We were 35,000 feet above ground and flying through a clear, evening’s sky. I’d never seen Utah in this way- physically or emotionally. As the valley, lit with a million and one lights subsided, and the Wasatch Front began, the world turned from a sea of glittering golden specks into a white expanse of snow-covered mountains and plains, and I couldn’t help but to marvel in silence at the beauty of it all, how intricate and intentional it was. And to think about how this is definitely not where I imagined myself being, not so long ago. Not going where I was headed. Not with the plans I’d made for the rest of the year. And most definitely not in this frame of mind. I was en route back to New York City on a three-times delayed flight, saying Goodbye momentarily to a place I felt so painfully torn towards. On one hand, Utah provided me with so, so much. With learning and friendships and beauty and happiness. On the other hand, it had caught my attention in ways I never really anticipated. And I needed a break. Because I was lost. And very confused. In need of a change of scenery and a wider perspective. A newfound appreciation for light. And a reminder of what it felt like to be a minority- complete with a renewed sense of urgency for the majority.
By the time I’d collected my bag on the East coast of the country, boarded my first train, and pulled into Penn Station, NYC, it was almost 3am. Down in the subway roamed the misfits of the city- the broken, the abused, and the lost. Those without homes or peace- a terrible place to be, especially as an emotional state of being. The weight of the world tugged at my heart and I remembered what feeling really felt like again, like I’d broken through an unseen wall I’d been sitting against for quite some time, and I simply and gratefully let the feeling sink right through me. Waiting for my train, I smiled apologetically at the lady sitting beside me- three trolleys-full of her life’s possessions to her left, feet wrapped in layers of taped newspaper to keep them from freezing, and a sunken look on her face so deep it hurt me to look at. Feeling helpless is haunting. I had nothing to give. Just a longing for understanding to the extent of empathy, but having no more than just a heart full of sympathy. My life was easy, I am spoiled, and I knew that. It’s easy to forget when you’re surrounded by others in a similar position to yourself. Grateful to be reminded. I think this is what someone meant when they coined the term ‘reality check’.
I heaved my stuffed backpack onto my shoulders at 110th, and headed toward the staircase leading up to the streets. Cold wrapped its way around me, and I smiled inside because cold still brings with it a gentle sense of thrill, even though I’d been living in such a climate for a little while now. Trudging up the grime-covered stairs connecting the under to the above ground, soft, cold snow began to fall on my face. The first blizzard of the season in NYC, and I’d arrived right at its commencement. Glorious. Truly, though. The dim tangerine streetlights lit the falling snow in ways magical, and I smiled the whole ten minute trudge up the sloshy street, because it was deserted and dark and felt like a ghost town, being dusted with powdered sugar, and there’s something about the beauty of things unorthodox that is undeniable.
Is this real? This beauty and this life and the many complexities of the human condition? Yes. This is real. They are real. All of it. And sometimes it takes more than just writing it down to believe it's all happening.
Let’s rewind now, to two months before that beautifully unorthodox, snow-dusted New York night, when something seemingly insignificant, but with the hugest of implications happened. Let’s rewind right back to an early October’s morning:
“It's true, you are one of my favourite books to read”, whispered Angel Olsen into my ears through my headphones, as I walked down the hill in a flighty pace to work. The sky was scraped pastel pink, and a flock of birds circled overhead. Morning time feels sacred, when you’re right outside and right in the world when it begins. It feels sacred because of what it brings- newness. New opportunities and new chances, to grow and to learn and to become. Not just that, but the transition between night and day, dark and light, can change the world so quickly. Not just color-wise and temperature-wise, but the people and the situations going on within it. Fascinating. Think about it: when the Light of the world was born, His creations rejoiced with opening their arms wide open and letting light- and only light- stream unapologetically out to brighten the whole earth for longer than the norm. Upon his departure, darkness swept the lands in what I would interpret as worldwide mourning. Light. Light is truth too, and truth is heaven-sent, so really, it just makes a whole heap of sense. Darkness- or the lack of light, its opposite, brings with it confusion, fear, the unknown. The logic of it all is astounding. So much food for thought. Meanwhile, little did I know that that very day- a day beginning barely dissimilar to the days preceding it, would be so pivotal. On so many levels.
The clock hands wound their way one hour ahead, and the words slipped out of my mouth before I could catch them with reconsideration and reason. It hadn’t even hit lunch time, and I’d just quit my job. Just like that. Unintentionally, with no forethought, nor plans proceeding. I held my hand to my mouth when the words exited, like they were being controlled by a force of their own, someone or something that wasn’t me. The tears began to pour down my face shortly thereafter- because I realised what I’d done, I’d be leaving these people whom I’d grown to love like no other, and ultimately, leaving this country, because Visas exist to burden and make difficult, and I’d just burned the only bridge- albeit one that took a great deal of time to build- that stood between me and living in this country. What was there to do?
Time rolled slowly by as my shift continued and then ended, and eventually the day was traded in for dark. Drained by self-inflicted emotions, I found myself sitting outside on the hard cement ground of a local church building, in the shadow of its awning, with my back against the bricks. I was mid-conversation in a video call with my best friend back home in the land down under, with the remaining 2% of battery left in my phone. Not that I cared much for anything other than my own woes at that point, but supposedly there was to be a meteor shower locally that night, and having never successfully witnessed one, my hopes were low in that changing anytime soon. And then suddenly, when I was mid-complaint and confusion to an understanding Amy, somewhere way up in the sky to the East, a golden swipe of glitter flew by, so fast that I almost convinced myself that it didn’t happen. But it definitely did. Excitement melted away my confusion and in that moment, that pivotal moment, when that meteor flew right on by, I remembered who I was. Why I came here. Not just to this country, but to this Earth. And it wasn’t to be miserable, or to simply endure my way through, or to make irrational decisions on the fly. It was to live intentionally, to reach up and grab those glittery golden stars, collecting them in clusters until life would be so dazzling that there’d be no time or space to mope around. And then it occurred to me that those words that rolled off my tongue earlier on in the day weren’t entirely irrational nor unintended. They were necessary. Pivotal. There is no better word. And I think so many people find themselves in such a position. One that is pivotal in redirecting their life. Be it a birth of a child, a near-death experience, a spiritual awakening, or something in between any of these things, or something entirely different, or something somewhat menial. Like quitting a job. But those pivotal moments are exactly that- pivotal. Crucial. A shift in direction. Or as a dear friend responded when I messaged him shortly after the deed was done, questioning what I’d gotten myself into: ‘You’re moving your life in a direction of greater joy.’ Thank goodness for level-headed beings with their heads level to the clouds, just where they should be.
With a pen poised in my right hand over a lined pad of paper, and a heart full of purpose and conviction, sitting cross-legged on my bed in the latest hours of that same night, words poured out of me and filled the page quicker than quitting. Listed were all of the things I’d ever wanted to do in my life, the places I’ve longed to go, the things I knew fulfilled me, and helped me feel valued and productive and- most of all- joyful. And then I mapped out the upcoming year, plotted in all of those dreams and desires, and promised myself I’d make them happen- or at least put forth the effort needed in order to do so. No permission was granted for such a decision- for who, or what, even has the authority to do that? A bank account? I don’t know, I think there’s definitely wisdom in stability- in knowing. It’s healthy to be able to predict. But there is power in change, excitement in movement. For me, anyway. I don’t know- Kahill Gibran made a point when he wrote that ‘the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral’. Perhaps not so morbid for so many, but there’s something to be said about dropping all of the safety nets- whatever that may be, and being so desperate to make something happen that you really want to happen, that it forces you to pull all your resources together to see it become a success. Beginning a sentence with ‘I wish..,’ or ‘it’s my dream to..’, is a sign of the times. The time to do something about those very wishes and those very dreams, instead of living a life of longing.
Now, fast forward back to the white-dusted, almost completely deserted Columbus Avenue. What a joy a jumping spree of memories can be:
After standing silently in the falling snow for a few minutes, I fumbled with my phone, my fingers almost too cold to make it work, and called Murphy to tell her I’d arrived at her doorstep. She answered with a soft voice, being careful not to wake her roommates. Minutes later and she’d made it down four flights of stairs to the front door of her apartment building. First she pulled the glass door open- a look of surprise lighting up her face from seeing the snow come falling down, and then she pulled me- into a tight embrace. There is nothing like being in the arms of someone you love and trust. It always feels like coming home.
Night turned to day, day to night, night to day again, and there I was, walking through Harlem on a Sunday mid-morning. The spirit of those streets injected life into me to a level I forgot existed. There were all kinds of interesting characters and street musicians and puffer-jacketed children with fluffy hats on their heads and too-big backpacks on their backs, swinging around poles much to their mother’s dismay. Street vendors selling overpriced plastic jewelry, Spanish guitars being plucked by frozen fingers, and too-loud reggae rhythms bounding out of basements. I spoke to four different ladies on my way, each dressed in different shades of floor-length fur coats, each willingly assisting me to find the right bus and the right street and the right place of worship I was searching for. My new friend from the bus, Eliza, who had curly hair and the kindest eyes, wished me a great day, I invited her to stay in my home in Australia, and then once the side exit door on the bus had clunked open, I stepped off the bus. Stepped off the bus and right into a little gathering of day-old snow mixed with the little pebbles they pour on the streets to stop slipping, and headed toward the church building my on-the-way friends had helped me find. I arrived, and swung the door open with all my might.
The wind Gods screamed from the outside as I changed my shoes in the foyer on the inside- pulling off my clunky, brown snow boots, and slipping on black heels with pointed toes and and little ties to wrap around my ankles. I was late because of the relentless migraines that have followed me since childhood, but I’m glad, because I arrived right when I needed to, even if it meant spying through the criss-cross glassed window in the door of the chapel for the remainder of sacrament meeting to avoid an interruption. A girl in an A-line red dress and darkened lips walked to the front and up onto the stand, and began sharing a story about riding a bus in Philadelphia, because last year she’d endeavoured to go somewhere new every weekend- just because. Just because why not? And how she’d felt an overwhelming feeling that a great work was happening right there and right then, and she couldn’t work out what that feeling really meant, and then moments later the bus turned the corner and there was Angel Moroni all dressed in gold, towering over the scaffolding below him, the scaffolding of a future temple of God. My little heart didn’t stop fluttering for quite a few minutes, from the image I’d created in my mind of the situation. Another speaker followed, this time in a dress coloured midnight blue, and she spoke about thin places- feeling the spirit world close around her, and the experiences and feelings she shared sent shivers up and down my spine. A girl standing next to me, also avoiding disrupting the quiet of the chapel inside, by standing at the door and listening through it, introduced herself softly as Sarah. She was wearing a white pantsuit, splashed with ferns and flowers. I whispered to her that my life was changing from these people sharing these things up there on the pulpit. They were all so eclectic, so interesting, so motivated, so willing. And she told me it’s because the people that come to New York do it to chase their dreams, so it made sense.
Person after person got up and shared words from their hearts, each one of them witnessing the reality of their beliefs, each story ringing home to me so personally. I felt the confusions in my own beliefs begin to slowly untangle, and felt the doctrines I knew come right to the forefront, pushing aside their confusing cultural counterparts. It was like being able to breathe again, after being underwater for a slightly uncomfortable period of time. All of it was real. All real!, I told myself happily and with a sigh of relief. It felt good to hear it and to believe it with the truest of convictions.
The closing hymn of that meeting was How Great Thou Art. Of course it was. Of course it was the hymn I’d sung as a duet on my final Sunday as a missionary in Germany. Of course it was one of very few Swedish hymns in the Hymnbook. Of course it was also the hymn I’d performed with my missionary sister in my mother’s Helsingborg hometown, when I was there months beforehand. And of course it was also the closing hymn of the sacrament meeting I’d attended a couple months prior, marking my one-year anniversary of concluding my days as a missionary. Of all the hymns in the hymnbook, of course it was this one. A beautiful circle, as per usual. Because my Father knows what kinds of things resonate with me- patterns and serendipity and the like. And here He was again, showing me just how personally and wholly I am known and loved, and that He’ll never change, He’ll always be there. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: even those who don’t believe are unexcused from His unconditional love. Even those who sometimes forget. Those lyrics couldn't have been any more powerful than they were that day. 'Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed."
There were so many things that moved me that week there in that big, bumbling East-coast city- so many situations where His power throughout the universe was displayed. That helped make sense of that pivotal point that one October's morning- a decision I made that would move my life into a direction of greater joy. So many things that reminded me of the realities of this life- of light and of darkness, of sorrow and most importantly, of joy. That jogged my memory of things I'd learned in the past and feelings I'd felt and all of the decisions I'd made as a result of them, and the guidance and confirmations I'd received along the way. Of wounds that had been healed and hope that had been restored. That lifted me out of the hole I’d dug myself into. It wasn't just one thing- it was many things: late night talks with the ones I love, eyes dropping from tiredness. The lady a few rows in front of mine on the flight over, who had two cats in a carrier in front of her, the occasional little meow disrupting the otherwise silent plane. How it reminded me of things being so bizarre, and subsequently things being so beautiful. It was Natalie, my newest friend from Trinidad, who I met walking across the street. She told me all about being cold and how to proper deal with it- sharing things I’d never even thought of in my whole life. Reminding me that there is so much left to learn, so many people left to meet on this Earth, to enrich and to be enriched by in return. It was the tall African man on the subway, belting out Stand By Me in his smooth, bass voice, while rattling his cup of coins in a tambourine-like manner. It was being spied on by two Swedish boys who were walking by as I tried to take a sneaky photo of a lady walking six (incredibly adorable) plaid-jacketed little dogs in Central Park on one of the coldest days of my life. They exchanged words about it and I looked at them knowingly, hoping they could figure out from my glance that I understood what they were saying. It was walking into a skincare store with my best girl by my side, being engulfed by the sweet scents of products made entirely from wildlife, and being offered a warm cup of herbal tea from the gentle shop assistant, just when we'd been discussing how much we wanted something exactly like that. It was a man wearing board shorts and a t-shirt outside on a freezing cold day, and him laughing when I congratulated him on his bravery. It was taking terribly unflattering zoomed-in phone photos of my dearest Savanna, texting them to her and watching her response from the other side of the room. And then seeing my phone light up with an image of myself she'd taken on the sly, at least ten times more horrid than the one I'd sent her. And then laughing uncontrollably in unison moments later, like immature teenage girls talking about their celebrity crushes. It was watching a dark man across from me on the subway pouring a yellow packet of peanut M&Ms into his mouth, his eyes lighting up and a smile spreading across his face as he crunched on his well-deserved, post-work treat. All of these sweet exchanges between humans are what makes the world go 'round, what makes it all worth it, makes it all make sense, gives it all purpose, and makes it all real.
Two weeks later, again 35,000 feet above ground, but this time flying through a late-night's sky. I’d seen Utah this way before- but only physically, and only going in the opposite direction. Emotionally, it was something completely new. As the dark expanse that housed the Wasatch Front subsided, and the valley- lit with a million and one lights began, the sea of glittering golden specks seemed to sparkle this time around. I stared in a marveled silence, again, observing the beauty of it all- how intricate it was, and how undeniably intentional. A change of scenery and a widened perspective had worked miracles, and had brought with it a newfound appreciation for the light that was already there, coming from a being who will never, not for a single second, disappear.
Is this real? Yes. This is real. All of it.