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Nothing's more lonely than traveling by yourself. Conversely, nothing's better than sharing your traveling adventures with a friend, especially when there's pain involved and you need to hold on to something to keep from tipping over.
I had a concert in Buffalo, New York, and my best friend, Alison, was with me. I couldn't wait to take her to see Niagara Falls. Alison has been all over the world-England, Ireland, Italy, France, and Portugal. But she'd never been to Niagara Falls. I had. And so for the day I was her little, obnoxious travel guide.
Alison and I go way back. I got saved 347 times while growing up, and I met Alison at church camp way before I hit the 100 mark. We were about fourteen then. My older sister found her first. They went to Switzerland together on a youth missions trip in the early seventies. After Charlotta was killed in a car accident in 1976, I sort of inherited Alison. For this legacy, I'm forever grateful to my big sister. I wouldn't doubt that she and Alison made some sort of a deal during the friendship. I fancy the idea that the deal was struck in the Swiss Alps: If anything shouldhappen to me, see to it that my little sister Chonda matches her shoes with her clothes, that she paints her nails once in awhile, and that she doesn't talk with her mouth full-too often. (They could both be a bit prissy!)
Twenty years ago, I was at the hospital while Alison gave birth to her son, Justin. It was the greatest of nights; it was the saddest of nights (my apologies to Dickens, and David, my literary husband). We'd been together all that day, sensing the time was close. Then later in the evening, sometime before the final and funniest scene of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Alison went into labor. About thirty-six hours later, Justin was born. About an hour after that, he was rushed by ambulance to another hospital across town-one better equipped to handle his serious lung problems. I stood by Alison when they rolled his little glass house by her bed so she could say goodbye to him before he was taken away. Being there for one another at our points of pain has made our relationship stronger. She is not just my dearest friend; she is my sister. Believe me when I tell you that I'd give her one of David's kidneys if she needed it!
Another time, a terrible migraine headache had Alison laid out on the couch. We were so dirt poor then that a trip to the emergency room was out of the question. Besides, she had an idea: "What I need is just a little pressure on my head. I've done it before, and the throbbing goes away." She looked up at me helplessly from the sofa, tears swimming in her eyes. "Mash my head," she said. So I took a towel and wrapped it as tightly as I could around the top of her head, stuck a pencil in the knot for leverage, and for two hours, I held on and twisted and cranked, Inquisition-like, until my hands and Alison both fell asleep. At least I think she was asleep. Come to think of it, I may have just knocked her out. Either way, her pain was relieved.
I also remember the day I helped Alison pack her belongings and watched as she put her house up for sale and moved eight hours away, closer to her childhood home, because her husband had just walked out and she was left to care for her infant son alone. That point of pain seemed almost unbearable. Her heart was broken, and no towel and pencil could fix this one for her. (I do take credit, though, for praying a man into her life! I will never forget the day that Ken adopted Justin and, of course, married Alison. But I think Alison was just a bonus.)
So I was glad that Alison was there with me at Niagara Falls. "Hurry, hurry!" I called over my shoulder, racing toward the over-look and into the light mist that rolled up out of a rainbow. "They turn it off at six, you know!" She walked faster. She even almost passed me up before her Ph.D. kicked in and she realized that you can't turn off Niagara Falls. We laughed about that for hours. (Okay, I did anyway.)
But as so often happens in real life, our weekend couldn't end like that-with Alison embarrassed and me laughing. Oh no, someone had to get hurt.
The next day we flew down to Omaha, where Dr. Alison soon met with another point of pain when she slipped a disk. She moved through the hotel lobby like a walking question mark. Whenever she stopped, she held on to me to keep from tipping over. This broke my heart. It's so hard to see someone you love in pain. Besides, the moaning and groaning kept me awake all night! I tried to "laugh her better"-you know, tell her jokes to get the endorphins flowing. Science reports every day how the big loads of endorphins produced by laughter have even cured cancer. But Alison was a tough audience. And she'd heard all my jokes. Besides, her back hurt too much for her to laugh.
Alison had tangled with pain a lot over the years. I remembered that she'd had at least two surgeries, some ruptured disks, and a bunch of other yucky things I won't mention. So the slipped disk was not a big surprise. She told me that every so often, something along her spine will shift and leave her crippled for days. This was one of those days.
Thankfully, at the arena where we were staging the Women of Faith conference, one of the volunteers happened to be a massage therapist. So she set up her massage chair, eased Alison into the comfy seat, and began kneading her back and shoulders like biscuit dough, while I shared with the masseuse the art of towel-and-pencil therapy. She promised to try it sometime after we were gone. Alison got a bit of relief from this volunteer, that and a heavy-duty pain pill-then I put her on a plane and pointed her for home, to her doctor-husband. I called ahead and prescribed plenty of TLC, as well as some other doctor stuff that he could do for free, or at least at cost.
I hated to let her go off alone that day, all bent over and shuffling and groaning and even drooling a little bit too. But through my friendship with Alison, I've learned there are many things I can't control. (To that, Dr. Alison would probably say, "Duh!") I can't control Niagara Falls, or Alison's first husband, or even the thin, bony disk in her back that sometimes shifts around to keep her from laughing at my jokes (which I did only to release the endorphins, remember?). And what I have also learned is that no matter what, I pray and I hold on. Every time I do, the love of God always shows up and sweeps over me, picks me up from my island of pain, and carries me off to a place where I can heal. It's better than endorphins.
So when you travel, travel with a friend. Go see Niagara Falls. And when pain shows up to bully you around, just hold on tighter. Hold on to a pencil, a towel, your convictions, to your best friend, to your faith, to the insides of the barrel that takes you over the falls. Hold on tightly, and this pain that bends you into a question mark will pass. You can't hold back God's mercy, and you can't stop Niagara Falls.
To Pack the Kitchen Sink or Not?
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth ... But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. -MATTHEW 6:19-20
Packing is a science and an art. I think it's time for a new word: Scienart? Or artience?
I'm learning to pack lighter these days because I know that is the smart thing to do. There were times when I wanted to take everything-the kitchen sink included-thinking that one day, out there on the road, I would need it. But all that did was give me backaches. Although it did make my luggage easier to spot coming around on that moving belt.
My new dedication to the art of packing took hold when we were preparing for a ten-day trip to Israel. I've come to realize that no matter how light you plan to pack, the cause and effect of daily activities will lead you right back to the kitchen sink. For instance, David reads a lot and his eyes might get tired, so he'll need his reading glasses, and a case to protect them, and I'll need a bigger bag because of the case, and since I have a bigger bag now, I might as well pack the red shoes for the Thursday evening dinner, and if we're going to eat out a lot, I might as well bring along the kitchen sink. See how things grow?
But the best thing you can do is pack light. I try to pack colors that go with anything, which makes for limitless mix-and-match combinations. I love reversible clothing. My husband can wear a reversible shirt for four days and never stain it in the same place twice (don't ask). People may think I wear leather pants on stage to make some midlife-crisis statement. Not really. I wear them because they don't wrinkle. And folks might think I wear boots because I'm from Tennessee. But really I wear them because then I don't have to keep my toenails painted, or cut even. I know this all sounds tremendously lazy, but the fact of the matter is I hate to iron and my toenails look better in boots - trust me!
Traveling light is such a powerful concept that Max Lucado even wrote a whole book about it. I bought it in the airport one day - and then had to buy one of those luggage racks on wheels because now my carry-on was too heavy. After about an hour of wheeling it around, spikes of severe pain shot up in my right shoulder and neck, and I nearly missed my flight.
Packing for a trip to the Holy Land can be a bit trickier than packing for a stay in, say, Wisconsin. What to wear to a Christian holy site? A Muslim holy site? A Jewish holy site? Each one is different, so to be safe, we wear layers and wraparounds and things with Velcro and always keep the Holy Site Dress Code book handy.
One thing I didn't count on was Lazarus' tomb. It's a small, carved-out cave that barely held us all. But then again, why would you need a roomy tomb? About fifteen of us climbed down into the tomb at the same time. We marveled for a moment at where we were standing and then sang old hymns. We sang one song after another and wept and rejoiced and soaked in the moment. Finally, when someone asked for a Scripture verse, someone else shouted, "Lord, surely by now he stinketh!" Did I mention there's no ventilation in Lazarus' tomb?
Pack Light, I remind myself when I go on long trips. And in my day-to-day living, when I try to tote so much baggage around - physical or emotional, real or imagined - I remember that odiferous day in Lazarus' tomb and remind myself that life is short and the tomb at the end of the journey is too small for a kitchen sink.
Although a sink would have been nice, with little soaps and hand towels, maybe a loofah, some hand lotions ...
Excerpted from Roadkill on the Highway to Heaven by Chonda Pierce Copyright © 2006 by Chonda Pierce. Excerpted by permission.
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