Christmas Past

In the past few weeks, I’ve talked to several friends from other places and times of my life, including two close friends from Regent who’ve been to visit me, one after another. We talked about much: vocation, biscuits, classes, dating, creativity, brick churches, teaching, weddings, travel, houses, memories, cocktails, and, of course, the world and its problems and how we would solve them if we were in charge but how we’re really glad we’re not.

And something struck me after a few days of long conversation. We spent plenty of time talking about mutual friends, but it’s been a few years, and I noticed that with the ones we’d fallen out of touch with, we referred to the relationship in the past tense. “She always told me…” “I always thought he…” “That was why I liked…” That sort of thing. We spoke of these people with deep affection and even loyalty—we still clearly cared—and yet there was this assumption that some of these relationships were past. If not exactly over, they were permanently dormant, frozen in time at the moment we’d last interacted.

Regula and I decorated the tree I bought on Black Friday, hanging it with ornaments I’d had packed away for years while I was off in Other Places, and I thought about the past and whether it was over or not. 

I live now in the neighborhood I grew up in. And from my bedroom, I can hear the trains as they go past. These aren’t passenger trains—this isn’t Europe—but instead cargo trains, almost interminably long. So when they come through, they take a quarter hour doing it and I lie in bed, blocks away, hearing them continually passing and passing and passing, both here and long gone, all at the same time.

This is the best image I’ve found in all my scrambling for how it is, that the then and the now, the past and the present can be separate pieces, but all a part of the same vast eternity with its overlapping waves. 

For how it is that every year we unbox the ornaments at my parents’ house to decorate, and there are all the ones we’d forgotten: Shakespeare and the Korean masks and the washing board and the fragile construction paper Santa made by small hands that are now large ones. But despite their age here they are again, waiting for us patiently, the same as always, just a little more loved.

Or how it is that, after a very long week, in church this morning we began to sing that Sandra McCracken song, “Come Light Our Hearts,” that always used to close the Advent service at Regent. And I closed my eyes, and time folded right in on itself back to 2019 and a crowded carpeted chapel, my soul remembering for the umpteenth how to “for him in stillness wait.” That memory and reality of those words woke up again, just like those friendships may one day.

Because the passing of time doesn’t matter much more than the passing of trains. Love will return again and again to reassert himself.

The week after Thanksgiving I read “The Second Shepherd’s Play” with my freshmen. It’s a one act play about Christ’s nativity which used to be performed for groups of illiterate medieval peasants who were eager for a show. In it the shepherds bumble around before meeting Jesus, complaining about the cold and their bosses and stealing each other’s sheep, and all the while keep using oaths their Catholic audience would have been familiar with: “Deus” “Our Lady” “By Him Who Died for Us!” till any sense of historical timeline gets scrambled up in literary irony and slapstick comedy. And then the angels bust onto the scene right at the end, surprising the audience just as genuinely as they did those shepherds: “God is made you friend now at this morn!”

This play was performed every year. Unto them a child was born, just as he is to us, every year, here and now: the truth resurrected from its sleep in a cardboard box to announce itself just the same, time repeatedly folding back on itself to a single night thousands of years ago.

A Weekend

On Friday night I went to a big basketball game in the Caldwell gym. I’d forgotten how those things go to the core of me—the rumble of the crowd and its rising yells, the sharpness of the whistle and the basketball shoes squeaking on the floor, the smell of popcorn and heat and the hundreds of faces and the youth and intensity of it all and the sound of the buzzer. But most, I am taken by those kids on the court who struggle and slouch in my class, but who spring and leap and even fly with a ball in their hands. I’d forgotten how moved I am watching my students do what matters to them. I like to see them capable and eager and playing confidently to a packed house—it’s fuller than the version of them I usually get. I like being reminded. (I also like it when we win, which we did.)

Then yesterday afternoon I went to Walmart, which is notorious as place where one can observe a subset of humans who seem unable to fit into their clothes, read a price sticker, wash themselves, or exist appropriately within the world (or so that blog that used to circulate, “The People of Walmart,” would have us believe.) But as I navigated past little befuddled-looking family clumps in the home goods aisles on my way to buy curtain rods, we spoke gently and politely to one another, squeezing our carts through, despite the blasphemy of our ill-fitting sweats and unkempt hair. And I thought to myself—”We’re all the people of Walmart on the inside, aren’t we?” I mostly thought it because it made me laugh, but it’s softened my vision ever since. 

And then last night I went to the homecoming dance for a bit. I pinned my hair up like I used to do in college and wore my charity shop coat. We ended up having to turn off nearly all the lights to get the kids to actually dance, because with them on they just milled awkwardly in groups. But in the dimness, they finally loosened up and cheered and jumped and acted like teenagers. We threw glow sticks down on them during “Party Rock,” and they lost their minds as we intended. I got out there and danced a little with a few of the other teachers. I felt full. I turned to Leslie at one point and said, “You know, in high school, I would have been glued to a chair at something like this.” A student cheekily asked me earlier in the week if everything good happens before you’re twenty-five, but I’ve rarely been more glad to be thirty and not sixteen. If only they knew.

I’m grateful that things are not always as they seem they ought to be, grateful that I am frequently wrong, grateful that God comes riding in on his donkey with his bruisable body and his broken bread and his empty tomb and says, “No, actually, child, it’s entirely different than that.”

A Fall Teaching Entry

Here’s a thing I’d forgotten about my job before I came back to it. As much as I aspire to be (and usually am) in control of my classroom, hiding in its corners and quiet moments are delights and strange kernels of time which I could never plan, could never make, can only notice if I’m looking at them in just the right slant of light. They’re the oddities, the unclassifiable outliers, the secret gifts of teaching.

For example:

-The moment when we read Blake’s “I Saw a Chapel” and my group of boys actually listened to it. I asked them what they thought, and one of them said, “It’s weird.” I smiled because he meant it and also because he was right.

-Students who come and sit on my tall, soft stool to spin idly round on it between class times, sometimes to talk to me but more often to talk to each other. Sometimes I tell them to get off, but then bite my tongue and wish I hadn’t.

-How I passed out “Dream of the Rood” in translation from the Old English and had them read it in pairs with no outside guidance then watched, touched, as they drew bright pictures of the paradox of Christ’s cross, encrusted in both blood and jewels.

-The afternoon a junior came in and as he passed my desk ran his fingers absently over a turtle candle-holder I keep there, a gift from a student my first year. That turtle is even more beloved than it once was for having come such a long way.

-The map of Huck and Jim’s journey carefully traced onto butcher paper on my back wall, with a bright orange carrot drawn next to Cairo, IL, because the artist thought Cairo looked like “carrot” which it definitely doesn’t. 

-The desire to laugh and cry and burst with pride at the absurdity of it all while listening to a roomful of fourteen-year-olds stumbling in unison through the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hathe perced to the roote…”

-Two boys who spent their mid-morning break in my room with heads down on the desks, covered by sweatshirt hoods, sleeping slumped right up against each other’s shoulders.

The thing is, the end of the first quarter has come, and with it, the love has hit. I hadn’t forgotten that the love for my students would come, but I’d forgotten the force with which this seemingly mild affection would barrel into my chest. This love, this concern for adolescent welfare, this enjoyment of the utter weirdness of their particular youth expands me and makes me grateful for things well outside its scope. I am grateful this week for voice messages, for Little Free Libraries, for Peter, Paul, and Mary, for counters to sit on, for crockpots and for sidewalks. I am grateful for that which gets us from place: for conversations, for seasons, for weeks and weekends, for growth which comes step by unusual step.

Acorns and Where I’m At

Fall break is over and I spent most of its four sunny days curled in various corners of my apartment as acorns from the trees above pattered onto my roof. The first time I heard the sound a couple weeks ago, it gave me pause. I wondered if something had fallen out of a cabinet or if it was raining or if someone was unlocking my back door or if the world was ending. Any option seemed plausible. But no, it was just acorns, cascading down like manna. 

I’ve felt tenuous the last few days, crying easily. So I’m going to scrape out the corners of my heart onto this page a bit and see if that helps. Bear witness if you’d like.

Last winter was very, very hard. I didn’t say so to many people, but it was. Sometime at the end of November (or maybe at the beginning of December?) life gave me one little nudge and I absolutely crumbled. For weeks and weeks I wept driving to work and back and listened to my heart thud in my ears as I tried to sleep each night. My thoughts were hostile, constant companions, barely letting prayer through their iron bars.

In March a kind friend convinced me to see a doctor, and slowly, like the sun coming up in the cold, I began to feel better. I got on medication and God was gracious in other ways as well. I am beginning to see how throughout the later spring and the summer he gave and he gave and he gave, lavishing healing on fields I had allowed to lie fallow for years. He writes strange and perfect stories.

I’m grateful for all that bounty, the relationships put right and bitterness turned sweet on my tongue. But in the last few days I’m beginning to understand that though he meant those good gifts—oh, he meant them as declarations of love and I must consume them as such—this healing was also a clearing of the decks. Because the humiliating pain which revealed itself by ripping through my gut in a streak of depression a year ago still lives, and it must be dealt with.

You probably have something like this yourself, the spot so tender you’ll calcify your heart to protect it, the thing you fear so much that you’ll build walls out of whatever is nearest at hand just to avoid looking it in the eye.

For me that thing is that many days I find it very hard to believe that Jesus loves me, that he finds value in me. I want to do the math, find the answer for how this could be, but when I figure the equation for myself, my own worth always works out to be nil. I’m baffled at how all his big promises and slow gentlenesses could possibly be intended for me. And often I end up sinking into little puddles of self-hatred rather than face the great salty waves of love.

So that’s me.

But like I said, the decks are clear now. That soft spot has been in the open air recently. At school I keep weeping in chapel programs meant for our teenagers, but which leave me frustrated and raw.

And the acorns keep falling, coming down in rivulets and storms onto all this churned-up, bare soil of my heart. The other day there was a great gust of wind while I sat in my big chair in my living room and they came pouring down for nearly a minute, as if all the acorns in the world had gathered in one tree to lavish themselves on my little house, a million and one declarations of love, demanding to be heard.

Anyway, the seasons are changing, softly, surely.

The Same But Also Different

I’ve been back home for about two months now. They’ve been some of the fastest and fullest months of my life. I was happy to be back and I am happy to be back, but the shine of it all has worn off a bit. I’m no longer turning to people who’ve lived here for decades and saying, “Did you know Greensboro had so many trees? It’s green here!” 

The discomfort of transition is settling in. I can identify the feeling, because I’ve dealt with it before—several times now. It starts in your gut and then if you don’t address it properly it leaks down through all your appendages till at last it comes spewing out of your extremities onto other people in the form of illogical irritability that no one in the room understands, least of all yourself. Best to avoid that.

At the heart of my transition-pains this time is the reality that everything around and within me is both deeply familiar and enormously strange, simultaneously entirely the same and completely different from before. So this is me addressing that. Properly.

Things That Are The Same:

-I’m living in the neighborhood I grew up in, the only neighborhood I’ve ever lived in in Greensboro.

-I’m teaching at Caldwell, the place my entire life in this town has centered around.

-My parents are still here growing their garden and reading their poems and inviting me over but requesting that I call before just dropping by.

-My Aldi is the same. I go on Friday afternoons just like I used to.

-My dear little Kia is still here. The time to replace it is fast approaching, but it’s seen so much of life.

-I’m at the same church I was at the year before I moved away, which is full of many, many familiar faces.

-I hang out with the same women on the weekends. We still plan girls’ night.

-Hanging Rock is still here, as is Cook Out and Krispy Kreme and the Goodwill on Battleground. All pillars of my adolescence. 

-And despite the passage of time, the little idealist who sometimes hopefully tap dances in my chest, who sketches out the biggest of dreams, is still alive and kicking.

Things That are Different, However:

-I’m living in my own place, all myself, and am fiercely interested in how the space is arranged.

-I sometimes worry now that I’ve become a cynic—something I think I’m still too young for.

-I’ve written a whole novel set in the place I’m working and sometimes I get the fictional world confused with the real one. Writing feels weightier.

-I schedule so many more phone dates now. (Because there are so many more far away people I love.)

-The clothes in my closet are 95% different (but, let’s be honest, the number of items is probably roughly the same.)

-My confidence level has risen, but so too has my guardedness.

-There are very few familiar faces from before in my classroom—there arose a generation that knew not Alice.

-Horse Pen Creek Road is four lanes now, which really threw me for a loop at first, but honestly, I’m four lanes now, so I guess I’m okay with it.

Basically, if you’re looking to pick my exact location out in all this messy paradox like I’m Where’s Waldo, you’ll find me balancing between the two extremes, same and different, laughing loudly and crying freely and sometimes just watching the quiet carnival of my life.

The Lines Love Comes By

A couple weeks ago I had a training course via zoom for teaching AP Lit. After it was over, I went out to my car barefoot with just my license and my keys and drove to my parents’ where I retrieved sandpaper, a stud-finder, and two containers of my mom’s gumbo. It was a warm, thick Carolina night, just the kind I’d missed deep in my bones for the last four years, and when I got home and climbed out of my car I could hear the rhythms of a drumset echoing through the trees. The sound came from a house I could not see, hands I did not know holding the sticks. I stood there for a few beats, listening, grasping the moment against my chest—as you do—my hands full of odds and ends and the gravel of the back drive biting into my soles. Then I went inside.

I’m happier to be back teaching than I knew I would be. I’m happy to have kids back in my classroom, I’m happy to be talking about books I love all day long, and to be doing it in a place which, despite the ebb and flow of time, is still very much home. Yet I can feel myself already sinking into the mire I often felt stuck in four years ago—the mire where my job is my whole existence. To have only my job as an outlet, even for just a month, feels as if I’m funneling my entire self through a few very small holes. I’m antsy. I need a place in my life where I can bust through a dam. 

Maybe I can blame it on that moment when I heard those drum beats coming through the woods. Maybe it was putting up a gallery wall in my hallway yesterday with all the pictures of my child self wrapping her arms around people I love. Maybe it was the sound of the kids next door screaming and laughing and the smell of woodsmoke as their parents burnt scraps from their deck remodel. Maybe it’s been a million different things at once.

In fact, I think a part of the reason I feel the need for a channel beyond teaching is because of the bounty of teaching itself. When students come into my classroom they bring a messy stew of energy with them—happy energy, angry energy, anxious energy, hopeful energy. And then I get up and I try to explain to them why Anglo-Saxon poetry runs soul deep or how the source of Jane Eyre’s self-worth is the gospel and that this is why she has the capacity to forgive the way she does, and I watch bewilderment and understanding flicker intermittently through their eyes. I’m consistently amazed at how close observation, when I am willing to make it habitual, generates deep, rooted love. I come home nearly every day all full up not only of my own feeling, but also theirs. 

So I am brimful and I need another place to toss my words out like lines. There is so much to say, and, unsurprisingly, writing is my first port of call.

But recently with writing, I haven’t been sure where to begin. In fact, about a week ago, I made a list of writing projects I could be working on and there were about eight of them, none standing out to me any more than the others. So I put aside the list with vague despair. And then as I was cleaning up my living room one night before a friend came over, I remembered what pulled me into my last novel not only at the beginning, but what kept tugging and tugging and led me all the way through to the end. I was writing to the point where Jesus showed up. The beginning of the story was a promise and I was writing my way toward the fulfillment. His love pulled me on and on.

This is what all those moments I’ve been momentarily clutching to my chest have in common. Those pictures on my wall are a promise, the heady scent of wood smoke is a promise, the storms and sparks in my students’ eyes are a promise, and so, too, is that cadence of drums in the night air. They are all signs of goodness, declarations of God’s intention to fulfill what he has pronounced.

So as I stood there on the braided rug of my living room, three books tucked under my arm to shelve and a glass to put in the sink, I knew. I knew at once that I need to pick the project with that promise at its heart. I need to pick the thing that will have me write my way along some winding path to incarnate hope. I need to toss my line out in the direction of Christ, over and over, so that he may grasp it, and draw me closer in.

So, without even looking back at my list, I know which line I’m tossing. And I’m very excited.

Good Yeast of Spirit

I’m finishing up a week at a writers’ retreat in a little town in Kentucky. There’s been a lot of bourbon and wine and a lot of lean-in-on-the-arm-of-your-chair-laughing conversations, a lot of tears and a lot of blue sky.

Yesterday we toured a distillery and one of the first places they took us was a room lined with vats each as big as my kitchen, all full of caramelly brown yeast eating away at the sugars in corn—bubbling, swirling froth. The tour guide invited us to reach down into one of them. The air above was warm with steam, but the liquid I brought to my mouth on my finger was cool and soft and sweet.  Some exchange of life was happening between the air and the liquor and I couldn’t understand it.

This evening I fly back to Greensboro and then on Wednesday I’ll be teaching again for the first time in four years. In four days there’ll be kids in my classroom and I’ll be back up front doing that writing-in-real-time thing of communicating to a live, volatile audience. It seems surreal.

Then I’ll come home at the end of each day to my new place that’s all my own, my place that has a sunny upstairs second bedroom. Soon I’ll get a bed for it and then I’ll be holding a place for others, a place with a chair and bed and two windows and boxes of books that have yet to be unpacked. All on a quiet street under the trees.

And a couple evenings a week when I come home—I’m saying this now so that somebody hears me—I will write, curled up in an alcove with a window. I may come back to more revisions on this novel, I may write some poetry, and I may take a stab at long-form creative non-fiction. In fact, I may try them all at once, switching from one to the next to the next because variety is good for the soul. It wakes you up.

The point is this. I’ve felt just about every way I possibly can about my writing in the past week, but the ultimate truth that has sifted down into my gut through all my tumult is that I must keep at it, even if I’m “planting the crop I will not live to harvest,” a crop stored in barrels for years to come. So I’ll gladly pay teaching the mental, emotional tax it demands, but I’ll also guard that home writing alcove ferociously. I’ll continue to sit down with a blank page and reach out a hand through the mist of words to the meaning. I won’t understand it, but some exchange of life will be happening.

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.