Pine trees smell like memories.
At least the ones that grow on the San Bernadino mountain range. I spent a week tucked up there at a summer camp in SoCal.
I was 12, and I sat on the end of a log and pressed my hands together and squinted into the trees for a glimpse of Dad's faded blue minivan. When you're 12, you don't want to be dropped off too early or picked up too late. So I wandered away with my lumpy sleeping bag and half a breakfast burrito to pass time.
I walked through the dining hall and breathed in the smells of day-old coffee and juice stains on the carpet. I tried the door of my cabin and peeked in to stare at empty bunks and tape marks across the wall where we’d hung team posters and family photos. You miss family a lot at camp. I walked through the chapel, still echoing from of our late night powwows. It was all romantic in a way, being empty and all. I moved on quickly because I figured if someone caught me they'd think I was crazy. Standing in empty rooms is for crazy people. So I just sat outside with my back to a tree, and scratched stars into the sap pooling in dried pine needle beds.
Sometimes, I still walk by a pine and stand there feeling nostalgic for a moment. I don't know why.
But while I sat there at age 12, I knew it was because I was sitting in an empty campground. Empty campgrounds don’t mean anything, you know. They can’t do anything, they can only remind you. They reminded me of big decisions, inside jokes, and meeting Jesus on a deeper level. They reminded me of staying up late and getting up early to eat greasy bacon and eggs in a log room full of clinking spoons.
Pine needles remind me of people, and so does camp. And camp without the people was empty that day at age 12, like how cicadas shed those hard shells and leave them behind clinging to trees in the Midwestern summers. Camp without people is a shell.
Why do I say all that?
Here's my point. I’ve learned over time that most of life is sort of like camp. I've found myself revisiting my pine trees over the years. Standing alone in empty rooms. Breathing in the memories and realizing they were never about the room—just the people. I don’t think I'm alone, I think we’ve all stood in our share of empty rooms. Being alone hits a deep chord in our souls, because we know deep down that’s not how things are supposed to be. We’re supposed to be with people. It’s like a quiet, growing overture to eternity.
I read once that sometimes we get so caught up in what we’ve been redeemed from that we forget what we’re redeemed to. I agree. We get reclusive that way, I think. It makes us value people less and things more. Being on earth is more than just being thankful there’s a God in heaven who thinks we're worth His Son’s blood. It’s using our waking breaths to live that reality out to other people. In our offices. In our homes. Outside our comfort zones. We pursue people, because He's pursued us.
What I really mean is that being alive is for other people.
When you look at it that way, it’s not so surprising that people make up our memories. It’s a taste of the community that's coming someday.
When Abe and I left for Africa, I stood in our emptied-out apartment and watched a few friends drag out the last of our stuff and I thought about pine trees.
We gave away most our things and donated the rest. We toted a few boxes and a giant stuffed bear to my mother-in-law’s. Everything else is gone, and we don’t care too much. We’ve never once missed our stuff since we left four months ago. We left people, and I only cared about the house because it came with memories. Laughter and prayer sessions. Groups of girls who’d spread out over extra mattresses with their yoga pants and journals. Giant pan cookies we’d gathered around. Real, hard talks. Sitting out on the porch under the stars after long jogs downtown.
People are what we left and what we hold to in our hearts.
People are who we came to here in Africa. Everything else is a shell. I know that more deeply than I ever have as I write these words.
There aren’t any pine trees out here in Africa. The equator made sure of that. There are lots of banana trees, and there are people. Sometimes though, I sit very still on our little sun-kissed African porch and breath in the air and catch a whiff of pine anyway.
It’s weird how you can smell memories across an ocean.