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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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)

On Failing to Accomplish Work

Wednesday, Dec. 6th. 

No, I accomplished no work today.
Other than a handful of blogposts graded,
a handful of comments typed,
a single class taught.

I accomplished no work today.
Despite the proximity of finals,
the growing pile of ungraded projects
making their home upon my desk,
the dwindling number of days
in which to complete these necessary
tasks.

I accomplished no work today.
But I sat with one student while she cried
and another while she talked.
And I wonder what Mr. E. thinks
of this new habit his students have acquired:
skipping 6th period (who needs AP Lit,
anyway?) to come lie on my floor and stare
at my ceiling and let their grief — frustration —
anger — pool into puddles by their feet.

I accomplished no work today.
But I attended a recital
in which a former student made
her violin sing as though it were an angel,
and I partook of tea and Christmas
cheer, and spoke to a colleague
at some length, and braved the art
studio for all of 30 minutes, and ran
3.14 miles (another half hour conquered),
and wrote my daily words.

I accomplished no work today.
But I am sitting on my couch,
in an apartment all my own, drinking
krest from a handmade glass,
and eating the remnants of an
Ethiopian feast (shared this weekend
among friends).

I accomplished no work today,
or yesterday, or — lets be honest —
in a while. And my hope for tomorrow
isn’t very high. But I climbed this week,
and maintained my 750 streak,
and watched Survivor, and slept
barely any hours, and shared a devotion
with my bosses, and hosted
my Covenant group girls, and prayed
with students, and Skyped my cousin,
and lived my small piece
of a large and messy life.

End of the Year Haikus

It’s that time of year everyone is waiting for.  When I force my students to sum up their learning in well-formulated (or not so well formulated) haikus.

While I’m wading through this year’s exams, I thought I would give you some of the highlights from last year:

Life of Pi

Stuck on a life boat
with a tiger, for a year.
But guess what? He lived. -B.A.

In the lifeboat there
was one boy and one tiger
hungry to survive. -K.L.

Tiger and Pi. Boat.
Death swirling like a black bird.
Peace is kept. Life wins. -D.F.

A boy in a boat
Accompanied by his God(s)
And a large tiger -N.J.

Things Fall Apart

A culture crumbles:
The will of a “loving” God;
a man can’t stand it. -M.M.

He was a strong man
But he resided in fear
Destruction followed -Y.K.

Valiant we stand
Together unbreakable
They betray; I die. -K.G.

The Mission

The Lord is the light,
that’s on top of the darkness,
to light up the world. -K.N.

The Alchemist

I march to Egypt.
The treasure lies before me.
Wait, no, it’s back home. -J.T.

A shepherd no more
for dreams called him into a
golden world of love. -C.M.

Treasure can be found
If we travel great distances
We will find it there -A. H.

He dreamt of treasure,
Adventure. He searched for Gold
And found destiny. -C.M.

Personification and Hyperbole

My shoe attacked me.
It was like a mad falcon
falling off that shelf. -B.A.

The oceans roared and
Pi felt his whole world drowning
in the deep blue sea. -R.H.

The frozen drops dance
in the wind, then fall on me
smashing me apart. -M.F.

The chair talked to me
as I sat down. He said, “You
weigh a thousand pounds.” -K.L.

The sea receded.
The wave rose like a giant–
And then face planted. -Y.K.

This test is eating
me alive. My brain is mush.
Oh! What will I do! -C.G.

I have never felt
fear like this. The paper stares
at me with malice. -C.M.

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.

Graduation 045

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.

How Does One Say Goodbye?

This is, in part, why I have not written all spring.  I needed to say this first, but did not (still do not) have the words.  

I have never known how to say goodbye.

Oh, yes, I can say the word. Those two easy syllables, balanced perfectly between consonants and vowels, moving through one’s mouth from back to front – urgent, simple, quick.

But the meaning? The irrevocable ending? My life turned, once again, into nothing but memory, and the threads to my past cut like so much insubstantial mist?

I can never wrap my head around the bigness of it.

I have moved countries nine times. Watched dear faces (too many to count) disappear in rear-view mirrors (both literal and figurative). Packed and unpacked suitcases. And the enormity of change, of time, have never ceased to overwhelm me.

The whole landscape of my inner world is made up of places that no longer exist (not as I remember them), of people who have grown and changed in my absence (even as I have grown and changed in theirs) – and I do not know, have never known, what to do with that reality.080

I always swore that I would not become one of those MKs – those TCKs – who could not settle. Who could not stay in any one place long enough to risk roots. And yet, looking at my life, I know that is indeed who I have become. Any one place can only ever hold a fraction of who I am – of the worlds contained beneath my skin – and so I must keep moving, must keep searching for those other pieces of myself. Those other faces, other tastes, other sounds, that make up my definition of “home” – my definition of what it means to be me.

And I know, deep down (have always known), that what I am really looking for is a certain combination of colors, of scents, of sounds, branded upon my imagination during my earliest years and rendered sacred.7509708606_878ef51ebf_m

As children, the world is shaped by our imaginations as much as it is shaped by the “reality” of our senses. All the world is miracle because we are not old enough to have become used to it yet – to take any of it for granted. Thus, snails making tracks across a white wall, and flowers blooming to life every spring, and the wonder of other human beings, thinking their own thoughts, inhabiting their own realities, existing behind their own eyes, are all as much magic as talking fauns or invisibility rings might be. Anything might happen, and the world seems – the world is – rife with possibility.

This is a reality that all our great myth-makers have known – and the names of C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and George MacDonald were certainly significant to my childhood.

But the person truly responsible for unlocking my imagination was someone much closer to home.Karem

Karem Boubaker spent hours in the courtyard of his family’s dwelling (or sitting on the edge of my very own bed), telling me stories about displaced ducklings, or the man who had come one night and stolen the roof from right over his family’s heads.

He filled my childhood with wonder and set my feet upon a path I still walk today.

I cannot remember a time in my life before his stories, and somehow I had never considered a time in my life after them.  Never considered that on some ordinary February day, still much too young, with so much still to do and to say, with no warning whatsoever (no chance for loved ones near or far to say all there was to say), his heart might stop beating.

Never thought I would be left trying to figure out how to say goodbye.

7509696266_bafb11b4d4_mHow do you bid farewell to the man who taught you the power of stories? Who baptized your imagination in the colors of the Mediterranean sea and the swirling patterns of Tunisian courtyards? The man who stood gatekeeper for your memories, and – even when Aslan’s own rules declared you too old for Narnia – held the door open to Mahdia, to your childhood, to your home?

I do not know.

I can call myself a writer all I like, but I have no words for this.

Marilyn Gardner uses the Portuguese “saudade” to encapsulate the longing (the homesickness) that refugees and immigrants (and TCKs) feel for a world that no longer exists. For a place that is no more. The unique lostness experienced by those who can’t ever, quite, be found. As Frodo Baggins knows too well, the world is very large, and very lonely, when home is no longer a word that truly applies – truly exists.  Is no longer a place that can be returned to.

I have lived inside that word for many years now.

Lived inside it, as Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy must have done when they returned from Narnia and found themselves once again children in a world that knew nothing of them. A world that did not recognize the kings and queens they had been, or the people (be they talking animals, or living trees, or forest fauns) that had made them such.

Have lived inside that word, yet never as fully as these past few months.

102I thought my home was a place – a place that didn’t quite exist any longer. I discovered this spring that it was, in part, a person – a person who had carved a door for me and held it open. Who will hold that door now?

Who will remind me that life is magic? And serve me tea – strong and bitter – in tiny shot glasses, surrounded by laughing family? Who will know about Pinky 1, and Pinky 2, and all the other Pinkys, along with Blacky 5? Who will make me feel like a princess, tucked away in a canopy bed, fingers bright with henna dye? Who will serve me marka, and sit with me on cool summer evenings (when jasmine lies heavy on the breeze) beneath the Tunisian stars? Who will know – as Karem always seemed to – that all those smells, and sounds, and sights, still swirl inside me even now?  Still call to me like the taste of home?

Who will remember who I was, and thus recognize who I am?

7509743412_729928614e_mI wrote today in my journal that maybe “Goodbye” is not so much a letting go (because how does one let go of the very fabric of one’s own identity? what am I, if not a composite – a mosaic – of all the places and faces I have loved? what will be left of me, if they are no more?) but rather a relinquishing over to God. I do not know how to weigh these memories. How to balance what is against what was. How to rightly name this loss. C.S. Lewis says that we are not at home in time because we were not created for it – we are infinite beings inhabiting finite space and it hurts with the hurt of death and decay and endings. The hurt of “gone” and “goodbye” and – most scary and painful of all – “forgotten.” But God can hold what I cannot.

So in God’s grace and mercy, I entrust you, Karem, to God’s care. May you be welcomed 089home with the same hospitality you always offered us, the strangers on your doorstep. May you ever journey further up and further in – deeper and deeper into the wonder and mystery you pointed me towards from my earliest memories. May you be swallowed up in love (that same love you offered us, unconditionally, even when my tongue no longer spoke your language, and the little girl I’d been had disappeared into this other me, no longer quite so certain of anything at all), and may you know yourself, at last, at last, at the place where all true stories grow into the truest story – the story where all goodbyes shall cease.

I hope, one day (when days themselves are no more), to sit at your feet again and hear your tales. Until then, I will try to find words to tell the stories you planted in my being. To let out the colors that saturate both my memories and my dreams – and that remind me, oh so strongly, of a certain courtyard in Mahdia where I sat on a stool (in the company of my brother) and listened in wonder to the discovery that roofs could disappear, and carpets could fly, and ugly ducklings could turn into swans. What a world it was I lived in; what a miracle to be alive.

Karem2

To Write of Evening

I walked home today in the dusk.  The bright of Kenya’s greenery stark against an overcast sky.  Walked home in the knowledge that the year is almost done.  Home in the relief of exams graded.  Of a to-do list shrunk to an odd assortment of final bits and pieces: more textbooks to collect, a graduation to attend, some portfolios to grade.  And then it will be Friday, and I will be closing the book on this particular chapter of this particular story.  This particular combination of weeks, and months, and essays.  Of students and lessons and whiteboard markers.  Of all the odds and ends, victories and defeats, joys and exhaustions, that make up a school-year.  Make up the life of an English teacher.

Ipod Pics 055If this was the year of any one thing, it was the year of AP Language and Composition.  The year I spent every Saturday, without fail, grading at Dormans — the quietest of the local coffee shops.

The year my students wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

A week ago (much less a month) I could not quite imagine today.  Could not quite see over, or around, the terrible to-do list that demanded that particular day’s attention.  Couldn’t think past the scattered, frantic, fullness of my brain.

And, even now, I know that pressing just beyond the borders of this coming Friday, and the boundaries of my teaching responsibilities, there are other lists demanding my attention.  Travels to plan, emails to write, details to take care of.

And, most terrifying of all, in two short months, it is time to start all over again.

But I cannot think about that tonight.  Tonight is not for beginnings.  That is what the morning is for.  The morning, with its sun tipping over the horizon, and spilling brightness new-born into the world — restoring hope to all new things.

Tonight is for endings.  Tonight is for finish-lines crossed and mile-stones reached.

Tonight is for all of those words read.  All of those papers graded.  All of those comments written.  Tonight is for remembering.  For setting aside a moment to acknowledge what my students and I did this year, what we created, in that awkward space that exists between the quest for perfection and the acknowledgement of failure.  That space where all living happens.

Sometime in July the College Board will let me know what my students achieved.  Sometime in July they will pass on their judgement.  But I really don’t care what the College Board has to say.  Because I know what we achieved.  What we strove for.  What we overcame.

I have read words birthed in fire, and I am content.

And so I will leave you with an evening poem.  A poem for tonight — for the gathering dusk, for the dark.  A poem for endings, and for the grace that undergirds all things.

Let Evening Come
by Jane Kenyon

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

“Let it come, as it will, and don’t / be afraid.  God does not leave us / comfortless.

* And yes, this post does include a link to every one of my AP students’ blogs.  And no, I’m not sorry.  Not even a little bit.

To Teach A Poet

I’ve written elsewhere about my journey with poetry.  How I never loved it until I started to teach it.

These days, one of my greatest joys as a teacher is getting to teach poets.  Getting to read the beauty they craft from words and ink and the break of a line on a page.  Getting to catch a glimpse of the world they see when they open their eyes in the morning or close their eyes at night.

I have never been a poet — not really — and I don’t think I ever will be.  The beauty of narrative will always be the language of my heart.  But I fall more in love with the medium every year I teach it — every time I watch an artist discover that there exists within them a burning core of words.  A vision.  A brightness.

That they have something to say, and words with which to say it.

The following were taken from short answer questions on my Global Literature final exams.  They were created hastily and under pressure (as evidenced by the inconsistent punctuation).  Yet even so, in 17 syllables, many of them capture profound (and unique) truths about the texts read, and some do so while utilizing well-developed imagery and sophisticated enjambment.

I’m proud of these poets, these readers, these thinkers.  I’m proud of these kids.  And I’m thrilled that I get to teach some of them again next year.

Life of Pi (by far the most popular choice): 

Pi survives alone
In the lifeboat with Richard
But God is with him.  -M.R.

A boy of 3 faiths,
Stranded on sea with tiger,
No one believes him. -N.S.

Struggles in the sea,
Full of fear but not lonely–
Richard was with me. -J.H.K.

Pi almost lost hope
through fear, hunger, thirst and pain.
Then, he reached the shore. -J.J.

I’ve lost everything.
Hope grows thinner every day
I wait.  I watch, Pray.  -A.T.

Could this be a dream?
A tiger and a young boy.
What unlikely friends. -A.R.R.

Reading Life of Pi
was like a journey to me,
never-ending ‘ifs’. -G.O.

A boy all alone,
imagination was all
he ever had left.  -N.G.

The Mission: 

God sends Gabe to the falls.
Rodrigo joins after pain.
All is lost; light stays.  -R.C.

Things Fall Apart:

Okonkwo showed strength
His fear of weakness got the
Best of him. He died. -J.O.

I want to succeed.
I can’t be like my father.
In the end I was. -B.O.

The Alchemist:

He looks far and wide
The treasure that he must find,
in his heart it lies.  -N.M.

Not connected with a particular text, but needed to demonstrate hyperbole and personification:

Like a stoic mime
the rock sat atop the cliff
its ignorance, bliss.  -M.N.

the wind whistles through
the tress; like God would whistle,
loud; unforgiving. -R.C.

The rains have come here,
we hear the thunder screaming,
A sign, the world is dying. -N.S.

Agony screams.  Screams
Because her world is over.
Freedom is now queen.  -A.T.

The boat cried with fear
waves tall as mountains crashed down
we just wait and pray -J.A.

And one of my students wrote me a fairly long, utterly spontaneous “Ode to Global Lit.”  It began with this foreboding stanza:

Global Lit.  A class
full of homework and writing.
Where one can feel
the breath of death.
Where knees tremble like an earthquake
where fear can be made.

But ended with this one:

Well there is no class
like the Global Lit class
Where the teacher always,
Always laughs and smiles
and makes the class
smile with a laugh brighter
than the sun.
Thank you, Ms. Magnuson. -H.R.L.

Semester #2

I walked home today in the rain.  Not the soft, misty rain of Oregon and England — places I’ve lived and loved — but the pouring, rushing, rumbling rain of Kenya.  Rain that makes rivers out of roads, and shoes (those things that, in other places in the world, keep one’s feet dry) into jokes.

Like the rain, today rushed by, a rumbling blur of shorted periods and textbook returns, yearbook signings, and an awards ceremony that stretched into the afternoon.  And it felt, almost, like a culmination.  Like the first day of summer.  For though we come back next week for finals, it finally feels like the break is taste-able — touchable — here.

cozy 002So as I watch the rain, and prepare to cuddle up for the evening with blankets and tea and a hot water bottle, here is a post I wrote last weekend, reflecting on the end.  An end which isn’t so much an end, but a beginning.  A continuation.  Summer, and the year that follows.  How strange to be staying in one place . . .

____________________

The school year is winding down, and it is easy to measure in nots — what I have not done, not accomplished, not achieved.  My failures are apparent in a semester’s worth of non-existent blog posts, journal entries unwritten, stories untold.  Mornings spent sleeping, not reading.  Evenings spent neither running nor in my garden with my tea.

For whatever reason, I’ve lost the plot this semester.  Hunkered down into a state of survival that is far different from the lived life I long for.  It’s hard to articulate what triggered the general fog of these months.  The complacency and apathy and lethargy (all words I wish I could expel from my vocabulary and my life).

But I generally find that it is easy to see blank space.  What is harder is seeing what is actually there.  Not missing, but present.

So here are some of the things that I did do this semester.

I survived.  It’s a little early for fireworks, but I’m down to my last projects to grade, journals to read, finals to write.  This time two weeks from now [Sun. May 17], I’ll be two days into summer — on a plane, heading off to family and graduations and weddings.

I thrived.  No, not in all the ways I wish I had.  Far too much TV for company.  Far too little creation and productivity.  But this may be the first time that after a full year of teaching I’m not done — not ready to throw in the towel, to escape, to run as far as I can without plans to ever come back.  For the first time, wrapping up the school year, I can already admit what it usually takes me months and hindsight to articulate: I sometimes really love this job.

ol pejeta

Ol Pejeta: Photo Credit Lindsey Lane

I camped.  Ah, Kenya: the zebra; the lions; the rhino.  What a gift to live in this place.  To explore it.  To have friends with 4-wheel drives (and tents!).  To have elephants wander through, barely 100 yards from one’s campfire.  Ol Pejeta.  Tsavo West.  Names from adventure books (and horror movies about man-eating lions).  And I’ve been there.

kitengela 001

Kitengela Glass Factory

I traveled.  Slowly, slowly, this country is taking shape around me: the Kenyan coast (Watamu; Malindi); the Kitengela glass factory; Eldoret; Kitale.  No longer just names, but real places.  Places on a map, places in my memory.  I’m beginning to see, to know, this country.  One small piece at a time.

I read.  Books about Kenya.  Books about America.  Books about childhood.  About discovery.  Imagination.  Even books about poetry (which I WILL finish . . . eventually).  When my re-reads are factored in, I’ve averaged about a book a week — not bad for full-time teaching.

I cooked.  Not as much as I might have wanted to, but I’ve still created recipes all my own, discovered the recipes of others, and grown just a little more confident in my ability to create in this magical, mysterious, and (for some reason) terrifying way.  I’ve found that when I have the time and space, cooking in the evenings, with the an audiobook for company, can be restful and restorative.  And I’ve even fed a few people along the way (though not many).

I wrote.  Not much.  Barely any.  But some.  There are words on the page that didn’t exist before this semester.  Worlds, even.  And a little is more than none.

I spoke.  In front of people.  In front of a lot of people.  About God’s process of stripping me bare.  Of setting me free of the things in my life I define myself through.  Find my identity in.  My worth.  Revealing the depth and breadth of a love that requires nothing of me. The grace that engulfs me even when all I am is just a ‘stupid kid.’

I taught.  Seventy-four days (give or take), 300 periods (give or take), 18,800 minutes . . . and counting.  And I’ve loved some (many?) of those moments.  There is much that I wanted from this semester that I do not have.  But one thing I do have is my students — courageous, tenacious, creative, and so, so beautiful.  I didn’t expect to enjoy them (be blessed by them) quite this much.

And yes, I want more.  I want to press in deeper.  Because true contentment requires a prerequisite of wakefulness, and this semester I have often been asleep.  Often wanted to be asleep.  And I hope never to be satisfied with my own complacency.  But I am, nevertheless, thankful for what I have had — what I have experienced.  And for the grace that covers the rest.

I am ready for a break.