Seeds

I shift in my seat, leaning against the high plush back of the worn swivel chair. Across the room, she’s tucked into one of the twin orange arm chairs. The white board, draped in Christmas lights, the day’s goals and final assignments still scrawled across it, spans the wall between us.

She appeared in the doorway not long after dismissal, stepping purposefully, peacefully into the classroom, her voice heard easily in the rare quiet. For several long minutes, I sat at my desk, half-heartedly typing an email, while she spoke. A kind of multitasking, I suppose.

But soon, the tiny screen has been folded down, its pure glow now limited to illuminating its own keyboard, while I gaze across the room, listening intently.

See, this is the kind of music that you should be listening to, always are listening to, she says as she catches the faint strains of the Disney soundtrack I’ve put on Pandora. I laugh, nodding. It’s pretty much classical and movie scores during the day, I tell her, but I break it up with some Disney in the afternoons. 

She tells me she’s begun a preaching internship, at her church. This is not remotely surprising to me, given the plethora of mini-sermons I’ve been treated to since meeting her, and I tell her this. She sits, silent for a moment, and I wait, watching her.

I know the movements she makes. The hand raise before a joke, before sarcasm. The pause, the intensity sliding into her gaze before a bold statement. The finger raised, pointing at me, calling me back to me, before a particularly relatable statement.

You’re in a different place now than you were then, she says, as the conversation weaves comparisons between this day, this week, this lesson, and the shape and flow of my life barely 10 months ago.

I’d not considered that point before- not truly- and I tilt my head, letting the comparison, the contrast, sink in. You’re right, I tell her after a moment. I’ve moved, of course. Switched schools, taken a full-time job, in the past months. But she’s not referring to locale or employment; we both know that.

I think then about the woman- the girl?- who hurtled through life all those months ago. I think about the battles I fought, the struggles I faced, the choices I made, and as I mentally run through the days, weeks, emotions, feelings of a year ago, I see last year’s self turned so inward.

I made big choices: relationships, jobs, living situation, and I look back to the hours that I spent shrinking into my own heart, my own head. Like a vacuum with no air output, I pulled my worry, my concern, my very surroundings into the chaotic, spinning fortress inside me. And there I agonized. There I stayed.

Your compassion is so evident, she says. I see it all the time. I nod, hesitant to pick up, to hold, the kindness she’s laid before me.

She speaks again, and I cross my legs, lean elbow on knee, chin in palm. The theme to Hercules plays quietly from my computer, creating soft undertones of equal parts whimsical and heroic.

You’re right, I tell her, slowly nodding my agreement. I have changed a lot, matured a lot, these past months. She rocks her head sideways, eye brows raised momentarily, the plain look of I told you so. 

I’m much more at peace,  I observe, my eyes wandering to the string of cheerful lights hanging above her head.

She agrees then; her hum of assent firm, settled. The conversation continues; winding, tracing, ebbing, flowing.

We speak the sovereignty of God. We trace lines of conversation, of memories, stories, questions, long down the trail of thought. Our conversation moves to a table in a bustling, cozy restaurant not far from school. There are pauses, thoughts, sudden bursts of excitement. We agree, we challenge. Once, I shrug, almost subconsciously. As if the weight of the words we’ve collected, savored, might simply slip of my back, dissolve into the floor like something imagined, something vague or misty.

But conversations, like friendships, and maturity, and the grace to grow yet more, are not easily dismissed, or forgotten.

Rather, they are seeds of so many things. Seeds of joy. Of hope. Of grace. Of learning. Watered with honesty and conviction, blossoming under the gentle care of time.

Because with words, with time, with dinner on a rainy Friday night in a big city- we’re always sowing seeds.

~Natalie

 

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

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

Question Mark

That’s a big question mark, I hear myself say.

Over and over, it’s a phrase I’ve used before, many times, I’m sure.

But these past two days, it’s caught in my ear, the words sounding deeper, yet more noteworthy, even as they settle to the ground, their sound fading from the air.

I imagine the question mark in my head as I listen to the echo of curious uncertainty in my voice.

In my mind, I see the curved punctuation mark hanging above my life, a bold, yet not unpleasant reminder of my own limits. Below the question mark, I see a scene, a moment, a place. Corners faded, details blurred, the colors are bright, the light cheery, but really, I can’t quite make it all out.

That’s true for many areas of my life, especially this year, I think.

I’ve told you a little bit, maybe, about finishing my time living and studying downtown.

Have I told you about moving to the northern suburbs, just miles south of Wisconsin, for student teaching?

Have I told you that I’m leaving on Sunday, and begin my 15-week student teaching experience on Monday?

Have I told you I’m excited?

Have I told you how much I know, what I expect, what I imagine I’ll do?

And have I told you all the things, the many, many things, that I just don’t know?

The things that really, are just a question mark?

Like the students in the class- fourth grade?

Like shopping and eating and sleeping and life in my new (temporary) home?

Like church and weekends home and a relationship stretching much farther than before?

And just about every other detail, every other moment, every other story and soul and person that I know make life the complicated, intricate, wonderful knot that it is.

It’s all a question mark. For me.

But it’s not for Him, not at all.

And I think that might be why I’m not worried, not stressed, not scared.

Why the images I see- those faint scenes below my rising question mark- glow so cheerily.

Because when a Master Painter, really the Lord of all, draws the lines, colors the fields of my next day and my next week and every adventure after that,

it’s a question mark to me,

but it’s not to Him,

and really, that makes it seem rather more like an exclamation point,

doesn’t it?

~Natalia

Unexpected

And what would you say you’re learning, thinking about, now? She asks, her voice the gentle, bright lilt I’ve grown accustomed to in the weeks since school began. We’re gathered, there in the lounge. Fifteen girls strong, and I’ve just finished telling the story of my life, tracking movements of the world, of my days, of God’s grace and sovereignty, through the events that string together to form my life.

I’ve finished now, and she’s sitting there on the couch next to me, and she asks and I smile, nod; it’s one thing to tell the past, but it’s another to learn from the present, and I had a feeling she would ask.

I pause, just for a moment. My eyes settle on the apple cider- now cold- that swirls in the cup in my hands, and I catch the gaze of the girls sitting around this warm circle as I look up at her once more.

Unexpected, I tell her. Then, as if reminding myself, agreeing with my own statement, I say it again, feeling myself nod, ever so slightly.

It’s been a semester of the unexpected, I say.

I didn’t expect for my classes to be so very time consuming, didn’t expect weekends of budgeting time by the hour, and daily checklists, and the all-too-familiar breath-holding rush of finishing an assignment twelve minutes before it’s due.

I didn’t expect late nights sitting in the hallway, typing study questions, class notes, essays, to the soundtrack of a squeaky bathroom door, under the glow of a too-white overhead light that never turns off.

There’s something unexpected about my friendships, too; something awe-striking, wonderful about the hearts I live with, eat with, study with, talk with. I’ve wanted, worked for, enjoyed, relished friendships this semester like I never have before. The God who created my heart also holds my heart, my life moving in the direction He leads, and I’ve watched, marveling at His hand, as friendships both old and new have grown on this downtown campus. It’s a privilege, a blessing, I say, to be able to grow with, laugh with, share life with the souls I’m surrounded by, here at this school.

Unexpected challenges, unsolicited blessings. And every time I pause in awe at a wonderful relationship I didn’t ask for; or stop to reflect upon the ways I have grown, been stretched, pulled outside of myself and my desires and my worries and my weakness; or step into my room after a long day of classes and studying and conversations and learning; every time I take a moment to sit, to be still, to recount the unexpected ways of this semester, I’m so thankful.

Thankful and awed, because in every new thing, and in every old thing made new, in every challenge and blessing and gift and lesson, God is working to weave threads that I did not know existed into a brilliant tapestry. He brings the moments that are small and the conversations that are short and the challenges that are many, and together, they make a whole: one account of my life, just as I told those sweet girls. But it is not just my life; this is the story of His plan and His wonder and His grace.

And the unexpecteds in my life are the certainties in His plan, and so I trust and I follow, and many days, I savor these unexpected wonders.

~Natalia

Red Box Day

I keep telling myself that I just need to make it to November, I say.

I’ve thought about it before, played it over and again in my mind.

The script of this month; of October.

I’ve found myself, late at night, amidst pulling the day’s clothes off my bed,

and finding toothbrush, tooth paste off my shelf,

standing before my calendar.

Reading, memorizing, reviewing

what comes next.

Each day a list of things to turn in,

projects and papers and tasks to have accomplished.

Some days- many days, this month- are marked in red.

Red marker outlining the assignment, the day.

The color of importance and dread and hard work

coloring papers, midterms, presentations;

big things.

I hardly have any more red box days after October, I said today.

And I’m holding onto that hope, tightly.

Hope that school might become just a little less crazy, come November.

The hope of a little more time to spend soaking in these last weeks of my time at Moody,

and a little less time reading in the hallway at 1am.

Hope that this working, going, moving, doing pace doesn’t do me in;

hope that I can make it through three more weeks,

just as I’ve made it through nearly countless weeks before.

And really, when it comes all the way down to it,

maybe I don’t mind so very much,

because I know that these crazy days

and late nights

and the movement and the running

that characterizes my days

will not always be the case,

and I can hold to that, and somehow, somewhere,

treasure the sovereignty that put me right here, right now.

But still, I’m really looking forward to a calendar page with no red box days…

~Natalia

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