I’ve gone mountain-biking once—in my home state of North Dakota, believe it or not. The Maah Daah Hey Trail. Look it up.
(I don’t want to deceive anyone, because I didn’t make it anywhere near finishing the 96 miles of undeveloped trail through the Badlands. What I did was more equivalent to playing in the kiddie pool while the big kids jump off the diving board.)
Regardless, the thing that stuck out to me most wasn’t the ups and downs of the hills—it was the ride back into town across the flat land more typical of North Dakota. It was windy. And there wasn’t a tree or building in sight to block it. It was freakin’ hard, and I specifically remember thanking God for each pedal stroke—thanking Him for the muscle tone that got me back to town.
That’s kind of how I feel now—only emotionally so.
It all started last summer, with the mountain being a two-month trip to Africa. I came back with many cultural assumptions of life turned completely on their head. And the last year of my life has been an experiment in learning to live here in the United States and engage with the culture but yet, at the same time, to ride against it.
Pre-Africa I wasn’t necessarily fighting the wind. I think I was only half aware that I should. It’s weird how a completely different stance makes you suddenly more in tune with the direction of the wind.
If people ask me now what I did on that trip, the best answer I can give them is that I tried to love people. Once there, I found myself on a leisurely stroll instead of the typical, ambitious rat race I was in in Portland. It’s easier to love people when you’re walking and not riding fast all the time.
There was much less anticipation and more confrontation. More eye-to-eye, more handshakes, more personal connection. If people asked us to paint for them but wanted us to take tea first, I didn’t count it as wasted time for once.
That is just one small example of the many that has ambiguous implications for life in the United States. I have no black-and-white answers for how I am supposed to apply that lesson to my Portland lifestyle. I only know that the very uncertainty I have in application is a part of the wind.
It is a part of my fight to not forget.
Some of the currents of this invisible force are more obvious. In one giant gust, the pressure of materialism flies in my face while images of poverty and sickness and desperation linger in my mind. And I try desperately to face it head-on and not allow it to pull me with it.
I gave away a lot of belongings when I got back. And now every dollar I spend on an item that I might enjoy is heavily weighted with firsthand knowledge that I still own so much more than most people in the world.
Another gust that hits me now is the amount of trash I go through. I started recycling even more last September, not so much for environmental reasons as for spiritual ones. I just couldn’t reconcile throwing away things that I’ve seen the orphaned street kids of Africa find a creative use for. It still seems unfair that I even have that option.
A major current is the struggle to muscle my way through some American values. Why is it that I value time spent working but not time spent building relationships? Why is it that I measure a good day by how much I get done? Why is it that working at least 40 hours a week makes me feel good about myself, but taking time away from that to listen to a friend, help someone move or volunteer at church seems less important?
I think that is why I have chosen to work only part time. It’s why I turned to freelancing to fill that remaining gap in my income. Because I want to put relationships first. Because I want to remind myself that I can live on less. Because I want to live counter-culturally.
I want to have the time to drive a friend who is without a car to the grocery store. Or help write a grant for my church. Or plan a charity event.
And that’s where I find myself riding hard, my muscles resisting the wind at each pedal. The wind is not blowing in my direction, and sometimes it feels like the flat, open prairie of North Dakota. Sometimes no barriers slow the speed of the wind or lessen the impact.
Sometimes I wonder if I am pedaling for nothing. Sometimes the opinions of others make me want to give up. I feel the pressure of others’ expectations and wonder if I’m not living up to my potential—or at least their idea of what that is. Sometimes my writing gets rejected, and I think that maybe people just don’t want to hear what I have to say. And that maybe it isn’t worth it to keep trying to say it. Sometimes I have bills I can’t pay. And I have to rely on the generosity of others.
Sometimes I feel like I am the only one who is fighting the wind.
So, you see, the last year has taught me that the gutsiest things you can do can’t be accomplished in the space of a day or two, or even a few months. Courage isn’t so much about checking off big, daring deeds. And strength isn’t just about having enough oomph to crest the mountain. These two desirable character traits paired together are endurance. They are what it looks like to ride against the wind.
It’s those long, even stretches of real life that get you.
That is why I pray. Because each pedal is a sacrifice of praise. Each muscle is credit to God’s brilliance. And I’ll make it to town thanks only to Him.