Imagine a web of colorful strings. They run along on their merry way, sometimes intersecting other strings for an instant and then rushing on. Even though they only crossed paths for a second, both strings’ paths are irreversibly changed. The strings cross, stretch, and tangle in a seemingly random mass until you step back and see the grand picture, the entire web. Suddenly the chaos is a pattern, a plan, a pre-destined picture.
That web is your life. Or, rather, Hannah’s life. Your line begins; you are born. You grow up, meet people, events and experiences bend your path, following the plan set for you by God. Eventually, as all strings do, your life will come to an end. Your string may be a minute long, a year long, a hundred years long; only God, who can see the whole web, knows.
There are many stories in Hannah’s web (She likes to imagine its lime green). Some that began long ago and ended long ago, some began long ago and still have yet to end, and some that she anticipates in her future. To pluck one thread and tell only that story is truly impossible, because they all intersect. Without even one of the stories, that web of you, of Hannah, would unravel. Still, I don’t have time to tell you Hannah’s entire life and you don’t have time to listen, so I’ll try to choose just one length of string.
I must apologize, where are my manners? You, naturally, have no idea who this Hannah person is whereas I’ve been her intimate friend and overseer for many strings. Allow me to introduce you to Hannah G. Musick, a girl who would like to create the impression that “G” stands for an exotic and interesting middle name but would give up the charade and laugh about how it was really just “Gabrielle”. Then Hannah’s mind would wander, from middle names to “Why do people find it necessary to appear exotic?”, to exotic fruits, her great enjoyment in mangos, the color of mango, the idea of buying mango nail polish, then rationalizing that she would only wear it once and thus it wouldn’t be worth $6.99. Plus tax. Laughing to herself (and in avoidance of algebra homework), Hannah would most likely take her thoughts and turn them into a long and humorous email on middle names for the amusement of her friends.
Hannah is…well, many things. Funny, brash, timid, paranoid, serious, contradictory; human. A homeschool sophomore, sister, Christian, traveler, daughter, and friend.Definitely far too interested in what other people think about her, but who isn’t? Hannah changes depending on who you ask.
A stranger would describe her as approachable, the person you’d ask directions from in a crowded subway or ask to hold your bag while you chased down your toddler. A close friend would hand Hannah the bag because she is unusually trustworthy but would never ask her for directions. Asking Hannah would be of course useless because she can count all the street names she knows on one hand and can get lost with a GPS. A stranger would say that she was friendly, nice, and a little shy at first. A close friend would agree with the friendly and nice, and then ask if they were talking about the same person because the Hannah they know is seldom subdued.
Ah-ha! The length of string I choose is from last summer, early June 2010. Hannah is in Iiyama, Japan, (near Nagano) with her Japanese classmates on a school trip visiting famous attractions and staying with host families; exploring Japan. At this particular moment in time she’s not touring Tokyo Tower or climbing on Mt.Fuji; but stuffed in an enormous bus with her classmates and winding up, up, up a mountain.
“Yeah! My host family is awesome! We had shabu shabu last night and set off fireworks in the back yard.”
“Dude. We’re staying in a ski resort, pretty cool, huh?”
“My host sister reads the same Manga I do! We have so much in common, it’s unbelievable. And my host family is really funny and friendly.”
Hannah’s smile began to dim as she sat and listened to the excited chatter echoing in the wide tour bus and slowly slouched in her seat. Her friends couldn’t seem to say enough good things about their host family. What was going on? Were any of her friends having trouble in their host families? She scanned their faces again: no trace of disappointment or dissatisfaction. Was she really the only one? Hannah’s cheerful mood began to sour.
Turning to the window, Hannah didn’t see the beautiful scenery zipping by in her reflection. Her dark peach skin was a changing palate of fresh green trees and stained brunette bark, her brunette irises suddenly sky blue and filled with floating clouds. The only part of Hannah that didn’t change was her black hair, twisted into a bun and held in place with a sharpie, and her unruly eyebrows. The warm, even hot weather had released the little springs of hair that twirled out from her head like swirly horns in the humidity. Hannah wound one of her horns around a finger as she replayed the previous night with her host family over again, comparing her experiences with the glowing reviews of her friends. The night had really started at dinner…
Hannah peeked at her host family over the rim of my rice bowl. They were all kneeling at the low table in the family room on rice mats eating dinner. The table was scattered with white dishes of mysterious foods, more appetizing than others. Hannah’s pint-sized host father with carefully combed grey hair and round spectacles, her preoccupied and generally confused host mom, her shy, introverted host sister, her comatose eating machine of a older host brother that only materialized at meal times, the old maid aunt that lived in the little room under the stairs, and the kindly miniature host grandmother with a penchant for gardening turnips and green beans.
”Um…すてき！Tastes, um, great.ありがと。”
Hannah had rarely heard such a deafeningly awkward silence as at the table that night. She could actually hear crickets outside, whistling away as the sun lit the sky pink, orange, and blueberry. She chewed nervously. Despite being sorely tempted to do the awkward turtle hands, she refused the urge and gingerly picked up the slice of limp pickled green bean (from the garden) between her chopsticks. It looked disturbingly similar to an eel. The family stared intently at her as she popped it in her mouth. Hannah’s faced twitched at the salty, bitter taste, but she swallowed and weakly smiled.
”Um…すてき！Tastes, um, great.ありがと。”
The Grandmother started huskily laughing hysterically and everyone else snickered. Hannah played with her rice. What had she said wrong? She’d just said it was- oh. Hannah winced. She hadn’t said the food was delicious, she’d said it was wonderful, amazing; the wrong words when describing a humble green bean.
Pretty soon Hannah was wishing that they’d laugh at her again, cough, anything! The silence was broken by nothing but slurps and the click of chopsticks. Even the crickets had settled down now that night had totally blackened the landscape. Plus, she started to wonder, where would she get water? Hannah hadn’t seen anyone drink anything besides miso soup since she’d arrived. She didn’t recall my textbook mentioning drink etiquette in awkward host families. Better not to say anything, she decided; and just sneak upstairs later and drink out of her water bottle. As she ate her rice under the supervision of the host family, Hannah groaned inwardly. How was she going to survive 3 days of this?! The truth was, Hannah wasn’t even supposed to be here. At the last minute her mom, the trip leader, had switched Hannah and another student. The other student, a hyper girl with unstable feelings about staying in a host family alone, had been paired with one of Hannah’s friends and sent off to Hannah’s host family. Hannah didn’t complain, she just smiled, handed over her host gifts, and got into her new host family’s car. Alone. Even though Hannah knew she should be grateful she even had a host family, it wasn’t enough to stop the creeping feeling of dissatisfaction.
Hannah was snapped out of her bitter reverie and back onto the mountain when the driver opened the bus doors with a hydraulic hiss and everyone began piling out. Hannah tried to shake off the unhappy thoughts and jumped back into the bubbling conversation of her friends. They were about half-way up the mountain, as far as you could go by bus. Armed with a ski pole and windbreaker against the chill air, they prepared to ascend the mountain peak. First, however, some fun in the snow.
Snow? In June? Don’t worry, Japan isn’t an arctic wasteland during summer months. Bear in mind, however, that we were on a mountain, a piece of land that jumps up from the rest of the earth and tries to touch the sky. In return, the sky showers the mountain peak with first snow long before the rest of the landscape. The peaks were literally covered in a generous amount of snow, bamboo, and thick foliage. So combine steep hiking, snow, tangled mazes of vines and trees, and mud. LOTS of mud. Hannah’s already turning attitude took a sharp dive for worse.
It wasn’t long until Hannah’s black chucks and jeans were splattered with mud, and her hair full of twigs and they were only a fourth of the way to the peak according to their overenthusiastic leader, Peter. Despite being a tad past his prime he was leaping madly ahead faster than any mountain goat. He looked rather like a silver-haired Joker, laughing at the other hiker’s weakness and saying, “This is easy! No problem! We’re almost there! (snicker, snicker).”Hannah is that friend that comes over to watch the super bowl for the commercials and to eat the peanut butter. If someone asked her to play tackle football she’d plunge right in but would much rather read than watch supposedly sensible people run around in colorful latex, so it was natural that she had fallen behind the rest her group after escaping a particularly complicated bit of brush that required some complex gymnastics. She stopped to catch her breath.
“Hey, wait up! Guys! Guys?” Hannah groaned. Didn’t they notice they were missing a person? She stood for a minute to catch her breath. Glancing through the unexpected break in the foliage beside her, Hannah’s breath stopped. She’d never seen a view so spectacular, so vast. Land clothed in only natural foliage and the occasional red-roofed house stretched out forever into the mist below me, beyond me, around me. No photograph could capture the majesty of that view. For perhaps the first time that day she felt happy, awed by God’s creation, lifted above herself. She began hiking with renewed energy.
After that little glimpse of what was to come, the rest of the hike up seemed like pie; a rubbery, bitter-sweet, seemingly never-ending piece of pie. When they finally reached the very tippy-top of the mountain it felt like they’d conquered the challenge. Mist flowed over the landscape, obscuring the distance. They raised our ski poles in victory and congratulated each other. Hannah was bathing in the glow of victory (and sweat) until she looked down. “Yay, hooray, we made it...now let’s do it all again in reverse.”
(Nice smile, Joel)
Hiking downhill should be much easier than hiking uphill, right? RIGHT? Wrong! Keep in mind the mud. The snow and ice. The sharp pointy sticks with a seemingly personal vendetta you. Oh, yeah, and Hannah’s ski pole snapped. This was all well and terrible until Hannah and her compadres rounded a bend in the path and stepped into thin air. The path just disappeared in a steep drop of slushy snow. The path resumed half-way down the slide at a right-angle in just such a way that if she missed her stop she’d take a pleasant plunge down the bramble-tangled mountain. The more reckless guys yelled and slid down the hill with minimum injury and few injuries. Hannah was pacing back and forth trying to find the easiest, driest, least pokey route down. Carefully, she put her foot down in the snow and slowly eased down. Her feet slipped, her hands flailed, and she rolled down the slope.
As fast as Hannah and her personal belongings were tumbling down the mountainside, her attitude was taking a plunge into a pit of self-pity and bitterness. On perhaps any other day Hannah would have laughed off the spill down the mountain-side, the cold mud and scratches, being laughed at by her older, athletic brother, even the horrid feeling of hiking in wet jeans. That day? It would be easier to coax a smile out of poisonous cacti.
Suddenly, in the relative privacy of her group of fellow slowpokes (her mother and the only girl on the hike in a skirt), the thoughts and bitter complaints that had been simmering under the surface all day boiled over. Hannah’s generally optimistic attitude cracked and crumbled. Right there, right then, she had a meltdown. Everything just poured out (and a few tears, too) leaving her hiking mates with a bit of a shock.
When the whole story had flowed out, they walked for a moment in silence.
“So?” Hannah asked, sniffling a bit. “What do you think? What should I do?”
“Well, you have a terrible attitude, first of all.”
When they started getting into it, though, Hannah realized her friends were right. She’d been complaining all day, even if it was just in her head. Hannah was in Japan, with great friends, and with opportunities that some people never have the chance to experience. How could she let one unpleasant night ruin her day, like a coffee stain on a brand new shirt?
After a lot of apologizing and relieved laughter, Mom pointed out another important point. What if Hannah’s placement was not the mistake it seemed; what if she was in that specific family for a reason? What if there was something Hannah could do to give them hope, to change their lives in a way that would be remembered long after my brief stay was over? What if, instead of waiting for the next few days to be over, she used the time to reach out and minister to her host family? Hannah saw a situation that had seemed unfair and pointless through new eyes. This wasn’t a cruel trick; she had a mission. What she didn’t have (and badly needed) was a tissue.
Hannah’s band of slowpokes rounded the bend and found themselves on a concrete road, the bus only a 10 minute walk away. For the first time on the entire hike, Hannah wished that it was longer. When she’d resolved her issues and actually looked around, she was captured by the beauty of her surroundings. The colors intensified by the melting snow, Michelangelo clouds, the feeling of being liberated of a burden. How come she hadn’t seen this before?
That night Hannah knelt at her host family’s dinner table and bowed. When she looked up and met the eyes of her family, she smiled genuinely for the first time and took a long sip of her miso soup. Hannah noticed things she hadn’t before; the timid glances, the desperate eyes, the need for hope. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, after all.