The last summer I spent with my grandparents, right after I finished undergrad, is perhaps the one I remember most vividly. I came to Missouri in May and stayed straight through most of June, and one of the most painful moments was this: a sweet man from church came over one day and mowed the acre of front lawn, without pretense. I could have done it, of course, but he meant it as a gesture of kindness towards these good people for whom he had so much respect and affection.
My grandma didn’t see it that way, however. That afternoon in the kitchen she let loose to me about how unhappy she was. He had not asked, she said. Why would he do that? Why would he just show up? They didn’t need his help. In frustration, she repeated herself several times, more sharply with each go round. (To be fair to both of them, he may well have talked to her beforehand, and more than once, but her memory was slipping and slipping already.)
An hour or two later, as I sat up in my room reading, she climbed the stairs, the only time she did so all summer, and stood in my doorway on the verge of tears. She stood in my doorway, and with a tempest rising in her well-tested and stretched soul, she apologized to me. She said she knew she shouldn’t have spoken like that. She knew he probably meant well. But it was so hard. It was just so hard, Alice.
I sat on my bed, keenly aware of my dirty laundry scattered over the bright blue carpet and of my position as tenth of her nineteen grandchildren, middlest of the middling, and said in a near whisper, “Grandma, sometimes it’s good to accept help from other people.”
“But we’re the ones who help!” she said.
“I know,” I told her. “But sometimes that changes.”
Her world was spinning upside down.
I, too, want to contribute. When you are able to be the one who helps, you know you’re on solid ground, that something’s going right for you. To be the giver is reassuring. In my four years of teaching, I became a contributor. I was patient and I was reliable and I answered emails promptly. My desk was a mess, but my webpage was always up-to-date with homework assignments. I lent my students more paper and pencils than I should have when they came to class unprepared. I was comforted by my own regularity, and so, sometimes, were the kids. When they came in chaotic, I would be calm. All of us could count on that. Most of all, as a friend who’s still teaching said to me recently, I don’t know what I would do if people weren’t asking me questions all day. Miss Hodgkins, Miss Hodgkins, Miss Hodgkins…
I’ve been asked plenty of questions here too, but they’re harder ones. Beyond Where are you from? and What program are you in? I keep getting, Why are you here? Have you found your people yet? What’s been the hardest thing? What do you find lifegiving? My most honest answers thus far have been: I don’t know, Maybe–I was hoping it might be you?, Answering these questions, and What?
Partly by birthright, and partly by dint of having taught teenagers, I have a slightly overdeveloped sense of the absurd, so all this makes me want to laugh. And of course, as I’ve had others here warn me, if you look someone straight in the eye as you answer, you also might cry. It happens. I’ve done it. (No surprise.) But laughter and tears aren’t bad options, and people are pretty forbearing. In fact almost everyone here is out-and-out pastoral (with good reason–it is theology school.) And as they speak to a first year, especially one who sometimes unwittingly gives off the impression of fragility, they are kind.
And this is the crux of the matter: people are kind. Not kind because they love me or appreciate me or need me or enjoy me. They are kind out of their own God-given goodness. Though I am technically the focus of these check-in conversations, I am not the motivating factor. God’s grace, active and moving, is all.
I was the one who helped, but sometimes that changes.
So suffice to say, my world, like my grandmother’s, is spinning upside down. In a million other ways I will never surpass her legacy: her hospitality, her faithfulness, her work ethic, her pie crust, but I can take a lesson with her here at least. So I am relearning, for the thousandth time, how one accepts grace with humility.
I had reasons for moving and coming to this school, but most of the time I don’t remember them anymore, and when I do, they don’t seem very important. Out of the first five weekends of this term I will have spent four of them away on various retreats and course outings. It is occasionally exhausting to spend such concentrated time with new people, but I am becoming sure of one thing: I am grateful to be here. I thought I intended this move, that I planned and orchestrated it, but in truth, the Lord did. I am here because he set me here. He intended this. I am meant to know this place, to know these people, but mostly, to know him.
Happiness is not everything, but I am happy.