Fernweh

Our Welcome Home sign at our home for the year, courtesy of two adorable neighbor boys.

Our Welcome Home sign at our home for the year, courtesy of two adorable neighbor boys.

Fernweh: (n.) an ache for distant places, the craving for travel

A few years ago, a small niche of young American women on Pinterest with some experience in German taught me a new word: Fernweh. While its antoymn Heimweh has a direct English translation–homesickness–Fernweh (pronounced FAIRN-vay) claims no English equivalent. The closest approximation, in fact, is another German word: Wanderlust, the proverbial “itchy feet” of habitual travelers. Yet because of its literal translation–“distance pain”–and the Pinterest comments from a few friends who experience this literally everywhere they are, I’ve always ascribed it a somewhat different meaning: “The ache for faraway places.” Geographical nostalgia.

Exactly one month after leaving Germany, it’s this word that I’m thinking of this morning, even as I look out of my parents’ upstairs window at slender, swaying hemlocks and hear little more than birds. I ache for faraway places. But this has been one of them for a long time, and today it’s not. I’m here.

The concept of a Home Ministry Assignment–called furlough by previous generations of missionaries–is somewhat new to me. Indeed, since the transformation from adventurous teacher to long-term missionary was a gradual one for me, the fact that I’m embarking on such an assignment at all sometimes strikes me as surprising, and amazing. A unexpected gift, both this calling and this year away, our time so far unfolds daily with surprises and opportunities.

Fun in Virginia with the Poe family!

Fun in Virginia with the Poe family!

Surprises like the necessity of driving everywhere, which I’d forgotten, or the deliciousness of Chick-fil-A, which I’d never experienced. Opportunities like being blessed with a new baby during this time away, or Timmy’s chaplaincy internship with the Seattle Veterans Hospital. I don’t know what this year will hold, exactly, except that it will be here, not there.

And I’ll miss there. I’ll miss walks through the green hills and cobbled streets, the mental gymnastics of a language not my own. More than those, I’ll miss the clever and curious young people that we’ve been fortunate to teach and serve these last five years. These longings remind me that our work there isn’t finished, that by God’s provision and with the support of many family, friends and partners we’ll be back again.

Still, the danger of the Fernweh that draws me to another home is much like the danger of nostalgia. The temptation to get lost in longing takes me away from the real goodness surrounding me both here and now. I don’t want to miss an afternoon on the lake with our dear friends in Virginia, or the sign that our neighbor boys made to welcome us to our new home in Snoqualmie Pass. I will be grateful every day, whether it is for the friendly strangers at the North Bend DMV or the long-loved faces of my siblings, gathered around a table for the first time since our wedding. There is much to love everywhere, eye-stinging beauty that takes my breath away with the reminder that I’m deeply loved by a good God.

A welcome dinner with my brother, sister-in-law, sister and her boyfriend.

A welcome dinner with my brother, sister-in-law, sister and her boyfriend.

Pray for us this year, friends. Some days I know that gratefulness will be a harder choice, when finding a used car is fraught with difficulty or we’re trying to sort out the expensive process by which German medical records become English ones. In the end, though, I’m thankful, for this home and that one, for the one we’ve just left in Virginia and the countless people who welcome us wherever we go. God has filled our life with a wealth of love and beauty, and I’m excited to see the wonders and meet the challenges that this new year will hold.

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Of Prayer {From A Puddle of Yogurt}

“Do you know what this means?”

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

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

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

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

“How about this one?”

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

“You know your German, Mrs. Gaster.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even when I’ve been feeling particularly speechless.