Miraculous & Mundane

Luci examines her first Christmas tree. She might think that trees just belong in the house.

No matter how far along our spiritual pilgrimage we may have come, we need to be shown time after time that humble ordinary things can be very holy, very full of God. We may hope for vision and revelations and wonderful experiences, forgetting that the context of the revelation of God to each one of us is, exactly where we are–here on earth, in this house, this room, this work, this family, this physical body.

Elizabeth Elliot, The Music of His Promises

“How is–?”

This is the beginning of every inquiry lately, as excited friends and family grasp for the appropriate finish to the broad question. How is life? How are you? How is everything?

Everything. As if everyone is aware of the fundamental sea change that’s shaken up our lives for the better, a hurricane in the shape of a tiny little girl who is in love with her own tiny hands and as I write this follows the swirling of the ceiling fan with round grey eyes.

Friends ask for stories from these days, and I realize that with a few exceptions I can tell them the story of every day. Some days we Go Places (capital-letters standing in for the serious quest presented by a trip to the doctor and Target), but most days go like this:

We wake up. Feed Luci. Change Luci. Dress Luci. Talk with family. Feed Luci. Change Luci. Take pictures of Luci. Eat breakfast, lunch, dinner. Read a story together.Feed Luci. Change Luci. Go to bed early. Try to coax our daughter to sleep through the dark hours of night. Eventually succeed and sleep a little. Feed Luci. Change Luci. Wake up again.

I realize the danger of simple sentences, written not spoken. From the outside, this day sounds at best dull, at worst cold and lifeless. A few modifiers would give it texture, no doubt, but there’s no escaping the cyclical nature of these days, Luci’s first in the world and our first as parents. Nor should there be.

If I were counting minutes, I’m sure I’d be amazed at the sheer amount of time that I spend feeding my daughter, or that Timmy spends bouncing her to cooing contentedness. Then there are the hours we spend just watching her, marveling at the way five expressions can pass over her face in a minute, going from pleased to curious to frustrated with remarkable smoothness. This is perfect. It doesn’t matter that it takes me three times as long to finish writing a blog, with breaks to eat and play on the floor with my daughter. This gift of timelessness is exactly how it should be. Our lives lately are an extravagant collection of moments mundane and miraculous.

(Mundane, I know, is a loaded term, conveying images of endless school lectures or days confined to alphabetizing files. Here, though, I return to its original meaning–earthly–rejecting the modern use as a synonym for boring. These days are earthly, connected to the incarnate realities of eating, sleeping and growing.)

The mundane of knowing that everyone was born, was a baby, has lived through these days of eating, sleeping and discovering. The miracle of knowing that everyone–even the seven-foot BFA alumnus who I saw a few weeks ago–started out in miniature, folded origami-style into someone else.The mundane of new rituals–diapers, nursing, bouncing, tiny clothes–repeated on an infinite loop. The miracle of knowing that everything she sees is new, fresh and exciting, just as she is to us, a whole and lovely little person we’re just getting to know.

To be a new mother during Advent is to appreciate, in a profound way, that Christ’s coming is this same balance of miraculous and mundane. The miracles of a virgin birth, an astronomical birth announcement, an angelic chorus welcome. The mundanity of infancy, with its deeply physical rituals and vulnerabilities. Our Savior could have come another way, maybe, with the pomp and circumstance due the Son of God, but instead He was born, like all of us, connecting Himself to the humanity He’d come for. The miracles remind us of His infinite divinity, but the mundane moments of His early life, especially, remind us that He is one of us, a man among humanity.

And like the sunset I take a hundred pictures of with growing amazement, neither Christ’s coming nor Luci’s ever-changing face are losing their luster. I can look at this smile a million times and fall deeper in love every day. And no matter how many Christmases roll around, I’ll still find beauty and wonder in the loving nearness of Christ’s birth, both humble and grand, miraculous and mundane.


Waiting for Spring

Early Spring

Early spring forest


This is the spot:—how mildly does the sun
Shine in between the fading leaves! the air
In the habitual silence of this wood
Is more than silent: and this bed of heath,
Where shall we find so sweet a resting-place?

William Wordsworth, from “Traveling”

I walked the woods for months, looking for it. In the delicate, soft browns of the leafless trees. In the pale sky, crisscrossed with branches that let in every diffuse beam of monochrome light. In the damp earth, silent underfoot, without crunch of frost or splash of mud to whisper up from dusty boots. Spring was nowhere to be found, though winter had long ended.

Even back in Seattle days, spring was my least favorite season. I’ve grown fonder of it here, because warmth comes sooner and deciduous trees and wildflowers lend a bookend transformation to the splendor of autumn, but even so it doesn’t come soon enough. I am happy with winter–with real, colorless winters of snow and frost, mornings so cold they take my breath away–but sometime in March I stop wanting it.

I want spring to fall on us suddenly, like a screen at the back of a stage, a change of scene, temperature, everything. I don’t want to linger here, as with autumn, when I cling to the shortening days like the last leaves grasping their branches in a final splash of color. No, I’d like cold to warm, all in one go, please? Not William Carlos Williams’s “sluggish, dazed spring.” I want E.E. Cummings, “puddle-wonderful” and “mud-luscious.”

This March, deep in the frustration of early spring, I found out one morning that I was pregnant. Am pregnant. With the realization came delight and excitement, the new thoughts whirling around Timmy and me, our own little tornado of unfamiliar hopes. We whispered in the pre-dawn dark our prayers for this sesame seed of a person. It was a lovely moment, the first day of our spring.

And after that came the cold and rainy days, outside and inside. The new fears and worries, the sickness and weariness that I’d read about but never truly understood. Many days, it was only this sickness that reminded me something was happening, since there was nothing to see. I felt better when I was outside and moving, so I kept walking through my forests, still bare and bright and leafless.

One day I walked high above our town, to where a particular stand of trees fills a dent in the hilltop and the undergrowth is especially thin. On snowy days it is elegantly striped with white floor and black trunks. In autumn it is a blaze of yellow, top to bottom.

I hadn’t really come to see these trees on this lackluster spring day. This spot that I loved was simply on the way. Yet when I got there, though the slender trunks stood where they always had, the ground was completely new. Covered in fine green carpet, dotted with white and yellow stars of flowers. A bare forest, but not quite. There was life under my feet, all around me. Somewhere, a single bird was singing.

And I thought, this is me these days. Full of life I can’t see, but life real and important, all the same. Life below the surface, beginning slowly like the first spring days. How much easier to have it all at once. Not a baby right away, perhaps, but maybe a lovely round belly, with feet I can feel stretching inside of me, reminding me with undeniable kicks that something new is coming. Instead I wait, with the practice of thirty springs before now, for the new life I cannot yet see, or often feel.

Now, several weeks later, Kandern is soaked in warm rain, the leaves unfurling their highlighter greens on every branch, as promised. Spring always comes, even when I’m impatient. As for my spring, it’s lime-sized and slower in unfolding, but here with me all the same. Teaching me to wait, to hope, and to thank God for each new day of this new season of our lives.

Later spring

Later spring forest

Things (And Mostly People) That Made Life Better This Year: 2012 Edition

Black Forest Academy–this ever-changing community of staff and students that flow in and out of this little valley on the edge of the dark hills–is a place of tradition. Do something once, whether it’s dumping someone in a pond on their birthday or granting crazy Christmas wishes, and it’s likely that you’ll be asked to do it again this time next year.

In honor of the many BFA traditions and in gratitude for the truly splendid year that is ending shortly, here is my third annual list of Things That Made Life Better This Year. I understand that many of them aren’t strictly “things,” but for now the mixed-media format works best to express the twelve factors that most played into 2012.

From Kandern, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  1. Students working in Oradea, Romania, on the Habitat For Humanity house we built for Caminul Felix

    Students working in Oradea, Romania, on the Habitat For Humanity house we built for Caminul Felix

    Community. Sometimes it came in passing, on a building site in Romania or a shared blanket at the London Olympics. Other times, I returned to familiar places, in Seattle and Kandern, to find beloved friends and family, people whom I’ve grown to know and love. In all cases, 2012 has been a year of learning to love and live with others, for however long God gives me the opportunity.

  2. German Language. While traveling in France and Romania this year, I found myself often thankful for the haphazard mastery of the German language that allows me to speak to neighbors and friends in this country I call home. Huge win for high school language study!
  3. Classic American Literature. In my fourth year of teaching eleventh grade English, I am still surprised and challenged by the depth of discussion and inquiry that are present in our most beloved texts. So thank you, Hester Prynne, Huckleberry Finn, Jay Gatsby, and George and Lennie, for the dreams you chase and the questions you ask, these tricky mazes that I get to walk through each year with new juniors.
  4. Growth. From co-leading a mission trip to heading an English Department, this has been a year of new roles and new challenges, all of which have helped me to grow as a teacher and a leader. Thankful for the opportunities, and the excellent managers who have helped me growth through them.
  5. Class of 2013 goes to France!

    Class of 2013 goes to France!

    The Classes of 2012 and 2013. Two classes more different than any I’ve taught, the junior and senior classes have delighted with depth and humor, inspired with questions and energy, and overwhelmingly impressed me with their love for one another and Jesus Christ. I’m thankful for discussions and essays, adventures and imagination. Two great groups.

  6. Technology. Easy to take for granted–especially when it’s broken–I still maintain that the Internet and its many tools have aided in life and learning, facilitating communication with faraway loved ones and providing English reading material for this English teacher.
  7. Dahlstrom siblings at Noah and Lindsey's rehearsal dinner.

    Dahlstrom siblings at Noah and Lindsey’s rehearsal dinner.

    The Dahlstrom Family. Between two visits from my parents and sister, and a busy summer at home in Seattle, I have finished the year doubly thankful for the now-five other Dahlstroms that make up my family. Thank you for hikes and climbing trips, two graduations and beautiful wedding. Most of all, thank you for your love, humor, support and understanding. I couldn’t do this without you.

  8. Asking For Help. Never easy for me, this has been a year of asking for rides to the hospital and train station, along with seeking mentorship and financial support. Thankful for the God who provides friends and family who are happy to step in and lend a hand (or a car) when needed.
  9. Kristi, Emily and Anna

    Kristi, Emily and Anna

    Roommates. Anna and Emily, the dear roommates with whom I’ve lived since moving to Kandern, have been constant sources of wisdom, safety, humor and friendship. I am endlessly thankful to God for arranging these beautiful households.

  10. Supporters. I had the privilege of visiting both Concrete Community Bible Church and Bethany Community Church this summer, along with meeting many of you individually. At the end of this year, I’m struck by the encouragement that so many of you have been to me, along with the incredible financial support that has allowed me to continue in ministry here. Thank you for your involvement!
  11. Timmy and I at Bodenseehof

    Timmy and I at Bodenseehof

    Fishbowl Dating. A year of dating Timmy Gaster in the BFA community has meant many opportunities to model a Christ-centered dating relationship to the always-watching students in our community. Which, in the end, makes all of the giggling, questions, photos and “Mrs. Gaster” jokes worthwhile.

  12. Seasons. Both the more-extreme temperatures of Kandern–from 0˚ F last February to over 90˚ F in the days before school starterd–and the changeable seasons of life, I’ve been more aware of seasons this year, thankful for both those past and those ahead, and that I serve a God who is with me through them all.

For more of 2012, check out some of my favorite photos from the year below!

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Do It Yourself

Winners of the costume contest!

“What are you supposed to be?”

Everyone, Fall Party 2012

Emily and I walk back to school Friday night, partially costumed as our respective favorite things. That’s the theme of this year’s High School Fall Party: Our Favorite Things. All students and staff have been instructed to dress up as… essentially anything. Anything that we like, that is. Emily dresses as a chocolate bar, in brown with tinfoil cuff and collar. I don Toms, skinny jeans, hand-knit scarf, heavy-framed glasses and a Starbucks apron, dressed ambiguously as “Seattle.” This getup earns me not a few confused stares when I stand next to Timmy, who has dressed as a GI Joe.

I don’t love dressing up. I used to, I think, back when the ready dress-up box had interesting apparel in it, when my thirft-store wedding gown tripped me up regularly and Grandma’s jewelry was in-bounds for this imaginary princess. As an adult, a costume requires a certain amount of thought, originality, time and sometimes even money. This year, as in many years past, I tailored my favorite thing to match what I had lying around the house.

When we arrive to the party, it’s clear that our students are better at this than I. The costumes are truly the best part of the party. There are favorite nations (France, Dominican Republic, Mexico), favorite people (Lady Jane Grey, spouses, other students), favorite candies (Haribo and Chupa Chup) and dozens of favorite sports (biking, soccer, tae kwon do). I spy a sashimi roll and a Rubik’s cube, along with several characters from Super Smash Bros. One dorm comes as greasers, and the female RAs dress as different Disney princesses.

It makes me smile, all of these kids at boarding school, creating costumes out of just what they have. I know that different elsewhere, the mess and expense of ready-made Halloween costumes, to be worn once and then thrown away. Here, the Pinterest-addicted do-it-yourself culture of BFA shines clearly. Who cares that they don’t have a thrift, costume or craft store anywhere near here? If they want to be Sherlock Holmes, or Canada or string cheese, they’ll figure it out. Because they are clever, these students, and nothing if not determined.

After the fashion show, I go up to the gym to watch students bowl and slackline, with breaks to toss footballs at buckets and tennis balls at cups. I duck into a game of dodgeball just in time to throw a squishy ball at a girl dressed as “the ocean” in a floaty blue evening gown, hopping aside the attack from a snowboarder across the way.

And I think of how “easily entertained” is sometimes tossed out with a sneer at those who find pleasure in small things. It’s not exactly easy, this evening, but it is simple, put together mostly with the hard work of students, the kids who care enough to throw a party for their friends and make a costume out of whatever they can find. I could probably make it a metaphor for missionary kids, that ingenuous breed who can create community out of almost anything. For now, though, I’ll say I’m in love, again, with this place and these kids, and a little embarrassed about my perfunctory costume.

Oh well. There’s always next year.


In the Dorm


Baking pies at Maugenhard!

It’s quiet when they leave.

When supper was finished, the younger boys washed the dishes and mopped the floor, while the older ones packed and I baked banana cake. Then, an hour later, we piled down the stairs and out to the parking lot, where we waved goodbye, Sound of Music style, to the seniors. In a few hours, a bus will carry them southwest, over the Alps to Italy, for breakfast in Florence at the beginning of their week in Rome. The goodbyes were jovial–farewells that acknowledged only seven or ten days of separation–but still touching. As the seniors pulled away, I heard more than one dorm brother sigh something to the effect of, “It’ll be weird without them here.” This, in the language of eleventh-grade boys, translates to something like love.

We return to the dorm after a while. I pull the cake out of the oven, setting it on the counter to cool while I curl up in a large chair in the living room, to read a book and supervise the computer study area. It’s been a little more than a year of volunteering Thursday nights in the dorms, and with few exceptions the nights usually look like this. Supper with the kids, then baking and some on-call English assistance. Dozens of proofread papers and about a thousand cookies later, I still love these Thursday nights.

It’s typically the seniors–students who I’ve just finished teaching and thus know the best in the fall–that come upstairs to chat while I’m cooking, so it truly is silent now that they’re gone. I think about what I once wrote to a friend, from a summer spent secluded on a farm in Ramsau. “I almost like the feeling of missing people, knowing that they’ve made enough of an impression on me that there’s a hole when they’re gone.” It’s bittersweet, I realize, this reminder that the students who are already gone, along with those who just left for the week, leave tangible emptiness behind. It’s because we love them that we miss them at all.

In the middle of my forlorn reflection in the silent living room, five of my current students trickle upstairs to use the computers. Four of them are working on assignments for American Literature, due tomorrow. They come up to ask questions, to read me passages from their work, checking topic sentences for accuracy and thesis statements for defensibility. We flip through The Crucible, discuss academic language and its tricky balance of beauty and function. One boy starts laughing to himself while writing.

“I can’t wait for you to read this,” he chuckles.

Neither can I. A few hours later, I walk home through the autumn night, thankful again for the seasonal nature of this calling, bringing new students to love with each new year, filling the quiet living room just as it was feeling a bit too empty.

This I Believe 2012: Seasons

I’ve shared with some of you in the past that my students start each year with their own statements of belief, in the form of a “This I Believe” essay, modeled on the National Public Radio segment of the same title. With the start of school three days away, here’s a look into my teacher preparation from the last few weeks, my own essay for 2012.

I believe in seasons.

Two weeks ago, it was 34˚ C in Kandern, just-opened-the-oven heat that took my breath (and will to live) away. Today, it’s 18˚ C, raining sometimes, and the dark grey skies make the green forests greener. Fall is only three weeks away, and I can smell it in the air. I’m ready. Ready for sweaters and tea, for rain and, yes, for school to start again. Summer has been sweet in its timeless chaos, full of movement and bright moments with family and friends, but I’m glad it’s over. I’m not made to live always in 34˚ C.

“For everything there is a season,” wrote the anonymous preacher of Ecclesiastes, and “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” I believe in seasons, because I believe God made us to grow in spirals. We see it in the world around us, how the death of autumn, the rest of winter, are necessary for the lush times of spring and summer. Leaves aren’t meant to last forever, and branches only grow through the barren times. I think of the “leafless” moments of my own life, times when I felt alone or disappointed, when the bright hopes and blessings of richer times had fallen away. They’re not the postcard snapshots to remember, but I grew because of them, drawing closer to Christ to fill in the cracks and empty spaces in my heart. I love summer, but I need winter just as much.

This seasonal life is one of many things I love about being a teacher. Each year, I return to a familiar life and see it with fresh eyes. As long as I spend it in a classroom, autumn will always bring new students, pondering new ideas as the hills outside turn many shades of gold. But I will be different, each year, coming to back to these rituals with another three seasons of growth, my own new branches. Each fall, I look back with gratitude on the seasons past, both rich and sparse, and the God that has brought me safely back, to start again and learn anew.

Capturing the Castle

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.

Henry David Thoreau

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Untertal, late August

I’ve never been in Europe in autumn.

I’ve spent several summers here, two weeks of winter, and one spring.  But all of my autumns, my favorite season of all, have been in Washington.

I’ve come back to Austria for the weekend–truly just for Saturday–to attend the going-away party for Julie Johnson, a fellow instructor from the summer who is leaving Tauernhof after two years.  And though it’s raining this Saturday, I can’t imagine anything better to do with a Saturday afternoon in the Alps than go hiking.  So hiking we’ve gone.

It’s fifteen degrees cooler than the last time I was here, and today I’m carrying an umbrella and wearing jeans, the perfect tourist.  To complete the costume, I turn around and take another picture from the top of one of Riesachsee’s many ladders.

The view of Untertal, one of the shady, narrow valleys that run down to Schladming, is breathtaking as usual.  Yet what keeps me taking pictures of places I’ve seen dozens of times is the changes.  Though southwestern Germany is still green and often warm, here it is fully autumn.  It’s been only a month or so since I left Austria, but the valley is transformed.  Emerald pastures are golden, evergreen hills blurry through swirling mist.

Untertal, late September

Later, on a long train ride home, I drink in the colors of Alpine autumn and think about seasons.  How you never really know a place until you’ve seen it in all its colors, knowing the quiet of watching the snow fall just as intimately as the delight of the first day you walk outside without a coat in the spring.  How this means that knowing any place takes a while, no matter how long I spend looking at the maps that have come to fill our house.

And, because I’ve just left the Austria of analogies, I think about people and their seasons.  How knowing people takes even more time and patience, waiting and listening and learning through the unpredictable circumstances that cause us to grow.  It’s why I love teaching, with its the promise that I’ll know these students long enough to experience a few seasons with them.  It’s also an important reminder now, as Kandern and its community start to feel like a place that I’m familiar with, but not yet a place that I know.

I am thankful for seasons, for changes, for growth.  And never more so than in the autumn, a time of stoic and graceful quietness, drawing into rest so that life can be renewed.