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Seeing the Mess and Calling It Beautiful

Cabin

Each morning as I drive across town to drop my child off at school, we pass through the streets that wind around the university that I attended and graduated from many moons ago. The semester has been winding down, and finals are being given. Each day we pass by, there are fewer cars in the parking lots and noticeably more vehicles parked curbside as fathers load them up with overflowing laundry baskets of college accoutrements.

As I take in the scene each morning, images of my own white Jeep Wrangler parked at the same curbs flash through my mind. This time of year, it would also get packed full of overflowing laundry baskets of random items, because I have never professed to pack well for anything. Or unpack well, for that matter.

Those memories have collected over the course of the week, continually triggered by the sight of dorm rooms being packed up and high school seniors in cap and gown and by the stories I’ve heard people sharing about plans for summer trips or summer jobs. The air is buzzing with heavy-hearted, sentimental good-byes and the anxiety that major life transitions and milestones bring. It’s also electric with excitement and anticipation of the promise of new beginnings, new adventures, and new freedoms.

Wide-open space was what I was looking for when I packed up my Jeep about this time 17 years ago. If memory serves, it was also the song I belted out right along with the Dixie Chicks as I drove that Jeep from Tennessee to Colorado that summer. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I belted that song out, either. My little white Jeep with Wrangler scrawled down the side in purple and teal had a gray soft top, so whether I was singing or talking, I was always competing with the flapping of vinyl fabric going 70 miles per hour.

At my current age, I would opt for the hard top. Standard transmission would also be selected for such a road trip. At 20, however, I was thrilled with a manual transmission and a soft top, and all I can say is that it made Kansas a more memorable experience. What Kansas lacked in scenery to entertain my eyes, it more than made up for with wind noise in my ears.

I arrived in Colorado not knowing a single soul. Through word of mouth, I heard about different jobs and applied for them, getting hired on to do housekeeping for the summer. I got set up with a cabin to rent and a roommate to share it with, not knowing a single thing about either one of them. The roommate turned out to be a blessing from God, and the cabin we affectionately referred to as “the shack”. The toilet was essentially inside of the shower, if that paints any kind of picture. I was there alone for the first several days, when the ancient fuse blew inside of the ancient fuse box and the hot-water heater decided not to work. For the first time since hatching this grand idea to escape to the mountains, I paused that night to wonder what I had gotten myself into as I took an icy shower in a cabin without heat.

Some might say it was an omen for the trials that would come shortly thereafter, or attribute it as a sign from God that I should have turned my tail around and gone back home where I belonged. But I don’t think it was.

I think it was more like growing pains with the initial jolts and shocks that come with moving into a startling, new reality that a whole host of family and close friends have tried to shield a young person from, while simultaneously trying to prepare him or her for life inside of it. But those efforts can only fall short, even with the best of intentions, because those lessons can only be learned independently. That work has to be done outside of the familiar, the comfortable, and the safe, which is a lesson I’m still learning to this day. It is also why I believe that every good “coming of age” story begins with a road trip.

So much about that time and that summer was and is beautiful. The day trips, scenery, experiences, and life-long friendships are all etched into the fabric of my being, and I love every single one of those memories. Still, there are aspects to it that are dark and ugly, and frankly, they continue to have an affect on my ability to live my present-day life. Perhaps that is why those memories are visiting me again and at this time. Recently, I’ve begun doing the work of examining all the pieces of my story by bringing a whole heart, wise mind, sensitive spirit, and gentle strength to a round table in order to view it with eyes wide open until I can truthfully call each piece beautiful.

Once I am able to do that, I can safely and lovingly bring those things back inside myself and live peacefully with them. I have tried many other ways to reconcile my experiences, but this is the only way that I’ve found that ends with me being more like a complete person. Otherwise, these dark, jagged memories continue to dangle off of me like uncultivated tendrils, getting tangled up on things as I pass through life, causing me to trip, sometimes falling all the way down.

The pruning process can be painful and messy, and the result may still be somewhat of a mess, but it is a beautiful mess and a much more peaceful me. So, I am going to practice welcoming the memories as they come each morning as we drive through campus, until all the cars are gone and the students have moved on to whatever is next. I’m going to practice telling the truth about them until I can call them beautiful and bring them inside. I’ll practice pruning off the dead ends slowly and gently, and maybe by the end of the summer, something more deeply human will have taken shape.