at the bottom of a mountain

There’s a small mountain behind our apartment complex that’s popular when the weather’s nice. A handful of middle age men and women can usually be seen walking together near the wooden stairs that lead to the start of the trail. They wear their brightest coordinating active wear, an essential in the wardrobe of Koreans over forty.

A few weeks ago we were walking home from a trip downtown when I noticed a lady standing at the bottom of the stairs in rising panic. She held walking poles in both of her hands, but she was completely frozen. Since she was walking away from the trail I could tell she had just come down the mountain. I tried not to stare, but I was worried about her.

True and Evan were busy inspecting bugs and leaves and anything new on the sidewalk. Dandelion buds were breaking through the tops of their milky, hollow stems. Azaleas were starting to grow wild in the sun. A couple apartment maintenance workers were planting flowers in the giant brown pots that line the entrance to our complex, a few feet from where the woman stood. They worked together, pouring dirt from giant bags, digging holes for bright red and purple flowers.

We watched them plant for a while as I glanced over at the woman stuck at the bottom of the stairs. At one point she tried to take a step but her leg collapsed under her. She barely made it to a short barrier wall before she sat down awkwardly, clearly in pain.

She grabbed her phone and stared at it for a moment as if the battery had died or she’d forgotten how to use it.

Help her, my mind screamed across the apartment gate to the maintenance workers lost in their planting. Do something! Ask her if she’s ok!

Do they notice that she is wincing? Possibly confused? Something is not right, my mind continued.

A man walked toward us from the restaurant across the street. He saw the woman and stopped in the middle of the road to stare at her for a minute.

CHECK ON HER, I wanted to yell, but I was too panicked myself.

I should go over there and see what’s happening, I finally decided. I grabbed my phone for possible translation needs, but it was dead. The kids were nearing the curb and the baby stirred in the carrier on my chest.

GOD, I finally mustered, why have you put me in this place where I am stuck and unable to do anything useful? Why am I forced to see suffering when I’m unable to act?

All these feelings I’ve felt deeply for so long came bubbling to the surface, and like the lady, I was paralyzed at the bottom of a mountain.

Once again He gently reminded me that the world does not depend on me.

You could pray for her, He suggested.

Prayer. A thing I take for granted. A thing that seems mystical and ineffective when I’m staring at a lady whose legs are giving way.

We walked home, but the picture of this lady at the bottom of the steps kept playing in my head. I felt like everyone except the good samaritan.

It’s so hard to live here, I complained.

You’re not in charge of saving anyone, God reminded me.

His work and His love and His presence don’t depend on me.

A few days later I pick True up from Sunday school and as she’s putting on her shoes, her teacher runs back into the classroom and grabs a snack. “Here True!” She says cheerfully as she hands her some ramen noodles. It’s the kind you break apart and eat right out of the square package. True hands it to me and I inspect it. That’s strange, I think. I’m picturing the usual handfuls of candy and thinking about the fact that True can’t eat this. (She can’t eat wheat and her teachers know it). I shrug and hold it in my hands as we walk home from church.

We hit the stone steps and then turn into our apartment complex. A few steps in I see a young woman walking toward us on the brick sidewalk. Her long, black hair is wet and clinging to her cheeks and neck. Her shirt is also black with some kind of skull on it. She isn’t wearing makeup. She’s holding her phone and walking quickly.

I wonder for a second what her story might be. I pray a quick, selfish prayer that the image on her shirt wont give my kids nightmares. And then she approaches, “Excuse me” she mutters to get my attention. “Yes?” I reply cheerfully. The kids start digging in the dirt and inspecting the magnolia bush that looks cross-bred with a rose. “Look at the red stripes!” I hear them observe behind me. They are bouncing around from bush to bush, from dirt to dirt.

The woman stares at me. She lifts her hand and slightly opens her mouth, only to close it tightly and glance down at her phone. She punches something on the screen and then shows me a trail of Chinese characters, like a string of waffle fries. I’m completely flattered that she thinks I can read Chinese. The characters will always be a sort of comfort food for me.

I shrug and explain that I can’t read the message. “Oh! English?” she asks with hardly an accent. I wonder why she isn’t just speaking to me.

She switches the translator app to English, and turns her phone toward me. I read a line of jumbled words, but the ones I can make out are “Aunt..” (a polite way to address me) “…lost key…a little hungry”. I immediately look down at the snack in my hand and in a split second I am handing it to her, beaming because I actually had something to offer. She refuses it at first and tells me she has no money to pay. “You don’t need to give me money,” I tell her, “take it!” I insist. She says thanks and scurries off before I can say anything else.

I think about what her story might be. Was she in danger? Was she running away from a bad situation? Should I have invited her over or called my husband for backup translation? Was she even Korean?

It all happened so quickly. I immediately wish I could have done more.

Be obedient with what I’ve given you, I feel the Spirit whisper, and I sigh in the reality that obedience is not manipulation or clever planning. It’s not dependent on language skills or a savior complex.

Sometimes the most helpful thing I can do is pray, and sometimes the thing God’s asking me to do is simply pay attention to what I already hold in my hands.

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