Angelina & The Lupine Lady

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.

In the meantime Alice got up and washed her face and ate porridge for breakfast. She went to school and came home and did her homework.

And pretty soon she was grown up.

Barbara Cooney, from Miss Rumphius

Before bedtime, we pick out “long books,” the bigger picture books in the living room, as opposed to the little board books in the bedroom. Luci’s opinions aren’t as strong about these books, so I choose two of my favorites, Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius and Angelina Ballerina, by Katharine Holabird. These books, published in 1982 and 1983, respectively, glimmer like jewels in my often-hazy childhood memories. There were four of us then, a little church on an island, pebbly beaches strewn with driftwood, and books. Always books.

Snuggled under the blanket my grandmother crocheted for Luci two years ago, we start with Angelina Ballerina. A young mouse who longs to dance above all things, Angelina sometimes forgets to do anything else. When her dancing ways get out of hand, her father suggests ballet lessons. Angelina is thrilled, goes to the lessons, practices and reforms her chore-forgetting ways, and eventually grows up to be the renowned Mademoiselle Angelina in a mouse ballet company.

I smile at the pictures, remembering how much I loved an Angelina Christmas ornament I got one year, and how when I was just a little older than Luci I imagined that I, too, would be a “real ballerina” when I grew up. I started ballet lessons hopefully, learning positions I can no longer remember, and dreaming of the day I’d wear a pink tulle skirt in an actual recital. And then we moved away from our little island. I learned to ride a bike and explore the forest, and new passions took hold.

Next we meet Miss Rumphius, the tale of Alice Rumphius, who longs to “see faraway places, and come home to live by the sea.” As a child, her grandfather tells her that there is a third, more important task for her: she has to do something to make the world more beautiful. She grows up, travels the world–riding camels and climbing mountains–then comes home to a cottage by the sea, wondering how she’ll make her already-splendid world even more beautiful. Quite to her surprise, she finds a passion for scattering lupine seeds around the dunes and dales of her little seacoast, and grows into a wise, old lady, making the world more beautiful with her stories and flowers.

And while Angelina had my heart as a child, it is the Lupine Lady who speaks to me now. Perhaps I find some kinship with her, a woman who loves books, learning and exploration. Perhaps I’m still traveling to faraway places, and am wondering where my home by the sea will be. Mostly, though, I share her longing to “do something to make the world more beautiful,” even as she admits, “I do not know yet what that might be.”

A few weeks ago, a colleague shared an article titled “You’ll Never Be Famous–And That’s O.K.” In it, writer Emily Esfahani Smith discusses Middlemarch and the value of a quietly well-lived life, contrasting two of the protagonists and their different routes to success. One is materially successful, yet unhappy in marriage, while the other eventually marries her true love, yet never realizes her wide-reaching dreams. The second ends the novel satisfied, as the author notes, “Rather than succumb to the despair of thwarted dreams, she embraces her life as it is and contributes to those around her as she can.”

I haven’t read Middlemarch–though now I’m a bit closer to an attempt–but these stories remind me fondly of Tootsie Clark, who died at home at the age of 95 last week. The proprietress of a restaurant in my childhood hometown of Marblemount, Washington, I still remember her well, the cheery old lady who made the biggest, stickiest cinnamon rolls in the world. We’d go there for birthdays and holidays, for a special treat or a Date With Dad occasion. Tootsie would be there, baking her famous rolls and cracking jokes, sharing the same genial warmth with the passing-through tourists as the locals she’d known since they were my age. Last May, hers was the first car over Highway 20 when it opened for the spring, a tradition she carried on even in the last months of her life.

I can’t know how happy Angelina will be as a ballerina¹, but I’m pretty sure now that I won’t be her when I grow up. There are only a handful of career paths to “famous teacher,” and they almost all lead through the jungle of educational public policy, far from the roads I’m likely to tread. As for “famous wives and mothers,” well, I’m not planning to review baby monitors or turn this blog into a lifestyle brand anytime soon, though maybe Timmy and I will someday rival John and Abigail Adams in lively and learned correspondence. After a decade of teaching, almost four years of marriage and almost two of motherhood, my most valuable callings are also the most commonplace ones.

And yet this life doesn’t feel commonplace, not at all. In fact, I feel unbelievably rich, even as I’m undeniably not famous. I long to grow more like these childhood heroes of mine, fictional and real, Miss Rumphius and Tootsie, making the world more beautiful and investing in their communities. I scatter words instead of seeds, and bake chocolate chip cookies instead of cinnamon rolls. I’m still learning. And by the grace of God, using His gifts, I aspire to do something to make this broken world more beautiful.

And I don’t always know what that will be.


¹Probably very happy, since she’s a cartoon mouse in a children’s book, likely without the physical and emotional toll that fame takes on the rest of us.


Summer Places


Great-Grandmother Esther Dahlstrom's house

Great-Grandmother Esther Dahlstrom’s house

We’ve barely dropped our bags when he starts heading down the hill, away from the well-marked buildings of Mount Hermon Christian Camp and Conference Center, into a maze of boxy cabins balanced on a steep and shady hillside. After just a few minutes of following, my mother, cousins and I stop behind my father, who’s come to a halt in front of a red and white house.

“That’s it!” he cries, excited. “This is her house!”

For a moment we stand, still and silent, looking at the house where our great-grandmother, Esther Dahlstrom, lived while she served as the baker for Mount Hermon from 1954 until she retired in 1970. We try to imagine what it was like when this house was more than a stranger’s house, when it was a place of refuge and delight for a young Richard and Aunt Susan Dahlstrom. Only Dad really can, the only one who is remembering instead of imagining.

We follow him around the house to the downstairs apartment, where he tells us how his grandmother would stand at the door as they parked the car and ran into her welcoming arms. We scramble up the hillside to find the tight circle of towering redwood trees where my father and his older sister would lie on the ground, gazing up at the leafy sky. We tiptoe down to the creek in the ravine, where two children from California’s baking hot San Joaquin Valley would bask in the babbling, green-lit coolness of the Coastal Mountains above Santa Cruz. Everywhere there are stories, memories, apparitions so real I can almost see them myself.

It’s the beginning of our week together at Mount Hermon, where we’ve come to enjoy Family Camp, at which my father is one of the speakers. I spend the week mostly with my sister, listening like adults to the sessions, hearing the many stories from Dad and others of summers at this place.

It’s not my summer home, Mount Hermon, but I understand. I have one too, see. This is a typical family vacation for Dahlstroms, only the last in a long line of summer family camps. Capernwray Harbour Bible Center, on Thesis Island in British Columbia, holds much the same space in my heart. There are trails I can still walk in my mind, cool twilights of dewy grass, whirring crickets, goodnights called from open windows. There are the docks where I’ve spent hours looking up at stars and down at the milky glow of stirred up phosphorescence, telling stories with new and old friends. More than any other place, it is summer and childhood, the static destination as schools, homes and relationships shifted around me.

Perhaps that’s the beauty of the Mount Hermons and the Thetis Islands in our life, the way that a whole series of memories remains, waiting, attached to a place we’ve left behind. When I return to Thetis Island, when my father returns here, it’s not just to a place, but a time as well. He returns to family that have long passed away, the simplicity and freedom of adventurous summers. I return to relationships that remained constant through the world-altering changes of childhood and adolescence, to a time when we were just five, and my greatest hope was to stay up on the waterskis for more than five seconds. Today’s life is a new kind of lovely, and I wouldn’t trade it for that one. Still, I look back with infinite thankfulness, experiencing once again the joy of remembering.

Bean Creek, Mount Hermon

Bean Creek, Mount Hermon

My Teachers

Stopping to enjoy the last of fall during the Seattle Marathon

On a warm May Saturday evening, we sit down around the table in my parents’ dining room.  Five couples, the parents of my friends and peers, they form a small group at Bethany Community Church.  On Saturday night, they welcomed me as a guest speaker, giving me the floor for a few minutes to share about my upcoming ministry to students at BFA.

We pass barbecued chicken and salad, a spring breeze from the open window mingling with snatches of childhood reminiscences.  Conversation is the ping-pong table banter available only to long and affectionate friendships.  Soon enough it is my turn to speak, and after only a few words about my plans to teach at BFA they begin asking questions.

Dozens of questions, actually.  What excites you about this ministry?  What worries you?  How have you seen God preparing you to take this step?  They are questions of care and curiosity, designed to encourage and not to badger.  I am grateful for their curiosity, happy to talk about this next step.

I served as a high school small group leader for several of their now-graduated daughters, and as I speak about the needs of students growing up in Christian homes, I realize that they’ve given me a passion for kids raised in the church.  Not as I met with their daughters over four years, but by teaching me, even earlier.  There is continuity at this table, a circle of loving adults who have taught me, as a community sharing both joy and sorrow, what it means grow in Christ through life’s many challenges.  As I look around the table, I recall ninth grade Bible studies, childrens’ choir tours, camping trips and barbecues much like this one, in which each of these people invested in me as a young person.

We need this.  Mentorship gets a great deal of attention in adult relationships at our church, but sometimes I fear it gets taken for granted how much our children need extra adults around.  Even coming from the best family I’ve seen anywhere, I have benefitted richly from the presence of these friends in my life.  As I prepare to teach in a Christian setting, I am excited to take a more active role in faith mentorship with my students than I’ve been able to do so far.  I pray that I can begin to serve my students in the same way that this group continues to serve me, teaching me with their lives what it means to live for God.

History in Skagit Valley

The still grey valleys–Snohomish and Skagit–grow smaller as we keep driving.  It’s Sunday morning, early, and Holly and I are on a quest.  We’re searching for history.  History in general: as we drive east along Highway 20, towards the closed Washington Pass,  towns built a century ago still bear the faces of their youth.  History in particular: ours.

We are going to Concrete, Washington, site of Concrete Community Bible Church, where I am speaking in the 10:00 AM service about my upcoming sojourn as a missionary teacher at Black Forest Academy.  It’s the church I attended sporadically as a child, mostly for Vacation Bible School and Christmas pageants.  The memories I have of this town are linked mostly to this church; my life in Skagit Valley, which I left at the age of eleven, took place 15 miles further down the road.  I recall youth group ventures and choir rehearsals, vague Bible-related endeavors in the basement whose floor plan echoes back from childhood.

It is the liability of the pastor’s kids to always take their pastors along with them.  Since I have always attended my father’s churches, at any given moment only one of the three can exist as I knew it.   Island Community Church is full mostly of strangers.  Alaythia Fellowship remains in memories and friendships only.  Though I have always been happy in the communities that surround me, there is also a sense that I’m erasing history from behind me as I go. No one in Seattle knew me prior to adolescence.  Until Sunday, I forgot that anyone did at all.

We arrive at the church in time for Adult Sunday School, and Pastor Rob immediately rushes to greet us.  He marvels at how grown-up we are, as it’s been a decade since we last attended church here, and declares excitement for what I’m about to share.  I’m excited, too, though I haven’t yet inherited my father’s nonchalant public speaking skills.

The church is warm and small, and just as I remembered it down to the banners that hang on the walls.  (I found myself staring at the same red heart scribbled across a crucifix that held my eight-year-old attention through sermons I didn’t understand.)  Before the service starts, several members of the congregation greet us genially, recalling our days at Alaythia.  We are anomalies, the girls who left the valley and now travel the world, but even so we’re received, after all these years, with an easy hospitality that inspires me.  I don’t feel like an outsider here–just a long-gone insider.

The speaking goes well, and as I stand in front of the church I realize that my strongest passion for teaching at BFA comes from the fact that the students there are the children of ministry families.  It’s a position I know well, the knowledge about faith without necessarily a personal understanding.  And as I speak to this church, seeing people who mentored me in faith as a child, I realize the deep importance of teachers–Sunday School and otherwise–in bringing up the next generation of Christ-followers.  I realize that there is a deep appropriateness in beginning my support-gathering ventures here, at the beginning of my calling.  These are the people who invested me, just as they continue to invest in the young people in their community, and I’m inspired by both the past and the present as I speak to them, as they welcome me.

After a long lunch with old friends, a scenic drive through the greenest valley, Holly and I deemed the quest a success.  We came with words and curiosity; we a reminder that we are part of Christ’s body, linked together by history and, more importantly, the Lord we serve together.