Monday, July 29, 2013

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Last week, 9 friends and I went backpacking to Havasu Falls, which I'm convinced is one of the most beautiful places on earth. 

About 3 hours from Grand Canyon, the Falls are located on the Havasupai Reservation, a few miles from one of the most remote cities in the United States. Only accessible by an 8-mile hike or mule ride from the top of a canyon, this wilderness maintains its pristine beauty despite the tourists who do flock to the bottom.
 We camped beneath cliff walls that rose over a thousand feet above us. The walls were riddled with caves, remnants of failed mining expeditions.
 Havasu Falls is known for its blue-green water. It doesn't show up clearly in these pictures, but even after the rains of the last few months, we still swam in turquoise pools
 The river at the bottom of the canyon flows over rocks and terraces, creating miles of little waterfalls and rapids.
After camping overnight by Havasu Falls, we hiked farther along the trail. The path took us through carved rock, and down cliff faces aided by posts and chains.
Mooney Falls was spectacular, and swimming in the pool at the bottom felt like being in the middle of a hurricane.
 The path to Beaver Falls, 4 miles from our campsite, was bizarrely tropical. It felt like we were wandering through rainforest rather than the desert that Arizona is known for.
 Beaver Falls was worth the hike. We scrambled over waterfalls and swam in the blue-green pools. We climbed up rock faces and sat in caves behind sheets of water. The experience was surreal and incredible-- a tiny taste of Paradise on Earth.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Happiness is Overrated

A few days ago, I was sitting at the bus stop on the way to pick up something for dinner. Thunderstorms brooded in the distance, and a knobby-limbed elk sauntered across the road, causing a glut of tourists chattering excitedly in different languages to pull out cameras and point. Suddenly, in a burst of unprovoked curiosity, I asked myself,

“Am I happy?”

I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know how to answer the question. It floated in my mind as I finished my dinner, as I returned my books to the library, and as I talked with my roommates before bed. It seemed like I should know if I was happy or not. We learn when we’re children that happy is the opposite of sad, and what are we supposed to think when we’re somewhere in between?

I’ve had moments here this summer of unsurpassed happiness. Sitting around a bonfire with a guitar, learning Jamaican worship songs and twisting voices together in sublime harmonies. Driving to the city with friends, the radio blaring and our arms out the windows to catch the wind. Preaching. Hiking. Laughing.

But I’ve also had dark moments. Sometimes loneliness wraps me tight like a blanket in the heat. Sometimes my words falter and I’m embarrassed; I’m called out on my mistakes, and I feel ashamed.

If you added up my triumphs and my failures, or averaged the good and bad, I think the trend would be positive. But is that what it means to be happy? Can good cancel out bad, or does it sharpen it?

In English, we’re limited in how we can say what something “is.” I either am happy or I am not. In Spanish, however, there are two words. You can say “Estoy feliz:” I am happy in the moment; or “Soy feliz:” I am a happy person. Happiness is inherent to who I am.

I meet people every day who aren’t happy. And part of that unhappiness comes from the feeling that they should be. Magazines tell us if we were thinner, we’d be happy. Commercials tell us happiness will come if we only eat more. People consume alcohol and exploit relationships all in a desperate attempt to gain something that they’re missing.

But what if we don’t have to be happy all the time?

I treasure the times when “estoy feliz,” but maybe the ability to be constantly happy is unrealistic and even unhealthy. Should we be happy when a loved one is struggling? Should we be happy when we’re lost and we know it?

Sadness, I think, and frustration and sorrow and anger are necessary human emotions. Anger illuminates wrongs in the world and gives us the impetus to fix them. Sorrow stems from empathy, and allows us to encourage others.

Happiness is about me. When I have what I want and when I’m where I want to be, I am happy. These times are wonderful and they are important. But think of where you’d be if you went with “happy” over “right”!

I want to propose an alternative. I want to stop chasing after happiness and instead pursue contentment and joy. These are not emotions, but states of being. They are decisions and outlooks on life. Even when I am not happy, I can choose optimism. I can be content in struggles because I believe in a God who never leaves my side.

I think of Philippians 4:11-13, where the apostle Paul speaks about contentment. He was whipped and shipwrecked and imprisoned and hated by many. Yet he says,

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.”

Happiness is overrated. Welcome it with open arms when it comes your way, but don't feel like a failure when it isn't easy.  There's more to life than ease and comfort. Instead, choose contentment. Reach out-- choose joy.

Home Sweet Home

If you can make out the sign reading "Grand Canyon Kennels," I assure you, the arrow is NOT pointing to our new home, but to a building further down the street. 
When two girls from our team went home early, a friend and I moved out of the employee dormitory and into this cabin where they had been staying. Though it's essentially a small shack with a bathroom and barely room for three beds, I consider it an improvement. 

Construction has been going on in Colter Hall since the week I arrived, and it was common to wake up to cranes like this outside of my window, the shrill beeping of large machinery, and the course laughter of construction workers. Neighbors were infested with bedbugs and due to further construction on the bathroom right across the hall from me, there were only three showers in the building to accommodate several hundred woman.
Though the cabin I'm in now is no paradise-- the laundry facilities as seen below are perhaps lacking, and the buses that rush by still wake us up in the wee hours of the morning-- I'm thankful for the opportunity of a cozy new home, at least for my last few weeks.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Assumptions of the Rich and Powerful

The El Tovar is the best hotel in the Grand Canyon area—and I’m not just saying that because I grace the front desk. We’ve hosted famous actors, businessmen, and eight of the last dozen Presidents. Last week Joan Rivers stopped by our front desk. Though most of our clientele are still middle class, I come in contact with more wealthy and powerful people than I’ve ever rubbed shoulders with before. What I’ve found is not that these people are consciously snooty or prejudiced. I’ve found they simply make assumptions about other people—assumptions, I’m afraid, that I may be guilty of as well.
Last week a woman rushed up to the front desk in a panic, asking if she could have an iPhone charger. We don’t keep phone chargers on hand, of course, and I told her so. “You don’t have any back there?” she asked impatiently, furrowing her eyebrows in disbelief. “You won’t even let me use yours?”
I’m sure it didn’t occur to her that she was speaking to a front desk full of people who make $8.25 an hour. Not only don’t I have an iPhone, I don’t have a phone at all. But when I told her I didn’t have a charger she could use, she assumed I was simply being selfish.
It’s a certain sort of irony, that the people who work in such a fine hotel generally aren’t able to afford it. This woman didn’t sense it, but I do occasionally see flashes of that realization in people’s faces. Sometimes they’ll ask me what I prefer in the dining room where meal charges regularly run over $100. When I confess I’ve never eaten there, they become temporarily embarrassed, stumbling over words.
People will complain when their air conditioning doesn’t work. “Can you imagine how terrible it was in this heat?” the martyrs gasp. I sympathize because that’s my job—to shake my head, apologize, and “poor baby” them. But I can do more than imagine, I sleep every night in a tiny corner of a room with no more furniture than a single bed, dresser and a porcelain sink. I don’t have the luxury of a fan and certainly not an air conditioning unit.
But even though I’m living in that situation, I cannot separate myself from the offending tourists. I am, in a sense, a tourist myself here. The fact that I borrow and work myself through college makes me feel separate from other students I know, for whom the way is paid in full. But though I’ll quip and banter about being a “poor college student,” I know that I could run home in a moment and be fed and clothed and comforted. I have more than I need, and I know where I could get more.
Coming to work in the Grand Canyon was a voluntary choice based more on the promise of ministry than necessity. I probably could have found work elsewhere and made more money, but I decided to make the adventurous choice. Co-workers here, by contrast, have defeated homelessness, divorce, and every tragedy imaginable. Many have nowhere else to go. And though I share for a summer the public showers and threat of bedbugs, we don’t share much more than that.
Perhaps because we come from different backgrounds, I find I make my own assumptions about my neighbors here in the park. Though I don’t think that everyone has an iPhone or can afford different luxuries, I find I do make assumptions about things like hope.
I’m enormously hopeful, a blind optimist. I was raised under the rhetoric that if I worked hard, I could do anything I wanted. I still believe it. I’m in school, and doing well, and when I graduate I’ll do something I love to do, something that matters. I bristle around negativity and pessimism. But I’ve come to realize that in many cases, assuming that others share these attitudes makes about as much sense as assuming that the housekeeper you’re yelling to hurry up has an iPhone. Some people have never been given the opportunity to hope.
I’m amazed by the opportunities that I’ve been handed. I had loving, intelligent parents who pushed me and challenged me. I benefited from passionate and helpful teachers. I’m surrounded by bright, motivating friends. Of course I’ve worked hard as well, but these things have given me advantages that I can’t assume others share.
One cannot equate hope or ambition with wealth, but there is a disheartening correlation. When a child grows up unable to control where her next meal will come from, she may grow up feeling there is little else she can control. Initiative, in many ways, is a learned skill. It must be observed to be imitated, and so many people here lack models.
I’m leaving in a few weeks, and I won’t look back. Others have worked for five years or ten, in the same entry-level position. Some might brand these people failures, but that’s making an assumption that comes from a place of, well, wealth and power. I don’t have bright plans for the future because I’m better, or smarter, or more diligent than anyone else. I’ve been taught. I’ve had dozens of people invest in me and encourage me, teaching me that there is no such thing as a dead end in life.
Rather than assume that everyone has what I have—whether this be material possessions or an outlook on life—why shouldn’t I offer it? Give encouragement, share opportunities, lend hope: I have plenty of those things behind the front desk, if the woman had only asked.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Day in the Life of a Front Desk Clerk

K: El Tovar front desk, this is Kate. How can I help you?
Guest: Hello, my microwave is not working.
K: Your… microwave? I’m sorry, none of our rooms have microwaves.
Guest: This one does! But it keeps asking me for a four-digit code.
K: Ma’am, that would be your safe.
Guest: Oh… goodbye. [abruptly hangs up]
K: Hello, how can I help you?
Guest 1: Did you have any rooms last night?
K: Last night? I believe we were sold out.
Guest 2: Good.
K: Can I look up rooms for tonight for you?
Guest 1: No thanks, we were just curious.
[Guest 2 to Guest 1]: I told you.
K: Just to confirm, we have you staying here with us for one night in a room with two queen beds at a rate of $221 per night. You’re guaranteeing that with a Mastercard. Does that sound right?
Guest: Yep.
K: Alright let me read you your confirmation number. That’s 39XXXX.
Guest: And the area code?
K: Excuse me?
Guest: I’m from Canada, how am I supposed to call without an area code?
K: I’m sorry, where are you trying to call?
Guest: The confirmation number!
K: …that’s not a telephone number, Ma’am, that’s just in case you need to update your reservation later.
Guest: Ok, I never heard of a telephone number with six digits anyway.
Guest: Where can I pack?
Co-worker: Pack up your luggage?
Guest: No, pack!
Guest’s wife: Darling, don’t forget your ‘r’s.
Guest: P…ark.
Co-worker: Oh, you’re from Massachusetts!
Guest: Yes, and I just need a place to put my cah.
Guest’s wife: Darling…
Guest: CAR.
Little boy, barely visible over the desk: Miss?
K: Yes, sir, can I help you?
Boy’s mother: He found some change outside and he wants to donate it.
[boy places a quarter and two pennies on the desk]
K: Well, thank you very much! This will help maintain the trails and buildings around here!
[boy walks off beaming]
K: Um… what do I do with this?
Manager: Oh, you’re not authorized to handle cash yet.
K: Can I drop this somewhere?
Manager: No, we’ll have to create a separate guest account in the computer marked “donations,” then transfer the posting to the billing screen…
K: It’s 27 cents.
Manager: From the billing screen, we can select, “non-hotel guest” and… here, just give it to me.
[hands manager three coins]
[15 minutes later]
Manager: It’s posted!

Guest: Kate! Is that you?
K: Yes it is!
Guest: How are you?
K: Fine, how are you?
Guest: Just great, thanks to you!
K: Well, I’m glad you made it.
[co-worker checks guest in]
Guest: Well, thanks again Kate!
K: Absolutely, enjoy your stay!
[guests leave]
Co-worker: Who were they?
K: I have no idea.
The Presidential Suite is the best room in the hotel, but we aren’t allowed to take any reservations for it, as the National Park Service technically owns the room. On days when they aren’t using it, they release it for us to sell. One elderly woman, traveling alone, just happened to inquire about an upgrade right as the suite became available. She booked it, and was especially enamored with the list we gave her of all the Presidents who had slept in the room before her.
Guest: May I have another one of those lists?
K: Sure!
Guest: [conspiratorially] I wrote on the other one.
K: Oh? What did you write?
Guest: I wrote my name on the bottom of the list! [giggles]
K: Are you going to be our next President, then?
Guest: Oh, no. But I think our next President will be a woman.
K: Is that so?
Guest: Yes. I’m going to put Mrs. Hillary Clinton on the bottom of this one, just to be sure.
K: …and that’s a room with 2 queen beds.
Guest: Two queens? I wanted one king.
K: I’m sorry, your reservation was made for a room with 2 queens.
Guest: Well that’s all you had when I made the reservation, but I want one king.
K: I can see what we have… I’m sorry, we’re sold out of king rooms for tonight.
Guest: Well, what about the people who have a king bed?
K: What about them?
Guest: Can you call them and ask them to trade?
K: Those guests are already checked into their rooms, we’re not going to ask them to move.
Guest: Why not? Maybe they want two beds! You’re not even going to ask??
K: …No, ma’am, I’m afraid not.
Guest: [near tantrum] But I wanted a king bed!
K: [stares at her, not sure what else to say.]
Guest: Fine. Two queens. [sighs] Here’s my credit card.
Guest: Where can I buy bottled water?
K: The park service doesn’t allow us to sell bottled water in the park. You can purchase a water bottle and use one of our re-filling stations, though.
Guest: Those look like drinking fountains. I don’t drink from drinking fountains!
K: It’s filtered water that’s piped in here for us. It’s the same as what you’d be drinking from a bottle.
Guest: Oh, no… anywhere else I can go?
K: Well, the tap water is also the same water.
Guest: I’m not drinking tap water!
K: Ok. Well. The cocktail lounge behind you can give you water in a to-go cup.
Guest: They probably use the tap water too! I don’t want tap water! Can I get juice?
K: The cocktail lounge sells juice.
Guest: I don’t want to spend $6 on a cup of juice!
K: Well, you could get a cup of juice at the cafeteria about a mile away. That’s about a mile walking, or you could take the shuttle bus.
Guest: That’s so far! I just need to take these pills here. I don’t need much. Isn’t there anything else I can do?
K: Maybe you could get a glass of water with your dinner?
Guest: I already ate dinner. I took a sip of the water and there must be minerals or something in there. I didn’t like it.
K: I, I really don’t know what else to tell you.

Guest: I’m going to try that cafeteria then. I know I’m going to get lost. Oh, these pills cause me so much trouble!
K: May I see a photo ID and credit card, please?
Guest [to husband]: Isn’t she precious? Look, she’s a trainee.
K: [ignoring] Alright, would you sign here by the room rate, then across the bottom there? Check-out time is 11am tomorrow morning.
Guest: You’re doing a great job. [to husband] Isn’t she doing a great job?
K: Thank you. How many keys can I make for you?
Guest: Two is fine.
[Goes to make keys. Guest pulls her phone out]
Guest: Smile! [takes picture]
K: Uh… your room number is right here, you’re going to be up those stairs and down the hall.
Guest: Thank you, sweetie. [to husband] Precious!