"so you’re going to Africa." i thought Gray looked at me through squinty eyes, but I couldn’t tell if it was just his face. Gray was a perfect stranger.
"yeah. i leave the end of this month."
he was carefully preparing his tiered glass bottle. he looked at me again. i was memorizing french verbs on my iphone. my eyes watched him when it seemed that he wasn’t noticing.
"why what?" i clarified.
he puffed on his hookah until curls of smoke spun into the air. ”why are you wanting to go to Africa for a year.”
"because…" i stopped. i had almost rattled out the repetitive response that i snap out at people like a comeback. Gray was puffing and staring at me. he really did want to know why.
"you’re one of two people to actually ask me." i admitted.
"who was the other guy?" he immediately asked.
"he doesn’t matter." i spit out just as fast. as if i wouldn’t think of him, anyways.
Gray went back to puffing and i went back to thinking.
"i was built this way." i finally said, breaking the silence. "i just know my whole life is going to be spent in a simple place. hot sun and dirty children. i can’t explain how i know. it’s just right."
he nodded a single nod. squinty eyes still staring.
"i have this idea," i said. "maybe…it can happen this year. i’m going to try to bridge the over-abundance of the states to the poverty overseas."
"how?" he quipped.
"awareness." i paused, and went on. "if universities made credit and extra-curricular coursework available for departments like healthcare or engineering, then students could go abroad for a few months and experience firsthand the lifestyle in malnourished countries."
"extra coursework in Africa?"
"sure. or south america. or asia. the point is, what if it became an average thing for any student to be able to perform their major abroad? while students are weighing life goals and planning ten-year decisions, what if they have an encounter with overwhelming need in a different country? how would that change their goals? how would it change universities? how would that change this entire generation of students?"
"universities already have something like that set up."
"it’s not simple, it’s not an encouraged thing, and it’s not easy to do before grad."
"so how could you promote it?"
"have a trial year. i found three volunteer organizations off google. pretty average for volunteer work. i’ll write about my experiences in a book to get students excited."
"…you’ll write a book."
"and then i’ll introduce my idea to universities and get them to hop on board. it’ll spread like facebook. parents will gain the same awareness as the students out of concern for their kid."
Gray had stopped puffing and was staring again. i shifted in my seat. “how old are you?”
he reached for the pipe. “alright.” he blew Os in the air. “you go to africa. you do that. yeah…you do that.”
and naturally, hannah needs a banner to welcome her back properly. i called her dad and we made the arrangements, so all that was left to do was find craft supplies on campus to make the banner.
and collectively, the music building, missions department, and bookstore didn’t let me down. i drove to the cafeteria for forks to stab my banner into the grass.
"heather!" the director smiled as i walked inside.
i laughed. “how’s summertime in walla walla?”
the first week of college, i tried to sneak fourteen bananas out the caf inside my yellow coat. very politely, the director stopped me and asked if i would please, only take one instead of all at once? i laughed and we’ve been friends ever since…he always asks how my day is and i always wave when he drives by.
today, i sat down with my poster and marker, and he supplied plastic forks and tape while i told him all about Africa. he told me about how he’s leaving Burean church, and i informed him nobody is happy about that.
we laughed together and i sighed. ”i wish…i wish sometimes that i had used my head, when i was here. i could have been more good here.”
he looked at me closely. “did you drive your car here?”
"your car has a rearview mirror and a windshield. the windshield…that’s your view. your safety depends on your eyes being glued to that windshield. and the rearview mirror?"
"that’s for looking back."
“but only for a moment. you glance at it, to have a better perspective of where you are. but your windshield is your view.” he smiled. “don’t stare in the rearview mirror, heather. look onward, because your safety depends on that view.”
i sat in silence. eating his words. he smiled again.
"be good in Africa."
i was driving in the blue car, checking out streets.
where do You want me to go? put me where You want me.
kirk franklin was getting his praise on over the radio and books were stacked in the backseat…you know, one of those canvassing mornings.
i parked on a shady street that was stuffed full of promising cars. as the books were going into the bag, i noticed a hispanic man trudging his way towards me. i smiled politely.
"es’cuse me, miss." he stopped. "where…how close is walla walla?"
"a few miles!" i told him, pulling out my phone. we looked at google maps together.
"my friend, he say he meets me here, and he no come. i go to walla walla and meet him." he looked homely, with scuffed shoes and a tattered backpack.
i was praying because i knew what my dad would say, but i wanted to know what my Dad had to say. and He said go for it.
"i’ll drive you there!" i offered.
"whaa?" he shook his head. i made a steering motion and started for the car.
"noooo! no, miss, i…i walk."
"get in the car," i said, "it’s 98 degrees." and so he had to follow me.
"so what is your name?" i turned to reach my seat belt. out of the corner of my eye, i saw him reach inside his backpack and point something at me. i froze. eyes darted.
but i had already shuddered involuntarily, because there is one fear that sits in my mind always.
"heather." i pulled out into the street. of course, Myra Street was under construction, and we zig zagged through neighborhoods. he clutched his seat.
"um, miss…es wrong." he pointed to the ENTER sign i was exiting.
"oh, my bad!" i laughed, zooming out of the lot. he wiped his forehead.
"Yah-shuah, do you have family in town?" i wanted to know.
he explained that he doesn’t. he works on cars and came here looking for a job. his english gave out, and so we switched to spanish.
"where do i turn now, Yah-shuah?"
"left." we sailed through the intersection. "o-kay, no problem, we go left here." he nodded patiently and i squinted. "left!"
"oui." i hit my forehead with my palm. "si. je suis désolé." i paused. "i mean lo siento!" we laughed until the car swerved, and then he stopped laughing.
finally we made it past the road construction. “good job!” he beamed. “give me five.” we smacked hands.
i pulled onto his street and parked. he turned to me.
"miss, i wan to say, thank you." i nodded, but he wanted to say more. "you, you have a good heart, and…and…" he searched for words, but could only shake my hand again and again and again. "thank you, miss."
that was my chance to tell him about angels. he grew serious. he told me about the church services he remembers from his childhood, but his disconnection from God. and then i could tell him in terrible spanish about the God made of love.
i think about yah-shuah often. hopefully, he found his friends.
i stared at the pile of green bills on my bed.
i counted again.
i hugged my knees and thought about it.
God has been trying to talk to me about canvassing. the entire story would take all night to type, even though it’s only a few weeks old. but simply said, i just knew that God had put the idea to canvass in my mind, and He wanted me to go to Africa. it didn’t seem right that i should canvass the streets of walla walla the regular way. i used to run to houses and flash smiles and say all sorts of things to sell books, and at the end of the day i would count my money. fourteen books today. i’m not so bad of a canvasser.
but that doesn’t seem right.
and since this night of canvassing, i knew that there was a different way.
i could try to sell books, and i would sell books.
or i could try to just glorify God, and God would be glorified.
it made sense.
to be honest, this week has been a mess. i’ve driven all over town and done the worst canvassing job imaginable. i’ve barely sold any books. i’ve barely said the canvass. i’ve barely pushed any sales.
but the people i met. i can’t keep track of the stories. i’ve spent hours in homes, crying with parents and praying with families. and every single day, God has been there. God has blessed.
"my goal is to make a thousand dollars for Africa," I prayed. "just so You know, God."
and then i continued $60 canvassing days.
so yesterday, i folded the stack of money and put it in my wallet. at the bank, i counted it again in the car. “$848?” i said out loud. “that’s weird.” i shrugged. math isn’t my thing.
inside, they shuffled it through the money counter. “$932,” they told me.
"i’m sorry, that can’t be right." i insisted. they looked at my blankly.
"count it again!"
i weakly took the bills.
on the way home, i glanced in my wallet and found two more mysterious checks.
well, you know the total.
"let me get this straight," my Dad said on the phone. "you count money, and it just multiplies in your wallet?"
"so more money just goes in your purse and you don’t even know how or why?"
"well, i know why, and i definitely know how."
…is always the best house.
i knocked, and a smiling woman answered. she was interested in the cookbook. and the devotional. she smiled as i told my 20-second-capsule-testimony. she smiled as i explained about Africa. she smiled when i invited myself inside to show her all my books.
and then she smiled at every single book i placed in her heads. ohhh, i could tell she wanted each book. i began to wiggle on the couch and get excited. DUMP BAG! today was going to be a dump bag day!
after a half hour, she hesitantly made up her mind. “i have so many books, and i really have too many things. i’ll give you a donation for Africa, and you can keep these.”
rain on my parade.
"you’re a different one, you know," she said as she went for her checkbook. "girls like you are rare."
hopefully canvassers like me are rare.
"do you mind if i pray with you before i go? what do you want me to pray for?" i asked the Big Question that rests behind my books.
she froze. “ohhhh. well….” and her eyes clouded up. “my family. i love my Jesus so much! and they…i want my family to have the Jesus i have.” she shook her head emphatically.
i reached for her hands. “Father, i pray for a blessing for Anne’s family and my family…” and then Anne Hawk and i were both weeping on her couch.
i can’t explain with english words. the presence of God is so intimate and precious. i can’t…explain.
i found the worst neighborhood in walla walla.
every door was another grumpy person. this community must have been built on the idea that misery loves company.
i knocked on the pretty red house, and one knock in, the door jerked open and a frowny face leaned in right up against mine.
i reeled. “you…scared me…i’m sorry.” why was i sorry? i pulled myself together. “i’m heather and i’m trying to raise money for a year of volunteer work in Africa-“
"you’re an adventist!" he sneered.
i gave him a purposeful blank face. “i’m a mission student.” i corrected him.
"you’re an adventist, and you go to the university, and you sell those ellen white books, and you’re part of that church.” he gave me the nastiest look he could manage. “you people. you brainwash with your cult. you are awful, terrible, people, and your minds are messed up.”
i didn’t flinch. “so what denomination are you?” i quipped.
"i do not want any of your books, and you are being pushy. you can leave my house now.” he was shaking his head in my face until his cheeks turned floppy and purple.
and i shrank. “i’m sorry.” i said in a little voice. and i walked away.
"i’m sorry? i’m not sorry! he was rude and i should have told him so! i should have stood my ground and defended my church from that bitter man…where did all the boldness go?"
i rapped on the next home. “come in!” a voice said.
i opened the door and smiled. “hello i’m heather and i’m trying to raise money for….” and then i melted into the sidewalk.
"come in!" the voice commanded. "you’re safe here."
"i’m sorry!" i cried. "your neighbor scared me."
"oh honey, that man scares everybody." the voice replied.
i perched on her couch and wiped my face with my sleeve. “can i please have some water?”
"of course. go to the cupboard, and take a blue cup. water is in the fridge."
finally i could see the woman for the first time. she was hugely fat. rolls of layers sat everywhere around her. i’ve never seen a lady so…large. i couldn’t tell if she was sitting or standing, but i think there was a chair behind her.
but this woman had opinions. she went through each one thoroughly, while i sat gulping the cold water and nodding my head.
"how old are you?" she paused to ask me.
she chuckled. “i remember when i was nineteen. ohhh ho ho, i was young and stupid.”
"i’m young and stupid." i agreed.
she chuckled again. ”i won’t buy a book from you. i’m on disability. but it’s eight already, so you better get out there and do your thing.”
i nodded and stood up.
"thank you. for being…kind.”
"you’re soft. i like the soft ones. they’re a different breed."
and i not sure at all i like being called a soft one. i like going and daring and fighting, and those don’t seem to be traits of soft ones. but perhaps she means that there’s a gentle space inside the resistant covering. like those caramel chocolates you bite into. and you could fight and rally and be all brave, but inside, the soft place keeps you fighting.
sometimes, i knock on a door and a hispanic family will open up. i start about Africa in spanish, but it ends up being french. i try it again, but french always wins the last word. and then i laugh with the spanish family and shake my head, apologizing. we never get very far. all the spanish families in Walla Walla think i’m a laughing, strange french girl living in Africa, wanting money to cook food from my cookbook.
i was walking down a littered sidewalk in ghettoville, Walla Walla. the tall gates of the penitentiary provided the view.
a little guy was standing barefoot on the sidewalk, watching me knock on doors. i stopped across the street from him.
"is that your dog?"
"what’s his name?"
"his name is shiloh."
"but that’s a girl’s name."
he crept closer.
i continued to talk to him until he had cautiously tiptoed all the way across the street.
we talked about school. we talked about his mom. we talked about how he’ll go to first grade next year. he changed subjects quickly, without any introductions or endings, but i liked that.
"want to see something?" i smiled.
"yeah." he sat on the pavement next to me.
"this is a book about angels. has anyone ever told you about angels?"
he stared at the picture. i paused. “do you know who this is?” i showed him the picture of Jesus, hands outstretched.
"that’s God?" "yeah."
he kept staring. "has anyone told you who God is?"
"God is mean. my mom told me that."
i tapped his bare toes. “God made you.”
"but who is…um…who’s God’s mom? like…you know."
"Jesus had a mom, but it was just so he could be born here. He wanted to come so all the sad people would have a reason to be happy."
he traced his finger in the sidewalk crack.
"do you believe what i’m saying?"
he nodded. “uh huh.”
we sat on the hot sidewalk for a long time. eventually, i got up and walked on, leaving Damien on the sidewalk, and leaving my heart feeling so much. it was so full, it seemed as though it weighed heavier inside of my chest.
Step 1: Don’t pay for parking.
Park at least two miles away, in the neighborhoods. Then you will also have plenty of time to think about how to get inside while you’re walking along the road. If you’re paranoid about being towed, leave a note like this.
Step 2: Find a subordinate.
All the staff have T-shirts. Expect the tech crew to be sympathetic. Don’t trust any gate-keepers. I found a film guy, and he did his best to help.
"Go through the woods, I guess…but there’s bramble everywhere. Start from the far side of the parking lot.” He shook his head at me. “Good luck.”
Step 3: Look for a path already paved.
Looks as though a couple others have tried.
Looks like they didn’t get very far.
Step 4: Keep an eye out for dangerous elements.
Poison oak seems to be present. Also, these security people are brilliant. The bramble is raspberry bushes. Thorns are grabbing everything.
Find Make the best route.
There seems to be a WALL of raspberry bushes. I can hear the music, though…so I am encouraged. Breaking one twig at a time.
thirty minutes later
Still breaking one twig at a time. At least there’s the music.
Step 6: Look at it, then book it.
I didn’t follow this step. While intently focusing on crashing through the woods, I glanced up to realize i was standing behind the main stage. The audience stared at me immersing from the unknown like the Sasquatch. I froze in the stage lights. "They don’t see me.”
No better ideas came than to simply book it. I booked it.
Step 7: Mix into the crowd.
Welcome to Pickathon.
Andrew Bird is singing at the other side of the festival, on the grand stage.
we have to kidnap we have to see Andrew Bird.
This time, security is looking tight, and there’s a blue wall between me and my angel.
And on the south side…MORE RASPBERRY BUSHES. Those jerks.
I decide to dig a hole doggie-style, but then I see a sign saying NO ALCHOL ALLOWED. I have an idea. I approach the entrance.
Me: “I don’t have any alcohol.”
Security Lady: *Eyes me suspiciously* “Let me see your bag.”
Me: “This is just water in my water bottle.”
Security Lady: “Let me smell that.” She looks at me one more time. ”Fine. You may pass.”
Golden words. I bounce through the gate. She forgot to look for a wristband…today is a good day.
Perhaps it was the masses of cuddling couples that made me notice Starlight. She was wearing a headpiece made of flowers and swaying to the music like it was written for her.
"I made it myself," she told me. Her eyes were so bright, I couldn’t keep from staring at them.
We listened together for a while, glancing at each other to beam smiles. It was a good moment to be alive, which made me say what I did next.
"I wish people were dancing to this!" I laughed.
"Start it!" Starlight dared me.
So we took each other’s hands and twirled and bowed and danced right in the middle of all those people, because Andrew Bird’s music has that kind of magic to it.
"That’s all folks, goodnight!" Andrew waved his arms at the crowd.
Starlight’s boyfriend came, then, and I traveled on to see more.
While Andrew Bird said his parting words, I tried to convince the backstage sound man to take a picture for me. He paused only to make his answer more dramatic.
So here is a picture of Andrew Bird and the grumpy sound man…may he live in eternal internet shame.
I made friends with a hippie couple, but I got distracted from our conversation by the BLOOD ON MY LEGS. Holy raspberry bushes. I paid a price for Pickathon.
On my journey towards the next stage, I noticed a group collaborating music on the grass.
"What kind of ukulele is that?"
"A Lanikai soprano." The boy looked up at me. "You are beautiful, just so you know."
I wasn’t sure what to say.
"Sit down with us!" The girl grinned at me.
"Has anybody ever taught you how to chicken pick on a ukulele?" The boy was saying.
"Here, I’ll show you. I’m Daer, this is Judah, Sunflower, and Krae."
"I’m Heather." Heather sounded so plain.
"Show us what you can do on that thing, Heather!"
I started playing a small riff, and the group joined in. Guitars and tambourines and a washboard and a harmonica. We were singing like we meant and singing nothing in particular. Nearby, people cheered for us and stopped to listen.
Daer told me that they travel the continent in their van, and play music every evening. “We live off the music,” he grinned. Every minute or two, someone would stop by to join the group and chat for a minute.
"Daer, we saw you downtown last night! Yeahhhhaha you guys were AWESOME!" They pumped their fists and strummed air guitars.
"How do you know so many people?" I asked. "We’re all people," Daer smiled. I was about to ask my question again, but another person came for a bear hug.
At the east stage, Feist was just getting warmed up. Her voice bounced off the trees and into our ears. And it was a good, good feeling.
So that’s it. And to anyone who thinks that you need a date for a music festival, I’d
brandon was sound asleep beside me. eyes pinched shut and mouth hanging open.
his haven of rest was a blatant contradiction to my spot. i was leaning forward, squinting in the headlights. clenching the steering wheel. my wipers were waving off the rain spray at a speed that still couldn’t keep the blurry patches off my windshield.
I was on the I-84, somewhere outside Portland.
"Father…hey…tell me…tell me something. Keep me awake. Tell me something good."
83 miles per hour was enough to feel my heartbeat in my fingertips, but cars still surged past me.
wind pushed the little blue prius…side to side. side to side.
"I’m here." came back to me.
"yeah? that’s good." i grunted against another gust of wind.
"Heather, I’m here. think about it. realize it. I’m here.”
it was enough to think about the next 173 miles. there were angels floating around me, and as easy as it would be to tilt my wheel and fling the little blue car into the concrete divider, it’s also easy to sit in His hands.
i was still so scared…but it felt so fun.
everyone was sleeping in my Tante Ushie’s house. i jolted awake the way I usually do…thoughts build up and crowd their way into my subconsciousness.
i pulled on my hiking boots over wool socks. grabbed car keys. and off i went, sailing in the little blue prius through the sunshiny hills of the most wonderful place on earth.
we were stopping by Springville, California on our family road trip. this was where the bulk of my childhood had been lived, and i hadn’t yet seen it since the childhood perspective.
within minutes i was pulling in to the familiar gate. i knocked on Old Mike’s door weakly, hoping and hoping he would open it and scared that he wouldn’t.
an eternal minute. coughing. the oak door swung open.
he looked at me.
"hello, Mike…i’m heather ruiz. i used to live across the fence, when i was about eleven years old…i played with your kittens in the living room every day—"
"oh, i remember you!" he beamed.
and then came that laughing, terrible catch up part, where we smile at the past and remember how we used to live, but oh, haven’t things changed?
i told him i’m now a nursing student in college, and taking off for Africa. i told him i took good care of his kitten and she’s an old fart living in the attic, now. i told him my parents are fine and brandon is busy…and he has a girlfriend.
"hasn’t been the same since you kids left. we miss it. the river…it will make you sad to see. hasn’t been this dry in thirty years."
i hugged him and jumped the fence. within moments i was running through the brown trees and green hills and i was eleven years old and i was free.
it seemed necessary to peek at the old river house through the trees. but i didn’t miss the house…i lived in these hills. i ran past the pond and the oak trees and the creek and the big, green meadow.
hoping and hoping that things might have stayed the same in seven years, and scared that they didn’t.
there is one place in particular that i used to escape to. tucked away in the trees, the river made one particular bend. sandbanks and flat boulders spread out like picnic blankets. and the powerful, strong river had remodeled heavy tree trunks into bridges. everyday i sat on that tree trunk and turned the machines of my brain. i curled up on those rocks and cried on many sour days. i lived there, by the river.
now i’m nineteen and i have car keys in my pocket instead of polly clothes. perhaps i can’t belong there anymore… the same way.
i searched my river. hiking upstream was no problem. my glorious river friend was a small trickle, now. caked mud instead of cold water.
branches grabbed at me as i hiked, like they were trying to stop me. everything was overgrown. the deer trails i had roamed were lost in thickets of bramble.
after an hour, i decided my old home was gone for good…lost in the past. i turned back. and then i noticed the flat boulder, sticking out of the brush like a picnic blanket. i pinched my eyes shut and TRIED so hard to remember. is this really it? nothing looked the same. but boulders never change.
i can still remember the last day. i snuck away from the moving truck and jumped the fence…i ran back to the sandbanks and river bend.
"i’m leaving…i’m moving away to washington." i had hurriedly explained. "i don’t know when i’ll be back. i just came back to say goodbye. and…thank you. for helping me." eleven years old doesn’t know how to be pensive, but i felt that i had a favor to return. "also…well…thanks for giving me the peace i got from being here. and…i’ll miss you…and…" tears were coming again.
i ran away from my river bend.
i didn’t realize then that the peace i had encountered in the simple sweetness of the river was my first intimate encounter with my Love. nor did i understand that the parting words said on that last day were actually a prayer.
walking away from my hills, i was deep in thought with Him. “things are so much better than could be hoped for.”
did heather think that? or did He tell me that?
i smiled. it’s true.
what’s that feeling
and trying to remember
what i was doing.
perhaps i was just thinking
but i know i was going…
and now it all went away
and i’m opening boxes in my head.
"did i just lose something?"
"what did i forget?"
something was a thing to me
but all i can tell is the empty spot where it sat.
and i’ll always sit and wonder and scratch my mind
wanting to remember instead of forget.
why let an empty spot make me lonely?
today i wrapped up in one of those floppy big blankets. i was in the middle of a field. but fields need a blanket sometimes.
i was thinking.
i wish that Jesus would come through town.
He might be driving those funny vans. His interns would look odd…former truck drivers. drivin’ for Heaven, now. waiters and song writers and a couple professionals, too, because the Kingdom of Heaven is no respecter of persons.
He would be healing cancer and autism and hanging out on the streets with the hookers and homeless.
nobody would know what to do with Him.
He’d be talking about Heaven, and everyone would be saying, “oh yeah, we know.”
but He’d be trying to tell us that it’s here and it’s among us.
everyone would feel uncomfortable with the way He acts at potluck…bringing gays along and putting shredded cheese on His haystack.
He’d come to colleges and tell the youth to follow Him. but nobody would want to leave their boyfriends. “i’m finishing my career.” they say.
He’d tell the churches to abandon the buildings and systems and give church budgets to the poor. He’d tell them to worship Him in the way they live instead of the services they put on. He’d tell them to enjoy His presence in their hearts instead of highlighting end time events. He’d tell them He wants to get to know them.
"this must not be our Jesus." they might say. and they’ll go back to their marriage seminars and keep telling their friends to move away from the confusion into the country.
"follow Me," He keeps saying. "I’ll complete you."
but everyone would be too suspicious.
I want Jesus to come through town so I could pull on my chacos and RUN.
run out of the hills and the country and straight to Him.
i would slide into His feet like home base. i would kiss them and hang onto His legs like a toddler. ”i know You. i’m glad You come. i’ll follow You. where else would I go?” i’d yell because i would be so excited.
my parents would freak out. my church might not like it. my brother would say that i’m a young, idealistic hippie. my friends would shake their heads. but i would follow my Jesus to canada and africa and asia and all around the world, and i wouldn’t even look back.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like someone who discovers a jewel in a field. So he sells his house and clothes and everything he owns, because he found the one thing that he loves with all his heart.