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.
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
Love wildly and lavishly with revolutionary generosity
Serve with riotous abandon
Even when walls threaten to shut us in and hold us down
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
The energy was high today as students across our schools sang Christmas carols in unison. Classrooms were swept of crushed peppermint candy cane and sugar cookie crumbs after wiping down counters from custard and eggnog spills. Twinkle lights were shut off and packaged gifts gathered into piles as students, parents, and teachers alike waved and wished “Merry Christmas!” to one another. Freezing rain was falling, but spirits were high as the school semester closed and Christmas holiday officially kicked off. The celebrations have just begun.
It has been a long month. During the season of Christmas anticipation and Advent, students become more and more restless in expectation of the coming break from classes. What I love about my school is that while it would be easy to employ desperate measures to entertain fidgeting students, or to give in to the temptation to “check out” and put aside assignments, our hallways were humming during the weeks before Christmas holiday with the familiar routine: readings and recitations, discussion about big ideas, the scribbling of pencil on paper, the study of flashcards in preparation for exams.
Yet if you were to step in from the fringes on the outside into the classrooms themselves, you would observe Advent and Christmas tidings seeping in subtly and intentionally. My students came into class three times a week and took their seats to continue transcribing Luke 2 into their composition books, the account of the Messiah’s birth, as Handel’s Messiah and O Holy Night played quietly in the background. They memorized and dramatically recited Sir Walter Scott’s famous poem, “Breathes There the Man with Soul So Dead” about the “wretch, concentered all in self” that so perfectly describes Ebeneezer Scrooge before his miraculous transformation. Every morning they would take turns reading Charles Dickens’ rich prose, dripping with irony, personification, and imagery. Or they would ask me to read it to them, softening and slowing my voice as I read about the fog and ruddy candlelight, quickening with fright at the ghostly entrance of the unforgettable Marley. At eleven and twelve years of age, they are taking in the spirit of restful contemplation while the world around them is bustling in quick-paced fashion.
Over the last few weeks, treats and gifts were selected and packaged with care into postal boxes for our adopted troops spending their Christmas in Afghanistan. Instruments were tuned and harnessed into submission as these young masters transfixed their listeners with carols and hymns to celebrate Incarnation. As he sent us off today, our headmaster reminded us the breathtaking reality that Our Lord is celebrated all over the Earth this week. It was a remarkably stirring thought.
I have a natural tendency to feel guilty about celebrating excessively, and that it is better to do all things in moderation, or even conservatively. Perhaps this is the residue and remembrance of years in which we had to make do with much less, and I still feel the need to celebrate conservatively in order to be “responsible”, because those years are not long-distant. I’ve felt the deep desire of wanting Advent brings in my gut, of a difficult and pain-filled world at my doorstep and in my own life in very difficult ways. Advent has been lived for the better part of my adult years while I wait for the promise that all things will be made new again. But I was reminded this week (on Twitter of all things) to celebrate-–and then celebrate some more.
I was reminded in the character of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who so eloquently shares:
“There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew, “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round-apart from… the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that-as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”- A Christmas Carol, Stave I
Threfore, celebrate all of the things.
Celebrate with warm and colored lights, fragrant trees, roaring fires, and exuberant, hearty feasts.
Celebrate with great laughter, loud and rousing games, and with dear, close family.
Celebrate with toasts to newness and hope and peace.
Celebrate with colorful packages and abundant gifts covered in bows all spilling out of stockings, and by tucking children deep into their Christmas Eve covers with whispers about the morning that awaits.
Celebrate with traditions and movies and wishes for crisp, pure snow.
Celebrate the coming Messiah in extravagance for the King of Kings, who is Love that came down.
We would throw our line and fish off the dock with squirmy, dirty, translucent worms on the cul de sac off Landing Way Dr., across from Robert Morris Park on H Ave. It was all new. The slippery scale of freshwater lake fish against my hands as the sun hung golden in flaming wildfire, and the water was warm at twilight. Will would wrap his fingers over mine to secure and pull the hook and show me how to re-bait and I could smell the dryer sheet fragrance on his cotton t-shirt. Then we would tumble into the steel bottomed fishing boat with the ice-cooler and motor out to the center of the lake with Mark and Wendy, fishing for hours until we were sticky and sweaty as the sun sank and the fireflies came out. Then we would jump into the dark lake, shadowy with floating seaweed when the heat got unbearable, dipping our foreheads back into the inky-cool recess of the coves, blowing bubbles through our noses, and our laughter rising as we dunked one another before hoisting back into the haul with the dying fish. Late spring always drips and twills with newness, awakening, rousing from slumber–a birthing that melts into the heavy growth of summer. Our first season when we were all just barely legal adults.
We had married in a snowstorm while I clutched pale pink roses down the aisle, the palest I could find, with just a faint hint of blush-like watercolor sweep to Pachabel’s Cannon in D against my ethereal white and bead gown that was fashioned around my waist with tiny silk stitches. That diapason of piano key was furrowing both of our marrow for eternity, waving through the tall church windows where my grandpa officiated, and out into the snowy garden.Hushed humanity and candlelight, bodies with rings of promise on their own fingers and heart scars. Skin and muscle and soul surrounded us and held our shoulders and our necks and looked into our eyes and kissed our cheeks and told us we were beautiful. Then they sang out in unison as we slipped rings over one another’s hands because they knew what we faced.
With this ring, thee I wed. With my body, I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Will bought me an exquisitely delicious, wood in-lay music box with green velvet under the lid for Christmas three months before we took our vows. It played the Pachabel’s Canon in D. I would twist the key with a click-tick and lay back on my pillows and quilt, swallowing its goodness into my ribs as I twirled the white-gold prayer ring against my lip he had engraved, circled with diamonds, and gifted me on my 19th birthday. He wanted me to remember that he prayed for me. The men in my life have always been a ballast.
We spent the spring and summer months after our snowstorm wedding fishing in the evenings ,and then flinging ping-pong balls in his Dad’s basement late into the night, with his brother and my soon to be sister in law. Bill would charcoal grill the fish he taught me to scale on his back concrete step and saute green beans with butter and pepper, greeting me, “Hey beautiful”, and grasping me in embrace. He still does this every time we go home.
I cried in bed when Will and I had to move away from our hometown and our Gull Road apartment and the ping pong table and his Dad. I was the one who wanted to go and Will said yes. We married and then when it came time I wept, forlorn to leave our Peninsula and Lake but more than the land I hated leaving our deeply built and forged past and present of friendship and family. I felt like I was betraying it all, even though we were sent off in love. It was our people we were leaving and our past that was thrusting us forward when I wasn’t ready to leave. We searched the new city for an apartment we could afford that didn’t smell of mold and was close to campus. We settled on a tiny one-bedroom with the refrigerator shoved against the cabinets, washing machine in our bedroom, and our textbooks piled next to the desktop computer, millenials emerging into adulthood while I pushed creeping homesickness down to my feet. We ate cheap TV dinners from Walmart. Date night consisted of two dollar shaved ice from the Bahama shack. We went to the dollar theater near campus almost every night we weren’t working, because it was cheaper than renting a video from the Blockbuster. The first movie we watched at the theater was Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones; Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman in the ambrosial divine of Naboo are still attached to me like a branding because it was the first. I started drinking coffee that semester, scrounging quarters from my red GAP backpack I still carried from high school, blowing the milked and sugared liquid to lukewarm. (I’ve graduated to black now.) I was gulping between Western Civ. and American Literature, studying in half moments out near the fountain behind Demoss and the Hanger of old campus, the bookstore, and pulling all-nighters in our apartment. The old fountain was tucked near the Shilling Center and the education hall, tree branches rustling, and spring blossoms raining their petals into my hair as I lay against the scraggly grass weed. After classes in the morning I would change for work at the pharmacy, finding relief in seeing people that began to know me even though I was lost in a sea of faces in class.
Everyone has an opinion of Liberty University, and that’s fine by me, but those years are wrapped in a thirsty tenderness. It was our germination, awakening, and birth among Virginia apple blossoms and mountain red bud.
We came home for Mark and Wendy’s wedding three months after our move. It was November and everything was blazing red leaves, brilliant blue sky, fragrant, moody nights of Autumn. I sucked in my sorrow because the holidays were upon us and we would be back.
It was that next, first Virginia spring of 2003 that I fell in irrevocable love with seed-time in Appalachia and the Blue Ridge: heavy, warm rain and so much electric green and damp bark, diving into Main Street Eatery to encounter decadent cheesecake and lose ourselves in the spaghetti mess of Lynchburg roadways before GPS was a thing. We purchased laminated maps of the city and stashed them in the glove compartment of our Buick, learning the names of the streets and what they wound into, up and over hills and valleys and waterfalls. Will would drive and I would tell him where to turn, so I learned direction and names faster than he did. And then when we weren’t in class or working or at the theater or lingering at the bowling alley, we were in the bookstore gulping more coffee and studying textbooks and fat stacks of flashcards. Flinging the windows up, my favorite was to sleep with them open all night, the sound of rain pelting the grass and shrubbery outside our bedroom window like a lullaby.
Years crept by in slow motion, filled with faces, working through each, confronting this life of ours. Moving back to our family, moving back to the South, and all the pages that could fill up between those lines.
Then, this summer, sixteen years later, we returned home to the hot, hazy summer in Michigan with our three children. We camped out with family, dipped in pools, and laid sleeping bags out on rankled grass to watch fireworks with our teenage children, Mark and Wendy, and my Dad. We do this every summer, but for the first time in a decade homesickness washed over me in a feverish wave. It was palpable and tangible, resting in my rib cage and burgeoning. It made me telephone my parents weeks afterward and speak for hours into the night, like when we first moved away and unsure of myself and desperately needing wisdom and missing my youth.
Will and I found ourselves back on campus today, situating ourselves comfortably in the upholstered booths with our fat laptops, feeling a bit out of place in this city of twenty somethings and their razor thin monitors. I look at him as he works, grey in his beard coming through, and I smile. We have lived another lifetime since we were here before but we still are partners…moving through the next shift of our lives together. That Pachabel’s Cannon in D swimming between us. We traded our Buick of days gone by for our silver Dodge minivan, parking in the same spot behind the dining hall across from the train tracks, but now it is a four story parking garage. Everything is so familiar, but incredibly different from back then: the dusty parking lot of David’s place, the paint chipping off of the fountain near the Hanger where we used to buy cheap fried chicken and I’d lay in the grass between class, and the dimly lit education hall– all are gone. It is state of the art these days with Jeffersonian architecture and precision. A massive student union with rising stone steps extends off of Demoss. Instead of plunking away on a desktop computer in the small Demoss computer lab, I’m plugged into an outlet and a USB in the ample studying space that spreads throughout a four story tower library. We peer through glass into the immense depths of the robotic system: several stories and uncountable rows of steel boxes filled with books that a robotic arm can retrieve with a request from my click on a screen. My fear of heights kick into overdrive when we descend the glass, floating staircase that hovers over the terrace level. Glass windows ranging four stories give an expansive view to the waterfall and lake behind the Vines center. I slip into the quiet, still, and silent Reading Room to find my beloved classic literature and pull a few titles from the shelves I’ve started to familiarize myself with. It is a far cry from the basement, warehouse library I used to frequent during undergrad and even my master’s degree days. It is a picture of our lives in many ways…these humble beginnings and blessings that are so great we cannot recognize fully, except that we have so much to give and pass on. It still takes my breath away.
I feel as though we are back in time, but this is better. We’ve lived, we’ve despaired, we’ve had joy, we’ve had heartache. We know enough not to take for granted, and we still embody that tenacious motivation to push forward together, given to us by parents who worked hard and a God who gave us mission. We have settled into the Blue Ridge valley, with our children and our dog on a plot of half acre. Will and I planted seedling trees that border the property and have grown three times in a year as a result of the Virginian summer rain. And it is not lost on me that I am a Swedish-Dutch child from the celery flats of Michigan in her bones, and we planted trees that will grow thick roots here in the Southeast. I look around and take it all in, knowing it does not always stay, so I can be thankful in all things. This marriage, this love, this family, this work, this writing–all that God has asked of me to observe.
These days my music box sits atop my antique dresser and I twirl the key to hear Pachabel’s Canon in D, shifting my prayer ring around my finger, nestled between my engagement and wedding bands…a remembrance of a forever vow to pray for one another.
“To stick to my work and have every confidence in it, this I am learning from his (Rodin’s) great and goodly example, as I learn patience from him; it is true, my experience tells me over and over that I haven’t much strength to recokon with, for which reason I shall, so long as it is in any way possible, not do two things, not separate livliehood and work, rather try to find both in the one concentrated effort…”- R.M. Rilke