The Here and Now

All through college I heard so much about the importance of place, of the dirt beneath your feet, of opening your eyes as wide as they’ll go and looking watchfully at the walls and horizons which surround you. And now I’m back in Greensboro, probably for good. Back in the muggy air that hugs me, sleeping in my childhood bedroom, getting up each morning and driving to the place I could drive to in my sleep. I love security, so in my eyes, all of this is very good.

But time is place too, in a sense. A place I can’t return to. I lie in bed at night, and remember that there is no big sister on the other side of the room to keep me awake talking endlessly about her day. I now meet friends for drinks on the same corner to which I used to walk to pick up ginger ale when my mom had the flu.

During teacher workweek at Caldwell, I sat in almost the exact same spot in the lunchroom where I used to pour chocolate milk all over my pizza to impress the other second graders. My new desk is in the back corner of a classroom which I routinely bathed with tears over Geometry and Precalc. And I remember standing up near the whiteboard there during play practice one day and teaching ourselves how to use chopsticks, with whiteboard markers. I can look out the doorway into the hall and see the locker I stood next to hyperventilating when my friend was rushed to the hospital at the end of one school day.

The room I teach in is the same one in which, during my freshman year, I used to sit in the back corner during class, with a messy spiral notebook, the smudged pencil which was the beginning of my first novella. When I stand to face my students I stand in almost the exact spot where, on the night of my senior prank we put a little tub of baby chicks. I remember curling up on the hard floor with my sweater a few yards away and trying to sleep, while they cheeped softly for hours.

Sometimes I feel a little like Ebenezer Scrooge standing and watching the jumbled ghosts of my past. Don’t take the metaphor too hard, though. Because while those shadows play there are very real people in front of me with their own, quite solid pencils and spiral notebooks in their hands. And behind me there are completely tangible whiteboard markers that I really ought to be using.

And so I teach and I think about the shadows and the reality and the way this reality will soon fade into shadows. And then I think about the great reality, which is this: God is faithful. God is faithful to have brought me back to place in which I cannot ignore His perpetual goodness to me. I grew up in here and every corner is marked and scuffed by my fears and aches. I look at them and I see Him. In the memories of my hardheadedness, I see His patience, of my cruelty, His sacrifice, of my pains, no matter how small, His abundant and overflowing grace. I see His faithfulness in each place and each time, in each here and each now.

And so tomorrow, I continue to teach history. Not my history, thank God, but His. Always His.

 

 

Sometimes

I’ve had one of those weeks. Not the awful, overwhelming kind, or the traumatic kind, or the inexplicably sad kind, but the kind that I can’t remember. The kind where someone asks me how my week has been and I look at them blankly, because I can’t remember a single thing that happened. I know that I went to class and did some reading and wrote an essay and slept and ate and talked, but as far as anything worth latching onto and remarking upon… nothing, apparently. It’s one of those days where the last notable thing I remember happening to me is the time I played Vengeance in my high school gym. Right now my parents and George are in Scotland, and Abby’s at a wedding, and it’s Laura’s nineteenth birthday. I remember these things, and I think, “Someday I will go to Scotland. Someday I will go to a wedding. Maybe even have one myself. Someday I’ll have another birthday. ” And that’s true, but, of course, right now I’m just sitting here writing a paper about the tragedy of inaction in Dickens’ Bleak House. I’m thankful for the opportunity, but really? The tragedy of inaction? MUST WE RUB IT IN?

I’ve always believed, or said I believed, that real, vibrant, spirit-fueled life is made up of lots of tiny little puzzle pieces of  sharing blankets and having wet hair in the morning and giving hugs and having sandals that sometimes rub and saying “it’s you an’ me till three o’clock” to my paper. We were meant for these little things too. And yet, I am apparent ly not content to find that God lives in quiet lives, such as mine is right now. I want mountains and hurdles and heartbreak and rebirth. Yet here I am feeling dull and remarkably unspectacular. But perhaps I am, as Deut. 33:12 would have it, “dwelling between his shoulders,” and I’m just failing to notice or appreciate. It’s been known to happen, Lord.

Story

It is nine-thirty on Monday evening, I have just finished reading the first two chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird to my cousin Charity, and I am wide awake, while she is fast asleep. I guess my southern drawl is soporific. Obviously she wasn’t very engaged in Harper Lee, but I’m so glad to have picked it up.

You see, I really want to write this summer—a real story—something with a climax, plot complications, and the sort of happy ending a reader can curl up and fall asleep in. The books I had been trying to make myself read, while worth my time, weren’t doing much for the creative juices. Bleak House, anyone? I cannot possibly write with Dickens on the brain. I can read with animation, I can hate Mrs. Jellyby with a holy passion, I can weep when Jenny’s baby dies, but when I sit down afterwards, I cannot think of a blasted thing to write. I do not have that scope. Instead, over the last couple of weeks I have drawn up the entire imaginary family tree of a clan called the Hardisons—sixty-one members and six generations worth. There are a good number of extra-marital affairs and shady business dealings involved, and I have the bad habit of marrying off third cousins to one another, but it has been great fun. I have worked out everyone’s birth and death date, and maiden name, all of which are neatly outlined in the 150 year timeline taped above my bed. And yet, there is no story screaming to be written. I have simply been joined by sixty-one vaguely interesting little writing companions. And we all lie there in bed late at night with little to say for ourselves.

In any case, while I could never be Dickens, there is a smidgen of hope for Alice as Harper Lee. I do not mean either that I grew up in place like Maycomb, Alabama in the thirties, which I didn’t, or that I could write something as wonderful and successful as To Kill a Mockingbird, which I couldn’t. I simply mean that Atticus Finch? I know him. I could reach out and shake his dry, warm hand, and honestly declare that I was pleased to meet him. The trick of writing characters, at least for me, is that I cannot write the people I actually know, but I must actually know the people I write. (If that makes any sense.)I must know them, at times, better than I know myself.  Yet, before I really know someone, I must see them doing—I must see them performing the action of being themselves. I know Atticus because I have seen him remove his glasses to shoot a mad dog, and remove his jacket to defend an innocent man. Which brings me back to where I begun. I must have happenings and doings; I must have story. I must have eucatastrophe and dyscatastrophe. I must have that which makes the ladies reach for their smelling salts and the gentlemen for their guns.

My little battalion of sixty-one, or perhaps soldiers from an entirely different quarter, must rise, sail onto the page, stake their claim and defend their territory. Go West, young man into the distant regions of the memory and the subconscious, drag the rivers, mine the gold, rake the muck, but return not empty handed! (Please. I really want to write a story.)