Angelina & The Lupine Lady

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.

In the meantime Alice got up and washed her face and ate porridge for breakfast. She went to school and came home and did her homework.

And pretty soon she was grown up.

Barbara Cooney, from Miss Rumphius

Before bedtime, we pick out “long books,” the bigger picture books in the living room, as opposed to the little board books in the bedroom. Luci’s opinions aren’t as strong about these books, so I choose two of my favorites, Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius and Angelina Ballerina, by Katharine Holabird. These books, published in 1982 and 1983, respectively, glimmer like jewels in my often-hazy childhood memories. There were four of us then, a little church on an island, pebbly beaches strewn with driftwood, and books. Always books.

Snuggled under the blanket my grandmother crocheted for Luci two years ago, we start with Angelina Ballerina. A young mouse who longs to dance above all things, Angelina sometimes forgets to do anything else. When her dancing ways get out of hand, her father suggests ballet lessons. Angelina is thrilled, goes to the lessons, practices and reforms her chore-forgetting ways, and eventually grows up to be the renowned Mademoiselle Angelina in a mouse ballet company.

I smile at the pictures, remembering how much I loved an Angelina Christmas ornament I got one year, and how when I was just a little older than Luci I imagined that I, too, would be a “real ballerina” when I grew up. I started ballet lessons hopefully, learning positions I can no longer remember, and dreaming of the day I’d wear a pink tulle skirt in an actual recital. And then we moved away from our little island. I learned to ride a bike and explore the forest, and new passions took hold.

Next we meet Miss Rumphius, the tale of Alice Rumphius, who longs to “see faraway places, and come home to live by the sea.” As a child, her grandfather tells her that there is a third, more important task for her: she has to do something to make the world more beautiful. She grows up, travels the world–riding camels and climbing mountains–then comes home to a cottage by the sea, wondering how she’ll make her already-splendid world even more beautiful. Quite to her surprise, she finds a passion for scattering lupine seeds around the dunes and dales of her little seacoast, and grows into a wise, old lady, making the world more beautiful with her stories and flowers.

And while Angelina had my heart as a child, it is the Lupine Lady who speaks to me now. Perhaps I find some kinship with her, a woman who loves books, learning and exploration. Perhaps I’m still traveling to faraway places, and am wondering where my home by the sea will be. Mostly, though, I share her longing to “do something to make the world more beautiful,” even as she admits, “I do not know yet what that might be.”

A few weeks ago, a colleague shared an article titled “You’ll Never Be Famous–And That’s O.K.” In it, writer Emily Esfahani Smith discusses Middlemarch and the value of a quietly well-lived life, contrasting two of the protagonists and their different routes to success. One is materially successful, yet unhappy in marriage, while the other eventually marries her true love, yet never realizes her wide-reaching dreams. The second ends the novel satisfied, as the author notes, “Rather than succumb to the despair of thwarted dreams, she embraces her life as it is and contributes to those around her as she can.”

I haven’t read Middlemarch–though now I’m a bit closer to an attempt–but these stories remind me fondly of Tootsie Clark, who died at home at the age of 95 last week. The proprietress of a restaurant in my childhood hometown of Marblemount, Washington, I still remember her well, the cheery old lady who made the biggest, stickiest cinnamon rolls in the world. We’d go there for birthdays and holidays, for a special treat or a Date With Dad occasion. Tootsie would be there, baking her famous rolls and cracking jokes, sharing the same genial warmth with the passing-through tourists as the locals she’d known since they were my age. Last May, hers was the first car over Highway 20 when it opened for the spring, a tradition she carried on even in the last months of her life.

I can’t know how happy Angelina will be as a ballerina¹, but I’m pretty sure now that I won’t be her when I grow up. There are only a handful of career paths to “famous teacher,” and they almost all lead through the jungle of educational public policy, far from the roads I’m likely to tread. As for “famous wives and mothers,” well, I’m not planning to review baby monitors or turn this blog into a lifestyle brand anytime soon, though maybe Timmy and I will someday rival John and Abigail Adams in lively and learned correspondence. After a decade of teaching, almost four years of marriage and almost two of motherhood, my most valuable callings are also the most commonplace ones.

And yet this life doesn’t feel commonplace, not at all. In fact, I feel unbelievably rich, even as I’m undeniably not famous. I long to grow more like these childhood heroes of mine, fictional and real, Miss Rumphius and Tootsie, making the world more beautiful and investing in their communities. I scatter words instead of seeds, and bake chocolate chip cookies instead of cinnamon rolls. I’m still learning. And by the grace of God, using His gifts, I aspire to do something to make this broken world more beautiful.

And I don’t always know what that will be.

 

¹Probably very happy, since she’s a cartoon mouse in a children’s book, likely without the physical and emotional toll that fame takes on the rest of us.

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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.

Speaking

“What’s a fear you’ve overcome?” my student asks me from across the desk.

“Public speaking,” I say without thinking, and she raises her eyebrows. Though we’re in English class, spending the day filling out interest surveys by engaging in an enthusiastic round of “speed dating,” this particular student is also in my Public Speaking class at the end of the day.

“Fair enough,” she replies with a laugh. “You’ve definitely gotten over that one.”

Though I’ve learned a great deal about the subject lately, really that all-too-common fear was something that I had to face a long time ago, in a classroom in North Seattle, as a young teacher who cleared her throat too often and constantly pushed her hair behind her ears.

I’m thinking about speaking quite a lot this year, actually. Public Speaking has been the first “new” class I’ve taught since Canadian History, now almost seven years ago, so researching and lesson planning have taken me to odd corners of studying forensics, rhetoric and the nonverbal communication of various cultures. I’ve spent the year watching TED Talks, debates, and political speeches, mining the Internet for examples of that elusive cocktail of confidence and knowledge that makes smart people into good speakers.

Along the way, I’ve become convinced that I’ve stumbled into one of the most practical classes that a student can take. We talk about job interviews and best man speeches, proposals of the business and romantic variety. I tell them that this class would have been great for me as a student, because I can see that it’s great for them.

At the beginning of the semester they balk at having to speak for two whole minutes. “What will I say?” they wail. Their final speeches officially max out at ten minutes, but I’ve had students keep speaking for 15, regaling their classmates with information about the electoral college or Quiddich, or persuading them of the injustice of Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy snub. Though they don’t end the class having written any papers, built any toolboxes, or sewn any pillows, there is something almost tangible about the confidence created by a few successful speeches.

The other half of my day is also about speaking, of a very different kind. Luci’s sentences are shorter, two-word minimalist masterpieces like “Bye, Mom!” and “All done!” Her collection of words grows daily. Yesterday it was “elbow” and “leg,” places she can proudly point out while talking to her grandmother on FaceTime. The best part of each morning is when she crawls into bed, says “‘nuggle?” and curls up beside me on my pillow for a few blissful seconds. Her world is words and climbing lately, every day a new sound for us to interpret and a new chair to watch her scramble up onto.

Watching my daughter learn to speak and my students learn to speak confidently in front of their peers, I’m struck with the importance of spoken words. Written ones I’ve loved more openly over the years, spending much of my time writing and reading, or teaching people to write and read. But how many more words do we say every day than the ones that end up on paper? Spoken words, unlike their written cousins, are volatile and dynamic, at once permanent and ephemeral. It’s not for nothing that James warns that no one can tame the tongue, that forest fire of kinetic destruction. This year, however, I’ve delighted in the possibilities of speaking more than dwelling on its pitfalls. A good speech can inspire, a kind word can heal, and a sound argument can change the world.

It will be years before Luci can write, but in her speaking I get to know her. What she sees, what she thinks, what she wants. Someday maybe I’ll help her face the fear of speaking in front of strangers or classmates, but for now she’s fearless, naming the world as she sees it, one syllable at a time. With her, and my students, I’m happier than ever to listen.

Windowsill

WindowsillCompared to a handful of brilliant students and colleagues, I write poetry with neither frequency nor remarkable talent. Still, sometimes, every other year or so, it happens. Because sometimes prose would take too long, and there are moments that require only a few words, written over and over again. This week has elicited many moments like that, but I’ve chosen to write only about this one.

 

Windowsill

Standing by the windowsill you wave your arms,

your strong voice shrill.

And “Up!” you cry and turn around,

your small feet anchored to the ground.

And you learn day by day that you’re not so tall,

like the rest of us,

though you’re by far the best of us,

you see less than us

because you’re only what? Two feet?

Maybe three, but no more. So you’re little, my dear,

and you can’t see so far.

You can’t see it all, and it frustrates you,

the all of it, the too small of it,

not tall enough to see what you want,

what you don’t even know you’re missing,

just that something’s missing

and you’re wishing that somehow, anyhow,

you were able to fit in, to see out,

to peek over the walls of your too-small world.

 

You always wanted to be bigger,

before you could sit up you’d figure

out how to roll side to side,

craning your neck to catch wide-angle view of the floor,

trying to score an extra few centimeters of sight.

Back then the flat of your head met the floor,

perfect fit, but you weren’t having it.

You wanted a round head and a round world

to explore on two feet. Now you’re two feet tall,

but still too small to see all you want,

because windowsills are still too high

and since walking wasn’t hard once you tried,

you wonder if you’ll learn to fly someday.

So you stomp your feet, toddler tantrum style,

the dance of mile after mile of tiny pants and open hands waving,

paving the way for your exploration.

You’re mad because you can’t see,

can’t be all you want to be, so you pout,

“Up!” you shout. I want to look out.

 

It’s not new, little seer,

feeling freer by the minute

as you look into the future

and out of the window.

Your tantrum is not one of a kind,

it comes from a mind that knows you well,

a mind that can tell of when I was younger,

biting my lips in anger,

laughing off danger and wanting whatever I wanted,

no matter how forbidden, no forest too haunted

for me to explore it. And the anger is quieter now,

as I bide my time and keep my own mind,

but it’s there all the same,

a layer of pain, a curtain of rage that’s softened with age,

into quiet breaking and a heart cracked and aching

for a glimpse of a world I’m still too small to see,

a place still beyond this world of you and me.

I still wave and cry “Up!” for a place to stand a see,

a windowsill to show what it means to be free,

to see orphans beloved, and refugees home,

to see wars all resolved and forests full-grown.

 

I stoop to lift you up to look,

your sticky hands splayed on the pane,

your nose pressed flat as I explain

the winter sunset and the snow,

the pastel pink and white below, our home.

I pick you up to see this place,

to let the sunset stain your face a shade of gold,

so we can hold this minute together,

the windowsill, the village cold and dim and still.

And I’m taller than you, but still small enough

that I wish for height, a wider view, a clearer sight

of beauty just above, beyond,

the hard hearts and closed eyes,

past shattered homes and quick goodbyes.

Not tall enough to mend or free,

there’s still a glimpse of good for me,

in a sunsets and a sippy cup, a curious toddler, crying “Up!”

For here you are, my windowsill,

my wider view,

my little girl.

 

Jet Lag

Monday night, 11:00 PM, and Luci has decided it’s time to be awake.

Only our third night back in Germany, it promises to be just as dramatic as the first two, when our one-year-old daughter wanted to roll around our bed for a few hours in the dead middle of the night, before falling sound asleep and three. We woke her at nine, but were certain she’d have gone on sleeping for several more hours if we’d let her. Timmy has taken several of these shifts already, and has online class in an hour, so it’s my turn. And in any case, none of us are really sleepy. Jet lag is no joke, my friends.

A few weeks ago, on the North American side of things, I did a little research on the matter, Googling “jet lag toddlers” as any 21st-century parent is apt to do, but the results were lackluster. “If you’re only crossing three timezones or less, for a week or so, you could consider just keeping your baby on the same sleep schedule,” one website helpfully suggested. All of the advice, in fact, seemed bent towards these scenarios: less than a week of travel, less than three timezones. Because apparently only a crazy person would venture out longer or farther with anyone younger than twelve. I guess we’re just that kind of crazy.

So now I’m sitting in the dark with a small person who doesn’t feel like sleeping and doesn’t understand or appreciate the darkness. I feel–but can’t see–her squirming around on my lap, trying to get comfortable. She squints across the room at the tiny green light on the speaker, peering at it with as much passion as Gatsby staring across the bay at the green light on his long-lost beloved’s dock. Anything to look at to stay awake.

It’s so easy to complain. Lack of sleep is high on the list of parent complaints, for me and for everyone, made even more egregious when we’re tired from travel and work and everything else. And other babies sleep, I sometimes whine to myself. (Not babies with jet lag, of course. They don’t sleep until they’re good and ready, from 3 AM to 12 PM, like tiny college students.)

Luci starts to settle down, whimpering and flailing less, with longer pauses of resting on my chest. I can feel her breath steady and slow, and her eyelashes stop fluttering against my cheek after a while. She’s asleep, but any attempt to put her down in her crib will start the process over for a while, so we stay on the couch for now.

I have a friend who often reminds herself (and me) that most of the problems she has come from a great deal of privilege, or blessing. I think about that now, sitting in the dark with Luci. At the risk of going full-Pollyanna on this situation, I consider the vast extravagance of good things ladled over us, producing this moment sleepless hour:

The capacity–both financially and, frankly, technologically–to return home for Christmas. Jet lag comes from something almost miraculous, the ability to travel around the world quickly, and the fact that we have access to it puts us in a position of privilege. What a gift to reconnect with family who just a century ago would be half-remembered faces in photographs, not living beings we get to see a few times a year in person, and much more often on the Internet.

The attic roof over our heads, at the moment collecting softly falling snow, and the radiator keeping the room warm and safe. I think about places in the world where mothers worry about their houses making it through nights filled with bombings, intruders and other terrors. Or about the mothers without homes at all, living uprooted and uncertain lives in faraway places and wondering how to protect their children in unfamiliar settings.

This now-sleeping child, so curious and adventurous that she’d rather be awake and wandering the dark house than have to sleep and miss anything at all. I think of friends who long for children, or those who’ve lost them. I try to imagine how I’ll feel in ten years, when she needs me less, or twenty, when her jet lagged nights may be spent somewhere else. These sleepless hours, with nothing to do but think and pray with a tired little girl, are an incalculable gift.

Of course I don’t know that when I finally put her down at midnight she’ll sleep for eight hours straight for the first time in… maybe ever. That’s another kind of gift, the unexpected kind. For now, with sleeping Luci and sleepless Mom, I’m thankful for what I have.

What Mary Knew

It’s Happy Hour.

Not the Happy Hour of years past, but Luci and I have developed our own five o’ clock rhythm lately, while Timmy is at basketball practice. Luci sits in her high chair in the kitchen, while I make dinner and serve her bits of small food, a few pieces at a time, which she likes picking up with both of her tiny hands and tucks away with astonishing efficiency. We used to listen to Disney songs or my favorite tracks from Hamilton, but now that it’s December we’ve turned to Christmas music. It’s a good time.

I’m a broad appreciator of Christmas music. I especially love the older, sacred hymns, whose convoluted syntax and vocabulary are as integral to Christmas as the voice of Linus reciting Luke 2 in the King James Version, but even newer tunes have their place. One song, however, awakes fresh ire each Advent, a 1991 ballad called “Mary Did You Know?” Because of the existence of “Last Christmas” and “Christmas In the Northwest,” it’s hard to say if this is my least favorite Christmas song, but it’s safe to say that “Mary Did You Know?” is somewhere in my bottom five.

The verses list specific miracles, which were doubtless a surprise to her at the time, but the majority of the song bends toward asking Mary, mother of Jesus, if she knew she was raising the Son of God. I don’t care for this song because it could end after the second line–Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?–with a resounding “Yes. I definitely knew.”

Though she perhaps couldn’t have anticipated the scope, Mary had ample information about the child she’d just borne in such peculiar circumstances. The angel Gabriel had filled her in on the salient details, that she’d conceive the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, that she would give birth to the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 1:26-38). After Jesus’ birth Simeon, overjoyed to finally meet the promised savior, reminded her that this child would be “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” and “the glory of Your people Israel.” He even interrupted his own prophecy to turn to Mary with the ominous warning that “a sword will pierce even your own soul” (Luke 2:32-35). And yet Mary still “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Though ignorance of what was happening might have been terrifying, for me the knowing makes Mary even more inspiring. Just a little more than a year into motherhood, I’m struck anew by Mary’s strength and humility in the midst of a challenging calling. It can’t have been easy, both before his birth and while raising a little boy, for Mary to know that she was raising the Son of God, who would become the savior of her people and indeed all humankind.

A weaker person might have regretted being told at all, and yet Mary responds to the angel’s news first with humility, asserting that she is a “bondslave of the Lord,” and then with deep joy, singing a beautiful song of thanksgiving. Though doubtless aware of the personal difficulties that this journey would cost her, Mary never made it about her, instead thanking God for the part that she can play in His greater story.

This is where Mary inspires me; whatever I’m doing, I recognize that the easiest way to tell the story is with me at the center. I’m teaching, I’m parenting, I’m living in this little town. I can become so obsessed with these vocations that I forget I’m a small but beloved piece of a much greater whole.

How much harder to live as Mary did, with clear eyes and an open heart, saying, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), then rejoicing to participate in God’s plan for redemption. Perhaps what I’m actually doing with each day wouldn’t be so much different, but my heart would be, turned outward instead of inward, focused on God’s kingdom, not mine.

Walking

The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
And He delights in his way.
When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong,
Because the Lord is the One who holds his hand.

Psalm 37:23-24

These days are about walking.

Teacher preparation starts in two days, and school staff are filling our town and keeping Timmy busy with airport runs, moving help and welcoming new TeachBeyond colleagues. I’ve corresponded with students, cracked some genuine American literature, and listened to the Hamilton soundtrack a few times for good measure. As usual, listing out tasks completed and coming up makes it sound like August has been a busy month. It has, but mostly, August has been the Month of Walking.

Some of the walking has been practical, mundane, even… pedestrian. (Pun intended… I can’t help myself.) Though we’ve been blessed with the car of a former staff member, mostly we walk everywhere here. To the school, to the grocery store, to friends’ houses. We walk for fun, too, in the hills and forests and most often down to the creek. After driving an hour each way to Seattle for a year, speeding up and down Interstate 90, we’re getting used to a different pace of travel, one day at a time.

The more important walking, though, is done down near the ground, by a person just over two feet fall. More and more, our daughter has destinations–Walk to the chickens! Walk to the hall to chew on shoes!–but her walking is mostly for its own sake. Luci walks–arms raised for balance, eyes wide with curiosity and excitement–not to run errands or because she wants exercise, but because she can. She walks for the steps themselves, each one precious and more sure than the last.

And watching her walk, gaining new appreciation for the miracle that any babies, all of us at one point, ever learn to walk, I’m reminded of the many places in Scripture that we’re instructed on walking, our steps and God’s part in them.

And He delights in his way. I think about the great delight that we take in each of Luci’s steps right now, no matter where she’s going. Later, I’m sure we’ll love the metaphorical ones, too, reveling in the moments when she makes wise decisions or acts of kindness.

I think about these verses differently now than I have before. Not as an adult, for whom walking comes as easily as breathing, but as one just learning and the ones teaching her. Because we’re delighting in her steps, we’re holding her hand, sometimes guiding her path. And though the other kind of walking, the expert kind, has its merits, I’m glad of the reminder that on this journey with Christ I’m as new at this as Luci, that He delights in my steps and holds my hand to keep me from falling.

 

Yours Also Is the Night

One of us decided that it was time to be awake! (Guess which one?)

Yours is the day, yours also the night;
    you have established the heavenly lights and the sun.

Psalm 74:16

“I am one acquainted with the night,” writes Robert Frost. I know this poem–its images wet and grim, its refrain mournful and lonely–well enough to teach it, well enough for the few questions that appear on one of my tests. But I don’t know it, because for most of my life I haven’t been acquainted with the night at all. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve willingly stayed up from dusk through dawn. No college paper, let alone college party, was worth the loss of sleep. I just don’t like the middle of the night. For most of my life the night and I were strangers. Until now.

Now we’re getting acquainted, Night and I. We’re getting used each other when I wake up at 1:15 AM to the gurgles of an awake baby, check my watch, and sigh because it’s just not been that magic 5-hour stretch that I hoped it would be since I fell asleep. Since I’ve never been one for the dark hours, night to me is sitting in a chair in a dim room, rocking a baby to sleep. It’s not so bad, I suppose–I’m thankful enough for the time with my daughter–but it’s solitary and sleepy and some nights are much harder than others.

Night-owling college students and Las Vegas guests notwithstanding, nighttime has gotten a bad rap historically. In literature darkness symbolizes ignorance, deception, and evil, perhaps because in real life we fear literal darkness and the unknown monsters it hides. Somewhere along the way, we created binary associations. Day is Good. Night is Bad. God, obviously, must prefer daylight hours. So tough luck, cab drivers, nurses and new mothers: you exist in Darkness.

So it’s with a sigh of relief that I read Psalm 74 at bedtime: “Yours is the day, yours also the night; you have established the heavenly lights and the sun.” It’s not a revelation, but a reminder, conjuring nights of stargazing in the Alps or stirring up the milky phosphorescence in the inky waters off the coast of Vancouver Island. Anyone who’s been camping knows that no matter what animal eyes might glow eerily through the darkness, night is full of beauty and mystery, just as much a reflection of God’s love and artistry as its tamer, better-lit counterpart.

And whatever the Psalmist meant, burying this verse in a psalm about God as Savior, I hear more than just a God-of-all-seasons message here. After finishing the Daily Office reading, with Luci still not asleep, I scroll the day’s headlines. Terror in Belgium and Turkey, images we can’t avoid because we’ve seen them all too many times already. A political season full of petty squabbling at its best moments, disturbing hatred and disrespect at its worst. We’re living in Night, the metaphor.

I think of my tougher nights of late, frustrating for their loneliness and lack of sleep. They’re hard, yes, but at no point do I stand up, walk out, and say “I quit! I’ll be your mother again when the sun comes up.” Day and night, I’m a parent. I love my daughter the same ridiculous amount whether we’re sleeping or awake, whether she’s crying or giggling. The circumstances–the amount of light in the room or the hour on the clock–don’t change anything. I am still her mother, and I still love her.

And in the midst of this night–the headlines and the anxiety for the future–God is still our Father. Still powerful and loving. Still seeking our best, despite the darkness that surrounds us. Because, as another psalm reminds us, “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:12). Yours also, oh God, is the night.

An Experienced Novice

Luci and Timmy, waiting to board her third flight.

It’s hotter in Texas than we’d like. When we unfold ourselves from inside the narrow tube of the three-hour “express” from Norfolk, Virginia to Houston, we step onto the warm runway and breathe in the foreign, humid scent of February in the Lone Star State. Three flights down, one to go.

Living overseas, Timmy and I have become accomplished travelers. We are comfortable in airports, happy to while away hours reading, drinking coffee and peering out of windows on our layovers. Security doesn’t stress us out, nor do online check-ins or packing an appropriately sized carry-on. We’ve done this a lot. If travel were a video game, we’ve already mastered the levels of Traveling Alone and Traveling While Married (surprisingly tricky at points). I might even say we’re “expert” travelers.

Not today.

Today we’re novices on a new level: Traveling With A Baby. Not as much novices as we were two weeks ago on our trip out to Virginia, when we naively packed books and Kindles, thinking “So what if I have a baby on our laps for six hours? Once she sleeps, we’m going to read and eat snacks and listen to music like we always do.” Ha! Timmy and Kristi of February 13, how wrong you were.

Entering the terminal, the three of us find a mostly empty corner near our gate to spend our hour layover. Timmy goes to find lunch, while I lay Luci down on a blanket on the carpet. After a few minutes, ten small fingers and a pair of brown eyes appear over the top of the row of seats across from me. The inquisitive face of a small boy, maybe eight or nine years old, peeks over curiously at us, watching Luci kick her feet and laugh at the fascinating airport ceiling.

“I think your baby’s tired,” he remarks quietly. When I look up, he repeats his observation, afraid I haven’t heard him.

“You’re right,” I reply with a shrug.

“I think the baby’s cold,” he observes.

“No.” I shake my head, looking at Luci’s flushed red cheeks. “She’s hot. It’s too hot in here.” The boy shrugs, seeming nervous at my disagreement, and I find myself genuinely unsure what to do with him. Until recently I’ve only spent time with teenagers. Now I’ve added three-month-olds to my repertoire, but I suspect small boys are different than either. I’ll need to grow into this parenting thing, I think as the boy continues to watch Luci and I continue to wonder what to say to him.

We’re a culture that values expertise. Whether defining someone as a “professional,” or logging the 10,000 hours of practice that author Malcolm Gladwell claims will elevate you expert level, it’s mastery that we’re after, in ourselves and others. We’re known by what we’re best at. For me, it’s writing and chocolate chip cookies. The days I claim to be an expert teacher–I have put in the 10,000 hours, after all–are usually the ones when I spill my coffee on myself, argue with a student over something useless, and badly underplan my lesson. Expertise is elusive, but valuable.

Wanting to be an expert, I mostly try to rush past the novice stage as quickly as possible. I think back to training sessions at new jobs, times that I spilled lattes or engaged with the temper tantrums of disappointed ninth graders far longer than I should have. I so desperately wanted to be past the “learning curve” part of my work, on to the accomplished and productive work of a seasoned employee. It’s uncomfortable to be new, inexperienced, making the mistakes of the first-timers and hoping for a chance to do it better next time.

I’m an experienced novice. I’ve been a new barista, a new teacher, a new wife. Now I’m a new mother, a novice again. And this time around I’m leaning into the newness, trying not to rush. I won’t learn this overnight, neither the mothering nor the baby-transporting. It comes in steps. Baby steps.

We board the plane early, now part of the auspicious “passengers traveling with young children.” When we’ve found our seats and I’ve gotten Luci happily settled with an afternoon meal, I glance across the aisle at another early-boarding passenger. She’s elderly and silent, her eyes closed and her covered head tilted back. Timeless and austere, she looks out of place in the crowded plane. As the plane fills, it becomes clear that she doesn’t speak English at all. Her world is a fast and loud one, possibly unfamiliar and strange.

Luci’s first plane ride!

And as a novice mother, I watch her curiously in the moments when Luci is sleeping, quiet, or playing with Timmy. Has she done this? I wonder. How was it different for her? How was it the same? As has happened a few times in past months, I feel connected to her by an invisible thread, of motherhood or the potential for it.

Halfway through the flight, Luci decides she won’t sleep under any circumstances, not when screaming is so much fun. We avoid eye contact with everyone, trying various bouncing and pacifier tricks to please her. After what seems like forever, I pick up my water bottle and wave it slowly in front of her. Luci pants to quietness, blue eyes following the green bottle with interest. Across the aisle, another mother gives us an approving thumbs up. A few minutes later, I catch the eye of my elderly neighbor, smiling at Luci. Babies, across languages, are universally adored.

It’s humbling, just starting out, making mistakes that seem so big and making them in front of others. But if being a new mother has taught me anything so far, it’s that everyone has to take these steps. The mothers I love and respect, all of them, have been here already. Taking flights with babies, hypnotizing them with water bottles, one imperceptible step at a time walking towards the experts I admire.

Better and Better

Maugenhard baking with Ceramics Teacher and Dorm Mom

Ceramics Teacher and I were sitting on the counter at Maugenhard boys’ dorm, almost a year ago, two off-duty teachers waiting for cookies to bake and chatting with the dorm mom. We were pregnant, Ceramics Teacher a few months more than I, both excited and a bit skeptical of babies. Along with being the caregiver for twenty-ish high school boys, Dorm Mom was the successful mother of three children of her own, two in college and one a senior at BFA. We knew these kids, the bright and confident kind that lend legitimacy to any advice that comes from their parents.

And as the experienced teachers of teenagers, we needed reassurance as much as advice. Awash in the contradictions of Internet advice and the tales of our baby-overwhelmed peers, we had questions. We’ve been spending all our time with young people who are verbal, (mostly) rational beings; what will it be like to shift over to Babyland? How will we know what to do with them? Would we like them as much as we like teenagers? Couldn’t we just start with a five-year-old?

I’m remembering this conversation at Maugenhard as we drive down to visit Ceramics Teacher, her husband and now six-month old son for the weekend. The Pass is closed again, so we take the long way around, driving east instead of west. This road is wild and unfamiliar to me, having only driven it once before and never in the winter, so when we round a corner and emerge out of the fog, both Timmy and I gasp at the vista that unfolds. In every direction hills wrinkle around us, bare but for sagebrush and snow, a high desert that looks more like Central Asia than Washington State. Having come from the closed-in coziness of a hemlock forest, we drink in the massive silver sky and stoic hills, bathed in metallic winter light. This is beautiful, the best place I’ve seen in a while.

Drive 1I haven’t seen anything yet. Our drive takes us south, through a narrow snowy valley, where a steely stream winds between horses, not so much wild as lonely. Then comes a deep canyon with a wide river floor, where the sun shines off of vineyard-striped hills and red cliff, turning the water sunset golden as we make our way west. At every turn, the view is magnificent, each corner more stunning than the last.

Drive 2That’s when I recall what Dorm Mom told us, nervous mothers-to-be, all those month ago, talking about their first daughter as a baby. “I just remember she’d get to these phases when we’d look at her and say, ‘This is just the best. She could stay like this forever.’ And then she’d grow a little and we’d go, ‘No, we were wrong. This is the best!’ It’s different, parenting, but you’ll love it.”

Uncertain as I was last spring, I understand Dorm Mom’s sentiment now, with an almost three-month-old daughter. Better and better, every day new and surprising, and some stages so beautiful I wish I could snap them to a halt for a while. I think as we drive about how tempting it is to snatch at a moment or a season, imagining that I’ll never see anything better than what I have now. A year ago, I could have said that life was a beautiful as it had ever been up to that point. A good job doing that for which I’ve been called and gifted. A wonderful husband and a lovely home.

But staying–setting up camp at the breathtaking views or pausing infinitely in the beautiful moments–is seldom an option. Luci keeps growing, changing, and so do we. Perhaps I can’t imagine something lovelier than now, this, her. But there’s always more beauty, just around the corner, waiting to unfold as we follow Christ on the road ahead.

New moms and babies reunite!

At the end of the school year we sat together again, three mothers surrounded by gleeful, blue-robed graduates and munching on cake. Dorm Mom’s youngest son had just graduated, and was off to a prestigious college in the fall. How does it feel, we asked her, to have your youngest child off into the world? A new phase of life.

“You know,” she replied. “It’s good. We’re proud. But,” she continued, tears in her eyes and motioning to our two growing bellies. “I wouldn’t mind being where you are now. I’d do it all again. It’s just that good.”