Remembering How To Read

My last experience with an orchestra, for BFAs 2011 production of Suessical.

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.

“East Coker,” T.S. Eliot

I turn the page and squint, hoping maybe the swarm of five b‘s hovering next to the treble clef will go away if I frown at it. I don’t even know what to call this key, much less precisely how to play in it, but there’s no time to complain. I have to–literally–face the music. The song is “If I Were A Rich Man,” in the key of Evil.

Except… I used to know it. There are things I don’t know how to do, like knitting and experimental physics. There are things I do know how to do, like making pies or teaching English. There are even things I’m learning to do, like being a wife and a mother, or speaking German. But there are a few things, fragments of old passions, that I used to know and love well, and have simply forgotten.

I dusted off my violin (literally dusted it off, folks) a few months ago to start rehearsals with the pit orchestra for our school’s production of The Fiddler on the Roof. I’ve played in a pit orchestra before, six years ago for Suessical, but there were some key differences:

  1. I was single then, with theoretically unlimited time for practice.
  2. I was playing viola, the parts of which tend to be more percussion than anything tricky or melodic.
  3. It was Suessical, a show full of poppy little ditties, not the intricate, Russian-influenced themes of Fiddler on the Roof.
  4. It was six years ago, six years closer to college, which was at that point the last time I’d played in an orchestra. (Now, that college orchestra is a horrifying 15 years back.)

I chose to play violin this time instead of viola because playing in alto clef makes my head hurt, but this decision comes at the price of actually having to play lots and lots of notes. Notes that I no longer know, fully, how to read. I stumbled through the first read-through of each song, trying to keep up through the exotic keys and notation that is what happens when the incredible vivacity of “To Life” makes it onto the page. I’d expected to be a small part of a full string section, but alas, there are only three violinists. So my missed notes are a third of the notes. No pressure.

Having finished the first pass at the music, we come back to the beginning today, and something strange is happening. I can follow along. I still can’t do everything, every time, but I know what I’m supposed to play. My fingers can find the notes faster, now, than my mind can name them. In the still-challenging trenches of these still-complicated pieces, I’m remembering how to read.

A Greek philosopher once advised, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things.” While I’m not certain what “external things” he had in mind, I know that this return to music over the last two months has often left me feeling foolish and stupid, a little lost and several steps behind everyone else. It’s a not a pleasant feeling, not one I want to hold onto forever, and of course it’s possible to feel both of those things without improving. And yet as I sit up straighter, as I hear the rhythm on the page before I have to play it, and realize that the notes that look impossible are actually quite within my reach, I realize that sometimes, maybe often, true growth waits on the other side of just this discomfort.

I’m also struck, here in this genial little rehearsal, among gracious fellow violinists far more talented than I and led by a chronically upbeat director, that I’m willing to keep trying because I know that I’m well-supported. If I miss a few notes, I’m not fired. The director keeps listening for the good, bringing it out in our little group.

It’s a lesson I try quite often to convey to my students. Risk working hard at this–striking out on a new book, a new idea, a new thought–and you’ll grow as a result. I’ll do my best, I promise, to help you avoid feeling foolish or stupid, but you may feel a little lost, once in a while. It means you’re ready to learn something new.

What it doesn’t mean, though, is that the learning will be easy. The stakes of the pit orchestra, small violin section aside, are relatively low and an English paper won’t follow anyone past high school. The harder sight-reading often takes us by surprise, in the unexpected twists and turns of life, and our students are fluent in transition. They are constantly moving, reading cultures and picking up languages, making friends and somehow learning dozens of unwritten and unspoken rules of each new place they call home.

My stronger fingers are a promise, I realize, that the transitions that are common to my students’ and my life are not forever. If we keep walking through them, in the company of people who care about us and following the direction of a God who cares more, the unfamiliarity wears off and we grow stronger, bolder, more fully who we were made to be, even in new places. Knowing that we’re loved, we’ll remember how to read, no matter where we go from here.



Thoughts From the Valley

“With every job when it’s complete
There is a sense of bitter-sweet
That moment when you know the task is done…”

Mary Poppins

Camping in the valley

February 2010. I’m crying in a theater in mid-town Manhattan.

Heeding the advice of one of my bosses from college, who regularly travelled to New York for business, I’ve taken this evening off from the International Baccalaureate (IB) conference I’m attending to see a show. During lunch I got myself to the Times Square TKTS box office, where I learned that my Broadway options included Mary Poppins, the clear choice for my evening of solitary fun. I got dressed up, went alone to a Thai restaurant and ordered food too spicy to eat, and then arrived promptly at the proper theater, ready for my first-ever (and last, at this point) show on Broadway.

The tears don’t come until the end of the show, which proves just as merry and quirky as the movie I’d grown up loving. With everyone else, I clap along to “Step In Time” and giggle at the escalating ridiculousness of the verses of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” The show ends, however, with Mary Poppins’s departure, as she sings the lines above and continues:

Though in your heart you’d like to stay
To help things on their way
You’ve always known they must do it alone

The valley

I’ve come to New York this week to learn how to be a better public school teacher, but I’m not sure I’ll be staying. In fact, I had an interview earlier this week with TeachBeyond, a mission specializing in global, Christ-centered education, an interview that is one more link in the long chain of events that could lead me not just away from public education, but away from Seattle, and the United States, entirely. Untethered by property, debt or a significant other, the timing is right to teach overseas. There’s also the nagging feeling of calling, the desire I once had to serve the children of those in ministry, who are trying to decipher God’s work in their lives and hearts in the midst of the details of a ministry-centered lifestyle. Children, if I’m honest, like me. I always wanted to teach them, and now I might have the chance, somewhere far away, like Germany.

As Mary Poppins bids Jane and Michael farewell, though, my eyes fill with tears, because I’m not running away. It’s been four years at my school in Seattle, and though we had a rough start, I’ve grown to love the multicultural, unpretentious, earnest place that is Ingraham High School. I love that my students know so many languages and teach me about the wide world beyond Seattle. I love that I get to show them that Shakespeare can be fun, or that Lord of the Flies is relevant to real life, or that a graphic novel can “count” as good literature. I love that we could celebrate together when America elected our first black president, and mourn together when I got laid off (and eventually rehired) at the end of my third year. It’s time to go, I’ve started to suspect, but I still love it.

Almost eight years later, the feeling is the same. I know it’s time to go, feel confidence in the strong, sweet longing for my daughter to grow up near her aunts and uncles and for Timmy to embark on a career in mental health counseling. I see the hazy outlines of good in the future, imagining unexplored delights and challenges. It’s misty and uncertain, imagined rather than assured.

Up to the pass we go!

I often imagine transitions as a mountain pass (a real, specific pass in central Austria, if you’re curious). We’re hiking upwards, unable to see or truly imagine what awaits us on the other side. We’re free however, to look back at where we’ve been, how far we’ve climbed. We can be thankful, or even a bit nostalgic, for the valley below us, a green meadow crisscrossed with streams and frequented by wild horses. Above us are clouds, rocks, sky, and the promise that if we keep going, a new 180 degrees awaits our exploration. I’ve never been disappointed by a pass, and I’ve never been disappointed by listening to God. It will be good, God promises, because I am good.

It’s not a guarantee, I know, that we’ll get to love all the places we leave behind, but that’s how it’s been for me, so far. I’ve never scrambled up the hill in retreat, thanking God for every step that takes me farther away. I’ve always been able to look back with gratitude, the bittersweet journey of moving from one well-loved home to another.

Today I’m savoring the valley, thankful. My students began the morning sitting on their desks, energetically reviewing for their final exam. “What are the influencing factors for realism?” someone almost shouts into the morning stillness. As they talk over each other, rushing to give the answers that they’ve memorized, I sip coffee and listen, amazed. Amazed that they care so much, that they’ve worked so hard, that I get to be their teacher. We have one more semester here, a semester I know will be full of details of packing, moving, job interviewing, and traveling. But I’m thankful for moments like this, too, times to look back with gratitude and ahead with expectation, keenly aware that God has been–and will be– very good.

For more concrete information about our upcoming transition, including ways you can be praying for us, see our most recent newsletter. Thank you, as always, for reading and journeying with us.

Angelina & The Lupine Lady

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

“What is that?” asked Alice.

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

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

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

And pretty soon she was grown up.

Barbara Cooney, from Miss Rumphius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sewing Machine

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, 
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. 
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster. 
Elizabeth Bishop, from “One Art”


The sewing machine came from downstairs.

Also Americans working in missions, our neighbors have been in Europe for decades, so I correctly guessed that she might have a sewing machine I could borrow. “Thank you!” I said as I turned to lug the ponderous 1950s Singer up the stairs, adding “I’ve never felt settled enough here to have a sewing machine.”

For reasons practical and sentimental, I’m making Luci an apron. She likes to “help” me make all sorts of dough, and I like it better when the flour ends up in the bowl (and the counter and the floor, honestly) rather than all over her. Also, it’s really cute. I have an old tea towel that is just the right size, and have already cut out the tiny apron, made clever use of some already-hemmed edges, and ironed some makeshift bias tape out of two long diagonal pieces to use for the strings.

Now I coax the machine to life, pulling out scraps of sewing knowledge from a dusty drawer of consciousness, each skill coming with its own origin story. I did take a sewing class once, resentfully accepting it as an alternative to ceramics my freshman year of high school, but I learned most of this from my mom and grandma long before that. I remember their sewing machines, also vintage like the one I’m using now, how the thread had to dance back and forth about a dozen times before it could finally make it through the needle. I remember shelves of leftover cloth, leftover tapes and rickracks and laces, leftover buttons, echoes of finished and unfinished projects that became doll clothes and tiny tents for Lego men.

It’s not mountains, or words, or even music, but sewing still forms a fine thread that runs all the way back to my beginning. It’s enough a part of me that planning this little apron felt a bit like speaking an old language, its cadences and vocabulary familiar and pleasant. And enough that my blithe admission from a few days ago–“I’ve never felt settled enough here to have a sewing machine”–returns to mind.

Like many other transient communities, missionaries have a complicated relationship with possessions. Things are either indispensable, items that we’ll carry to the ends of the earth, or entirely disposable, to be left and then found again at each new home. Everyone has a unique balance of the two, and different items in each category. Some tote their homes around in containers filled with delightful antique furniture, pianos and bicycles. Others shrug off each place like an exoskeleton, taking only essentials and starting over.

I’ve reflected often on what I’ve accumulated here in this pretty green valley, the levels of settledness achieved over seven years. A bicycle, a trunk, two rocking chairs and a mountain of handmade pottery. Mostly, though, for me the “acquisitions” are intangible, relationships and growth that could only have happened here, most notably my transformation from single, self-sufficient nomad to a wife, mother, and part of a community. Though I eventually conceded and bought a few appliances, a sewing machine was never among them, was something too heavy and too expensive to have in a place that may not be permanent.

Not having a sewing machine is the tiniest of sacrifices, but I find myself reflecting on colleagues, both now and even more so in the past, who left much more behind. Those who’ve gone without pianos, or beloved pets, or less portable hobbies, like sailing or gardening. Those who miss the sea, the way I’d miss mountains, or miss months of hot sunshine as I’d miss clouds. Those who’ve left relationships, large and small, to pursue a calling they couldn’t deny. We all leave something, choose to live without other things.

Even more challenging, though, is the reminder that though going without a sewing machine is no problem, in the long run, I have to be careful about applying the rule more broadly, avoiding relationships that are “too expensive” or responsibilities that are “too heavy” if they won’t be forever. Transience isn’t the special possession of missionaries, refugees, and migrants, but rather the reality of every human life. We all have to figure out how to engage fully where we are, knowing that everything could change at any moment, but that we’ll be infinitely richer if we’re willing to known and be known by those around us.

The old sewing machine chatters its way across my little apron, finishing the seams neatly and simply. I like this, I realize. I want to share this, someday, with the tiny person who for now is stirring muffin batter and rolling out tiny tortillas. And sharing it will mean finding a sewing machine–here or somewhere–again.

The Fear Jacket


"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear..."

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear…”

I’m troubled from the start, Friday morning.

Living nine hours ahead of my friends on the West Coast, the ongoing ugliness of election season in America unfolds mostly in the morning for me. I wake up and see it spattered across social media, the messy barbs of rhetoric flying between two people I don’t know, far away, but nearer to home between friends, family and students, each exchange more impassioned than the last.

We don’t understand each other, I realize, waking each morning to see in stark relief all of the perspectives that aren’t my own, battling it out in text on a screen. I’m not there to attend protests, haven’t watched any debates live, but I feel it all the same, the creeping sense not of unity, but of two-ness that our country has become lately.

I’m reminded of Thomas Hobbes who, writing during a particularly dark period of British history, described a world plagued by “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It’s continual fear that I pause on this morning, thinking about the fears peddled by both sides, and my own real fear for our nation.

Then I come to class. My sweet English class, where we’ve been reading the mournful, ponderous tomes of Romantic American literature. We’ve finished with The Scarlet Letter, leaving behind Hawthorne’s “darkening close of this tale of human frailty and sorrow,” and have spent the week mostly in the company of Edgar Allan Poe, examining tormented cats and an inexplicably verbal raven. All week, we’ve dwelt on tales of darkness springing from men deeply cynical of the human heart. Left to our own devices, Poe and Hawthorne seem to tell us, we’re all selfish at our best, and consumed with paranoid madness at our worst. The spectrum of human existence seems bleak indeed.

My students are writing their own “Tales of Woe” today as we wrap up this part of the Romanticism unit. “Take an ordinary, mundane circumstance,” I tell them, “And add in something extraordinary. A man is taking a nap and a talking raven comes in. A teacher is grading English finals and an elephant walks by. Ordinary and extraordinary. That’s it.”

The students nod, dutifully writing down this combination of elements in their notebooks.

“Now,” I continue, holding up a mug full of printed, cut-out words, “Take a pinch of woe.” I demonstrate, pinching out weary, solitary and desolate. “These words are your tone, your inspiration. It’s not a complex story, this one. It’s all about the tone. The tone of woe.”

The laugh, they write, they pinch out melancholy words and sprinkle them with abandon through stories of prophetic breakfast cereal and murderous oranges. Towards the end of class we share excerpts, enjoying our creativity and the unfamiliar feeling of painting with only dark hues for a while.

It strikes me that they’ve put it on–fear–just for part of a class, just for the adventure of it. Now, like a jacket, they take it off, going about their ordinary, un-woeful Friday and leaving the fear behind.

I wish I could do that in real life, I find myself thinking. Then I remember that I can.

“God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 John 4:16-18)

Like my students, leaving behind their fear because it’s no longer necessary, I can trade mine in, a jacket of fear for one of love. It’s God’s love, the perfect love, that casts out the fear, reminding me that I am–all of us are–deeply loved, intentionally cared for by our Creator, who doesn’t let us muddle on alone but remains invested in us, individually and as a community. I remember that God loves my nation, not more than the others but because it’s a nation full of his beloved people. I remember that I don’t have to be afraid.

And while it’s God’s love that gives me confidence, there’s action required of me, too. John continues with words that convict:

“We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.” (1 John 4:19-21)

It’s a time of division. It’s tempting to believe that I know best and easy to imagine that some people know nothing. And yet, God says, love. Because nothing can separate us from His love, and nothing is more important than, day by day, loving Him and loving our neighbors. Those callings are the same today, tomorrow, and November 9th. Love, because you’re loved.

I can’t pretend this is easy to do, to love my neighbor as God does. Fear is easier. Suspicion is easier. Frustration is easier, the tendency to shrug my shoulders, shake my head and go, “I just don’t get it!” to the shouting silence of words on a screen or the real, inscrutable opinions of people I see every day. So it’s a choice, now more than ever, but really every day. To listen and to love, sometimes without agreeing or even understanding.

I’m choosing the better jacket. Because it’s better to love than to live in dread of what could happen, in three weeks or at any point in my unpredictable life. God is good, and will be good. And that’s enough.

So I leave the fear behind, like a teenager closing a notebook, laughing off a lesson, and going to lunch, where the real business of loving and living is going on.

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.


Herbstmesse 2011

On the bumper cars at Herbstmesse 2011

Halloween, 2011. On a clear and frigid evening in the city, we’d walked from the newer shopping district of Klein Basel across the Rhein River, and up narrow, cobblestoned streets to ancient Groß Basel, looking medieval with its cathedrals and leering timbered houses. At the top of the hill, in comical contrast to the severe flying buttresses of the Basler Münster, a bright carnival lights whirled in the darkness. We’d gone on the Ferris wheel, surveying the Swiss city and tiled cathedral roof with glee, and now we huddled around a bumper car rink, along with the rest of the staff and students of Black Forest Academy.

Out on the floor, cars full of students and staff crashed into one another with gleeful abandon, while those of us around the sides waited eagerly to snatch up any vacated cars once the traffic chugged to a halt. I’d ridden with a few friends, but was just as happy to watch the chaos unfold from the edge. We took special interest in seeing who rode together: parents with children, older siblings with younger, teachers with students. Sprinkled among them were the boy-girl riders, always the most fascinating. Some were predictable, others less so, pairs that were only tonight catching each other’s eyes.

I turned to point out one such couple to the man standing next to me, a fellow staff member I’d met a few months before, and was faintly disappointed to find that he’d disappeared. Though we exchanged emails a few times a week, they were mostly about our students and other parts of the school, and our schedules–working separately in the school and dorms–seldom brought us to the same events. In fact, it was just tonight that I had been willing to admit to myself (by no means to anyone else) that I was glad to see his smiling face near mine in the crowd when we left for the city. As I watched the students flirt and squeal on the ride, crashing into one another and wielding inflatable bats, I’d indulged in the faint wish that he’d ask me to ride a bumper car. Silly, I thought.

I went to Germany to be a teacher.

I have been thinking a great deal this fall about my expectations and how life has often unfolded in great, extravagant excess of them. I went to high school expecting to learn, a little, and instead discovered passionate love for writing and education. I went to university hoping to earn a degree, and beyond that gained experiences with mentoring and discipleship that have fueled ministry at BFA. I accepted a job teaching at Ingraham, thinking it was a necessary step to keep me in Seattle for a while, never expecting to fall in love with the multicultural quirkiness of Seattle ninth graders. It was as if at each page turn, I expected more black-and-white words, and instead was greeted with  pop-up landscapes, rich in detail and dimension, taking the story to places I’d never dreamed.

By that second autumn in Germany, I’d discovered that God had more in store than “just” teaching English at Black Forest Academy. I was leading a small group, volunteering in two dorms and playing in an orchestra, drawing on many past experiences to serve this community. I thought I knew my calling; I was a teacher. But at every turn God was showing me more to do, more to love, broadening my view and stretching my heart to accommodate more.

We recently shared with our church family in Concrete, Washington, that our five years at BFA have been more than we expected. As we spend this year away, we find ourselves inexorably drawn into expectations for the future. For going back to Germany, for becoming a family, pursuing both old and new roles. We wonder what it will be like, what our lives will hold. We don’t know, of course, and history tells me that even the outlines I think I’ve drawn so carefully will prove woefully vague. God always has more ahead of me than I imagine. I’m learning to walk forward with open hands, eyes, mind and heart, ready for the unexpected as long as He is beside me.

Beginnings, even important ones, often get missed. I wasn’t paying attention that Halloween in Basel, so that even when Timmy reappeared, holding a ride token and sheepishly asking if I’d like to take a spin with him, I never suspected that this was a turning point. Everyone else did, they’d tell me later–giggling to watch a teacher and RA gleefully crash a candy-colored car into things–but I didn’t. I’d laughed and jumped into the car beside him, unaware that this was the first of many journeys. Unaware of the new callings–to love, family, co-adventuring–that would spring from this moment. We’re waiting to meet our daughter any day now, but four years ago tomorrow I was just a girl at the fair, excited that a boy wanted to go on a ride with me. More, at every turn.

National Forest & Black Forest {Or, Where You’re From}

My birthday bear cake, waiting for frosting.

Dear Luci,

John Denver plays over the stereo. The morning fire is down to embers now, and through the upstairs window all I can see are the dark arms of fir trees, calm and complacent in the autumn sun. On the counter sits a bear made of yellow cake, waiting for frosting, because tomorrow is my birthday.

Based on this set of evidence, it could be my fourth birthday, or eleventh, or seventeenth, or even twenty-fifth. But it isn’t. Tomorrow I turn thirty-one, and I keep remembering not because this is a different house than the ones I grew up in, or because the music is playing over a smart phone and Bluetooth speaker that didn’t exist for any of those other birthdays. From where I sit on the couch, looking out the window, you dance around every few minutes just below my ribs, a genial reminder that I’m a mother, not a child anymore. Maybe you’re excited about your own birthday, just a month or so away now. You’re clearly excited about something.

I’m excited, too, having never grown out of the anticipation of adding a digit to my age, but even more so to bring you back to this mountain house, your first home. In my daydreams it’s a perfect snowy November day, not enough to mess up the roads, but plenty to weigh down these springy green branches, pulling us into Ansel Adams’s photo album. I heard somewhere that newborn babies can only see twelve inches or so, lessening the impact of this late-autumn scenery, but maybe something in our white and green neighborhood will catch your tiny new eyes. Or maybe you’ll just be eager to get inside where it’s warm.

Gold Creek Pond, Cascade Mountains

I’ve thought a lot about home while we’ve been together, Luci. Really I’ve been thinking about for the last five years, ever since I left the predictable world of evergreen trees and birthday bear cake for a land of fast cars, striped green hills, and words I understand about half the time. At first it was a foreign place of people and rules I hadn’t spent my life learning, but eventually it took on its own comforts. Years rolled around predictably, trips and parties making their march across the calendar, festivals reappearing to offer wurst and zwiebelwaie instead of elephant ears or fried Twinkies. So new at first glance, Germany became home, just as this chilly forest will for you.

But though this will be your first home, it’s possible that you’ll one day struggle, like many young people I love so very much, to explain where you’re from. Though there’s very little of the future that I can predict, I can tell you the plan, which will make you one of those kids who can say they moved somewhere when they were “just a baby.” Just a baby, and you’ll fly with us back to Germany next summer, learning to talk surrounded by new words, learning to walk on cobblestones as often as trails.

It won’t even be your first trip; you’ve already traveled the world. You’ve been with us hiking in Switzerland, book shopping in London, freezing in Iceland and strolling with fireflies in the South. You’ve stood on top of a mountain and swam in a lake. You’re a traveler, Luci. You’re from here, there, everywhere.

Then I see the bear cake again. That yellow bear, who followed me from San Juan Island to the North Cascades, to Seattle and now again to another mountain home, tells me that geography isn’t the most important question. Where I’m from isn’t as important as who I’m from. In this case, I’m from a mother who bought this cake mold somewhere, then pulled it out for special days—birthdays and graduations—because it made her three children squeal with glee at every age. No matter where we were, this never changed. I once thought the bear was the important constant; now I suspect that it’s the family.

Kandern, Germany

I don’t know what your bear cake will be, Luci, what traditions we’ll carry with us across years and continents. But I can tell you who you’re from, the families and people who will make up some of your earliest memories. Your dad and I like to laugh and read and walk in the forest, and can’t wait to do all of that with you. Your great-grandmother crochets blankets for babies, and yours is already waiting for you. You have grandparents who want to hike in the Alps with you, who’ve already bought you your first outfit for the trail. Your grandma in Florida loves biking and finding you presents. Your aunts and uncles are real and adventurous, like you’ll be, musicians, artists, bakers and climbers.

Down in the city there are a dozen women who taught me to be a wife and a mother, women who bought you tiny clothes and threw you a party with pink cupcakes and cookies. Here in the mountains, everyone I see asks me how you are and when you’re coming, these neighbors who will be your first village. And your second, it’s filled with young people who have been asking about you long before you were even thought of. Your picture will make them smile from where they’re scattered around the world, these kids we loved and taught before we knew you, back when we were just getting to know each other.

So where will you be from, Luci? What mountain or village will you claim one day? I can’t tell you just yet, but wherever it is I know we’ll be there, too, celebrating birthdays and exploring. And I can’t wait to see it with you.




Our Welcome Home sign at our home for the year, courtesy of two adorable neighbor boys.

Our Welcome Home sign at our home for the year, courtesy of two adorable neighbor boys.

Fernweh: (n.) an ache for distant places, the craving for travel

A few years ago, a small niche of young American women on Pinterest with some experience in German taught me a new word: Fernweh. While its antoymn Heimweh has a direct English translation–homesickness–Fernweh (pronounced FAIRN-vay) claims no English equivalent. The closest approximation, in fact, is another German word: Wanderlust, the proverbial “itchy feet” of habitual travelers. Yet because of its literal translation–“distance pain”–and the Pinterest comments from a few friends who experience this literally everywhere they are, I’ve always ascribed it a somewhat different meaning: “The ache for faraway places.” Geographical nostalgia.

Exactly one month after leaving Germany, it’s this word that I’m thinking of this morning, even as I look out of my parents’ upstairs window at slender, swaying hemlocks and hear little more than birds. I ache for faraway places. But this has been one of them for a long time, and today it’s not. I’m here.

The concept of a Home Ministry Assignment–called furlough by previous generations of missionaries–is somewhat new to me. Indeed, since the transformation from adventurous teacher to long-term missionary was a gradual one for me, the fact that I’m embarking on such an assignment at all sometimes strikes me as surprising, and amazing. A unexpected gift, both this calling and this year away, our time so far unfolds daily with surprises and opportunities.

Fun in Virginia with the Poe family!

Fun in Virginia with the Poe family!

Surprises like the necessity of driving everywhere, which I’d forgotten, or the deliciousness of Chick-fil-A, which I’d never experienced. Opportunities like being blessed with a new baby during this time away, or Timmy’s chaplaincy internship with the Seattle Veterans Hospital. I don’t know what this year will hold, exactly, except that it will be here, not there.

And I’ll miss there. I’ll miss walks through the green hills and cobbled streets, the mental gymnastics of a language not my own. More than those, I’ll miss the clever and curious young people that we’ve been fortunate to teach and serve these last five years. These longings remind me that our work there isn’t finished, that by God’s provision and with the support of many family, friends and partners we’ll be back again.

Still, the danger of the Fernweh that draws me to another home is much like the danger of nostalgia. The temptation to get lost in longing takes me away from the real goodness surrounding me both here and now. I don’t want to miss an afternoon on the lake with our dear friends in Virginia, or the sign that our neighbor boys made to welcome us to our new home in Snoqualmie Pass. I will be grateful every day, whether it is for the friendly strangers at the North Bend DMV or the long-loved faces of my siblings, gathered around a table for the first time since our wedding. There is much to love everywhere, eye-stinging beauty that takes my breath away with the reminder that I’m deeply loved by a good God.

A welcome dinner with my brother, sister-in-law, sister and her boyfriend.

A welcome dinner with my brother, sister-in-law, sister and her boyfriend.

Pray for us this year, friends. Some days I know that gratefulness will be a harder choice, when finding a used car is fraught with difficulty or we’re trying to sort out the expensive process by which German medical records become English ones. In the end, though, I’m thankful, for this home and that one, for the one we’ve just left in Virginia and the countless people who welcome us wherever we go. God has filled our life with a wealth of love and beauty, and I’m excited to see the wonders and meet the challenges that this new year will hold.

Full Hearts, Empty House

Our living room, all ready for its next residents.

Our living room, all ready for its next residents.

The couch and chair left on Saturday, driving away in a van to Maugenhard. The remaining armchair we kept for a few more days, taking turns sitting in the last piece of furniture in our living room. The kitchen packed away in boxes at our future apartment, we ate pre-washed lettuce and pre-cooked chicken with pre-made salad dressing, off of plastic picnic plates. Monday, someone came to take away the last of the lamps, the armchair and the coffee table, and the transformation was complete.

Still, our last night in Germany for a while is quiet but not empty, even in our echoing living room. Two students ring the doorbell after our grocery-store salad supper, so now the four of us are sitting on the floor against the living-room wall. We talk as the room goes from the bright of late evening to twilight, finally and reluctantly turning on the garish overhead lights when it’s too dark to see each others’ faces. Recent graduates, they tell us stories from the past few days and years, and speculate about the future. College will take them–along with most of their classmates–an ocean away from our quiet village, but they’re savoring every moment here, living fully even into the pain of goodbyes as their hometown empties of familiar faces.

It’s a fitting last night for us, I think later. Not the fanfare of graduation, or even the glowing beauty of a walk through the vineyards or forests. Those things are truly spectacular gifts, moments that we’re privileged to enjoy in Kandern. In our darkening living room is community, discipleship, friendship, years of mentorship between my husband and these students, hours I spent with them in the classroom on the intricacies of reading and writing in English. It is simple and quiet, this evening, but profoundly good.

Twelve hours later we’ll close the door behind us on our first house, this first season of our life together. We leave for a year in America, which I’ll be writing about in the coming months, a year that will bring beauty, learning and adventures of its own. But for now, I’m thankful for this last season, for the comma that is this next chapter, and for all that lies ahead, known and unknown. Our house in Kandern may be empty, but we leave with hearts full of love and memories, eager to return again.