notes from the valley

IMG_3378 "The tough stuff in life teaches us the greatest lessons." If I have said that once, I have said it a thousand times.

Two months ago today I drove my little grey station wagon 4.5 hours south on I-26 and moved myself to Charleston.

Time is a funny thing, because it feels like I just woke up from that day, and yet, my old life feels like it's light years away all at the same time.

Unrealistically, I thought that this would be easy. "I've always wanted to live in Charleston," I'd say when they asked me. In my mind, I pictured it to go a little something like this: Move to Charleston. Live in cute condo 5 minutes from the beach. Make instant friends and have tons of social functions to go to all the time. Be so social and so adjusted that this city couldn't even handle me. Go to the beach at least every other day. Go out downtown all the time. That I would LOVE the heck out of this warm weather. Rainbows and sunshine pretty much all the time, let me tell you.

Needless to say, other than the cute condo, it's went absolutely nothing like that.

A few weeks ago, on a tired Monday morning, I texted my friend Hannah,

"Choosing to stay in Charleston is the hardest thing ever. There are no hugs here. I cry all the time, and this is the loneliest I have ever been. Didn't know it was actually possible for a person to be this sad and alone. I feel like an empty fragile shell - not an actual person. But, I've loved Charleston my whole life. I thought God wanted me here, and I hope I wasn't wrong. I can't let Charleston be the place where I decided to give up on myself." 

She immediately sends back the words,

"Oh girl. You're in the valley.  Welcome to it."

Have there been moments of beauty and sheer joy during the last two months? Absolutely. The girls that I work with are wonderful people. I really enjoy them. One in particular, Katelyn, has invited me to things, introduced me to people, and made me feel included. I thank God for her all the time. I have spent a few lazy warm days on the beach with the fall sunshine on my face, and that has been wonderful. It's so warm that I rarely even need a light jacket, and while incredibly foreign to me, it's hard to complain about that. But it is totally weird that all the trees are still green on November 21st... I have even made a couple of trips downtown. So that I can just walk or drive around and not forget the beauty of this place. To remember that a part of it flows through my veins, and so I can try and not forget why I ever wanted to come here in the first place. Sometimes, when I'm driving across the Ravanell, or the Ashley River Bridge, or the Isle of Palms Connector, or across Shem Creek, I actually get a lump in my throat because I can't believe that I live in a place that's so beautiful. I'm learning how to be a full-fledged adult. I am more independent than I have ever been. I support myself, do my own grocery shopping, pay my own bills (mostly) on time, and believe it or not, am even to begin to dabble in that terrifying and elusive art form known as "cooking."

But in all honesty, in spite of the unexpected joy and the sunshine moments, these past two months have been overwhelmingly hard.

There is no point in sugarcoating it because I, Ashley Harris, am currently a full time resident of the valley.

It's lonely here, that's for sure. When I moved, I'm not sure that I had an accurate idea of what it meant, to actually well, you know...move. I had only ever been to Charleston on vacation, for short 1 or 2 week pieces of time. I naively thought this would be just one long extended vacation, and of course, I was wrong. There is traffic. A lot of it and it terrifies me. And on most days, the beach is the furthest thing from my mind. The best part of all of those vacations that that time spent here? My family. And without them, Charleston is just a beautiful place on a map.

I actually miss my people so much that it physically hurts. I miss their hugs and their big dinners together and all the parties we throw for no reason at all except just to be together. I miss weekend breakfasts with my dad, and porch talks with my mom, and afternoons with my grandparents, and sleepovers at the Baldridge house. Without all of them, being the big independent city girl isn't all it's cracked up to be.

I'm not eating much these days, I'll admit. And I'm probably sleeping too much, I'll admit that too. I want to have people here. But it's hard to make friends, but I beat myself up because I could try harder. There are days when I am literally overjoyed just because I have somewhere to go and someone to see. And there are days when I'm relieved just to be able to go home after work, eat dinner, lose myself in a few episodes of Gilmore girls, pull the covers up over my head, have a good cry, and be asleep by 9pm. And then there are the dark days where I put one foot in front of each other on autopilot, head down, in heavy fog. Days when I fight back tears until my lunch break, and then again until I get in my car at 5:00 to drive home. I want someone to care where I am and what I'm doing. I want someone in this city to know who I am, to ask what I'm up to, to choose me. I just want to be known. I just want to be seen. These are the days when "depression?" is a faint question in my mind and I just shrug it away and keep going.

I am not fine. I am simply making it. I am trudging through the valley.

You likely don't know this about me, but up until recently I have liked to keep God in a shoebox under my bed. I keep him under there, saving him for a rainy day. I call on him when I need him, and don't pay him much attention when I think I don't.

But that's the best thing about this valley. It's forced me to take God out of that box. I have hit my knees more in the past two months than I have in the past five years. He hasn't felt so far away lately. And it's a saving grace.

Friday was an absolutely hellish day. It was doubting everything about myself and making the decision that coming here was the absolute biggest mistake. It was shaky hands, an upset stomach, the inability to focus, and a paralyzing fear. It was crying myself to sleep that night, and having an anxiety attack when I woke up the next morning. Friday was the devil trying to win.

The devil wants to win. He relishes in your sadness and preys on your weakness. And will do everything in his power to make  you fearful, to make you doubt yourself and what you are doing, and even worse, to make you doubt God and the reasons why His goodness brought you here.

But I can't let him win. I can't give in to defeat and stop fighting for all of this goodness this life has to offer. I can't let Charleston be the place where I decided to let fear pummel me to the ground. I can't let Charleston be the place where I decided to give up on myself.

I have learned, that in the valley, you will walk through the refining fire.

"When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze." (Malachi 43:2)

God is refining me in this valley. He is breaking me down into pieces that He will rebuild. He is trudging with me through the loneliness, and the bright & dark days. He, for the first time in a long time, feels near. He has not forgotten me here. 

I am learning that my God can't just be the God of thankful prayers that dances with me on the mountaintops. He has to be the God of questioning prayers, of pleading prayers, who matches my steps on the days when I feel invisible. On the days when I am heartsick and homesick. On the days when I am ready to let fear win. 

I get this overwhelming feeling that people don't want to hear about when you're not fine. They don't want to hear about the loneliness that shatters you to pieces, and the fears and lies that whisper in your ears when you lay down at night. They want to hear about the great times you are having, the new people you are meeting, and the new life you aimed to build. I know that people expect me to be fine. They have come to expect me to be resilient, and to always have a smile on my face. And I do still smile, quite a bit. But happy moments and great big belly laughs don't mean that your insides aren't unraveling at the same time.  In truth, the greatest disservice we can for ourselves and others is to not be real with one another. I refuse not to be honest. In fact, I view honesty as my only option.

Because how can people know where to find you if you won't tell them where you are?

As Hannah has told me and taught me through her example, you can't be afraid of the valley. Do not be afraid of the refining fire. I am not afraid, because I know that I will come out on the other side more full of His spirit than I have ever been. Beautiful things are to come on the other side.

I think the best thing I have ever learned, is how to sit here with God in this valley.

Because those mountaintops? They don't teach you a damn thing.  But these valleys? They sure do.