The pavement bends up behind the Catholic church, and we leave the smallest city in Germany down in the valley, turning a corner to find ourselves in the bottle-green halls of the summer Black Forest. It’s been a long time since my trail map was a constant companion, since Emily and I traced these little diamond-marked lines with hopeful fingers before beginning our explorations. We know them by heart now, these hills and forests as memorized as the faces of a friends.
Though it’s after eight, it’s still hot in the forest. It’s Friday night, the end of a long and busy day. We have only one more week of school, an odd one full of exams, farewells, honors and diplomas. I’m proud and weary, happy for our graduates and genuinely sorry to see them go. Still, it’s not the seniors I’m thinking of tonight, but the two friends walking beside me on the trail.
“Leaving is a loud presence lately,” I wrote, almost exactly four years ago. “Leaving cheers from goodbye parties, smiles its way across from me in restaurants, reminds me that it’s the last time for a while.” I was leaving then, packing up fifteen years of life in Seattle, bound for a village in Germany I’d never visited. I was leaving alone, my departure the only irregularity to disturb the pleasant rhythms of our lives there.
Leaving is louder here, and expected. While I once left a place where people tend to stay, each spring promises change, irrevocable and swift. For better or worse, Black Forest Academy is new each fall. This means the promise of new friends and students, adventures yet unmapped and conversations still waiting to be had. It also means that this is a place of goodbyes. It’s the goodbyes that I’m considering as I walk up to the castle with my friends, both of whom will be gone within the month.
The sun is just beginning to set when we reach Ruine Sausenburg, a crumbly half of an 11th century castle holding state on a leafy ridge. Sausenburg is not a particularly well-maintained castle. There is one faded sign sketching out the history of the castle, below a much larger sign full of rules, which includes “No Campfires” despite the presence of fire pit, grill, benches and friendly supply of firewood in the courtyard. We leave our bags in the courtyard and drag ourselves up the dusty wooden staircase to the top of the tower.
Even the tower isn’t terribly pristine or ancient-looking. The crenellated battlements are filled in with concrete, into which a circular iron railing sticks like a Sunday-school halo. We sit down on the wall, holding the railing with our legs dangling down, toes pointing to France. Awash in golden light, with Switzerland down to our left, the Black Forest behind and the Rhine Valley ahead, we toast to our years in this green valley, this place between.
“You know,” Lexi says after a while. “There’s not a whole lot that’s better than this.”
Another friend recently wrote about leaving here, saying “I don’t doubt or question or mistrust this. I just don’t like it.” And that’s how I feel, in the midst of the leavings and farewells. I am confident that God’s plan is unique and creative, fully trusting that my friends and students go in His love and power on to their next adventures. I’ll just miss them.
We stay atop the castle for over an hour, watching the sky melt from yellow to orange, red and blue, until the first stars wink down from directly over our heads. No sunset lasts forever, even the protracted ones you see flying west on airplanes. Eventually, even the grandest fade to black and white, another kind of glory.
And even knowing the busyness of the days ahead, the hectic farewells layered amidst packing, grading and events, knowing that time will stubbornly refuse to slow down, I’m more grateful than mournful, grateful for these friends, this place, these years we’ve shared. Seasons, like sunsets, don’t last forever. We celebrate them as they come, savor them, remember them. And most of all, every day, we’re thankful, praising the God who gives us such good gifts, like a castle, a sunset, and friends to share them with.