Patience and Long Light

We are deep in July now, and I have been thinking about patience today.

Back when I was teaching, if you had asked any of my students to describe me, probably one of the first descriptors you would have heard from almost any one of them was that: patience. Once, on a Friday afternoon in Spring, a student asked me if I had ever yelled, and all his classmates fell into an earnest, curious silence waiting for me to answer. If I had a trademark, it was patience. There were upsides to this, certainly. Being told I was patient by the ones who struggled to write an introductory paragraph and needed slow, painstaking help, by the keyed-up, anxiety-ridden ones who were used to grating on the nerves of most adults they came into contact with, by the talkative ones, the attention-hungry performers, was a compliment. I never got upset, always had the time, and that was something they could rely on every day they set foot inside my class. But being told I was patient was often also an indictment, though usually a gentle one, and I knew it. Coming from some kids, the ones who did what they were asked the first time around, who came into my class having completed every page of the reading without fail, who opened their binders to that quarter’s scripture before the bell even rang and stood ready and waiting, it meant: You let too much slide, Miss Hodgkins. Some days, your patience does none of us justice.

So when I think of patience, I often think of it in that context: the way it operates for me as a double-sided coin: a gentleness to those around me, but also an excuse, an abdication of responsibility, an escape into passivity.

But today I have been coming at the thing from another angle. Because in some ways I am not patient, for good or for ill. This will reveal the deep veins of selfishness in me which adulthood has not rooted out in the least, but whenever there is something which really directly relates to me, to my own well-being and comfort and satisfaction, I am not patient at all. Summertime reminds me of this, without fail, in its awkward, unreliable rhythms and the way we all leave town and come back only to leave again, and this one has been a particularly good example. It has been my first summer in Vancouver and sunlight here comes before I wake and lasts well past dinner. The days not only move slowly, but sometimes, despite my busy-ness, they seem to sit still. When will the sun set? When will the balance between rest and action return? When will the heart beat properly again?

So with all my annual angst and impatient kicking against the goads which mostly no one can hear but myself (and a few lucky loved ones!), I thought today of a couple of things about patience which I hadn’t before.

First, I thought that perhaps I could get a better, deeper grasp on patience, really dig into up to my elbows, if I could stop thinking of it as a virtue intended for use in the love of others, but, as perhaps all virtues ought to be, as an entrance into wisdom, a way of learning old rhythms anew. I thought that if I waited long enough, if I were patient, there might be time for something to come from very far away. So the fruit of this patience today, while my late lunch slowly cooked, was found not in the eventually browned Italian sausages but in wandering out onto the sun-dazed patio and chewing absently on a fresh mint leaf, like we used to do as little girls in our North Carolina backyard when it was a wilderness and we played at adventure. I stood still instead of straining forward, and there, on my tongue, was a gift.

But more than that, and conversely, the other thing about patience I became convinced of today was this: patience needs an object. Though we may be called to stand in the sun, we are not really supposed to do so absently. We are supposed to direct our patience toward someone. When my old friend Hopkins began a sonnet way back when with, “Patience, hard thing!” he was not really talking about the patience I directed toward my students, that we are called to offer our friends and families and neighbors. He was talking about the kind of patience which I struggle to exercise when July rolls around, about the patience you use to quell the thing gnawing in your gut. But who, pray tell, is the object of that patience? To say that it’s our own selves veers too near the realm of patience as excuse and passivity. But if we are called to stand still in a given spot and be longsuffering there perhaps the object of our patience ought the be the One who does the calling. Indeed, he may well be the Object of all virtues, and they may only ever be complete virtues at all when directed towards Him. He is the maker and breaker of rhythms, the crusher of foes and life-breather of hearts, the one who separated the light from the dark in the first place.

He is patient. Patience fills                                                                                                               His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.

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.



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.