Theology, Apple Sorting, and Starting at the Beginning

Apparently I’m into long titles again like I was when I was fifteen. It’s cool–don’t worry about it.

This past weekend was the second weekend of the food course I’m in and we spent Saturday afternoon at a little local harvest festival. For a while I ended up at a work station sorting apples that would be good for eating all winter long from the apples that were already bruised and marked and would be pressed into cider. At first it was just me and an older man. He sorted away and I tried to keep up. But after a few minutes a young boy came up who was maybe ten or eleven. My companion explained to him what we were doing, that when he found a nice one he should set it into the box carefully, but that he was welcome to toss all the bad apples into their cider bin as hard as he could. And so he did, with evident joy. He really put his shoulder into it, throwing each warped apple in overhand, thunck thunck thunck, but each time he found a good one he cradled it gently in his palm and laid it in the box like a sleeping baby. Then we returned to the thunck thunck thunck. I laughed and wondered if I should tell him how much I admired his confidence.

On the official permit from the Canadian government that’s stapled into my passport, it says that I’m here at this place, in this country, to study theology. But I haven’t talked much about that yet. And not just on here, I haven’t talked much about that at all, anywhere.

Everyone else seems to have come to Regent with hard theological questions or with some driving desire to grow and learn, but I came theologically content. I’ve been too busy questioning most everything else in the past year or two to question my Lord. So my engagement in most of my classes, both external and internal, has been minimal. Sometimes I do have thoughts–appreciation will wash over me in Old Testament, or some unnameable frustration will creep into my shoulders while I’m reading for the food course–but the last thing I want to do is share them. I don’t want to say anything till I’ve really thought it through, and thinking it through seems to take much longer with God than it did with poetry or stories.

So I do the readings. I write brief response papers. I study. I talk to new friends about anything except the course material. But term papers are creeping up and I’m realizing that my days of relieved passivity are over. The time is coming when I will have to attempt to prove something: prove something about God, his church, his world. The idea of doing this still seems laughable.

I mean, I’ve written plenty of papers. I’ve made arguments before. But usually this meant I would pick up a piece of literature, read it carefully–backwards and forwards, up and down– and then I’d express an opinion. I’d engage with the critics, sure, but mostly that was a polite nod to companions in reading. The real content of my paper came from the text itself. The reason I argued that Katherine in Taming of the Shrew was a product of her environment and that Petruchio actually offered her release from her role as resident hellion was not because of anything Shakespeare said, or Liz Taylor did, or anything that happened in the sixteenth century. I argued that because of Kate herself, and what I saw in the text, and what I knew about being human. I wasn’t trying to give some definitive answer–I was just talking about personhood, and relationships, and the way it sometimes feels to be alive.

But theology is different. There is an answer here. They call theology the queen of the sciences, so decisions we make have an impact, on ourselves at the very least. This is serious business. My moving to Vancouver was in many ways a move away from responsibility. Studenthood, I thought, is freeing thing. I didn’t comprehend that I’d simply be switching from making pronouncements on the writing ability of the fifteen-year-old in front of me to making pronouncements on the state of the universe itself. I’m probably making up mountains where really there are only molehills to surmount, but still. I’ve been feeling a bit daunted today about my step forward into this next big thing.

A few years ago I taught a particularly high energy (and sometimes unmanageable) group of juniors. It was a big class, filling every seat I had and there were lots of long legs and loud voices and excuses and bold questions. They made me laugh sometimes, but they also wore me out and reminded me of my own inadequacies. One day as I walked around the room at the beginning of class, wading through low levels of chaos to pass back an assignment, wondering to myself how I would cope, one of the boys looked up at me quizzically as I passed him. “Miss Hodgkins, did you just say ‘Lord, help’?”

I bit my lip. “Yes. Yes, I did.” Lord, help.

Bus Prelude and Fugue

I had intended to come home today and write a blog entry about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of things rather than the giving end, but that will wait. I want to tell you about the bus instead.

There is a boy who often rides the 25 home the same time as me, mid-afternoon. Really, there are lots of kids on around that time, but there’s one in particular. He’s maybe thirteen or fourteen, and the moment you see him you somehow know you’ve seen him before. He’s some version of who you once were and maybe who you still are inside sometimes. He walks stiff-legged and barrel-chested in his shorts and tennis shoes, and he can’t help but swing his bag against other passengers’ knees as he lowers it. When more teenagers get on at each school we pass, they look at him narrowly, loath to take the empty seat next to him. Once a group of kids tried to load themselves on at the back door of the bus instead of the front, and he rushed from his seat and lectured them back off to the correct entrance in a voice like a foghorn. But between these occasional polemics and his frequent moves from one seat to another, he stacks two thick volumes of Bach on his lap, flips one open, and then leans forward onto his arms and reads the sheet music. He reads the notes like he’s starved for them. Always. I don’t think he’ll ever get his fill. Sometimes he hums.

This afternoon he was in fine form, switching seats several times within the space of a few stops, the precious Bach cradled in one arm. One moment he sat directly next to me, and then turned and deafeningly informed me that he was going to move to the other side of the bus. I said okay.

A stop or two later a woman and a little blonde boy got on and sat on either side of me. They began having a conversation about how the bus worked: when the bus driver stopped and when he didn’t, when passengers got on and when they didn’t. He spoke in English: young, pointed questions, and she answered them entirely in fast, unself-conscious Spanish. They went gently back and forth and up and down, in complete harmony with one another, as we passed through the dappled sunlight. The bus was quiet except for their conversation, and I was enchanted. I thought that I could write a poem about the music they were making.

I reached into my bag for my journal to make a note and then a loud voice said, “Are you speaking Spanish?” My friend with the Bach had made one more move, to the other side of the woman. She said that she was. “I’m learning Spanish.” He held up his book. “Vientiquatro Preludios y Fugas. It’s my favorite.”

He announced his birthday in Spanish, and then repeated it more slowly and translated to English as if she might not have understood. She nodded patiently. He clearly cared enormously about his pronunciation.

He asked the little boy how old he was, and when he said five, the older boy repeated back, “Cinco!” loud and staccato. The little guy tucked his chin into his neck and giggled with delight: this stranger on the bus knew their secret language.

The boy with the Bach asked the woman where she was from. She told him Mexico. “Oh, I’ve heard Mexicans speak excellent Spanish.” She smiled and pulled the cord for the next stop.

As the bus sung to a halt and she and her little charge stood and moved towards the back door, the three of them called out to each other, more than once, “Adios!” The small voice, the gentle voice, and the rough one all overlapped and found friendly resonances.

When bus doors had closed and the sound had faded and everything had gone back to its hum of regularity, I sat very still but a little bit dizzy and warm, still clutching my journal in one hand.

Thoughts from This Christmastime

I know that it is time to write here because it has been more than a month since I wrote here last. That is reason enough in itself. If we pile on the significant facts that it is almost Christmas, and that I am, for the time being, off of work, the argument that I should sit down and write a blog entry becomes very, very convincing.

So at about noon, I opened a document and fussed around with all the phrases that have been running around my brain for the last few weeks, but none of them seemed to have much to say for themselves. They were tired, like I am. And then I started googling “Christmas writing prompts,” hoping the internet would save me. After a few abysmal minutes of that, I gave up and have spent about a quarter of an hour staring at the screen, wondering why the often-confident voice in my head is so quiet.

Perhaps it’s because I’m meant to listen for now.

I am meant to listen to the clock ticking.

I am meant to listen to the front door of my building squeak as my neighbor goes in and out.

I am meant to listen to the poetry read aloud.

I am meant to listen to the hiss and bubble of the chili in my crockpot when I stir it.

I am meant to listen when George Bailey shouts in exultation, “My mouth’s bleeding, Bert! My mouth’s bleeding!”

I am meant to listen to the sound of my sock feet padding on the wood floor.

And I am meant to listen to the heavenly refrain that’s been repeating my head, soft and sleepy, like waves on the shore, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests!”

 

Classroom

I have been thinking about trying to write more. Not write on here, but push myself and write the things that are hard for me to write, like short stories. (It’s a little funny that short stories have become the most frightening form for me, considering that’s where I started as a teenager.) So I was thinking the other morning that I should write what I know. It is not the only writing advice, but it is tried and true and good for quelling fear. I looked out over my sophomores who were working on their journal entries with kind-of-sort-of-maybe diligence, and I thought, But how do you write fiction about that? Those kids are real and personal and ever mutable. They’re wonderfully, painfully individual. My everyday experience as a teacher is shaped by each one of them, and though my words can accomplish something, I am not fool enough to think they can capture all of who my students are in a single plot arc.

But there is one way to give you an in to the day-in and the day-out, I think, and that’s to tell you about my classroom.

My room number is 208, but I’m always getting confused and telling people it’s 210. It’s the room where I took Geometry and Precalculus when I was thirteen and fifteen, so it knows my tears and worries of old. It has green carpet and one green wall and two windows with curtains that, like so many other things, I inherited from a teacher before me. The walls are littered with maps and colorful student projects, and a lot of things in my room are broken. Notable items include a three-legged table, a chair separated from its seat, and a pencil sharpener with a crank that’s inconveniently missing its handle.

In fact, back in December when I injudiciously allowed my precious freshmen to decorate my room for Christmas and the whole scene turned into a magnificent catastrophe, I made a “Broken Things” list on the board, to which a few students joyously contributed.

The list was, perhaps, a bit hyperbolic, but there is no denying my students are very comfortable in my room. They tell me so themselves and sometimes I am frustrated. All of my current students are at least fifteen years old, which is quite old enough to understand that when they make a mess, someone, somewhere, must eventually clean up after them. And yet at the end of a long day as I pick up debris off the floor, I will remark bitterly to anyone in earshot (or very often no one at all) that my classroom is probably the world’s largest trashcan. (Though I do get a lot of nice free mechanical pencils.)

Other frustrations include the fact that space is at a premium and so aside from the previously mentioned broken items, my fairly small room houses two teacher desks, ten student tables, twenty student chairs, various and sundry cabinets, shelves, and storage towers, and whole lot of moving bodies and foot traffic.

So the familiar running patter of instructions in my classroom includes: Get out of my window, stop leaning back in your chair, get out from behind Ms. Gillespie’s desk, whoever that water bottle belongs to needs to put it away so I don’t see it again, don’t sit on that table it has three legs, yes I know my stool is shaky but it’s mine not yours, STOP leaning back in your chair, take your bag off your desk, no projectiles in my room no I don’t care what it is or why, get your hands off each other, put the scissors away, shut the door for me, put my table back where it goes, do you understand that every time you lean back in your chair like that I picture your skull crushed on the floor and your blood and brains splattered across my carpet?

Clearly I say a lot of words every day, and sometimes, like my teenagers, I complain just to hear the comfortable sound of my own voice, but the strange fact remains: most of those “broken things” have been in bad shape since around October, and I have yet to put in a help ticket to the trusty facilities team. And it’s not because I’ve forgotten.

I suppose the silly secret is that I’m a Romantic. I think of my classroom as a living thing, an organism, a place of life. I secretly like that it has wounds, that it shows signs of my students’ sometimes-misguided exuberance. I am grateful to find that the space where I breathe and sit and sigh and dream and talk and spin my energy out like thread for at least eight or nine hours every weekday actually feels lived in.  It reminds me that quite a few souls are constantly in and out of my door and that things happen there every day. I must continue to make sure those things are valuable.

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.

Words for Teaching and Words for Everything Else

School finished a week and a half ago and my last workday was last Thursday. Since then I have read and gone on walks and written and cleaned out my closet and watched The Office and washed my hair half as much as usual.

May was a tough month. The chaos of the end of the year arose, which we all expected, but it seemed that the weight of the world also descended upon all of our heads, which we didn’t. My fourth period can attest that I felt this way, considering that one Thursday I inexplicably burst into tears after morning announcements. It was a sign that we all needed summer, I told myself.

But in retrospect, when we look back and make sense and try fit our feelings into the facts of the matter, we sometimes surprise ourselves. Since September, I’ve been writing a poem every week. I’ve taken the occasional, accidental week off, but for the most part the green Moleskine my mom gave me when I graduated from college has been a place of solace and even occasional clarity. I often look back through the poems to see what I have learned and which ones are really worth their salt if I were to compile a chapbook one day, so I’m well-aware that all year most of my meterless lines have expressed the constant struggle between my lazily writhing loves and the overwhelming and still power of God.

But not so in May. During that month when I felt most afraid and desperate, I find that I wrote of the largeness of his joy. I reminded myself that he does not grow weary in well-doing. I wrote more than once about hope, Dickinson’s thing with feathers, and about my God’s hands holding us in this long earth’s-hour. While my feelings and actions were tiredly treading the ways and the lies of the shadowlands, somehow the words I wrote knew truth.

Oh, how I try not to discount the power that I know words have in my life, and oh, how often I fail. Since the beginning of my first year of teaching, when, in reading or listening, I come across a line that is particularly applicable to my classroom and to my heart at the front of it, I write it on a post-it and tape that post-it to my desk. Coffee-stained and messy, often covered over with stacks of papers, these post-its have become a chronicle of my worries and small mountains and of the ways in which Christ promises to see me through. They are words of peace, reminders that I am not called to heroism, only to the humble service of a God who died and lives again.

But those words are stuck to a desk and I forget to heed them, especially when I leave that desk for months on end. I wander into summer, nervous and burdened, as if John Henry Newman has not admonished me in my own scribbled ink to “show mercy to the absurd” (even when the absurd is yourself,) and George Herbert has not enthusiastically recommended prayer to me as the “heart in pilgrimage…land of spices…something understood.” I wander as if I did not after all have an anchor, forgetting that so many who’ve gone before me not only offer their shoulders to stand on, but their rich, sturdy sentences.

2nd year desk

I must remember. All the words I build up for teaching, they are truths which are meant for the rest of life too. I am diminishing the Word if I try to corral him and only let his power and his healing into certainly places or seasons or callings. I must let him into all spaces and all parts.

The oldest post-it on my desk is actually one I wrote out for myself senior year of college, while I was drafting a novel (something I am beginning to do again this summer). It is from a John Donne poem, and it says “But who shall give thee that grace to begin?”

So I begin, and so I begin with his words and his grace.

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.

Learning to Live

My senior year of college I wrote a novel: one draft fall semester, and two more during the spring. When I had a deadline approaching for honors seminar I would be crouched on my desk chair till two in the morning, whispering and backspacing words on to the page, hardly noticing when my roommate came in and out. I’d be up at nine the next morning writing again: in t-shirt and sweatpants, curled in a snarl of sheets on my bed, dirty tea-mugs mounting on the stacked crates beside me. Late in the morning, I would get dressed hurriedly and head to class with a hot hole burning in my chest, because I had left my heart lying on top of my closed laptop back on my desk, still fast-beating a story. It was terrible and glorious.

The summer after I graduated, I very purposely took the summer off from any serious writing. I travelled and saw people I loved. I read a good deal. I made nervous stabs towards planning for teaching.

Then I taught.

And now there’s this summer: what with travelling and moving, this has been my first real week of it, of having the days all to myself, to dispose of however I choose. I have meant to get back to that serious writing, that state where I produce, produce, produce and walk around a little lopsided, because I have one foot on the ground and one foot stuck in the air. I meant to write for hours each day. But instead this week has confirmed for me something which I have to quietly admit to myself I already knew: I am not a creature of routine. I never will be.

I like to plan, but then I live on a whim: now I want to make myself some eggs, now I want to read a new book, now I want to take a bath, now I will do dishes, now (though it’s five-thirty) I will make my bed!

This leaves the short story that I’m working on moving slowly, painfully, in twenty-minutes-a-day starts and backfires. But college is college and this, for now, is real life. My mom and I are making a deal to keep each other accountable for writing this month, and I think that this will help.

Part of real life (if not most of it) is making do with what you have: your hands, your feet, your mind, your time, your lack, your abundance. Making all these things work for the glory of Him who loves us. Even when we submit to having all the parts of us brought together, the days we do this right, the unexpected and complex amalgamation of gifts and understandings in each of us combines to make strange little people, creatures who limp and plod along on odd numbers of legs, looking laughably like misfits. (The cloven in The Wingfeather Saga made me cry because I know that they are true.)

But what matters is not whether we look funny, but whether we are moving, and moving in the right direction, even if it goes in fits and starts and circles that don’t seem to make sense. What matters is that we walk alongside one another and that we laugh because we know the great secret. We know that we are not misfits after all’s said and done. We are “kept in grace.”

Oh, I like living. I like making do.

Two Weeks

I am a first year teacher, and all year I’ve struggled with how to write on this blog–how to tell the truth, but tell it slant. There have been discarded entries (which I never had in the past) and few which did not really come out how I intended them to. There has also been a lot of staring at the blank page. I want so much to give a clear picture though, because writing helps me understand. The past two weeks have been strange and full and often strangely, fully good, and I want to tell you about them, but even these 336 hours have seemed to contain a lifetime.

I went to play practice for hours every afternoon and night and decorated the set with my favorite books stacked along the back wall.

As part of their prank, the seniors built a ball pit in the room I teach in. So I taught about Imperialism for a few minutes, but then I let my students sit in it and play with all the bright colors, while they wrote letters to someone they were thankful for. And I got to wear a princess crown all that day.

We prayed together during the junior girls’ Bible study and as a faculty at lunch one day–for those who are sick and those who are scared. (Those people are sometimes us.)

Lauren Robinson and I both graded all 44 senior thesis papers in a week and a half. I sat on the floor behind her desk on Wednesday afternoon madly calculating final grades, while the freshmen giggled their way through speech presentations. Late that night the two of us painted the rock, barefoot, with Paul Simon on full volume in her truck. They all passed.

My front tire got slashed by some unknown enemy.

I went down to the gym for a few minutes to watch the juniors and seniors have their last dance lesson. I was charmed by what a good time most of them seemed to be having, but was also deeply grateful that I was no longer out there on the floor.

I ate brunch with Sarah Moon, and we talked about things that were not students and teaching, and it all felt very surreal.

I averaged about four hours of sleep each night.

Students brought me food and Starbucks unbidden and I didn’t know what to do with myself.

It briefly seemed as if my social security number had been stolen by someone in Vermont, and I laughed very hard and happily at the prospect of someone wanting my identity. (It turned out to be a clerical error.)

I got tired of giving critical notes to the students at the end of rehearsal, and just decided they were all cute and could act however they wanted. (Thank God for multiple directors.) Instead, I wandered around Target and Walmart trying to find all the shades of foundation that our supply boxes were running out of and wished I knew something, anything about make-up.

While walking back in from letting my chaotic sixth period do their reading questions outside, I tripped and dropped my large stack of grading all down the stairs. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I sat down and just looked pathetically back at my students, and they picked it all up in a stunned silence.

I watched our pride and joy, You Can’t Take It With You, from the audience each night and it was still funny every time, even when the fireworks didn’t go off. I laughed and I grinned and sometimes I felt very, very sleepy

And then I turned twenty-three, which is simultaneously much older and much younger than I feel.

 

Sometimes, in these past two weeks, I have felt blessed and unaccountably successful. At other times, I have wanted to find a small, cozy hole, crawl into it until we reach July, and then bring the calendar to a full stop, preferably for quite some time. But after oversleeping this morning and then cleaning the bathroom while listening to Andrew Peterson, I feel smaller, more on kilter, as if I can fit comfortably into my skin again–I think I had been leaking out of it for a while.

When I write I try to organize and find meaning between all the little things, but it is not always easy. Sometimes I must be content to believe that the truth is somewhere between “Life is pain, highness,” and “Love is all we have left in this world, Grandpa.” I must trust, trust, trust, that my God knows the substance of all this: the bungled works cited pages, the loudly laughing teenagers, the spray paint that took days to wear out of the creases of my fingernails, the chai tea lattes on my desk. He knows what all these little shadows mean.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

Martha, Mary, and Food

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Mary and Martha. A couples weeks ago I had some discussions with my juniors about a woman’s place in society, and there are so many things I wish I had said. I wish I had reminded them that the woman’s primary calling (like the man’s) is to sit at Christ’s feet, and hear his words, and that any structure that hinders her from “choosing the good part” is wrong. I wish I had reminded them that regardless of what I tell them, this “nearness-to-Jesus,” this is the litmus test.

And then this week I left school and my students to go up to Grove City for a C.S. Lewis and Inklings Conference, with Martha and Mary still whispering in my head. Martha, the teacher, the keeper of the full agenda and the red and blue pens. Mary, the student, jubilant to let down her inky guard for a long weekend, jubilant to listen.

I drove up for the conference in my grandma’s Buick, which only plays cassette tapes, and listened to the same Mark Heard album over and over and over. It’s called Ashes to Light, and you should hear it: “He looks at their faces and loves them in spite of his grief.”

I had a lot of conversations this weekend, personal conversations with close friends, and heard some good talks, very good talks. Papers on catechisms and incarnation and pedagogy, and keynote addresses on images and humility and honesty. On Friday night at the banquet Diana Glyer spoke on artistic collaboration and creating alongside one another for balance, for accountability, for prayer. Afterwards I walked up to her to tell her how encouraging it had been, and to thank her, and immediately burst into tears. Oops. She took me by the hand, and said “Tell me about yourself.” “This is my first year of teaching,” I said, “And I haven’t gotten a chance to think about these things for a long time and–thank you.”

All weekend I tried to balance Mary and Martha and failed. I made the mistake of checking my email on Saturday and immediately spiraled into a foul mood, though it only contained run-of-the-mill announcements and student requests. Then I drove home today and listened to Mark Heard over and over and over again. I have come to the point in teaching where I have stopped worrying so much about what my students think of me and have started worrying about them–so the songs reminded me of my teenagers. “Feet of clay and an inner light, they were given everything.” I thought again about how I wanted them to “choose the good part,” to accept the good gifts. I thought about Mary and Martha, and then I thought about food.

The paper I gave on Friday morning was about food in Narnia, the way its goodness depends on the giver. And the difference between Martha and Mary is the difference between feeding and being fed. The hostess cannot go hungry. If we have not first eaten the bread which means his body, the we cannot possibly be his hands and feet. If I try to teach my students what tastes sweet and what will make them strong, without first sitting at my Lord’s table, I will fail.

There is even more to it than that, though. I am now able to hesitantly believe that I am meant to be a teacher, but before that I was, am, and will be his. I am his, and there is only “one thing needed”: I must sit and hear his word.

If you’re interested, below is said paper, devoid of parenthetical citations because they look weird on a blog. I promise they were there.

The Mysterious Workings of Food in Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles

George Sayer, with whom C.S. Lewis often stayed while on holiday, describes his taste in food as “plain, solid, and traditional…roast meat of any sort.” He had no appreciation for “subtle French recipes” or even “for puddings or for fruit.” Yet the food which Lewis did love he treated with whole-hearted devotion, and since children were the original audience the Narnia books, within the Chronicles he regularly approaches the subject of food and drink with the appropriate seriousness and urgency of a child of seven. In imagining Narnia, Alan Jacobs writes, “What [Lewis] has to do…is trust the images that come into his mind–or, more accurately, trust that he is being formed as a Christian in such a way that the images that come to his mind are authentic ones, ones that lie at, or at least near, the center of his soul.” So Lewis uses the food which his characters naturally eat: Puddleglum’s eels and the feasts at Cair Paravel, to tell the goodness and mystery of gifts. The food in Lewis’s Chronicles, whether of deep magical importance or a simple symbol of good fellowship, is nearly always given and ultimately reflects the character of its giver.

Jacobs tells a story about an American named Firor who sent Lewis multiple hams in the late 1940’s, while food was still scarce in Britain. “Lewis and friends started calling him ‘Firor-of-the-Hams,’ and on one occasion a dozen or so of the Inklings signed a collective letter of gratitude to him.” It turned out that this same Firor was a doctor and a great hero who had rescued a colleague’s wife from behind the Iron Curtain, so a real generosity and solidity was reflected in his gift. Lewis implicitly trusted those who relished food as much as he did. Around the same time Nathan Starr sent Lewis bacon, along with a passage of his own Chaucerian-style verse to recommend the meat, and almost immediately received an invitation to visit Lewis’s rooms at the college. Lewis considered the right sort of food an indication of good character

So, when an outsider first enters Narnia, if he is able to fall into the right company, he is immediately fed well, signifying the virtues of Narnian culture and fellowship as a whole. When a bewildered and delighted Prince Caspian enters into the heart of Old Narnia for the first time and is led around to meet all the creatures who live in hiding, Pattertwig the squirrel offers him a nut and the bears are eager to feed him their messy honey. Lewis tells the entire episode like a travel story, with scores of new introductions, and these gifts of food are each beast’s way of making his mark on both Caspian and the reader’s imaginations throughout the ongoing procession. Even before that, when Lucy herself first enters Narnia, she understands Tumnus’s core good-heartedness not merely by his welcoming words (which turn out to be false) but by his hospitality: “a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake.” Moreover, the Pevensie children know they have found good friends in the Beavers when they see cozy smoke rising from Mr. Beaver’s dam and realize they are being brought home as dinner guests. In fact, though the Beavers are virtuous in many ways, to Lewis their most important quality may be their abundant and generous hospitality, considering Mrs. Beaver’s response when the company realizes they must run for their lives: “Now, Mr. Beaver, just reach down that ham. And here’s a packet of tea, and there’s sugar…And if someone will get two or three loaves out of that crock…You didn’t think we’d set out on a journey with nothing to eat, did you?”

In fact, one of the ways in which Lewis expresses celebration, especially after his characters have passed through great trials, is in jubilant descriptions of good (and often very British) food. When Jill and company escape from the Underworld, they are treated to the most comfortable and fulsome fare by the good dwarves, just to prove that they are home: “Not wretched sausages half-full of bread and soya bean either, but real, meaty spicy ones, fat and piping hot and burst and just the tiniest bit burnt.  And great mugs of frothy chocolate, and roast potatoes and roast chestnuts, and baked apples with raisins stuck in where the cores had been.” Jill and the reader are both starved for warmth after all the grey time underground, and here at long last it comes to them by way of the dwarves’ cast iron breakfast skillets.

Narnian tradition itself centers around not just these individual exchanges of food, but a great and full tradition of feeding the multitudes. Eustace and Jill enter Narnia and within hours of being recognized as friends of the king are settled at his table for the “serious eating and drinking.”

…though Eustace had been in that world before, he had spent his whole visit at sea and knew nothing of the glory and courtesy of Narnians at home in their own land …each course came in with trumpeters and kettledrums. There were soups that would make your mouth water to think of, and the lovely fishes called pavenders, and venison and peacock and pies, and ices and jellies and fruit and nuts, and all manner of wines and fruit drinks.

Lewis’s lavish description of the banquet demonstrates not only his love for a full plate but his glowing vision for complex and purposeful fellowship between countrymen. The fanfares of the trumpets call forth the food of hard-won (rather medieval) merriment.

But beyond the solidity of Narnian fare itself, the souls of many individual characters are reflected in that which they offer their guests. As Christ himself says, “ye shall know them by their fruits.” The Scrubbs can be immediately discounted as people of worth in Lewis’s world because of their vegetarian diet, while vain, air-headed Lasaraleen serves Aravis a meal “chiefly of the whipped cream and jelly and fruit and ice sort.” However, something more unpleasant than mere empty-headedness is hinted at when Puddleglum and the children are taken captive by pale, still little Earthmen, and are given only “flat, flabby cakes of some sort which had hardly any taste.” Though Puddleglum and company do not know it, these creature are captives as well, empty and stale and sad. They are incapable of offering good sustenance in their current mind-numbed state.

On the other hand, Puddleglum himself serves Jill and Eustace eel stew, of which he himself is very disparaging, but which is ultimately “delicious…the children [have] two large helpings each. This uncomely but ultimately excellent first meal with their new friend establishes the marshwiggle and his golden, despondent soul immediately and irrevocably in the affections of children and readers alike. Likewise, when Father Christmas returns to Narnia after his long, involuntary absence, the tea he presents to the Pevensies and the Beavers wonderfully “sizzling and piping hot” imparts all the warmth and goodwill of the promise of his season. Of course, Father Christmas’s power is not really his own, but instead his good gifts of food are born from the same source which brings spring back to Narnia at long last.

This land of Narnia itself has its own mysterious reserves of good food to offer. Late in the first day of the new world’s existence, after Aslan has sent Polly and Diggory and Fledge halfway across Narnia on an important errand, and the children find the have nothing to eat, Polly finds an old bag of toffees in her pocket and Diggory cleverly buries the last one in the new Narnian earth by the side of the lake. The next morning when they wake, a toffee tree has grown up. “Loaded with little brown fruits that looked rather like dates…The fruit was delicious: not exactly like toffee–softer for one thing, and juicy–but like fruit which reminded one of toffee.” This reminding of something just out of the mind’s reach is a constant of Narnia’s character. For every true disciple, Narnia always carries the distinct flavor of home, and, ultimately, Aslan’s Country. The best and most truly homely places in Lewis’s world produce the most wonderful and mystical food for their people. The Earthmen, once free from the witch’s enchantments, are ecstatic to return to Bism, their homeland deep beneath the earth’s crust, because of the fresh precious stones it provides for them to eat like ripe fruit: “bunches of rubies…cupful[s] of diamond juice.” These worlds contain an unavoidably inherent magic.

Yet, as is clear from the reader’s first introduction to Narnia, not all the magic there is good magic, just as not all food which fills a belly fills it with good things. At first the turkish delight the witch feeds Edmund seems very good: “each piece was sweet and light to the very center…[he] had never tasted anything more delicious.” Yet  Wayne Martindale writes that “An authentic pleasure is one we love to recall and rejoice to share,” so though Edmund thinks he has relished the White Witch’s food, there is nothing he wants less than for his siblings to have a taste of it. His greed for it only grows until he will do nearly anything to have more of it, until he desires nothing else. As Lewis points out sharply, “there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magical food.” The false queen has literally but subtly let Edmund pick his own poison, demonstrating the sharp, fast-acting venom of her own evil motives. When the boy later obeys her summons and asks for more sweets, she gives him only bread and water, cruelly understanding that he now hungers only for turkish delight.

And food in Narnia can contain not just bad and deceitful magic but ultimate betrayal. Perhaps the most horrifying episode in all of Lewis’s Chronicles centers around preparations for the giants’ Autumn feast at Harfang. The children and Puddleglum are betrayed by the Green Lady’s sweet words and her promises of soft beds. From the beginning of their visit the refreshments and edibles given to the guests seem false and evil. The giants give Puddleglum a liquor so strong that it immediately intoxicates him and makes him unable to help and protect Jill and Eustace. Later the three discover with revulsion that they have been tricked into eating talking stag, and are consuming the flesh of a Narnian. Thus the stage is set for the final terrifying revelation as Jill comes upon the giants’ cookery book. The Green Lady has described to the hungry travellers the wonders of a place where “the roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong will be on the table four times a day.” As Jill reads the recipes for “Man: [an] elegant little biped” and “Marshwiggle:[of] stringy consistency and muddy flavor” she understands that they are to be the “roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong.” The witch has committed an act of deep treachery in giving them over into the hands of those who will devour them. At Harfang food signifies not a gift of grace and fullness but a taking of innocence and of life.

Yet the meaning of a meal depends upon the character of the host, the provider of the feast. Aslan often invites his people in with same welcoming words the Green Lady used to lure Puddleglum and the children to Harfang, yet he means them truly. Martindale states, “Feasting is a common motif in Narnia when Aslan has finished some great work…Feasting is associated both with life, as a necessity, and with joyful celebration in peace and plenty.” Therefore Aslan’s full table not only represents good fellowship as opposed to ill, but a kind of solemn mercy. Lewis well understands the sanctity of the Eucharist and is eager and willing to write some of that same significance into the bread and wine Aslan serves to his Narnians. As the Dawn Treader’s travelers near the end of the world they come upon an extravagant feast of just this import:

There were turkeys and geese and peacocks, there were boars’ heads and sides of venison, there were pies shaped like ships under full sail or like dragons and elephants, there were ice puddings and bright lobsters and gleaming salmon, there were nuts and grapes, pineapples and peaches, pomegranates and melons and tomatoes…the smell of the fruit and the wine blew toward them like a promise of all happiness.

The feast is gorgeous and hearty and good and yet the sailors claim there is “too much magic about here.” If they imbibe Aslan’s food, they will imbibe his great and terrible grace. At last, following the example of Reepicheep, (always the most courageous in his trust of Aslan,) they eat. Ramandu’s daughter tells them that the banquet is renewed each day, and they watch as what they have not consumed nourishes great flocks of birds. The great lion feeds even the “birds of the air.”

But of course, when faced with a mysterious banquet, not all are Reepicheep, willing and able to believe that good givers give good gifts. Aslan gives Diggory the simple instruction to “Pluck an apple from the tree, and bring it back to me.” Diggory obeys, but once there he encounters Jadis who, in sharp rebellion against the command on the gate, has taken the fruit for herself and stained her mouth nastily with it. She has made herself her own giver, her own god. She then tries to  convince Diggory to do likewise, to take for his own ends, to be savior to his dying mother: “We are here by ourselves and the Lion is far away. Use your magic and go back to your own world. A minute later, you can be at your Mother’s bedside, giving her the fruit.” The witch tempts Diggory to be the giver himself, not to trust and obey the ultimate and good giver of the food. Yet a refusal to trust the giver of a good meal will ultimately lead only to bondage. The stubborn dwarves in The Last Battle refuse to believe there is a world beyond the stable door though they sit in the midst of it. Aslan lays a great feast in front of them but they will not accept that they are eating anything but hay and refuse, and end by brawling over the imagined scraps. They do not trust the food because they do not trust Aslan. “Their only prison is in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” Jadis is destined for the same fate: ultimately the good and healing fruit becomes a “horror” to her, because she would not trust and ate it “at the wrong time and in the wrong way.”

However, Diggory does not follow the witch’s example, but instead brings the apple back to Aslan, trusting the giver for the way through to life. The Lion then makes good on that trust, in glorious fashion. He offers the boy an apple off of the new tree, grown to protect Narnia. “What I give you now will bring joy. It will not, in your world, give endless life, but it will heal. Go. Pluck her an apple.” So Diggory brings the apple of healing and youth home to his mother, not as the giver, but as merely the agent of her recovery. As his mother at last falls into a “real, natural and gentle” sleep it is the peace and rest of Aslan, the giver of the fruit, reflected in her eyes, which Diggory dares to hope will bring her new life.

Years before Narnia really came to be, Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.” Lewis has crafted characters who, in consuming the food laid before them, the bread or the wine or the meat, accept also the inherent virtues and evils of the hands that have provided it, and are often changed by them. Edmund and Lucy and Eustace perhaps see this best, as they approach the end of the world, hand-in-hand, and come upon the clearest and brightest giver of all: a white Lamb, who has prepared a meal before them. “They sat down and ate the fish, hungry now for the first time for many days. And it was the most delicious food they had ever tasted.”