Faithful To The Fields

Ramsau…What we owe the future   

is not a new start, for we can only begin   

with what has happened. We owe the future   

the past, the long knowledge

that is the potency of time to come.

That makes of a man’s grave a rich furrow.

The community of knowing in common is the seed   

of our life in this place. There is not only  

no better possibility, there is no

other, except for chaos and darkness,   

the terrible ground of the only possibly

new start. And so as the old die and the young   

depart, where shall a man go who keeps   

the memories of the dead, except home   

again, as one would go back after a burial,   

faithful to the fields, lest the dead die   

a second and more final death. 

Wendell Berry, from “At A Country Funeral” (43-57)

“The kitchen is the soul of the house,” one of my roommates sighed, walking through two friends’ apartment recently. “Everything happens in the kitchen.”

This is nowhere more true than at Schiestl Hof, a four-cow dairy farm in Central Austria where I’m sitting at the kitchen table, wearing unfamiliar black dress and heels, waiting to go to a funeral. The night train took me through moonlit Switzerland and Austria’s long western tail, bringing me here just as the sun rose, only a few hours before Hans Peter Royer’s 10:00 AM memorial service. The inhabitants of the farmhouse have been up for five hours, milking the cows, picking me up from the train station and preparing breakfast for their guests and for us.

The kitchen is the only private gathering place on the 300 year old farm. Since the rest of the house consists of guest rooms for sleeping and dining, the family–a mother, Irmgard, and her adult daughter, Annemarie–spends many working hours and all social time in this little kitchen. I’ve spent ages here myself during the summer when I lived on this farm between two challenging years of teaching in Seattle, soaking up the rhythms of work, hospitality and weather that are inherent to this way of life.

I pull out Wendell Berry’s poetry collection, In the Country of Marriage, to read while I wait, opening it to a poem whose title, “At a Country Funeral” had drawn me last night. Berry describes the burial of a farmer, the first half of the poem dwelling on the pause it makes for each of his peers to stand at his grave and reflect on their own impermanence. The poem shifts in its second half, from lamenting the loss of the farmer to the loss of his farm, this abandoned place where “the field goes wild / and the house sits and stares” (29-30). He finishes with an exhortation to the living, to return to work to be “faithful to the fields, lest the dead die, / a second and more final death” (56-7). It’s not the kind of funeral I’m going to, I think to myself, taking an uncharacteristically literal view of the poem. Hans Peter lived in the country, yes, but he wasn’t a farmer. There are no fields to be faithful to, no farm to tend in his absence.

As I’d expected, our “country funeral” seems to bear little comparison to the one in the poem. The tiny cemetery in tiny Ramsau–full of ancestral graves now centuries old–is already full of people when we arrive, joining the throng clad in black and Steirische green. It’s clear that this multitude, later counted at over nine hundred, represents the many generations, nations, even continents that Hans Peter influenced.

There are the Ramsauer neighbors, like the women with whom I’m staying, locals who gathered to bid the boy from their mountains farewell. There are his fellow Bergführer–mountain guides–in their telltale red jackets, men who climbed these peaks with him for years, only to find him there in the end. There are the Americans who flew here in haste, arriving just in time to pay their respects to a man from whom they’d learned so much. There are Germans who grew up in their faith listening to Hans Peter, in person or in print, preaching Christ with unadorned sincerity. There are the staff of Tauernhof, people who have served with him for months, years and decades, learning not only from his teaching but from his friendship and leadership. Every face and every tear tells a story of how God used this man to serve, teach and love others.

The service is long, rich and deep, combining the celebration of Hans Peter’s life with a reminder, much needed, that for us who know Jesus “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” It’s only later, as we stand back in the sunny cemetery and wait to lay flowers on his grave, that my mind wanders back to the poem, to the exhortation to the young to preserve the knowledge of the dead, to be “faithful to the fields.”

Hans Peter had fields, too. Here is Tauernhof, the school he worked so hard to build up. Here are these mountains he loved to share. Here we are in this community he lived in for his whole life, ever a part of it even as he traveled far abroad teaching Christ. He is gone now, but his fields are still here.

And while I linger in metaphor, in reality we return home from the burial, just as Wendell Berry wrote, back to work. There are cows to milk and rooms to clean, guests to greet and cakes to bake. In the midst of it, for two days I’m privileged to help when I can, and mostly sit in the presence of a community in mourning. Neighbors come by and are offered coffee and conversation, discourse that inevitably turns back to Hans Peter and, at the ladies’ urging, to Christ. They’re tending the fields, I think to myself, hearing the daughter Annemarie say yet again that while we don’t know why, God knows, and we can rest in that knowledge.

“Where shall a man go who keeps the memories of the dead, except home again, as after a burial,” writes Berry (53-5). It’s a question without a question mark, not a question at all. There’s nowhere to go but where we’re each called, back home again. We pause, to celebrate and honor and reflect, but then we return to the places God has given us, to love and give in the way for which God has best equipped us. For Annemarie and Irmgard, at Schiestl Hof, this is hospitality and stewardship, literal fields to keep alive. For me, it is the 280 students who are preparing to fill our classrooms in a week, young minds and hearts that long to know Jesus and serve Him well.

In this sense Berry’s metaphor is incomplete; we don’t have our own fields, to buy and to sell and to pass on when we’re gone. Hans Peter, Irmgard, Annemarie, my father–who preached a beautiful sermon on faith not 24 hours after hearing of his dear friend’s death–it’s all the same field. We are all, each of us, tilling God’s field, a kingdom which will outlast us each in ways more complex and beautiful than we can ever imagine.

And so I return to Germany, on trains making their lazy way through the green and grey of Bayern and Baden-Wurttemburg. I keep this memory of a dear and favorite teacher close as I return to home and to work, seeking to be faithful to this field we’ve shared.

Edelweiss

The quest for Edelweiss Photo: Brett Milliken

The quest for Edelweiss
Photo: Brett Milliken

…Because teachers also have teachers. One of my favorite teachers, Hans Peter Royer of Tauernhof Bible School in Austria, lost his life last weekend in a paragliding accident. Remembering this great man and leader, the following memory from Upward Bound 2011 comes first to mind as I thank God for his life and ministry.

“I am thinking we’ll go look for Edelweiss,” Hans Peter says as we sit down at the table on the sunny terrace of Hofpürgelhutte. “Want to come?” 

Nat and I, with trays of schiwasser and warm apfelstrudel, raise our eyebrows. We’ve finished with climbing for the day, and the students are scattered around the yard, sleeping or reading or playing on the slackline until supper in a few hours. As instructors, we haven’t climbed much today, instead spending most of the morning and afternoon on the lookout for distracted belayers and nervous first-time climbers among our thirty-five Upward Bound students. Though it’s been a safe and successful day, full of personal firsts for many, at the end of it we’re not exactly exhausted.

“Yes. When?” Nat replies without hesitating. (“This is one of those things,” Nat says to me later. “Those things you don’t ask questions about. He says, ‘Let’s go pick Edelweiss,’ and you just go.”)

“We leave soon. Five minutes,” Hans Peter replies. Nat and I abandon our treats on the balcony, retie our hiking boots but take nothing with us, as we’ve been told. As usual, Hans Peter sets a businesslike pace up the steep path, which veers to the left of our climbing garden and traverses a grassy slope up to a ridge.

“There,” he points. “Up there in those rocks is where we’re going. That’s where the Edelweiss is.”

Edelweiss! Photo: Brett Milliken

Edelweiss!
Photo: Brett Milliken

Edelweiss-picking is typically the pursuit of young men, who climb to the cliffs on which the fuzzy white flowers cling, bent on bringing back impressive offerings to woo fair maidens. Austrian girls are apparently not impressed with mere roses; the flower’s worth increases dramatically with the risk taken to procure it. What we—two single women—are going to do with our Edelweiss once we find it is far from our thoughts as we trot behind Hans Peter up the path. This is a worthy quest, a rare Austrian adventure, and we were excited to seize it.

Further on, we meet the other three Upward Bound instructors, who’d set off with similar intentions, and they fall in with us. Hans Peter leads us to the left and up, towards an outcropping of rock perched on the green hillside. We can just see a small crevice, like a lazy yawn in a pointed face, where the sought-after flowers supposedly grow, and our quest arches that way.

I’d moved to Europe a year before, away from my own family and mountains in the Pacific Northwest, to teach English at Black Forest Academy. But here in Austria, at my summer job as an Upward Bound instructor, I find something familiar. Here again, I daily met the challenge of following someone up a steep path, confident that at the top there’d be a reminder that every breath, every step, every stone on these ancient mountains was evidence of the everlasting love our Creator has for us.

We reach the cave of Edelweiss just an hour before dinner, the late afternoon sun slanting golden in our eyes as Hans Peter instructs us to take “just one flower” and hold it in our teeth, so as not to crush it while we descend. Two years later, I’d give it to my fiancé, but without a recipient in mind just then I pressed it between Ecclesiastes 3 and 4. “A time for everything” on one side—my favorite lecture of Hans Peter’s, which still echoes back from the summer I was seventeen, myself an Upward Bound student—and “two are better than one” on the other, a passage I’ll hear read at my own wedding in December.

We spend a few minutes at the top, the panorama of sun-drenched Austrian and Italian Alps spread below us like a wrinkled green blanket. Buried far back in the cave, there’s a metal box with a guestbook in it, which we sign proudly, savoring the moment together before we head down for supper. We move more slowly on the way down, making sure of every step. Our leader tells us to grab handfuls of grass as we walk along, to anchor us to the hill in case we slip.

“This is dangerous,” Hans Peter comments matter-of-factly, peering down at the rock-strewn slope that ends, some twenty meters below, in the top of a cliff. “Really hold on here. With both hands, to the grass. It doesn’t look dangerous, but it is. Stay close, and hold on.”

The part of me that was once afraid of heights was numbed two decades ago by another mountain climber, my own father, but I believe Hans Peter’s warning. I know it’s dangerous, know that a hasty step could lead to a long fall. Our steps, then, are measured and slow, just behind those of our leader.

But, aware of the danger, I’m still not afraid. Because with Hans Peter, as with my dad all those years ago, it never mattered whether a place was safe or dangerous. Who I’m following makes all the difference.

Instructors on an adventure Photo: Nat Wade

Instructors on an adventure
Photo: Nat Wade

Reflecting today on Hans Peter’s life and ministry, this memory stands apart from all the lectures and lessons he taught me, of which there were many. Because this—following confidently the Creator of mountain, air and stone—is how Hans Peter lived, and how he taught us to live. Aware of danger but not controlled by fear, knowing that ultimately our safety lies in the love of Jesus, who keeps writing our story every day we follow Him, this story that doesn’t end in death, but goes on into eternity.

And even through the sadness of losing him,  I’m thankful for this teacher, whose life and words have rippled across continents and generations, and thankful for the God who promises that there are more glorious days ahead than this one I remember fondly, and that this goodbye–early as it is–is just for now.

There Are No Lakes Till Eternity

We are not permitted to linger, even with what is most
intimate. From images that are full, the spirit
plunges on to others that suddenly must be filled;
there are no lakes till eternity. Here,
falling is best. To fall from the mastered emotion
into the guessed-at, and onward.

Rainer Maria Rilke, from “To Hölderlin”

A valley filled with fog.Photo: Emily Kelly

A valley filled with fog.
Photo: Emily Kelly

We walk down, in the dark and the snow.

This first weekend of Christmas break, I’ve come to Schladming with Timmy and Emily Kelly to visit my father, who is finishing a week of teaching at Tauernhof. Schladming, Austria, is a summer place for me, a sleepy town in which the kids begged the mayor to dig a swimming hole in the river, and he acceded gladly. It’s a valley of lazy outdoor concerts and ice cream eating, all under the meditative gazes of the sheep and cows who graze the pasture mountains all around. In the winter, I find it transformed, busy in preparation for the upcoming ski World Cup, held here in February. Still, it’s good to be here, to spend time with family and old friends, and to show Timmy and Emily these places about which they’ve heard so much.

At the end of a long day of visiting, exploring and ski-jump watching, we have dinner at a mountain hut, partaking delightedly in Tauernhof’s staff Christmas party. It’s a merry feast in this glowing room of friends and strangers, tables heaped high with food while little children run around at our feet.

When the party ends, late at night, we walk back down the mountain to where we’ve parked the cars. The day was foggy, and dizzy snow fell during dinner, but now the sky is icy black, extravagant with stars. A few inches of new snow soften icy footsteps, as we slide happily down the hill between snow and stars.  Below us, over the sharp edge of our snowy path, the valley is brimming with glowing cloud. It is a night of velvet and diamonds, as light and dark, smooth and sharp, dance together in these mountains.

Surrounded by the bilingual voices of people I love, suspended between a warm mittened hand on the left and this sea of beauty on the right, I’m so deeply content. It’s a moment I can’t photograph–lacking both skills and equipment to capture it properly–and I doubt that a picture recall the peace and joy of this moment, anyway.

This weekend in Austria has reminded me of the linearity of life, how I may spiral back to the same places, but the past never, ever repeats itself. Life is running on, circumstances shifting and people growing, keeping me busy learning, always, how to live and move in this ever-new world.

It’s tempting to sigh about this, how many gifts seem to vanish so quickly, but I can’t. The longer I follow Christ, the more certain I become that I don’t need to cling to each shard of loveliness He brings my way, terrified of losing them in the valleys of busyness and distraction. There will be love and beauty, laughter and rest, around each new corner, and even in the darkness, He walks with me. He is my shepherd; I shall not want. So I’m thankful for this time, fleeting as snow in Kandern, but even more thankful to know the Creator of all such beauty.

God of All Seasons

Do not let kindness and truth leave you;
Bind them around your neck,
Write them on the tablet of your heart.

Proverbs 3:3

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35-39

Early on the last morning of Upward Bound, I’m up finishing packing and preparing my devotion for after breakfast when I find the pomegranate in the bottom of my closet. I bought it a few days ago–for no real reason except that it was the first one I’d seen in the store since February–but in the hectic last-minute details and goodbyes of the final days of summer here, I’ve had no time to eat it. Pomegranates, you see, take time to eat. They are such a slow snack that they’ve become something of an autumn tradition for me. I go to the store, buy this tricky fruit, and set aside a half-hour or so to first pull it’s muscly white rind apart, and then eat the ruby-red seeds with a spoon.

I sit down on the deck with a Bible and my bowl of pomegranate seeds, ready to prepare this devotion on the ever-presentness of the love of Christ. I re-read Romans 8, learning that nothing can separate me from this overwhelming love. Proverbs 3 admonishes me to remember, always, the truth and kindness that lead to a life without stumbling. I’m struck by the many ways that we’re told to remember, by the repetitive insistence of both chapters.

Nothing, nothing, nothing can separate you from Christ’s love.

Remember, remember, remember this truth. Always.

They are important words for us today, all of us poised at the end of something, the beginning of many other things. It’s easy to imagine, when we’re standing on mountain peaks at sunset, when we fall asleep to the sound of rain on tents, that God is more present in places like these, times like this. When we leave or move on, whether we descend on foot or a train pulls us out of a valley we’ve grown to love, it’s tempting to feel lost, disconnected from what we thought was God’s presence, back in the beautiful places.

I prepare these thoughts as much for myself as for the students today. Last summer, I stayed two weeks after the end of Upward Bound, but this year I’m going right away back to Kandern. I’m thinking about what it means to me to return, how different it is now than it was a year ago, when I took the train to a new home I’d never seen. I know where I’m going now; at the same time, I’m another summer attached to this place that feels like home. It will be hard to leave here. Yet I’m thinking of an email exchange between myself and two of my former students, which I received a few days ago. It went something like this:

L: Hey Miss Dahlstrom!! 
So me and D had a question for you. We were talking and he is convinced that “ishcabible” is a word. He says that its spelled wrong though. I disagree with him. 
I hope your summer is going grand!! See you in a few weeks. :) 
L and D

D: it means like whatever or something like that! i’m positive

Me: Iskabibble! It’s totally a word, American slang from the early 20th century. It means “Who cares?” or, as D correctly believes, “Whatever.”
For example: 
“If you stay up late then it will be difficult to go to school in the morning.”
“Eh… ishkabibble.”

Happy to clear this up. Miss you both and see you so soon!
Peace,
Ms. Dahlstrom

L: Wow! I can’t believe it! I was convinced I was wrong. D.. you won the bet. haha 
miss you too Ms. D

I was so thankful for this, a teasing reminder of how much I love the people with whom I spend most of my time, people who live in the place where I’m returning. Like the pomegranate, whispering that fall is coming, the emails speak of changing seasons, and the goodness that is present everywhere. And as I prepare my final devotion for the students, prepare to remind them that God is ever-present, the one constant when relationships and circumstances keep changing, I am thankful even for the seasons, the changes, and the way I’ve been called, right now, to walk through many places in the faithful company of Christ.

Marker to Marker

You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home…. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days.

The Brothers Karamazov

Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come…

“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

“We’re going marker to marker again today,” I admit to one of my teammates.

“You mean paycheck to paycheck,” laughs another.

“Marker to marker,” I insist, and it’s true.

We woke up this morning at Simonyhütte, at the base of the Hallstätter Gletscher to find a fine layer of snow dusting the ground. Our path for the morning took us higher, to where the fine powder became a thick blanket of snow, softening our steps and stinging our faces. As I checked the students before sending them on an icy climb over a lower pass on the north side of the Dachsteingebirge, our guide admonished me to put my gloves back on because “your fingers really could freeze off now. Keep them on.”

In the afternoon, we descended again into the wind and the fog, tied together and following in one another’s deepening footsteps, up and around

and then down the Gosauer Gletscher. I was thankful to follow, thankful for the compass and knowledge of the mountain guide to bring us down through the storm. I’d been up there before, on this very glacier, but very seldom during the day could I have found on the map just where we were. In the snow and the mist, it all looked the same.

Now we’ve left the glacier, and are hiking down through the moraine at its base. A century ago, this chasm held a thick strip of glacier; all that remains is a giant’s quarry, strewn sparsely with blue and yellow flowers. On a sunny day, like the last time I was here, I call this place austere and otherworldly. Today, we call it “Mordor.”

It would really be easy to get lost here, I think while I walk. The trail here is more of a suggestion than a path, and often it disappears entirely, when stones are just stones, and giant holes open up to swallow me. How easy it would be, in this visibility, to miss the hut entirely, to keep walking down and down, lost in the storm.

Then I see the markers.

Freshly painted, splashes of red on grey rock, this trail is the dotted line on a treasure map, so clear that I expect to see a red X painted on the roof of the hut. Sometimes they are far apart, these markers, so far that you need to stand almost on top of one and then turn around, slowly, until another pops into focus in a new direction. The trail is hazardous and hard to see, but the markers are always there, reminding us when we get there that we’re still on the right track.

And I think about walking with God, about how sometimes the way ahead it clear and simple, truly as easy as placing one foot in front of another. Yet how often the trail seems faint and mysterious, especially in barren places. I think about the markers, times and places that reminded me, surely, that God was with me. It’s not every step, not every day. But I can always see one ahead, or look back to the one I’ve just left, walking in the safety of God’s leading.

So the dotted line leads us, cold and weary, to the glowing windows of a beautiful place, our home for the night. From the doorway, as I wring ice water out of saturated gloves, I look back through the swirling snow, back up the trail we’ve just come down. Its twists and turns are lost in the grey snowflakes; its markers still shine faintly in July’s early twilight.

About Tomorrow

Upward Bound 2011 students gather in a darkened (cave) room.

And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:27-34

We’re playing in a stream on a hot day. After a morning of hiking, we ate the rest of our food under a cross at the crest of a pass, in the company of silent stone mountains and myriads of wildflowers. The students are elated, since the lack of remaining lunches precludes us from staying out much longer. Showers, email and clean clothes are calling.

They don’t know that we’re going in the cave. In twenty minutes, a van will bring them caving suits, plastic sacks, tarps, cooking pots and stoves, and food for 24 more hours. A few hours after that, after a long and steep hike, they’ll be plunging into damp darkness for the night.

They don’t know. But I know.

This lack of prior information is intentional on our part, as the program staff of Upward Bound. Students are meant to learn trust, learn to rest in the tasks of the moment without having to worry too much for the ones still ahead. It’s about being fully present, free of distraction from the future. Today, it also serves a practical purpose. Sometimes people are afraid of sleeping in caves; this way the fear is as brief as possible.

Some years, groups or individual students have a problem with this. They ask and plead, wheedle and scheme, to unveil more of the schedule than they’re allowed. They sneak watches into their bags, or nervously check the time on digital cameras. How long have we been hiking? What time did we get up? When, oh when, will we get back?

Our students this year are teaching me to trust. Just as we had hoped, they seem relaxed by the lack of care about tomorrow. More than relaxed, they seem to enjoy knowing at little as possible for one simple reason: They trust that whatever is coming will be good.

They know that they’ll get enough information when they need it. They know that they’ll be safe. They know that we know what time it is, and where we’ll go next. And that, marvelously, seems to be enough for most of them.

I want to trust God this way. To stop asking how long I’ll be walking in a given direction, stop questioning when I have to step out into stormy weather, stop begging to be told the schedule of events. I want to remember, every day, that whatever is coming next is good and safe, that I’m walking with the best guide I could ask for. I want to give up my watch and calendar, to give them back to God.

I think about the cave where we’re going, a place that I often describe with cautious adjectives like interesting or strange. Knowing the plan for future doesn’t always serve me so well. Perhaps this is why God doesn’t give me much of the view at a time. Don’t worry, He tells me. It will be good. And I’ll be there.

When the vans arrive, bringing the requisite equipment, the students listen with wide eyes, expectant smiles. They listen seriously to the instructions, ready to face this new adventure with their characteristic eagerness. I’m inspired, challenged and for the first time genuinely excited to slide down into the cave, that netherworld of oddity, with these curious, trusting students.

Holds

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 (NASB)

I’ve been climbing a lot this week. More, really, in one week at Tauernhof than the rest of the year in Kandern. I don’t resent the Schwarzwald’s lack of climbable rocks–there is a passable castle wall for bouldering–but it is certainly wonderful to be back in the land of Klettergartens and indoor gyms for rainy days.

Training for Upward Bound has been rich and strenuous, and at the end of this week I find that my mind wanders easily into the analogies that so ready present themselves in this field of experiential learning. Objects and actions take on metaphoric meaning, turning the whole summer into living poetry of this journey with Christ. I love this.

So as I sit on the ground of the Teufelzahne Klettergarten, wind whistling through the sharp rocks, I’m looking up at the climbing route I’ll try in a moment. It looks mysteriously smooth, and smooth isn’t helpful for climbing. When it’s my turn, I put on shoes and chalk and look up one last time. It might be impossible for me, I decide. Or maybe not. But it doesn’t matter much right now, as I begin. I know that if I fall in the attempt, my belayer will catch me and probably even encourage me. I also know that there’s only so much planning ahead that I can do with this route. With a shrug, I take the step that’s clear to me, the tiny one near the ground, and stand up onto the wall. I feel for the sure holds, unable to see them from below. More often than not, the places that I’d intended to stand or grab are slippery from too much use, and I have to keep reaching, choosing the unlikely holds that are surprising in their security.

And while there are many strong comparisons between climbing and life with Christ, it strikes me that this climb, along with the verse I shared at the beginning, is perhaps the most striking reflection of my current journey. Because I’m not sure entirely, all the steps of this route that He has me on. Because often the people I’ve come to trust and love, the ones who have helped me, are not people I could see at the beginning; they appear just at the right moment, reminders of God’s faithfulness. Because I know that I’ll fall and stumble, as the when of the Psalm suggests, but also that I am secure and beloved.

But the first step, the next step, is clear enough to continue. Thank You, Father, for this step.

Seasons

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.

Loslassen

Slacklining outside of Hofpürgelhutte

“Nevertheless I am continually with you;

You have taken hold of my right hand.”

Psalm 73:23

“Einfach loslassen!” We’re playing on the slackline at Family Week II, and the two girls on the sidelines squeal it with the self-confidence of those who watch.  Just let go.

A slackline is a tightly stretched piece of webbing, often strung between two trees about three feet up.  The object is to walk on top of it like a tightrope, bouncing and leaning but never quite falling all the way to the ground.  Though enormously popular in Seattle, slacklining entered the realm of activities I had time for only this summer.  I’m still not terribly good at it, but after seven weeks of wobbling I can usually walk from one tree to another without falling off.  A few brilliant times, I’ve also turned around and come back.  For me, it’s relaxing and focusing, knowing that there is only one direction to go, one place to look, and one danger to avoid.  Battling gravity, we walk forward on the slackline.

Though I’ve taken a few turns today, mostly I’ve spent today with three girls, all about twelve years old.  They are busy, these girls, busy with plans and ideas and quarrels and talents.  One rides horses, another sings and plays piano, and still a third loves soccer but has recently hurt her foot.  They whirled over here half an hour ago, when I’d begun surveying the afternoon play time from the slackline, and since then have jumped on and off it with remarkable stubbornness.  Holding a hand in air, I give them one point of solidity as they walk across.  Sometimes they cling to it with weighty fervor, while other times they barely touch me, their fingers merely bouncing along as we go.

After a while, I take another turn ganz allein, or totally alone.  When I’ve finished they get ready for their next turns. One will try it alone.  Another will walk a few steps on her own.  The third will keep holding on.

It’s this third who’s being advised at the moment to “just let go.”  Though their cries are probably annoying to the girl on the line next to me, the point is sound; without letting go of the hand she’s leaning on, she’ll never learn to walk alone.  We can keep doing this forever, but as I feel her weight on my hand, I know that she’s trusting me still, not learning to dance with gravity and elasticity to remain in the air.

Still, I know her hesitation.  Maybe not with slacklining, where I fall often and hard, but elsewhere.  I’ve been blessed with hands to hold onto, the supports of loving family and friends, a home where I know and am known, a job.  More recently, it’s been the support of the community at Tauernhof, a place of encouragement and energy.  Though the summer here has seemed short, in depth of relationship and familiarity it seems like I’ve been here forever.

With packed bags and only a half a dozen details left to attend to this morning, I’m leaving Tauernhof today.  And it’s like leaving home again.  This hand I’ve held onto has been strong and steady, an important support to me as I tread the new territory of life overseas.  Part of me longs to hold on, to keep balancing here, but Tauernhof is stationary; to move forward, seeking the calling that brought me here, I have to let go.

On the train through Switzerland today, I’ll remember that I’m going from one home to another.  That the God who provided friends and a home for just eight weeks at Tauernhof will be with me always, in Austria and in Seattle and in Germany.  It’s not slacklining, after all.  Even when I let go I’m not alone; though I fear falling, I never will.

German Lessons

“Tock, Tock!  Willst du mit mir tanzen?”

I’m sitting on the floor of the Bistro at Tauernhof, watching five-year-olds ask each other to dance.  This “dancing” actually means a challenge to a hopping-on-one-foot duel.  One boy asks another, they hop for a while, but the challenger cannot overcome the reigning champion.  He continues around the room, on a quest for a match to his hopping skills.

It’s Family Week at Tauernhof.   For me, this means that instead of leading eight young adults I am assisting a professional preschool teacher in playing with five children under age seven.  In other words, life is slower and… smaller, with significantly more squealing, clapping and jumping.

All of this sounds easy, I know.  And it would be, except that every word of Family Week–spoken or written, sung or thought–is in German.  Just a moment ago, I made the announcements at dinner.  Earlier in the week, I’ve had to explain to a three-year-old that she had to sit down entirely in the stream to wash off the rest of the mud, and five-year-old that really the only way to get down from the top of the rock was by leaning back and walking down the wall.  All in German.  Zu mir, auf deutsch das ist nicht so einfach.  (For me, in German this is not so simple.)

To be fair to the staff who gave me these responsibilities, I do actually speak German.  A bit.  Enough that I understand what’s going on most of the time, and generally can communicate enough to avoid catastrophe.  Still, there are giant holes in my German proficiency, far greater problems than vocabulary.  For example:

  • I only know about half of the prepositions, and use very few correctly, instead guessing as many times as it takes for someone to nod at me (“We will have breakfast until 7th hour tomorrow?  On 7th hour?”).
  • I’m also lost with pronouns.  So many of them are the same for he, you all, hers and others that I forget what I’m saying, so usually I look for the simple-sentence way around these words.
  • German has three different gender-specific articles, but for me most things are female, possibly because this article, die, sounds the most like the.
  • Until recently, I couldn’t refer to any event in future tense, and expressed all plans in the urgency of the present (“Tomorrow, we hike to Riesachsee”).

All of this is troubling to me.  By now I know the language well enough to hear what I’m missing.  Yet with many voices and accents and dialects speaking one language I’m trying to understand, I can’t hear how to correct my mistakes.  So I continue to communicate in my version of German, reinforced by the fact that most people understand and a few even nod encouragingly back at me.  For better or worse, however, I know that I am learning.

I am learning that, to a great extent, I define myself by how I use words. Whereas in English I can with grace and precision say exactly what I mean, in German I don’t know another word for that, or how to fix the broken sentence.  I speak slowly and often incorrectly, with the careful, anonymous plainness that conveys meaning without frills.  Though I’m probably the last to know, I’m surprised by how important this is to me.  Without the ability to express myself fully, I feel like the color layer of me has been taken off, leaving only grey shapes behind.

I am also learning that words are not as important as I usually believe. Out of necessity here I listen quickly and speak only a little, and am finding that I see and hear more when I am not planning what I can add to the conversation.  Free from the option of speaking, I’m able to truly listen to those around me.  It is humbling to realize that discourse continues without my terribly clever contributions, that I can be more involved by not speaking than I would have had I started the conversation.

And of course I’m learning German, a word and phrase at a time, more each day. Today, I came home with a handful of verbs and nouns connected to climbing. Seil, gurt, helm, auf staunten, binen… I’m still untangling compound verbs in my head, pulling them apart like a knotted rope so I can use them next time.

After the evening meeting, parents retrieve their children and I go outside to play on the slackline.  Within a few minutes, a crowd of children arrives and one of the boys comes and shakes me off it, laughing, then asks me a question.

“Kannst du das schaffen?” I think for a moment, try to remember the verb he’s used.  It takes a moment to connect the two, to realize he’s asking me, a second after he’s knocked me off, if I can walk the length between the two tree.

I nod, hop back on the line and walk halfway before falling off again.

“Und…” I begin, uncertain of nouns and verbs, “Machst du das?” He shakes his head, and I have an inspiration. “Mit… ein Hand?”

I hold up my hand, and he climbs onto the slackline, gripping my outstretched fingers for balance as he makes his way across.

I’m struck by how few words we’ve exchanged, and how few we needed.  At the end of the evening, it won’t matter much that I did not speak German correctly; what will matter is that I laughed instead of scowling when he teased me, that I offered a hand to cross the line.   I hope to get better at the language, to grow in both confidence and accuracy in my time here, but tonight I’m content to do my best, to sound foolish and let my actions do most of the talking.