“’Child,’ said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.’”C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy
I have a confession. Given my identity as a seasoned lover of written words, there are a few aspects of my reading habits that would surprise people, if I ever bothered to mention them. I’ve never read anything by Thomas Hardy, for instance, or Leo Tolstoy. I never did get around to finishing David Copperfield, and I’m not sure I ever will. I read rather slowly (hence the scarcity of Victorian novelists in my repertoire), and tend to return to books that I like (which I’ve been told that “real” readers seldom do, because there are so new many books still left to read). I always judge books by their covers.
But the real confession, the really dreadful one, is this: I tend to read ahead. Not just to the next paragraph, mind you, a habit revered by fast readers everywhere, but pages, chapters, maybe to the very end to see if it’s worth getting to. The irony is that I am pretty committed to reading every word, so my dalliances with several chapters from now are always short; I drag myself back to the page I’m on soon enough. I’m not terribly motivated by bouncing around in nonfiction, particularly memoirs in which I already know what happened, but most fiction is fair game.
The amount I skip ahead varies widely, and I don’t always get around to it. Mostly, I’ve noticed I’m tempted to flip around in a book, turning the author’s carefully crafted series of revelations to a nonlinear hash, when I’m a little bored or dissatisfied (as with the will-definitely-be-a-Hallmark-movie-eventually paperback I’m currently reading). I look ahead to see if this is going in a direction that makes these chapters worthwhile, then come back if I find that it is.
I’ve thought a little bit about what it would be like if I could do this in real life. I’m sure I’m not alone in having a few seasons that I’d be tempted to “read ahead” from (ahem… 2020?), but I’m never given that option. All I can do with this narrative of mine is look backwards. So, on particularly significant days, I do.
August 14th was a Sunday that year. I woke up to the tinny church bells of my village in Germany, hot summer sun already beating through the skylight windows of my attic bedroom. I woke up alone in my apartment in the center of town, since my roommates wouldn’t be back from America for a few days, while I’d returned from my summer job in Austria a week before.
I was up in time for church—at least in time for the English service that met at the school, which I attended when I couldn’t get a ride to the German church I’d been going to off and on for the last year—and after a week alone my desire to see “who was back” was greater than my desire to keep sleeping, so I pulled myself out of bed. I had breakfast, put on a new blue dress I’d acquired at the Austrian equivalent of Ross (Dress for Less!), and stepped out into the morning.
It had been a summer full of growth, a tangle of interpersonal puzzles to sort out and internal questions to consider. I’d left Germany after my first year as a teacher at Black Forest Academy, a year that had been similarly complicated. My students were bright, engaged and demanding, their lives full of both privilege and deep, often unspoken needs for belonging and stability. My work in Austria at an outdoor Bible school was by comparison fairly simple: take young adults on backpacking trips through the Alps, and disciple them toward spiritual growth along the way.
And yet while my first summer in that role had been smooth and successful, this one had been more challenging in ways that forced me to grow as a leader, learning to confront and advocate in ways I’d never had to before. All of it was great, but it had left me weary, so I had been glad to board the train through the Alps, nursing a summer cold, and glad for the week alone in Kandern, preparing for the school year, back in a place that finally felt like home.
By the time I made it to the school, at the edge of town, the bells had stopped ringing and church had started. To the sounds of the congregation singing the opening song, I slipped into the auditorium, scanning the backs of everyone’s head for anyone familiar. I’ve never been terribly averse to sitting alone, but since my reason for coming at all was to see friends, I made an effort to find one. Soon enough I spotted Lauren, a friend I hadn’t seen since school let out in June. She was sitting near the back, beside a young man I didn’t recognize, but with a convenient vacant seat on her left, just off the aisle. I slid in beside her, and was quickly enveloped in a hug. The man sitting beside her leaned out and smiled.
“Kristi, this is Timmy,” Lauren said, as he reached across her to shake my hand. “He’s the new RA at Sonne.”
If I’d been reading this chapter of my life, a particularly slow one full of questions for the future, I might have been tempted to jump ahead a bit. If I had skipped exactly ten years from that moment, I would have had even more questions, would have seen a world that didn’t particularly make sense to me in that moment. I would have found myself living in a city I thought I’d left behind, having put on hold a career that I’d so completely chosen. I would have seen a world torn apart by war, sickness, and division.
And I would also have seen myself sitting in a wild, August-parched backyard I’d never seen, with two giggling daughters who looked like me. I would have seen their father, my husband—this man I’d literally just met—bringing home an eight-week-old corgi puppy. I would have heard the little girls’ squeals as they pet her soft fur, fur the color of weathered boardwalks of the coast my husband left behind to follow me to this far northwest corner of our country. I would have heard a conversation about starting Kindergarten, would have seen myself as a mother who reads reviews of backpacks and lunchboxes, who shops online for secondhand Dr. Martens boots and American Girl books, as if my daughter were starting school in 1991 instead of 2021. I would have seen wrinkles and grey hair, but also growth and life, strength and softness won through years spent together.
I couldn’t read ahead, of course. Nor could I read this meeting from the more interesting point of view: his. I couldn’t see how significant this moment was, how Timmy had a dozen reasons to be thrilled to be back at Black Forest Academy, and that one of those reasons was that he had a bit of a crush on me and the writing I’d done here, and he’d been on the lookout for a chance to meet me. And here I was, friends with his closest coworker, sitting just one seat away from him in church!
I am glad I remember it as well as I do now, the meeting from which would come enough surprises and mysteries to take my breath away, if only I could have seen them. But, following the rules of real life, I couldn’t see any of that, neither the chapters ahead or the narratives that ran parallel to my own. I could only, as Aslan told Aravis, live my own story, one page at a time, reading it thoroughly enough to extend a handshake and share a smile with a new colleague, on the first day back from the summer. I’m glad, now more than ever, that I kept reading.