Haunted By Homes

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

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

Creed Bratton, The Office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nothing Wasted: Of Slides and Research Papers

Luci, the lone teeter totterer.

Friday morning, and the playground is deserted. Since I teach only one class today and Timmy is hard at work in the counseling department at school, Friday mornings I stay home with Luci. After what feels like a month of freezing weather and sickness, we’ve seized our health and the balmy temperatures and walk across the river and two big streets to the park. We walk, on our own four feet, without any strollers involved. Big steps for the little person beside me.

They’re just the first of many today. When we get to the empty playground, (suspecting all of the other two-year-olds are either in Kindergarten or still eating breakfast) Luci peruses the toy options. While I generally find German playgrounds somewhat superior to their American counterparts–full of the risky, wood-metal-tire climbable things that I remember from my own childhood–this one is a little sparse. The Americans in Kandern call this the “zipline park” because of the pretty cool zipline that runs across it, but Luci is still too small for the zipline, which leaves only a few other options.

Luci investigates them carefully. She rides the Bouncy Cat–a chipped-paint feline on a giant, rusty spring–for a few seconds. Next, I push her in the swing, an activity which brings plenty of giggling, but again only lasts a minute or two. Swings were apparently cooler when she was 18 months old. We use the digger for a while, swiveling this ageless tool in every direction and creating a trench in the pebbly, twiggy sand around it. “What about the teeter totter?” she asks, pointing to the magnificent contraption, with spots for three kids on either side. I note that we’re at least one kid short for see-sawing merriment. Finally, she turns to the slide.

I hate this slide. Maybe hate is too strong a word–I generally reserve that one for major systemic injustices, and also pickles–but this slide freaks me out. It is about ten feet high, its precipitous steel slope polished to a mirror-like sheen by the behinds of endless multitudes hurtling down at the speed of light, their little feet scraping away the pebbles at the bottom as they try to come to something like a halt. The worst part about this slide, the part that has for the most part kept Luci off of it for almost two years now, is the approach. Where the friendly, plastic slides on the Air Force base have friendly little steps to the top of their five-foot drops, this one is a ladder. It has maybe seven metal rungs, spread at a distance that would challenge a clumsy adult, let alone a shorter-than-average toddler.

“Can I go on that slide?” Luci asks me. Moment of truth. Yes, I’ve gone down the slide with her before. That’s how I know it’s fast. I’ve also lifted her halfway up the slide and let her drift the last few feet to the bottom, where I caught her before her feet touched the ground. We could do that again, I suppose.

It’s scary being a parent, with what seems like an endless newsreel of potential worst-case scenarios playing on a precarious back-channel in my brain. But there’s another channel. There’s the outdoor instructor channel, remembering teaching young adults, teenagers and, yes, little children to rock climb in the Alps, helping them to overcome fears of heights and falling, acknowledging danger and respecting the risks. There’s my own childhood, full of tree-climbing and forest-exploring and scaling the outside walls of our house from a shockingly young age. I look back at the slide.

“Yes. You can go on the slide.” I stand behind her while she climbs the ladder, one hesitant rung at a time. I remind her to look down at her feet, to place one tiny boot solidly before she moves the next one, to always hold on with both hands. When she gets to the top, I tell her to wait again. “Wait for me, and I’ll come around and catch you.” She waits, and from the front of the slide I half expect her to freeze, from the height or the steepness or the weight of being alone up there, for once in control of when she comes down. Instead, she looks at the view, a particularly nice one from way up high, takes a deep breath, grins at me, and then comes down.

And it’s not as fast as I remember; I don’t have to catch her, even. She comes to the bottom, breathless and happy. “Can I do it again?” she asks. We spend the rest of our time at the park on the slide.

On perhaps her eighth time up the ladder, when she’s more confident with the rungs, I hear my daughter say, to herself or to me, “I’m doing it!”

I think about my students, working hard to finish their research papers before this evening. It’s been a long process, these 5-7 page papers on American authors, and we’re all a little tired of it. I also know, because they’ve told me–loudly–that this is the longest paper they’ve ever written. Like, ever. I imagine some of them are already scheming how to make it truly the longest paper of their lives, plotting careers that will take them far away from writing. That happens, I tell them, when you’re tired.

After a few weeks, though, I hope the story changes. I hope that at some point, when they passed the borders of the most pages or words they ever wrote down, someone said, “I’m doing it!” I’m writing a paper, and it’s hard, but I’m doing it anyway.

I talk often with my young-mom peers about the skills we’ve brought to motherhood from earlier in our lives. The dietician who writes about feeding young children, or the artist who lets her son “help” her prepare pots for glazing. The pastor whose children take part in every aspect of her ministry, retelling Bible stories in their own charming ways from very young ages.

View from the top!

As I start to think about the transition from teaching to full-time parenting, it’s tempting–and intimidating–to see it as a hard border crossing, a citizenship change, as I leave behind everything from one role to jump fully into the other. Yet I’ve suspected for a long time that nothing we do in our lives needs to be wasted. I’ve still played violin and made spreadsheets and lattes as an English teacher, remnants of former lives that have come in handy in my current career. And I this next chapter will doubtless be full of teaching, whether its the logistics of climbing a ladder, or the celebration of accomplishing something risky, hard and a little bit scary for both of us.

Barbarazwieg: Of Twigs, Christmas and New Discoveries

Our St. Barbara branches, blooming in our windowsill.

“Apparently it’s a big deal to dress up in costumes when you pick someone up on Christmas Eve in Switzerland…”

Christmas Eve morning, Timmy starts texting me as soon as he gets to the airport. With his customary picking-people-up-in-Zürich Starbucks drink in hand, he relates a new and strange Swiss tradition: dressing up in costumes to pick up relatives on Christmas Eve.

“Seriously,” he writes. “We’ve got about 20 Santa’s, a family of baristas… and someone hiding in a box…” I laugh and reply that he should have worn his lederhosen to collect our friends from Seattle, who will be visiting us here in Kandern for a week.

I look out of our window on the grey, sleepy village as I make cinnamon bread on this quiet Sunday morning. All of the shopping in preparation for three closed-store days is done, the house cleaned and the presents wrapped. We have just one door left to open in the Milka advent calendar, two more ornaments on the Jesse Tree devotional. Christmas is here.

In the windowsill, I notice tiny, light-pink flowers blooming on the slender twigs that have been sitting in a pitcher full of water for almost a month. The twigs were handed to me at the grocery store on December 6th, a gift from the cashier. (This is not an altogether uncommon experience; Luci has so far collected two stuffed animals and a felt bag from affectionate cashiers, just by looking cute.) “Danke!” I’d murmured, juggling the bouquet of twigs with the the stroller handle and my groceries as I left the store. One of the bakery assistants said something to me I didn’t understand, from which I caught only the name “Barbara,” and I’d left feeling foolish and laughing about the German respect for all seasons, both flowers and twigs getting their fair share of attention.

It was only on returning home that I learned the significance of the branches, meant to commemorate December 4th, Saint Barbara Day. According to legend, the medieval virgin, Barbara, having converted to Christianity against her father’s wishes, was imprisoned by him in a tower. On the way to her imprisonment, her robe got caught on a cherry branch, which she took with her, placed and placed in a jar, where it bloomed in her captivity. Though observed differently in different Catholic and Orthodox regions, here in Germany people keep the branches in water, anticipating good luck (or, in some versions, a marriage) in the coming year, should the branch bloom by Christmas Day.

At the time, the custom delighted me, both in its strangeness and in the simple fact that, eight years after moving here, I still learn so much. It’s how I feel when I find a new or particularly moving part of the Bible, or when a close friend or family member utterly surprises me. The joy of learning, discovery, never gets old to me, and I’m happy to keep finding it in a place that’s grown familiar, to know that even when I’m home, there’s always more to learn.

Today, Christmas Eve, the buds have begun to poke out into the grey day, and I think about the branches themselves. Taken from their tree, they bloom in a new place, in a strange season. What a beautiful sight for us here, as we celebrate Christ’s birth with friends, far from our places of origin. “Bloom where you’re planted” is cliche for a reason, I suppose, but these branches give it new significance for me today, in this community of expatriate students, teachers and missionaries, seeking to live and grow together, some of us far from home.

According to the flowers on the branches in my window, this will be a year of blessing, but I could have told you that without them. Because this year, like all of the others, is God’s, every day and moment. I look forward to the journey ahead, in its twists and turns, to learning and discovering with these two people I love.

Merry Christmas from Kandern!

The {Not Terribly} Simple Life

Enjoying some yardwork.

Friday I come home for lunch.

More precisely, I leave school shortly before lunch, to pick Luci up from friends’ house, where she’s spent the morning playing with twin two-year-old boys. These boys spend another weekday at our house, where Timmy runs a three-toddler circus with extraordinary energy and humor. Whenever she’s going to spend time with them, at our house or theirs, Luci says, “Go see fens!” Always with an exclamation point, never (so far) with an R in “friends.” Fens!

I meet them on the landing outside their apartment, where Luci emerges with a sheet of paper, covered with crayon and the outline of her hand. We say goodbye to the mother and the twins, load up in the stroller and head home, where a “peebudder sanwich” is calling to us.

As we walk along the now-robust Kander River towards home, I marvel at the series of answered prayers that led to this walk. At the beginning of the summer, we knew that Timmy would be working in the school part-time this year, that I would still be mostly full-time, and that our daughter was still too young for even the generous over-three Kindergarten in our town. Perhaps I’d be able to come home in the afternoons, but even that wasn’t certain, as our school schedule changed drastically this year, each day a different shuffling of six of the seven classes. We’d need someone–possibly a few someones–to watch her a few mornings a week, at least.

As people asked us how they could be praying for us as the school year started, the answer was always the same: “Really, practically, we need some help watching Luci during the day.” A lover of abstraction, I’m not good at asking God for anything specific, but here was a concrete, pragmatic need, with a hard deadline. We asked. We asked others to ask for us. We kept asking as the school year drew near.

And then there were answers. Friends who moved back to town, their own children now at college in America, who’d love to spend a morning with Luci. A grandmother, her grandchildren far away, who wanted to take her for walks around town. A mom from the school who offered to spend afternoons at our apartment while Luci napped. The exchange with the twins, providing another morning of counseling for Timmy and some free time for their mom. Two afternoons that my day ended at lunch, allowing me to come home int the afternoons. With so many people involved, so many different places and ways, the week came together.

I think of how often in my life I’ve longed for the minimalism celebrated in Ikea catalogues and tiny house Pinterest boards. When life feels tricky, sometimes I look back longingly on the one suitcase I brought here, with the one teacher outfit it contained. There is beauty in simplicity, the simplicity that makes Mondrian, the Great Plains and Scandinavian furniture appealing. There were simple solutions to our childcare conundrum, like a full-time nanny or an on-site daycare, the dreams of perplexed parents everywhere.

The value of complexity is more often overlooked. Lost in the pastel respite of Monet, we get too tired of looking to untangle the masterpiece of the Sistine Chapel, but both are beautiful. This year, this schedule, is complex, even tricky. But it’s beautiful, a network of willing friends who invest time, love and energy into our family. The simple solution would be simple, costing us less planning and less asking for help, but without the love.

At the beginning of our eighth and tenth year in missions, Timmy and I think quite a lot a about the way God has provided for us. Of course we’d be happy with the easy ways–with a single church that agreed to sponsor us for life–but ultimately our time here has often been marked by the beauty of his complicated answers.

The beauty of fifty supporters instead of three, hundreds of people and churches praying for us all over the world. The beauty of an apartment we can afford, that is just big enough for us. The beauty of a car given to us when we needed it most. The beauty of four women who help us care for Luci so that we can serve in the school.

Perhaps life will be simple someday, but for now I’m grateful for this glorious complexity, the reminder that God sees us, knows us, and loves us.

The Summer of The Pool

It’s the last day of summer around here. Of course, summer will go on for another month or so, and students won’t return until the end of August, but tomorrow Timmy, Luci and I head to Black Forest Academy for All Staff Conference, the official beginning of the school year. So it seems only fitting to spend my last afternoon naptime of the summer writing about one of this summer’s best things: the pool.

Dear Kandern Pool,

Because I’m the kind of person who reads a lot of books and writes a lot of sentences, sometimes I give seasons titles, so that when I look back they have little headings, like chapters in the ongoing, unabridged novel of our life. Sibling Christmas 2011. The Summer of Weddings. That Fall That I Taught Too Many Students, And Almost Went Crazy. Just titles, unadorned and practical.

You’re probably wondering where you come in, but wonder no more. I’m officially dubbing this summer–which ends tomorrow because I’m a teacher and we live by a different calendar–The Summer of The Pool. Lest you believe you were the only good thing–or even the best thing–this summer, know this: This was a glorious summer, full of friends and family and goodness of many kinds. The “many kinds” is complicated, though, and will likely fill the second sentence of my answer to tomorrow’s inevitable inquiry:

“So what did you do this summer?” someone will ask.

“Um, mostly went to the pool…”

“Really?”

“Well, we went to visit some friends, and we had some time on base, and my mom came to visit, and it was a really great summer. But yeah, low-key time. The pool. It was just lovely.”

Outdoors and lively, predictably cool, you really were the perfect pool for this summer, when otherwise we’d be slowly roasting in a darkened, fourth-floor apartment, thinking about global warming and feeling justified in our window-unit air conditioner. You provided relief and amusement, as all pools are supposed to do. But that’s not all.

When I think of you, Kandern pool, I’ll always remember two little girls. First, my eight-month-old daughter, who literally lived the first few months of her life in a room under a snowbank, dipping her toes tentatively in, then getting angry if we so much as suggested that she stand in the water, even for a moment. Then, a year later, the girl who stands under the little waterfall in the kids’ pool, who wades in up to her chest, chasing a rubber duck, who shrieks with glee when her dad pulls her through the deeper water in the medium pool. You’ve been a place of adventure and growth for a water-fearing Luci, and that’s no small thing.

You’re not all soft edges, of course. You’ve been the cause of scraped knees, hands, and once a nose, along with endless gasps of surprise when rowdy peers dare to splash water my daughter’s way. You’ve stretched her, though, helped teach her (and me) that a scraped knee doesn’t need to ruin anyone’s afternoon. We get up and keep playing, a little more careful next time.

You also represent our village, in all its variety. Though I’ve lived here ages now and stayed in Kandern for a handful of summers, this is the first summer we’ve “splashed out” (pun just irresistible, sorry) and gotten a season pass. With the extra time lingering around the kids’ pool this summer, I watched the our little world file by on hot days, people of all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities enjoying the water together. Over there are several generations of Kandern-born originals, while across the way is a family of refugees just arrived in Germany, immigrants like myself just as welcomed as those who’ve lived here forever. It’s a special place.

I could spend more time on the dress codes–or lack of them–or lifeguards–or lack of them–but my letter is growing long. For now, I’ll finish by saying that this Summer of The Pool has been a settled one, a quiet one, a time of thankfulness and rest, of fully living in this place we call home. Sitting with our feet in the water, we watch our little girl play, dreaming of the future and resting, for a moment, in the cool exhilaration of the present.

Thank you.

Kristi

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.

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.

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.