The Crucible: Classic & Current

You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time—we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.

Arthur Miller, from The Crucible, Act III 

The murmured words of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible mingle with the lazy creek as I tiptoe between reading knots of students, their heads bent over their copies of the 1953 play, their voices alternating between animation and monotone. My largest class, they’re also paradoxically shy about reading aloud as a group, so in a concession to their reserve I’ve let them split up into smaller fragments today, tiny groupings in which they feel safer being dramatic. It’s Friday afternoon, almost hot, and we’re reading outside. Pretty standard good-day material.

The play sounds a bit like a broken record this way (a phrase that two of my students recently pretended not to recognize, much to a colleague’s chagrin). As all of the groups are at slightly different points in Act III, I often hear the same words repeated three or four times; different tones from different voices, but the same familiar lines. I heard it last week, too, when the other junior English class was reading Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, again outside. That time, they were far away, but it didn’t matter. Then, as now, I know the lines that go between. Whether the words are mumbled or shouted, spoken with an accent (real or assumed) or intoned agonizingly slowly, I’ve heard them before. Many, many times.

In an effort to help students learn more reflectively, a few years ago I began asking why we read the books we read. My English class consists of six main texts, and five of them are exactly what you’d expect. Only Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, came out within my lifetime, let alone theirs. These books are, well, old. Yes, they’re classics, but why? Why is is that these are the same books that your parents, perhaps even your grandparents, read in American Literature class? Haven’t any books been written since then? Weren’t they any good?

I recently told my students I’ve read this play twenty times, and really that’s an underestimation, not an exaggeration. “Don’t you get tired of it?” they’ll ask. “No,” I reply. “It’s different each time.”

One of my students is doing a presentation that compares the panic outlined in The Crucible with the racial profiling of Muslims that escalated dramatically in the months following 9/11. Those attacks hadn’t happened yet when I first read this play, in October 2000, when I was fifteen years old. I have changed, but so has the world, and each new year brings new resonance to this old play about an even older event.

Later this week, we’ll discuss why reading The Crucible is relevant today. My students will mention police shootings and “alternative facts,” the fears that led to Brexit and travel bans, and the general divisiveness of our age. They’ll echo Judge Danforth’s words above, haunting words that cast prejudice in the light of a godly crusade, specifically noting his “with us or against us” attitude.

Considering the famed optimism of the nation it represents, the canon of American literature isn’t particularly cheerful. This year, we’ve gone from the prejudice of Puritan Boston to the racism of pre-Civil War South, to the hollow glitter of 1920s New York to the hopeless agony of Depression-era California. I love these books, works of art that reveal heartbreaking truths about our culture.

Still, I wish they weren’t still so relevant. I wish very much that I could ask this question–How is The Crucible still relevant today?–and have fourteen teenagers laugh at me. That play about witches? About a tormented community? About how fear makes people do crazy things? That kind of thing doesn’t happen now. Let’s read something more current.

It’s the conclusion we keep coming back to, my students and I: We read these books because they still matter. We read these books because their authors didn’t just tell a story; they tapped into basic truths at the heart of the world, truths that span time and space.

We read them because relating these books, at most a few centuries old, helps us to read an even older and far more important text. Through the classics, we remember that stories tell truth, not just their own, the historical truths that are so valuable in Scripture, but truth for today, truth that keeps mattering as long as we’re human, created in God’s image and longing for redemption.

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Home Is Where We Start From

The view from Rodborough Fort

Three days into spring break, I find myself on a windy hilltop, alone and reading poetry. At my back is the high outer wall of Rodborough Fort, a well-kept castle of indeterminate history or function, not open to the public but apparently available to lease. I text Timmy a picture of the castle and the “To Let” sign: “Let’s move here instead of Issaquah.” I mean, Issaquah is great, but this is a castle. Worth a shot.

The Cotswolds region of Southwestern England billows out below me, a vista of beige commons, lacy wood and stern hedgerow. I’ve come to Britain this week with five colleagues–the rest of the high school English Department at Black Forest Academy–for a long-expected journey to the birthplace of our mutually favorite language. We’ve come for various reasons, seeking rest and recreation, time to read and places to explore. Mostly, our trip was precipitated by two circumstances:

  1. This year was the first in ages that BFA has had the same six English teachers two years running.
  2. Four of us won’t be returning to teach here in the fall.

So this is bittersweet, a shared adventure at the breaking of a good fellowship. Today, my colleagues are out on a literary pilgrimage to Tintern Abbey, a ruined cathedral in Wales, subject of William Wordsworth’s eponymous poem. Having slept poorly last night and still battling a cold, I opt to stay behind.

Though often given just the title of the abbey itself, Wordsworth’s poem is called “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.” The poet writes of returning to this panorama, a hill overlooking the green expanse of Wales, with his younger sister. He reflects on seeing this same view as a younger man, of a time when Nature “to me was all in all… an appetite; a feeling and a love / That had no need of a remoter charm.” This place, he reflects, used to be everything; his comfort, his joy, his ecstasy, his purpose.

Though I’m missing the abbey itself today, my afternoon echoes the poem. I’ve brought T.S. Eliot’s Collected Works, and have been reading “East Coker” aloud into the wind. (As one does, of course.) Both the poem and the place carry me away from today, reminding me of other seasons as clearly as a Dickensian ghost. Because I’ve come back to England often–far more often than any other destination–for various reasons and with various people. And this particular poem has been with me, off and on, since I first began this journey overseas, eight years ago.

“Home is where one starts from,” I murmur to no one, reading Eliot’s line to the spread-out valleys, but also to the past selves I meet in this place. To the soon-to-graduate English major, uncertain about the first job she’ll return to in Seattle in just a few months. To the 25-year-old sitting in a cafe in Canterbury, stealing a quiet moment from a field trip with international high school students, wondering if easy solitude, traveling alone and living light, will be her fate forever. To the wife about to become a mother, hiking all over London with an also-pregnant friend, aware that these travels will be done for a while.

“Tintern Abbey,” in the end, is also about time. It’s about growing older, revisiting those places and things that gave us joy in when we were young, and how we see them from the far side of experience. The poet confesses, a few lines later, that

That time is past, 
And all its aching joys are now no more, 
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this 
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts 
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe, 
Abundant recompense.

Long gone, the poet reflects, are the days when Nature alone was “all in all,” but he doesn’t complain. Since last he visited this hill he’s grown up, taken on new cares and discovered new joys.

While nature, where I meet God’s creativity and beauty most consistently, will always hold roughly the same place in my heart, I realize today that travel is what’s changed for me. These explorations used to thrill me, an end in themselves, making me feel bold and young and alive. I still enjoy them, but like Wordsworth, I find the pleasure changed. I look for different things, and find different joy. And now there are other gifts. I’m thankful for this hill, this familiar place and familiar poem, but soon I’ll walk down the hill. I’ll call home, and talk to my husband and daughter, whom I miss so much after only a few days. In a few days I’ll be home, and that will be even better.

Earlier on this trip, I told a colleague that when I first travelled to England, in 2006, I found it unimaginably foreign. The driving-on-the-other-side-of-the-road, accented English, odd foods for breakfast, and generally mysterious currency were so bizarre, and I’d truly reached the edge of my comfort zone. “Now,” I laugh, as we walk to a grocery store open on Sunday and buy almond butter and Reese’s candy, “This is halfway home.”

Home is still where we start from, but as I look down to my own personal Tintern Abbey, I’m also thankful for the returning, a new gift in this new season.

Haunted By Homes

Der Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher: A stunning example of the magnificence of the German language.

“No matter how you get there or where you end up, human beings have this miraculous gift to make that place home.”

Creed Bratton, The Office

Luci and I halt abruptly in front of the kitchen/toy/hardware store window display on Hauptstrasse, because I’ve spied a familiar word.

Beside an elegant box containing three ceramic egg-cups and a strange metal tool, there is a sign, advertising “Der Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher.” Roughly translated, it means, “This thing should break the egg at a specific point.”

German words fit together as endlessly and seamlessly as Lego bricks, so there are perhaps hundreds of words like this one, most of which I lack the proficiency to interpret. This one, too, would have been out of reach, if not for one simple circumstance: This massive word was the name of my first Upward Bound team, in the summer of 2010, the summer before I moved to Kandern. Instantly I’m dragged back to that July, the start of all these adventures, when I still thought of German as a quirky novelty, to be explored and tasted, like new flavors of cheese or chocolate in this new land.

Today, German feels different; less novel than useful, less foreign than familiar. Luci and I have been running errands out on the town, weaving a circuitous route of the greatest hits of life here. We first evaluated our park options, settling on the Merry-Go-Round Park over the Slide Park, after which we kicked a soccer ball around in the gravel and traversed the stump forest, pausing only for a brief spin on the colorful rope carousel. Then, we navigated empty stroller and walking Luci down to the thrice-reopened bakery for a chocolate croissant and pretzel, which we munched happily at the only public picnic table in downtown Kandern. We went to try on shoes from the sale rack at the local shoe store, and after 10 solid minutes of German-only discussion, left with two cookies and new hiking shoes for this summer’s adventures. We returned bottles at the store, stopped by a massive, community-wide garage sale, then returned for our groceries on the way home. A busy, productive sort of Saturday.

Arrested by the familiar, bizarre word in the window, reflecting on the morning I’ve just spent with my daughter in our town, I’m struck by how very much home this village has become. There is still so much more German to learn, so many more people to know, but today Kandern–even Germany–feels like a well-loved sweater, the one whose smell and softness have almost become a part of you after so many winters spent together.

Yesterday, one of my students–a bubbly, Korean-American girl–lamented that we didn’t have an Arabic class. “If I could just take AP Arabic, if that existed,” she said, “I would be awesome at it.” Surprised at this declaration from a student I didn’t know well, I asked her where she’d learned Arabic. “Jordan… and Syria. We lived there for eight years.” I nodded, thinking about the events behind her pause, about the turmoil she’s left behind to live in Germany. Still, I suspect that if I asked her where home was, our little village might not make it into the top two.

This season has been haunted by homes. My own, the beautiful two places I’ve been fortunate enough to live and love. But mostly my students’ homes, places around the world that they’ve loved and lost, places that have made indelible impressions on them, so strong that they mark their lives not by grades, like most children, but by where they were living back then.

When I lived in Kenya. We had just moved to Moldova. When I was a kid in Bangladesh. Right before we left Pakistan.

Though our students sometimes encounter real trauma from those places, what continues to surprise me is that, more often than not, they also bring a strong sense of belonging and identity, even from places where they have never–will never–look, speak or believe much like the people who surround them. They will refer back to their North American passports once in a while, missing Chik Fil A or Tim Hortons. But they’ll also tell me that passion fruit reminds them of being kids in Tanzania.

The long and ridiculous word in the window, and all of the memories it recalls, provokes a flash of understanding. I think about today, the little interactions in this little village that would have been impossibly difficult and foreign eight years ago. I think about how there will be a loss in letting go of this mastery and the belonging that came with it, even in exchange for a place that is almost as familiar. Someday, like my student, I’m sure I’ll find myself saying, “If I could just take AP living-in-a-tiny-German-village, I would be awesome at it.”

Instead, I’ll let these courageous teenagers inspire me with their flexibility and curiosity, their marvelous capacity to, as Creed Bratton of The Office says, “make that place home.” There are more words to learn, more people to know, and there always will be, in old homes and new ones.

Nothing Wasted: Of Slides and Research Papers

Luci, the lone teeter totterer.

Friday morning, and the playground is deserted. Since I teach only one class today and Timmy is hard at work in the counseling department at school, Friday mornings I stay home with Luci. After what feels like a month of freezing weather and sickness, we’ve seized our health and the balmy temperatures and walk across the river and two big streets to the park. We walk, on our own four feet, without any strollers involved. Big steps for the little person beside me.

They’re just the first of many today. When we get to the empty playground, (suspecting all of the other two-year-olds are either in Kindergarten or still eating breakfast) Luci peruses the toy options. While I generally find German playgrounds somewhat superior to their American counterparts–full of the risky, wood-metal-tire climbable things that I remember from my own childhood–this one is a little sparse. The Americans in Kandern call this the “zipline park” because of the pretty cool zipline that runs across it, but Luci is still too small for the zipline, which leaves only a few other options.

Luci investigates them carefully. She rides the Bouncy Cat–a chipped-paint feline on a giant, rusty spring–for a few seconds. Next, I push her in the swing, an activity which brings plenty of giggling, but again only lasts a minute or two. Swings were apparently cooler when she was 18 months old. We use the digger for a while, swiveling this ageless tool in every direction and creating a trench in the pebbly, twiggy sand around it. “What about the teeter totter?” she asks, pointing to the magnificent contraption, with spots for three kids on either side. I note that we’re at least one kid short for see-sawing merriment. Finally, she turns to the slide.

I hate this slide. Maybe hate is too strong a word–I generally reserve that one for major systemic injustices, and also pickles–but this slide freaks me out. It is about ten feet high, its precipitous steel slope polished to a mirror-like sheen by the behinds of endless multitudes hurtling down at the speed of light, their little feet scraping away the pebbles at the bottom as they try to come to something like a halt. The worst part about this slide, the part that has for the most part kept Luci off of it for almost two years now, is the approach. Where the friendly, plastic slides on the Air Force base have friendly little steps to the top of their five-foot drops, this one is a ladder. It has maybe seven metal rungs, spread at a distance that would challenge a clumsy adult, let alone a shorter-than-average toddler.

“Can I go on that slide?” Luci asks me. Moment of truth. Yes, I’ve gone down the slide with her before. That’s how I know it’s fast. I’ve also lifted her halfway up the slide and let her drift the last few feet to the bottom, where I caught her before her feet touched the ground. We could do that again, I suppose.

It’s scary being a parent, with what seems like an endless newsreel of potential worst-case scenarios playing on a precarious back-channel in my brain. But there’s another channel. There’s the outdoor instructor channel, remembering teaching young adults, teenagers and, yes, little children to rock climb in the Alps, helping them to overcome fears of heights and falling, acknowledging danger and respecting the risks. There’s my own childhood, full of tree-climbing and forest-exploring and scaling the outside walls of our house from a shockingly young age. I look back at the slide.

“Yes. You can go on the slide.” I stand behind her while she climbs the ladder, one hesitant rung at a time. I remind her to look down at her feet, to place one tiny boot solidly before she moves the next one, to always hold on with both hands. When she gets to the top, I tell her to wait again. “Wait for me, and I’ll come around and catch you.” She waits, and from the front of the slide I half expect her to freeze, from the height or the steepness or the weight of being alone up there, for once in control of when she comes down. Instead, she looks at the view, a particularly nice one from way up high, takes a deep breath, grins at me, and then comes down.

And it’s not as fast as I remember; I don’t have to catch her, even. She comes to the bottom, breathless and happy. “Can I do it again?” she asks. We spend the rest of our time at the park on the slide.

On perhaps her eighth time up the ladder, when she’s more confident with the rungs, I hear my daughter say, to herself or to me, “I’m doing it!”

I think about my students, working hard to finish their research papers before this evening. It’s been a long process, these 5-7 page papers on American authors, and we’re all a little tired of it. I also know, because they’ve told me–loudly–that this is the longest paper they’ve ever written. Like, ever. I imagine some of them are already scheming how to make it truly the longest paper of their lives, plotting careers that will take them far away from writing. That happens, I tell them, when you’re tired.

After a few weeks, though, I hope the story changes. I hope that at some point, when they passed the borders of the most pages or words they ever wrote down, someone said, “I’m doing it!” I’m writing a paper, and it’s hard, but I’m doing it anyway.

I talk often with my young-mom peers about the skills we’ve brought to motherhood from earlier in our lives. The dietician who writes about feeding young children, or the artist who lets her son “help” her prepare pots for glazing. The pastor whose children take part in every aspect of her ministry, retelling Bible stories in their own charming ways from very young ages.

View from the top!

As I start to think about the transition from teaching to full-time parenting, it’s tempting–and intimidating–to see it as a hard border crossing, a citizenship change, as I leave behind everything from one role to jump fully into the other. Yet I’ve suspected for a long time that nothing we do in our lives needs to be wasted. I’ve still played violin and made spreadsheets and lattes as an English teacher, remnants of former lives that have come in handy in my current career. And I this next chapter will doubtless be full of teaching, whether its the logistics of climbing a ladder, or the celebration of accomplishing something risky, hard and a little bit scary for both of us.

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.

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.