was pushed up against the window so that we could turn around, press our noses to the glass, and spy on the ever-annoying boys next door. There were five of them. And our silly faces through the window made doing outside chores pretty much impossible for them.

The Thompsons lived in the house across the field and I spent my childhood tracking across the grass and gravel that paved our house to theirs. We spent hot summer afternoons lying on the trampoline and cold winter breaks sledding down powdery mulch hills. Our beds were wagon forts we used to travel across the Wild West and our kitchens were full of homemade play-doh and chocolate pie.

We grew up and moved a few miles away and our lives became less entangled as we all got older. But the Thompson boys are still a part of our family, and Christmas without them wouldn’t be Christmas at all.

So this year, after going too long without seeing the kids we’d gotten this far through life with, Hannah and I took matters into our own hands and invited ourselves over for a cookie baking date. We all made a pact. Pajamas. Fuzzy socks. Home Alone. And every type of cookie imaginable.

We played Mariah Carey on our laptops and completely wrecked the kitchen. Snickerdoodles. Then white chocolate macadamian nut. Oh, then cream cheese icing for the red velvet cookies. And their dad would have killed us if we’d left out chocolate chip. We towered above their mom and shooed her away from the dishes but with our rumpled hair and mismatched socks we all kind of felt like kids again. Licking the batter. Singing loudly to “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.” Quoting Elf. Eating five or six or eleven cookies.

Halfway through the third batch someone turned on Home Alone. And the seven of us crowded onto two couches and complained about our stomach aches and laughed so hard they ached even more. We passed around the chocolate chippers and made another grocery store run for milk. Then their mom came out with grilled cheese sandwiches to balance the sweets and we all groaned and ate some more.

2014 was an incredible year. I saw exotic places and pet tigers and rode elephants and flew around the world and back. And I had some crazy amazing days. But this day was actually crazy amazing too. I ate cookies. I lost count of calories or decency. I stayed in my pajamas until dinnertime. I laughed until literal tears swelled in my eyes.

I’m not trying to compare it to waterfalls or island paradises, but cookie baking was perfect. I hope that one day when I tug into my memory for stories to tell my grandchildren about my childhood, I’ll remember mornings like these. When I looked awful and took very few pictures and probably needed a shower and a run and some greens while I was at it. But when I just didn’t care. I was so happy to bake and eat and laugh and just be.

And that was one of the best days of 2014.

-Rachel

2014 Snapshots: Near-Death By Waterfall

{From now until the new year I am sharing daily vignettes from 2014 as I attempt to share some of my stories and photos from this year}

May 2014

Some memories are associated with a smell. Rice and beans simmering on the stove top smell like my chidhood and my mother’s tan hands and her mother’s Cuban cooking. Others are wrapped in a song, in the same way “Danny’s Song” folds me in my grandfather’s arms on a hot summer night with the porch grill smoking and fireflies in the backyard. But some memories are stamped in a color. And Laos was green.

Laos was green in the way that Independence Day is red, white, and blue or Marilyn Monroe’s hair was blonde. It wasn’t something you had to think about or even discuss. The hills, once full of tall trees and wild creatures, were bald and ripe with color. Bombs had stripped away the wood and emptied the forests but the new earth that peeked through the overturn soil was rich and bright. Green like grass. Green like Laos.

I spent my days there in the backseat of a pickup truck, my internal organs mildly disturbed by the bumping and bruising those dirt roads caused. I saw mountains and caves and temples and valleys. Dark and light and bright and green.

But my favorite memory from Laos was the day I thought I’d die. Not by tigers or unwashed produce or rodents… But by a sweet hike to a waterfall.

Our tour guide rolled to a stop at the top of a steep hill and took the keys out of the van. “Hike to waterfall,” he told us in broken English. “Two hour.”

We stood at the edge of a thick jungle. In front of us were the traces of a weathered and near indistinguishable trail. In America, we have signs and stops and assurances that everything is safe and up-to-date. In Laos we have tiny Asian men beckoning us to the woods with a completely sketchy, “Come, come. We hike. Two hour.”

I shifted to evenly distribute the weight of my heavy backpack. Two camera bodies, a wide angle lens, and two smaller lenses. So much glass padded and hoisted onto my shoulders with two thick straps. This was going to be…enjoyable.

My partner and I exchanged a glance as the hike quickly went from strolling through the rainforest to climbing downward at an eighty-degree angle in about five minutes. Suddenly we realized that we were up and that the waterfall was down.  As in, spider-crawl-on-your-hands down. For nearly an hour, we teetered on the edge of jungle drop offs, following our tour guide down the iffy trail and praying we wouldn’t fall and crush our camera bags. 

The further down we hiked, the damper the ground beneath us became. My Chacos were caked with red mud. “Wait.” Our guide stopped abruptly and turned to give us a look. “Leeches.” He pointed at the ground and for the first time I noticed tiny black slugs littering the trail around us. “Grab stick,” he said, demonstrating picking a leech off his foot with a twig, “And take off.” Then he turned around and continued hiking.

Suddenly aware of our new companions, my stomach churned and I had a hard time walking straight. Every few minutes, something wet and slick suddenly landed on my foot. I’d look down and see them. Thin black leeches, their bodies hovering in the air at the smell of warm, fresh blood. They’d jump from the dirt into our sandals. Attached to our toes and ankles, snaking up our legs.

By the time we reached the waterfall my skin was crawling and my blood felt cold. How many black bloodsuckers had I pried off the hem of my pants? My shoulders ached and I stood on slippery rocks and felt rather indifferent to the miracle of nature in front of me.

Thousands of gallons of water rushed and spurted and burst before me. The heart of the jungle was lush. Green was such an intense color, I realized. Bleeding through the leaves and moss and moist air. Nature was so powerful and God seemed so big. My friends decided to be daredevils and climb the jagged rocks to get closer to the sprays of water. We took selfies and laughed and congratulated each other on surviving the leeches. No one wanted to go back.

But turn around we did, and that second hour ended up being more like an hour and a half. Hiking almost directly uphill, through the leeches and branches and steep chunks of earth. My stomach was in my throat. I’ve never felt so tired and weary and sick. It was hot in the jungle and my backpack was heavy and I slipped half a dozen times on red clay and protruding roots. Our little Lao guide was distressed over my unathletic hiking abilities and insisted we stop every five minutes so I could rest.

But at the end of the trail, peeking through the trees, I could see the van. The saliva in my mouth felt crumbly and dry and I almost started crying. I emerged from the woods and ran the last few steps to the van before dropping my bag unceremoniously and hugging the dirty white vehicle.

“Of all the happy moments of my life,” I gasped through heaving breaths, “My first kiss, my wedding day, the birth of my first child… I don’t think anything will EVER compare to the happiness I feel in this moment.”

Laos tried to kill me. But I survived that waterfall hike.

And that was one of the best days of 2014.

-Rachel

2014 Snapshots: The Pictures That Changed Me

{From now until the new year I am sharing daily vignettes from 2014 as I attempt to share some of my stories and photos from this year}

January 2014

I met a couple with thick accents and dark haired boys in a crisp Sunday morning in the middle of January. They stumbled into our church and somehow made it to my living room couch a few nights later. We eat pasta and more pasta and sit on the floor and play with the boys and share our lives. They live on wheels, traveling the country. Never in the same place for more than a week or two. She’s young and pretty, always the same red plaid coat and wispy fringed bangs. He speaks Russian to her and English to me. Their boys know a little of both.

I want to take their pictures. I don’t know why, but I do. I want it to be a gift.

Gift. This is what they teach me about life: That God loves me. Gift.

We’re riding in the car with worship music on the radio and the boys playing with superman toys in the backseat. Talking about life and God and what a life with the purpose of serving God looks like. He lightly hits the wheel and laughs, beaming at me. “I’m so excited for you!” I can hear it in his voice. The genuine joy over hearing about one heart pierced by the Gospel. He looks at me sideways and glances at his wife in the rearview window. “And you see now, don’t you? How God was always in your life getting you ready for this?”

We spend an evening in the park with the sky above smudged like charcoal and they laugh at my use of the word “ominous” and we run with the boys alongside swinging ziplines and smile at the gift of love. My camera never stops clicking. These aren’t posed portraits. They’re blurry and brightened with reddening noses and messy hair.

The cold air crackles in my lungs and on this night I feel so happy.

A few days later I get a short message, in broken English, asking for me to come to their camper to deliver the pictures. I get there in the evening and the icy wind bites at my bare hands as I knock on the door and stumble inside, a bundle of coat and scarf and eighteen-year-old girl. She’s wearing gym shorts and the boys are watching cartoons and I admire the cozy little home they roll across the country in. She presses a rolled up parcel into my hands. It’s sticky with saran wrap and she tells me to take it home and open it later.

My house is dark by the time I get home and everyone is getting ready for bed. I stand under the light of the microwave and carefully unwrap the package. Pressing out the creases, I unroll the paper and blink. My heart skips a beat. “Damn,” my dad mutters behind me, and no one even notices. Holding up the picture to the light, my eyes begin to water and I see my own face staring back at me from behind my blurry tears.

There’s a note attached to the card. And another gift. The zeros curl out on the edge of the check, so much more money on one sheet of paper than any single person has ever given me. My voice shakes as I read the words scrawled out in blue ink. “Go into the world with peace, love, power of prayer, courage, wisdom, spirit of joy, balance of understanding in foreign countries. We blessed to meet you and blessed to be half through you as missionaries.”

This is what I know about life: God loves me. Infinitely, unfathomably, and mercifully. As I curled up in bed, my cheek pressed to the cold pillow, this thought echoed in my head. That the Lord gives. He gives friendship. He gives love. He gives blessings, even when I least expect or deserve it. My breathing became slow and heavy as I exhaled, “I love you, Jesus,” and drifted off to sleep. Gift.

And that was one of the best days of 2014.

-Rachel