Repeating Wonders and New Mercies

Because it’s practically summer and there’s still a pandemic on and I’m an adult and I can do what I want, I’ve been rereading old favorites lately. I may eventually wend my way around to some Laura Ingalls Wilder or P.G. Wodehouse (one of my more worthwhile middle school obsessions) but recently it’s been Flannery O’Connor and the Narnia books.

My grandma too used to reread her favorite books over and over, aloud to my grandpa and aunt in the evenings. She always spoke about it as if doing so were a bit of guilty pleasure, as if she knew she should stretch herself with something new, but Emmy Keeps a Promise was just so comforting and reliable, with its stories of boarding houses and clams. And rereading is a comfort. I picked Narnia up on purpose because I was searching for comfort, for a bit of stability, for a well-trod path. 

But though many of the things I’ve been reading lately are familiar, though at certain points in my life I’ve been known to corner people and monologue in my enthusiasm for both Voyage of the Dawn Treader and O’Connor’s “Revelation,” I find on rereading that though I thought I’d already analysed them to the hilt, their deep roots and truth are alternately knocking me upside the head and stealing softly into the echoing, aching cavity of my chest all over again.

I used to think this sort of thing was just a process of something hitting me differently than before or on a deeper level, but I don’t think that’s always the case. Sometimes the same thing is hitting me on the exact same level. I am Eustace dragoned and undragoned, and I am part of Mrs. Turpin’s beatific procession into the sky. It was this way last time and it will be this way again. Everything strikes me fresh, though I remember it striking me fresh before. I am, it would seem, in a constant cycle of forgetting and being reminded.

My first temptation upon realizing this is to chastise myself for forgetting. To tell myself to learn better this time, to please actually retain and apply this knowledge, for goodness sake! But I have quietly begun to suspect that this is not the best approach. I have begun to suspect that on a certain level I was made for this cycle of amnesia and wonder. The Lord intends us to have to keep coming back and beginning again, over and over. It is one of the ways that he teaches us to become like little children. As Chesterton wrote, “We die daily. We are always being born again with almost indecent obstetrics.” 

We are so often concerned with decency and propriety and progress in ourselves and in others, when instead what is on offer is the promise of messy, glorious rebirth, a rebirth which, spurred by a children’s book, a simple meal, a passing comment from a friend, may happen almost hourly. His mercies will, in fact, be new over and over and over. This, apparently, is the life our good and full-of-mirth God means for us to have. 

And every spring we get to look up into the trees through the new leaves and relearn green as if we never knew it before. Every time.

Within Love

I’m a little hectic right now, though the Fall term hasn’t started yet: vaguely over-committed with just one too many writing projects, one too many side jobs, one too many email inboxes, one too many friends. Wait, no, that can’t be right—but I can’t find my spare car key right now. That’s the main thing. (No, no it’s not.)

Particularly when I feel like this, it is easy to forget. It is easy to forget the real main thing: to love the Lord your God. And when I realize I’ve forgotten—well, realizing somehow does not fix things. I say, Alright now, Alice, remedy the situation. Learn to love. Do it right, for God’s sake. And I come at the thing from the direction of my love instead of his, which is magnificently ineffective.

Then yesterday, I came across this in Lewis’ “Weight of Glory.” It was not a lightning-bolt, but instead a low, rumbling comfort, like thunder from the far side of the mountain.

How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us[…]to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

So it is. And so I’ve been remembering (the proper, continual remedy for spiritual forgetfulness.) I’ve been remembering the taste of things. I wrote a series of poems for a course I took on food last Fall about how the memories which are inevitably tied to certain foods for each of us can serve as a gateway into the transcendent. Predictably, a year later, I am actually learning that lesson for myself. A few times in the last few months, I have tasted something and “Oh!” to myself. All simple things, sometimes absurdly simple: raw garlic, plain olive oil, okra fried in cornmeal. All tastes of my childhood, of a hot kitchen with shiny pitted floorboards, of something sizzling and something boiling and then my mother’s cold, laughing hands on the back of my neck just to make me jump. These things are particular to my sensibilities and my past, of course, but though yours may be different, we all have them. These are the tastes of love, and not just its outer rim either. These savory-sweet, dizzying flashes are from the inner core of love, the part we are rarely ever brave enough to acknowledge, the heavy part, the honeyed part, the realm of holy delight.

And though I so often forget, I’m certain: this place we are shy of talking or even thinking about, this buoyant golden heart of God’s love, is where we came from in the first place, our actual homeland, the place we belong even now. Funny thing, but so it is.

Classes start in a couple weeks, so things will fall into place soon enough. The car key will turn up. The sun is out and the sun makes things grow.

Martha, Mary, and Food

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Mary and Martha. A couples weeks ago I had some discussions with my juniors about a woman’s place in society, and there are so many things I wish I had said. I wish I had reminded them that the woman’s primary calling (like the man’s) is to sit at Christ’s feet, and hear his words, and that any structure that hinders her from “choosing the good part” is wrong. I wish I had reminded them that regardless of what I tell them, this “nearness-to-Jesus,” this is the litmus test.

And then this week I left school and my students to go up to Grove City for a C.S. Lewis and Inklings Conference, with Martha and Mary still whispering in my head. Martha, the teacher, the keeper of the full agenda and the red and blue pens. Mary, the student, jubilant to let down her inky guard for a long weekend, jubilant to listen.

I drove up for the conference in my grandma’s Buick, which only plays cassette tapes, and listened to the same Mark Heard album over and over and over. It’s called Ashes to Light, and you should hear it: “He looks at their faces and loves them in spite of his grief.”

I had a lot of conversations this weekend, personal conversations with close friends, and heard some good talks, very good talks. Papers on catechisms and incarnation and pedagogy, and keynote addresses on images and humility and honesty. On Friday night at the banquet Diana Glyer spoke on artistic collaboration and creating alongside one another for balance, for accountability, for prayer. Afterwards I walked up to her to tell her how encouraging it had been, and to thank her, and immediately burst into tears. Oops. She took me by the hand, and said “Tell me about yourself.” “This is my first year of teaching,” I said, “And I haven’t gotten a chance to think about these things for a long time and–thank you.”

All weekend I tried to balance Mary and Martha and failed. I made the mistake of checking my email on Saturday and immediately spiraled into a foul mood, though it only contained run-of-the-mill announcements and student requests. Then I drove home today and listened to Mark Heard over and over and over again. I have come to the point in teaching where I have stopped worrying so much about what my students think of me and have started worrying about them–so the songs reminded me of my teenagers. “Feet of clay and an inner light, they were given everything.” I thought again about how I wanted them to “choose the good part,” to accept the good gifts. I thought about Mary and Martha, and then I thought about food.

The paper I gave on Friday morning was about food in Narnia, the way its goodness depends on the giver. And the difference between Martha and Mary is the difference between feeding and being fed. The hostess cannot go hungry. If we have not first eaten the bread which means his body, the we cannot possibly be his hands and feet. If I try to teach my students what tastes sweet and what will make them strong, without first sitting at my Lord’s table, I will fail.

There is even more to it than that, though. I am now able to hesitantly believe that I am meant to be a teacher, but before that I was, am, and will be his. I am his, and there is only “one thing needed”: I must sit and hear his word.

If you’re interested, below is said paper, devoid of parenthetical citations because they look weird on a blog. I promise they were there.

The Mysterious Workings of Food in Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles

George Sayer, with whom C.S. Lewis often stayed while on holiday, describes his taste in food as “plain, solid, and traditional…roast meat of any sort.” He had no appreciation for “subtle French recipes” or even “for puddings or for fruit.” Yet the food which Lewis did love he treated with whole-hearted devotion, and since children were the original audience the Narnia books, within the Chronicles he regularly approaches the subject of food and drink with the appropriate seriousness and urgency of a child of seven. In imagining Narnia, Alan Jacobs writes, “What [Lewis] has to do…is trust the images that come into his mind–or, more accurately, trust that he is being formed as a Christian in such a way that the images that come to his mind are authentic ones, ones that lie at, or at least near, the center of his soul.” So Lewis uses the food which his characters naturally eat: Puddleglum’s eels and the feasts at Cair Paravel, to tell the goodness and mystery of gifts. The food in Lewis’s Chronicles, whether of deep magical importance or a simple symbol of good fellowship, is nearly always given and ultimately reflects the character of its giver.

Jacobs tells a story about an American named Firor who sent Lewis multiple hams in the late 1940’s, while food was still scarce in Britain. “Lewis and friends started calling him ‘Firor-of-the-Hams,’ and on one occasion a dozen or so of the Inklings signed a collective letter of gratitude to him.” It turned out that this same Firor was a doctor and a great hero who had rescued a colleague’s wife from behind the Iron Curtain, so a real generosity and solidity was reflected in his gift. Lewis implicitly trusted those who relished food as much as he did. Around the same time Nathan Starr sent Lewis bacon, along with a passage of his own Chaucerian-style verse to recommend the meat, and almost immediately received an invitation to visit Lewis’s rooms at the college. Lewis considered the right sort of food an indication of good character

So, when an outsider first enters Narnia, if he is able to fall into the right company, he is immediately fed well, signifying the virtues of Narnian culture and fellowship as a whole. When a bewildered and delighted Prince Caspian enters into the heart of Old Narnia for the first time and is led around to meet all the creatures who live in hiding, Pattertwig the squirrel offers him a nut and the bears are eager to feed him their messy honey. Lewis tells the entire episode like a travel story, with scores of new introductions, and these gifts of food are each beast’s way of making his mark on both Caspian and the reader’s imaginations throughout the ongoing procession. Even before that, when Lucy herself first enters Narnia, she understands Tumnus’s core good-heartedness not merely by his welcoming words (which turn out to be false) but by his hospitality: “a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake.” Moreover, the Pevensie children know they have found good friends in the Beavers when they see cozy smoke rising from Mr. Beaver’s dam and realize they are being brought home as dinner guests. In fact, though the Beavers are virtuous in many ways, to Lewis their most important quality may be their abundant and generous hospitality, considering Mrs. Beaver’s response when the company realizes they must run for their lives: “Now, Mr. Beaver, just reach down that ham. And here’s a packet of tea, and there’s sugar…And if someone will get two or three loaves out of that crock…You didn’t think we’d set out on a journey with nothing to eat, did you?”

In fact, one of the ways in which Lewis expresses celebration, especially after his characters have passed through great trials, is in jubilant descriptions of good (and often very British) food. When Jill and company escape from the Underworld, they are treated to the most comfortable and fulsome fare by the good dwarves, just to prove that they are home: “Not wretched sausages half-full of bread and soya bean either, but real, meaty spicy ones, fat and piping hot and burst and just the tiniest bit burnt.  And great mugs of frothy chocolate, and roast potatoes and roast chestnuts, and baked apples with raisins stuck in where the cores had been.” Jill and the reader are both starved for warmth after all the grey time underground, and here at long last it comes to them by way of the dwarves’ cast iron breakfast skillets.

Narnian tradition itself centers around not just these individual exchanges of food, but a great and full tradition of feeding the multitudes. Eustace and Jill enter Narnia and within hours of being recognized as friends of the king are settled at his table for the “serious eating and drinking.”

…though Eustace had been in that world before, he had spent his whole visit at sea and knew nothing of the glory and courtesy of Narnians at home in their own land …each course came in with trumpeters and kettledrums. There were soups that would make your mouth water to think of, and the lovely fishes called pavenders, and venison and peacock and pies, and ices and jellies and fruit and nuts, and all manner of wines and fruit drinks.

Lewis’s lavish description of the banquet demonstrates not only his love for a full plate but his glowing vision for complex and purposeful fellowship between countrymen. The fanfares of the trumpets call forth the food of hard-won (rather medieval) merriment.

But beyond the solidity of Narnian fare itself, the souls of many individual characters are reflected in that which they offer their guests. As Christ himself says, “ye shall know them by their fruits.” The Scrubbs can be immediately discounted as people of worth in Lewis’s world because of their vegetarian diet, while vain, air-headed Lasaraleen serves Aravis a meal “chiefly of the whipped cream and jelly and fruit and ice sort.” However, something more unpleasant than mere empty-headedness is hinted at when Puddleglum and the children are taken captive by pale, still little Earthmen, and are given only “flat, flabby cakes of some sort which had hardly any taste.” Though Puddleglum and company do not know it, these creature are captives as well, empty and stale and sad. They are incapable of offering good sustenance in their current mind-numbed state.

On the other hand, Puddleglum himself serves Jill and Eustace eel stew, of which he himself is very disparaging, but which is ultimately “delicious…the children [have] two large helpings each. This uncomely but ultimately excellent first meal with their new friend establishes the marshwiggle and his golden, despondent soul immediately and irrevocably in the affections of children and readers alike. Likewise, when Father Christmas returns to Narnia after his long, involuntary absence, the tea he presents to the Pevensies and the Beavers wonderfully “sizzling and piping hot” imparts all the warmth and goodwill of the promise of his season. Of course, Father Christmas’s power is not really his own, but instead his good gifts of food are born from the same source which brings spring back to Narnia at long last.

This land of Narnia itself has its own mysterious reserves of good food to offer. Late in the first day of the new world’s existence, after Aslan has sent Polly and Diggory and Fledge halfway across Narnia on an important errand, and the children find the have nothing to eat, Polly finds an old bag of toffees in her pocket and Diggory cleverly buries the last one in the new Narnian earth by the side of the lake. The next morning when they wake, a toffee tree has grown up. “Loaded with little brown fruits that looked rather like dates…The fruit was delicious: not exactly like toffee–softer for one thing, and juicy–but like fruit which reminded one of toffee.” This reminding of something just out of the mind’s reach is a constant of Narnia’s character. For every true disciple, Narnia always carries the distinct flavor of home, and, ultimately, Aslan’s Country. The best and most truly homely places in Lewis’s world produce the most wonderful and mystical food for their people. The Earthmen, once free from the witch’s enchantments, are ecstatic to return to Bism, their homeland deep beneath the earth’s crust, because of the fresh precious stones it provides for them to eat like ripe fruit: “bunches of rubies…cupful[s] of diamond juice.” These worlds contain an unavoidably inherent magic.

Yet, as is clear from the reader’s first introduction to Narnia, not all the magic there is good magic, just as not all food which fills a belly fills it with good things. At first the turkish delight the witch feeds Edmund seems very good: “each piece was sweet and light to the very center…[he] had never tasted anything more delicious.” Yet  Wayne Martindale writes that “An authentic pleasure is one we love to recall and rejoice to share,” so though Edmund thinks he has relished the White Witch’s food, there is nothing he wants less than for his siblings to have a taste of it. His greed for it only grows until he will do nearly anything to have more of it, until he desires nothing else. As Lewis points out sharply, “there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magical food.” The false queen has literally but subtly let Edmund pick his own poison, demonstrating the sharp, fast-acting venom of her own evil motives. When the boy later obeys her summons and asks for more sweets, she gives him only bread and water, cruelly understanding that he now hungers only for turkish delight.

And food in Narnia can contain not just bad and deceitful magic but ultimate betrayal. Perhaps the most horrifying episode in all of Lewis’s Chronicles centers around preparations for the giants’ Autumn feast at Harfang. The children and Puddleglum are betrayed by the Green Lady’s sweet words and her promises of soft beds. From the beginning of their visit the refreshments and edibles given to the guests seem false and evil. The giants give Puddleglum a liquor so strong that it immediately intoxicates him and makes him unable to help and protect Jill and Eustace. Later the three discover with revulsion that they have been tricked into eating talking stag, and are consuming the flesh of a Narnian. Thus the stage is set for the final terrifying revelation as Jill comes upon the giants’ cookery book. The Green Lady has described to the hungry travellers the wonders of a place where “the roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong will be on the table four times a day.” As Jill reads the recipes for “Man: [an] elegant little biped” and “Marshwiggle:[of] stringy consistency and muddy flavor” she understands that they are to be the “roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong.” The witch has committed an act of deep treachery in giving them over into the hands of those who will devour them. At Harfang food signifies not a gift of grace and fullness but a taking of innocence and of life.

Yet the meaning of a meal depends upon the character of the host, the provider of the feast. Aslan often invites his people in with same welcoming words the Green Lady used to lure Puddleglum and the children to Harfang, yet he means them truly. Martindale states, “Feasting is a common motif in Narnia when Aslan has finished some great work…Feasting is associated both with life, as a necessity, and with joyful celebration in peace and plenty.” Therefore Aslan’s full table not only represents good fellowship as opposed to ill, but a kind of solemn mercy. Lewis well understands the sanctity of the Eucharist and is eager and willing to write some of that same significance into the bread and wine Aslan serves to his Narnians. As the Dawn Treader’s travelers near the end of the world they come upon an extravagant feast of just this import:

There were turkeys and geese and peacocks, there were boars’ heads and sides of venison, there were pies shaped like ships under full sail or like dragons and elephants, there were ice puddings and bright lobsters and gleaming salmon, there were nuts and grapes, pineapples and peaches, pomegranates and melons and tomatoes…the smell of the fruit and the wine blew toward them like a promise of all happiness.

The feast is gorgeous and hearty and good and yet the sailors claim there is “too much magic about here.” If they imbibe Aslan’s food, they will imbibe his great and terrible grace. At last, following the example of Reepicheep, (always the most courageous in his trust of Aslan,) they eat. Ramandu’s daughter tells them that the banquet is renewed each day, and they watch as what they have not consumed nourishes great flocks of birds. The great lion feeds even the “birds of the air.”

But of course, when faced with a mysterious banquet, not all are Reepicheep, willing and able to believe that good givers give good gifts. Aslan gives Diggory the simple instruction to “Pluck an apple from the tree, and bring it back to me.” Diggory obeys, but once there he encounters Jadis who, in sharp rebellion against the command on the gate, has taken the fruit for herself and stained her mouth nastily with it. She has made herself her own giver, her own god. She then tries to  convince Diggory to do likewise, to take for his own ends, to be savior to his dying mother: “We are here by ourselves and the Lion is far away. Use your magic and go back to your own world. A minute later, you can be at your Mother’s bedside, giving her the fruit.” The witch tempts Diggory to be the giver himself, not to trust and obey the ultimate and good giver of the food. Yet a refusal to trust the giver of a good meal will ultimately lead only to bondage. The stubborn dwarves in The Last Battle refuse to believe there is a world beyond the stable door though they sit in the midst of it. Aslan lays a great feast in front of them but they will not accept that they are eating anything but hay and refuse, and end by brawling over the imagined scraps. They do not trust the food because they do not trust Aslan. “Their only prison is in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” Jadis is destined for the same fate: ultimately the good and healing fruit becomes a “horror” to her, because she would not trust and ate it “at the wrong time and in the wrong way.”

However, Diggory does not follow the witch’s example, but instead brings the apple back to Aslan, trusting the giver for the way through to life. The Lion then makes good on that trust, in glorious fashion. He offers the boy an apple off of the new tree, grown to protect Narnia. “What I give you now will bring joy. It will not, in your world, give endless life, but it will heal. Go. Pluck her an apple.” So Diggory brings the apple of healing and youth home to his mother, not as the giver, but as merely the agent of her recovery. As his mother at last falls into a “real, natural and gentle” sleep it is the peace and rest of Aslan, the giver of the fruit, reflected in her eyes, which Diggory dares to hope will bring her new life.

Years before Narnia really came to be, Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.” Lewis has crafted characters who, in consuming the food laid before them, the bread or the wine or the meat, accept also the inherent virtues and evils of the hands that have provided it, and are often changed by them. Edmund and Lucy and Eustace perhaps see this best, as they approach the end of the world, hand-in-hand, and come upon the clearest and brightest giver of all: a white Lamb, who has prepared a meal before them. “They sat down and ate the fish, hungry now for the first time for many days. And it was the most delicious food they had ever tasted.”

A Couple Things I Miss

I am home sick from work because my head feels like an over-inflated balloon, so clearly now is the time to write. There are many good things about teaching, (and I hereby pledge to write to you about them in a couple weeks, just in time for Thanksgiving,) but oh, how I miss writing.

The problem is not that I don’t have the time to write. I’ve never believed that as an excuse, anyway. I always managed to write when I was a student, both in high school and college. If there is time to breathe, there is time to write.

The problem, I think, is that I haven’t yet learned how to let teaching act as a catalyst for writing. Writing is never really born out of itself, you know. You see something or read something or hear something, E.B. Browning writes of the “gold and purple” of her husband’s heart or Don Draper takes his kids back to see his childhood home, and suddenly a wonderfully itchy little ball begins to form in your midsection, and you’re off. It’s that little outside idea which ignites the whole wonderful Rube Goldberg process of getting words onto paper. Unfortunately, I have yet to learn how, as a teacher, to pick up on those little hints to kick-start the machine, and right now my life has time for precious few other sources of inspiration.

I come home, want to write, and review my options: I could begin work on a fourth draft of novel #1, but really I should wait for an agent to help me do that. Right? Right. That’s what they tell me. Well, to attract that agent I should get a few stories published in reputable magazines. This means I should I actually write a few stories. But the only idea I currently have is for a little Flannery O’Connor knock-off, which would probably turn out to be pretty useless. I could work on organizing chapters and scenes for novel #2…But does my room really need that clutter of scribbly index cards when novel #1 still requires so much ripping apart and pasting back together? So I come sidling back to my blog for the first time in almost a month. Hello. I’m rusty with my words, but I’m making an effort.

There is something else I miss. Besides the writing. Something more basic and more valuable. A couple weeks ago I was talking to one of my best friends from college and she mentioned that she might have a family wedding down in my area next fall, and would come and see me. “Jacks, really? Please come.” I said, “I would cry.” I meant it as a joke, I really did, but then there were tears on my cheeks. I miss my friends. I have good ones.

I don’t just mean the girls I went through college with. I mean my sister in Tennessee and my Karen in Madrid. I mean so many of you. Friendship is a wonderfully incomprehensible thing. One can pick up friends in the strangest and most sudden ways, lose them states away, and then find them again years later like the missing right half of your favorite pair of socks. How did this happen? I wonder sometimes. How do you and I find so much to say to one another? And why is it that we would rather be silent together than apart?

Lewis, who I rather think knew a lot about friendship, wrote this:

“In friendship…we think we have chosen our peers. In reality a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another…the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting–any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances. A secret master of ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends, “Ye have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” The friendship is not a reward for our discriminating and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.”

This idea that God meant us for one anothers’ lives, to stretch and grow and comfort each other in our own certain ways brings me a particular quiet delight. He knew our friendships would extend over miles and months, that our worries and prayers for one another would form fine threads connecting us from here to there to the next place, elongating till their length could wrap round the whole world. Those continuing threads of affection are what He intended. I am so thankful.

Oh, look… Somehow my God has given me a small, but perceptible, path from discontent to gratitude. How good it is to miss things. How near to nostalgia lies joy.

How We Look

Just to quickly get you up to speed: my mother bought a ping pong table, I bought an ice tray that makes cubes shaped like lightning bolts, Kate Middleton had a baby who will be king and her hair still looks gorgeous, and at the moment I’m holed up in my Dad’s library study at UNCG, wearing the ancient sweater and corduroys he keeps in here over my own clothes, because this place is cold.

It’s with a few healthy tons of trepidation that I’m writing this entry today. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. I’ve been afraid of saying the wrong thing, but at last I’ve decided to just go ahead and put this out there. Maybe I feel ready for this because I’ve finally achieved Gandalf-and-Solomon-level wisdom, or maybe I’ve just been reading enough C.S. Lewis that I think I have. I’m not sure.

What I have to say is about the way we look, specifically the way we women look, how others look at us, how we look at each other, and how we look at ourselves. There are two prevailing cultural attitudes, both strong, which tend to sit in our guts and battle it out all day long.

First, there is the all-powerful objective of female beauty that every man, woman, and child knows and accepts to some extent. I generally have pretty high self-esteem when it comes to my looks, sometimes too high, but I find that if I look at Vogue for more than fifteen minutes, though it was just to see the clothes and though I thoroughly understand the risks, afterwards my own reflection looks faded and plain in the face of such mighty photoshop. Features of which I was previously proud look second-rate and pitiful in comparison to the powerfully glowy women in glossy color.

In order to combat these images and the unhealthy habits which follow in their wake for some, we are told (mainly by the internet) that we are all gorgeous and bikini-ready, that the best thing is health and confidence, to love our scars and our flaws, and that what really matters is just to have beautiful insides. Well, it’s hard to adore acne scars, (they have not yet tried to force us to think acne itself beautiful, thank God,) and my actual heart is not a very attractive thing—to the best of my knowledge, though its ability to keep me alive is admirable, it’s slimy, filled with fast-moving blood, and is currently making sounds like a mudsucker.

So with all these quiet comparisons of one benighted attitude to another and the size of our own waists with that of the girl walking past us on the street, we come to the muddled conclusion that we are supposed to love ourselves and fix ourselves into a more lovable state, all while seeming to care a great deal about the female self-image in general, but not what we see in our own mirror. By no means should we think and talk about the way women look any less than ninety minutes a day, and with each analytical session, we should come to an increasingly complex understanding of our physical appearance, such that we must eventually write a book (or blog entry) to purge ourselves and begin anew. Essentially, we learn that secretly it is part of our duty as women to be slowly and subtly exhausted by the fact that we have bodies and they are visible to the naked eye.

Well, perhaps I am not Solomon or Gandalf or even C.S. Lewis, but I was raised by two fairly wise people and one of the most valuable things they’ve bestowed on me is a healthy sense of the ridiculous, which I’m just now clumsily learning how to use. By all means, take your God and your work and your play quite seriously, but upon most occasions it’s best to assume that you are a bit silly. As Liesel and I used to tell each other, “People are funny.” You are a funny, truculent child, who never quite understands what he is being taught, and who, when he does begin to grasp truth, immediately misunderstands it on purpose and endeavors to be offended.

But I’ll tell you, there is mystery all wrapped up in humor and incredulity—we laugh at things we don’t understand, at things which don’t make sense, which are beyond our comprehension. Our physicality is part of our humanity—we are physical beings as well as spiritual (see the incarnation)—but it’s obvious that our bodies are pretty ungainly and silly for sacred vessels. C.S. Lewis says that the fact that we have bodies at all is “the oldest joke there is” and Saint Francis regularly referred to his physical self as “Brother Ass.”

So as women who own mirrors and occasionally see other women, what does this mean? Well, I’m only just now trying to figure that out, but I’ve made a little progress. Remember your body is on loan, but that you’ll have it for a while, so treat it with affection. Look in the mirror and laugh, walk away and forget what you saw. Buy lovely clothes and sometimes wear them. Stand up straight. Accept compliments gracefully, but walk away and forget those too. Make friends with those you’re tempted to be jealous of or judge. Use nice-smelling conditioner. Think you’re beautiful or think that you’re not, but don’t think it very often, and remember that in either case that fact has no bearing on the incredible reality that Christ died for you.

For our bodies, all beautiful and silly and ugly like they are, are just a small, funnily-warped reflection of a glory ahead of us. But I don’t understand that yet, so, for now, I’ll just wait and look and laugh.

Good Company

Last week was Grove City’s Christian Writers Conference on George Herbert. My dad came and spoke and there was a poetry liturgy and I gave a paper and there was a banquet and my brother George sequestered himself and his laptop in a thousand different corners. It was a wonderful time and I am grateful to have had it. There were lots of careful words on truth and beauty, and one cannot have that much goodness poured into ones head without it getting stuck there.

But I don’t know if I’m going to get anything worthwhile out onto the page tonight. We have our windows open, because the air is warm and soft at last. I just got back from the last “Conversation on the Virtues” I’ll be going to with my Classical Ed class. This semester with them has been a tiring, tense, funny, and sweet adventure. I think the world of them, as evidenced by the gratuitous number of hours Megan and I spent making them sugar cookies last week. I’m looking forward to a long summer and a fall semester with a fiction writing independent study, but I will miss these people.

I have plenty of friends who are very dear to me, but I am usually best one-on-one. Yet, these kids (or nearly-men-and-women, if you will) are my favorite when we are together, when we are not myself and himself and herself and yourself, but ourselves, sighing and insinuating and reading and asking and contradicting. Actually, at the risk of sounding like I’ve learned precisely what I was supposed to, I’d say we’re learning the awe of neighborliness. I do not know which of us began Samaritans, and which began Jews (or perhaps I do, but I’ll never tell), but I know I have been humbled by unexpected friendships. As Lewis says in The Four Loves, “Who could have deserved it?” Not I.

But this marvelous spread of good company is what has been offered me, so as my friend George Herbert and more importantly, my God, would require, I will not delay, but “sit and eat.”

Writing: On Living Up and Going From There

It’s been longer than I meant it to. That happens in writing. In the interim I intended to write a Valentine’s Day entry from which you can thank God for sparing you, and an entry on my trip to Staunton to see Shakespeare, which would’ve mostly been gushing, so if you imagine “!!!” and “!!!!!!!” you’ll about have the jist. But I’m not writing about either of those things tonight. That, too, happens in writing.

I find it hard to explain myself, and what I do, and why, without talking about my family. I’ve noticed since being at college that people either are a product of their home, or strangely, simply, they are not. I am my parents’ daughter. I cry more than they do, I need more hugs, and I am lazier, but I am theirs.

There is no poet I love whom they did not love first. They are responsible for the dear and the unread portions of my bookshelf and for my ability to find a book fast on the library shelves. For my first few semesters here I sent them every paper I wrote. I do not remember who taught me my letters, but my mom and my dad taught me my words.

On school mornings my small-town-Midwest-raised mother told us, without pretense, to “make haste!” and now in her many emails she tells me to “persist” and to “strive.” My mama is a verb person. My daddy like adjectives, I think. The first time he called me “svelte,” he made me look it up in the dictionary. We read Shakespeare and Thackery and Dickens and Rosetti. We sang and we talked and we were silent.

Every birthday, a parent (usually my dad, who’s into that sort of thing) writes a poem in cramped black ink. One of my favorites, from my sixth birthday, is a chronicle of all the things they’d like to give me, most of them extravagant, all of them silly. I easily remember the last lines, I’ve read them so often.

“But I am a dad and I mainly have words

And they say that we love you and though it’s absurd

That little black marks could do something so hard,

They’ll always, yes, always, smile up from this card.”

And so, even three states away, they do.

And so, years and miles later, I write. I have been given words, and I try to use them.

I had a little crisis yesterday. It occurred me for the first time (I like being sure, so I’ve never given myself much a chance to change my mind) that I might not want to teach. I might want to write. Really write.

I will not sit here and tell you that I love learning. I hope I do, but I’m simply not sure. I will tell you that I love words, that I love stories, that I love a bound book for what it is, a blank piece of paper for what it can be, a pen for the smudge it makes on the side of my hand. I love going into the shower starry-eyed, and coming out a half hour later with a subplot. (I did that last night.)

So what I am doing, at the moment, is being a student (after some tears yesterday, I confirmed that with my mother.) What I will be doing in year and a half is unsure. (Oh, oh, oh, how I like being sure, though…) I may be teaching, but I will be writing.

I am not always sure that I know how to become a better teacher. But I know how to become a better writer. When I graduated from high school my parents gave me a volume of C.S. Lewis and my Dad wrote on the inside “Always say what you mean.” That is the best advice for writing that I know.

So here is what I mean: I do not know if I can teach. I do not know if I can live off my writing. I do not know if I can live up to my parents as my imaginings tell me I should. I do not know, in fact, if I can live up to any of my imaginings. But I am learning what grace means. I am learning all the adjectives that make it visible and present, and I am learning my place among them. And God willing, I will spend the rest of my life writing them out in cramped black ink, as my parents have taught me.


Anyone who knows me well knows that this entry has always been inevitable, and the last few weeks have provided me with the perfect opportunity to write it at long last. Over Grove City’s intersession I did a two week internship at my dear old alma mater, and what follows is a “reflective essay” I turned in yesterday to the people at Grove City. Beware—it’s long. I have lots of thoughts…

I started at Caldwell in the fall of 1997, almost sixteen years ago. My connection with the school is older than that of all of the administration, and most of the faculty. I remember when each building was built, when each modular disappeared. I have cried in almost every room on the second story of the Smith Building, and I know the name of every Caldwell graduate before me. My name is written in sharpie in an undisclosed location on school property. I think it says something idiotic next to it like, “Class of 2010—Lifer.” So it’s nearly impossible to distance myself from these boys with the t-shirts under their polos and the girls whose shirts won’t stay tucked into their skorts, who straighten their hair and clip in a big navy bow. But perhaps distance would be more of a hindrance than a help just now.

Caldwell’s strength has always been closeness. They call themselves (or should I say we call ourselves?) a community school. Teachers and administration love their students, and with sometimes-necessary encouragement from the faculty, the students love each other. This has not changed, and I pray it never will. I stepped in for Mrs. Upper when she had a family crisis, was reminded en masse by my math teachers of the silly things I used to write on my test when I couldn’t do the work, and, best of all, I got to be with Mrs. Liebmann when she got the call saying that, for the fifth year in a row, her scans are clear. She does not have cancer.

Because of these people, Caldwell has never suffered for kind hands and free hugs, but what has always been a struggle, I think, is excellence. Particularly at the end of my high school career, I got quite a fair number of A’s that I knew, even at the time, I had not earned, and in the past two weeks, I witnessed, on occasion, some pretty dismal student work. Soft grades overflow from the teachers’ kind hearts and pens, and what’s missing is a desire not simply for the happiness of the student, but a desire that they be good, and generous, and wise. They will find it hard to become men and women who live in God’s grace if they feel entitled to kindness.

The key to excellence in Caldwell’s case may simply be revitalizing their classical foundation. The Sayers essay is an Appendix in the school handbook, and still required reading, I think, for new families. The tenants of a classical school have come and gone in the time I have known and loved this school, but they are raising their head again. A little manifesto entitled “Standards of Excellence” is posted in nearly every room in the Rhetoric school, including, oddly enough, the staff bathrooms. When I was in high school, Latin wasn’t offered above eighth grade, but now it’s on the curriculum straight through graduation, for those who want it, a move of which Dorothy Sayers would approve. Also, in the years, since I’ve left they’ve played around with a humanities program in the Dialectic and Rhetoric school, which currently means that the history, literature, Bible, rhetoric, and writing teachers all collaborate to a great degree. Aside from the almighty senior thesis, which has been around for a while, Rhetoric students now have a regular oral component to their humanities exams. I am also pleased to announce, that, though I never noticed it much in my time there as a student, the Trivium is quite alive and fairly well.

I didn’t spend a huge amount of time in the grammar school, but when I did, it was oddly refreshing. I read a Jan Brett book called The Hat to three groups of kindergarteners and three groups of first graders. They were enthralled by the pictures and several insisted on counting the empty clothespins on the clothesline with each new page, and reporting back. They are indeed Sayers’ little Poll-parrots. I only wish I’d known their names so that when I needed one of them to turn around and stop talking I could’ve said something more than “Honey. Honey. HONEY.” I also got to read with some fourth graders, and for reasons unknown, the teacher, who is a good friend, gave me all boys. They listened well, were bright, and every single one of them was eager to read aloud. I wonder when it is that boys stop publically caring about school, stop raising their hands when a question is asked.

I only got to be in the dialectic school for one afternoon. Elspeth Glasgow, Grove City grad extraordinaire, had me in to help lead a discussion her seventh graders were having on whether or not Abraham was lying when he said Sarah was his sister. The half of the class I had always had at least three or four hands wiggling in the air at once. None of them seemed the least shy about contradicting each other. We talked about the difference between lies and deceit, and they gave some fairly impressive examples of falsehoods and evasive language. Occasionally, I could see their native “pertness” giving way to real intelligence and thoughtfulness.

I spent most of my two weeks in the Rhetoric school, and the majority of that time in Mrs. Liebmann’s room, which got me very familiar with the freshmen and the juniors. One momentous day I took score for six back-to-back exam review games and learned everyone’s names pretty thoroughly, I hope that in some small way this helped me blend in with the community Mr. Greer is working so hard to further in the Rhetoric school. The first day of exams the administration brought in a popcorn machine for a snack between periods. And for the second day, Mr. Greer bought fifteen boxes of brownie mix and some eggs and asked the teachers to take them home and make a couple batches. You know what? They did. Happily. But then again, these are the people who plan on chaperoning a “Rhetoric Retreat” this Thursday and Friday, who are going to share cabins with these students, watch them do the polar bear plunge, and oversee the making of bubble gum sculptures. God help and bless them.

This is supposed to be what Sayers calls the poetic stage, but so many of them are not there yet, or have certainly not arrived there with a vision or purpose. I suppose that’s the teacher’s job to give. Mrs Liebmann’s method of encouragement in this area is to require commonplace books. They have to copy twenty or thirty quotes which they like each week, and write a short response to one of them. I got to grade a couple batches of these, and I found them more interesting and touching than I expected. One boy whom I had watch cut up in class began, “This is a quote from my sister’s calendar” and proceeded to write in earnest about the ways his own classmates spread sunshine and cheer. Multiple girls poured out their worries about friends and image and fear. The exercise is clearly a good place to begin in self-expression. The students have to ask themselves, “If I am to be this sort of person, whose shoulders ought I stand on? Which words will I hold most dear? I think this is true and good and beautiful, but why?”

One of Caldwell’s most beloved programs in past several years is the choral program, presided over by Mrs. Twigg. I sat in on both concert choir and Caldwell Singers, the auditioned group, and sang along. I had forgotten what hard work it is. I have no idea how I had enough energy to do that three times a week in high school. Halfway through concert choir I stopped singing and just watched. I looked around at the kids and wondered if they knew it made them a better person. I wondered if they knew what they were saying when they called a song beautiful. I wondered how often this evident patience and hard work extended beyond their harmony. But I supposed that even if, like me, they had to wait a few years for all the benefits of art to begin to manifest themselves, the risers and the filing cabinets of sheet music would not be in vain.

This last stage of the trivium is the hardest, I am sure. You are suddenly accountable for more than your work or even what you say, but for yourself. All of a sudden you must be a self who is worth being and expressing. Other people require it of you and, more frighteningly, you find you require it of yourself. It is easier for many of them to simply not try, or look as if they don’t care. A group of ninth graders I had told me that yes, of course they had read for the discussion that day, but it had been before Christmas so they didn’t remember any of it. I told them that was just as good as not reading at all. They were missing the point on purpose. They are old enough to know that living by the letter of the law alone will not suffice. One of the reasons I found the lower schools so refreshing, is that I did not really have to try to get the kids’ attention. They were told to listen and engage, and so they did. The rhetoric kids, however, make you work for it, and I need plenty of practice and patience. In The Seven Laws of Teaching Gregory lists ways of “kindling and maintaining” attention, which I am far from internalizing.

But they are missing so very much when they don’t heed both their teachers and their text. I observed a class of juniors who were having a very solemn discussion on “To His Coy Mistress.” I was just sitting in the corner, and didn’t think I ought to monopolize the conversation, but as I listened them discuss the speaker’s worldview, and the logical syllogisms of his argument, which are all well and good, I wanted to say, “You guys. This is funny. Isn’t this funny? Just a little bit? He’s got an in-joke with the audience, and he’s all pleased with himself and thinks she’s going to fall for it, and we’re laughing right back because we know she probably won’t.” I didn’t say anything, though. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps they need more help to see these things than I think.

My actual experiences at the front of the classroom were sometimes challenging. Of all of Gregory’s seven laws I struggle the most with the language of teaching. I am at college right now, where I am always trying to sound smarter and more elevated, but in front of high school kids it is really only imperative that they understand, not that I seem brilliant. I got along fairly well most of the time with the three periods of ninth graders I had. They are friendly and patient, though I was momentarily stumped for correct words when a girl innocently asked me to explain what a brothel was. Leading the senior’s Great Divorce discussions was harder. Mr. Greer was sitting right there and those kids were freshmen when I was a senior. Some of them are friends. It was hard to be Socratic and bright, to ask the right questions even when there are so many kind faces eager to give a helpful answer.

The most encouraging results I saw were, predictably, not results inspired by my teaching. I watched Marie Conner give an excellent explanation of the Hays Code and Mrs. Liebmann give a lecture I know she loves on Romanesque and Gothic architecture. I could see that they grasped not only the facts, but the awe, the unbelievable scope. The real proof of learning was evident in the oral exams I sat through. I sat in on one section each of ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades, most of whom were proficient in varying degrees. About a week beforehand the kids are given the list of twenty-some questions, and on the day of reckoning they have to pick one out of a hat, take notes and marshal their thoughts for five minutes, then sit attentively through the rest of their classmates’ 3-5 minutes speeches. Waiting their turn was the hardest, I think. They are still kids. It all serves not only as an assessment, a benchmark, but it fulfills Gregory’s law of “review and application.” Of course, not everything stated with certainty from the front of the classroom that day was quite right. Apparently, though I was not there for it, one student claimed the Africans brought over jazz in the early nineteenth century, and as for what I did witness, particularly with one of my favorite plays, I often had to resist the urge to run up and help and correct and explain. One student, whose family both Caldwell and I know of old, got up, did a very good job, and in the midst of his talk made a crack about “a classically-trained scholar like myself.” I know he was mostly joking, lightening the exam-day mood, but I wonder what else that meant to him. I’m sure he could explain the trivium in his sleep, because he’s been through it himself, but what else does he know? I’m curious. Maybe I should have asked.

Perhaps my most useful activity in the past few weeks, though it was small in retrospect, was the grading I did. I graded a set of non-AP essays on Huck Finn. I could tell who had tried and who could have tried harder. I graded a set of poetry annotation assignments, a whole slew of vocab quizzes, and bits and pieces of different humanities exams. It is clear that I am hard, perhaps too hard. Mrs. K got calls from parents complaining about the strict grading of the poetry assignments, but if she doesn’t mind then neither do I. I am young and new, and I heard that we are all like this. We grow out of it. But I hope I never grow out of a commitment to excellence, to giving feedback, encouragement, and challenges. I hope never to take the easy way out. I hope to treat language with care, and teach my students that it is imperative they do the same.

I wanted to work with senior thesis while I was there and didn’t get a chance, because the kids haven’t really started on it. Thesis was my favorite part of senior year. Huge paper, oral defense, study what you love: glory, glory, glory. I did, however, get to sit in on a writing curriculum meeting. Michael Hicks, one of those early Caldwell grads whose name I’ve known forever, was hired over the summer to teach writing, but right before school started he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So while he underwent treatments all semester, Debbie Holcombe, the mother of one of the ninth graders, stepped in. The meeting was a passing of the torch now that he is recovering. They both clearly cared a great deal that these students wrote well, that they knew lots of words and used them to say things worth saying. They desired a deep connection between meaning and language. They discussed, what is, in fact, one of Sayers’ main points, the desperate need for logical progression in student thinking. These kids took logic back in the day, but they have not yet learnt to apply it.

Many Caldwell students have, in fact, been living on what Sayers calls “educational capital” for a long time. They are nice kids with nice parents, but unless we and they work, and work hard, for something more, niceness will be worse than worthless. It will be the lie which keeps them from Grace. I want desperately for these kids to be excellent, good, reverent. But how do we get from here to there? I know very little of what is, I’m sure, the ponderous answer to that question, but I know that we must teach them, and in turn ourselves, that we are not made to be our own gods. We can plan, and take action, but we must take great care not to live upon what Lewis calls the “fixed land.” We must simply get up into each morning as it is given us, teach, learn, and worship without ceasing. If only my school does that faithfully, academic excellence and every other good thing will follow as it ought.

The God of the Mountain

Tonight I am the Queen Orual bringing my complaint against my God. I do not understand. I do not understand His mercy, His love, His disregard for justice, for my proper desserts.

I can look at men who are responsible for millions of deaths and say, “My, that’s awful. That’s real bad.” But it does not look as rotten as the microcosm of my own heart, my slimed, oozing, bought-back heart.

That He would make me, know me, and yet love me, and die of my scourge that I might be healed… It does not fit into this world I have built to live in.

When you strip away all those things people say, all those pats on my shoulder, I’m pretty simple-minded. As Ethan said last week, “Grace is not intuitive.” It seems that I understand sin and nothing more. I have no face yet with which to see His. I am not gall or heartburn, but blind eyes and a mouth unopened in praise or in hunger.

I do not understand. I cannot understand. Grace for my sin is too terrible a good and I am frightened.

Nevertheless, I will eat the glowing coals of righteousness and mercy, though they burn my lips. In fear and trembling, I will open my mouth and give thanks.


Just now I came across some very unexpected free time and I said to myself (aloud, mind you,) “What if I wrote a blog entry right now?” So I’m doing that incredibly dangerous thing: beginning to write with no end of either kind in mind.

These couple weeks have been very busy. I’m playing in the pit for the musical, which has devoured my evenings, I’m beginning tutoring on Thursday, and lots of medium-sized assignments have begun to crop up out of nowhere. Also I’ve been having a fair number of meal dates. (Alice is popular—Hooray!)

All of these things have done a fair job of keeping my mind off of something I’ve been avoiding thinking about: mercy. You see, I always thought the principal thing about mercy was to give it. But I’m slowly beginning to realize that I’m not usually on that side of the transaction. I sin against God and sin against others, but since I’m no paragon of virtue, I find that people very rarely sin against me. So in my dealings with mercy it is usually being offered to me by kind, wounded hands.

I’ll tell you: I don’t like taking it. It’s not that I mind admitting I was wrong, but often, I cannot bear to be set right. I don’t like taking “the bleeding charity.” I would rather wallow in my sin and say, “No, but I belong here—you will not raise me up.”

That realization has been nagging at me for a few days now, asking me to deal with it, and today in Fantasy we talked about Return of the King. I re-read one of my favorite passages, the passage that first made me cry. But this time, to my great discomfort, I read it differently.

“Wormtongue!” called Frodo. “You need not follow him. I know of no evil you have done to me. You can have rest and food here for a while, until you are stronger and can go your own ways.”

Wormtongue halted and looked back at him, half prepared to stay. Saruman turned. “No evil?” he cackled. “Oh no! Even when he sneaks out at night it is only to look at the stars. But did I hear someone ask where poor Lotho is hiding? You know, don’t you, Worm? Will you tell them?”

Wormtongue cowered down and whimpered: “No, no!”

“Then I will,” said Saruman. “Worm killed your Chief, poor little fellow, your nice little Boss. Didn’t you, Worm? Stabbed him in his sleep, I believe. Buried him, I hope; though Worm has been very hungry lately. No, Worm is not really nice. You had better leave him to me.”

A look of wild hatred came into Wormtongue’s red eyes. “You told me to; you made me do it,” he hissed.

Saruman laughed. “You do what Sharkey says, always, don’t you, Worm? Well, now he says: follow!” He kicked Wormtongue in the face as he grovelled, and turned and made off. But at that something snapped: suddenly Wormtongue rose up, drawing a hidden knife, and then with a snarl like a dog he sprang on Saruman’s back, jerked his head back, cut his throat, and with a yell ran off down the lane. Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit-bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead.

Do you see me? Do you see me in the character I’ve always pitied, and, therefore, from whom I’ve felt comfortably separate? Do you see me in the refusal of the outstretched hand, the whimpering return to agony and rottenness? Do you see that it does not end well?

I don’t understand. I don’t understand why I would rather label myself with my sin than with God’s grace. I don’t understand why I do not want what is good. I don’t understand why I would rather be endlessly chastised than forgiven. I don’t understand why I’d rather look at my feet than at His glory.

I behave as if Christ on the cross meant nothing, as if “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” did not absolve me also, as if no one’s ever told me He loves me.

I feel a bit like the one hundredth sheep, who has caught herself deep in the briars. Come find me, Lord. I’m crying mercy, or beginning to, at the very least.