The Cruelest, Greenest Month

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve had a little bet on within myself. Every year April comes, and Easter, and the trees are still grey and bare, but I say to myself, just wait, just wait, by your birthday, just wait. Eventually everything will start to bud, but the days will be coming on faster and faster, speeding up as they go, and I start holding my breath to see if spring will make it in time for my day.

But it does. It always does. I turn twenty-six on Tuesday and outside are bright, thin leaves, bold against the blue sky. Every time I look up, I feel a knot in my stomach.

This morning I went to my Aldi for the first time since its recent remodel. I’ve loved Aldi since college: it’s cheap and predictable. There’s one path you follow through the aisles, and I learned to make my shopping list in the correct order, so no grumpy older person would scowl at me if I had to turn against the flow of traffic to go back for something I’d missed. I liked that the first aisle was the snack food and wine, so the inevitable temptations could be dealt with early on. I liked the loud yellow price signs above products stacked haphazardly on pallets. I think I even liked that the aisles were barely wide enough for two carts, so that it was necessary to make friendly eye contact as you maneuvered past each other.

But now it is bigger. And they have more items stocked than ever. And the first thing you walk into is the produce. And they have labels up which say things like “Cereal” and “Personal Care” and “Cheese.” And the wine is in the last aisle, on sliding racks with mood lighting situated around it. The aisles are so wide now that I think the only person I made eye contact with was the cashier.

If you like nice, easy-to-navigate grocery stores with low prices, you should go to the Aldi on New Garden. But if you’re deeply change-averse like I apparently am right now, you should stay home, because you will hate it. Instead, take baby steps. Open a window and look at the green leaves and pink and white blossoms against the blue sky. Sit quiet and ask for the thing you have been steadfastly resisting: for the God who breathed this life to remake your heart in the same way he remakes spring every year, an act no less wonderful for having been promised.

Summer Update

This is going to be a little more of a vintage-Alice-blog-entry: more rambling and personal, probably not very philosophical. I guess summer brings out the nineteen-year-old in me.

I’ve been done with work for two weeks now. I’ve reorganized my bedroom, gotten a massage, accidentally made an obscene amount of corn pudding, had my oil changed, gone to a wedding, applied for a credit card, donated four bags of clothes to Goodwill, finished reading eight books (three of which I began at least a year ago, two of which were re-reads), and finished writing one (short) short story. Hello, June.

Other highlights so far have included more in-depth planning for trips to London this summer and next, getting to sit down and talk with various wonderful friends whom I almost never get to see, ordering stuff off Amazon Prime nearly every other day, and listening to heavy summer rains wash down my windows in fresh torrents.

Also, Karen moved out on Saturday. I will miss living with her and her habit of walking to my room and beginning enormous theological and cultural conversations with no preface whatsoever. Even though I have a lot more stuff than she did, it echoes here now.

The last summer I spent at my grandparents’ in Missouri was in 2014. They were not really doing very well at that point and shouldn’t have been left alone for long, but sometimes I got restless. Some nights, despite all the books I had to read and the movies I routinely rented from the Redbox at Walmart, I felt like bursting out of my skin. Everything around me seemed to be either stagnant or in decay, so I would take my grandpa’s pick-up to the Sonic in town, where I would buy a large cherry limeade. Then I would drive out into the countryside for an hour or two, down all the little highways with letters for names, and I would try to get lost out there, in the silence of the thick summer. I was never able to do it, though. No matter how far I rolled down the windows, and how the wind rushed through my hair, all my responsibilities and cares stayed in their neat little pile on my lap. I never managed not to know who and where and why I was.

Over time though, I find I mind that less. Responsibilities and cares tie me to people and purpose and community. You don’t always need to be lost to be found.

So, like I said, hello. I’m here and I’m grateful.

 

Blessed Are the Februarys

I feel as if every year in February I write a blog entry about how little I like February.

This is because February is grey. It has a sandy feel that goes down your throat and into your stomach, and everyone seems tired and cynical and little bit empty in the eyes. I usually feel used up and far-from-home.

So since this February has arrived in all its disheartening splendor, I have been feeling small and small and smaller lately, and then this past weekend I read The Great Divorce. And I read where the Spirit tells the man with the lizard on his shoulder that “the gradual process is of no use at all.”  I stopped and I sat very still. This is at least the fourth time I’ve read the book, this scene has always been my favorite, and I think I may even have already underlined those words before. But I guess I haven’t actually been paying attention.

For a very long time, I’ve fed myself the narrative that since life is long and winding, and we change so slow, it’s okay to come to Jesus the long way. It’s okay if I don’t do the best thing, the right thing, today, or if I only do it halfway. I’ll begin being faithful eventually, when I’m older and better, when I’m tough and mature enough to handle it. I’ll join the ranks of the saints once I’m fit for sainthood.

But He must have all of me now no matter how flimsy and sullen that “all of me” is. The plan is not for me to inch towards Him as I have the strength and inclination. I’ve got to throw myself onto the pyre to be made new. And beyond that blaze lie the unknown regions of sheer grace.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,

Blessed are the ones who sing off-key,

Blessed are the ones who’ve lost their appetites,

Blessed are the ones who forget their turn signal,

Blessed are the ones with illegible handwriting,

Blessed are the uncomfortable, the fragile, the speechless, the lowly,

Blessed are the ones who are often flat-out wrong,

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and the “Bleeding Charity” that flows at its heart is theirs for the taking.

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.

The Sun

I’m writing because it’s March 31st, I haven’t written since February, and I don’t think I’ve ever missed a month. I don’t have much to say, though. It’s spring break, I just got back from a college visit with my brother, and all I can think of is how many things there are to do before I go back to school on Monday. It’s actually not that long of a list, but my foul mood is managing to expand the font size.

But on our early flight back from Houston this morning I watched the sun rise. A blade of orange light bisected the darkness. Above it, the clouds made mountains and then gold faded into the softest blue. That blue got bigger and brighter and bigger and warmer until, quite suddenly, the clear, white sun came up. Even when I closed my eyes it burned through my eyelids and lit the world.

It’s March 31st and I watched the sun rise.

A Servant of God in the Winter and the Springtime

It’s spring here today!

This blog has changed substantially since I graduated from college almost two years ago. A week or so ago, I found myself reading back over old entries from early 2014, when I was racing through drafts of my novel and watching the world turn to spring at my feet faster than I knew it ever could. That girl poured her soul out onto the page fast and thick, in words full of inexhaustible hope.

I don’t do that anymore. Certainly, my circumstances are different now, but so is the soul I have to pour. I will do my best today, though. I will do my best.

There was some lie that I believed way back when, that teaching would feel like a success story. It does not. It feels small and long. On bad days it feels like trudging through the mud in a narrow lane. On good days it feels like removing your own internal organs, and passing them into eager, outstretched hands. I have a Wendell Berry poem by my desk which ends with that: “Every day you have less reason not to give yourself away.”

This has been a somewhat hard year for me personally. Last semester I spent quite a lot of time dreaming about what it would look like to write, just write, and have all day long with words and silence and clouds of story. At the root of that, I think, was a very private understanding with myself that my talents were not being used properly, that this job could not really be what God meant for me. Surely there had been a mistake. I was not supposed to end up like Zerubbabel, merely a name in the line of begats. I was the kind made to stand on her own.

But, of course, there is no such kind. We all have feet of clay. And with aches and pains, I have learned a good deal in the last month. February is a poignant and exacting teacher. Through a series of little failures and humiliations, grit that got under my nails and bile I had to swallow, I have come to remember: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise.” And now I am sitting hesitantly at the golden feet of my Lord and he is saying to me the same words he spoke over a cowering Moses: “You shall serve God on this mountain.”

That he should say this to me, when I finally deign to listen, is not what surprises me. I half-expected it all along. What surprises me is that he is a different God than I thought. My talents are not wasted in teaching, because a God like this does not want to use my talents. He wants to use my weakness (which there is plenty of). He is a God who may turn my hand leprous to show what he can do. I always say that he loves my students more than I do: well, I must let him.

And just because teaching doesn’t feel like some success story on a day-to-day basis, doesn’t mean it isn’t one. If I am willing, I can be a participant in the victory of the risen Christ. “You shall serve God” is not merely an order, but a promise. A promise that the words I speak in weariness and the lessons I teach three times over will take root, in his good time. I am small. And that is good. He has made me weak, that I may take shelter in his eternal strength.

“Lead me safely on to the eternal kingdom, not asking whether the road be rough or smooth.”

How to Have a Snow Day (Parts I, II, III, and, apparently, IV)

-Be teacher during midterm exam week.

-Receive expected text cancelling Friday while watching movie with roommate.

-Rejoice.

-Relax.

 

Part I: Friday

-Sleep in.

-Smile at snow outside of window.

-Consider actually enjoying snow for once.

-Begin to layer winter clothing.

-Discover heavy boots are MIA.

-Continue to layer winter clothing to make up for deficit of decent boots.

-Gather phone, keys, phone charger, glasses, and similarly layered roommate.

-Realize am probably wearing enough clothing and equipment to go into battle as snow warrior.

-Feel invincible.

-Venture into white, sleety world.

-Climb (small) snowy mountains.

-Arrive at parents’ house.

-Make too-salty cookies.

-Read Wall Street Journal weekend section.

-Revel in Wall Street Journal weekend section.

-Play seven games of Solitaire on floor by wood stove.

-Win only one (by dishonest means).

-Discover heavy boots in parents’ upstairs closet.

-Put on heavy boots and consider possibility of actually becoming snow warrior.

-Ask very nice father for ride home.

-Once home, tromp across street to neighbor-friends’.

-Eat curry.

-Discuss unfortunate bodily functions as well as city council.

-Watch X-Files on squished couch and cover eyes to protect self from aliens.

-Laugh with roommate at people who have cabin fever.

-Make more hot chocolate mix.

 

Part II: Saturday

-Take hot bath.

-Talk to sister on other side of ocean.

-Marvel at ability to speak to sister on other side of ocean.

-Marvel at possibility of sister’s holiday to Netherlands.

-Enjoy marvelling.

-Layer items of winter clothing.

-Put on heavy boots.

-Rejoice in new freedom endowed by heavy boots and also own potential as snow warrior.

-March out alone toward local grocery store to buy supplies for tomato soup and grilled cheese.

-Walk in middle of street because if not now when.

-Become very warm from snow-aerobics (i.e. walking).

-Desperately remove items of winter clothing.

-Wisely decide against removing boots.

-Encounter happy walking couples, happy playing children, happy bundled houses, and angry driver who reproachfully waves self out of road.

-Decide snow turns entire world into Mayberry.

-Become caught up in joy and self-revelation.

-Decide to write blog entry about new person snow has made self to be.

-Arrive home full of good will and with groceries.

-Do yoga to calm rapidity of beating heart from snow-related epiphanies.

-Make pasta (not tomato soup and grilled cheese).

-Listen to Hamilton at behest of sister.

-Stare glowy eyed at computer for hours reading lyrics.

-Imagine Lin-Manuel Miranda writing brilliant things.

-Imagine self writing brilliant things.

-Consider writing blog entry.

-Consider doing laundry.

-Instead, watch angsty indie love movie in dark room.

-Make not-as-salty cookies.

-Learn to play Dominion.

-Lose.

 

Part III: Sunday

-Take too-cold bath.

-Walk to parents’ house.

-Play Scrabble and beat parents (though not brother).

-Ignore fact that parents had Very Bad tiles.

-Eat blueberry coffee cake.

-Play Trivial Pursuit.

-Lose.

-Eat pasta.

-Discover afternoon church is cancelled.

-Read Bible and sing hymns with family instead.

-Consider possibility of Monday school cancellation.

-Dismiss possibility as heresy.

-Walk to local coffee shop to meet roommate.

-Carry on long conversation with roommate and brother mocking others’ inability to drive in snow.

-Play Dominion again.

-Lose again.

-Clean off car and successfully run short errand in it.

-Feel smug and also relieved about driving ability.

-Receive woeful text cancelling Monday.

-Imagine students at home stewing in pots of own exam stress.

-Imagine self, on distant-future-day-when-school-resumes, being doused with said exam stress.

-Stew in pot of future-stress-related stress.

-Grieve.

-Decide no one in weather-weary world wants to read snow-related blog entry.

-Realize self does not want to write said blog entry because self never wants to write lately anyway.

-Answer emails like a grump.

-Eat dinner cooked by nice roommate who makes food pretty.

-Decide even weather-weary world should not miss out on extreme cleverness and wit.

-Begin to draft cleverness and wit.

 

Part IV: Monday

-Wake up to sound of roommate heading off to work.

-Feel wistful.

-Watch Downton.

-Make make ambitiously grocery list including four kinds of cheese.

-Put on clothes and also hat and snow warrior boots.

-Venture.

-Discover main roads are clearer than clear.

-Wish main roads were not clearer than clear so would have excuse to avoid big stores full of tired people and school-aged children.

-Spend slightly too much money on food, mostly unnecessary but delicious prosciutto.

-Arrive home in relief.

-Make self hot chocolate as reward for conquering real world as snow warrior.

-Consider the remote possibility of snow day Part V.

-Dismiss potential Part V as heresy.

-Receive email with school schedule for tomorrow.

-Realize snow day Part V actually is heretical and false and definitively not happening.

-Have mixed feelings.

-Smile at remaining snow outside of window.

-Consider becoming sentimental.

-Decide instead to go ahead and start dinner.

On Flying

We are two weeks out from the start of school, and I am beginning to get nervous. There is so much to do and think of and plan and write down, not to mention all the time I obviously need to spend worrying about the things I can’t control. Of course, back-to-school nerves are probably one of the more common feelings in the world. There’s a newness and a freshness to that first day that can never compare to the first of January. It’s all short haircuts and tans and deeper voices and words that move faster than they did before and smiles that aren’t yet tired.

But sooner than we expect, all of the gloss and new-clothes smell will wear away and we will be left with those Mondays where our greatest accomplishment is getting out of bed in the morning. I am content in the understanding that some days, even some weeks, 6:43 am may be my proudest moment, so long as I remember that as I stand bleary-eyed in front of a mirror and march into school with a heavy bag on my shoulder, so much above and beyond me is being fulfilled and achieved.

As a child I didn’t necessarily believe I could fly, but neither did I quite believe that I couldn’t. I understood that as far as physics were concerned if I climbed up onto a roof, and took a running leap with my arms outstretched, that the air would not catch me. The ground would catch me, along with all my broken bones. And yet I was fairly sure that the business of soaring and dipping and twisting through the trees and into the clouds didn’t just concern physics. It made a sort of inherent sense to me that though my arms didn’t look or behave like wings (and in fact looked and behaved very much like arms) that didn’t mean they couldn’t actually be wings underneath. If, you know, some day…I did decide to try… I had an eager, soft little heart that loved the air and the heights better than the bruising, itching ground.

Last week we went on a family vacation and the cabin we stayed in had a swing. I swung on it only once, the day we got there, and just a couple minutes on it resurrected a whole hearty body of forgotten loves which I had allowed to be buried by a host of teenage and adult fears of  indeterminate origin. I remembered that swinging is one of the few physical activities that I have never thought makes me look foolish, I remembered my starved appetite for the wind in my ears and my clothes, and I remembered the pure, unexamined desired to get close and into the center of the blue sky. I realized I had never really changed my mind. I am twenty-three and am not quite convinced that I can’t fly.

I‘ll be very clear with you, I have been grumpy today: I was sullen with my sister and got more upset than perhaps was justifiable over a car insurance meeting that went too long. (I almost kicked the cat.) But I want so much to remember that there is a sky. I want to lay my fear down on the concrete curb and look up to see if it might be a good day for flying. I want to be able to remember that swing at 6:43 am in February. I want to be able to set aside my cynicism (just a grown-up brand of fear), and feel the wind from my Lord’s treasuries. The hope in my seven-year-old eyes gazing out into the sky from our backyard swing is no less real than the heavy fears of February. In fact, it might be real-er.

Easter in the Fall

A few weeks ago I followed my dad out into my mom’s garden when he went to pick the remaining vegetables. Most of the plants were dark and bent and dead. The okra was half the height it had been, and the beans’ home-built trellis was tilting with mad exhaustion. The tomato vines curled blackly around their stakes and a few last over-ripe tomatoes, glowing orange-red, hung almost oozing off of them. Ever since then I have wanted to write this entry.

The changing of seasons always puts me in an Easter mood.  Each time the earth shifts humors in its cycle of yearly sinking down into somber sleep and rising up again, new and singing, I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ line: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” This is both one of my God’s favorite party tricks and the grandest foundation of his character: he continually brings life out of death. Brown leaves rot and carpet the earth, so that fresh green life will leap out, nourished by death in its last decay. The withered hand is stretched out, whole again. Four-days-entombed Lazarus comes forth, trailing his grave clothes behind him.

And so for me, it is Easter weekend.  It is always Easter weekend. Christ died and rose to life, and so, in miniature, must we, along with the rest of his creation.  I am not saying something new. I’m saying something very old. Not only do we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but we, with Christ, are baptized into death (Romans 6). But then, on the other side, (hear this,) then we come up out of those strange pathways and that dreadful river and look down to find our feet new-shod with the gospel of peace, fit to face the day.

The old self must crumble and rot, so that the new self can rise and grow. Death is the only way through to life.

Eventually, when we rise up out of death, clinging to our Savior’s hand, we will turn and see that the old dark valley and those rushing waters are gone and dissolved for good and all: that Donne spoke true and death has died. Our feet will no longer be new-shod, but new feet entire, whole and well, fit to face eternity.

Suspension

Until recently I was so ready to go. I kept saying “I’m so ready.” “Graduation is so soon.” But now it’s hit. Yesterday in 20th century (last Friday of classes, last day of dressing-up-just-because) Messer mentioned in his typical Messer fashion how for the last few days we were just going to quietly spend some time with Gilead, the last novel on our list. He also said it was to be a gift for the graduating seniors. For most of us that two o’clock hour this Wednesday will be our very last class.

So like I said, it’s hit, it’s come. It feels as if someone has run a thread through my little heart and is holding it gently over some little canyon. When my heart becomes too heavy, I think the thread might break. I suppose my best bet is to figure how to live with a heart suspended in the breeze like that, a heart that feels every little motion, every change in the weather. I will not mind when the thread breaks, but I’ll keep my eyes wide open till it does.

Tonight Laura and I’ll go to Greek Sing, and I’ll sit and watch and I’ll love it as wholeheartedly and inexplicably as I always I have. I’ll write my last little paper on writing as vocation. I’ll give my honors presentation and go to Dr. Brown’s house for dinner and make food for our last Quad party. I’ll pay attention to the way familiar feet descend stairs, to which stones are missing on the bridge and to where the rain puddles on either end of it. I’ll pay attention to the deep, deep green of the grass here that I’ve never gotten over and never will, to the way we crouch to check our little mailboxes, and to the way the sun (when it comes) draws us all outside, hungry, as if light is the stickiest, sweetest thing. I’ll pay attention to the silence in the chapel at midday, to the ready laughter of a room of full of English majors, and to the slow way we all move in line, waiting for communion come Sunday night.

I’ll hug people and I’ll write things down, and then the thread will break with the weight of it all and I’ll go home.