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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One Step Ahead

My students learned what this is this week. They were impressed and intimidated.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:9

“Just remember, it’s not scary.

The juniors giggle nervously, fidgeting with blank-screened phones and tapping pencils on their blue journals, open to pages filled with questions. At the beginning of class, I asked them to write down as many questions that they could think of about the college application process, and about 20 minutes into it, five seniors appeared with answers.

Or at least some answers. These seniors were students of mine in Honors American Literature last year, so they arrive with smiles of nostalgia, remembering that twelve months ago they were the nervous ones, the juniors slogging through the quirky mystery of our practice college admission essay, trying to make sense of their lives and learn how to explain themselves to strangers. Today, they’re the experts, returning to a class they liked to rest on the pleasant laurels of having one more year of experience than their friends. One year, it turns out, is plenty for now.

The students of Black Forest Academy, when they graduate, remind me the old song lyric, shouted to the patrons of the bar in “Closing Time:” You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. With parents still serving overseas, many don’t have one place in North America that they call home, but unless they navigate the labyrinth of applying to European universities, for the most part they return to the place of their citizenship for college, a “return” that is sometimes as foreign as studying abroad would have been for me as a seventeen-year-old. I think of how many of my peers stayed in the greater Seattle area upon graduation, how I could look across the Ship Canal from my dorm room and spy the roof of my high school up the hill in Ballard. There is none of that here, and the juniors know it. No matter what happens, the odds are high that they’ll be moving away from Kandern, from Germany, and probably from Europe in just over a year.

The seniors tell about how they decided to apply where they did, and what eventually pulled them to one place or another. They discuss wanting to have family close by, or specific regions that have always intrigued them. One young woman was drawn by a specific program at her chosen college, which she settled on “despite” the fact that her older brother goes there, too. Many mention financial aid packages being a deciding factor, and stressed the importance of researching scholarships for international students, missionary kids, pastors’ kids, and almost every other sub-category you could imagine. The juniors are mesmerized, interrupting only long enough to ask follow-up questions or for helpful websites to be spelled out for them.

Towards the end of the presentation, I ask the visitors to think of one thing that they wish someone had told them a year ago about this process. With something between a laugh and a shrug–the gesture of someone who is tired and excited and satisfied with a busy year almost finished–one student replies:

“Just remember, it’s not scary. When I was a junior I thought that applying to college was this big, scary adult thing, and I was dreading it. But it had to be done, so I did it. And it really wasn’t that bad. It was… just normal. So don’t be too scared. Work on it, prepare, research, stress just enough, but don’t be scared.”

How important, I think to myself, how important it is to have someone just a few steps ahead of us. Growth and change are always intimidating, I realize, thinking about the milestones that used to stand in the way of being a “real adult”–milestones like driving or getting married–and the milestones that still do. There are Big, Scary Adult Steps ahead of us now, too, like buying a car and trying to find somewhere to live in the greater Seattle area. Steps like having a second child, and learning what it means to parent two kids at once with some measure of grace and wisdom (not to mention sanity).

In the midst of these steps, I am immeasurably thankful for the people a few months or years ahead of me, the ones who tell me, “You can do this. God will be there,” and then encourage me to just start, already.

My juniors are almost grown up, by many definitions. This week, it’s been truly delightful to listen to their stories, hearing them discuss how their interesting lives have shaped them into interesting people, and trying to imagine where these fascinating folks will be in a year or so. It’s hard to leave without seeing it happen, honestly, but I always knew it would be hard. And anyway, today my job isn’t to say goodbye to them, but to prepare them to say goodbye to this place, to this chapter of their lives. Today the best I can do is open the door for the one-step-ahead seniors, and let their encouragement do the work.

Haunted By Homes

Der Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher: A stunning example of the magnificence of the German language.

“No matter how you get there or where you end up, human beings have this miraculous gift to make that place home.”

Creed Bratton, The Office

Luci and I halt abruptly in front of the kitchen/toy/hardware store window display on Hauptstrasse, because I’ve spied a familiar word.

Beside an elegant box containing three ceramic egg-cups and a strange metal tool, there is a sign, advertising “Der Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher.” Roughly translated, it means, “This thing should break the egg at a specific point.”

German words fit together as endlessly and seamlessly as Lego bricks, so there are perhaps hundreds of words like this one, most of which I lack the proficiency to interpret. This one, too, would have been out of reach, if not for one simple circumstance: This massive word was the name of my first Upward Bound team, in the summer of 2010, the summer before I moved to Kandern. Instantly I’m dragged back to that July, the start of all these adventures, when I still thought of German as a quirky novelty, to be explored and tasted, like new flavors of cheese or chocolate in this new land.

Today, German feels different; less novel than useful, less foreign than familiar. Luci and I have been running errands out on the town, weaving a circuitous route of the greatest hits of life here. We first evaluated our park options, settling on the Merry-Go-Round Park over the Slide Park, after which we kicked a soccer ball around in the gravel and traversed the stump forest, pausing only for a brief spin on the colorful rope carousel. Then, we navigated empty stroller and walking Luci down to the thrice-reopened bakery for a chocolate croissant and pretzel, which we munched happily at the only public picnic table in downtown Kandern. We went to try on shoes from the sale rack at the local shoe store, and after 10 solid minutes of German-only discussion, left with two cookies and new hiking shoes for this summer’s adventures. We returned bottles at the store, stopped by a massive, community-wide garage sale, then returned for our groceries on the way home. A busy, productive sort of Saturday.

Arrested by the familiar, bizarre word in the window, reflecting on the morning I’ve just spent with my daughter in our town, I’m struck by how very much home this village has become. There is still so much more German to learn, so many more people to know, but today Kandern–even Germany–feels like a well-loved sweater, the one whose smell and softness have almost become a part of you after so many winters spent together.

Yesterday, one of my students–a bubbly, Korean-American girl–lamented that we didn’t have an Arabic class. “If I could just take AP Arabic, if that existed,” she said, “I would be awesome at it.” Surprised at this declaration from a student I didn’t know well, I asked her where she’d learned Arabic. “Jordan… and Syria. We lived there for eight years.” I nodded, thinking about the events behind her pause, about the turmoil she’s left behind to live in Germany. Still, I suspect that if I asked her where home was, our little village might not make it into the top two.

This season has been haunted by homes. My own, the beautiful two places I’ve been fortunate enough to live and love. But mostly my students’ homes, places around the world that they’ve loved and lost, places that have made indelible impressions on them, so strong that they mark their lives not by grades, like most children, but by where they were living back then.

When I lived in Kenya. We had just moved to Moldova. When I was a kid in Bangladesh. Right before we left Pakistan.

Though our students sometimes encounter real trauma from those places, what continues to surprise me is that, more often than not, they also bring a strong sense of belonging and identity, even from places where they have never–will never–look, speak or believe much like the people who surround them. They will refer back to their North American passports once in a while, missing Chik Fil A or Tim Hortons. But they’ll also tell me that passion fruit reminds them of being kids in Tanzania.

The long and ridiculous word in the window, and all of the memories it recalls, provokes a flash of understanding. I think about today, the little interactions in this little village that would have been impossibly difficult and foreign eight years ago. I think about how there will be a loss in letting go of this mastery and the belonging that came with it, even in exchange for a place that is almost as familiar. Someday, like my student, I’m sure I’ll find myself saying, “If I could just take AP living-in-a-tiny-German-village, I would be awesome at it.”

Instead, I’ll let these courageous teenagers inspire me with their flexibility and curiosity, their marvelous capacity to, as Creed Bratton of The Office says, “make that place home.” There are more words to learn, more people to know, and there always will be, in old homes and new ones.

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.

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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.