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.

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.

Love,

Mom

Fernweh

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.

 

Bigger Places

Our valedictorian speaks to BFA's Class of 2015.

Our valedictorian speaks to BFA’s Class of 2015.

“There are bigger places out there than Kandern…. And thank the Lord for that.”

BFA 2015 Valedictorian

Talisman headshot, circa 2002. Photo: Courtney Irby

Talisman headshot, circa 2002. Photo: Courtney Irby

The morning of graduation day at Black Forest Academy, I received a message from a  former BFA student. “Did you go to Ballard high?” he had written beneath a picture of my alma mater. After confirming that yes, this was my high school, I had a few seconds of nostalgia. Like, 9 seconds. I thought of a day when the staff of the Ballard Talisman newspaper posed next to that sign in Brady Bunch-style photos. (See photo left. You are welcome.) It was a bright spring day my senior year, so bright that I had to wear sunglasses because my prescribed angle put me smiling directly into the sun. With middle-parted hair, sunglasses and silver hoop earrings, I gave a demure smile to the top left, even as my bright future lay in stunning non-mystery just three miles southeast of that point.

Then I moved on, leaving that day behind for the many that came after. I was more mesmerized, honestly, by the delightful twists of fate and design that have led one of my students from this high school in Germany–a student who is now studying what I studied at the university where I attended–to be having dinner across the street from Ballard High School. The world is big and small, I thought.

Hours later I sit near the back of BFA’s auditorium, already hot on a day that promises to break 30˚ C, and squinting again. This time I’m trying to make out the face of a young woman in my small group, this year’s valedictorian, as she confesses guilelessly that speechmaking stresses her out and that her billowing robe makes her “feel like Voldemort.”

I often cry at graduation, and this year is no different. I’m proud of these students, whose names and talents and handwriting I’ve come to know, and eager to see what they’ll make of life beyond the narrow borders of our little town. Four years ago, when I played viola in the Seussical pit orchestra, I watched many of these students as ninth graders, animated onstage and a little clumsy off of it. They are and aren’t those same people this morning. It’s hard to see them go, but we, their teachers, knew this would happen. We hoped it would happen, even. Maybe not as soon as it’s seemed, but this triumphant crowd of robed graduates was the goal.

Now they’re ready, primed for adventure beyond the blue doors of Black Forest Academy. As I scan their faces, so tiny against the wave of blue, I try to imagine them in six months. Making friends, signing up for lab time, going to get slurpees at 7-Eleven at midnight. Or in ten years, finding jobs, homes, and families or continuing in their wandering. Just as I was unable to see a decade ahead when I was seventeen, that day I peered into the sun outside of Ballard High School, I can’t quite imagine their futures. Surely they’ll be as different as mine was from what I expected, and I pray that they’ll be just as beautiful.

“There are bigger places out there than Kandern,” our valedictorian is saying. “Bigger than Holzen, Wittlingen or Marzell, bigger than Schleingen. Even bigger than Basel. And thank the Lord for that.” The reminder is as much for the rest of us as the graduates themselves, I realize. They know that the world is enormous. Though I traveled just three miles from Ballard High to Seattle Pacific, all of them have already come much farther, just to be here in the first place. They’ve always existed far beyond our borders, and my daydreaming takes me to their other homes, to India and Dubai and Russia, places that are already part of their wide worlds. Now they’re traveling again, either back to where they’ve come from or onward, for brand-new shores.

Our valedictorian finishes by encouraging her classmates to serve and love Christ wherever they find themselves, in whatever they do, and that’s my prayer also. Whether in college or working at Canadian Tire, at Capernwray Hall or on a ship sailing around the world, I pray that our students would seek Christ in new ways, and discover more deeply what it means to love him, wherever he takes them.

I’ll drive by Ballard High in a month or so, and doubtless then it will bring more memories with it than this morning’s photograph unearthed. But so will SPU and Bethany Community Church. So will Oak Tree Starbucks and Ingraham High School. And so does BFA, every day, pleasantly haunting this small town with all the people who have called it home, if only for a little while. High school was grand, a place of growth, community and discovery. But as our valedictorian reminded us, I thank God often that it was only one of many such places for me, and that growth, community and discovery never end as we follow Christ throughout our lives.

The Adventurous Class of 2016

Another Period Six, tiny and genial, on our last day of classes for the year!

Another Period Six, tiny and genial, on our last day of classes for the year!

Five students are finishing their final on this cool Monday morning, and I’ve already taken down all the posters and curtains, collected the books and graded my final coursework for the quarter. Nothing left for this teacher to do but post this year’s end-of-year letter, finishing nine hilarious months with a truly unique group of students. I will miss them, very much.

3 June 2015

“We shall not cease from exploration.” 

T.S. Eliot

My dear students,

On this fine June day, I am delighted to wish you a very happy Last Day of School. There is still plenty to do, of course; you won’t be having a homework bonfire at the beach tonight, like I did in high school. But it’s the last day for us, this group of people with whom you’ve shared a few good stories, deep conversations, and the tribulations of essay-writing throughout the year. I can think of no more fitting way to end our time together than this, sitting out in the sun and talking about books.

This is my ninth Last Day as a teacher, and something like the thousandth overall. And while the days and lessons blend together now, each class stands out for something. Some groups were wild and intractable, years that I held my breath and kept teaching my 150 students until they poured out of the building one day. Other classes were warm and genial, deeply loving each other, if not the homework I assigned. Your class, both wild and genial, is a class of adventurers.

Your journeys have taken you far, both geographically and intellectually. Since this is BFA, of course I see the adventures outside of the class as well, as you build playgrounds in Greece, take sudden trips to Malta and spend a few days “in the French woods.” Yet in the classroom I see your exploratory nature just as clearly. You are the students who diligently read nearly every page of the books I assigned, even The Scarlet Letter, afraid you’d miss something if you didn’t. Your thesis statements are bold and dramatic, reaching for risky and new ideas instead of settling for the easy ones on the surface. You write better discussion questions than I do, often, and have sorted through the controversies of the year—Is Gatsby a good person? Should George have killed Lennie? What on earth happened with Oskar’s grandparents?—with cordial grace and honor. You’re not always right, but you’re willing to stretch, risking a wrong answer in order to learn. I love this about each of you.

At seventeen, my expectations for the future were modestly interesting, but the reality of the last thirteen years of my life has been far richer and deeper than any of my expectations. There were tamer paths to take, ones that might have kept me in Seattle, with a good job as a public school teacher and friends I’ve known for ages. But I said yes to a journey, reading every page of this new chapter. This spirit of exploration can take you far, in learning and in life, but it comes with a warning. With the love and strength of Christ as your foundation, I’m confident that your adventures will take you beyond where you can imagine now. Just know that not all risks are worth taking, and not all adventures are worth having. To be a proper explorer means using your heart and your mind, and listening to Christ with both. From there, you can expect challenge, like this year of Honors English, but also growth and joy and love.

This is the end of a chapter of BFA for me, but not for you. Soon enough you’ll be back here, learning again, reaching for new heights. Keep asking hard questions, writing tricky essays, having great conversations. I may make it back here to see you graduate, but if I don’t, know that I’m proud of each of you, for the journeys you’ve already taken and the people that Christ has created you to be.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi Gaster

Places as People

75906_692742706330_1174899592_nAnd having answered so I turn once more to those who
     sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
     and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
     so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
     job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
     little soft cities…

Carl Sandburg, from “Chicago” 

I take the long way to Penny Markt for romaine lettuce and a baguette, back behind the hill and past the dairy farm and Italian villa on the edge of the golf course. I’ve come this way because today is sunny and I’m extraordinarily busy. My day began with a meeting at 8:00 AM, and it won’t really end until my senior small group leaves around 9:00 PM. Or when I finish the mountain of dishes, a good half-hour later. A long Monday, with just this hour for walking and groceries, so I seize it feeling too busy not to go for a walk.

The green hills don’t disappoint, today exploding with apple blossoms that fall in graceful showers around me with each breath of gentle spring breeze. I might be in heaven, I think for a fleeting moment, or I might simply live in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. This, I remind myself for the thousandth time, this is home.

As I walk I’m thinking about the poems my students wrote last week, “city poems” inspired by Carl Sandburg’s 1914 mixed-message ode to his hometown. Sandburg personifies Chicago throughout the poem, creating of his native city a burly, bare-chested young man who is at various times “wicked,” “brutal,” and “crooked,” a “husky, brawling” youth that would frighten as quickly as inspire. Halfway through the poem, however, Sandburg changes his tune. Chicago is all of this, he admits, but look again. Is anyone more alive? A better fighter? Cleverer or with more self-awareness? This is my city, Sandburg seems to claim, all of him.

“And it’s only when you know a place, really know it,” I told my students, “That you can manage this. Places are like people, when you know them.”

I briefly sketched what sort of personifying poem I could write about Paris–having visited for only twelve hours–pouring on details of a baguette-clutching, wine-swilling, haughty mime, bringing shudders from the French students.

“I don’t know Paris,” I admitted. “It’s not a person to me. It’s flat, like a map. No layers. People have layers, and so do places, when you know them. And you know places that most people don’t. Pick a place. Make it a character.”

With a few understanding nods, students began their poems by jotting titles on their pages: “Bishkek,” “Calhoun, Georgia,” “Dubai” and others I’d even heard of. Word by word, people climbed out of the pages. Old and young, rich and poor, naive and threatening, innocent and criminal. Not all of them ended with Sandburg’s defense, but every poem expressed the deep knowing that comes from calling a place home, if only for a little while.

But sometimes knowing is a journey, not a destination. I sit down and reread my poem, “Kandern,” written a few years ago. It’s not wrong, exactly; when I wrote it, this was what I knew of this place I’d come to live. Now I’d write a different poem. “Knowing comes in layers,” I reflected more than four years ago, back at the beginning of this season. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of this place, of any place, just like I haven’t gotten to the bottom of any person. There will always be more to know. There will always be more home to have.

I round the corner behind the dairy farm, still under the canopy of apple trees, and pause. This is a beautiful place, a place I’m just getting to know, even after five years. But there are other places, other years. The journey from home to home, so familiar now, continues again soon, taking us both back and forward.

“We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote T.S. Eliot. “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” In two months we’ll be in Virginia; in three we’ll be in Washington. Those places where we started.

We’re excited to know them again.