Home Is Where The Jam Is

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue…

Galway Kinnell, from “Blackberry Eating”

“So, you think this one?”

We’re standing at the end of the baking aisle, my mother and Luci and I, picking up and squinting at box after box of Gelfix, Germany’s answer to American Certo, that pectin-infused magic that is key to making jam.

We’ve already picked the blackberries, several yogurt buckets’ worth, which are now in the freezer, waiting to become jam. Because when your mom comes to visit in early August–your mom who made gallons of jam every summer throughout your childhood–well, you don’t really have a choice. Toddler in the backpack, you go out, all three of you, to “pick boo-bays” for a few days. You order some jars on Amazon. You make the jam.

Now, pectin is the last obstacle between us and a hot, sticky afternoon of jamming, so we try to make an educated guess. We’d been instructed by a colleague of mine last week on the different “strengths” of Gelfix, depending on the ratio of sugar to fruit that you want in your jam. There’s 1:1, 2:1 and 3:1. All assume that you’re using more fruit than sugar (or at least an equal amount).

“But your recipe,” I ask my mom, “It calls for what? Almost double the sugar?”

She nods, picking up another box, as I study the directions on the back of the 1:1 version. Since neither of us know exactly what pectin even is–thus whether adding more or less would be likely to compensate for the increased sugar–we go with the nuclear option. We’re going to use the German recipe on the box. Adventure!

The next afternoon finds us at the stove, taking turns measuring, stirring, and jarring some truly magnificent jam. My mom is skeptical at first, keeping her trusty personal jam recipe in the back of her mind, but with venturesome good nature proceeds with the German recipe. The result, we both decide while biting into slices of rustic bread with butter and thick blankets of blackberry jam, is intoxicating. It is the flavor of a Pacific Northwest childhood, hours and days of berry-picking, stained and thorn-pricked fingers picking up soft slices of whole wheat bread with fresh, warm jam. The recipe was different, but this still tastes like home.

It’s amazing how a taste can transport. A long time ago, on a homesick afternoon on a farm in Austria, I tried to make chocolate chip cookies, with little success. The cookies were horribly ugly and crunchy, flat and pale. Far from providing comfort or familiarity, they were embarrassing and sad. I’ve since learned that baking here, with different-weighted flours and slightly softer butter, is something of a rite of passage, something to master once you’ve lived here for a while. Nine years later, I can make cookies better here than in America, where the ingredients have become just foreign enough to be unpredictable. Home is where the cookies are best.

As new staff and students begin to trickle into Kandern, and returning ones pick up where they left off after summers of travel (or, like us, summers at the pool), I’m thinking about what it takes to feel at home somewhere. Relationships and vocation are the things we talk about, the things that are supposed to (and mostly do) matter most. But sometimes home is also having furniture you like–whether it’s Ikea or antique–or unpacking the box that had your paintings and favorite mugs in it. And sometimes it’s making a recipe you remember, and making it well.

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Grateful Goodbyes

Proud Papa dedicating his first granddaughter at Bethany Community Church.

Proud Papa dedicating his first granddaughter at Bethany Community Church.

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

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

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

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

Julia Massey, from “Here Is A Stone Wall”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Hunters: Kandern

 

No door or heat in this bedroom. Worth it, though.

No door or heat in this bedroom. Worth it, though.

House Hunters International makes me dangerously smug.

The House Hunters franchise, as far as I can tell, forms a cornerstone of the Home Garden Television mansion. The basic formula involves someone–usually a couple–looking for a house, then being carted around to three different houses by a realtor. At the end, the couple has to reach some kind of compromise, either between themselves or amongst their many “must haves” and pick a house. Simple.

If I’m Goldilocks, International House Hunters is the “just right” of these shows. Normal House Hunters makes me feel slightly broke, and Tiny House Hunters makes me feel more materialistic than I like. International House Hunters, though, is the perfect mix of relatable and crazy. I can see these places all over the world, and I know how impossible the hopeful tenants’ wishlists are. The typical episode starts like this:

Expat Husband: We really want an old building, walking distance to the old city, and with super-fast wifi.

Expat Wife: Also an open-concept layout, with a kitchen with an island. And of course we need a fenced-in yard for our dog.

Realtor: (shakes head)

Trouble is coming! Even if the budget provides for it, such a place seldom exists. They must settle, giving up on some features in order to get others. Eventually they pick a place that makes them happy for some reason, and then the episode ends with a “a few months later” interview, revealing the rightness of their choice.

Six years ago when I was preparing to move to Germany, there was an email floating around about the apartments we’d likely be living in. “There are no closets,” it warned. “You will have to purchase schranks to put your clothes in.” (Somehow that German word slipped into a document meant for people who’d never lived in Germany. I guessed it meant “wardrobe.” I guessed right.) It continued with ever more dire predictions. “Light fixtures don’t come with the apartment. You may have to provide your own.” The worst news came last: “Germans typically take their kitchens with them when they move. You may have to purchase your own when you arrive.” Having always thought of a kitchen as a room with walls, not necessarily portable, this was mysterious and grim.

The message: This place will be different from wherever you used to live. It was a helpful message, I suppose, setting us up to be very excited when the first apartment we lived in had not only lights but its own kitchen! Still other surprises were waiting, however, in my new attic bedroom.

Roommate: So, your room is cool, but it doesn’t really have a door.

Me: Oh, so the door doesn’t lock? Or is there a curtain or something?

Roommate: No. There just isn’t one. No door. Just a hole in the floor.

Frosty sunrise from the chilly attic.

Frosty sunrise from the chilly attic.

Ah, the cost of living in an attic. I learned on arriving that my attic also wasn’t really heated, except for whatever radiated through said hole in the floor, so that one winter morning I woke up to frosty skylights and an indoor temperature of 46˚ F. But the sunrise was magnificent, my blankets perfectly adequate, and it’s still the best bedroom I’ve ever had.

I think what I like about House Hunters is the inevitable realization, created like clockwork by optimistic producers, that a house and home are wildly different things. That while a house can have quirks and disappointments, ultimately a home is created almost entirely by the people who live there.

This is never more real to me than now, living in the icebox of early spring at Snoqualmie Pass. I visit Seattle, where leaves and blossoms and 70˚ F days are starting to become common, then return to ten-foot snowbanks and a bedroom window still encased in ice. I could complain, if not for the inspiring little roommate who shares our igloo bedroom. Each day when my daughter decides it’s morning, I turn on the light to see her enormous, excited smile. She’s happy to see me, of course, but also frankly delighted by the room itself. There’s a red paper star light to look at! And the shadows it throws on the wall and the floor! Look, that blanket has a smiling panda bear on it! And this pillow–it’s so magnificently black and white! Who needs a window, she seems to say with a grin, when there’s so much beauty and love right here?

Who indeed? My daughter and the House Hunters remind me to look for the beauty that I miss when I’m focusing on the cracks, the flaws, the falling-short of expectations. Yes, there’s still snow all around, which might not melt until July. But I live in house, a home, with four generations of family, this year’s gift of unmatched excellence. And I can always come upstairs to look out the windows.

In a few months I’ll return to Germany, to an new apartment. We love the building and the landlords, but it’s on the fourth floor and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have a shower, just a tub and spray nozzle. Still, I’ll go there with the two people I love best in the world, and I’ll have some awesome baths and watch some stunning sunsets in our top-floor apartment. Like my daughter, I want to wake up each morning with delight in the loveliness of these homes God has given me, looking for the beauty and shrugging off everything else. Because houses are just houses; it’s people who make them home.

How The Storm Tried To Steal Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candlelit Christmas dinner. Photo: Richard Dahlstrom

Candlelit Christmas dinner.
Photo: Richard Dahlstrom

Candles and Community

The top of the wood stove is perfect for making quesadillas!

The top of the wood stove is perfect for making quesadillas!

The house is cold at dawn.

I wake and build the fires.

The ground is white with snow.

from “IV,” Wendell Berry

On the night our daughter is supposed to be born (the “supposed to” determined by an oh-so-precise countdown that started way back in February), we have no electricity at Snoqualmie Pass. We’re actually more than 24 hours into a power outage, since yesterday saw one of the more vicious storms in memory, a storm that took away not only our lights, but those of over 300,000 others in our region.

Yesterday we sat inside and prayed that we wouldn’t have to drive through the tree-felling, road-saturating tempest, 35 miles “down the mountain” to the hospital. Today calm, grey light reflects off of new snow and brightens our house during the daytime. Except for the lack of hot water and Internet, and the pitifully room-temperature refrigerator, we’re not so bothered by the lack of power in the daytime.

Night is different. It gets dark at 4:30 PM these days, so at four I leave behind the Wendell Berry I was reading by the dusk in the window, and light a fire and half a dozen lanterns. My mother arrives a few minutes later with pots of soup from Grandma’s apartment downstairs, where they’d been thawing on top of her stove. She sets them now on the flat top of our wood stove to boil, while Timmy goes to the back deck to grill sausages.

At five, two neighbors arrive, stamping snow off their boots downstairs and then crowing delightedly at the warmth that our stove has provided. One shares harrowing tales of his own house, where it’s 53˚ F inside and his dog and cat sleep with him under the covers. “So warm!” he marvels, stretching out his hands over the glowing orange door of the stove. While we wait for the soup, we nibble on pretzels re-toasted on the barbecue, swap stories of the last two dark days and forecasts of when we’ll return to the 21st century. They spy me, still roundly bulky in the candlelight, and advise that I should “just relax. Babies come when they want to. Just be relaxed, Kristi.”

The truth is, I am relaxed, at rest as we break bread (and soup and sausages) with our neighbors, basking in the familiar warmth of community. Somehow, without my expecting or inviting it, community became a theme of the last five years. Though the process has been gradual, I’m amazed when I remember the studiously reserved and self-sufficient teacher that left the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2010. I could take care of myself, I thought then, and I was happy to do so for as long as was necessary. Community–the village life that I skirted by being comparatively wealthy and urban–was undoubtedly difficult. It meant sharing life with people different than I, meant depending on some of those people for more than amusement.

And then I became a missionary, connected by relational and financial bonds to a wide range of people, all around the world. I moved to a literal village, where I lived without a car and had to rely on others for rides to the airport and hospital. I ran into my students and coworkers around every corner, and realized that even if I thought of myself as an island, no amount of self-reliance could make it so. So I joined a choir and a women’s Bible Study, and dared to date and marry my husband in full view of my village. Our home became a gathering place, where we shared meals like this candlelit one. I never expected it, this extravagant community, but I needed it. We all do.

It's also ideal for pancake-making!

It’s also ideal for pancake-making!

This little mountain road, flanked with snow and just a few houses, is a new village. I’m still learning community, this time from my parents, who are the kind of people who clean out their refrigerator (and freezer!) and invite the neighbors over for an impromptu candlelit dinner. I feel fortunate to be here, amazed and delighted that this will be Luci’s first home.

Our culture is an individual one, where it’s easy to long for space or independence, financial security or the peculiar brand of “I can do it myself” that defined my early twenties. And then the power goes out and our batteries die, and around a glowing table laden with soup, sausage and bread we share stories and laughter, brightening the early dark.

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.

 

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.

End Zones & Time Zones

Seattle SeahawksI was seventeen the first time I watched the Super Bowl all the way through.

I’m sure it was on other years, but I could never be bothered to watch. I’d float in for the halftime show or a few commercials. The game itself felt endless, piles of people crawling across the field, lacking the precision of baseball, the speed of basketball, or the precise single-mindedness of soccer. Had I been alive during the “Heidi Bowl” of 1968, I would have cheered when the game flickered off in overtime, giving way to an actual story, for once.

But when I was a senior in high school, the New England Patriots were playing the St. Louis Rams in a pre-Katrina Superdome, with a pre-everything, second-season Tom Brady. I’d recently decided that Gordon College, just outside of Boston, held the key to my future. With this destiny in mind, I decided to watch the Super Bowl. If I was going to be a New Englander, I best start cheering for my team.

And cheer I did. I remember little of the actual game now. (Honestly, if I remembered any specific plays it would be a miracle. Even this summer’s glorious final World Cup match has become a faint and distant memory.) U2 performed the halftime show, as the names of those killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks–just five months prior–scrolled on a giant screen behind them. The Patriots won, possibly in overtime.

When I came to Ballard High School the next day, where I was a copy editor for our school newspaper, I proofread the final draft of that month’s paper, and discovered a hole in the Sports section.

“Someone, write an article on the Super Bowl,” the Editor-in-Chief commanded. No response. “Didn’t anyone watch it?” Apathetic shrugs all around.

“I watched it,” I replied, breaking the silence as skeptical classmates turned to look at me.

“Really?” He raised his eyebrows, then shrugged. “OK, fine. Kristi, you write it.”

It was my first and last sports article, 200 words I’m still proud of writing. I think it is cut out somewhere, buried in a box in my parents’ garage. The first Super Bowl I cared about.

Of course, life didn’t turn out that way. A week later I visited Gordon, and a few months later I decided to stay in Seattle, picking my parents’ alma mater, Seattle Pacific University, for mostly financial reasons. I never became a Patriots fan, except in “lesser of two evils” scenarios.

I did watch more Super Bowls, though. I watched in 2005, when the Seahawks went to their first championship ever, losing to the Steelers under referee-related circumstances that my Ingraham ninth-graders wailed about loudly the next morning. After mocking my colleagues and students here in Germany for three years for the nonsense of staying up all night on a Sunday, last February I set my alarm for midnight and watched (most of) Seattle’s victory over Denver.

I still don’t love football, still find it agonizingly slow at times. I still choose sleep over watching most nights, even when, like during the NFC Championship, that proves to be a terrible decision. But a few magical times a year, football connects me with home, with family and friends, a giant cause that we all care about together. It’s just a game, of course, hardly the most critical cause in the world, but it’s something, a link of excitement to a city full of people I love.

With just about everyone in Seattle, I’ll be watching the Super Bowl again this year. And this time, I won’t be rooting for the Patriots.