FROM THE TOP OF THE ravine I look like a little black ant as I move first to the right, then to the left, searching for the easiest route up the semi-polished rock face. My gear bag lies abandoned on the ground while an unseen pack weighs heavily on my shoulders. I have come to St. George with friends, seeking warmth in December. The span of dark cliffs slated against the orange-red horizon creates a stunning contrast against the deep blue sky. I take a break, wishing I could savor the dusty smell of creosote bush and cracked desert sand, a scent that fills me with contentment. Instead, I finger a crumpled tissue in my pocket, blow my nose, and then blow it again.
I take a bite of a Lara bar, apple-cinnamon, and begin to climb again. I’m climbing a route that should be easy, but as I fumble around for the holds, frustration sets in. My breathing becomes heavy in response to the unexpected difficulty, and sweat trickles through my hair. My foot slips and I fall. It’s a minor mistake, yet it crushes what little confidence I started with this morning. My belayer shouts encouraging words from the ground as I inch up the side of the looming slab.
I wonder if my climbing friends notice the added burden of embarrassment and depression I feel today. None of them have met the girl I was five years ago, the one who used to be less encumbered. I look from one distracted face to another and it dawns on me that, to them, this is who I am. I have always sounded sick, I have always been a little round, and I have always had a tendency to invite self-doubt into our climbing trips. I miss the person I once was, and as I untie my rope I add a couple of pounds of mourning to my invisible pack.
I was here with another group of friends five years ago. We drove down in an overstuffed Subaru Legacy. I sat in back with a pink-and-blue bandanna wrapped around my unruly hair, thumbing through a $2.50 paperback Book of Mormon. Our original plan to climb red rocks in Nevada had given way to climbing black rocks in St. George. We talked energetically as we explored this climbing oasis on the outskirts of town. Once we began climbing, the heat from the rocks burned through my calloused fingertips, so I climbed hot-potato style until the contact became unbearable. We’d been climbing in a gym all winter and I hadn’t noticed how strong I was becoming, but I could feel the payoff as I pulled myself up to an overhung first bolt and stuck the move.
I was younger, thinner, and relatively carefree then, words that suggest less, yet somehow equal more. The next summer I moved into a busy apartment complex with an engaging group of girls. We worked hard enough at low-paying jobs to eat, pay our rent, and go on a few small weekend trips together. We befriended a group of boys that lived across the parking lot and we often spent evenings sitting on the grass, talking. One night we formed a guitar circle, strumming out rhythms as our voices melted into the summer air. The sky turned from light blue to gold to black as we laughed and sang. Someone showed me how to pick out the chords to “Last Kiss,” the grass tickling my toes, as a certain boy made me smile as wide as the sky. I was twenty-five and single but I didn’t feel lonely. My future was only an arm’s length away and I was ready to embrace it.
The summertime warmth mellowed into fall, and life got busy as I tried to balance full-time work with school. Near the end of October, when the air turned cool, I began noticing a slight rattle in my lungs. In December I started having coughing spells that left me exhausted and out of breath. I thought I just had a stubborn cold, but as days turned into weeks I knew there was a bigger problem. One day, after a severe coughing fit at work, I headed to the nearest InstaCare, where a doctor listened to my lungs and started me on a nebulizer. Fifteen minutes later I had a diagnosis and a prescription and thought I was on the way to recovery. But then my nose started dripping all day and all night long. I took vitamin C and zinc, tried every brand of allergy medicine, went back to the doctor again and again, to no avail. It took years to finally get diagnosed with Samter’s Triad, which means I’m allergic to aspirin, but eliminating the culprit has not reversed the symptoms.
Besides being constantly congested, I gained forty pounds from the steroids prescribed to control my condition. Going out in public was uncomfortable because everyone assumed I was contagious. My head was so stuffy that people had a hard time understanding me when I spoke. Even worse, I couldn’t pronounce my own name. It was like losing a piece of my identity. I felt like an awkward teenager. Over time it was easier not to talk to people when I didn’t have to. As months turned into years I began to feel abandoned by the Lord. Perhaps He had grown weary of my petitions. Feeling unheard, I began to withhold my heart from God, too.
Today I watch covetously, perched atop a boulder, as a friend with her long, lean body traverses the rock face with ease. Small groups of people, scattered in haphazard circles at the base of the cliff, share granola while conversing about gear and places they’ve been. A bare-chested boy flashes a smile at a girl he just met. I remember talking with a friend about sports and how we only like to participate when we are good. I am not good anymore.
An acquaintance notices me milling around and suggests I take some more pictures. Instead, feeling lonely among friends, I excuse myself and take off along the streambed, hoping to find a quiet nook where I can hide. Soon, big boulders bar my path, so I wind my way up and around the barren cliff top–just a load of brown dirt topped with dry, wispy grass. I keep walking.
A favorite scripture comes to mind, one that talks about water springing forth in a dry and dusty land. I long for God’s living water to heal the barrenness in my own life. I’ve been quietly tucking away God’s promises in the back of my mind for thirty-one years:
And God remembered.
I will make weak things become strong.
Exchange beauty for ashes.
You shall run and not be weary.
Your faith is sufficient.
Consider the lilies.
He did heal them—every one.
These reminders nurture my understanding of a compassionate God, one who knows me and will make wrong things right. I am well acquainted with the promises, but they still seem “afar off.” God clothes the lilies of the field but won’t help me find a cure. He makes weak things strong but took my greatest weakness—communicating with others—and made it so much harder. He exchanges beauty for ashes but my prescription makes me break out and gain weight. Keeping the Word of Wisdom promises a healthy body but I often can’t catch my breath to even run a mile. If God remembers, why has He forgotten?
I try to ignore the phrase that keeps coming to mind: But if not…
I need to relieve myself, but there is nothing taller than ankle-high grass on this entire plateau. I make my way toward a grouping of dark boulders that signal the edge of another ravine. I suddenly feel as if I’m on stage, and I look instinctively around me before I take a chance and squat in the dirt.
Afterward, I walk a few paces to the edge of the cliff and tuck my knees around a flat black stone. A thin layer of clouds mutes the late afternoon sun. I see a hiker, a long way off, down below. I can see the outline of the path before him. I wonder what kind of perspective he has on me. I study his steady, determined pace. He hesitates for a moment to consult his guidebook, then continues on. Perhaps I’m like that hiker. Maybe God can see me perfectly and I’m the one who’s forgotten this path is leading me somewhere. My breathing has quieted, but I don’t feel peaceful inside.
I turn around and look for a place to pray. Once again I feel exposed. I’d rather speak with God behind the curtain of a bush, but I glance behind me and note that I’m still alone, and that’s enough. I kneel in the dirt. It is gritty and hard. For a long moment I don’t even close my eyes as I try to determine where to begin, attempting to wrap my mind around the puzzle that although God can, He sometimes doesn’t.
I remember a few nights ago, when I woke in intense pain. It radiated from my ears to my sinuses, across the length of my skull and back again. I tried changing positions and even sitting up, but the throbbing continued. It was 2:00 a.m. and, not wanting to put anyone out, I decided to pray. I kicked off the mound of blankets and rested my cheek against the soft flannel sheet. I tried to muster up some faith, even if it meant that this pain would not be taken from me. I wanted to pray with real intent but feared the repeated answer of “No” or “Not right now.” I sat there wondering what it meant to pray when I feared the answer. Should I still ask? Was I wrong for asking? I tried changing my wording, rearranging my questions, attempting to seek new insights. I was trying to form my will to God’s, to see the situation as He sees it, yet still receive that divine intervention I so desperately needed. Could those two things coexist at the same time? Finally, the words came: “If my only qualification is that I am Your daughter and You are my Father, please help me!”
Ten minutes later I was asleep.
This desolate spot of land, now indented with the outline of my knees, changes as I fumble for the right words again. First my prayer is just a wish. I wish I could just get better. I wish this trial were over. I wish. . . I wish. . . I wish I had someone who understood. And there it is. Like the subtle movement of a gate swinging on a hinge, my prayer changes from wishful thinking into something real. All the secret portions of my heart, closed and full of pain, open like a flower responding to the morning sun. I am vulnerable but unafraid. I start unpacking my bag, as if I’ve been gone on a long journey. I start with the little things: I am tired; I miss being able to smell; my mouth is dry; my clothes don’t fit; every conversation is embarrassing. Wet lines streak my sunburned face as I examine each item I’ve been carrying and lay it at God’s feet. I get to the heavier stuff: I feel discouraged; I lack hope; I don’t know how to overcome my frustration; I feel guilty for the moments I haven’t endured well. I feel rejected and alone.
Emptied, I am finally quiet inside. A gentle breeze silently teases the grass around me. A dove etches out a song between the canyon walls below. I feel my soul expanding, revealing my most real self. And then I don’t just hear the words in my mind, I feel them in my heart, as God responds, “I know, I know.”
I open my eyes to take in the view.
I begin to see things that moments before were imperceptible. Looking down in the grass, I’m surprised to discover miniature leaves, a combination of red and yellow. I measure them against the side of my fingernail, amazed at their tiny perfection. A small cropping of yellow flowers pokes out of a crack in an adjacent rock, and I wonder at their ability to grow and offer beauty in this harsh environment. Slowly, like the movement of darkness into dawn, I’m filled with a strange sort of cheerfulness. My hand softly rakes the ground and comes away with two oddly shaped knobby, black pebbles. I turn them over in my hand a few times, weighing their shape and texture, before deciding to take them home. They click together in my pocket as I make my way back down the mountain. Their sound is easy and their burden light.