Walden, New York
December 2018

Dear Nancy,

This grandmother of yours has just turned eighty – a venerable age, though I don’t feel different. Age is not something to be embarrassed about in spite of the physical limitations it imposes. For me it is a time of counting my blessings. Including, among many, the chance to see you, now in your early twenties, grow into full adulthood.

Gustaf Tenggren, Little Red Riding Hood

In thinking of your future, I realize that I am old – not only “getting old,” as folks kindly say. Who knows if when you graduate from university I’ll be able to share what is on my heart for your future? I want to do it now – not that I will always hit the mark. But you grandchildren have always been forgiving about your Oma’s rambling. I marvel at this bond between us that enables me to share my thoughts with you based on my own struggles and experiences across generations, space, and time. I’m sure they do not always match your present situation, yet I hope you can glean from them some useful truth.

The hero wins the prize by sheer generosity and goodness of heart.

I’ve always been a storyteller, like my own Nona was to me, and I firmly believe in fairy tales. They almost always depict the fight between good and evil, giving insights into human avarice, ambition, hardheartedness. It is not the rich, the clever, or the strong who slay dragons, but the honest one who gives a helping hand, accepts help, and remains undeterred by obstacles. Such a quest is life. The hero wins the prize by sheer generosity and goodness of heart. To win the prize you need a vision. Set out bravely, willing to endure hardships. And win companions on the way who help you gain the goal.

Gustaf Tenggren, The Dragon of the North

Like a fairy-tale companion, I have accompanied you through victorious and stressful times. Oh! The frustration of being misunderstood! That keen sense of injustice in the young! Mine was not to meddle in such trouble. My task was solely to absorb the turbulence, trusting completely in your resilient spirit to rise above conflicts. Then, to help you apply that important sense of justice to those who suffer the real injustices of the world: poverty, prejudice, and political oppression. Your grandfather Andreas – a schoolteacher who, like me, had grown up in the backwoods of Paraguay – sought to implant a sense of Jesus’ preference for the poor, endangered, downtrodden into every student he taught.

I have seen your character grow, and your sense of yourself. We can sometimes feel our identities are threatened when others confront us with criticism. But self-perspective is never perfect; the objectivity of others can ­actually hone our best qualities, not threaten or destroy them.

With the unknown future before you, there is always a question of where to invest your talents. It amazes me that you embraced the challenge to study in my old home of Montevideo, Uruguay, after growing up here in the United States. Just think of what your studies will enable you to read! You can read Jorge Luis Borges with his eloquent mastery of words, Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in the original language, the voice of all the world’s exiles in the poems of Julia Esquivel. And you can appreciate authors like Cormac McCarthy, who grafted Spanish phrases so hauntingly into All the Pretty Horses.

To choose your own way of expressing your identity costs something.

Yet there is not only the question of language, but of your identity. The pressure to conform in any college setting is intense, be it in dress, music, or the party scene. To choose your own way of expressing your identity, when it goes against the norm, costs something. How important, then, to seek common ground wherever possible. I’m so glad to know you are having a good time without sacrificing inner values. Yes, you’ve had to face criticism of your country. What happens in the United States makes a splash across the world. Yet if you truly love your country, you’ll want to know how it is viewed from afar. It will strengthen your resolve to work for its betterment. Friends and foes can sharpen your awareness of its strengths and its weaknesses. The same goes for the small Bruderhof community in which you grew up.

Now in a new continent, you’ll be finding yourself probing much you hadn’t questioned before. Your faith in God the Creator and in Christ your Savior has been put into the crucible many times in these past years. Reason wants to fit faith into the capacity of our brains. Alas! How small a god would God be if that could be the case? The apostle Paul speaks in such glorious terms of faith as believing in the realities we don’t see! Even science admits many of such mysteries. You can take a flower apart, name each part, but never assemble it again into a living plant.

Yours is a particular strand called to be in harmony with the great pattern of redemption.

Like that living flower with its many parts, you are also part of a greater, mysterious whole: not only part of a family or community, not only part of a nation, but part of the fabric of humanity woven by God. Yours is a particular strand called to be in harmony with the great pattern of redemption: restoring this earth to its original purpose in the vast universe, that of serving and honoring its Creator, healing its broken relationships, and righting the injustices of society that put the weak and the poor at risk – not to mention the environment. All your capacities are to be employed to achieve that goal. The challenge is to invest not only your intellect, but your whole self into that service! The key to that challenge is in the Gospels. It was implanted by God into human hearts from of old: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I hope I’ll still be around when you come home. Then life’s lessons will truly begin. Self-expression through your gifts is a natural urge. But it is not the ultimate goal. Harmony is! At work, you’ll be part of a team with the same goals you’ve been striving for. Even so, character differences might cause you frustrations, especially when other opinions seem to hamper or limit your creativity. Yet be willing to see a conflict through your coworkers’ eyes. Taking the first step toward reconciliation demands humility and courage. Remember you are on a quest for something higher than self-fulfillment: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” are the most important guidelines. Real life can get messy, and sometimes you’ll need to find the humility to sacrifice your own best-laid plans. But the goal you work for is greater than your own satisfaction.

And read! Save time each day for reading.

Of course any work, even work you love, can become repetitive and wearing. So how do you keep up your vibrancy of spirit? Maintaining relationships beyond the work place is still very important. Seek out not only like-minded company, but also folks with other reactions to the subjects that preoccupy you that day. They may add to your understanding of cause and effect, or outline your own conviction more sharply. Indifference, self-preoccupation – even hostility to something or someone unknown is hard to conquer and so prevalent in the young. Trying to understand where it comes from helps to bridge the gap. And seek out the old, not only the young. They can be mentors to you: true friends who dare to tell you where you are wrong without fear of ruining the relationship.

And read! Save time each day for reading. In high school you read the great American classics: The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. When I read them as a teen, I read solely for the plot, the intensity of human emotions, and their tumult and ecstasies beyond my personal experience. Only as an adult was I startled and profoundly moved by their lessons. So keep on reading widely and deeply.

There is a surfeit of propaganda, slogans, and information that assault our senses continuously today. But real reading, because it takes time, affects you quite differently. It penetrates your inner being. I personally like fiction, historical fiction in particular. As Rabbi Shalom Carmy, a professor of philosophy at Yeshiva University, writes:

History books cannot replace novels. We read Dickens or George Eliot because these writers have a vision and an insight. They show us new and striking perspectives on the world, bringing to the fore aspects often invisible in the works of nonfiction. They articulate a profound understanding of human nature, illuminating the often obscure motives and reasoning that guides our behavior. They give us something we cannot get from a social scientist, historian, or journalist.

History, if it’s merely a string of facts, is blind to the human soul. But to see history through the eyes of those who lived it will bring our common humanity alive. This is what helps me remember historical facts to this day: Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief are recent ones, but of course Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War belong to our country’s classics. I do like positive endings (not necessarily happy ones) in which conflict is faced and comes to some humanly possible – if not divine – resolution. Don’t we all hope for a measure of redemption in every conflict, personally, yes, and publicly?

There will be times ahead when you will feel empty, tasked beyond your strength. These times are part of life’s circle. Endure them, trusting that God will fill you again both with inspiration and inner energy. And there will be times when God places a “no” in your path that is hard to understand. Embracing it will give you amazing insights into his plan for you. Once when I was in a time of inner crisis, a dear friend of mine wrote to me that the stones God seemingly places in our path are placed there not to hinder us, but to make us stop and consider whether we are traveling in the right direction – or whether maybe we should turn back and start over.

Gustaf Tenggren, The Castle in the Valley

Here’s one more thought that may seem mundane but can help bring unexpected joy. Although you have a specific training and skills, living in community requires the involvement of your whole self, not only your professional self. That might mean looking after an elderly person – easing her struggle with dependence by your cheerful spirit, and perhaps gaining a mentor in the process. Or it might mean embracing something you do not wish to do, even something you think you cannot do. The results may surprise you! As you know, I taught school for many years. Teaching was my passion: to accompany a child through hurdles to success was my joy in life. Imagine my disorientation when, as a young mother many years ago, circumstances led me to change jobs and I suddenly found myself responsible for a team of seamstresses. I didn’t know how to sew, and wept bitterly over the loss of my daily involvement with the children. I was sure everyone soon would see how incapable I was of my new task.

But guess what? The women I worked with had much more patience with me than I ever had with myself. Bit by bit I learned that skill – one that now makes it possible for me, at age eighty, to go each day to our community’s workshop to sew upholstery for the wonderful furniture we build. (Not to mention sewing gifts and toys for friends and grandchildren too.) That I’m still able to contribute in this way gives me great satisfaction. When we let others trust us to succeed in something new, we may discover talents we had never suspected in ourselves.

Because he loved life and loved people, the world was his classroom.

What’s more, this experience didn’t spell the end of my work as an educator, but broadened and enriched it. In the decades since, the chance to accompany children and young people in all kinds of situations, as a teacher, mentor, and grandmother, has been a great blessing for my own life. Trust is a precious gift that I never take for granted, whether offered by the young – like you, my dear – or by the old.

I mentioned your grandfather Andreas, from whom I learned so much. He only had nine years of formal schooling. But because he loved life and loved people, the world was his classroom. It can be yours as well.

This is more than enough for one letter. Now go to your favorite park in the beautiful city of Montevideo, take a good book, and enjoy some yerba mate for me.

With much love,

your fond Oma