On Labels

Student journalists assembling our school newspaper in time for this semester’s first Distribution Day!

We’re putting the finishing touches on our latest issue of the BFA Chronicle newspaper, admiring a photo of Fiddler on the Roof cast members in the Arts section when one reporter looks up at me suddenly.

“You play violin?”

She phrases it as a question, but since this student journalist is also herself a member of the Fiddler cast, I know it’s not. We’ve been in half a dozen rehearsals together, and I’ve seen her squinting across the stage at me, as if trying to decipher if, indeed, it’s really me playing that instrument with the little pit orchestra.

“I do,” I reply with a nod. “I mean, not terribly well, but I do.” For a moment, the room is abuzz with chatter, the journalists suddenly curious and interested in this fascinating new tidbit about their teacher. It’s a senior editor who calls it to an abrupt halt.

“Yes! She’s a teacher and she does other things. Shocking!”

I laugh, and the students get back to work, which may have been Senior Editor’s intention in the first place, but the moment sticks with me.

Later, I’ll discuss labels with the ninth graders in my Advisory group. We meet twice weekly, the ninth graders and I, focusing our time on a variety of topics and activities designed to help them grow smoothly from uncertain middle schoolers to confident, autonomous high school students. After a brief video, our conversation brings us back to labelling, its uses and danger, especially in relationship to gossip.

Knowing that the defensive ninth graders are unlikely to incriminate themselves by listing harmful labels they apply to others, I begin by asking them how even positive labels could have unintended consequences. “I mean, you’re missionary kids,” I remind them. “That’s not a mean label. If anything, it’s a good one, but still. Do you always like to be ‘the MK’?”

They do not. The ninth graders erupt with tales of being asked to recite random Bible verses from memory, or speak languages that they’ve never really learned. “It’s like people only know this one thing about me,” one of them comments. “I’m more than just that one thing.”

In some ways, I think that young people are better at recognizing the consequences of labels than adults are. Or rather, they resent the labels more. I look around my school and see students that are sculptors and soccer players, graphic artists and members of the Model UN. High school is a time when we encourage kids to try things out, to see what they like and what they’re good at. At the risk of falling into cliche, it’s a time to “find yourself.”

Adults, on the other hand, seem to cling to our labels. How ardently I resisted being labeled as a teacher at 21! It’s with equal passion, though, that I claim the title now. Once we find something we love, we sink into it with abandon. This is who I am. I’ve found myself!

Except, just like the ninth graders, we’re more than one thing.

I recently listened to a sermon from our church in Seattle in which the pastor spoke of the “latent gifts” of the shepherd boy, David. Certainly he loved being a shepherd, and was very good at it. It’s probable he never expected much more for his life. God knew differently, saw the gifts of faith and leadership that would make him one of Israel’s greatest kings. David could have shut his eyes to it, crying, “I’m a shepherd! Leave me alone!” but he was aware that he probably didn’t know himself, his capabilities, as well as God did. So he listened, and learned something new.

I love people who live this way. Rooted in Christ as their only static identity, they pursue various callings and gifts in various seasons. My sister majored first in theater, then in Global Development Studies, and now owns a bakery in Seattle. My mother studied outdoor recreation in college, then went on to be a mother and later a bookkeeper for three decades, before using the last few years to become a volunteer snowshoe guide with the U.S. Forest Service.

I’ll soon shed the label of “teacher,” at least for a while. And though at times that feels painful, a stripping-away of this role I’ve loved so much, for so long, I’m inspired by the ninth graders. We’re not just one thing. We belong to Christ, who knows us best, and sees what we cannot, the king inside the shepherd, the violinist behind the teacher.

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Remembering How To Read

My last experience with an orchestra, for BFAs 2011 production of Suessical.

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.

“East Coker,” T.S. Eliot

I turn the page and squint, hoping maybe the swarm of five b‘s hovering next to the treble clef will go away if I frown at it. I don’t even know what to call this key, much less precisely how to play in it, but there’s no time to complain. I have to–literally–face the music. The song is “If I Were A Rich Man,” in the key of Evil.

Except… I used to know it. There are things I don’t know how to do, like knitting and experimental physics. There are things I do know how to do, like making pies or teaching English. There are even things I’m learning to do, like being a wife and a mother, or speaking German. But there are a few things, fragments of old passions, that I used to know and love well, and have simply forgotten.

I dusted off my violin (literally dusted it off, folks) a few months ago to start rehearsals with the pit orchestra for our school’s production of The Fiddler on the Roof. I’ve played in a pit orchestra before, six years ago for Suessical, but there were some key differences:

  1. I was single then, with theoretically unlimited time for practice.
  2. I was playing viola, the parts of which tend to be more percussion than anything tricky or melodic.
  3. It was Suessical, a show full of poppy little ditties, not the intricate, Russian-influenced themes of Fiddler on the Roof.
  4. It was six years ago, six years closer to college, which was at that point the last time I’d played in an orchestra. (Now, that college orchestra is a horrifying 15 years back.)

I chose to play violin this time instead of viola because playing in alto clef makes my head hurt, but this decision comes at the price of actually having to play lots and lots of notes. Notes that I no longer know, fully, how to read. I stumbled through the first read-through of each song, trying to keep up through the exotic keys and notation that is what happens when the incredible vivacity of “To Life” makes it onto the page. I’d expected to be a small part of a full string section, but alas, there are only three violinists. So my missed notes are a third of the notes. No pressure.

Having finished the first pass at the music, we come back to the beginning today, and something strange is happening. I can follow along. I still can’t do everything, every time, but I know what I’m supposed to play. My fingers can find the notes faster, now, than my mind can name them. In the still-challenging trenches of these still-complicated pieces, I’m remembering how to read.

A Greek philosopher once advised, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things.” While I’m not certain what “external things” he had in mind, I know that this return to music over the last two months has often left me feeling foolish and stupid, a little lost and several steps behind everyone else. It’s a not a pleasant feeling, not one I want to hold onto forever, and of course it’s possible to feel both of those things without improving. And yet as I sit up straighter, as I hear the rhythm on the page before I have to play it, and realize that the notes that look impossible are actually quite within my reach, I realize that sometimes, maybe often, true growth waits on the other side of just this discomfort.

I’m also struck, here in this genial little rehearsal, among gracious fellow violinists far more talented than I and led by a chronically upbeat director, that I’m willing to keep trying because I know that I’m well-supported. If I miss a few notes, I’m not fired. The director keeps listening for the good, bringing it out in our little group.

It’s a lesson I try quite often to convey to my students. Risk working hard at this–striking out on a new book, a new idea, a new thought–and you’ll grow as a result. I’ll do my best, I promise, to help you avoid feeling foolish or stupid, but you may feel a little lost, once in a while. It means you’re ready to learn something new.

What it doesn’t mean, though, is that the learning will be easy. The stakes of the pit orchestra, small violin section aside, are relatively low and an English paper won’t follow anyone past high school. The harder sight-reading often takes us by surprise, in the unexpected twists and turns of life, and our students are fluent in transition. They are constantly moving, reading cultures and picking up languages, making friends and somehow learning dozens of unwritten and unspoken rules of each new place they call home.

My stronger fingers are a promise, I realize, that the transitions that are common to my students’ and my life are not forever. If we keep walking through them, in the company of people who care about us and following the direction of a God who cares more, the unfamiliarity wears off and we grow stronger, bolder, more fully who we were made to be, even in new places. Knowing that we’re loved, we’ll remember how to read, no matter where we go from here.

 

Thoughts From the Valley

“With every job when it’s complete
There is a sense of bitter-sweet
That moment when you know the task is done…”

Mary Poppins

Camping in the valley

February 2010. I’m crying in a theater in mid-town Manhattan.

Heeding the advice of one of my bosses from college, who regularly travelled to New York for business, I’ve taken this evening off from the International Baccalaureate (IB) conference I’m attending to see a show. During lunch I got myself to the Times Square TKTS box office, where I learned that my Broadway options included Mary Poppins, the clear choice for my evening of solitary fun. I got dressed up, went alone to a Thai restaurant and ordered food too spicy to eat, and then arrived promptly at the proper theater, ready for my first-ever (and last, at this point) show on Broadway.

The tears don’t come until the end of the show, which proves just as merry and quirky as the movie I’d grown up loving. With everyone else, I clap along to “Step In Time” and giggle at the escalating ridiculousness of the verses of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” The show ends, however, with Mary Poppins’s departure, as she sings the lines above and continues:

Though in your heart you’d like to stay
To help things on their way
You’ve always known they must do it alone

The valley

I’ve come to New York this week to learn how to be a better public school teacher, but I’m not sure I’ll be staying. In fact, I had an interview earlier this week with TeachBeyond, a mission specializing in global, Christ-centered education, an interview that is one more link in the long chain of events that could lead me not just away from public education, but away from Seattle, and the United States, entirely. Untethered by property, debt or a significant other, the timing is right to teach overseas. There’s also the nagging feeling of calling, the desire I once had to serve the children of those in ministry, who are trying to decipher God’s work in their lives and hearts in the midst of the details of a ministry-centered lifestyle. Children, if I’m honest, like me. I always wanted to teach them, and now I might have the chance, somewhere far away, like Germany.

As Mary Poppins bids Jane and Michael farewell, though, my eyes fill with tears, because I’m not running away. It’s been four years at my school in Seattle, and though we had a rough start, I’ve grown to love the multicultural, unpretentious, earnest place that is Ingraham High School. I love that my students know so many languages and teach me about the wide world beyond Seattle. I love that I get to show them that Shakespeare can be fun, or that Lord of the Flies is relevant to real life, or that a graphic novel can “count” as good literature. I love that we could celebrate together when America elected our first black president, and mourn together when I got laid off (and eventually rehired) at the end of my third year. It’s time to go, I’ve started to suspect, but I still love it.

Almost eight years later, the feeling is the same. I know it’s time to go, feel confidence in the strong, sweet longing for my daughter to grow up near her aunts and uncles and for Timmy to embark on a career in mental health counseling. I see the hazy outlines of good in the future, imagining unexplored delights and challenges. It’s misty and uncertain, imagined rather than assured.

Up to the pass we go!

I often imagine transitions as a mountain pass (a real, specific pass in central Austria, if you’re curious). We’re hiking upwards, unable to see or truly imagine what awaits us on the other side. We’re free however, to look back at where we’ve been, how far we’ve climbed. We can be thankful, or even a bit nostalgic, for the valley below us, a green meadow crisscrossed with streams and frequented by wild horses. Above us are clouds, rocks, sky, and the promise that if we keep going, a new 180 degrees awaits our exploration. I’ve never been disappointed by a pass, and I’ve never been disappointed by listening to God. It will be good, God promises, because I am good.

It’s not a guarantee, I know, that we’ll get to love all the places we leave behind, but that’s how it’s been for me, so far. I’ve never scrambled up the hill in retreat, thanking God for every step that takes me farther away. I’ve always been able to look back with gratitude, the bittersweet journey of moving from one well-loved home to another.

Today I’m savoring the valley, thankful. My students began the morning sitting on their desks, energetically reviewing for their final exam. “What are the influencing factors for realism?” someone almost shouts into the morning stillness. As they talk over each other, rushing to give the answers that they’ve memorized, I sip coffee and listen, amazed. Amazed that they care so much, that they’ve worked so hard, that I get to be their teacher. We have one more semester here, a semester I know will be full of details of packing, moving, job interviewing, and traveling. But I’m thankful for moments like this, too, times to look back with gratitude and ahead with expectation, keenly aware that God has been–and will be– very good.

For more concrete information about our upcoming transition, including ways you can be praying for us, see our most recent newsletter. Thank you, as always, for reading and journeying with us.

Things That Made Life Better This Year: 2017 Edition

Happy New Years’ Eve from sunny southern Germany! As has become a habit, I spent a bit of time this afternoon reflecting on some “things” that made life better this year. It’s been a full, rich and interesting year, and I look forward to all that’s ahead in 2018!

  1. Visiting our llama friends in Sitzenkirch!

    Llamas. There are a few families of llamas living in a neighboring village, and visits to them–and their adorable babies–have become a highlight of our family walks this year.

    • Timmy: Luci, what does a llama say?
    • Luci: Llama, llama, llama!
  2. Fellow Parents. Whether in the support of a text message from home, a standing playdate with some adorable two-year-old twins, or “proper brunch” with friends in the community, we’ve loved connecting with other parents of young kids this year. There’s something great about swapping stories with fellow parents “in the trenches” of littlehood with us.
    • Highlight: Fourth of July party with five toddlers under two!
  3. Thankful for this fellow West Wing fan!

    West Wing Sundays. In the midst of a tumultuous political reality in 2017, we loved spending our Sunday evenings with a dear friend, enjoying the fast-talking and ever-relevant reruns of Aaron Sorkin’s early-2000s political drama.

  4. Der Fußsack. Pronounced foos-sack, this is Luci’s “stroller sleeping bag,” which has kept her toasty on probably hundreds of miles of strollering though our little village. Though we can’t always keep her in hat and mittens, Luci’s fußsack has been her companion in chilly Kandern winter.
  5. Home-Making It. As I’ve written before, living in Germany has given us both the opportunity to learn how to make things we’d buy if we lived in America. This years saw the addition of homemade donuts, biscuits, beer and kombucha to our repertoire.
    • Kombucha Flavor of the Year: Holunderbluten (Elderflower)
    • Donut of the Year: Cinnamon
  6. Journalism Class. For the second year in a row, I got to teach a new class! This one, though small, has proven one of my favorites yet, featuring the fresh importance of journalism in an ever-changing world and six young people committed to learning how to communicate truth in our small community.
    • Update on a previous post: Despite a lack of popular demand, we had articles on the German federal elections in three out of our four issues. It was important.
  7. Answered Prayers: This was a year of answered prayers. Timmy has one and a half of his two internships he needs for his Masters of Clinical Mental Health Counseling, which he’ll complete in the spring. We have been blessed with generous and creative childcare for Luci. A generous donation has helped to shore up our recent dip in support. And though our car has recently completely broken (see Timmy’s Instagram for that sad tale), it broke in the perfect place and time (at a near-stop in a country village) sparing us a much worse accident had it happened on an autobahn, or with Luci in the car.
  8. Cheese & Crackers. While “watching Papa on the TV show” (Bethany Community Church’s live 8 AM service) we’ve taken to enjoying a Sunday evening meal of cheese, crackers and cured meats, connecting us to family and to traditional German fare. We’re thankful for the Internet, this great church family, and tasty salami.
    • Best Cracker: Tuc (German Ritz)
    • Best Cheese: Cream Cheese
    • Best Salami: Edeka Italian
  9. Listening to music with Papa on a short visit in November.

    Visits. In a rare year in which 2/3 of us didn’t make it back to America, we were thankful for several visitors here in Kandern, including dear friends and a good majority of the Dahlstroms.

    • “So, you’re going to Kandern–for a week–to babysit?” So glad my sister’s answer was “Yes!”
  10. Calling. From building discipleship relationships by coaching basketball, counseling teenagers and missionaries, to teaching new subjects and mentoring new teachers, this has been a year in which both Timmy and I have had the privilege of using our gifts in places we feel called. We’re thankful for teaching, counseling and the ministry of hospitality we feel Christ calling us to here in Kandern, and more than ever thankful for all of you who encourage us with prayer and financial support, making this ministry possible.

 

Barbarazwieg: Of Twigs, Christmas and New Discoveries

Our St. Barbara branches, blooming in our windowsill.

“Apparently it’s a big deal to dress up in costumes when you pick someone up on Christmas Eve in Switzerland…”

Christmas Eve morning, Timmy starts texting me as soon as he gets to the airport. With his customary picking-people-up-in-Zürich Starbucks drink in hand, he relates a new and strange Swiss tradition: dressing up in costumes to pick up relatives on Christmas Eve.

“Seriously,” he writes. “We’ve got about 20 Santa’s, a family of baristas… and someone hiding in a box…” I laugh and reply that he should have worn his lederhosen to collect our friends from Seattle, who will be visiting us here in Kandern for a week.

I look out of our window on the grey, sleepy village as I make cinnamon bread on this quiet Sunday morning. All of the shopping in preparation for three closed-store days is done, the house cleaned and the presents wrapped. We have just one door left to open in the Milka advent calendar, two more ornaments on the Jesse Tree devotional. Christmas is here.

In the windowsill, I notice tiny, light-pink flowers blooming on the slender twigs that have been sitting in a pitcher full of water for almost a month. The twigs were handed to me at the grocery store on December 6th, a gift from the cashier. (This is not an altogether uncommon experience; Luci has so far collected two stuffed animals and a felt bag from affectionate cashiers, just by looking cute.) “Danke!” I’d murmured, juggling the bouquet of twigs with the the stroller handle and my groceries as I left the store. One of the bakery assistants said something to me I didn’t understand, from which I caught only the name “Barbara,” and I’d left feeling foolish and laughing about the German respect for all seasons, both flowers and twigs getting their fair share of attention.

It was only on returning home that I learned the significance of the branches, meant to commemorate December 4th, Saint Barbara Day. According to legend, the medieval virgin, Barbara, having converted to Christianity against her father’s wishes, was imprisoned by him in a tower. On the way to her imprisonment, her robe got caught on a cherry branch, which she took with her, placed and placed in a jar, where it bloomed in her captivity. Though observed differently in different Catholic and Orthodox regions, here in Germany people keep the branches in water, anticipating good luck (or, in some versions, a marriage) in the coming year, should the branch bloom by Christmas Day.

At the time, the custom delighted me, both in its strangeness and in the simple fact that, eight years after moving here, I still learn so much. It’s how I feel when I find a new or particularly moving part of the Bible, or when a close friend or family member utterly surprises me. The joy of learning, discovery, never gets old to me, and I’m happy to keep finding it in a place that’s grown familiar, to know that even when I’m home, there’s always more to learn.

Today, Christmas Eve, the buds have begun to poke out into the grey day, and I think about the branches themselves. Taken from their tree, they bloom in a new place, in a strange season. What a beautiful sight for us here, as we celebrate Christ’s birth with friends, far from our places of origin. “Bloom where you’re planted” is cliche for a reason, I suppose, but these branches give it new significance for me today, in this community of expatriate students, teachers and missionaries, seeking to live and grow together, some of us far from home.

According to the flowers on the branches in my window, this will be a year of blessing, but I could have told you that without them. Because this year, like all of the others, is God’s, every day and moment. I look forward to the journey ahead, in its twists and turns, to learning and discovering with these two people I love.

Merry Christmas from Kandern!

The Civilly Disobedient

Is it ever right–ethically or morally–to break the law? Explain why or why not.

-Honors American Literature journal question, Monday

It’s always a good day when I get to stand on a chair.

I sense that the students understand this, also, even as they mutter about being hustled, a few minutes into class, from their comfortable plastic chairs to the space at the back of the room. This space, perhaps 25 feet wide and six feet deep, is magic. It’s the floor we sit on, in a narrow oval, to read scary stories, and the back-of-class stage for all manner of skits and roll-plays. Today, it’s the ground for Would You Rather: Lawbreaker Edition.

At the beginning of class, I asked them to write for a few minutes about the question above. Is it ever right to break the law? They wrote, dutifully, and now they’re standing just as dutifully in the back of the room, while I direct them from my chair perch on high.

“OK,” I begin. “You have to pick a side. This is the question you wrote about. Is it ever right to break the law? Yes,” I motion to the door side, “Or no?” I motion to the windows. Mostly they shuffle to the door, a few students opting to stand in the hall outside to express their extreme comfort with law-breaking. A few misunderstand, citing times when obeying the law is just fine.

“I didn’t say ‘Is it always right to break the law,'” I remind them. “I said ‘ever.’ That’s important. Obviously we mostly obey the law, right?”

My students nod. “Now. Would you rather not pay your taxes,” window, “Or plot to overthrow the government?” door. The students laugh, mostly opting to not pay their taxes because “…you know, I’d rather have my money than… not have it.”

We’ll be reading Henry David Thoreau’s “On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience” in a few minutes, the author’s treatise regarding why he, among other forms of passive protest, refused to pay a poll tax that would fund the Mexican-American War. As I read through a few more scenarios involving various laws broken through civil disobedience over the years, I begin to think I may have lost them, my international students. They didn’t know that interracial marriage was illegal in America the early 20th century, and don’t have a solid grasp on the concept of draft-dodging. It all feels very theoretical in this safe little classroom in Germany. We’d disobey the laws you think we should, they seem to say, but we’re not super sure why.

Then I reach the second-to-last question.

“Would you rather hold a secret worship service in a country where it’s illegal, or smuggle Bibles into a country where they’re illegal?”

Suddenly, they’re all questions, of which the most common, and loudest, is “What if we’ve done both?”

Sometimes, in the busyness of writing and rewriting papers, reading classic literature and pacing ourselves through bell-ordained school days, I forget that our students at Black Forest Academy are rather extraordinary. All teenagers are extraordinary, of course, because they are odd and clever and creative, because they’re heroically weathering one of the more difficult seasons of human life, because in spite of it all most of them remain optimistic about the future and their roles in it. But these teenagers, our students, are something else entirely.

I forget that some of their very lives are founded on acts of civil disobedience, large and small. I forget the risks associated with some of this work, for which deportation–permanent exile from the places they call home–is sometimes a light potential consequence. I forget that Paul’s preaching and imprisonments, which I read in the early morning alongside many other “Bible stories” are the real models on which they base their ministry. If you’re not supposed to preach Christ, do it anyway. If you’re put in prison, keep preaching. God’s law always comes first.

When we reach the last question, asking them to choose between participating in the Underground Railroad in the 19th century or the Resistance in Germany in the 20th century, my students rebel. “Both!” they cry. “How could we possibly choose between those?”

In a few years, my students will be in college, perhaps away from the law-breaking part of their lives. But as I listen to them today, I’m inspired by their nonconformity, the way they’re able to evaluate both laws and cultural norms in light of the truth of Christ. They’ll go back to America, doubtless to be amazed at the “stands” their peers choose to make, or perhaps the lack of them. I can only hope that the students who confidently tell me that they can’t choose between an illegal worship service and an illegal Bible will continue to value both in places where worship and Scripture are less illegal than simply forgotten. Their civil disobedience might not break any laws, but it will continue to remind them, and those around them, of the extraordinary lives they’ve lived, and the extraordinary God they serve.

Of Exile {In The Library}

Speaking on faith and vocation for BFA Chapel
Photo: BFA Communications

Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’

Jeremiah 29:5-7

After thinking about exile all week in preparation for my Chapel talk, it makes me smile a bit when I realize that I’m speaking in the Library. Today’s Chapel consists of six faculty members offering seminars on the intersection of our vocation and our faith, so students have some choices to make. As we have few large rooms on our campus, and I’m the English-teaching lover of books, to the Library I go. This means that I’m precisely the farthest away from the Auditorium, where the students have gathered for worship, and that they’ll need to really commit to walking up a bunch of stairs to get here. But that’s fine; I’m not the biggest fan of large crowds, anyway.

I’m speaking on Jeremiah 29 today, expanding on the story of the prophet’s letter to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. It’s not a new chapter to me, having encountered its oft-excerpted eleventh verse as a seventh grader at North Seattle Christian School almost two decades ago. We mulled over those words, back then, zooming in on the “prosper” and the “future,” because those seemed most relevant to us when we were twelve. God must want us to be rich, right? That’s cool. Let’s play basketball, prep for the spelling bee, check on our Tomagotchi pets; God’s got this covered. Starting way back then we lost the context, the story, the bigger picture into which God promises this future, and the wholehearted seeking God asks in return. As a professional teacher of books, I’m a huge fan of context, so today is a bit of a storytelling day.

Despite the cliche factor, I picked this passage for a reason, not for the promises at the end of the letter, but for the commands at the beginning, which have both comforted and haunted me at several points in my young adulthood. Since the speaking prompt had to do with vocation, I’ve chosen too speak not about literature, which I do pretty much constantly, but about teaching as a profession, specifically my first two years of it. I tell them that I almost quit multiple times during my first two years, and my sweet students, the ones who trudged all the way up the stairs to hear me, scoff. “No really,” I said. “It was hard.”

For a while, we’re in a different school, with a younger Ms. (rather than Mrs.) Dahlstrom. I tell them about the library conference room where I taught remedial reading to students who had failed the state reading exam, some of whom weren’t literate in any language, let alone at a tenth-grade level in English. I tell them about the fall I taught 180 ninth graders, and the period that had 30 ninth-grade boys, two ninth-grade girls, and a tenth-grade mother-to-be in her last trimester. Though I’m careful to distinguish my loneliness and discouragement from the suffering of geographic refugees, both ancient and modern, I tell them that for me, then, this was a sort of exile. That I would have seriously considered giving it all up for a quiet office and a pair of nice tall shoes, if not for the words of Jeremiah 29, a small piece of God’s insistent voice of calling on my life.

“‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce,'” I read aloud to the assembled students and faculty in the Library. “This is a long-term arrangement. Gardens take time; houses take time. Also, families take time. Look what else he asks them to do!”

I keep reading the passage, telling them of my crestfallenness, in those bone-tired first years as a teacher, at realizing that God had called me, specifically, to Seattle and to my classroom and to the individual students I taught. I could go work for a magazine, keep my clothes clean and hands un-markered, but it wouldn’t change the calling. Instead, God had planned for the calling to change me. That was the hope, the future.

Sometimes we get to choose the “end” of the stories we tell about ourselves. Today, I choose not to take the story all the way to Germany, to the fruition of one of the fantasies that I spun for myself in the difficult years. Because that particular exile ended two years sooner. It ended when Ingraham High School became home, when in its welfare, in this city in which I’d been placed for that season, I found welfare. Yes, eventually I moved on, but I left that school happy, satisfied enough that I knew I was leaving home, a part of my heart, behind in Seattle.

I know that for some of our students, the exile is geographic, far closer to the Israelites than I’ve ever been. Though Kandern has its charms, they’re not where they’d like to be. For others, like for me, it’s more complex, dissatisfaction with situations and circumstances still (and perhaps always) beyond their control. “I told a story about a while ago,” I tell them, “But that wasn’t my last exile. The point isn’t always to leave exile. Sometimes the point, like Jeremiah reminded the Israelites, is to meet God there. Because God is everywhere. If you seek me you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart. Exile is a great place for seeking, for looking around and paying attention to what God wants you to be doing here.”

We reset the chairs and tables in the Library with our last few minutes before the bell rings for lunch. I chat with the students, most of them ones I’ve taught or know some other way, and the teachers, most of them friends, who made the trek up the stairs. I think about how this has become every bit as much home as Ingraham ever was, perhaps even more, how I’ve literally settled down, set up a house if not built one (Keeping a basil plant alive is the same as planting a garden, right?), married and started a family in this place. It once seemed like the far corner of the world, and now it’s the center of it. I leave the Library asking God to reveal my places of exile, which clearly don’t include this cozy village I call home, knowing that He’s there, too, in the shadowy corners of my heart, asking me to lean in, to listen, to keep learning.

{The Love Song Of} 2 & 33

 

I owe a lot to T.S. Eliot and Taylor Swift for these lines, composed on a walk today with Luci. I’m emulating another favorite, Billy Collins, master of the birthday poem. It was a poetic day, rich and splendid, worth sharing.

 

Let us go then, you and me,

where the autumn blazes bright for all to see,

and metallic color fades from tree to tree,

of royal golden robes,

the spiderwebs a silver filigree.

 

Let us roll your three wheels,

Two stuffed bears riding on the rails,

walk the paved path,

not the trails,

the path of bikes and grandmas,

moms and babes,

the path that hugs the valley like a veil.

 

Let us point out all the colors,

all the trees,

let us sing made-up songs into the breeze,

of being two and being out with Mom and bears,

of being thirty-three with all its joys and cares.

 

This feels like the perfect morn,

for donning plaid and sweaters cozy-warm,

for rolling through the fields,

naming trees and grass and birds,

for naming all the names,

now that we know the words.

 

And it’s true today, I don’t feel twenty-two,

And that’s fine right here,

Today, with you.

You know about me:

today I’m thirty-three.

And everything will still be right,

will still be rich and good and free,

as we walk and talk and live and be,

Two, thirty-three,

you and me.

 

Angelina & The Lupine Lady

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.

In the meantime Alice got up and washed her face and ate porridge for breakfast. She went to school and came home and did her homework.

And pretty soon she was grown up.

Barbara Cooney, from Miss Rumphius

Before bedtime, we pick out “long books,” the bigger picture books in the living room, as opposed to the little board books in the bedroom. Luci’s opinions aren’t as strong about these books, so I choose two of my favorites, Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius and Angelina Ballerina, by Katharine Holabird. These books, published in 1982 and 1983, respectively, glimmer like jewels in my often-hazy childhood memories. There were four of us then, a little church on an island, pebbly beaches strewn with driftwood, and books. Always books.

Snuggled under the blanket my grandmother crocheted for Luci two years ago, we start with Angelina Ballerina. A young mouse who longs to dance above all things, Angelina sometimes forgets to do anything else. When her dancing ways get out of hand, her father suggests ballet lessons. Angelina is thrilled, goes to the lessons, practices and reforms her chore-forgetting ways, and eventually grows up to be the renowned Mademoiselle Angelina in a mouse ballet company.

I smile at the pictures, remembering how much I loved an Angelina Christmas ornament I got one year, and how when I was just a little older than Luci I imagined that I, too, would be a “real ballerina” when I grew up. I started ballet lessons hopefully, learning positions I can no longer remember, and dreaming of the day I’d wear a pink tulle skirt in an actual recital. And then we moved away from our little island. I learned to ride a bike and explore the forest, and new passions took hold.

Next we meet Miss Rumphius, the tale of Alice Rumphius, who longs to “see faraway places, and come home to live by the sea.” As a child, her grandfather tells her that there is a third, more important task for her: she has to do something to make the world more beautiful. She grows up, travels the world–riding camels and climbing mountains–then comes home to a cottage by the sea, wondering how she’ll make her already-splendid world even more beautiful. Quite to her surprise, she finds a passion for scattering lupine seeds around the dunes and dales of her little seacoast, and grows into a wise, old lady, making the world more beautiful with her stories and flowers.

And while Angelina had my heart as a child, it is the Lupine Lady who speaks to me now. Perhaps I find some kinship with her, a woman who loves books, learning and exploration. Perhaps I’m still traveling to faraway places, and am wondering where my home by the sea will be. Mostly, though, I share her longing to “do something to make the world more beautiful,” even as she admits, “I do not know yet what that might be.”

A few weeks ago, a colleague shared an article titled “You’ll Never Be Famous–And That’s O.K.” In it, writer Emily Esfahani Smith discusses Middlemarch and the value of a quietly well-lived life, contrasting two of the protagonists and their different routes to success. One is materially successful, yet unhappy in marriage, while the other eventually marries her true love, yet never realizes her wide-reaching dreams. The second ends the novel satisfied, as the author notes, “Rather than succumb to the despair of thwarted dreams, she embraces her life as it is and contributes to those around her as she can.”

I haven’t read Middlemarch–though now I’m a bit closer to an attempt–but these stories remind me fondly of Tootsie Clark, who died at home at the age of 95 last week. The proprietress of a restaurant in my childhood hometown of Marblemount, Washington, I still remember her well, the cheery old lady who made the biggest, stickiest cinnamon rolls in the world. We’d go there for birthdays and holidays, for a special treat or a Date With Dad occasion. Tootsie would be there, baking her famous rolls and cracking jokes, sharing the same genial warmth with the passing-through tourists as the locals she’d known since they were my age. Last May, hers was the first car over Highway 20 when it opened for the spring, a tradition she carried on even in the last months of her life.

I can’t know how happy Angelina will be as a ballerina¹, but I’m pretty sure now that I won’t be her when I grow up. There are only a handful of career paths to “famous teacher,” and they almost all lead through the jungle of educational public policy, far from the roads I’m likely to tread. As for “famous wives and mothers,” well, I’m not planning to review baby monitors or turn this blog into a lifestyle brand anytime soon, though maybe Timmy and I will someday rival John and Abigail Adams in lively and learned correspondence. After a decade of teaching, almost four years of marriage and almost two of motherhood, my most valuable callings are also the most commonplace ones.

And yet this life doesn’t feel commonplace, not at all. In fact, I feel unbelievably rich, even as I’m undeniably not famous. I long to grow more like these childhood heroes of mine, fictional and real, Miss Rumphius and Tootsie, making the world more beautiful and investing in their communities. I scatter words instead of seeds, and bake chocolate chip cookies instead of cinnamon rolls. I’m still learning. And by the grace of God, using His gifts, I aspire to do something to make this broken world more beautiful.

And I don’t always know what that will be.

 

¹Probably very happy, since she’s a cartoon mouse in a children’s book, likely without the physical and emotional toll that fame takes on the rest of us.

The {Not Terribly} Simple Life

Enjoying some yardwork.

Friday I come home for lunch.

More precisely, I leave school shortly before lunch, to pick Luci up from friends’ house, where she’s spent the morning playing with twin two-year-old boys. These boys spend another weekday at our house, where Timmy runs a three-toddler circus with extraordinary energy and humor. Whenever she’s going to spend time with them, at our house or theirs, Luci says, “Go see fens!” Always with an exclamation point, never (so far) with an R in “friends.” Fens!

I meet them on the landing outside their apartment, where Luci emerges with a sheet of paper, covered with crayon and the outline of her hand. We say goodbye to the mother and the twins, load up in the stroller and head home, where a “peebudder sanwich” is calling to us.

As we walk along the now-robust Kander River towards home, I marvel at the series of answered prayers that led to this walk. At the beginning of the summer, we knew that Timmy would be working in the school part-time this year, that I would still be mostly full-time, and that our daughter was still too young for even the generous over-three Kindergarten in our town. Perhaps I’d be able to come home in the afternoons, but even that wasn’t certain, as our school schedule changed drastically this year, each day a different shuffling of six of the seven classes. We’d need someone–possibly a few someones–to watch her a few mornings a week, at least.

As people asked us how they could be praying for us as the school year started, the answer was always the same: “Really, practically, we need some help watching Luci during the day.” A lover of abstraction, I’m not good at asking God for anything specific, but here was a concrete, pragmatic need, with a hard deadline. We asked. We asked others to ask for us. We kept asking as the school year drew near.

And then there were answers. Friends who moved back to town, their own children now at college in America, who’d love to spend a morning with Luci. A grandmother, her grandchildren far away, who wanted to take her for walks around town. A mom from the school who offered to spend afternoons at our apartment while Luci napped. The exchange with the twins, providing another morning of counseling for Timmy and some free time for their mom. Two afternoons that my day ended at lunch, allowing me to come home int the afternoons. With so many people involved, so many different places and ways, the week came together.

I think of how often in my life I’ve longed for the minimalism celebrated in Ikea catalogues and tiny house Pinterest boards. When life feels tricky, sometimes I look back longingly on the one suitcase I brought here, with the one teacher outfit it contained. There is beauty in simplicity, the simplicity that makes Mondrian, the Great Plains and Scandinavian furniture appealing. There were simple solutions to our childcare conundrum, like a full-time nanny or an on-site daycare, the dreams of perplexed parents everywhere.

The value of complexity is more often overlooked. Lost in the pastel respite of Monet, we get too tired of looking to untangle the masterpiece of the Sistine Chapel, but both are beautiful. This year, this schedule, is complex, even tricky. But it’s beautiful, a network of willing friends who invest time, love and energy into our family. The simple solution would be simple, costing us less planning and less asking for help, but without the love.

At the beginning of our eighth and tenth year in missions, Timmy and I think quite a lot a about the way God has provided for us. Of course we’d be happy with the easy ways–with a single church that agreed to sponsor us for life–but ultimately our time here has often been marked by the beauty of his complicated answers.

The beauty of fifty supporters instead of three, hundreds of people and churches praying for us all over the world. The beauty of an apartment we can afford, that is just big enough for us. The beauty of a car given to us when we needed it most. The beauty of four women who help us care for Luci so that we can serve in the school.

Perhaps life will be simple someday, but for now I’m grateful for this glorious complexity, the reminder that God sees us, knows us, and loves us.