To teach

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My students have filtered into my classroom the past few days, taking to their seats, reciting timelines and catechisms and poetry, curling their cursive penmanship with care, discussing metaphors and analogies, writing narratives and character analyses.  I am showing them how to look for the obstacles a character faces in a story and how they overcome or learn from their mistakes, from their circumstances. I teach them how to look for virtue and universal truth.

I had to teach.

Had to.

I knew I would never play college ball of any kind or be proficient in playing an instrument.  I had invested hours, days, weeks, long years into both, but I knew that instead of living my life in a studio, a gym, or an auditorium, I was being pulled into the classroom.  I also knew that I could not split my time between all things and do any of them justice.  Those experiences of sport and music (along with writing and language and prose), were a trifecta that built this calling in me.  From them I learned singular dedication to a vocation.  Teaching was not just something I thought I’d be good at, and it most certainly wasn’t for the salary.  It was something visceral.

There are two things in my life that I remember very vividly, very clearly, about what I knew I would definitively do when I “grew up”. Despite all the reasons why those two things might not have happened, for there were significant years in my life that I questioned whether they would be realized, they would never leave my insides. The first recognition took place when I was in second grade and I told my desk mate, Marci, that I was going to be a writer. The second was when I was in eleventh grade, and I realized that I had to be a teacher.  Each of those callings have latched onto me and then eluded me over years before they began to bloom.  They are each often like a ghost, a mystery I’m trying to catch up with. But that is the way of things when you are passionate about them. You must chase it through obstacle and hurdle, because the pain of not pursuing it is worse than the obstructions encountered.  Believe me, I’ve tried to give up both in my past and it hurt.

Teaching is a strange profession. It is one that takes all of you, strips you down, and requires all the small and big parts of you. It is more than just a dedication to your profession or craft.  You become entirely vulnerable to others, as it isn’t just your fellow colleagues that command changes in your work. Young people unknowingly (and sometimes knowingly) hold up a mirror to your weaknesses. Intellect and knowledge must be deep, yes, but your soul is also required as you pour into students to survive, or you won’t last long.  Without the desire to inspire a generation, a teacher is merely a container of facts that a student may find on their own from reading a book or googling online. To teach, you must maintain a strong presence of mind and ability to relate to your students while staying a healthy distance from them so they may gain what they need and move on.

It is a profession and parenting wrapped up into one, but for hundreds of youth.  And most days you feel as if you are behind or failing, until those pockets, those moments that you aren’t, and you see inspiration and triumph in the face of a student.  That is the moment you smile to yourself, and you are thankful for the gift of observing another developing person.

All teachers, every one, can tell you that they became a teacher because of a teacher they had. It’s part of the comradeship of the profession. In college, you share about the teachers that built you, like being assembled or constructed brick by brick by a coach or a priest, a mentor or a parent. It is someone (or a collection of “someones” if you are as lucky as I was) who pour into you and make you realize how blessed you are, how hard you must work, what a gift you’ve been handed to nurture, and how to look outside yourself to those around you and reach out to touch them with it. It involves passing on a mentality.

Teaching is like holding the key to the secret garden or the location of the fountain of youth, and for those that seek it out, you eagerly pass them the key and it multiples.  The key and the desire. It is not just about vocabulary or grammar drills, cold facts and dates.  These must be learned and drilled, just like practicing scales on piano keys over and over until they are mechanically perfect and second nature.  Without the drills and the knowledge, a student doesn’t have the foundation on which to build.  But it is the lesson within the drills that composes and forms the structure.  All those little things one learns about themselves as they go.  A teacher sheds light on that process.

When I was eighteen I scribbled in an entire, fat notebook about the strengths of every girl on my varsity basketball team my senior season.  I was the benchwarmer, a proud one at that, because while I was fairly athletic and competitive, it was not a sport that I had dedicated my youth to. I was proud because I could watch these women and our coach, observe them in the locker room, see them frustrated and joyful, selfish and selfless, sweating and crying and commanding the ball, because it was a gift to be given a pass into that inner world.

Since forever, I have loved watching and observing others, trying to glean and see them for who they are, all those little things that no one else pays attention to.  Listening and believing the good that was deep down, among the weeds, because we all have weeds that need to be pulled and overcome.  There were times I would look only at the weeds initially, in myself and in others, but then I would feel this weight in my insides that told me to stop and look, and wait for the tree to grow up from the tangle, even if that meant that sometimes I had to water the seeds. So, I would observe classmates, coaches, my friends’ parents, my own parents, my aunts and uncles, teammates, professors, my bosses, coworkers, those I sat with in church, my spouse, my children.  Eventually, one must also observe themselves honestly as well. Teachers must become masters of slight facial expressions, tone of voice, recognizing tears that have not fallen but are soon to, responses to peers that are laden with an underlying meaning, and the myriad variation in these nonverbal communications in each individual.  Then they must become masters at gentle confrontation, versus avoidance. They must become masters at listening, sometimes silently.  They must gently or firmly redirect without crushing. They must encourage without being trite. They must admit mistakes while they share dreams. So not only are teachers masters of subject knowledge in their discipline or specialty, they become adept at reading people and displaying the value of deficiencies, setting aside one’s pride with intention, to ultimately become great at what they do.

This is the key to teaching, I believe.  The messy, loud, extravagant way that we all learn is by trial and error.  Vygotsky wrote about this very thing as he also carefully observed young children, and adults know this to be true, as much as we dislike the process.  At some point in adolescence we all become acutely aware of everyone around us, watching us, as we attempt to learn something and instantly want to hide our failures, eliminate and erase any missteps.  But in elimination, we sacrifice what we most desire: mastery and a fulfilling joy.  It is the teacher who shows a student that failure is the manure of growth.  Ironically, it is also the teacher who must try and fail first, many times, and go through that pain of getting up and succeeding before they can honestly model it.  This is the vulnerability of a teacher: showing others how to handle defeat or embarrassment with confidence and to later succeed with compassion and humility.

Once we all learn that, the only next step is to embrace what is difficult and unkempt before us and to slowly bring method to madness, order to chaos, because we know that it will set us apart for great things. There is the planting and watering of the seed, the cultivating of an environment, but there are also weeds to be pulled.  To teach is to become a master at receiving, and then handing down, inspiration despite the failure.

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Am I the Pharisee

It was the Pharisees who shouted from beneath their heavy oral tradition at Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, for feeding his disciples as they spoke to people.  Jesus told them King David also ate from the temple on the Sabbath, and he himself was God, in person, who brought healing to his creation so they no longer had to worry. They still scoffed at him.

For not following their rules.

It was the Pharisee who went to the temple and prayed, “God, thank you that I am not like these sinners; thank you that I fast and pray twice a week”.  Thank you, God, I am not like them.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth, and the Pharisees demonized them.

It was the Pharisees who questioned the man who was blind from birth but miraculously healed, and his own parents didn’t want to speak on the matter, because they were afraid of what would happen.  It was the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin who demanded Jesus’ death, the mockery of their own Messiah, as they disgracefully pronounced themselves blameless.  Jesus called them whitewashed tombs.  Wealthy, but poor.  Rich, but empty.  The ruling class, and the religious class.

Before Christ was born, during the rise of the Greek and then the Roman empires, the Hasidim sought to separate themselves from the influence of Hellenism, as they were being oppressed by Antiochus Epiphanes, forced to sacrifice to Zeus, being slaughtered by the thousands in Jerusalem for keeping the Torah before the Maccabees fought for their brief freedom.  They came from humble beginnings, desiring to stay true to God, but slowly the tactics of the human heart settled in to try and exact control.

These are the ones who gather round in our modern time and pat one another on the back and post pictures to social media to invoke status.  Power, prestige, attacks with words, but mostly tearing down their neighbor, the one in their midst.  The ones who are crawling to the finish line, the ones who are giving water to the thirsty, those Pharisees kick down and jeer.

They shout to crucify those that don’t vote their way or dress their way.  They throw stones and outcast, then pray to the Father “thank you I am not one of them.”  Being blind, they do not see their blindness.  Being foolish, they do not comprehend their folly.

Shock and hurt morph into anger that bubbles and rises and Jesus says, no, love those who mistreat.  Bless those who curse.  Don’t defend yourself at all against those who shout and speak profanity, those who accuse and vilify.  Jesus stood silent before Pontius Pilate.

Those Pharisees are out there, and I am the misunderstood tax collector, I tell myself.

Or, am I the Pharisee? My heart betrays.

Because every time I read or hear another’s words of truth, or on loving others, or ministering, I think to myself, “Oh yes, I do that” and I click the link to give money and I thank God that I am not like those people on social media who post their traumas, who post their sadness, who post their poverty.  Spilling out messy, but honest. Bless them.

Maybe I am the Pharisee and the tax collector, all in one.

It was Dante who lived his life of protection and then was saved after all when he saw his friends in life scrounge the dirt and gnash their teeth in agony among the rings of hell.  It was Flannery who wrote about the superstitious zealot who cursed those around him but was ultimately consumed by his own radical condemnation of others, his own generations fighting against what he taught.  In these moments I am lost, drowning under the depth and weight of my own, empty sense of justice until I am found by the One who can throw stones at me, but…doesn’t.

I am the Pharisee needing to be washed.  I am also the one who needs to see the Pharisee as one who needs to be equally loved and blessed, for they are the whitewashed tomb, poor in spirit.  We are all the Prodigal, but we are also all the older brother, the one who is angry that the other is being blessed.  We think we are being cheated. The highborn and the low, the wealthy and the poor, we are all naked and empty, and in need of Love and Truth.

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Black Sheep

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Jesus told them to lift their eyes.

When you walk through a forest do you curl your face downward and watch your feet flip into vision on the pathway?  Someone I listen to reminded me of that last week, so I forced myself to look up today, and my breath ballooned in my lungs.  It is worth looking up.

I walked the wood in the early afternoon with glinting, gushing flashes of sunlight cascading over everything.  Tree roots spread under my feet as I passed century-old oaks.  Two deer looked me in the eye through the bamboo before they erupted and scattered.  I picked up dry, fallen leaves and rubbed them with my fingers before tearing them apart down to the stem.  I usually do this, use my hands to feel something tangible while I’m drinking in something with my eyes, because it makes it feel like I’m touching what is untouchable, unspeakable.  It was Tolkien who reminded us of the soul of creation, the souls of trees.

Mrs. Uminn, are you a ghost come out of the wood?  My students rush me as I emerge.

Perhaps.

The Man spit in his hands and mixed it with earth to stroke his fingers over trembling, sightless eyes like I do with dead leaves.  Those ghost eyes were the eyes of all of us.  Mine blind to the ways in which I willingly harbor sin. Except I can’t make dead, ghostly leaves come back to life the way this Man can.

“Take a harp,

go about the city,

O forgotten prostitute!

Make sweet melody;

Sing many songs,

that you may be remembered.”

And she did prostitute herself, Isaiah says, with all kingdoms of the world, but was bound to the Holy One, the LORD. (Is. 23:16-17).

That is how I feel, frame wasted, prostituted by my own ambition to the world and its comforts and glory, reveling in the adoring crowd, the applause and murmur of the audience, the petting of the ego, and liquid, flattering words to match the riches and wealth pushed at me.  My inward sins multiply while my eyes are being washed, all at the same time.  But my hope and desire is to walk pure and chaste of heart in heaven after fighting the gauntlet, bound to the Holy One.

It was John Owen who spoke of the death, the mortification of sin, in 1684.  When I read his powerful words on the printed page, this human back in time spearing and protecting my soul today, my sin looms large through my arms as if I am holding them in buckets, like guts bleeding out over my arms.  I want to fall on my knees to the weight of history, to the weight of the dying earth and its cursed people.

How is it, Owens asks, that a man should incline himself, ready himself to dissolution? To lose and gain himself back in the face of death? Singularly to Christ.

To that Man’s face that wept under the crushing weight, but still gave his body over to be whipped, extinguished, and buried. I must consider him, I must walk close for him to see me, and I must kneel down with my soul exposed and naked; I am Eve in the garden all over again.

My throat catches because there is a wall between me and this Man, Christ. He reaches over the breach to me, but I cannot reach over to Him yet.  I cannot touch His hands yet, though He has created mine.  But I can walk with Him in the cool of the day, because he has conquered death and become the priest.

He has prayed for me to the Father, and He has bathed me in his blood; He has stamped the devil beneath Him, but I still wait to touch His hands as if I was that dead leaf ripped apart, but brought back to life and grafted to the tree once again.

This bulletproof self I like to assert is melting.

Lay down, soul, lay down

Restless, searching, scratching,

Back to the soil, chest lifted to the sky in one last satisfying breath

The ebony, rich compost covers over–smell it

Alluvium crust hardens as hands spread out in front

bits and pieces falling to your face and scratching underneath your nails

Before your body grows roots and grips the gravebed like knuckles crying out against

dust and ash goes the blemished shell before rising anew

His hands touch your blind eyes and brings you back

That battled sin wasted away, crushed, and no more.

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Let Us Use Them

As morning classes came to an end, students flipped their large math volumes shut, notebook paper filled with stick figure drawings and formulas crunched under the page weight.  The modular trailer door opened and shut with bangs in succession as students filed in and out, pulling out paper bag lunches, decks of cards, and usually one student dribbled a basketball or tossed a tennis ball on the carpeted floor.  The teacher joined in the conversation of the students, taking a seat at the long, rectangular table near the door crowded with chairs, books, papers, mittens, and backpacks.  One student reclined in the beat-up leather rocking chair; another charged a dollar for each can of soda out of their locker. Someone pressed play on the boombox near the door, half of the group groaning for someone to change the CD from yesterday.

Icy air curled in through the windows, but many bodies warmed the space, making up for the struggling heater.  Boots and shoes were stamped out on the decking before entering, the heavy metal door squeaking open again and again as gloves and hats were donned in the middle of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  The trailer was a bustling commotion of life: shouting, laughter, rough-housing, animated discussion.  One minute there were ten simultaneous conversations occurring, the next they would all be in sync as spokes around a hub before they would reverberate and split again, seesawing in and out over and over and over.  Heavy, weighted thuds could be heard outside every few moments and the creaking of the ceiling overhead.  It was the administrator shoveling the wet snow off of the flat roof the second time that morning, crossing back and forth with his snow shovel in passes and calling out to the boys below to watch the ice.  His tie flapped in the wind and his glasses were foggy.

The lunch hour was still early.  Students converged on the outdoor basketball court next to the parking lot with hockey sticks wrapped in athletic tape.  January street hockey in the parking lot found them on a game day–all the basketball boys and the volleyball girls were dressed up–ties and dress pants, skirts and dress shoes, but it didn’t stop them from crashing and shoving their way through to pass the puck and slap the hard plastic sticks for a goal before tumbling back into the classroom with shouts, rosy red faces, drippy noses, and accounts of perfect deliveries or hilarious misses, trips, and falls. Then they read lines from Hamlet before moving on to discussions on iniquity, propitiation, redemption, and justification.

A few hours after lunch they all piled into vehicles together, no matter the blizzard, to the volleyball and basketball games an hour away to the south.  Those who were not on the teams would go to be a part of the evening and cheer on their mates.  Parents left work and filled the stands. Those who played early would stay for the later games.  Teachers were coaches and were also the drivers, so of course, they were there, too.  Everyone was there, all the time, supporting one another, drilling during warm-ups, grabbing water bottles, and screaming until throats were hoarse.  They piled into the vans again, half of them sleeping, some finishing homework because the English teacher, in the passenger seat, told them to turn it in on time tomorrow, others chattering away the hour home.  It would happen all over again in two days at the next game.

In between all this activity, there were students with burdens and hurts, wishes and goals, anxieties and insecurities, frustrations and anger that spilled out messy all around one another.

“We are all one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.  Having gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them (Rom. 12),” Coach would recite to them.

If there was jealousy, strife, anger, it was worked out among pencil scribblings and between classes, through harsh, open tears over a week, or after days of icy silence, or perhaps in an outburst of anger or gossiped whisperings.  It was worked out in the locker room and on the court, in the church pew and at evening meals.  It was worked out pelting snowballs at one another and then sitting in detention, out driving back roads, swimming the lake together, and summer overnights.  If they said that they couldn’t forgive, couldn’t love, couldn’t put away their selfishness even though they wanted to, perhaps they wanted to harbor it just a bit longer, teachers would nod and say gently, but it can be done.  Will you do it?

Beauty, it seems, doesn’t just come through perfection, but as a flickering brilliance of hope and desire in the shadows.  It breaks forth where Truth lies, like the breathtaking sunrise over the frosty dawn after the cold, deathly night, piercing the heart to awake, Awake!  And then there is Goodness, which is the sharing of Truth that illuminates Beauty among friends who hold hands with one another, who pray huddled together, and fight with one another but then alongside one another.  All the harsh words and hiding, sadness and exploitation. In these bumps and bruisings, these deep cuts and lashings, strangers and enemies become our friends.

We, these differing parts, members of one another through Christ, have gifts we have been given.  Let us use them, let us comfort and embrace, let us share and pray, let us forgive.  “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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The Shelter of Dying Time

It’s turning on us.

Those long, listless, forever days of sunshine and water are disappearing, lavender fields and hydrangea perfuming the air, playing time with our bare feet pounding over dusty, worn out crosscuts, floating like bubbles that will soon pop.

Those days were warm with heavy rain and deafening thunder that swirled ominous clouds as I gripped the oar handle to throw it to the steel bottom, spread my arms out, and lay back on the canoe as big, fat drops soaked my clothes through and smeared my hair against my forehead, dripped from my darkened skin, pelted my eyelids, and left the scent of

washing,

rinse,

and rebirth.

Those purling clouds came again, churning the deep sea waves in and around and over themselves, belching up black seaweed, broken bits of shell, and rotten fish as I roved the beach with my daughters who are as tall as I am, down to the pier at high tide.  The storm wind-whipped our shirts up around our waists as we hurried back and the humid, oppressive rain started falling in sheets.  We stamped puddles in the elevator and crashed on smooth, white linen beds with the windows thrown open and the ceiling fans whirring as we listen to the pelting summer storm in July.

There was one last swim in September.

It was with my friends on the lake; we were rushing before we faded and the summer dissipated like fog the weekend before the equinox.  We hauled up wooden ladders to corrugated plastic slides fitted with garden hoses and took turns flying down them, ricocheting against the lake water before submerging ourselves in the inky depths as we all hooted and cheered and belly laughed at one another.  We slipped and rolled through the calm underneath, over and under, coming up slowly for air.  We conversed as our arms pushed H2O atoms aside and kicked until we reached the opposite bank of the lake and found bearing with our feet in the sand. I had swum in my clothes and I stood there with my shorts dripping, my shirt plastered, and my hand shielding squinting eyes.  The sun shone warm in these dying days of summer.  That evening it cooled, and we arched our necks to trace the Milky Way, thousands of stars popping out like 3D against the onyx night sky while my friend pointed at constellations with a laser, giving a lesson to our students about planets and supernovas.

The next morning we woke early and gulped thin coffee in the camp cafeteria as I rubbed sleep from my eyes, pushed my clear plastic frames against my nose, and listened to the sound of my male colleagues talk, missing my dad and my brother.  As they shared stories I wrestled my blonde tangles into a messy bun, still sneezing from the water up my nose from the slide run.  My right ear was plugged.  We have a skit to perform in a couple hours I told myself, but my throat is scratchy and my headache is unyielding.  I wouldn’t trade camp life at all.

Those sheltering stars in dotted waves of enveloping galaxy remind me of Sukkot, the feast of tabernacles, as we hunker down into tiny cabins for the night.  The feast commemorates safety given in vulnerability.  We have all been naked and exposed, but Sukkot reminds us we are covered over, sheltered in the wilderness by the mercy of a God who raises the poor from the suffocating dust, carries the slave out of captivity to give them a place, a home of their very own.  In September the Hallel is recited, the psalms that ask why the seas are churned up, swirling, fleeing.

What ails you, O sea? Why do you tremble, looking behind you?

I AM has come.

It is the presence of God that the hurricane waters fear, and they rage.  It is the presence and mercy of God that shelters and covers His people in the wilderness, when the dying time comes.

After those joy days, when twilight races in quickly and the evening chill bites through, leaves start to loose their grip on their lifeblood then crinkle and fall to the grave of earth in finality.  In this wilderness of the dying time, life is sawed away, and we are reminded of the brevity, the fragility, the joy of life, and our shelter can be the Lord only and not we ourselves.

Those leaves are gathered and burned like carcasses, their smoky substance rising like sacrifice to the hovering stars.  Impeding winter comes, but not before we give thanks in rich, blessed fields of harvest that are colored gold and dripping in wealth.

 

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Mercy

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Oh, golden, fragile summer of promise
Settle down into my
organs and marrow
Teach me before you go.
Melt and sink and crash your heat and salt wave into my
bronzed skin and ribcage
Your breezy, brilliant fragrance whipping over my
sunkissed blonde and firmly wash every crevice of my heart.

Oh, God,
Meet me there at the edge of that green mountain,
on the precipice of that pearl-ash water,
at the height of the rolling country road,
and I will meet You if You’ll wait for me.
Your fingers grasping my shoulders and my knuckled palms,
Oh, good God,
Your voice whispering loudly but gently into my ear to let go,
Pulsing breath flicking against my amber freckles and armour plating,
Let it all go and You’ll carry it for me.

These wilting, heavy, and deadening utterances in my mind
Decay and heartache
Crippled and disabled
All these expectations I fight against but embrace
Tug of war in the bowels that
Silence and shout.

Love unregretfully and fully and with a rebel heart against that
deadending speech
Love wildly and lavishly with revolutionary generosity
Serve with riotous abandon
Even when walls threaten to shut us in and hold us down
Fight.

Chase the forever sunset,
Meet the rising mountain,
Drive over those eternal, rolling parkways,
Be folded over in a reverent gospel washing,
Face the fears that imobilize
Saying yes when it is hard to change.

Especially when it is hard to change.
Bury and cover over that which dies so that it can
Emerge and birth life.

And as the seasons turn and the years run and cascade swiftly
Help me to hold it all loosely, with open hands on my knees
and my face
Uplifted.
Each goodbye a lightning charge across a blackened, cloudy sky,
Breathing in the drenching rainwater like a damaging
Thunderstorm in the summer evening.
Breathtaking and beautiful, dangerous and formidable all at once.

Linger awhile longer after the sunset
Stay five minutes more to contemplate beauty
Cling to truth that builds the bones
Declare and embrace love when it is present
Say what needs to be said when your heart wants to run
Sit in the questions and the uncomfortable, deafeaning unknown

Have mercy upon us
Have mercy upon us
Have mercy upon us, miserable offenders
As You hover over us in a posture of protection.

Oh, golden, fragile summer of promise
Settle down into my
organs and marrow
Teach me before you go.
Melt and sink and crash your heat and salt wave into my
bronzed skin and ribcage
Your breezy, brilliant fragrance whipping over my
sunkissed blonde and firmly wash every crevice of my heart.

…………………..

I read Van Auken again.

And I drove to the little brick church on Perrowville from a century before, five minutes from my home, looking for the IHS on the cross in the graveyard at St. Stephen’s where the man and his young wife were scattered in severe mercy. My hand traced over that smooth, white stone surface where the tree line grew. It was twilight, the golden summer sun piercing through the veins of green, translucent leaves against the backdrop of the rolling, blue-ridged horizon. I pulled my husband’s hand with me to that solemn earth. My body lay over that grass as I breathed in tellurion space and my palms held form, trying to hold loosely and to walk under the mercy.

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Letters

Well, I wrote you a letter, with my words pouring out all over that paper and dripping with loopy pen scrawl.

It’s funny how much my handwriting has changed in twenty years as I sit here and look at it, like going through a time machine.

I did that often, loose-leaf paper and bound to a book because that’s what I always did, always writing to the people around me. And I still write about the same things that I did back then. Joy and comfort, pain and hurt, friendship and love, challenge and courage, death and life.

I am always sharing it, then second guessing it, then wrestling with it, then denying it any existence, then suffocating with words in my chest, then spilling them out on the page all over again. Language is like a deep scar, like a proud battle wound that is also breath and life, mashed and rolled up together, ink scrawled into reality.

Last week I was talking with friends about tattoos, why people get them, that is. Something that someone wants to say, and say it permanently, like a signal or a display—a banner and symbol. My problem is that I have too many signals to display. Too many words to put into the world. I have zero tattoos and never have thought about getting one because my words often change and there are endless words and more paper than skin.

The words are a restless burn, a domino chain that falls interminably.
So I wrote you a letter, breathing out onto the page in exhale and you read it, and then I got you to write back and use your words, and I inhaled. And that letter is still being written, ceaselessly.

We could just sit quietly next to one another and the sunset reached out and touched us.

I’m living my life forward and backward and outside of myself, looking down on it while within it and pulling it through my mind, as if I am zooming out over Google maps and seeing the whole thing from beginning to end in one long arch to find my bearings and head due north. All those words and symbols and banners on hundreds of sheets of paper over the decades.

And here I sit with the sunshine on me, clicking on my keyboard and screen, these little symbols that mean something inside of my head and tug on my heart. This morning I read aloud to my students about the concentration camp, disease and suffering, and hope that is deeper than despair. Black typeset on a clean white page that can horrify, or make eyes tear up and spill. And I’m struck again at the thought of language that can cut deeply but can also heal and soothe.

Today I have more words, more than I did back then. Words that waterfall faster and faster, like melting mountain snow flash-flooding the springs coming in a rush of urgency, little gifts that fall onto me like rain showers in the afternoon sun and form rainbow prisms I can walk through and touch. Have you ever touched words?

Words touched me today, like a stream from one person to another, when a friend told me words that made me sad, like a cup, an object that passes from one person to another, to be held onto or let go. The most bitter and the most joyous words we clutch with tight fists and, at times, release.

We want words to go away sometimes. We want words to water us in others. And I feel both deep in me, the suppression and welcoming of words, just like I did when I wrote you letters all those years ago.

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Devil Calls

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Devil calls.

The click and hiss flick.

Pulsing through the city with the concentrated horde gathering over him, hailing him with their hearts and fingernails scraping, shoveling him into their dry and dusty throats with shouts and pushing, their flesh in decadent decay.

Lazarus’ rotting lungs expanded and burst with jagged gasps when a clear, strong Voice called him, burning oxygen deep in the cavern of his wasting ribs and his heart clutched and released again full of blood, like in the Beginning except this was the in-between after agony had already erupted in Christ’s boundless chest and He had wept in strangling grief, lamentation mingled in the choking dust because He dearly loved him. And He loved Martha.  And He loved Mary.

That Devil calls.

The click and hiss flick tongue.

Jesus rose and discarded His outer garments, descended, and sopped that aggregate dust from their mortal feet with a rag and water, cleansing their hearts in a stroke of tenderness, Voice gentle, eyes lustrous as a mirror, and then told them to love one another.

“Do you know what I have just done?”, and they stare, breathless.

“One of you will betray me.”   It was night.  “I am going where you cannot come with me, but I am not alone.”

The suffocating dust of the earth, we collective, and I, gulping, swig. The dust of the good, fertile earth tainted. Judas abandoned the heavy room with brazen insolence and accumulated his obscene, contaminated silver, ready to simper with that sinister Devil hiss and kiss Jesus in an embrace of betrayal, dredging the grimy pit for sustenance.

That seductive, elusive, Devil calls.

His ratchet click and piquant hiss flick tongue thrust like riven shards.

He accumulated the soil as He prayed in the garden, His hands thrust to the filth and ash, bathing in it, pulling in sorrow and the anticipation of agony, cradling it to His body, and it sunk into Him. He sucked their pain into His tissue,

like doubt.

like torment.

like utter anguish.

like foul hopelessness.

Peter retaliated when they came for Him, but Jesus uttered in hushed tone, “no. no, Peter” and healed the man Peter had mangled.  He was seized and taken where a man would ask Him what Truth was, but did not listen.  First, He was beaten. First, He was tortured for staying silent against no crime other than giving unbelievable promise to the dying.

Blessed are the poor, whose spirits have been crushed and emptied, the mourning, whose lives have been overturned, those who hunger, who have been spat upon and lied about, those who make peace always, the pure in heart who see the coming of heaven when others cannot. Throw sin away, love those who do not deserve.  Be that stirring, distant light that touches and strikes close among that bitter, utter, and salty blindness.

The Devil hisses, slithering as he watched the ripping of Jesus’ skin from His soft back by those laughing evil in their bosom, spewing madness that Jesus’ own blood be rained over them in a washing and spilled out upon their children after them, cursing generations with callous darkness.  Peter was no longer there.

He dragged in oxygen, rasping, absorbing each one before Him with His mirror eyes. Skin forceably ripped from His ribs; He held tight. These people of dust and despair who had merely touched His garment and mending power flowed out of Him, and into them, to heal their dust.  The grit grinding down into His open wounds.

This Man.

Naked, bleeding, stripped and raw, with His strong arms, hands flexed in grip, His erect back now slunk forward, shuffling the stained beam to the hill where smoldering death rose like incense. This after feeding and healing the desperate, telling a mob of men to step away from a woman they surrounded with stones clenched in their fists, correcting them when they sought to banish children, and invited the most hated and infected to walk beside Him.

That seductive, elusive, arrogant, evil Devil laughs.

Open mouth like a sepulcher, teeth like rounded tombstones, waiting while the Son of Man’s hands and feet, bound to the cross beam, were punctured with nails and driven, and Jesus cried out at the tears that stained horrified faces and disbelief curtained the onlooker’s reason.  The cross was lifted and sunk into the shaft that held it fast, with two others on Jesus’ right and left, hell on display as the nails ripped forward.

Forgive them, Father. They do not know.

The clouded darkness spread ominously over them as Divine Man exhaled, with His heartsick mother wailing there and John held her.  The Voice cried out, because He was then all alone, rain discharging in a torrent, cooling the hot and dusty hill, the temple curtain ruptured and split, the veil between man and God forever removed while the Devil slithered over Jesus’ expired body in triumph, shadows pouring forth as the Voice hung silent.

Devil calls.

The click and hiss flick.

And that despairing dust settled and sunk into the dormant tomb as Jesus’ hand choked and rung that slithering Serpent trolling His body and went to war with the Devil, descending to Hades with a thunderous outcry, wrestling Death with effectual words: finished.  And Jesus judged Devil abhorrent, ugly, vanquished. The sun called life back out to grow and the Voice raised Himself.

He appeared to those black sheep He had wandered out for, they touched His wounded hands, and Thomas put his fingers to Jesus’ pierced side, eyes aghast, drinking mystic glory.

“Do you love me? Then go love.”

The Voice drown-thrashed that tawdry, pimping Devil’s call, crushing it with golden sunrise and freedom that drenched the atmosphere with absolute victory.

 

green trees under blue and orange sky during sunset
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Conversion

For me, church was wood paneling and white brick, tall narrow windows and pews with crosses etched into them.  I can still smell the expanse of that place as if it lived in me for my almost 40 years. Church was familiar faces, choir robes, signing the blue guest booklet, being asked to sing ‘Living for Jesus’ with my cousin Autumn, stacking little plastic communion cups of grape juice, singing out of the hymnal, and drawing a picture of my grandpa while he preached.  And, miracurously, I am an early millennial who owns these things deep down, incredibly deep and protected in my soul.

Of course, I didn’t know I was millenial.  I was just a kid born at the end of 1981 who was raised on Steve Green and Great is Thy Faithfulness, the earliest generation of children who grew up with computers, Star Wars, and Inspector Gadget but with a grasp on the old way of life…a foot in two separate worlds as a child. I can very tangibly feel the old life versus the progressive.  I am a container of these two normalities of culture into one anomaly.

Forming me into a child who loved my histories and classics with abandon, connecting me to the greats, but utilizing the future, a nostalgic user of social media.

Again, church was wandering up to the balcony and opening the door to the tiny closet of a sound room where the services were recorded and my dad would let me sit with him to record if I didn’t touch anything.   It was touching the covers of all the books in Alice Smith’s church library across from Grandpa’s office and checking several out every week.

Church was my mom telling us to quiet down and my dad rubbing my arm, humming to the sound of the organ.  It was my dad being the last one to leave after shutting off every light and locking every door while my grandpa shook everyone’s hands with his soft, tender smile of compassion.

Most of the cassette tapes of my grandpa’s decades of sermons are lost.

It was hearing about my grandpa’s plane crash in Papua New Guinea, or his belongings stolen out of the trunk of a car in Paris, or wondering if he was safe in the jungles of Togo.  It was hearing his tender stories of the people in those places, touching the 5×7 print pictures of natives in those countries and feeling like it was so very far away.  It was begging God He wouldn’t send me far, far away.

It was living up to the suffocating expectations of a pastor’s family, even when the pastor and the family are more grace filled and forgiving. It was caving under the pressure and begging to be let out and then being welcomed back in and embracing every difficulty, every sadness, every pressure, every memory.

Church was eating my grandma’s pot roast after morning service some Sundays, tramping through the treeline that bordered my grandparent’s backyard, playing wiffle ball, and peeking into the den to find my uncle Paul napping while the baseball game flickered on the television.  The Sundays we didn’t go to grandma and grandpa’s we pulled up to the HotnNow drive-thru on Westnedge next to the Putt-Putt, ordering twelve cheeseburgers to take home. It was every Sunday, all day, every Wednesday, every weekend, every summer full of VBS day camp, sleep away camp up North, youth group road trips and missions trips and evangelism.  It was all around me and through me.

It was being everything for all people, as the Apostle Paul says.

Church was sitting with my cousins, being dunked in a bathtub full of warm water, wandering potluck tables, and knowing very deeply in my subconscious that my family was collectively rooted down into church community like the brick foundation of the building, like being chained down into Michigan Avenue and the city my family was planted in a hundred years before.  When I was fifteen I wanted to run far away from it.  Two years later, I embraced the Father as the prodigal.

We talk of our places of being, such as being American, or a Texan, a Virginian, an Alaskan, or a graduate of our alma mater.  A firefighter, a librarian, a teacher, a stockbroker, a lawyer, a doctor, a clerk.  I can list many things that I am or was, but if I go back far enough and deep enough, I was born Christian, in a household of faith as we call it.  I knew deep in my rebellious soul all those years ago that I could never escape it.

He has not lost one of those given to Him.

So while church was all of these tangible things, it was more than them, too.

It has been many years since I’ve stepped foot back into the church where I was born, baptized, raised, graduated, married, brought my children, and remembered my grandfather at his passing and the people came to see him.  There is something about that building that makes me feel like I recognize myself when I’m there.

I recited Bible verses and played my oboe there, I sang Pachelbel’s Cannon in D and Lo How a Rose Er Blooming. I sat in the prayer rooms behind the baptismal and pushed on the footpedals of the organ and sat under my grandpa’s desk and smelled diesel while cleaning out the blue bus.  It’s probably been almost fifteen years since I’ve sat through a Baptist service there.  And why?

Well.

The church I grew up in is gone.

And that’s painful.

Jesus tells us to love people, and my grandpa joked once that feeding His sheep was difficult at times, because sheep can be stinky.  People hurt one another and disagree, and then they pray together and can shake hands and live through the years of life side by side.

But I am a person of place and tradition.

I can remember sitting on the lakeshore sand in my early twenties, shifting it through my fingers to remember every July of my childhood wash over me as it slipped from my palm and I looked out over the clear water of Lake Michigan from Whitefish Bay.  I carry the smell of the cottage as if I was walking through the door right now.  I can feel my thighs shifting against eachother with grit from that lakeshore sand and jumping to the rocks and crashing into the waves with my brother and my cousins, the same way my dad and my uncles and their cousins did before us.  My grandmother walked through that cottage and her presence filled that space.   I remember the summer my uncles took us hiking through the Door peninsula picking wild strawberries and teaching us songs.

I ran my hands over the brick of the church that was built up around me, and I left it after 20 years.  Dana Arledge sat dumbfounded when my husband and I came to him asking to join, at 23 years old, the even older Bethel Baptist…the church that founded Berean.  We were looking for something familiar and solid under our feet that we could remember.

And I read Steinbeck and Dostyevstky and Lewis and Hemingway and Tolstoy and Dickens and Austen and so many.  So Many.  There, that was comfort to remember place.

When I stepped into a liturgical service for the first time ten years later, I cried.

I was washed and I wept. My emotion and heart finally erupted, something I was seeking, missing, and knew deep within my spirit, but no longer existed in modern America.

Yet, there it was, solace in the midst. It is why I am now Anglican and kneeled before a priest for confirmation. It is why my son was baptised as an infant.

Only this past Sunday, in that stained glass chapel, we sang from the hymnal and I inhaled ‘He Leadeth Me’ on cello, violin, and piano.  A lamentation of my short years that I breathe deeply and know astutely.

Now I understand my grandpa was truly half Baptist, half Anglican. He married us all from the Book of Common Prayer.  He read the Eucharist from 1 Corinthians.  It is why I feel so completely at home in both.

I took my upbringing for granted, really.  While many of my Baptist contemporaries remember their childhoods laced with large doses of legalism, what I remember is people trying to make sense of life with God.

The way of a pastor’s family is that of prayer, and understanding, and above all, taking on other’s cares into their being.

Months ago I told my grandmother this….I am thankful for the church I was purposed to grow in, for it has birthed me into revival. It gave me a compass for what to stay true to.

There is Word and Truth.

There is the Creed.

There is the Baptism.

There are the hymns.

There is the stained glass beauty of the chapel.

There are the people.

253425

 

The Gift Certificate

girl thumbs through the old book
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For Christmas I received a gift certificate to a local book shop from a student.

Think of it.

This was not a plastic, credit card shaped rectangle that could be thrown into a shopping cart along with milk and toilet paper at the local grocery store.  (If that is how you shop for teacher gifts, I am not judging you.  That’s how I shop for gifts in this season of my life, and I know how precious a commodity time is.)  It was an actual paper certificate that was signed in ink by one of the store clerks for a twenty-five dollar value.  Someone had to go into the store and request it at the counter.  This was precious.

I have spent countless hours scouring bookstores in my lifetime.  I like to run my fingers over book spines like they will imbibe a sort of energy into me, or vice versa, and to smell their pages before purchasing.  I have been a book smeller since I first smelt the glorious fragrance of my mom’s childhood copy of Skip after sitting in a box in the basement, gathering a patina of must, moisture, and age over years.  Skip is the story about a dog, and this particular copy was printed in the seventies with a yellow and orange watercolor background, though I never read it because I was not an animal lover like she was.  However, a secondary book that I pulled from that box was her copy of 101 Dalmatians.   (Anyone sensing the dog theme of my mother’s youth?) I read that book and loved it purely because it had lost its dear little cover and the first pages were filled with ink drawings of dogs walking in the park with their look-alike owners among pruned trees.

Not all books live up to this fine age.  Certain books have that horrid smell of a chemical laser printer.  There is a difference between book smells that renders them good or bad.  I’ve categorized the good ones down to four: forgotten library dry, basement hoarder musty, dark corner brittle, and freshly printed ink.  I’ve thought entirely too much about the smell of books.  I would buy a perfume called “Book Smell”.

Can I patent that?

Back to the point.  I’ve spent a lot of time in bookstores.  I’ve purchased quite a few books but not as many as you might think, because I’m carefully selective.  There may be reasons for this, like how I treat books like loyal friends verses mere aquaintances, but it is mainly due to the fact that I am not wealthy.  Of course, I have the ability to max out my credit card on books and build a pretty stellar library in the cabin level of my home.  However, I am much too practical and responsible for that, as much as I would love the instant gratification of such a room.

(Sidebar confession: I look at homes for sale based on the acreage of the lot and two story library.)

In being selective of what books I actually buy, nothing hurts me more than to spend $100 on a textbook that I have to slog through.  That’s at least four, if not five, brand new hardcover releases or special edition classics.  That’s ten to fifteen classic novels printed by Dover or Signet.  Oh, the pain.  The unsufferable agony.

I’ve always been a classics girl, quite skeptical of new books on the proverbial block.  Like, where did they come from?  Who do they think they are?  Prove your worth to me, you newbies.

I know, I know.  The classics were new releases once themselves and sold very well at some point, which is why they are, well, classics.  I wouldn’t have my beloved classics without new releases.  Nevertheless, I am an old soul at heart and therefore, the language and the atmostphere of the classics is like being home.

I’d like to know why that is.  Why do I feel at home with a book that is at least over fifty years old?  Why, when I was young, did I wish that I grew up during the time of the Titanic? The Civil War? Edwardian England? What influenced what?  Was I changed by the books or was I drawn to the books because of who I was?

Moving on.

I took my lovely gift certificate, neatly tucked into my lightweight backback, ready to splurge on a new, hardcover book.  I was going to step out of my comfort zone and purchase something recent.  I was clothed with brazen zeal and motivation, like Don Quioxte riding into misadventure. I spend about forty-five minutes perusing and while I picked up a five dollar copy of Austen’s Persuasion, I could not decide on a hardcover book over twenty dollars.  I picked up several, felt spines, and inhaled pages…my usual custom.  I carried around a couple, put them back.  I held Persuasion until the bitter end.  Apparently, five dollars is nothing for me to spend on a book; it’s practically loose change — free, no sacrifice.

But fifteen?  That’s painful unless absolutely doubtless.  Twenty-eight to thirty-two dollars, the average price of a new release on my estimate, is like piercing my heart with a double bladed dagger.  What if I were to spend my entire gift certificate with the store clerk’s personal signature on it on a gamble…on a new release which hasn’t been fully reviewed and vetted as gold?  What if I buy it and hate it?  I know that you all have read the introduction and maybe a chapter or two of numerous stacks of books on the nightstand or coffee table like I have, and we never finish them do we? All because of time or boredom or some other reason.  I did not want this gift certificate to purchase one of those risky books.

Instead, I returned Persuasion to it’s proper place next to Pride and Prejudice and left with nothing, informing my husband I couldn’t decide which book to buy, because I know I can check out Austen at my school library any time I wish.  I had found plenty of books that caught my eye, sounded interesting, or would inform me in ways that would be beneficial.  But were they truly worth the beloved gift certificate?

If you only had twenty five dollars to spend on books for an entire year, what would you decide on?  How would you decide?  Would you impulsively buy a best seller with the click of your touchscreen on Amazon or a new release with its attractive, glossy jacket?  Would you buy a few cheap paperbacks?  Would you splurge on a nicer copy of one of your favorite novels, with a cloth and board cover?  Would you find a used book store to shop?  When I am unsure of what I really want, I go and check out twenty books at the library, drag them home in a laundry basket, and palm each one, feel the page thickness between my fingertips, inhale the guts of the thing like a fine cigar, read the first few pages, and decide if I’m committed.

I mean, would I love this book?  Would I marry it? Would I die for it? (I’m only half joking…remember that saying, ‘If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?’)  Or I sit in the corner on the floor and my legs crisscrossed in the library until I decide what to drag home and possibly, if I love it beyond all comprehension, buy my own copy to reread and reread again.

Which begs the question…do you reread books?  Novels?  Nonfiction?  Do you reread poetry?  Theology?  Philosophy?  Myth?  Science?

What exactly do you reread?  For those books that you reread tell who you are.

I don’t reread nearly as much as I want to.  Well, that’s not true.  I tell myself I like the idea of rereading and knowing a book inside and out, cover to cover, chapter by chapter, but the only books that I know that well are the books I teach every year.  Do you know how many times I’ve read Dicken’s A Christmas Carol by this point? I’ve lost count but has to be over ten times, which is a lot to read one book, if you really think about it.  Likewise for Anne of Green Gables and The Hiding Place.  The only other book that comes close to being reread that much without having taught it is To Kill a Mockingbird. If I’m not teaching a book, I tell myself I do not have the time to reread it, because there are so many books that I haven’t read yet and want to.  But it is a discipline just like anything else. I have to force myself to reread books in order to savor them the way that I want to.

This goes for writing, too.  I have to fight to sit down and work intellectually if I don’t have a deadline to meet.  I’m a wife, a mother to three children of differing ages and needs, vacuuming up after our 140 pound mastiff, driving to the horse barn at least four plus times per week, teaching full time as a middle school classical instructor while simultaneously

helping my daughter with her math homework

and playing cars with my son

and having a heart to heart with my other daughter before

spending time with my husband one on one in the evenings and then, well, then I have to sit down and

research an online database and write a few pages for that paper due at the end of the term

and submit it for feedback from my professor.

Nevermind that work meeting I need to attend and the accreditation report due Tuesday or the five loads of laundry waiting to be shoved into the machine.  The dirty dishes are getting crusty.

This is my brain on coffee.

This is how I tunnel down the rabbit hole into all the reasons why I have no time.  But everyone has the same twenty four hours and I still have the same twenty four hours I did ten  years ago, or twenty years ago, it’s just utilized differently.  Stopping myself in my tracks when this list of reasons pops up to derail my best intentions has been helpful as I transition each day to my reading and writing.  I’ve also decided that anytime I’m about to complain out loud about anything at all, no matter how big or how trivial, I will pray instead.  I’ve got some work to do.

To which my husband evokes Bill Murray’s Phil Conners statement to Rita: Gosh, you’re an upbeat lady.

You see, I did this several years ago with reading. Being intentional, that is.  I grew up reading everything I could, from the school to the church library, writing my name on the checkout cards during card catalog days.  R.L. Stine, to Max Lucado, to the cereal box.  I know, right?

As I entered motherhood and didn’t prioritize my time, reading and writing fell off my list in a major way.  I gave myself excuses as to why I couldn’t invest in either, which is just a bunch of malarkey and fear, because reading and writing costs zero dollars and is pretty easy for me to come by.  Wake up early, stay up late, shut off the TV, whatever.  There’s no gym membership fee, no drive to get somewhere to actually take part in reading.  It’s actually one of the easiest hobbies, jobs, and careers to have, in that sense.  The pain and difficulty of being a reader and a writer is that you have to get out of your own mind and just do it.  Even when the book or the writing is uninspiring, uninteresting, unexciting.  Even when you are rejected.

So I decided to read voraciously again the year I turned thirty.  I read every classic book that I could spare time for, which turned out to be a whole heck of a lot.  Capote’s In Cold Blood ,Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  Steinbeck, Dostoevsky, Sinclair, Camus, Austen.  My husband and I would hit the university library every week with our outdated alumni school ID’s, pulling volumes off of the grey, metallic storage shelves located in a lower level warehouse space.  We would check out several at a time and then go home and just devour them, sitting side by side and sipping coffee on the sofa or on the patio chairs out back on mild evenings.  When I finally worked up the guts to apply for the teaching position that I wanted, they asked for a book list of what I had read over the past year.  To this day, five years after getting that teaching job, my colleagues still bring up that daunting reading list.  And I look back and think, how easy was that?  I mean, yes, I had to finish my master’s degree to land the job.  But if all things being equal, that’s what they remember.  That crazy reading list I had a blast investing in and conversing with my husband over countless hours about what we found between the pages.

Which brings me back to my gift certificate that I have not spent yet, because I cannot decide what book is worthy of such a splurge.

Maybe I should go to the library.

woman in black long sleeved looking for books in library
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