Saturday, July 18, 2015

Best Days of My Life

This past Friday evening, aboard a sunset dolphin cruise in Destin, Florida, I was feeling pretty melancholy because it was already the last night of our much-awaited beach vacation, a graduation celebration for Ethan and my niece Hillary. I'd been longing for a quiet week to rest, lie on the sugar sand, and maybe walk along the beach with my Beloved. But somehow, all six days had slipped through my fingers, and I was still waiting for that relaxation I needed so much.

My sister Amy, me, Allyson

Amy, our sister Emily, nephews Charlie and Sam

Charlie, nephew Jacob, brother-in-law Paul, Sam

Nieces Hillary and Savannah, friend Sarah
Charlie and our crazy captain

Just as I was trying to shrug off my dark mood so that I could enjoy the sunset and the sea spray, Summer of 69 started blaring from the very loud, crackly radio. For a moment, I enjoyed the nostalgia as I always do, but then I started thinking about the words: "Those were the best days of my life." And I thought, "What were the best days of my life?"

You know, I couldn't answer that. I thought back over the obvious choices, like junior high and high school, first kisses, two weddings, two pregnancies, two babies. I thought about graduating college and teaching middle school, and then giving up on that dream. I thought about dear friends who've left a mark on my heart only to pass out of my life. There are beautiful memories, for sure. But when I think back on who I've been at all those moments, I don't ever remember being totally content. I was happy sometimes, but it seems I was always waiting for something, and when that something came, I always wished something was different.

This vacation was no different. First off, I didn't relax much. Because we wanted to save our money for excursions, I cooked each night instead of going out to eat. I didn't mind that because I love cooking, and it was fun working in the kitchen with Allyson and my nephew Sam. But a week's worth of meals required menu planning, shopping, and a lot of cleaning. And speaking of cleaning, I felt compelled to sweep our condo's tile floor a couple of times a day because all that sand was so annoying. (By the last day or so, I finally got smart enough to give up that losing battle.)

My amazing morning quiet times on the beach never materialized because we stayed up past 1 most nights, usually snuggled (crammed) on the pull-out couch over at Emily's place watching movies. That was great fun, and I wouldn't change it. But there was no way I was dragging my butt out of bed early enough to get down to the beach alone.

There was one morning when I did wake before the rest of the house: Allyson, my sister Amy, Ethan, and his friend Bryce. I crept out the sliding door and dragged my chair, Bible, and journal across the street and down onto the cool sand. But just as I settled down to savor the ocean breeze, the sound of the gently pounding surf, and the glint of the sun on the whitecaps, an obnoxious, relentless shouting started up way down the beach. What on earth were those people shouting about at 9 in the morning?

There were about 10 people near me on the beach and in the water, including quite a few small children. The reason for the disturbance dawned on all of us at the same time as we finally discerned the one word being telegraphed down the beach. SHARK! SHARK! SHARK!

Everyone scrambled out of the water and then stood in small groups, scanning the horizon. I laid down my Bible and stood for a better look, straining my eyes for a glimpse of a dorsal fin. All I saw was two young kids, maybe in their teens or early twenties, standing on paddle boards. From the others' chatter, I concluded that they were trying to scare the shark away from the beach.

Several of my neighbors exclaimed over the shark. "That's no two-footer like the other day.... Look at it! It's, six feet at least.... I'm tellin' ya, isn't that exactly where the grandkids were swimming yesterday?"

Frustrated, I scanned the water but saw nothing but the foolhardy kids on their paddle boards... and then the girl falling off her board. I caught my breath sharply, and my stomach lurched. My head whipped from left to right and back again as she struggled back onto the board, on her belly at first, and then onto her knees, and then back on her feet. Where was that shark?

I finally walked up to the group next to me and spoke to the man who'd pronounced the shark a six-footer. "Where exactly did you see the shark? Is it over there?" I asked, pointing at the horizon to our left.

"No," he said, pointing just to the right, at the paddle boarders. "It was right there, right where those kids are."

Chills raised bumps on my arms. The man was pointing about 20 feet from the water's edge, exactly where Allyson and the other kids had been boogie boarding the day before, and not even a third as far out as the teenagers had been swimming.

Me and Emily...
We loved to sit where the waves could wash over our legs

"Wow," I said. "Then why are they out there? Those boards would be no protection if a shark decided to attack."

"I don't know," he said. "It's just what they do. They try to push the shark out deeper. Maybe it worked. I don't see any sign of it now."

I was torn between relief and frustration. So much for my morning quiet time. And after all that excitement, I'd missed actually seeing the shark. Sighing heavily, I shouldered my beach bag and chair and trudged back up the hill to go make some breakfast.

Lest I sound too ungrateful, let me say that there were many, many lovely moments throughout our week, and I appreciated them all.

Allyson, Charlie, and Pikachu on our snow cone excursion
Allyson on a ropes course, in the 95-degree heat

Just clowning on the parasail boat

I spent lots of time with Allyson, cooking, playing chess, watching her swim, taking her for snow cones, and even parasailing one morning (my first time, her second). True to pattern, I was a little disappointed in the experience. It was thrilling going up, and the view was spectacular, but I spent most of the time in the air wondering what would happen if that frayed rope snapped. And it was funny when they dipped us up to our armpits when we came back in, but then I had to sit for an hour in wet shorts and drive back in them, too.

Allyson had assured me that we didn't need to wear our bathing suits because only our feet would get wet. I was happy to trust her advice because I was having a terrible reaction to one of the three sunscreens that I'd worn the day before (a photoallergic eruption) and I couldn't bear the thought of putting on more sunscreen. I'm glad we went, especially since Allyson got to ride a second time with another girl whose sister was too afraid to go up. But the experience didn't live up to my overly romantic ideals.

The very best moments didn't happen on an excursion. They were just ordinary moments that could have happened back at home--but usually don't, because we're all too busy.

  • After watching Interstellar, Allyson and I talked in bed until our eyes closed. We talked about time and space and God, and about how we agreed with the statement in the movie about love being the one constant in the universe.
  • Allyson and I spent way too long in the local Wal-Mart on July 4, buying food for the week and picking out boogie boards. She lamented missing our annual firework tradition (though we did see some fireworks through the car window on the way there and back), but I enjoyed every minute with her. 
  • After grilling burgers that shrank down to hockey pucks (but still tasted great), we all crowded around a picnic table. Before we could eat, Hillary insisted on holding hands for a family prayer, and then surprised me by volunteering to lead us. She poured out her heart in a very sweet prayer, thanking God for our vacation and her family, and for the sister who annoys her so much but whom she loves so, so much. Savannah said a quick prayer, too, and then Ethan said it was time to eat. 
  • We played lots of games with Aunt Amy and all of the cousins. Even the teens played Apples to Apples when Amy asked them on her birthday, and they enjoyed it just as much as we did.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Amy
Speaking of Amy's birthday, that was the one night that we all went out to eat. At her request, we went to the Crab Trap so she could have steamed crab legs. 
Hillary did both of our makeup

Allyson and Sweet Savannah
Allyson couldn't stop exclaiming over her very first serving of popcorn shrimp. But her favorite part of the experience was pulling a tendon on the crab claw to make it pinch.

I told her how Daddy and his siblings used to do that with chicken legs when they lived on a farm, and how they held a chicken foot up to the kitchen window to scare Nana. Like father, like daughter.

When we got back to the condo, we all crowded around our little table to sing happy birthday to Amy and then eat the coffee cake that Allyson had prepared all on her own that afternoon. At her insistence, I'd made yet another Winn Dixie run to buy some pretty candles, but I hadn't thought to buy matches. So we had to imagine the glow of candlelight.

The cake was delicious, and Allyson was so proud when it all got devoured. 

Back to the Dolphin Cruise

I did manage to shake off my funk in time to enjoy the sunset with Allyson.

And we did end up seeing a bunch of dolphins. They clustered around the boat, occasionally leaping out of the water in graceful arcs. We were sure they were showing off for us.

Moment With My Beloved

On the twelve-hour drive back home the next day, I had lots of time to think. As I relived our beautiful vacation, I pondered the reason for the lingering hint of disappointment, Why couldn't I just be happy? Why can't I ever just be happy?

I cried as I talked it over with Amy. "It's because I always have too many expectations," I said. "I imagine how wonderful everything is going to be, and I plan out every detail, but then things never go the way I imagined them."

"So what?" I thought. "What does it matter if I didn't laze on the beach as much as I'd hoped? This still had to be the best vacation any of us has ever had." 

My voice caught on a sob as I figured out the root of my sorrow. "I was looking forward to some amazing time with God. I love walking and talking with God. I wanted to walk with Him on the beach. But I never did. I never made time for it. I was too busy... organizing everything." 

"But Sarah," Amy interjected, "God was with you the whole time, when you were spending time with your kids. And you were busy serving your family. That's a good thing." 

"Yes," I said. "I guess I'm really disappointed in myself. It's my perfectionism. I've learned that God rarely shows up on cue, at least not the way I plan it out. It's usually in the little moments, when I'm not expecting him.

"I'm tired of trying to control everything. I really want to let go. But I don't know how." 

I drove on in silence for a long time, until the tears had dried on my cheeks. And then I heard the most wonderful song, Stephen Curtis Chapman's Glorious Unfolding.

Take a rest from the fight
Don't try to figure it out...
'Cause I know this is not
Anything like you thought
The story of your life was gonna be...
There's so much of the story
That's still yet to unfold
And this is going to be a glorious unfolding
Just you wait and see and you will be amazed
You've just got to believe the story is so far from over
So hold onto every promise God has made to us
And watch this glorious unfolding

Fresh tears cut warm paths down my cheeks as my Beloved whispered truth to my heart. It's not a bad thing that I can't point back to the best days of my life. How sad that would be, to know the best had already passed. At the same time, I can't spend my time looking forward to the best days, either. I don't have the promise of tomorrow. 

What I must learn to do is exactly what the Serenity Prayer teaches: "to live one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time." I don't want to waste a minute wishing my life were different, because I don't want to miss a single ordinary joy of this life my Father has given me. My best days are already unfolding, one beautiful day at a time

The only way I can embrace the blessings God gives is to let go of the agenda I've planned. And why shouldn't I? How silly to think I could only talk with God on the beach! Here he was, taking my breath away with the sweetest love, right there in the car at 11 at night, after endless hours of driving. My heart swelled with joy as I imagined all the joys still in store for me, things I can't even comprehend. His plans are so much better than mine.

By now you know me well enough that you won't be surprised when I tell you what happened next. Even after receiving such amazing clarity and reassurance, back in the real world I quickly fell back into trying to control people and things. It's not that I was trying to be disobedient; my anxiety arose due to a couple of situations that stirred up my deepest fears and insecurities. I was overwhelmed with things utterly out of my control, yet I couldn't stop thinking about how I might be able to intervene. 

All of that worry left me terribly frustrated with myself. For the second time in days, I felt deeply disappointed in my very character, and hopeless that I could ever change. But then I remembered the most important thing. Yes, I am very insecure. In truth, I'm a mess. But that's okay. God loves me exactly as I am. While I was yet in my sin, even when I was willfully running from Him, He loved me enough to die for me. 

Yes, it is true that I am powerless to change my own heart, but nothing is impossible for God. Slowly, slowly I am learning to surrender my will to His. I'm learning to love Him. I'm learning to love me. And I'm learning to love others. These are the best days of my life.  

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