Oh, The Places We’ve Been

Ninth graders take the World War I trenches by storm.

Ninth graders take the World War I trenches by storm.

The times we had
oh, when the wind would blow with rain and snow
were not all bad
we put our feet just where they had, had to go
never to go

“Postcards From Italy,” Beirut

The view from our castle tower is stunning, the lights of Saturday-night Nürnberg spread out below us in sequined splendor. We’re sitting, five of us–two teachers and three students–on a double bed in a hostel room, late on the last night of this year’s High School Retreat. Our school goes every year, uprooting all 270 students and 50 of the staff, and relocating a bus-ride away for a weekend of reflection, reconnection and recreation. The last three years, we’ve gone to Lenk, Switzerland, bringing our laughter to the high-altitude clean silence of the Swiss Alps. This year, the buses brought us to Nürnberg, in northeastern Bavaria, a red-roofed city with a colored recent past.

Tenth graders, playing in the snow.

Tenth graders, playing in the snow.

The other teacher is my former roommate, Emily, who over the last four years has transformed from anonymous name on an email, Personnel’s pick for my flatmate, to a dear friend, recent bridesmaid in my wedding, co-sponsor and leader of this small group of now-senior girls. The three students are three of the six girls we’ve been mentoring since they were fourteen. There’s history in this room, growing maturity that we celebrate, questions that often surprise us but bring to light the depths to which these young women are seeking to know and honor Christ with every aspect of their lives.

 

Junior year, Paris.

Junior year, Paris.

“I just think,” one of the girls is saying, “I just think that we’ve had an amazing time, you know?” She gazes out the window, down the hill at the city, looking for a moment like an illustration of a princess in her castle tower. We’d been talking over the places we’ve been together, even just for High School Retreat, which is never anyone’s most dramatic travel story. Our students always get teased by their peers back home, in North America or Korea, when they complain about “having to go to Switzerland” for the weekend.

 

 

Paris

“I mean, we’ve traveled the world together,” she continues. “To Vienna, Rome, Athens. In the spring London… Who gets to do that? Spend high school traveling with your best friends? It’s amazing,” she repeats. I look up and catch Emily’s eye, realizing it’s true for us, too, that we’ve traveled together often, with and without students, in the last four years. It is amazing, as she says, and I echo her thankfulness.

 

 

 

Seniors waiting at Piazza San Marco, Vatican City.

Seniors waiting at Piazza San Marco, Vatican City.

Four years, and I’m near the end of an important season at Black Forest Academy. In my first months here, not knowing how long I’d stay, I took on class sponsorship for a herd of freshmen I’d never met. Missing the ninth graders I’d taught for years back in Seattle, I also volunteered to mentor a small group of girls just beginning high school. At that point, I wasn’t certain I’d see them graduate, but I was willing to invest some time in their first years here, hoping to help make them positive ones. Honestly, these roles weren’t always the easiest, and there were times when the tenure of class sponsor and small group leader seemed very long indeed. Not the middle distance of a year of teaching, these were marathons of mentorship.

 

RomeAnd yet, as this season draws to a close, I miss them already. I’ve been all over with these kids, from the trenches of eastern France to the ruins of ancient Rome to the crumbling facades of Oradea, Romania. After a year of English class, I know their handwriting, their affinity for odd idioms and hackneyed similes. I can recognize most of their voices across an auditorium, in the dark around a campfire, or from the back of a bus or a plane. I know that my small group loves cashews Youtube videos, and writing funny quotes on Post-It notes, that they want both to keep wandering and find out what it means to stand still, and that they understand what a paradox that is. Realizing this, my love for this group of students who’ve been here as long as I, there are moments when the transition ahead feels impossibly melancholy, as I try to imagine what this town and school will look like after dear friends and these students have left it.

 

SeniorsWhen I was younger, the grey winters of Seattle were broken by only a few days of snow each year. When it started snowing, I was gleeful. Almost immediately, however, I was mourning the inevitable melting of the glorious whiteness. I missed much of the joy, anticipating its end.

The antidote to such gloom, I know, is thankfulness, like this young woman who looks out the window, knowing the uncertainty of her future, and declares that these years have been amazing. Challenging, full of growth and difficulty, but amazing all the same. I couldn’t agree with her more, or possibly be more thankful for these last four years at Black Forest Academy and the students that I’ve come to know along the way.

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Of Wedding Plans, Pinterest and Parameters

Long-distance wedding planning, we try to match a possible bridesmaid dress with possible groomsmen pants.

Long-distance wedding planning, we try to match a possible bridesmaid dress with possible groomsmen pants.

Pinterest, that cyber-hybrid of down-home wisdom and commercial temptation,  has garnered passionate disciples among the expatriate missionaries of Black Forest Academy. I’m more a reluctant convert, drawn in almost a year ago because I suspected I’d be planning a wedding in the near future. A real one. My own.

According to my scientific research (i.e. talking to my friends and browsing on Pinterest), women and girls spend a long time dreaming up the details of their weddings. I used to do this, too, back when I was five and thought I’d be a ballerina when I grew up.  Then I went to some weddings. It started small–flower girl gig here, a tag-along-while-Dad-perfoms-the-ceremony there–but by the time I graduated from high school I was regularly attending two to five weddings a year.

I’ve gone to dozens now, or maybe fifty, and they all blend together, a swirl of tulle and twinkle lights, of vows written and recited, this mélange of traditional and alternative. It’s a stunning montage of love and hope, filled with faces and memories that I continue to cherish. Still, between this sea of creative examples and a self-imposed moratorium on wedding daydreaming for the last fifteen years, I found myself somewhat at a loss when I considered planning Timmy’s and mine. So I rejoined Pinterest, hoping to come up with something to say when people asked me what I wanted for our wedding, something better than, “Oh, to get married. With, you know, people around.”

Flash forward several months and shift one continent to the left, and here I am in Seattle, summer-break teacher bride, planning a wedding for December. I’m beyond abstract pinning now; we’re making actual Decisions, like genuine Adults. Will you have live music? Yes. Do you want to do a bouquet toss? NO. What color looks good with grey? All of them!

Through this process, I’m learning about plans again, how they shift and present themselves as I move forward. It reminds me of the creative writing projects I set to my students. There are always parameters, and all but the most free-thinking of them appreciate the boundaries, in the end. A blank page can be a terrifying foe, but when that page must contain a metaphor, or a villain, or some kind of interesting accent, a story begins to take shape, as if by magic. On that scaffolding of requirement, they discover the most bizarre and brilliant of ideas.

Whatever five-year-old ballerina Kristi once thought, no wedding is planned on a blank page of endless possibilities, at least no wedding in my tax bracket. There are parameters of budget or season, personality or location or logic. Like any road in life, one decision precipitates another, and making this day rich and meaningful, both for us and for those with whom we’d like to share it, means listening, adapting and exploring. Wedding planning, for me, has been far less the precise execution of an executive vision–bound to disappoint–than the serendipitous discovery of new ideas along the way.

At a "garden party croquet shower" thrown by ladies in my church. Another unexpected delight!

At a “garden party croquet shower” thrown by ladies in my church. Another unexpected delight!

And how appropriate, because this is our story, too. Timmy and I met somewhere far from both our homes, met along the road to plans we’d made. If either of us had once insisted on earlier plans–to stay in Seattle forever, to keep working in Korea for a few more years–where would we be now? Not planning a wedding. But we kept listening, willing to be diverted to a school in Germany, to serving students we love and eventually, to meeting one another. In following Christ, I’ve found the most beautiful gifts have often been the most surprising.

So, ask friends and family and Pinterest, what will our wedding be like? The truth is, no one knows yet. I’ll wear a white dress. Timmy will wear green pants. We’ll get married. We have more exploring yet to do.

A Ring and a Question, A Kiss and a Prayer

Candles

Meet me where you’re going, 
Cause I want to be going where you are.
Teach me what you’re knowing,
Cause I want to be knowing who you are.

“Meet Me Where You’re Going,” Cloud Cult

For the seventh time, I return to the candle.

It is alone between a road and a wide, snowy field, this waxy eighteen inches of torchlight, wavering gently in the February night. The first time I came here I paid this candle only a cursory glance. It was a link in the chain, just a candle by the road of where I was going.

I came out here almost an hour ago, you see. My roommate handed me a note from Timmy, which sent me searching for him, following clues from one significant place to the next. I’d bundled up in my favorite coat, hat and scarf–suspecting that this might be the most special and photographed of occasions–but neglected mittens, believing that it wouldn’t, ultimately, take very long. As I walked from home to school, I’d whistled merrily in anticipation, hands deep in my pockets and heart deep in reflection of the year of blessing that had brought Timmy and me to this exciting evening.

Now I’ve stopped whistling, mired in the mystery of his last clue: “555 steps up a hill to a rocky place.” I’ve spiraled around the meadow, climbed twice to the top of the nearest hill, but everywhere I’ve gone, my torchlight has only interrupted more night. No people, and certainly no Timmy. It is an enchanting night, a Robert Frost night that whispers of lovely woods, dark and deep, so I’m not unhappy to be out in it. I’m neither lost nor afraid; I know exactly where I am, just not where I’m supposed to be.

Which is why I’ve come back to the candle, planted on the path with a proverb attached to its stem (Proverbs 5:19: “May you ever be captivated by her love!”) written out on the telltale red paper which has borne so many notes back and forth between Timmy and me. When I was in a hurry, confidently going the wrong way, I didn’t bother with this candle, but it’s drawn me back like a moth, again and again, to the last place I know I’m meant to be. With nothing else to do and no clue where to go next, I wait.

Even perplexed and frustrated, I laugh by my candle of certainty, thinking of how this is one of those events, which I’ll be telling about forever. How on the night I got engaged I first wandered around for an hour in the snowy Black Forest, while my dear almost-fiance almost froze, waiting for me in the canyon I couldn’t find. To pass the time–and avoid the humiliation of having to go home and admit I failed in my quest to accept a proposal–I daydream in metaphor, thinking of the red markers I wrote about on an Austrian summer day, those stunning reminders from God that assure us we’re on the right path. This candle is another marker, tonight a marker for us.

And I can’t know this, here at the beginning–even before the beginning–of marriage, but I suspect that a lifetime together will require markers, too. Just as I’ve been trusting in God for guidance walking alone, now we’ll do the same walking together, looking back and ahead at the truths we hold deeply and confidently at the core of us. Our commitment to love and serve one another, our faith in Jesus Christ, our rootedness in His love. These are our candles in dark fields, truths to which we will return, living in the nourishing circle of their light.

The pragmatic reality of another sound breaks the spell of my reflection, and I look up to see my friend, Emily, coming toward me in the darkness.

“Are you lost?” she asks, breathless with laughter or cold. I nod and laugh.

“It wasn’t exactly…clear.” We know these trails well, but tonight I’m clinging to my candle as if it’s the end of the known world. She points the way, promising clarity down a dark road I hadn’t considered, then disappears ahead of me.

As I follow new candles around a corner, I think about how marriage isn’t a solo endeavor. How we’ll serve, guide and love one another, yes, but also how God will provide others around us, people who will pray and teach, encouraging us to reflect His love and life with ours. It’s why we have weddings, celebrations in which we take these first steps together in the presence of those who will invest in our union, rejoicing with us.

The candles lead me through the woods, down to where a forest of torches and the full moon fill a snowy hollow with a gentle glow. And there waits Timmy, my beloved, smiling and cold, the center of a luminous pool of light. He waits with a ring and a question, a kiss and a prayer. I bring a hand and an answer, a kiss and a smile, and with a few words the moment is complete. A new journey begun with cold hands and warm hearts, I thank God for this marker of a moment, a brilliant candle to light our way.

Thank you to all of you who have encouraged, prayed for and supported Timmy and me in the last year. I am so thankful for your involvement in our lives, and feel blessed by your love and prayers as we take these next steps together.

Proposal

A New Square Inch

Timmy and I at High School Retreat in Lenk, Switzerland. Not pictured: About a dozen laughing teenagers, watching us pose for this photo.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

Romans 12:15

I’m sitting near the back of the auditorium on Friday afternoon, again looking over the tops of my students’ heads as the Chapel speaker weaves to the front of the room, carrying a microphone. After a few words of introduction he begins his lesson on the conflict of human hatred with God’s unconditional grace.

“So hatred,” he starts. “I went ahead and looked up the real definition because, you know, I’m dating an English teacher.”

Instantly, the auditorium is an ocean of applause, and hundreds of laughing eyes and   gaping grins wheel back toward me. Because yes, I’m dating today’s Chapel speaker.

More specifically, since the beginning of the semester I’ve been dating Timmy, a resident assistant at one of the boys’ dorms, who today is drawing on his education in youth ministry and theology to speak in high school Chapel.

I didn’t date at all in high school. Like many of my churchgoing friends I wasn’t allowed for most of it, but I also just couldn’t be bothered. I was a grade-obsessed scholar, an aspiring teacher, an amateur violist and an accidental athlete; I had limited time and little patience for the very public, very giggly world of high school romance.

So I’m about 15 years late, but this latest adventure at BFA is very much dating in a high school. Students watched this fall when Timmy asked me to ride the bumper cars with him at a carnival in Basel. “And that was when we knew,” they tell me, “that he really liked you.” Our second date was to the Christmas Banquet, an event put on for students but attended by the entire community, and it involved posing for dozens of photos by staff and students. On Valentine’s Day, my classroom that Timmy filled with flowers was a tourist destination, inspiring and impressing our romantic teenagers. In and out of the classroom, in each separate arena in which we all live these intertwined lives with the kids, parents and colleagues we serve, our relationship is the topic of good-natured teasing and curiosity.

Five months ago, when Timmy was still just a friend that I hoped to run into at carnivals and soccer games, I wrote about the mentorship of proximity, how often our greatest ministry consists in sharing life with these kids. Since the beginning of this year I’ve felt challenged to make more of myself available to our students. Sometimes this means more time, coaching track or baking cookies in the dorm. Always this means living openly and with integrity in our small community, showing our students not just how to write competent research papers, but also what it looks like to keep following God into Adulthood, the mysterious region where they’re quickly heading.

This spring, being a living example includes what it looks like to honor God and one another in a dating relationship. In our community, there is a wide gap between teenagers and those married for decades, with only a few younger couples in between. I remember quite clearly the young adults in my church who were dating when I was in high school, the ones who modeled for me what it looked like to place Christ at the center and foundation of a relationship. I had seen this in my parents, but there was something special about watching these couples from the very beginning, placing Christ first and trusting Him for guidance for their futures.

I’m honored and challenged to realize that this is the opportunity Timmy and I now have, to share this journey with our students in a way that brings honor to God. With this in mind we laugh about the teasing, giggling kids, because at the end of it are real and serious questions, times when both of us have been able to share and speak to the challenges they face in their own friendships and relationships. It is a new role for me, one that I undertake with a great deal of prayer and trust.

Bethany Community Church had a series earlier this year called “Every Square Inch,” a study of vocation and faith built on the premise that we can bring glory to God with “every square inch” of our lives. At BFA this applies to teaching, of course, where I worship God using the gifts of intellect and creativity He’s given me, but also the way I make decisions, plan for the future, and pour into relationships. Please pray with me in the coming months, for guidance in how to serve Christ in “every square inch” of this life in Germany, and continued wisdom for both Timmy and I in navigating this new and beautiful season of life in relationship.