Then & Now

IMG_6154Then

It’s me, three bags and a violin, and climb the three floors to my new apartment downtown at the end of a hot summer day. I’ve taken three trains today, from Austria to my new home in Southwestern Germany. This morning, my new boss told me that I wouldn’t be teaching the classes I’d planned on all summer, middle school English and history, but instead high school English and Canadian history. I would be more frustrated if I had planned anything for the middle school classes, but I haven’t. I probably should be more nervous than I am, since school starts on Tuesday and I’ve never even been to Kandern, the village where the school and my flat are located. I should be, but I’m just tired.

Now

It’s me and Luci, a baby carrier and a yellow umbrella, four floors up in our apartment at the top of the town, in the middle of a rainy summer day. We’ve left the house once today, this morning for groceries, where I bought food for the weekend and chatted with a friend in the produce section. Other than that, though, we haven’t been out much, and I haven’t done much planning for the classes I’ll teach in three weeks. Mostly we’ve sat on the floor and played with cups. Until now, when Luci decided that the cups were suddenly not interesting enough to distract her from the late-afternoon malaise of being a baby and teething and walking and bumping into things. So we leave.

Then

My new roommates have secured a few items of furniture for my attic bedroom. A bed with blankets, a wardrobe, a red end table for a desk and a brocade chair. It’s not much, but it will be enough, and it’s more than I expected. I look at the peaked ceiling, peer through the slanted windows at the little town I should start calling home, its tile roofs warm in the golden sunlight.

“Can we go for a walk?” I ask my roommate, Emily.

Now

We wander around the apartment getting ready. From Luci’s room a pink coat and little shoes. From my closet a pair of sandals. From the side table in the hall Luci’s baby carrier, a present from my parents that has taken us through half a dozen airports and countless hikes. I pull Luci close to me and loop the straps over my shoulders, and we stand by the living room windows, looking out at this familiar town, at the tile roofs gleaming in a break in the clouds.

“Let’s go outside, Luci,” I tell my daughter, grabbing an umbrella as we go.

Then

Emily and I drift through the narrow alleys of the village we don’t know yet. “Can we get up there?” I ask, pointing towards a high, round hill at the end of the town, atop of which a gazebo appears to be perched. Emily shrugs. She hasn’t gone there yet, but she’s willing to explore with me. We wind our way through the town, the hill in our sights. I get acquainted with the town, sweet smelling and still mostly silent, and my roommate, hearing about her summer and her first weeks in Kandern. We’ll become friends, but today we’re just almost-strangers exploring a place and each other.

We don’t find the gazebo, or the way up the hill, but we walk and talk, and I’m satisfied as we climb up the stairs, the sun setting on my first day living in Germany.

Now

Luci and I climb the hill behind our house, my feet carrying us automatically up the little-known road that leads to the trail that leads to the shorn, grassy path that leads to the gazebo high above the town. At the top of the hill it starts to rain, so I unfurl the yellow umbrella, which makes Luci laugh. Larger drops make a louder sound, and she keeps laughing, craning her neck to see more and more of the flowery roof over our heads. She can’t be bothered with the view, doesn’t know how precious it is to me or how special this place is. The gazebo I didn’t find with Emily on that first night, the gazebo where my husband gave me a green mug and told me he liked me, yesterday forever ago. Someday she’ll care, but not today; today is it’s all about the umbrella.

So I leave her to her giggling and spend a moment remembering. How simple life once was, just me and my bags and a vague idea of what I’d be doing here. It was a minimalist’s dream, that life, the ascetic attic with its sparse furniture, my capsule wardrobe that I could carry in a single backpack. Now it’s complex, layered, three of us in a home full of everything we need that may fit into ten suitcases whenever we leave this place, if we can sell a lot of it first. I suppose I could have kept the minimal life. But as I stand in the rain on a favorite hilltop, six years later, with my umbrella and my giggling little girl, I thank God for the beauty of complexity.

Under the umbrella

Under the umbrella

and all shall be well

and all shall be wellAh, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

Mary Oliver, from “Starlings in Winter”

It’s a summer of contrasts.

Last night there was a suicide bombing, again in Germany, in a town to which I’ve traveled often for track meets. And another shooting in Florida. Three days ago, a young shooter attacked several other teenagers at a shopping mall in Munich. Before that was a coup. Before that there were policemen and black men, killed and killing. Before that were more guns, more bombs. Violence and injustice, innocent lives lost everywhere. The speaker at church on Sunday scrolled backwards through this litany of terrors–just in July–events in America and around the world that remind me of a line in Romeo and Juliet: “For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.” Except this isn’t Tybalt killing Mercutio, or Gatsby’s great, heat- and rage-fueled car crash. It’s real violence, not literary, and it won’t pass with the hot days of summer.

Meanwhile, we’re a town so quiet that we can hear horseshoes clattering or cats fighting on the street four floors down, and accordion music floats lazily through our window in the evenings. We spend most days watching a person grow. (Slower than grass, but so much more entertaining!) We watch her standing, balancing on her toes then heels then toes again. We hear her trying to talk, telling us in dozens of syllables all of her thoughts and feelings. We give her watermelon and peaches, delighted to see them disappear into her toothless smile. We take her to the pool and learn she’s afraid of cold water (But who isn’t?), then exult when she consents to sit down and splash for ten merry minutes in the shallowest part of the wading pool. These are my days, both dark and bright.

And a sentence keeps running through my mind, one that I’ve loved for a long time. And all shall be well. Part of Revelations of Divine Love, by medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, these words have run like a line of music through the last decade or so of my life, a promise of God’s power and goodness that has carried me through more than a few times of upheaval. Still, I confess it’s only today that I remembered to be a dutiful English teacher and look up the context of the quote (beyond the two lines around it, borrowed by T.S. Eliot in “Little Gidding”).

I discovered that the lines were Christ’s response to her question–why was sin necessary? As God replied to Job, Julian received a reply, but not an answer:

“But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'”

Sin was necessary, but all will be well anyway. God will make all things well.

Psalm 23 tells the same story:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me…

Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Psalm 23:4,6

I feel the tension between the beauty of my daily life and the pain that surrounds me, but this is nothing new if I’ve been paying attention. Life in Christ is a tension between contrasts. Light in darkness. Beauty in brokenness. Sin all around, but sin conquered at last. Goodness and lovingkindness following me–not puddles or moments of it, here and there–even through the shadowy valleys of these dark days.

Thank you God for the beauty, for the all that shall be well. Oh God, walk with us through these valleys.

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.

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.

Töpfer

IMG_1483“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20-21

IMG_1479It starts to rain on Sunday afternoon, as we weave our way through the quiet crowds and costly tables. The Kandern Töpfermarkt, a pottery fair that takes place two weeks after the raucous and delicious Budenfest, is in town this weekend. From all over Europe, potters and ceramicists have brought their wares, filling our Blumenplatz with tables laden with cups, bowls, pitchers, and lamps of every color, shape and size imaginable.

This is my fourth year at the pottery market. My first year, I missed it because of a trip to Austria, but every year since I’ve returned, a pleasant ritual that marks autumn in Kandern. I remember the first time, coming down with Emily after a hike in the forest, late summer still pouring light and warmth into the little square. We wandered around, bent on purchasing the perfect cup, deciding after much deliberation to purchase tall, cylindrical mugs in blue and beige. That same year, a handsome new RA I barely knew bought himself a green mug, declared it the perfect one, and suggested that we have coffee and compare purchases. Today, I poured coffee into that same green mug and passed it to him across the breakfast table.

IMG_1475As we circle the market, I realize that it’s laced with all sorts of memories now. I see the orange and brown plates that Alyssa used to collect, or the blue and yellow mug whose older brother sat on Becky’s desk. I pass baskets holding cups that my three roommates and I have bought in earlier years, mugs that smiled down from cabinets and shelves, waiting for tea or coffee, waiting for the evenings when they’d all be used. Everywhere I look, familiar patterns, colors and forms stand out, recalling people and occasions when I’ve seen them before. It’s a fragile hall of visual echoes, a parade of memories in ceramic form.

This little market–a traveling event that visits us each September–embodies the community we’ve found here over the last four years. This is my fifth fall in Kandern, and this place has become home. It isn’t perfect, full of the same flaws and worries that I’ve found everywhere else, that I’ve brought everywhere else. And yet I’m thankful, struck in an overwhelming sense that God has created something beautiful around me over the last four years.

IMG_1488We’re beginning our last year in Kandern, at least for a while, and we don’t yet know what happens next. It could be that this next year is an intermission between two long acts in our green valley. Or we might be in the final movement of Kandern life, poised to begin something new, in a fresh new place. We wait, we pray, we listen, hoping for guidance in our next steps. Perhaps it should be agonizing or frightening, but it isn’t.

Because I can look around this pottery market and see what God has done here, with us, over the last four years. I can see dinners with friends, coffee with students, hikes in the forest and conversations in the classroom. I see my students coming in early on winter mornings to make tea before first period, cupping their hands around steaming mugs as we read Whitman, Twain, Fitzgerald. It’s all so much more than I expected, more than I even asked for. With God, it seems what He gives me is always more, better. I can’t see the next home yet, over the high, green pass of June 2015, but I know that God walks before us, making a way, reminding me that the view is glorious if I’ll keep following Him. It’s likely that next September won’t include the Kandern Töpfermarkt, but for today I’m thankful, looking back at what He’s done, ahead in the knowledge that He’s with us.

Of Prayer {From A Puddle of Yogurt}

“Do you know what this means?”

He pushes his workbook over to where I’m sitting on a couch in Maugenhard’s living room. I’ve helped set up an ice cream sundae bar tonight, and made a blueberry coffee cake now in the refrigerator, ready for Maug’s dorm mom to toss in the oven tomorrow morning. Now I’m sitting in a busy rectangle of boys, all in various states of studying. I squint down at the workbook, and realize the instructions requiring interpretation are in German. That’s a new one.

“Actually… yes. It means… Complete these sentences. Actually, it means Make whole these sentences,” I comment with a smile. The nuance of the language isn’t as interesting to him as it is to me, but he seems emboldened by the translation. He asks about a few more words, and I ask him how he, a French speaker living in Israel, came to be in second-year German.

“Took it in France. Seventh grade. So… I’m missing some words.”

I nod, understanding, and he points down to a new word.

“How about this one?”

“Um… dauert means lasts, sort of. Like, How long does it last?”

“You know your German, Mrs. Gaster.”

I can only laugh and shake my head, because lately that’s not how I’ve been feeling. At all.

Flash back a few days, to when I ran errands around town after school. There was the insurance agency, where I needed to cancel insurance I thought I’d already cancelled, before I got a bill for said insurance in the mail. Then the cobbler, who told me he could not fix my defective new Birkenstocks, at least not with the original… whatever the German word for buckles was. I never found out. In any case, I’d have to return them, a mail-order process involving a double-sided form I can’t really read, all to explain that yes, I’d like the same model in the same size, just not backwards-buckling.

This errand-venture ended at the grocery store, usually a haven of mastery. I understand this place, Hieber’s, which is a size of an average Seattle local grocer. I know where most things are. I even negotiated–in German–the exchange of a bag of quinoa a few weeks ago, when a newly-purchased supply proved full of moths. I’ve got this, I said like a crazy person, reassuring myself that I know something of the language and culture I’ve spent four years with.

Except that when I reached up for a pail of yogurt, on a top shelf well above my head, it brought its poorly-placed neighbor crashing down to the floor. This second pail exploded, sending yogurt and plastic shards everywhere–the floor, the dairy shelves, my feet in their flip-flops. I was marooned in a white sea, speechless.

And every German word escaped me. What does one say, stranded in a puddle of yogurt? What would I even say in EnglishJogurt… um… fallen? Gefallen? Kaput? Who even knows?

I stood there for a while, catching the raised eyebrows of other customers, but unfortunately no store employees. Several minutes later, an off-duty cashier spied my predicament. Just as I opened my mouth to ask the question I didn’t know how to ask, she said, in German, “I’ll get someone to help.” Hilfe–help. That’s the word I was looking for.

I stood around a while longer, stood in the yogurt as friends, neighbors, colleagues walked by, eyeing me sympathetically, until a large floor zamboni and roll of paper towels came to my rescue. I went home crestfallen, yogurt-covered, tired.

This week at Black Forest Academy, Dr. Richard Alan Farmer has been speaking with our students–each morning in a special chapel before school–about prayer. Different types, postures, reasons for prayer, which he calls “conversations with Papa.”

I love this. And my struggles with language lately make me think of prayer and its many varieties. On occasion, like with the quinoa, I know exactly what to ask for, with just the right words, and I am overjoyed when God responds to me, right away, exactly as I expect. More often, though, I find myself crying Puddle-of-Yogurt Prayers, cries of my heart when I can’t find the words. And while I may find myself endlessly frustrated with my own inept grammar and sparse vocabulary in German, God isn’t so picky. How marvelous to know that He hears, He knows, He understands.

Even when I’ve been feeling particularly speechless.

Four World Cups {And Kandern, My Home}

Lexi dons jersey and flag face paint to cheer for Germany vs. Ghana

Lexi dons jersey and flag face paint to cheer for Germany vs. Ghana

I confess, I wasn’t watching when they scored the first goal.

Distracted by the coolness of the German away jerseys–red and black blocks that take me straight back to Ballard High School–I was doing some online shopping when the pub erupted, reacting to Thomas Müller’s clean shot past Brazilian keeper Júlio César.

“Ahh, I missed it!” I wailed, looking up in time to catch the replay. My friends laughed at me. I’ve missed most of the German goals this World Cup, distracted by conversation or falling asleep before the inevitable extra time periods at the late ends of 0-0 games. Watching sports is not one of my gifts, you see. Distraught that I’d possibly missed the only action in this game, I fixed my eyes on the screen bedecked with international bunting, hoping there would be another goal.

I needn’t have worried.

Quite by accident, I’ve been in Germany during the last four World Cups. I don’t remember 2002, South Korea, though there must have been posters or headlines somewhere when I was dragging my 17-year-old self through the dim underworld of the München Ostbahnhof, trying to figure out where to buy a train ticket to Salzburg. I wasn’t paying attention when Germany lost to Brazil in the final.

Tunisia vs. Saudi Arabia, 2006

Tunisia vs. Saudi Arabia, 2006

I remember 2006, though, taking a night train full of drunken Italian footballers headed for Dortmund, shopping in Munich on the raucous day that Tunisia played Saudi Arabia there. I remember my friends telling me, wide-eyed, that they’d never seen so many German flags on display. “We don’t usually display our flags,” they explained to me, “Not since… We’re careful about nationalism now.”

In 2010, two American girls and three German girls grilled bratwurst in Austria, then sighed when Germany lost the semi-final to Spain, way down in South Africa. We watched the final in a library, and two Dutch Tauernhof students dominated both the cheering and the lament, though we were all wearing orange and were all disappointed.

Watching the Spain vs. Germany semi-final in 2010

Watching the Spain vs. Germany semi-final in 2010

This year is different. This year comes at the end of four years living in Germany, where people care deeply about this sport and feel comfortable expressing love for their country only during football matches. There are more German flags out in general than there were 12 years ago, but especially now. Since this World Cup began, I’ve watched games in three countries, and heard commentary in four languages, only two of which I understood. Back in 2010, when my Somali and Mexican students would watch the group stage games in my classroom during lunch, I got the impression that this World Cup business was a big deal, captivating the whole world in a way that few other events did. Now, I know for sure.

Afraid of missing something, I pay fastidious attention to the rest of the game, a 7-1 rout by Germany, which will be catalogued in history with statistics particularly miraculous or damning, depending on your perspective. “What is even happening?” we cry, disbelieving, after each goal. “Does this ever happen?” We cheer as well as we can–and have dressed in the required red, black and gold–but we’re no match for the Kanderners, who shout, cry, and break into song as the victory grows more secure.

Watching Germany vs. France, 2014 Quarterfinal, on the Fourth of July!

Watching Germany vs. France, 2014 quarter-final, on the Fourth of July!

Tomorrow, I’ll read the German coach Joachim Löw’s consolatory words for defeated Brazil, and scan faintly guilty Facebook statuses from German friends, along the lines of “We wanted to win, but this… Wow.” Tonight, though, we celebrate. When it’s over, the Kanderners jump into their cars for the bizarre and perilous ritual of driving around in circles through our village, laying on their horns and shouting. “Wir haben gewonnen! We’ve won!” they remind us as we walk home, laughing. “Show some spirit!” Apparently, a honking horn is the only acceptable response in cases like these.

I lack the knowledge and vocabulary to speak of the influence of the World Cup on the world, whether it ultimately unites or divides, whether it’s worth the cost, especially to Brazil tonight. But I’m thankful to be here, to share something so deeply important to so many, to live in this village where they cheer into the night.

Things (And Mostly People) That Made Life Better This Year: 2012 Edition

Black Forest Academy–this ever-changing community of staff and students that flow in and out of this little valley on the edge of the dark hills–is a place of tradition. Do something once, whether it’s dumping someone in a pond on their birthday or granting crazy Christmas wishes, and it’s likely that you’ll be asked to do it again this time next year.

In honor of the many BFA traditions and in gratitude for the truly splendid year that is ending shortly, here is my third annual list of Things That Made Life Better This Year. I understand that many of them aren’t strictly “things,” but for now the mixed-media format works best to express the twelve factors that most played into 2012.

From Kandern, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  1. Students working in Oradea, Romania, on the Habitat For Humanity house we built for Caminul Felix

    Students working in Oradea, Romania, on the Habitat For Humanity house we built for Caminul Felix

    Community. Sometimes it came in passing, on a building site in Romania or a shared blanket at the London Olympics. Other times, I returned to familiar places, in Seattle and Kandern, to find beloved friends and family, people whom I’ve grown to know and love. In all cases, 2012 has been a year of learning to love and live with others, for however long God gives me the opportunity.

  2. German Language. While traveling in France and Romania this year, I found myself often thankful for the haphazard mastery of the German language that allows me to speak to neighbors and friends in this country I call home. Huge win for high school language study!
  3. Classic American Literature. In my fourth year of teaching eleventh grade English, I am still surprised and challenged by the depth of discussion and inquiry that are present in our most beloved texts. So thank you, Hester Prynne, Huckleberry Finn, Jay Gatsby, and George and Lennie, for the dreams you chase and the questions you ask, these tricky mazes that I get to walk through each year with new juniors.
  4. Growth. From co-leading a mission trip to heading an English Department, this has been a year of new roles and new challenges, all of which have helped me to grow as a teacher and a leader. Thankful for the opportunities, and the excellent managers who have helped me growth through them.
  5. Class of 2013 goes to France!

    Class of 2013 goes to France!

    The Classes of 2012 and 2013. Two classes more different than any I’ve taught, the junior and senior classes have delighted with depth and humor, inspired with questions and energy, and overwhelmingly impressed me with their love for one another and Jesus Christ. I’m thankful for discussions and essays, adventures and imagination. Two great groups.

  6. Technology. Easy to take for granted–especially when it’s broken–I still maintain that the Internet and its many tools have aided in life and learning, facilitating communication with faraway loved ones and providing English reading material for this English teacher.
  7. Dahlstrom siblings at Noah and Lindsey's rehearsal dinner.

    Dahlstrom siblings at Noah and Lindsey’s rehearsal dinner.

    The Dahlstrom Family. Between two visits from my parents and sister, and a busy summer at home in Seattle, I have finished the year doubly thankful for the now-five other Dahlstroms that make up my family. Thank you for hikes and climbing trips, two graduations and beautiful wedding. Most of all, thank you for your love, humor, support and understanding. I couldn’t do this without you.

  8. Asking For Help. Never easy for me, this has been a year of asking for rides to the hospital and train station, along with seeking mentorship and financial support. Thankful for the God who provides friends and family who are happy to step in and lend a hand (or a car) when needed.
  9. Kristi, Emily and Anna

    Kristi, Emily and Anna

    Roommates. Anna and Emily, the dear roommates with whom I’ve lived since moving to Kandern, have been constant sources of wisdom, safety, humor and friendship. I am endlessly thankful to God for arranging these beautiful households.

  10. Supporters. I had the privilege of visiting both Concrete Community Bible Church and Bethany Community Church this summer, along with meeting many of you individually. At the end of this year, I’m struck by the encouragement that so many of you have been to me, along with the incredible financial support that has allowed me to continue in ministry here. Thank you for your involvement!
  11. Timmy and I at Bodenseehof

    Timmy and I at Bodenseehof

    Fishbowl Dating. A year of dating Timmy Gaster in the BFA community has meant many opportunities to model a Christ-centered dating relationship to the always-watching students in our community. Which, in the end, makes all of the giggling, questions, photos and “Mrs. Gaster” jokes worthwhile.

  12. Seasons. Both the more-extreme temperatures of Kandern–from 0˚ F last February to over 90˚ F in the days before school starterd–and the changeable seasons of life, I’ve been more aware of seasons this year, thankful for both those past and those ahead, and that I serve a God who is with me through them all.

For more of 2012, check out some of my favorite photos from the year below!

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This Year

Taking up Dahlstrom tradition, I make an attempt at Mom's cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning.

Stop and look around you
The glory that you see
Is born again each day
Don’t let it slip away
How precious life can be
With a thankful heart
that is wide awake
I do make this promise
With every breath I take
Will be used now to sing your praise
And beg you to share my days
With a loving guarantee
That even if we part
I will hold you close in
a thankful heart.

Muppet Christmas Carol

At 8:30 AM, I wake up on a mattress on my living room floor, opening my eyes to grey morning light, competing with the soft glow of my still-lit Christmas tree. Kandern sleeps under a thick layer of frost, morning sky still pink from the sunrise. It’s Christmas morning in the Black Forest.

Our Christmas tree

Around me on other mattresses and a fold-down futon are my sister, my roommate and two other friends. When Holly suggested that we pull all our mattresses down and have a Christmas Eve slumber party, I thought she was kidding. How naive. Minutes later, I left my first effort at cinnamon rolls rising in the kitchen, returning to a living room full of beds, presided over by my giggling sister. Like kids at a sleepover, we murmured ourselves to sleep long after midnight, blowing out the candles and closing our eyes on the evergreens and paper snowflakes with which Emily has decorated our home.

It’s been a different sort of Christmas, here in Germany. Last year, I was blessed by the privilege of being home in Seattle for most of Christmas break. I loved that time, loved the extraordinary intensity of “coming home” for Christmas for the first time in my life. This year, I’ve stayed. It was intentional, not in any way something that I felt forced into, and yet from the outset I knew it would feel strange. Of course to be so far from friends and family in Seattle, but even the less tangible moments that we repeat without knowing it.

I’d miss walking around Greenlake with my mother and her friends. I’d miss lighting candles to the strains of “Silent Night” at Bethany’s candlelight service, the way that my dad passionately, without fail, reminds everyone to tilt the unlit candle, not the partially melted one that could drip hot wax everywhere. I’d miss how my brother gets excited for the gifts he’s given everyone, his smile both nonchalant and eager as each of us unwrap his presents. I’d even miss the green warmth of Seattle’s winter weather, comforting in its predictability. I knew I’d miss all of it, this whole Christmas I’ve come to love and expect over the last fifteen years or so. And I have.

Holly and I in the Kempten snow

But last night I attended a Christmas Eve service, filled with kids from our community who have returned for Christmas from all over the world. I watched friends and siblings reunited here, singing together, an evening of welcome and homecoming. We lit candles, and sang “Silent Night” until I could no longer sing the words. Holly and I shared a meal with friends, and then came home to spend the evening with more friends, also remaining here for the holidays. We stayed up and watched movies, then fell asleep in front of the Christmas tree.

In the morning, we’ll open the gifts we’ve made and bought each other, the small and personal gifts of those with limited means. Slippers and paintings, gummy bears and coffee, we’ll laugh as we unwrap each, savoring the time together and taking as many pictures we can. We’ll prepare a magnificent brunch for my roommate, Emily, whose birthday is today, then linger around the table for ages. We’ll spend Christmas dinner with a local family, then return home to Skype our friends and family, now awake in their respective time zones. We’ll fall asleep tonight, knowing that the cords of love that bind us to our homes are strong and permanent, but that love is unlimited and growing quickly, putting down roots in a new land.

And I’m thinking, in the evening of this odd Christmas Day, of what we keep and how we grow. How often I ask God to repeat the most beautiful moments of my life, to replicate them with the habit and regularity of the best Christmas traditions. But almost nothing happens the same way twice, and I’m beginning to delight in the surprises. At the end of this lovely, unexpected day, I’m thankful that God gave me more than I could have imagined in the last week, my first Christmas away from home.

Christmas/birthday brunch with friends (and family)

Still, I’m thankful for the things that never change. Six young adults, we sat around our breakfast table this morning and read the first three chapters of Luke aloud, losing ourselves in a familiar memory, the mystery of Christ’s incarnation. Near or far, with family in Seattle or friends in Germany, I’m grateful tonight for the love of Christ, binding us together and to Him through the gift of His birth.

Merry Christmas, dear friends. May the peace of Christ fill this day.