The Souls of Things

I am home this week in the quiet and the soft, sticky heat of my parents’ house, and I have just been sorting through books. Box after box, cover after cover, my hands built up a bit of a residue with all the handling and I went reluctantly to wash them. There is nothing, but nothing, which makes me so simultaneously grateful and able to write as simply touching a whole lot of my own books. As I flick the pages they release their ghosts so quickly that the room is full in a matter of minutes. Ghosts of characters, of authors, of friends, family, teachers, of myself as a child, and, wildly and nonsensically, the ghosts of all of us in some eternal future. For these words, printed and dusty and sometimes crumbling, are already pumping through the veins of many of us, pushing us on to somewhere else.

One of them is a book I was assigned to read in undergrad. It’s by a man named Vigen Guroian and it’s called Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening. I can think of about twenty-five different people at Regent who would devour it in one sitting if they haven’t already. In fact I was startled by the number of books I was setting aside to take back to Vancouver, not because I love them, but because I know someone else would.

On Thursday night, as I waited in the Vancouver airport curled in a chair looking back out over the darkening city, I felt an unfamiliar ache realizing that though I’d only be gone for about three weeks, there were people in that place whom I would miss. And as our plane lowered itself through North Carolina’s clouds the next morning I looked down at the green and the trees and began to cry because I loved them so much, because though practically speaking they grow in clay and soil, they also somehow grow in me.

I’m getting soft in my old age. Or that’s what I thought. And then came today and the boxes of books, and I was reminded that it’s always been such. I was made soft, I think. I can pretend that I am not sentimental, that I operate efficiently and practically, up until something in my soul stubs its toe on or wraps its little finger around a tangible object in some concrete place, and then I’m toast. When I left Caldwell last year, I did not cry on the last day of school, but when, a week later, I realized that a stack of precious final assignments from past students had been inadvertently thrown out in my classroom, I drove to school in a flood of tears at nine pm, to see if I could get to the trash before the cleaning crew did. And I’ve spent the last few weeks working on a series of poems about my grandparents and though they are certainly written in memory of them, to my surprise much of what I wrote is actually about their house, their driveway, their dry summer grass.

It’s things that always get me, I suppose because I feel a kinship with their frailty. They were made with high hopes of being some use, imbued with sacred meaning and purpose, whether small like a safety pin or large like my mother’s PhD dissertation. Perhaps they were loved and valued, and perhaps they show marks of it, but inevitably, eventually, they also show marks of time and age and general thing-ly weariness. And when I was sorting books today the weariness of so many of those cracked spines made their mysterious secrets leak out in glistening dust onto my palms. Because a thing cannot spend too long in the human world, in the flickering shadow of the divine image, without becoming just a bit eternal.

Restoration

2019 has begun quietly. (For me, at least–I can’t speak for you.)

I’ve been home for a while now and will be home a little while longer. Events worth noting have included lots of time spent at Caldwell (more than I intended, really), lots of time spent with friends from high school and before (more than I expected, really), a brief, exciting ambulance ride to the ER (I’m fine, totally fine), and a trip with my family to Staunton to see Shakespeare (because that’s what we do).

If you don’t know anything about this Staunton place (which probably just means you haven’t known me very long) it’s right in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, which might be the most beautiful place in the whole American South. It’s all close winding creeks and green grass and steep, steep hills woven over with blankets of quiet tree branches, surrounded by wave upon wave of blue mountain ridges. Even its dilapidated buildings with cracked shutters and mossy, caving roofs are soul-wrenchingly picturesque. During the Civil War they called it the breadbasket of the Confederacy because its fields were so fertile, and, perhaps, for me, more than any other place in the South it seems to be marked like Cain, to be aware of both its beauty and its sin, but unable to reconcile them. I think it is what my friend O’Connor called “Christ-haunted.” It is a place that makes me want to sit very still.

To that end, I spent a lot of time over Christmas and the days that followed, as we went up to those mountains and down into that green valley, thinking about restoration. It showed up in my poetry reading for Christmas day and then I thought of it again as we walked through and over the cemetery full of lilting nineteenth century gravestones by the big Episcopal church in Staunton. I wondered about those graves, how they lay so still and quiet and temporary. How the promise of Christmas is not brand-spanking-newness, something never-before-seen, but even more miraculous: God making skin-to-earth contact, causing the lame feet to run at last, the long-silent lips to speak, and the dead to sit up in their grave-clothes and breathe fresh air. He makes the first things new and whole again.

Then on Saturday night we went to see Winter’s Tale, which begins so grim. “A sad tale’s best for winter,” Mamillius says. Leontes bursts out in a fit of unwarranted jealousy so lethal that by the end of the third act his wife and son are dead, and his best friend and daughter are so far banished that they are presumed so. But then in the final scene of the play, which takes place sixteen years later, the statue of Hermione, penitent Leontes’ now long-dead queen, steps down off its pedestal and takes him by the hand, alive again. He turns to the audience, to the heavens, to anyone who will listen, and says with awe, “O, she’s warm!”

So this theme of restoration kept coming up this weekend, but I’m not sure if I have anything to say about it except that it is. It exists. It’s all true. “She’s warm.”

Happy New Year.

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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”!

Holy Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Impulse for Home

What I have to say today will be something I know I’ve said before.

When I was in college I was obsessed with the idea of home. I wrote about it on here a lot: home, friendship, and the weather. In fact, my fixation became so obvious by the end that the poem my dad wrote for my twenty-second birthday was simply called “Homing.” “Our daughter’s always leaving to return– / Her warmest heart is longing after home– / For home she’s made, and for her home she’ll yearn,” ran the refrain.

And then I came home. I lived in my parents’ house for a year, and now I’m in my own place about a mile away. I’ve stopped thinking about home as much, and I’ve certainly stopped writing about. I’m here, right? I don’t need to miss it.

Except sometimes late at night, when I’m not sleeping (which I’m often not), I get homesick. I become keenly aware that I am not where I really long to be, that I live in a place that is shattered, alongside people who, like myself, are bruised and bent from birth. I am more aware of the reality of sin than I’ve ever been before, and sometimes on those nights, even safe in my own bed, I can hear it oozing through the floorboards and pounding in my veins, until I am nearly deaf with the sound. It makes me sick for the land I have yet to lay eyes on, the land where this is set right.

But though I haven’t laid eyes on that final country yet, I do know its taste. It comes to me, and to you, in flickering part-pictures. You find it in conversation with the people who are the gentlest, in the handwriting of someone you love, in some combination of colors, in a very full room or a very empty one, in five-part harmony, in a single voice which speaks a single word. You blink and it’s gone, but for a moment you were Home and now the air is full of its lingering wonder and tang. That’s no accident.

I am trying to be more conscious about bottling these moments to save, not because I think they will cure my late-night homesickness, but because I am greedy to have heavenly truth here on earth. I want what those visions will teach me.

Two weeks ago, while sitting in my second period class, I wrote this:

The sun is out, and this makes me feel as if I am standing up straighter. Like its beams are strings attached to my spine and my chin that tug up, up, up. I feel soft and melted on the inside, as if all those things that weighted me are dribbling away and soon I will float away like a balloon, swinging unsteadily, joyfully, from my ropes of light as more of my forgotten cares drip off my dangling toes.

So that is how I feel. I am grateful, and gratitude smells like rosemary.

That rosemary-sunshine-gratitude is what we’re made for. The rest is shadows.

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.

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.

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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.

On Flying

We are two weeks out from the start of school, and I am beginning to get nervous. There is so much to do and think of and plan and write down, not to mention all the time I obviously need to spend worrying about the things I can’t control. Of course, back-to-school nerves are probably one of the more common feelings in the world. There’s a newness and a freshness to that first day that can never compare to the first of January. It’s all short haircuts and tans and deeper voices and words that move faster than they did before and smiles that aren’t yet tired.

But sooner than we expect, all of the gloss and new-clothes smell will wear away and we will be left with those Mondays where our greatest accomplishment is getting out of bed in the morning. I am content in the understanding that some days, even some weeks, 6:43 am may be my proudest moment, so long as I remember that as I stand bleary-eyed in front of a mirror and march into school with a heavy bag on my shoulder, so much above and beyond me is being fulfilled and achieved.

As a child I didn’t necessarily believe I could fly, but neither did I quite believe that I couldn’t. I understood that as far as physics were concerned if I climbed up onto a roof, and took a running leap with my arms outstretched, that the air would not catch me. The ground would catch me, along with all my broken bones. And yet I was fairly sure that the business of soaring and dipping and twisting through the trees and into the clouds didn’t just concern physics. It made a sort of inherent sense to me that though my arms didn’t look or behave like wings (and in fact looked and behaved very much like arms) that didn’t mean they couldn’t actually be wings underneath. If, you know, some day…I did decide to try… I had an eager, soft little heart that loved the air and the heights better than the bruising, itching ground.

Last week we went on a family vacation and the cabin we stayed in had a swing. I swung on it only once, the day we got there, and just a couple minutes on it resurrected a whole hearty body of forgotten loves which I had allowed to be buried by a host of teenage and adult fears of  indeterminate origin. I remembered that swinging is one of the few physical activities that I have never thought makes me look foolish, I remembered my starved appetite for the wind in my ears and my clothes, and I remembered the pure, unexamined desired to get close and into the center of the blue sky. I realized I had never really changed my mind. I am twenty-three and am not quite convinced that I can’t fly.

I‘ll be very clear with you, I have been grumpy today: I was sullen with my sister and got more upset than perhaps was justifiable over a car insurance meeting that went too long. (I almost kicked the cat.) But I want so much to remember that there is a sky. I want to lay my fear down on the concrete curb and look up to see if it might be a good day for flying. I want to be able to remember that swing at 6:43 am in February. I want to be able to set aside my cynicism (just a grown-up brand of fear), and feel the wind from my Lord’s treasuries. The hope in my seven-year-old eyes gazing out into the sky from our backyard swing is no less real than the heavy fears of February. In fact, it might be real-er.

The Here and Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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