(This post was originally written for and published on That First Year.)
"Peace is always beautiful."
I have that hanging on the wall in my bedroom, the quote from Walt Whitman printed across baked clay, a piece of art I found at a market my sophomore year during a somewhat rough period in my college career.
Peace has always been something I've craved but never quite known what exactly it was or how to find it, as though it's some mysterious ancient treasure that only a select few manage to unearth.
And I - the one with an anxious mind and penchant for meticulously thought-out life plans - clearly was not one of those select few.
"What was your turning point?" I asked my friend one morning in my favorite Nashville coffee shop, the one that feels like home. "At what point did you find peace in your situation?"
She paused a while before answering. "I don't know."
I wasn't satisfied with that answer. I am a girl infatuated with stories, with plot twists and grand revelations and those kinds of climactic Harry-peering-into-the-pensieve-of-Snape's-thoughts moments. I've always thought of life as a story penned by God.
And I wanted her to describe to me her turning point. Desperately. Yet she couldn't offer me one. And that disappointed me and sent me on a drive to work crying angry tears at God, telling Him that nothing seemed to make sense, that life didn't seem to be any sort of story after all, that instead it appeared to be only a string of random happenstances watched over by an impersonal God who only cared about us once we died and stood at eternity's gates, waiting to see which list of the two destinations our name had landed on. It just didn't make sense to me that my friend couldn't offer a specific turning point to peace in her life's story.
Because if she had a turning point, then maybe I could have one myself. If she had a turning point, maybe I could study it enough to figure out a pathway to peace. Maybe then I could shed the anxieties that had left my mind reeling and my heart breaking for so many months.
But she couldn't offer me a turning point to peace in that coffee shop on a Wednesday morning. And little by little I snuffed out any sort of hope for peace. Because if life wasn't a story full of twists and climaxes and pivotal turning points, then what was it but a string of random events thrown together? And if life is only a random string of events, then how can meaning be found in it? And if no meaning can be found, then what hope is there for peace at all?
I prayed that I'd find that on my trip to New Zealand. Desperately - and rather hopelessly - I prayed that.
"Peace, perfect peace."
On my second day, I found those three words engraved atop a white archway memorial at the shore of a tiny coastal town, the first stop on our trip.
And I thought it funny that I'd see that so soon after my prayer for peace, funny because peace was hardly what I'd been feeling, even with days full of good, beautiful things in the land of grand mountains and vast seas and Middle Earth references.
I think I expected peace to crash over me like the great waves I saw pounding against New Zealand's rocky coastline, drowning me in some sort of overwhelming emotion at the mere sight of stunning beauty. And once baptized by the waters of peace, I'd forever be a changed person. I'd return home from this trip and everything would finally, finally be okay.
But that didn't happen. Here I was witnessing a magnificent beauty so perfect that the English language has yet to create words to describe it properly and all I could think about were the things from home that I haven't been able stop thinking about for months.
And so I stomped angrily to God's door, rapping my fists hard against it (knock and the door shall be opened, right?) and crying out, "Where oh where is my peeeeace?!" Because I am in NEW ZEALAND of all places and if I can't find peace here then is there any hope for peace for me at all?
We did several hikes while touring New Zealand’s south island, hikes that brought us to snowy mountain tops and hikes that led us through lush seaside greenery. One of these walks passed through a wide valley walled in on all sides by pinched peaks capped with snow. Clouds poured down into the deep mountain ravines like waterfalls, gradually burning off as morning meandered into day.
The hours-long walk through the yellow valley ended at a blue, blue lake towered over by Mt. Cook, New Zealand's highest peak. From my sunny resting place on a boulder aside the water's edge, I could hear distant avalanches like thunder echoing throughout the valley, a sound foreign to me and yet so utterly delightful that I wish I could've bottled it up like one of those Marlborough wines and taken it home with me.
In that moment, there was no grand epiphany, no wave of emotion flooding me, no turning point where I suddenly became okay with everything and rid myself of those maddening thoughts as easily as the mountains let Spring's warmth peel away cliff-clinging ice in a noisy rush.
But I did wish that serene moment could've lasted forever. Because on that rock against the water, my eyes fixed on the white peaks in front of me, I was present. And I think peace is as simple as that: being present in a moment that you wish could last forever.
Yet just as I can't bottle up the sound of avalanches, I can't bottle up that small taste of peace; I can't take it home with me and declare that moment as the turning point where I finally found peace in my life and lived happily ever after. I can't sit in a coffee shop with you and tell you that New Zealand was the trip that changed everything, because truthfully those anxieties returned just as quickly as they had faded in that brief lakeside mountain moment. What I can do is talk to you on and on and on (and ON!) about my newfound love for the sound of avalanches and what it felt like to stand next to sheer cliff walls that went straight up and up into the clouds in Fiordland. But no, I can't tell you this trip was my turning point to peace.
I'm starting to think peace isn't something to be found and then kept like a souvenir, as if God gives us a treasure map with an "x" marking the spot and sends us away to find it with a pat on the shoulder and a "good luck." Rather, I think peace is something we experience in simple moments we wish could last forever, little moments we are gifted from time to time as an oasis in life's deserts.
I don't think you have to run away to a pair of tiny islands in the south Pacific to experience peace, either. Moments that we wish would never end can happen anywhere - in those warm conversations in that coffee shop that feels like home, in the smile of that person who has snagged the affections of your heart, in the teary-eyed laughs with your best friends over jokes that no one else would find funny.
But I don't think peace is permanent. Not in this life, at least - this life of imperfection and people who hurt each other and things that seem to happen for no reason at all. I think peace - perfect peace - exists in the only moment which truly will last forever: eternity itself.
On my final day in New Zealand, my traveling partner/Australian bestie, Jess, and I spent the rainy morning in a coffee shop sipping lattes and asking that same question that every traveler asks at the end of a much-anticipated journey: Is it really over already?
"There is always hope."
Those words were scrawled across a piece of art spread across one of the cafe's walls.
That is what I have been lacking for quite some time, I realize now: a hope for better things ahead in my confused-post-grad life. And maybe in all of this, in my quest for peace and understanding and okay-ness with life’s sometimes long stretches of dullness, what I've really been craving is the warmth of a hope burning bright. Because without hope, how can any other good things - peace and faith and love and the like - be present?
I want to say that I do feel a small ember of hope burning once more: a hope that I shall experience moments of simple peace again in my life like what I experienced in that mountain valley, and a hope that in the end, life will turn out to be a carefully-crafted story full of twists and climaxes and pivotal turning points after all.
And hope - even the tiniest spark of it - is always beautiful.
(See photos from my week in New Zealand here.)