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.

The Author Wept

This week, Black Forest Academy mourns the loss of  a baby girl born prematurely just a month ago to one of our new staff couples. We grieve as a community, lifting her parents and younger brother up in prayer, full of sadness and gratitude that she is at last whole.

While we waited for her ride to come pick her up, I sat on a bench next to one of my students. I don’t know her well, but as she talked I felt like I did; this girl, like myself and a handful of students I’ve taught each year, is a writer. She walked me through her process, touching blithely on a few different tales she’s spun over the years. She described scenes that she enjoyed writing, characters that surprised her as they wrenched themselves out of her control on the page, and her first 40-page story, written shortly after she learned to type.

After a while, we started talking about characters, about the deep investment of an author in the people she creates. She told me about a time that she startled herself while writing a particularly chilling scene, and the many times that she’s written herself to tears over the fates of her characters.

“It’s not what I wanted to happen to him,” she admitted, telling of a particularly sad ending.

NOTE: If the final Harry Potter book is still on your to-read list, it would behoove you to skip a paragraph, lest you learn more plot details than will please you.

I told her about J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, who confessed that she wept while writing one of the final chapters of the final book, when her hero realizes that he will need to sacrifice his own life to defeat the villain, and goes willingly to his death.

“She said that she just cried her eyes out writing it,” I said, confessing, “Which is pretty what happened to me reading it.”

“But” –and I know what she’ll say next– “She knew the ending! She wrote it!”

I nodded, and for a moment we pondered the paradox of an author’s weeping for a fictional character, who indeed turns out all right in the end.

“Sometimes I wonder if that’s how God feels,” I mused. “If even though He knows how it all works out, He cries when things happen. Because He made us, because He loves us.”

I return to that thought this week, as our little community mourns the loss of our newest member, a baby girl born just a month ago to a young couple on our staff. We’re caught in the tension of this heartbreak in time and joy in eternity, where she’s healed of the heart defect that took her life. We weep, even knowing that she’s well now, missing her here.

Jesus did this too. At Lazarus’ tomb, just moments before raising him from the dead, we read of his sorrow:

“When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.

I’m drawn back to the thought of the author, tears dripping onto the unfinished work for which she already has planned a happy finale. And then to Jesus, weeping to see the sadness of his friends, even as he saw joy ahead.

And so we weep, as Jesus did, mourning the broken present, trusting in eternity’s joy, and grateful that the Author loves us, made us, and sees the finale when we cannot.

Please pray with us for this sweet family in their sorrow. Thank you.

 

The Fear Jacket

 

"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear..."

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear…”

I’m troubled from the start, Friday morning.

Living nine hours ahead of my friends on the West Coast, the ongoing ugliness of election season in America unfolds mostly in the morning for me. I wake up and see it spattered across social media, the messy barbs of rhetoric flying between two people I don’t know, far away, but nearer to home between friends, family and students, each exchange more impassioned than the last.

We don’t understand each other, I realize, waking each morning to see in stark relief all of the perspectives that aren’t my own, battling it out in text on a screen. I’m not there to attend protests, haven’t watched any debates live, but I feel it all the same, the creeping sense not of unity, but of two-ness that our country has become lately.

I’m reminded of Thomas Hobbes who, writing during a particularly dark period of British history, described a world plagued by “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It’s continual fear that I pause on this morning, thinking about the fears peddled by both sides, and my own real fear for our nation.

Then I come to class. My sweet English class, where we’ve been reading the mournful, ponderous tomes of Romantic American literature. We’ve finished with The Scarlet Letter, leaving behind Hawthorne’s “darkening close of this tale of human frailty and sorrow,” and have spent the week mostly in the company of Edgar Allan Poe, examining tormented cats and an inexplicably verbal raven. All week, we’ve dwelt on tales of darkness springing from men deeply cynical of the human heart. Left to our own devices, Poe and Hawthorne seem to tell us, we’re all selfish at our best, and consumed with paranoid madness at our worst. The spectrum of human existence seems bleak indeed.

My students are writing their own “Tales of Woe” today as we wrap up this part of the Romanticism unit. “Take an ordinary, mundane circumstance,” I tell them, “And add in something extraordinary. A man is taking a nap and a talking raven comes in. A teacher is grading English finals and an elephant walks by. Ordinary and extraordinary. That’s it.”

The students nod, dutifully writing down this combination of elements in their notebooks.

“Now,” I continue, holding up a mug full of printed, cut-out words, “Take a pinch of woe.” I demonstrate, pinching out weary, solitary and desolate. “These words are your tone, your inspiration. It’s not a complex story, this one. It’s all about the tone. The tone of woe.”

The laugh, they write, they pinch out melancholy words and sprinkle them with abandon through stories of prophetic breakfast cereal and murderous oranges. Towards the end of class we share excerpts, enjoying our creativity and the unfamiliar feeling of painting with only dark hues for a while.

It strikes me that they’ve put it on–fear–just for part of a class, just for the adventure of it. Now, like a jacket, they take it off, going about their ordinary, un-woeful Friday and leaving the fear behind.

I wish I could do that in real life, I find myself thinking. Then I remember that I can.

“God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 John 4:16-18)

Like my students, leaving behind their fear because it’s no longer necessary, I can trade mine in, a jacket of fear for one of love. It’s God’s love, the perfect love, that casts out the fear, reminding me that I am–all of us are–deeply loved, intentionally cared for by our Creator, who doesn’t let us muddle on alone but remains invested in us, individually and as a community. I remember that God loves my nation, not more than the others but because it’s a nation full of his beloved people. I remember that I don’t have to be afraid.

And while it’s God’s love that gives me confidence, there’s action required of me, too. John continues with words that convict:

“We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.” (1 John 4:19-21)

It’s a time of division. It’s tempting to believe that I know best and easy to imagine that some people know nothing. And yet, God says, love. Because nothing can separate us from His love, and nothing is more important than, day by day, loving Him and loving our neighbors. Those callings are the same today, tomorrow, and November 9th. Love, because you’re loved.

I can’t pretend this is easy to do, to love my neighbor as God does. Fear is easier. Suspicion is easier. Frustration is easier, the tendency to shrug my shoulders, shake my head and go, “I just don’t get it!” to the shouting silence of words on a screen or the real, inscrutable opinions of people I see every day. So it’s a choice, now more than ever, but really every day. To listen and to love, sometimes without agreeing or even understanding.

I’m choosing the better jacket. Because it’s better to love than to live in dread of what could happen, in three weeks or at any point in my unpredictable life. God is good, and will be good. And that’s enough.

So I leave the fear behind, like a teenager closing a notebook, laughing off a lesson, and going to lunch, where the real business of loving and living is going on.