This week, we are continuing our series in which first year students reflect on the last year and the path that brought them to The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. Read previous entries from Jessica Hoekstra, Matthias Roberts, and Beau Denton.
Splashing forward along the trail, my shoulders hunched against the rain and the weight of my pack, I felt two thoughts brushing past each other in my mind. The first was that my brother and I were the farthest from a trailhead that we would be on a 10-day backpacking trip in one of the most remote parts of New Zealand. The second was a quote from a Barbara Kingsolver novel, The Lacuna, that I had read six months before, no doubt brought to mind by our present situation: on a trail in an unknown, one-inch section of a second map that I had been too cheap to buy. “The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.” Kingsolver’s words fell through my mind as I mentally noted pouring rain, swollen streams, and the obvious signs that the forest we were traveling through was a floodplain.
I didn’t know what Kingsolver meant, and it made me uncomfortable to wonder. I had built my life around predicting outcomes and anticipating risks. I was midway through my fourth of what would be five years of working as the assistant director of a study abroad program, a point when I felt both competent and knowledgeable. Even this backpacking trip, a trip planned months before, had felt so certain, so achievable. But now, with the words “you don’t know” dripping through my consciousness, I felt my anxiety rise as I tried to recall what that one inch of paper had held. Rounding a bend, we saw another three-wire bridge up ahead. I wondered, “Was this the last bridge before we reach the hut, or was there another river after this?” Neither my brother nor I knew. My anxious mind hurried me towards the bridge along a bank that was partially eroded, dropping off into a deep, high-watered river. We came to a short, washed out section of the bank. I wiped the rain off my face, noted the distance, and thought, “I can make this jump.” It happened too quickly to think anything else: I landed, the bank collapsed, and I found myself clinging to tree roots, in a cold tannin-dark river, far too deep for my feet to touch bottom.
In looking back on my journey to today, where I find myself midway through my first year pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology & Culture at The Seattle School, I think first of my decision to leave New Zealand and my job there. It’s a decision that still makes my heart ache, a mixture of homesickness and resolve. When I explain this decision to people, a few will always nod and say, “When you know, you know,” implying, I suppose, that I somehow had clarity in all of this. Perhaps I had more than I thought I did, but I don’t remember feeling much clarity; I didn’t “know.”
There are still days when I can’t quite believe I left New Zealand and what, in many ways, was a dream job. But then I wonder, maybe that’s the point; maybe when I step off the map, into the spaces I thought wouldn’t hold anything unexpected, I find the heart of the story, the part that trues my life. I chose to come to The Seattle School because I was drawn to the idea of a program that would help me weave together the complex multiplicity of theology, culture, and individual stories, and a program that would equip me to help others to do the same. Now, midway through my first year, I’m reminded that somewhere in this story is the part where the river bank gives way and I’m clinging to roots, spitting out sand and asking my brother—in a voice I hope will sound calm but which ends up sounding small and scared—to help me. (If you’re curious, he started laughing and didn’t stop until I got mad, struggled a little, and said again, but in my normal big-sister voice, “Brian, help me!”)
When we go backpacking, what makes a trip both memorable and life-altering isn’t just the mountain passes, sunlit meadows, or reflective tarns; it’s also the moments when you wake in the dark with your heart in your mouth, the moment you fall through the bank into the river, the moment of tension over burnt pasta compounded by tired bodies. What makes a trip a story is all of these experiences held together, one shaping the other. My experience of The Seattle School thus far, as with any good story, is a mutually informed collection of experiences. It includes both enlightening conversations and confusing conversations. So far I have had one or two brilliant ideas, most of which have since turned out to be only mediocre. It includes crying in front of strangers, and strangers becoming friends.
I wonder now if perhaps “the most important part of a story” is the part when I step out without clarity, hearing no voice, seeing no writing on the wall, surrendering my perceived control over “the piece that I don’t know;” maybe the most important part is when, with or without an $18 map, I fall through the bank into deep water and wonder later—trudging down the trail soaked and covered in sand after being pulled out by my little brother—if my life just changed. Perhaps this is what author and essayist David James Duncan means in God Laughs and Plays when he writes about experiences “that felt to me like going out with a thimble in your hand, hoping to catch a drop of rain, and having the ocean land on your head. These experiences convinced me that there is an absolute love that pervades everything.” When I, be it deep in the wilderness or in the middle of grad school, hold up my thimble and walk off the map, risking the piece that I don’t know, I may finally find the most important part of the story; and perhaps like Duncan, I’ll be convinced.