At the beginning of 2017 I was nearing burnout: fatigued, tired and stressed. Simon and I were supposed to be going away for a leaders’ conference hosted by our church network over days, and two lovely friends, Kate and Jess, were going to be watching the kids. We were excited to be going away together. The location was in Whistler, near Vancouver BC, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful areas in the Pacific Northwest. Also, we were going to be travelling with some of our very good friends, as well as having an opportunity to touch bases with other quality leaders in our movement. So it was going to be good, I knew. However, I was also slightly dreading the major social exertion that these conferences entail: usually lots of networking, lectures, discussions, and of course, plenty of meals with conversation around the table.
The only problem was, that Whistler was in Canada, and I was still waiting for my green card. And, without a green card, it was impossible to travel across the border and be allowed back in. We had already discovered this, painfully, after my trip to South Africa the previous summer, where I had a nearly disastrous encounter with the border officials.
It had been a long, arduous process, but my green card had finally been approved. It had been weeks since my final interview, and still we were waiting for the official document in the post. We had had to confirm our hotel room in Whistler about three weeks ahead of time, so in faith we did, trusting that the Visa would come with time to spare. Weeks went by, with nothing in the mail. Eventually we had just a few days to go before the trip. Even down to the last morning, we still checked the mail, hoping against hope that I would be able to go with them.
I had arranged a very comprehensive schedule for Kate and Jess, who were to be watching the kids. Playdates had been organised with friends for after school, dinners had been prepared in advance, ingredients for school lunches were in a special tub in the fridge, and extensive lists and directions for what they would need each day had been written.
I sat on the bed with a heavy heart, watching Simon pack. Kate and Jess arrived, and we stood in the kitchen, mulling over the situation. They looked at each other, and then looked at me, and one of them (I can’t remember which) said, “Well, you should go away too, by yourself somewhere.” The other chimed in, “Yes, please! We’ve been planning to watch the kids, it makes no difference to us.” I thought it over, and nodded slowly, “Yes, I suppose. I don’t think we can afford for me to stay in a hotel somewhere, but I suppose I could go camping.”
Tentatively, the idea grew. Being out in nature by myself sounded wonderfully appealing. I felt a small flicker of relief; although I was very tired, and fighting a cold, and camping could be a lot of work, I would not have to gear myself up to be conversationally engaged for the next 72 hours, nor would I have to be stuck at home struggling with the kids by myself.
By the time our ride arrived, I had made up my mind. I was sad to say goodbye to Simon, but the thought of being able to go on an adventure for a few days kept my spirits from falling too low. It felt too good to be true, and I kept asking Kate and Jess if they were SURE they didn’t mind. They assured me, so I started to pack, throwing things quickly into a box in the back of the car, and filling a small backpack with clothes and toiletries.
I looked on Google Maps for a campsite along the coast I had seen a few weeks previously while researching for our summer holidays, entered the coordinates and drove off.
Weaving along Highway 26 towards the Oregon Coast felt strangely familiar, as though I was weaving along the old coastal highway towards Kenton-on-Sea in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Plenty of dairy and livestock farms. The only things missing here were the potholes and poverty. In Africa the countryside was dotted with makeshift shanty-towns, and the roadside full of makeshift enterprise: women selling pineapples, prickly-pear fruit in buckets, long bright pockets of oranges. Here there were only the occasional luxurious homestead tucked away, tidy little towns and rustic farm stalls. For a brief moment I felt homesick.
I passed Tillamook, a ghastly sprawl on an otherwise pretty plain, and entered the misty hills hugging the coast. The place I was heading for looked wild and untamed on the map: Cape Lookout. And it definitely felt remote and removed (thankfully) from the plains. The forestry left gaping holes in the thick wooded hills, but otherwise human signs were limited. After wandering along the little shoreline road for a few miles, passing lagoons and fisheries, I entered the Cape Lookout State Park. It was raining slightly, and I was anxious to see where I could set up shelter.
A U-shaped piece of land stretched out from the mountains in a long spit parallel to the coast, pointing towards the town of Netarts, creating a long lagoon called Netarts Bay. And right in the middle of the U, where it curved around to meet the hills, was the location of Camp Lookout.The campsite was nestled up against the sand dunes, in a little copse of trees.
I remember feeling slightly disoriented, getting out of the car. There were other campers around, a few vehicles dotted beneath the trees, but the foliage provided a lot of privacy and for all intents and purposes I was alone. I had no one else to think about, or talk to, no one to take to the bathroom and no one with whom to discuss where I should set up camp. It was just me. It was beautiful.
I had to set up my campsite in the rain, and although I was feeling slightly sick and extremely exhausted, the focus on the task helped to keep my body going. After all, this work was purely for my own comfort, not anybody else. Warming up my dinner on the little cookstove took a long time, and I sat in my camp chair, huddled under the tarp. I had no energy to think about anything, and although the weather looked miserable I felt fairly snug in my thick Karoo jacket sent from my parents that year. So I just sat and waited for my food, enjoying the stillness and the peace of not having to think or plan or anticipate.
After eating, and struggling and failing to get a campfire going, I finally got ready for bed. I crawled into the narrow, one-man tent and snuggled up with a book. Where I felt strange and alone out in the dark by the car, getting my backpack, I felt comforted inside the tent. Even though it was only a very thin piece of parachute cloth between me and the wild outside, it felt safe and warm. Before I could read even one page I fell fast asleep.
* * *
The next day I woke up to find a slow and steady drizzle moving over the sand dunes. I slowly made coffee under the shelter of the Toyota’s open trunk door, using hot water I had boiled the night before and put in a thermos. I ate some cereal and milk out of a square plastic tub, sitting on the carpeted interior of the trunk of the car, my legs dangling over the edge, looking out at the campsite road and the trees and hedges in view. I nodded to a few campers walking to get water from the faucet. They nodded back. It seemed they were like me, not needing to chat, just content in the early morning silence.
I breathed in the peacefulness, delighting in the simplicity of my hatchback breakfast. Life revolved around bare necessities – making food, eating it; cleaning the one dish, one cup and one utensil I had dirtied; getting teeth brushed and bare ablutions done; tidying up my small campsite. It was still gently raining, so I decided not to do any bible study just yet; I headed towards the beach to take a long walk.
Being so alone made my thoughts slow down; all I focused on was my slow and steady footsteps, the sounds of the waves hitting the sand, and the seagulls screeching overhead. The steady plod-plodding, and the constant surging of the waves back and forth were like a soothing rhythm. The very fact that it was by and large a very pointless activity; the only goal being to walk and breathe and look, I felt my body starting to relax. I was aware of my muscles and their lengthening and extending. The wind, blowing my hair. My eyes, crinkling against the rain.
The large cliffs of the Cape Lookout peninsular were faint through the mist ahead, and everywhere around me was just vast space and air. I passed a few brave surfers in their wetsuits. Here and there a dog ran, chasing the seagulls. The simplicity of just walking, walking and walking along that beach was like a great big gulp of air when you have been under water for too long. I felt like my mind was ringing in the silence. I realised now, when everything was so quiet, that I was feeling numb. Like exhaustion had crept into my bones.
Not a single thought ran through my mind, all through that long, long walk. All I can remember is being: being in the wind and the rain, and watching the sand steadily disappear beneath my feet.
It was only the next day, a good 24 hours of silence later, when all my ragged endings had started to weave themselves back together, that I heard God begin to speak.
It was not words or coherent thoughts at first, just impressions. The first was while I was sitting back at campsite, having just made a cup of tea. I was slumped in my camping chair, holding my thermos flask; too tired to actually do anything. Staring blankly into the dense foliage behind the firepit, I began to notice the leaves and flowers of all the unfamiliar bushes and plants. I was too tired to string coherent thoughts together, I was just looking. Which is quite unusual for me. Usually my thoughts run something like this: “That bush is so interesting, I wonder what it is called.” “Look at the funny stripes on those stalks, I’ve never seen those before.” “Those leaves are really beautiful. They remind me of the tree I saw when…” I was not thinking. I was just looking.
A little bird was flitting through the branches. Now looking at me with his head on one side, now hopping down to the ground to peck at something. Now back in the branches, now preening himself. I began to be aware of other movements in the bushes. A few larger birds in the bush over on the next campsite. A little spider climbing its way up a tree trunk. Ants moving across a twig. But I kept seeing the little bird.
It struck me how delicate and fragile it was; gently flitting through the branches. Tiny eyes, tiny feathers – a little marvel of art and engineering. I had quieted myself to where I think he began not to notice me. I shifted, and in a flash he was gone. I stayed as still as I could and he reappeared a few minutes later.
I did not know how to put words to what I was experiencing, but I think that the simple fact of just being…surrounded by life and activity that was gentle and methodic and free…was deeply healing to my burned out soul and body.
What it makes me think of now, is that verse in the bible where it talks about man being like wildflowers – one puff of wind and then they’re gone. All our striving, all our working, all our doing, does not affect these little creatures in the least. The little bird, the ants, the spider, did not need my presence at all. I was simply privileged to be a witness to their little quiet miracle of being.
As I felt the weight and burden of responsibility and the cares of life begin to lift, I heard God begin to speak. This time it was words. “I want you to write. And I want it to be a book about my love. My love finding you in all sorts of places and carrying you through all sorts of things.” I saw that everything we go through, is really not at all about us…It is about HIM. His faithfulness, His ability, His grace and His purpose.
So, I AM writing, as faithfully as I know how. But it is not the words on the page so much as the life that I am living: a life that I hope simply demonstrates what it looks like to receive from and flourish under His “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.” I will never forget that long, lonely walk on the beach, or the vision I saw as I watched the birds flitting against the background of ocean mist.
His love will find us and sustain us wherever we are.