…So take nothing for granted. Stay wide-awake in prayer. Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. Be quick to give a meal to the hungry, a bed to the homeless—cheerfully. Be generous with the different things God gave you, passing them around so all get in on it: if words, let it be God’s words; if help, let it be God’s hearty help. That way, God’s bright presence will be evident in everything through Jesus.
1 Peter 4:7-11 (The Message)
Sunday morning, I sit in the sun and read Keats and Frost with one of my students. Every once in a while, I glance up at the grassy slope directly in front of us, which is filling up with kids. The Princess Bride-steep hill rises above the cluster of chalets where we’re staying for the weekend in Lenk, Switzerland, and kids have been scrambling up it ever since we arrived. The theme of the weekend, which has brought the entire student body and 35 staff down to the Alps, is Restoration, something we’re all seeking after basketball, books and research.
I feel a part of this scene as I pick out people I know on the hill, hear familiar laughter floating down. After two-thirds of a school year, I’ve begun to feel at home here. I understand how most processes work, have mastered the majority of our three bell schedules, and recognize almost everyone. I’m thinking, in the sun, about what it means to know people or places.
Twelve hours later and back at home, the song of errant trumpets, Lady Gaga and what can only be described as “techno polka” all compete with whatever I’d like to hear this Sunday evening. This weekend–beginning on Thursday and ending late on Tuesday night–is the height of Fasching season in Central Europe. Fasching, the Mardi Gras of New Orleans and the Carnivale of Rio, is new to me. Sure, I grew up associating chicks, eggs and bunnies with Easter, but most of the West Coast has stopped celebrating the more overtly pagan imports to the Church calendar. It’s mysterious and bizarre, this season, always the strange contradictions of “cutting loose” before the privations of Lent, which ring especially hollow when the season of gluttony lasts from November through April, ages compared to forty days of abstinence.
Since I can explain neither its origins or rituals, for Fasching this year I’ll have to stop at mystery, hinting only at snowfalls of confetti, underwear decorating the streets like bland prayer flags, marching bands wearing 19th century pajamas and bits of wood that fly flaming through the air, either to represent the purging of sin or the warding-off of evil spirits. It’s old and strange, this place, a little dark and terribly tricky. I’m still learning.
Fasching reminds me of how we get to know places or communities. It’s in layers. Since we can’t know everything at once, we see and understand a little at a time, as we go. At first the town looks terribly unfamiliar, with words I barely understand and strange requirements, like printing out my own labels for these carrots or paying taxes for having a radio (or, in my case, for not having one). After a while, with these surface mysteries unraveled, all seems normal, and not too far removed from everything else I’ve known. I become comfortable, believe that we’re all the same, really, these nations, all working and living and loving, buying things and cooking food and reading signs. It’s precisely at this moment of familiarity that a new oddity startles me, another layer of discovery to remind me that I’ve moved around the world and am irrevocably a stranger here.
Knowing always comes in layers. BFA looked different on the outside, but once I found the colored paper, learned the code to the copy machine, and got used to having an office instead of a classroom, I thought for a while that I’d simply come to a new and smaller school, and that schools must be essentially the same around the world.
As I watch the kids on the hill, half-listening to the one reading “Ode to a Nightingale” beside me, I realize that this weekend has solidified another layer. Mountains, good books and coffee are all I truly require for restoration, and two of those were guaranteed. (The coffee, incidentally, was just splendid.)
Yet to my introverted surprise, the greatest joy of the weekend has come from time in community. I’m overwhelmed by the depth of my students’ care for one another, and the earnestness with which they pursue relationship. Whether in friendship or while untangling the cobwebs of complacency surrounding their personal faiths, our students aren’t shy in seeking intimacy and community, and offering it to one another.
These are kids who entertain themselves by climbing a hillside to sit still and talk and look at the stars (and occasionally wrestle one another to the bottom). They’re never bored when they have each other.
I found myself surprised and grateful all weekend, not only that I could so enjoy spending free time with the people who fill my working hours, but that I live in a community where love isn’t hidden or ironic, but fierce and honest. Love because I loved you, Christ tells us.
Climb the hill together. Fall back down. Laugh about it and repeat. Again and again. I’m still learning.