The plane finally touched down after nearly a day of traveling from my little town in northeast Texas to Guatemala City. The distant mountains were green, with pops of color from yellow and bright green cement houses dotting the landscape. I could see rusty tin roofs on the houses near the runway. Large highways full of traffic, dirt roads, construction sites and half-built cinderblock homes were also visible from the plane.
The director of the Inter-American School was waiting on the other side of customs and immigration to meet the new teachers with a sign reading “IAS” and the school logo on it. Several teachers had already arrived, and we all visited in the airport cafe while the other teachers made their way in.
The bus ride from Guatemala City to Quetzaltenango was long and winding and full of traffic. We passed under very old aqueducts near the airport and headed northwest towards Xela, the nickname for Quetzaltenango. It got colder the higher up we went. When we got out of the city, the clouds parted long enough for us to glimpse the top of a volcano. The road’s banks were dirt cliffs looming hundreds of feet high above our heads. Clumps of pampas grass grew on the cliff’s face and purple bunches of wandering jew filled the ditches. We passed horses loaded in the back of a truck, pigs in harnesses getting walked down the road, and goats and calves staked out by the road. The clouds were stacked as if billowing from the volcanoes barely visible in the grey haze; the volcanoes and mountains kept a rugged skyline for most of the trip. It was dark by the time we reached Quetzaltenango. In the distance, lights from the houses shone like stars higher up the mountainside.
I kept thinking, “Tomorrow, everything will be the same in the world, but how differently I will see that world.”
The words of Donald Miller’s introduction to his book Through Painted Deserts: Light, God and Beauty on the Open Road were running through my mind as the bus passed the statue honoring the migrant in the roundabout crowning Xela’s entrance. Miller said of his journey from Texas to Oregon:
I remember the sensation of leaving, years ago, some ten now, leaving Texas for who knows where. I could not have known about this beautiful place, the Oregon I have come to love, this city of great people, this smell of coffee and these evergreens reaching up into a mist of sky, these sunsets spilling over the west hills to slide a red glow down the streets of my town.
And I could not have known then that if I had been born here, I would have left here, gone someplace south to deal with horses, to get on some open land where you can see tomorrow’s storm brewing over a high desert. I could not have known then that everybody, every person, has to leave, has to change like seasons; they have to or they die. The seasons remind me that I must keep changing, and I want to change because it is God’s way… Everybody had to leave, everybody has to leave their home and come back so they can love it again for all new reasons.
I want to keep my soul fertile for changes, so things keep getting born in me, so things keep dying when it is time for things to die. I want to keep walking away from the person I was a moment ago, because a mind was made to figure things out, to the read the same page recurrently.
…No, life cannot be understood flat on a page. It has to be lived; a person has to get out of his head, has to fall in love, has to memorize poems, has to jump off bridges into rivers, has to stand in an empty desert and whisper sonnets under his breath:
I’ll tell you how the sun rose
A ribbon at a time…
And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside you, about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love other more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn’t it?
It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out.
I want to repeat one word for you:
Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strange and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.
It is my time to sojourn; to leave.
Hebrews 13:14-16 has been my life verse this past month of preparation: “For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come. Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name. And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God.” (NLT) My prayer is that this year in Guatemala will be a continual sacrifice of praise to God, doing good to share with those in need, as a sojourner in this world and in this place.
My house mother, Ana Maria, made hot chocolate for us after Autumn, the other IAS teacher staying at the same house, and I settled into our rooms. She spoke slowly so I could catch the Spanish words I knew, and excused us from the table with the customary, “Buen provecho,” and sent us off to bed.