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.

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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.

The Summer of The Pool

It’s the last day of summer around here. Of course, summer will go on for another month or so, and students won’t return until the end of August, but tomorrow Timmy, Luci and I head to Black Forest Academy for All Staff Conference, the official beginning of the school year. So it seems only fitting to spend my last afternoon naptime of the summer writing about one of this summer’s best things: the pool.

Dear Kandern Pool,

Because I’m the kind of person who reads a lot of books and writes a lot of sentences, sometimes I give seasons titles, so that when I look back they have little headings, like chapters in the ongoing, unabridged novel of our life. Sibling Christmas 2011. The Summer of Weddings. That Fall That I Taught Too Many Students, And Almost Went Crazy. Just titles, unadorned and practical.

You’re probably wondering where you come in, but wonder no more. I’m officially dubbing this summer–which ends tomorrow because I’m a teacher and we live by a different calendar–The Summer of The Pool. Lest you believe you were the only good thing–or even the best thing–this summer, know this: This was a glorious summer, full of friends and family and goodness of many kinds. The “many kinds” is complicated, though, and will likely fill the second sentence of my answer to tomorrow’s inevitable inquiry:

“So what did you do this summer?” someone will ask.

“Um, mostly went to the pool…”

“Really?”

“Well, we went to visit some friends, and we had some time on base, and my mom came to visit, and it was a really great summer. But yeah, low-key time. The pool. It was just lovely.”

Outdoors and lively, predictably cool, you really were the perfect pool for this summer, when otherwise we’d be slowly roasting in a darkened, fourth-floor apartment, thinking about global warming and feeling justified in our window-unit air conditioner. You provided relief and amusement, as all pools are supposed to do. But that’s not all.

When I think of you, Kandern pool, I’ll always remember two little girls. First, my eight-month-old daughter, who literally lived the first few months of her life in a room under a snowbank, dipping her toes tentatively in, then getting angry if we so much as suggested that she stand in the water, even for a moment. Then, a year later, the girl who stands under the little waterfall in the kids’ pool, who wades in up to her chest, chasing a rubber duck, who shrieks with glee when her dad pulls her through the deeper water in the medium pool. You’ve been a place of adventure and growth for a water-fearing Luci, and that’s no small thing.

You’re not all soft edges, of course. You’ve been the cause of scraped knees, hands, and once a nose, along with endless gasps of surprise when rowdy peers dare to splash water my daughter’s way. You’ve stretched her, though, helped teach her (and me) that a scraped knee doesn’t need to ruin anyone’s afternoon. We get up and keep playing, a little more careful next time.

You also represent our village, in all its variety. Though I’ve lived here ages now and stayed in Kandern for a handful of summers, this is the first summer we’ve “splashed out” (pun just irresistible, sorry) and gotten a season pass. With the extra time lingering around the kids’ pool this summer, I watched the our little world file by on hot days, people of all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities enjoying the water together. Over there are several generations of Kandern-born originals, while across the way is a family of refugees just arrived in Germany, immigrants like myself just as welcomed as those who’ve lived here forever. It’s a special place.

I could spend more time on the dress codes–or lack of them–or lifeguards–or lack of them–but my letter is growing long. For now, I’ll finish by saying that this Summer of The Pool has been a settled one, a quiet one, a time of thankfulness and rest, of fully living in this place we call home. Sitting with our feet in the water, we watch our little girl play, dreaming of the future and resting, for a moment, in the cool exhilaration of the present.

Thank you.

Kristi

Home Is Where The Jam Is

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue…

Galway Kinnell, from “Blackberry Eating”

“So, you think this one?”

We’re standing at the end of the baking aisle, my mother and Luci and I, picking up and squinting at box after box of Gelfix, Germany’s answer to American Certo, that pectin-infused magic that is key to making jam.

We’ve already picked the blackberries, several yogurt buckets’ worth, which are now in the freezer, waiting to become jam. Because when your mom comes to visit in early August–your mom who made gallons of jam every summer throughout your childhood–well, you don’t really have a choice. Toddler in the backpack, you go out, all three of you, to “pick boo-bays” for a few days. You order some jars on Amazon. You make the jam.

Now, pectin is the last obstacle between us and a hot, sticky afternoon of jamming, so we try to make an educated guess. We’d been instructed by a colleague of mine last week on the different “strengths” of Gelfix, depending on the ratio of sugar to fruit that you want in your jam. There’s 1:1, 2:1 and 3:1. All assume that you’re using more fruit than sugar (or at least an equal amount).

“But your recipe,” I ask my mom, “It calls for what? Almost double the sugar?”

She nods, picking up another box, as I study the directions on the back of the 1:1 version. Since neither of us know exactly what pectin even is–thus whether adding more or less would be likely to compensate for the increased sugar–we go with the nuclear option. We’re going to use the German recipe on the box. Adventure!

The next afternoon finds us at the stove, taking turns measuring, stirring, and jarring some truly magnificent jam. My mom is skeptical at first, keeping her trusty personal jam recipe in the back of her mind, but with venturesome good nature proceeds with the German recipe. The result, we both decide while biting into slices of rustic bread with butter and thick blankets of blackberry jam, is intoxicating. It is the flavor of a Pacific Northwest childhood, hours and days of berry-picking, stained and thorn-pricked fingers picking up soft slices of whole wheat bread with fresh, warm jam. The recipe was different, but this still tastes like home.

It’s amazing how a taste can transport. A long time ago, on a homesick afternoon on a farm in Austria, I tried to make chocolate chip cookies, with little success. The cookies were horribly ugly and crunchy, flat and pale. Far from providing comfort or familiarity, they were embarrassing and sad. I’ve since learned that baking here, with different-weighted flours and slightly softer butter, is something of a rite of passage, something to master once you’ve lived here for a while. Nine years later, I can make cookies better here than in America, where the ingredients have become just foreign enough to be unpredictable. Home is where the cookies are best.

As new staff and students begin to trickle into Kandern, and returning ones pick up where they left off after summers of travel (or, like us, summers at the pool), I’m thinking about what it takes to feel at home somewhere. Relationships and vocation are the things we talk about, the things that are supposed to (and mostly do) matter most. But sometimes home is also having furniture you like–whether it’s Ikea or antique–or unpacking the box that had your paintings and favorite mugs in it. And sometimes it’s making a recipe you remember, and making it well.

Sewing Machine

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, 
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. 
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster. 
Elizabeth Bishop, from “One Art”

 

The sewing machine came from downstairs.

Also Americans working in missions, our neighbors have been in Europe for decades, so I correctly guessed that she might have a sewing machine I could borrow. “Thank you!” I said as I turned to lug the ponderous 1950s Singer up the stairs, adding “I’ve never felt settled enough here to have a sewing machine.”

For reasons practical and sentimental, I’m making Luci an apron. She likes to “help” me make all sorts of dough, and I like it better when the flour ends up in the bowl (and the counter and the floor, honestly) rather than all over her. Also, it’s really cute. I have an old tea towel that is just the right size, and have already cut out the tiny apron, made clever use of some already-hemmed edges, and ironed some makeshift bias tape out of two long diagonal pieces to use for the strings.

Now I coax the machine to life, pulling out scraps of sewing knowledge from a dusty drawer of consciousness, each skill coming with its own origin story. I did take a sewing class once, resentfully accepting it as an alternative to ceramics my freshman year of high school, but I learned most of this from my mom and grandma long before that. I remember their sewing machines, also vintage like the one I’m using now, how the thread had to dance back and forth about a dozen times before it could finally make it through the needle. I remember shelves of leftover cloth, leftover tapes and rickracks and laces, leftover buttons, echoes of finished and unfinished projects that became doll clothes and tiny tents for Lego men.

It’s not mountains, or words, or even music, but sewing still forms a fine thread that runs all the way back to my beginning. It’s enough a part of me that planning this little apron felt a bit like speaking an old language, its cadences and vocabulary familiar and pleasant. And enough that my blithe admission from a few days ago–“I’ve never felt settled enough here to have a sewing machine”–returns to mind.

Like many other transient communities, missionaries have a complicated relationship with possessions. Things are either indispensable, items that we’ll carry to the ends of the earth, or entirely disposable, to be left and then found again at each new home. Everyone has a unique balance of the two, and different items in each category. Some tote their homes around in containers filled with delightful antique furniture, pianos and bicycles. Others shrug off each place like an exoskeleton, taking only essentials and starting over.

I’ve reflected often on what I’ve accumulated here in this pretty green valley, the levels of settledness achieved over seven years. A bicycle, a trunk, two rocking chairs and a mountain of handmade pottery. Mostly, though, for me the “acquisitions” are intangible, relationships and growth that could only have happened here, most notably my transformation from single, self-sufficient nomad to a wife, mother, and part of a community. Though I eventually conceded and bought a few appliances, a sewing machine was never among them, was something too heavy and too expensive to have in a place that may not be permanent.

Not having a sewing machine is the tiniest of sacrifices, but I find myself reflecting on colleagues, both now and even more so in the past, who left much more behind. Those who’ve gone without pianos, or beloved pets, or less portable hobbies, like sailing or gardening. Those who miss the sea, the way I’d miss mountains, or miss months of hot sunshine as I’d miss clouds. Those who’ve left relationships, large and small, to pursue a calling they couldn’t deny. We all leave something, choose to live without other things.

Even more challenging, though, is the reminder that though going without a sewing machine is no problem, in the long run, I have to be careful about applying the rule more broadly, avoiding relationships that are “too expensive” or responsibilities that are “too heavy” if they won’t be forever. Transience isn’t the special possession of missionaries, refugees, and migrants, but rather the reality of every human life. We all have to figure out how to engage fully where we are, knowing that everything could change at any moment, but that we’ll be infinitely richer if we’re willing to known and be known by those around us.

The old sewing machine chatters its way across my little apron, finishing the seams neatly and simply. I like this, I realize. I want to share this, someday, with the tiny person who for now is stirring muffin batter and rolling out tiny tortillas. And sharing it will mean finding a sewing machine–here or somewhere–again.

Sustainability {Or, Measuring A Year}

Class of 2017 on the first day of school…

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles
In laughter, in strife

In five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure
A year in the life?

From “Seasons of Love,” RENT

June 24 marks one year back in Kandern, this time as a family of three, a year filled with beginnings-again, with all joys and challenges included. At intervals throughout the year, friends, colleagues and acquaintances have asked us “how it is” being back. I must have expected to have a better answer at one point, but honestly this has become one of those questions, like asking “How are you?” to a brand-new parent, or “How was your trip?” to someone who’s just returned from a mission trip to Haiti after an earthquake. There is no simple answer. There’s just… well, a year.

This year was challenging, as we realized that having a young child who goes to bed early would change how we connected to the community. We went to fewer events, had fewer extracurricular commitments, and learned that weekend lunches were the best times for connecting with other young families. We hosted dinners and movie nights after bedtime, gradually figuring out how to exercise hospitality from this new family context.

This year was beautiful, returning with our daughter to this place that Timmy and I fell in love, reflecting daily on the vast history of blessing with which Christ has built and continues to build our family. We walked familiar trails, visited favorite buildings, and watched countless sunsets, thunderstorms and snowfalls from our fourth-floor apartment.

This year was surprising, filled with relationships and opportunities that we didn’t expect from the far side of the Atlantic. Timmy coached basketball and I substitute-taught ceramics for a few weeks. I co-led a girls’ small group with another young mom, and Timmy spent the spring doing a counseling internship with staff in the community. We discovered that Luci is by far the most popular member of our family, bringing gleeful grins from eleventh-graders and fellow teachers alike.

Though it’s impossible to sum up–to measure–this year, as a Pacific Northwesterner it seems no coincidence to me that the word that keeps coming to mind is “sustainability.” Because in the end, this was the common denominator of our ministry in Germany this year. Both at Black Forest Academy and in the community in Kandern, we seek to enable missionaries to sustain healthy ministries in the places to which God has called them.

For me, sustainability means teaching young people to read, write, speak and think clearly, helping to provide a quality English education while their parents serve in evangelism, community development, translation, refugee ministry and other mission work in Europe, Asia, Africa and beyond. Families that would have had to leave the field when their children reached high school are able to remain in ministry in these capacities.

For Timmy, sustainability means providing counseling and other hospitality services through TeachBeyond Member Care here in Kandern, working with a great number of missionaries, mostly school staff, as they transition from North America to Europe, from big cities to small towns, and from traditional careers to the decidedly non-traditional life of serving as overseas missionaries. This also means opening our home to fellow missionaries, providing hospitality and a safe space for connection and processing.

We’re working on our second year back in Kandern now, but I don’t expect our “word of the year” to change much. Our focus continues to be on creating space for sustainable ministry, both for our colleagues here in Kandern and for the parents of our students, spread around the world. We’re thankful for the weeks of summer ahead of us, time to spend sustaining our own family and ministry as we rest and reset for Year 2 (or Year 7, or Year 9, depending on how you count, and which of us you ask). Join us in praying for rest, health, and peace this summer, for us and those in our care.

If you’re interested in learning more about our ministry here in Germany, read our bio at Meet The Dahlstroms. Or, if you’d like to learn more about how to partner with us in ministry, follow this link to our TeachBeyond giving page.

…and the last!

 

A Witness of Transformation

Gelato or graduation? My most pressing question in 2006.

The morning of my last Commencement Day, I woke up feeling rested and disoriented. I’d been traveling for almost three months in Great Britain and Ireland, and that morning, I was in Riomaggiore, the southernmost village of the Cinque Terre, in northern Italy, spending a week traveling with a friend from home after my quarter abroad.

I woke up on a soft bottom bunk, not unlike mine back in Seattle, and for an instant that’s where I thought I was. At the home I left behind, ready to get up, don a black robe, and head to a sports arena to finish college with my classmates at Seattle Pacific University. It wouldn’t be a bad day at all, I thought to myself, but I had other plans.

I can still sketch the skeleton of the day, shading in the details with probabilities. Mel and I probably had pastries and espresso for breakfast. We definitely took the train straight to Monterosso al Mare, saving hiking for another day, where we ate gelato and sprawled on the beach. We probably swam in the Mediterranean and read novels (mine was probably A Room With a View, which had just started to get good). We definitely returned to Riomaggiore in time to get dressed up and have pasta and seafood in an actual restaurant (in contrast to our normal pesto and focaccia spreads). We probably sat on the breakwater and watched the sun set, and I probably said something sarcastic about “missing graduation.”  I didn’t, if I’m honest, miss it at all. It was a good day.

So it’s with some amusement that I realize, many years later, that I’ve been to more graduations than I can count since then. Trapped like a hamster in a wheel or a Bill Murray in a Groundhog Day, I return almost annually to the climactic steps of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” the intoning of full names and the billowy robes that, mysteriously, seem to be blue no matter where I go. They are each unique and very much the same. Same words, different faces.

The most moving commencements are the ones I’ve watched, not the ones I’ve… commenced. There were the high school graduations of my siblings and a handful of others. The culmination of four years advising two different classes in two different schools, my beloved classes of 2009 and 2o14. One year, my sister and my mom both walked in SPU’s ceremony, finishing their B.A.’s on the same day, despite starting about three decades apart. Those were good days, all of them, significant and memorable in ways that my own Ballard High School graduation was not.

This is a significant milestone, without a doubt. Last week, a student of mine from Ingraham celebrated getting her degree from a private university, while working full-time to pay for it, becoming the first in her family to graduate from university after also being the first to graduate from high school. Graduation is a big deal for her, as it is for everyone around her, even the far-away ninth-grade Language Arts teacher who hears about it.

Ballard High Graduation, 2002

But for many students, this last day of high school or college gets swallowed up in what’s behind or ahead if they’re not paying attention. It’s the rest of us–teachers, parents, siblings–who watch from the sidelines and remember. Not just who they are today, these grinning graduates in flat hats and gold cords, but who they have been. Or all the whos they have been.

We’ve seen the wide-eyed sixth graders, the confused freshmen boys, the first dates of sophomores, the tired-out juniors, the questionable decisions of angst-ridden seniors. We’ve seen mistakes and redemption, confusion and answers, love and loss. We’ve seen these things better than they have, sometimes, and this ceremony marks the transformation, a moment laden with individual histories even as they are ironed into azure uniformity for an hour or two.

I stand at the back of Black Forest Academy’s commencement ceremony this year as the students exit. The Class of 2017 somehow managed to break with tradition enough to recess to John Williams’s Imperial March from Star Wars, a bit of whimsy that adds to an already-whimsical moment. The students pair off, give a hug or a handshake or a light-saber battle, and then walk down the aisle to the back of the room arm in arm.

With two of my small group girls after graduation. Well done!

It’s charming, as it always is, and without much anticipation tears spring to my eyes as I watch them. I don’t know these students well, I realize, but I have watched them grow up. They were in the sixth grade when I began teaching at Black Forest Academy, and now they’re as grown up as they’re likely to get in this part of the world. They are tall and bold, ambitious, eager. And they are gone now.

Even fifteen years later, I remember the excitement of being a newly-minted high school graduate. I only had a street-level view, though. I couldn’t see very clearly the difference between the ninth-grader who entered that big public school with fear and resentment, and exited four years later, with more knowledge, fewer prejudices, and a concrete vocation to return to high school as soon as I could, this time as a teacher. My parents, youth pastors, and teachers, they could see the journey.

From this side of stage, it’s the journeys that I love now. Perhaps I’ll graduate again someday, from a yet-unknown school with a different-shaped hat, but until then I’m content to be a spectator, a witness to transformation each June, marking time with tossed caps and waving incredible people on to the next season.