Taking Off, Putting On

What is one thing you’ve learned about yourself in 2015? 

Di sits in the passenger seat, her black overnight bag at her feet. We’re driving into the city, weaving slowly southward in the darkening twilight of January 1st.

Ooh, I nod, eyes on the road still, watching the lights beyond me turn red in slow succession. That’s a good question. 

Well, you stumped me with ‘who is the funniest person you know’ last night, she exclaims, and I laugh then, remembering the moments she spent in silence, agonizing over who might be the funniest person in her life.

She never did come up with an answer.

But we talk then, about learning, and changing, and knowing oneself, and then, as the swaying flow of traffic pulls us slowly deeper into the heart of the city, a follow-up question forms, settling pleasantly in the air between us.

What are you taking off and putting on in the new year?

She answers first, talking about fear, boldness, friendships she treasures, habits she’ll continue to cultivate.

Then, leaning back against the seat, she looks over at me. What about you?

I have my answer ready.

I want to be more giving, I tell her. Of my time. Of kindness. Of my resources. The stories, the truths, the battles, the losses, and the near misses that make my life my own; the very same things that I so often guard, keep to myself. I want to share those things, too, I tell her, because relationships are built on sharing lives, and that’s a good thing. 

Di listens, nodding emphatically, murmuring the hushed tones of ascent that I’m accustomed to.

I want to take off being entitled, I tell her, feeling the conviction of my words settling into my heart as I speak.

I feel entitled to be entitled. And even as I say it, I know that it’s true.

I hear myself, barely weeks ago, sharps words of frustration spilling over into my classroom, all the while I tell myself it’s okay- I’m entitled to let my anger set the tone in the room.

I’m entitled, I tell myself,  to quiet time. To someone else taking out the trash. To children who do what I ask them to do. To parking that is less than a half mile from my apartment.

But that’s not true, of course. Not at all. I’m entitled to nothing.

So this year, as the days slip from January to February, and then beyond, I’m taking off what I believe I should have, and putting myself into the place I know so well.

The place of Christ’s grace, my brokenness, and the thrill, the power, the joy of knowing Him more, seeing Him work more, with every passing day.

And from that, I know, will come a spirit of giving,

and so much more.

~Natalia

 

Upon Turning 24

If it was possible to postpone a birthday, I would have put off turning 23. I dreaded December 24, 2014 with the same defeated heaviness that I felt as I anticipated turning 18 several years before.

The months leading up to 23 seemed nearly indecipherable from those preceding 20, 21, or 22. I was still a student. Still structuring my days around the same things that had owned me for so long; classes, homework, commuting to work, working. I felt almost ashamed to be turning 23 and still tottering on the edge of adulthood, not yet having scrambled up the craggy summit of a job, an apartment, or bills.

But days turn to weeks and  birthdays don’t wait, and I turned 23.

Three weeks after my birthday, I drove in the evening darkness to McHenry, IL, the back of my car stuffed with stacks of clothes I’d pulled right out of my closet, a bag of bedding buckled into the  passenger seat next to a bin of books.

Tiny snowflakes twirled lazily in the moonlit air as I crunched through the snow to the door of the beautiful house on the corner. The family of the house, both Moody professors whose counsel and kindness had sustained me through many a long semester, made me a member of the family, and my four months living with them, while I student taught 4th grade at a nearby christian school, were a dream.

When April came, December seemed both a blink and a millennium behind me. My time as a student teacher had ended, it was time to move on.

Driving the back roads of rural Illinois to and from school, dinner with friends, or errands, I rolled the windows down in the warming spring air and cried.

A semester of tears, I called it, later. Tears of exhaustion, as I adjusted to the relentless schedule of a teacher. Tears of frustration, of anger, of uncertainty as a six-month relationship ended. And deep, deep tears of loss as I mourned leaving the safe haven of living with mentors who had become family, of the training nature of student teaching, and ultimately, the safety of college itself.

Having left student teaching, real life began very, very quickly.

I moved out of the McHenry house on a Saturday evening, late in April. Two days later, I walked into the basement gym of a little christian school deep in the heart of Chicago, and lead 13 kindergarteners up the stairs behind me.

I spent two months teaching kindergarten, while the woman whose students I inherited gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. I held on, during those long days and incredibly short weeks, to the words a professor had spoken months before, during my last week of classes at Moody.

What you have to give, she said, is enough.

When diffusing one tantrum a day was a good record, I held onto that. When emails about retaining students in kindergarten began to fly, when I wondered what measurable gains we had made in learning, when teaching became parenting and my training felt barely sufficient, I heard her words once more in my head. And somehow, we got through.

The closing weeks of kindergarten brought the A-Z Countdown to Summer, and also brought a new anxiety, as I waited to hear if I would be able to stay on in the fall. I had fallen head over heels for the school, the staff, the students, and I wanted nothing more than to stay right where I was.

The right door will open, I said then as I waited and worked, half-heartedly researching other jobs in the area. The door that I’m supposed to go through will open, when it’s supposed to open. And I’ll pursue that until it closes. 

And then, one June morning while my kids were in PE, their excited shrieks echoing through the concrete stairwell, the door opened, and I sat in the principal’s office while he extended an official job offer for the 2015-2016 school year.

To teach 5th grade.

And after a summer filled with reading, beach trips, and road-tripping to my beloved Michigan every chance I got, September 8th dawned bright and warm, and I once again stepped into that basement gym. Except this time, it was not chubby-faced five-year-olds following me up the stairs. It was 11 eager, incredibly unique 10-year-olds.

And so the school year began.

And every week of the past three months, I have stepped into our top-floor classroom, the lights still off, the heater not yet humming. And I sit at my desk, in the early morning minutes before my kids appear at the door, waiting for my morning hug, and I think about the words that I have for this season.

Several long weeks ago, I cut a greeting card to fit the case on my phone. Be who you needed then, I wrote on the card, in the looping writing that peppers much of my classroom.

It’s a reminder, texted to me months ago, that I never want to forget. Because when I was in 5th grade, well, I needed many things. But more than anything, I needed Christ.

And I still do, and so do my students.

My year as a 23-year-old ended with many of the things that I found so noticeably absent 12 months before. A job, an apartment, the life of an adult.

But the same need, for Christ and for grace, runs deeper still. And the same purpose, to know and worship God, remains supreme.

And even though I’ve very little understanding of what 24 will look like, what I’ll be writing about at this time next year, I know Christ will be the same and I hope so very much, that when 24 ends and 25 begins, I really will know Him more.

~Natalia

Rooted

I would be perfectly content staying in Chicago forever. 

I made that declaration two days ago. Sitting at a thrifted dining table, across from a blue-eyed beauty who shares the sentiment. We sat, two floors up in her apartment on the western side of the city, and dreamed about next week and next year and the years beyond.

I’ve been a fan- a proponent, a supporter- of Chicago for years, of course. I own it more now though. I’m no longer a student at school in Chicago; I live here, I work here now. I grocery shop in Chicago. I follow crime reports in Chicago. I know intersections and neighborhood borders in Chicago. I’m a proud resident of the city.

But my heart’s dedication runs deeper than that.

I’d be perfectly content staying here because right here in the city, I am watching my purpose, the things I have most wanted to do, dreamed of doing, become reality.

In this city, I teach. I fight every day against my own sin and brokenness, and that of the eleven small hearts I care for each day. I teach math, language arts, the truth of God’s Word, and one hundred other topics every day, and it is the hardest and the most fulfilling thing I have ever done.

I am building a community in this city. People whose passions fuel my own; conversations leaving us starry-eyed and enthusiastic. People whose lives have come beside mine- like CTA tracks swinging into sync besides each other- and who have walked with me as we both ask questions, stumble, fall, regain balance, and take another step.

I’ve never been more aware of the brokenness, the disgrace and violence, in a place than I am now, of this city. I’ve never before prayed earnestly that Jesus come back, to take us home now. And yet, I’ve also never been more invested in a place either.

Will I really be here forever? I don’t know. But I’m here now, and it’s been so very wonderful.

~Natalia

I Know

I’ll be honest, admit to you that there I times when I wish I wasn’t.

Wasn’t going to school. Wasn’t headed to a third-floor classroom with a whiteboard that doesn’t erase and two many piles of work that needs graded.

It’s usually in the morning.

Driving to work at 7am, alongside other commuters; pausing at stop signs, red lights for still other commuters to walk to their offices, walk to their trains, walk to work.

I watch them, there in the growing morning light, and sometimes, I feel the unsettling pangs of envy rise in my stomach.

I imagine their offices. Quiet, serene places with just a little too much florescent light. I imagine them attending meetings, taking notes, stepping through cubicle-lined warehouse buildings with file folders in arm, two-inch heels settling noiselessly into the plush hallway carpet.

It’s then that I’m jealous.

Jealous of what I don’t know, as I head into a day of what I do know.

The familiar four flights of stairs. The familiar smell of young tween masked with the forced freshness of mopping solution and Lysol wipes.

The familiar press of time versus conversation.

The familiar faces of I don’t understand this, I love this, He said this, I need help with this, I can’t do this. 

In the morning, just some days, the unknown, the possibly better, glows orange and appealing in the morning light, and I feel my heart wonder, consider, what it might be like to leave the teacher life behind me.

Oddly, after school, in the exhausted aftermath of 6.5 hours of constantly meeting needs, anticipating needs overcoming needs, diffusing needs, I never consider the lives being lived in the cubicles, in the conference halls, in the office-bound work force.

The press of the hours I’ve just lived- the necessity of assimilating all this new information, the how he acted, what she needed, how they learned, what they missed, how I can help each of them- the mental and emotional job of recovering from one day, beginning to prepare for another, erases from my mind any trace of comparison, all whispers of I’d rather be and it would be better if…

Then, in the moments and hours after school, I am simply there. And I take one step forward, and then another, and I pour my mind and my heart into what is left of the day, and with that I am content.

It’s in the drive home, though, that I know.

Retracing in reverse the morning’s southbound drive, I know the route by heart now. My exhaustion and my autopilot combine, and I drive the pavement under slowly illuminating street lights, barely thinking of where I might be going.

I’m thinking, rather, of how things might change. What I might do tomorrow. The radio playing the same familiar, uplifting tunes as the morning, I get lost, wonderfully, deeply lost, in the realm of puzzles and problem solving. In those precious car minutes, between leaving school and the evening push of dinner, emails, reading, sleeping, I find myself consumed by the possibilities of how things might change, how God might work, the very next day.

In that time, I explore possible solutions to the problems I’ve watched unfold before me all day long. Problems of focus. Retaining. Organization. Planning. Cleaning. Note-taking. Supplies. I see them, there in my mind’s eye, and I explore solutions, to the background sound of K-Love’s evening jingles and the clicking of a blinking turn signal. How can this be smoother? How can I help her remember? How should that be organized? How could I answer this question?

I consider, I imagine, I plan, I pray, and right there in my car, with the window still down, the crisp fall air breezing lightly through the open space, I know. I know I’m in the right place. I know I’m doing the right thing. I know I’m doing what I was created to do, for this time.

Not because I live in a sea of warm fuzzies, not because anything about my day is easy, or even very peaceful.  But because even as my daily hours at work hit the double digits, I come home and I want to go back. I want to try a different approach. I want to start another day asking the Holy Spirit to come and guide. I want to see where the Lord takes our conversations for another day. I want to beg for His wisdom, and see where it leads.

I want to work and I want to serve, I want to open my heart wider, stretch my mind to the limits of its problem-solving capacity, because in the end, I know this classroom, these lives, are going somewhere, and every day, I want to be there for that. And in the now, before I see the change, before the light comes on, there’s still no place I’d rather be, because I’m watching the little steps, the tiny improvements, that are building lives, right before my eyes, and for that, I will work forever.

~Natalia

Rumbling Contentment

I love routine, I think.

Watching the wheel of seasons, times, days, come spinning back around full circle.

And then all over again.

I’m spinning a new wheel just now, in many ways.

But some things never change.

Like God’s grace.

Like the fresh air in the morning as I step down the front stairs.

Like the sun setting over a slice of Chicago.

Like the El tracks clacking up streets, around corners.

The same clicking rumble of peace and contentment in every shaking, roaring turn of the tracks.

~Natalia

I’ll Just Say

I’ll just say that I became a kindergarten teacher yesterday morning.

And they are sweet and they are busy. 

And life of mine, of following Him and doing, enjoying, relishing these things a He’s set before me? 

It’s a busy one. 

But it’s a good one, too. 

Because He gives strength

And He gives energy 

And He gives joy. 

~ Natalia 

The Wide World

I’m in the living room, shuffling about inside our first story fish bowl, when the movement catches my eye. It’s 10pm, dark outside, and the street below, dividing this line of red brick apartment buildings and the opposing line of vine-covered sorority houses, is deserted.

No cars roll past, despite the advantageous location of this particular street, or the way traffic parades- busy, but never crowded- up and down, east and west, all day long. No headlights, no tires rolling. But across the street, in the shadows of the buildings beyond, a lone man walks.

In the living room, I stop my cleaning, straighten my back and watch him, for a moment. He’s wearing a blue sweater, the hood bouncing behind him as he moves. His steps are fast, faster than usual walking pace, and I lean on the window sill for just a moment, until he turns suddenly, quickly, and disappears into the walkway between two of the towering stone buildings.

I remain at the window for a moment longer, after I’ve lost sight of the man across the street. I did not recognize him, but something in the pace, the direction, the blue sweater, caught my attention, and I’m not ready to return to my cleaning. Not quite yet.

My head just barely touching the cool glass, I watch the street, my eyes wandering up the dark asphalt. I take in the cars parked neatly along our side of the street, the distances between cars an indication of either poor parking abilities or an excess of space. I watch the corner of the alley for a moment, half-heartedly curious if someone else will appear on the empty street.

After a time, no one else has appeared, but I realize as I stand there with the half-clean room behind me, watching an empty street on a quiet night, that it’s not the man that held my attention, but rather his movement, his apparent preoccupation. His Saturday night rush up the street has drawn my mind, my thoughts, outside of myself. It’s a little thing, to watch a man hurry up the street, but it’s a big thing for his very existence to be a reminder of the billions of people, lives, stories, beyond my own, and the God who is sovereign over them all.

And when I pause to think about it, I realize I’ve been doing this all weekend long. Standing outside for two hours this afternoon, loosely supervising the playtime of six neighbor kids, I find my gaze wandering to the intersection just yards away. I watch the cars, the bikes, the pedestrians. And I see in every one of them- in their very existence- the vastness of the world. I wonder at their unique heartache, their fascinatingly individual life, and yet alongside the differences that separate my story from hers, his struggle from mine, I know there lie so many similarities. The human race is like that.

Maya Angelou said We’re more alike, my friends, than unalike, and I don’t know to whom she was speaking, or to what she was referring, exactly, but I will tell you now that I believe her every word. Because I may not know the thoughts behind the eyes of every heart I saw walk past our kid-filled yard this afternoon, but I know Who does. I may not empathize with, or every understand, what each heart needs, but I know He does.

And every time I tumble head over heels into the things that I think and the things that I feel and the things that worry me, I come back to all those people, and the wide world we inhabit, and the One who created it all. And in that, I find comfort, peace, and the grounding of a perspective beyond my own small world.

~Natalia

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