For Sale: A Good Tent

I have a confession to make. Though I fear that this admission may lead to the recall of my Dahlstrom Card, for the sake of honesty and the all-important Need To Tell A Story, I make it here with fear and trembling:

I haven’t slept in my tent–or any tent, for that matter–in four years.

I’ve been outside, of course. I’ve trekked in the Dolomites and hiked regularly in the Cascades up until it a few weeks before my daughter was born, but none of my adventures in the last few years have involved sleeping outdoors.

Now, I’m setting the tent up in the living room, trying hard not to poke out any windows or eyes with the poles that stretch from wall to wall. Luci is fascinated and delighted, but I feel more conflicted. You see, I’m setting it up so I can take a picture of it, a photo that I’ll post in our community online flea market as I try to sell my precious tent. I try to feel like Jo March in Little Women, selling her hair to purchase train fare for her mother to visit their father, wounded in the Civil War, but I’m unable to avoid a sense of betrayal. My tent, which I’ve set up in a castle, which has visited the beaches of Normandy, may soon belong to someone else.

The truth is, I had actually thought this particular tent was lost until a few weeks ago, when Timmy discovered it lurking behind a suitcase in the rafters of our attic. Dusty but essentially the same reliable, simple tent is has always been, it seems to beg for more excursions. Why, it seems to inquire, has it been so very long? Yet its discovery led us to a trying and oft-repeated conundrum: Do we bring it with us?

Europe being a place of cheap, comfortable mountain huts, I’m not actually sure why it ended up here in the first place. I imagine that on some trip back to Germany, I had space in a suitcase and just knew that I was a Tent Person, and therefore must have a tent, easily accessible, wherever I lived. And I’ve used the tent a bit, though not nearly as much as I probably expected. There are, after all, the huts.

The tent takes up most of the living room when I set it up. I unzip the door and Luci walks in, amazed. To her, this tent she’s never seen is as marvelous as any cathedral. She actually gasps once she’s inside, peering out through the mesh windows and sliding her little feet around on the blue floor.

“Can you read me a story in this tent?” she asks, producing a book as if by magic.

“Yes, I can read you a story.” What are tents for, after all, if not for stories? I crawl in beside her, and begin to read Miss Rumphius for the hundredth time. I know it well enough that my mind isn’t on the story as I read, but rather wanders back to the last time I slept in the tent, almost four years ago, a time that made dragging the tent from one continent to another more than worthwhile.

Sunset in Montreaux

After the wedding of one of our small group girls, a recent graduate, my former (and last) roommate Emily and I spent three days camping in Montreaux, Switzerland. Our campsite was a large lawn on the shore of Lake Geneva, three kilometers from town, and we were camping because Switzerland–at least that part of Switzerland–is just too expensive to sleep in. So we were camping, at the end of my first four years at BFA, just a few days before Emily was moving back to Minnesota. It was trip for celebrating friendship, and four good years. She would soon move home, and I would come back to a school pared down of many of my closest friends and the students in whom I’d invested the most. It was a trip to say goodbye.

I’ll never forget our last evening in Montreaux, sitting by the lake and taking picture after picture of the most breathtaking sunset either of us had ever seen. After a while we stopped talking about it, stopped talking at all, basking in the rose gold splendor splashed on the water and sky. There were tears in that sunset, both of gratitude for the good years that we’d shared, and sadness for the end of this season. When the sun was really gone, a navy sky billowing in its place, one of us–I can’t remember now who–said:

“The thing is, there’s always another sunset. Even though this is the best one we’ve ever seen, there will be more.”

Confession: The last time I went camping was in 2014. It was with this dear friend, and it was grand.

And it was true then. For me there were four years of marriage, a baby and now another. She returned to new friendships and jobs, and built a new home. Later this summer, I’ll go to her wedding, a whole new sunset. We haven’t yet seen the best God has to show us.

Luci and I finish the story, and I take the tent down. She doesn’t want me to, and I don’t really want to, either, but since it takes up the whole living room it really can’t stay here much longer. As I roll it up, remember all the other times I’ve carefully folded and stowed it in its bag, I realize that this tent belongs to another sunset. That sunset, four years ago. Later, I’ll joke with Timmy that I have a five-year plan for tent purchases.

We’ll need a four-person tent within the next two years, I tell him, seeing in my eager daughter a future camper, and vowing that this next child will get on board, too. We will go camping together; it’s just what families do. Then, in five years, we can get another two-person tent, a lighter one for when we’re able to go backpacking again as a couple. This was just my first tent; it won’t be the last.

Long after the tent is put away, when I’ve begun to make dinner, Luci wanders into the kitchen. “That tent was good,” she tells me, a weighty declaration of approval.

And looking at her, her hour-old love of tents, it’s not the past camping trips I see, marvelous as they were, but the ones still to come, in a bigger tent, in a new place.

“It really was, Lu. It was a good tent.”

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Hello Again

September 1998.

In the grey minutes between picking up my schedule in the gym and the digital bell that began my first day of high school, I wound my way to the musty, forgotten corner of the campus that housed the music room. It was empty, as I’d suspected it would be, since there were only a few of us who auditioned for the string orchestra. With nothing better to do, to distract from nagging worry about the edgy, scary place I’d be spending the next few years, I opened my violin case and went through the comforting, familiar ritual of getting ready to play it.

2001, after an orchestra concert

Halfway through the process another student arrived, to my immense relief a JVC volleyball teammate that I already knew. I remembered now her mentioning that she’d be in the orchestra, that like me she played violin. She too sat down and got ready to play, and other students trickled in. I don’t remember if we played or not, that first day, but I suspect that we did. It was a good class, like that; we always played. Even on September 11, 2001, with the TV on in the background, we played to cope with how our world might be falling apart. That was how we started our days.

I knew she played volleyball and violin that day, that first day. I didn’t know that she was one of the most talented violinists that I’d ever meet, nor that we’d spend the next four years in this orchestra, beginning every day the same way, with her concertmistress’s bow raised, my breath held in the first viola chair, waiting for the downbeat. I didn’t know we’d start a string quartet, travel to Disneyland, or spend hours practicing the first and second violin solos of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. One of the better friendships of high school had just started, and I had no idea that first day. I just came to play violin.

As an avid reader of books, I find literature a useful metaphor for life. It’s painfully cliche, I know, to refer to “chapters in life,” but still it helps me sort out seasons from one another, slicing them in various ways until patterns emerge. More recently I’ve been considering the “characters” that populate this story, how because of the amount of moving and the kind of work I do, there are necessarily many people who pop in for just a few pages, changing me just a little bit (0r sometimes quite a lot) before saying goodbye. I’ve often thought that if I could “read ahead” five or ten years in my own life, I would be surprised by the setting and probably wouldn’t recognize many people.

Or maybe I would.

Among the many things I didn’t know that first day of school was that in seventeen years and two months, we’d both have baby girls in November, just days apart. We met once last summer, to walk around Greenlake and marvel at how, apart from one salient detail each, neither of us had changed much since we said goodbye in red robes and square hats after commencement. Now we’re meeting again, this time with our daughters, for much-needed coffee and baby-meeting. And though we could spend the time reminiscing, we don’t at all, instead choosing to marvel at how our lives have just changed with the addition of these two miniature people. The conversation faces forward, not backward, that of current friends and not past ones.

As a missionary, a teacher and a sometimes expat, I say goodbye often. Some years are harder than others, and some goodbyes more painful, but shifting community is constant. What a delight to be reminded, this year at home, that I haven’t read the whole book, and never know when a favorite character will return, if just for a while, to celebrate the past, revel in the present, and introduce me to an adorable baby.

2016, with babies!