Thanksgiving Week 2020, Vancouver

In the last few weeks, new Covid restrictions have gone into place in BC. I know that as we’re moving into the dark grey part of the year here many people around me are feeling anxious, discouraged, sad. I have to confess though—I’ve been happy. The quieter things become here, the more I write, the more unnecessary layers I put on to walk in the forest, the more comfort food I eat, the more often I clean my room (it always needs it), and the more pleasant my to-do list becomes. 

On Tuesday when I went into school to work my library shift, I waited for the bus mid-morning in restless November weather. The wind blew up and the rain whipped round me as if it had something to say. I spent the first couple hours of my shift frantically pulling books for curbside pick-up. It’s paper season and since people aren’t allowed to browse the stacks themselves right now, they request whole shelf-fulls. In fact, all day I found that we were all, myself included, a little more needy than usual. People needed extra books they’d forgotten to put on hold, weren’t sure which of the multi-volume set they actually wanted and had to pause to flip through and decide, kept hanging around just to chat a little. It reminded me of some of the sweeter aspects of my job teaching—many of us, I realized, seemed to have gone back to seventeen with anxiety glowing in our eyes.

As I left for the day at three-thirty, I was rushing, juggling bags, fumbling to get my mask off and on with gloved hands. I emerged into a world that was pregnant with light. The sky had been slate grey for weeks, and now a thick orange sweetness, like honey, was leaking out not from behind the clouds, but from beneath them, nudging itself into every nook and cranny, catching in its path the last of the fall leaves which we’d stopped noticing, reflecting off sharp glass buildings with startling transcendence. One part of the sky had opened up blue and in it there was a huge rainbow, so large I could not see it end to end. As I rode home on the bus, we passed many people standing on sidewalks and medians, their faces upturned, staring at it, drinking the light.

Sometimes late at night when I curl up in bed and wait to fall asleep, as I allow my mind to toddle off in various directions, I find that I am crying. But I am thankful for the tears. For a while I couldn’t cry. And now I can. Hopkins says, Peace “comes with work to do…He comes to brood and sit.”

This Thanksgiving Quiet

The sun is not out and probably won’t be today. When I look out my window I can see pine needles on grey-white sky.

Since I live in Canada now I already had one Thanksgiving, back in October, though several Canadians confidently assured me the two Thanksgivings are “about different things.” (I repeated this to a friend from home and she snorted and said, “What, their Thanksgiving isn’t about being thankful?”)

And when I think back over the Thanksgivings of the last couple years (proper, American Thanksgivings) I am aware of how unsettled and lost I felt. Thankfulness was part of the duty of the day, certainly, but I remember how the larger task felt like simply keeping my head up, doing the next thing.

But now I am here, many weights have fallen away, and again it is Thanksgiving. The day feels set apart, more sabbath than Sabbath. I have no real plans, least of all any involving a big turkey dinner, and that’s at least partially by design.

I will read and I will sit very still. These things both fall neatly within my skill set, but I don’t often do them on purpose, so today I will take a corner: a corner of time, a corner of space, to think on the largeness of God.

His reach is vast. It extends back to those blurred, painful Thanksgivings and forward to those I cannot see. It extends round the world and back home again to all the hidden places I know and love and to those I cannot imagine. Why, his reach extends even into the caverns of the human heart.

I am thankful for the light.

Lighting the Turtle

Last night I was searching through the depths of my school google drive for something and stumbled upon a mid-year self-evaluation I had completed during my first year of teaching. The young woman who was me almost three years ago came across as sweet and hopeful. She said that she was learning to teach and slowly getting better, that her students seemed to at least be learning something, that she was grateful for the support of the teachers around her, and that she loved her students. She italicized it. She loved them.

I’ve found myself able to be actively grateful for a couple things the last week or two. The first is that God is in control and I am not. I have been holding my hands open recently because if I tried to clamp them tight around my own plans and power, there would be nothing to grasp onto but air. I am reliant on the grace of God. The second thing I am grateful for is the manner in which God has shown me this grace: I’m grateful for my students.

They haven’t been perfect in the last few weeks, but they know that. I haven’t been perfect, and I know that too. Regardless, whenever they’ve walked into my classroom over the last few days, I’ve found it easier to breathe deep. I know that their coming will distract me and cheer me. They’re unwitting bearers of perspective and sometimes even joy. Also, I love them.

This afternoon in fourth period, after I passed out a reading from Frederick Douglass, the boy who sits directly in front of my desk looked up and asked, “Miss Hodgkins, are you going to light the turtle?” On my desk is a turtle candle holder, a gift from a student right around the same time the earlier Alice wrote that self-eval. I remember him telling me cheerfully that I could use it to help calm everybody down. It’s heavy polished stone, with a brightly painted back, and just enough room in the middle of his shell to hold a small tea light. The turtle is a familiar sight to all the souls who like to wander up to my desk between classes and fiddle with its contents. It’s a presence in my classroom, so I’ve been asked to light it many times before, but I’ve always said no. (I say no a lot.)

But today I said yes. Or rather, I looked back at the asking student for a moment, and then I dug into the glass jar on my desk, and pulled out the little blue Bic lighter that lives there. (Note that the lighter mysteriously appeared in my classroom a couple months ago. It’s not originally mine.) The kids cheered softly as I lit the dusty wick. I smiled. (I smile a lot too.)

The turtle burned for the rest of the afternoon. A few of the girls announced that it was the “eternal flame.” A student in fifth period magnanimously promised to buy me a lavender scented candle. At the beginning of sixth period several boys took turns trying to blow it out from a distance, until I stood a folder around it to protect it. After the final bell rang, I walked out into the hall and almost laughed, because the boy who’d originally given me the candle, long-graduated, was standing there with a friend, home from college. I was well-satisfied. I love them.

On Slow Learning

If you have ever owned
a tortoise, you already know
how difficult paper training can be
for some pets.

Even if you get so far
as to instill in your tortoise
the value of achieving the paper
there remains one obstacle—
your tortoise’s intrinsic sloth.

Even a well-intentioned tortoise
may find himself, in his journeys
to be painfully far from the mark.

Failing, your tortoise may shy away
for weeks within his shell,
utterly ashamed, or looking up with tiny,
wet eyes might offer an honest shrug.
Forgive him.

-Scott Cairns

Pockets in the Between

One of the things I have been doing this time of year is making my students write thank you notes. I tell them that it’s good for us to make ourselves be thankful and to express appreciation to those who don’t hear it from us much. And I tell them that I do this because one day during March of my first year of teaching, when I went to check my box at work, I found a letter inside from my college friend Kate. It was a gem of a letter: warm and kind and deeply thoughtful and valuable. I remember that I kept smiling all day because of it.

I dug it out just now and reread it. She wrote that she had been thinking of me recently because this was a between season in her life and to her I had always seemed to be good at the between. This was generally true of me in college, I suppose, but I think it’s easier in college. High school is over, full adulthood has not yet arrived, and you’re in a strange, happy, stressful bubble where you only hang out with people your own age and talk about the things you love all day long.

But now is different. Now is hard because it feels like it shouldn’t be a between anymore, like I should have moved past the transition stage. There is a voice in my head, coming from God-knows-where, which says to me, “Oh, but you should have arrived.” And it’s true. I have many of the things I’ve always wanted, not the least of which is my job.

Except that the person living this life is not the shiny new Alice I always hoped I would turn into at the stroke of midnight some night, but instead, the person living it is me. I am still stuck with myself–the one riddled with weakness, who tires out and turns inward, who dreams big and lives small.

I’ve been understanding this acutely lately, and I get stuck in it, I get stuck in the dissatisfaction like mud. So this is me backing up, pulling my sinking ankles out of the mire, and climbing onto solid ground. Yesterday I read a passage from Lewis’ Weight of Glory with my juniors, and I told them that our inherent value is not in what we do or what we say, but in our status as image bearers and in the blood of Christ. Everything else is “nothing but filthy rags.”

I should listen to myself more, you guys. I’ve been taught some pretty good wisdom. My kindness, my smartness, my care with my words, my worry over my students, the red ink in my grading pen, the clothes I wear, even the thank you notes I write, are nothing at all when compared with the grace of Golgotha. We can, and should, be grateful, but our goodness–whether we have it or merely wish to have it–is not our own.

I am best reminded of this, I think, by the strange moments when I have stumbled on some surprising pocket of joy which could only have been placed there by One who loves me. We cannot really go searching for little eternities like that–instead they overtake us and, for a second at least, lift the veil.

One night January of my junior year of college, I left a game night at the Edwards’ early so I could go out for a friend’s birthday. It was late, after eleven, and I remember that there was some talk of sending someone to walk me back to campus, but I wanted to go alone. It was very cold that winter–we sometimes woke up with ice coating the inside of our windows–and the powdery snow was falling with a silence that demanded I listen. The road was completely still. My friends were supposed to be picking me up on their way, but they weren’t there yet and I walked up the hill to campus through the streetlights by myself. As I reached the entrance by the baseball fields, my roommate’s car pulled out and past me and I ran out into the street behind them and waved. A couple hundred feet down the car stopped and waited. I could see more than one pair of gloved hands waving at me through the foggy back windshield. I began to run down the middle of the road, through the snow, soft beneath my heavy boots, and through the silent golden streetlights filled with ten thousand quiet snowflakes. The sky was black and starry, and I wanted that moment to go on and on and on.

I cannot figure out what allure it had, except for beauty: as if the wall between myself and glory were sheer, as if Jesus loves even me.

Reading, Writing, and Living

I finished two books over Thanksgiving break. One of them I started way back in August, but that’s neither here nor there. Both were strongly recommended to me by teacher-friends and roughly the size of bricks: East of Eden and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I finished the first on the three-and-a-half hour drive from a Minneapolis airport hotel up to my uncle’s camp, way north of Duluth. Although there were parts that made me feel cold and unsure, the last quarter of that book made me warm. It’s a story about overcoming evil, but wonderful and frightening: it’s about overcoming evil within ourselves, about the ultimate powerlessness of sin in the face of mercy. So I liked that.

And then, three days later, on the drive back down to the airport, I finished Owen Meany. Or rather, I meant to, but the lead up to the final scene that I knew was coming got me more and more worked up and, although I never get car-sick, I began to feel nauseated and laid the book down on my lap. I sat crushed in the backseat of the little rental car with my aunt and my brother and looked out the window at Minnesota’s shades of white and grey and wondered when reading had become such a harrowing experience.

When I was a kid, reading was like breathing–I did it inside, outside, on my bed, on the couch, on the floor, in the bathroom, under the table. But even as a child I knew there was a limit, that there was such a thing as too much. Once, when I was probably nine or ten, I read four books in one day, and each time my mother or some other demanding force pulled me to the surface, I came up for air snarling and unhappy. I was so deeply immersed that the world of my books seemed more real than the world around me. From that day on, I judiciously set myself a “no more than three books a day” rule (which now, as an adult with access to Netflix, I have no trouble sticking to.)

But the way I felt last Monday, driving to the airport with Owen Meany in my lap, reminded me of that four-book day. I knew how the story was going to end–each detail of the last scene was painstakingly, loudly foreshadowed and even explained. But I was drowning in it. Eventually we got to the airport, and before even going through security, I bought a bottle of orange juice, sat down, and read the last fifteen pages or so, through the ending that I had been both anticipating and dreading. My stomach still felt queasy. “You don’t read enough.” I told myself over and over. “You’re just not used to this kind of emotional involvement anymore.” The TSA officer who checked my boarding pass told me to smile, and I gripped the novel through my purse, wanting to slam it into his face, notify him of what I was experiencing.

Finally, a few hours later, just before landing in Midway on a very crowded plane, I wrote a poem. I have been writing one every Monday for the last few months, so I figured that though I still felt awful and also unsure of where the barf bags were, I would go ahead and get it done. It began as a poem telling God what it was that I needed at this dreadfully harrowing emotional moment in my life and then, a brief two stanzas later, it ended with him telling me that he already knew. Oh. He knew.

I put my notebook away and felt warm and comforted and, for the first time all day, hungry. Writing gave me instant relief. Input and output: the novel had run right through me, been let out at the end by my poem, and I was clean and new, like a glass pipette.

I’ve been thinking about all that this week, coming up with morals and conclusions about the ultimate purpose of the story-telling and the written word and self-expression, both our own and other people’s. But I keep getting stumped on one thing: what about living? What about real experience? What about each second that ticks and each movement of our hands that never gets recorded or even remembered, but still is the thing which shapes us most intently, wears the grooves into our souls?

That Friday, while helping my mom with our belated Thanksgiving dinner, I sat at the counter in my aunt’s kitchen making rolls. I tasted a corner of the dough, and the soft tang of the yeast brought me an overwhelming sense of missing. The recipe is a family friend’s, passed down by my grandma, but the person those rolls made me miss was my sister far away in London. She is the one to make them every year in our house, to turn up the music in the kitchen, to roll them out, to crowd them in that pan, to pack away the leftovers, to eat and eat them for days after the holiday. I was doing a shoddy, lumpy job compared to her.

Later that evening, we sat in the living and sang Thanksgiving hymns (which several family members claimed to know very few of) and I again thought of Mary, who knows all the words, all the notes on piano, who loves to sing along, and loud. I slipped out of my seat, sat halfway down the basement stairs and cried.

In the actual living of our lives, feelings of missing and longing and love and assurance and doubt rope their way around our hearts and are not dealt with by the writing of one poem, or by the writing of twenty, I would guess. But he knows, God already knows. And he “keeps us with repining restlessness.”

Our hearts are restless till they rest in You.

Thankfuls about Teaching

I have just spent all afternoon grading a test on American Democracy and the West, and I am tired.

But on Friday, after my last class, during the peace of a seventh period planning hour, I was sorting through paper and books and I thought to myself, “Oh, I like my job.” Please note: that is the first time that thought has ever “risen unbidden,” in my mind, as they say. That is the first time this year that I have been able to be thankful for my circumstances without prompting.

Not that prompting is a bad thing. A prompting to be grateful is the conscience. A prompting to be grateful is the Holy Spirit. But when, every once in a while, thankfulness arises easily (as it should) then that is grace and I will celebrate.

So here I am, a few days later, trying with all my little might to catch the tail-end of that spontaneous gratitude. I am going to tell you what I love about teaching.

I am thankful for my students. I am thankful for the students who ask questions, especially those questions that begin with something other than “What do we need to know about…” or “Did we go over…” I am thankful for the students who take responsibility for their actions and attitudes. I am thankful for the students whose hands shoot up like air-propelled rockets during class discussion. I am thankful most of all, perhaps, for the students who work so hard that, no matter the final grade, I can feel the sheer effort and earnestness radiating off each page they write for me. I hope they know that I love them, and sometimes even admire them.

I am thankful for the people I teach with. I am thankful for their advice and trust and constant, present support. I am thankful for the pumpkin-shaped basket full of candy in the workroom. I am thankful to sit on roll-y chairs around a big table and eat lunch with them each day. Last week, when there was an open mic hour in forum to for students to thank the teachers, I wanted so badly to get in line with the rest of the kids who were waiting to speak. I am grateful for the sanity these men and women bring. But most of all I am grateful for—more than grateful for, awed by—their steadfast compassion and prayers both for my students and myself. I ceased to be their pupil years ago, but they are still teaching me so much.

And I am thankful for teaching itself. At its best, teaching is a little bit like writing in real-time. (I guess, at its worst, it’s like that too. Like a really poorly organized essay that doesn’t have a thesis statement or even a prompt…) I am thankful for test-writing, which I have quickly discovered is the secret glory of teaching. I am thankful to be pushed to study and then communicate history which I know is shaping me as I watch it shape my students. Stories, especially those that really happened, have the powerful effect of washing over in waves and re-shaping the clay of my soul.

At the core, I suppose I am most thankful to be part of something which is so much bigger than I. In the grand scheme of the educations of these forty-five people, I am the least important facet. Certainly for now, they rely on me, and because of that, as the apostle James says, I’ll be held to a higher standard, so I must give my utmost and beyond. But the responsibility for their minds and the “weight of their glory,” as Lewis would call it does not end with me. I am thankful that though the calling before me may sometimes feel like a burden laid upon my back, we are never asked to carry a burden any farther than Golgotha. At the foot of the Savior, we may drop our weights and duties, for they were His to begin with, and we may worship with empty hands.

One Hundred

This is my hundredth entry.

I remember when I first started college and my mom told me I should start a blog. I knew about mommy blogs and food blogs and fashion blogs and celebrity blogs and look-I’m-adventurous-and-studying-abroad blogs. But I was only going to college, and most people I know do that. Sure, I liked to write, but I did not think I would have anything very out-of-the-way to say. I told her ‘No.’

Then one day that first fall semester, I was bored, and I made a wordpress account. A few days later I nervously posted this. And it stuck. The feeling of writing and having others read it stuck to my ribs.

Within months it became indispensable to me. I got used to the feeling of an idea growing in the back of my mind, of catching the little bugger and slapping it down on paper, poking and prodding and stretching its edges till it was just as I wanted.

I have written about my small travels, about sitting home, about my friends, about my classes, about my writings and my readings, and a great deal about my family. I have learned to write about my God in a way of which I never used to be capable. I am beginning to know him. This blog has caught much of the excess that often overflows my edges.

I often like to pretend that writing here is more than that, though. I like to pretend that writing an entry about a fear or a frustration will simply quench it. That just bringing it out of the darkness and showing it to the internet will kill it swiftly and thoroughly, and I can march forward in triumph without ever looking back. But it never does work like that. It usually takes much more prayer and patience than 600 words can carry until my fears are driven out into the swine.

But while writing will not heal me, it has taught me that I am not alone. My ugly ingrown fears and sins are wonderfully unoriginal and shared by many of the people who surround me. I know because they have told me so. Many of you have told me so, have reminded me that I am one saved wretch among many others.

I may very well have been right freshman year in thinking that I don’t have anything very out-of-the-way to say, but I’ve had the joy of saying it anyway, of being listened to, of crying and laughing at myself, of coming back again and again to pour myself out in convoluted words. I am tremendously grateful. Hooray, little one hundred.

Thanks be to God!

I am home for Thanksgiving. I am thankful for home and I am thankful for Thanksgiving. God must really love me, you know?

I drove over to a dear friend’s house this evening and sang to myself the whole way. I sang the Armed Forces songs cause I missed Veterans’ Day, then I sang Amazing Grace, then I made things up. Little ole me who shies away from the music majors, was building harmonies. It sounded awful, but I could not be suppressed. Where do I get off being so happy and full? I’ve been bought back, I know that, but that is only the bare bones of the operation. I am currently floundering in God’s grace.  It’s like the book The Runaway Bunny. At the end, you know?

“Shucks,” said the bunny, “I might just as well
stay where I am and be your little bunny.”

And so he did.
“Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny.

I’ve been given about 27 hundred carrots. So much over and above that in fact I think my entire life is built of God’s gift-carrots. Books and Hugs and Family and Dinners and so many Friends. I’ve discovered that God has placed me at the top of some mountain. I don’t know why. I don’t know how or even how long I’ve been here. Probably forever. In any case, I am writing this to remind my future self that though He will one day lead me into the Valley, He is good. I don’t know His purposes now, and I won’t know them then, but He is so, so good.

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.

The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.

The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Psalm 19:7-10

I  can never in this world, even with my blessed life, begin to understand the depths and heights of God’s goodness. So for now, I’ll just go to bed and revel in it. Good Night.