Have Hope

This week I told my students news I’ve been sitting on for a little while: next year, I’m not returning to teach because I’m going to graduate school in Vancouver, a city in some other country facing out over some other ocean. Some of them were calm when I told them, and some were less-so. Two fell out of their chairs. A few announced they could no longer do the assigned work for the day because of their great grief. I laughed. But my hands shook through the first two classes I had to tell. I am sad. I’m as sure that this is the right decision as I’m sure of my own right hand, but nothing can quite assuage the child-like sorrow I feel over leaving people and places I love.

However, my moving to another place and another life is the least of these things.

My sister told me this afternoon that everything feels heavy right now. This season has been one in which I’ve learned the weight of the world, and this week that weight has been not only burdensome but loud. All the pain in my peripheral vision, the groanings of the created beings around me, are making themselves known in cacophony.

I have been thinking of the Yeats poem I love which says: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” I grieve for the things I see that are lost, many beyond repair. He’s right: the things on which we rely will be shattered, and we can’t buy back past innocence for ourselves or for those we love.

I love that poem because it is completely true, but I also love it because it is completely short-sighted. I’m not disputing the obvious brilliance of W.B. Yeats, but human bitterness often assures that our long-distance vision is effectively nil. Things lost may be beyond repair, but they are not beyond redemption and rebirth. The things we rely on will eventually crumble beneath us, so that we may land at last on the Rock, the only one who can, in fact, buy back not only our innocence, but ourselves entire, and bring us into eternity. Yeats tells the truth, but only the first page of it.

One of my fellow teachers, a kind, kind man who was my English teacher himself back in the day, told me yesterday that I needed to write a book, because I had something to say. I hesitantly agreed, and perhaps what I have to say begins with this: I am hopeful.

Once I would have told you that I am hopeful because my students are sweet and bright and growing up into good people. I would have told you that I am hopeful because my family and my friends, they love me and make me happy. I would have told you that I am hopeful because God had given me far more comforts and blessings than I deserve. I would have told you that I am hopeful because spring comes every year.

But now, though my fears are bigger, because my fears are bigger, so are my hopes. They are stronger than they once were. Now I am hopeful because no matter where my students end up, they have a God who loves them each like the hundredth sheep. Now I am hopeful because that same faithful God loves me and has given me others to pass that love on to, in sinful fits and starts. Now I am hopeful because that love is so real that God saw fit to manifest it in his own bleeding, gasping Son on a cross. Now I am hopeful because I serve a God who dreamed up spring, who has pronounced that life can spring forth from the deadest death, that Yeats’ “blood-dimmed tide” will be followed by the clearest dawn.

Christmas (Promised)

I’ve always been one of those purists who doesn’t want to see any Christmas decorations or hear any Christmas songs or eat anything that tastes like peppermint or cinnamon until after Thanksgiving, because there’s a schoolmarm living on my shoulder who says that we must keep the season unto itself so that it will remain precious and unspoilt.

But this year I’m throwing that out the window. Maybe it’s because my mom has been texting me potential dates for the Christmas party they’re throwing this year, or maybe it’s because the books sitting next to me on the couch right now are Thomas Cahill’s The Gift of the Jews, Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, and Malcolm Guite’s Waiting on the Word, all of which sound like promises. But more likely the reason that my roommate and I took a detour the other night in Harris Teeter to prowl around for chocolate advent calendars is that in the last few months, and even especially in the last few weeks, I have been learning how little control I have over my own life and any goodness that comes from it, and how every neat little security structure I have set up will eventually fail me, sometimes in a spectacular fashion. But when I think of Christmas coming in forty-three days, I feel peaceful in a way that cannot possibly make sense to the outside world.

The advent of Christmas means the advent of a Savior, a Savior who will fulfill everything the prophecies foretold and see this thing through to the bitter, wine-on-a-pike end, all the way through to the blinding new life on the other side. So I’ve had a change of heart, like Scrooge, because it is more and more wonderfully apparently that Jesus is not only a rock, but the only solid one, and I want to try to “keep Christmas all the year” to remind myself.

Something else I’m doing this fall, besides learning hard lessons that I thought I already knew, is interviewing women about their faith. The first question I have been asking right off the bat is “Tell me your favorite Bible story.” So that’s how I’m going to keep Christmas today. I’m going to tell you the story.

It begins with a scared girl who is trusting, trusting and a good man with her who is trusting, trusting. The two of them are headed on a trip away from home to obey the law of the land, and then in a strange barn on the old hay with the smell of manure there is pain and terror and blood and then a crying baby, alongside the sleepy animals.

And an angel comes, but not to Joseph and Mary, to some tired shepherds on a nearby hillside. The angel announces joy to the shepherds, that the newborn in the feeding trough has come to save them, that this is God’s plan and they are the first the hear news of this One who bears peace and goodwill into the world. The angel brings a whole singing host with him. So the shepherds hurry to worship, and then they hurry to tell the story as far and wide as they can.

And there is a star too, a big, bright one, but not for Joseph and Mary. Instead the star is for men in the East who follow it to travel far and risk their lives to give the tiny King the worship that they somehow know they owe him.

And the scared girl who trusted gathers and treasures all these things in her heart. And so do we, because this is the promise of things to come.

Oh, joyful and triumphant, come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

Beauty Past Change

On Sunday, I got back from an overseas trip that was the product of many very long-term dreams and plans. I find that I’m grateful for so much.

On a Friday a couple weeks earlier, Karen and I drove up to DC. We listened to old high-school era mix CDs of my sister’s, and got Chik-fil-A. She put her feet up on the dashboard, and then when it got dark and poured lashing rain for the last couple of hours, both of us got worried about my driving. It all felt very 2009, which was fitting, since that was the year we had sat in a booth in a Chik-fil-A back in Greensboro as teenagers and made a list called “Alice and Karen: London Extravaganza 2012!” Five years late is not that late. As we waited at our gate at Dulles the next morning, I thought that a lot of things were being fulfilled.

We stayed the first few days with my sister in Southall, which is in southwest London. They call it Little India. I always think that coming into Southall as a white American is double culture-shock, because you’ve got all the neat, well-worn British infrastructure, but it’s overwhelmingly, full-to-bursting South Asian.

On Monday night, while we watched a wonderfully ridiculous Bollywood movie, and ate wonderful chicken curry and paneer, one of Mary’s roommates covered our arms with henna, and for the rest of the week when we were out around Southall, we got surprised and approving looks from the locals. I bought a really great coat for £5.50 at the charity shop Mary helps run and stared longingly at the beautiful saris that I have no clue how or excuse to wear. And of course the whole family plus Karen ate at Mirch Masala our last night in the city. Mary ordered for the table: lamb on the bone, two kinds of chicken, naan, veg, more paneer, and pitchers of mango lassi. Then we walked back down the sunny crowded streets, full and happy.

Of course, we saw Central London too. The first day, I dragged Karen and George from Kensington Gardens, where we saw the wonderfully ridiculous Italianate memorial a grieving Victoria had built for her Albert, past various important landmarks, all the way down to the Thames, entirely on foot. We ended up at a pretty sliver of park called Victoria Tower Gardens, where we sat on a bench and watched the river go by. That was my favorite part of the day.

I like the quieter corners of cities best: Karen and I walked around Notting Hill another evening,  and when we went to Oxford for the day, best of all was walking through Christ Church Meadow. We sat by the stream there, watched people go leisurely punting past, and took polaroids.

Later in the week, when the whole family had gotten there we went to Hodgkins Certified Favorite London Places: the British Library, Hampstead Heath, and Apulia for an early birthday dinner for Dad. Mom had gotten us all to write poems for him, and after we had read those out and were full of Italian food and wine, we walked around the corner to see an emotional Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest. I had seen The Mousetrap the night before with Karen, but I didn’t compare them. I just enjoyed them both.

 

Then on Saturday Karen left for Brussels and the continent, and my family strapped on our packs and took a train to Birmingham and then another one to Welshpool. Out the window of the train as we were crossing into Wales I saw a field crowded full of solar panels with dozens of sheep wandering between them. I knew that we were getting close.

Back in the eighth century, a Saxon king called Offa decided that he wanted to invade Wales. When this proved more difficult than predicted, he forced his slaves to build a very long earthen wall between his territory and the Welsh, so that they couldn’t invade him back with more success. So now there is a 150 mile walking path named after Offa’s Dyke which winds along the present-day border between England and Wales, back and forth across (and sometimes right on top of) the Dyke itself. Our plan was to do about seventy miles of it, heading south. (Except apparently what the British call walking is what we call hiking, but it’s probably for the best that we didn’t understand that beforehand.)

We got off the train at Welshpool, and it was raining. So we pulled our ponchos over ourselves and our packs and lurched into the town like hunchbacked swamp-beasts to find lunch in a shop. I got a Scotch egg (and others got other things, like sausage rolls,) and we set off down the canal. By the time we reached the actual entrance of the path (marked by the marvelous yellow acorn that we all learned to love so well), the sun was out, and we stripped off our ponchos and marched forth through various wonderfully rolling private pastures, confident in the Right of Way Act for walkers.

Then our precious guidebook announced that there were double arrow climbs ahead of us, and we realized that we had not quite counted on this level of exertion. It was the sort of hill that would almost certainly have had switchbacks in the US, but of course it was just someone’s farmland, and you don’t put switchbacks on that. So we toiled up it for a good hour or two, with a very important reprieve at what was marked as a “special bench.” (All benches henceforth became special.) But after that first painful climb was finally over, there were golden barley fields to cut straight through, which, when you were in the midst of them, went on and on, only stopping at the sky, and then there was a shadowy pine forest that our guidebook called “Grimms’ fairytale,” and a country estate with tall, tall trees, and tame pheasants dawdling past our feet. And then there were hot showers and an enormous dinner at our inn.

The days after the first one blend together more, (or, rather, I’m not going to subject you to a play-by-play,) but I consistently wrote in my journal about the beauty and my tiredness and my contentment. I said that none of these things could be overstated, and I wasn’t being hyperbolic. It was the most beautiful–you did not really have to climb for a view–the view was everywhere. I was the most tired and the most content. We played Spades in pubs at night while waiting for dinner, we picked and ate blackberries as we walked, we had cake at the top of a windy hill and read Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Psalms aloud to the livestock, we took advantage of the free tea and biscuits for walkers in country churches, we squelched in our boots when it rained, we ate bought sandwiches in the ruins of the castle where George Herbert was born, and we saw thousands upon thousands of sheep and marched along daily in their droppings. We even, inevitably, came across a couple of them in various states of decomposition, one with a monarch butterfly fluttering in and out of its ribs. My mom said there was a poem in that, and I agreed with her, but I couldn’t think what it would be.

I realized as we walked up and down and over the hills that I was capable of much more than I had thought, though I resented the fact that while you climbed, the best and farthest views were at your back. (I knew there was a life lesson in that as well, but I decided simply to learn it by osmosis, rather than by dwelling on it.)

We cut our walk short by a day to spend time in Hay-on-Wye, a little Welsh town with more bookstores per capita than anywhere in the world. We split up in the morning and then met back at a bench near the town square with our individually accumulated book piles, and in the afternoon took a cab to Llathony, which has a beautiful ruined Priory and only about three other buildings. Our driver gleefully played chicken with the other cars on the narrow Welsh roads, and drove so fast along the side of the mountain and through Gospel Pass, that I said seriously to myself, “Well, if this is the way I go, it’s so beautiful that I don’t think I’ll mind.”

That was a symptom of the way I felt the whole two weeks, though. Once I got past jet lag in London, and adjusted to the fact I was somewhere new, everything in me seemed to simplify and slow and fall into its own groove. The rain which had been terrifying on the initial drive up to DC became friendly as I squinted through wet eyelashes, looking for the next path marker. The sun brightened the things around me: the grass, the roofs, the crowds of sheep, the crowds of people, and I was able to appreciate the shades of difference it made. The practice of gratitude became easy and easier.

Common sense says the feeling will not last, but I’ve been home for a few days now, and it’s still hanging on. On the plane on the way back, I wrote a haiku about the clouds outside the window, unconsciously inspired, I think, by the legions of sheep I’d witnessed staring so stolidly at me earlier that week. So who’s to say that doesn’t mean something?

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                            Praise him.

Sunlight Palace

I’m about to begin a little poetry unit with my sophomores, and I’m excited. As I’ve been planning, I’ve been reminded how important a good image is to a poem. Poetry all begins with taking your words and using them to build an image so clear and sharp that its corners could cut you open and make you bleed.

And this has got me feeling wistful. As I have sunk more deeply into this mid-twenties stage of life, I struggle to find things I can write about on this blog. I want to write the bright and the bold and the strong and the poetry, but the things in my present, though mostly oh-so-good, are often too fragile and complex to be splashed onto the page of some public forum. And the future, of course, is only a whisper.

So what is left to me is the past.

At the bottom of my parent’s backyard there is a fence that belongs to their backdoor neighbors. But before that fence was there, there was a great big tangle of trees, some of which were fallen. We played there in the summer, and the soft mulberries layering the ground stained our feet such a deep and lasting purple that I think the soles of mine remained patchy crimson well into my teen years. Beams of light played through sheer green leaves, and my sister named the place Sunlight Palace. When you are small, everything seems big.

Sunlight Palace had different rooms. There was a main living room, in front, with a long bough stretching across like a couch that everyone could sit on. There was a main bedroom, which was exclusively the province of “the big girls” (none of whom were me.) There was a “Martin Luther King Jr.” room, named by me because it had a bunch of branches that stood straight up, like they were standing for what was right, and there was a spacious kitchen which no-one was allowed into after the first week or two because it was suspected of harboring poison ivy. My own favorite spot was the trampoline, a horizontal branch about a foot off the ground which was pleasantly springy. Pooh would have called it a good thinking spot, and I was a child who did a lot of thinking.

We invited our friends over with the sole purpose of playing in Sunlight Palace all afternoon. It was sometimes a main party attraction. Its shifting light and shadow oversaw unending games of Orphan, and dozens of petty circular arguments, all easily and happily resolved by magnanimous promises that “next time you can be the baby.” We hiked for miles upon miles, back and forth at the bottom of my mother’s garden. We feasted on violets and mulberries, and chewed up mint leaves in lieu of brushing our teeth. We cunningly lived off the land, all in sight of our safe bedroom window and my dad washing dishes at the kitchen sink.

We stopped playing there eventually. You always do. But I still remember the pang I felt when, sometime around late elementary school, new neighbors moved in, cleared out the brush, and built a tall, flat fence. Everything looked shallow and short. The pain was near to what I felt a few years later when my mom unexpectedly put my favorite reading armchair out by the curb for the trash truck. I perhaps had not really known other people could actually touch these things, let alone cart them off to a distant city dump. I thought that I held them like treasures in the palm of my own hand. I am nearly twenty-five and it hurts a little even now to admit: perhaps Sunlight Palace was never really ours. Perhaps it was just borrowed for a while, when we had most want of it.

So even the past is not mine. I only held it for a while. Because this place is not home; I am not Home yet.

Christmas and Tradition

When I was growing up, Christmas meant Grandma’s. It meant long hours in the car stuffed with puffy coats, reading Dickens’ Christmas Carol aloud stave by stave, and then arriving in Missouri to cousins and orange balls and running fast on carpet in sock feet. Christmas meant crowded rooms and couches and beds. It meant all twenty-some of us choosing a favorite carol in order from oldest to youngest while siblings switched off at the piano. It meant sitting hip-to-hip with contented joy. I was in awe of those Christmases, so in awe that they sometimes made me forget myself.

But I am grown now, and no Christmas will ever be the same. My grandparents have been gone for over a year and the house is sold. The place we went is no longer ours and the faces which used to await our arrival have been buried. The things which made me love Christmas so seem to have vanished. So it is tempting to me to spend the holiday mourning the traditions and the stability that are lost. This time of year, I want nothing more than to run back to the comforts of childhood or even adolescence, to revel in the reliable beauty of those Christmas customs.

But I cannot return to those traditions, so instead I will try to remember the self-forgetfulness that they taught me.  Because Christmas is not actually meant to be about tradition. It is meant to be about the world turned upside down, shook to its core. It is the story of a remote corner of a poor place where a child was born to speak truth, and to sweat blood, and to die, that I may know truth, and be clean, and live.

Every year that is true. The foundations of our little worlds may shudder, the walls which kept us safe and warm may crumble, the faces around us may seem strange and hard, but every year, if we look up, a star calls us to Bethlehem. We are meant to follow its light, to worship and be changed.

On Friday, I read How the Grinch Stole Christmas to my juniors for storytime. I laughed through some of it, but some lines moved me:

Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

I am grateful for the Child who has come to save, and I am thirsty for his grace.

Without a Place

Last month, I read an essay by a woman named Jennifer Trafton, and in it she described “the feeling of being the Picassoesque face in every crowd…You would like me, surely, if only my left ear were not hanging crookedly off the end of my tongue.” The essay made me cry.

I was raised by parents who were academics and who were Christians. They had PhDs from the University of Chicago and now taught British literature at a state university, and every Sunday morning we brought along hymnals and sang “Fairest Lord Jesus” and “Holy, Holy, Holy” on the way to church in the minivan. In a world where the evangelical mind was a scandal, and universities were ever busier building ivory towers of Babel, they, and therefore we, were impossibilities. Yet there we sat after dinner each night, reading aloud everything from Corrie Ten Boom to Thackeray to Yeats to the Psalms.

And so I was always acutely aware I was like no one around me. From the time I was about six I understood that I was my own little untethered island, floating through the strange seas of the wide world. My friends listened to Adventures in Odyssey and went to the beach every summer and spring and watched the Disney Channel and had things like Gushers and individually packaged Pringles in their snacks. I read multiple books a day and swung on a swing my dad had made and took long walks when my mom kicked me out of the house for reading too much and ate home-grown dried tomatoes off the racks of my mother’s dehydrator. Through sticky North Carolina summers, we went without air conditioning and lived with windows open to the breeze, and in winter we heated our house with a wood stove. Once, while standing in my kitchen, a friend who had been to my house dozens of times told me that it seemed strange that my family owned something so modern and practical as a microwave.

I felt displaced. I was made of some other metal than all those around me, softer, with an odd sheen, and I knew the differences went far beyond my family. I remember as a child spending afternoons wandering round and round my backyard looking for a place that could be only mine, that felt just right. I climbed trees and I crawled under bushes and no place fit. I was the wrong shape for all of them. Later when I first began to write stories in earnest, I always stuck consciously to fairy tales. I felt so unsure of and baffled by the world around me, that I didn’t think I could muster it onto the page. I did not belong to it, and it did not belong to me.

I don’t think a day has gone by when I have not felt too small or too large, too old or too young, too much or too little. I was loved and am loved, and I have never once doubted that, but in every group, I feel like the token, though I’m never sure what I’m meant to be a token of–the one who reads and dreams and cries and digs her heels in? The one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other girl?

When I was young I resisted my differences: I wished my parents had named me Sarah, like everybody else, and when the other fifth grade girls chatted about their manicures and asked me if I was going to get one too, I said ‘maybe,’ knowing as I said it that it was a lie. But by the time I hit middle school, I had decided to make peace with my awkwardly glinting differences, to learn to love them. I began to cling to them, in fact, sometimes at the cost of relationships with other people. I was shy and stubborn and defensive. (I am still shy and stubborn and defensive, but sometimes I am a little better at hiding it.) I cowered beneath the banner of myself. In fact, there were seasons and places in my life when, for my own comfort, I consistently translated “I am different than you” into “I am better than you.” I thought that superiority would ward off loneliness and fear. (It didn’t. It just made me bitter.)

Around the time I was seventeen or eighteen, though, I gradually began to get a little better at friendship. I started to actually listen, and wait, and wade slowly through the waters of the people around me. And I found, over the course of months and years, that many people who to me had seemed as if they fit so well, were actually covering their own strangely shaped hearts with their hands, and covertly glancing at the world around them with incredulity. I began to carry a quietly blossoming sense of awe as I encountered others. I wasn’t the oddity. We all were.

I know now that the misfit feeling comes from different sources and is more tangible for some than others. For some it’s characterized by real, crushing sorrow or sin which has marked them like Cain, for others by differences in race or culture or ability or interest or by unhappy and broken families and relationships. For many of us though, it’s just a vague feeling that one is some complex and malfunctioning prototype abandoned in a warehouse full of unlike objects.

None of this seems joyful or purposeful and yet I remain awed. I’m not certain why. Perhaps it is because I know our loneliness has the potential to teach us compassion and kindness. Perhaps it is because I know we were not abandoned in the warehouse after all, and that God has a plan for all us billions of impossibilities. Or perhaps it is because I know that God came to seek and save the lost and call little Zacchaeus out of the tree where he clung. I am overwhelmed by the largeness and the strangeness of such original Love.

seated-woman-in-garden

Houses in Detroit

This entry should be entirely in pictures, but instead, it is entirely in words. I’m sorry. I’ve failed you. Words are all I have.

On Monday, while making the long drive back from Minnesota, my parents and I stopped and stayed the night with my mom’s younger brother in Detroit. Last summer he bought a house there in a neighborhood called La Salle Gardens. It’s a two story, four-bedroom Tudor with a big, open attic, and stained glass in the dining room, and a beautiful carved bannister on the stairs, and a basement that has two bathrooms, a bar, and pool table which maybe used to be a speakeasy. He paid $20,000 for it.

I don’t know a lot about Detroit. I’m very willing to admit that I haven’t really done my research. I know that they make cars there, and that there were race riots in the sixties, and then everything got dangerous and over a million people left (I don’t know which happened first) and now everyone in the country seems to feel scared and sad and bitter about Detroit. And I know that before my uncle even closed the sale of his house, someone came in and stole all the copper pipes.

At some indeterminate point during my freshman year of college, when, as a dorm dweller, I was in the throes of a bit of a house-obsession, I had stumbled across this website: http://www.100abandonedhouses.com/. What the photographer had captured was cold and crumbling and beautiful and lonely. I returned over and over to stare at the houses, all of which seemed to whisper, in their hundred different voices, I once was.

And then, five years later, on Monday, there I was in Detroit. We were there for less than twenty hours, some of which necessarily involved sleeping, but we walked and we drove and we walked again, and I saw those houses. In my uncle’s neighborhood, children played in the street, ramming into one another happily with their bikes, older siblings bossing and cajoling the younger ones. Houses in good repair and houses still clearly stuck in tough times sat next to houses marked for demolition, and houses with their whole back ends fallen in which were probably still years from the top of the city’s demo list. My dad said the neighborhoods were like a mouth full of broken teeth.

We walked and I stared at the houses. I know so little about architecture that I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what I loved about them. (So much for “words are all I have.”) Most of them were big, some of them huge. Every window and door seemed to be broken or boarded or barred. Some had box air conditioners spilling out of them. There were pillars and many-paned glass windows, and yards full of weeds that looked older than me, and generous front stoops, and turrets with overgrown trees leaning into them, and sloping slate roofs, and stone facades with bullet wounds, and gingerbread molding, and gables that sagged like sleeping eyes, and intricate brickwork, and worn steps adorned with enormous concrete fleurs-de-lis and lions, brought in to urge tired houses on to former glory. We walked and we looked and every time my mom said, “Oh, it’s so sad,” I found myself saying, “Oh, it’s so pretty.”

People who saw us from their porches or their cars looked and waved at the gawking white people with friendly confusion, like we were desert animals wandered into the tundra. One lady named Addie Tyson, age ninety-one, stopped us and talked almost non-stop for twenty minutes, mostly about how proud she was to live in the house she lived in, and then wanted to give me a hug, largely, I think, motivated by her surprise that I was twenty-four, and not fifteen, like she had thought. We walked on and saw several pit bulls, one happily roaming free.

Even before this very brief visit I had talked about my fascination with Detroit and the strange appeal the shattered houses held for me, but I am not built to be an urban homesteader. I am white and single and female, and while I know this doesn’t entirely preclude me, the fact that I am easily frightened, less than usually resourceful, and more than usually uncomfortable even in the safest of cities probably does. Detroit is dangerous. It is no longer the murder capital of the United States (Hooray, Chicago!), but there is still a bullet hole in one of my uncle’s front windows. Many other houses have them too. And though with a few more years of teaching I could probably afford to buy a house there out-of-pocket, the work to be done in most of them is enormous. A few of the doors in my uncle’s house are salvaged from other places. And when we left on Monday, there were holes in the living room ceiling and the upstairs bathroom floor, all on the docket to be repaired in the coming weeks.

But even if I don’t go to Detroit, there is something to be learned. (There is always something to be learned.) There is something that Kevin Bauman’s 100 Abandoned Houses project did not capture, or at least which I could not capture from it. His photos show individual houses, alone in their desolation. But when I stood in front of those houses and rode down rows of them, they cast a different spell on me. They sat all pressed up against one another in their various architectural styles and their levels of decay and repair, and they reminded me of people. I don’t just mean that as a some lightweight personification. I know houses don’t have immortal souls, but they reminded me of you and me and him and her all added on next to one another, side by side in our memories and our oddities and our destruction and our hope and our waiting.

Monday evening, as we drove around neighborhoods full of slightly-dilapidated mansions and long-abandoned houses with trees grown up through them, my dad marveled at such devastation existing so close to such wealth. But I looked into their eyes and I could not be surprised. Those houses were tired and wounded, some with their guts ripped out. Made of dust, they looked ready for resurrection.

Christmas and the Light

This year, for Christmas, George and I flew to London to see Mary. We walked a lot and rode the Tube a lot and ate some really good Pakistani food and watched a whole lot of British television. It was so good to see my sister.

Our flight home felt much quicker than the flight going, probably because it was in the middle of the day. I spent the last couple hours occasionally switching through the maps that track your progress across the ocean.  I found the one which shows you various time zones–where the sun is up and where it’s down–and I stared for about a minute. Behind us, in the UK, the sun had set several hours before, but we were still in the sunlit part of the world, and daylight stretched ahead of us. We were chasing light. Out-running the darkness, borne up by the air.

I felt a little giddy and I thought of Isaiah 9. It’s a typical Christmas passage, but I’ve been thinking of more than usual this year. It was one of the readings at the Christmas Eve service at St. Paul’s, and the queen referred to it in her Christmas day speech. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined. We were in the midst of it.

The light we chase, the light that bursts into the land of the shadow of death is the incarnate Christ, God with us. Our Lord’s highest calling was to become the lowest. The light of the incarnation and what Jesus made of the life he lived here on shabby earth can illuminate each thing we do and see and say, like a shaft of sun shooting through a crack in a heavy curtain. The indelible purpose of God made man for love and suffering, will show us, as far as we can bear to see it, the why and wherefore of the scattered pieces of our own lives. We were made to bear witness of and to the Light.

Bear witness while we sleep and when we wake. Bear witness barefoot and cold and laughing. Bear witness when He drives the demons out into the swine and bear witness while we wait on Him. Bear witness in the shadows and the promises. Bear witness to God with us and with us and with us. It’s bearing witness in this mortal coil that teaches and leads us somewhere. Leads us to glory.

On the way to my Grandpa’s funeral and back, in the car, we read The Last Battle. We got to the last chapter three days after we had buried him, as we headed up to DC, where George and I would fly to London. It ends:

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.  

After my mom finished reading, she closed the book and was very quiet.

 

In Praise of Light and Salt

My grandfather died a week ago tonight. (Don’t worry, not many more entries will begin this way.)

He left us less than three months after his wife of sixty years, which is not surprising, but no less hard. This feels like the second half of a whole is gone. In September, when my Grandma died, we felt truncated and sober. Now sometimes we lose the feeling in our legs and we must reach down and check that they’re still there–he did show us how to stand on them, didn’t he?

On Monday night we prayed and my mom said that it felt like some of the light and salt had gone out of the world. It did–it does. There is no better way to explain him than to tell you how he lived.

In 1954, he graduated from medical school in Iowa, got married, and, in 1956, moved down to a tiny town in north central Missouri to  start a practice. And he stayed. While other doctors moved in and out of town, he always stayed.

In college I wrote a paper on small-town doctors, and in the process I interviewed both my grandparents. I dug that paper up last night and reread it and found myself smiling at the difference in the stories each of them wanted to tell. My grandma, who had a love of a good story and an even greater love of her husband, showcased him as the compassionate hero of the town. She talked about the time the child with the suicidal mother called in the middle of the night and he had to go and talk her down by himself, because the sheriff decided he wanted a full night’s rest. She talked about how he regularly treated the local prostitutes, one of whom would periodically slit her wrists, and then call him at his house for a ride to the hospital. The other had such great respect for him that she named her son after him and once asked him to testify for her good character in court. (He declined.)

Grandpa told different stories, though. Smaller stories, which always focused not on himself, but on the things he got the opportunity to learn or to love. He told me about coming out to the barn once and finding a lamb that had gotten into the feed box and was gorging himself. Annoyed, he knocked it out and went on with his chores, and when he came back later it was dead. “That was a good lesson to me not to be too harsh with people as well as animals,” he told me. He always said these things in a soft, light tone, not as if he were preaching it to you, but as if he were preaching it to his own heart and it was just possible you might benefit from it too.

He also talked a lot about delivering babies. Delivering babies was his favorite thing. I knew that, but I asked him why. “Everybody’s happy, even the baby,” he told me. “The baby’s crying, but happy.” He loved life, he loved its beginnings, and he loved its preciousness just as he loved the God who saw fit to give it to His people. Probably half the population of Brookfield over the age of twenty-five was delivered by my grandpa. Sometimes, growing up, I would be approached by strangers who told me wide-eyed how he had attended their entrance into the world: farmers, Walmart greeters, tired single mothers in screen-print t-shirts. All of them spoke of him not only with respect, but with a sort of foreign joy. When these same people would approach him, he would tell them, with quiet but evident pleasure, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you. You’ve changed.”

I meant to say more, but I am worn out and a bit overwhelmed by even beginning to tell these stories and here is why: we all, my siblings and cousins, even my mom and her brothers and sisters, we all grew up being told what a good man our Dr. Howell was. My grandma ceaselessly sang his praises to her children and later to her grandchildren. Not only my mother, but also my father, consistently used him as an example to us of patience and humility and godliness.

But here is how I am wonderfully baffled: this was not just the mythos surrounding a beloved figure. Everything we experienced of him bore it out. It was all true. I am sitting alone on my bed right now miles from most of my family, but I can confidently speak for all of us: he was the best man we knew. He is still the best man we know.

This is important. I am typing very slowly now because I am fighting for the words to tell you how important. For a while in his seventies and eighties my grandfather led a Bible study at a maximum security prison about an hour away in Moberly, Missouri. When the prison officials first asked why he wanted to do such a thing he simply said, “Well, I believe that the Word of God changes lives.” He said this because in the early 1940’s in Cumberland, Iowa, the Word of God changed his life. The Word changed his life and continued to change it. My grandfather and his kind are important, because in a world full of fear and violence and bitterness, where even as Christians we cling harder to irony and mockery than to truth, they are proof that God can clean a sinful heart so new and clear that goodness can can shine through it like morning sunlight and fill the room. They are proof that holiness is real and strong and will triumph. And that holiness is what Jesus means for each of us.

About two weeks ago, when we got to my uncle’s house for Thanksgiving, I walked into the kitchen and Grandpa was hunched over the table, thin and gaunt, focussed on finishing a sandwich, breathing heavily with each movement. I asked him how he was. “Greatly blessed,” he said. He knew. Oh, he knew.

Ho! Everyone who thirsts,

Come to the waters;

And you who have no money,

Come, buy and eat.

Yes, come, buy wine and milk

Without money and without price.

 

Reading, Writing, and Living

I finished two books over Thanksgiving break. One of them I started way back in August, but that’s neither here nor there. Both were strongly recommended to me by teacher-friends and roughly the size of bricks: East of Eden and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I finished the first on the three-and-a-half hour drive from a Minneapolis airport hotel up to my uncle’s camp, way north of Duluth. Although there were parts that made me feel cold and unsure, the last quarter of that book made me warm. It’s a story about overcoming evil, but wonderful and frightening: it’s about overcoming evil within ourselves, about the ultimate powerlessness of sin in the face of mercy. So I liked that.

And then, three days later, on the drive back down to the airport, I finished Owen Meany. Or rather, I meant to, but the lead up to the final scene that I knew was coming got me more and more worked up and, although I never get car-sick, I began to feel nauseated and laid the book down on my lap. I sat crushed in the backseat of the little rental car with my aunt and my brother and looked out the window at Minnesota’s shades of white and grey and wondered when reading had become such a harrowing experience.

When I was a kid, reading was like breathing–I did it inside, outside, on my bed, on the couch, on the floor, in the bathroom, under the table. But even as a child I knew there was a limit, that there was such a thing as too much. Once, when I was probably nine or ten, I read four books in one day, and each time my mother or some other demanding force pulled me to the surface, I came up for air snarling and unhappy. I was so deeply immersed that the world of my books seemed more real than the world around me. From that day on, I judiciously set myself a “no more than three books a day” rule (which now, as an adult with access to Netflix, I have no trouble sticking to.)

But the way I felt last Monday, driving to the airport with Owen Meany in my lap, reminded me of that four-book day. I knew how the story was going to end–each detail of the last scene was painstakingly, loudly foreshadowed and even explained. But I was drowning in it. Eventually we got to the airport, and before even going through security, I bought a bottle of orange juice, sat down, and read the last fifteen pages or so, through the ending that I had been both anticipating and dreading. My stomach still felt queasy. “You don’t read enough.” I told myself over and over. “You’re just not used to this kind of emotional involvement anymore.” The TSA officer who checked my boarding pass told me to smile, and I gripped the novel through my purse, wanting to slam it into his face, notify him of what I was experiencing.

Finally, a few hours later, just before landing in Midway on a very crowded plane, I wrote a poem. I have been writing one every Monday for the last few months, so I figured that though I still felt awful and also unsure of where the barf bags were, I would go ahead and get it done. It began as a poem telling God what it was that I needed at this dreadfully harrowing emotional moment in my life and then, a brief two stanzas later, it ended with him telling me that he already knew. Oh. He knew.

I put my notebook away and felt warm and comforted and, for the first time all day, hungry. Writing gave me instant relief. Input and output: the novel had run right through me, been let out at the end by my poem, and I was clean and new, like a glass pipette.

I’ve been thinking about all that this week, coming up with morals and conclusions about the ultimate purpose of the story-telling and the written word and self-expression, both our own and other people’s. But I keep getting stumped on one thing: what about living? What about real experience? What about each second that ticks and each movement of our hands that never gets recorded or even remembered, but still is the thing which shapes us most intently, wears the grooves into our souls?

That Friday, while helping my mom with our belated Thanksgiving dinner, I sat at the counter in my aunt’s kitchen making rolls. I tasted a corner of the dough, and the soft tang of the yeast brought me an overwhelming sense of missing. The recipe is a family friend’s, passed down by my grandma, but the person those rolls made me miss was my sister far away in London. She is the one to make them every year in our house, to turn up the music in the kitchen, to roll them out, to crowd them in that pan, to pack away the leftovers, to eat and eat them for days after the holiday. I was doing a shoddy, lumpy job compared to her.

Later that evening, we sat in the living and sang Thanksgiving hymns (which several family members claimed to know very few of) and I again thought of Mary, who knows all the words, all the notes on piano, who loves to sing along, and loud. I slipped out of my seat, sat halfway down the basement stairs and cried.

In the actual living of our lives, feelings of missing and longing and love and assurance and doubt rope their way around our hearts and are not dealt with by the writing of one poem, or by the writing of twenty, I would guess. But he knows, God already knows. And he “keeps us with repining restlessness.”

Our hearts are restless till they rest in You.