A Year in Review (2018)

2018 was a rather momentous year.

A year ago, I owned kitchen-ware, had a consistent paycheck, spent my weekends grading essays, lived in a one-room apartment above a close friend, and generally knew my way around my small corner of a wide and spacious universe.

But if you’ve been following my blog, you know all that. I’ve already written extensively about my last few months in Kenya — my last few months teaching — and I don’t yet feel ready to revisit those goodbyes.

I’m still trying to figure out what this transition means. Who I am in the aftermath of teaching. In the aftermath of acacia trees. In the aftermath of my twenties.

Even though it is less than six months since I last listened to the Kenyan rain, or scraped red mud from my running shoes, there is a vast gulf between the there and then and the here and now. The gulf I have always felt, to one degree or another, as I’ve traversed this globe from East to West and back again. How strange to be such a composite creature — to have loved so many pieces of earth and sky, so many disparate histories and cultures, such varied landscapes and worlds. Is it any wonder, as I embark once more into the great unknown, unsure where the next decade, or year, might take me, that I sometimes despair at ever finding my place in this beautiful, perilous world?

2018 was a year that straddled that divide — a year that held the tension of what was and what is. A year that let go of the past, of security, of the known, and stepped forward into…well, into the dark, I suppose. Back into the storm of questions that four years in a single role, a single city, a single campus, had allowed to lay dormant (at least a little).

Though, in many ways, my transition to Santa Cruz — to writing, and reading, and mornings spent strolling through the redwoods with my nephew — was the easiest, safest move I could have made, it was also a trust fall into what comes next. What comes after the ocean and the sun and the evenings watching anime with a beloved brother and sister-in-law? Though I am conscious of the time in Santa Cruz running down, running out, I am no closer to answering that question than when I first arrived five months ago. I have no plans, only a maybe-dream of writing — of making a living with words.

And, in truth, it’s not the words that are the dream (though the literary in my soul calls that heresy) so much as the living: the freedom to move about the globe, untied to this or that paycheck, free to labor and work in the roles that move me, without concern for whether that work can pay. Free to study Arabic, to volunteer in refugee camps, to return to school, to wrestle with theology, to teach orphans, to write books…free to go or to stay or to do as the s/Spirit bids — wrestling with job applications not included.

Yes, it sounds unrealistic, even (especially?) to me. And I make no claims on any certainty that this vision could ever be reality. Or even should be. But this is what the second half of 2018 gifted me: the desire to freelance and the time to start exploring (oh so slowly) that possibility.

The first month of 2019 has already come and gone, and I am, as I will ever be, a pilgrim. And though each step feels, in many ways, like groping in the dark, I am reminded by Fr. Richard Rohr that the dark is “sacred space” — a space of “tension, spiritual creativity, and…transformation.”1 And by Ignatius of Loyola that the only choice is towards “what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me.”2 So may I keep walking — in faith, in hope, in love — towards a full embrace of this life I am living, one moment at a time.  And may the questions that hover, and the future that looms, be fertile ground for growing me in the dependence — the smallness — necessary for throwing myself, ever more fully, on the mercy, and grace, of God.

Here are 18 of the significant happenings of 20183:

1. I started the year as I ended it — an aunt. I ushered in 2018 (as I ushered in 2019) on the California coast, and spent the first mornings of the new year rocking my nephew to sleep. Though Magnus Joy is not so small, or so sleepy, as he once was, it seems appropriate that my year should have begun, and ended, in his company.

2. I went camping in the Ngare Ndare forest. Though 2018 contained many final trips to beloved locations around Kenya, Ngare Ndare was significant for being a final trip of new discovery. Not a trip to say goodbye, but hello. Other than a day-hike in May, it was my final act of exploration in a country still rich in the unknown. It was also the first break of the semester, and it was filled with laughter, sunshine, and rest. We walked the forest canopy looking for elephants, jumped off waterfalls, feasted on camp-fare, and spent afternoons sprawled on shukas in the sun. I even wrote some poetry. A weekend bright with friendship, freedom, and refreshment.

3. I competed in Jam Rock, my first climbing competition. Other than a brief stint as a softball player in my early teens, I’ve competed athletically a grand total of three times, each in a different sport. The first, in 2010, as a member of my Oxford crew team. The second, my half marathon in 2017. The third, Jam Rock in 2018. Of the three experiences, the half marathon was the greatest personal achievement; Jam Rock the most fun.

4. I gave my first homily. With only a week to prepare, it was, among other things, a submitting of my desire to speak well to a desire to “speak as best I could in order to please God.”4 An enactment of trust in the God who provides daily bread — manna always, and only, for the now.

5. I was introduced to In the Heights. Making the acquaintance of a new musical is never something to sniff at — especially one so unapologetically heartwarming and fun. And no, it didn’t hurt that I simultaneously got to watch some of my favorite students do what they love (and do it so well). I went to the show a grand total of four times, and couldn’t get enough.

6. I said goodbye. To my students — seniors, juniors, sophomores alike. To my classroom (with its name-plaque on the door). To my campus apartment. To the hammock on my porch. To my colleagues. To my friends. To Kenya. I spent months (oh-so-slowly) sorting, and packing, and selling, writing notes, journaling, going to counseling, and generally trying to do this big thing well: to transition with intention (and attention), with eyes, and heart, and palms wide open.

7. I celebrated the wedding of my dearest childhood friend. Hers is a friendship that has spanned countries, continents, and decades — one of the few constants in this life of transience. Having known her since I was three, I truly don’t remember my life without her in it. Without the acceptance, loyalty, and love she has lavished on me — without condition or hesitation — since that first meeting. We were horrified to realize it had almost been a decade since we’d last seen each other, but I was welcomed back into her life like a long-lost sister. The days in Seattle (a July hiatus in the midst of packing up my life in Kenya), a reminder of what it feels like to have a home — and where that home truly lies.

The days in Seattle also happened to coincide with an extended family reunion in northern Washington. I snuck in for a single night (thanks to a grandmother graciously willing to share her room), and it was its own joyous reminder of family and home — of the history and roots I’ve been gifted regardless of how far I roam. It also overlapped with my mother’s birthday, so we visited the Space Needle to celebrate.

8. I spent ten days on a silent retreat at the Mwangaza Jesuit Center in Kenya. Following on my first retreat at Mwangaza by exactly a year, it was a powerful opportunity to take note of God’s faithfulness in the intervening months. I walked the prayer labyrinth, read scripture, drank tea, partook in Eucharist, and journaled my gratitude for a heart made ready to step forward in faith — trusting the far-seeing eyes of a loving God.

9. I got my second tattoo. Like my birds, it, too, circles back to the central message of my life: hope. Hope for the journey where Christ shall be encountered as he ever-was — in the midst of sojourn, pilgrimage, and wandering, in the face of every stranger on the road. (And, as Mary Oliver or my nephew might remind me, in the colors of every sunset, the shape of every petal, the miracle of every purr. Only humans, it seems, must be re-taught how to pray: every other created thing seems to proclaim hallelujah with every breath of oxygen or touch of breeze — proclaiming mystery and miracle through the sheer wonder of their existence.)

10. I started freelance editing. Having spent thousands (tens of thousands?) of hours editing thousands (tens of thousands?) of papers over the course of ten years spent in a variety of roles — academic resource center writing consultant (three years), high school English instructor (six years), and university adjunct professor (one year) — it occurred to me that editing might be the single job I’m most directly qualified for (and it seemed logical to put that perfectionist need to give thorough, detailed feedback to good use). So, if you need something edited, whether it’s a blog post, college application essay, or PhD dissertation, you know who to contact. (Insert winking emoji…but no, seriously, drop me a line — the passion to help writers communicate is what got me into teaching in the first place.)

11. I spent three weeks in Jordan where I feasted on Middle Eastern sunlight, the sounds of Arabic, the tastes of home (manaeesh, baba ganoush, limon bi nana, etc., etc.), and the delight of having my parents all to myself. (I love my brothers — I love my brothers — but I’ll admit that one-on-one attention is enjoyed.) I also introduced my parents to the Sleeping at Last Enneagram project, spent a few days lounging by a pool in Aqaba, and took my first forays into freelance editing (working with an Oxford University DPhil student from the comfort of my parents’ spacious apartment). It was a delightful hiatus between the leaving and the arriving.

12. I was welcomed to Santa Cruz with fairylights, mini-roses, a “super cool aunt” mug, a belated birthday lobster, a ride on the boardwalk’s gondola, an all-I-could-eat taco crawl, and a general sense of space having been carved out for me in my brother and sister-in-law’s two-room apartment (and, analogously, their lives). I was taken on lay-of-the-land walks, treated to bubble tea, allowed to claim my brother’s spot on the couch by the window, and generally told to make myself at home. While I have a general fear of taking up too much space — of not contributing enough to the world in general, or my community in particular, to make my presence anything but a bother — it was hard for those worries to survive the clear message of we want you here that was so consistently spoken (explicitly and implicitly) over my life.

13. I took a brief foray into the crazy world of online dating. To summarize my findings: while it turns out that it is actually possible to meet reasonable, interesting human beings online, it also turns out (as anticipated — for a myriad of reasons) that this isn’t really my scene. Also, where are all the Jesus-following feminists hiding? I’d like to date one, please.

14. I continued to run. Sometimes every morning, sometimes not for weeks on end; sometimes long distances, sometimes just a mile at a stretch. But whenever I stopped, lost my momentum, took a break, I always started back up again. Running, for me, is a reminder of the discipline of imperfection — the refusal to allow a failure of the ideal get in the way of continuing the hard work of the actual. An unbroken streak is a beautiful thing, but so, in its way, is the choice to run again after a two-month hiatus. To start over, and, in this way, to continue on.

In a year split radically between two worlds, running was one of my through-threads: I ran in Kenya (oh, the joy of having a track not 5-minutes from one’s bedroom), with my dad in Jordan (maybe only once, but it counts, right?), and with my nephew in Santa Cruz. And, for the record, running up hills with a stroller is a whole different ball-game than running up hills without one. Even so, the effort was worth the company (and we ran somewhere in the vicinity of 60 miles together over the course of the fall).

15. I submitted (and published) my first piece of writing since college. The hiatus has been long, but hopefully more will follow.

16. I celebrated my first Thanksgiving with family since moving to Kenya. Like my last family Thanksgiving, it was a sibling affair (though my middle brother, unfortunately, was not in attendance), and we made the family classics from scratch, hosted friends, and generally delighted in each other’s company.

We also rode the Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train in honor of the upcoming Christmas season. (The second train ride of the fall, as we’d ridden the Redwood Forest Steam Train earlier in the season — sipping hot apple cider and watching the redwoods glide by).

17. I spent Christmas with the family in the Minnesotan “homeland.” I’m not sure when I was last in Minnesota for Christmas, but it had been ten years since the extended Magnuson clan (my father’s brothers and their families) had last been together in one place. The trip included a three-day hop across the boarder into Wisconsin, where we rented a cabin large enough to sleep my grandmother’s entire brood of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and grandchildren-in-law (with a few grand-dogs thrown in), as well as broomball, skiing (twice!), cardamon rolls, coffee, lefse, snow (a little), potatiskorv, my grandmother’s roast dinner, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a midnight Christmas Eve service at the episcopal cathedral, board games, cousin time, Vikings’ games, theological discussions, books exchanged, puzzle making, and just general family mayhem and delight.

18. I celebrated the ordinary joys of my existence. Those that followed me to Santa Cruz, those I left behind in Kenya, and those that met me on this side of the ocean. The rhythm of morning matcha and evening rooibos; the quiet of evening walks; the delight of a book, a porch, and a shuka; my nephew’s belly-laughs; trees and flowers and growing things (roses, roses, roses); birds and deer and Jarvis (the cat I borrowed for the summer); a hot water bottle; a warm bed; watching TV shows with loved ones; views of the ocean; cappuccinos and pumpkin spice lattes; sunshine; almond croissants; cookies; conversations; friendship; family; liturgy; breath and movement and the gift of being here, for this moment, and this one.

And, as for this blog, WordPress is telling me I published 23 posts (just shy of 18,500 words) in 2018, and received a grand total of 4,264 views and 234 likes (over 500 of those views going to “A Homesickness Unto Life” in a single day). While those numbers don’t mean a lot compared to many blogs, it’s far more than I ever expected for this collection of life-reflections — this place to think out-loud. For all of you who read my blog, comment, like, share (and especially to my former students who somehow aren’t yet tired of hearing me ramble) — thank you. I’m aware that there are a million other things you could be doing with your time (and several million other blogs you could be following) — that you would choose to read my words is honoring, humbling, and extremely motivating.

Blessings on your own journeys in 2019 — wherever they may lead, may joy, hope, and courage accompany you on the road.

Footnotes:

  1. From Everything Belongs.
  2. As quoted in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin, SJ (quote provided by my father).
  3. If interested, here’s a more extensive list from the first half of the year, compiled upon leaving Kenya.
  4. From The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton (quote provided by my brother).
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To Give Thanks

In honor of American Thanksgiving (the first I’ve spent with family since 2013), and a week spent celebrating (my nephew’s birthday, my youngest brother’s presence, the beginning of that holiday feeling), here is a list of 31 items I am thankful for in this season — one for each year of my life.

1. For the sojourn itself. This painful, beautiful, challenging journey that is living. For the grace of time — to grow and learn and change. For all the possibilities and potentials of a day, much less a year, much less thirty-one.

2. For the places I have loved and been loved. The soil where I have planted my roots (however briefly) and called home. Seven countries, three in Africa (that most beautiful of continents?), two further east, and two further west. The mosaic that is my heart, filled with pieces from each of them.

3. The people who have journeyed beside me in each of those places — those whose friendships have spanned continents and decades, but also those who have come alongside me in specific seasons, for specific times — their impact, no less eternal.

4. My family, the only permanent home — outside of God — I have ever known. The stability and permanence they have offered in the midst of an oh-so-changeable and transient existence.

5. For trees (ancient olive groves, towering redwoods, outspread acacia, and so many others), branches spread against a myriad of skies.

6. For the oceans I have spent my life between — the salty waters of baptism and rebirth. The Atlantic of my birthplace, the icy refreshment of the Pacific, summers on the Mediterranean, the hidden wonders of the Red Sea, the warm embrace of the Indian Ocean.

7. The mysterious, beautiful creatures I get to share this planet with: tortoises, baby rhinos, lilac breasted rollers, butterflies, snails, grumpy camels, stealthy cats, building-sized whales, all-too loyal dogs . . . and all the rest of the teeming, living wonder that inhabits this planet. This world of marvel and awe.

8. All the experiences of stillness and silence: empty, sun-streaked rooms, fields and mountains, abbeys and churches, back yards and the small space under beds.

9. My mother’s laugh — a blessing and inheritance.

10. The art museums of London and Paris and Rome: that Van Goghs, and Rodins, and the Pieta all exist (which would be enough in itself), and that I’ve gotten to share their space and breathe their air, even if only for a moment.

11. The books, books, books, books (and the writers who wrote them).

12. The teachers who shaped me. From my parents, to the faculty at CCS, Moundsview, George Fox, and Oxford, I wouldn’t be the person I am if they hadn’t believed in me, challenged me, inspired me, befriended me, taught me. I owe them more than I will ever be able to express. They called forth the best that was in me, and set me free to wander the world of ideas, fearless, hopeful, full of wonder, and always confident that in doing so I would encounter the face of God.

13. The privilege of teaching. The platform it gave me and the lessons it taught me — from self-awareness to a forced embrace of imperfection, I am stronger, wiser, better for it. It remains (to this point) the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, but also so very worth it.

14. My students. The lessons they’ve taught me (in grace, in patience, in joy — in the nature of God), the laughter they’ve brought me, the trust they’ve given me. If to be an adult, as opposed to a child, is to love as parents love (not for one’s own sake, but for the sake of the beloved), then I think my students quite literally “grew me up.” That I’ve received so much love in return remains an overwhelming bounty.

15. That, despite growing up overseas, live theatre has graced so much of my life. From high school productions, to college productions, to West End musicals — from acting to directing to viewing — this art form has brought me so much joy. Some particular highlights include Rosslyn Academy’s production of Les Miserables and In the Heights, George Fox University’s House of Bernarda Alba and Machinal, Oxford’s Last Five Years and Medea, every time I’ve seen Wicked or Blood Brothers, David Tennant’s Hamlet, and Kenneth Branagh in Ivanov. Not to mention watching my Whitman acting class perform scenes from Lion in Winter and Richard III.

16. A body that moves and finds joy in movement: feet that dance, legs that walk, arms that row, lungs that run, fingers that climb.

17. The women (and men) who have helped me grow confident in my own skin. Who have given me the space to be both female and strong. Who have encouraged my voice, respected my intellect, and honored the human God has created me to be — regardless of gender.

18. The gift of writing as a path to self-knowledge, spiritual growth, and healing. The encouragement and support I’ve received, especially from teachers who helped me discover writing as a tool for understanding myself and the world.

19. The spiritual communities that have invited me in and given me a home: our family’s supporting churches, the international churches I grew up in, the Quaker communities I discovered in college, St. Julian’s recent embrace, the interwoven families I grew up with (who remain one my truest experiences of what it means to be the body of Christ), and many others over the years. Places where — to one degree or another — I have been seen, valued, and known.

20. The prayers prayed over me by my parents, by my grandparents . . . by generations I’ve never even met. And all the other prayers as well — prayers prayed by mentors and friends and brothers and students. Those I have knowledge of and those I do not.

21. That I was raised an adventurer and gifted with adventure: from junkyard forts to mountain climbing, my spirit has always yearned for wilderness, for a taste of the wild. And I’ve gotten more than my fair share, from Oxford’s walking club to climbing fells in the Lake District, from roadtripping Alaska to hiking the Oregon Coast Trail, from scuba diving in the Red Sea to sleeping under the stars at Wadi Rum, from camping in Samburu to climbing Mt. Kenya. . . . There is so much I still want to do and to see (the northern lights in Iceland and the Camino de Santiago, for starters), but how rich am I to have already seen and done so much?

22. That there is still some wilderness in the world (where no roads mar the landscape) — and I have seen a portion of it.

23. Thirty-one Christmas seasons, with carols and candlelight and Handel’s Messiah and sleeping under the Christmas tree and fairylights and sugar cookies and spiced drinks and figgy pudding and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and lefse and stockings and Advent breakfasts and dear friends and so much light and warmth — everything tinged with love and contentment and the joy of togetherness, of family being family.

24. That I have lived so much of my life in sunlight and warmth — open courtyards, wall-less bandas, sunsets in the desert, oceanside resorts, tropical climates, equator living. So much of my life with sun on my skin.

25. Prayer labyrinths.

26. All the roses I have lived my life among.

27. Warm drinks — especially the mundane joys of daily coffee, matcha, and tea.

28. The color purple. There really is no way to express the joy this color brings me, just by existing. (Did God design it just for me?)

29. International cuisine — Korean food, and Ethiopian meals, and Thai flavors, and Middle Eastern salads (baba ganoush!). But, most of all, growing up in the land of harissa, red sauces, markas, couscous, and salata mashwiya.

30. That I journey onward with hope.

31. That from the moment of my birth — until now — I have been surrounded, always, with love.

A Homesickness Unto Life

I spent over a year wrestling with the decision to leave Kenya — preparing my heart spiritually and emotionally for the move.

I wasn’t prepared, however, for the deep ache of homesickness that accompanied, not leaving Kenya, but leaving Jordan. Jordan, where I stopped briefly to visit my parents before heading on to Santa Cruz (where I am now ensconced in a room that welcomed me with fairylights and roses — engaged in the slow process of familiarizing myself with new spaces and new rhythms).

Home is complicated, as Marilyn Gardner recently reflected. Complicated for those of us who spend our lives flitting back and forth across the world, but also complicated, it seems to me, for all of us who have reached adulthood — whatever our backgrounds. We are all — in one sense or another — the dispossessed.1 Have all outgrown our childhood rooms and so much of the safety and belonging that went with them. Have all been exiled — like the Pevensie children — from a childhood kingdom we no longer possess.

As I flit once more from this continent to that, packing my life’s possessions in three overlarge suitcases (discounting, of course, the books, pottery, clothes, and childhood toys that live in perpetual storage in my parents’ house and grandmother’s attic), it strikes me that home is a gift that must be given and received.2 It is bound to our conception of place (the familiar, the safe), but, at its core, deals in intangibles that transcend the physical world home inhabits: love, acceptance, belonging. Home is that place where one is sheltered and cherished. Not simply where one is known, but where one is desired to be known. The place where grace is extended and perfection is neither required nor expected. Where there is room to play, experiment, and fail.

Where there is room to grow.

At least, this is my experience of home, an experience I know I am blessed beyond telling to have received. Global nomad I may be, but though I bear the ache of many places loved and lost, my parents, like Bedouins who carry their tents with them, or the Mongols with their yurts, transplanted our home to each new country we encountered. They carried it wrapped in the guise of familiar tapestries and rugs, favorite paintings on the walls and pottery on the shelves. We unpacked it with our belongings in each new city, each new house; yet despite its need for a place to unfurl its leaves and unwind its roots, it was never quite contained within those possessions, those cities, or those houses.

Like the Eucharist, which both is and is not the bread and wine which transmit the mystery, or a human being, which cannot be conflated with its physical form, home is the good kind of magic, always more than the sum of its parts.

It was the holiness of a life shared — embodied in the place in which we shared it. In which we played and laughed and read and ate and learned and talked and created and became. A place hallowed out for us (pun fully intended) by the resilience and joy and love and wisdom of our parents. And even as a child I recognized it for the sacrament it was — for the gift and the grace, the love, it transmitted to my life.

As Douglas Kaine McKelvey reminds us, in his liturgy for homesickness, “It is a good, good thing to have a home.”

That home — the one that grew and nourished me, and shaped the person I have become — no longer quite exists in any world but memory.3 My brothers and I are grown, my family scattered across time zones and continents, and though our love has stretched to fill the gaps that lie between us, we no longer share the holy, day to day sacrament of living.

But the resounding echo of the gift remains, reverberating in eternity, in our individual and collective lives, and — as I was reminded just last month — in my parents’ third-floor apartment in Amman, Jordan.

An apartment where I never lived, in a country that never bore witness to my childhood.

Those details seem insignificant, however (as do my 31 years of age), in light of the memories that pervade the space — memories encapsulated in those same tapestries and rugs, paintings and pottery that have so long transmitted home to me. Memories preserved in the Arabic on the streets and the food on the table. But most of all, in the presence of my parents — in the resilience, joy, love and wisdom that have only grown with the years (whether theirs or mine), manifest (as always) in the hallowed space where they partake in the day to day faithfulness of their ordinary, extraordinary lives.

A space that stands open — as it always has — to the fullness and brokenness of the person I am, the person I was, and the person I am becoming. And, thus, a space that is still home in the richest definitions of that word: an embrace, a belonging, an unearned gift. An invitation to intimacy. Room to grow.

I had not anticipated — grown-up that I am, competent traveler, nomad extraordinaire — to find quite so much of home still waiting for me. An elixir to strengthen the soul for the journey.

 

As I wrote in my journal in the LA airport, as I awaited my flight to Santa Cruz, “Though I’ve grown in my ability to be away from home — to be content and settled in my own life — going back reminds me what it feels like — what used to be eternally mine, and what I have been missing.”

So in this time of transition, as I find myself reflecting, once again, on what it means to have a home, to create a home, to be at home, especially when one is a 31-year-old, unmarried, globe-trotting nomad (as Christ once was before me), here is a liturgy for homesickness, and a reminder that the longing itself is its own kind of grace. Its own gift.

May it comfort and strengthen you, sojourners all, wherever you find yourselves on this journey. May you cast your eyes upon the One who has tabernacled with the wilderness-dwellers and built his tent among us.

Excerpted from “A Liturgy for an Inconsolable Homesickness” in Douglas Kaine McKelvey’s Every Moment Holy:

Let me steward well, Lord Christ,
this gift of homesickness–this grieving for a
childhood gone, this ache of distant family,
lost fellowship, past laughter, shared lives, and
the sense that I was somewhere I belonged.

It is a good, good thing to have a home.

But now that I have gone from it, let me steward
well, O God, this homesick gift, as I know my
wish for what has been is not some solitary
ache, but is woven with a deeper longing
for what will one day be.

This yearning to return to what I knew is,
even more than that, a yearning for a place
my eyes have yet to see.
O my soul, have there not always been signs?
O my soul, were we not born with hearts on
fire? Before we were old enough even to know
why songs and waves and starlight so stirred
us, had we not already tiptoed to the edge of
that vast sadness, bright and good, and felt
ourselves somehow stricken with a sickness
unto life? Hardly had we ventured from our
yards, when we felt ourselves so strangely far
from something–and somewhere that we
despaired of reaching–that we turned to
hide the welling in our eyes.

We knew it, even then, as the opening of a
wound this world cannot repair–
the first birthing of that weight
every soul must wake up to alone,
because it is the burden
of that wild and
lonely space that only
God in his eternity can fill.

That is the holy work of homesickness:
to teach our hearts how lonely
they have always been for God.

So let these sighs and tears, Lord Christ, prepare
me for that better gladness that will be mine.
Let all your children learn to grieve well in this
life, knowing we are not just being homesick;
we are letting sorrow carve
the spaces in our souls,
that joy will one day fill.
O Holy Spirit, bless our grief, and
seal our hearts until that day.

Footnotes

1. Though I believe this to be true, in a metaphysical sense, let us not forget the all-too tangible, tragic, and violent dispossession of almost 1% of the world’s population. “It is a good, good thing to have a home.” Let us care for the refugees in our midst.
2. As a single person, in a world where commitment and community are predicated upon marriage and family, this poses a complex quandary: for if home is a by-product (must be a by-product) of love exchanged — if home is a gift — then can we never experience it for ourselves? To be barred from home is a hard, hard thing to contemplate, and I think we must find new ways to give and receive that belonging — to practice hospitality — that redefine family along broader, more expansive lines.
3. This no longer holds quite the ache for me it once did, for surely God’s memory is the safest, most real place one can reside.

The Slow Goodbye

I mentioned, in my last post, that I have been practicing a slow goodbye. (To Kenya, to teaching, to this season of my life.) A discipline of taking time. Pausing at the threshold. Recognizing, and naming, the griefs of transition, the fears of loss.

Despite all the leavings of my life, I have never felt I know how to end well — how to grieve well. How to move my life — with all its threads of memory — from one place to another, and not feel somehow lessened by the process. A piece of me lost in transition, misplaced (with a pair of shoes here, a favorite book there) along the way.

When one is a global nomad, with a life that must fit in suitcases, one carries very little but one’s memories. And that is a heavy weight to bear alone — the sum of one’s life, in all its pieces and fragments. Oneself, all too often, the only connection between the disparate places and people that one loves.

And though my greatest longing has always been (and likely will always be) to rightly understand my life — to weave together the loose threads and create a coherent whole — I am learning that such a task may be too large for anyone but God. My role, it seems, not to grasp my life — with its frayed edges, misplaced elements, and empty corners — but to be grasped by it. To give myself up to wholehearted embrace. To saying “yes” to each journey, each sunrise, each moment, each breath. To living wholly alive.

And in that strange, paradoxical way life seems to function, it appears that being able to let go, to unclench one’s fist, to say goodbye, is rooted, not in self-protection, but in that fearless embrace. Being fully present, loving well, naming the gift, the key to trusting that this new journey — even with its accompanying goodbyes — is somehow also gift.

In the words of the Lady from C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, “We shall meet when [God] pleases…or if not, some greater good will happen to us instead” (78). “Every joy is beyond all others,” she tells us, and “the fruit we are eating is always the best fruit of all” (74).

So this season of transition — this last summer, which I chose to spend in Kenya, and the year that preceded it — has been for me, not a season of mourning (though grief and joy, it would seem, are often intermixed), but a season of gratitude.

Of mindful attention to the details of my life — the specific joys of this particular place, and the people (glorious, beautiful, so very much themselves) I have known within it.

And it has been sweet beyond the telling of it. Though I will never be able to list all the blessings of this past year — all that I am grateful for in this time of transition — here are a few of my lasts from this spring and summer, a few of the goodbyes (oh, how strange to say it!) for which I am thankful:

1. The first church I visited in Kenya was St. Julian’s, a small Anglican chapel nestled into the hills outside Nairobi. Though I loved the environment I found there, I opted for something closer, attending an international church in Nairobi for almost two years before eventually finding my way back to St. Julian’s. A mixture of Anglican practice (the ritual, beauty, and intentionality of the liturgy) with Quaker beliefs (the insistence that each person — each voice — has value, regardless of sex, age, or level of education), it is a place where my spirit has found room to breathe, to live, and to find itself at home. With no official clergy, it is a congregation that takes seriously the priesthood of all believers — a church (the first such I’ve ever actually attended) filled equally with the voices of women as the voices of men.1

It is also one of the most fearless faith communities I have ever been a part of — a congregation where questions and doubts are voiced, rather than silenced, and where the community gathers to worship, even as it wrestles together with grief, loss, and the very nature of faith, doubt, hope, and belief.

During Lent, I had the honor of being asked to speak, and, on March 18th, I gave my first ever homily (on themes similar to those I reflected on here).  As someone who has grown up in the church, and loved the church, but been so often silenced by the church, I’m not sure I can overstate the impact of the experience. Having my personhood (woman though I am) recognized and valued, my identity as a Christ-follower — child of God, joint-heir of the Son, image-bearer of the Divine — so explicitly acknowledged (not with lip-service, but with action) was powerfully healing.

A final gift from a community that has blessed me in innumerable ways over these past years. A benediction for my going.

2. I first visited Sunbird Lodge, on Lake Elementita (in the Great Rift Valley), during the fall of 2016 — while I was considering whether to stay in Kenya or leave. I had expected the weekend, which I’d set aside for reflection, to confirm my choice to renew my contract for another two years. Instead, it set in motion the beginnings of my transition away from teaching.

Thus, Sunbird has played a significant role in my current journey. And, more significantly, has become one of my favorite places in Kenya to be quiet, reflective, and restful. At the beginning of May, I managed to visit one last time. It was a grading weekend (my last!) and the perfect mixture of productive and restorative.  I spent the days marking poetry collections from the comfort of a hammock (which overlooked the flamingos on the lake’s distant shore) and the evenings fellowshipping with a dear friend who had accompanied me.

It was a lovely end (of sorts2) to four years of intense grading, a lovely beginning to my final month of teaching, and a glorious (if bittersweet) start to the process of goodbyes — the Rift Valley (as beautiful and green as I had ever seen it) with its lakes and its birds and its acacias and its memories.

3. Nothing, of course, has defined my experience in Kenya as much as Rosslyn itself — my classes, my students, my colleagues. Despite various end-of-the-year acknowledgements (a staff banquet in which speeches were given and pictures taken; an all-school assembly in which gifts were handed out), the true goodbye to this part of my life has been a cumulative process over weeks and months. A litany of lasts — both the large, obvious ones, and the smaller, no less significant ones3 — leading inexorably to a stack of graded finals, an empty classroom, and a pile of handwritten notes I shall always cherish.

What a journey it has been.

4. Despite its late introduction to my life, climbing (with its twice-a-week frequency) was a defining factor of this year for me — both in the joy I received from the activity itself, and for the community that came along with it.

If there’s been a crowing achievement of my bouldering thus far, it was probably Jam Rock — the spring climbing competition I allowed my friends to talk me into joining. Not only was it a highlight for the experience itself, but I also climbed the best I’ve ever climbed — either before or after (I guess adrenaline’s a real thing). I flashed problems I couldn’t even send in the weeks following the competition, and managed to catapult myself from V0 routes to V1+ in a single day.

I kept climbing consistently until the last week or so of the school year, when I inadvertently missed my last few chances due to other obligations. Thus, my conscious goodbye to Climb BlueSky was actually later in the summer, when I took visitors there in June. It was delightful to climb with my brother and sister-in-law — to introduce them to bouldering (such a significant part of my life this past year) and be introduced, in turn, to top-roping. A celebratory ending to my time in that gym (though not, I hope, to climbing in general).

5. My first trip to the Indian Ocean was during my first year in Kenya, when I spent spring break with some friends in a rented house a few hundred yards back from the Watamu beach. It wasn’t until the next year, however, when I visited the white sands of Diani, that I truly fell in love with the Kenyan coast. Since then, a semester hasn’t passed without at least one visit to the beach — or, occasionally, two or three.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to say goodbye to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean (that make even the Red Sea seem cold by comparison), or lazy days spent reading in the shadow of a baobab, or the warm, quiet breeze of coastal evenings. I am thankful, however, for every moment I was able to spend in that humid climate: my pulse slower, my limbs looser, my soul attuned to the rhythm of my body and not a clock’s demands. Thankful for the books I read under the waving palm trees (The Chronicles of Prydain, Annals of the Western Shore, and Lonesome Dove, among others), by the sparkling water.

And thankful that the spring contained, not one, but two final trips to that shore: over spring break, with the family of this incredible poet (and one-time student), and again when the chaos of the year had faded, and there was naught to do but process and write and rest.

The Coming
by Reid Carpenter

This is the way the sun comes up over the Indian Ocean:

A painting erupts
out of the long darkness
of a Kenyan night.
The clouds wait for the sun like
disciples who wait for the Coming.
They face due east, their edges slowly, slowly
turning white then orange with anticipation.

The birds, small white and black creatures,
flit over the low ocean, flipping and diving and flying as if
escaping a monster that has long since given up.

The sand — coarse and forgiving, “a pearly rubble” —
slopes down toward the ever reaching fingers of the waves.

The crabs scuttle back and forth, carefully
and methodically digging a temporary home for themselves,
knowing that the waves will come again and again.
Their eyes are attentive and their legs quick.

The palm trees lean toward the sea.
Always rejoicing, they offer their branches
in celebration.

The baobab tree stands in the shadow
of its own branches, the leaves dark green.
Grandparent of the ages, it is
playground and home to the monkeys.

What I’m saying is this:
We have been made as alive as the
ocean and clouds and sand and crabs
and palm trees and the baobab and monkeys.

You, too, are waiting.
You, too, belong here.

6. While my two most recent Thanksgiving breaks were spent in Diani, at the beach, my first Thanksgiving in Kenya was spent on safari. I was homesick, and tired — so, so ready for Christmas break — and the pavlova4 I’d baked to share at a neighbors’ Thanksgiving feast had not gone according to plan; I remember Skyping with my parents, in tears, the weight of life heavy on my spirit, convinced I should cancel the following day’s trip to the Mara. They, however, talked me into going, and I shall ever be thankful for their wisdom.

It was my first safari, and my first time at the Mara Naibosho Conservancy, and it felt like the trip of a lifetime — one of the most miraculous and worshipful experiences of my life (which I wrote about here).

Over the course of my time in Kenya, game drives were an experience I was blessed to repeat over and over again — in places like Samburu, Ol Pejeta, Tsavo, Amboseli, Nakuru, and, of course, the Nairobi National Park.

No matter where else I went, however, the crowning jewel was always Naibosho’s Encounter Mara — with its tented camp, its bush breakfasts, and its soul-piercing views of acacia trees against open savanna. Two summers ago, my parents and I repeated the experience (along with days at Ol Pejeta, Nakuru, and Mt. Kenya National Park), and this June I had the privilege of visiting one last time (thanks to the incredible generosity of my brother and sister-in-law) before saying goodbye to this country of roaming lions, gentle rhinos, parading elephants, towering giraffes, and elusive leopards.

7. If I had to name the one joy of my time at Rosslyn that has most impacted my daily life, it would have to be the beauty of the campus. The view of the open sky — and whirling kites5 — from both lower and upper fields; the thoughtful architecture with its embedded mosaics and hanging glass; the tall acacias and even taller Seussical trees; the flowers, blooming as they do every month of the year (though some of them — especially the trees — take turns adding their colors to the riot of campus verdancy); the armies of safari ants marching back and forth across the nature trail; the peaceful quiet of the prayer labyrinth at dusk. It is a campus laid out by artists, and upkept by hardworking, talented gardeners, and though I loved the small, quiet yard of my off-campus housing, I never regretted my choice, two years ago, to move onto the campus itself — the days I spent watching the sunrise from my porch, or enjoying the rainfall from my hammock, or experiencing the sunset as I huffed in circles around the track.

Like my goodbye to the school itself — my classroom and my classes — this particular farewell was conducted over weeks and months. Many lasts slipped in, slipped by, without me quite realizing what they were — the final afternoon spent reading in my hammock, the final run of the campus and neighborhood loop, the final sunrise viewed in reflected colors across the Rosslyn gorge, the final walk of nature trail and prayer labyrinth, the final time laying out my shuka to bask in sunlight on the lower field, the final morning spent wrapped in that shuka on the porch, reading, writing, drinking matcha, eating my yogurt and homemade granola. And, of course, the final time seeing the acacias of upper campus spread against an African sky.

The Acacia

The sun is bright
on the leaves of the acacia,
its bark like parchment,
smooth, yellow,
the secret green of living wood.

Does the Creator’s heart
stir like mine
with joy and longing
in the presence of this
masterpiece?
Did she bring me
here to love it?
Did she create it,
somehow, just for me?

Though I may not have realized, the last time each of these activities occurred, that it was the last time, I had a whole summer of days filled exclusively with these activities (with some mandatory sorting and packing on the side), and I am thankful.

8. Two week before my departure, I took eight of my last days for a silent retreat at the Mwangaza Jesuit Spirituality Centre in Karen. Following on my first such retreat by almost a year exactly, it was a powerful time of looking back at where I had been last August and where God has brought me since. It was a time of giving thanks and letting go — handing memories, fears, and hopes alike into the hands of the One who has never left me destitute.

Though I had been unsure of taking so much time, at such a critical moment, to withdraw and reflect, I think it was the single most important choice I made in the transition process, and I returned from the retreat with a spirit at rest, ready to engage my last week with a full and grateful heart.

9. If you asked me about my favorite activity in Kenya, I would probably tell you about camping. Escaping the city into the wondrous wild of this spectacular country. I’ve camped in Tsavo (where an acacia thorn pierced the sole of my shoe and embedded itself half-an-inch into my foot), and in Ol Pejeta (where I walked within meters of the smallest elephant I have ever seen — and its quite protective mother), and in Samburu (where our campfire attracted, rather than repelled, neighboring scorpions and elephants), and in the Ngare Ndare forest (where I jumped off waterfalls and caught glimpses of brightly hued turacos), and, of course, at Camp Carnelley’s in Naivasha (where I’ve eaten pizza with dozens of teenage girls during integrity retreats and survived a stampeding giraffe).

One of the longings of my heart was to camp one last time before leaving. To get out of the city with some of my dearest people — to enjoy time with them and with nature — to fellowship in the joy of God’s creation. My friends graciously humored me, and my final weekend in Kenya, right before students returned to classrooms and the school year officially began, six of us embarked for Carnelley’s campground one last time. With a full day and night at the lake (before returning to Nairobi for tattoos), we had hours of glorious conversation, sunlit naps, bird-sightings, photo-shoots by the water, good food, firelight, and s’mores.

Everything my heart had hoped for.

The Leaving Behind
by Reid Carpenter

Naivasha, Kenya. February 2017.

I sit watching the marsh plants and the
tree skeletons ‒ there is a
bird now resting on top of one, just
a silhouette (who can imagine its eyes?) ‒
and the white egrets, bright among the greens.

I am listening to the ibis cry loudly,
and the other birds whom I don’t know by name,
and now the bird on the skeleton tree
has flown away.

I am imagining his eyes ‒ wide, I
think, and bright and moving.

And I breathe deep enough that I
feel the very spin of the earth, the inevitable
movement, the passage of time, just an idea.

And as I sit, the world waking up,
I can only think of leaving.

What if I never had to cry goodbye to the
sacred ibis? What if I never had to leave
this bright existence, this bright life?

10. And, of course, there were a myriad of other “lasts” both large and small. My last birthday celebration in Kenya (and, simultaneously, last dinner at a favorite restaurant). Last Java House coffee and almond croissant. Last Stoney (which I first tasted after climbing Mt. Longonot for the first time during my first week in Kenya). Last Krest. Last fresh passion fruit juice. Last Domino’s delivery (no, I don’t buy Domino’s in America). Last time at Artcaffe. Last time at Village and the Maasai Market. Last time getting my legs waxed, at home, for under ten dollars. Last affordable massage and manicure/pedicure. Last walk down UN Avenue. Last meal at Habesha. Last walk through the school offices, the flag poles, the zone. Last goodbyes to friends, co-workers, and students.

So many places, and tastes, and experiences that — for four years — were the ordinary, everyday details of my life.

In the face of such bounty, what can one do but say, Alabanza?

Footnotes

1. A church where it is considered no more strange, on a given Sunday, for the liturgist, homilist, and readers all to be women than it would be, in most churches, for the opposite to be true.
2. There was still plenty of grading for the month of May, but those were the last of the large written assignments for year.
3. A few of those lasts include: my last chance to watch a Rosslyn production (In the Heights, the spring musical); being asked to speak in chapel one last time (representing singleness on a panel about relationships); praying with my last AP Lang class before they sat for their exam; addressing seniors on the topic of consent (my last chance to speak into their lives); my last Roscars and Award Ceremony; being given the honor of presenting the Eagle Award; graduation parties; graduation; and all the final conversations, classes, hugs, smiles, laughter, and tears.
4. Pavlova has always traditional at our family’s Thanksgivings — thanks to a dear Australian family friend.
5. The birds of prey — not the flying toys.

 

The Setting Out (and the Letting Go)

I would apologize for all the Perelandra quotes in the footnotes — except it’s the most powerful book I know on the subject of embracing gratitude in the face of the unknown. So I guess I’m not actually sorry.   

Almost exactly two weeks ago, on the first day of the Rosslyn school year, while my (former?) colleagues welcomed students back to their classrooms and worked to set the groundwork for the year ahead, I walked in Karura Forest one last time, processing endings and beginnings, and the 31 years I have now spent on this planet (four of those years, and five of those birthdays, having been lived, and celebrated, in Kenya).

Two days later, I ate my last Ethiopian meal, gave my last hugs, and got on a plane bound for all that comes next.

As I have written elsewhere, I am not good at goodbyes. Not good at endings. Not good at letting go of the things, the places, and the people that I love. Not good at holding the tension of the eternal and the temporal.

At reconciling meaning with brevity.

Which is one of the reasons I have taken so long with this particular goodbye. This “so long” to a community, a place, and, it seems, a profession. This letting go — in some ways — of the first third of my life.1 Of this particular story arc, with its heartbreaks, lessons, losses, and joys.

And so we circle back around — back to what feels, in many ways, like the beginning. Back to the precipice of the unknown. Of looking out at the mystery of one’s life, and wondering what could possibly lie ahead.

But, of course, we are not quite who we were the last time we were here. Like Santiago,2 finding his treasure at last beneath his very own sycamore tree, or Gilgamesh,3 returning to the walls of his city, the journey itself, circular though it may be, has changed us — more, perhaps, than even we know. As with Santiago and Gilgamesh, perhaps we are now capable of finding the treasure that was always before our eyes (or beneath our feet) because the journey itself (and all we have encountered along the way) has taught us to see our world anew. (And at least a little bit more truly.)

Has taught us to find beauty and meaning in the world around us — in sunsets, and deserts, and cities, and art, but also in mortality and suffering and distance and loneliness and tears.

Maybe we’ve learned how to find traces of God with us, here, at this moment. Whatever this moment may contain. Maybe the words of the Catholic mass have become engraved upon our hearts, proclaiming “it is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,4 always and everywhere to give You thanks, Lord, holy Father, creator of the world and source of all life.”

Maybe we’ve learned to let go a little more. Trust a little more. Be human a little more. Be loved a little more.

Maybe we’ve learned something of grace.

And so, as I face my thirties, knowing little of what comes next, I am not afraid. And though I recognize that girl I was in my early twenties, so desperate for life to mean something, for the picture to cohere, for the story to make sense — she also is not me. And I am thankful that I am no longer (quite fully) her.

Yes, she is younger, with more potential, more drive, more certainty in her vision of the world and its requirements of her — more expectations of herself and of life.

But I think I am more patient, more self-aware, more at peace, and more dependent upon the God who is not me.5

Walk Cheerfully

My newest tattoo, in honor of my birthday, transition, and my favorite George Fox quote: “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone.”

I think my palms are open wider to whatever good God may choose to place within them.6 My heart more attuned to the gift. My soul more fully submitted to a journey I may never wholly understand.

And so I set out, once more, upon these winding paths of life. More vulnerable, less certain; more brave, less armored. I set out, seeking to walk cheerfully, to walk courageously, to walk humbly, to walk gracefully, to walk wholeheartedly. To walk with my hands wide open.7

I set out, trusting that — in the words of Julian of Norwich — “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” and that the power of an unearned grace shall sanctify every moment of this precious, precarious life.

May I never forget what a miracle it is to be alive.

Footnotes

1. At least conceptually. Who knows how many years any of us might actually have upon this globe.
2. From The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (one of the required reads of Rosslyn’s 10th grade Global Literature curriculum).
3. From the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of my very favorite texts to teach.
4. As C.S. Lewis demonstrates in his beautiful and wise Perelandra, it is within our ability to reject the gift, and thus reject our own joy: “One joy was expected and another is given….The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished…you could keep it there. You could send your soul after the good you had expected, instead of the turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other.” (61)
5. “But how can one wish any of those waves not to reach us which [God] is rolling towards us?” (60)
6. “The best fruits are plucked for each by some hand that is not [their] own.” (Perelandra 194)
7. “‘I thought,’ she said, ‘that I was carried in the will of Him I love, but now I see that I walk in it. I thought that the good things He sent me drew me into them as the waves lift the islands; but now I see that it is I who plunge into them with my own legs and arms….It is delight with terror in it! One’s own self to be walking from one good to another, walking beside Him as Himself may walk, not even holding hands….I thought we went along paths–but it seems there are no paths. The going itself is the path.'” (Perelandra 62)

A Year in Review (2017)

Last year, I ushered in the new year outside the Jordanian airport where my family had gathered to see my brother and I off on our Mt. Kenya adventure. We toasted the year  and each other (drinking fruit punch from plastic cups), then hugged and kissed, said our farewells, and headed our separate directions.

I don’t think any of us (maybe not even my brother and sister-in-law) would have imagined that we would be gathered, exactly one year later, on the Californian coast (just south of Santa Cruz), to ring out the old while celebrating a new life in our midst.

My nephew is the first Magnuson of his generation, and, needless to say, we are all delighted by his presence.

In between those two midnights were 365 days of laughter, exhaustion, learning, joy, struggle, and life (in all its messiness, beauty, fragility, and pain). If I were to sum up this past year, and the growth that occurred within it, I would say it has been one of God calling me further into the person I am. A year of growing in confidence and self-awareness. Of shedding baggage and growing hopeful in the face of what might yet still be. I’m no more sure of what the future has in store than I have ever been, but I am learning once again to trust the journey, the wilderness wandering, the God who calls us out upon the waters and names that which is not as though it were.

Here are 17 highlights from 2017:

1. I climbed Mount Kenya. This is something I’ve been wanting to do since first moving to Kenya, and getting to do it with my brother was an incredible joy. I know that Kilimanjaro is the more famous of the two mountains, but everyone I know who’s climbed both claims Kenya as the more beautiful of the two. And it was utterly breathtaking.

If 2017 was a year of slowing down, this climb set the pace.

We did the longest, most scenic route (going up Chogoria and down Naro Moru) and took five days for the total climb. And yes, we did it the Kenyan way (which might mean the British, colonialist way). Guide, cook, porters, and afternoon tea included.  

2. I got a tattoo. Ever since reading The Tattooed Map, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of mapping one’s life onto one’s body. Obviously this happens, in some senses, regardless of our intent: our bodies bear the marks of living. But as a global nomad, who leaves so much of myself behind in any given place (yet with so little evidence beyond footprints in the sand), there is something comforting (and holy, it seems to me) about carrying a physical representation of my journey. I want to be marked by the countries I have loved and the memories I have stored. Marked unambiguously and evidently — a harmony between external and internal reality.

My birds are for Kenya, and they are for hope. They are for the freedom of flight — of life well lived — and for the faithfulness of the One who sends the winds and names the sparrows. They are a yes to the open skies of my journey.

3. I paid off my student loans. Six years post-Oxford, and I am once again debt free. I’m rather proud of this fact — especially since I was either on a volunteer stipend or working two minimum wage, part-time jobs for half of that time.

4. I spoke at graduation. This was a big deal for me. A very big deal. I actually cried (mostly from terror) when I received the official invitation. But it was also a huge honor and the beginning of a year-long process of closure on my time here at Rosslyn.

The class of 2017 was my first group of sophomores and my first AP Langers . . . the class I sponsored . . . went on CFSes with . . . chaperoned on serve days. In many ways they defined my Rosslyn experience. And it was a joy to get to say thank you — and goodbye.

You can read my speech here or listen to it here.

5. I chose to be brave and take action. For the first time in my life, I asked a guy out.

6. I went Skydiving with my beautiful family for my father’s 60th birthday. It was a surprise (for him, not for us) and can best be summed up, perhaps, by my mother’s comment upon landing: “That was so worshipful!”

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7. I ran a half-marathon. With my dad, for our 30th and 60th birthdays. This only became a goal of mine — or even a thought in my head — fall of ’16 when I went out one night and inexplicably ran seven miles without stopping (the longest I had ever run in my life). Following that run, I started taking the whole process more seriously (even competing as part of a triathlon relay team here in Kenya), but the greatest joy (besides watching the miles accumulate) was getting to share the experience with my father, a dedicated long-distance runner and one of my all-time heroes.

8. I took time. Chose to follow through on what I’ve learned about my needs for space and stillness and quiet and solitude. For the inner journey and the still, small voice.

In part, this looked liked mornings on my porch, watching the sun rise, listening to the ibis call, and reading words to set the world aflame.

In part, this was the choice to take a train from MN to OR this summer, letting the country move by at a pace I could feel, see, and understand. Taking time to let here become there. 

In part, it was three days spent at Mt. Angel Abbey, walking the grounds, attending the prayers, breathing in the roses, reading my books.

In part, it was a coast walk with my brother. A day and a half where the world receded (grew?) to the size of a beach, and an ocean, and the sky, and each other.

And, in part, it was eight days spent in silence at the Mwangaza Jesuit Retreat Centre, tracing the prayer labyrinth, walking the trails, meeting the birds and the dik-dik and the snails, watching the sun recede against an acacia-strewn sky — letting my soul grow quiet, and empty, and present, as the moment grew holy, and full, and mine.

9. I attended my college-bestie’s marriage celebration and got to reconnect with many precious faces. It felt like the culmination of something significant. We’re no longer the children we were — and our lives have gone in many different directions — yet the years I spent in close proximity to those laughs, those faces, those bright inquiring minds, shaped the person I have become in a million traceable and untraceable ways. They sojourned with me through hard, important years, and I am thankful beyond the telling of it.

10. I turned 30. Did so amid candlelight and prayer. Surrounded by women of faith, their blessings poured out like anointing oil.

11. I got a smartphone. I’m not sure this was a highlight, per se, but it does mark a turning point in my life. I turned 30 and I entered the 21st century.

12. I was (I am) a teacher. This school year is (rather inexplicably) my 7th year teaching. Three schools, three age-levels (middle, high, college), and almost a decade later . . . and I think I am finally realizing — finally able to admit — that teaching is not just something I do. A job I stumbled into for a while; a place-holder for other things. It is, rather, a part of who I am.

I think I am also realizing what that actually means: being a teacher. Both the joys and the responsibilities of it. And it isn’t about the grading, or the “great” lesson planning, or even, exactly, my passion for words and meaning. Rather, it’s about my students and the practice of hospitality. About seeking to be present, seeking to listen, seeking to create space for encounter — for tears and rants, frustrations and conversations.

It’s about offering my few small loaves and fish, and trusting a God who is so much bigger than me.

I never expected the trust I have been given. Never expected to be allowed into my students’ lives and pain, uncertainty and fear, in quite the way I have been. What an honor — what a privilege — what an awesome responsibility — this job entails. What a holy calling. What a powerful trust.

If this year has taught me anything, it’s that I’m here for my students. End of story.

The irony, of course, is that I’m also leaving. But I always sensed God brought me to teaching — at least in part — to cure (or at least break down) my terribly enslaving perfectionism. Maybe I’ve finally learned something of my lesson: I’m not really here to do more than be myself (in the context of seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God). And in God’s grace, maybe that’s enough.

Though there have certainly been academic joys this past year (teaching AP Lang remains a significant one), most of my teaching highlights have little to do with the classroom: over the course of the year I chaperoned two CFSes (both with seniors, both into Maasai land), one senior trip (a week spent with seniors in Watamu on Kenya’s coast), and multiple school events (HS retreats, leadership retreats, HS dances, bonfire nights, serve days, integrity retreats, etc.); I co-lead a Covenant Group for 10th/11th grade girls, met with students over breakfast and lunch, coached seniors working on their college application essays, and helped host a post-chapel discipleship group; I had conversations on every imaginable topic in every imaginable setting, and had the honor of praying with students whenever feasibly possible.

Not to mention that I got to watch some pretty amazing theatre.

climbing13. I started climbing. I’ve already posted a little about this, but 2017 marked my long overdue discovery of rock climbing. Though I’ve never been athletic in a traditional sense (due, at least in part, to poor eyesight and growing up in nations where girls don’t play sports) I’m beginning to realize that physical activity has always been an important part of my identity. Whether it be ballet classes in Cairo studios, crewing on the river Isis, 20-mile hikes in the Lake District, or — more recently — running through the suburbs of Nairobi, physical exertion (of the non-competitive variety) has almost always played a significant role in my life. A form of meditation — a way of practicing presence. An important process of re-embodiment that, as a 5 on the Enneagram, I sorely need.

I get lost in my head a lot. But it’s fully embodied, fully present, that I’m most at peace.

14. I pursued life. This took many forms, large and small: cutting back to part-time for the 2017-18 school year; taking an art class for the first time since 8th grade; consistent involvement in a small group bible study; choosing to say yes to community; choosing to say no when necessary; choosing to voice my fears, struggles, and needs; choosing to give myself grace for the bad days, the overwhelmed days, the tired days; choosing to fight my all or nothing mentality; choosing to recommit to healthy habits no matter how many times I’d broken my streak.  But one of the most significant and pro-active forms it took was regularly attending counselling with a local therapist.

15. I traveled Kenya. Returning to places I already loved, and exploring places I had yet to discover. Some highlights were camping in Samburu (where I definitely saw a leopard with her cub, was almost stung by a scorpion, and had to share a campsite with an elephant), spring break at L’ol Dacha (which ranks among the most remote and beautiful places I have ever stayed), finally making it to Crescent Island (with Rosslyn paying the entrance fee), the Menengai Crater with Mindy (where I did nothing but read and sleep), CFSes in Olepishet and Kimana (hunting with the Maasai and standing in the shadow of Kiliminjaro, respectively), camping at Carnelley’s (with and without students), a girls’ weekend to Sunbird Lodge on Lake Elementita, an annual trip to the Aberdare fishing lodges, and four distinct trips to the coast (twice to Watamu, twice to Diani).

16. I wrote. Sometimes 1,000-words-a-day, sometimes 250-words-a-day, sometimes not at all; sometimes poetry, sometimes fiction, sometimes something else altogether; sometimes sporadically (one day out of thirty, if that), sometimes consistently (every day for more than two months); sometimes stream of consciousness, sometimes every word chosen intentionally; sometimes writing I loved, sometimes writing I hated, and sometimes writing I simply forgot. But altogether, I finished the first draft of one more novel, and wrote somewhere in the vicinity of 83,000 words (that I bothered to record). Not quite an average of 250-words-a-day, but almost.

17. I became an aunt. The status of every member of my family changed — irrevocably — in November. I’m something I wasn’t before. More than turning 30, more than deciding to change careers, more than climbing mountains or accomplishing goals or getting tattoos, this was the moment of transformation, when everything shifted. Whatever else my life entails from this moment on, loving this little person is going to be part of it.

Magnus

 

Five Manifestations of Joy

Yes, yes, I’m aware that it’s December. And yes, I am aware I haven’t written since the spring.

There have been some significant life developments since then: For one, I went skydiving. For another, I turned thirty. I also ran a half marathon, spent a week in silence at a Jesuit retreat center, took my first art class since the 8th grade, and decided not to renew my contract. Oh, and I got a tattoo.

So yeah, some changes in the air.

I hope to revisit some (many?) of those topics in the future, but this post isn’t about any of that. Instead, it’s about November, and giving thanks, and the places in my life where I am finding joy (ordinary, beautiful, life-sustaining) at this particular moment in time. So here are five snapshots of my life right now.

1. NaNoWriMo

I spent most of November writing. Or, if not writing, thinking about writing.

Some of you may be aware that November is National Novel Writing Month. When one falls off the writing-wagon, there’s nothing quite like this particular challenge to whip one back into shape. I spent October trying to warm up for the endeavor, following a former professor’s advice to write at least 250 words a day. Even that felt like a challenge (though there was some unexpected poetry to show for it).

I have to admit that while I have won NaNoWriMo on my own (the year I spent in the U.K.’s Lake District), I have only undertaken the challenge, while teaching, as part of a co-writing endeavor with one of my close friends. This November was our third such undertaking, and our third successful completion. While sharing the burden may sound like a cop-out, and is certainly less impressive than writing 50,000 words individually, if you think writing a minimum of 1,000 words a day, while teaching full time, is easy, then I invite you to try it.

The discipline of daily writing is alternatively exhilarating and mind-numbingly frustrating (not to mention exhausting), but also consistently satisfying. And I’m reminded, whenever I undertake it, that stringing words together into sentences and paragraphs seems (even now) to be a central part of who I am. Of what brings me to life and gives me joy. I still don’t know if I really have anything to say — any words of beauty or truth to lighten the darkness or bless others on their way. But exploring the possibilities of language and story certainly lightens my darkness and blesses me on my journey, and, for now, that will need to be enough.

2. Climbing

I think fall 2017 may always be associated in my mind with the discovery of rock climbing.

I’ve had a free membership to a climbing gym, here in Nairobi, for the past two years, and always meant to give it a try. Realizing I was leaving at the end of the year finally forced me into action. I have several friends who climb regularly, so I started inviting myself along, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it’s been life-transforming.

I have a long history of struggling with stress and anxiety, and learning to care for my mental health has become a top priority these past few years. Exercise is, of course, an important (and effective) way to combat stress, which was a significant motivation for becoming more serious about my running last year. However, as an over-thinker, running still leaves quite a lot of room for mental noise, and quieting my mind is a consistent battle (one I rarely win).

Climbing, however, leaves no room for noise: it requires my complete presence, both physical and mental, on the climbing wall. (Looking back, I wonder if this is one reason ballet played so significant a role during my teenage years and why I was willing to give up sleep to row while I was at Oxford.) Climbing is exercise, but it is also meditation. And since I go with friends, and one has to rest between routes, it also provides room for community.

Needless to say, I am loving it.

3. Community

I grew up in a family that deeply valued community. I shared my room, off and on, with young women who lived with us for months or years at a time, and my parents modeled what it meant to share life with others — to work, minister, and play together, to rejoice and mourn, learn and grow.

Community is probably one of my deepest longings and highest values — and one of the central reasons I find teaching so difficult.  As a single adult (now in my thirties), community is not forced upon me by the demands of family, rather I have to seek it out, cultivate it, choose it. And this takes effort and time (not to mention energy) — all of which teaching leaves me little by way of reserves. Learning how to cultivate balance — how to leave room for life, and not just work — has been another ongoing battle, and while I’ll never claim to have mastered the struggle (in fact, my choice to move away from teaching next year is due — in large part — to not having mastered the struggle), this has been a year of growing in my sense of belonging. Of knowing and being known. Mostly due to my awesome Bible study group and Netflix’s Stranger Things. (If you want to know how Stranger Things can help cultivate community, I suggest you make some food, get some drinks, light some candles, and invite over some friends to watch the show. Repeat the process once or twice a week until you’ve successfully consumed both seasons in each other’s company.)

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My lovely Bible study ladies at Sunbird Lodge on Lake Elementaita.

4. Students

I struggled intensely last fall over the decision of whether or not to renew my contract for another two years. I finally compromised by negotiating a one year contract, and if this year has done anything, it has confirmed, over and over and over again, that I am meant to be here, at this time, for these students.

Students who brighten my life, every day, in a million tangible and intangible ways. And sometimes bring me poems, just because.

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5. Magnus Joy

This, right here, is my nephew, born November 21st. Need I say more?

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2016 in Review

This is usually the point in the year at which I post highlights of the 2016-17 school year, or, at the very least, spring semester. Instead, I’m going to post my woefully late summary of 2016.

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2016 was a year of running and teaching, of travel and beauty; a year of visiting and being visited.

This is, by no means, an exhaustive summary of my year, but just a few of the highlights.

  1. I kissed a giraffe (and I liked it :)).  After two years, finally made it to the Nairobi elephant orphanage and giraffe center.
  2. I visited the Nairobi National Park (twice).
  3. I went to Amboseli.  While there I saw numerous cheetahs, lions, elephants, hippos, and birds, but the highlight was Mt. Kilimanjaro, in all its glory.amboseli-226
  4. I discovered the white sand, blue sea, tropical paradise that is Diani.  Spent both my spring and fall breaks swimming and reading, each time in the company of a different friend (one old, one new), and sipping all-inclusive cappuccinos and icy refreshments (when they weren’t stolen by the monkeys).
  5. I hosted several visitors — my parents, my cousin, my sister-in-law’s sister, and one of my closest childhood friends.  In the process I got to explore Nairobi, tick some adventures off my bucket-list, and grow more comfortable in the role of travel agent and tour guide.
  6. I finally made it to Hell’s Gate.  And Lake Naivasha. And watched baby hippos roll off their mammas’ backs.
  7. I hiked in Karen Blixen’s Ngong Hills.
  8. I re-visited Mt. Longonot.
  9. Safari with Mommy and Baba 747I took a five day safari with my parents. Visited Encounter Mara, Nakuru, Sweetwaters, and Mountain Lodge. With a stop at Trout Tree along the way. Saw two leopards and a myriad of everything else — including rhinos (both black and white), tree and rock hyraxes, and so many birds. Such a privilege to share such awe-inspiring beauty with those who first taught me to encounter the Creator within the majesty of God’s creation.
  10. I switched from coffee to green tea.  This was a desperate sacrifice born of necessity, and I still drink (decaf) coffee on the weekends, at coffee shops, to get me through my grading (and sometimes when I’m on break), but, in general, my brain is happier, and I’ve grown to love green tea in its own right.  garden 013(There’s nothing quite like sitting on one’s porch, at sunrise, wrapped in one’s shuka, watching the sacred ibis fly, sipping a pot of tea.)
  11. I moved on-campus after two years living in a small garden compound down the street.  I still miss the garden, but the transition was a good one, if for no other reason than I can now use the track to run after dark.
  12. I completed my first year of teaching AP English Language and Composition.  Despite the workload, a joy and a delight.  And rather a success, given the 100% pass-rate my students pulled off on the AP exam.
  13. 13524453_1145049805536734_6937956456801176815_nI got to spend my summer visiting faces I love — attending a cousin’s graduation party, meeting another cousin’s girlfriend (now fiance), hiking with a friend in Colorado, visiting another dear friend in Washington, hanging with the sibs in Oregon (missing the one who was working in Alaska), and experiencing my college roommate’s new life in California.
  14. I attended an AP Summer Institute and earned my first graduate credit in education.
  15. I co-taught a class on my favorite fantasy writers (called “Christianity and the Fantastic”) with a fellow George Fox grad who is both a colleague and a friend.  We first met in a “C.S. Lewis and the Bible” class (ten years ago this spring) so it felt a little like coming full circle.
  16. I ran seven miles . . . in one stretch.  Without really intending to.  I guess I’m a runner now?
  17. 14352438_10155047473025400_6506605762933148858_o (1)I took my 2nd annual trip to the Aberdares.  A trip that involved friends, books, fires, warm blankets, and lots of good food.
  18. I transitioned/am transitioning to contacts.  Though I’ve worn glasses since 8th grade, I’ve never liked them.  Never felt that they were me.  And though I still don’t relish sticking my fingers in my eyes, my childhood eye-phobia has dissipated enough to allow the experiment to be a success.  I made the choice for aesthetic purposes, never expecting to love the change this much — but not having frames in my line of vision?  Bliss.
  19. I took a silent retreat at Lake Elementaita.
  20. I renewed my contract and committed to at least one more year on this continent, in this country, at this school.
  21. I started going to counselling.  Trying to work through nearly three decades of accumulated loss.  And while it’s hard to know where this path will lead, I think it’s at least a step in the right direction.
  22. I became an auntie. No, not by blood, but we all know that family is created of more than genetic material.  And the Neufelds (and Neufeld-Pierces) are family.
  23. 15591250_842527836284_3309746140961268259_oI went running with my father.  And though, at twice my age, he outdistances me in every way possible, I have something to aspire to.  To work towards.
  24. I went camping in Wadi Rum.  Slept under the stars.  Ran through the desert.  Experienced the peace and beauty of one of my favorite places on earth.
  25. I spent Christmas at home, in Jordan, with all my siblings, all my sisters-in-law, and all my pseudo-siblings (and my new niece =)).  There were many hugs to be had, many games to be played, many traditions to be upheld, many delicious foods to be eaten, and much merry-making all-around.  Joy-filled, delightful, so, so right.

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And here are five goals to be accomplished before I turn 30:

  1. Climb Mt. Kenya.  (I did, and it was spectacular.)
  2. Pay off my Oxford loans. (I emptied out my savings account at the end of February, and am now officially debt free.)
  3. Get a tattoo.  (It’s healing as we speak.)
  4. Run a half marathon.  With my dad. In honor of our 60th and 30th birthdays. And the fact I’ll be exactly half his age. (It’s scheduled for the 9th of July, in OR.)
  5. Go on a spiritual retreat.  At an abbey, or a monastery, or a convent . . . you get the idea. (I actually have two booked for this summer — one in Oregon and one here in Kenya.)

This Is [Not] The End

sunghee and majdIt hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I’ve hugged, and hugged, and hugged, and hugged these seniors. And yet, I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that this was truly it. Today, their last day on the Rosslyn campus. Tomorrow, spreading across the world on grand, beautiful adventures.

It dawned on me today that my entire experience of Rosslyn has been shaped by them. I’ve never known this school without them in it. Never known my classroom except as a place they wander by, periodically, and call out, “Hello, Ms. Magnuson!” in bright, cheerful voices (and perhaps pause to read a poem or two).

The tears today, shed by seniors, teachers, and underclassmen alike, are a testimony to the incredible impact this class has had — the legacy they are leaving behind. They have loved well, they have cared deeply, they have invested freely — and they are ready to go forth and bless the nations.

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We spend weeks (months? years?) building up to this moment, yet it always seems to arrive too soon. No matter how intentionally one tries to mark the threshold, honor the moment, one’s attempts always seem insufficient. I will never have words that are big enough for these goodbyes.

Grief, I’ve learned, is really love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go. -Jamie Anderson

As I sit in the gathering dusk of a closing school year, surrounded by notes of gratitude and appreciation, there are no words left, only the ache of anticipated loss, and the simultaneous recognition that I have been blessed indeed.

A Year in Poetry

Once again, I tried to write a reflection on the year. This was what came instead.
 
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-T.S. Eliot from “Little Gidding”

So, I realize we’re already into March and this post was rather pathetically long in coming.

But here’s the thing: 2017 has already been a rather eventful year.  Besides the requisite teaching and grading (rather time-consuming in their own right), I’ve climbed the second-tallest mountain on the continent, gone hunting with the Maasai (no lie), and, just a few weeks ago, been stampeded by a giraffe (while camping with some students during an integrity retreat).  It turns out I really do live in Africa.

2017 is the year I turn thirty, and while I’m trying to downplay this benchmark in my life, the reality is I’m a bit scared.

I know this is how everyone feels, but I’m just not quite sure where the time has gone. And the past decade of my life has certainly been rather different than I anticipated. These last few years it’s been hard to balance what is against what is not, to measure reality against once-upon-a-time expectations and potentials.

In my mid-twenties, a lot of my friends had the same questions I did — questions about meaning and purpose and the point of the narrative. But, for most of them, those questions seem to have slowly found answers, while I, at thirty — after living in 7 countries, teaching for 6 years, attending university and grad school, etc., etc. — seem destined to be exactly where I started (asking the same questions, pondering the same mysteries).

I have always been a lover of story, rather than a lover of poetry.  A lover of the journey that reaches its destination; the sacrifices proven to have meaning in the end; the narrative where no piece, no thread, is ultimately wasted or left without purpose.  These days, however, while I struggle to identify, in the jagged edges of my life, what my story is and where it lies — the narrative thread that will grant meaning to the losses and significance to the joys — poetry reminds me that even when the narrative is unclear, the moment remains sacred. Reminds me that as long as there is breath in my lungs, I stand on the holy ground of existence. Reminds me that “acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” does not require a story arc I recognize; nor does prayer, worship, or the act of loving my neighbor, all of which only require that I commit to holistic presence in this moment. And this one.

Poetry demonstrates that when we commit to paying attention — to truly seeing the world that surrounds us — we become alchemists, capable of transforming lead into gold and the mundane into miracle.

We learn to call forth — to recognize — the beauty inherent in each moment.  A beauty that exists, not because the moment has a role to play in some grand narrative (though perhaps it does), but simply because the moment is. And in that moment — in that existence — the I AM is present.

In the beginning God created, and it was good. A theologian friend of mine spent much of last year impressing upon me the significance of the goodness of creation. That the very existence of that which is bears (no matter how distorted) the sacred holiness of being.

Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

-Mary Oliver

I have spent much of recent months lamenting what is not. Grieving the losses of my nomadic, transient life. And while that has had its place — has been healthy and necessary — it is time, I think, to remember what is.  Time to see, not the negative space of all that has been taken (the Israelites in the desert, calling out for a return to Egypt), but the shape of all that remains, all that has been given.  All that was. Even if it is no more.

In her poem “Burning the Old Year,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes,”So much of any year is flammable . . . so little is a stone.” She’s right of course, but it’s hard for me to understand how she can celebrate that fact: “Where there was something and suddenly isn’t, / an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space. / I begin again with the smallest numbers.”

Unlike Nye, I do not want to burn the old year, do not want to leave a vacancy where once there was a fullness. Do not want to let go of the old so the new may have space to grow. Rather, I want to create stones out of my fragile, flammable minutes. Want to transform the transitory into the permanent. Want to build a temple of my life: for how else will I know the presence of the living God? But I am reminded that the God of Moses was a God who tabernacled in the midst of his people, a God who dwelt with them in a tent — a God who traveled. And Jesus declares in Luke, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

I am reminded that too many stones weigh down a life, and that one needs both stone and flame if one is to offer a burnt offering to the living God.

And so, in the spirit of celebrating what is and what was, here are my “few words,” un-elaborate and patched together, not from 2016 (as I originally planned), but from the last 29 years of life — my “doorway / into thanks.” I do not know which of my moments will prove to be stone, and which flame — which will build themselves into the story of my life, and which are, even now, sparking upward as a glorious moment in time, beautiful and brief — but I do know that this life I am living is sacred, because it is. This is the place I am — the place God has met me, the place God will meet me, the place where stone and fire meet on the altar of worship.

I have lived in the Lake District and in Oxford, in Kenya and in Cairo. I’ve seen the pyramids and the Pietà, Petra and Big Ben. I’ve called three continents home. I’ve danced, I’ve acted, I’ve even sung. I’ve studied art, I’ve read classics, I’ve directed, I’ve taught Shakespeare. I’ve ridden camels and elephants, kissed giraffes, owned dogs and a few cats. I’ve gone on a cruise and a few safaris — I’ve scuba dived and snorkeled and climbed mountains. I am a cousin and a sister, a sister-in-law and a daughter. I’ve been in love and I’ve been kissed and I’ve had friends who’ve shaped and molded who I am — friends who’ve walked important sections of this journey with me. And I may be single, but I have never been alone, not truly. And I have been saturated with beauty — the Sahara, the Mediterranean, the fells, the African sky. I have dreamed the dream of dreaming spires and northern lakes, and seen those dreams come true. I have written words, and read words, and watched the hours slip by in silence and wonder and awe.

What a blessed life I have lived. What an existence I have known. 


In part inspired by an AP Lang prompt on the role and significance of poetry.