For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work among you will complete it by the day of Christ Jesus.Philippians 1:6
I have a good memory. It’s the kind of memory that teachers like, the kind that absorbs all of those names and dates, which the most up-to-date pedagogy spends a lot of time deriding in public. There’s no way to catalogue it, but if my memory were a room of filing cabinets, I sometimes wonder how many of them would contain the facts that I spent a solid decade of my schooling taking in, without argument, until their metal tracks groaned under the weight of the last kings of France, the dates of great fires, and the effects of World War I on the colonial landscape of Europe and the world.
I am a little like this with my own life, too, recalling for no reason the exact dates of significant periods in my life. Not just anniversaries and loved ones’ birthdays; most people work hard on that. I remember the date I moved to Seattle first, in 1996, and the date I moved away in 2010. I could tell you the day I met my husband, which was also the day we brought our dog home, ten years later. I could of course tell you the dates on which I graduated from college and high school.
Unfortunately, the details get hazier from there. I’m thinking about high school graduation specifically these days, because last month I passed—without much fanfare or gathering on the part of my classmates—twenty years since that auspicious milestone. And I wish I could remember it better. There are fragments, of course. We were in the baseball stadium, then almost new, and there were fireworks, because we were our school’s centennial graduating class. I wore red lipstick to match the flame red of our gowns and mortarboards. Our class president gave a speech in which something was “hella tight,” and that’s the only phrase I remember anyone saying the whole time. Which—having attended another dozen or so commencement ceremonies since then—seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity, speech-wise.
But though I don’t remember anything more concrete than the color of my lipstick, I do remember how I felt that night, that season, that spring. I wrote about it two years ago, when I was considering the raggedness of the end of the 2020 school year. I felt light and free, accomplished and excited, uncertain and purposeful. If you’d asked me that night what I wanted to do with my life, I had An Answer. I would have looked at you with a serious, unwrinkled seventeen-year-old face, and told you that I wanted to be an English teacher.
If you wanted more information (though most people didn’t), I could have given you more. I’d thought about teaching history, but decided that I was primarily motivated by admiration for a particular teacher more than the subject itself. (This didn’t turn out to be strictly true, by the way. I’ve since taught history and loved it, and would love to teach it again. Even now. Perhaps especially now.) I’d chosen English because my English teachers were an uneven lot, but I still loved books and writing above all things, and wanted to share that with others. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to teach yet, but I hoped that teaching might take me somewhere interesting, maybe even to Europe. I’d heard of a school in Germany for the children of missionaries, and I thought that maybe being a pastor’s daughter would be enough of a connection that I could fit in there. Oh and yes, I was going to Seattle Pacific University, I’d add with a shrug. Because my mom works there, and it’s basically free.
While teaching public speaking at Black Forest Academy several years ago, I wrote about these goals in a commencement speech, which I delivered for my students to model the commencement speeches I’d assigned them to write. I told them that this was the short story: That I decided when I was a teenager what I wanted to do, and that my dream came true. The end! Credits roll, Disney castle pops up, TinkerBell arches her way across the screen, and it’s off to bed. The longer story, I told them, was that I lost sight of these goals a few times, like when I thought I might veer into Residence Life or even pursue an MBA in finance. I also got more information along the way, information that kept me in Seattle for longer than I expected, kept me at a school that was incredibly hard and incredibly good, instilling a lifelong passion for public education. The longer story was more complicated, but also better, in the end, than the easy version.
So today I’m thinking about another short story I could tell about my life, starting from the unspoken hopes of a seventeen-year-old girl. On that grand night at the baseball stadium, no one had the impertinent bravado ask me who I would be in twenty years. Why would they? No one asks high school seniors that kind of question, nor should they. But of course I asked myself.
I was never lying when I said I wanted to be a teacher, but it wasn’t the only truth. A teacher at an international school was what I planned to be. But there was more. Beyond the precise goals to which I thought back then I had a straight and predictable plan, there were details for which I had no plan. There was, behind the plans, just hope.
In twenty years, I saw—I wondered, I hoped, I desired—myself as a part of a family. As a wife, a mother, holding the hand of a little girl. Because it was my daydream, not something I shared with anyone until now, it was incredibly detailed. We’d just come home from somewhere far away, home to Seattle. Maybe just for this reunion, or to check in with family. My husband and daughter, they were faceless, but I was me, wearing a long dress, and a straw hat. That must have seemed at the time like what this traveling mother would wear, a deeply grown-up outfit that I wouldn’t be caught in as a teenager. I was confident, calm, at rest in a sense of purpose and mastery.
Even at the time, I knew that this vision wasn’t one that I could really bring about on my own. There was no school to apply to, no job interview to prepare for, absolutely not a shred of memorizing that would make this dream come true. With a teenaged shrug, I said to myself, “Well, I hope that happens. We’ll see.”
She receded to the background, this 37-year-old, maxi-dress mother, while I got to work on the more concrete goals I’d set, goals that slipped and shifted as I’ve mentioned before, but mostly ended up happening, and with enough twists and surprises that I readily admit that I didn’t make it all happen through sheer force of will. No one just stumbles into becoming a long-term, support-based overseas missionary. It was always a gift, always more than a little out of my hands.
A few weeks ago, my daughters and I went to the zoo with my brother and his daughters. It’s the same zoo we wandered around as kids, walking distance to the house where we grew up, but everything else about the outing was so radically different from the past we knew together that sometimes I feel like I’m on a whole new planet. We had four children under age seven, and only one of them a baby that can just happily marvel at wildlife from a stroller, so it was a morning full of cousins running and squealing, mostly climbing on metal animals and not paying too much attention to living ones. At the end of it I took the three oldest girls home for mac and cheese, while he went out with the baby to get sandwiches for the adults. It was chaotic and busy and fun, a grand way to spend a morning together.
Towards the end, my brother turned around and took a picture of me. We’re walking on the path, surrounded by lush, tropical vegetation. I am holding, somehow, the hands of three little girls, my daughters’ and one of my niece’s. I look confident, calm, at rest. I look happy.
(Note: If you have friends with small children, especially mothers, take pictures of them with their kids. It’s really important, and most of the time we love it.)
There’s a short story here, of course. I wanted a family, and God gave me a family. The longer story is richer, more complicated, but—as I’m humbled to realize—mostly consists of me saying yes to a wide variety of new and good things. Yes to dating a co-worker under the giggling, critical eyes of several hundred teenagers. Yes to marrying him, two years later. Yes to a baby, then another. Of course there were choices I made along the way, attitudes and reactions, struggles and moments when things seemed like less of a struggle than they had been. But honestly, when I look at this picture now, it’s hard not to see someone who was given, by an extravagance of grace I’ll never understand, nearly every deep longing of her heart.
It’s not always like this, all smiles at the zoo. That’s a snapshot, missing the sound and motion—little voices pestering each other and demanding mac and cheese, little hands pulling me in opposite directions toward the carousel and the car. But once in a while I feel like I’ve stepped out of the current of vocation that seemed so strong and purposeful when I was an educator. It’s then that I need to remember, to hear my own unspoken, long-ago hopes and compare them with this pile of goodness surrounding me in the present.
Perhaps I’m no longer rushing along a canyon, pouring all of my twenty-two year old energy in one direction, but I’m still in the river, meandering through a plain, perhaps, those parts of the river where the path is twisty and complicated, where the river really distributes nutrients and you get the best kind of soil, rich and lively and vibrant. That’s where I am now. In this delta of young parenthood, I see the same day from every angle, again and again. I learn, I plant, I grow. I try, and try, and try. I say no, but also yes. And thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
For these twenty years. For the long and short stories. For the specific goals and vague desires, all seen and heard, whether I told anyone at all.