Thunder

The first night of my freshman year, I was lying in bed in the throes of homesickness when I heard the train whistle. “There’s a train two blocks from me at home.” I thought. “They have trains here, too!” And I went to sleep.

I came into this year sick to my stomach with fear, much more irregular fear than two years ago. And over the past week we’ve had thunderstorms. We never have thunder here. Thunder makes me think of home and summer evenings and my front porch and dinner soon and we-should-walk-in-the-gutter-like-when-we-were-kids. Thunder, like a train whistle, means comfort. And I’ve rejoiced in that.

Comfort is not bad. My corner is not bad. But Christianity is not intended to be cozy. When Christ said “Follow Me,” he did not preface it with “Come along, children, tea and scones at the next inn!” He said “Take up your cross and follow Me.”

We hear this and we fear and we hide. We don’t want to touch our cross, don’t want to think about what our cross may be, and don’t even try to make us carry it. It’s a dreadfully common fear. T.S. Eliot even put it into the mouth of the chorus, in their last speech in Murder in the Cathedral.

Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as type of the common man,

Of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire;

Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;

Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God;

Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal,

Less than we fear the love of God.

We acknowledge our sin, our trespass, our weakness, our fault:

(…) Lord, have mercy upon us.

Christ, have mercy upon us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

I cower by the fire behind the shut door, but that is not as I ought. Tonight at church, Ethan quoted St. Basil. “If you live alone whose feet will you wash?” Whose indeed? I am not called to serve myself, to obey my own frightened, sin-riddled demands.

So even if the crosses we bear and hang upon are the crosses of ourselves, as Whittaker Chambers would say, even if what hinders us is our self-made, self-inflicted, self-devouring fear, we are still to follow. His is the only heel that can crush that fear, though it may “hurt like billy-oh.”

We preface the Lord ’s Prayer with “Now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say:” If I can call Him who made me my “Father, who art in heaven.”  I can be bold to say and do so much else. I can stomp out the fire with a marshwiggle foot, open the shut door, and step out. The thunder is not only a comfort. It is a reminder, a call.

Favorite Books

Just now I had the great pleasure of staring at my bookshelf for a couple minutes, deciding what to write to you about. I’ve had these shelves since Mary and I moved into this room when I was about five, and they sag a little with an assortment of classic literature, children’s books, and a growing number of writings on educational theory and policy. I skipped over ones I know you will have heard of. You know Laura Ingalls Wilder, C.S. Lewis, and Harper Lee, and if I have not already told you about I Like You and The Cozy Book, I’m sure I will someday, whether you want me to or not. Also, though I’m appreciative of all the ed books, I am not destined to crack any of those bindings with overuse. What I chose, perhaps unsurprisingly, was almost exclusively kid’s books.

There is something in childhood flights of adventure that is binding. It is the dyscatastrophe and the eucatastrophe, the moral imaginings of battle and redemption and grace. Not that most of these are adventure stories in the traditional sense, but they are written for people who are still small enough to see how grand this Story really is, who have not yet believed the falsehood of everlasting meaninglessness. Thus, when you read these stories, you have to read them like a child, like they matter, else you’re reading blind.

All of the below books fall into one of two categories. Either when I first read them I wouldn’t shut up about them, like I won’t shut up about the ASC in Staunton, VA, or, more simply, I cannot remember a time when their stories were not a part of my bones. They are listed roughly in the order that I first loved them.

The Melendy Books by Elizabeth Enright: (The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, Spiderweb for Two) Mary and I sometimes reminisce about these as if Mona and Randy and Rush and Oliver and Mark were real live people we actually knew, as if we too used citronella to ward off mosquitoes, and had a Cuffy to boss us about. Their childhood was my childhood. Last fall, I read The Saturdays to Liesel, and was delighted to discover that it was the same wonderful book I remembered, only better.

The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit: She dedicates it “in memory of childhoods identical, but for the accidents of time and space.” I do sincerely hope that everyone’s childhood contained moments like this, when you went on some complex quest for honor (and adventure,) and anyone who told you it couldn’t be done was only “Albert-next-door,” and not to be heeded. Also, Oswald Bastable is my favorite narrator of all time.

Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes: The bits of this book that I remember coming back to time and time again are the chapters that Pinky, the cat, supposedly writes herself on Mr. Pye’s typewriter while he naps. The entire story is also good for learning about how to properly enjoy a summer vacation, pygmy owls, and watching.

The Witches by Roald Dahl: You may know this one, but still, isn’t it marvelous? There’s an underground network of evil out to get you and only you, and you and only you can fight it. Grandmothers are wise; pretty women with candy are not to be trusted; one may sustain awkward battle wounds; Quentin Blake’s illustrations are quite perfect—good lessons all. (Also see The BFG.)

The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh: (followed by Mennyms in the Wilderness, Mennyms Under Seige, and Mennyms Alone) Often when I describe this series to someone who hasn’t heard of it, (which is, it seems, everyone but myself) they get a look on their face as if I’ve smilingly advised them to eat raw meat. It’s about a family of life-sized rag dolls who live unobtrusively at 5 Brocklehurst Grove. The story’s solemn weirdness is just mundane and unselfconscious enough that the entire thing is utterly enchanting. Trust me on this one: Soobie alone is worth the read.

The Penderwicks by Jean Birdsall: When I first got this book for Christmas in 2005, I read it three times in row to myself, then aloud to my family who was stuck in the car with me. I couldn’t stop. It’s subtitled “A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.” All books should have subtitles like that. All of them.

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman: I’ve never read The Golden Compass, and have no opinion to offer. This, however, is a marvelous little mystery about orphans and cursed jewels and opium dens. He writes chase scenes that actually interest me, and that’s quite a feat. (I am not, strictly speaking, a fast-paced action kind of girl. I like talk.) I have a specific memory of outlining the whole plot for Sarah Moon on Mrs. Liebmann’s board one day, when we should have been doing classwork.

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke: I like this book because of Venice, and I like this book because of Scipio, the thief lord himself. It starts as a story about friendship and growing up, then two-thirds of the way through, just when you’re quite comfortable, it begins to spit magic, forcing you to put in some effort and suspend disbelief you didn’t think needed suspending. But really, how could you be a child in Venice without a touch of the fantastic?

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I, The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson: You saw the title—what else can I say? “Historical fiction about the Revolutionary War” doesn’t begin to cover it. Somewhere between fact and fable, it wasn’t written, but lovingly created.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre: This one is different. It’s not a children’s book. It’s not even a novel. A family friend and former teacher gave it to me as a graduation present two years ago, and though during its first reading I accidentally dropped it in the slimy spillway at my grandparents’ house, that doesn’t reflect how I feel about it in the slightest. I think everyone should read this book, particularly people who use words on a daily basis. It is about being good stewards of language, perpetually handing it with care and wisdom. In her chapter called “Read Well” she writes about why it matters “Our lives are lived in relationship to words, written and spoken, sacred and mundane. They are manna for the journey.” Golly, I love words…but that’s for another day.

Letter to Self

Having a hard time, dreariness, melancholy, feeling down, heartsickness, depression. There. I said it. Depression. You don’t frighten me!

That is why I have not been writing much. The writers I study in my english classes always  produce great masterpieces from the depths of despair (or at least produce something…), but for me it is simply not so. Perhaps it means I am not a real writer, or perhaps it means that my depression itself is “differently abled.” All I know is, it has certainly manifested itself in less productive ways.

I have spent a huge portion of time watching TV on hulu and generally neglecting personal hygiene. Cool. It is easier to forget how inadequate I’m feeling if I make no attempt to be adequate in the first place. It is easier to run and hide than it is to deal. Easier to pretend that the melancholic little thing I have become has never existed, and that these imaginary characters’ small stories in this next show have the power to infuse me with life again. They do not.

Neither do I really have the power to help myself. I know that. But, meanwhile back at the ranch, I’ve written myself a letter about “waking up and trying.” Because, while writing does not come eagerly right about now, the satisfaction in saying precisely what I mean is a warm, welcome relief.

Self,

I know you are having a hard time remembering about things like swelling opera and sloping fields in sunny Tuscany and the “giggle when a tickle takes.” You’ve been having an even harder time remembering about amazing grace and everlasting arms and Jesus, lover of your soul.

So let’s start with an easy question.

WHAT IS TODAY LIKE? Not only the color, but the texture, the scent, the tang?

How is it different from yesterday?

How is it better?

What do you miss and why?

That too much? No, don’t stare in the mirror and cry–answer me this:

How do you feel about your socks? Are you wearing socks? You ought to, we both know how cold you let your feet get before putting something on them.

Perhaps you ought to take a hot bath and sing a song.

Is it sunny out?

How about wearing a skirt today?

If you put on a skirt I’ll let you look in the mirror. Then at least there’ll be something worth seeing.

Why don’t you read something aloud?

Do you remember the sound of a good sentence snapping into place like brand-new elastic?

I bet you remember the man who wrote this:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Remember how he also wrote this:

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean out Saviour;

How do you think he wrote both? I know we’re getting to the hard questions here, but stick with me. I’m going as slow as I can.

Do you remember in Persuasion when Anne receives Captain Wentworth’s letter which is “not soon to be recovered from,” and they walk along with “smiles reined in and spirits dancing in private rapture”?

Do you remember in the Great Divorce when the man let the spirit destroy his sin but instead of dying it turned into a magnificent stallion and carried him up the mountain?

Do you remember when Jesus had to tell Mary not to cling to him, because she was so overwhelmed to find her Lord alive, and would not let go?

What I’m really asking is do you remember joy and do you still think it’s worth waiting for?

Do you remember how “having done all, to stand”?

You must be just a little more than “patience on a monument.” Chin up, toots.

Affectionately,

Alice

Confession

I’ve been wanting to write this for weeks, but, in many ways, it’s a really good thing that I haven’t gotten around to it till now. A while back (it was a Thursday, if you were curious) a group of students organized an event at Grove City called “less.” There were vague posters up all over campus about finding freedom, and how a chapel credit was offered, so Crawford was quite full. Familiar faces, even a few whose names I knew, went up on stage and shared what even I consider to be hugely personal–struggles with sin that most of us cannot imagine speaking  into a dark room full of a thousand faceless classmates. These were things which you just don’t talk about at Grove City. Just like we don’t make eye contact, we don’t use a microphone and an auditorium to discuss masturbation, suicidal depression, and addiction to pornography. As awful as it is, we want those things kept miserably behind closed doors, where they will fester and grow. I know there was plenty of uncomfortable squirming, and muffled gasping in the audience that night. All we really wanted was a chapel credit. But we needed to hear this. Sometimes here I think everyone feels like you ought to say that we are all sinners, but not actually be one yourself. It is good to crush that lie. The thing which struck me the most though, was the boldness of these people. I cannot imagine confessing such secrets, not only to the people you already know, and those you will never meet, but to that kid you’ll sit next to in class next semester who may not remember your name, but will remember your greatest weakness.

I think I know where this bravery comes from, though. When I went to this event I was in the middle of reading Lewis’s The Great Divorce, in which those damned to hell are bussed to the outskirts of heaven, met by the spirits of people they knew on earth, and given the chance to stay. None of them do. They are too proud, too insistent on their own way, unwilling to let go of themselves and become Christ’s, adamant that they will not take the “bleeding charity.” Except for one man. He comes to the outskirts of heaven with a lizard on his shoulder which whispers in his ear. The lizard is lust, and the man is afraid to be without him. He knows that if he lets the shining spirit incinerate the lizard it will hurt. It will hurt, in many ways, worse than hell. Finally he agrees, and is knocked to the ground by divine force. But then…that’s it. He is free. He is in Christ, and he is at last himself. The dead body of the lizard has turned into a magnificent stallion, on which he rides up the mountain of heaven. I think that is what each of my fellow students meant when they said, “In Christ, I have found freedom.” Their sin, to which they were once enslaved, has become what it was originally intended to be. All evil is perversion of good. In fact, I think the precise thing you most struggle with is a warped version of what God originally intended, and still does intend, to be your greatest strength, if only you will give yourself up to him. Lust becomes passion, depression compassion, self-love love for one’s neighbor, and pride worship.

But why is it that the people up on that stage, and the man with the lizard all seem to have the shocking, icky, socially unspeakable sins? And they are the ones who get it? They are the prostitutes and the tax collectors–they are the blessed who are constantly confronted with their depravity and crave freedom. Then there’s the rest of us–me in particular. If I had gotten up on that stage, I wouldn’t have needed such bravery. No one would have gasped at my sins. They would have yawned. My sins are creeping, almost invisible at times. I could say them out loud all day long (and I have), and people will just say, “Oh aren’t we all?” or “You’ll grow out of it honey.” But that is dangerous. Confession is important–even when it’s so easy that it almost seems worthless. So here I go.

I am vain–self-obsessed. I am proud. I think I am smarter, prettier, more wonderful and huggable than everyone else. I don’t want them to know I think like that. But I do. Constantly. It’s an epidemic. It’s a sin. It’s a master. I am lazy. I am selfish. I am without question the most ridiculously stubborn person I know. Pay attention to the modifier there: I’m stubborn about the most ridiculous things. I hold onto bitterness like crazy. If you ask me to do something that’s out of my comfort zone, no amount of begging or peer pressure will change my mind. And I take pride in that! I take pride in cowardice! I have this mindset that I only do the things I’ve always done. I’ve put myself in a box, and tried to keep God in it with me. Well, let me tell you: He won’t stay! But neither will he take me out if I’m unwilling. I have manic attachment to who I think I’ve created myself to be. I’m so proud of her. It’s sick. Revolting in a way that nothing said on that stage few weeks ago could ever be.

So this is my beginning. It is not the first and it will not be the last. I want freedom, but I need someone to pry open my fists which still cling to the silly girl who loves her name, her clothes, her family, her life, but so rarely her God. Only Christ is strong enough. He died, He rose, He will set me free. He will.

Me, Myself….and Not Much Else

On the inside of all the stalls in my hall bathroom, there are flyers from the counseling center about “Transitions”, and every time I’m in there I diligently try to make sense of them. There are, apparently, three stages to a transition: Endings, a neutral stage, and New Beginnings. Basically, you feel sad, you transition, you feel happy.

Well, not me. I felt sad, I felt happy, then I was…lonely. And I’ve found  that’s a terrible thing to admit. When a friend asks what’s wrong when I’m crying, (because, of course, I have been crying…) I cannot say, “I’m strangely, desperately lonely late at night. I thought there would be people like me at college, and there aren’t. I miss being around people who I don’t have to explain myself to, and on top of that, two of the people who know me best are overseas, and I can’t call them like I want to every other second! That’s all…”

It sounds like such an accusation, and it’s a little overwhelming. I don’t know exactly how I got it into my head that Grove would be full of little personality twins, but it’s not. It is populated with happy, easily stressed people who like to abbreviate their words and have dance parties. They remind me of the people I’ve known all my life. They are lovely and I should be thankful, but I wonder. Where are the rest of the kids who care more about books than about grades, who don’t mind hard teachers if only they are learning, who only become more stubborn with extra pressure, and who still believe their lives can be a storybook? I thought I would find them here, but I haven’t. They do exist, don’t they? I suppose I am unique, but please, God, not that unique!

Of course, I am being overdramatic. I do have friends here, good friends, even a few dear ones. I think my sudden desire to be a type, to have those like myself, who know my secrets without being told, has just happened to coincide awkwardly with my first semester of college. But that rationalization unfortunately doesn’t really make me feel better. Late at night, I am still just me in my little box of me-ness, which is tiresome and sometimes frightening after eighteen years.

So, anyway, that is how I have been feeling. Yesterday I went to Discipleship Group and had myself a lovely little breakdown. I had a talk with my leader, and told her most all of it, I think, and a few other things about my state of mind which I am too ashamed to share with cyberspace. Not that she was anything less than kind, but I came out of that conversation with the distinct remembrance that I am very, very self-absorbed. Why do I feel that I must find people like myself? Oh…probably because I think I’m pretty great. Ya think, Alice?

And then, last night I had hall bible study, and a friend of my RA’s read a quote from C.S. Lewis’  The Weight of Glory, which I desperately wish I had on me, and cannot find in its entirety anywhere on the dumb internet, but here is part of it: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.” I was momentarily comforted with the thought that on the other side of that door I would be sure to meet legions of people like myself, and the stuffy little box of Alice would be busted up and forgotten. Everyone or most everyone, anyway, would be like me!

Then, for the first time in…well, eras, really, Truth hijacked my thought process. Everyone would be like me, but only in the ways in which I was like Christ. Anything in me which was not a reflection of him would be lost, burned away, drowned in death’s great river. I, in myself, am not worth being. Why am I desiring to find Alice in others when I should be looking for Christ? Lewis again, in The Problem of Pain, each “soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance…” He is there for the finding. Why am I only trying to learn about myself from others, when I am surrounded by those who have the image of the God of the universe painted in relief in their very souls?

So, I am not only self-absorbed, I am self-obsessed. I learned at an early age that the world at large does not revolve around me, but now, at eighteen, I am finally learning that neither can I revolve around myself. Certainly, I was not created to be lonely and miserable, but neither was I created to be the silly, vain creature I am at present. My Lord loves me enough to have bigger plans. He must increase, but I must decrease. Otherwise, when I get to the door Lewis speaks of, I may not even find it appealing, and that would be very truly tragic, for that door, and what lies beyond, are precisely was I was created for.