Then & Now

IMG_6154Then

It’s me, three bags and a violin, and climb the three floors to my new apartment downtown at the end of a hot summer day. I’ve taken three trains today, from Austria to my new home in Southwestern Germany. This morning, my new boss told me that I wouldn’t be teaching the classes I’d planned on all summer, middle school English and history, but instead high school English and Canadian history. I would be more frustrated if I had planned anything for the middle school classes, but I haven’t. I probably should be more nervous than I am, since school starts on Tuesday and I’ve never even been to Kandern, the village where the school and my flat are located. I should be, but I’m just tired.

Now

It’s me and Luci, a baby carrier and a yellow umbrella, four floors up in our apartment at the top of the town, in the middle of a rainy summer day. We’ve left the house once today, this morning for groceries, where I bought food for the weekend and chatted with a friend in the produce section. Other than that, though, we haven’t been out much, and I haven’t done much planning for the classes I’ll teach in three weeks. Mostly we’ve sat on the floor and played with cups. Until now, when Luci decided that the cups were suddenly not interesting enough to distract her from the late-afternoon malaise of being a baby and teething and walking and bumping into things. So we leave.

Then

My new roommates have secured a few items of furniture for my attic bedroom. A bed with blankets, a wardrobe, a red end table for a desk and a brocade chair. It’s not much, but it will be enough, and it’s more than I expected. I look at the peaked ceiling, peer through the slanted windows at the little town I should start calling home, its tile roofs warm in the golden sunlight.

“Can we go for a walk?” I ask my roommate, Emily.

Now

We wander around the apartment getting ready. From Luci’s room a pink coat and little shoes. From my closet a pair of sandals. From the side table in the hall Luci’s baby carrier, a present from my parents that has taken us through half a dozen airports and countless hikes. I pull Luci close to me and loop the straps over my shoulders, and we stand by the living room windows, looking out at this familiar town, at the tile roofs gleaming in a break in the clouds.

“Let’s go outside, Luci,” I tell my daughter, grabbing an umbrella as we go.

Then

Emily and I drift through the narrow alleys of the village we don’t know yet. “Can we get up there?” I ask, pointing towards a high, round hill at the end of the town, atop of which a gazebo appears to be perched. Emily shrugs. She hasn’t gone there yet, but she’s willing to explore with me. We wind our way through the town, the hill in our sights. I get acquainted with the town, sweet smelling and still mostly silent, and my roommate, hearing about her summer and her first weeks in Kandern. We’ll become friends, but today we’re just almost-strangers exploring a place and each other.

We don’t find the gazebo, or the way up the hill, but we walk and talk, and I’m satisfied as we climb up the stairs, the sun setting on my first day living in Germany.

Now

Luci and I climb the hill behind our house, my feet carrying us automatically up the little-known road that leads to the trail that leads to the shorn, grassy path that leads to the gazebo high above the town. At the top of the hill it starts to rain, so I unfurl the yellow umbrella, which makes Luci laugh. Larger drops make a louder sound, and she keeps laughing, craning her neck to see more and more of the flowery roof over our heads. She can’t be bothered with the view, doesn’t know how precious it is to me or how special this place is. The gazebo I didn’t find with Emily on that first night, the gazebo where my husband gave me a green mug and told me he liked me, yesterday forever ago. Someday she’ll care, but not today; today is it’s all about the umbrella.

So I leave her to her giggling and spend a moment remembering. How simple life once was, just me and my bags and a vague idea of what I’d be doing here. It was a minimalist’s dream, that life, the ascetic attic with its sparse furniture, my capsule wardrobe that I could carry in a single backpack. Now it’s complex, layered, three of us in a home full of everything we need that may fit into ten suitcases whenever we leave this place, if we can sell a lot of it first. I suppose I could have kept the minimal life. But as I stand in the rain on a favorite hilltop, six years later, with my umbrella and my giggling little girl, I thank God for the beauty of complexity.

Under the umbrella

Under the umbrella

Walking

The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
And He delights in his way.
When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong,
Because the Lord is the One who holds his hand.

Psalm 37:23-24

These days are about walking.

Teacher preparation starts in two days, and school staff are filling our town and keeping Timmy busy with airport runs, moving help and welcoming new TeachBeyond colleagues. I’ve corresponded with students, cracked some genuine American literature, and listened to the Hamilton soundtrack a few times for good measure. As usual, listing out tasks completed and coming up makes it sound like August has been a busy month. It has, but mostly, August has been the Month of Walking.

Some of the walking has been practical, mundane, even… pedestrian. (Pun intended… I can’t help myself.) Though we’ve been blessed with the car of a former staff member, mostly we walk everywhere here. To the school, to the grocery store, to friends’ houses. We walk for fun, too, in the hills and forests and most often down to the creek. After driving an hour each way to Seattle for a year, speeding up and down Interstate 90, we’re getting used to a different pace of travel, one day at a time.

The more important walking, though, is done down near the ground, by a person just over two feet fall. More and more, our daughter has destinations–Walk to the chickens! Walk to the hall to chew on shoes!–but her walking is mostly for its own sake. Luci walks–arms raised for balance, eyes wide with curiosity and excitement–not to run errands or because she wants exercise, but because she can. She walks for the steps themselves, each one precious and more sure than the last.

And watching her walk, gaining new appreciation for the miracle that any babies, all of us at one point, ever learn to walk, I’m reminded of the many places in Scripture that we’re instructed on walking, our steps and God’s part in them.

And He delights in his way. I think about the great delight that we take in each of Luci’s steps right now, no matter where she’s going. Later, I’m sure we’ll love the metaphorical ones, too, reveling in the moments when she makes wise decisions or acts of kindness.

I think about these verses differently now than I have before. Not as an adult, for whom walking comes as easily as breathing, but as one just learning and the ones teaching her. Because we’re delighting in her steps, we’re holding her hand, sometimes guiding her path. And though the other kind of walking, the expert kind, has its merits, I’m glad of the reminder that on this journey with Christ I’m as new at this as Luci, that He delights in my steps and holds my hand to keep me from falling.

 

and all shall be well

and all shall be wellAh, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

Mary Oliver, from “Starlings in Winter”

It’s a summer of contrasts.

Last night there was a suicide bombing, again in Germany, in a town to which I’ve traveled often for track meets. And another shooting in Florida. Three days ago, a young shooter attacked several other teenagers at a shopping mall in Munich. Before that was a coup. Before that there were policemen and black men, killed and killing. Before that were more guns, more bombs. Violence and injustice, innocent lives lost everywhere. The speaker at church on Sunday scrolled backwards through this litany of terrors–just in July–events in America and around the world that remind me of a line in Romeo and Juliet: “For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.” Except this isn’t Tybalt killing Mercutio, or Gatsby’s great, heat- and rage-fueled car crash. It’s real violence, not literary, and it won’t pass with the hot days of summer.

Meanwhile, we’re a town so quiet that we can hear horseshoes clattering or cats fighting on the street four floors down, and accordion music floats lazily through our window in the evenings. We spend most days watching a person grow. (Slower than grass, but so much more entertaining!) We watch her standing, balancing on her toes then heels then toes again. We hear her trying to talk, telling us in dozens of syllables all of her thoughts and feelings. We give her watermelon and peaches, delighted to see them disappear into her toothless smile. We take her to the pool and learn she’s afraid of cold water (But who isn’t?), then exult when she consents to sit down and splash for ten merry minutes in the shallowest part of the wading pool. These are my days, both dark and bright.

And a sentence keeps running through my mind, one that I’ve loved for a long time. And all shall be well. Part of Revelations of Divine Love, by medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, these words have run like a line of music through the last decade or so of my life, a promise of God’s power and goodness that has carried me through more than a few times of upheaval. Still, I confess it’s only today that I remembered to be a dutiful English teacher and look up the context of the quote (beyond the two lines around it, borrowed by T.S. Eliot in “Little Gidding”).

I discovered that the lines were Christ’s response to her question–why was sin necessary? As God replied to Job, Julian received a reply, but not an answer:

“But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'”

Sin was necessary, but all will be well anyway. God will make all things well.

Psalm 23 tells the same story:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me…

Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Psalm 23:4,6

I feel the tension between the beauty of my daily life and the pain that surrounds me, but this is nothing new if I’ve been paying attention. Life in Christ is a tension between contrasts. Light in darkness. Beauty in brokenness. Sin all around, but sin conquered at last. Goodness and lovingkindness following me–not puddles or moments of it, here and there–even through the shadowy valleys of these dark days.

Thank you God for the beauty, for the all that shall be well. Oh God, walk with us through these valleys.

The New Kids

Some leisurely sketching on a conference afternoon.

Some leisurely sketching on a conference afternoon.

The conference ends with the new kids.

Timmy, Luci and I have been at the conference this week for Avant Ministries, a mission agency dedicated to planting churches internationally. Though still very much members of TeachBeyond ourselves, committed to sharing Christ in educational settings, we’ve been asked to host the youth program at the Avant conference this week. And so, with eight days in Germany under our belts, we drive four hours north to a retreat center in the windmill-populated hills of the Rheinland-Pfalz Westerwald.

It has been a week of games and discussion, with many new friendships for us, forged in the family camp atmosphere of the conference. Watching the teenagers this week, I remembered my own summers at Capernwray Harbor family weeks in British Columbia, and my dad’s memories of Mount Herman camp from his childhood. I’m keenly aware of the privilege and stability that these “summer places” represent, and so I’ve been pleased to see it reflected here, among the children of missionaries who so crave long-term relationship and the common denominator of a place to return to, year after year.

For the youth, though, week is more family reunion than family camp. All week we hear stories from these kids, many of whom have spent the majority of their lives planting churches with their parents. I know firsthand the investment that comes with having parents who work in a church, especially a new and small one, and some of these kids have done this many times already on multiple continents. One young woman, ready to start her post-high school life in America, remembers growing up overseas, far from most of her extended family.

“These,” she motions at the long, noisy tables full of missionary families in the dining hall, “These are my uncles and aunts and cousins, really. This is who I’ve grown up with.”

At the end of the conference, after the final songs and thank yous, someone asks the children of the new missionaries to come to the front of the hall. Many of them are young, some even toddlers, and they sit patiently on the steps of the stage while the smiling teenagers line the center aisle that leads out of the room.

The speaker tells them what they already know. Moving to a new country—to Poland, to Spain, to the Czech Republic—can be hard and scary. Some will start at new schools soon, many in new languages.

“But look at these teenagers,” the speaker continues. The teens grin back at him, at each other, knowing looks of shared experiences. “They’ve done it, too.” He points out one young man who’s lived in Japan, Poland and Spain, and a young woman who grew up in Ecuador and France.

“How many of you,” he asks, “Have started school in a classroom where you didn’t speak a word of the language on the first day of school?”

Most of the teenagers raise their hands, nodding dutifully and doubtless remembering those confusing, isolating early days.

“But how many of you learned that language eventually?” he follows up. The same hands go up, this time with proud smiles.

Earlier this week with the youth we discussed the call of Abraham, a tale in which these international kids find themselves easily. They each recall similar moments, relating not always to Abraham himself but to the huge entourage that he took with him out of Ur, a family and household uprooted from a comfortable place by God’s calling. They’re thankful and genial, this particular group, eager to take ownership in their families’ ministries, but I’m struck this morning by the many journeys reflected even in this short demonstration.

I can’t know what the new kids think about this, as I stand in the back with Luci, but it is a powerful moment for me. It’s a reminder of the resilient, adventurous kinds of students that we work with at Black Forest Academy, but it’s also the first time I encounter these kids as a parent myself. I wonder when a baby becomes a missionary kid? When she goes to Kindergarten in a different language? When she understands what goodbye means? When she starts to develop strong opinions or habits around airports? I try to squint ahead and imagine Luci in a few years, wondering what her life will look like, and if she’ll one day identify with these nervous toddlers or confident teenagers.

As usual, this kind of future-squinting uncovers more questions than answers. In the end, I can only pray that if God keeps us overseas for the long haul, if Luci’s childhood is a multilingual, many-miled sojourn, that she’ll greet it with the open hearts and eyes that I’ve had the privilege of meeting this week. They are young people who’ve chosen adventure and obedience, and I am delighted that these are the kinds of students we’re returning to serve at BFA, the people who will surround my daughter in her first years of life.

Grateful Goodbyes

Proud Papa dedicating his first granddaughter at Bethany Community Church.

Proud Papa dedicating his first granddaughter at Bethany Community Church.

Here are the hard goodbyes
Love you ’til the day I die
Here’s where regrets all fade
Into the light from which you’re made

And here is the warm sand
Sifting through your perfect hand
Here’s where you laugh again
In the memory of a friend

And here’s where you find the truth
It’s the heart and soul of you
Here’s where the body fades
Beautiful in every way

Here’s where the songs we’ve sung
Weave into the constant one
Turn all your fears to love
There is nothing left undone

Julia Massey, from “Here Is A Stone Wall”

Goodbyes are knit into a teacher’s existence. At the end of each school year, we watch some leave forever, and mourn the quieter endings of sweet, intricate classroom communities, built of shared words, spoken and read. The kids depart and I grade the last essays, bringing the year to a stumbling halt, like running down the stairs in the dark, when you forget how many stairs there are. Seven years out of nine (everyone has rough years–mine were the first two), I’ve thought a little sadly that I won’t love any class more than the one I just finished with. All that investment, all those hours, and they’ve moved on, leaving me behind. But then August comes, and usually between September and December I fall in love all over again. Hello and goodbye.

And because I was a teacher for a long time, and a student for ages before that, perhaps part of me thought I’d get out of the goodbyes, just for one year. That somehow I was taking a break from not only the planning and grading and disciplining, but from the adapting and knowing and loving that comes with it. Not so, I find today, as we do one last load of laundry and pack our last bag, counting suitcase pounds like pennies in a piggybank. I’ve fallen in love again, and I’m saying goodbye. Again.

There’s a quote that goes around this time of year, Graduation Season, that goes “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” I doubt that Winnie the Pooh actually said it, as it’s often attributed, but frankly it doesn’t matter. It’s true and beautiful, and today it’s exactly how I feel, sitting on my parents’ couch and watching the hard June rain soak Snoqualmie Pass one last time. It hasn’t been a year of classroom laughter and epiphanies, but it has been a good year.

I look ahead a few days, squinting past air travel with an infant, rental-car machinations and autobahns that will deliver us back to our village, and I know that it is also home. That we’re going, again, from one home to another, from one good to another good. How lucky we are, really, that we’re neither fleeing danger nor heading into exile, like so many are today. From home to home, love to love.

It’s still hard. We reach the end of our year at home with tightened bonds, strengthening the knots that tie us back to people and places an ocean away. I’m sad and thankful, excited and mournful, wondering how I could possibly have forgotten after all these years that beginnings come after endings.

Mostly I am grateful for a year. We once thought of it as an interruption, a tax-mandated pause in ministry, but this time has been infinitely more than that. It’s been a year of family. That lazy proximity to my parents and siblings that I’d been missing for five years, space to know one another again, and for them to know my husband and now daughter. It’s been a year of time. Time to think, to rest, to write, to prepare, to love. So much time that it seemed endless at points, until it wasn’t. Until today.

We take last photos, give last hugs, and say goodbye. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again, the sweet cost of loving. A family, a home, a year. And I am so grateful.

This is my family, sharing Thanksgiving in June on our last night in Washington. I miss them already.

This is my family, sharing Thanksgiving in June on our last night in Washington. I miss them already.

All Here

Enjoying at day at the Zoo with my sister (and Timmy, Luci and our new brother-in-law, Chris).

Enjoying at day at the Zoo with my sister (and Timmy, Luci and our new brother-in-law, Chris).

What I Expect of You:

2. You’ll be Present. Come to class on time every day.       When you are here, be fully present with your body, mind and soul. Some of you know one another very well, but your social life belongs in the hall. In here, you are scholars, readers and writers. Treat one another this way.

What You Can Expect of Me:

2. I’ll be Present. I am thrilled to be here and be your teacher for the year. I will come to class on time each day, and give my whole attention—body, mind and soul—to helping you learn and grow as students.

From my Honors American Literature Syllabus

It smells like summer here at Snoqualmie Pass, but this afternoon–after answering several emails from next year’s Honors American Literature students–I’m thinking about my syllabus. Specifically, I’m thinking of the three exhortations on the front page:

  1. Be Prepared.

  2. Be Present.

  3. Be Respectful.

And while preparedness and respect are important, it’s the second command that I’ve stalled on today. Be present.

I think ahead to a few months from now, when I’ll discuss this point with a new class of teenagers. “Be fully present,” I’ll tell them. “As in, here in the classroom physically, but also mentally, emotionally. Not that thing where you’re here, but not really all here.” They’ll nod knowingly, the future students, because they understand. We all do.

Fully present. It was a point in my dad’s sermon on Acts 17, another undiscussed thought in common that punctuates these days. Because it’s easy, right now, to be partially present. Sort of here, yes, enjoying sunny late-spring days with my family in this chalet on Snoqualmie Pass. But also sort of not here. Sort of in Kandern already, unpacking things into a new apartment. Sort of walking well-loved trails with my daughter, showing her this place where she began. Sort of daydreaming about reading my syllabus with students I haven’t yet met. Transition is the enemy of full presentness.

I think of Ecclesiastes, the preacher exhorting “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” and Paul’s Collosian callback, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” With heart and might, be present. Be here.

Being present means writing letters to friends, seeking new supporters to shore up our finances before returning to Kandern. It means writing thank you notes to those who’ve given time, money and encouragement to us while we’ve spent this year in America. It means mailing out postcards and magnets all over the country, hoping our faces will grace refrigerators and our names the prayers of friends.

But being present also means having dinner with my sister and her new husband, watching the NBA finals with my dad, going to get my hair cut with my mom. It means watching my grandmother play with my daughter, and cherishing the last few weeks we have living with four generations under one roof. It means visiting the new baby boy of my college roommate, and making plans to see friends “one last time” before we leave. It means tightening the bonds that we’re blessed to have, knowing that the relationships will soon stretch out over a continent, an ocean.

And it occurs to me now that each kind of presentness–the practical work of support-raising and the time set aside for relationship–is important to this season. That neither the preacher nor Paul said, “Work hard, all the time” or “Play now, because you’ll never get to again.” Both said, “What you’re doing, whatever you’re doing, do it well. Be all here.” In that sense, even the preparing for the future, oddly, is being present, as we focus on letter-writing or suitcase-packing so that our last days in Washington aren’t a whirlwind.

It takes wisdom to know exactly what to do with each moment, some days more wisdom than I feel I have. In these busy last weeks, I feel the familiar tug of other endings, not just of the next place I’m going, but the seven things I could reasonably do with each day left to us here at the Pass. It’s been a sweet year, rich and blessed, and we savor each remaining day we have in this place. If you think of us in the next two weeks, in between prayers that the last 20% of our monthly support will appear, pray for this wisdom. To know where God wants us to be, completely and wholeheartedly, as the days count down to our next journey.

A Summit Day

The three wedding dresses of Mrs. Holly Prairie

The three wedding dresses of Mrs. Holly Prairie

She decided to wear three dresses.

One day my sister, Holly, came up to the chalet in the mountains and we pulled out “every wedding dress in the house.” There were, surprisingly, four, belonging to myself, my great aunt, my grandmother and my mother. She’d also brought two she’d ordered online for comparison, a grand bridal fashion show. Two of the six were declared winners, neither of them the purchased ones, which she promptly sent back. The third dress, the one she made, came later, inspired by the Sugarplum Fairies at the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker last Christmas. So, three dresses for my sister’s wedding.

Far from the only unique element of the wedding, the costume changes were just the beginning. Holly and her fiancé, Chris, dreamed up a grand affair, which included a marching band playing themes from Star Wars, a parade through Woodland Park in Seattle, homemade macaroni and cheese for 250 people, and desperate prayers for good weather on the day of the picnic reception. The evening finished with a talent show, coffee and pastries, uniting their love for baked goods and espresso with the community of musicians that had surrounded them since their beginning.

And now, on her brilliantly sunny, late-April wedding day, I’m standing at the front of the church, sunflowers in hand, watching my little sister approach with a parent on each arm. The ivory satin dress, first worn by my grandmother Nadine on Christmas Day, 1943, ripples down the aisle behind her. I imagine my grandmother, who missed the wedding by a year and a half, watching with glee. My grandmother, whose middle name Holly has, who always spoke to her with both names: “Holly Nadine.” What a proud moment this is for her. For all of us.

And I think about how weddings, like other highlight-reel moments in our lives, are about the past and the future. Here we are celebrating a beginning, Holly and Chris and the gloriously genial married couple they’ll be, but behind that celebration there are so many years of history making it all the sweeter. Most of us don’t attend weddings for strangers (except occasionally as dates); we go to witness the next steps of people we know and love. It’s Grandma Nadine’s dress that she wears, but it’s Holly’s history I’m remembering. The baby sister, the laughing, elfin little girl, the theatrical teenager and the gracious, world-traveling adult. We come to celebrate the people God created, then put together just at the right moment.

John Donne wrote that no man is an island, reminding us of our interconnectedness in communities and families, but today reminds me that no day, no matter how remarkable or climactic, is an island. These days are more like mountaintops, the last few pebbles or crystals of ice atop many layers of days below. A graduation is special not because of billowing robes or square hats, but because of the years of work leading to the final day. A birth is infinitely more precious because of the months, and sometimes years, of waiting and anticipation prior to this tiny one’s arrival. Every moment is built on the ones before, and days like these are so much more beautiful in their context.

The PrairiesHours later, after vows and rings, macaroni and picnic, coffee and songs, we stand with sparklers on the sidewalk, waiting for the new Mrs. Prairie and her groom to emerge. Here she is, the grinning bride in a white and gold ballet-inspired dress, dodging flying sparks and gripping her husband’s hand as they make their getaway. They ride off on bicycles, and not the cute old-fashioned bikes you see in staged wedding photos. These are their everyday bikes, and they’re conscientiously wearing their everyday helmets. Still wearing today’s finery and riding tomorrow’s bicycles, they glide away as we cheer for their future, grateful for the pasts that have brought them, together, to this summit of a day.

Better and Better

Maugenhard baking with Ceramics Teacher and Dorm Mom

Ceramics Teacher and I were sitting on the counter at Maugenhard boys’ dorm, almost a year ago, two off-duty teachers waiting for cookies to bake and chatting with the dorm mom. We were pregnant, Ceramics Teacher a few months more than I, both excited and a bit skeptical of babies. Along with being the caregiver for twenty-ish high school boys, Dorm Mom was the successful mother of three children of her own, two in college and one a senior at BFA. We knew these kids, the bright and confident kind that lend legitimacy to any advice that comes from their parents.

And as the experienced teachers of teenagers, we needed reassurance as much as advice. Awash in the contradictions of Internet advice and the tales of our baby-overwhelmed peers, we had questions. We’ve been spending all our time with young people who are verbal, (mostly) rational beings; what will it be like to shift over to Babyland? How will we know what to do with them? Would we like them as much as we like teenagers? Couldn’t we just start with a five-year-old?

I’m remembering this conversation at Maugenhard as we drive down to visit Ceramics Teacher, her husband and now six-month old son for the weekend. The Pass is closed again, so we take the long way around, driving east instead of west. This road is wild and unfamiliar to me, having only driven it once before and never in the winter, so when we round a corner and emerge out of the fog, both Timmy and I gasp at the vista that unfolds. In every direction hills wrinkle around us, bare but for sagebrush and snow, a high desert that looks more like Central Asia than Washington State. Having come from the closed-in coziness of a hemlock forest, we drink in the massive silver sky and stoic hills, bathed in metallic winter light. This is beautiful, the best place I’ve seen in a while.

Drive 1I haven’t seen anything yet. Our drive takes us south, through a narrow snowy valley, where a steely stream winds between horses, not so much wild as lonely. Then comes a deep canyon with a wide river floor, where the sun shines off of vineyard-striped hills and red cliff, turning the water sunset golden as we make our way west. At every turn, the view is magnificent, each corner more stunning than the last.

Drive 2That’s when I recall what Dorm Mom told us, nervous mothers-to-be, all those month ago, talking about their first daughter as a baby. “I just remember she’d get to these phases when we’d look at her and say, ‘This is just the best. She could stay like this forever.’ And then she’d grow a little and we’d go, ‘No, we were wrong. This is the best!’ It’s different, parenting, but you’ll love it.”

Uncertain as I was last spring, I understand Dorm Mom’s sentiment now, with an almost three-month-old daughter. Better and better, every day new and surprising, and some stages so beautiful I wish I could snap them to a halt for a while. I think as we drive about how tempting it is to snatch at a moment or a season, imagining that I’ll never see anything better than what I have now. A year ago, I could have said that life was a beautiful as it had ever been up to that point. A good job doing that for which I’ve been called and gifted. A wonderful husband and a lovely home.

But staying–setting up camp at the breathtaking views or pausing infinitely in the beautiful moments–is seldom an option. Luci keeps growing, changing, and so do we. Perhaps I can’t imagine something lovelier than now, this, her. But there’s always more beauty, just around the corner, waiting to unfold as we follow Christ on the road ahead.

New moms and babies reunite!

At the end of the school year we sat together again, three mothers surrounded by gleeful, blue-robed graduates and munching on cake. Dorm Mom’s youngest son had just graduated, and was off to a prestigious college in the fall. How does it feel, we asked her, to have your youngest child off into the world? A new phase of life.

“You know,” she replied. “It’s good. We’re proud. But,” she continued, tears in her eyes and motioning to our two growing bellies. “I wouldn’t mind being where you are now. I’d do it all again. It’s just that good.”

How The Storm Tried To Steal Christmas

I’ve been trying to get around to writing about our candlelit Christmas for a bit now. Oddly, it’s not easy to set aside time for writing (or even thinking, sometimes), with a wriggly six-week-old as a loud and pleasant constant companion. I’m tempted to write in metaphor, some bit about light and darkness that would be profound and not so unflattering to me, but there’s a nagging conviction that I should be more honest about my experience. Anyway, my father’s already written that post here. Read his, read mine, and a belated Merry Christmas to all!

Christmas morning eggs, prepared on the back porch. Photo: Richard Dahlstrom

Christmas morning eggs, prepared on the back porch.
Photo: Richard Dahlstrom

And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.

from “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”, by Dr. Seuss

Christmas Day, 1:15 AM. Luci and I are startled awake in Grandma’s living room, where we’ve been sleeping in front of the gas fireplace because it’s warmer than our bedroom. The house, so quiet for three days without electricity, is suddenly alive with noises. The refrigerator hums complacently, white lights wink at us from the Christmas tree, and the washing machine, halted in the middle of a spin cycle, roars to life.

“It’s a Christmas miracle!” I exclaim aloud, since we weren’t predicted to have power again for almost 48 hours. Upstairs, I hear my parents plugging in phones and removing “The Muppet Christmas Carol” from where it was trapped in the DVD player, while Timmy turns the heater back on in our frigid, snowbound bedroom. Ten minutes later everything blinks off again. Oh, never mind.

The falsely restored electricity is just the most recent in a long string of challenges this week. Yes, the power shut off on Monday night (it’s now Friday morning), plunging our rural street into darkness from 4:00 PM to 8:00 AM each day. But we’d already received four feet of snow in as many days at that point, and we’d get three feet more by the time Christmas arrived. This means that the freeway, the main artery between the eastern and western halves of our state, has been intermittently closed, including all day Christmas Eve. So no Christmas shopping, no candlelight service in Seattle. I’m surprised to realized that these things matter to me at all, but they do. I’m sure I’m not alone in remarking that Christmas, meant to be a time of joyously celebrating our Savior’s birth, has taken on layers of extra expectations over the years, and mine have been thwarted this week.

Indeed, I’m a little disturbed by the extent to which the lack of electricity bothers me. Friends guess that this must be difficult with a newborn baby. Not really. Luci goes to sleep when it gets dark, and her most pressing problem is that the ceiling fan, which she loves, is no longer spinning. No, I want to say, this is difficult for me! I can’t bake cookies or cinnamon rolls! I can’t listen to Christmas music! Even the Christmas tree isn’t on! I modify Amy’s lament from Little Women for myself: Christmas isn’t Christmas without electricity.

All of this, of course, is somewhat petty nonsense. I’m reminded of one childhood Christmas, when my siblings and visiting cousins all received giant plush toys–bears and tigers and alligators–while I received a porcelain music box. My grandmother apparently believed that I, at the age of eight or nine, was enough of a grown-up young lady to enjoy something strictly ornamental. No such luck. I was petulant, dissatisfied in a way that still embarrasses me slightly. Unable to appreciate the gift I’d been given, I stomped my feet and wished for what everyone else had, a stuffed animal of my own to play with.

The irony is that Advent itself is a time of expectation, but I’ve taken to expecting the wrong things. Each year we set aside this season to dwell in joyous waiting for Christ’s birth, remembering the beauty of hope fulfilled in Him. This expectation–unlike my constant refreshing of the power company’s estimated power restoration time–doesn’t disappoint. Thank God, quite literally, for a better reason to celebrate than special food, special music, a special tree.

Luci and I, enjoying her first Christmas morning. Photo: Richard Dahlstrom

Luci and I, enjoying her first Christmas morning.
Photo: Richard Dahlstrom

Christmas morning, in the blue-glowing light of day, is a different gift this year, but a gift all the same, which chastens my complaining with its uncomplicated magnificence. Dad makes sausage and eggs on the camp stove on the back porch, while my mother builds a fire. Timmy, Luci and I snuggle under blankets on the couch and look not at the dark tree, but out to the gloriously snowy new world that our street has become. Holly and her fiance, Chris, drive up around lunchtime, and we share a day of laughter and rest. Holly plays her new ukulele and we sing Christmas carols.

Later we gather around the table, eating barbecued chicken thawed from the freezer, and to talk and feast in the candlelight. It is quiet and lovely, rich in the gifts of family and rest. It is Christmas, not stolen by a storm and several dozen snapped power lines. We are rich in love, warm and safe, and infinitely thankful this Christmas Day for the gifts we enjoy, and the God who gave us all of this and the ultimate gift of His son, born for us.

Candlelit Christmas dinner. Photo: Richard Dahlstrom

Candlelit Christmas dinner.
Photo: Richard Dahlstrom

Miraculous & Mundane

Luci examines her first Christmas tree. She might think that trees just belong in the house.

No matter how far along our spiritual pilgrimage we may have come, we need to be shown time after time that humble ordinary things can be very holy, very full of God. We may hope for vision and revelations and wonderful experiences, forgetting that the context of the revelation of God to each one of us is, exactly where we are–here on earth, in this house, this room, this work, this family, this physical body.

Elizabeth Elliot, The Music of His Promises

“How is–?”

This is the beginning of every inquiry lately, as excited friends and family grasp for the appropriate finish to the broad question. How is life? How are you? How is everything?

Everything. As if everyone is aware of the fundamental sea change that’s shaken up our lives for the better, a hurricane in the shape of a tiny little girl who is in love with her own tiny hands and as I write this follows the swirling of the ceiling fan with round grey eyes.

Friends ask for stories from these days, and I realize that with a few exceptions I can tell them the story of every day. Some days we Go Places (capital-letters standing in for the serious quest presented by a trip to the doctor and Target), but most days go like this:

We wake up. Feed Luci. Change Luci. Dress Luci. Talk with family. Feed Luci. Change Luci. Take pictures of Luci. Eat breakfast, lunch, dinner. Read a story together.Feed Luci. Change Luci. Go to bed early. Try to coax our daughter to sleep through the dark hours of night. Eventually succeed and sleep a little. Feed Luci. Change Luci. Wake up again.

I realize the danger of simple sentences, written not spoken. From the outside, this day sounds at best dull, at worst cold and lifeless. A few modifiers would give it texture, no doubt, but there’s no escaping the cyclical nature of these days, Luci’s first in the world and our first as parents. Nor should there be.

If I were counting minutes, I’m sure I’d be amazed at the sheer amount of time that I spend feeding my daughter, or that Timmy spends bouncing her to cooing contentedness. Then there are the hours we spend just watching her, marveling at the way five expressions can pass over her face in a minute, going from pleased to curious to frustrated with remarkable smoothness. This is perfect. It doesn’t matter that it takes me three times as long to finish writing a blog, with breaks to eat and play on the floor with my daughter. This gift of timelessness is exactly how it should be. Our lives lately are an extravagant collection of moments mundane and miraculous.

(Mundane, I know, is a loaded term, conveying images of endless school lectures or days confined to alphabetizing files. Here, though, I return to its original meaning–earthly–rejecting the modern use as a synonym for boring. These days are earthly, connected to the incarnate realities of eating, sleeping and growing.)

The mundane of knowing that everyone was born, was a baby, has lived through these days of eating, sleeping and discovering. The miracle of knowing that everyone–even the seven-foot BFA alumnus who I saw a few weeks ago–started out in miniature, folded origami-style into someone else.The mundane of new rituals–diapers, nursing, bouncing, tiny clothes–repeated on an infinite loop. The miracle of knowing that everything she sees is new, fresh and exciting, just as she is to us, a whole and lovely little person we’re just getting to know.

To be a new mother during Advent is to appreciate, in a profound way, that Christ’s coming is this same balance of miraculous and mundane. The miracles of a virgin birth, an astronomical birth announcement, an angelic chorus welcome. The mundanity of infancy, with its deeply physical rituals and vulnerabilities. Our Savior could have come another way, maybe, with the pomp and circumstance due the Son of God, but instead He was born, like all of us, connecting Himself to the humanity He’d come for. The miracles remind us of His infinite divinity, but the mundane moments of His early life, especially, remind us that He is one of us, a man among humanity.

And like the sunset I take a hundred pictures of with growing amazement, neither Christ’s coming nor Luci’s ever-changing face are losing their luster. I can look at this smile a million times and fall deeper in love every day. And no matter how many Christmases roll around, I’ll still find beauty and wonder in the loving nearness of Christ’s birth, both humble and grand, miraculous and mundane.