A Spring Story

Spring is here with warmth and bright greens and blues.

And this weekend I wrote a paper on Christina Rossetti. That’s pretty much all I did. I’d already spent much of my week immersed in reading and outlining, and late Friday night I sat on my bed and cried because Christina existed and I exist and in one of her favorite of her own poems Jesus says, “Come and see.” Then I told myself it was probably time for bed, but instead kept writing and messing and poking at research for another two hours. I worked and worked through Saturday and much of Sunday as the sun appeared and came rushing through my window. This morning I woke up and finished the last couple pages. I went to start my laundry then rushed back to read it over again and again and twice more, prodding at sentences as I went. And, though I could have read it five more times, I stopped myself and turned it in. And took a walk to London Drugs.

There has never been such a walk to London Drugs. There were tiny blossoms coming out on the trees which had already begun to float to the ground. I smiled at unsuspecting passers by, a few of whom were even emboldened by the sunshine to smile back. I saw children with muddy bare feet and old people basking in sunbeams on benches like cats. The smell of fresh manure—like spring in Pennsylvania—became the smell of flowers by the time I got to 12th.

A couple hours ago I took the compost out with my own feet bare on the warm ground. So that’s how things are here today.

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.

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.

 

Have Hope

This week I told my students news I’ve been sitting on for a little while: next year, I’m not returning to teach because I’m going to graduate school in Vancouver, a city in some other country facing out over some other ocean. Some of them were calm when I told them, and some were less-so. Two fell out of their chairs. A few announced they could no longer do the assigned work for the day because of their great grief. I laughed. But my hands shook through the first two classes I had to tell. I am sad. I’m as sure that this is the right decision as I’m sure of my own right hand, but nothing can quite assuage the child-like sorrow I feel over leaving people and places I love.

However, my moving to another place and another life is the least of these things.

My sister told me this afternoon that everything feels heavy right now. This season has been one in which I’ve learned the weight of the world, and this week that weight has been not only burdensome but loud. All the pain in my peripheral vision, the groanings of the created beings around me, are making themselves known in cacophony.

I have been thinking of the Yeats poem I love which says: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” I grieve for the things I see that are lost, many beyond repair. He’s right: the things on which we rely will be shattered, and we can’t buy back past innocence for ourselves or for those we love.

I love that poem because it is completely true, but I also love it because it is completely short-sighted. I’m not disputing the obvious brilliance of W.B. Yeats, but human bitterness often assures that our long-distance vision is effectively nil. Things lost may be beyond repair, but they are not beyond redemption and rebirth. The things we rely on will eventually crumble beneath us, so that we may land at last on the Rock, the only one who can, in fact, buy back not only our innocence, but ourselves entire, and bring us into eternity. Yeats tells the truth, but only the first page of it.

One of my fellow teachers, a kind, kind man who was my English teacher himself back in the day, told me yesterday that I needed to write a book, because I had something to say. I hesitantly agreed, and perhaps what I have to say begins with this: I am hopeful.

Once I would have told you that I am hopeful because my students are sweet and bright and growing up into good people. I would have told you that I am hopeful because my family and my friends, they love me and make me happy. I would have told you that I am hopeful because God had given me far more comforts and blessings than I deserve. I would have told you that I am hopeful because spring comes every year.

But now, though my fears are bigger, because my fears are bigger, so are my hopes. They are stronger than they once were. Now I am hopeful because no matter where my students end up, they have a God who loves them each like the hundredth sheep. Now I am hopeful because that same faithful God loves me and has given me others to pass that love on to, in sinful fits and starts. Now I am hopeful because that love is so real that God saw fit to manifest it in his own bleeding, gasping Son on a cross. Now I am hopeful because I serve a God who dreamed up spring, who has pronounced that life can spring forth from the deadest death, that Yeats’ “blood-dimmed tide” will be followed by the clearest dawn.

Lighting the Turtle

Last night I was searching through the depths of my school google drive for something and stumbled upon a mid-year self-evaluation I had completed during my first year of teaching. The young woman who was me almost three years ago came across as sweet and hopeful. She said that she was learning to teach and slowly getting better, that her students seemed to at least be learning something, that she was grateful for the support of the teachers around her, and that she loved her students. She italicized it. She loved them.

I’ve found myself able to be actively grateful for a couple things the last week or two. The first is that God is in control and I am not. I have been holding my hands open recently because if I tried to clamp them tight around my own plans and power, there would be nothing to grasp onto but air. I am reliant on the grace of God. The second thing I am grateful for is the manner in which God has shown me this grace: I’m grateful for my students.

They haven’t been perfect in the last few weeks, but they know that. I haven’t been perfect, and I know that too. Regardless, whenever they’ve walked into my classroom over the last few days, I’ve found it easier to breathe deep. I know that their coming will distract me and cheer me. They’re unwitting bearers of perspective and sometimes even joy. Also, I love them.

This afternoon in fourth period, after I passed out a reading from Frederick Douglass, the boy who sits directly in front of my desk looked up and asked, “Miss Hodgkins, are you going to light the turtle?” On my desk is a turtle candle holder, a gift from a student right around the same time the earlier Alice wrote that self-eval. I remember him telling me cheerfully that I could use it to help calm everybody down. It’s heavy polished stone, with a brightly painted back, and just enough room in the middle of his shell to hold a small tea light. The turtle is a familiar sight to all the souls who like to wander up to my desk between classes and fiddle with its contents. It’s a presence in my classroom, so I’ve been asked to light it many times before, but I’ve always said no. (I say no a lot.)

But today I said yes. Or rather, I looked back at the asking student for a moment, and then I dug into the glass jar on my desk, and pulled out the little blue Bic lighter that lives there. (Note that the lighter mysteriously appeared in my classroom a couple months ago. It’s not originally mine.) The kids cheered softly as I lit the dusty wick. I smiled. (I smile a lot too.)

The turtle burned for the rest of the afternoon. A few of the girls announced that it was the “eternal flame.” A student in fifth period magnanimously promised to buy me a lavender scented candle. At the beginning of sixth period several boys took turns trying to blow it out from a distance, until I stood a folder around it to protect it. After the final bell rang, I walked out into the hall and almost laughed, because the boy who’d originally given me the candle, long-graduated, was standing there with a friend, home from college. I was well-satisfied. I love them.

On Slow Learning

If you have ever owned
a tortoise, you already know
how difficult paper training can be
for some pets.

Even if you get so far
as to instill in your tortoise
the value of achieving the paper
there remains one obstacle—
your tortoise’s intrinsic sloth.

Even a well-intentioned tortoise
may find himself, in his journeys
to be painfully far from the mark.

Failing, your tortoise may shy away
for weeks within his shell,
utterly ashamed, or looking up with tiny,
wet eyes might offer an honest shrug.
Forgive him.

-Scott Cairns

Sunlight Palace

I’m about to begin a little poetry unit with my sophomores, and I’m excited. As I’ve been planning, I’ve been reminded how important a good image is to a poem. Poetry all begins with taking your words and using them to build an image so clear and sharp that its corners could cut you open and make you bleed.

And this has got me feeling wistful. As I have sunk more deeply into this mid-twenties stage of life, I struggle to find things I can write about on this blog. I want to write the bright and the bold and the strong and the poetry, but the things in my present, though mostly oh-so-good, are often too fragile and complex to be splashed onto the page of some public forum. And the future, of course, is only a whisper.

So what is left to me is the past.

At the bottom of my parent’s backyard there is a fence that belongs to their backdoor neighbors. But before that fence was there, there was a great big tangle of trees, some of which were fallen. We played there in the summer, and the soft mulberries layering the ground stained our feet such a deep and lasting purple that I think the soles of mine remained patchy crimson well into my teen years. Beams of light played through sheer green leaves, and my sister named the place Sunlight Palace. When you are small, everything seems big.

Sunlight Palace had different rooms. There was a main living room, in front, with a long bough stretching across like a couch that everyone could sit on. There was a main bedroom, which was exclusively the province of “the big girls” (none of whom were me.) There was a “Martin Luther King Jr.” room, named by me because it had a bunch of branches that stood straight up, like they were standing for what was right, and there was a spacious kitchen which no-one was allowed into after the first week or two because it was suspected of harboring poison ivy. My own favorite spot was the trampoline, a horizontal branch about a foot off the ground which was pleasantly springy. Pooh would have called it a good thinking spot, and I was a child who did a lot of thinking.

We invited our friends over with the sole purpose of playing in Sunlight Palace all afternoon. It was sometimes a main party attraction. Its shifting light and shadow oversaw unending games of Orphan, and dozens of petty circular arguments, all easily and happily resolved by magnanimous promises that “next time you can be the baby.” We hiked for miles upon miles, back and forth at the bottom of my mother’s garden. We feasted on violets and mulberries, and chewed up mint leaves in lieu of brushing our teeth. We cunningly lived off the land, all in sight of our safe bedroom window and my dad washing dishes at the kitchen sink.

We stopped playing there eventually. You always do. But I still remember the pang I felt when, sometime around late elementary school, new neighbors moved in, cleared out the brush, and built a tall, flat fence. Everything looked shallow and short. The pain was near to what I felt a few years later when my mom unexpectedly put my favorite reading armchair out by the curb for the trash truck. I perhaps had not really known other people could actually touch these things, let alone cart them off to a distant city dump. I thought that I held them like treasures in the palm of my own hand. I am nearly twenty-five and it hurts a little even now to admit: perhaps Sunlight Palace was never really ours. Perhaps it was just borrowed for a while, when we had most want of it.

So even the past is not mine. I only held it for a while. Because this place is not home; I am not Home yet.

Thursday’s Children

This is going to be one of those entries where I sit down with my computer, get keyboard happy, and draw tenuous connections between lots of largely unrelated things. But that’s not so bad. It means I’ve been thinking lately.

I turn twenty-four on Sunday, and I’ve been remembering that old nursery rhyme I learned growing up about the day you’re born on.

Monday’s child is fair of face,

Tuesday’s child is full of grace,

Wednesday’s child is full of woe,

Thursday’s child has far to go,

Friday’s child is loving and giving,

Saturday’s child must work for a living,

But the child is born on the Sabbath day

Is bonny and blithe, good and gay.

If we’re getting technical, I’m supposed to be Friday’s child, loving and giving, but I seem to find myself continually in Thursday. I am never enough. Never strong enough, tough enough, brave enough, far enough. Always coming in three steps (or three miles) behind where all my “shoulds” tell me I ought to be. Of course, this has been a hard week at school, not terrible, but full and heavy, so I know I am not alone in this. As Leslie said on Tuesday, “All the news seems to be bad news.”

And last weekend I read Matthew 8, and I wondered. It tells the story of Jesus casting out a legion of demons into a herd of pigs. “And He said to them, ‘Go.’ So when they had come out, they went into the herd of swine. And suddenly the whole herd of swine ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and perished in the water.” When the people in the town hear what has happened, what lengths Christ has gone to to heal two possessed men, they come out to meet him en masse and beg him to leave them alone and never come back.

And I wondered, because I could see the people’s point. They are deeply unsettled by this man who speaks only one syllable, yet who looms over the whole story. He destroys their whole livelihood, sends it racing over a cliff, just to make clean the minds and souls of two outsiders living literally on the edge of death. I sat reading, Thursday’s worn child, asking why he would send away the things which support us, the things which get us closer to far enough. The herd of swine was the daily provision these people had for simply getting to the next step, keeping themselves from falling too far behind. Why let evil destroy it? I was annoyed.

But then, this past Saturday, I went to the funeral of a friend’s uncle who had died suddenly. He was a few months younger than my mom and this was very sad and a little bit frightening, but more than that, throughout the whole service, I was struck by joy. Every person who spoke, though grieved, seemed full of the joy that comes with knowing Jesus, joy that the man they loved was now in his presence. I had met him only once or twice, but found myself so moved by the whole proceeding and it was not until a day or two ago that I realized why.

I look around at all of us and think how far we have to go. The light is a long way down the path we walk, and we know that we are lagging and weak, and our hard-bought income has gone crashing into the sea.

But perhaps we should open our eyes, because he is here before us. Alive even on a Thursday.

The demons are cast out but we, we are not. We are brought in. Love himself died so that you would not have to lose heart on those endless roads of self-sanctification. So turn home to the hands that made you and you will find a good, good Father running to meet you. In the light of his day, you will not care about the pigs.

Heavenly feet pound the earth,

Stones and soil shake,

The mud on my eyes cracks and crumbles,

The shape of you grows,

And fire wraps round your shoulders like love.