Something Steady

I’m sitting in a room surrounded by half-unpacked suitcases. Sometimes, I feel as if that’s my constant state, even when I haven’t been travelling. Why is that?

Now that I’m back in Vancouver it feels like it’s properly the new year. The other day I wrote myself a list of things I wanted to accomplish and ways I wanted to grow in 2019. I wasn’t exactly digging deep–one of the entries was “get better at French-braiding”–but much more so than when I left Greensboro and moved here five months ago, I do feel like sitting down and taking stock.

Yesterday (was it only yesterday?) I subbed for the seventh grade humanities class at Caldwell. Around midday I realized that it was easier and more joyful than I had expected it to be. I don’t know why I was surprised by that, though. Especially in retrospect, I tend to focus on my weaknesses as a teacher, and I had them in spades, but I had strengths too. I was good at my job. And even if I never return to it, I’ve been marked by teaching, my heart scuffed all over with funny, seemingly-accidental marks that will not wear away. Those four years changed me. I grew.

I gained confidence, prudence, perspective, a greater ability to think on my feet, and a keen sense of my own limitations. But the greatest thing I learned was Love. I still know very little of it, but simply by necessity, because increasingly I realized there was no other way to view my students, I began to wade into the borderlands of that frighteningly bright place where you see the people around you as Christ sees them. Human faces there are drawn in bold lines, the image of God and the sin that mars it both clearly visible, and you know instinctively, without thoughts of either discouragement or heroism, that Love is the only power, the only recourse, the only cure. Plenty of times, certainly, I’ve tucked my tail between my legs and retreated back to the shadowlands of my own easy criticisms and lazy assumptions, but I had just enough lessons there that I can attest to this: that land is the only way through. As one of my grandma’s favorite little books was called: Love or Die.

I learned all of that without planning to. And now that I am in a new place and new season, what will I learn here? I find it very easy to ask that question with blissful, blind anticipation and then sit still, doing nothing, waiting for the answer to drop down out of the heavens into my lap. In fact, I do that far too often on this blog. And certainly, there are many things I can’t and am not meant to predict. God is sovereign and I am not. But at times the “I don’t like being in charge” part of my personality stretches to excess, and I fail to even take charge of myself.

When I first moved here one of the things I said quietly to myself (and probably wrote on some piece of paper somewhere) was that I wanted to grow in holiness, which often runs shallow in me. And that’s not exactly a minute task. So I am realizing that nearly half a year in perhaps it is time that I begin, that I stop floating and wandering and hoping I get somewhere, but start to walk in as straight of a line as I can manage, going somewhere on purpose. The Lord will be there all along the way. It’s not as if I’ll need to wait for him to catch up–he’s well ahead, Alice.

To that end I’m about halfway through a book about holiness. (Who knew I could be so practical?) And, as icing for my new goal-oriented self, I’ve set myself a very manageable little writing target for 2019: draft two full chapters of the new novel I’ve just started poking at. Oh, the terror and the joy!

So there. I’ve sat and I’ve taken stock and, by God’s grace, perhaps even made progress. Now to my gaping suitcases.

 

December Inventory

I have a little brown paper Moleskine journal that’s gone with me almost everywhere this semester. When I first got to Vancouver I titled it on the inside cover: “Bus Poems: From Between and For Between.” And a couple months later, I wrote a Chesterton quote on the front: “The greatest of poems is an inventory.”

I ended up only writing one poem about the bus, but from the most recent nearly-illegible scribblings in the notebook, I can at least give you an incomplete, three-part inventory of the last few days. Whether it will manage to perform like a poem for you, I don’t know, but living it has felt like meter and rhyme.

First, my semester at Regent ended in a great rushing swell of rain and essay exams, both of which I sort of enjoy. On Friday night I went to a celebratory Christmas potluck where there was lots of good food and more and more fond faces kept coming in through the door. I talked and laughed and drank wine and, as occasionally happens, transformed like a butterfly into something resembling an extrovert. One friend told me I looked so happy, another said she felt like I’d been at Regent forever, and then another looked at a wet spot where I’d been sitting and asked if I had peed a little, so that brought me back down to earth. (I hadn’t, to clarify.) When I left around ten o’clock so I could still catch the bus at a reasonable hour, for a moment or two I had a hard time finding my boots in the piles amassed around the coat rack. I stood still and took a deep breath, overwhelmed by all the shoes and the feet and the beating hearts and the laughing hands. Then I laced up my ancient, salt-stained Timberlands and walked warm into the cold.

Then, on Saturday evening, my plane touched down on American soil and I felt like crying, though I’ve never even been in Dallas before and it was only a short layover. I’ve only used my phone while on Wifi since I moved to Canada, and as we taxied into our gate and I turned off airplane mode for the first time in four months, I felt as if trumpets should be sounding somewhere. Keeping my phone on airplane mode, using it pretty much only at home and at school, has felt symbolic. A classmate from China asked me a couple months ago what I thought of the word “foreigner,” and I said that, so long as it was not cruelly meant, I actually liked it, because it accurately described my state. And the little airplane icon in the top corner of my screen has served the same purpose: marked me as a wanderer, an outsider, far-from-home. Because of that little symbol, from the get-go I knew I was not obligated to know the way, the words, all the answers. Yet, in the four steady months that that tiny sign of transience glowed there, I have, without even noticing, learned quite a few small lessons about belonging—belonging not because I have made myself a place, but because a place has been made for me, not because I know the way, the words, all the answers, but because I was lost and now am found.

And finally, last night, a few hours after getting back into town straight from a wedding in Texas, I went to Caldwell’s upper school Christmas concert. From the time I was a teenager, this yearly concert has been important to me, has placed a warm finger on some exposed part of my sternum, and two weeks ago when I told a friend in Vancouver that it was one of the first things I was going to get to do when I got home, I found myself in tears at just the thought. But when I arrived there last night, instead of weeping in gratitude, my heart simply short-circuited and then noiselessly imploded, again and again. I slid in right before it began and sat next to Leslie, who I hadn’t seen since June, back when everything was different for both of us (but mostly for her). We listened to the first couple of songs arm-in-arm, holding tight as we could till our shoulders went a bit numb. Look at all their little faces, I whispered giddily when the high school choir got up on the risers. And after that final Hallelujah Chorus, I began to hug people and call it good. Canada’s good. So good. It’s good to see you. So good. Over and over, on and on. I had expected to be overwhelmed with gratitude at God’s faithfulness to me in giving me so many precious souls in so many places, so many heaps of Blundstone boots in so many foyers, but when I got in bed that night, still thinking of the sweet coworkers I’d seen and the dozens of little faces, I realized I was grateful for something more. I am grateful for his faithfulness to each of them. Because he has been faithful and continues to be. I am certain of it. I saw it with my own eyes. He is faithful to the once deafeningly anxious boy who enthusiastically echoed my own So good when I asked about his school year and faithful to the tough, smart girl who grimaced and told me that her first semester of college was “an adjustment,” faithful to the kid who used to sneer and now seems to mainly smile and faithful to the tired friends whose faces are fresh with the loss of those who loved them best. He has been intimately present with each of these people, has placed a warm finger on exposed skin, has invited them in where they belong.

Morning by morning new mercies I see

Theology, Apple Sorting, and Starting at the Beginning

Apparently I’m into long titles again like I was when I was fifteen. It’s cool–don’t worry about it.

This past weekend was the second weekend of the food course I’m in and we spent Saturday afternoon at a little local harvest festival. For a while I ended up at a work station sorting apples that would be good for eating all winter long from the apples that were already bruised and marked and would be pressed into cider. At first it was just me and an older man. He sorted away and I tried to keep up. But after a few minutes a young boy came up who was maybe ten or eleven. My companion explained to him what we were doing, that when he found a nice one he should set it into the box carefully, but that he was welcome to toss all the bad apples into their cider bin as hard as he could. And so he did, with evident joy. He really put his shoulder into it, throwing each warped apple in overhand, thunck thunck thunck, but each time he found a good one he cradled it gently in his palm and laid it in the box like a sleeping baby. Then we returned to the thunck thunck thunck. I laughed and wondered if I should tell him how much I admired his confidence.

On the official permit from the Canadian government that’s stapled into my passport, it says that I’m here at this place, in this country, to study theology. But I haven’t talked much about that yet. And not just on here, I haven’t talked much about that at all, anywhere.

Everyone else seems to have come to Regent with hard theological questions or with some driving desire to grow and learn, but I came theologically content. I’ve been too busy questioning most everything else in the past year or two to question my Lord. So my engagement in most of my classes, both external and internal, has been minimal. Sometimes I do have thoughts–appreciation will wash over me in Old Testament, or some unnameable frustration will creep into my shoulders while I’m reading for the food course–but the last thing I want to do is share them. I don’t want to say anything till I’ve really thought it through, and thinking it through seems to take much longer with God than it did with poetry or stories.

So I do the readings. I write brief response papers. I study. I talk to new friends about anything except the course material. But term papers are creeping up and I’m realizing that my days of relieved passivity are over. The time is coming when I will have to attempt to prove something: prove something about God, his church, his world. The idea of doing this still seems laughable.

I mean, I’ve written plenty of papers. I’ve made arguments before. But usually this meant I would pick up a piece of literature, read it carefully–backwards and forwards, up and down– and then I’d express an opinion. I’d engage with the critics, sure, but mostly that was a polite nod to companions in reading. The real content of my paper came from the text itself. The reason I argued that Katherine in Taming of the Shrew was a product of her environment and that Petruchio actually offered her release from her role as resident hellion was not because of anything Shakespeare said, or Liz Taylor did, or anything that happened in the sixteenth century. I argued that because of Kate herself, and what I saw in the text, and what I knew about being human. I wasn’t trying to give some definitive answer–I was just talking about personhood, and relationships, and the way it sometimes feels to be alive.

But theology is different. There is an answer here. They call theology the queen of the sciences, so decisions we make have an impact, on ourselves at the very least. This is serious business. My moving to Vancouver was in many ways a move away from responsibility. Studenthood, I thought, is freeing thing. I didn’t comprehend that I’d simply be switching from making pronouncements on the writing ability of the fifteen-year-old in front of me to making pronouncements on the state of the universe itself. I’m probably making up mountains where really there are only molehills to surmount, but still. I’ve been feeling a bit daunted today about my step forward into this next big thing.

A few years ago I taught a particularly high energy (and sometimes unmanageable) group of juniors. It was a big class, filling every seat I had and there were lots of long legs and loud voices and excuses and bold questions. They made me laugh sometimes, but they also wore me out and reminded me of my own inadequacies. One day as I walked around the room at the beginning of class, wading through low levels of chaos to pass back an assignment, wondering to myself how I would cope, one of the boys looked up at me quizzically as I passed him. “Miss Hodgkins, did you just say ‘Lord, help’?”

I bit my lip. “Yes. Yes, I did.” Lord, help.

Receiving, Retreating, and Other Non-Contributions

The last summer I spent with my grandparents, right after I finished undergrad, is perhaps the one I remember most vividly. I came to Missouri in May and stayed straight through most of June, and one of the most painful moments was this: a sweet man from church came over one day and mowed the acre of front lawn, without pretense. I could have done it, of course, but he meant it as a gesture of kindness towards these good people for whom he had so much respect and affection.

My grandma didn’t see it that way, however. That afternoon in the kitchen she let loose to me about how unhappy she was. He had not asked, she said. Why would he do that? Why would he just show up? They didn’t need his help. In frustration, she repeated herself several times, more sharply with each go round. (To be fair to both of them, he may well have talked to her beforehand, and more than once, but her memory was slipping and slipping already.)

An hour or two later, as I sat up in my room reading, she climbed the stairs, the only time she did so all summer, and stood in my doorway on the verge of tears. She stood in my doorway, and with a tempest rising in her well-tested and stretched soul, she apologized to me. She said she knew she shouldn’t have spoken like that. She knew he probably meant well. But it was so hard. It was just so hard, Alice.

I sat on my bed, keenly aware of my dirty laundry scattered over the bright blue carpet and of my position as tenth of her nineteen grandchildren, middlest of the middling, and said in a near whisper, “Grandma, sometimes it’s good to accept help from other people.”

“But we’re the ones who help!” she said.

“I know,” I told her. “But sometimes that changes.”

Her world was spinning upside down.

I, too, want to contribute. When you are able to be the one who helps, you know you’re on solid ground, that something’s going right for you. To be the giver is reassuring. In my four years of teaching, I became a contributor. I was patient and I was reliable and I answered emails promptly. My desk was a mess, but my webpage was always up-to-date with homework assignments. I lent my students more paper and pencils than I should have when they came to class unprepared. I was comforted by my own regularity, and so, sometimes, were the kids. When they came in chaotic, I would be calm. All of us could count on that. Most of all, as a friend who’s still teaching said to me recently, I don’t know what I would do if people weren’t asking me questions all day. Miss Hodgkins, Miss Hodgkins, Miss Hodgkins

I’ve been asked plenty of questions here too, but they’re harder ones. Beyond Where are you from? and What program are you in? I keep getting, Why are you here? Have you found your people yet? What’s been the hardest thing? What do you find lifegiving? My most honest answers thus far have been: I don’t know, Maybe–I was hoping it might be you?, Answering these questions, and What?

Partly by birthright, and partly by dint of having taught teenagers, I have a slightly overdeveloped sense of the absurd, so all this makes me want to laugh. And of course, as I’ve had others here warn me, if you look someone straight in the eye as you answer, you also might cry. It happens. I’ve done it. (No surprise.) But laughter and tears aren’t bad options, and people are pretty forbearing. In fact almost everyone here is out-and-out pastoral (with good reason–it is theology school.) And as they speak to a first year, especially one who sometimes unwittingly gives off the impression of fragility, they are kind.

And this is the crux of the matter: people are kind. Not kind because they love me or appreciate me or need me or enjoy me. They are kind out of their own God-given goodness. Though I am technically the focus of these check-in conversations, I am not the motivating factor. God’s grace, active and moving, is all.

I was the one who helped, but sometimes that changes.

So suffice to say, my world, like my grandmother’s, is spinning upside down. In a million other ways I will never surpass her legacy: her hospitality, her faithfulness, her work ethic, her pie crust, but I can take a lesson with her here at least. So I am relearning, for the thousandth time, how one accepts grace with humility.

I had reasons for moving and coming to this school, but most of the time I don’t remember them anymore, and when I do, they don’t seem very important. Out of the first five weekends of this term I will have spent four of them away on various retreats and course outings. It is occasionally exhausting to spend such concentrated time with new people, but I am becoming sure of one thing: I am grateful to be here. I thought I intended this move, that I planned and orchestrated it, but in truth, the Lord did. I am here because he set me here. He intended this. I am meant to know this place, to know these people, but mostly, to know him.

Happiness is not everything, but I am happy.

Heartland

Last Friday, I got home from what turned out to be a whirlwind tour of the American midwest. I was gone for only about a week and a half and in that time managed Dayton (sort of), Chicago, the Iron Range, Minneapolis, Madison, and Indianapolis (kind of).

We drove a lot. I drove a lot. On the days when it wasn’t just me in the car, and I had a back up driver roster one or more family members deep, I spent a lot of time staring at my dad’s big road atlas. I’ve always done this. From the time I was probably seven or eight I spent a lot of time on family trips leaning forward from the cramped back seat of our little minivan and asking for the atlas. It was the way we all avoided “Are we there yet?” Look–here–see for yourself–then you tell me.

For me this habit grew into a love of knowing where I am, of placing myself. I look at the map of where I am, where I’m headed, where I came from, and I trace the blue interstates that connect them like arteries, but once I’ve done that, I still don’t put the atlas down. I’ve learned to go farther afield. And this time around, beginning with British Columbia, of course, I ran my fingers over Canada: the heavy pockets of civilization in the south, thinning out into the stark ranges of the north. (Did you know that not only does Nunavut have no road access in from other provinces, but there is no reliable system of roads between its towns and settlements? Most of it is above the timber line, and you have no choice but to fly in.)

Looking at Canada for very long scared me, though. In a month and a half I am moving to the other side of a notably large continent. The bed I will be sleeping in is just under three thousand miles from the one I’m sleeping in now. I checked. And all that space scares me.

But of course the land that lies between is not just some unknowable, disembodied thing. I can know it–I do know it.

Last Thursday I left friends in Madison to head towards more friends (and my sister) just north of Indianapolis. I spent the first hour or so winding around on back roads in southern Wisconsin, and then glanced down at my phone and realized I had it set on “avoid tolls.” (Despite all my talk about the atlas, Google Maps is just easier when I’m alone.) But I didn’t mind. I accepted my fate even though it would take more gas and more time and once or twice included a gravel road. It was a hot day and the sky was very blue and the cornfields were very green.  For that first stretch, I rarely saw another car and drove on highways with letters for names. The houses and shining metal outbuildings I passed seemed settled in the soil, basking in the sun.

A few times recently I’ve found myself fancifully telling some patient listener that the British countryside (particularly what we walked through in Wales last summer) is the landscape of my soul. But as I drove those summer midwest roads I kept thinking of the commercials I used to see when my Missouri grandma would turn on the news as she cooked dinner, commercials for regional chains like Menards, boomingly announcing their home as America’s Heartland, and I know this seems silly, but for me it is. The midwest is the land of my heart. (I don’t know what this makes North Carolina–the land of my skin, the largest organ, the place I surround myself with? But I digress…)

Of course, the vast majority of my time in the midwest was spent in north central Missouri when my grandparents were still alive, and at no point on this trip did I set foot on its poor-cousin-of-Iowa soil. Instead I wandered through states which I mostly don’t know very well for themselves. But it all felt familiar.

Outside of Dayton my mom and Mary and I took a walk near our hotel and when everything dissolved to rain, we cut back through the parking lot single file, along one curb after another like children, our umbrellas held out for balance under the wide grey sky.

In Chicago we walked around U of C, trying to find the room where my parents first met. We never did find it, which perhaps made poetic sense, because it was called the Nonesuch Room.

The highways we drove were sporadically flanked with those monstrous, calm white windmills, and chains like Culver’s and A&W’s where my grandpa liked to stop to have a chocolate malted for dinner. I had never been down these particular roads before, but they tasted like home and my heart beat to the rhythm of tires on asphalt.

Of course I don’t mean to idealize the Midwest too much. After all, it was at a rest stop in Kansas when I was ten or eleven that I saw a Wanted poster for a sex offender who had escaped from state prison in the area, and then barely slept for the next few nights because I was fearfully processing the existence of human evil, perhaps for the first time. I could still give you a description of the tattoo on his chest. But the presence of wickedness does not negate the perseverance of good, and the heart beats on, yearning–sometimes self-consciously–for redemption.

After I walked out of my classroom for the last time in early June, I went downstairs with my last boxful of papers and books and told my friend that I felt a bit naked. I was leaving behind the teacher, the Miss Hodgkins, in the corner on the floor, and was stepping back out as only Alice. That’s how I left for the Midwest, stripped and small. The original point of the trip was my cousin’s wedding up way north of Duluth and the first night we got there, Mary and I went to the last evening campfire program of teen camp. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and we stayed for the whole thing as dusk slowly set in. Along with lots of laborious prize-giving for verses memorized and games won, we sang worship songs, and one in particular, which is notably not a favorite, stuck to my ribs. Every chorus ended with the line “Look to the sky!” And when I looked to the sky my uncomfortable nakedness and exposure, my unsteady weakness made sense. I fit, a small child in an immense and well-worn palm. I was at peace. The next night, I danced barefoot in the grass alongside my siblings and cousins because Joe and Becky were married and the sky was great above us.

I am still anxious when I think of August when I will get on a plane alone and spend a day suspended in the air between two places, but if I look down at those first flyover states I will see a place that has the power to make me calm. A place of ice cream and gravel, of dry bones and rich soil, of green-brown openness fading grey in the twilight, where they look their dead hard in the face before they bury them. It’s a place I know as well as my own breathing, that’s as close to me as the thumping chambers of my own heart.

Die before you die. There is no chance after.

An Open Letter to My Students

Dear Kids, Past and Present,

I started making notes for this letter in January of 2017, when I was first thinking seriously about leaving for grad school. So I’ve had a year and a half to work on it and there’s no excuse, but I’m still at a bit of a loss. Over and over throughout the past four years, with increasing frequency, you have broken my little heart and then mended it with your own unrestrained laughter and sincerity. I am tired, but somehow bigger, for it.

I have sometimes told people that if I’d known how hard teaching was going to be, I never would have done it. But I’m grateful I didn’t know. I’m grateful I went in blind, not fully comprehending that I would be teaching people, 317 young, mutable, full-of-life people, who would walk into my classroom and sit in front of me, bearing the image of God in bright colors, even on the days you were least aware of it and most resistant to it.

Here are the things I never told you (or didn’t tell you enough):

-Your value is immeasurable. But though it’s immeasurable, it is weighty. Sometimes when I am teaching, I feel it. Especially when you are quiet. I have sometimes simply stopped and sat still so I could listen as you worked. (I wrote a poem about this once. It’s called “An Ode to My Students’ Silence.”)

-I almost always took a stack of tests home with me over Christmas break, because I knew I would miss you, and seeing your handwriting would help.

-The greatest gift you have given me is joy. Your moods, of course, were not always consistent, but I have lost count of the days when your affection and energy overwhelmed me, when your effervescence dragged me out of some little slough of despond and made me grateful. You are funny when you mean to be and funny when you don’t.

-Earlier this year, Mrs. Johnson gave me a plant, and a week or two after setting it on the windowsill of my classroom, I noticed that someone had ripped one of the wide, flat leaves down the middle, but then done the due-diligence of fixing it back up with scotch tape. Every time I saw it I laughed, but I also found it weirdly moving, because this is all I have ever wanted from any of you: to take responsibility for your actions, to do your best with the resources that you have.

-Some of you never liked school: not in first grade, not now. That’s okay. Go to trade school, work with your hands, make good things well. This is far more important than most people are willing to admit.

-Your life does not begin when you turn eighteen, or when you go to college, or when you get your first real job. It is already going on and has been for some time. Your life is the here and the now. So, as Gandalf says, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

-Teaching you has humbled me, and taught me about love.

I love you, and I will continue to pray for you.

Miss Hodgkins

 

May Joys

May is not a month I have ever associated with peace. It is a month of chaos and sugar and absences and red ink up to our eyeballs and holding on for dear life. And this May at school has included some mysterious deathly malady which has occasionally affected not only most of the copiers, but the AC system as well. We’re on our last rope, our last thread.

And yet.

Yesterday I went to Raleigh with some friends. We went to the NC Art Museum and then to dinner at some very cool place called Brewery Bhavana. I knew it was cool because I felt too old and too young for it at the same time, but I still enjoyed myself anyway.

The reason we went to the art museum in the first place was to see a special exhibit called “You Are Here.” The pieces were all supposed to be interactive, and in some way associated with light, color, and sound. (Again–too old and too young at the same time.)

My favorite was a big white room with forty speakers set up in a circle, playing a fifteen minute piece of sacred choral music on loop. And that was it. If you sat on one of the benches in the middle of the room, you could close your eyes and be lifted, as you heard the voices blending and building and melding into one another.

Or you could get up and walk slowly around the room from speaker to speaker, each of which was playing a different individual voice. Once, as I was doing this, the entire piece took a two beat rest, and then the three deep voices which were closest to my head at that moment swung solidly back in. I almost jumped with joy. I felt surrounded, unaccountably loved, known, as if my dear friends were leading the way. My friend Lauren whispered to me, It’s like heaven!

I wish May were that room, that I could walk up to each voice in the peace of a big white space, and listen to its separate resonance and contribution, over and over, that I could take my soft time with each word, each need, each demand for attention. I wish I could parse the million colors and faces swirling in my vision all day long, give each one its due in care, at long last.

But I can’t. I’ll have all the time and more for that in eternity.

But just for now, in these last two weeks as a teacher, I must sit in the middle of it all, close my eyes and be lifted.

Prayer and The New Code

Back in November I mentioned that I’ve been doing a project in which I interview women around me about their faith. The idea is to collect a mass of quiet stories about God’s goodness towards individual people, the kind of solid testaments to his grace which usually only your family and close friends end up knowing in full. I have a series of seventeen questions I came up with, and a few times after I’ve turned off the microphone at the end of an interview, one of the women I’ve spoken to has kindly asked me if I would, at some point, share my seventeen answers. In response, I’ve hemmed and hawed and gotten embarrassed, because the simple truth is I know that they’re hard questions. And I have satisfactory answers for very few of them.

But God does not need me to be satisfactory. He is satisfactory enough. He simply wants me to be willing. And the question I’ve been thinking of a lot in the last few days is #7: Who taught you to pray? In response, most people have mentioned a parent or sunday school teacher. A few have interpreted it more directly and simply told me that ultimately, the Holy Spirit taught them. Both of these perspectives make sense to me, but this is one of the questions I’ve felt most reticent about because I have always considered myself a bad pray-er, ever since I was a girl.

I was shy to begin with, and talking about spiritual things particularly galled me. Any time one of my parents, or any adult for that matter, tried to talk to me about a personal relationship with Jesus I would burst into tears, which I know was disheartening and perplexing. The whole thing, the enormity and seriousness of God, felt too big for my words, too big for my understanding, so I hid my face in my hands. I grew out of that as I got older, but I still struggled to pray. Like many people, I avoided doing it aloud in public, and had trouble concentrating when I tried on my own. Writing poetry helped, but only when I had the discipline to keep up with it. When others mentioned prayer I felt lethargic and ashamed.

And then came this year. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve cried this week alone. I do know it included three times on Monday at work. And three times last night while I was over at my parents’ house to belatedly celebrate my birthday with my family. I’ve always been a crier, but recently it’s reached a level that’s less human and more sink faucet. Last night my roommate came home at about 11:30 to find me crying because the fire alarm had gone off when I was heating up water on the stove, and I had just spent five minutes struggling to get the living room window open to create a cross-draft and air the apartment out. I was inconsolable.

I’m okay. Really, I am. I’m just finding it hard to leave. It’s hard to leave my family and my job and my students and my friends and all the sidewalks that I know. When I made the decision to go all the way to Vancouver for grad school I thought that going away so far would require the most amount of trust, but it turns out that it’s the leaving that’s the cliff’s edge. Every time someone talks long term plans now, I’m not a part of it. I don’t have a dog in the fight for any decisions at school for next year. I’m not sure about making it to fall weddings. I only have answers for short term questions. Yesterday I erased a penis which had been pencilled onto a desk in my classroom, and felt nonsensically pleased for having found a tangible, helpful task I could still satisfactorily complete in the little time I have left at Caldwell.

All that to say, increasingly over the last few months, I have met problem after problem which I have absolutely no power to combat. My hands and my mind and my energies feel achingly useless, and so at long last, in little dribbles and eddys, I’ve begun to pray, because it’s the only thing left. So that’s my answer to question #7: this year has taught me how to pray. Feeling small has taught me.

Prayer means to bring the thing that doesn’t fit in your hands and give it to the Lord. It means to bring the awe and the exhaustion and the love and the broken, blighted organs that continue to pump irregularly in our chests and the chests of those around us, to lay them out in the blinding light at the feet of the King, and leave them there. And then to come back again and again, at all hours, with more and more and more, piling them there for him to take, the only things we have to give by way of offering.

It’s a relief to no longer hide from prayer, but to hide in it. I can bring the things too big for my words or too big for my understanding to One who is larger still.

Light and Momentary Afflictions

This writing thing works best, I think, when I tell the truth and show the rips in the fabric.

Late one night in early December of my first year of teaching I decided I was going to quit at the end of the semester. I was exhausted. The pushback I was receiving from some students and parents at the time felt like too much for my thin shoulders. There had been too many nights when, finally putting away my grading or lecture notes at two a.m., I had lain in bed, cried fat, angry tears, and wondered to myself what sadomasochist had dreamed up teaching as a profession. This experiment was over. I was calling it.

So the next day I went into work with grim determination that these trudging days were numbered. I think it was a Tuesday. That afternoon a smart, articulate student who had often liked to challenge me in class came up and asked me if I could help him with something. Would I look over the rough draft of his junior thesis? He knew it had a long way to go and he wanted extra feedback. He posed the question as if, though the assignment wasn’t for my class, I might know something about it, as if my opinion were worth listening to. So I said yes, and read the paper. It was clear and readable, but he hadn’t really addressed the opposition at all and made some unfounded statements, so I covered it in red. He came back in a couple days later and sat next to my desk, and we talked through my comments. He accepted all of them and thanked me profusely.

I think his asking for my help was, at least in part, a conscious act of kindness. He treated me as if I had something of value to offer, and so I changed my mind. I didn’t quit. I gave the experiment another try.

I stayed, and year by year things got easier. The work got simpler and faster, and I got to know my students better. I carried their weights and worries more heavily and mine more lightly. I still cried often, but gradually I laughed more and more. My feet grew to suit the ground where they stood.

When I leave Caldwell in a few months it will feel as if I am slicing the hundreds of nerves that connect me to the place. It’s a happier and more logically accurate metaphor to say that I’m leaving behind something I’ve built, but that doesn’t account for the hurt I know I will feel, because I already do.

Yesterday I sat down and graded the personal statements my sophomores turned in last week. They responded to one of three prompts: a prompt about failure, a prompt about challenging an idea, and a prompt about a moment of transition. And as I read their various experiences, often little but sometimes big, I was reminded how much personal growth necessarily involves discomfort. It involves inconvenience and sometimes pain to come into something new, as well as to leave something old. Being born and dying are both famously uncomfortable.

So the beginning of this chapter was marked by tears, and by all indications the end may be too. But though my worries and insecurities may show up as markers and half-rubbed-out stains all through the last four years, they do not define my time teaching. These years have been characterized by unasked-for grace: grace offered to me by my family, by my friends, by my colleagues, by my bosses, by my students and even their parents, but most especially by my God, who has said time and time again, “Yes, I intend for you to be here–I am here with you. Now take another step forward, and another, and another…” until I walk right off the page, on to the next unknown.

Holy Ground

Once when I was in college, a friend went to pray before a meal and got much more eloquent than all of us expected. I remember he said that every day, every moment, every place we go, God has been there first. I still think of this often. I have never pushed too hard at its theology, for fear it would leak, but ultimately I think it would hold true. He is in all these places and he knows all these things.

So here we are in February, and the Lord has been here first.

I’m getting over a cold right now. (I say “getting over” more hopefully than truthfully. Yesterday a senior girl who I no longer teach said hi to me in the hall, and when I responded, she immediately said, “You sound sick.”) It began with a little sore throat late one Saturday, and turned into a runny nose by midday on Sunday. On Monday my head was so stuffed up that I couldn’t hear very well, and I walked down the halls at work pleased with how quiet everything was during class change. If someone spoke to me directly I could understand and respond, but all the other words which leak from students’ mouths between-times had turned into a soft, indecipherable buzz. A simple bout of congestion had blunted the sharp edges of my world, and I was content. By that night my voice sounded like someone dying very gradually of strangulation, but dying happily, because I thought I sounded funny, and kept laughing a lot. I even tried singing in the bath. (Some days it’s easy to keep yourself entertained.)

So for the last week or so my voice has flickered in and out as I teach, and some days I have needed to escape to the bathroom every hour, on the hour, to blow my nose somewhat violently. At home I have gone through an entire roll of toilet paper stationed by my bed, because who actually buys boxes of tissues in their twenties? (Or am I just behind everyone else?) Several people have urged me to get tested for the flu, but I keep promising: it’s just a cold. It’s really just a cold. On Friday, I went to dinner at the home of a couple from church, and within fifteen minutes of meeting most of the people in the room, while we were thanking God for the food, I descended into a coughing fit. I escaped to the bathroom as my gag reflex began to engage, and for a brief, sad moment I considered the possibility that I may soon see pieces of my own lungs floating in the toilet bowl of these nice strangers. Then my roommate, whom I had come with, brought me a glass of water, and told me that she had assured everyone that I was okay so quickly that they probably now thought she was an awful, callous person. I said, no, of course, obviously I would have said the same thing: it’s just a cold. (And it really is.)

One of the ways I know it’s not the flu is that I had the energy to finally get my oil changed on Wednesday. Big deal. I went to one of those express places, where you don’t even have to get out of your car and they do the whole job in ten minutes. Now, I know these employees are trained up to be especially charming and chatty and use your name at the beginning of every sentence they say to you (Alice, Alice, Alice), but the mechanic helping me, whose name was Javier, he was more than friendly. He was all in. He was maybe twenty-two, excited to see a Calvin and Hobbes book among the junk in back seat, and when he asked what I did for a living and found out I was a high school teacher, he stopped what he was doing and stood by the kiosk telling stories with great enthusiasm about all the times he had skipped class as a teenager. (Once he dressed up in a female friend’s clothes and hid in the girls’ bathroom! But his crowning achievement had of course been the time he’d snuck out of ISS and ended up hiding behind a door [the logistics were vague here] as he listened to the teacher standing a few feet away tell some administrator via walkie talkie that she had looked for him everywhere but just couldn’t seem to find him…a moment of supreme victory.) He kept assuring me that I must not have any students quite like him. I smiled and privately began to count the number of familiar faces which had already popped into my head with the same kind of grin and the same tendency to wander the halls.

After Javier finally changed my oil (I think), and I had paid, he asked what subjects I taught. When he heard that one of them was writing, some light turned on inside of him. I had thought he’d been warm before, but now he was glowing. He said he liked to write poetry and told me about the fantasy novel he was working on and how hard it was to get it finished. I said that I could sympathize. The oil change took more than the promised ten minutes, but I wasn’t in a hurry. Also, I learned things. Not sure what, but, you know, things.

And last night, because this cold was still hanging on with a death grip, and because I knew it would be raining, I planned what I would wear today: a pea-soup colored sweater which I think is from Goodwill,  a denim jumper with white flowers embroidered on (which my mom likes to remind me is actually maternity, because she wore it while pregnant with me,) along with black lace tights and sparkly black rain booties, both of which are new (a big step for me). This is not at all a fashion blog and it’s not as if I have a picture of myself to show, but I wanted to tell you because I look like my college self today. And for a Wednesday in February, that’s a-okay.

Maybe my telling these stories has been boring, and I haven’t been able to make a good essay out of them. I don’t know. But that doesn’t change the truth of the matter: that God has been all these places and in all these things, so mundane or not, they are holy ground, and it behooves me to treat them as such.

In Exodus God makes Moses take off his sandals when faced with His glory manifest in a bush set on fire. The bush is impressively burning with supernatural flames which do not consume, but up until this point in its life, the bush has just been a bush. But perhaps no less holy.