The Indigestible Portions

I’m probably about to get all kinds of poetry on you. (But please don’t go away just yet. Hear me out.)

I am tired and achy at the moment. We could blame it somewhat fairly on last night’s restless sleep, but at the core is the fact that I’ve had an anxious week and my body knows it. Some days the sky is blue and I wear sparkly shoes because I like them, but other days, though the sky is still blue, I wear sparkly shoes because I need them and much of my energy goes into managing and dismantling my fear, trying to move past it so I can function. More than ever recently, I’ve become aware of the myriad of coping strategies I’ve developed to deal with everyday anxieties.

When I was eleven I made up a trick I sometimes still use. When I felt overwhelmed I would take a piece of paper and draw and label a little cloud for each of my worries–size and darkness corresponding to the intensity of each. I found that when I did this, put them out on paper visually, there were always fewer of them than I had assumed.

In college, to get out of bed on hard days I would promise myself that I could wear an oversized flannel, that I could put no effort into my appearance and play-act as the Invisible Girl, if only I would get up and go to class.

Even this past Fall, when I first moved to Vancouver, I was still adding strategies to my arsenal. I was irrationally nervous about riding the city bus, and so for the first few days, every time I waited at a bus stop I took a picture of my feet, so that my camera roll would fill up with growing evidence that I had done this before and I could do it again.

Every one of the aforementioned strategies have worked and still work when I need them. I am oddly proud of all the little ways I’ve come up with to chant to myself, “Be brave, be brave, and be brave.” It’s quite possible you have a similar list yourself.

But.

It is Lent now. We are in a season in which we are supposed to remember our own mortality, to feel death in our bones and pray to understand what that means. So I have found myself thinking that while bravery is good and well, it is perhaps also good and well to sit and learn from my own frailty. When my hands begin to shake, as they have a couple times this week, perhaps instead of sitting on them so they will stop and no one will notice, I can look at them and remember the dust from whence they were formed. In the stillness of the weeks leading up to our celebration of Christ’s deafening acts of redemption and renewal, maybe this magnified anxiety is not a curse, but an appropriate reminder of my need.

In my Christian Imagination class a couple days ago we read Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” He is mournful and acutely aware of his limits, his lack of answers, his lack of any sufficient words at all. The liturgy of any traditional Ash Wednesday service is full of the same heavy truths Eliot has felt all his life, full of the angst of Prufrock’s “overwhelming question” from fifteen years earlier in his career. Yet in this first long poem after his conversion, everything is different because while Eliot sits in the void within himself, he knows the Word has come to fill it. The Gospel gives context to the weakness he has always known so intimately. And conversely, Eliot’s long fixation with human lack and the inadequacy of his own speech has fit him with ears to hear the words of Him who is greater.

So sure, those pictures of my feet back in August bear witness that I have done this before, that riding the bus is really not such a big deal, but if I am being honest, perhaps even more importantly, they bear witness to the truth that I was afraid. I was foolishly afraid of something I could not name, which never came to fruition. Those pictures chronicle how I am riddled with sin, riddled with holes, ultimately unable, despite all my little tricks, to cope with the “indigestible portions” of my human soul.

And last night I read the end of Revelation, full of lines which deserve to be shouted, which have been and will be, all about newness, over and over. He is making all things new. Those words are always true whoever and wherever you are, but it is the infirm sinner, silent and barren, who really feels their power.

Empowerment, Selfishness, and Loneliness

We live in funny times. Several years ago I was in a school library when an older woman came in, and I overheard her adamantly announce to the librarian that she wanted to donate books with a specific message: empowerment for women. I remember thinking that books with a “message” sounded boring. Who would read them?

But I must have been wrong, because the narrative has grown and become ingrained. We’ve been told to break the last of the ties that bind us, to have it all, to say yes, to say no, to change the world, to lean in. We’ve been told that we can. And, of course, because we can we should.

We do not need anyone else but ourselves to succeed, because You is kind, you is smart, you is important. Follow your heart and go with your gut. And so, wherever we are and whatever we want, we are true to ourselves, following the dubious wisdom of a Shakespearean lord who gets murdered through a curtain. We dig deep, find hidden reserves, and realize that we’re capable of much more than we ever knew. On our own strength, which is at times considerable, we rise.

We’re not cruel, of course. We don’t step on others’ faces as we climb past them—we’re not willing for their heads to bruise our heels—but we do leave them behind. This is our journey, not theirs, this journey further up and further out, where no one has ever been before. We’re not making decisions based on what others want anymore—we’re basing our decisions on what we want! This makes us feel powerful. We begin to glow.

And then one day we wake up to find ourselves alone. Even if the dream we were chasing was in service of others, we have not wanted to rely on their help to get there. To accept, or—God forbid—ask for help would have disproved all the stories we’re only just now managing to believe about our own capability. So it is just us here now. To be our brother or sister’s keeper would have gotten in the way of our hard-won self-sufficiency. Particularly when some brother or sister is not particularly kind or smart we have been trained, in self-preservation, to ignore the fact that they are still painfully, wretchedly important.

We’ve cut ourselves off and, in doing so, imbued ourselves with a loneliness that feels nearly impossible to recover from. It’s not just lonely at the top—it’s lonely to be a human with skin on. Hollywood makes movies about this. We are empowered, sure. But to reduce ourselves to bundles of self-made desires and shining abilities to fulfill those desires is just another funny roundabout way to dehumanization. Our deepest level of personhood does not exist in self-reliance, but in belonging.

I’ve made more generalities here than I know what to do with, and they’re all centrally based on the only subject I really have for study: myself. I’m thinking mainly about women because I am a woman, and I’m thinking mainly about millennials because, for better or for worse, I’m one of those too. But as usual, my driving purpose in writing all this is much the same as Ralph Ellison’s, something which is both a fear and a hope, cautious and bold: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

Something Steady

I’m sitting in a room surrounded by half-unpacked suitcases. Sometimes, I feel as if that’s my constant state, even when I haven’t been travelling. Why is that?

Now that I’m back in Vancouver it feels like it’s properly the new year. The other day I wrote myself a list of things I wanted to accomplish and ways I wanted to grow in 2019. I wasn’t exactly digging deep–one of the entries was “get better at French-braiding”–but much more so than when I left Greensboro and moved here five months ago, I do feel like sitting down and taking stock.

Yesterday (was it only yesterday?) I subbed for the seventh grade humanities class at Caldwell. Around midday I realized that it was easier and more joyful than I had expected it to be. I don’t know why I was surprised by that, though. Especially in retrospect, I tend to focus on my weaknesses as a teacher, and I had them in spades, but I had strengths too. I was good at my job. And even if I never return to it, I’ve been marked by teaching, my heart scuffed all over with funny, seemingly-accidental marks that will not wear away. Those four years changed me. I grew.

I gained confidence, prudence, perspective, a greater ability to think on my feet, and a keen sense of my own limitations. But the greatest thing I learned was Love. I still know very little of it, but simply by necessity, because increasingly I realized there was no other way to view my students, I began to wade into the borderlands of that frighteningly bright place where you see the people around you as Christ sees them. Human faces there are drawn in bold lines, the image of God and the sin that mars it both clearly visible, and you know instinctively, without thoughts of either discouragement or heroism, that Love is the only power, the only recourse, the only cure. Plenty of times, certainly, I’ve tucked my tail between my legs and retreated back to the shadowlands of my own easy criticisms and lazy assumptions, but I had just enough lessons there that I can attest to this: that land is the only way through. As one of my grandma’s favorite little books was called: Love or Die.

I learned all of that without planning to. And now that I am in a new place and new season, what will I learn here? I find it very easy to ask that question with blissful, blind anticipation and then sit still, doing nothing, waiting for the answer to drop down out of the heavens into my lap. In fact, I do that far too often on this blog. And certainly, there are many things I can’t and am not meant to predict. God is sovereign and I am not. But at times the “I don’t like being in charge” part of my personality stretches to excess, and I fail to even take charge of myself.

When I first moved here one of the things I said quietly to myself (and probably wrote on some piece of paper somewhere) was that I wanted to grow in holiness, which often runs shallow in me. And that’s not exactly a minute task. So I am realizing that nearly half a year in perhaps it is time that I begin, that I stop floating and wandering and hoping I get somewhere, but start to walk in as straight of a line as I can manage, going somewhere on purpose. The Lord will be there all along the way. It’s not as if I’ll need to wait for him to catch up–he’s well ahead, Alice.

To that end I’m about halfway through a book about holiness. (Who knew I could be so practical?) And, as icing for my new goal-oriented self, I’ve set myself a very manageable little writing target for 2019: draft two full chapters of the new novel I’ve just started poking at. Oh, the terror and the joy!

So there. I’ve sat and I’ve taken stock and, by God’s grace, perhaps even made progress. Now to my gaping suitcases.

 

December Inventory

I have a little brown paper Moleskine journal that’s gone with me almost everywhere this semester. When I first got to Vancouver I titled it on the inside cover: “Bus Poems: From Between and For Between.” And a couple months later, I wrote a Chesterton quote on the front: “The greatest of poems is an inventory.”

I ended up only writing one poem about the bus, but from the most recent nearly-illegible scribblings in the notebook, I can at least give you an incomplete, three-part inventory of the last few days. Whether it will manage to perform like a poem for you, I don’t know, but living it has felt like meter and rhyme.

First, my semester at Regent ended in a great rushing swell of rain and essay exams, both of which I sort of enjoy. On Friday night I went to a celebratory Christmas potluck where there was lots of good food and more and more fond faces kept coming in through the door. I talked and laughed and drank wine and, as occasionally happens, transformed like a butterfly into something resembling an extrovert. One friend told me I looked so happy, another said she felt like I’d been at Regent forever, and then another looked at a wet spot where I’d been sitting and asked if I had peed a little, so that brought me back down to earth. (I hadn’t, to clarify.) When I left around ten o’clock so I could still catch the bus at a reasonable hour, for a moment or two I had a hard time finding my boots in the piles amassed around the coat rack. I stood still and took a deep breath, overwhelmed by all the shoes and the feet and the beating hearts and the laughing hands. Then I laced up my ancient, salt-stained Timberlands and walked warm into the cold.

Then, on Saturday evening, my plane touched down on American soil and I felt like crying, though I’ve never even been in Dallas before and it was only a short layover. I’ve only used my phone while on Wifi since I moved to Canada, and as we taxied into our gate and I turned off airplane mode for the first time in four months, I felt as if trumpets should be sounding somewhere. Keeping my phone on airplane mode, using it pretty much only at home and at school, has felt symbolic. A classmate from China asked me a couple months ago what I thought of the word “foreigner,” and I said that, so long as it was not cruelly meant, I actually liked it, because it accurately described my state. And the little airplane icon in the top corner of my screen has served the same purpose: marked me as a wanderer, an outsider, far-from-home. Because of that little symbol, from the get-go I knew I was not obligated to know the way, the words, all the answers. Yet, in the four steady months that that tiny sign of transience glowed there, I have, without even noticing, learned quite a few small lessons about belonging—belonging not because I have made myself a place, but because a place has been made for me, not because I know the way, the words, all the answers, but because I was lost and now am found.

And finally, last night, a few hours after getting back into town straight from a wedding in Texas, I went to Caldwell’s upper school Christmas concert. From the time I was a teenager, this yearly concert has been important to me, has placed a warm finger on some exposed part of my sternum, and two weeks ago when I told a friend in Vancouver that it was one of the first things I was going to get to do when I got home, I found myself in tears at just the thought. But when I arrived there last night, instead of weeping in gratitude, my heart simply short-circuited and then noiselessly imploded, again and again. I slid in right before it began and sat next to Leslie, who I hadn’t seen since June, back when everything was different for both of us (but mostly for her). We listened to the first couple of songs arm-in-arm, holding tight as we could till our shoulders went a bit numb. Look at all their little faces, I whispered giddily when the high school choir got up on the risers. And after that final Hallelujah Chorus, I began to hug people and call it good. Canada’s good. So good. It’s good to see you. So good. Over and over, on and on. I had expected to be overwhelmed with gratitude at God’s faithfulness to me in giving me so many precious souls in so many places, so many heaps of Blundstone boots in so many foyers, but when I got in bed that night, still thinking of the sweet coworkers I’d seen and the dozens of little faces, I realized I was grateful for something more. I am grateful for his faithfulness to each of them. Because he has been faithful and continues to be. I am certain of it. I saw it with my own eyes. He is faithful to the once deafeningly anxious boy who enthusiastically echoed my own So good when I asked about his school year and faithful to the tough, smart girl who grimaced and told me that her first semester of college was “an adjustment,” faithful to the kid who used to sneer and now seems to mainly smile and faithful to the tired friends whose faces are fresh with the loss of those who loved them best. He has been intimately present with each of these people, has placed a warm finger on exposed skin, has invited them in where they belong.

Morning by morning new mercies I see

This Thanksgiving Quiet

The sun is not out and probably won’t be today. When I look out my window I can see pine needles on grey-white sky.

Since I live in Canada now I already had one Thanksgiving, back in October, though several Canadians confidently assured me the two Thanksgivings are “about different things.” (I repeated this to a friend from home and she snorted and said, “What, their Thanksgiving isn’t about being thankful?”)

And when I think back over the Thanksgivings of the last couple years (proper, American Thanksgivings) I am aware of how unsettled and lost I felt. Thankfulness was part of the duty of the day, certainly, but I remember how the larger task felt like simply keeping my head up, doing the next thing.

But now I am here, many weights have fallen away, and again it is Thanksgiving. The day feels set apart, more sabbath than Sabbath. I have no real plans, least of all any involving a big turkey dinner, and that’s at least partially by design.

I will read and I will sit very still. These things both fall neatly within my skill set, but I don’t often do them on purpose, so today I will take a corner: a corner of time, a corner of space, to think on the largeness of God.

His reach is vast. It extends back to those blurred, painful Thanksgivings and forward to those I cannot see. It extends round the world and back home again to all the hidden places I know and love and to those I cannot imagine. Why, his reach extends even into the caverns of the human heart.

I am thankful for the light.

Homemaking

Today, I have been in Vancouver for three months, but it feels like much, much longer. October contained about six months in it. Six good months.

I have been making things: poems, dinner, friends, outfits that might have too much color, Hebrew flashcards, displays of advent readings to go up all around Regent.

I have also been beginning to learn not to make some things: definite plans for next term and the rest of my life, arbitrary childish boundaries set around who I talk to and where I go, excuses.

For various reasons, some of which have to do with the words and images that crowd through my head while I lie trying to sleep and some of which have to do with more official, public spaces like class readings and lectures, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about God’s makerness and my makerness in connection to it. The Lord makes things—he made me—in fact, I think he made me to make things. But it is so very, very easy to take what he has given and usurp it: to dismantle it and set about constructing Babel with great and hurried diligence, when what was called for was an altar.

I am always writing a story that I want to be true. I am forever deciding who I should be and how that should happen: my brain is always ticking full of dialogue that will never be said, I float the people around me into the narrative on carefully articulated sub-plots, and sketch out the peaceful house where I may never live, all with the goal of creating the glowing woman I want to one day wake up as. At best this is dreaming, at worst idolatry.

And I’ve been doing it for a long time, too. In eighth grade I developed an enormous crush on Skandar Keynes, who played Edmund in the Narnia movies, if you’re not familiar. (There’s no reason at all why you should be.) I drew out a careful timeline of our impending relationship, which part of me genuinely believed—I can be a pretty convincing storyteller. It began with his sudden, imminent move from England to North Carolina and culminated in our marriage at the age of seventeen, at which I wore a multi-colored ball gown. So that’s another thing: I’m not patient.

I would like to write the story myself and I would like it to begin tomorrow, on time please. When it doesn’t, I castigate myself. I must have made a misstep, so it’s back to the drawing-board to find the error and rewrite, rewrite, make it perfect. Probably the most terrifying thing about my decision to move to Vancouver was that I was throwing away the entire script. I was leaving everything I thought I’d do, and everyone I’d ever known. A kind of empty dread filled me some days when I thought about going, but I knew I had to be free of the structure of expectations I’d created for myself. I had to burn it, reduce it to ashes, step out through the smoke into the open air.

Now that I am settling here, though, I keep catching myself starting new drafts for this new home, trying to set things in stone very quickly about how this all will be: how long my degree will take, who I will know, how I will live, what songs I will sing, and what words I will write. I think I often associate being able to feel truly at home with how quickly my own scaffolding of control rises into the air around me—so what if it begins to block the sun? It keeps me safe.

I wrote a month or two ago that God brought me here. And he did. But I keep forgetting. I keep forgetting that not only did he make me but he made this home and the people in it. I bear none of the responsibility for the goodness of this place, nor can I claim it.

Reading Week is beginning and yesterday I helped decorate the school for Christmas. To string the lights back and forth across the tall atrium we attempted to use a tall paint roller with an extra handle taped to the bottom, so it would leisurely unspool from one spot to another. It was not leisurely. The roller either would not turn or turned too fast, standing on the upper level I couldn’t hear the directions that they called, and more than once we dropped tangles of lights practically on top of innocent bystanders. I trotted back and forth in the bright sunshine from one side of the mezzanine to the other till I began to sweat. I would not have written that scene with any of those details, but we laughed, and now the lights are glowing.

And last night I ended up sitting on a couch, dripping with sharp, tired tears while three friends sat close and prayed. I would not have written this scene at all. All I did was sit, suddenly surrounded and warm. But they prayed for me like they knew me.

My Lord is so much more gracious than I am.

Train Tickets

One of the only books I had space to bring with me from North Carolina was Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, and a few weeks ago, my housemate and I started reading it aloud after dinner, but very gradually because we are often busy. And more than once while reading, I’ve found a lump in my throat that I must push down and push down again.

In the second chapter, young Corrie sees death for the first time when visiting a neighbor and is terrified, most particularly that she will lose her parents like this. Her father gently asks her, When you and I go to Amsterdam–when do I give you your ticket? And she admits, Why, just before we get on the train. He wants her to know that God gives us things only when we need them. Certainly he gives fish instead of snakes and bread instead of stones, but he doesn’t stockpile the bread and fish up around us to go stale and rot. Instead he.places them fresh into our empty hands at the moment we are most hungry for them.

For the adult Corrie of most of the novel, the train tickets God gives her one by one are to deal with the horrors she will witness and experience. I am not experiencing horrors or even hardships, but learning in small ways is learning too. Moving here has been overwhelmingly full of blessing, as I knew deep-down it would be, partially because in so much newness I can’t possibly see more than a step in front of me, so I can’t possibly plan my life the way I did in Greensboro. And as I inhale sharp gulps of fresh air which I sometimes don’t know how to take into my lungs, how to begin to eke the oxygen out of, I have had to rely on those train tickets, one by one.

And this week it was George Herbert’s “Love III.” I can’t say that I found it, more that it found me:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

I’ve known this poem since I was small, from my dad’s little pocket Temple, but it hit me with great force on Wednesday night: knocked me down and lifted me up again. And I don’t think I’ll ever fully comprehend its meaning. In fact, I don’t think Herbert did, either. He, too, was only human. We only begin to understand, but we must keep beginning, over and over.

The line that I wrote on my arm to remember was one of Love’s: “And know you not who bore the blame?” But the one that kept echoing in my head all Thursday morning was the speaker’s petulantly self-flagellating excuse: “Let my shame go where it doth deserve.” Strangely, it was not repeating itself in my own voice, or even Herbert’s. They were still, small words that kept saying, gently, but authoritatively: Let your shame go where it doth deserve. And it meant something quite different than when I say something like that to myself. Instead of implying that I ought to be wrapping myself in my sin like a comforting, moldy blanket and traipsing off to Sheol because that’s where I belong, this whisper meant that I am not my shame and guilt, that I am a made, loved creature, and that Christ bore the blame, lifted the weight off my shoulders and onto his own so it could die. And I must stop clinging to it so that he can throw it far, far away, far as the east is from the west. Yes, let it go where it doth deserve…

You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good. Always.

 

Theology, Apple Sorting, and Starting at the Beginning

Apparently I’m into long titles again like I was when I was fifteen. It’s cool–don’t worry about it.

This past weekend was the second weekend of the food course I’m in and we spent Saturday afternoon at a little local harvest festival. For a while I ended up at a work station sorting apples that would be good for eating all winter long from the apples that were already bruised and marked and would be pressed into cider. At first it was just me and an older man. He sorted away and I tried to keep up. But after a few minutes a young boy came up who was maybe ten or eleven. My companion explained to him what we were doing, that when he found a nice one he should set it into the box carefully, but that he was welcome to toss all the bad apples into their cider bin as hard as he could. And so he did, with evident joy. He really put his shoulder into it, throwing each warped apple in overhand, thunck thunck thunck, but each time he found a good one he cradled it gently in his palm and laid it in the box like a sleeping baby. Then we returned to the thunck thunck thunck. I laughed and wondered if I should tell him how much I admired his confidence.

On the official permit from the Canadian government that’s stapled into my passport, it says that I’m here at this place, in this country, to study theology. But I haven’t talked much about that yet. And not just on here, I haven’t talked much about that at all, anywhere.

Everyone else seems to have come to Regent with hard theological questions or with some driving desire to grow and learn, but I came theologically content. I’ve been too busy questioning most everything else in the past year or two to question my Lord. So my engagement in most of my classes, both external and internal, has been minimal. Sometimes I do have thoughts–appreciation will wash over me in Old Testament, or some unnameable frustration will creep into my shoulders while I’m reading for the food course–but the last thing I want to do is share them. I don’t want to say anything till I’ve really thought it through, and thinking it through seems to take much longer with God than it did with poetry or stories.

So I do the readings. I write brief response papers. I study. I talk to new friends about anything except the course material. But term papers are creeping up and I’m realizing that my days of relieved passivity are over. The time is coming when I will have to attempt to prove something: prove something about God, his church, his world. The idea of doing this still seems laughable.

I mean, I’ve written plenty of papers. I’ve made arguments before. But usually this meant I would pick up a piece of literature, read it carefully–backwards and forwards, up and down– and then I’d express an opinion. I’d engage with the critics, sure, but mostly that was a polite nod to companions in reading. The real content of my paper came from the text itself. The reason I argued that Katherine in Taming of the Shrew was a product of her environment and that Petruchio actually offered her release from her role as resident hellion was not because of anything Shakespeare said, or Liz Taylor did, or anything that happened in the sixteenth century. I argued that because of Kate herself, and what I saw in the text, and what I knew about being human. I wasn’t trying to give some definitive answer–I was just talking about personhood, and relationships, and the way it sometimes feels to be alive.

But theology is different. There is an answer here. They call theology the queen of the sciences, so decisions we make have an impact, on ourselves at the very least. This is serious business. My moving to Vancouver was in many ways a move away from responsibility. Studenthood, I thought, is freeing thing. I didn’t comprehend that I’d simply be switching from making pronouncements on the writing ability of the fifteen-year-old in front of me to making pronouncements on the state of the universe itself. I’m probably making up mountains where really there are only molehills to surmount, but still. I’ve been feeling a bit daunted today about my step forward into this next big thing.

A few years ago I taught a particularly high energy (and sometimes unmanageable) group of juniors. It was a big class, filling every seat I had and there were lots of long legs and loud voices and excuses and bold questions. They made me laugh sometimes, but they also wore me out and reminded me of my own inadequacies. One day as I walked around the room at the beginning of class, wading through low levels of chaos to pass back an assignment, wondering to myself how I would cope, one of the boys looked up at me quizzically as I passed him. “Miss Hodgkins, did you just say ‘Lord, help’?”

I bit my lip. “Yes. Yes, I did.” Lord, help.

Receiving, Retreating, and Other Non-Contributions

The last summer I spent with my grandparents, right after I finished undergrad, is perhaps the one I remember most vividly. I came to Missouri in May and stayed straight through most of June, and one of the most painful moments was this: a sweet man from church came over one day and mowed the acre of front lawn, without pretense. I could have done it, of course, but he meant it as a gesture of kindness towards these good people for whom he had so much respect and affection.

My grandma didn’t see it that way, however. That afternoon in the kitchen she let loose to me about how unhappy she was. He had not asked, she said. Why would he do that? Why would he just show up? They didn’t need his help. In frustration, she repeated herself several times, more sharply with each go round. (To be fair to both of them, he may well have talked to her beforehand, and more than once, but her memory was slipping and slipping already.)

An hour or two later, as I sat up in my room reading, she climbed the stairs, the only time she did so all summer, and stood in my doorway on the verge of tears. She stood in my doorway, and with a tempest rising in her well-tested and stretched soul, she apologized to me. She said she knew she shouldn’t have spoken like that. She knew he probably meant well. But it was so hard. It was just so hard, Alice.

I sat on my bed, keenly aware of my dirty laundry scattered over the bright blue carpet and of my position as tenth of her nineteen grandchildren, middlest of the middling, and said in a near whisper, “Grandma, sometimes it’s good to accept help from other people.”

“But we’re the ones who help!” she said.

“I know,” I told her. “But sometimes that changes.”

Her world was spinning upside down.

I, too, want to contribute. When you are able to be the one who helps, you know you’re on solid ground, that something’s going right for you. To be the giver is reassuring. In my four years of teaching, I became a contributor. I was patient and I was reliable and I answered emails promptly. My desk was a mess, but my webpage was always up-to-date with homework assignments. I lent my students more paper and pencils than I should have when they came to class unprepared. I was comforted by my own regularity, and so, sometimes, were the kids. When they came in chaotic, I would be calm. All of us could count on that. Most of all, as a friend who’s still teaching said to me recently, I don’t know what I would do if people weren’t asking me questions all day. Miss Hodgkins, Miss Hodgkins, Miss Hodgkins

I’ve been asked plenty of questions here too, but they’re harder ones. Beyond Where are you from? and What program are you in? I keep getting, Why are you here? Have you found your people yet? What’s been the hardest thing? What do you find lifegiving? My most honest answers thus far have been: I don’t know, Maybe–I was hoping it might be you?, Answering these questions, and What?

Partly by birthright, and partly by dint of having taught teenagers, I have a slightly overdeveloped sense of the absurd, so all this makes me want to laugh. And of course, as I’ve had others here warn me, if you look someone straight in the eye as you answer, you also might cry. It happens. I’ve done it. (No surprise.) But laughter and tears aren’t bad options, and people are pretty forbearing. In fact almost everyone here is out-and-out pastoral (with good reason–it is theology school.) And as they speak to a first year, especially one who sometimes unwittingly gives off the impression of fragility, they are kind.

And this is the crux of the matter: people are kind. Not kind because they love me or appreciate me or need me or enjoy me. They are kind out of their own God-given goodness. Though I am technically the focus of these check-in conversations, I am not the motivating factor. God’s grace, active and moving, is all.

I was the one who helped, but sometimes that changes.

So suffice to say, my world, like my grandmother’s, is spinning upside down. In a million other ways I will never surpass her legacy: her hospitality, her faithfulness, her work ethic, her pie crust, but I can take a lesson with her here at least. So I am relearning, for the thousandth time, how one accepts grace with humility.

I had reasons for moving and coming to this school, but most of the time I don’t remember them anymore, and when I do, they don’t seem very important. Out of the first five weekends of this term I will have spent four of them away on various retreats and course outings. It is occasionally exhausting to spend such concentrated time with new people, but I am becoming sure of one thing: I am grateful to be here. I thought I intended this move, that I planned and orchestrated it, but in truth, the Lord did. I am here because he set me here. He intended this. I am meant to know this place, to know these people, but mostly, to know him.

Happiness is not everything, but I am happy.

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”!