Time Being New (and Time Being Old)

As of today, I have been in Vancouver for exactly a month, and I continue to gain bruises here and there from falling down things (like the stairs) and walking into things (like the table), which I suppose is proof that I’m not yet quite oriented.

I’m reaching the deeper level of homesickness now where I have a bank account and a bus pass and I’ve been to all my classes at least once, and even submitted a couple assignments, but when I see my former students pop up on social media on their class trip to Italy it feels like a welcome relief. To laugh to myself at their extra-polite smiles as a teacher takes their picture is much easier than reading the dozens of new faces, some with their own glazed expressions of fresh homesickness.

So what I am trying to tell you is that it’s hard to find some neat, coherent topic for a blog entry when everything is new. Everything is new except, of course, for all I bring with me: my loves, my habits, my fears, my socks, my memories, and my sweaters. Those things aren’t new at all. It feels like a Herculean task to marry the past and the future into the now, but in reality, it will happen on its own, so long as I let it. I will wake up one day and be comfortable.

But for now, as Auden says, I have “the Time Being to redeem from insignificance.”

So here are things to hold on to:

-I just did laundry, so I got to sleep between clean sheets last night.

-Everyone here, without exception, has been so kind.

-It is wonderful and a little nerve-racking to be writing for a grade again. It makes me feel like I’m growing.

-A couple days ago, when I ran into another first-year student at Regent, I said, “Oh hello, friend!” without even thinking.

-I have written two poems since I got here: a poem about life back home, and a poem about life here. The one that is currently nudging at the back of my skull is about the people around me now, so that’s a good sign. Onward and upward, through the “Land of Unlikeness”!

Seismic Shifts

In less than a week I move to Vancouver. This is the age of change, of the ground moving beneath my feet, but not mine only. Just in the last week or two there have been shifts around me as well: coming marriages, births, deaths, my dad turning sixty, my sister able to go back to London at long last, and two weddings to attend in the next three days. Time is always marching on, of course, but occasionally there are days when we actually feel that, in all its wind and its weight.

Last night my family had a goodbye party for me, which was very sweet. Many kind people prayed for me and we ate chocolate mousse and drank what rosé there was in the house so my parents wouldn’t be stuck with it.

Then afterwards I couldn’t sleep, maybe because all the changing and churning of the world beneath me had gotten into my bones and was making them ache. I don’t know exactly. But I got up and read the beginning of the book of Matthew.

It starts with a list of genealogies: marriages, births, deaths, tectonic plates grating against one another as the earth turns round and round, and then it announces the coming of Christ.

An angel arrives and tells Joseph that everything Mary has been saying is true: she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. Beneath the heaving, quaking breaths the earth keeps taking, there is a fiery core, a binding promise, a wonder: He will save his people from their sins.

Sunday

When I was in college (which sometimes now seems strangely long ago), I used to decide I was going to write a blog entry, and just do it. I would begin (usually on a Sunday like today), and just go, not knowing where the winding trail of words would end up, only trusting.

I am sitting in my apartment with the AC off and all the windows open, because this morning my roommate found fleas (ugh), so we set off bug bombs this afternoon and now I am airing everything out. The sun is warm on the back of my neck, and I am happy.

School starts on Wednesday. I haven’t taken the time to be sentimental about it, but it occurs to me now that maybe I should. Writing about what I do all day doesn’t give those things their value, but doing so certainly helps me to understand them.

This will be my fourth year in front of a classroom, my fourth year in the working world, my fourth year as neither a student or a child. I have changed. I have changed so much that sometimes I wonder if I show physical signs of it. Do I walk more quickly now? Does my voice have a slightly lower register? Has the shape of my face stretched and sharpened?

But much more has stayed the same. Maybe it’s silly to say that and post it to the internet, which is a place renowned for its daily hysteria over change, but sitting in a quiet room reminds me that it’s true. There are vines which press themselves against my bedroom window, and they are just the same shade of green as the ones I used to play in and around in my backyard as a little girl. A warm room full of indistinct laughter and talk still sounds the way a full stomach feels, the same as it has for centuries. We all still walk around carrying little burdens of trepidation and confusion and annoyance and wornout cares, which would have looked perfectly familiar to the ancients. We still sing.

All of this hints to me that the truth of the matter is not so much that everything changes, but simply that I am growing up in God’s world, and everyday my eyes see more of it: the good, the warped, the beautiful. There will be moments I will meet which will be discouraging, and of course I may allow myself to be discouraged by them, but I must remember that there will be other moments coming, and then more and more. One day, the more will become most, I will meet my Lord in eternity, and my education, my child-growing-to-adult years, will be complete. I will be ready to begin the real business of living.

So that’s how I’m trying to begin this fourth year out in the beautiful old wounded world: worship and keep my head up, so that as I grow I won’t miss a thing.

Things I Hope I’ve Learned by Now

Always say what you mean and not what you don’t.

If the lives of your friends seem always to be moving faster and more smoothly than yours, remember that the cure for this misconception (as with most misconceptions) is simply to listen more.

Buy yourself flowers whenever you please.

Plan a way to balance work and relationships and sleep and books and church and time to clean the bathroom. When you fail at balancing and fall on your face in the mud, which I promise you will, calmly get up and try again. It’s worth it.

Gas and plane tickets are expensive, but they’re also worth it.

Notice when the sun comes out.

Stock up on spices.

Take it as a compliment when people think you’re older than you are and take it as a compliment when people think you’re younger than you are. This way you will get lots of compliments.

Thank your parents often.

Find at least two convenient, reasonably-priced restaurants you really like. This will come in handy when people want to “Get lunch and catch up.”

If you make a habit of accepting responsibility, others will trust you.

Indulge your eight-year-old self by unclogging blocked drains with baking soda and vinegar.

Guard good friendships with your life. They get more precious every year.

Be decisive. It will make you feel good.

Change your oil regularly.

Accept that some adults never outgrow their childhood meanness. Be kind, but wear armor.

If you ever begin to feel played-out, as if every thought you think is something you have thought before, just read something new. The world is a big place and you can never truly run out of fresh spaces to live in and dream in, even if that living is vicarious.

There is a good chance that most of your greatest fears about yourself are quite true. But be certain that they are entirely insignificant in the face of God’s vast, unending grace.

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.

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.

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

The Fixed Land Receding

Writing is getting harder than ever. I hate that.

I can find the time, and sometimes I can even find the ideas, but there’s a paralysis that creeps up my arms and into my throat when I try to paste words together into thoughts, and it’s getting more and more difficult to fight through it. Like I said, I hate that.

Lately I have been praying that foolish, wonderful prayer for God to teach me fear and trembling. I remember in the prayer room at Grove City, both in the communal journal and on the butcher paper on the walls, our precious overabundance of English majors used to write out John Donne’s sonnet in earnest to their Lord: “Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend…” Sometimes I smile and shiver when I think of all the ways He must be answering those prayers. Then I think of my own prayers and immediately want to pull my knees tight to my chest. Fear and trembling…

Of course, my life is pretty stable, I am returning for a second year of teaching at Caldwell, with almost exactly the same load I had last year, and I am living with my best friend of 14 years in an apartment less than a mile from the house where I grew up. I have never been an adventurer.

And along with getting ready for school, I’ve been watching a lot of Friends. It’s been fun. I’ve been thinking, though. It’s a show that’s supposed to be this iconic look at what it’s like to be in your twenties, how you need something to center yourself on, how you need (wait for it) your friends. Because it’s at this point in our lives that many of us realize that we are finally out there, in the big old world that’s been so criticized and lionized to us. And what and how are we going to do from here?

Perhaps the first thing everyone my age has noticed is that friendships are harder now. I have many friends but I have to work and work to love them and to hear them. I have to set up phone dates and answer texts. Even for the friends here in town, we have to constantly invite one another into our lives, add seeing one another to our to-do list, make the time even when we don’t have it.

When we do get together, we catch up. And I will tell you a dreadful secret: I am sick of catching up. I love these people, and I want very much to know how they’re doing, but at some point I’d like the conversation to progress into something more. (I first realized we were really and truly grown-ups when people my own age started politely asking how my family was.) I’d like to actually participate in living with one another, instead of just getting the recap highlights reel.

We talk about our jobs, our attempts to find them, and our attempts to find the work of our own hands in them. I will say, it’s been a peculiar joy to me to see so many friends light up: This is it! This is hard and this is good. Or even, This job is not what I meant at all, at all. But now I think I know where I’m headed, and once I get out of here, I think I even know how to get there.

I often walk away from these conversations thinking about teaching and high school. When I first got up in front of a class last fall, I was startled at how familiar these kids seemed to me. Their laughter and their shrugs, their bitterness and innocence showed me myself at sixteen and myself at twenty-two. But I was somehow simultaneously shocked to find that there was also a great chasm between us. I am stunned by the minute and large ways you change and grow as you enter the long corridors of your twenties. This is the age when the sounds in your head at last quiet down, when, for better or for worse, you can finally hear yourself think.

And so here each of us twenty-somethings sits… Lonely is not the right word, although it’s a very real possibility for many of us. Solitary is better. Alone with our souls and the Lover of our souls. Other people still matter, oh how they matter, but they don’t have the power over us that they used to. We are discovering that we “hang always upon the cross of ourselves.” “The mind has cliffs of fall,” and we have begun to peer down over them to learn the depths and the heights. There are tall, bright waves crashing at the bottom.

In Perelandra, C.S. Lewis’s science fiction retelling of the Fall, the one command the green lady must obey is to never spend the night on the “fixed land.” When she goes to sleep she must lie down on one of the floating islands in the seas of her world, and trust God that she will wake up in a place where he still cares for her, even if it’s quite different than any place she imagined or knows.

I am twenty-three, I have clambered onto a floating island, and the fixed land is receding in the distance. I am calling out for it as I watch it go. I am afraid. I know: this is not safe, but it is good.