29: To The Wanderers

A few years ago, I paraphrased some of Jeremiah 29, the oft-quoted letter to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. While no one I know is in literal exile, it occurred to me then that many of my friends and students–all over the world and for a variety of reasons–find themselves in unfamiliar places, and are uncertain of how long they’ll stay. As I spend the summer in Europe, thinking of the weddings, movings, job interviews and freshman years happening in North America, Jeremiah’s words seemed especially relevant. This poem is my prayer for all of us.

 

To the millennial wanderers.

To the graduate students

soldiers

missionaries

residents

spouses

corps members

of all kinds.

 

Sign a lease—

just a year

or two.

Get a cell phone

with a contract.

Frame and hang

pictures—

even shelves.

Buy some plants—try

to keep them alive.

Join a soccer team.

Get a dog—or a cat—

if you must.

Make friends, good ones,

who make you laugh

think

long to live well.

Expand your world;

don’t shrink it.

 

This isn’t forever—none of it.

When it’s time to go,

you’ll know.

But you’re here;

Be here.

 

I haven’t forgotten you:

Believe me.

The plans are brilliant,

Brimming with delight,

Not despair.

Tomorrow will come,

And the day after that.

 

But in this desert

you’re listening

close,

looking at me

like you never have.

As lost as you’ve ever been,

you’ll find me

if you keep looking.

And here’s the magic:

I’ll be found.

And so will you.

After The Wedding

Lovely bridesmaids after the wedding!

Lovely bridesmaids after the wedding!

Still I always look up to the sky

Pray before the dawn

Cause they fly away

One minute they arrive

Next you know they’re gone

“O”, Coldplay

After the wedding, we wake up slowly. Even Emily and I, who slept on the cool tile of the of the solarium, don’t immediately get up when the June sunshine splashes our faces. We were the first back, just after midnight, and the rest arrived after we’d gone to sleep.

We’ve come to Switzerland this weekend to celebrate the wedding of Rochelle, a former Black Forest Academy student, a Swiss-British-American girl who grew up on the steep, vineyard-striped shores of Lac Léman. The wedding was surreal and marvelous, complete with an ancient church in a steep Swiss village, an afternoon at a castle, a boat ride, and the traditional dinner and dancing familiar to all. It was a star-studded evening, magnificent and festive.

Now we’re sitting on the lawn outside of the bride’s childhood home, looking over the silky blue waters of the lake, eating breakfast. On the table is a generous loaf of crusty Swiss bread, along with butter, honey and Nutella. Our hostess, the mother of the bride, brings out tea and orange juice, encouraging us to dig into the bread and begin.

Many of Emily’s and my small group girls had been among the crimson-draped bridesmaids, and now they yawn their sleepy way to the breakfast table, laughing and collapsing into chairs. They tell stories from last night, last week, the years that they’ve known the young bride. They laugh about the breakfast–essentially good bread with things to put on it–and declare how much they’ll miss meals like this when they leave Europe.

“When I leave” is a common suffix today. Most of them are leaving Europe, and most of them soon. By the end of the month, this tightly-knit group of friends will be in Ontario, California, Oregon, Wisconsin, Croatia, and Korea. Only two of us will still be in Europe by the end of the summer.

I remember Lexi, a friend with whom I’ve worked, played and shared life for the last three years, once writing about Saturday breakfasts at Storchenblick dorm, where we spent a few weekends volunteering last year. We’d get up early and make waffle batter, then sit with cups of coffee at the counter, talking with the waves of sleepy girls that trickled through the kitchen. Those mornings were sweet, unpressured time to spend with these students we’ve come to love.

Today is like that. Ignoring all the work we have to do as soon as we leave the table, we linger. We sit in the morning sunshine, drinking in the hazy mountains and crisp air, the triple languages and good breakfasts of Switzerland. We memorize faces and voices, laughter and mannerisms, or at least record them with smartphone cameras, hoping to capture the moment. They go home to packed bags and empty houses, home to load their lives onto planes and on to the next adventure. This moment together, an idyllic breakfast above a Swiss lake, will be the last for a while. We cut slice after slice of bread, the dwindling loaf reminding us that our time here is limited.

It’s almost lunchtime when the first departure breaks the spell, taking the first of us off to Geneva, then to Korea. We stay a while longer, before finding our bags with a sigh, piling into the rickety van that will take us back. We wind our way down the hill to the lake, to the train station from which Emily and I go on to a few days of camping in Montreux. Untangling ourselves from the dusty seatbelts, we give hugs, shed tears, say a prayer as it begins to rain. Eventually the van goes west, and we continue east, further into the heart of these mountains.

We don’t always see them coming, these goodbyes, but this year has taught me that even when we know for a long time–for four years even–that eventual parting is inevitable, it’s still sad. We’ll still miss each other as we walk ahead, still long for home as we explore new lands. As we walk away, I find myself still praying for each of them, both that they continue to love one another well from a distance, and for the friends that they’ll meet in the new homes waiting for them. God will provide for them, as He does for me, that much I trust. Uncurling my fingers from the gift of these years–and this morning–I give them back to Him in thanks as we start a new chapter, beginning summer with a camping trip in rainy Switzerland.

A photo from a hijacked phone.

A photo from a hijacked phone.

Fly on  Fly on, ride through

Maybe one day I’ll fly next to you

Fly on, ride through

Maybe one day I can fly with you

Fly on

“O”, Coldplay

From Sausenburg

 

Sunset from Ruine Sausenburg.

Sunset from Ruine Sausenburg.

 

The pavement bends up behind the Catholic church, and we leave the smallest city in Germany down in the valley, turning a corner to find ourselves in the bottle-green halls of the summer Black Forest. It’s been a long time since my trail map was a constant companion, since Emily and I traced these little diamond-marked lines with hopeful fingers before beginning our explorations. We know them by heart now, these hills and forests as memorized as the faces of a friends.

Though it’s after eight, it’s still hot in the forest. It’s Friday night, the end of a long and busy day. We have only one more week of school, an odd one full of exams, farewells, honors and diplomas. I’m proud and weary, happy for our graduates and genuinely sorry to see them go. Still, it’s not the seniors I’m thinking of tonight, but the two friends walking beside me on the trail.

“Leaving is a loud presence lately,” I wrote, almost exactly four years ago. “Leaving cheers from goodbye parties, smiles its way across from me in restaurants, reminds me that it’s the last time for a while.” I was leaving then, packing up fifteen years of life in Seattle, bound for a village in Germany I’d never visited. I was leaving alone, my departure the only irregularity to disturb the pleasant rhythms of our lives there.

Leaving is louder here, and expected. While I once left a place where people tend to stay, each spring promises change, irrevocable and swift. For better or worse, Black Forest Academy is new each fall. This means the promise of new friends and students, adventures yet unmapped and conversations still waiting to be had. It also means that this is a place of goodbyes. It’s the goodbyes that I’m considering as I walk up to the castle with my friends, both of whom will be gone within the month.

The sun is just beginning to set when we reach Ruine Sausenburg, a crumbly half of an 11th century castle holding state on a leafy ridge. Sausenburg is not a particularly well-maintained castle. There is one faded sign sketching out the history of the castle, below a much larger sign full of rules, which includes “No Campfires” despite the presence of fire pit, grill, benches and friendly supply of firewood in the courtyard. We leave our bags in the courtyard and drag ourselves up the dusty wooden staircase to the top of the tower.

Even the tower isn’t terribly pristine or ancient-looking. The crenellated battlements are filled in with concrete, into which a circular iron railing sticks like a Sunday-school halo. We sit down on the wall, holding the railing with our legs dangling down, toes pointing to France. Awash in golden light, with Switzerland down to our left, the Black Forest behind and the Rhine Valley ahead, we toast to our years in this green valley, this place between.

“You know,” Lexi says after a while. “There’s not a whole lot that’s better than this.”

Another friend recently wrote about leaving here, saying “I  don’t doubt or question or mistrust this. I just don’t like it.” And that’s how I feel, in the midst of the leavings and farewells. I am confident that God’s plan is unique and creative, fully trusting that my friends and students go in His love and power on to their next adventures. I’ll just miss them.

We stay atop the castle for over an hour, watching the sky melt from yellow to orange, red and blue, until the first stars wink down from directly over our heads. No sunset lasts forever, even the protracted ones you see flying west on airplanes. Eventually, even the grandest fade to black and white, another kind of glory.

And even knowing the busyness of the days ahead, the hectic farewells layered amidst packing, grading and events, knowing that time will stubbornly refuse to slow down, I’m more grateful than mournful, grateful for these friends, this place, these years we’ve shared. Seasons, like sunsets, don’t last forever. We celebrate them as they come, savor them, remember them. And most of all, every day, we’re thankful, praising the God who gives us such good gifts, like a castle, a sunset, and friends to share them with.

Friends

Moving In

We didn’t always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can’t remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot.

Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

We finish just before lunchtime, then prepare plates of rolls, meat and cheese and sit out in the sunny backyard. As we eat, we marvel that it only took two and a half hours to get it all done, to move a family of seven from one house to another in Kandern. Eight vans, one truck, and fifty people. But still–two and a half hours!

It was a lively, lighthearted morning, as we passed boxes and furniture down long lines of people, learning names and hometowns and new positions, just a little over a week before school resumes at Black Forest Academy. We passed all sorts of things–blankets, dressers, one very large stick that the patriarch found on vacation in Italy once–marveling at the magnitude of seven peoples’ belongings. This is a family, with family things–coats for the winter, treasured furniture, toyboxes–and the moving day brings back all sorts of memories of my own family, moving from island to country to city, now so long ago.

Emily and I moved also, three months ago, a comical process that involved carrying all of our belongings down three flights of stairs, across the main street in Kandern, through a square and then up another four flights of stairs. Like this sunny moving day, that one was quick and fun and exhausting, enlivened by the help of friends.

The English-speaking tenth of Kandern’s population moves often. In that respect, as in many others, we are different from our Kanderner neighbors. Different from my landlord, who inherited his business and building from his father, and so still lives in the apartment in which he was born, the building with his name on the side in neon letters. There are the long-distance moves that bring us here and take us away again, years or decades later. Many of the moves, though, are from house to house, flat to flat, or at most village to village in our little green valley. There are many reasons for this: yearlong sublets from families on furlough, changes in roommates, new places opening up closer to school. I recently spoke to a young mother who moved three times within her first six months in Kandern, and is now delighted to return to the same place after a summer away.

I don’t mind moving. Since leaving my parents’ home a decade ago, I’ve probably moved a dozen times, at least. I love settling in, hanging up pictures and curtains, small things that make home interesting and cozy. Still, there’s part of me that starts to worry, with each move, about the things that I have. Don’t buy anything too heavy, I tell myself, nothing that I couldn’t pick up and carry myself if I had to. Or I wonder if I should bring this or that from Seattle back here to Germany, wondering if I’d then cart it back across the Atlantic later. The impermanence of our lives here, glorious and simple in its own way, makes it tricky to accumulate possessions.

And I don’t worry about the possessions, really. It doesn’t matter if my sheets, books, or dishes go along with me, or stay in this magnetic village, well-loved heirlooms for those who remain. What I notice, though, is the temptation to “travel light” in more than just a material sense. To think of relationships and community in light of their transience, investing only partly as I think of the ever-growing weight of separation from those who’ve left. Intimate friendships are like pianos or pets; solid, beautiful things that “change the game.” I am so deeply grateful for this community, but on my less courageous days I’m hesitant, anticipating the leavings that are inevitable.

It’s usually at moments like these that God reminds me to watch my students, those experts in investing themselves no matter the timeframe. These young people have already seen more change, said more farewells, than I, and yet they start school fresh each year, ready to welcome and renew the relationships so deeply valuable to them. They “move in” quickly and well, and don’t worry much about the weight.

I long to trust God with these changes, like they seem to. To thank Him for the present community in which I find myself, trusting that it will change, from one good to another, and resting in His changelessness. As we start the year together, in a school full of new and old faces, pray that our community would reflect Christ, that we would be known by our love, “moving in” to community with intention and grace.

Garage Archaeology

Things I’d save from a fire.

After an hour, the floor disappears. Everywhere I look, a fine layer of dusty paperclips, dusty books, and dusty teacups covers the hardwood floors of the Green Room, the office guest room which used to be my room, which before that was Noah’s room. Today, it’s a museum of my belongings, all dragged up from the garage like artifacts from a shipwreck. I unpack each box blind, having given up interpreting the half-dozen crossed-out labels of these recycled Starbucks boxes.

I left Seattle quickly. Two years ago this Friday, I finished classes at 3:00 PM at Ingraham High School, and by 11:30 PM was sitting alone at Sea-Tac Airport, on my way to TeachBeyond orientation and then Austria three days later. For the last few weeks in town I prioritized teaching, relationships and support-raising over organizing and logistics, so today I’m laughing at the scrambled boxes, their contents evidence of packing done in a hurry.

And as I sit here, pulling out thing after thing that I own–but most of which I haven’t missed in the last two years–I make a few surprising discoveries:

1. I own–but possibly have forgotten how to wear–jewelry. I thought I didn’t have any earrings. I actually have dozens, also necklaces, bracelets, and the like. None of it is expensive, but all of it is bright and very much there.

2. I’ve invested a great deal of money in school supplies. Perhaps it seems like a political byword when people talk about teachers “who have to buy their own pencils.” But I did buy my own pencils. Along with markers, pens, paper clips, Post-Its and another whole box of school supplies. One trip to Staples never seems like much, but this supply-closet in the garage speaks of an underfunded system, even as it recalls four happy years at Ingraham High School.

3. Mugs are the most important dishes. They’re the only ones I have left, so apparently they are all I truly care about anymore. Two weeks ago, our artisan ceramic mugs were the only dishes that Emily and I carefully packed up and carted across the street to our new home in Kandern. Even now, I’m putting half of them in the thrift-store box with a shrug, but the other half makes me sigh and smile, remembering those good nights when we’d run a dishwasher full of mugs, replaying conversations and laughter of an evening with friends.

4. I still have too many books. Before I left, I tried to give away as many as I could, matching books to likely appreciators. But I unpack more today, volume after volume of dormant literature, realizing that I “possess” these stories to the extent that I no longer need to own them. I wonder now if a time of life will come when I feel comfortable accumulating books again, when I stop looking at them in terms of weight and size, and will appreciate the physical availability of words that I love. For now, if you need some summer reading, especially Shakespeare, please email me!

5. There is joy in “traveling light.” I felt it three weeks ago, when I was packing up my attic in Kandern, and felt inspired to gather and photograph only those things I’d save from a fire (see photo above). It wasn’t much (though I’m humbled to realized that a violin, computer and even US passport put me in a very small category of privilege). And even today, though I feel blessed by the memories these things present, I’m happy to revisit most of these belongings one last time, before sending them on to their next homes. I truly have enough, more than enough, as it is. Holly can keep the food processor; I’ll keep chopping things with our sharp knife.

The Attic

“I’d have a stable full of Arabian steeds, rooms piled with books, and I’d write out of a magic inkstand, so that my works should be as famous as Laurie’s music. …. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous; that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

This is where I’m living now, the long-anticipated suitcaseless permanence I’ve been waiting for.  And after a week, it’s starting to look like home!

Bed

Loslassen

Slacklining outside of Hofpürgelhutte

“Nevertheless I am continually with you;

You have taken hold of my right hand.”

Psalm 73:23

“Einfach loslassen!” We’re playing on the slackline at Family Week II, and the two girls on the sidelines squeal it with the self-confidence of those who watch.  Just let go.

A slackline is a tightly stretched piece of webbing, often strung between two trees about three feet up.  The object is to walk on top of it like a tightrope, bouncing and leaning but never quite falling all the way to the ground.  Though enormously popular in Seattle, slacklining entered the realm of activities I had time for only this summer.  I’m still not terribly good at it, but after seven weeks of wobbling I can usually walk from one tree to another without falling off.  A few brilliant times, I’ve also turned around and come back.  For me, it’s relaxing and focusing, knowing that there is only one direction to go, one place to look, and one danger to avoid.  Battling gravity, we walk forward on the slackline.

Though I’ve taken a few turns today, mostly I’ve spent today with three girls, all about twelve years old.  They are busy, these girls, busy with plans and ideas and quarrels and talents.  One rides horses, another sings and plays piano, and still a third loves soccer but has recently hurt her foot.  They whirled over here half an hour ago, when I’d begun surveying the afternoon play time from the slackline, and since then have jumped on and off it with remarkable stubbornness.  Holding a hand in air, I give them one point of solidity as they walk across.  Sometimes they cling to it with weighty fervor, while other times they barely touch me, their fingers merely bouncing along as we go.

After a while, I take another turn ganz allein, or totally alone.  When I’ve finished they get ready for their next turns. One will try it alone.  Another will walk a few steps on her own.  The third will keep holding on.

It’s this third who’s being advised at the moment to “just let go.”  Though their cries are probably annoying to the girl on the line next to me, the point is sound; without letting go of the hand she’s leaning on, she’ll never learn to walk alone.  We can keep doing this forever, but as I feel her weight on my hand, I know that she’s trusting me still, not learning to dance with gravity and elasticity to remain in the air.

Still, I know her hesitation.  Maybe not with slacklining, where I fall often and hard, but elsewhere.  I’ve been blessed with hands to hold onto, the supports of loving family and friends, a home where I know and am known, a job.  More recently, it’s been the support of the community at Tauernhof, a place of encouragement and energy.  Though the summer here has seemed short, in depth of relationship and familiarity it seems like I’ve been here forever.

With packed bags and only a half a dozen details left to attend to this morning, I’m leaving Tauernhof today.  And it’s like leaving home again.  This hand I’ve held onto has been strong and steady, an important support to me as I tread the new territory of life overseas.  Part of me longs to hold on, to keep balancing here, but Tauernhof is stationary; to move forward, seeking the calling that brought me here, I have to let go.

On the train through Switzerland today, I’ll remember that I’m going from one home to another.  That the God who provided friends and a home for just eight weeks at Tauernhof will be with me always, in Austria and in Seattle and in Germany.  It’s not slacklining, after all.  Even when I let go I’m not alone; though I fear falling, I never will.