An Anniversary of Evil and Hope

I’m teaching freshman writing this semester. I have kids who are a full decade younger than I am.

For the end of the week, I pulled out an editorial about 9-11 that I knew Sonya had loved to teach, then found a couple more good ones and printed them all off. I mentioned to my mom that I was going to do something about the attacks, and she said I should show them some of the news footage.

So I went home that night and found a video on youtube that was about ten minutes long, which showed the main events of the morning from the vantage point of all the major news outlets. I listened to the confusion and fear of the broadcasters and realized that I had never actually seen the live footage before. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in my fourth grade classroom. When I went home that afternoon, my parents hadn’t exactly turned on the tv and suggested I watch.

The next day my first period came in, full of life and sort of antsy. I told them they were going to write about 9-11, and took a poll. Most of them weren’t even alive. The ones who were were only a few months old. A couple boys told me proudly that they were born just days after the attacks.

And then I started the video. We watched Flight 175 crash into the second tower again and again, exploding into that black and orange cloud of fire that, to most of our soft minds, looks like CGI. After a few minutes, I glanced out at my students, who were leaning forward against their desks. Their faces were still and white and they looked as if they had swallowed poison. My own stomach suddenly hurt. They’re fourteen. I thought. They’re children. What am I doing? I shouldn’t have. No. I turned back to the footage as one of the reporters was saying, “And now the south tower is…it’s falling apart. There’s no other way to describe it.” Where it had stood, there was a thick, awful column of smoke, as tall as the tower itself had been, but containing nothing living.

When the video finished, the room was very quiet. I told them to read the three editorials (which you can find here, here, and here) and I put an assignment up on the screen for them to write an editorial of their own.

For the rest of the period (and the two periods after that), I sat at my desk and read my students’ journal entries about last night’s volleyball game, and how high school has a lot more homework than they expected. And they sat at their desks and read and wrote about fear and pain. I looked up at them a few times. Christ Jesus makes all things new, and sometimes I think our grief over wicked things must be made new too. I watched it made new in their faces.

The assignment isn’t due until Monday, but some of them turned them into me already and I read them this weekend. Most of them were angry, the boys especially. They talked a lot about cowardice. They used words like slime and sick and evil and monsters. They said that watching the footage made them tear up or gave them goosebumps. They said they didn’t understand and they wanted revenge.

But that’s not all they said. They talked about bravery and they talked about sacrifice. They had quite a lot to say about justice. Several of them talked about healing. They said that pain was pain, but in that moment, for a while at least, it brought us together on our knees. America woke up and remembered itself. One very-nearly quoted Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” My students, who remember none of this, saw death and wrote about hope.

I am thankful.

Christmas for Today

I was small when Columbine happened. I do remember hearing about the shootings at Virginia Tech in high school, though. I remember seeing the grief but not really partaking in it. The first of these tragedies to really hit me in the gut was what happened in Aurora this summer. I think you grow into sadness and grief with age, but so many children today did not get that luxury. They were forced to endure a terror and chaos which they could not pretend to understand.

This is hard. It’s been taking hours to sink in. I cried just now and called my dad. Then I sat on our little couch with my physics book closed on my lap and thought. I remembered that President Roosevelt once called December 7th “a date which will live in infamy.” I thought that really every date ought live in infamy.  Each day of the year is a remembrance to someone of great travesty and pain inflicted by another human being. I thought each date ought to weigh so heavy that it should be hard to get up in the morning.

I looked out the window and saw the star on top of Rockwell, the coming star, the calling star. I remembered a different Child and a different death. I thought that Christmastide is not always a celebration. It does need to be forever merry. The advent season is a coming and a promise of coming again. Today it is you and me and all of our brothers and sisters on our knees, begging for all these things to be brought to fruition, for God to send His Son again to heal the broken hearts and the broken world, begging to be reminded that God is not dead nor doth He sleep. I thought that today of all days, in the midst of infamy and weeping sons and daughters, we must not forget the Child in the manger.

Grammy

When I was in ninth grade my aunt took my grandmother, who was ill with what we then thought was Parkinson’s, and entirely isolated her from everyone she knew and loved. We never got her back.

I used to build all sorts of dream scenarios surrounding what I would do or say if I encountered my aunt. Sometimes she was coming to kidnap me, and I had to put up a fight, sometimes I defended my parents’ child-rearing, sometimes I protected friends from her grasp, sometimes she was escorted off the premises by an impromptu security force, and often there was a lot of profanity involved (mostly  on her side.) But years of such imaginings have worn me down a bit. I know now that there is one scheme in which she failed, and that is what I’d rub in her face. If my aunt ever shows up on my doorstep, or I run into her on the street, whether she is screaming at me or smiling beguilingly, I will look her in the eye, and say in a tone which compels her to listen, “I know that my grammy loved me, and you’ll never convince me otherwise.” (You dirty, rotten liar)

I remember Grammy once telling me with great pride that she bet I was the only child in all of my kindergarten who didn’t pick her nose. This was false. I did pick my nose. But when she said it, I believed it, and I glowed. Her approval was never hard to earn, but something in her eyes and smile made it deeply valuable. She laughed when I tried to be funny, she laughed when I didn’t. Once, when I was about eight or nine, she told me that I was going to be a comedienne someday. (The way she said it you could hear the extra “ne.” She was classy like that.)

She made you feel like a million bucks. It’s hard to describe just how, but everyone knew it. She had the best hands, the best laugh, the best cadence to her voice. As my uncle said in her obituary, “She was the best.” That’s all there is to it.

When Grammy was around, we never went anywhere without one of her sweaters tied around our shoulders, just in case we got cold. It set me apart—what other kid walked around with a yellow ladies’ sweater that smelled like perfume? It was a mark—I always felt that everyone passing me on the street knew I was loved. She believed you were a marvelous person, so, with her, you were.

One summer, we were out at my grandparents’ house in Napa, and we got an email telling us that our unsociable old cat had died. We went to the farmers’ market that afternoon and when some kindly passerby asked why I was weepy, I remember my grammy saying “We’ve just had some bad news.” A few minute after hearing of Grammy’s death, a college rep called to talked to me, and I remember my mother saying the exact same thing. “She can’t talk now. We’ve just had some bad news.” That was two years ago today.

In fact, now that I think of it, it was a funny thing for my mother to say. We had gotten bad news almost constantly for three years. I could always hear it my dad’s voice, which carries through walls like none other when he’s on the phone. This final email was the end of all that bad news, but it was also the end of all hope of good news. Things had no chance to get better. She was gone. After all that fighting we couldn’t have her back, because there was nothing left to have, not even a funeral.

When Grammy and Granddad came out to North Carolina every spring she always spent a day making lasagnas, and left extras in our freezer. I grew up assuming that no one could make lasagnas like she could. No one. But after that last spring visit, there were no more Grammy lasagnas to be had. So I just never ate lasagna. A month or two ago, it occurred to me that someone, somewhere had to make lasagna like she did. Or, you know, lasagna that was edible. The world is a big place, and there are lots of talented cooks in it. So I tried some in MAP. No luck. I think I need to find some more options. I’ll keep looking for the good stuff. Grammy loved the good stuff.

Because, if I am honest with myself, there is good news. For years, my aunt lied in almost every word and action, and I have no obligation to believe her. My grandmother loved me. She was delightfully unsurprised by every one of my accomplishments, yet delightedly surprised by me, by my entrance into a room. I had her for fourteen years, and, even now, I suppose I have her legacy. A legacy of small bits of love. She taught me how to iron tablecloths, how to clean a wound with witch hazel, and not to eat too many almonds. Someday it will be spring all over again, with gold jewelry, neighborhood walks, and lasagna. I’ll get to hold her hand and we’ll both feel like a million bucks.

Perspective and Going Running

I have spent the past week at Story Book Lodge up in the Iron Range of Minnesota. It’s a Bible camp my uncle directs which is operated entirely on the strength of donations and prayer. It is a wonderful, wonderful place which is very dear to many people who are very dear to me. And yet, I am (rather emphatically) not a camp person. Of course this was just a family camp, so to relieve my bad mood I could do things like drive down to the mall in Duluth with my cousins and let shopping get me even grumpier, or sit in the foyer outside the gym for an hour and a half, waiting for evening volleyball to finish and getting eaten by very large mosquitos. You know.

The fact is I have not been super-pleasant this week. My cousin Hannah put up with me quite well and made me laugh a lot besides.  But I kept having conversations with my parents about a rather tense issue, and also spent an inordinate amount of time dreading being back at my grandparents’ house by myself for another two weeks. It’s not that every sensible cell in my brain does not know that it’s really a wonderful blessing to be there, one which will only be available to me for a few more years, but more that I tend to get panicked about being so alone with myself all over again. A nasty part of me is pouting and saying, “But didn’t you already pay your dues? You shouldn’t have to do this.” Really, I should want to do this, but I don’t, and someone should knock me upside the head. Suck it up, Alice. Learn to mow the lawn, and be patient about seeing Harry Potter.

On Thursday night I stayed with Hannah while she housesat for friends and after she had fallen asleep I had a white night sitting in a stranger’s kitchen and crying while their dog alternately licked my feet and growled menacingly. I had a long careful think, and decided three things. First, I was going to beg my cousin Joe to come back to Grandma’s with me. Second, I was going to have all my hair chopped off into a super-short bob. And third, I was going to start going running regularly, preferably early in the morning. Brilliant. Life-changing. I called my mom and told her my plans, and she told me to go to sleep, it was two a.m.

When we got back to camp the next day, my mom told me that Joseph wasn’t going to be able to come, and I received dubious reactions to the bob idea. But the running idea stuck, which I was pleased about. Still am, actually. Feel free to laugh, but I want to do this, and I can be just as stubborn about wanting to do something as not wanting to. (At least, that’s the theory. I’ve never actually tested it.)

And then God brought something else. Perspective. I got on facebook for the first time in few days, and found out that my freshman RA, Alyssa, had just had an emergency liver transplant. I know very few of the details. Last time I saw her she was perfectly healthy, but as I write this she is in Dallas at the Baylor University Medical Center. She is able to blink and move her eyebrows to communicate, and soon they’ll take out the respiratory tube. While she recovers, inch by agonizing inch, I will be breathing clean lake breezes and pulling weeds. I really have no right to say anything but “Thank You.”

I love you, Lyss. If you can have major organs replaced at the drop of a hat, I can learn a little patience and trust, huh? God really is good.

Not Another Education Post

Sorry. It’s not that I don’t have more to say about education, more that I just don’t feel like saying it now. This blog is not really the place for self-discipline. Self-discipline is for the paper I finished yesterday and, more particularly,  one I’m starting tomorrow. Tonight I have no plans, and simply felt like writing to you. Yes, you. Hello!

Today is Friday. This morning I slept through my eight-o-clock, put on cute clothes, met with my advisor about my term paper, turned in a paper, took a big test at one, took a not-quite-so-big test at two, talked to Karen (Hi, Karen!), went on part of an adventure, had dinner at a house with a family, and watched a favorite movie. I am so successful. Hehe. Well, not really, I’m behind on reading Paradise Lost, which is a terrible predicament in which to find oneself. But I am undeniably thankful.

I have been thinking a lot about suffering lately, partly because I’m working on a paper about it, and partly because…I don’t have any. Monday night I went to the chapel with friends and cried and prayed and was angry with God. I was angry because everything I have ever had has been good. I was jealous of those who only have Jesus. I told God I wanted only him. The fact that I have gotten everything I ever really wanted in life was a distraction, and the gifts made me forget the Giver. If Christ was the only good thing I had, I would truly be looking to Him every moment of everyday. I demanded to know why God had not given me that opportunity.

I was answered. Several times over. First, of course, God reminded me that I am only eighteen. I will live longer, and there will be suffering. Not to worry. Also, especially after a conversation with Liesel, I began to remember that “to whom much is given, from him much will be required,” and that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” So, as dumb as it is sounds, maybe, for the moment, my prosperity is my cross to bear. And not only to carry along on my back aimlessly, but to make proper use of. I am to use it to fend off darkness, I am to plaster it with messages of Hope, and I am to give it away splinter by precious splinter till “nothing in my hand I bring,” my cross is quite gone, all that is left is His, shining before me on Calvary.

So I will spend the next week reading my Herbert and reading my Donne and revelling in their “theology of suffering.” I will be thankful for every hug and class and laugh and book. And each night I will write out my blessings till my hand hurts and ask not “Your will be done,” because, as Laura and I know, passive tense is a tool of the devil, but “Lord, may I do Your will.” Pray for me.