Milý Okurky. . . (A letter to my students)

Last Days in Prague

Dear students,

On Tuesday we had to say ‘Goodbye.’ For some of you, this was easy – you were excited about the next step of your lives, your summer plans, or even just getting home for lunch. For some of you, the last day of school was tougher. You were torn between a past that you loved and a future you’re unsure about (no matter how excited you may be for it to come). And then, not all of us got to say ‘goodbye,’ did we? That happens too.

For me, the hardest part of the day was walking down the first floor hallway for the last time. You know the one – it runs along the ninth grade classrooms from the lunch hall to the big staircase at the end of the school. All those big windows let light come washing onto the smooth floors and across your lovely picture boards. I’ve been dreading that walk for a year and a half. I go that way every day after lunch to get to my office. Really, the day I realized how hard it would be to walk through this hallway on the last day of June was the day I realized how much I was falling in love with you and your school.

But the day did have to come and, even though you’ve already moved along with your summer plans, I want to say just a few things. Think of it as one last little piece of love from your teacher to help you through the next few years.

Be ready to smile.

I know Mondays are hard and it’s easy to be glum when you get bad marks or lose your phone (or someone hides your phone and doesn’t say where! . . . Honzo. . . ). But smiling is a way to fight back. Happiness is not something we find, it’s something we make. Smiling – even when you don’t really feel like it – is the first step. And I think you’ll discover that if you smile at people, they’ll smile back. That’s called human connection and we don’t do it enough. But more importantly, your smile will have an effect on those around you. Your smiles have gotten me through some really difficult days. The person I am today is made up of tiny pieces of the people you have been for the last two years. You have shaped me by our shared experiences and you’ll continue to shape those around you for as long as you live! We humans share this planet and we will influence each other, for better or for worse. Remember that and decide: how do you want to shape people? If all you ever give the world is a smile every day, it will be a brighter place.

Be kind.

This one is tough. Being kind isn’t easy and it isn’t glamorous. It certainly isn’t cool. But you know what? It is one of the greatest things you will ever learn. Learn to be nice to people you don’t like. Learn to keep quiet when you want to say something funny at the expense of someone else’s feelings. Learn not to laugh when a friend is down, no matter how funny it might seem to you – help them back up instead. I know this might sound boring to you. It’s not. Kindness is both a gift and an adventure, and only the bravest will ever know its fullest depths. It is the most underappreciated form of goodness and heroism that exists. There is no glory in being kind – only the reward of helping another person. And that is enough, trust me.

Don’t complain about lunch.

We can all agree that not every lunch in school is a good lunch. I particularly struggle with the fish dishes. Gag. But someone made that food. Someone paid money so that you could eat it. And someone much hungrier than you is going without lunch at all today. This isn’t meant to make you feel guilty, only to remind you to appreciate what you’ve been given. Appreciation is something you’ll struggle with your whole life. Start now. Start by thanking God for food to eat, friends to eat it with, and a school to eat it in. The best part about this is that the more you appreciate what you have, the fuller life will seem to you. Richness and joy will leak out of every mundane activity and colorless possession and you’ll discover an entire world that most people will never notice because they never learned appreciation.

Work hard.

Duh. Turn in your homework. Study for tests. Get good marks. But hard work won’t do you any good if you’re not doing it for a purpose. And I don’t mean, “Mom is happy when I have good marks,” or “I need to get into a good high school.” Work hard because you can. What a gift it is to learn! What a privilege it is to fill our minds! God has given us the most amazing capacity to grow and expand! It can be a struggle and you won’t always win, but I want you to try. I want you to aim to grow yourself into the brightest, smartest, hardest-working person you can be – but don’t do it for me! Do it for yourself. Do it because you owe your humanity the very minimum respect of cultivating your mind, body and soul to the best of your ability.

Don’t give up on yourself.

I’ve seen some of you quit. I’ve seen you come to a wall that you didn’t think you could climb. Can I tell you something? Watching you give up on yourselves is the hardest part of my job – worse than grading papers (or losing students on the metro. . . Petře. . .). Thomas Edison (inventor of the light bulb) once said, “I didn’t fail – I found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb!” And after thousands of tries, he finally succeeded. And all those failures added to his character – they made him a stronger person. The key is to keep trying, because, ultimately, our greatest successes are not what we accomplish but who we become. Become someone who doesn’t quit.

Don’t give up on others.

There have been a few times in the last few years when I’ve thought, “I’m not meant to be a teacher – I can’t do this.” (One of these times may definitely have followed the ping-pong incident). Do you know why I didn’t quit? Because you wouldn’t let me. Every time I got worn down, you picked me right back up. We need people to believe in us. We need to believe in others – and not just with things like school and work! Growing up is hard and we all make mistakes. Be patient with your friends. Forgive. Forget. Work together. Don’t give up on those around you who are struggling to find themselves – and I mean everyone, not just our friends. Everyone. Our faith in humanity is much too fragile. Learn to sympathize, learn to respect the struggles of others, learn to lift people up.

Follow your road.

Leaving school has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It breaks my heart to go. A lot of people have been asking me, “When will you come back?” And the truth is, I don’t know if I will come back. Who can know the future but God? On Tuesday, when someone asked me when I’d be coming back to Prague, a dear teacher took my face in her soft hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Your life is ahead of you.” I needed to hear that. I needed someone to tell me that it’s okay to say ‘goodbye.’ Love and friendship are not bound by space and time. So follow your road. Go where you need to go. The people who love you most will be waiting for your return or simply praying for your safe journey, wherever it takes you.

Keep your heart open.

I want to thank you for letting me into your school. You can’t know how I scared I was when I first came to Prague. I didn’t understand anything anyone said. I wasn’t used to the rules and customs here. And I kept getting lost on the stairwell! Most of all, I was scared of letting everyone down, of being a bad teacher. Nebyla jsem špatná učitelka, žejo? I could not have made it through the last two years without your help. You have been so kind to me. You have been so much fun to work with. And you believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself anymore. If anything, you were my teachers and I was your most adoring student – and I always will be. I want you to know that you have been my greatest adventure. I also want you to know that it’s okay to love your new teacher the way you have loved me. People come and go – that’s life. But there is no end to the amount of love we can give. Don’t let the pain of an ending keep you away from the beauty of a beginning. All things do end, eventually. Keep your heart open for whoever needs a home there. And be ready to love everyone – no matter where they come from or where they’re going.

It took me less than 90 seconds to walk from one end of that hallway to the other. The school was quiet – the way it is in the afternoon when you’re all tucked away in your last classes of the day and everyone is sleepy from a full lunch. For that 90 seconds, I thought about all my favorite moments in this school. The first snowfall, Halloween, learning our Christmas songs, the Garden Party. I thought of all your little triumphs and all your dreams, your fears and hopes and crazy ideas – pieces of yourselves that you’ve given me. What an honor to have been your teacher!

But before I knew it, the hallway ended. The view around the corner spread out before my eyes and, looking backwards, the hall lay still and silent.

Life happens quickly. It’s over before we know it. Don’t waste a moment, don’t miss a beat. Remember that you won’t always have the chance to say ‘goodbye,’ so live each moment expressing your love for those around you – let there never be a doubt in their minds how much they mean to you. I hope, I hope, I have been able to express just how much you have meant to me.

But above all, don’t be afraid. The world needs brave people who will be kind, fair and loving.

Are you ready?

Best of luck,

Your Teacher, Mary

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What if we’re all bullfrogs?

Some days are deep-pond days. When the afternoon sunlight is clear and warm and stretches lazily across the deck where you sit eating cake, truffles and braided raisin cake; when your head feels swampy from the springy perks in temperature and the richness of your coffee; on those days the smallest things will reveal the deepest meanings.

Friday was a deep-pond day.

I had been meaning to visit the ‘P’ family for weeks but holidays and school schedules kept getting in the way. It was all for the best. Friday turned into one of those days which required an escape from my usual routine of going home, cleaning up, and putting in a few more hours of work till sundown. I needed a break.

So off the train to the small village, one stop outside Prague, and into the ever-open arms of Mrs. P, I literally ran. She’s been my mom-away-from-mom for two years now (one of several that I’m blessed to have here in Prague, actually. Life Tip: endear yourself to loving adults – they will scoop you out of messes you don’t even realize you’re in).

The moment I walked through the door, I was given a second lunch (mucher better than the first, served in the school cafeteria) and a tall glass of Kofola. For those who don’t know, Kofola is the Czech version of Coca-Cola. It’s decent enough, though not as sweet as American Coke, and I have quite adapted to its gingery taste. I’ve known the P’s since 2010 and they’ve never failed to feed me into oblivion.

After I finished eating the dumplings and sun-dried tomato-stuffed chicken, my water glass was topped off and Karel brought me a caffe latte.

I met Karel when he was just sixteen. He has turned into a sharp, smart, driven young man studying at the most prestigious University in Prague, but I still see the sweet boy with mispronounced English showing us Americans all of the city’s oldest sights.

His younger sister, Jana, is a darling. I gave her English lessons last year and she’s improved immensely, although I doubt I can take much credit.

The four of us – Karel, Jana, Mrs. P and myself – lounged on the shaded deck around a wooden table covered with a colorful spread of desserts and coffee trimmings. The sunshine washed over us like cool waves on a tired beach.

It’s hard to admit, especially for young people, I think, that we get tired. That we’re at the end of our rope. That we need a break. We are not the endless stores of energy that we thought we were in college (and now that I’ve given up the energy drinks and napping through Astronomy class, I’m beginning to feel it). It’s not just a physical thing. It’s emotional too.

I feel old even saying this, but I’m learning how important it is to take care of yourself – of your whole self. This Friday afternoon with this lovely family was part of my treatment.

Eventually, we left our chairs and moved over to the pond.

“We have maybe twenty frogs in here right now,” said Karel. I didn’t make it all the way to the fish pond at the end of the garden. About a foot from the water’s edge I collapsed into the soft grass, barely able to see the water glistening in front of me. It was silky smooth and I much preferred lying on it to looking for bitty, web-footed jumpers.

“There’s one,” said Jana, her sweet, school-girl face dancing with a smile. “Do you see him?”

I looked at the glassy surface. All I could see was a pool of green, blue and brown rippling beneath golden fingers of sunlight. No frogs.

Karel reached his hand into the pond and pulled it out.

Let me first say that frogs are not a creature I have a lot of experience with.

Let me add that this was no petite, little tree frog.

This was a bullfrog. It was massive. And as soon as I saw it, suddenly the whole pond came into better view. These green mammoths were swimming, darting and pawing at each other all around the basin. For a split second, I contemplated running away or bursting into tears, both of which are totally normal reactions and I judge no one for thinking the same way.

I think at some point in my life I would I have been okay simply standing around the pool, counting them (we got to about 28 before deciding that we’d never find them all hidden beneath the scum and algae). But I’m realizing that I’m a different person than I thought I was. Time changes us and we don’t notice it happening till it’s done. I’m realizing I’m now a kind of person who doesn’t mind frogs so much.

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Some of the frogs were dark green, others were nearly white with muddy brown speckles. None of them turned into princes, though Jana and I tried to convince them it was in their best interest to do so.

Into the clear, cold water, my hand dove and reached for a chum. It was about half the size of my hand and slimy to boot. Pushing aside the wives’ tales about warts (isn’t that toads, anyway?), I pulled out my very own croaker. He was gorgeous.

He stayed still for about two seconds before diving back into the pond. Again and again, Jana, Karel and I coaxed and prodded frogs into our hands, sloshing them gently about before letting them return to their underwater homes. Some of them had surprisingly strong grips, and several sang sweetly for us before hopping away.

“They come from the forest,” Karel told us, pointing to the trees just beyond the field outside their garden. “They’ll just be here long enough to have babies and then they’ll go back to the woods.”

I watched a dark green bullfrog soar through the water, a lighter, smaller frog clinging to its back, like Superman and Lois Lane.

“They’re gonna have cute kids,” I said.

“They’re gonna have 300 cute kids,” said Jana.

“Three hundred? Really?”

She looked at me and smiled, not understanding that my question was sincere.

“Why so many?” I asked.

“Well, some will get eaten by snakes and birds,” she said. “They won’t all make it back to the pond.”

I looked at the bullfrogs below us. These were the lucky ones then. The ones who made it back just long enough to love somebody and produce heirs to their froggy world before heading back out into the great beyond to do whatever frogs do.

Is this all there is? I wondered as we left the pond and retreated to another round of coffee, chocolate and fruit inside the house. Is it just this? Finding someone to hold on to? Is this what we live for?

For a moment, the thought was comforting. How nice to be a bullfrog. Bad days, mess ups, failures can all be pushed aside because they don’t matter. All that matters is that we love and are loved by others.

WRONG.

Please excuse my bluntness, but that mode of thinking is exactly what screwed up my Friday in the first place.

Frankly, it’d be pretty depressing if love was all there was to this life, because I haven’t found another bullfrog yet (and I’m totally willing to settle for one that doesn’t turn into a prince). And, anyway, being loved by humans is a broken, fleeting blessing that comes and goes with the tide of human emotions and the ebb and flow of life’s unstoppable current. Just like the spring ends and the frogs return to their woods (to be eaten, most likely), so our relationships – fragile, imperfect, finite – will not be lasting, will not have an eternal significance in their own right.

But the thing is, we’re not frogs. We’re people. We are made in the image of God and God has a plan for each of us that extends beyond living and loving and dying. We were made for a purpose. Our relationships – with spouses, family and friends – have significance because they are woven into the purpose that God has for each of us. We are tools to build one another up and help each other down the God-given road.

So even if we don’t all make it back to the pond; even if we get a little lost in the woods; even if we swim in that pond alone; even if we have really, really awful Fridays that turn into awful years, we are more than just lost, lonely frogs.

We are children of the Living God, caretakers of His world. We are His hands to the poor and His voice to the lost. We are His ambassadors and His soldiers. We are His people.

And that means the mess ups and the failures and the bad days do matter, but only inasmuch as they draw us closer to Him, showing us our need for His grace, and reminding us that His love and his power to heal and make us whole does not come and go with the seasons.

It is eternal.

Things I’ve learned from writing letters

Sometimes life keeps us busy and sometimes Netflix masquerading as life keeps us busy.

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I’ve been away from home for a year and four months. It’s been nine months since I last visited and it’ll be nine more before I’m home for good. Kind of a long time to be away. From live-at-home college student to nine time-zones away from my family, I have found unexpected, inexpressible comfort in snail mail.

As a kid, I tried keeping pen pals but I would eventually lose enthusiasm and forget to write back. Aren’t we glad to know I have always been slightly lazy and self-absorbed.

But here, on the other side of the world, handwritten letters are my life-line. They’re the closest thing I have to home – they’re genuine pieces of it, actually. They’re slivers of someone’s heart, inked over with love and mailed with an official stamp that says, “This person cares enough about you to buy a half-inch scrap of sticky paper from the US government.”

It means a lot.

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But in writing letters I’ve learned things about myself, about people and about life. I’d like to share a few.

    1. Heart is in the content, soul is in the detail – We pour our hearts out in letters – things we like, people we care about, thoughts that have been weighing on our minds. But the things that best reflect the finer aspects of who we are, often, are unwritten. They’re the choice of stationary (or lack thereof), the doodles in the margins or on the envelopes, the tidiness of the address or the lilt of the pen. These things say: attention to detail, free spirit, practical, steady. I like that I have a friend who only sends me postcards from our hometown and one who always takes up the entire front of the envelope with my name in different fonts. I like that I can immediately recognize letters from one of my fellow expats because he has used the exact same sized envelope for the last year, and frankly, it’s pretty big. I like seeing who people are when they put themselves through the mail.
    2. Beauty comes in waiting – Sometimes it takes a week or two, sometimes it takes several months to hear back from people. Part of this is that letters take time to travel and I’ve had the pleasure of sending letters to some of the remotest corners of the world this year. I learned early not to be too antsy in waiting for replies. There was a time when I’d check the mailbox twice a day and feel the crushing disappointment every time it was empty. But if we spend our whole lives waiting at the foot of the stairs for the mailman (which I have done), we will miss the joys that lay outside our door. It’s been wonderful to come home and be surprised by a letter sitting on the counter for me, knowing that it was well-waited for, not in anxiousness but in peaceful anticipation.
    3. The weather matters – Believe it or not, I love hearing about what the weather is like back home. All someone has to do is say, “It’s still hot here” and the scenes of San Diego’s Indian Summers come flooding off the page – hot days with cool nights, air more humid than it was in August as it waits for the first showers of September or October to wash through, and skies that get just a little hazy. It brings me right back to my front door step or to the Bonita main street. Sometimes friends will write me and say nothing much has changed – assuming that life abroad is inherently more interesting than life at home. But life is in the details, like weather and car problems and the new frozen yogurt flavor you are currently obsessed over. Don’t deprive me of the details.
    4. Don’t be picky in accepting love – As a kid, getting letters was all about me. It took a long time for me to learn that accepting love is as important as giving it. I am touched by the people who have mailed me notes, birthday cards and little care packages. Some of them completely surprised me because I just didn’t have the senders on my “good friends” radar when I left home. But it has been a blessing to receive and to return. Granted, getting jars of peanut butter, glow sticks, sticker pads, books and fluffy socks in the mail is a feeling that cannot be compared to anything else in this world, but I’m more grateful for the friendships that have come with them. As someone who always tried to fit in with the “perfect friend group” in the early years of high school (ahh, high school), discovering the joy of learning to love people because they loved you first has been eye-opening, humbling and wonderful.
    5. It’s never too late to start again Part of the reason why I was such a horrible pen-pal as a kid (and I’ll be the first to admit that part of me just quit when I realized I would never be able to afford Lisa Frank stationary), was because I felt like if I didn’t respond right away I couldn’t respond at all. How sweet it’s been to find that you can pick up a pen months after your last response and find both words and recipients ready to begin the adventure again. I got three letters from one of my more persistent friends before it became apparent that I just wasn’t going to write back. She stopped writing. I felt horrible. Sometimes life keeps us busy and sometimes Netflix masquerading as life keeps us busy. Finally I bought new stamps and wrote her a quick note. And just like that the steady flow of airborne paper returned, as did the delight in knowing I have a friend thinking about me on the other side of the world.
    6. Sharing life is important – Look, I realize that we all have our close-knit groups, our people, our bffs. Whatever. But we need people in our lives. People who see us from the outside, with whom we can share glimpses of our insides. We need support and accountability and the simple validation that a world exists outside our immediate geographical and emotional circumference. And we need people who will challenge us to rise to the calling of being that validation for others. Sharing our stories, even in small pieces, is both a pleasure and a privilege and I have been touched beyond measure by those who’ve both listened to mine and sent me theirs.

I save all my letters in a box under my bed. They are my most cherished souvenirs from my time abroad . . . Mementos to remind me that no matter where in the world we travel, the most amazing things we will ever discover will be love and friendship.

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