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.

Peace

School is done and so is our post-planning workweek. I don’t think I genuinely believed the last day of school had happened until about three or four days after it had. I am mind-weary. Teaching fills you up to overflowing, but it also makes you forget almost everything you ever learned. (This is ironic, but, happily, so are most things.)

The other day, going through papers at home, I came across something I wrote when I was seventeen. In it I had quoted a line from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “Darkness declares the glory of light.”

I used to love that line when I was a teenager. I would quote it aloud and in my writing. I may even have transcribed it onto various whiteboards around school, because that’s the sort of kid I was: obsessed with words and more starry-eyed than was necessary. Reading it again startled me. Though I used to be so fixated on those words, somehow I hadn’t thought of them for years, and I was arrested by their truth. How had I forgotten? What superfluous worries had edged them out of my consciousness for so many years?

A couple nights later I took a short walk by myself. It was not really dark yet, only fading into gray, but there were fireflies coming out anyway. I thought of the line again: Darkness declares the glory of light. All sin and evil is just good that has been twisted and marred. Nothing bad is original material. So the existence of any wrong means that there once existed, and if you believe the promises of the God I serve, still exists, an opposite and more powerful right. So all darkness, in this or any world, inevitably, though unwillingly, testifies to the existence and the power of righteousness. We identify a shadow only by perceiving the light around its edges. That’s what Eliot meant.

As I continued to walk, alone in the June evening, a small voice asked politely if I still believed it to be true. The darkness you understood when you were in high school was tiny compared to the darkness you know of now, it said. Has the light really grown in proportion?

Hesitantly, I tested it. I summoned the creeping, long-fingered spectre of my anxious fear, which did not exist at all when I was a seventeen, or certainly not with the size and power it does now, and asked what particular light it declared. What was the opposite of fear? I resisted the immediate urge to shout “Boldness!” which can sometimes be foolishness, or even “Courage!” for which fear is actually a prerequisite. I wanted more than that. I stared into the deep trees leading down to the arboretum, lit by the shy lightning bugs, and realized: peace. The existence of fear declares the glory of peace.

Peace never seemed to me to be a very important virtue. It is, as some of my students would say, vague, and usually brings up visions of Miss America contestants expressing their hopes for the world at large, or automatic signatures on emails from hipster Christian college students. But maybe it is hard to express, because, like humility, it cannot be showy. You can impress others with your love and joy and kindness and courage and perseverance and patience, but peace is simply not an outward action. In fact, I think peace may be invisible. The only two people who will ever really truly know if you are at peace are you and the God who made you.

Peace is the state of being right with God. You can have all this world, but give me Jesus. To be at peace is to be able to unreservedly worship, to enter the state for which we were made.

So though teaching makes me forget and heavy shadows loom larger with each passing year, I am learning and learning still. I am learning that peace is the virtue for which I have long been thirsty without knowing it, and I am learning, like Lucy Pevensie does, that Aslan grows larger with each passing second. Not only has the light I can see grown in proportion to the darkness around me, but it will eventually obliterate that darkness and surpass it, far into eternity.

All things exist only in Thy light, and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee; the darkness declares the glory of light.

Christmas and Awe of a Small Kind

Last night, I was having trouble sleeping because my head was so stuffy and my room was chilly, so I wrapped myself in a warm blanket and curled up on the chair in the upstairs hallway. All the lights were out and I watched the gas heater flickering in front of me. Inside the blacked windows on the front of the heater, there is a cracked and crusted latticework, and behind that burns a tall, orange flame. Last night I turned it up so I could hear the gas softly roaring and ticking, and all around the foot of the lone tongue of fire, dozens of tiny blue flames sprung up. I stared at the impressive shadows the fire cast through the latticework into the darkness, and pitifully wished that I could still breathe through my nose.

When I was a little girl, I used to turn up those flames just to watch them burn. I would crouch on the floor, pressed against the little factory-printed placard which read, “Keep children, clothing, and furniture away,” and I would imagine that the inside of that heater was a small cathedral. The shapes of the lattice pointed heavenward like church windows, and the tall flame was a preacher, praising his God. All the little blue fires were his congregation, or sometimes even the choir, if I turned it up very high so that I could hear them singing hallelujah in a quick, clicking rhythm as gas was released. I thought it was the most beautiful little world in there. Sometimes, even at the wise old age of seven or eight, I had to restrain myself from prying the hot glass off the front to see if I could get inside, enter the cathedral, burn like a singing flame beneath the majesty of those arches.

Last night as I sat in the darkness and watched the tall flame rise and rise and rise I remembered all that. I wondered why I didn’t feel awe like that anymore, especially at Christmastime, the time of the lighted fir tree and the swelling choral arrangement. A couple months ago I told my students very certainly that if they ever found themselves in a place in life in which there were not awed, then they were in the wrong place. I burrowed deeper into my blanket and doubted my own words.

I do believe that awe is the response for which the Advent season begs. This is why we set children in the midst of it, hand them presents, watch their faces glow, and sentimentally compare them to the baby in the manger. Awe comes naturally when you are small and everything looks big, and it is for this reason that Christ bids us to “come as little children.”

But there are other sorts of Christmases, lest we forget. New life always arrives with the silent promise of eventual death. Two years ago I wrote this entry about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, and last night I could not stop thinking about T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi.” “A cold coming we had of it,” the kingly speaker says “…A hard time we had of it…Sleeping in snatches, / With the voices singing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly.” The wise men reach the appointed place (there is no mention of a bright, guiding star, no room for awe,) and the wine is all drunk up, three trees grow close together in a meadow, and a white horse mysteriously gallops away as they approach. The speaker pronounces the wonder they have come to see to be “satisfactory.” Then, hesitantly, he continues,

I had seen birth and death,  

But had thought they were different; this Birth was 

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, 

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

I actually got up out of my warm chair last night and turned on the light so I could re-read that poem. And even now, a day later, I am still struggling to explain the solace it offered me. It seemed to say that the way birth pains mirror death pains is not coincidental, that sleeping only in snatches is better than not waking at all, that at times it is well to be unsatisfied with the “old dispensation.”

So, if the remembrance of Christ’s birth does not provide me with the feeling of awe which I’ve been demanding, at least it brings me a measure of certainty. Certainty that God made his promises with the purpose of fulfilling them, that that there is order in his plan, that Someone much greater than myself is at work far beyond my sight. (Someone greater than myself? Beyond my sight? Perhaps this is awe after all. Awe of a small kind.)

After I read the poem I turned off the light again and returned to my chair by the flickering heater. I pulled the blanket tight, tight around me and I prayed. I prayed for those magi, and their hard, cold journey towards the Savior. (Sometimes I figure that if eternity is eternity and God really is outside of time, I can pray for anyone anywhere in history, and my Lord will hear.) I prayed that my own heart would soften and rest. I prayed for my students to whom, I think, awe still comes naturally. I prayed and I watched the tall flame glimmer in the cathedral, and listened to the tick of the gas valve in the dark, warm room.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.” Isaiah 9:2

Content

It’s Christmastime again. I know, it’s not December, but trust me, I’m not ready for this, and I need to start readying now. Friday night my family sang Christmas carols around the piano. (George boomed them out then slumped in his chair and pretended he hadn’t.) Saturday my dad and I drove back up to school and snowflakes flurried at the windshield, and I pretended that I didn’t like it, but I did. (Don’t tell.) On Sunday I made plans with friends to watch It’s a Wonderful Life and probably Shop Around the Corner too. Yesterday, I read a couple favorite T.S. Eliot poems about Christmas, “The Journey of the Magi” and “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.” They are about death in life and life in death and the awe-filled Coming.

I am tired. Tired and full, and tired and waiting. I am full from this semester. I am full from running with Abby and writing poetry and early mornings and Sassy Tuesdays in Physics with Jackie (and Libby) and cleaning house and long showers and lunches with Laura and lunches with Heidi and weepy Friday afternoons and visits to the ABT hall and a carnation from my brother and rides to church with Haley and reading  good poetry and the Lizzie Bennet Diaries and playing in the pit for the musical and Monday-Wednesday-Friday lunches with the girls and dropping things in intercampus mail and pie in Fantasy on Tuesdays and writing a story with chapters and hugging people on the sidewalk and watching my five-year-old friend Josiah draw a picture for me and write “ALAS” at the top.

I am waiting for finals and Christmas, for travel and rest, for this to be over and what’s next to begin. I’m waiting for birth and for death, and T.S. Eliot speaks true—I’ll find both with the Child in the manger.

I am content.

Thunder

The first night of my freshman year, I was lying in bed in the throes of homesickness when I heard the train whistle. “There’s a train two blocks from me at home.” I thought. “They have trains here, too!” And I went to sleep.

I came into this year sick to my stomach with fear, much more irregular fear than two years ago. And over the past week we’ve had thunderstorms. We never have thunder here. Thunder makes me think of home and summer evenings and my front porch and dinner soon and we-should-walk-in-the-gutter-like-when-we-were-kids. Thunder, like a train whistle, means comfort. And I’ve rejoiced in that.

Comfort is not bad. My corner is not bad. But Christianity is not intended to be cozy. When Christ said “Follow Me,” he did not preface it with “Come along, children, tea and scones at the next inn!” He said “Take up your cross and follow Me.”

We hear this and we fear and we hide. We don’t want to touch our cross, don’t want to think about what our cross may be, and don’t even try to make us carry it. It’s a dreadfully common fear. T.S. Eliot even put it into the mouth of the chorus, in their last speech in Murder in the Cathedral.

Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as type of the common man,

Of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire;

Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;

Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God;

Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal,

Less than we fear the love of God.

We acknowledge our sin, our trespass, our weakness, our fault:

(…) Lord, have mercy upon us.

Christ, have mercy upon us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

I cower by the fire behind the shut door, but that is not as I ought. Tonight at church, Ethan quoted St. Basil. “If you live alone whose feet will you wash?” Whose indeed? I am not called to serve myself, to obey my own frightened, sin-riddled demands.

So even if the crosses we bear and hang upon are the crosses of ourselves, as Whittaker Chambers would say, even if what hinders us is our self-made, self-inflicted, self-devouring fear, we are still to follow. His is the only heel that can crush that fear, though it may “hurt like billy-oh.”

We preface the Lord ’s Prayer with “Now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say:” If I can call Him who made me my “Father, who art in heaven.”  I can be bold to say and do so much else. I can stomp out the fire with a marshwiggle foot, open the shut door, and step out. The thunder is not only a comfort. It is a reminder, a call.

Colors

My junior year of high school I was in a creative writing class, and in my journal I always told my teacher what color my day had been–a linoleum green, aubergine, festive red, or a warm, linty grey. The bad days, the gag into a corner days, were always tan. I hate tan.

Recently, though I haven’t been paying a great deal of attention, my days have been mostly the same color. Not quite sure what color that is–not tan–(okay, maybe kind of tan…) This is why I haven’t been writing. I actually have a list of possible topics living on my desktop, but it takes at least a tiny bit of Walt Whitman’s “urge, urge, urge” to make myself write, and the urge only lives in color.

But I have been thinking about some nice things today. I picked up a copy of the Quad, because my poem is in it with a whole page to itself (!!!) and then I started thinking about the book review I’m going to write on academic tenure, and that made me very happy, and then I remembered Christmas and cousins, and I watched this video. Then I felt just a little bit like I’d found my feet, and I started writing to you.

And now for some more things which have the potential to make the days change color. Classes are over and finals are coming, and I’m looking forward to them just a tad. I’m good test-taker. I’m comfortable there. At some point Heidi and I are going to go to the library, find a T.S. Eliot anthology, and I’m going to read her “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” sitting there in the stacks. I’ll drive to Missouri with my family, and Scrooge and the Grinch will probably come with. Over break I plan on reading The Hunger GamesHuck Finn and John Green’s new novel, if I can get a hold of it, along with some of those tenure books. And Hannah’s getting married–in January. A few sparks of pigment there, don’t you think?

One of my favorite lines of poetry from this semester is in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese  about the “gold and purple of thine heart.” She’s talking about an innate, unfaltering royalty. A nobility that lives behind the plainest faces, and beneath the flattest places–rich and deep and velvet. The color, perhaps, of peace, of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “dearest freshness deep down things.” Fresh, warm, patient, Princely peace.

So here’s to gold and purple days, friend. Happy Christmastime.