"Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid." Frederick Buechner
My very first memory is of making miniature pizzas with my friends for my third birthday party. It was a sunny August day in rural Kansas, and the sky above was as blue as the 1-1/2 story farmhouse where we baked our pepperoni-and-olive masterpieces. A creek and a cedar tree shelterbelt and an orchard with the sweetest red cherries surrounded the big blue farmhouse, and I loved that place with all of my heart. The kitchen was originally a rural post office in the late 1800s, and it was expanded over the next century into an eight-room home with red stairs and green carpets. Hidden at the end of a winding dirt road, the farmhouse was so far out in the boondocks that even Google Maps couldn’t properly identify where it was located. Four generations of Bells lived in that farmhouse, and I would give anything to hear the stories those walls could tell.
My family and I made our fair share of memories in the house. We spent hours on the living room floor, playing games and listening to stories, and hours in the kitchen, eating and laughing. We also spent hours in the bathroom trying to get ready without accidentally bumping into someone with a curling iron (no small feat when there were five girls and only one bathroom.) I learned to read and write in the dining-room-turned-schoolroom, sitting day after day at my little blue desk. I talked to Kristen for hours at night in the second-story room we shared, until she would finally grow sleepy and tell me to be quiet. As a teenager, I cooked weekly dinners for my family, likely setting a world record for the number of times I accidentally set off the fire alarm. Each evening, pickup lights flickered down the hill as Dad returned from a long day of feeding cattle or fixing fence. I loved our little farmhouse, so cozy and quaint and secluded.
As a child, I sometimes had nightmares about my family’s house burning down in the middle of the night. That fear played out in real time in my 20s, and it was just as terrible as I imagined it would be. This weekend, my childhood home—where I lived for the first 17 years of my life—burned to the ground in the midst of the worst wildfire in Kansas history.
In Kansas, land isn’t just land. It is your heritage and your legacy. It is what you inherited from your parents and will leave to your children. It is your livelihood and your love. It is a part of your DNA, engrained into your very core. And this weekend, my family’s land and hundred-year-old farmhouse went up in smoke. And like the land, the house wasn’t just a house.
It was the house where I learned to read and lost my first tooth and earned the nickname “Giggle Box” because of my propensity toward laughter. It was the house where I baked homemade goods for the fair and coerced my siblings into acting in my Christmas plays and wrote my first story. It was the house where I learned to walk and practiced gymnastics and became a Christian. It was the house I shared with the people who meant the most to me. It was the house that always made me feel grounded, even when life was uncertain. It was the house where I learned how much I was loved.
Losing the house wasn’t as scary as I imagined it would be as a child, but it was much sadder than I anticipated. I feel a sense of loss, not only of my home, but also of the carefree innocence that imbued my childhood—the belief that even though there were bad things in the world, they couldn’t quite touch me and my loved ones. That simplistic belief isn’t true, and I know it now more than ever. Dad and Andrew did everything they could to save the house, spraying water from their 30-gallon tank to put out fires around the base of the house, but they didn’t have enough equipment and resources. I will always be heartsick when I think about how long it took fire trucks to arrive on the scene despite several 911 calls.
Losing a house is a strange thing. You lose your past and your future all at once. Although houses are only structures, they represent priceless memories--and losing your only home feels like losing a part of yourself.
I feel panicky and sick to my stomach, the same way I felt when I was 10 and found out my grandpa had died unexpectedly of a heart attack while I was at summer camp. That afternoon, I sat on one of the bunk beds in the camp room, sandwiched between the Kristens—my older sister and my best friend—and tried to make sense of my first encounter with death. A few days earlier, I had burst through the silver gate leading to my grandparents’ house and leapt up the stairs two at a time to meet my grandpa on the front porch. “Ree-bek-ah Ann,” he intoned, all whiskers and peppermint as he engulfed me in a hug. He was chipper and cheery, like always, and then a few days later he was gone.
I haven’t lived in the blue big farmhouse for nine years, but it is what still comes to mind when I think of home. And now that it is gone, I feel a little lost. I’ll never again be able to climb onto the roof outside my childhood bedroom and watch the moon bathe the golden wheat fields with silver rays. I’ll never be able to take my husband and children to the house that first taught me what home really means.
It is gone, all of it: the house and the garage and the playhouse Andrew built near the orchard and the giant leaning cedar trees in the backyard. Somehow the barn survived, weathered as it ever was but none the worse for the wear. When we were growing up, Dad and Mom would tell us we should all meet under the light pole by the barn if the house ever caught on fire, since it was far enough away that we would be safe. So maybe it’s only fitting that the barn survived.
The only part that’s left of the house is the chimney and fireplace. We used to sit by the fireplace and watch Christmas movies and drink hot chocolate in the dead of winter. We used to gather in front of the fireplace for sibling photos. Once, when a snowstorm caused the power to go out, Mom even tried to cook a turkey over the fireplace. The fireplace still stands tall in the midst of the charred trees and blackened grass, a reminder of the love and memories shared in the farmhouse on Union Chapel road. One hundred years from now, random passerby will not know how special the house built around that fireplace was, but I will never forget all the laughter and love shared there.
My best friend Kristen was visiting me in California this week, and after I told her about the house I burst into tears. Sometimes a place is just a place, but other times you couldn’t be who you are without the experiences you had in a certain place. So it is with the big blue farmhouse at the end of the red dirt road. I learned the importance of imagination and creativity as I explored the wooded area behind our house and discovered tree-encased hiding spots near our creek and rode horses along the ruby red hills. I learned the beauty of creating things with my own two hands when I planted zinnias in my little garden patch and filled hundreds of notebooks with stories. And I learned the importance of family thanks to camping trips atop the Big Hill and Dad’s Sunday morning cinnamon rolls and baseball games in the space between our house and barn.
Kristen held me until the tears subsided, and then we reminisced about the adventures we had there, little girls wading in the creek and riding bikes and playing pioneers on the prairie, all ponytails and tan legs underneath the Kansas sun. Immediately after hearing the news, my friend Lara texted that she was on her way over, and she showed up soon after with Chickfila and Dr. Pepper in hand. I think I will always carry a little sadness over the loss of my family’s home, but I am thankful for the reminder that home is all around us in the form of the people who love us best.
Home is in the people who hold us when we cry and show up with our favorite food when tragedy strikes. Home is in the people who sit with us in the sadness-permeated silence and help us pick up the broken pieces, bit by bit. Home is in the hundreds of Kansans who rally in the face of tragedy, helping farmers move cattle out of harm’s way and donating hay bales and setting up shelters in local churches to offer food and water to weary firefighters. Home is my family.
But home will always be the big blue farmhouse too, even if all that remains of it is the red brick fireplace and the stone that sat on our front porch, carved with the word “Bell.”
* Thank you so much to everyone who has asked how they can help. If you would like to donate money to help with rebuilding expenses, you can donate at this link:
They say that Kansas was named after the Kansa Native American tribe who first roamed her prairies. Their name, loosely translated, meant “people of the wind.”
When I learned that, my whole world suddenly made so much more sense. I grew up in a two-story farmhouse encased by cedar trees and red dirt roads, underneath a vast blue sky that seemingly stretched on for miles. When day faded to night, I would sometimes crawl onto the roof of my house and gaze at the star sprinkled sky above, the silence of the prairie broken only by the occasional howl of a coyote.
As much as I loved Kansas, though, I never quite felt like I fit in with the boys who dreamed of growing up to manage their own farms, or the girls who dreamed of growing up to marry them. Something was always tugging my heart beyond the Midwest—beyond the safe confines of the two-stoplight town I called home and onto new horizons and adventures and souls.
I grew up wanting to be a storyteller, so after my freshman year of college I packed everything I owned into my 1997 Crown Victoria and headed to film school in California. And a few months after graduation I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where I worked on music videos and wrote stories about country music stars.
Sometimes, when I told new friends about all the places I’d lived before my 24th birthday—the simple and hearty Midwest, the carefree and creative West Coast, the charming and historic South—they would look at me incredulously. “I could never do that!” they would say. “I could never move to a place where I didn’t know anyone.”
At first, their comments worried me. Was I turning into a nomad? Was I incapable of committing to a place? Was my desire for adventure something that needed to be curtailed?
But when I heard the story behind Kansas’ name, I understood. People of the wind. Gypsy souls eager to experience lands yet unseen and adventures yet unknown. I was a person of the wind, born and bred. I couldn’t just stay in one place forever, not when the world was so big and God was so good and life was such a gift.
My great-great grandmother came to Kansas in the 1800s, a pioneer seeking a new home and a new life. I’ve always related to her, a pioneer girl who loves the world far too much to spend her entire life in just one pocket of it. I love experiencing new places because it reminds me that we are all more alike than we are different, and that there is still far more good than bad, even now, and that we all have stories worth telling.
I live in California now, and it feels like home. I love the feeling of being settled in a place, of having a home base to come back to after weekends filled with adventure, of knowing this is exactly where I am supposed to be right now. And I love remembering all the places I've been before, and knowing that my heart will always belong to a thousand different places.
I am a person of the wind, and so I was meant to be.
The night before college graduation, my roommates and I walked around Biola’s campus to pay homage to the place that had played a pivotal role in our young adult lives. We walked by the fountain where we had late-night conversations with good friends, past the cafeteria where we ate countless meals, and through the production center where we spent sleepless nights editing films. After trekking to all of our favorite spots on campus, we walked through the thousands of white chairs that had been set up on Metzger lawn for our graduation ceremony the next morning. It was a bittersweet mixture of the old and the new—a place so familiar to me that I called it home, and yet I didn’t belong there anymore.
Walking across campus made me nostalgic for a place I could no longer call my own. For three years, Biola served as a catalyst for enormous personal growth and learning. I met friends who forever changed me, spoke with professors who challenged me to think about the world in new ways, and experienced so many profound spiritual realizations I think of the very ground as being sacred. I spent late nights at the coffee shop, hot chocolate in hand, studying for a test early the next morning, and I spent late nights getting involved in crazy shenanigans with friends—the kind of stories you continue to tell years after they happened. Most of my days at Biola morphed into a blur: classes and the cafeteria and friends, day-to-day moments that seemed too normal to be extraordinary until I looked back and saw all the ways they had changed me. I spent over a thousand days of my life at Biola University, so it makes sense that the place left an indelible mark on my soul.
I’m an incredibly sentimental person, and I often run the risk of wanting to cling to the past instead of embracing the new season I’m in. I find myself wanting to hold onto the old instead of opening my mind and heart to the new. In Isaiah 43:18 and 19, God says, “Do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” These verses remind me that if I cling to the past, fervently wishing that I could continue to live in it, I will miss the wonderful new things that God is doing in the present.
For the first few months after I graduated from Biola, I couldn’t see anything beyond it. I couldn’t imagine loving anyone as much as my friends from college, or savoring post-grad life as much as my collegiate experiences. I struggled to let go of one season because I didn’t know what to hold onto next.
It’s now been just over three years since I graduated from Biola. Almost every single thing in my life is different than I thought it would be when I walked across the stage to receive my diploma, and yet it’s also better than I could have imagined. The last three years have been harder than I anticipated, but they have also been better and richer and deeper. I’ve moved halfway across the country twice and fallen in love with new cities and served as a keynote speaker. I’ve lost a job that I loved and cried myself to sleep on more than one occasion and experienced the sick, panicky feeling you get when you have to let go of a relationship with someone you still love because sometimes love is not enough. I’ve had pay-the-bills jobs and less-than-stellar jobs and finally, a dream job. I’ve met precious new friends and written for great publications and traveled to beautiful new places. I’ve worried about money and dealt with car problems and tried the volatile world of freelancing for a bit. I've experienced the weight of the world and the goodness of God.
And in the midst of it all, I’ve learned so much more about who God is. I’ve learned that God loves us enough to let things that aren’t best for us fall apart. I’ve learned that God calls us to trust our hopes and not our fears. I’ve learned that God’s goodness is not always revealed in what He gives us; sometimes it’s revealed in what He withholds from us. I’ve learned that the more I know Him, the more I trust Him.
Three years ago, I had just graduated from college. And every year, around this time, as eager young students prepare to start their first week of classes, I reminisce about the way that a college campus in Los Angeles County forever changed me. As memories of college days forever gone mix with the excitement of moments still to come, I silently thank God for His provision in the past, His faithfulness in the future, and the friends walking alongside me, right now. I don’t know where I will be three years from now, but I know that God will go before me every step of the way, and that the journey with Him will always, always be good.
My father fed the world.
“A Kansas farmer feeds 128 people—and you,” read the billboards scattered across an otherwise untarnished Midwestern prairie. The signs were an anomaly amidst the thousands of acres of vast grassland dotted with Angus cattle and wind-whipped wheat fields, an ode to the unsung heroes whose quiet service kept the Western world fed. The signs had been updated numerous times, until finally the commissioners left them at 128.
My father was a farmer, and his father before him, and his father before him. The farmland had been in our family ever since my great-great grandmother came to Kansas in the 1800s to claim 160 acres of land from the government. After settling into life on the prairie, she fell for the next-door neighbor—whom she always referred to as “Prince Charming” in her writings—and married him soon after. They built a sod dugout with their own hands, survived a prairie wildfire, and through their persistence made the Kansas prairie their home.
The prairie had changed little in the last one hundred and fifty years, save for the farmhouses that replaced dugouts, and the fences that now separated one man’s land from another’s. Despite the additional landmarks, the spirit of the prairie remained the same: wild, mysterious, untamed, home only to those dedicated enough to expend themselves each year planting crops which might or might not break even come harvest time.
My parents raised my siblings and I on a farm that could have given Laura Ingalls Wilder a run for her money. In the mornings, my father and I would often round up cattle on horseback, chasing them across the prairie as the sun ignited the sky with vibrant bursts of gold and pink. After school, my siblings and I explored the wonderful wilderness. We built a playhouse, waded in the creek, picked warm cherries from the orchard, and discovered a spectacular ravine that we nicknamed “The Pretty Place.” My childhood was carefree and idyllic, filled with the kind of pre-9/11 innocence that you can never regain once you grow up and learn about political scandals and genocides and terrorist attacks.
When I was 15, I decided I wanted to go to film school, which is something no one in my small community had ever done. After attending a college near home for a year, I packed everything I owned into my 1997 Crown Victoria and drove 1,200 miles away from home to a place I’d never been (California) to live in a city where I didn’t know a soul (Los Angeles.) I assumed that I would find a job in Hollywood after graduation and begin a career in the entertainment industry.
Despite submitting countless applications and exhausting every contact that I had, though, I still hadn’t found a job by the time graduation rolled around. I said goodbye to friends as they moved away, began renting a room from a stranger, and started looking for a pay-the-bills job. I worked cobbled-together jobs during the day and took long walks around my neighborhood at night, as if each step would bring me closer to figuring out what on earth I was doing with my life. I returned to my room each night as the darkness fell, listening to sirens blare outside, marveling at the strange irony that here, in a city of over 8 million people, I felt more alone than I ever had in my hometown of 2,000. As I waited for my phone to ring, I realized a terrifying truth: I didn't know what who I was or what I loved anymore.
During college, I once met up with a successful alumnus from my alma mater. “If you want to succeed in Hollywood, you have to want it more than anything,” he told me. “I’ve ended relationships because they interfered with work. You have to want it that badly.” At the time, I thought his speech was inspirational and somewhat romantic. Being so passionate about a career that you would sacrifice everything for it? How moving, how touching, how bold! And, I realized, sitting in my white-walled room in the stranger’s house, how empty.
The fall after I graduated from college, I flew home for Thanksgiving. I walked around the farm with my dad, admiring the wide-open spaces I had loved as a child, feeling the healing juxtaposition of solitude and community. I watched the sun slink behind ruby red hills, mesmerized by the simple beauty of golden light splayed across pastures and ponds. And somehow, standing in an area too desolate for most of my friends to find, I didn't feel lost anymore.
As I trekked across my childhood stomping grounds, I remembered why I had gone to film school in the first place. It wasn’t because I wanted to produce huge blockbusters or see my name in lights. It was because as a child, I had never been able to go a single day without writing a story. Somehow, amidst smog and strangers, I had forgotten who I was and what I wanted. But there, in the midst of the silent, vast prairie, I remembered what I loved.
Someone once said that sometimes you have to leave a place to learn to love it for new reasons. And as I looked around my family’s farm, I realized the truth of those words. Sometimes, a place is just a place. But other times, you couldn’t be who you are unless you had been where you have been. Sometimes you have to go back to where you started from to remember who you were always meant to be. And sometimes you have to be lost so you can ultimately be found.
They call Kansas America’s heartland, and I understand why now.
I first hit a deer when I was 17 years old.
Other people my age were going on dates, getting jobs, playing sports…but not me. Oh no. I was hunting without so much as a hunting license. The good news is, the car was still drivable. The bad news is, its bumper fell off as soon as I pulled into the driveway.
“So, uh, I hit a deer,” I told my parents casually, in case the fact that the car was now in two pieces wasn’t explanation enough. I assumed moving to Los Angeles for college would signal the end of my deer-related run-ins (see what I did there?). Unfortunately, my replacement car, a 1997 Crown Victoria (lovingly nicknamed “Crownie”), caused me more trouble than an entire herd of deer.
A few months after I graduated from college, I road tripped to Vegas with some friends to pick up my brother Andrew and cousin Will. What was initially supposed to be a carefree trip back to Los Angeles ended up being an all-night ordeal when Crownie’s serpentine belt broke. The events of the night are a little foggy, but here’s what I do recall: ending up in a middle-of-nowhere desert town called Barstow, pulling into a hotel parking lot as smoke billowed from Crownie’s engine, trying to explain to the irate worker that we could not obey her instructions to vacate the premises because the car was dead, and explaining the same thing to the cops who showed up a few minutes later, lights flashing.
We were eventually rescued by a Triple A tow truck around 5:30 a.m. There was at least one text sent to a boss with the words, “I’m going to be late. Vegas. Cops. I’ll explain more later.” (As Will, who had previously acquired a bottle of juice he wasn’t fond of put it, “I miss the time when my juice was the biggest disappointment of the night.”)
Nobody wants to end up stranded in the desert in the middle of the night, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. (Unless, perhaps, you own a vehicle made in the same millennium you now live in.) The same kind of thing happens in life too. We’re sailing along, doing just fine, and then all of the sudden, BAM! We find ourselves in the midst of a painful, difficult, or unexpected situation. And the scariest part is, we never quite know how long we’re going to be there.
There’s nothing worse than the wilderness. Nothing worse than walking somewhere it feels like God Himself has never been. Nothing worse than calls that don’t come and dreams that don’t pan out and hearts that don’t quite seem to heal.
But here’s what I’ve learned about ending up in the desert: it’s part of life. We all end up there eventually. Sooner or later, we all find ourselves waiting by the side of the road in the midnights of life. Sometimes God miraculously rescues us from the desert; other times He simply stays with us in the midst of it.
I used to think God’s goodness and love was somehow tied to whether or not He answered my prayers in the way I wanted Him to. I now realize His goodness is not necessarily revealed in the changing circumstances of this life, but in the knowledge that He has given us a hope beyond this life. As Christians, our hope can never be rooted in whether circumstances are good; it must be rooted in the unswerving fact that God Himself is always, always good.
To be human means to experience God’s grace as well as the world’s brokenness. We will never make it out of this life unscathed, but we don’t have to stay broken either. God is in the business of making all things new. He has a special place in His heart for those who are stranded in the desert.
Sooner or later, we all end up in the desert. But the very best news of all is this: God doesn’t have a track record of leaving us there to fend for ourselves.
I grew up in a Midwestern community of 2,000 people and only two stoplights. (Once upon a time, there were three, but then someone accidentally knocked one down and no one ever bothered to put it back up). One of the most popular hangouts was the local gas station, the nicest restaurant was a Pizza Hut, and the only claim to fame was that Native Americans and townspeople signed a peace treaty there in the 1800s.
The local residents are a hardworking and hearty people who always seem to be prepared for anything. I once returned home from college to find that my mom had stowed away enough food to feed an army—including 300 pounds of potatoes—in our basement. “You never know what might happen,” she said sweetly, leading me to hypothesize she knew about some impending apocalypse the government had not yet disclosed to the rest of America.
Although I loved my tight-knit hometown, I couldn’t wait to graduate from high school and move to Los Angeles to study film. During college, I assumed I would find my dream job right after graduation and simply ride off into the sunset. Instead, it took me over a year to find a full-time job in my career field. In the intermittent phase, I worked a series of jobs including a several month long saga writing blogs for a urology lab, a rather unfortunate stint walking three obnoxious terriers, and a somewhat frightening experience working in a clothing store located in a nondescript warehouse and manned by people who burned strange incense and spoke in an indiscernible language. (To this day, I’m not entirely sure whether it was a real company or a drug-laundering site, but I quit out of legitimate fear of being sacrificed to their gods.)
I can laugh about these moments now, but I didn’t see the humor at the time. I spent many a night crying on my bedroom floor wondering, “Is this all there is to life?” Was life really just about never having more than $30 in my bank account at any given time and eating an unending string of peanut butter sandwiches? (Is there any discovery more disheartening than the realization that you are no longer a “poor college student” but just “a poor person?” I submit that there is not!)
“I just want to arrive in life already!” I told one of my friends dramatically. In hindsight, I don’t think any of us ever fully arrive. There will always be corners we can’t see around, and even when one thing is figured out, there are a hundred other things that won’t be. Life will never be completely settled, and it often won’t feel like it’s going according to plan.
Thanks to my time in film school, I know that hundreds of reshoots, edits, and changes go into making a perfectly polished movie. The audience sees the edited version, where everything is slick and precise and perfect. But the crew knows about all the sweat, blood, and tears that went into making the film, and they know it wasn’t as flawless as it appears. Life is not a movie, but sometimes I think it’s like the making of one, where you take all the things you planned on and all the things you didn’t, and still make something beautiful out of it.
My new favorite word is transit. It means “passing through or across, a transition or change, a transportation from one place to another.” And that’s what all of life is, really. One day we may be able to understand more clearly what God was doing in moments that currently seem painful rather than beneficial, but right now we can’t quite see around the corner yet. We have to learn to embrace God’s goodness amidst lives that are always in transit, and open our hearts and minds to the new things He is doing, even when they’re different than we expected.
When the present feels scary, it’s tempting to cling to the past. And when future is uncertain, it’s easy to imagine the very worst about it. But to believe the very worst about the future is to believe the very worst about God, because it means we don’t think He is worthy of our trust when circumstances are uncertain. God has been good in the in the past, and He will continue to be good in the future. He calls us to rest in His faithfulness instead of trusting our fears.
So instead of uncertainty, I choose to see freedom and joy. Instead of brokenness, I choose to see the God who can put me together again. Instead of worrying about the future, I choose to trust the God who can see the end of the story, and who works all things together for our good.