A Few Things I’ve Needed to Hear Lately

-Most days you will wake up angry and sad. You will be angry about a sickness which we cannot see or, even months in, seem to understand as it creeps between us. You will be angry about the fear which now ripples beneath everyone’s skin and will continue to for a long time. You will be angry that you can’t be home in sticky North Carolina heat this summer, even for a week. You will be angry that you can’t hug your friends. You will be angry about the price of cheese. You will be angry that you need to put away your laundry. You will be angry that the sun is out. 

It will be tempting to try to fix this anger, but you can’t. It will keep happening nearly every morning. What you can do is sit on the floor, which is oddly comforting. You can have a cry and put away the laundry. The sunshine will seem more friendly by midday. Buy the cheese anyway.

 

-The presence of the people you can be with physically and the effort of talking with the people you can’t is not just some time-filler or coping mechanism. Even when conversations are marked by uncertainty and anxiety and vague fatigue, there is something lasting building at their core, some kind of tough relational metal which can only be forged in circumstances of earnest, shared precariousness. These persistent conversations and interactions have more goodness than you know hidden in their quiet, circuitous frustrations.

Really, you and the people around you, the people you care about, have been given specifically to one another in this moment. So watch out for them, cheer for them, be patient with them. And when you fall down on the job, get up and try again tomorrow. It will be okay.

 

-Slow down. Breathe the good air. Listen to rain on the roof when it comes. Let that be your only plan sometimes. One truth this experience is obstinately handing to many of us, over and over, is our own creatureliness. We cannot have it all or do it all, we cannot set up the perfect system for our worldwide operations or even for our own daily life that will protect us from human frailty. We are severely limited. In fact, we are utterly dependent on those around us, and, more than that, on the Maker who breathed and loved us into being. 

And that’s unabashedly good news. Sure, the fear crawls beneath your skin, you keep waking up angry, and you’re almost always tired when you hang up the phone, but you are the precious child, the needy child, of a Creator who delights to be needed, who made this world not for you conform to it or conquer it or shrink from it, but that you might abide in and with the fruits of his labor and his joy. So go ahead, kiddo, be small today.

Quarantine Sundays

I spent the last week trying to pull together an entry that was really high-minded and meaningful, but then trashed it in favor of what follows. Sorry. In some ways, this one is more for my own personal future reference than for any outside readership.

I look back over the last weeks of my journal and I find there is a pattern. I realize that Sundays have usually been the hardest.

I’ve never been good at sabbath. I procrastinate too much all the other days, and my work has always seemed to bleed over, so I’ve never really learned to treat it as something special in the way I ought. But now the world is holding its breath and things move so slow (when things move at all) that I find even when I’ve spent ample amounts of time dawdling all week, I can afford to have a mostly free day on Sunday. 

And these still Sundays are hard days. I feel waterlogged, crumpled into myself, bogged down with tired. Within the extra quiet my fears get loud and so I journal and I read and I watch sitcoms and I call my mom and I sit on the floor and look at the sky out the window. And I know I could go for a walk, but I did that yesterday. (I’m sure Vancouver is always beautiful in the spring, but I strongly suspect that it has never before been as beautiful as it was this past week.) Finally, I think to myself that this rest thing is frankly pretty exhausting and I might need to spend the next several days recovering from it.

My church service is in the evening, and when I do at last sit down for that with my housemates, it helps. It honestly does. In a way that I cannot always manage to choose on my own, it takes me gently by the shoulders and guides me a few steps backwards so my view’s a little wider. Don’t look so close, honey, it whispers.

Backing up is often frightening. I am increasingly realizing that I don’t like the unknown. I’d rather lean into the here and now, my nose close to the glass of it, peering around for decisions I can make which will help me feel safe, for things I can control. So at first when I back up I shiver because I look in both directions and all I see is blankness and more uncertainty. I don’t know what will come next in my life now, and I don’t know how much any of those other things I did a couple months ago in the other lifetime really mattered, so I end up feeling a bit like Ozymandias with the barren sands of time stretching out on either side.

But if I stay backed up just a little longer, if I dig my toes into those sands and take a few deep breaths of fresh air, I begin to remember that my constantly-droning inner monologue is not the only voice in existence, that it is not always the infallible truth-teller I imagine it to be. And I perhaps remember that, faithful as he’s always been, the Lord holds his tired, befuddled children in his hands, even on quarantine Sundays.

Bearing Hope

We are settling into February, which is a month with which I’ve always had a bit of a tenuous relationship. It is nearly always a natural low point for me, the downturn of grey and dust before the upturn of Spring and daffodils, but I have grown used to this rhythm. A few years ago in February I wrote this, and I find myself returning to reread it each year and realizing I believe it more and more each season, because this is a time, I think, when most of us are the poor in spirit, and the idea that ours (ours!) is the kingdom of heaven can seem particularly fantastic.

Fantastic, even completely implausible, and yet true. Ours is the kingdom. 

I am returning back to the base of things recently and more and more I find that when I dig down to that base through the litter and grime of this world and of my life and heart and mind, all the way down to the rock bottom, I find that that rock bottom is somehow made out of hope. Another implausibility. Hope is always and ever the ground I stand on. And more than that, I am learning that I bear it involuntarily on my shoulders–it drapes heavy over them from morning till night. Sometimes I am even able to see the way it lays weighty across the shoulders of those around me. It is uncomfortable, inconvenient, unavoidable, completely necessary. We bear hope with us everywhere, its train dragging behind us, through the ins and the outs of our days. We cannot shrug hope off, we cannot wipe its dust from our palms, cannot extract it from our guts. It hangs like an indelible banner over our heads–hope above and below, behind and before. We live, I have come to realize, in its very midst.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

Just Showing Up

It’s snowing. I just got back from my evening church service fifteen minutes ago, and outside under the golden street light I can already see a delicate icing sugar layer building up on my car. The air is colder than it was.

I like to think that most of the time what I write on here touches on the universal, but I’m not sure that what I’m about to say will. To some of you it may feel quite foreign, and I run the risk of being a writer without an audience. But on we go, because putting words into the white is longstanding habit.

I’ve realized recently that one of the things which I have learned to treasure since coming to Regent is the value of just showing up. If there is somewhere to be, an invitation given, an event planned, you say yes, you go, you just do it. Of course, I always thought of showing up as valuable: good for us, good for the people around us, good for building up everyone’s favorite abstract concept–community.  So be reliable, be committed, show up. You are participating in what people around here call “the ministry of presence.”

But it used to be that doing so made me sick to my stomach. I thought showing up for things had paramount value, and for years that value came with extra tasks attached: I was supposed to fit in, to be bright and charming, to have something to say, and just please, for God’s sake, be more than an odd, oblong lump in the corner. When I was tired or overwhelmed, or feeling particularly shy, the pressure was nearly paralyzing. Once, I tried to go to a new Bible study with kind leaders who had repeatedly invited me but ended up instead in a grocery store parking lot about a mile away, weeping uncontrollably. I couldn’t do it. I went home. 

Showing up was the thing which always took the most courage, more courage than facing rooms full of teenagers daily, more courage than giving a commencement address in front of hundreds of people including a handful who had sent me less-than-kind emails, and more courage than quitting the job I had always wanted. Showing up was terrifying.

But somehow my paradigm about showing up has shifted. My sense of its value has become keener, but it’s not so fearsome as it used to be. I’m not sure what precipitated the change. Maybe it was sitting silently, taking notes in dozens of RCSA meetings, maybe it was writing a tongue-in-cheek article about being shy and publishing it in the school newspaper, or maybe it was merely my mother telling me that anyone who liked me would like the fact that I was quiet in a group, because that was a part of me and there was nothing wrong with it. (Believe it or not, this had never occurred to me.) But whatever it was, I have stopped thinking of showing up as a performance, a pulling together of all my emotional resources to understand and adapt to a new environment, and instead started thinking of it as a simple physical action. Showing up is getting on the bus, getting in my car, walking into the room, sitting in that chair. Showing up is merely that: showing up. So what if you sit alone and don’t manage to string more than three words together? Those are separate challenges for another day, maybe for never. You showed up.

And somehow, I have learned that, by some divine grace, this much simpler duty still participates in the ministry of presence, still contributes to community, still matters. When I stop and remember, I realize that perhaps it always did. My junior year of college I gave a paper at a small academic conference my school was hosting. I invited some friends to come, including classmates from a seminar. Only one person from the seminar came. He slouched in wearing sweatpants right before it began and sat in the very back, likely the only STEM student in a room full of English scholars all discussing metaphysical poetry. Afterwards, he approached me briefly, complimented my presentation as a matter of course, and then was gone. I didn’t need him there. I wasn’t particularly anxious, I had other friends present, and frankly, in that moment he was just an odd, oblong lump in the corner, and yet I remember feeling particularly touched. He had showed up just to show up. It was an important act, and the beginning of a real friendship.

So, more and more over the last year, I have unconsciously begun to take his approach to showing up. And in doing so, I’ve learned things. I have learned that in giving myself permission to be dumb and dull and quiet and small, I am aware of my God’s gargantuan love for me, even when I shrink to this size. I have learned about sitting in the middle of that love and straining my eyes to see the place where its waves touch its sky.

I’ve also learned that simply physically showing up and giving myself no other necessary task than to sit still in the palm of my Maker frees me. It frees me to occasionally be bright and charming. Sometimes when I show up now, I even have something to say.

The Indigestible Portions

I’m probably about to get all kinds of poetry on you. (But please don’t go away just yet. Hear me out.)

I am tired and achy at the moment. We could blame it somewhat fairly on last night’s restless sleep, but at the core is the fact that I’ve had an anxious week and my body knows it. Some days the sky is blue and I wear sparkly shoes because I like them, but other days, though the sky is still blue, I wear sparkly shoes because I need them and much of my energy goes into managing and dismantling my fear, trying to move past it so I can function. More than ever recently, I’ve become aware of the myriad of coping strategies I’ve developed to deal with everyday anxieties.

When I was eleven I made up a trick I sometimes still use. When I felt overwhelmed I would take a piece of paper and draw and label a little cloud for each of my worries–size and darkness corresponding to the intensity of each. I found that when I did this, put them out on paper visually, there were always fewer of them than I had assumed.

In college, to get out of bed on hard days I would promise myself that I could wear an oversized flannel, that I could put no effort into my appearance and play-act as the Invisible Girl, if only I would get up and go to class.

Even this past Fall, when I first moved to Vancouver, I was still adding strategies to my arsenal. I was irrationally nervous about riding the city bus, and so for the first few days, every time I waited at a bus stop I took a picture of my feet, so that my camera roll would fill up with growing evidence that I had done this before and I could do it again.

Every one of the aforementioned strategies have worked and still work when I need them. I am oddly proud of all the little ways I’ve come up with to chant to myself, “Be brave, be brave, and be brave.” It’s quite possible you have a similar list yourself.

But.

It is Lent now. We are in a season in which we are supposed to remember our own mortality, to feel death in our bones and pray to understand what that means. So I have found myself thinking that while bravery is good and well, it is perhaps also good and well to sit and learn from my own frailty. When my hands begin to shake, as they have a couple times this week, perhaps instead of sitting on them so they will stop and no one will notice, I can look at them and remember the dust from whence they were formed. In the stillness of the weeks leading up to our celebration of Christ’s deafening acts of redemption and renewal, maybe this magnified anxiety is not a curse, but an appropriate reminder of my need.

In my Christian Imagination class a couple days ago we read Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” He is mournful and acutely aware of his limits, his lack of answers, his lack of any sufficient words at all. The liturgy of any traditional Ash Wednesday service is full of the same heavy truths Eliot has felt all his life, full of the angst of Prufrock’s “overwhelming question” from fifteen years earlier in his career. Yet in this first long poem after his conversion, everything is different because while Eliot sits in the void within himself, he knows the Word has come to fill it. The Gospel gives context to the weakness he has always known so intimately. And conversely, Eliot’s long fixation with human lack and the inadequacy of his own speech has fit him with ears to hear the words of Him who is greater.

So sure, those pictures of my feet back in August bear witness that I have done this before, that riding the bus is really not such a big deal, but if I am being honest, perhaps even more importantly, they bear witness to the truth that I was afraid. I was foolishly afraid of something I could not name, which never came to fruition. Those pictures chronicle how I am riddled with sin, riddled with holes, ultimately unable, despite all my little tricks, to cope with the “indigestible portions” of my human soul.

And last night I read the end of Revelation, full of lines which deserve to be shouted, which have been and will be, all about newness, over and over. He is making all things new. Those words are always true whoever and wherever you are, but it is the infirm sinner, silent and barren, who really feels their power.

Moving

Since probably mid-elementary school, I’ve been shy. My teachers described me that way then, and generally, I would describe myself that way now, though I’ve managed to enter the adult world semi-successfully at this point.

And when I was a freshman in high school, right at the peak of my self-consciousness about the way I looked and walked and talked and thought, a senior boy started waving at me. I don’t remember when or why, but suddenly, whenever I passed him in the small hallways of my high school, he would wave insistently, obviously wanting a response. At first, I refused to give him one, because I assumed that I was being made fun of, that I was the brunt of some mysterious joke.

As a high school teacher now, this makes me realize how little I really understood the people around me, because teenagers’ meanness tends to be somehow simultaneously more obvious and more subtle than this–it doesn’t usually take the middle way–but this fear of some potential mockery I wouldn’t understand dictated the way I behaved with peers outside my own social circle for a very long time. In fact, I probably didn’t entirely outgrow it until my early twenties. A close friend once lightly called me “ice queen,” and it cut surprisingly deep. But I realize now the name was warranted: I used to stiffen, and behave terse or even rude, sometimes outright ignoring innocent and friendly overtures. I figured if I just kept walking and didn’t engage, I wouldn’t get hurt.

But this guy kept on waving. It went on for weeks, multiple times a day, whenever our paths crossed. I couldn’t understand it: since it was a small school, he probably knew my name, but he was confident, cool, unnervingly older. What could he want from me? Finally, with my stomach rising up into my throat like a balloon, I took what felt like a very great risk, and waved back. And he didn’t make some insulting gesture as if he’d caught me in his trap, he didn’t turn to a friend and snicker (in fact, I think he was alone), instead he jumped and he cheered aloud. And in the days that followed he kept waving, even more enthusiastically than before. Pink-faced, I would raise a hand in response. Sometimes he would ask how my day was going. Occasionally a friend would notice the interaction, and I would shrug and whisper, I don’t know

Gradually I accepted these uncomfortable moments in my day as simply part of my lot in life, and continued for months to dutifully wave, much to his delight. At the end of the year, instead of just saying hello, he began to badger me everytime he saw me to sign his senior journal, which was laid out with all the others on a table in the upstairs hallway (one of many adorable Caldwell traditions). The first few times I ignored the request. I figured he didn’t really mean it. But he kept asking and asking. So finally I did. I know some great war must have gone on inside me between my shyness and confusion over the whole situation and my innate desire to be original and witty in writing, but I have no actual memory of what I wrote. What I do know is that he must have demanded my yearbook to sign in return, because here’s what it says on the second-to-last page: “Dear Alice, Even though we don’t talk that much I still consider you a best friend. I’ll miss your waves.”

The combination of complete understatement and complete falsehood in the first sentence broke through to me, and I think I laughed when I read it. Somewhere in the swirling chaos of my fifteen-year-old thoughts, I finally understood that I had, for months, been the recipient of an ongoing act of pure and joyful kindness. The last line he wrote was the simple truth.

 

Mary and I flew to Vancouver on Saturday to visit for a few days and the sun was rising as we came over Wisconsin. Snow sat in the creases of the mountains, and as we descended into Minneapolis, the new yellow sun shooting through clumps of bare trees turned their brown bones a glowing orange-gold like momentary stained glass. And everyone at Regent, where I’ll be in school next year, really likes singing the doxology: before meals, before class, probably under their breath as they ride the city bus.

I am moving very far away in August, and the little girl who was frightened to wave has left the stifling shell of her paralysis behind in the dusty past. I am thankful for her, but more than that I am thankful for the bright figures dotted throughout my memory, who have waved and shouted and jumped up and down to lure me out of my shell, into courage and sometimes even light.

Light and Momentary Afflictions

This writing thing works best, I think, when I tell the truth and show the rips in the fabric.

Late one night in early December of my first year of teaching I decided I was going to quit at the end of the semester. I was exhausted. The pushback I was receiving from some students and parents at the time felt like too much for my thin shoulders. There had been too many nights when, finally putting away my grading or lecture notes at two a.m., I had lain in bed, cried fat, angry tears, and wondered to myself what sadomasochist had dreamed up teaching as a profession. This experiment was over. I was calling it.

So the next day I went into work with grim determination that these trudging days were numbered. I think it was a Tuesday. That afternoon a smart, articulate student who had often liked to challenge me in class came up and asked me if I could help him with something. Would I look over the rough draft of his junior thesis? He knew it had a long way to go and he wanted extra feedback. He posed the question as if, though the assignment wasn’t for my class, I might know something about it, as if my opinion were worth listening to. So I said yes, and read the paper. It was clear and readable, but he hadn’t really addressed the opposition at all and made some unfounded statements, so I covered it in red. He came back in a couple days later and sat next to my desk, and we talked through my comments. He accepted all of them and thanked me profusely.

I think his asking for my help was, at least in part, a conscious act of kindness. He treated me as if I had something of value to offer, and so I changed my mind. I didn’t quit. I gave the experiment another try.

I stayed, and year by year things got easier. The work got simpler and faster, and I got to know my students better. I carried their weights and worries more heavily and mine more lightly. I still cried often, but gradually I laughed more and more. My feet grew to suit the ground where they stood.

When I leave Caldwell in a few months it will feel as if I am slicing the hundreds of nerves that connect me to the place. It’s a happier and more logically accurate metaphor to say that I’m leaving behind something I’ve built, but that doesn’t account for the hurt I know I will feel, because I already do.

Yesterday I sat down and graded the personal statements my sophomores turned in last week. They responded to one of three prompts: a prompt about failure, a prompt about challenging an idea, and a prompt about a moment of transition. And as I read their various experiences, often little but sometimes big, I was reminded how much personal growth necessarily involves discomfort. It involves inconvenience and sometimes pain to come into something new, as well as to leave something old. Being born and dying are both famously uncomfortable.

So the beginning of this chapter was marked by tears, and by all indications the end may be too. But though my worries and insecurities may show up as markers and half-rubbed-out stains all through the last four years, they do not define my time teaching. These years have been characterized by unasked-for grace: grace offered to me by my family, by my friends, by my colleagues, by my bosses, by my students and even their parents, but most especially by my God, who has said time and time again, “Yes, I intend for you to be here–I am here with you. Now take another step forward, and another, and another…” until I walk right off the page, on to the next unknown.

My Mother and Lessons in Grace

If you come right down to it, summer has never been my favorite season. I don’t mind the heat, and I love the sandals and the dresses, but eventually everything gets kind of murky in all the long hours there seem to be. I always start off excited for the freedom, but then I get a bit lost in it. Even when I make myself plans like reveling in all the reading and writing I can’t do during the year, even then, I get a bit lost.

But lately I’ve been grateful for my mother. It has taken most, if not all, of my growing up years to understand what a phenomenon she is.

I remember when I was very small hearing my dad refer to her as pretty, which, at the time, was very shocking to me, because she was my mother. I expressed my skepticism, and she looked at me with her eyebrows raised. “You don’t think I’m pretty?” “Well, no!” I said. My parents just turned to each other and laughed like grown-ups did. I remember being very offended. (Turns out my mom is beautiful.)

And I asked her once in high school if she worried about us when we were out late, and she said breezily, “Oh, no, I just start planning your funerals.” At the time I thought this was her way of saying no, of course not, but it occurred to me, years later, that it was actually her way of saying yes, of course.

I like to tell these stories, but they do nothing to communicate the steady, everyday effect she has had on me. Just now, I happily, willingly, practiced my cello, and yesterday I changed out of sweatpants into shorts before I took a walk in the heat. These small acts seem unremarkable, but they took years of dedication on the part of my even-more-stubborn-than-me mother. I have moved out now and she takes great care to invite me over for dinner at least once a week, and text me often to meet her to take a walk.

And it occurs to me more and more as I tell her all my worries, and try her patience with my tears, that she has never once offered me the easy way out. She has always, insistently, offered me the way in: make yourself go, make yourself write, make yourself read, make yourself eat well, make yourself pray, and always make your bed. Her cures for my ailments never offer a break from life, but instead life itself. She is the one who suggested I write a paper to present at an academic conference in the middle of my first year of teaching, for no other reason than because I could. Her perennial lesson is to use what’s been given you. Read the book because it’s good, and wear your hair down because you can. You’ve been given hands, feet, a brain, a home: use them, use them, use them.

Grace is hard. To accept good things, to lose the world and gain your soul, is painful. I thought that I learned this in college. But now I am beginning to think that I will be learning it over and over again, with fresh pangs, for the rest of my life.

I have been given freedom: take it up, like a cross, and use it, use it, use it. Thanks, Mama. I’m learning.

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First Year Teaching and Unpaid Debt

I’ve been making notes for this entry since last October. At first I was going to wait a few years to actually say this stuff to the internet-at-large, but I can’t help myself: here we go.

I planned to write a long list of advice for first year teachers, like the one I wrote a year ago when I finished college. But I discovered within about two days of becoming a faculty member alongside wonderful people who wanted to see me succeed, that for every piece of advice there is an equal and opposite piece of advice. So basically, even with the best support system in the world (which, including my parents and former teachers and friends who are a phone call away, I may well have had) you’re going to have to figure it out on your own in the moment, or you’re never going to figure it out at all. And that’s absolutely okay. So that’s what I have to say about that.

But if not advice, what? I guess just a rambling reflection, which is mostly what I do on here anyway. I have grown and changed this year perhaps more than I have in all four years of college. Every day that I have taught, without fail, I have felt both very young and very old. A while back, at play rehearsal I turned to a coworker and said, “There’s five years between me and them, and ten years between me and you, but I feel so much closer in experience to you.” “Yup.” she said. “Weird.” I said. And yet I cry at Caldwell choir concerts, because they inevitably make me feel seventeen again, and while there is something precious about that feeling, it is not quite comfortable either. But being in-between is most of what life is, so this is absolutely okay too.

Looking back I think I went through most of first semester in a bit of shock. I remember one day in September when Lisa came around to take attendance, I told her with a mix of bravado and desperation that they were all present, though I hadn’t even bothered to count them, much less look at my roster. I would doggedly stay up late into the night, making powerpoints and organizing notes, feeling my heart turn to heavy iron whenever a new email appeared unexpectedly in my school inbox. On the rare occasions that I was in a context other than Caldwell, I still couldn’t manage to talk about anything other than school and my students, no matter if my listeners were interested. (Still not great at that, but I’m getting better. I’m becoming more normal again.) Here is a somewhat-exact excerpt of notes I kept for myself throughout that first semester:

Sixteen-year-olds are adorable.

Sixteen-year-olds are little turds who don’t know that teachers have feelings.

At least I haven’t cried in front of students yet. That’s a victory.

I love being observed. It’s the freaking best. It makes me feel safe.

Almost-literal blind exhaustion sometimes hits while driving home.

I stay up late because I want time to myself before I go in the next morning.

It is so hard to get up in the morning. SO hard.

Why does my life have so many binder clips in it now?

Is it going to be like this all year?

IMPORTANT: That day sixth period worked quietly. 11/6. Let it be remembered. [Note: I actually wrote a poem about this day. It’s called “An Ode to My Students’ Silence.”]

But I survived. And stayed marginally sane to boot. I kept in touch with friends who were also first-year-teaching, because the front of a classroom can be a starkly lonely place. It is good to feel as if you’re in the trenches alongside someone else (and now that I’ve briefly taught World War One, that’s an especially vivid metaphor). I watched all of Boy Meets World, and though I remain doubtful that it’s really very kosher to regularly assign essays on a whim at the end of class just because the topic pertains to an issue in your favorite students’ lives, I was reminded that even in the world of nineties sitcoms, it is still possible to be a truly fine teacher and that doing so doesn’t center around making your students happy. And then late one Sunday night in November, when I felt just awful, I found this:

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I’m not typically a big charts and stages person, but this is absolute it-gets-better gospel truth. Believe it, cause it’s real. By December, according my notes at the time, I had “all warm fuzzy advent feelings after seeing them sing and getting gifts from them and having them treat me like a real human being and not just a grade machine.” Things were looking up. I was going to be okay and so were they.

In fact, there are a few students to whom I wish I could write individual thank you notes for encouragement they didn’t even know they gave. Highschoolers can cause more pain than they know–but their kindnesses, even unintentional and very small kindnesses, can bring so much joy. The times a student has gone out of his or her way to actually make my day better, I have usually cried (though not in front of them.) And it was a fairly normal but unexpected thing one single student did way back in early December that made me decide not to up and quit when I was feeling a bit desperate.

Really perhaps the thing I have learned most thoroughly this year is the thank you note thing: the value of appreciation and expressing gratitude. When I was a sophomore in college I wrote Dr. Brown a thank you note once and she made a huge deal out of it in front of the rest of the students, and said that sometimes she felt like Christ healing the ten lepers with only one coming back to say thank you. I thought this story was hilarious–I adored Dr. Brown, but she was comparing herself to Jesus, for goodness sake–and would tell it over and over to my English major friends. I no longer think it’s funny. I know exactly what she meant. When you teach and you care that you do it well, you are fighting on the front lines of humanity. You’re teaching the human mind to reach its potential, holding out the world in your hands, trying to get the faces in front of you to comprehend it, to feel their own smallness. There’s so much pressure to get it right, but when you do get it right, often nobody notices, and this is discouraging. To give more than you take, that is what every good teacher does, but no mere mortal can give out of a dry well. We all need water.

So, knowing that, and knowing what I know now especially, I want to shyly and belatedly be grateful to the people who taught me. I didn’t know what it took, and even if I had, I’m not sure I could have understood.  Thank you. Thank you for what you did for me: for crying with me, for laughing with and at me, for graciously thinking it was endearing when I told you bluntly that your class was “not my happy place,” for reading picture books aloud, for letting me run to your room in tears when I first discovered Billy Collins, for handing me that mysterious and wonderful envelope before the New York trip, for letting me sit on a desk during your planning period and just talk and talk and talk. And thank you for what you did for all of us: for heavy worry, for long patience, for giving us the best of what you loved, for volunteering to be Atlas with the world on his shoulders and believing it to be worth the trouble, for finally entrusting each of us to Jesus when it was all that you could do.

I see it a bit more clearly now. Second semester, when my responsibilities began to pick up pace, and when my heart learned to hold on anyway and smile in the wind, I started to care less about what my students thought of me and more about the students themselves. And I didn’t know that in a job in which I was supposed to be the helper, I would routinely feel so helpless to really love them well. So unable and weak. They need so much charity and compassion and help. I know this because I need this things too. I know this because, in our need and inability, we are the same.

Despite all of the doing and learning and trying, the appreciation and the lack thereof, I am discovering a secret which probably most teachers who’ve gone before me know. Education, when you really try to do it right, is debt. An extensive and painfully shining web of unpaid and often unacknowledged debt. We’re all bound and knotted together by it. We give and are given to over and over again, then march off triumphantly into the sunset, as if our spoils are our own, while the ropes of debt tug at our heels. Some days I can’t keep straight who is demanding restitution from whom. There is a colossal owing, and we, none of us, can possibly pay it back. And this, I think, is where education all goes bad or is hatched, where we begin to ceaselessly demand the pound of flesh from one another, or relinquish ourselves to the waist-high waters of grace.

This has been a long and meandering entry, but really there is one reason I have written it: I am preaching to myself. I am saying: “Alice, you feel as if you’ve worked hard and given much, but what you have given is that which was first given you. Your deficits are deep and wide, but they have been filled by a love that is deeper and wider. Your debts have been cancelled by the great Forgiver of debt, the Payment himself. Forgive your debtors as your debts have been forgiven. Look at the world and look at the hands that hold it and remember that you are small. See that your Lord is large and great. Love with liberty and with joy.”

Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.

Lessons from Cinderella and Jake Barnes

I’ve watched a lot of movies since the beginning of college–most of them alone, on a computer screen. I like watching things this way. I feel free to criticize or adore whenever and however I want. I get to watch on my terms. Funnily enough though, when I give myself that choice I almost always choose criticism. I’ve gotten in the habit of quietly dissecting and improving and making-over most everything I watch. But last weekend I went and saw the new, live-action Cinderella with my family. I put my feet up on the empty theater seat in front of me, and let the whole thing carry me away.

It’s a beautiful movie shot in all the color you could wish for and told with complete openness. It looks at grief and joy and meanness and hope and tells each bit as straight as it can. I loved the end: when Cinderella is found because the sound of her voice carries out the open window and her unasked-for forgiveness makes her stepmother sink down and lean against the banister of the stairs with the weight of it. But I think the moment I loved the most was when Cinderella walks into the ball. She has arrived a bit too late for comfort, and she comes down the stairs by herself, with no one to announce her. Strangely, what was most evident to me was not that she is beautiful or hoping to find Kit, but that she is walking into a room alone. I have walked into a room alone, you have walked into a room alone–some days it is the bravest thing that we do. She descends with all eyes on her: nameless to all of them and probably already loathed by every woman in the room. Step by step she approaches the bottom of the stairs, and she has no idea what will happen when she gets there.

Then, late this past Monday night, I found myself on a little mental jag, when I should have been going to sleep. I lay in bed and thought about Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises: where he begins, and where he goes, and, most of all, where he ends up. He pines over Brett, letting his own physical inability to have her smash the side of his face down in the dirt and pummel him with punches again and again. He lets his wounds, real and imaginary, take him over and he throws away his self-respect and his aficion for bullfighting by letting Brett have, and ruin, the hopeful young Romero. But that’s not the way he ends: after everything that happens in Pamplona he literally goes into the sea alone, washes, and comes out clean.

And that’s when I thought of it: Jake’s like Cinderella. Perhaps this is silly and those of you who love Hemingway or fairy tales more fully than I do are looking askance, but let me try to explain.

When Brett sends for Jake, he signs the wire with love and loyally goes, but somehow he has unhooked her from his soul: he eats more than he drinks as they have lunch together, and the last image of the book–the raising of the policeman’s baton–means that Jake is willing to seek manhood and courage and meaning wherever he may have them, and lay the wounds of war and love to rest. This is him walking into the room alone, perilously free of the self-pity and self-sabotage he has had to protect him for so long.

All the good stories tell the same truths (this is why I love literature) and the principles which motivate Jake and Cinderella at their best are very near to one another. Though community and closeness and hands that hold onto yours are very important, there are things that can really only be learned alone. To walk into the room, to “have courage,” to “be kind,” to “get to know the values”: these are ultimately acts chosen by, and affecting, the individual soul.

As I have been thinking about this I keep remembering that this sort of independent bravery is  what I want for my students. The ones of whom I’m the most proud are the ones who are able to love their classmates without being swayed by them, who have found their own feet and are learning to stand on them: to walk down the steps, to raise whatever baton they’ve got.

But then I laugh, because really, who am I kidding? If I am telling the whole truth, I must admit that this freedom is what I want for myself–not to follow the scents and sights around me but instead, to be prepared to be separate, to be new and be different, to transform instead of conform. I want to be willing to find goodness and meaning outside of where the world has told me it must lie, and, though strange eyes may look on, to allow myself to be cut from a different cloth.