The Summer of The Pool

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

Dear Kandern Pool,

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

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

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

“Um, mostly went to the pool…”

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

Kristi

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#Vanlife, Real Life and Roads {Taken and Not}

Spring in the Black Forest

Oh I kept the first for another day!

But knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

Robert Frost, from “Road Not Taken”

A few weeks ago I taught Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken” to my class of juniors. It went predictably, a conversation that I’ve had every year for a while.

Me: What do you think this poem is about?

Students: About doing the risky thing! Doing something that no one else does! Taking the “road less travelled.”

Me: No. Wrong. We need to read it again.

I directed them to a few salient lines, pointing out that one road was “just as fair” as the other and “both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” This poem is about someone who examines two equally worn paths and chooses one, then later in life tells everyone he took the less travelled one, bragging about the difference it made. He’s only half right; the roads were equally untravelled, but it did make all the difference. It had to.

“And what’s the poem called?” I asked my class.

“The Road Less Travelled,” someone said confidently.

“Check the title,” I recommend.

“Road Not Taken!” another student read. “Ohhh!”

It’s a poem about what we didn’t do. The lives we don’t lead, those other lives. I never really hear regret; the speaker is matter-of-fact, not mournful. But still, he’s aware that the crossroads meant something. Choosing one road, he left another behind. A road not taken.

Out for a walk in the forest!

Today, it’s snowing when I look up from the New Yorker article I’ve been reading. If I hadn’t gone outside today, I might assume that the air is swirling with flower petals or those fuzzy pollens that look like something out of a Zyrtec commercial, but we walked to the store earlier in a similar flurry, so I know that those are straight-up snowflakes. In April. Spring break snow.

“Reading an article” these days is stretching the phrase a bit. The article–in this case a long piece called “#Vanlife, The Bohemian Social Media Movement”–sits open on my laptop on the counter and I return to it to nibble off paragraphs in quiet moments. Sometimes I read an article in a sitting, but mostly I consume them like guilty cookies, a crumb at a time. An article like this, one that possesses the magic combination of being super interesting but not important at all, takes even longer, sentences stolen a few at a time.

Still, when I get around to it I learn about the eponymous “van life movement,” which is essentially what it sounds like: people who live in vans. The article focuses on the experience of a young couple, who’ve spent the last four years traveling the highways of North America in a Volkswagen camper van, working off a cell phone signal and chasing scenery, whimsy and an elusive sense of freedom that comes with owning little. I open a new tab to peruse their Instagram, and through its square panes I glimpse sunshine, dusty roads, oceans, forests, and steaming cups of campfire coffee. Their life, it seems, is an endless summer road trip.

Beware the seduction of Instagram! I’ve preached this to many a teenager, but still I find myself scrolling over this window a bit longingly. I imagine the lightness of traveling, just the three of us, in a van of our own, possessions kept to a minimum, without the any of the grimy details like taxes and toilets. (Because Van Life includes none of those things, at least in Instagram form.) That ocean looks so blue, those skies so perfectly stormy, the road temptingly untravelled.

This spring break, usually a time for trains and planes to take us to fresh horizons, has been a quiet one. It has been full of peace and beauty and the daily excitement of watching a person discover the world, but a time of stillness, not movement. It’s afforded me opportunities to reflect, to remember, and to realize that somehow, sometime, the nomadic life that brought me here–a backpack and violin and a teaching certificate–has turned into something far more rooted. I know these hills, these paths, the path that the sun takes across the sky and the likely behavior of the clouds on the horizon. I’ve seen these seasons six times now, and have favorite trees, hilltops and valleys to visit in each one. And I love this place dearly, even more so now that I can show it to my daughter.

The article brings me back to earth. The writer travelled with the couple for a week, and spends ample time on the less romantic aspects of Van Life: the lack of space and the conflicts it causes, endless mechanical difficulties and–biggest bubble-burster of all–the pressure of social media itself, through which they fund their endeavors through sponsored photos of products. It’s easy to post only beautiful pictures, to write only wise, measured words; the real life behind #vanlife is less shiny.

And real life, much maligned by the van lifers, is pretty excellent in itself. My untaken roads melt into the background, lost in the goodness of this one, a family in a green valley in Germany. Looking up from the article, I see Luci crawl up onto the couch, reach for a book from the bookshelf and snuggle herself into a pile of blankets. She opens the book, a vintage German copy of Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear, and turns the pages slowly. With each page, she says “Bear! …Bear!” softly, and points. The fresh horizons are Luci’s today, with a sunny-snowy April day, and a book full of bears.

 

Not Busy

Wait for the Lord;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the Lord.

Psalm 27:14

Backyard 1It’s not early, but it’s still dark upstairs when I sit down on the floor, in front of the open, ashy mouth of the wood stove, to build a fire. It’s a new task for me. Except for an unfortunate youth-leading adventure, many years ago, this is only my third fire. Usually one of my parents builds the fire, or Timmy does. But my father is away, teaching the Bible to college students in Canada, and Timmy, by 8:30 AM, has likely walked miles already through the Veterans’ Hospital down in Seattle, since his chaplain’s shift started at six. And Mom had thumb surgery earlier this week, leaving me, thirty-year-old pyro-novice, to build the fire.

I crumple newspaper, tear up cardboard, carefully select variously-sized kindling and logs from the woodbox on the back deck. It’s just started to grow cold on this mountain pass, with mornings in the forties and the halfhearted Northwest drizzle that lingers lazily all day long. I’m told that snow could come next month. We’re hoping it waits–at least that the real snow waits–for Luci’s arrival in November. We’re starting to call this place home.

Last week, I trimmed pottery in the garage while thinking of the whirl of activity going on around me, near and far. Timmy and Mom worked in the backyard, cutting boards to the firewood storage against the predicted ten feet of snow that will fall once winter comes. Dad held meetings at Bethany Community Church, one after another, all day long. Down in Seattle, my former coworkers marched up and down the streets, picketing for a fair contract for Seattle School District employees. Holly sold coffee and smiles at her Danish bakery, Noah and Lindsey at their espresso bar in Leavenworth. And far away, across the world, a new teacher worked with eleventh graders in Room 22 at Black Forest Academy. For the first time in a while, I’m not busy. So used to the standard reply to the ubiquitous “How’s life?” I almost don’t know what to do with its opposite. I’m not busy. I’m… what?

I’m resting. Though Timmy is working half the week, this is somewhat true for both of us, as this year gives us the time and space to reflect on the last five (six, in Timmy’s case) that we spent in ministry in Germany. These were full years, rich in relationship and the beauty of worthy busyness, years that have left us both needing rest and eager to return. The space to step back, quite literally, from the teaching, mentoring and community that we’ve been investing in and simply rest, dwelling in Christ’s goodness and provision, is an incredible gift.

I’m available. I’ve found that these unfilled days are seldom truly empty, as long as I’m paying attention. This means I’m free to mentor a college student this year through our church, or to join a book club with my neighbors. On a daily basis it means learning to build the fire, or making breakfast for my family, simply dwelling in this expanded family He’s surrounded us with for this season. Sometimes it takes us further afield, to celebrations with our neighbors or seeing friends from near and far. Already in the months since we’ve lived in Washington, I’ve been surprised with the marvelous opportunities we’ve had to meet friends, old and new, in this area. We’ve had visitors from Germany, Canada, Oregon and Minnesota, and have marveled at the joy of reconnecting across great time and distances.

I’m waiting. A few years ago, my women’s Bible study in Kandern discussed the “joyful in hope” phrase of Romans 12, wondering how this hope was different than others. We concluded that it was an expectant hope, joyful in anticipation, like “waiting for Saturday.” As we draw nearer to our daughter’s arrival (She’s due two months from tomorrow!), this how I feel. Waiting expectantly for life to change in a big way. I’m learning as I wait, because I wait, learning again that no time is wasted, because it belongs first to Christ.

It’s always been easy to fill my day with titles: missionary, teacher, mentor, class sponsor, small group leader, writer, dorm sub, coach, friend, wife. Some of these will always apply, but others are necessarily seasonal, and I’m lighter on titles than I’ve been in a few years. I recently filled out a survey which asked me not what my occupation was, for which I’d likely still have written “teacher,” but “How do you spend your days?” Such an important question. (I hesitated, then wrote “Stay at home mom.” It’s a new season.)

How will I spend today? In gratitude and rest, listening and learning. Thank You, Lord, for this time.

Backyard 2

In the Forest

In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is grey November, a Thursday afternoon, and to my great fortune I’m sitting on dry leaves by a meadow, watching a stream gurgle by with extreme laziness. We call it “the river,” the Kander river from whom our town gets its name, but it is simply a brook, muddy and indolent and good-humored.

Around me, scattered across a strip of adjacent land that BFA recently purchased, are my students. Some are sitting, like me, on the leafy grass and rocks. Others lean against trees, looking up into the golden ends of autumn, and a few choose to wander, keeping their feet and minds moving as they examine all corners of the field. I’ve sent them out here armed only with coats to ward off the insipid non-chill of a mild November day and two slips of paper, one bearing a quote from Emerson’s “Nature” and the other a passage of Scripture concerning God’s creation. Those, and the instruction to “Be in nature. Just to be.”

We’ve been studying the transcendentalism this week, with Emerson and Thoreau, that bizarre amalgam of philosophy, religion and art that has produced nature-loving, interior-gazing Americans for the last 150 years. My lesson for today sounded more than a bit silly when I wrote it down a week ago. Thursday: Transcendentalist Walk. And the students, they felt the oddity of it this morning, when I first brought them outside, giving strange directions as we walked to the creek.

“You’re seeking solitude! Don’t talk to one another. Avoid each other! Try not to see any buildings!”

For a while they drifted aimlessly, blown like the leaves from the trees, resting in one place for only a second before moving on, seeking better inspiration. But once they stopped, really stopped, they put down roots. This class of students is dressed in the muted colors of autumn, the maroon of dying leaves and the grey of cloudy skies, and after a few minutes their unmoving figures blend into the surroundings. They are still, my students, for one quiet minute at rest.

We’re tired these days, students and teachers, stretched by projects and commitments, worn out by late nights, long rehearsals and tournaments. It sounded whimsical last week to spend part of a class “being transcendental” outside; today it feels almost necessary. We all need to slow down a little. Or quite a lot.

After a while, I gather them back again, as gently as I can pulling them up from the solitary rest they’ve found for a while. Back inside the classroom, I play Sigur Ros while they write about their time outside. I don’t know what I expect to hear. I never get the impression that our kids–or any kids, really–love the outdoors as much as I did when I was their age. I’ve accepted that I wasn’t the norm, even then, but still I wish I could share it, this solace I find in the uncomplicated routines of the natural world.

At the end of class, we share our reflections. Students speak of rest, forgetting for just a short time the stresses of past, present and future that weigh heavily on teenagers. They confess to never having spent time outside, and wonder why. They marvel at the originality of their Creator, the artist of autumn. They wish they could have spent longer.

And I remember, again, the deep loveliness in which we’re invited to take part. I’m thankful to share it with these people I love, and glad that, if only for a moment, we found in the forest quiet and rest.