Just Showing Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promises

This entry is about two entirely separate things. Please do not try to draw any sort of philosophical, metaphysical, or, least of all, theological connection between the two. Failure to comply may result in misery and confusion. (Exceptions will, as always, be made for literary connections.) Thank you for your cooperation. 

Last week I took a class on the Psalms, and all week they felt very near. This is perhaps a bit inevitable when you listen to someone lecture on a single topic for six hours a day, five days in a row, but nevertheless, the intimacy of those ancient poems, even the ones I’d heard and read dozens and dozens of times before, was startling. Then, as I walked home from church the other night, past the large, still houses and moss-grown trees of Shaughnessy, I realized why that might be. 

I’ve always been hyper-conscious of my good fortune in terms of Christian community: I was born to parents who loved the Lord and displayed that well, and have spent literally the entirety of my life up to my neck in Christian education. I’ve always had more Godly potential role models than you can shake a stick at. Many people may assume that the danger of such a saturated environment might be complacency, or a resentment and restlessness that leads to rebellion, and that’s true for some. But I think that my problem, though I’m still overwhelmingly grateful for what I’ve been given, is that I was so aware of God’s grace towards and concern for the little and large worlds around me that I never, for more than isolated split seconds at a time, took a chance to comprehend His grace towards and concern for me.

But the Psalms blow all this out of the water. They’re full of thoughts of the community (and the nations at large), but they’re also brimming with the voices of individual psalmists claiming God’s promises for themselves–promises of justice, of salvation, of forgiveness, of wisdom, of provision, of mercy, and of righteous, shot-through-with-holy-light love, all for the poet and his singular heart. Not once, not twice, but probably dozens of times as I sat in room 100 last week I found myself thinking, “But has this always been true? Has it always been possible to be alone in a room with God in this way without a chorus of other voices? Has Psalm 103 always had those words in it–confidently declaring that he knows us and understands our human dustliness? Has Psalm 139 always announced with such great firmness that the God of the universe holds the author in His own right hand? And why does this make me weep? Has He promised something to me as well?”

But now for something completely different.

Yesterday, for no particularly constructive reason, I thought through my whole history as a writer. What sorts of things I’ve written at various periods in my life and what I learned about writing as I went. For the first four or five years that I wrote, from the ages of about thirteen to seventeen, while I cared that I was good, I didn’t really care about getting better, perhaps because, with some teenage combination of naivete and arrogance, I didn’t know that was possible. And strangely, I find myself enormously grateful for that, because in those formative years I was motivated only by the joy of the thing. In the years since, as I’ve encountered my own limitations and struggled to stretch beyond them, that joy of the thing has perpetually hovered in the periphery of my vision. I have never once ceased to see words as friends. Thus they began, and thus they will remain.

They are my friends even now in graduate school as I have been tying myself in little mental knots trying to prematurely decide on a direction for my final creative project. And, as often happens, I’ve landed back where I began. I’m going to write a novel, a story which is at gut-level far more important to me than the one I wrote as my honors project at Grove City. 

I have a (very new) theory, that when you get a good idea for a piece of fiction, to help it come to fruition you have to hover over it like an egg that needs a mother or a warm incubator to hatch. You trust the mysterious natural process, and eventually something living will burst forth. And as of last week I have an idea, an idea that I’m fairly certain of, so from here on out if you’re trying to find me I’ll be busy hovering. If I am patient and keep a steady hand, one day there will be words on a page to show for it. And that’s a promise.

Chaff and Wind in the Summer

Last week I took a trip up through Ohio and into Pennsylvania. It was a quiet trip. I drove alone, listening to melancholy audiobooks, and then stayed a few nights each with good friends. The most exciting outings included Hobby Lobby and blueberry picking with a three-year-old. As I told someone just recently, I’m not much of a do-er. I’m a talker and a be-er, for better or for worse. So this was a really lovely trip.

I trod familiar college ground all week long, both literally and figuratively. Every friend I saw was someone who met and became important to me during college. People tend to talk in hackneyed terms about living life in chapters, and it felt appropriate to re-live such a neatly defined previous chapter as I’m about to step out into a brand-new one.

So on Thursday and Friday, I wandered around campus and its environs, stopping to gaze at very particular doors and windows behind which I remembered doing most of my living. I wanted to have some rush of feelings but felt a little disconnected from those four years, though I knew they grew me up. As for the friends I was in the midst of visiting and our long conversations, they were wonderful-wonderful, but those friendships have outgrown college in many ways, which, I told myself, can only be a good thing. I like these new conversations about marriage and motherhood and a home that’s distinctly yours, even if I’m not there yet myself.

But I continued to walk around campus, because I knew I owed it to the place. I took myself into the main classroom building to see if anyone was there, though Grove City doesn’t have summer classes. As I climbed the central staircase, for a brief moment I breathed in some old anxiety hanging in the air, as if I were wearing a backpack again, aware I hadn’t read well enough for the quiz I was about to take, running lists of names and terms in my head, surrounded by a crush of other students moving past me in the ten minutes between morning classes, choruses of wet snow boots squeaking on the slick floors. Funnily, it’s an anxiety I don’t remember feeling, but yet there was its ghost, moving eerily around my midriff, so it must have existed.

The overwhelming majority of things I remember from college are good (thus why I wanted to come back and visit): long meals with friends, sometimes cooked with our own hands, rambling walks down Pinchalong, methodically pacing the stacks whenever I had a paper to write, sitting in the dark nave of the chapel during Thursday night Warriors, teaching myself on icy-cold walks to class to look up even though everyone else looked down. I do remember some hard things: tears, humiliations, hurts that stung. I remember them because I learned from them, though, because they turned out to be important.

But that hazy, anxious feeling I wandered into on the stairs last week was not important, so I walked through it and up out of it onto the second floor toward the English department, where I ran into a favorite professor and we sat down and talked, not about the old days, but about the way things are now.

We cannot carry our whole pasts in our hands, so the wind blows the chaff away, and the memories left to us are manageable. I have been nervous about this move out west because of the looming, but as-yet unseen, challenges and pains I know it will present, but the great North Wind will continue to blow and blow and blow, and I will manage the gifts given to me, one by one by one.

Pockets in the Between

One of the things I have been doing this time of year is making my students write thank you notes. I tell them that it’s good for us to make ourselves be thankful and to express appreciation to those who don’t hear it from us much. And I tell them that I do this because one day during March of my first year of teaching, when I went to check my box at work, I found a letter inside from my college friend Kate. It was a gem of a letter: warm and kind and deeply thoughtful and valuable. I remember that I kept smiling all day because of it.

I dug it out just now and reread it. She wrote that she had been thinking of me recently because this was a between season in her life and to her I had always seemed to be good at the between. This was generally true of me in college, I suppose, but I think it’s easier in college. High school is over, full adulthood has not yet arrived, and you’re in a strange, happy, stressful bubble where you only hang out with people your own age and talk about the things you love all day long.

But now is different. Now is hard because it feels like it shouldn’t be a between anymore, like I should have moved past the transition stage. There is a voice in my head, coming from God-knows-where, which says to me, “Oh, but you should have arrived.” And it’s true. I have many of the things I’ve always wanted, not the least of which is my job.

Except that the person living this life is not the shiny new Alice I always hoped I would turn into at the stroke of midnight some night, but instead, the person living it is me. I am still stuck with myself–the one riddled with weakness, who tires out and turns inward, who dreams big and lives small.

I’ve been understanding this acutely lately, and I get stuck in it, I get stuck in the dissatisfaction like mud. So this is me backing up, pulling my sinking ankles out of the mire, and climbing onto solid ground. Yesterday I read a passage from Lewis’ Weight of Glory with my juniors, and I told them that our inherent value is not in what we do or what we say, but in our status as image bearers and in the blood of Christ. Everything else is “nothing but filthy rags.”

I should listen to myself more, you guys. I’ve been taught some pretty good wisdom. My kindness, my smartness, my care with my words, my worry over my students, the red ink in my grading pen, the clothes I wear, even the thank you notes I write, are nothing at all when compared with the grace of Golgotha. We can, and should, be grateful, but our goodness–whether we have it or merely wish to have it–is not our own.

I am best reminded of this, I think, by the strange moments when I have stumbled on some surprising pocket of joy which could only have been placed there by One who loves me. We cannot really go searching for little eternities like that–instead they overtake us and, for a second at least, lift the veil.

One night January of my junior year of college, I left a game night at the Edwards’ early so I could go out for a friend’s birthday. It was late, after eleven, and I remember that there was some talk of sending someone to walk me back to campus, but I wanted to go alone. It was very cold that winter–we sometimes woke up with ice coating the inside of our windows–and the powdery snow was falling with a silence that demanded I listen. The road was completely still. My friends were supposed to be picking me up on their way, but they weren’t there yet and I walked up the hill to campus through the streetlights by myself. As I reached the entrance by the baseball fields, my roommate’s car pulled out and past me and I ran out into the street behind them and waved. A couple hundred feet down the car stopped and waited. I could see more than one pair of gloved hands waving at me through the foggy back windshield. I began to run down the middle of the road, through the snow, soft beneath my heavy boots, and through the silent golden streetlights filled with ten thousand quiet snowflakes. The sky was black and starry, and I wanted that moment to go on and on and on.

I cannot figure out what allure it had, except for beauty: as if the wall between myself and glory were sheer, as if Jesus loves even me.

Learning to Live

My senior year of college I wrote a novel: one draft fall semester, and two more during the spring. When I had a deadline approaching for honors seminar I would be crouched on my desk chair till two in the morning, whispering and backspacing words on to the page, hardly noticing when my roommate came in and out. I’d be up at nine the next morning writing again: in t-shirt and sweatpants, curled in a snarl of sheets on my bed, dirty tea-mugs mounting on the stacked crates beside me. Late in the morning, I would get dressed hurriedly and head to class with a hot hole burning in my chest, because I had left my heart lying on top of my closed laptop back on my desk, still fast-beating a story. It was terrible and glorious.

The summer after I graduated, I very purposely took the summer off from any serious writing. I travelled and saw people I loved. I read a good deal. I made nervous stabs towards planning for teaching.

Then I taught.

And now there’s this summer: what with travelling and moving, this has been my first real week of it, of having the days all to myself, to dispose of however I choose. I have meant to get back to that serious writing, that state where I produce, produce, produce and walk around a little lopsided, because I have one foot on the ground and one foot stuck in the air. I meant to write for hours each day. But instead this week has confirmed for me something which I have to quietly admit to myself I already knew: I am not a creature of routine. I never will be.

I like to plan, but then I live on a whim: now I want to make myself some eggs, now I want to read a new book, now I want to take a bath, now I will do dishes, now (though it’s five-thirty) I will make my bed!

This leaves the short story that I’m working on moving slowly, painfully, in twenty-minutes-a-day starts and backfires. But college is college and this, for now, is real life. My mom and I are making a deal to keep each other accountable for writing this month, and I think that this will help.

Part of real life (if not most of it) is making do with what you have: your hands, your feet, your mind, your time, your lack, your abundance. Making all these things work for the glory of Him who loves us. Even when we submit to having all the parts of us brought together, the days we do this right, the unexpected and complex amalgamation of gifts and understandings in each of us combines to make strange little people, creatures who limp and plod along on odd numbers of legs, looking laughably like misfits. (The cloven in The Wingfeather Saga made me cry because I know that they are true.)

But what matters is not whether we look funny, but whether we are moving, and moving in the right direction, even if it goes in fits and starts and circles that don’t seem to make sense. What matters is that we walk alongside one another and that we laugh because we know the great secret. We know that we are not misfits after all’s said and done. We are “kept in grace.”

Oh, I like living. I like making do.

First Year Teaching and Unpaid Debt

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

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

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

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

Sixteen-year-olds are adorable.

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

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

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

Almost-literal blind exhaustion sometimes hits while driving home.

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

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

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

Is it going to be like this all year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Three Memories for the Mid-Way Point

My junior year of high school we took U.S. History. One day at lunch, part-way through the year, I found a classmate crying in the hallway. She told me she had failed the last few history tests and she was too intimidated to ask the teacher and she was just so, so lost. We were not particularly friends, but I politely offered to help and I remember being surprised when she was eager to take me up on it. So she came over a couple nights later and we sat at my dining room table and ate brownies and talked about tariffs. After we got our next test back, she wrote me a profusely sweet little note, “ALICE! Thank you so, so much for helping me! I got an 84!” An 84, I thought, That’s good? I would hate an 84. And every time I remember that I thought that, I am ashamed. I want to go back and grab my sixteen-year-old self by the lapels of her worn-out uniform sweater and shake her. I want to tell her that in six years’ time she will not remember a single one of her own silly test grades but she will remember that beautiful, hard-won B-. She will remember the smiley-faces that were drawn all over that note, and she will be humbled by them.

This Christmas my family flew up to Minnesota, and en route we had what became an eight-hour layover in the Atlanta airport. We sat and we sat and I watched the people. There were a lot of servicemen and women–lots of Marines especially–some hurrying to catch a flight and some just waiting. As one after another went by and I hoped for each one that he was going home, I realized that though the women in uniform looked like women, the men mostly looked like boys. I did the math in my head, and realized that most of them were probably closer in age to my students than they were to me. Then they looked very young indeed. In the midst of all of that sitting and watching, I wrote this in my prayer journal, about my students: “I must keep repeating my mantra from earlier in the year, before I cared about them so much: You love them far more than I ever will and You do it better. There is nothing I can break down that You cannot build back up and stronger. I will trust in Your love for them.”

My sophomore year of college was my hardest. Everything looked very grey to me and I felt grainy and sad. If you have been reading this blog long enough you may remember. That March, at the tail end of my spring break, my mom and George came up to visit me. I remember running out into the ice and snow to meet them when the car pulled up. My mom got out to hug me, and then she said, “Oh, I brought you something.” She leaned into the car and turned back around holding a mason jar full of bright yellow daffodils from home. Just last night I remembered all this rather suddenly and for reasons I still cannot articulate, I cried while remembering. The snow, and the slate-colored sky, and the weary brick of my dorm building, and then my mother’s familiar hands, holding daffodils which she had carried over nearly five hundred miles of highway.

Things I’ve Learned in College

Do not listen to anybody who tries to tell you which are the best years of your life. Just go ahead and live.

People have layers. And they’re really funny and often wonderful. Be patient and you’ll see.

Take people up on their hospitality.

Sometimes there are good reasons to change your mind about other people and about yourself. This phenomena is more commonly known as admitting you were wrong.

Eat chocolate with your Earl Grey.

Spend a long time over meals, especially with friends.

Do not automatically believe what people say about you just because they know you well, or even because they love you well. Listen to them, but remember that they might be wrong. The only ultimate authority for your identity is Christ.

Smile at people on the sidewalk.

You are not owed forgiveness. It is a gift.

Tell good stories.

Don’t overcook your broccoli.

Make friends in class.

Listen with your mouth shut.

Do not compare or quantify pain. That’s the coward’s way. Find a hand to hold, look it in the eye, and walk through it. It may be long, but keep going.

Don’t be afraid to go ahead and grow up. Grown-ups can be happy too.

Try not to ask for extensions on papers.

Say hard things in person, but speak slowly when you do.

Sometimes everything will feel distant and unreal. Do not live by that feeling, but instead remember that home is not here and that there are other pilgrims alongside you on the way.

Write thank you notes.

When somebody wants to be your friend, take them up on it.

Make soup. You can freeze it forever.

When a friend confides in you, treasure that, especially when it is something hard.

Sometimes you will still be shy. And, so long as you are not rude, that’s just fine.

You will fail. You will not be the person you know you ought to be. And that’s okay, not because everybody fails, but because there is One who didn’t.

Be kind. THIS IS SOMETHING YOU CAN DO. NO MATTER WHO YOU ARE OR WHERE YOU ARE. YOU CAN DO THIS AND IT WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

And most importantly, perhaps, the things I’ve been taught by others:

“Do the next thing.”

“Say what you mean.”

“Determine to love people.”

“Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

“Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.”

Suspension

Until recently I was so ready to go. I kept saying “I’m so ready.” “Graduation is so soon.” But now it’s hit. Yesterday in 20th century (last Friday of classes, last day of dressing-up-just-because) Messer mentioned in his typical Messer fashion how for the last few days we were just going to quietly spend some time with Gilead, the last novel on our list. He also said it was to be a gift for the graduating seniors. For most of us that two o’clock hour this Wednesday will be our very last class.

So like I said, it’s hit, it’s come. It feels as if someone has run a thread through my little heart and is holding it gently over some little canyon. When my heart becomes too heavy, I think the thread might break. I suppose my best bet is to figure how to live with a heart suspended in the breeze like that, a heart that feels every little motion, every change in the weather. I will not mind when the thread breaks, but I’ll keep my eyes wide open till it does.

Tonight Laura and I’ll go to Greek Sing, and I’ll sit and watch and I’ll love it as wholeheartedly and inexplicably as I always I have. I’ll write my last little paper on writing as vocation. I’ll give my honors presentation and go to Dr. Brown’s house for dinner and make food for our last Quad party. I’ll pay attention to the way familiar feet descend stairs, to which stones are missing on the bridge and to where the rain puddles on either end of it. I’ll pay attention to the deep, deep green of the grass here that I’ve never gotten over and never will, to the way we crouch to check our little mailboxes, and to the way the sun (when it comes) draws us all outside, hungry, as if light is the stickiest, sweetest thing. I’ll pay attention to the silence in the chapel at midday, to the ready laughter of a room of full of English majors, and to the slow way we all move in line, waiting for communion come Sunday night.

I’ll hug people and I’ll write things down, and then the thread will break with the weight of it all and I’ll go home.