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.

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.