On Unwasted Time

Today I met up with a friend and she gave me a bag with four or five hand-me-down dresses. A few hours later, at home, I tried them on and looked in the mirror and cried. I think I can count on one hand the number of times in the last three months that I’ve worn a dress. It’s been so long since I felt pretty, since I felt like I was going somewhere. 

So far, this year has been hard to understand. I’m certain I’ve learned many things, but I don’t know what most of them are yet. (This is one of the reasons I write: to find out.) I’ve tried to make meaning out of this time: I’ve written five and half chapters of a novel, I’ve had long conversations which have settled comfortable and weary into the nooks and crannies of already-established friendships, I’ve read children’s books, recently-released novels, and the Psalms, I’ve stared at the sky.  I’ve been reasonably content. The safe, quiet rhythms of my day-to-day life have made this possible. And as I’ve sat within, outside of my small world things have happened, risings and fallings and lives and deaths.

The world is all sliced open right now, inside-out and raw, and God, it seems, has plans for that. We serve a no-waste God. You know how sometimes people say that they heard something somewhere once and it really stuck with them? Well, I heard that somewhere once and I wish it had stuck with me: we serve a no-waste God.

I’ve spent a lot of time in young adulthood, particularly while I was teaching, wondering if I were wasting my efforts, my energies, myself. I cared about my students enormously, yet that didn’t always translate into helpful action. I feel very often as if I sit at the center of a little self-made vortex of material and mental chaos, and, more than this, I still cannot seem to crack the code of how to love others well, of how to have the right thing to say in the right moment, of how to be enough but not too much. Ultimately, I’m often quietly uncertain if I’ve got the peg in the right hole, if what I’m doing with my days, my hours, my minutes is at all worthwhile.

But still, I remind myself of the line from that Sara Groves song, “love is still a worthy cause,” and I am persistent. I continue to gather up the scattered threads I find around me, and, focusing hard, I weave them together this way and that, aiming to get it right this time. This is what writers do and this is what try-ers do. We do not waste. We save it all.

Yet perhaps the impact of these strange times, the big, lasting, eternal meaning they will have to each of us as individuals, is not in some novel or lightning bolt or any other shining thing you or I are working so hard to keep the locusts from devouring. Perhaps instead we will find that the value in these months and years has been in the things even we did not think to save, in the edges and the discarded ends, the repeated pains, fears, and failed attempts. So that, at the last, we will find ourselves in front of the mirror, afternoon sun from the window on our cheeks, weeping in surprise that we have been clothed in glory which fits just-so, woven of familiar threads which it took divine hands months and years to gather.

The Indigestible Portions

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

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

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

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

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

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

But.

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

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

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

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

Holy Ground

Once when I was in college, a friend went to pray before a meal and got much more eloquent than all of us expected. I remember he said that every day, every moment, every place we go, God has been there first. I still think of this often. I have never pushed too hard at its theology, for fear it would leak, but ultimately I think it would hold true. He is in all these places and he knows all these things.

So here we are in February, and the Lord has been here first.

I’m getting over a cold right now. (I say “getting over” more hopefully than truthfully. Yesterday a senior girl who I no longer teach said hi to me in the hall, and when I responded, she immediately said, “You sound sick.”) It began with a little sore throat late one Saturday, and turned into a runny nose by midday on Sunday. On Monday my head was so stuffed up that I couldn’t hear very well, and I walked down the halls at work pleased with how quiet everything was during class change. If someone spoke to me directly I could understand and respond, but all the other words which leak from students’ mouths between-times had turned into a soft, indecipherable buzz. A simple bout of congestion had blunted the sharp edges of my world, and I was content. By that night my voice sounded like someone dying very gradually of strangulation, but dying happily, because I thought I sounded funny, and kept laughing a lot. I even tried singing in the bath. (Some days it’s easy to keep yourself entertained.)

So for the last week or so my voice has flickered in and out as I teach, and some days I have needed to escape to the bathroom every hour, on the hour, to blow my nose somewhat violently. At home I have gone through an entire roll of toilet paper stationed by my bed, because who actually buys boxes of tissues in their twenties? (Or am I just behind everyone else?) Several people have urged me to get tested for the flu, but I keep promising: it’s just a cold. It’s really just a cold. On Friday, I went to dinner at the home of a couple from church, and within fifteen minutes of meeting most of the people in the room, while we were thanking God for the food, I descended into a coughing fit. I escaped to the bathroom as my gag reflex began to engage, and for a brief, sad moment I considered the possibility that I may soon see pieces of my own lungs floating in the toilet bowl of these nice strangers. Then my roommate, whom I had come with, brought me a glass of water, and told me that she had assured everyone that I was okay so quickly that they probably now thought she was an awful, callous person. I said, no, of course, obviously I would have said the same thing: it’s just a cold. (And it really is.)

One of the ways I know it’s not the flu is that I had the energy to finally get my oil changed on Wednesday. Big deal. I went to one of those express places, where you don’t even have to get out of your car and they do the whole job in ten minutes. Now, I know these employees are trained up to be especially charming and chatty and use your name at the beginning of every sentence they say to you (Alice, Alice, Alice), but the mechanic helping me, whose name was Javier, he was more than friendly. He was all in. He was maybe twenty-two, excited to see a Calvin and Hobbes book among the junk in back seat, and when he asked what I did for a living and found out I was a high school teacher, he stopped what he was doing and stood by the kiosk telling stories with great enthusiasm about all the times he had skipped class as a teenager. (Once he dressed up in a female friend’s clothes and hid in the girls’ bathroom! But his crowning achievement had of course been the time he’d snuck out of ISS and ended up hiding behind a door [the logistics were vague here] as he listened to the teacher standing a few feet away tell some administrator via walkie talkie that she had looked for him everywhere but just couldn’t seem to find him…a moment of supreme victory.) He kept assuring me that I must not have any students quite like him. I smiled and privately began to count the number of familiar faces which had already popped into my head with the same kind of grin and the same tendency to wander the halls.

After Javier finally changed my oil (I think), and I had paid, he asked what subjects I taught. When he heard that one of them was writing, some light turned on inside of him. I had thought he’d been warm before, but now he was glowing. He said he liked to write poetry and told me about the fantasy novel he was working on and how hard it was to get it finished. I said that I could sympathize. The oil change took more than the promised ten minutes, but I wasn’t in a hurry. Also, I learned things. Not sure what, but, you know, things.

And last night, because this cold was still hanging on with a death grip, and because I knew it would be raining, I planned what I would wear today: a pea-soup colored sweater which I think is from Goodwill,  a denim jumper with white flowers embroidered on (which my mom likes to remind me is actually maternity, because she wore it while pregnant with me,) along with black lace tights and sparkly black rain booties, both of which are new (a big step for me). This is not at all a fashion blog and it’s not as if I have a picture of myself to show, but I wanted to tell you because I look like my college self today. And for a Wednesday in February, that’s a-okay.

Maybe my telling these stories has been boring, and I haven’t been able to make a good essay out of them. I don’t know. But that doesn’t change the truth of the matter: that God has been all these places and in all these things, so mundane or not, they are holy ground, and it behooves me to treat them as such.

In Exodus God makes Moses take off his sandals when faced with His glory manifest in a bush set on fire. The bush is impressively burning with supernatural flames which do not consume, but up until this point in its life, the bush has just been a bush. But perhaps no less holy.