#Vanlife, Real Life and Roads {Taken and Not}

Spring in the Black Forest

Oh I kept the first for another day!

But knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

Robert Frost, from “Road Not Taken”

A few weeks ago I taught Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken” to my class of juniors. It went predictably, a conversation that I’ve had every year for a while.

Me: What do you think this poem is about?

Students: About doing the risky thing! Doing something that no one else does! Taking the “road less travelled.”

Me: No. Wrong. We need to read it again.

I directed them to a few salient lines, pointing out that one road was “just as fair” as the other and “both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” This poem is about someone who examines two equally worn paths and chooses one, then later in life tells everyone he took the less travelled one, bragging about the difference it made. He’s only half right; the roads were equally untravelled, but it did make all the difference. It had to.

“And what’s the poem called?” I asked my class.

“The Road Less Travelled,” someone said confidently.

“Check the title,” I recommend.

“Road Not Taken!” another student read. “Ohhh!”

It’s a poem about what we didn’t do. The lives we don’t lead, those other lives. I never really hear regret; the speaker is matter-of-fact, not mournful. But still, he’s aware that the crossroads meant something. Choosing one road, he left another behind. A road not taken.

Out for a walk in the forest!

Today, it’s snowing when I look up from the New Yorker article I’ve been reading. If I hadn’t gone outside today, I might assume that the air is swirling with flower petals or those fuzzy pollens that look like something out of a Zyrtec commercial, but we walked to the store earlier in a similar flurry, so I know that those are straight-up snowflakes. In April. Spring break snow.

“Reading an article” these days is stretching the phrase a bit. The article–in this case a long piece called “#Vanlife, The Bohemian Social Media Movement”–sits open on my laptop on the counter and I return to it to nibble off paragraphs in quiet moments. Sometimes I read an article in a sitting, but mostly I consume them like guilty cookies, a crumb at a time. An article like this, one that possesses the magic combination of being super interesting but not important at all, takes even longer, sentences stolen a few at a time.

Still, when I get around to it I learn about the eponymous “van life movement,” which is essentially what it sounds like: people who live in vans. The article focuses on the experience of a young couple, who’ve spent the last four years traveling the highways of North America in a Volkswagen camper van, working off a cell phone signal and chasing scenery, whimsy and an elusive sense of freedom that comes with owning little. I open a new tab to peruse their Instagram, and through its square panes I glimpse sunshine, dusty roads, oceans, forests, and steaming cups of campfire coffee. Their life, it seems, is an endless summer road trip.

Beware the seduction of Instagram! I’ve preached this to many a teenager, but still I find myself scrolling over this window a bit longingly. I imagine the lightness of traveling, just the three of us, in a van of our own, possessions kept to a minimum, without the any of the grimy details like taxes and toilets. (Because Van Life includes none of those things, at least in Instagram form.) That ocean looks so blue, those skies so perfectly stormy, the road temptingly untravelled.

This spring break, usually a time for trains and planes to take us to fresh horizons, has been a quiet one. It has been full of peace and beauty and the daily excitement of watching a person discover the world, but a time of stillness, not movement. It’s afforded me opportunities to reflect, to remember, and to realize that somehow, sometime, the nomadic life that brought me here–a backpack and violin and a teaching certificate–has turned into something far more rooted. I know these hills, these paths, the path that the sun takes across the sky and the likely behavior of the clouds on the horizon. I’ve seen these seasons six times now, and have favorite trees, hilltops and valleys to visit in each one. And I love this place dearly, even more so now that I can show it to my daughter.

The article brings me back to earth. The writer travelled with the couple for a week, and spends ample time on the less romantic aspects of Van Life: the lack of space and the conflicts it causes, endless mechanical difficulties and–biggest bubble-burster of all–the pressure of social media itself, through which they fund their endeavors through sponsored photos of products. It’s easy to post only beautiful pictures, to write only wise, measured words; the real life behind #vanlife is less shiny.

And real life, much maligned by the van lifers, is pretty excellent in itself. My untaken roads melt into the background, lost in the goodness of this one, a family in a green valley in Germany. Looking up from the article, I see Luci crawl up onto the couch, reach for a book from the bookshelf and snuggle herself into a pile of blankets. She opens the book, a vintage German copy of Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear, and turns the pages slowly. With each page, she says “Bear! …Bear!” softly, and points. The fresh horizons are Luci’s today, with a sunny-snowy April day, and a book full of bears.

 

A Place Between: Thoughts From a Refugee Camp

Washing tables

The the students and the rest of the staff have already gone by the time I’m ready, with coat and lunch, to head over to our work site for Impact Day 2017. This is the fourth annual Impact Day at Black Forest Academy, for which we give up a day of classes to do service projects in our community. In the past, working with teams of students I’ve cleaned at a music school and done landscaping at the cemetery.

This Impact Day is different.

After catching up to the team, I follow them through the center of Kandern, quiet in the late Friday morning, past two of my four apartments. We turn left at the more expensive of our two Italian restaurants, and head past the new condos, past the Catholic churchyard, and down to the swimming pool, still half empty on this early spring day. Finally, we walk down a new red-dirt road, and a few yards later we’ve arrived at the Kandern Camp refugee center, where we’ll be working today.

The boys start our gardening project.

Waiting outside, we listen as first our leader and then the camp’s director tell us about the center. Set up in Kandern last June, it houses approximately 50 people, mostly families. The director shares about the challenges of sharing such close quarters, how it brings to light intercultural conflict and the many ways in which these refugees are conspicuously not German. His attitude is one of gentle hospitality, speaking of the residents as guests he is eager to welcome, and ready to educate–for their benefit–about the mores of his own country. “We teach. We don’t force,” he reminds us, recounting a story of handshakes that were refused, even though “Germany, this is the nation of handshakes.”

While he talks, I listen and look. From the outside, the space looks like a long train of neat construction trailers; on the inside, it feels like a greenhouse, with a translucent plastic tent ceiling. They have family rooms, but share kitchens, bathrooms and community space for eating, playing, studying and socializing. The kitchens and bathrooms are divided by nation of origin: Syrians and Iraqis on one side, Afghanis and “Africans” on another. I realize that I was expecting something along the lines of American fairgrounds–dusty, dark spaces made permanent in a hurry. Instead, I’m struck by how German it all feels, as if the camp had arrived, pristine and ready-made, in flat-packed IKEA boxes. This country, unlike mine, is prepared to accommodate.

Our completed planter

Introductions finished, we spend the day beautifying the center. Several students and staff are on cleaning duty inside, mopping the large wood-laminate floor and cleaning the communal refrigerators. I work with a handful of high school boys to plant flowers–bright geraniums, begonias and chrysanthemums–in some plastic window boxes and one barren cement planter out front. Afterwards we pick up trash. It’s a busy morning.

As we eat lunch, the children come home from school. There are about a dozen of them, mostly under ten, and as soon as they arrive the camp comes alive. Our afternoon “work” consists of entertaining kids. The students throw balls, sling water balloons, give shoulder rides and paint faces. It’s often hard to tell who’s happier with this arrangement, the BFA students or these tiny, whirling centers of energy that swarm around them.

Watching my students interact with children who are growing up in this place between, I’m struck by both contrast and similarities. Teenagers who’ve bounced around the world play with little children who don’t know where they’ll live next. Both are learning new cultures almost constantly, becoming the sort of flexible nomads who will always have a complicated backstory. And yet I’m struck by the difference of choice. How our missionary kids are following a calling, theirs or their parents’, while these children are effectively in exile. One group pulled somewhere new, trusting in God to provide for them when they get there, the other pushed away from somewhere they loved, unsure of where life will take them next.

Painting faces at the end of the day

The day winds down to quietness. A few students have brought instruments and play some low-key jazz at one end of the community space. A toddler falls asleep in one of the senior girls’ laps. Several other girls paint faces, sponging color over delighted cheeks. I hold a grinning seven-month-old and wonder what it must be like to be a new mother here.

As we walk back to school, I’m grateful. Not just grateful because of comparisons, which is a suspect kind of gratitude to take away from a place like this, but grateful for the day. For our students, who work hard and generally are up for anything, whether planting flowers, mopping floors, or serving as human ponies for squealing children. For Germany, and the way they’re teaching me what it means to love neighbors on a global scale. For this place and the people in it, the hospitality the director and residents, letting us share in their lives in a small way, and learn what it means to share this village, this time, and this quiet corner of a broken world.

The Canyon of Enough

"Migrant Mother," 1936, Dorothea Lange Caption: "Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California."

“Migrant Mother,” Dorothea Lange, 1936
Caption: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”

Give me neither poverty nor riches;
Feed me with the food that is my portion,
That I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or that I not be in want and steal,
And profane the name of my God.

Proverbs 30: 8b-9

Thursday morning, the English teachers assemble in the upstairs kitchen of the school. We have classes to teach, papers to grade and lessons to plan, but for a moment we’re thinking of none of that. Though it’s just after breakfast, we’re thinking about lunch. Our highly organized supervisor sent out a spreadsheet a week ago, a sign-up sheet for soup ingredients, and the day has come. We dump our pre-measured and pre-cut containers of ingredients into one of our colleagues’ Instant Pot, and without much more ado, we go about our mornings, while Thai Wild Rice Chicken soup slowly stews one floor above us. We’re excited.

This week I’ve found myself in a strange literary canyon. Behind me is an opulent hillside of the 1920s, where F. Scott Fitzgerald spun his cautionary tale about youth, money, and the extent to which none of it is any good without love. Ahead, if I squint I can just see the austere outline of the 1930s, setting of Steinbeck’s miniature masterpiece, Of Mice and Men. For a week, we’ll be working on a research paper, letting The Great Gatsby sink in and then moving on to another Great, the Depression.

I’ve taught Of Mice and Men dozens of times, but the search for more complete historical context takes me to particularly grim places this morning. Though I’ve seen the famous Migrant Mother photo (above), I’d never known much more about photographer Dorothea Lange’s government-sponsored quest to capture the effects of the Great Depression. I get lost in a collection of her work, particularly drawn to the many pictures of families on the road, searching for work, for home, for a sense of stability that they lost somewhere back East, long ago.

In “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning,” a documentary film produced by PBS, I learn of a family she photographed during the Dust Bowl migration. The photographer pointed out that in the series of images focused on this migrating family, a large and mysterious roll of something always appeared to be falling off their truck. When she finally asked the family what it was, they confessed that it was their kitchen linoleum, taken from a long-lost home and transported around the country for three years now, in the hope of finding a new floor to cover. I’m glad that for a moment there are no other teachers in my workroom, so I don’t have to explain the tears rolling down my cheeks.

I’m struck again by the timelessness of literature, its critical importance in continuing to understand our world. Gatsby’s folly isn’t bound by the Jazz Age. In real life, a similar solitary billionaire skulks in a white mansion in Washington, each day discovering to his chagrin that no amount of money, no powerfully crafted image, no artfully spun tales, can buy affection of an entire nation.

And Of Mice and Men, tale of the wandering poor, searching for a place call their own, continues to describe our world, so much so that I long for a modern-day Dorothea Lange.I fear that pictures only work in retrospect, and wonder what the rich and stable thought of her in the 1930s. With photographs of the refugees floating across the Atlantic, bicycling into Scandinavia, or forging their way through blizzards to Canada, perhaps we’d understand, and listen, and care. Is there a camera powerful enough to evoke some empathy from our nation?

If nothing else, I pray that reading these stories, at this time in history, can help my students to learn empathy for those different from them, without the filters and blinders of current events. I hope that they learn that privilege and power mean nothing without love, and that seeing and caring for “the least of these” is one of our callings on earth.

When lunchtime arrives, the English teachers return from our separate classrooms and subjects to the kitchen, and ladle the steaming soup in our bowl. I won’t remember later what we talked about, nor exactly how the meal tasted, but for a moment I’m struck by the “just enough” of this moment. Caught between poverty and wealth, we’re satisfied by this thing we’ve created together, by a moment of community and rest in the midst of a busy day.

It’s not a fancy lunch out that I used to envy from my “fancy working friends.” But it’s also a lunch, dependable and satisfying, in a steady job, in a town where all of us have our own homes to return to. And that’s enough, I realize, a place from which to practice caring, and loving, and seeing. Thank you, God, for this enough. Let us know what to do with it.

Windowsill

WindowsillCompared to a handful of brilliant students and colleagues, I write poetry with neither frequency nor remarkable talent. Still, sometimes, every other year or so, it happens. Because sometimes prose would take too long, and there are moments that require only a few words, written over and over again. This week has elicited many moments like that, but I’ve chosen to write only about this one.

 

Windowsill

Standing by the windowsill you wave your arms,

your strong voice shrill.

And “Up!” you cry and turn around,

your small feet anchored to the ground.

And you learn day by day that you’re not so tall,

like the rest of us,

though you’re by far the best of us,

you see less than us

because you’re only what? Two feet?

Maybe three, but no more. So you’re little, my dear,

and you can’t see so far.

You can’t see it all, and it frustrates you,

the all of it, the too small of it,

not tall enough to see what you want,

what you don’t even know you’re missing,

just that something’s missing

and you’re wishing that somehow, anyhow,

you were able to fit in, to see out,

to peek over the walls of your too-small world.

 

You always wanted to be bigger,

before you could sit up you’d figure

out how to roll side to side,

craning your neck to catch wide-angle view of the floor,

trying to score an extra few centimeters of sight.

Back then the flat of your head met the floor,

perfect fit, but you weren’t having it.

You wanted a round head and a round world

to explore on two feet. Now you’re two feet tall,

but still too small to see all you want,

because windowsills are still too high

and since walking wasn’t hard once you tried,

you wonder if you’ll learn to fly someday.

So you stomp your feet, toddler tantrum style,

the dance of mile after mile of tiny pants and open hands waving,

paving the way for your exploration.

You’re mad because you can’t see,

can’t be all you want to be, so you pout,

“Up!” you shout. I want to look out.

 

It’s not new, little seer,

feeling freer by the minute

as you look into the future

and out of the window.

Your tantrum is not one of a kind,

it comes from a mind that knows you well,

a mind that can tell of when I was younger,

biting my lips in anger,

laughing off danger and wanting whatever I wanted,

no matter how forbidden, no forest too haunted

for me to explore it. And the anger is quieter now,

as I bide my time and keep my own mind,

but it’s there all the same,

a layer of pain, a curtain of rage that’s softened with age,

into quiet breaking and a heart cracked and aching

for a glimpse of a world I’m still too small to see,

a place still beyond this world of you and me.

I still wave and cry “Up!” for a place to stand a see,

a windowsill to show what it means to be free,

to see orphans beloved, and refugees home,

to see wars all resolved and forests full-grown.

 

I stoop to lift you up to look,

your sticky hands splayed on the pane,

your nose pressed flat as I explain

the winter sunset and the snow,

the pastel pink and white below, our home.

I pick you up to see this place,

to let the sunset stain your face a shade of gold,

so we can hold this minute together,

the windowsill, the village cold and dim and still.

And I’m taller than you, but still small enough

that I wish for height, a wider view, a clearer sight

of beauty just above, beyond,

the hard hearts and closed eyes,

past shattered homes and quick goodbyes.

Not tall enough to mend or free,

there’s still a glimpse of good for me,

in a sunsets and a sippy cup, a curious toddler, crying “Up!”

For here you are, my windowsill,

my wider view,

my little girl.

 

We Never Know

How will you use what you’ve learned in this class in the future?

Public Speaking Class Reflection

Finals Week at BFA. I have no tests to give today, so after finishing my answer keys and entering every last quarter grade into my spreadsheet, I turn to the reflections my Public Speaking students completed yesterday, their last day of class.

I once called this class “the Most Practical Class you can take at this school.” A grand label, I realize, but only somewhat hyperbolic. And today they’re looking back and ahead. What did I learn? How will I use it? What should others remember? How should this class proceed in the future? The answers that interest me most today those that require some imagination: “How will I use this knowledge?”

My students do not disappoint, writing about job interviews and class presentations, valedictorian speeches, toasts and eulogies. Others are more vague, insisting that they’ve gained the confidence to have more meaningful conversations, or in general to become better communicators. I hope they’ll go further, that the study of effective communication makes them informed citizens, skeptics in a world that needs them, but in reality, I know the real answer: You have no idea how you’ll use this class.

The most common complaint I hear among young adults–those who’ve left here or other places, who’ve graduated high school and college and embarked on the adventure of “real life”–is a lack of direction. Perhaps they expect, as my ninth graders at Ingraham used to, that by 21 they will own a house and a car, that they’ll be married and working in their dream job.

The reality is different, of course. They have jobs at desks when they thought they’d be outside, or behind counters making coffee, when they thought they should already be publishing political commentary for the Atlantic. They’re wondering if their expensive degrees were a waste of time and money, if they’ll ever use anything they learned in those mandatory years of school for any practical purpose. They don’t see how it fits together, and it’s discouraging.

There is already plenty of commentary in the world about Millennials and their high expectations, but their questions aren’t new ones. All the way back to Genesis, I think of Joseph, wondering what as a teenager he expected for his life. Even his wildest dreams–dreams that elevated him to power over his ten brothers and his own father–couldn’t have included being second-in-command over Egypt. Perhaps he expected to somehow bypass traditions of birthright, as his father had before him, and own the family business someday. Certainly he didn’t see himself stewarding the resources of a foreign kingdom and saving strangers from a worldwide famine.

Many young adults find that their road is a winding one, but this, too, shouldn’t surprise us. Joseph’s road led through kidnapping, slavery, false accusation and imprisonment, each new place more degrading than the last. He had questions at every juncture, I’m sure, but he also kept thriving, wherever he found himself. He wasn’t “just” a slave in Potiphar’s house; he flourished there, skillfully managing the household. He didn’t disengage in prison, but with God’s help rose to a position of power and authority, which brought him to a moment when a long-lost skill, the interpretation of dreams, brought him before the Pharaoh himself. Could Joseph have known, that day when he interpreted his own dreams and got himself thrown into a hole, that the very skill that caused his brothers to turn on him would catapult him to the top of Egypt? We never know.

My public speaking students are mostly seniors, one semester away from the glorious, adventurous uncertainties of college and young adulthood. I’d like to tell them that they don’t need to know what they’ll do in five years, or ten. A huge part of honoring God means showing up every day, keeping their eyes open and being ready to learn all they can from each moment. Some learning resurfaces years later, when you find yourself playing viola in a Suessical orchestra, or using those Excel skills from your college assistant job to create a grade book at your first-ever teaching assignment. Other skills–like AP Chemistry and making lattes–I’m still waiting on, but I’m still grateful.

So whether they use this class to run for president someday or to chat with someone on the train, either way I’m satisfied. We never know where learning takes us if we keep showing up, and that’s fine. All the better for the adventure.

Jet Lag

Monday night, 11:00 PM, and Luci has decided it’s time to be awake.

Only our third night back in Germany, it promises to be just as dramatic as the first two, when our one-year-old daughter wanted to roll around our bed for a few hours in the dead middle of the night, before falling sound asleep and three. We woke her at nine, but were certain she’d have gone on sleeping for several more hours if we’d let her. Timmy has taken several of these shifts already, and has online class in an hour, so it’s my turn. And in any case, none of us are really sleepy. Jet lag is no joke, my friends.

A few weeks ago, on the North American side of things, I did a little research on the matter, Googling “jet lag toddlers” as any 21st-century parent is apt to do, but the results were lackluster. “If you’re only crossing three timezones or less, for a week or so, you could consider just keeping your baby on the same sleep schedule,” one website helpfully suggested. All of the advice, in fact, seemed bent towards these scenarios: less than a week of travel, less than three timezones. Because apparently only a crazy person would venture out longer or farther with anyone younger than twelve. I guess we’re just that kind of crazy.

So now I’m sitting in the dark with a small person who doesn’t feel like sleeping and doesn’t understand or appreciate the darkness. I feel–but can’t see–her squirming around on my lap, trying to get comfortable. She squints across the room at the tiny green light on the speaker, peering at it with as much passion as Gatsby staring across the bay at the green light on his long-lost beloved’s dock. Anything to look at to stay awake.

It’s so easy to complain. Lack of sleep is high on the list of parent complaints, for me and for everyone, made even more egregious when we’re tired from travel and work and everything else. And other babies sleep, I sometimes whine to myself. (Not babies with jet lag, of course. They don’t sleep until they’re good and ready, from 3 AM to 12 PM, like tiny college students.)

Luci starts to settle down, whimpering and flailing less, with longer pauses of resting on my chest. I can feel her breath steady and slow, and her eyelashes stop fluttering against my cheek after a while. She’s asleep, but any attempt to put her down in her crib will start the process over for a while, so we stay on the couch for now.

I have a friend who often reminds herself (and me) that most of the problems she has come from a great deal of privilege, or blessing. I think about that now, sitting in the dark with Luci. At the risk of going full-Pollyanna on this situation, I consider the vast extravagance of good things ladled over us, producing this moment sleepless hour:

The capacity–both financially and, frankly, technologically–to return home for Christmas. Jet lag comes from something almost miraculous, the ability to travel around the world quickly, and the fact that we have access to it puts us in a position of privilege. What a gift to reconnect with family who just a century ago would be half-remembered faces in photographs, not living beings we get to see a few times a year in person, and much more often on the Internet.

The attic roof over our heads, at the moment collecting softly falling snow, and the radiator keeping the room warm and safe. I think about places in the world where mothers worry about their houses making it through nights filled with bombings, intruders and other terrors. Or about the mothers without homes at all, living uprooted and uncertain lives in faraway places and wondering how to protect their children in unfamiliar settings.

This now-sleeping child, so curious and adventurous that she’d rather be awake and wandering the dark house than have to sleep and miss anything at all. I think of friends who long for children, or those who’ve lost them. I try to imagine how I’ll feel in ten years, when she needs me less, or twenty, when her jet lagged nights may be spent somewhere else. These sleepless hours, with nothing to do but think and pray with a tired little girl, are an incalculable gift.

Of course I don’t know that when I finally put her down at midnight she’ll sleep for eight hours straight for the first time in… maybe ever. That’s another kind of gift, the unexpected kind. For now, with sleeping Luci and sleepless Mom, I’m thankful for what I have.

Things That Made Life Better This Year: 2016 Edition

On to a new year! I took last year off of this list (something about having a six-week old made blogging difficult), but otherwise it’s become my personal tradition to look back on what made each year special in its own way, and reflect with a list of “objects” that symbolize it.

While 2016 was a year of large-scale catastrophe globally, as I look back through the doorway I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the blessings of friends and family, and the daily evidence of God’s faithfulness in our lives. By no means an exhaustive list, these few symbols represent a window into the last year with the Dahlstrom family.

 

With Chris and Holly on the big day!

With Chris and Holly on the big day!

1. A Three-Dress Wedding. Our year at home in Seattle was surprising in many ways, but the best surprise of all was the chance to be a part of the planning, preparation and dramatic festivities of my sister’s wedding. Holly and Chris had a grand celebration, complete with a marching band playing Star Wars themes, a coffee-house talent show, and three wedding dresses for the different parts of the event. I’m so thankful for these two and the joy that they bring to our lives!

2. Book Clubs. I had the opportunity to be part of two different book clubs this last year, the first with neighbors at Snoqualmie Pass and the second with friends and co-workers in Kandern. My first books clubs ever (amazingly!), both have challenged me to read outside of my comfort zone, and especially the first provided community around books that I’d been missing in my year away from teaching. Here’s to a new year of continued stretching to new literary horizons!

3. Fitbits. Whether telling us that we’d only slept 4 hours a night in Luci’s early days, or congratulating us for walking miles and miles a day through a quiet Kandern summer, we appreciated the reminder to stay active and keep healthy in the midst of a year of transitions.

On the way to Germany!

On the way to Germany!

4. Airplanes. From Seattle, to Virginia, to Chicago, to Germany and back again, we’ve spent the year in the air. Thankful for the finances to take us to all these places, most of them trips to see family and introduce them to our little Luci, and the technology that makes the wide world seem just a bit smaller.

5. A Stroller & Baby Backpack. Luci is a lover of the outdoors! We’ve been thankful for the many ways we have of getting her outside on the trails and roads around Kandern, and for the lifestyle that allows us to walk everywhere we go.

6. Chocolate Chips & Chocolate Croissants. In this two-continent year, we’ve enjoyed the favorite treats from both places, from breakfasts of tasty German pastries to well-loved chocolate chips purchased from the local Air Force base.

A sunset from our living room window

A sunset from our living room window

7. Sunsets. After living for half the year surrounded by glorious trees and mountains at Snoqualmie Pass, we were surprised and delighted by the treat of a wide vista from our fourth-floor apartment windows in Kandern. Our neighbors assure us that ours is “the best view in town,” and after half a year of spectacular sunsets, we have to agree.

8. Revolutionary Texts. I started my Honors American Literature class in a new way this fall, spending time on some of the foundational documents of our nation. Revisiting these words of our early thinkers, from the Bill of Rights to the Federalist Papers to the Declaration of Independence, and helping my students encounter them, was an uplifting and challenging exercise for us in an autumn of troubling politics.

9. Good Internet. Whether it is connecting Timmy to his middle-of-the-night counseling classes or providing a FaceTime lifeline to far-distant grandparents, we continue to be thankful for the connectivity of the Internet age.

Winter Luci!

Winter Luci!

10. A Baby Toboggan. This year has ended where it began, in the waist-deep snows of Snoqualmie Pass. The year has taken us from parents of a six-week old, who had just begun to turn her head and peer across the room, to a lively, giggle and curious girl who loves her family, the outdoors, and tomato soup. We’ve loved this trip for many reasons, but especially in celebration of the family that has become Luci’s “village,” and the chance to teach our little girl to love the mountains as much as we do.

11. Friendship. A transcontinental move made this a year of goodbyes and hellos, as we bid farewell to a place that became home, and returned to an old one. In all of this, we’ve realized the deep blessing of friendships in both places. Old and new, long-distance or close, we’re unutterably thankful for the friends who encourage us with emails and texts, Thanksgiving potlucks or evenings of popcorn and television.

Hearing The Bells

Christmas TreeI heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
     A voice, a chime,
     A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

“Hey, this is a song!”

I hear it half a dozen times as the eleventh-graders walk into class and pick up today’s reading, Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells.”

“‘I heard the bells on Christmas Day,'” the first student reads aloud, then exclaims with recognition. “Wait, I know this from somewhere…”

“Yes, it’s a song,” I reply. “You know the Casting Crowns version from a couple years ago. But before that, it was a different song, and before that it was a poem by Longfellow. So we’re reading it today.”

We’re using it, actually, to practice poetry analysis. We needed to do this today, because it’s been a month or so of reading only prose, and their semester final is looming. I’d selected “Christmas Bells” because it’s the week before Christmas break and the poet is American. (If I were teaching a different class, you can be sure we’d be reading Christina Rosetti’s “In The Bleak Midwinter.” But she’s British, so I made a different choice.) Sometimes I’m just a public school teacher thrilled by the little things, like reading a Christmas poem in English class. I’d written the title on the lesson plan, made 31 copies of the poem, and given it little further thought until this morning, confident that any poem of Longfellow’s must count as “literature” and bear some deeper examination.

Today, I share the results of an hour’s research, telling them the story behind the poem. I ask them to look at the poem’s date, 1863, and tell me if it means anything to them. “Um… Civil War?” they murmur with varying degrees of confidence. Then I tell them about Longfellow, widowed father of six, whose oldest son enlisted in the Union Army without telling him. After a series of close shaves, Charles Longfellow was shot in battle in Virginia in late November of 1863. So in December his father and brother set out to Washington, D.C., where young Charles hovered in critical condition, unsure if he’d survive or, if he did, if he’d walk again.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
     And with the sound
     The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
     And made forlorn
     The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

“So picture him,” I tell my students. “Longfellow sitting in the hospital, hearing these bells on Christmas and waiting to find out if his son would live. That’s the context. And for this poem, it’s important.”

With the setting established, my students get to work reading and rereading the poem, comparing it to their lists of terms and trying to decipher what deeper meaning they can find from the poetic structure of stanza, rhyme and refrain. I wander the room as they work, giving a hint here and there.

When we come back together after ten minutes, my students have answers for me.

“It has a… a refrain? The last line is the same in every stanza. ‘Of peace on earth, good-will to men.’ That’s a refrain, right?”

“Yes,” I answer, nodding. “Yes to the meaning, and yes to the refrain. The meaning comes from the refrain, right? Without the refrain, it’s just someone saying, ‘Yay, it’s Christmas! But I’m sad. But yay!’ The refrain also has another poetic device with it. Starts with an A…”

“Alliteration? Apostrophe? Assonance?” my students read from their lists.

“You know it’s not those ones. Come on, it’s…”

“An allusion?” someone ventures.

“It’s an allusive refrain!” I reply. “Exactly, and you know what it’s alluding to. The angel said this, right?”

For a moment we’re closer to Sunday School than upper-level literature class, but it’s a moment when my Christian-school kids have the upper hand at something, so we savor it. As a group they tell me about a choir of angels and some bedraggled shepherds who receive the best news of their lives. We zoom out and talk about Israel’s state in that moment, occupied by Rome and ruled by a megalomaniacal, insecure king. Israel needed peace, good-will, and here was an angel promising just that, gifts from the Messiah they’d been waiting for.

“And that’s what Longfellow saw, too,” I continue. “America torn apart by the Civil War, families literally killing each other with no end in sight. A world that still needs peace, good-will, a savior. Longfellow saw it, and we see it.”

Do we ever. The ones who pay attention to the news are more specifically worried, but none of them can shut their eyes to the refugees filling Europe, nor the wars ravaging places that my own students have lived or visited. The refrain is important to us as much as it was to the shepherds or to an aging poet and his injured son.

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said:
     “For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” 

We return to the theme, the meaning they decided on and I wrote on the board in red ink. “Hope in the midst of difficult times.” At the beginning of the school year we spent some time talking about the definition of “literature,” the criteria by which we set it apart from other written words. One of them was that literature had to be concerned with “ideas of permanent and universal interest.” In the midst of global crises and turmoil, talking with young adults about the hope they cling to as they come of age in a chaotic world, this concept has never been more relevant.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
     The Wrong shall fail,
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

As we wrap up the last stanza, I’m thinking of a Bible class I visited a few weeks ago, a tenth-grade class just starting their study of Revelation. It’s a weird book, the teacher told them, full of maybe-symbols and numbers and disaster, but the important point is that in the end, Jesus wins. That’s the takeaway, he said. Just remember.

Like marginalized shepherds, low on the socioeconomic ladder, burdened by layers of oppression as they waited for a savior. Like Longfellow, at a hospital in the war-torn U.S. capitol, waiting for his son to wake. Like all of us, worried or wandering, heartbroken or homeless, in these dark days. We remember, we grasp with outstretched fingers for the promise of our Savior, who has already conquered the darkness.

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.

What Mary Knew

It’s Happy Hour.

Not the Happy Hour of years past, but Luci and I have developed our own five o’ clock rhythm lately, while Timmy is at basketball practice. Luci sits in her high chair in the kitchen, while I make dinner and serve her bits of small food, a few pieces at a time, which she likes picking up with both of her tiny hands and tucks away with astonishing efficiency. We used to listen to Disney songs or my favorite tracks from Hamilton, but now that it’s December we’ve turned to Christmas music. It’s a good time.

I’m a broad appreciator of Christmas music. I especially love the older, sacred hymns, whose convoluted syntax and vocabulary are as integral to Christmas as the voice of Linus reciting Luke 2 in the King James Version, but even newer tunes have their place. One song, however, awakes fresh ire each Advent, a 1991 ballad called “Mary Did You Know?” Because of the existence of “Last Christmas” and “Christmas In the Northwest,” it’s hard to say if this is my least favorite Christmas song, but it’s safe to say that “Mary Did You Know?” is somewhere in my bottom five.

The verses list specific miracles, which were doubtless a surprise to her at the time, but the majority of the song bends toward asking Mary, mother of Jesus, if she knew she was raising the Son of God. I don’t care for this song because it could end after the second line–Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?–with a resounding “Yes. I definitely knew.”

Though she perhaps couldn’t have anticipated the scope, Mary had ample information about the child she’d just borne in such peculiar circumstances. The angel Gabriel had filled her in on the salient details, that she’d conceive the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, that she would give birth to the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 1:26-38). After Jesus’ birth Simeon, overjoyed to finally meet the promised savior, reminded her that this child would be “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” and “the glory of Your people Israel.” He even interrupted his own prophecy to turn to Mary with the ominous warning that “a sword will pierce even your own soul” (Luke 2:32-35). And yet Mary still “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Though ignorance of what was happening might have been terrifying, for me the knowing makes Mary even more inspiring. Just a little more than a year into motherhood, I’m struck anew by Mary’s strength and humility in the midst of a challenging calling. It can’t have been easy, both before his birth and while raising a little boy, for Mary to know that she was raising the Son of God, who would become the savior of her people and indeed all humankind.

A weaker person might have regretted being told at all, and yet Mary responds to the angel’s news first with humility, asserting that she is a “bondslave of the Lord,” and then with deep joy, singing a beautiful song of thanksgiving. Though doubtless aware of the personal difficulties that this journey would cost her, Mary never made it about her, instead thanking God for the part that she can play in His greater story.

This is where Mary inspires me; whatever I’m doing, I recognize that the easiest way to tell the story is with me at the center. I’m teaching, I’m parenting, I’m living in this little town. I can become so obsessed with these vocations that I forget I’m a small but beloved piece of a much greater whole.

How much harder to live as Mary did, with clear eyes and an open heart, saying, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), then rejoicing to participate in God’s plan for redemption. Perhaps what I’m actually doing with each day wouldn’t be so much different, but my heart would be, turned outward instead of inward, focused on God’s kingdom, not mine.

Weary

"We are never tired, as long as we can see far enough."

“We are never tired, as long as we can see far enough.”

The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.

Galations 6:9

My students silently and gingerly tiptoe across the muddy triangle of grass wedged between our school, the highway and the river seeking, as I’ve directed them, a space for “silence, thoughtfulness and solitude.” We’ve just finished our unit on American Romanticism, spending the last few days on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, so as has become tradition I’ve taken my students out to “experience nature” for part of our class, and then spend the rest of class reflecting on it.

It serves the purpose of reinforcing course material, I tell myself, but as I watch my students drifting around the lawn I’m keenly aware that I’m that teacher right now, the Dead Poets’ Society-influenced one who drags her students out of the classroom, through mud and drizzle, in pursuit of quirky interest. I’m unrepentant, however, because today we’re not seeking enlightenment or novelty; we’re simply seeking rest.

Looking down at the slip of paper in my hand, which I cut out yesterday and drew for myself at random this morning, I read:

We are never tired, as long as we can see far enough.

A week ago it was glorious fall, the limbs dressed in full splendor, but today is just November, drab and damp and a little depressing. And I usually like November. I obediently look up at the sky, crisscrossed by black branches, at the farthest trees on the hill, which really aren’t so far away at all. I can’t see very far, I tell myself. That’s why I’m so tired.

I suppose that Emerson was likely talking about real horizons, but that’s not exactly where I’m headed. I’ve woken up most of this week feeling trapped in the confusion and urgency of the moment. There are the immediate needs of my sick daughter and our broken car, both of which require attention and planning. Both Monday night and Wednesday morning brought news that caused me to ask, “Really, God? I just don’t get it.” I can’t see far enough–into the eternity where it all makes sense, where the twists and turns of daily life smooth out into His glorious narrative, the working-together-for-good of it all–and I’m tired.

So what does it take, I wonder, to find the horizon? I’m reminded of Paul’s words, written to the Galations and echoed by Hillary Clinton in her concession speech Tuesday night:

Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.

Love the things that are eternal, and work for those. I know that it doesn’t spare me from the details, that loving eternity means paying even closer attention to the needs of those around me. Today it will mean writing cards for students that I care about, remembering that investing in this way is at least as important as grading the unseen essays that loom over me like a thundercloud. It will mean going home and cherishing my family, the gift that they are to me and to many. It will mean remembering that we’re all made in God’s image, every human, and that God’s love for us is immeasurable and eternal. And that if I can wake up each day looking first to Him, that’s all the horizon I need to keep heart in doing good.