The Encouragement of Memory

Since the beginning of June, all through hot, heavy summer and into this warm, welcome fall, I’ve been trying to do two things. I’ve been trying not to think about my life in Vancouver too much, and I’ve been trying to understand where I am now.

I’ve found myself in so many different places recently and with so many different people and doing so many different things. What I’ve written on here has been scattered and confused and so have I. I’m constantly thinking of all the moments and movements I could write about, but there are so very, very many of them, and I need to be able to explain them to myself before explaining them to any reader. 

Yet I cannot seem to find the narrative thread: it’s all fragments. There’s the pink sunset I can see from the back window of my client Bonnie’s house as her oxygen machine puffs rhythmically beside me in the yellow-linoleum kitchen. There’s the little church I’ve been visiting where everyone has been so very, very welcoming but I still feel more shy than is sensible. There’s the room I’ve settled into with all my things and books arranged just so for the first time since I can remember. There’s my housemates’ baby crying in the back bedroom so sturdily that we can hear both her actual voice and the sound of it coming through the monitor, her own wailing echo. There’s the tattered band-aid I regularly change out on my finger from a thrilling “workplace injury” I got a week and half ago and my impatience for it to heal. There’s prayer in the round at two different small groups I’ve visited. There’s the dip and roll of Wisconsin farmland as I drive to a client’s, the green and gold of the ripening soybeans. There is the great white wall of books and TV in the living room upstairs and the floor in front of it, usually covered in toddler and baby and toys. There’s me wading ever so slowly forward on my novel and there’s my quest to find places to wear my cute dresses (or any clothes other than my cobalt blue work polo). And here and there, there is a tree turning orange at its tip in full confidence that the chill of season’s change will indeed come even if, at the moment, it hasn’t.

So here I am in the stolid Midwest, hopelessly trying to decipher it all, and then a couple days ago I was flipping through my day journal and I was reminded of something. I was reminded of sitting on the beach at Spanish Banks two nights before I left Vancouver. A few weeks before someone had given my friend Regula and I a couple of small bottles of real champagne as graduation gifts. We still had one left that we’d been forgetting and forgetting to drink. That night a group of folks were gathering, and since it was our last chance Regula brought the bottle. As the sun settled in to set to the far west of the mountains, the two of us passed it back and forth, swigging it lukewarm straight from the bottle, trying not to let our friend Aubrey see how improperly we were consuming her generosity. We giggled a lot and were very happy and free on bare sand. It was a celebration. I think I’d also brought a slice of chocolate cheesecake for my dinner which I didn’t share with anyone.  

What I felt as I remembered was not a pang of missing my life there like you might think, but more a pang of relief and understanding. The memory had become well-ordered in my mind now, not fragmentary, its rough edges rubbed away and its significance clear. This is what happens to things in the past. We forget just enough of them that what’s left is manageable, comprehensible. For instance, enough months had passed that I’d forgotten that though there was a large group at the beach that evening, I talked to no one but close friends and felt ashamed of my introversion. No, now the memory is nothing but joy—joy I can hold in my hand and sip.

It’s God’s faithfulness that this is so. That things (most things) eventually make sense, recede into their own well-ordered, jewel-like narrative, given time and space and remembering. If that day or week or season eventually came up clean in the wash, we can say to ourselves, then probably this one will too. After all, he’s still the same God he was back then. 

So maybe I’ll stop treating my present moment, my present life (which, incidentally is quite a good one) as if it’s some cipher I must labor over and bash my head against. Instead I’ll encourage myself to let the present be. I’ll keep collecting it as I always have, of course. I’ll fill jars and jars full of observations and moments and colors and thoughts, but then I’ll leave them be on a shelf and walk away. I’ll let time distill them till they make sense to me. And in the meantime, I’ll return to the memories that have aged and wisened, that have things to tell me. I will remember and taste and wonder over their many good gifts.

Erring on the Side of Kindness

I’ve been grateful recently that in art, in the making of things, we have permission to be messy. I’ve been struggling the last few days to make myself sit down and write an entry here based on an idea I had about peace. But now I’ve deleted what I had and decided to tell you stories about my grandpa instead. He was, incidentally, probably the most peaceful person I’ve ever known.

When I was in college I spent most summers in Missouri with my mother’s parents. If you’ve hung around here long enough, you probably know that. One of the things I did, every Wednesday evening, was get in the car with my grandpa and drive him an hour southeast to a town called Moberly where he would lead a Bible study at the state penitentiary. I would sit in the local YMCA with my laptop to wait for him—it was the only time I got internet all week. As we drove we would listen to the radio or to the silence or sometimes, though he was a quiet man, Grandpa would talk. 

He told me about once when he’d driven himself to the prison and accidentally left the car running and the doors open when he went in, so that it looked like a getaway car. And he told me about his friend in the Air Force, David, who had been killed during training exercises at the end of the war. But one of the stories he told me most often was about a visit he made home to see his family when he was in college.

He went home for a weekend and visited his mother and aunt. His uncle, who was a bit of a drunk and the family black sheep, lived just across the street. This uncle happened to officially be on the outs with my grandpa’s mom and aunt the weekend he went home, so to keep the peace Grandpa didn’t go see him—just waved at him when he saw him sitting out on his porch. When the weekend was over, Grandpa went back to school, and not long after his uncle killed himself.

I’m sure my grandpa understood that his uncle’s death was not his fault, yet sixty years after the fact he repeated the story to his twenty-year-old granddaughter as if it had great hold on him. He knew he had not done what he ought. It was a story which I now suspect informed much of the rest of his life. I remember that when I started teaching, my mom advised me to always “err on the side of kindness” when dealing with my students. And that’s how he lived the rest of his life in full view of his seven children and exponential grandchildren: disregarding cruel feuds, generous to the point of seeming foolishness, willing to be taken advantage of by the least of these, erring on the side of kindness, salt and light.

The last summer I spent there, Grandpa, still his same gentle, faithful self, started seeing people who weren’t there. He saw children waiting in hot minivans who needed the door opened for them, strangers—perhaps hungry—approaching the kitchen across the back field, a boy sleeping at the end of his own bed who needed a warmer blanket. He always brought our attention to their presence in his soft voice, unwilling to make the mistake he’d made decades before, determined his uncle would not spend the afternoon alone on the porch.

But my favorite memory of my grandpa is perhaps my oldest. I was maybe five, and it was summer then too. The middle child of his middle child engulfed in a sea of visiting cousins, quiet and large-eyed. And he took me in his truck, just the two of us.

Our errand, I think, was to the slaughterhouse to pick up a side of beef that had fed on their land, but that doesn’t color my recollections. What I remember is tearing down Highway F, the little pick-up catching air at every bump. My grandpa loved speed. When we got to our destination he bought me a soda from the machine—I think it was orange—a treat which overwhelmed me. As we came back, I remember soaring over the hills once again, half-full can in the cup-holder and pop sloshing in my stomach. It’s been well over twenty years now, but I would live that ride again and again and again.

The Souls of Things

I am home this week in the quiet and the soft, sticky heat of my parents’ house, and I have just been sorting through books. Box after box, cover after cover, my hands built up a bit of a residue with all the handling and I went reluctantly to wash them. There is nothing, but nothing, which makes me so simultaneously grateful and able to write as simply touching a whole lot of my own books. As I flick the pages they release their ghosts so quickly that the room is full in a matter of minutes. Ghosts of characters, of authors, of friends, family, teachers, of myself as a child, and, wildly and nonsensically, the ghosts of all of us in some eternal future. For these words, printed and dusty and sometimes crumbling, are already pumping through the veins of many of us, pushing us on to somewhere else.

One of them is a book I was assigned to read in undergrad. It’s by a man named Vigen Guroian and it’s called Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening. I can think of about twenty-five different people at Regent who would devour it in one sitting if they haven’t already. In fact I was startled by the number of books I was setting aside to take back to Vancouver, not because I love them, but because I know someone else would.

On Thursday night, as I waited in the Vancouver airport curled in a chair looking back out over the darkening city, I felt an unfamiliar ache realizing that though I’d only be gone for about three weeks, there were people in that place whom I would miss. And as our plane lowered itself through North Carolina’s clouds the next morning I looked down at the green and the trees and began to cry because I loved them so much, because though practically speaking they grow in clay and soil, they also somehow grow in me.

I’m getting soft in my old age. Or that’s what I thought. And then came today and the boxes of books, and I was reminded that it’s always been such. I was made soft, I think. I can pretend that I am not sentimental, that I operate efficiently and practically, up until something in my soul stubs its toe on or wraps its little finger around a tangible object in some concrete place, and then I’m toast. When I left Caldwell last year, I did not cry on the last day of school, but when, a week later, I realized that a stack of precious final assignments from past students had been inadvertently thrown out in my classroom, I drove to school in a flood of tears at nine pm, to see if I could get to the trash before the cleaning crew did. And I’ve spent the last few weeks working on a series of poems about my grandparents and though they are certainly written in memory of them, to my surprise much of what I wrote is actually about their house, their driveway, their dry summer grass.

It’s things that always get me, I suppose because I feel a kinship with their frailty. They were made with high hopes of being some use, imbued with sacred meaning and purpose, whether small like a safety pin or large like my mother’s PhD dissertation. Perhaps they were loved and valued, and perhaps they show marks of it, but inevitably, eventually, they also show marks of time and age and general thing-ly weariness. And when I was sorting books today the weariness of so many of those cracked spines made their mysterious secrets leak out in glistening dust onto my palms. Because a thing cannot spend too long in the human world, in the flickering shadow of the divine image, without becoming just a bit eternal.

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.

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.

Houses of Memory

For weeks now I have been dealing with things: unpacking and repacking them, dusting them off, sorting them out, holding them in my hands, throwing them away.

About two weeks ago, my mom and my aunt and I went to out to my grandparents’ house in Missouri to pack it up, to begin to get it ready to sell. We moved them up to Minnesota almost ten months ago, and since then the house has sat still, their aging black lab wandering aimlessly and heavily in and out of his dog door to garage, being fed by a family friend, the swimming pool hosting gleeful clans of mosquitoes. Various children have come by a few times: the fridge was cleaned out, the books were sorted, choice pieces of furniture were taken. Most of the beds got clean sheets. But that has been it.

When we got into town we went by Walmart to get cleaning supplies: paper towels, trash bags, work gloves, lighter fluid, and matches. Over the course of five days we sorted through about half the house. My grandparents lived in that house for more than fifty years, and for people who I know have stored up their treasure in heaven, they have so, so much stuff.

Highlights included a book of Ronald Reagan “full color” paper dolls, three Chinese checker boards, a forty-year-old speed reading course neatly packed in its own blue case, hundreds and hundreds of cassette tapes, three doctor’s bags full of hypodermic needles and prescription medication dating back to the seventies, drawers and chests full of baby and doll clothes, a 1993 picture of grandkids at a family funeral which someone had had produced as a jigsaw puzzle and then never opened, a ziplock bag of stockings neatly labelled as “Not Best Stockings”, designer ties mixed in with the polyester ones, boxes and boxes of microwave popcorn, dozens and dozens of Mason jars (some still containing homemade jelly,) and boxes of old forgotten family correspondence, all along with seven dead mice, thousands of mouse droppings in drawers and corners and plastic bags, and one small wasps nest.

We sorted things into piles to sell, to give away to the local charity shop, to take home with us, to go in the dumpster, and yes, largest of all, to throw on the fire out back. I carried huge bags out to toss onto the flames, and sometimes I would stand and watch them burn: all of these things which had sat so patiently at the back of a crawl space or at the back of a drawer, now gone so fast. Pages and pages of old medical journals turning ashy black, their edges curling and disintegrating. Boxes of ant-infested sugar cubes turning into syrupy brown rivulets, burbling down the side of the heap.

On our drive out to Missouri my mom told me about the paper she was writing for the conference she and my dad are at this week, and she explained that in ancient times, when education placed a great emphasis on memory, particularly memorized oratory, teachers taught their pupils to use a device called the “house of memory.” As a young man memorized his speech he was supposed to build a big house in his mind and walk through it as he recited. Each room was supposed to remind him of a different point or counterpoint, and then lead smoothly onto the next point in the next room. If you stayed safe within your illusory house as you spoke, you would not get lost in your own words.

I am very good at remembering: my sister and I have a running joke that I remember her own life better than she does. And because I am good at memory, I prize it very highly: to remember what has happened feels like having all the answers stored away for a rainy day.

And my grandparents’ home has always served as a tangible house of memory for me: It is the center of my extended family, the place I can remember all of them and all of our Christmases and summers. As we packed up the end room, and piled old appliances and furniture in the middle for the dumpster, I kept looking around and thinking about my uncles who grew up here when this was “the boys’ room”: they have gotten tall and grey, but the wooden paneling and the bright blue carpet still remembers them as scruffy loud little boys, reading Peanuts books, just as the now busted out doctors bags remember all the patients my grandpa cared for so faithfully, and the Mason jars remember my Grandma’s hard, satisfying work over a hot stove.

I know that memories can be a burden. But I also know that my grandparents are so old and have forgotten so much. If I cannot remember things for them, I wish I could at least hold onto the things that saw them when they did remember. But I know that it is better to try to live with empty hands.

Tomorrow I am moving into my first real apartment, so I have spent the last several days packing. While I do not hoard, there are certain things I have quite a lot of: I have a lot of dresses, tights and blankets, I have twelve boxes of books, and I have huge amounts of paper: mostly in ratty old notebooks of different shapes and sizes. Most of these things (except some of the paper) will come to my new home. I will not stay there forever: the new memories I will make in the rooms will become old, and I will leave them behind. It’s unavoidable, I’m going to forget. I’m going to forget my sixth grade email address and why I chose it. I’m going to forget what my cousins looked like when they were babies, I’m going to forget what year I took that favorite class in college, I’m going to forget students’ names, I’m going to forget what I did on my nineteenth birthday.

And someday I will probably forget that my grandma read Proverbs at the breakfast table. But she did not read Proverbs to her children and grandchildren so that we would remember that she read Proverbs at the breakfast table. She read Proverbs so that they would they would teach us to strive to “get wisdom” and “keep understanding.” And they did. They do. She would not mind if I forgot all the rest, so long as I remember that.

The old that is strong does not wither / Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

The Christmas in Minnesota

I have a week before I go back to teaching and there is so, so much to do (most of it having nothing to do with school.) But before I do all of the so, so much I need to keep up a tradition. Every year on this blog I have written about Christmas, with the exception of last year, when I must have been too busy with my novel to do anything here except whine about how tired I was. Oops. But anyway, this year there is no frantic writing independent study, only a surprisingly well-rested Alice, too distracted to take on her real to-do list.

This Christmas was quietly different from all the others (related here, here, and here.) It was both more joyful and more painful. As I get older such feelings are more keen, but more often than I used to, I know what they mean and I know what to do with them. I do not, however, always know how to express them.

I thought that I would tell you about the week in the old way, beginning to end, like a story, but it does not have enough narrative thread for that. It has a setting, of course: a Bible camp up in the Iron Range of Minnesota, where the camp director has raised his seven children, and has recently moved his quickly aging parents. Because it is Christmastime children, grandchildren, husbands, wives, and two little boys named after the same great-grandfather have converged upon the camp, where the ground is slushy, but still a bit slick. With them, they bring chocolate and the old family Christmas songbooks. They plan to stay for four or five days.

So that is the stage set, but beyond that, there is no plot, one event does not lead to another, so if I told it like that, it would make no sense. That is was not what it was. The week was not a story in itself, but merely an infinitesimal part of a great and large story, a moment about the length of a heartbeat.

My grandparents are near the end of that story. My grandma is confused and sad and only partly herself. She tries to introduce her grandchildren to one another, but remembers the taste of the orange balls she used to make. My frail grandpa is contemplative and eager for coherent company. While the girls organized a game of cousin knockout on Christmas Eve he stood bent over in the corner of the gym and enthusiastically dribbled a basketball till it bounced out of reach. He stands up in Sunday meeting and says that we are greatly blessed by Christ’s coming. And he asks, again and again, that we all sing “Come Let Us Adore Him.” (That’s his preferred title for the carol, I think, because he does not consider himself particularly “faithful,” but he does know Jesus to be worthy of adoration.)

My mother and her siblings are at another part of the story. A part which is harder and less certain than they anticipated, I think. They take charge and they clean and they cook and they delegate and they worry. They find perhaps that, more than before, they have no one older and wiser to pass their worries along to, save passing them around in a circle to one another. They must go straight back to the Source with it all, give every bit of it up in prayer. Then when next their hands are free on Christmas Eve some one of us bestows upon them a child to hold: a quiet, solemn little gift-baby, theirs for a few minutes, who will nestle his head into their shoulder and rest.

Then there are the grandchildren. (That’s us.) We are at the part of the story in which we have come into our own, some of us without noticing. I can only speak for myself, but the old excitement for Christmas has been replaced by a certain sober joy. My cousins sat on the couch and helped grade the fill-in-the-blanks on the last test I gave, and I remembered sprawling on the end-room bed with them, summers before, reading To Kill a Mockingbird. On the 23rd we dragged down the tree from the attic, set it up with great care, and literally festooned the rafters with lights. On Christmas Eve night, we had a dance party (inspired by Sally’s cautious hip-hop moves.) When we are together now, we want to be together. We don’t care if we dance like Peanuts characters. We are not forgetting ourselves, but deliberately setting ourselves aside. We are slowly, at our own paces and in our own ways, learning the value of what has been given to us: the old summers in the above-ground pool, Proverbs read at breakfast-time, full couches and long legs, parents who name their daughters Hope.

Earliest in the story are Billy and Liam. Small lap-sitters, futures unseen, no worries beyond whether they too are allowed to have some of that candy they see everyone else has got. It is for them that Christmas is intended first and foremost. Jesus’s beginning as infant was his loud, clear announcement of his intentions: that since he was coming as the least of these, he meant to love and save the least of these.

And so, if we follow the story, beginning to end (or end to beginning, as it were,) we find the Son of God at its core: the adored gift-child, bearing in his tiny frame all the fearful hope and promise of his death for our redemption.

Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.

Culture and the Gospel

I want to write about something I know I’ve already addressed in different ways in this entry from last Christmas and especially this one, from a couple years ago, but I’ve had a lot of time to myself to think recently, so what follows is going to be particularly long. Beware.

For most of us it is so easy to see the sharp disparities between Christianity and the culture in which we live. The situation in Iraq is suddenly turning awful and we’re all looking on in horror. And in our own backyard, we see so much bitterness and rebellion and mockery. There is greed and cruelty and an all-consuming cult of self, often espoused by people who claim to care a very great deal about “making the world better.”

We have learned enough about our Lord, who overturned tables in the temple, to understand that this is not what he wishes. We are able to see how what is around us is rotten. But I think the sight of so much that is dreadful often tempts us, as a church, to a subtle wringing of the hands, and to a sometimes not-so-subtle and rather despairing call to “reinforce the battlements of Christian morality once more,” to “save our God’s dying and unheeded biblical principles in the face of a perverse and evil world.” “Oh!” we say, “The culture has gone down the drain, and we must defend truth.”

First of all, God’s principles are not dying. They are quite as well and strong as He is, was, and always will be. (Whether anyone is listening to them is an entirely separate matter.) And the culture has not “gone down the drain.” I’m sorry if you are only just now noticing and it comes as a shock, but it has always been down the drain, ever since Adam and Eve ate the fruit. If you want to understand what is wrong with the world, the root of its rottenness, bitterness, and cruelty, we must always look at our own hearts.

Cultures of all kinds and ages, after all, are changing, ephemeral, and really rather insignificant in the scheme of things. I have been watching Ken Burns’ Civil War series in preparation for my debut as a history teacher in the fall, and I keep thinking of what Dr. Edwards used to say: that the great sin of our country in the nineteenth century was slavery, and that now it is abortion. I believe there is quite a lot of truth to that, both specifically and generally. Most cultures are born with their own virtues (usually rather scant) and their own sins (usually quite profuse,) and are eventually, and often violently, overtaken by the next human concoction for governance, approximately opposite in its schemes of morality, but just as self-sick.

The problem is humanity. We are the common denominator. I have been rereading Mere Christianity (if you couldn’t tell already) and Lewis is quite clear about the ultimate unimportance to the Creator of these revolving human civilizations and their timely deaths. “God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one.” The marvelous mystery is that, though cultures will eventually fade away like bad dreams, mankind can be real, as our Father is. In fact, in the great spiritual war, we, the men and women made in His image, are the battlefield, the ground to be gained, of much more significance than “kingdoms and principalities.”

Yes, Christ came to save, but He did not come to save our crumbling, sello-taped culture. That will pass away. He came to save you and He came to save me—he came on a quest for our sinful, maggot-ridden hearts: to take them, and if we will let Him, to remake them out of entirely fresh stuff, to remake them out of Himself. He came to teach us, by example, to how to die and then how to live anew.

But I know that the question remains. How do we live anew in a world filled with machinations which are so clearly built for the purpose of degrading what is holy? I remember the Ten Booms, living out the gospel in Nazi-occupied Holland. (I have picked an extreme example on purpose, because perspective is a healthy thing, and also because you ought to read The Hiding Place.) I remember that they prayed, and took pity upon their oppressors. They prayed, and opened their doors to every man, woman, and child who needed them. They prayed, and even in prison sent messages to one another pronouncing the goodness of God. They prayed, and, at long last, transformed concentration camps into places of healing and new life. This, I believe, is what it means to live faithfully.

We are to be the people in whose homes and minds “mercy and truth are met together.” We are told to seek the kingdom, to take heart, to trust the Lord, to love our enemies, to fear no more, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to be patient and joyful, to store up sound wisdom, to pray without ceasing, the bless those who curse us, to forsake foolishness, to walk humbly, to be kind and tenderhearted, to freely give, to serve the Lord all the days of our lives, “and, having done all, to stand.” We are told to speak, to do, to go, to give, to pray, to love, to die, but never, to my knowledge, does God tell us to be concerned citizens. He wants quite a lot more than that. He does not want His people to make the world fit for Him, but to make His people fit for their true home.

I‘m still struggling to express what I mean, (probably because I’m still learning all this myself,) so I’ll borrow an old puritan prayer from the Valley of Vision:

Thou Great I Am,

Fill my mind with elevation and grandeur at the thought of a Being with whom one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, a  mighty God, who, amidst the lapse of worlds, and the revolutions of empires, feels no variableness, but is glorious in immortality.           

May I rejoice that while men die, the Lord lives; that, while all creatures are broken reeds, empty cisterns, fading flowers, withering grass, He is the Rock of Ages, the Fountain of living waters.

Turn my heart from vanity, from dissatisfactions, from uncertainties of the present state, to an eternal interest in Christ.

Let me remember that life is short and unforeseen, and is only an opportunity for usefulness;

Give me a holy avarice to redeem the time, to awake at every call to charity and piety, so that I may feed the hungry, clothe the naked, instruct the ignorant, reclaim the vicious, forgive the offender, diffuse the gospel, show neighbourly love to all.

Let me live a life of self-distrust, dependence on Thyself, mortification, crucifixion, prayer.

Of course, I have been holding back. I have been holding back the greatest, grandest thing: “In the world you will have tribulation: but be of good cheer,” Christ says, “I have overcome the world.” Everything I have been saying is just talk, really, for He has already done it. It is in the Divine character to act as savior and conqueror. It is in our Lord’s character to be more powerful and holy and loving than we can even conceive. Even when we are so often faithless, He promises to remain faithful. I’ve been reading Psalm 46 a lot lately:

God is our refuge and strength,

A very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear,

Even though the earth be removed,

And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though its waters roar and be troubled,

Though the mountains shake with its swelling.

There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,

The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;

God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.

The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved;

He uttered His voice, the earth melted.

The Lord of hosts is with us;

The God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,

Who has made desolations in the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;

He burns the chariot in the fire.

Be still and know that I am God;

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth!

The Lord of hosts is with us;

The God of Jacob is our refuge.

And He always says what He means and does what He says. When he hung on the cross, he said, “It is finished.” And so it must be. As Julian of Norwich repeats so definitely, because it is the surest truth she knows: “All manner of things shall be well.”

I have been playing hymns on my cello lately, and my grandpa will come in and sit down and close his eyes. By the second or third note he is always singing along. The other day I found myself watching him and wondering what it took to be the sort of person who, at nearly ninety, loves his God so well. And then I realized. My grandfather is the best man I know, but his devotion to his Lord has nothing to do with his virtue. He loves so deeply because the gospel is so rich and so true. Everything and everyone he meets compels him to hold onto Jesus so much tighter.

And I have been listening to my grandpa’s prayers better recently too. He has trouble with many words now, but there is one word he always speaks clearly: blessed. He never asks God for blessing, but seems always to be thanking Him for it. “You have blessed us,” he says, “We are so greatly blessed.” He knows the abundance of mercy that is promised, and that what our Lord promises he will accomplish. “Behold, I make all things new.” My grandfather comprehends the gospel so much more fully than I do, but still, he is only standing at the edge of God’s goodness, and even there he is overwhelmed.

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Do not listen to any nonsense about culture wars. The battle is spiritual, it is for the hearts of the children of God, and victory is already certain. We’re going home.