Home Is Where We Start From

The view from Rodborough Fort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Luci on the beach for the first time!

Luci on the beach for the first time!

It’s only after we’ve been on the beach for a while, watching her little toes rake through the gravel, that I realize Luci has never felt the ground with her bare feet.

I can count on one hand the times that my snow-born baby has been outside without a coat on, and she has never been to the beach. This–our afternoon on the western shore of San Juan Island–is a special day. Luci’s first at the beach, and my first at this beach, on the island where I lived until I was six, in at least 15 years.

“There are hermit crabs in here!” Timmy calls from the rocks nearer to the water, where he’s standing over a tide pool. We have a longstanding debate, my East Coast husband and I–as he was raised on the wide, sandy strands of Atlantic shore in Virginia and North Carolina–about the beach-ness of our Pacific Northwest shores, where icy-cold waves lap against rocky coasts littered with driftwood. Today, though, he concedes that whatever they lack in sand, our beaches make up for in other amusements. I ask him if he has poked the anemones.

“You can poke them?” he replies. “Don’t they sting you?”

“Never have before,” I say with a shrug. I get up and find one, it’s sand-colored tentacles waving in the ripples until I introduce my finger into its center, whereupon they close slowly but firmly, while Timmy and I squeal like kids.

Like a kid. That’s how I feel this weekend, visiting San Juan Island today and the Upper Skagit River tomorrow, before a speaking engagement at Concrete Community Bible Church on Sunday. There are only a few people I know here now, and even the buildings are mostly unfamiliar, though I still recognize the boxy church we left behind. The beach, though, is a familiar face, its voice and smell a comforting, long-lost friend. I flip over rocks to watch tiny black crabs scuttle away, or walk along the lengths of driftwood back to where Luci curls her toes in the smooth beach gravel that was my first playground, too.

The mossy North Cascade rainforest

The mossy North Cascade rainforest

I suppose some people are able to visit their hometowns and find communities intact, mostly unchanged, but that hasn’t ever been my experience. I’m not the only one who moves away, and people change as much as places. Though well-loved friends remain, they are few and far between, no longer part of a tapestry of belonging that I once knew.  The places, though, still call to me, even if I don’t know anyone there.

A friend who grew up in Mexico City recently told me of her plans to return this summer, for the first time in over a decade, with a group of young people on a mission trip.

“Will you see anyone you know?” I asked her.

“No,” she replied. “They’re not there. But the places… I’ll go back to places.”

She’s not alone. This ritual of return is shared by many third culture kids (TCKs). Many of my students at Black Forest Academy recall how strange it is to go back to Kandern, to find that their friends and many of their teachers have moved on. “You can’t really go back after a while,” one of them said. “It’s not the same.” Not the same, I thought, but you can go back.

Even the returning isn’t an option for everyone, though. I think about students who have had visas denied over summer vacation, who are never to return to the countries and languages they knew as children. Or those who grew up in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, whose tales of leaving involve bombs that dropped while they were away, apartments still full of belongings they’d never see again.

The students are just the beginning, I know. Our village in Germany now plays host to 1500 refugees who long to return, someday, to the ruins of homes they knew. Will they still smell the same, like the San Juan Island beaches do for me? Will they hear the same birds, like I do in my Cascade rainforest? Or see any of the same buildings? What is home, when war and fire scrape the settings back to mere topography?

One of the former Alaythia Fellowship's cedar log cabins

One of the former Alaythia Fellowship’s cedar log cabins

Tomorrow, we’ll take the breezy ferry back to the mainland, and drive sixty miles up into the mountains, spending our second night in my second home. We’ll sleep in a cedar log cabin on the property of what we once called Alaythia Fellowship, and again, it’s the nature that feels like home. Everything manmade is smaller–buildings, the road, even our playhouse that now holds trashcans–but the jungly rainforest is just the same. Mossy branches look like muscly arms reaching to the ceiling, while ferns claim most of the forest floor.

We go to visit our elderly neighbor, but he isn’t home. Without him, there’s no one left who remembers me, barefoot and nine years old, swinging on the swings that Grandpa built for us, which were taken down ages ago. But if I close my eyes I’m there again, hearing the raucous cry of the birds and smelling the heavy sky about to pour rain. I open them again to find my husband reading on the porch, my little girl rolling around on the floor, just about to crawl. It’s a privilege to return, to visit these places formed me long ago, a privilege that I’m keenly aware isn’t available to everyone, but my students are right.

It’s not the same, because I’m not the same. I scoop up my daughter, sit down next to Timmy, and watch heavy raindrops begin to fall. Not the same, but still infinitely good to be in a past place with present people, dreaming about the future we’ll share.

Timmy and Luci on the beach on San Juan Island

Timmy and Luci on the beach on San Juan Island

An Experienced Novice

Luci and Timmy, waiting to board her third flight.

It’s hotter in Texas than we’d like. When we unfold ourselves from inside the narrow tube of the three-hour “express” from Norfolk, Virginia to Houston, we step onto the warm runway and breathe in the foreign, humid scent of February in the Lone Star State. Three flights down, one to go.

Living overseas, Timmy and I have become accomplished travelers. We are comfortable in airports, happy to while away hours reading, drinking coffee and peering out of windows on our layovers. Security doesn’t stress us out, nor do online check-ins or packing an appropriately sized carry-on. We’ve done this a lot. If travel were a video game, we’ve already mastered the levels of Traveling Alone and Traveling While Married (surprisingly tricky at points). I might even say we’re “expert” travelers.

Not today.

Today we’re novices on a new level: Traveling With A Baby. Not as much novices as we were two weeks ago on our trip out to Virginia, when we naively packed books and Kindles, thinking “So what if I have a baby on our laps for six hours? Once she sleeps, we’m going to read and eat snacks and listen to music like we always do.” Ha! Timmy and Kristi of February 13, how wrong you were.

Entering the terminal, the three of us find a mostly empty corner near our gate to spend our hour layover. Timmy goes to find lunch, while I lay Luci down on a blanket on the carpet. After a few minutes, ten small fingers and a pair of brown eyes appear over the top of the row of seats across from me. The inquisitive face of a small boy, maybe eight or nine years old, peeks over curiously at us, watching Luci kick her feet and laugh at the fascinating airport ceiling.

“I think your baby’s tired,” he remarks quietly. When I look up, he repeats his observation, afraid I haven’t heard him.

“You’re right,” I reply with a shrug.

“I think the baby’s cold,” he observes.

“No.” I shake my head, looking at Luci’s flushed red cheeks. “She’s hot. It’s too hot in here.” The boy shrugs, seeming nervous at my disagreement, and I find myself genuinely unsure what to do with him. Until recently I’ve only spent time with teenagers. Now I’ve added three-month-olds to my repertoire, but I suspect small boys are different than either. I’ll need to grow into this parenting thing, I think as the boy continues to watch Luci and I continue to wonder what to say to him.

We’re a culture that values expertise. Whether defining someone as a “professional,” or logging the 10,000 hours of practice that author Malcolm Gladwell claims will elevate you expert level, it’s mastery that we’re after, in ourselves and others. We’re known by what we’re best at. For me, it’s writing and chocolate chip cookies. The days I claim to be an expert teacher–I have put in the 10,000 hours, after all–are usually the ones when I spill my coffee on myself, argue with a student over something useless, and badly underplan my lesson. Expertise is elusive, but valuable.

Wanting to be an expert, I mostly try to rush past the novice stage as quickly as possible. I think back to training sessions at new jobs, times that I spilled lattes or engaged with the temper tantrums of disappointed ninth graders far longer than I should have. I so desperately wanted to be past the “learning curve” part of my work, on to the accomplished and productive work of a seasoned employee. It’s uncomfortable to be new, inexperienced, making the mistakes of the first-timers and hoping for a chance to do it better next time.

I’m an experienced novice. I’ve been a new barista, a new teacher, a new wife. Now I’m a new mother, a novice again. And this time around I’m leaning into the newness, trying not to rush. I won’t learn this overnight, neither the mothering nor the baby-transporting. It comes in steps. Baby steps.

We board the plane early, now part of the auspicious “passengers traveling with young children.” When we’ve found our seats and I’ve gotten Luci happily settled with an afternoon meal, I glance across the aisle at another early-boarding passenger. She’s elderly and silent, her eyes closed and her covered head tilted back. Timeless and austere, she looks out of place in the crowded plane. As the plane fills, it becomes clear that she doesn’t speak English at all. Her world is a fast and loud one, possibly unfamiliar and strange.

Luci’s first plane ride!

And as a novice mother, I watch her curiously in the moments when Luci is sleeping, quiet, or playing with Timmy. Has she done this? I wonder. How was it different for her? How was it the same? As has happened a few times in past months, I feel connected to her by an invisible thread, of motherhood or the potential for it.

Halfway through the flight, Luci decides she won’t sleep under any circumstances, not when screaming is so much fun. We avoid eye contact with everyone, trying various bouncing and pacifier tricks to please her. After what seems like forever, I pick up my water bottle and wave it slowly in front of her. Luci pants to quietness, blue eyes following the green bottle with interest. Across the aisle, another mother gives us an approving thumbs up. A few minutes later, I catch the eye of my elderly neighbor, smiling at Luci. Babies, across languages, are universally adored.

It’s humbling, just starting out, making mistakes that seem so big and making them in front of others. But if being a new mother has taught me anything so far, it’s that everyone has to take these steps. The mothers I love and respect, all of them, have been here already. Taking flights with babies, hypnotizing them with water bottles, one imperceptible step at a time walking towards the experts I admire.

Our Time Machine

Concrete Community Bible Church
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Highway 20 is a time machine.

An east-west corridor a few roads north of the bustling Interstate 90, along which we now live, Highway 20 is less traveled than the freeway, which goes eventually to Boston, and also than Highway 2, which goes to the faux-German village of Leavenworth and various other agricultural destinations. Highway 20 goes up and up, past a series of hydroelectric dams to a pass that’s closed for half the year. In months when you can keep driving, you wind through miles of fire-scorched wilderness and forgotten tiny towns, finishing within sight of the Idaho state line. It’s a grand trip.

Not that we’re going so far today. This morning, at the misty-grey end of September, we’re destined for Concrete, Washington, in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. Concrete, named for one of its original exports, is a small town, much smaller even than Kandern, but the highway carries me back in time as we drive along it, to a moment when Concrete was the big city. I grew up even further up this highway, where the Skagit River Valley narrowed and deepened, living in the eternal shade of evergreens and high hills. To eight-year-old Kristi, Concrete meant Little League and roller skating, grocery stores and bigger restaurants. More critically, it meant Church. We’d make the fifteen-mile drive down the valley several times a year, canceling our tiny house church service for some special occasion, like a Christmas pageant or a baptism Sunday, at Concrete Community Bible Church.

We arrive at Concrete Community Bible Church a few minutes before Sunday School, where Timmy and I have the privilege of sharing about our last two years at Black Forest Academy. Its white, friendly facade looks as genial as ever, and inside it’s no different. The last time I visited, in the summer of 2013, I was planning our wedding; today I arrive with my husband, quite obviously pregnant. At every turn we’re greeted effusively, some faces familiar and others less so, by people who’ve read our emails or prayed over our printed names in the bulletin. By the time we get up to speak, I’ve already shared our story half a dozen times, and from the front of the room my usual nervousness gives way in the glow of their welcoming excitement.

There are many kinds of communities. I often write about the transience of life at BFA. Friendships, community, churches–they are ever-changing, each year and season different from the last. While it’s marvelous to see God shaping each BFA for its specific moment in time, here at Concrete CBC I find a different marvel: the beauty of continuity. It’s continuity for me–there are people here who have truly known me since I was eight years old, and can trace the twisting paths that have brought me to this point–but it’s far greater than that. Here are decades of relationship, generations living, growing and loving in this tiny town in the Upper Skagit. I listen to their prayer requests and praises, their words of encouragement for one another, with the feeling of eavesdropping on a much longer conversation. This congregation, led by the same devoted pastor for the past 23 years, knows one another well, year after year living out their calling as the body of Christ in this little town.

I suppose it’s easy for transience to be jealous of continuity, but I’m not today. I can join in this service, singing songs to the God we all worship together, with neither the scorn of the willful nomad nor the envy of the perpetual exile. Because this place is home for me, too, even if it’s just for today, our time machine Sunday on Highway 20.

Our Villages

Timmy got to preach at Virginia Beach Community Chapel this Father’s Day.

“Raise your hand if you ever taught me in a Sunday school class,” Timmy requests on Sunday morning.

I’m sitting in the front row of a fiercely air-conditioned sanctuary, shivering while outside the temperature climbs to 90˚ F before 9:00 AM. I’m not in Germany anymore.

Where I am is Virginia Beach Community Chapel, Timmy’s home church since he was ten. It holds a special place in his heart and his story, a similar place that Bethany Community holds in mine. Today–Father’s Day–he is giving the sermon, a call to missional living lived out within the context of family and hospitality.

“Keep your hands up,” he continues. “Now, raise your hand if you ever worked with me in youth group, or came alongside me as a mentor. Or really, even just had me over to your house, ever.”

I turn around to see a forest of hands waving back, a multitude of men and women who have invested in my husband’s life.

That is missional living,” he tells them. “I’m here because you poured into me.”

It’s a powerful moment, more than a mere illustration of his point, that living missionally isn’t tied the going overseas, evangelizing or church planting that we associate with the title of “missionary.” Looking at those hands, I’m reminded of the adage that “it takes a village” to raise a child.

Aside from the fact that we’re preparing to raise a child, eventually in a literal village, this phrase has proven as true in my life as it has in Timmy’s. Even in relatively isolated parts of rural Washington–San Juan Island and the Upper Skagit Valley–my childhood was a collage of friends and mentors, people who taught me not just German words and how to play t-ball, but what it meant to love and know Jesus.

My years in Seattle were deep and rich with such relationship, mostly at Bethany Community Church, where I found Christlike models of adulthood at every step, with their hospitality and time investment guiding me towards living out my faith in a way both personal and connected to our community. I’ve had many villages.

Timmy’s sermon reminds me that even titled missionaries like myself need to remember to be missional. My heart, my mind and my front door need to be open to the young people who fill my days, as I walk a few steps ahead of them on the journey of faith that they’re choosing, or trying to choose. As I’ve written about countless times, these last five years have turned out to be about much more than teaching. They’ve been about becoming part of a village, and in turn helping to invest love and life into the young people around me.

For now, though, it’s time to revisit our own villages. It’s truly a gift to spend these weeks in the East, visiting the places and people who have made my husband the incredible man that he is. And I’m excited to arrive in Seattle in mid-July, and Skagit County in September, eager to engage with gratitude in the communities that have spurred me onward in this journey.

A Sunset

Sunset in the Dolomites

Dreizinnenhütte in the Dolomites

…But I didn’t want to say
the heart breaks, even though I know
it’s true & the breaking
can be a good thing
sometimes, like the way
my heart shatters
a little each time
I think of my friends
& how lucky in life
I’ve been to get
to know them, to have
had the time to laugh &
drink & dance & to argue
& feel hurt too.

Gina Myers, “For N&K”

We wanted to watch the sunset. At the end of a long day of hiking, which took us from our Austrian hotel up and up, through echoing, stony valleys to this Italian pass at 7300 feet, we were exhausted but committed to the darkening sky.

I’d gone to Austria to hike with my parents, starting their 40-day trek through the Italian, Austrian, German and Swiss Alps. In the midst of a slow summer, I took the train across Austria, and now tottered up the trail behind them with my week’s worth of clothing, while they trotted along gaily, minimalist packs bouncing. We hiked much of the day, stopping for lunch in a sunny, green meadow and arriving at our destination, Dreizinnenhütte, a few hours before a massive three-course dinner. Full of the improbably delicious feast, we wandered outside with cameras and coats into the chilly evening, hoping for a show.

Dolomites 2Dad explored the top of the cliff, finding the best shots of the stony surroundings from every angle as the midsummer shadows lengthened. Mom and I sat down on a rocky ledge, our backs to a cliff and our feet far from the next edge. Across the valley, the Drei Zinnen–three battlements–stood in a stately spotlight, watching over the lodge perched precariously on the pass behind us. We leaned against the sun-warmed stone and watched.

And talked. For an hour or more.The sky changed from blue to yellow to pink, then again to blue, casting deep shadows across the wrinkled mountain faces before plunging them into black silhouettes against the last light. Far above, the first stars began to sparkle as our conversation deepened, like the night sky. To future, past, marriage and family.

Dolomites 3Though it wasn’t even a year ago, I don’t remember everything we talked about, but I remember basking in the luxury of a long conversation, side by side and gazing at a sunset instead of a computer screen. I marveled for the hundredth time at this wise, gracious and courageous woman who raised me, and felt the unspeakable good fortune of being her daughter, being here in the Italian Alps with her, sharing a sunset.

People used to ask me often–and now slightly less often–what it’s like to live “so far from home.” It’s a complicated question, more complicated than they know, because home has become huge, enveloping oceans and continents in its wake, borne all over the world by the people who’ve helped create it. But that night, up in the mountains sharing sunset and stories with my mother, that’s what I miss. The unpressured beauty of time in the same place. It’s rare and precious, not to be wasted or taken for granted when nights like that one come along.

Dolomites 4And even over the telephone or through the grainy windows of FaceTime and Skype, I am the most fortunate daughter. To have a mother who makes time across time zones, who listens and loves, who encourages me in this calling that’s taken me far away, and who has a home where we’ll bring our new baby into the world in November.

If I’ve begun to learn anything in this three-month venture toward parenthood, it’s been that life is unpredictable, and every day is precious. I’m sure that my 26-year-old mother, pregnant with her first child and moving to San Juan Island, never imagined that thirty years later we’d be sitting on a cliff in Italy watching the sunset. But we did, and for that, and for her, I’m endlessly thankful.

Hiking with my parents, summer 2014

Hiking with my parents, summer 2014

Places as People

75906_692742706330_1174899592_nAnd having answered so I turn once more to those who
     sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
     and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
     so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
     job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
     little soft cities…

Carl Sandburg, from “Chicago” 

I take the long way to Penny Markt for romaine lettuce and a baguette, back behind the hill and past the dairy farm and Italian villa on the edge of the golf course. I’ve come this way because today is sunny and I’m extraordinarily busy. My day began with a meeting at 8:00 AM, and it won’t really end until my senior small group leaves around 9:00 PM. Or when I finish the mountain of dishes, a good half-hour later. A long Monday, with just this hour for walking and groceries, so I seize it feeling too busy not to go for a walk.

The green hills don’t disappoint, today exploding with apple blossoms that fall in graceful showers around me with each breath of gentle spring breeze. I might be in heaven, I think for a fleeting moment, or I might simply live in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. This, I remind myself for the thousandth time, this is home.

As I walk I’m thinking about the poems my students wrote last week, “city poems” inspired by Carl Sandburg’s 1914 mixed-message ode to his hometown. Sandburg personifies Chicago throughout the poem, creating of his native city a burly, bare-chested young man who is at various times “wicked,” “brutal,” and “crooked,” a “husky, brawling” youth that would frighten as quickly as inspire. Halfway through the poem, however, Sandburg changes his tune. Chicago is all of this, he admits, but look again. Is anyone more alive? A better fighter? Cleverer or with more self-awareness? This is my city, Sandburg seems to claim, all of him.

“And it’s only when you know a place, really know it,” I told my students, “That you can manage this. Places are like people, when you know them.”

I briefly sketched what sort of personifying poem I could write about Paris–having visited for only twelve hours–pouring on details of a baguette-clutching, wine-swilling, haughty mime, bringing shudders from the French students.

“I don’t know Paris,” I admitted. “It’s not a person to me. It’s flat, like a map. No layers. People have layers, and so do places, when you know them. And you know places that most people don’t. Pick a place. Make it a character.”

With a few understanding nods, students began their poems by jotting titles on their pages: “Bishkek,” “Calhoun, Georgia,” “Dubai” and others I’d even heard of. Word by word, people climbed out of the pages. Old and young, rich and poor, naive and threatening, innocent and criminal. Not all of them ended with Sandburg’s defense, but every poem expressed the deep knowing that comes from calling a place home, if only for a little while.

But sometimes knowing is a journey, not a destination. I sit down and reread my poem, “Kandern,” written a few years ago. It’s not wrong, exactly; when I wrote it, this was what I knew of this place I’d come to live. Now I’d write a different poem. “Knowing comes in layers,” I reflected more than four years ago, back at the beginning of this season. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of this place, of any place, just like I haven’t gotten to the bottom of any person. There will always be more to know. There will always be more home to have.

I round the corner behind the dairy farm, still under the canopy of apple trees, and pause. This is a beautiful place, a place I’m just getting to know, even after five years. But there are other places, other years. The journey from home to home, so familiar now, continues again soon, taking us both back and forward.

“We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote T.S. Eliot. “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” In two months we’ll be in Virginia; in three we’ll be in Washington. Those places where we started.

We’re excited to know them again.

Walking Towards Waterfalls

HikingThe trail turns steeply upward once we’ve left the road.

We’ve been walking along a creek in Lenk, Switzerland for a while, carefully skirting the edges of the path to avoid marring the smooth grooves of the langlauf, or cross-county skiing tracks. Now, the signs take us off the wide, flat track, into deep snow that clings to the side of a ridge.

It’s a brilliantly sunny Saturday in the Berner Oberland region of the Alps, where the entire student body and an entourage of about 50 adults have retreated for a weekend of laughter, teaching and worship in the mountains. I jump at the chance to go hiking after lunch, falling in line near the back of an enthusiastic group of students, eager to hike “to the waterfall.” That none of us have ever been there is no concern; we trust our guide, and besides, this waterfall is rumored to be frozen. We concoct grand visions in our imaginations, visions that now pull us up the hill.

IMG_3492I’ve grown up in the mountains, so this walk is familiar. Even after I left the Cascades behind for the hills of Seattle–Phinney Ridge, Crown Hill and Queen Anne–I’d get away every chance I could, seizing invitations to camp, hike and rock climb in the summer, to snowshoe and ski in the winter. I’ve never been on this particular path before, seen this particular waterfall, but I know what this feels like, sinking into snow up to my knees, peering up a wooded slope and searching for the horizon of the summit.

When we crest the hill, coming out onto a wide, snowy field occupied only by an icicle-edged barn, the students can talk and breath again. The path widens, and we walk side by side. I hear from a new junior about her home in Albania, the place she knows best of all. Former students ask me for book recommendations, and want to know why I became an English teacher. A senior tells me about her old school in Central Asia, which this year was performing a musical she loved.

IMG_3506“I used to do that,” she says. “The musicals.”

“Do you miss it?” I ask.

She nods thoughtfully. In many ways, she reflects, BFA offers opportunities she wouldn’t have had back there. But yes, it’s hard to leave it behind. Always hard to leave behind.

Our path takes us up a wide, gentle valley, as we follow painted poles through the snowy wilderness. I strikes me that I don’t know where we’re going, but I can imagine it, because I’ve been places like it before. My students, international and less lovers of the outdoors than I, have only seen frozen waterfalls on the Internet and, well, Frozen.

The same, I suppose, is true of the paths that they’re walking on now. I could imagine what college would be like, because I chose to go to one in the same city where I’d grown up. I hadn’t been a student, but I could readily picture the transition. The seniors I talk to as we walk through the snow, they’re applying to universities all over the world, many in countries and states where they’ve never even visited. One young woman tells me that she and her siblings live on three different continents.

“How is that?” I ask her.

“It’s… hard. But when we are together,” she adds with a grin. “Then it’s very special. Very close.”

IMG_3507I’ve been volunteering this year with a women’s mentoring ministry called Walking Together. When we named the ministry, we discussed how the most important mentorship often springs from our willingness to come alongside one another in whatever circumstances fill our lives.

As staff at Black Forest Academy, we wonder often what we can do to prepare our students for the transition away from here, how we can equip them with the faith, joy and strength to make them resilient followers of Christ wherever they go next. The short answer, I think, is that we can’t. We’re not the sources of faith, joy or strength. The best we can do is keep walking with them towards frozen waterfalls and foreign lands, sharing our lives and pointing them back to Christ, their strength and joy wherever they go next.

Prepared {A Place For Us}

My parents plan our next steps.

My parents plan our next steps.

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” John 14:1-5

After dinner–a four-course Tyrolean meal that included prosciutto-cloaked melon and spinach späzle–I head back up the trail. I walk in flip-flops, eager to get out of the boots that I wore for 18 kilometers today. The trail is still uneven, just as it was when we came this way around mid-morning, and it’s colder up here than the valley in which we’d hoped to spend the night.

We’d hoped. That the huts we wanted to stay in–mountain lodges perched grandly on ridges, beside lakes, in the shadow of the spiny Dolomites–would have space for us. That the town to which we’d hiked instead would provide a charming guesthouse, with showers in Internet, where we could wash our socks and hair, check email, reconnect with the grim news of the world outside the Italian Alps. That each destination today would be our last, providing rest and restoration for the walking ahead.

I’m hiking with my parents, beginning their 40-day trek through the Italian, Austrian and Swiss Alps. The first day, we hiked as planned, up a valley to Dreizinnenhütte, red and white and boxy, balanced on a rocky saddle in the middle of a Dolomiten panorama. It was spectacular. The next day of hiking brought its share of wonders, too, World War I bunkers buried in green forests, and new mountains unfolding with each pass, but at the end our hut was full. We stayed in a hotel that night, a prim, clean, Austrian affair down the road in a shady green valley. We heard the rains pour, and were thankful not to be in a tent.

Now, the third day, there were times when we longed for a tent, some shelter that didn’t depend on reservations, transportation or phone calls. Nine hours of wandering brought us down three valleys, back up one, then back up another, so that we’re only six kilometers from where we started in the morning. Tomorrow, we’re taking a bus and train to Austria. Italy is full.

I have the lyrics to a pop song stuck in my head as we walk, Mikky Ekko wailing “Hey, is there a place for us? Where flames flicker and wave for us?” We want places, safe and dry and warm, waiting at the end of the various journeys of which our lives consist. How comforting it must have been for the disciples when they remembered Jesus’ words, after the dinner they didn’t know would be the last, a promise that he’d not only prepared a place for them, but would take them there himself. There would be room, space enough for all who loved him, a place for them to be together again.

I reach the top of the valley, the point where the trail juts into the forest, and find a bench by a creek. The water is icy cold, sharp against my aching feet, so I sit down on the bench, a forbidding wall of stony peaks folding their arms in front of me, bouncers of the Dolomites.

It’s not just at the end–the beginning of eternity–that he prepares for us, I realize. This place, somehow, was prepared for us today. The last room in the last hotel in the area, this semicircle of mountains in front of me. We’re prepared for places, too. Twelve years of traveling in Europe led me to this day, making reservations in German and navigating Italian public transport. I think of the ways that Timmy and I have been prepared to work at Black Forest Academy, the years of experiences and education, chances and circumstances, that led us to Germany and to each other. Prepared.

In a week I’ll be back in the classroom, cutting out signs and rearranging furniture to begin the year. Preparing a place for students I’ve never met. In a year, Timmy and I will be somewhere new, somewhere God is preparing for us, preparing us for. Like this strange yellow house in the Dolomites, it may not be what we’re expecting now, not the destination we’ve picked out on the map. But Christ is preparing us, even now, for the next valley, the next journey.