Life Right Now {#57}

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Late night frozen yogurt
downtown on a rainy night
because our Glendy girl
is turning nine
and around here
we like to celebrate.

~Natalia

Wish to Stay

So how has your experience here been? She asks.

We’re standing in the entryway, stemming the traffic flow between inner and outer doors.

Above us, around us, girls filter in and out of the hundreds of rooms in this dorm.

They’re a pair; mother and daughter. Both blonde, one taller than the other, soft wrinkles settling around her clear eyes.

She’s the one who’s asked.

I pause for a second, breathe in.

I love this school. My experience here has been wonderful, challenging, beyond what I expected or imagined. I’ve learned more, thought more, struggled more, and been blessed more than I even thought before arriving on Moody’s six blocks of Chicago real estate.

But how can I tell her that? How can I help her understand how I love this school?

Briefly, I tell her about the classes. Professors. Learning. Friendships. Experience.

I’ve given the same little speech before. My “Moody is Wonderful and You Should Come Here” speech.

She nods, smiles, warm.

But I’m not capturing the emotion, the twist I feel in my heart when I think about this place.

Behind us, the outer door swings open and Nelle steps inside.

Smiling in greeting, her gentle smile is hesitant, bittersweet, and the crinkling package in her hand catches my eye.

The seniors are graduating in little more than two weeks, and they’re receiving their caps and gowns today. Nelle holds hers, still plastic wrapped, in her free hand.

Ohh, I nod, understanding, and she nods slowly, thoughtfully, in response; I can’t believe it’s almost over.

As she slips through the second door, into the dorm lobby, I know I have my answer.

This is a wonderful school, I say. For all the reasons I mentioned, and a million beside. It’s not perfect, of course, but four years pass quickly, then we’re standing days, weeks, shortening months from graduation, and we don’t want to leave.

How has this experience been, you ask?

It’s been many, many things. And of course we know that God will bring more wonderful, challenging, learning experiences after school, as well.

But as our time here moves toward ending, be it in two weeks or in a year, sometimes, we just wish we could stay.

~Natalia

Anything in a Pancake

This is probably the last time we’ll be able to do this, Nelle says. Out of the corner of my eye I watch her open the kitchen drawer, the utensils clinking as she shuffles through them, searching for a fork. She shuts the drawer again after a moment, fork-less, and steps through the doorway, into the lounge.

I stand at the counter, spatula in hand and a griddle, sporting eight miniature pancakes, in front of me. Beside me, in the space between this white counter and the East-ward window, Katie stands at the stove, watching bacon heat, grease popping and snapping as the strips of meat turn from pink to the rich burgundy of crispy bacon. As tiny bubbles first appear, and then grow and finally pop, in my pancakes, I think about Nelle’s words.

She was referring to Sunday Night Pancakes. A tradition begun semesters ago, the Sunday evenings of my freshman year were spent division wildly inventive, and debatably delicious, pancakes recipes. Each Sunday evening, we’d gather in the lounge to hear the testimony of one of the girls; sitting curled on our hand-me-down couches, propped on the ground, dipping Red Velvet Chocolate Chip pancakes in syrup and whipped cream.

We went through almost the whole floor my freshman year. Pick a Sunday, pick a recipe, tell your story. That’s what we did.

We’ve had pancakes in the years since then, but testimony time has shifted, developed, and now it’s a special event, a night worth noting, when we mix Bisquick in the kitchen, fry bacon in the black-stained pan, toss chocolate chips into round circles of batter, already beginning to bubble on the griddle. It’s a special event, on this Sunday evening, and here’s Nelle saying it’s well-nigh the last.

The last because we’ve two more weeks of classes, another of finals, and then Saturday comes warm and bright and these same hallways that now smell of maple bacon and the smoke of black stains on communal dishes will be empty, bare, quiet hallways. This is the last, or near the last, because Nelle herself, along with Di, Mar, and 400 others, will graduate in two weeks. Their days at this school, and in this kitchen, are coming to an end very soon.

Nelle comes back into the kitchen as Katie begins to pull a second batch of bacon, six brown-red strips of crunchiness, out of the greasy pan. Watching for a moment, Nelle glances from the bacon plate to the loops of batter I’ve spread across the buttery griddle before me. She wants to make a bacon pancake.

Chuckling, Katie and I affirm her dream; Go, Nelle, achieve you dream! Live life to the fullest! Put bacon into your pancake!

She does. Pulling the grease-wet strip apart, she presses the bacon bits into the wet batter of the pancake. Small piece, she sets them randomly across the surface of the pancake. One piece left, there’s nowhere to put it, I lean over from where I’m standing at her elbow. Eat it!

But then she’s pressed that piece into the batter, too, wiping her shining finger tips on a paper towel laboriously stolen from the towel dispenser in the bathroom.

What kind of pancake did you choose when you did your testimony? Nelle asks, glancing at my half-baked pancake, their bubbles slowly beginning to form, expand. I pause for a moment, spatula in mid-air, as if frozen in some kind of kitchen free dance. I can’t remember, so I tell her that. She nods as she reaches between Katie and me, absently stirring the huge blue bowl containing the last sticky lumps of pancake batter.

You really can put anything in a pancake,
she observes almost wistfully, green eyes lowering until they’re finally overshadowed, curtailed, by long blonde lashes.

Anything in a pancake.

Anything in a friendship.

And anything in three weeks left in this semester of 16; any learning, any wonder, any hurt, any pain, any discussion.

You can put anything in a pancake. Like He can put anything in life.

And He does it well.

~Natalia

March 1st: Part Three

This is the last part of those wonderful hours spent playing and learning at our professor’s home. Here’s Part One, and also Part Two, just in case.

The prison.
Last game, it’s 2:30pm when we begin. We’ll play until 4pm, he says, and I cannot imagine this dice-rolling, piece-moving, card-drawing stretching until then. But it does. We’re the prisoners to his German officers, our multi-colored pieces hopping across the board. Around the table, five players watch the board intently, searching its jail-patterned backdrop for the answers to our puzzle, for our escape. Standing, I lean over the board, study the spaces, the rooms, the walls. I count the spaces between my pieces, the spaces to my goals. I strategize a way, get arrested, replan, rethink, redo. The child toddles past, bare feet smacking faintly on the hardwood floor. I pick her up, her weight on my hip familiar, comfortable. She sips her milk bottle, I plan my escape from a German Prisoner of War camp.

The clock ticks by. It’s 3:30pm. Slowly, we begin to understand the community aspect of the game. In order to win, you must get two of your own pieces safely out of jail, he’d said. But I’ll be beaten when any two pieces escape. Slowly, we understand. It’s not a me versus them; it’s an us versus him. We work together, then. Pass cards back and forth: do you need this? Will this help you? Time is running out and we’re desperate now. Desperate to work together. She’s stuck, needs rope. I hand over mine and with it, the escape plan I had labored over. We yell, cheer, when another break free. I dance, nervous, the child still on my hip, as I watch her roll the dice.
She must survive, we can do this.

The game ends at 4:02pm. I’ve lost, my pieces forfeited in a Do or Die move that would free me or kill me. But it doesn’t feel like a loss at all. Doesn’t feel like disappointment, the slump of shoulders, the shrug of indifference to cover the sting of effort lost. Doesn’t feel like that because it’s not that. This is success. This game is cooperation, community. This game is awareness of others, watching the colored pieces move; where is she going, how can I help her, what is best for another. This game is teamwork, self sacrifice. This game has rules, but so does life and maybe they’re more like guidelines. This game is planning and then scrapping your plan with one misstep, one roll of the dice, one endangered friend. This game is improvisation and heart and struggle and learning, growing constantly.

This game is you are not your own, you are not alone. And those are lessons that everyone can learn.

And tomorrow, I drive once more along the highway towards this wonderful home on the corner. But I’ll not go all the way there. Rather, there’s a school beside the highway, brick building full of learning and teaching and students and Jesus. And tomorrow, I’ll visit and I’ll meet and I’ll ask questions and I’ll hear more, and maybe in January, I’ll go back and teach.

~Natalia

Professor’s Kid

Along with such benefits as a bachelor’s degree, a viable future career, lifelong friendships, and a deep appreciation for a fridge full of non-cafeteria food, my years as an undergrad student have helped me understand the significance of being a professor’s kid.

I was nine years old, sitting on a pool deck in a damp swim suit, the first time my father’s profession seemed anything but normal to me. Minutes earlier, I had accompanied a friend up to the bleachers, to visit our respective parents. My father sat, cross-legged, wearing the university sweatshirt and blue jeans that constitute his Saturday wardrobe, a stack of student papers beside him. Grading.

My friend and I exchanged greetings with each of our fathers, she begged a $5 off of hers, and we took off again, our suits dripping splatters of chlorinated water all the way past the concession stand, then again to the pool deck.

Is your dad a teacher? My friend asked as she stashed the $4.75 change from her Ring-Pop snack in her bulky swim backpack. Well, yea. A professor. I nodded, as we settled into the now-wet towels we had used to delineate our space on the tiled pool deck. Wow, that’s so cool! She exclaimed, and I caught a glimpse of her tongue, already tinged blue from the Ring-Pop. I shrugged, nodded. Yea, it was cool. And normal.

Ten years passed, during which time my father’s role as researcher, professor, and grad student advisor allowed my family to spent significant time in both Europe and Mexico, and I arrived at college with a healthy appreciation for his career as an educator. The elusive hours that he spent in meetings, giving lectures, and researching whatever one in the material science department researches translated to months in Paris, wonderful friendships developed in Mexico, and a father I was proud of.

Enter my own college career.

Sometime early in my second year at school, I found myself singing the proverbial praises of one of my own professors. His lectures were well-planned, engaging, and featured the occasional culturally-relevant joke. He showed movies in class (yes, they were historical documentaries, but every main character was British, so that’s something), had written both academic and fiction books, and even called on me once in class. As an added bonus, I did well on his online exams, which, while graded completely objectively, inclined me to look upon his class favorably.

Sitting in my room one fall afternoon, relating to The Roommate the latest class shenanigans, it suddenly dawned on me that there are students at a campus not 15 miles from my own, who sit in desks, pens in hand, bookbags slumped at their feet, and listen to my own father give lectures. My mind temporarily blown by this sudden eye-opening, I suddenly had a million and one questions.

Does my father administer online quizzes? Are they open book?

Does he use powerpoint?

What is his grading scale?

And attendance! There are as many ways to take attendance as there are professors. Pass the sign-in sheet? Call names? Attendance via quizzes? Not take it at all?

Did he make jokes? Were they dad jokes? Professor jokes? Material science jokes?

I was suddenly aware of a vast array of facets of my father’s profession, and felt as if I could connect with him in an entirely new way. To that end, I have taken it upon myself, in recent months, to supply my father with links to any exceptionally entertaining internet amusement.

A man sings Let it Go in 18 different Disney voices? I sent it the link to my father.

The voice of Winnie the Pooh reads Darth Vader’s line? Emailed him that one.

I even made him watch What Does the Fox Say.

Memes. YouTube. Pictures.

It’s not often, but every once in awhile, I find something great, and I send it to the father. Because professors these days, they’re a smart, witty, sweater-and-crinkled-khaki bunch, with knowledge and know-how on all manner of things. And if there ever comes a moment where my father, resplendent in his button up and laser pointer, is challenged on YouTube knowledge, he’ll know that, too.

~Natalia

Surprising Them

No school tomorrow

and I came home early for Easter weekend.

Mother and sisters back from California,

the father went to collect them at the airport.

Four pink balloons strung up in the doorway,

I hid in the dining room when they came home,

listening to 7-year-old feet scamper up the

back stairway.

Why are there balloons– she’s beginning to say,

but then she sees me

and I wish I had filmed the way she screamed,

and how fast she jumped into my arms.

~Natalia

March 1st: Part Two

In case you missed it, you can find Part One of this school report turned blog post here.

The States.
Explaining the game, the Professor pauses, searching for a word. He’s making a comparison, an analogy, to clarify this game, a card game of the United States. He alludes to an alternate title, one he’ll not say. It’s like Cheat, he says, after a moment. I nod, then, understanding. My mother doesn’t like that game’s title either.

But this is a different game, one of geography and maps and sometimes a little guessing, and maybe a little improvising, hoping the others don’t catch on, aren’t paying attention. The baby having slid off my lap, off to play, and we’re four again around the card table, taking turns laying down states, oceans, even one card reading CANADA across the top.

Fourth grade, maybe fifth, I knew these states well. Trading roles, I was the teacher, my mother was the student. Map of the United States printed blank, state outlines unlabeled, I tested her. She wrote the state names, their capitals. She wrote, I corrected. Red pencil borrowed from my professor-father’s desk, I marked the maps, corrected them, learned them. Now it’s twelve years later and my eyes are closed, I’m scrambling to see that map in my mind. Does Georgia touch South Carolina? Does it touch the Gulf of Mexico? How many states does Utah border? I learned in fourth grade, sitting cross legged at the dining table, red pencil in hand. And I’m learning now; a mix and match, guess and check kind of learning. Trying hard to remember what I used to know.

Tea and cookies.
He appears in the doorway as we play, brandishing a white tea pot in the air like some medieval banner: Under this hot beverage, I will conquer! But he’s talking about the traditional way of making tea, waving his free hand towards the table behind us, under the window. Outside, the snow is cold and white, lining the windowsill, covering the yard, falling now in fresh, fat flakes. Inside, there are cups and matching saucers, a plate of cookies, still warm. He tells us about tea leaves and milk in first and sugar to taste, and we watch the dark tea swirl lighter, sip the hot liquid. The United States spread before me still, cards waiting to be matched, played, I sip my tea, dip my cookie in it when no one is looking. Later, sitting on the living room couch, he says cultural experience, and there’s a kind of worth in that. He cares to bake for us, he cares to prepare for us. He cares to share his tea with us.

He cares.

~Natalia

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