Volunteering, Value, and VBS

Following my Southern adventures, my attentions were drawn to goings-on back in my home town. For the rest of that week, I had committed to helping out at my church’s vacation Bible school program. I didn’t know exactly what I’d be doing when I first volunteered, but I figured why not? and scrawled my name on the sign-up sheet immediately after the opportunity was announced one Sunday service.

Transitioning into the summer months, I knew I wanted to devote some of my time to volunteering. It always seemed like a good idea–something that would both be a help to those involved as well as personally fulfilling–but I always brushed it off as something not worth squeezing into my already-packed schedule…or maybe I just never really cared to…

But this was the summer. I was going to get involved, lend a hand, and engage myself in a service that I knew would benefit my community. And one of these opportunities just happened to be VBS week at our church.

My first day there, I honestly felt out of place…like the person who completely misses the memo and shows up to a formal gathering in dirt-caked sneakers. And I’m pretty sure that those in charge didn’t exactly know what to do with me or where to put me so I wouldn’t get in the way. I was the cube they had to try to force through a circle hole, and my discomfort was tangible.

The day-camp itself went from noon to about 5:30 and was almost entirely in the hands of three counselors from a nearby Bible camp. And of course, if my lack of necessity wasn’t already apparent enough, it became clear that everything was already planned and totally under control. These guys had their simple cut-and-paste crafts, their action-filled camp tunes, a myriad of games laced with Bible themes (like when parents sneak veggies into their kids’ favorite dishes), and a whole gamut of skits that made the entire clan of elementaries roll on the ground with laughter.

What did they need me for?

So the first couple of days, this state of seeking a definite purpose really became a frustration. I did help out wherever they needed me, of course, but it was obvious that my primary focus would just be interacting with the kids and being another reliable, “inspiring” presence. And right away, I definitely wasn’t feeling too content with that.

By the last day, however, things began to change. I never really got particularly close or chummy with any of the counselors, but I noticed how the relationship seeds I planted with the children from day one were blossoming all of a sudden…or at least…pretty buds were beginning to poke from the soil. From the baby-tooth smiles that would greet me upon arrival, to the fervent persistence that I would join in on some game as a small hand slipped into my own, a trust and fondness began to grow and develop that soon filled in my original gaps of uncertainty. They appreciated me.

And I felt purposeful at last.

But now looking back, I realize just how misguided I was and often am… I mean, is my worth really measured by how many elementary schoolers find me acceptable? Or by the quantity of help and assistance I bring to the table? Do I possess more value every time I complete a task, jotting a mental tally mark after each duty performed? This was clearly my mindset at the start of Mission: VBS. …To add one more thing to my list of do-good endeavors in order that I might deem myself valuable in my own eyes.

But by the conclusion of VBS, I saw how flawed those assessments were…how worthiness and quantity have nothing in common, and that big impacts can emerge from small places. Instead, it’s those little heart things, sometimes–a positive presence or words of encouragement–that can end up leaving the deepest prints when all is said and done.

The final moments of the week were dribbling down, and the time came for me to make my departure. But just before I turned to make my silent leave, the lady in charge of the entire program wrapped me up in a giant, happy-heart embrace. She squeezed me tight, then held my shoulders as she peered into my eyes and told me how absolutely thankful she was that I could be at VBS that week.

And my heart felt golden.

Georgia Fun

Not long after my blading tumbles, I stuffed my suitcase tight–extra band-aids in tow–and set off for the deep-South metro of Savannah, Georgia. Nearly every year, my aunt and two cousins accompany my family (minus my dad) on some sort of travelling adventure, but looking into the future, this particular trip was most likely the last with the whole crew.

The entirety of our stay was on Savannah’s Tybee Island beach community in a large, brick bakery…a renovated one, that is. From the days of Fort Screven, combat and gunfire, coastal port necessity and hungry, dough-seeking soldiers… IMG_1797Since the time of plundering pirates, Tybee Island has been a base of war, an infantry refuge pockmarked with battle. Now, though, the island is just your quirky, little beachy hideaway, a place where you’ll find barefoot grocers, throngs of feral cats, but also the serenity and calm of a saline ocean breeze and swaying low-country grasses.

Our dwelling place alone was pretty much the best thing ever… From the open-floor and brick-layed walls to the countless whimsical decorations and obvious attention to detail, the bakery was teeming with beachy-Southern charm. Yet it was also delightfully kitschy. It possessed a borderline-tacky appeal…a plastic-pink-flamingo campy quality that made us love it all the more.IMG_1684

Outside the confines of our happy home, our band of seven occupied ourselves lounging long hours on the sand, experimenting the local shrimp, playing Texas Hold’em until midnight, and endlessly riding the salty waves on cheap-foam boogie boards. Life on the island was good. And almost every day, I even went on little adventures of my own–usually long and curious walks through town or along the shore until my feet became exhausted and persuaded me to finally turn around.IMG_1755

Another thing I found enjoyment in was rising before the rest of the household, pulling on my black-and-raspberry trainers, and going for a run while the world was waking up. Most times, I chose to run along the beach, soles slapping the water-packed sand, morning rays dancing on the sparkling ocean peaks, the steamy, salt-filled air washing my lungs with every breath. On one particularly ambitious morning, my mom and I decided we’d wake up early enough to see the sunrise. We dragged our tired bodies out of bed and scampered the two blocks down to the beach. And suddenly the sleepy, gray sand took on an orange glow, and there it was–the sun–straight ahead on the horizon. The blood-red ball crept up slowly from its quiet slumber–from the dark and creeping hours of night when it was Moon’s turn to keep watch on the dreaming world. How lovely–how spectacular–that sunrise was. IMG_1439That blazing sphere of light that seems to daily set the earth into motion. I’ve think I’ve always preferred the sunrise to the sunset. This is simply because really anyone can see a sunset… Even a couch-potato, video-gaming junkie just has to peer for a second out the blinds of his room-cave while he waits for his game to load to catch a sunset. But to see a sunrise…now that takes a little more effort. Getting up in the wee hours to witness this secret the universe seems to possess and is only willing to share with those who choose to see it.

St. John the Baptist Cathedral
St. John the Baptist Cathedral

The trip was so grand and so positively lovely, that to explain everything would take up an unnecessarily large amount of words and space. But I certainly do have some highlights that, left unmentioned, would really be a shame. A few times throughout the trip, we made the 12-mile trek out to inner Savannah, a gorgeous city with history and character oozing from its pores.

The city is broken up into over 20 unique squares, each one beautiful with its scattering of Spanish-moss-adorned trees and boasting of its own piece of historical significance.

Wedding in Forsyth Park: "Four Weddings" Material
Wedding in Forsyth Park: “Four Weddings” Material

We were able to explore these squares on our own and also by means of tour-led trolley–one fitted with a gregarious guide named Hollywood who found particular enjoyment calling us “Cheeseheads.” While in the city, we dined well, too. One boiling afternoon we had ice cream from a shop ranked in the world’s top-ten, and another evening, we feasted at Paula Deen’s famous Lady and Sons Restaurant…two words: butter y’all.

Soho Chic
SoHo Chic

And even one balmy night, we took our grub down to the beach, the sand cooling beneath the stars and only a small lantern flickering on our beach towel “table” to see where we were jabbing our forks.

Pier Life
Pier Life

Though the part of the trip that will probably go down as my absolute favorite is…the kayaking expedition. On every vacation or travels my family decides to pursue, my mom makes sure that, no matter what, kayaking will somehow be worked into the itinerary. Her overwhelming enthusiasm and gung-ho push for it each and every trip is almost too much for people to bear sometimes…because NO ONE actually likes kayaking THAT much, right? But every time, we shrug our shoulders, roll our eyes, and oblige to my mom’s one desire. And every time, we have more fun than we could’ve ever thought possible. Out on the banks of the Atlantic, we paddled away, having a glorious time in the waves and shine. But I have to say the best part was all the dolphin friends we made along the way. We literally saw pod after pod as they glided beneath the surface, the smooth, graphite fins popping up right alongside our kayaks as we tooled along. ‘Yaking with dolphins…doesn’t get much better than that.IMG_1806

I’ll miss the molasses drawl. I’ll miss the line where the sand kisses the endless sea. I’ll even miss the wet and blistering temperatures. But now I’m home. And it’s still summer.

And I am content.

Nikki Takes a Digger

As the end of the school year approached, and the first glimmer of golden rays finally began to strip away the ice caps crusted on campus, I started to notice something… In college it seemed that people on roller blades were just as common in springtime as the dandelions that took root in those unfertilized lawns. And this very fact planted the seed of desire in me to own a pair for myself. I envied the pods of inline skaters that would fly by my dorm room window, obviously more happy than the lame hoards of walkers and bikers…

So once school let out, I was determined to buy myself the wheeled footwear as soon as possible. When I embarked on this seemingly simple pursuit, however, it quickly turned into a difficult and tedious wild goose chase. After multiple trips of visiting multiple stores with either the wrong size, the wrong price, or the wrong merchandise altogether, I was about ready to throw in the towel. But in the end, I decided to try my luck at one last sporting goods store. I picked up a pair on sale–the cheapest ones they carried–and walked out pleased as punch.

I used to be a boss on roller blades. At least…I thought I was. I had a pair as a little girl, and I remember racing around on them all the time, whipping out awesome tricks and speeding up and down the streets as fast as my spindly legs would allow. But when I strapped myself into my new inlines, I immediately felt completely and absolutely uncoordinated, off-balance, and vulnerable to bodily injury.

Thus began my daily practice. Just like any other sport or skill, I started off pretty easy: my driveway. And after just a couple of days, I worked my way up to the five-mile lake loop in town. Not that I was awesome or anything… I still really don’t know how to break (I’m pretty sure the stop doesn’t work right on my cheapo skates), and I often feel on the brink of tipping, especially with wheels that vibrate violently on any surface that isn’t Zamboni-ice smooth. This is why every time I went out to practice, I knew the chances of taking a hard fall were actually pretty high. And every time I returned without a scratch, my odds only went up.

And the fateful day finally came. I set out on another lake loop quest, feeling surprisingly more wobbly and less confident than usual. But I paid no heed to these warning signs and instead, I zipped around the corner and set off on my way. I soon came upon the four-way intersection where the road basically turns into chopped up gravel, loose stones, and other obstacles that make for a roller blading nightmare. Typically when I reach this spot, I have to stop and clumsily shuffle over to the other side. But this time, I lost my balance. My arms waving in a windmill-like fashion, I hopped and stumbled around a few moments, gawkily trying to regain my equilibrium, before finally falling forward and skidding to a stop on the asphalt. Luckily for me, a car at the intersection was watching the whole scene unfold. I pulled my sorry bones off the ground and tried to leave before I could hurt or embarrass myself anymore. But as I tried to glide my skate across the ground, my wheel stuck, and I jolted forward, arms repeating their pinwheeling motion, and making another awkward tumble to the road.

The car was still there. My face burned red, and I was far too ashamed to turn back, but by the sound of the pumping bass, I figured it had to be a group of young kids. And instead of asking to see if I was alright, they just waited until my pitiful and ridiculous display of self-injury was over before peeling noisily around the corner, more than likely rolling in a fit of laughter. I sat there on the ground like that for awhile. I examined my bloodied hands and tried to feel sorry for myself a little bit before prying my tired limbs from the rocky surface and continuing on my way.

After that episode, it seemed like really smooth sailing. I was hitting all the flattest and silkiest blacktop, and I was speeding along at a swift pace. This, of course, did not last long. I hit my favorite street, the one like silk where I can just let it fly, going as fast as I can before gliding gracefully around the easy corner. I didn’t anticipate the pesky pebble that would be planted in the center of the street, waiting for me to come and trip up my unsuspecting skates. So just as I was reaching my top velocity, my wheel hit the rock, my momentum flung backwards, and I took a bruising, blistering, wounding digger right there on the road. With my bright sticky blood heralding my surrender, I sat crouched in a ball in the middle of the pavement, hot tears sliding down my sweaty, tar-stained face. I must have looked entirely pathetic at that moment, but none of the bystanders tooling away in their cookie-cutter lawns behind their cookie-cutter fences decided it was worth their time to see if the ball of girl on the street was okay.

So once again, I gathered my bruised and broken body from the afternoon asphalt, this time heading for home.

For weeks I was obsessed with the idea of getting roller blades for the summer, and after struggling so long to finally secure a pair, they came back to bite me in the butt…literally. My family says that getting injured was an omen, though–a sign from the heavens, almost–because being in such a heightened state of pain forced me to take three days off of my vigorous running schedule–a respite that my body desperately needed but that I was completely unwilling to give into on my own.

So with my bruises bluing and my scrapes scabbing, I was forced to forgo my daily workout for awhile…and heal in more ways than one.

Thankfully, this obligatory rest occurred just as the family and I were preparing to leave for the deep southern state of Georgia. But that’s another adventure…

So It’s Summer

Summer is unquestionably the best season of the year–especially when your habitat is the tundra and you function within the constraints of snow, ice, and mud-tinted slush nearly three-quarters of the year. From long, balmy hours of daylight and the constant din of a neighborhood lawnmower, to the happy aroma of a smoky grill and those days devoted to the lake and its pleasures, everything about the season of heat is absolutely lovely.

But as much as I adore strutting in oversized shades, letting the rays tan my skin, and overall just unthawing from the harsh Siberian winter, summer also means no school. Which is great. I guess… But honestly, being home after an incredible, adventure-packed, fulfilling first year of college, I can definitely say that there is plenty to miss.

So just to name a few…
1. Hallway dance parties (because doing them alone at home is just a little odd)
2. Sherlock nights (Benedict Cumberbatch plus British equals boss TV series)
3. Happy coffee time and long talks at The Cabin
4. Dorm room movie nights
5. Late-night library explorations/shenanigans
6. Conversations in a British accent
7. Starbucks “study” runs
8. My geology professor (who was basically Bill Nye the Science Guy)
9. Bible study adventures
10.Watching Friends with friends
11.Salsa dancing at El Patio and 3 a.m. Perkins runs
12.Thursday morning caf breakfasts with cool peeps
13.Jamming with my friend to our theme song, “Counting Stars”
14.Profound life conversations with the roommate
15.People

It’s a lot more difficult being away from college than I imagined. Of course I don’t have three five-page essays due on Monday or a huge math exam to study for… But I also don’t have the same amazing community of people surrounding me, the same kind of campus-life fun and adventure, or the same 15’x15′ space to call home. But while the great experiences of college are sacrificed being home for the summer, there are certainly things that I do NOT miss about the residence hall life as well.
1. Having to wear shower shoes (and those unexplainably large wads of hair that cling to the walls)
2. Never being sure when I’ll have my room to myself
3. Caf coffee
4. That hill tho (only fellow Blugolds understand)
5. Punching a code to get into my room
6. Last-possible-moment binge laundry days
7. Lack of automobile

And there you have it. Summer has started. Beautiful, wonderful, amazing summer. And despite the three-month separation from a campus and community that has found a dear place in my heart, I’m ready to embrace the sunny weeks ahead.

In the U.P.

Two weeks have passed since I left behind my bare-naked dorm, shimmied into Mom’s packed-tight vehicle, and said farewell to a campus I had come to know as home.

Yet almost immediately after depositing my monumental caravan of stuff on my bedroom floor–well before everything was back in its rightful place–I had to scrape together another loaded suitcase for a week-long camp that began almost as soon as the final finals were passed in. I left bright and early Saturday morning for Cedar Campus, an InterVarstiy Christian Fellowship-operated retreat on the banks of Lake Huron in Michigan’s lovely upper peninsula. For this “Chapter Focus Week,” my training as a small group Bible study leader would officially commence.

Nine-hour car rides are almost never fun. Some people attempt to mask the prevailing boredom with road games that no one actually enjoys, like “My Cows” or the alphabet game. Some people turn to the radio or a collectively-accepted ipod playlist to fill those long miles of silence. And some passengers, like myself, try to bank as many Zs as possible. Honestly, I’ve found sleeping to be the only tried and true route to make hours pass at a semi-not-so-molasses-slow rate. Another annoyance about trips like these is that they cause me to forgo my routine morning coffee, forcing me at the same time to choose sleepiness and dehydration over unavoidable bathroom pitstops.

Hashtag thestruggleisreal.

Road trip grudges aside, the week at Cedar was positively marvelous. It was challenging, for sure, but also refreshing. And I must say, equipping myself for small group leadership was definitely an intense process. Our group spent countless hours in training, becoming accustomed to the chapter’s teaching methods, learning the most effective ways to lead and direct discussion, and actually putting together and delivering a study of our own. Even a seemingly-simple passage requires ample forethought and preparation. And prayer. Yes, always prayer.

Seven days under the gull-dotted sky and in the crispy Michigan air was enough to rejuvenate my spirits and bring peace to my stirring heart. Coming almost straight from the demands and rigors of college life, Cedar Campus was a much-needed period of restoration and refocus. For me, it was the ultimate way to kick off the summer months, shifting my attentions from academic, dance, work, and even certain social distractions and aligning them with things of far greater importance.

If I gained anything from Chapter Focus Week…if I came away with any particular revelation, life-changing behavior, or heart-strengthening commitment…it’s my reevaluation of prayer. Too often, I’m honed so much into the spiritual disciplines of keeping regular quiet times, reading the Word, or exercising control in moral conduct, that I forget to talk to the One who it’s all for. I categorize prayer and package it into its own separate spiritual-good-idea box and forget that I should always be speaking to my Creator. Pray continually… Prayer is effective, it comforts the heart, it brings joy and healing, and, of course, it’s absolutely glorifying. And in my life, it’s the difference between saying, “God, I’ve got this,” and admitting that “God, let me give you this, because I know you can handle it.” It’s the difference between having a spiritually-full mind and a spiritually-full heart, between merely reading my daily prescribed passages and going further into a time spent in thanksgiving, petition, and adoration.

And now I’m home. And the sky is dressed like summer. And I lift my voice to God.

Such happiness.

That’s a Wrap

Gripping a mini nail-clippers by its sharp filing appendage, fingers slipping from ample quantities of oily Goo Gone, I tirelessly scraped at the sticky debris that refused to detach from my dorm room wall–the final remnants of my decoration haven.

Move out day. I never really thought about what my final hours as a UW-Eau Claire freshman would look like, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t expecting quite so much cleaning…or Clorox wipes…

I know it’s cliché to comment on how positively quickly time flew by, but lemme tell you, this year it truly did. It has also become cliché to point out clichés…but there you go.

As I tore down the strings of photos, stowed the cheerful teacup display, and removed the piles of clothes nestled in their drawers, I couldn’t help but think back to the day I moved in…that sweltering August afternoon where I put together my new home. So to finally see this vibrant and lovely space I had lived in for eight months return to its bare and solemn beginnings…well, it was actually kind of startling. In just a few short hours of packing, scrubbing, and dismantling, the life in the room was peeled away, stashed and hidden in the bowels of car trunks.

By the time the never-ending task list was all checked off though, I was ready to scoot. I said a few goodbyes, embraced my wonderful roommate for a final farewell, and exited the twisted maze of hallways through the familiar lobby doors. With my classes completely over, my two finals nailed, and the residence hall lumbering in my wake, it was officially go-time. I hopped into our loaded white Jeep, and we were gone. Summer was beckoning.

Despite my seeming eagerness to leave, I must admit that throughout the week, I was really lukewarm about the whole thing. I knew I’d be leaving behind so many amazing people and friends–the community I’d built up and surrounded myself with since move-in day. When I left campus, I’d be abandoning the world I’d inhabited for an entire school year. And the fact that it wouldn’t be the same when I returned in the fall…it was scary to think about. I don’t believe these thoughts actually registered until my last night in the dorms, returning to my room after the final night of salsa dancing.

Little did I know that dancing would be among my most important endeavors at Eau Claire. But it was, and throughout the year, I watched as it evolved from a simple interest out of curiosity to an expression-driven passion. Even though the club now hardly resembles its first-semester counterpart, I’ve loved it till the end. That night as I sat reminiscing on the world’s comfiest futon (thanks roomie!), the memories flowed freely into my mind: those awkward days of tryouts and learning about “connection;” the Madison competition and our boss foxtrot routine; the absolutely gorgeous evenings of V-Ball; the countless hours spent in the studio slow-waltzing to Enya; and even my final El Patio night, returning at 3 in the morning after a Perkins-pie detour. Knowing that this part of my life would be coming to an end–at least temporarily–was strange. I’d been through a lot with the group and had gotten to know so many lovely hearts…coming down the walk that night after salsa, I felt entirely empty.

Gosh, I really am the Queen of Sap.

Luckily, the melancholy waves had subsided by the next morning, and the only things on my mind were packing, last-minute studying, and figuring out how the heck I was going to get that sticky goop off my wall. Now heading into the happy months of summer, so many new opportunities, unexpected changes, and beautiful things are in the works…but I’ll save the details for another time.

As my mom’s Grand Cherokee pulled out of the lot, my heart was content and I didn’t even look back. Eau Claire year one.

Done.

Happy Race Day

Sunday was race day. At the starting line, I took my place amid the sea of other half-marthoners, nerves dancing under my skin and stomach attempting aerial moves. Less than two minutes to gun, and I start my nervous hopping–that back-and-forth-jittery-anxious hop that is pretty much useless for warming up. IMG_1590It’s really just more of a naturally-occurring pump-up mechanism performed to properly “get in the zone.”  Everyone does it, right?

And we were off.

The day was absolutely lovely, and the course was perfect, winding through the sunny city streets, into rolling, tree-lined parks, and along the free and wandering river, now wide awake from its prolonged hibernation. I honestly had a smile on my face the entire time. The cheering crowds along the way and the little children offering happy hi-fives warmed my heart and motivated me to push myself even faster.

IMG_1586

I especially loved when my brothers were waiting at the mile markers, urging me on with their goofy smiles and ridiculous “one-hand” claps. I felt amazing the entire race, and as I approached upon the 13th mile, the park entrance meters away, the adrenaline in my veins paired with an overwhelming gladness in my heart told me that I couldn’t possibly be done yet. In that moment, I actually felt up for another thirteen.

But the race was coming to an end, and when the finish line came into sight, I went with the all-out sprint. Arms pumping machine-like, breathing hard and heavy, only the toes of my neon Asics slapping the pavement as I busted it to the very end… bazu-2366320The entire last stretch was lined with screaming onlookers, obnoxiously encouraging cowbells, and earthquaking applause.  And when I finally plowed across the electronic finish strip, I knew I was on top of the world.

I immediately fumbled for the stop button on my watch and looked down: 1:33. PR baby.bazu-2366265

With roughly a 7:05 pace, my time was even better than what I achieved for the Cali 20K. This put me at first place for my 13-19 age category and third place for overall girls in a field of nearly 750 women runners. I was ecstatic.

Hello again, runner’s high.

The rest of the day was filled with emotions of complete and utter contentment and happiness. I can’t begin to explain how beautiful and fulfilling racing is to me. When I race, I feel confident–I feel powerful.

And I feel complete.

Next year though…I think I better bump it up to a 26.2. Because the more, the merrier, right?

IMG_1597

Musings of a Young Girl

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