A Yellow Disc

We have discs, attached to each of the 18 desks in the room.

Blue means I’m good, I’m working, I’m okay.

Yellow, the flip side, means I need help, I’m confused, but I’m still working, even while I wait.

Quiet work time is truly quiet now; no one dances around, hand waving in the air, panting exaggeratedly, just to make sure their desperate hand is seen.

Just turn your disc, go on to another task, another problem, and it won’t be long before a teacher appears, ready to explain the directions, check your work, clear your confusion and set you on the right track once more.

I’m rather a fan of the disc system.

But today, this afternoon, it’s nearly time for dismissal and we’re doing penmanship. Our weekly practice in patience, posture, and the neat, looping letters of the cursive alphabet.

We write in cursive all week long, and on these Thursday workbook pages, we refine our skills.

The procedure is simple.

Trace a word, write a word. That’s it.

And they go through, and I remind them about straight backs, feet on the floor, pencil hold, as I pace the room (I’m perpetually pacing circles around that cozy upstairs room).

They’ve no need for help because it’s all right there. All write there. Alright there.

But suddenly, there in the second row, just as I’m on my way past, a hand shoots up. Then, remembering, it slips down again, only to turn his disc from blue to yellow.

I catch his upturned gaze, read the faint look of concern in his furrowed brow. Under his long, thick lashes, dark eyes meet my own; I need you, I need help, he tells me.

And I stop right there, I always stop. And it’s an immediate pivot until I’m behind him, ready to answer, to help, to listen, even as I wonder that there could be a question pertaining to the cursive copying of words such as “ice” and “fierce.”

But then, just as I’ve bent my head, turned his page slightly to read where he might be, he turns, grinning up at me, his round-faced dimples nearly swallowing me whole.

I’m just kidding, I don’t need help! He laughs gently, amused at his own joke, chuckling at the way he truly had convinced me.

And I rub his head as I step away, smiling to myself even as he turns his disc back to blue once again.

And the whole conversation was twenty second, maybe less, but I want to remember it, I wanted to write it down.

Because, of course, I’ve completely fallen for that sweet boy, as well as every other love in the 4th grade. His silliness, his mischievous smile and quick thinking brought me joy, and I never want to forget that.

And deeper still, I want to hold onto the child’s trust in that moment; trust that I saw him. Trust that I would help him. Trust that I could help him. And in the end, trust that his joke, his miniature prank, would make me smile just like it made him smile.

Because he trusts that I’m kind, that I laugh, that I enjoy being there in that classroom.

And I hope he never loses that trust.

~Natalia

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All Its Own

Friday night: exhausted. So tired I can feel my body sinking heavier, deeper, into my chair at the dining table.

I was so tired.

Monday morning: slightly better. A new week calls for new energy and new enthusiasm, and eighteen 9-year-olds at the door do not take a break.

Monday afternoon: dizzy, lightheaded, balancing atop the stool I often drag about the classroom.

Monday evening: resting. I managed to stay asleep for a 40-minute nap, then moved calmly, gently through a bit of remaining prep.

Tuesday: better. The dizziness gone, the exhaustion subdued. But the planning, the work- of that, there is always more.

I’ve three desktop sticky notes devoted to To Do tasks, one updated daily with tasks to be done, preparation and notes and plans yet to be made.

Am I supposed to rest during the weekend? On the weekend?

That’s the puzzle I try to solve, every day.

Just as an ever-present reminder that I’m not on top of things.

I can’t do it all, or even part of what needs done.

I need a lot more strength than I’ve got.

And that’s a lesson all its own.

~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

Whatever Comes Next

Friday afternoon pushing through the front door, I toss my keys on the dining table, stepping over the welcoming heap of shoes, onto the well-loved green carpet beyond.

In the living room, the mother leans back from her seat on the couch, her inquisitive face sliding into my line of vision.

It’s nearing 4pm, nearing the hour of dance and errands and work and dinner, and she asks about schedule and plans and I stand there, hands on the back of a chair, suddenly realizing the length, the breadth, the depth, of my to-do list.

I think the past 12 hours were a bit of a respite, I tell her after a moment. A respite that I will have again when I’m back here on Wednesday, when I’m done.

And I was right.

Friday evening brought errands, twenty minutes at the middle sister’s dance Observation Day, before work lead to an inhaled dinner, a downtown drive, and back to back study meetings that only ended when the student center closed at 12am.

Saturday morning brought the Angel Tree Party, an event I await with eager anticipation, and relish with joy, every year. Pizza lunch dissolved into an afternoon in the same rolling seats outside the coffee shop, and it’s Sunday night now and I’ve spent so long sitting here, I might as well sleep here tonight.

At least we’ll finish knowing that we worked hard, I told Jesssica not three hours ago, as we trooped through Moody’s underground tunnels to the dorms, for a half-hour dinner break that ended in another hour of conversation, while the evidence of our final project work sat temporarily ignored all around us.

And tomorrow is Monday, the first day of finals week- my last finals week at Moody- and I have a list of things, important things, and the hours will come, and with every passing round of the clock, I’ll choose what to do next. And I hope now, I hope so very much, that I choose the right thing.

I’ve worried before, and maybe I’ve even written here, that I won’t make the right choice. That I’ll get distracted, I’ll stumble, I’ll choose wrong, and the time I might well have used to bless, to encourage, will be thrown to the wind of misplaced priorities and things that hold no real meaning.

But last Monday afternoon, sitting in the warm glow of large-bulb Christmas lights, I said trust myself and she nodded her affirmation. My eyes wandered once more over those eleven dried leaves stuck to the wall behind her as I leaned back and considered what trusting myself might look like, how I might do so when the moments move so fast, the list grows so long.

But today, right now, I don’t worry. Maybe it’s the three and a half years I’ve already spent running, working, living in this downtown space. I can look back, see how it’s all gotten done, it’s all come together in all the long months behind me, and I can know, now, that the choices I’ve made have unfolded into good. There’s trust there, I know. Trusting myself, yes, but also trusting grace and sovereignty, and that the time I’ve been here- and the ticking hours of time I have left here- has not, will not, go to waste.

And with that confidence, with that hope held tightly in my hands, in my heart, I take one step, then another, towards work, play, study- and whatever it is, whatever I am doing, there is joy and there is adventure. Because I’m trusting myself and I’m trusting Him, and whatever comes next? Well, it’ll be just what was meant to come next.

~Natalia

For Every Year

For every year that I’ve left these white dorm halls for a Thanksgiving weekend away, I’ve come back in Sunday night, and I’ve written for you.

And for me.

I’ll not go back, not look back and see, right now, but there’s an element of motion, of momentum, of clarity and confusion and unsettledness that I’ve felt before, on these late November Sunday nights.

There is still momentum, movement, this year, but I don’t feel the turmoil, the burnout, the ache to be done, quite like I have in the past.

I suppose this is because I have two more weeks left.

Two more weeks of living the life I’ve known for three and a half years.

Two more weeks of being an on-campus student.

Two more weeks of taking classes.

There are many, many other things of which I only have two weeks, but I’ll not list them here; you can imagine.

And the whole thing- this whole thing called ending is feeling very big and very vague and rather vaporously elusive at the moment. I just can’t wrap my head around it, and because I can’t imagine being done, I can’t seem to prepare for it, either.

So I suppose the best thing to do is to go to bed, to get up, to do all the things I normally do on my long, stretching Mondays, and with every thing I do, I’ll do it the very best with the very most eye towards the long future before me, towards what might be meaningful.

And I’ll just keep doing the days like that, with intention and effort and zeal, and slowly, maybe it will all come into focus, it will all make sense.

And then I’ll know, I’ll realize, I’ll really believe, that my time here is just about over,

And another thing is coming soon.

~Natalia

Palms Up

I’m so excited for you, she exclaims, pulling me into a hug. Grinning, I thank her, my exclamations matching her enthusiasm. Then I pause, shrug, palms up in surrender; I really don’t know what we’ll be doing, I admit, chuckling a little at the excitement and the possibility and the not-knowing.

She leans forward slightly, reminding me of the many times I watched her kneel, step closer, come into the lives of the women and children of Guatemala. Her pale hair, neatly coiffed, swishes as she laughs, shakes her head ever so slightly.

You didn’t have any idea last year either, and that trip was wonderful! She exclaims, her soft hand on my arm once more.

And I nod in agreement, laughing a little.

She’s right. I got on a plane first to Virginia, then Guatemala without the slightest idea what I would be doing there, and spent the first two plane rides learning the names of my teammates, save the fair-haired doctor who connections lead me to the trip in the first place.

Accustomed to learning by observation thanks to all those months spent living in Mexico, I learned Guatemala, learned Xenacoj, by watching, listening. I opened my hands, palms up once more, to the opportunities, tasks, requests, before me. And God was kind to allow what I had, what I did, what I said, to be done for good, to be done well.

I returned from my week in Guatemala emotionally exhausted, worn ragged from the unexpected weight of constant translation, but, as Summer 2013 marched rapidly on, I knew I wouldn’t change it for anything.

And I wanted to go back.

And tomorrow, beginning with an alarm set for 4:21am, I’ll begin all over again. Do I know what I’m doing? No. Do I know who I’m working with? Not everyone. Do I know who I’ll meet? What I’ll learn? How I’ll be challenged? What will break my heart? What will bring me back, all over again?

Not at all.

But God does.

So I check through security, slipping sandals off into the dingy grey bucket, I step down the jetbridge to the waiting plane, I step through customs, out into the Guatemalan air, and open my hands, palms up, ready for what comes next.

Whatever it may be.

~Natalia

Two Camp Shirts

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Friday morning, 7am. We’ve one more day of camp left, our time in Michigan, moments with WOW Campers measured in mere hours. Around me, down stairs, the girls in the house are beginning to move, to prepare for their last day with little campers. The sky, peering brightly through the thin curtains lining the window, glows pale blue, cheerily welcoming the day.

I’ve a list next to me, initials of the nine high school girls around me scrawled in red ink on a miniature note pad. A nightly ritual, I sit in the near-dark, the room illuminated in soft yellow, and go around the room: When are you getting up? What time am I waking you up? I’m the only one with a phone, the leader in the room, and this is my job. Now, at 7am, they’ve all been awoken but one. Face buried in blue sleeping bag across the room from my own bed, she breathes evenly as the day gains momentum around us.

Slipping off the thick mattress, I step down the stairs, each sandy wooden step creaking loudly. The bathroom is warm, the air heavy with shower steam and the smell of toothpaste. Water has pooled on the counter, and girls lean cautiously over the surface, careful not to drop makeup, clothes in the stagnant counter puddles. Clustered in small groups in front of the dual mirrors, I greet the gathered girls before I lean close to the reflective surface, my own eyes wide in the face of focused mascara application.

In the upstairs bedroom once more, I wake the last sleeper, return to my own suitcase as she sleepily shuffles through her own bag. Pushing sweatpants, jeans aside, I grasp the corner of the royal blue camp shirt I’ve been wearing since Monday. Pulling the ruffled shirt from under the pile, the July morning sun reveals a multitude of wrinkles and two faint stains in the rumpled blue cotton. I hesitate as two girls creak up the stairs, swishing into the room to pull sweatshirts over their own blue camp shirts, before stomping down the stairs once again, on their way to breakfast.

Not a minute later, the schoolhouse bell rings, signaling 7:30am and breakfast. Leaving the mussed shirt on my unmade bed, I pull a sweatshirt on, following the last of the girls down the stairs, out the backdoor, to the schoolhouse.

Inside, it smells like bacon and burnt toast, and the line stretches to the screen door that’s just slammed shut behind me. I slip between two high school boys, their hair hidden under hoodies pulled haphazardly over sleepy brows, and settle onto the worn couch under the window; I’ll wait for the line to subside.

A hint of fresh blue cotton peeking from inside a bin next to the couch catches my eye, and I stand to investigate. Pushing the half-closed lid aside, I find a small collection of brand new camp shirts, along with two sharpies, a red crayon, and several unused lanyards, the week’s schedule still dangling from their ends. Pulling a shirt from the stack, it’s a pleasant surprise to find it’s my size.

Bacon, a bagel, and an hour later, I’m standing at the camp check-in table, the sun’s hot on the shoulders of the brand-new camp t-shirt. I’ve permission to take the shirt, am not the only one who’s done so, but I feel vaguely selfish, as if I’ve taken a thing that someone else might have enjoyed more, might have needed more.

But it’s Friday and we’ve facepaint, music, and the waterslide. We’ve schedules to maintain and decisions to make and cleaning, preparing to do before the evening pig roast which will end our night, our week. Between cleaning the grounds- picking sticky popsicle wrappers off the grass- and organizing the sound podium, I hear they’re giving the extra shirts away tonight. I’ll just throw them into the group of kids, the local director says, shrugging happily at the idea of their sure excitement.

I stop, glance down at the still-clean shirt I’m wearing. I could change, I could give it to her, to be given away. I think about it. I picture a child proudly wearing the brilliant blue shirt, a memory of our wonderful week of camp. But I don’t change, don’t think about it, and soon enough, it’s 10pm and the pig roast is over and I’ve changed into the tank top, sweatpants that have been my evening uniform these seven days, two blue camp shirts laying discarded in the chaotic pile on my bed. I’ll give one to my sisters, I tell myself, to placate my still-whispering conscience.

But a midnight Facebook check reveals a red flag on my home screen, a message from a school friend, recently met, easily befriended.

It looks like you’re at camp, she says, in response to pictures freshly posted. She tells me about her sister, obsessed with Toy Story. Is there any chance that I can get her one? She asks, humble. Hopeful.

And I can’t just say coincidence, because this feels like sovereignty and grace and something that I can trust. Because God is gracious and kind and things like this, they make Him smile.

~Natalia

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