Culture and the Gospel

I want to write about something I know I’ve already addressed in different ways in this entry from last Christmas and especially this one, from a couple years ago, but I’ve had a lot of time to myself to think recently, so what follows is going to be particularly long. Beware.

For most of us it is so easy to see the sharp disparities between Christianity and the culture in which we live. The situation in Iraq is suddenly turning awful and we’re all looking on in horror. And in our own backyard, we see so much bitterness and rebellion and mockery. There is greed and cruelty and an all-consuming cult of self, often espoused by people who claim to care a very great deal about “making the world better.”

We have learned enough about our Lord, who overturned tables in the temple, to understand that this is not what he wishes. We are able to see how what is around us is rotten. But I think the sight of so much that is dreadful often tempts us, as a church, to a subtle wringing of the hands, and to a sometimes not-so-subtle and rather despairing call to “reinforce the battlements of Christian morality once more,” to “save our God’s dying and unheeded biblical principles in the face of a perverse and evil world.” “Oh!” we say, “The culture has gone down the drain, and we must defend truth.”

First of all, God’s principles are not dying. They are quite as well and strong as He is, was, and always will be. (Whether anyone is listening to them is an entirely separate matter.) And the culture has not “gone down the drain.” I’m sorry if you are only just now noticing and it comes as a shock, but it has always been down the drain, ever since Adam and Eve ate the fruit. If you want to understand what is wrong with the world, the root of its rottenness, bitterness, and cruelty, we must always look at our own hearts.

Cultures of all kinds and ages, after all, are changing, ephemeral, and really rather insignificant in the scheme of things. I have been watching Ken Burns’ Civil War series in preparation for my debut as a history teacher in the fall, and I keep thinking of what Dr. Edwards used to say: that the great sin of our country in the nineteenth century was slavery, and that now it is abortion. I believe there is quite a lot of truth to that, both specifically and generally. Most cultures are born with their own virtues (usually rather scant) and their own sins (usually quite profuse,) and are eventually, and often violently, overtaken by the next human concoction for governance, approximately opposite in its schemes of morality, but just as self-sick.

The problem is humanity. We are the common denominator. I have been rereading Mere Christianity (if you couldn’t tell already) and Lewis is quite clear about the ultimate unimportance to the Creator of these revolving human civilizations and their timely deaths. “God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one.” The marvelous mystery is that, though cultures will eventually fade away like bad dreams, mankind can be real, as our Father is. In fact, in the great spiritual war, we, the men and women made in His image, are the battlefield, the ground to be gained, of much more significance than “kingdoms and principalities.”

Yes, Christ came to save, but He did not come to save our crumbling, sello-taped culture. That will pass away. He came to save you and He came to save me—he came on a quest for our sinful, maggot-ridden hearts: to take them, and if we will let Him, to remake them out of entirely fresh stuff, to remake them out of Himself. He came to teach us, by example, to how to die and then how to live anew.

But I know that the question remains. How do we live anew in a world filled with machinations which are so clearly built for the purpose of degrading what is holy? I remember the Ten Booms, living out the gospel in Nazi-occupied Holland. (I have picked an extreme example on purpose, because perspective is a healthy thing, and also because you ought to read The Hiding Place.) I remember that they prayed, and took pity upon their oppressors. They prayed, and opened their doors to every man, woman, and child who needed them. They prayed, and even in prison sent messages to one another pronouncing the goodness of God. They prayed, and, at long last, transformed concentration camps into places of healing and new life. This, I believe, is what it means to live faithfully.

We are to be the people in whose homes and minds “mercy and truth are met together.” We are told to seek the kingdom, to take heart, to trust the Lord, to love our enemies, to fear no more, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to be patient and joyful, to store up sound wisdom, to pray without ceasing, the bless those who curse us, to forsake foolishness, to walk humbly, to be kind and tenderhearted, to freely give, to serve the Lord all the days of our lives, “and, having done all, to stand.” We are told to speak, to do, to go, to give, to pray, to love, to die, but never, to my knowledge, does God tell us to be concerned citizens. He wants quite a lot more than that. He does not want His people to make the world fit for Him, but to make His people fit for their true home.

I‘m still struggling to express what I mean, (probably because I’m still learning all this myself,) so I’ll borrow an old puritan prayer from the Valley of Vision:

Thou Great I Am,

Fill my mind with elevation and grandeur at the thought of a Being with whom one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, a  mighty God, who, amidst the lapse of worlds, and the revolutions of empires, feels no variableness, but is glorious in immortality.           

May I rejoice that while men die, the Lord lives; that, while all creatures are broken reeds, empty cisterns, fading flowers, withering grass, He is the Rock of Ages, the Fountain of living waters.

Turn my heart from vanity, from dissatisfactions, from uncertainties of the present state, to an eternal interest in Christ.

Let me remember that life is short and unforeseen, and is only an opportunity for usefulness;

Give me a holy avarice to redeem the time, to awake at every call to charity and piety, so that I may feed the hungry, clothe the naked, instruct the ignorant, reclaim the vicious, forgive the offender, diffuse the gospel, show neighbourly love to all.

Let me live a life of self-distrust, dependence on Thyself, mortification, crucifixion, prayer.

Of course, I have been holding back. I have been holding back the greatest, grandest thing: “In the world you will have tribulation: but be of good cheer,” Christ says, “I have overcome the world.” Everything I have been saying is just talk, really, for He has already done it. It is in the Divine character to act as savior and conqueror. It is in our Lord’s character to be more powerful and holy and loving than we can even conceive. Even when we are so often faithless, He promises to remain faithful. I’ve been reading Psalm 46 a lot lately:

God is our refuge and strength,

A very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear,

Even though the earth be removed,

And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though its waters roar and be troubled,

Though the mountains shake with its swelling.

There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,

The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;

God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.

The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved;

He uttered His voice, the earth melted.

The Lord of hosts is with us;

The God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,

Who has made desolations in the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;

He burns the chariot in the fire.

Be still and know that I am God;

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth!

The Lord of hosts is with us;

The God of Jacob is our refuge.

And He always says what He means and does what He says. When he hung on the cross, he said, “It is finished.” And so it must be. As Julian of Norwich repeats so definitely, because it is the surest truth she knows: “All manner of things shall be well.”

I have been playing hymns on my cello lately, and my grandpa will come in and sit down and close his eyes. By the second or third note he is always singing along. The other day I found myself watching him and wondering what it took to be the sort of person who, at nearly ninety, loves his God so well. And then I realized. My grandfather is the best man I know, but his devotion to his Lord has nothing to do with his virtue. He loves so deeply because the gospel is so rich and so true. Everything and everyone he meets compels him to hold onto Jesus so much tighter.

And I have been listening to my grandpa’s prayers better recently too. He has trouble with many words now, but there is one word he always speaks clearly: blessed. He never asks God for blessing, but seems always to be thanking Him for it. “You have blessed us,” he says, “We are so greatly blessed.” He knows the abundance of mercy that is promised, and that what our Lord promises he will accomplish. “Behold, I make all things new.” My grandfather comprehends the gospel so much more fully than I do, but still, he is only standing at the edge of God’s goodness, and even there he is overwhelmed.

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Do not listen to any nonsense about culture wars. The battle is spiritual, it is for the hearts of the children of God, and victory is already certain. We’re going home.

Cricket Neighbors and a Spread of Books

I’m at my grandparents’ in Missouri for a couple weeks, and there’s a cricket in my room. At first he was in the corner by the chair, chirping cheerily and loudly all night long. He kept me awake, but when I searched for him, I couldn’t find him, and the internet informed me that he would probably live for weeks on end. I was a little lonely after my sister left so I resigned myself and thought, “Oh, well, I guess it’s nice to have a friend.” One night he seemed to be in the closet and one night in the shower (though I was grateful to find it empty when I got in a few minutes later.) Eventually I thought there might be two of them, calling back and forth to one another about secret cricket things. I would lay awake listening, and wondering what they were saying, and generally wishing that if I was to have roommates we could maybe all be on the same sleep schedule at least one night a week.

Then on Saturday evening I was sitting in my chair reading, when my elusive friend emerged from under my bed. He was larger, uglier, and altogether looked much more like a cockroach than I thought he would. He stopped in the middle of the carpet and stared, so he may well have been thinking the same thing about me (though I know I don’t look like a cockroach.) In any case, I immediately realized that I had been deluding myself to think of him as a friend and that we would in fact always be mortal enemies while he insisted on keeping me awake at night. I lunged for him with a shoe and he retaliated by taking one great leap back under my bed.  So I turned out the light and took a less impressive leap onto the bed and under my covers. He continues just as awful every night, and I’m seriously considering moving down to the end room just to escape, even if it means having to wash an extra set of sheets.

I’ve been doing other, more valuable things than running away from crickets, though. Last night after Sally had had her fill of the game between “the Spurs and the Heats,” I watched the first bit of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War to help me out with teaching next year. At first I nearly cried because it was so good, and then I settled down and took notes.

I’ve also been reading. Or, rather, spreading books all over my bed, face down, and switching between them at a hectic pace.

The Wingfeather Saga (by Andrew Peterson, yes, the one whose music you love): As I said so many times this year, I’m not normally into fantasy, but these were lovely, the footnotes in the first book particularly. If you like very large puppies, people who can fly, and noble twelve-year-olds, you will like this. (I would guess it also has a niche market with people who hate cows and forks.) The fourth and last installment comes out later this summer and I’m pretty excited.

Between, Georgia (by Joshilyn Jackson, worth it for her first name alone): I found this in the massive Ed McKay’s in Chattanooga. I enjoyed it. It was worth the time I spent reading it. Now go find your own summer novels at McKay’s.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (by Milan Kundera, that Czech man): I’m part way through this. I like the bits about the one character’s crass mother, but every time he goes back to talking about all these love affairs that all these neurotic people are having with each other and obsessing over, I get bored. Probably won’t finish it.

Radical Femininity (by Carolyn McCulley, whom I know nothing else about): I’m not a huge fan of the title. (As my dad says “I only like the word radical in math. It actually means something there.”) But I like the history in it very much and wish there was more of it. Also only halfway through, so the verdict is still out.

Home (by Marilynne Robinson, she of Gilead fame): I’m enjoying this. I like Glory. I like her father. I like John Ames. I like their little town. But here’s the thing: they’re all preoccupied with and fascinated by Jack Boughton and his sudden reappearance, and I’m not. I’d like to move along and hear about Glory’s divorce and other things that are not Jack. But then again, I’m halfway though. We’ll see what happens.

Mere Christianity (by C.S. Lewis, of course): I don’t think I’ve read this since high school and I’m very pleased to be coming back to it again. It’s my grandparents’ copy, but I’ve been sneakily marking the bottoms of pages for bits I want to copy down. Hooray for truth.

After I’ve finished wading through all of these to my satisfaction, I plan on rereading all the Little House books for the first time in a very long time, and then moving onto Robinson’s Housekeeping (not about Jack Boughton! Hurrah!) and the “spiritual biography” of Flannery O’Conner that Mary got for me. Please write me a letter and tell me what you’re reading, in great detail. I will add it to my list and perhaps get to it in five or ten years.


Today my sister and my mother and other sundry relatives are all converged at my grandparents’ in north central Missouri to celebrate my Aunt Sally’s birthday. She’s forty today, and everyone at the party bought matching t-shirts which say “Forty Years of Sally: Forever Young.” I am not there, I was not even a together-enough niece to send her a card, but I wish I was and I wish I had, so this will have to do.

My grandpa, the doctor, delivered six of his seven children, and when Sally, the last and the littlest, was born he was hesitant to tell my grandma that she had down’s syndrome, but I think she knew anyway. She was blessed with remarkably few complications, though she did have to have a metal rod put in her back. My grandma pulled her out of school in sixth grade and taught her herself: to read, to write, to fold the laundry, to know her Proverbs, to be good company.

She is our Sally: less than five feet tall, with tiny hands, size two feet, and her timeless silky straight hair, with its angular cut by the lady over on Highway F. Sally is stubborn, Sally is certain, my grandma’s word is gospel truth. Sometimes, if loud nieces and nephews unexpectedly decide to spend extra days in her house, she cries. Her bedroom is full of old dolls and Shirley Temple VHS’s and neat bags of miscellaneous treasures in long rows.  She thinks that my dad and my Uncle Dan are the funniest and best men in the world. (She might be right.)

She packs for any trip two weeks in advance, with a duffel just for socks. When I convince her to take a walk around the lake, though I hold her hand on the hills, and pick her daisies in July, she usually announces firmly, that “this is the last time.” She wanders slowly around the house, humming, and settles herself in a comfortable chair to flip slowly through a whole book, watching, listening, planning conversations that will never happen. (I do that too.) Sometimes my bent Grandpa lowers himself on the floor in front of her and she runs her little fingers absently through his white hair.

This past summer Mary and I came back to our cabin at camp one afternoon to find a box of Cheez-Its missing. An innocent bystander told us that Sally had been seen with just such a box. I marched around for a few hours in a great furor at the injustice and the invasion, and Mary and I eventually found her in the doorway of her own little cabin. She was already crying over something, but I confronted her anyway and she said that she was sorry, but they were all gone. She’d eaten the rest. And I realized. The girl just wanted some Cheez-Its. I knew about wanting Cheez-Its. I also knew about crying, so we left it at that.

A couple summers ago their fridge broke and as I was cleaning it out Sally was getting more and more upset that I was throwing away “Grandma’s good food.” Finally, as I was headed to the garage with some breakfast sausage, she followed me, muttering, and I stopped and turned, and put my hands on her shoulders. “Listen.” I said. “This is okay. Grandma asked me to do this. I’m helping. Just trust me.” She got a funny soft expression on her face and then held out her little arms to me and my heart melted all over the floor. (That was the same summer I tried to make crêpes and cried over them, and she kept stopping by the stove to pat me on the back and tell me my crumpled monstrosities looked “pretty good.”)

Sally is a creature of as-little-change-as-possible. She dances to my grandma’s preferred polka music, and works at the consignment shop at Senate Bill 40, and still sings the solo on the fa-la-la-la-la’s in “Deck the Halls” every Christmas.

Sometimes my cousins and I think Sally requires more patience than we can give. She takes the stairs one at a time with a loud grunt for each, holding tight onto the railing. She needs help washing her hair. When she is tired and overwhelmed she complains loudly about us in our hearing to her imaginary companions, shaking her finger menacingly. And so we regard her as stuck, miles away from enlightened minds like us.

But then I remember that freedom is not in speed or perfect cleanliness or even affability and normality. Freedom might, however, be in forty years of youth and simplicity, because I’ll tell you now that I’ve never heard such true abandon as Sally lowing out an age-old hymn in the shower.


Coming Up Clean

I’ve just put lotion on my ankles to soothe my bug bites and I am tired. I’m in a slow and simple mood this evening, so I’ll just tell the story from the beginning, though it is not spectacular. Perhaps because it is not spectacular.

Last Friday I got up at four forty-five and my dad drove me to the airport in Raleigh. I met Mary in Nashville at about eight-thirty and we set off driving up through Kentucky and Illinois. We stopped at a rest stop around lunch time and made sandwiches on top of her trunk out of rye bread and cookie butter. We laughed so much that some nice people at a nearby picnic table asked us to join them. We are so magnetic. However, we said ‘no, thanks’ and instead walked around and contemplated ousting small children from the see-saw so we could have a go. But, of course, we had already had our turn on that same see-saw when we were their age. We’ve driven this road so many times.

In St. Louis, I unwittingly pulled off at a gas station in a rather shady neighborhood. We got out of the car and did one quiet circuit of the little convenience store, then just climbed back in and kept going. By the time we got up to Macon and turned onto 36 a few hours later, my chest felt light like it always does when I pass through that place at that time of day. The fields stretched wide arms, speckled with hay bales, and the road rose to meet us, leading up into the low, late-day sun.

We got to Grandma’s in time for dinner, and then took a walk with my cousin Hannah up to the cemetery across the highway, where we typed in the secret code at the entrance for old time’s sake. My grandparents have arranged for plots there. Hannah read aloud from To Kill a Mockingbird while Mary and I did dishes.

The next morning Mary and I began the two-day task of taking our grandparents and aunt up to camp. My grandpa is frail. He cannot lift his feet well. He uses a cane and he struggles to lift his head up high enough to look straight ahead of him. His sweaters never seem to go on right and are always hitched up over his collar. He shuffles. Our trip was full of halting steps and slow. We stopped at a Walmart north of the Twin Cities to pick up about ten things Grandma had forgotten. I had to relearn much of that sort of patience which has fallen out of use at college.

And yet, that last thirty minutes of the drive held the same glow. Grandpa started telling us miles beforehand how much the topography looked like camp, then we passed The ICO and a moment later the great big Story Book Lodge signs came round the corner and we were home. It is sixth or seventh on my list of homes, but I knew it was higher for everyone else in the car, so I borrowed from their awe and comfort.

I can’t tell camp in order. You never can, especially a family camp. Mary and I stayed in the Ark, which was very cozy with two beds and its own alarm clock. I spent lots of time with cousins. We attempted a couple games of Monopoly, which will never be enjoyable, but also went kayaking, met Hannah’s friend-boy (not boyfriend,) played Old Maid with Grandma and Sally, and drove over to Virginia after evening meeting one night to see Wolverine. It turned out that it was in 3D, which no one except the boys was pleased with, but giggling and snarky comments have improved many a cousin film.

On Thursday we threw Molly a little family party for her eighteenth birthday. We made Mary Brammer’s Black Forest Torte (a family classic), Faith passed out glow sticks, and when Joe would not come down in time to sing, our Aunt Sally scaled the stairs to retrieve him. (That was our favorite part.) We took lots of pictures. I was impressed with how we have grown up. I don’t mean that we have gotten taller and more employable, though we have, but that I saw in my cousins something better. I saw that they are kinder, more willing, harder-working, more thoughtful, and unabashed (though perhaps, with each other, we have always been that.)

But noticing more than I used to includes the less savory. I saw problems with good people in a good place. I saw imbalances, injustices, frustrations which I knew would go unaddressed, things which made me itch to change and fix them. But that job was not for me.

Instead, after every meal, Mary and Molly and I stood behind the counter to receive the rush of dishes. We scraped and stacked the platters at record pace, consolidated bowls of ranch dressing and emptied pitchers of water and milk. Afterwards we helped with pots and pans—I was always on dry-and-put-away duty. Mary had set up her slackline, which magically attracts people of all ages and sorts in clusters, so she took great joy in knowing the names of all the little kids and their intricate relations. I just liked knowing that the wide rubber scrapers went in a certain drawer in the bakery and that the cutting boards went under the microwave. It made me feel important.

On Wednesday evening my cousin Charity was baptized down in the lake along with three other teenagers. (I can call them that now that I no longer am one.) The sun was setting way over behind the island and I watched as each of them came up clean, at sharp angles with the water, their hair dripping smoothly back from their faces, their arms crossed over their chests, leaning into the arms of their fathers. Then they would slosh back to shore and stand shivering in a towel to be hugged by their family.

I thought about coming up clean out of the water and out of the “soul-cleansing blood of the lamb,” not just once but over and over. The best message of the week was on Friday morning. Ben Scripture talked about trading in excuses for simple confession. We confess and Christ is eager to intercede. We are always needing fresh washing, new garments, but they always come free. They come free and they come strong. I must let my Father cleanse me of frustrations and weights which are not mine to carry. They are His, as I am.

We left camp on Saturday morning. Sunday morning we passed the fields of smooth, white windmills in northern Iowa. I remembered why even when we were younger, my cousins and I always got so quiet at this stretch of highway. They are unimaginably big and rather beautiful, but they are also frightening to me. They call up a small, stubborn Don Quixote out of my chest, ready to fight a hundred other battles which have not, in reality, been given to me.

So I came back to Missouri in peace, handing my grandpa his cane at rest stops along the way, and stopping at a Russell Stover outlet for my grandma. Back to the only place I am comfortable hanging all my laundry out to dry, even my most inexcusable underwear. The pool filter needs to be run. This is the job my Father has given to me, so I will come up clean, tend to those bug bites, and have a chat with my sister. There’s more road before us.

Howell Christmas

Jackie has taken to announcing recently that she is “feeling little today.” We know what she means when she says it. It’s one of those days when you’re not up to adult conversation or behavior or responsibility or probably even adult thought. What you’re up for is sitting in bed eating advent calendar chocolate and watching Charlie Brown bemoan commercialism.

I have felt little this Christmas. In fact, I often feel little at Christmas. When I am at Grandma’s in the summertime I feel mature and responsible. Two summers ago, when I was the only grandchild there, I was physically the strongest person in the house. (Every time I tell people that they apologize for laughing. It’s okay. Laugh. I, too, have seen my arms.) But Christmas at Grandma’s leaves me feeling little. Little and awed and surrounded by good things.

Last Christmas I wrote an entry called “Things Change,” and I am here, a year later, to tell you that they do, and that’s all right, but sometimes they don’t, and isn’t it grand? Almost everybody made it this Christmas, including Emily and André and their babies (she had twins this summer,) and my cousin’s fiancée Ashley, and all four generations of Billys, ages three to eighty-seven. There is nothing to make one feel warm with claustrophobia and familial affection quite like over thirty people crowded into one medium-small house where most of them feel quite at home and know where the silverware drawer is. Meals were something epic.

We’re growing up. The babies were sleepy little dolls and everybody held them at some point. Watching my cousins pass them around reminded me that our own babies are probably only a few Christmases away for some of us, and other parts of growing up are frighteningly close. Peter’s applying to law schools, Hannah will be an RN in April, Joe’s studying for his EMT exam, Tina’s moving to Peru next month and Billy’s getting married in two weeks.

But I think the secret of growing up is that it’s not such a great big deal as we all pretend. All of those people are still in many ways just the same as I remember them at ten-years-old. We can’t fit five of us on the loveseat in the living room anymore, but we still try. We can drive ourselves to Sonic now and pay for our food with money we earned, but we still sing Christmas carols with obnoxious gusto and slip on the ice while hectically switching cars. We are not really old yet—Hope is still shorter than me for one more year and Molly has a year and half of high school left.

This year we had a few newcomers who were experiencing their first Howell Christmas. Along with the babies, and Billy’s fiancée Ashley, whom we cousin-approved with great excitement and a piece of pink construction paper (no forged signatures this time!), Emily and André brought their friend, John. I wonder what they must think as we drag them into the great communal singing of the Twelve Days of Christmas and watch Sally, my mom’s littlest sister, conduct the last verse of each song. They are good sports. One evening we sat in the living room and threw Little Billy’s stuffed blocks at each other just because we could, but we don’t all have the best of aim, you know. It was a bit of a war zone.

Anyway, after all that, nineteen left on Christmas Eve, leaving behind a detritus of Christmas cookies and forgotten socks and underwear, and everything felt small and quiet with just the McLellans and Uncle Jon and us. We played Monopoly for the first time in years, with the anticipated miserable results and watched It’s a Wonderful Life and Charlie Brown Christmas, along with Sally’s new Christmas movie. It was peaceful and friendly, with one big table and one kids’ table (though UJ had to keep raising the maximum age for the latter until four of us were young enough to sit there.) We ate at Kaitlynn’s Deli and I slept on the TV room couch which is my favorite.

Each year the things that are worth being thankful for, the things responsible for my littleness and awe, are not the things that are old or the things that are new, but the things that are good. Cookies in the breezeway, unorganized games of Fishbowl, the way Sally refers to my mom as “my sister Hope,” my little brother who is too shy to hold a baby for more than a few seconds, snow-covered fields, my grandpa who uses a PA system just to talk to his own family in his own living room, (but still says more worth hearing than I ever do,) interstate highways, joy to the world, and a January wedding, where we’ll get to see each other all over again, so that this time, goodbye did not mean very much at all.

Adventure is out there!

I started planning this entry on I-40 East coming home from Nashville. That has been my nice surprise of the month: I got to spend this past week in Missouri at my grandparents’, which you will have heard about in entries like this one and especially this one.

I didn’t bring my little computer at all and so was basically sans internet and mostly sans phone for over a week. I sat in the Raleigh airport a week ago Friday waiting for my flight and my head was spinning. I had just finished powering through season two of Mad Men at such a rate that sitting there I kept thinking every man I saw was Don Draper. Not that North Carolina boys are a bad-looking lot, but my, my, Alice, let’s not get carried away. My brain was fairly addled, and I felt disembodied. I felt as if I was no longer quite in possession of a self.

So here’s what I did all week: I read Tolkien, I washed a few windows, and I worked on a story. I had one white night, I watched one Jimmy Stewart movie, and I cooked some beans. I cleaned my grandma’s cabinets and went to Walmart only twice. One lovely afternoon I floated in the pool with a book and a milkshake from Tastee Treat.

I woke up a little, I think. It was a slow waking. I did not notice that I felt particularly different. Perhaps I was simply spending less time noticing myself and more time noticing the breeze on the dam of an afternoon, how many pages I had managed to fill in my little notebook, and marvelous quotes from the Hobbit to copy into it, though what I am writing is not at all a conventional adventure story. All hearty things for a kid in my condition—nothing like a computer screen to make you dwindle.

Then on Friday evening I sat in my aunt and uncle’s house watching the opening ceremonies and at the soaring shots of the countryside and the sound of the children’s choirs, I felt a near-forgotten longing. By the time all those Mary Poppinses floated down to vanquish Voldemort I had nearly lost my head.

I wanted to go. Karen and I had planned since we were sixteen to go to the 2012 Olympics. We were supposed to be there! What was I doing watching it from the couch? At the very least I was supposed to be headed there to study abroad this year. Off to visit the dear homeland of the Pevensies, the Bastables, the Mennyms, Pongo and Lady, the BFG and every other dear friend. (There is no faster way to my heart than British children’s literature.)

And thus it was that without warning I found myself saying to my mom in the car yesterday: “What if I got a job in England next summer?” Because, of course, I need money, (even at the end of this summer, I’m still scrambling for work,) but maybe I can quietly trick my scared little self into an adventure, if I make the arrangements fast, before myself notices.

I have often felt frightened and trapped and every miserable thing for the last year or so, but in the words of the indomitable Bilbo Baggins when he is trapped in a dark tunnel, lost from his friends and pursued by narsty, narsty goblins:

“Go back? No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”

He does not even think of standing still.

Things Change

Really, they do.

I don’t think I’d properly begun to realize that until this semester, perhaps even this Christmas. You see Christmas used to be this great shining thing set gloriously at the end of the year. School let out, we opened all our presents and drank eggnog, then the next day we were off to my grandparents’ in dear old Brookfield, MO.

It was just us and my Aunt Amy’s family when we were kids. Mary and Peter and Jacob and I sat at the kids table and wreaked havoc. Grandma would proudly set out her little individual salt shakers, and we would spend Christmas dinner salting each other’s milk and making up stories about my brother George’s latest escapades. Even when it wasn’t mealtime we would sit at the card table playing long games of Mille Borne (Creve! Creve!) and Monopoly. Usually Monopoly. Peter was always the banker and he always won, Mary cheerfully came in second, I came third for lack strategy, and Jacob came dolefully last, because Peter always had it in for him. Thus began the illustrious cousin tradition of bending and even, yes, breaking the rules.

As we got older, and my Uncles Bill’s kids also began to descend en masse every Christmas, we played Mafia just to cheat and peek, and generally win unfairly. All part of cousin bonding, you know. There was also an official cousin basketball game, in which I was always the official photographer, a job I was very bad at. Here we are in 2007 after that year’s game.

As I remember, 2007 was a particularly red-letter Christmas. Emily brought her new husband André, and we took joy in initiating him and giving him the official stamp of cousin approval.

Some of these signatures are forged, but who’s telling which?

The other notable thing about Christmas 2007 was Poopsie. Billy and Hannah went into town with Grandpa one day for some inauspicious reason, and came back a couple hours later with a puppy. He (she? I can’t remember…) was very cute, and also entirely unhousebroken (thus the name…) It wasn’t until Christmas night, when Mary and Tina and Joe and I took him for a walk that he did his business outside for the first time and we rejoiced. Then, while star-tripping, Joe fell and got that business all over his jeans, and we rejoiced only slightly less. (“Joe! That was Poopsie’s Greatest Achievement, and you fell in it!”) Wonderful Christmas.

Since then we have had a few family reunions in hotels which have brought us to some truly marvelous locations, like this unique antique mall.

As you can probably see written all over my face there, that was the Christmas that eight of us girls crowded into one hotel room and stuck this sign on the door.

It truly was, my friend. Santa was spotted just down the hall.

Mostly, the thing about Christmas with cousins is that it is a lot of very tall people in a house with very low ceilings sitting on couches together singing carols and giggling.

Three or four days full of lots. Lots of jokes about pantyhose, lots of games of Authors, lots of re-watching of State Fair, lots of racing out to the cold breezeway to grab orange balls, lots of Christmas.

Here we are, last Christmas—grown, haven’t we?


This Christmas we couldn’t get there till the 23rd. It was the McLellans’ year off, Uncle Jon (better known as UJ) had done his familial duty at Thanksgiving, and as for Uncle Bill’s—Hannah and Billy had to work and couldn’t come, and Joe had already left for St. Louis. We had a nice evening, sang carols and all, and the next day an attempt was made at a cousin basketball game, which I rather spoiled, and that was it. The rest of them left. We went ahead and did the present opening on Christmas Eve, just to get it out of the way, it seemed. Christmas felt like any other Sunday, except quieter. Even in our unusually small numbers, we more than doubled the attendance at my grandparents’ sadly fading church. Merry Christmas and all that…

The holidays seemed to have matched my semester a little too well—quite lost from what I thought it would be. It all leaves me holding fast to the things that haven’t changed:

When we spent the night in Nashville, and the question of the evening’s entertainment was brought up, Peter Immediately said “We could play Monopoly…” and we all said “NO!”

When asked to pick a carol George made a show of deciding and then grumbled “We Three Kings.” It used to be the only song he’d sing with us, even in the summertime.

There was still a card table in the breezeway piled with cookies and leftovers.

A Christmas Carol was read aloud in the car, and It’s a Wonderful Life lives in that glorious black and white.

There’s something else too, that hasn’t changed. However I feel about the day, whether or not I even remember that it’s Christmas, it’s still the day Christ was born. It’s still the incredible beginning of God’s plan of redemption. It is a day that means even in the dreariest, most disenchanted place A SAVIOR IS BORN. Even when I’m drowning in self,  and dull, adopted hurts, my God sent his Son as a baby, even more vulnerable and prone to tears than I am, that I might know hope. And that will not change.

Tomorrow is new day and a new year in which I get to serve a living God who came to save me. Please remind me when I forget. Please.


My junior year of high school I was in a creative writing class, and in my journal I always told my teacher what color my day had been–a linoleum green, aubergine, festive red, or a warm, linty grey. The bad days, the gag into a corner days, were always tan. I hate tan.

Recently, though I haven’t been paying a great deal of attention, my days have been mostly the same color. Not quite sure what color that is–not tan–(okay, maybe kind of tan…) This is why I haven’t been writing. I actually have a list of possible topics living on my desktop, but it takes at least a tiny bit of Walt Whitman’s “urge, urge, urge” to make myself write, and the urge only lives in color.

But I have been thinking about some nice things today. I picked up a copy of the Quad, because my poem is in it with a whole page to itself (!!!) and then I started thinking about the book review I’m going to write on academic tenure, and that made me very happy, and then I remembered Christmas and cousins, and I watched this video. Then I felt just a little bit like I’d found my feet, and I started writing to you.

And now for some more things which have the potential to make the days change color. Classes are over and finals are coming, and I’m looking forward to them just a tad. I’m good test-taker. I’m comfortable there. At some point Heidi and I are going to go to the library, find a T.S. Eliot anthology, and I’m going to read her “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” sitting there in the stacks. I’ll drive to Missouri with my family, and Scrooge and the Grinch will probably come with. Over break I plan on reading The Hunger GamesHuck Finn and John Green’s new novel, if I can get a hold of it, along with some of those tenure books. And Hannah’s getting married–in January. A few sparks of pigment there, don’t you think?

One of my favorite lines of poetry from this semester is in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese  about the “gold and purple of thine heart.” She’s talking about an innate, unfaltering royalty. A nobility that lives behind the plainest faces, and beneath the flattest places–rich and deep and velvet. The color, perhaps, of peace, of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “dearest freshness deep down things.” Fresh, warm, patient, Princely peace.

So here’s to gold and purple days, friend. Happy Christmastime.

Happy Heart

I missed a week. I’m sorry. In the meantime I have been thinking deeply about blog ideas. I thought about writing about going running, about heartsickness, about boldness and hypocrisy, about summer jobs, about Hopkins and Emerson, and about the letter V. So here’s that blog entry:

I’m bad at going running; heartsickness sucks; I am not bold, but I am often a hypocrite; I need a summer job; Hopkins and Emerson are marvelous to read; and the letter V is very passionate.

But the blog entry I’m going to actually write you today goes something like this:

I have a folder on my desktop called “Happy Heart” and it is full of other folders which are full of pictures.

My dad took this in July when he ought to have been packing up the car so he and Mom could leave Brookfield. I had just been a mechanic and gotten the belt back on the mower. Also, don’t you love the lake? I miss it.

I love this person.

This is my backyard–mostly my mom’s garden. It was my desktop for a while.

This is my French professor from last fall and my current Symbolic Logic professor. They’re married to each other, and I’m sure they have no idea I’m in possession of this picture.

This is cool.

These are some of my cousins and me on my grandpa’s eighty-sixth birthday. We ate pie and I like them. This was my desktop for a while too.

I love this person too.

This is my dad and my grammy. I like their faces.

We have Storytime tonight. In Heidi’s room. And it’s gonna be  Just. Like. This.

The Midwest

I should not have waited till now to write this entry. I should have written it yesterday, or the day before, or the day before. But I am writing it now, from gate forty-five at the Kansas City Airport, and all I can possibly think about is home. All I can think about is how devastatingly pleased I am that Karen and Hannah and Abby are going to be waiting at the Raleigh airport for me. (For me! So pleased!) But I am determined that, even as I leave the Midwest, I’m going to write to you about it.

On Sunday evening, I drove my grandpa over to Chillicothe so he could remove a catheter for an old friend. Other people bring a bottle of wine as a hostess gift, Grandpa brings his black bag and his kind hands. While he helped Lloyd, I sat in the front room with Doris, who worked for Grandpa for thirty years, and she told me about back when her daughter was “Miss Missoura” and she, herself, almost went to New York City.    We stayed after to visit for a little while. Doris left her walker in the other room and my grandpa, who hunches so that he only comes to my shoulder when to retrieve it. He was delighted by how much fun it was to use, until we pointed out that he had it backward. I’m blessed to be my grandpa’s chauffeur and phone dialer, even if it’s on catheter business. When I walk into Walmart, the greeter, a little man named Stan, stops me to ask if I’m Dr. Howell’s granddaughter. When I say yes, he beams. Everywhere I go I am Doctor and Georgeanna’s granddaughter, Hope’s Alice to those in the know. The name of Howell means something in Brookfield. It means an open door, an open wallet, an open hand. For those in trouble it means a number more reliable in the sheriff’s. It means a freezer full of beef, duct-taped copies of The Hiding Place, and a whole lot of large-print Holy Bibles. For countless people, the name of Howell is all they really know of Jesus. From experience I know that it’s a pretty good sampling.                                                                               It’s different here, you know? In the past two months I’ve had healthy doses of Des Moines, the Twin Cities, Duluth (especially its mall!), a few little towns in the Iron Range, and, of course, north central Missouri. Good old Brookfield. When my grandma announces that we’re going out to a nice restaurant for Sunday Dinner (eaten properly at about one p.m.) she means some place with a big buffet, metal chairs and linoleum. She cooks her vegetables with butter, and is a little baffled by my penchant for olive oil. When I am sent for errands it is not to a Harris Teeter with a sushi counter and olive bar, but a Walmart with a cheese aisle full of Velveeta, where the only salmon comes in cans. The middle-aged women who shop there do not have careful tans and silver jewelry, but sloppy ankles and tired faces. (There is a Redbox, though. Ah, there is a Redbox.) Someone’s always starting a beauty parlor and naming it something like “The Rusty Razor” or “Curl Up and Dye.” Welcome to this place where people live.

Last February I flew up to Grand Rapids, Michigan for a college visit, and here is what I wrote on the plane home:

There are no words for my loathing of the color of Midwestern asphalt in the winter. It is a mixture of the worst of brown, and the worst of grey, ending in a color which could aptly describe the worst of everything. It is the color of hell. On the other hand, when I look down on the Midwest from an airplane my heart swells, because it has its moments in a way North Carolina does not. North Carolina has its blue skies, its mountains, its beaches, its green hills, its talkers, its thinkers, its doers, its dreamers. The Midwest has few of those things. On poor days it has none, but it has plain moments of clear life which no one bothers to cover. There is a boy on my plane, not much older than me, who is going to be a U.S. Marine. His mother and his grandparents saw him off. They all hugged. His mother cried awkwardly, and his grandpa told him to “Keep his eye on the ball.” That was it. Then he left. They left. They love that he’s going, and they hate it. They love him, though, and they want him to do them proud, and come back a better man. They don’t really have those words, but that’s okay, because he knows. There are no waving signs of adoration, no groups of hysterical friends, just a boy with a short haircut who knows what he is about and what he is doing. Sometimes I think what all the North Carolinian talkers and dreamers really are striving for is something these people with their ugly streets have had since birth: grit, plain sense, and an understanding which requires no words.

In one sense I will never be a Midwesterner. I am too much enamored of elegance and education. I care too much about white tablecloths in restaurants and Renaissance poetry. But the Midwest has taught me, even just this summer, some rather important lessons. It has taught me how to use a riding mower, how to clean a pool, how to pull a sticker plant, how to pass a slow bailer on the highway, how to scour a counter, and how to be patient. I have been taught over and over again how to be patient. Patient with slow steps and oft-repeated stories, patient with people and patient with God. I am learning, slowly, to wait. I am learning to live in this in-between space. I am learning to want what Paul has in Philippians 4: 12. “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.”

On Wednesday evenings, when I went to pick up my grandpa from the prison in Moberly after his bible study, I usually had to sit in the parking lot for a few minutes. On my right was the prison, looking like a gargantuan middle school, wrapped round and round in yards of barbed wire that sparkled in the heat. Immediately on my left, on the other side of the drive, was the flag pole, surrounded by carefully manicured little flower gardens full of some of the most brilliant and lively colors I’ve ever seen. I sat in between, and waited. They’ve got a pretty huge sky out here.