Hands and Voices

Family After the months
of his pursuit of her, now
they meet face to face.
From the beginnings of the world
his arrival and her welcome
have been prepared. They have always
known each other.

Wendell Berry, from “Her First Calf”

Needle-sharp stars in a black-ice sky. Snow crunching underfoot, clinging to branches that glow grey in the half-moonlight. It’s a night for walking in Robert Frost’s woods, dark and deep, but we won’t be. Like the speaker, I too have miles to go. Tonight, precisely 36 miles, down the dark freeway to the hospital.

LaborAs Timmy drives I watch the green mile markers pass, listen to Sufjan Stevens sing lighthearted Christmas songs into the night. I breathe through each contraction, trying not to worry about their frequency or length. I remind myself, again and again, that this is the design. I’m made for this. It’s supposed to be like this. Don’t worry. At the end of this, our daughter will be born,

Will be born. Such a passive phrase, as if babies materialize magically and quietly into hospitals, delivered like extra gauze or meals on trays. But to state it otherwise–where I’ll deliver my daughter–seems just as wrong. I’m no Moses of childbirth; it will take many people to deliver this one small person into the world, not just me.

A long time ago, I remember watching a TV movie in which a woman gives birth alone, in a cabin in Alaska, sometime in the early half of the last century. Why she was alone escapes me now, but as we drive I think about that fictional woman, who labored in solitude in a wild place, who bit down on a leather strap at the height of the pain and pushed her baby out and then caught him herself. He lived, she lived, they all lived happily ever after.

LuciUnassisted, we’d call the birth now, and we’d idealize it as evidence that women are fiercely powerful, that we can prevail over even the toughest moment that biology hands us without an ounce of help from anyone. We’re just that strong.

Maybe some earlier version of me would have found the Alaska movie awe-provoking, for certainly there’s truth to the notion that childbirth is both marvelous and ancient, old as humanity and just as common. Yet while I love a good girl-power moment as much as anyone, that’s not my story. I can identify with her pain, but I don’t envy her solitude. Not even a little bit. Because apart from our baby girl herself, emerging wet and wailing at the end of it all, what I’ll remember most about her delivery has little to do with me. I was very much not alone, and it’s those who surrounded me that I’ll remember forever.

Their hands. My husband’s, gently untangling my forehead with each contraction. My mother’s, resting on my head, the way it must have a thousand other sleepless nights. A dear friend, Emily’s, busy doing whatever needs to be done, waving a fan or massaging a foot, or taking the beautiful photos she’d later make into an album for us. My daughter’s, wrapping her fingers firmly around one of mine.

EmilyTheir voices. Timmy’s reminding me to relax, reminding me that he loves me, reminding me I’m safe. Mom’s telling me she’s proud of me. Dad’s choked with tears as Luci opens her eyes for the first time. Luci’s giving the reassuring wail to announce her arrival into the world.

Hands and voices surrounding us, this tiny girl and me. And through the sharp, sweet joy of afterwards, with bright sunlight pouring over the mountains through the windows, I’ll remember those things the most. Not the pain, which has already melted into a dull ache of distant memory. Not the power or triumph of my body doing exactly what it was made to do. Just the sweetly humbling realization that at every step it was their hands, their voices, that brought us through the night, delivering Luciana, our little light, into the dawn.

Candles and Community

The top of the wood stove is perfect for making quesadillas!

The top of the wood stove is perfect for making quesadillas!

The house is cold at dawn.

I wake and build the fires.

The ground is white with snow.

from “IV,” Wendell Berry

On the night our daughter is supposed to be born (the “supposed to” determined by an oh-so-precise countdown that started way back in February), we have no electricity at Snoqualmie Pass. We’re actually more than 24 hours into a power outage, since yesterday saw one of the more vicious storms in memory, a storm that took away not only our lights, but those of over 300,000 others in our region.

Yesterday we sat inside and prayed that we wouldn’t have to drive through the tree-felling, road-saturating tempest, 35 miles “down the mountain” to the hospital. Today calm, grey light reflects off of new snow and brightens our house during the daytime. Except for the lack of hot water and Internet, and the pitifully room-temperature refrigerator, we’re not so bothered by the lack of power in the daytime.

Night is different. It gets dark at 4:30 PM these days, so at four I leave behind the Wendell Berry I was reading by the dusk in the window, and light a fire and half a dozen lanterns. My mother arrives a few minutes later with pots of soup from Grandma’s apartment downstairs, where they’d been thawing on top of her stove. She sets them now on the flat top of our wood stove to boil, while Timmy goes to the back deck to grill sausages.

At five, two neighbors arrive, stamping snow off their boots downstairs and then crowing delightedly at the warmth that our stove has provided. One shares harrowing tales of his own house, where it’s 53˚ F inside and his dog and cat sleep with him under the covers. “So warm!” he marvels, stretching out his hands over the glowing orange door of the stove. While we wait for the soup, we nibble on pretzels re-toasted on the barbecue, swap stories of the last two dark days and forecasts of when we’ll return to the 21st century. They spy me, still roundly bulky in the candlelight, and advise that I should “just relax. Babies come when they want to. Just be relaxed, Kristi.”

The truth is, I am relaxed, at rest as we break bread (and soup and sausages) with our neighbors, basking in the familiar warmth of community. Somehow, without my expecting or inviting it, community became a theme of the last five years. Though the process has been gradual, I’m amazed when I remember the studiously reserved and self-sufficient teacher that left the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2010. I could take care of myself, I thought then, and I was happy to do so for as long as was necessary. Community–the village life that I skirted by being comparatively wealthy and urban–was undoubtedly difficult. It meant sharing life with people different than I, meant depending on some of those people for more than amusement.

And then I became a missionary, connected by relational and financial bonds to a wide range of people, all around the world. I moved to a literal village, where I lived without a car and had to rely on others for rides to the airport and hospital. I ran into my students and coworkers around every corner, and realized that even if I thought of myself as an island, no amount of self-reliance could make it so. So I joined a choir and a women’s Bible Study, and dared to date and marry my husband in full view of my village. Our home became a gathering place, where we shared meals like this candlelit one. I never expected it, this extravagant community, but I needed it. We all do.

It's also ideal for pancake-making!

It’s also ideal for pancake-making!

This little mountain road, flanked with snow and just a few houses, is a new village. I’m still learning community, this time from my parents, who are the kind of people who clean out their refrigerator (and freezer!) and invite the neighbors over for an impromptu candlelit dinner. I feel fortunate to be here, amazed and delighted that this will be Luci’s first home.

Our culture is an individual one, where it’s easy to long for space or independence, financial security or the peculiar brand of “I can do it myself” that defined my early twenties. And then the power goes out and our batteries die, and around a glowing table laden with soup, sausage and bread we share stories and laughter, brightening the early dark.

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.

Shorts

Wearing the shorts {and looking a bit less round than I do now}.

Wearing the shorts {and looking a bit less round than I do now}.

“The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”

Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer

It’s been a summer of changes. We’ve slept in four different time zones, moved to a zip code neither of us has lived in before, and begun the process of settling in to this year away from Germany. On top of that, I have laughed almost daily at the changing shape of my body (Or is it our body? What do you call it when you’re sharing one space with an ever-growing little person?), and seen fireflies for the first time, which I’d previously suspected were mythical, like dragons. Busy summer, indeed.

So, there are plenty of momentous transitions about which I could write here, but I’ll stick to one that is less momentous. This summer–for the first time in the last decade or so–I bought a pair of shorts.

I’m not talking about athletic shorts, which I’ll wear running (back when I went running) or hiking like everyone else. These are navy blue chinos (whatever that is), wear-around sorts of shorts. Normal shorts.

Being neither an expert in fashion nor a particularly body-image conscious person, I never gave much thought to “giving up” shorts. It wasn’t a decision, a plan. I simply stopped buying them. I had many excuses, but for the sake of brevity I’ll boil them down to the top two:

  1. There’s not a good context for me to wear shorts. I won’t wear them to school, where the length of shorts is a fierce debate, and after school it’s just not often that warm in Kandern. Shorts accomplish nothing that a skirt doesn’t do much better.
  2. I don’t like how I look in shorts. I didn’t spend much time thinking about this, except to reflect that I don’t love to showcase the space between my knees and my waist. So, no shorts.

Excuse 2, if I’m honest, was always louder than Excuse 1. I’m relatively accepting, if not downright complacent, about most parts of myself. Did it really matter if there was this one little part that I’d rather conceal? (For the record, I’d still argue that no, it didn’t matter. They’re just shorts.)

This all changed this summer, for a few reasons. First, we spent the end of June and the beginning of July in Virginia, where the +90˚ F heat and inexcusable humidity made cooler clothes a requirement, not something to be fussy about. My one pair of corduroy maternity pants weren’t going to cut it, and I was quickly growing out of my sundresses. So I bought some shorts. Maternity shorts, because second, being pregnant in summer has added a few extra degrees to the already hottest summer–on both East and West Coasts–that I can remember for a while.

The shorts are fine, and I feel fine wearing them. They’re not special–they’re still just shorts–but they’ve allowed me to stay cool in the humid South and the scorching West, and that’s plenty. Perhaps they look hilarious, but frankly my general roundness is pretty hilarious to begin with, so I’m not worried about it. I’m not sure that this relationship will last–me and shorts–but for now we’re OK. The shorts have reminded me, however, of something more important than shorts. (Remember, almost everything is more important than shorts.)

We’re all walking around, I imagine, with places we’d like to hide more often than not. I’m no exception. I know there are topics I tiptoe around, times and places about which I simply don’t write or share, preferring to keep places of brokenness and selfishness to myself. I’ve lately been challenged recently by the honesty of friends, writing and speaking with candor about their journeys through transition, singleness and loss.

For me, it’s easy to tell amusing classroom stories, or to reflect on the nature of Christ-filled community. Trickier as a missionary, far removed from communities of family, friends and supporters, to share what God is teaching me in uncertainty or homesickness. Much harder still to reveal the maddening difference between how I so often behave and who I know Christ is calling me to be.

Wearing the shorts–something I tried with more dramatic martyrdom than I’m proud of–hasn’t been terrible. I’d wager that true vulnerability, whether here or within the communities I’m privileged to live, can be not only not terrible, but actually an open door for conversation, relationship and growth.

I am called to serve out of humility and compassion, showing love because at every turn I receive it from Christ. We’re not made for facades, but rather to be what author and theologian Henri Nouwen calls “wounded healers,” present with one another in the midst of transformation, not at the end of it.  Because the transformation is ongoing, as Christ calls us to new challenges, new seasons, new homes. Some of which call for a new pair of shorts, and all of which call for the courage and compassion to be honest with those with whom I share in the journey.

Where We’ve Landed

Hiking with Timmy and my dad in the mountains  around our new home.

Hiking with Timmy and my dad in the mountains around our new home.

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.

John Muir, “The Yosemite”

After a supper of delicious hamburgers with my parents, I leave the chalet half an hour before sunset, turning right to walk up our short road towards its origin at the nearby Interstate. I walk towards a glowing mountain, Guye Peak, its rocks and trees shining in the day’s last light.

Our road isn’t a long one; tonight I’ll traverse every inch of it twice in under half an hour. Settled comfortably among fir and hemlock trees are steep tin roofs and fortified first floors, built to withstand the ten feet of snow that some winters bring to this mountain community, their long gravel driveways branching off of the main road like veins on an alder leaf. Some of the houses are inhabited year-round, and many are not. It’s the sort of place you’d expect to be lonely and quiet, solitude for better or worse.

You’d be wrong, though. Though this year will hold many things for us, some still hidden around corners we can’t foresee, I suspect that solitude won’t be one of them. By the time Luciana arrives in November, we’ll be six people and four generations in this chalet, a green-trimmed house with three bears painted cheerfully on its front. We are sharing space, coffee, the occasional box of peaches, catching rides together for errands to the nearest “big town” and the even bigger city, an hour away.

Timmy splits wood with the neighbors!

What’s more, this street itself is alive with community. Rain or shine at seven each morning, the neighbors gather with dogs and friends to walk to the mailboxes a half-mile up the road, swapping stories of the previous day and sharing plans for this one. Most of these long summer evenings see us gathering again, this time at the far end of the road, a cul-de-sac just a stone’s throw from the thundering highway, where someone has painted a pickleball court for our community amusement. There is a book club, regular movie nights and block parties. Already we’ve been invited to trivia night at the local brewery and a luau that was unfortunately postponed due to July rain.

Halfway through my walk, a car full of neighbors pulls up beside me, all of its windows rolled down. “We saw your sister today!” squeals a tiny voice from the backseat, upon which his parents eagerly tell of their trip to Seattle, which included a stop for cookies and coffee at Holly’s Danish bakery. The boys wave newly-acquired toys and tell of the wonders of the summer day, and the parents ask about Timmy’s trip to Germany and how I’m faring without him for these few weeks.

After five years in the overseas missions community, I’ve concluded that there are as many different kinds of Home Ministry Assignments as there are missionaries. Some spend twelve months traveling coast to coast, racking up the miles and the churches, sleeping in living rooms and sharing meals with far-flung friends, family, supporters and alumni. Others settle in one place, seeking the stability of school and community for their children. No two years are alike.

With Timmy’s internship at the VA hospital starting in September and a baby joining us in November, the scaffolding of our year is somewhat clearer than it was ten months ago, when we began planning for this season. There will still be surprises, we know, places where the expectation and the reality don’t line up as we thought they would. Still, we’re reminded daily that it is the grace of God and the support of many, many people that allows us this time, and grateful with each morning walk, each smile across the dinner table, to share this place with people we love.

The North Cascades

The North Cascades

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.

Four World Cups {And Kandern, My Home}

Lexi dons jersey and flag face paint to cheer for Germany vs. Ghana

Lexi dons jersey and flag face paint to cheer for Germany vs. Ghana

I confess, I wasn’t watching when they scored the first goal.

Distracted by the coolness of the German away jerseys–red and black blocks that take me straight back to Ballard High School–I was doing some online shopping when the pub erupted, reacting to Thomas Müller’s clean shot past Brazilian keeper Júlio César.

“Ahh, I missed it!” I wailed, looking up in time to catch the replay. My friends laughed at me. I’ve missed most of the German goals this World Cup, distracted by conversation or falling asleep before the inevitable extra time periods at the late ends of 0-0 games. Watching sports is not one of my gifts, you see. Distraught that I’d possibly missed the only action in this game, I fixed my eyes on the screen bedecked with international bunting, hoping there would be another goal.

I needn’t have worried.

Quite by accident, I’ve been in Germany during the last four World Cups. I don’t remember 2002, South Korea, though there must have been posters or headlines somewhere when I was dragging my 17-year-old self through the dim underworld of the München Ostbahnhof, trying to figure out where to buy a train ticket to Salzburg. I wasn’t paying attention when Germany lost to Brazil in the final.

Tunisia vs. Saudi Arabia, 2006

Tunisia vs. Saudi Arabia, 2006

I remember 2006, though, taking a night train full of drunken Italian footballers headed for Dortmund, shopping in Munich on the raucous day that Tunisia played Saudi Arabia there. I remember my friends telling me, wide-eyed, that they’d never seen so many German flags on display. “We don’t usually display our flags,” they explained to me, “Not since… We’re careful about nationalism now.”

In 2010, two American girls and three German girls grilled bratwurst in Austria, then sighed when Germany lost the semi-final to Spain, way down in South Africa. We watched the final in a library, and two Dutch Tauernhof students dominated both the cheering and the lament, though we were all wearing orange and were all disappointed.

Watching the Spain vs. Germany semi-final in 2010

Watching the Spain vs. Germany semi-final in 2010

This year is different. This year comes at the end of four years living in Germany, where people care deeply about this sport and feel comfortable expressing love for their country only during football matches. There are more German flags out in general than there were 12 years ago, but especially now. Since this World Cup began, I’ve watched games in three countries, and heard commentary in four languages, only two of which I understood. Back in 2010, when my Somali and Mexican students would watch the group stage games in my classroom during lunch, I got the impression that this World Cup business was a big deal, captivating the whole world in a way that few other events did. Now, I know for sure.

Afraid of missing something, I pay fastidious attention to the rest of the game, a 7-1 rout by Germany, which will be catalogued in history with statistics particularly miraculous or damning, depending on your perspective. “What is even happening?” we cry, disbelieving, after each goal. “Does this ever happen?” We cheer as well as we can–and have dressed in the required red, black and gold–but we’re no match for the Kanderners, who shout, cry, and break into song as the victory grows more secure.

Watching Germany vs. France, 2014 Quarterfinal, on the Fourth of July!

Watching Germany vs. France, 2014 quarter-final, on the Fourth of July!

Tomorrow, I’ll read the German coach Joachim Löw’s consolatory words for defeated Brazil, and scan faintly guilty Facebook statuses from German friends, along the lines of “We wanted to win, but this… Wow.” Tonight, though, we celebrate. When it’s over, the Kanderners jump into their cars for the bizarre and perilous ritual of driving around in circles through our village, laying on their horns and shouting. “Wir haben gewonnen! We’ve won!” they remind us as we walk home, laughing. “Show some spirit!” Apparently, a honking horn is the only acceptable response in cases like these.

I lack the knowledge and vocabulary to speak of the influence of the World Cup on the world, whether it ultimately unites or divides, whether it’s worth the cost, especially to Brazil tonight. But I’m thankful to be here, to share something so deeply important to so many, to live in this village where they cheer into the night.

To The {Book} Fair

Books in Greenwich

Books in Greenwich

…I’m coming to get you, I hissed,

as I entered the library like a man stepping

into a freight elevator of science and wisdom.

“The Literary Life,” Billy Collins

It’s a busy Friday night at Black Forest Academy. Upstairs, the junior varsity boys basketball team plays one of their last home games of the season. In the yearbook and graphic arts lab across the way, a few students and teachers watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, projected on the wall. (The Parade of Nations is never more amusing than when some of the loudest cheers are for Moldova, Romania, Turkey, Tajikistan and Korea. We tried hard to keep up when the star-clad Americans strolled onto the scene.)

Having resolved to watch basketball later in the evening, I’ve left the Olympic viewing party to get dinner and browse at the Book Swap. The Book Swap, one of dozens of annual traditions in our small English-speaking community, is exactly what it sounds like. Bring an already-read and now-unwanted book in the afternoon, get a coupon for a free new book in the evening. Simple. Or, as some of the students do, bring twenty books that you gathered from dusty corners of your dorm, books left behind by students lightening their loads, and come away with twenty that you haven’t been dog-earing for several years already.

The Book Swap is one of those Inventions born of Necessity for which missionaries are famous. We don’t have to invent all that much, I admit, since Germany is decidedly first-world. In our frustrated moments we blame life’s difficulties on the culture, but by the rational light of day we mostly know that car trouble and medical bills are unpleasant in every language. There are Kafkaesque tax processes and unfindable groceries, but as North Americans living in a German village in the Black Forest, we get along just fine most of the time.

What we don’t have, however, are books. English books. They’re mostly not for sale in our village, and this has never really surprised me. Imagine the smallest town you can in America. In Pacific Northwest terms, our town is the size of Fall City or Concrete, Washington. Then, if you can, imagine that town having a bookstore. Finally, picture the bookstore carrying a section of books in French. “Why would we have English books?” the baffled shop owner had asked me shortly after I moved here and began inquiring. “No one likes reading in English.” 

Of course there are still English books here, hundreds and thousands of them, stashed away in our living rooms and offices and in our own school library, which is what makes the Book Swap work in the first place. It hinges on the idea that people aren’t necessarily purchasing new books, but rather sending well-read words on to new audiences. It’s a beautiful idea from every angle–ecological, intellectual, communal, economic–but nothing can describe the delight of experiencing it in person.

This year, I go down with a coupon entitling me to seven free books, which I’d earned by cleaning out my living room and classroom bookshelves earlier today. I’m rather late, half an hour after opening, so by the time I arrive the pickings are slim. I peruse the tables of fiction–labeled Adult and Young Adult–along with the intriguing Miscellaneous and nostalgic Children’s sections. I pause for a while among the cookbooks, marveling over the rounded yellow letters and orangey photographs that place most of them firmly in the 1970s and 80s. Apparently missionaries aren’t up to transporting cookbooks transcontinentally. They collect here, like rain in a birdbath.

I’m not really here for new (old) books, honestly. I have a few novels at home that I keep for sentimental reasons, and the poetry books that I’ve brought because I can’t read poetry digitally, but most of my new reading comes either from the library or the Kindle store these days. I’m seldom willing to take the risk of physically owning a book that I might not like, even here where it’s a free exchange. I pick up a volume of Kipling short stories, and an old copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

For me, the chief enjoyment of the Book Swap is the students who flock here. Unlike their counterparts on other continents, the majority of our students love to read. Before I know it, I’m showing my meager findings to a girl weighted down with a stack of books she’s selected on advice from others, by attraction to covers or by the names authors she already knows. I find another student with a Rubbermaid bin full of books–the best books, he assures me–that he’s rescued from obscurity. An illustrated Bible and an anthology of Persian poetry stare up at me from the top of his heap. He’s delighted with his discoveries, even though he’s a senior who will leave most of these books in this valley just four months from now. Between now and then, they are his.

Unable to find any books I’m moved to own, I begin to make my way toward the exit as another former student enters, clutching a coupon in her hand.

“I can get one book,” she says solemnly, waving the coupon. “One. I better make it good.”

“Here, get a few,” I say, handing over my unused coupon. “Enjoy.”

“Really?” she hesitates, eyeing the coupon.

“Of course. I’m your teacher. I want you to have books!”

She squeals and throws her arms around my neck, and I laugh. Later, she proudly shows me three books written by and about women–an aviator, Biblical women and a friend of Anne Frank’s–eager to share the stories she’ll soon be drinking in like water. And I think, this is a brilliant night.

Mrs.

The classroom countdown, back in September.

The classroom countdown, back in September.

“Miss Da–er, Mrs. Gaster?”

It’s the merry refrain of the week, echoing from junior after eager junior, accompanied by a waving hand and a pressing question. Unlike their senior counterparts, who use my new name out of self-conscious cuteness, the juniors are trying to get something done. They have questions–now, the last week of the semester, more than ever–and need answers. And to get answers, they feel it imperative to correctly address their teacher, whose name happened to change a few weeks back.

Young or new teachers frequently have a conflicted relationship with their own last names. It makes us feel old or dull, hearing a “Miss” or a “Mr.” attached to our less-used surnames. Sometimes, it sounds unbearably false or pretentious, attaching authority that we feel too inexperienced to deserve. I remember many times feeling like I was “playing school” in my own classroom, even after finishing student teaching, the prefix before my name just an echo from childhood games.

But perhaps because at almost-21 I was possibly too young when I started teaching, I quickly got over it, embracing my last name and the respect that went with it. My advice: If you’re afraid of your last name, teach ninth grade in a public high school. Heard five hundred times a day, in tones that vary from jubilation to loathing, even the sternest title loses its austerity, blending seamlessly into the role. To me, “Miss Dahlstrom,” means “teacher,” a happy personal synonym born out of vocation and relationship. After eight years, this is as much who I am as the colloquial Kristi of summers and after-school hours.

Which is why I smile when my students teasingly complain about having to call me something new halfway through the school year. “This is a hard adjustment for you?” I laugh. “What about me?”

Still, every half-Dahlstrom, half-Gaster address is a reminder, to me and to them, of a few important things. They repeat my new name purposefully–the juniors with exaggerated solemnity and the seniors with hyperbolic glee–because they’re still celebrating with us. Far from clandestinely leaving the continent and coming back–surprise!–married, our students have been anticipating this for months with us, counting down the days and then logging in, from all over the world and at all hours, to watch our wedding live. They’re thrilled to see us back here together, and to get to be the first to call me “Mrs. Gaster.” It’s an honor to hear, to be reminded by their cheerful stumbling that they’re paying attention to our lives.

It’s this attention, really, that I hear most in my new name on my students’ lips. Since that Christmas Banquet two years ago, Timmy’s and my relationship has unfolded always within the watchful view of a few hundred teenagers. For both of us, this was always an extension of how we were already living our lives, making our decisions, interactions and relationships visible to young people who, far from the older siblings and youth leaders who occupy these roles elsewhere, are looking for models of Christ-centered young adulthood. As we’d been available single, so we remained while dating, fielding the questions and confidences opened up by this new chapter in our lives.

As we return to Kandern, we realize that our marriage continues in this vein, that we have the opportunity to be either hospitable or hermetic in our new little house. We choose hospitality, aware that at every step of the way we’ll need to rely on Christ for the love that binds us together and pours out to those around us. Living in a community eager to support and mentor us as a couple,  surrounded by those who will hold us accountable to honoring Christ with our marriage, we are fortunate indeed.

And so, in Mrs. Gaster, I hear not just the “teacher who was Miss Dahlstrom,” though I’m tempted sometimes to listen for it, that echo of a younger self. In this new name, I’m reminded with each repetition that I’m more than a teacher here, that our home belongs to God as much as my classroom ever has. Though sharing the mysteries of written words remains so delightful I’d do it for free, in our marriage, we have the opportunity to “share life” with those around us, as my father exhorted us to do on our wedding day.

Walking together on our wedding day. Photo: Emily Kelly

Walking together on our wedding day.
Photo: Emily Kelly

It’s not a new lesson–Timmy and I, along with dozens of our friends and colleagues here in Kandern, have lived deeply in this community for years now–but it’s a road we walk together now, one name and one home to share. Pray for us as we begin this journey of sharing life together, turning our gaze first toward our foundation in Christ, as we seek to serve and love each other and those around us.

{I Am} Home for Christmas

Juniors write letters from Santa on the last day of classes.

Juniors write letters from Santa on the last day of classes.

Love is not a toy, and no paper will conceal it.
Love is simply joy that I’m home.

Sara Barielles, “Love Is Christmas”

“We’re writing letters to Santa today?” asked the eleventh graders, staring quizzically at the red and green papers I handed out on the last Friday before Christmas Break.

“No,” I replied. “Letters from Santa. You’re all grown up.”

They’d sprawled out on the floor, munching cookies and sipping milk, glancing now and then at the Christmas wish that I’d handed them, which had been scribbled out by a classmate just minutes before. At the end of class, I collected the letters, and began to read them aloud.

My students’ task: guess both the wisher and the “Santa” who replied.

Throughout the day, the activity–one I dreamed up late the night before–brought mostly laughter from the students. Few put down actual Christmas wishes, instead wishing for teddy bears, the ability to teleport, and a “unicorn crossed with a platypus.” The first letter in my last class, however, began with a serious wish.

“I just received your wish to go home to Canada for Christmas,” it began. Half a dozen pairs of eyes glanced at their one Canadian classmate, who smiled and sat up straight in her desk. The letter continued, explaining how Santa was sorry that he couldn’t give her a trip to Canada, but would “have to bring Christmas here to you in Germany with your family.” As I finished the letter–and my students immediately guessed its author correctly–tears sprang to my eyes as I saw the smile exchanged between my two students, the wisher and the granter of wishes.

This morning, I run around Greenlake, December fog so thick I can barely see the other side of the lake, and think about home. Or rather, think about what makes a place home. I’m back in Seattle at Christmas for the first time since 2010. Though the primary draw is our wedding ten days from now, it’s nice to be back here for the holidays, remembering the many Decembers I’ve spent here, each linked to rituals as bizarre as they are cherished.

I’ve been back to Seattle a few times since moving to Germany, but mostly in the summer, unarguably the glory days for the Pacific Northwest, when warmer temperatures and fewer rainclouds draw everyone outside to celebrate. December is a different story. I stand on the 40th floor of the Columbia Tower, hoping for views of Puget Sound and Lake Washington, and see a textured grey collage, with very few splashed of color to break the limited palette. This isn’t our prettiest time of year.

Still, it’s home. A home, one of a few. And as I think about homes, it reminds me of how I think about people, cherished friends and family, with whom I’ve cultivated relationship and history. How history builds up a balance of beauty that often outweighs the present, so that we forgive Decembers for their greyness, knowing that the warmth is indoors, and that’s what counts. Kandern is a sleepy village at the dead end of a bus line. Seattle is grey nine months of the year, with incomprehensible public transit and a widening gap between rich and poor. There are flaws everywhere, perfection nowhere.

And yet. People make these places home, people and the memories they bring. This is my fourth Christmas “away,” with two spent in Kandern and now two in Seattle. In both places, I’m blessed with relationships and history beyond what I could have ever imagined. Here, the warmth of family and church, friendships that stretch back to college and earlier. There, the richness of community abroad, the family that God has assembled from many places, all His children worshipping together. Both good, and both home.

So this lake, grey and lifeless, deserted on a Tuesday morning, remains lovely in my home-seeking eyes, still shining with memories of friends and conversation, of cross country practice and paddle-boats in summer. The balance of love in these places, my homes, can outlast the austerity of even the greyest winter. And for that, this Christmas season, I’m thankful.