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Lessons from corndogs, big hair, and fuzzy memories.

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, back when “Hand me the Aquanet, my hair’s not big enough yet” was a common phrase, I spent the day at the local amusement park with my friends. And while we were there something happened that I would (kind of ) never forget. And just yesterday, this fuzzy memory came flashing back.

Yesterday, as I was walking my dog, I suddenly could almost smell the combined aromas of corndog grease, sweaty people, and cotton candy. Yummy, right?. And I knew there was only one place in the world that could claim this unique odor nirvana- Camden Park circa 1990’s. Camden Park was the local amusement park of my childhood. It was filled with rides, junk food, and piles of throw up (so please, watch where you step). It was about 45 minutes from nowhere and the only place that was both affordable and close enough to my hometown for most people to visit. Which meant that a few times a year, everyone piled in the car and made the trip to this fragrant (I mean fun) adventure land.

Now in this particular fuzzy memory, I remember going with four of my high school friends, each of us sporting big hair, short shorts, and million dollar smiles. And four of us, could not wait to ride Camden Park’s pride and joy, the rumored biggest (or was it oldest) wooden roller coaster in the world - The Big Dipper. Four of us gleefully piled into that wooden monstrosity, smiled at the very bored manchild/teenage roller coaster operator, and buckled down for a thrill ride. The other one of us, sunk into the hard wooden, questionably stained seat, and imagined what her eulogy would sound like when this old wooden coaster splintered into a million pieces. That one of us was me.

I do not like roller coasters. I have always been super afraid of them because I don’t like feeling out of control. At all. But as you may have heard, peer pressure is a powerful thing, so on this day I sat in that coaster and watched as the acne cream commercial talent scout’s dream come true/teenage roller coaster operator locked us in place with the safety rail. My friends smiled up at him in reckless anticipation of fun and good times. I centered my breathing and told myself that it wouldn’t be as bad as I thought, but even if it was, it would be over soon. And I can get through anything once.

That was my last thought before, whoosh, we were off, tearing down the rickety track at pee your pants speed. Four of us screamed in delight as we rocketed up and down the terrifyingly creaky coaster. One of us squeezed her eyes shut, white knuckled the safety rail, and shrieked in sheer terror as she imagined the rumored world’s largest (or was it oldest) wooden coaster breaking into pieces and sending her careening into space. I will let you work out for yourself which one I was.

And then, just like that it was over. We slowly made our way back to the person who I could not be more delighted to see, our friend, ‘can I please have one of your phone numbers? I don’t care whose.’/teenage roller coaster operator. Who had his hand in the air to release the safety rail and let us out to freedom, when four of us shouted, “Oh, that was so much fun! Can we go again!” While, one of us screamed, “Please, please, please, for the love of all that is good in the world, not again!” Then. Woosh. We were off again.

Now, this time as we made trip two down the rickety rails, I had a choice. I knew what to expect. I even knew that I had survived it the first time. So, I could have thrown my hands in the air and trusted that I would make it through again. I could have let go of my determination to control this situation and join in the shrieks of joy. But instead, I chose to double down. It was bad enough to go through something scary the first time, but having to do it twice seemed outright unfair. So, I chose to hunker down further, squeeze my eyes tighter, white knuckle the safety rail more, and scream as loud as I could. Until, just like that it was over and we were finally heading back to the ‘I will never remember you fondly/teenage roller coaster operator.’ And he mercifully let us off.

And the reason why this particular fuzzy memory came rushing back to me, is that yesterday I realized that life is a lot like roller coasters – sometimes when the scary stuff comes we try to stay in control, even when we aren’t the ones who can release the safety rail to begin with. When stress throws us for a loop, we scream with worry. When grief rushes in, it’s tempting to squeeze our eyes shut and pretend that we are OK. When uncertainty fills our head, it’s easy to hunker down and white knuckle it until we find a solution, even when taking a deep breath and waiting is better. And often, just like me, all those greasy corndogs and big hair years ago, we don’t even realize that it can be different.

Life can be hard sometimes, and sometimes it can be very hard. While, I think there are times that we would all like to get off the rollercoaster, we don’t always get that option. And that is OK, because even though we can’t always control our circumstances, we can choose how we deal with them. When unexpected twists and turns happen, we can be like four of us, who chose to lean back, throw their hands in the air, and embrace not being in control. Or we can be like the one of us, who chose to hunker further down, squeeze her eyes tighter, and hold on for dear life until it was over. Five of us were all on the same ride, four of us came out better, and one of us came out bitter. (I will let you work out which one was me.)

And so yesterday, when my family’s perfect day ended in a double dose of bad news, I thought about that old roller coaster. And how this time, when I again found myself in a place where I didn’t have control of the safety rail, I could choose differently. Instead of resisting, I could embrace the fact that I wasn’t in control. I could lean into the uncertainty, let go of trying to be the one with all the answers, and trust that I would make it through again. To be honest, sometimes this feels a lot scarier than white knuckling the safety rail. And I know that when life is tough, I won’t always get this right. But when I do, I look forward to the feeling of freedom that comes with letting go of the rail.

This is my hope for you too. While, I won’t recommend a ride on the Big Dipper (sorry Camden Park) and definitely would tell you not to climb in if you see a very bored manchild/teenage roller coaster operator at the helm. I do hope that next time you feel scared or angry or frustrated, I hope you will remember to lean back, throw your hands up, and let go. I hope you trust that you can make it through anything once (or even more). And I hope that you know that even if every experience we go through isn’t always a thrill ride, it will be OK. Because even though, you may not have four big haired high school girls next to you (let’s hope not anyway), you won’t be on the ride alone.

If you can’t shake worry, call a friend and talk it through. If grief hits you like a wave, find a shoulder to cry on. If uncertainty about yourself or your life invades your brain, pray for peace. Know that not having every answer is OK, and sometimes just leaning into the waiting is the best thing to do. Call on Christ and dive deeper into your faith. But most of all, remember that one day all of these things will be memories of their own. How we deal with them now will determine the way they stick with us forever.

As for me, if I could jump back into that old fuzzy memory, inside the rumored world’s biggest (or was it oldest) wooden roller coaster again, this time I would open my eyes wide, lean back, and, shriek with joy along with my overly Aquanetted friends. Then. Woosh. As we went off, I would through my hands in the air and just let go.

Big Dipper:

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