Measurements

If I were to tell you briefly what I miss most about studenthood, I would tell you that I miss all the measurements. I miss the measurements because back when I had them, they could tell me how I was doing. The grades told me I was doing well, or I was doing alright, or sometimes they told me “Oh no!” The comments I received along with the grades gave me other measuring words: “Excellent analysis” “Adequate reading” “Very poor introduction.” But my favorite was the way that for a student everything, good, adequate, or poor, came to an end: years, semesters, classes, papers, projects. Everything reached a point where it was finished, polished and shiny, ready to become my ancient history. I used to love the moment when they passed out the test and you put your notes under the desk: whether I had studied for fifteen minutes (which was not enough) or three hours (which, frankly, was rare) there was nothing more I could do now. I knew what I knew, and not what I didn’t. I found it easy to be a philosopher when it was up to others to decide the value of my work.

But now it is hard. I have a great deal of freedom in my job, and I am grateful for this, but it means that much of the time I am my own judge, jury, and occasionally executioner. Each day I come in, and for lack of anyone else to constantly measure me, I become the fly on my own wall as I make curriculum decisions, pacing decisions, policy decisions, grading decisions, classroom management decisions. I sit and watch myself, with the good, adequate, and “oh no!” score cards waiting in my hand, as I make second to second decisions about what words and inflection to use with the student I’m speaking to. Oh, I want to do well. I want to do well so badly that I am hard on myself, because how else will I grow? I’m terrified I might end up complacent or even delusional about my own performance. So I come into school each day, saying, “Alright, do better, Alice,” without really knowing what I mean by that. Sometimes I wonder if the standards I ask myself to meet are possible, or even definable. But I never know, because that final test that would tell me never comes.

And if school is bad then summer is worse. It is formless and quiet. By choice I spend a lot of time by myself, left to my own devices. And there’s the rub. Alone, unshowered, on a July Tuesday morning, I sit on my bed, feeling a desperate pressure to accomplish something, without entirely understanding what I mean by that. I know that it is summer, and I am free. Free to do all the things I don’t normally make time for: cook and clean and read and write and walk and talk and put on make up and spend money. The list begins to grow and overwhelm me, the Mr. Knightley I have built out of extra shards of my own conscience says “Badly done!”, and I end up watching Netflix and indulging in a self-loathing which is nothing like rest.

I say all this not to sound dire, but because this is so often the gist of my inner monologue. I want to be told that I’m doing wonderfully, and by a more reliable source than myself, but I also want to be alone, and do things my own way.

So first I must laugh at myself, because that is usually a good way to begin (and beginnings are the best endings).

And second I must repent of more than a little self-aggrandizement. I must repent of the silly belief that even if I cannot be the savior of the world, I can still be the savior of myself. I must remind myself that goodness and growth and learning come not through human effort, but through God’s grace to us.

Last, I must find a new way through. I am not a good measurer of myself, so I must find something else to measure, some other structure to lean on, to tell me the value of the work I am doing. I must hold it up to the cross, I must ask it about joy, I must find if it leads me to worship.

Philosophers have measured mountains,

Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,

Walk’d with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains

       But there are two vast, spacious things,

The which to measure it doth more behove:

Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

On Flying

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

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

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

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

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