They've been reheeled twice now, my boots. If they had thoughts, their first on seeing me Christmas Day 2010 would have probably been you're not our type, darling. You're one of those who belongs in hiking boots, or trainers, or flip flops. You may dare to use ballet pumps once in a while, or even totter around in high heels - but you do not deserve our patent leather perfection around your calves.
Which is perfectly true, of course. I've abused them terribly - they've done more than 1000 miles for me since that day in December, and they do more walking in a week than any of their counterparts might do in half a year. There have been times where I've almost run through to the sole, and as they're 3 inches high, that's not a good thing. But I feel like this year's been a bit like that - that I've packed a lifetime into these few months, and although I've nearly run my feet ragged in the process, I wouldn't change a thing.
If you'd asked me a year ago where I'd be in twelve months' time I would have grinned. 'China. India. Thailand. Somewhere in Asia.' I was planning a gap year that would have seen me touring most of a continent. Maybe not hugely fulfilling, but hey, a chance to finally get a tan (if any) on this body of mine and maybe get some sun.
So how did I end up in grey, drizzly Bristol? Don't get me wrong - I love this city. Bristol thrums with life. It never sleeps. There is diversity and variety and history that I just can't get over; a feeling of being a face in a crowd that swells and grows, with each and every person having loves and losses and memories and feelings. A feeling of belonging to something bigger than just me. We even have sunshine every once in a while - heck, APRIL was the sunniest I've seen England in a couple of years!
The truth is, God met with me in a very real way, and I knew that I was supposed to be doing this year. I've had so many ask why I gave up my gap year to do church. Rach, why did you decide to do something so very mundane and boring and unexciting? I can honestly say it hasn't been any of those.
So I didn't get to climb any physical mountains. So what? Got to the summit of several in my own life. Didn't get to immerse myself in the world around me. Are you being serious? Try working in the community in the centre of Bristol for even a week, and you may get a small taste of just how rich and broad and complex every person's own background makes their life. They may be from Warwickshire; they could be from Somalia.
At the beginning of this year, I was pretty much as my boots would have classed me - someone who would never have gone for the top of the range because I was far more comfortable in flip-flops, ta very much. I wouldn't have dreamed of patent leather - try cheap plastic togs, or a pair of trainers I got for a tenner in TK maxx. But this year has been about stretching me. I've been shoved into those boots time and again, and I've found that my capacity has sky-rocketed.
I wouldn't have dreamed of praying for someone I'd never met on the streets before this year. I'm not saying I do it for every person I meet at the bus stop, but I do know that I prayed a very simple prayer for a woman who'd had arthritis in her spine for 30 years, and she was completely healed. I know that I saw skin diseases go before my shocked eyes, and new skin replace it. I know that I had the privilege of leading someone to Christ. I have been dubbed 'too hot to be a christian' (yeah, I know right?!) and 'dangerously deluded'. I have been literally spat upon, and I have been embraced by those weeping at the mercy of God. And I know that I am irrevocably and utterly changed from the Rachel who started this year.
I used Bilbo's title for the Hobbit (There and Back Again) because I know that while he did return to the Shire, he was changed to his core. He could no longer see things the same way. Life had changed. I've had the honour of being only one of those on my base (27 of us FP'ers in all) who have also been facing struggles and mountains in their own lives. I can't answer for why they started the year, but I know we've all finished in a place of being completely, utterly and beyond any shadow of a doubt in love with God. It's been difficult to say goodbye. It's the end of a season, and I feel like everything's now propelling forward at a pace I almost can't keep up with!
But I know this - 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever' (Hebrews 13:8). Stuff goes wrong, and I make mistakes (all the time, as mates will testify), but my God will never let me down. Phew. What a relief!