End of the Year Haikus

It’s that time of year everyone is waiting for.  When I force my students to sum up their learning in well-formulated (or not so well formulated) haikus.

While I’m wading through this year’s exams, I thought I would give you some of the highlights from last year:

Life of Pi

Stuck on a life boat
with a tiger, for a year.
But guess what? He lived. -B.A.

In the lifeboat there
was one boy and one tiger
hungry to survive. -K.L.

Tiger and Pi. Boat.
Death swirling like a black bird.
Peace is kept. Life wins. -D.F.

A boy in a boat
Accompanied by his God(s)
And a large tiger -N.J.

Things Fall Apart

A culture crumbles:
The will of a “loving” God;
a man can’t stand it. -M.M.

He was a strong man
But he resided in fear
Destruction followed -Y.K.

Valiant we stand
Together unbreakable
They betray; I die. -K.G.

The Mission

The Lord is the light,
that’s on top of the darkness,
to light up the world. -K.N.

The Alchemist

I march to Egypt.
The treasure lies before me.
Wait, no, it’s back home. -J.T.

A shepherd no more
for dreams called him into a
golden world of love. -C.M.

Treasure can be found
If we travel great distances
We will find it there -A. H.

He dreamt of treasure,
Adventure. He searched for Gold
And found destiny. -C.M.

Personification and Hyperbole

My shoe attacked me.
It was like a mad falcon
falling off that shelf. -B.A.

The oceans roared and
Pi felt his whole world drowning
in the deep blue sea. -R.H.

The frozen drops dance
in the wind, then fall on me
smashing me apart. -M.F.

The chair talked to me
as I sat down. He said, “You
weigh a thousand pounds.” -K.L.

The sea receded.
The wave rose like a giant–
And then face planted. -Y.K.

This test is eating
me alive. My brain is mush.
Oh! What will I do! -C.G.

I have never felt
fear like this. The paper stares
at me with malice. -C.M.

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2016 in Review

This is usually the point in the year at which I post highlights of the 2016-17 school year, or, at the very least, spring semester. Instead, I’m going to post my woefully late summary of 2016.

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2016 was a year of running and teaching, of travel and beauty; a year of visiting and being visited.

This is, by no means, an exhaustive summary of my year, but just a few of the highlights.

  1. I kissed a giraffe (and I liked it :)).  After two years, finally made it to the Nairobi elephant orphanage and giraffe center.
  2. I visited the Nairobi National Park (twice).
  3. I went to Amboseli.  While there I saw numerous cheetahs, lions, elephants, hippos, and birds, but the highlight was Mt. Kilimanjaro, in all its glory.amboseli-226
  4. I discovered the white sand, blue sea, tropical paradise that is Diani.  Spent both my spring and fall breaks swimming and reading, each time in the company of a different friend (one old, one new), and sipping all-inclusive cappuccinos and icy refreshments (when they weren’t stolen by the monkeys).
  5. I hosted several visitors — my parents, my cousin, my sister-in-law’s sister, and one of my closest childhood friends.  In the process I got to explore Nairobi, tick some adventures off my bucket-list, and grow more comfortable in the role of travel agent and tour guide.
  6. I finally made it to Hell’s Gate.  And Lake Naivasha. And watched baby hippos roll off their mammas’ backs.
  7. I hiked in Karen Blixen’s Ngong Hills.
  8. I re-visited Mt. Longonot.
  9. Safari with Mommy and Baba 747I took a five day safari with my parents. Visited Encounter Mara, Nakuru, Sweetwaters, and Mountain Lodge. With a stop at Trout Tree along the way. Saw two leopards and a myriad of everything else — including rhinos (both black and white), tree and rock hyraxes, and so many birds. Such a privilege to share such awe-inspiring beauty with those who first taught me to encounter the Creator within the majesty of God’s creation.
  10. I switched from coffee to green tea.  This was a desperate sacrifice born of necessity, and I still drink (decaf) coffee on the weekends, at coffee shops, to get me through my grading (and sometimes when I’m on break), but, in general, my brain is happier, and I’ve grown to love green tea in its own right.  garden 013(There’s nothing quite like sitting on one’s porch, at sunrise, wrapped in one’s shuka, watching the sacred ibis fly, sipping a pot of tea.)
  11. I moved on-campus after two years living in a small garden compound down the street.  I still miss the garden, but the transition was a good one, if for no other reason than I can now use the track to run after dark.
  12. I completed my first year of teaching AP English Language and Composition.  Despite the workload, a joy and a delight.  And rather a success, given the 100% pass-rate my students pulled off on the AP exam.
  13. 13524453_1145049805536734_6937956456801176815_nI got to spend my summer visiting faces I love — attending a cousin’s graduation party, meeting another cousin’s girlfriend (now fiance), hiking with a friend in Colorado, visiting another dear friend in Washington, hanging with the sibs in Oregon (missing the one who was working in Alaska), and experiencing my college roommate’s new life in California.
  14. I attended an AP Summer Institute and earned my first graduate credit in education.
  15. I co-taught a class on my favorite fantasy writers (called “Christianity and the Fantastic”) with a fellow George Fox grad who is both a colleague and a friend.  We first met in a “C.S. Lewis and the Bible” class (ten years ago this spring) so it felt a little like coming full circle.
  16. I ran seven miles . . . in one stretch.  Without really intending to.  I guess I’m a runner now?
  17. 14352438_10155047473025400_6506605762933148858_o (1)I took my 2nd annual trip to the Aberdares.  A trip that involved friends, books, fires, warm blankets, and lots of good food.
  18. I transitioned/am transitioning to contacts.  Though I’ve worn glasses since 8th grade, I’ve never liked them.  Never felt that they were me.  And though I still don’t relish sticking my fingers in my eyes, my childhood eye-phobia has dissipated enough to allow the experiment to be a success.  I made the choice for aesthetic purposes, never expecting to love the change this much — but not having frames in my line of vision?  Bliss.
  19. I took a silent retreat at Lake Elementaita.
  20. I renewed my contract and committed to at least one more year on this continent, in this country, at this school.
  21. I started going to counselling.  Trying to work through nearly three decades of accumulated loss.  And while it’s hard to know where this path will lead, I think it’s at least a step in the right direction.
  22. I became an auntie. No, not by blood, but we all know that family is created of more than genetic material.  And the Neufelds (and Neufeld-Pierces) are family.
  23. 15591250_842527836284_3309746140961268259_oI went running with my father.  And though, at twice my age, he outdistances me in every way possible, I have something to aspire to.  To work towards.
  24. I went camping in Wadi Rum.  Slept under the stars.  Ran through the desert.  Experienced the peace and beauty of one of my favorite places on earth.
  25. I spent Christmas at home, in Jordan, with all my siblings, all my sisters-in-law, and all my pseudo-siblings (and my new niece =)).  There were many hugs to be had, many games to be played, many traditions to be upheld, many delicious foods to be eaten, and much merry-making all-around.  Joy-filled, delightful, so, so right.

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And here are five goals to be accomplished before I turn 30:

  1. Climb Mt. Kenya.  (I did, and it was spectacular.)
  2. Pay off my Oxford loans. (I emptied out my savings account at the end of February, and am now officially debt free.)
  3. Get a tattoo.  (It’s healing as we speak.)
  4. Run a half marathon.  With my dad. In honor of our 60th and 30th birthdays. And the fact I’ll be exactly half his age. (It’s scheduled for the 9th of July, in OR.)
  5. Go on a spiritual retreat.  At an abbey, or a monastery, or a convent . . . you get the idea. (I actually have two booked for this summer — one in Oregon and one here in Kenya.)

This Is [Not] The End

sunghee and majdIt hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I’ve hugged, and hugged, and hugged, and hugged these seniors. And yet, I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that this was truly it. Today, their last day on the Rosslyn campus. Tomorrow, spreading across the world on grand, beautiful adventures.

It dawned on me today that my entire experience of Rosslyn has been shaped by them. I’ve never known this school without them in it. Never known my classroom except as a place they wander by, periodically, and call out, “Hello, Ms. Magnuson!” in bright, cheerful voices (and perhaps pause to read a poem or two).

The tears today, shed by seniors, teachers, and underclassmen alike, are a testimony to the incredible impact this class has had — the legacy they are leaving behind. They have loved well, they have cared deeply, they have invested freely — and they are ready to go forth and bless the nations.

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We spend weeks (months? years?) building up to this moment, yet it always seems to arrive too soon. No matter how intentionally one tries to mark the threshold, honor the moment, one’s attempts always seem insufficient. I will never have words that are big enough for these goodbyes.

Grief, I’ve learned, is really love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go. -Jamie Anderson

As I sit in the gathering dusk of a closing school year, surrounded by notes of gratitude and appreciation, there are no words left, only the ache of anticipated loss, and the simultaneous recognition that I have been blessed indeed.

Commencement Address

I had the incredible honor of being the graduation speaker for a rather spectacular group of students at Rosslyn’s commencement ceremony yesterday. The following is a rough transcript of what I shared. 

It is such an honor, and a privilege, and a delight to be here today with all of you who have come from near and from far to celebrate these graduates.

However, I’m actually here to talk to them, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to turn my podium.

I’m going to start by reading a paragraph from a blog post I wrote in May of 2015, reflecting back over the spring semester of my first year here in Kenya. These are words that I wrote about you:

Seventy-four days (give or take), 300 periods (give or take), 18,800 minutes … and counting. And I’ve loved some (many?) of those moments. There is much that I wanted from this semester that I do not have. But one thing I do have is my students — courageous, tenacious, creative, and so, so beautiful. I didn’t expect to enjoy them ([to] be blessed by them) quite this much.

Class of 2017, you have blessed my life from the moment I arrived in Kenya. You blessed me with laughter, with creativity, with kindness, with joy — with your willingness to be challenged and to challenge. To think deeply, to listen carefully, to question courageously. Your willingness to bring your whole selves into the classroom — your passions, your interests, your convictions, your uncertainties.

You’ve blessed me with your acceptance of who I am — my love of the Doctor, my obsession with Shakespeare, my delight in all things epic. You’ve borne with my “unique,” Arabic-inspired handwriting, with my insistence on punctuation in poetry, with my tragic inability to spell, with my fumbling attempts to put ideas into words – to communicate in this unwieldy, imprecise language.

Through it all you have trusted me to walk alongside you in this journey that is learning, that is high school, that is life, and that is not something I take for granted.

You made teaching, for the first time in my life, an unmitigated delight. Something I woke up in the morning and wanted to do. And for that I can never thank you enough.

Class of 2017, do you know what a miracle you are? What I see when I look at you? You are athletes, artists, musicians, dancers, actors, scholars, questers, mathematicians, scientists, inventors, leaders, jokesters, activists … you are courageous, you are kind, you are servant-hearted, you are lovers of beauty, pursuers of truth, seekers of the good … you are fingerprints of the divine.

In knowing you, I have come to know a bit more of the beauty and glory of the God who made you — and all I can do is stand amazed.

And this brings me to my first point: As you walk off this stage and into the rest of your lives — into all of the journeys and challenges and joys that await you — know that you are loved. Know that you are delighted in. Know that the One who made you named you “good.”

Everyone sitting behind me, and those who would have longed to be here today, but are not — your family, your friends — they are proud of you. We — your teachers — are proud of you. Proud of what you’ve accomplished, yes, but much more so, proud of the people that you are. The people you choose to be.

Which brings me, rather quickly, to my second point: As you go forth into the world, do not accept its definition of success. Don’t let it define you by what you have accomplished or will accomplish. By what you can fit on a resume. Don’t let it reduce your worth to the things that you do, no matter how worthy those deeds might be.

We all long for purpose; for our lives to be meaningful. Refuse the narrative that says if you don’t change the world, you’ve failed.

One of my very favorite authors, Charles Williams, reminds us that the word “extraordinary” literally means “extra-ordinary.” The meaning that you seek isn’t to be found “out there” in what you do with your lives. It’s right here, in this present moment. Do you know that the ground you stand on is holy ground? Holy, because God is here, and you are here. This, right now, right here, is the place for encounter.

The place to encounter truth, the place to encounter God, the place to encounter the sacred Other who bears God’s image. C.S. Lewis reminds us that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.”

Remember that as you go forward from this place, and this community – as you find yourselves among strangers in strange lands – as demands are made upon your time, and you are forced to evaluate and re-evaluate where your true values lie – how you will spend the moments that will become your life. All that withstands the test of time are the eternal souls to your right and to your left. So if you desire greatness, seek to love greatly, and when you do, let no one – least of all yourself – doubt the meaning of your life.

No matter what lies ahead of you in the years to come — no matter how closely it resembles your dreams, or how far it is from your expectations – refuse the narrative that says your life is ordinary, that it is unimportant, that it is mundane, that it is boring. There is no such thing as an insignificant life. If we have done one thing at Rosslyn, I pray that we have given you eyes to see the beauty that is all around you, and to call that beauty forth. To partner with God is his holy work of creation, which is the work of healing and redemption, of restoring wholeness, of calling forth the good.

One of my favorite quotes is by George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, who told his followers to “walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone.” And Philippians 4:8 tells us to focus our eyes on the pure and the lovely, the admirable and the praiseworthy.

Choose to live with eyes that are open to the presence of God in your everyday moments. Choose to be awake to the miracle that is existence. Choose to find the sacred within the life that others may call mundane. Choose to worship.

Mary Oliver ends her poem, “The Summer Day,” with the statement:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

May you also know how fall down into the grass, how to kneel down, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, how to know peace, how to be awake – always – to wonder, how to pay attention to the gift that is your life.

And here is my last point: it is gift. You have not earned it, you cannot earn it, you do not need to earn it, stop trying to earn it. Salvation by faith means accepting that God has done for you what you cannot do for yourself. It means allowing yourself to be frail and human, imperfect, broken, yet loved beyond imagining by a God who makes broken things beautiful.

A God who takes the shards of our lives and turns them into masterful mosaics.

When life feels too big, the stakes too high, the task at hand too large, remember that you are not journeying alone.

Remember that your life’s worth does not rest upon your ability to succeed. Your ability to be good enough, strong enough, whole enough.

When you fail – and you will – remember that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness; that living water flows more abundantly through cracked vessels; and that your calling is to become less, so he can become more.

I want to leave you with a poem by the Sufi poet Rumi – a poem that reminds me of Josh Garrels’ “At the Table” which has been played in chapel and baccalaureate this past week:

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times
It doesn’t matter
Come, come yet again, come.

Class of 2017, there will always be a place for you at my table; but more importantly, there will always be a place for you at God’s. You are always invited in. No matter how far you journey, no matter how long you wander, no matter where your sojourn takes you, you are wanted, you are desired, you belong.

May you take this truth with you as you walk across this stage. May you have strength and courage for the journey; may you know God’s comfort and goodness in this time of transition and in the years ahead; may you have hope in abundance.

I love you. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for enriching my life. Thank you for showing me a little more of God.

Writing Class Conversions

I wrote this post four years ago — while teaching WRIT 110 at George Fox — for a writing prompt about conversion (a prompt I eventually responded to here). I did not post it then, because I think it felt too personal, too vulnerable somehow. I was a new adjunct, teaching college students for the first time, many of whom came from particularly conservative Christian homes, and I guess I wasn’t quite sure I was ready for this conversation. The ending also felt too abrupt — unfinished — and it seemed that I said less (about a particularly complex topic) than I left unsaid. 

Regardless, I’m posting it now, in honor of International Women’s Day and the women in my life who’ve reflected the face of God to me — especially those professors who spent four years challenging my thinking and shaping my life.

It was the spring of my freshman year of college, and, as a newly declared English major, I was taking my first writing class from the ever-incredible Melanie Springer Mock.

I suppose it was a semester of conversions for me, for that class, an introduction to biographical and autobiographical writing, would forever change the way I viewed narrative (and thus my world).  It taught me to apply the paradigms of meaning I found so powerful in fiction to the living, breathing world around me — to look for the story being woven from the threads of my own life, to create (as Madeleine L’Engle would put it) cosmos from the chaos.

But if that wasn’t conversion enough, it also set me on a path of self-discovery that would ultimately lead to pursuing graduate work in Women’s Studies at the University of Oxford.

I certainly did not consider myself naive when I entered Melanie’s class.  I had grown up in third world countries my whole life, and had experienced first hand what being a woman tended to mean in the world.  I had worn my middle name, Amel (the Arabic term for hope), like a sacred seal, for it meant my father, the firstborn of sons, had wanted me, a daughter — had longed for me as the patriarch of old had once longed for Isaac.

I was not naive, and yet I believed I had escaped unscathed from the prying eyes of strangers, from the social conventions that demanded I cover every inch of skin and look no man in the eye, yet still left me open to unwanted touches and the constant hissing of boys in the street.  It never crossed my mind to wonder why I filled my head with books about kings and adventures, or why all my heroes seemed to wear my brothers’ and my father’s faces — never my mother’s, never mine.

I thought I knew who I was — my father’s daughter, God’s child, cherished — even if I was a girl.

It was Anne Lamott who unapologetically shattered my illusions with the use of a single pronoun.  We were reading her book Traveling Mercies as an example of memoir writing, and I had been enjoying her humor, her honesty, and her faith.  That is, until she had the audacity to refer to the Divine as feminine.  The three letters of that pronoun offended me more than any four-letter word she could have used, and I found myself suddenly convinced that, no matter what she claimed, Lamott could not be a Christian.

And it was that thought that brought me up short.  Why did I find Lamott’s comment so irreverent, so demeaning?  Surely I didn’t believe that God actually was a man, or that language could ever come close to encompassing the essence of the Divine, so why should it matter (and matter so much) if she used an unfamiliar metaphor?  For wasn’t that all language could be in regard to the I AM — shadows and metaphors and glimpses of the unknown?

What did it mean about my views of femininity and womanhood if I found it so blasphemous to insinuate that God might share my gender?

I had believed sexism to be something that existed out there, manifesting itself in unjust laws and occasional bursts of violence.  I had not realized it had the power to creep into my mind without permission, or warp my perspective without my awareness.  I had thought it blatant and ugly, not insidious and deceptive.

I realize that, for many, feminism has taken on negative connotations, meaning things I can’t quite comprehend.  For me, however, it has been a path opening onto healing, wholeness, and restored vision — a tool God has used to help me encounter his mother’s heart anew, and recognize that I, a woman, bear the image of One who made me and named me “good.”

Lessons Learned in Failure and Grace

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Some lovely students I taught as 7th graders and again as 9th graders.

I was asked this past fall if I would write a blog post about teaching literature and what it has taught me about God.

I was intrigued, but also stumped. Literature itself has been a significant–vital?–part of my faith journey, but has teaching it taught me anything about God I couldn’t have learned by simply reading it myself? By simply studying it myself? Certainly one of my great joys as a teacher are those moments when student insights clarify, deepen, and even reshape, my own understanding of a text. When I come away enriched and stretched in ways I was not anticipating. When teaching allows me to issue an invitation into the sacred space where ideas are shared and souls enlivened–where teaching and learning becomes a communion, a meeting (as my Quaker friends might say), between the self and the other (as represented by the classmate, the student, the teacher, the text) in the presence of God. When learning awakens us to the truest longings of our souls, and we encounter Beauty and Truth in deeper and richer ways than we knew ourselves capable of.

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Reviewing a year’s worth of Ancient Literature (Whitman Academy, 2012)

But that experience is not new to me. I have long been on the receiving end of that invitation–an invitation first issued to be by my parents, my teachers, my professors, and the texts themselves. If I now seek to extend the hospitality that was once extended to me, it is simply the natural progression of the same lifelong journey. Not a new encounter, but simply the next stage of an old one.

Teaching itself has certainly taught me much about God and about myself; lessons I could not, perhaps, have learned any other way. But those lessons would have been the same, I think, regardless of my subject matter. Responsible for the growth of eternal souls, I have felt the weight of my own inadequacy as I never experienced it while responsible for myself alone. A lifelong perfectionist, I have come to know myself (irrevocably, deeply, painfully) imperfect and have been forced to throw myself, daily, hourly, on the mercy and grace of a God who is bigger than I.

I am a craver of control, and teaching is nothing if not a thing uncontrollable. I cannot outplan or outmaneuver the unknown which will meet me in each new day–which will require a hundred tiny (and not so tiny) in-the-moment decisions. I cannot outrun my own failure (which, when one believes all that is not perfect is failure, meets one around every corner and in every moment)–failure which will be witnessed by (at minimum) twenty-some pairs of watchful eyes. Failure which will impact, not just myself, but the students under my care.

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My 9th Grade Ancient Literature Class (Whitman Academy, 2012)

When I choose judgement over grace, frustration over encouragement, exclusion over embrace–consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or not–I am shaping students’ perceptions of themselves, of authority, of life (of all they may expect from it), and of God. This, of course, is true of all of us in our daily interactions with eternal souls–but being a teacher has made me deeply, painfully aware of it.

This is a job too heavy for me to carry. A role far too large for my slight frame.

And so I learn (or try to learn) how to trust the God who heals brokenness, who turns ashes to beauty, who uses the weak to shame the strong, and who can feed the multitude with a handful of bread and two small fish.

I am learning (oh so slowly) that what I know, what I can do, will never make me worthy enough or useful enough. Will never make me good enough. No matter how hard I try, I will never be “big” enough for this job or this life. And so I must learn instead to be small enough–small enough to go where I am sent and stay where I am put. Small enough to trust the God who is bigger than I. Small enough to acknowledge mistakes and imperfections–to model the grace that pours through our cracked and broken lives, and waters the garden at our feet.jill briscoe

This is what teaching has taught me and is teaching me. And though the road has been long and filled with stones, I am thankful for the journey.

A Year in Poetry

Once again, I tried to write a reflection on the year. This was what came instead.
 
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-T.S. Eliot from “Little Gidding”

So, I realize we’re already into March and this post was rather pathetically long in coming.

But here’s the thing: 2017 has already been a rather eventful year.  Besides the requisite teaching and grading (rather time-consuming in their own right), I’ve climbed the second-tallest mountain on the continent, gone hunting with the Maasai (no lie), and, just a few weeks ago, been stampeded by a giraffe (while camping with some students during an integrity retreat).  It turns out I really do live in Africa.

2017 is the year I turn thirty, and while I’m trying to downplay this benchmark in my life, the reality is I’m a bit scared.

I know this is how everyone feels, but I’m just not quite sure where the time has gone. And the past decade of my life has certainly been rather different than I anticipated. These last few years it’s been hard to balance what is against what is not, to measure reality against once-upon-a-time expectations and potentials.

In my mid-twenties, a lot of my friends had the same questions I did — questions about meaning and purpose and the point of the narrative. But, for most of them, those questions seem to have slowly found answers, while I, at thirty — after living in 7 countries, teaching for 6 years, attending university and grad school, etc., etc. — seem destined to be exactly where I started (asking the same questions, pondering the same mysteries).

I have always been a lover of story, rather than a lover of poetry.  A lover of the journey that reaches its destination; the sacrifices proven to have meaning in the end; the narrative where no piece, no thread, is ultimately wasted or left without purpose.  These days, however, while I struggle to identify, in the jagged edges of my life, what my story is and where it lies — the narrative thread that will grant meaning to the losses and significance to the joys — poetry reminds me that even when the narrative is unclear, the moment remains sacred. Reminds me that as long as there is breath in my lungs, I stand on the holy ground of existence. Reminds me that “acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” does not require a story arc I recognize; nor does prayer, worship, or the act of loving my neighbor, all of which only require that I commit to holistic presence in this moment. And this one.

Poetry demonstrates that when we commit to paying attention — to truly seeing the world that surrounds us — we become alchemists, capable of transforming lead into gold and the mundane into miracle.

We learn to call forth — to recognize — the beauty inherent in each moment.  A beauty that exists, not because the moment has a role to play in some grand narrative (though perhaps it does), but simply because the moment is. And in that moment — in that existence — the I AM is present.

In the beginning God created, and it was good. A theologian friend of mine spent much of last year impressing upon me the significance of the goodness of creation. That the very existence of that which is bears (no matter how distorted) the sacred holiness of being.

Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

-Mary Oliver

I have spent much of recent months lamenting what is not. Grieving the losses of my nomadic, transient life. And while that has had its place — has been healthy and necessary — it is time, I think, to remember what is.  Time to see, not the negative space of all that has been taken (the Israelites in the desert, calling out for a return to Egypt), but the shape of all that remains, all that has been given.  All that was. Even if it is no more.

In her poem “Burning the Old Year,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes,”So much of any year is flammable . . . so little is a stone.” She’s right of course, but it’s hard for me to understand how she can celebrate that fact: “Where there was something and suddenly isn’t, / an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space. / I begin again with the smallest numbers.”

Unlike Nye, I do not want to burn the old year, do not want to leave a vacancy where once there was a fullness. Do not want to let go of the old so the new may have space to grow. Rather, I want to create stones out of my fragile, flammable minutes. Want to transform the transitory into the permanent. Want to build a temple of my life: for how else will I know the presence of the living God? But I am reminded that the God of Moses was a God who tabernacled in the midst of his people, a God who dwelt with them in a tent — a God who traveled. And Jesus declares in Luke, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

I am reminded that too many stones weigh down a life, and that one needs both stone and flame if one is to offer a burnt offering to the living God.

And so, in the spirit of celebrating what is and what was, here are my “few words,” un-elaborate and patched together, not from 2016 (as I originally planned), but from the last 29 years of life — my “doorway / into thanks.” I do not know which of my moments will prove to be stone, and which flame — which will build themselves into the story of my life, and which are, even now, sparking upward as a glorious moment in time, beautiful and brief — but I do know that this life I am living is sacred, because it is. This is the place I am — the place God has met me, the place God will meet me, the place where stone and fire meet on the altar of worship.

I have lived in the Lake District and in Oxford, in Kenya and in Cairo. I’ve seen the pyramids and the Pietà, Petra and Big Ben. I’ve called three continents home. I’ve danced, I’ve acted, I’ve even sung. I’ve studied art, I’ve read classics, I’ve directed, I’ve taught Shakespeare. I’ve ridden camels and elephants, kissed giraffes, owned dogs and a few cats. I’ve gone on a cruise and a few safaris — I’ve scuba dived and snorkeled and climbed mountains. I am a cousin and a sister, a sister-in-law and a daughter. I’ve been in love and I’ve been kissed and I’ve had friends who’ve shaped and molded who I am — friends who’ve walked important sections of this journey with me. And I may be single, but I have never been alone, not truly. And I have been saturated with beauty — the Sahara, the Mediterranean, the fells, the African sky. I have dreamed the dream of dreaming spires and northern lakes, and seen those dreams come true. I have written words, and read words, and watched the hours slip by in silence and wonder and awe.

What a blessed life I have lived. What an existence I have known. 


In part inspired by an AP Lang prompt on the role and significance of poetry.

 

When Words Fail

I tried to write a reflection on 2016. This is what I wrote instead. It is not really meant to be a political post, but rather a personal reflection on questions I’ve been wrestling with since the election. Please read it as such. 

2016 was a year that broke my heart. A year that broke a lot of people’s hearts.

Looking at the news this past month, it’s hard to believe that 2017 will offer any sort of redemption. I’m afraid for my country and afraid for the world — afraid of the anger, and hatred, and terror that is sizzling beneath the surface for so many of us — afraid of what history has shown we are capable of, not just in Germany, or Cambodia, or Rwanda, but anywhere we are human and afraid. Anywhere we decide that our own lives, and the lives of those like us, are more valuable than the lives of those who are different. Anywhere we are satisfied to trade the vulnerable for our own comfort, complacency, and power.

Has the Gospel ever been more pertinent?

I know I am not alone in feeling powerless in this time of crisis. Powerless to even communicate across the gulf of worldview that seems to have opened at our feet. How do we “speak truth to power” (an important Quaker — and Christian — value) when power isn’t listening? When speaking seems to be a scream into the void (or simply a pat on the back for those who already agree)? How do we speak truth in a way that can be heard across the gulfs of anger and defensiveness (our own as much as others’)?

Does speaking even make a difference at all?

I am a writing teacher, a literature teacher, a believer in the power of words — to heal, to break open, to unmake strongholds and release from captivity. And yet, we live in an age where we are inundated, every day, by opposing truth-claims, and all of us have grown adept at sheltering ourselves from all that we don’t want to hear.

Can we build bridges out of words? Even Jesus seems to have failed in this regard, for everything he said to the Pharisees only stoked their anger. If we truly desire to persuade, and not simply heighten our own self-righteous indignation, what tools can we effectively wield?

How do we fight what we perceive to be evil with actual, real, tangible love? One can march with a placard declaring “love trumps hate” but what does that look like in everyday life?

I am fairly certain we cannot combat this toxicity with our own rage, fear, or absolutism. Loving our neighbors (those we agree with, who agree with us) and hating our enemies (all our opponents) will not get us out of this mess. And before you say you don’t hate (which is an unhelpful, nebulous word anyway), do you think Trump a stupid, bigoted, asshole?

I do.

The man terrifies me.

What of his supporters? Are you quick to label (even in your own heart) with words like “ignorant” and “idiotic”? Or other softer variations? Are you certain, deep in your gut, that others are wrong and must be set right?

Jesus said that any who dared call his brother “you fool” was in danger of the fires of hell.

He may have been being hyperbolic, but I think his point is clear.

One reason Trump terrifies me is that — even if he doesn’t start a nuclear war (which is not a certainty in my mind) — words matter. Attitudes matter. The ways we treat each other, think about each other, talk about each other, matter.

Maybe we can’t fix this with words. At least, not the words we’ve been using. Maybe we need to stop shouting, and start listening. Because turning our enemies into neighbors and loving them? That means taking them seriously. Hearing their stories. Listening to their fear. Sharing our own. Not as a competition, not as a shouting match, not as proof of who is right and who is wrong, but so we can shed tears together (the holiest of communions) and in sharing our hearts, somehow fortify each other’s souls.

In John 10:10 Jesus declares, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

The thief is running rampant and the thief must be opposed. Opposed by rejecting fear and courageously, compassionately, and unapologetically placing ourselves on the side of life. Not simply by speaking truth to power, but by incarnating it. By living it out in every interaction — with our families, with our neighbors, and with our political opponents.

I believe in the sanctity of life. I believe that every person — even President Trump — is created in the image of a holy and beautiful God. I believe that love wins.

May I live into that belief. May we not lose heart.

Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in
everyone. –George Fox

[Loosely inspired by question 3 of the 2006 free response section of the AP Lang exam.]  

A Year in Books (2016)

I realize that I am lagging terribly behind in updating anyone on my life.  Failing to post for half a year is a woeful state of affairs — and one that I hardly have an excuse for (especially since I was writing an average of 1,000 words daily for a few of those months). Regardless, it’s 2017, the U.S. has a new president, a new semester has begun, and it’s time to take stalk of the year’s reading.

Having read 44 books and 12,441 pages (which averages out to more than 1,000 pages a month — not quite sure how I pulled that off), I would say that 2016, when measured in reading, can be counted a success.  A success kickstarted by the first book of the year (which, at 795 pages, was also the longest): The Brothers Karamazov (a quiet Christmas in Budapest, it turns out, is just what a reader needs).

This was the year I crossed a few important must-reads off the list (The Brothers Karamazov, The Silmarillion, and Beloved, along with Eloise Montgomery’s Emily series, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, and more), re-read a few favorites (mostly for the Inklings class I co-taught this past fall), and discovered, rather inexplicably, classic sci-fi (and what a discovery it was!).  All in all, not a bad year.

Here are some of the highlights:

Best “Just Fun” Book

night-trainElizabeth Peters’ Night Train to Memphis.  No, this is in no way as good as Peters’ Amelia Peabody novels.  However, it was delightful in its own right (and it doesn’t hurt that it’s dotted with Peabody references for those in the know).

Runners up: Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Moorchild (which has been on my to-read list forever; she’s been a favorite author since I was in grade-school) and Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan (loaned and recommend by one of my students).

Best Nonfiction and Best Audiobook

becoming-wiseKrista Tippett’s Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.  As I wrote on Goodreads, one of the wisest, most hopeful, and most inspiring books I’ve read in a long time.  I highly recommend the audio version, which is peppered with excerpts from her podcast interviews. A brave and beautiful book.

Runners up (nonfiction): An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor (a simple and beautiful reminder of the sacredness of our own lives, our own living) and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (an AP Lang requirement, but thought-provoking and worth the read).

Runner up (audiobook): Brene Brown’s Men, Women, and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough.  I listened to many excellent audiobooks this year, but Brown’s voice, speaking her own words, ultimately makes this a cut above the rest.

silmarillionBest Fiction

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.  Hands down one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.

Runner up: Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter.  A gentle, beautiful book about living well.

Most Read Author

blackLloyd Alexander, with 5.  His Chronicles of Prydain were the highlight of spring break.

Runner up: Ursula K. Le Guin, with 4.  Her Annals of the Western Shore were the highlight of the fall.

placeBest Re-Read

Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion.  Almost a decade since my first read-through, and his books still burn.

Runner up: Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings.  The book that first introduced me to the Inklings as a community (rather than a disconnected handful of beloved writers).  It was, and is, love at first sight.

hyperionBest Sci-fi

As my most read genre this year, it seemed only fair to give this its own category.  My favorite single piece would have to be Hyperion by Dan Simmons.  Atmospheric, terrifying, and littered with literary references. Lovely (though I didn’t care for the sequel).

Runners up: Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (which, as a collection of interconnected short stories, was not what I was expecting but was far more perfect) or anything by Arthur C. Clarke, whose work has yet to disappoint — specifically, 2001: A Space Odyssey is actually as good as it’s cracked up to be.

You can find a more complete list of my year’s reading here.

Not Quite 30 . . .

Twenty days ago, exactly a week after my (2nd) cousin Jamison, his wife Kathryne, and their three small children died in a car accident, I turned twenty-nine.

Jamison was also twenty-nine.  So was Kathryne.   Their children’s ages ranged from two months to three years.

This birthday, the last I’ll have before I’m thirty, has reminded me, more than any other, of the precious gift of time.  Older friends and colleagues love to remind me of how young I am — love to laugh when I voice a sense of urgency.  But age, really, has nothing to do with it.  We are all mortal, and none of us knows how long our sojourn on this earth might last.

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If this was my last year here, would I be living it as I am?

This is the kind of question, the kind of contemplation, that would once have unleashed deep anxiety within my soul.

These days, it comes with a strange sense of peace.

I don’t know if my journey will be long or short.  I don’t know what God might ask of me in the months or years ahead.  But I do know that it is God, not I, who is in control.

I do know that the sum of a life is not something that can ever be weighed this side of eternity.

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I once had a long list of achievements I dreamed of accomplishing before thirty.  I once had a specific image of what I expected life to look like by this particular point in time.

Now, when I think about my goals and dreams, they are concerned less with what I might do — in the next year or ten — than with who I might become.

I want to enter my thirties (if I am given that gift), not with degrees or publications to my name, but as someone who is centered in a reality that transcends those externals.  In the words of Mary Oliver, I want to “know how to pay attention, how to fall down / into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, / how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields / which is what I have been doing all day.”

970061_636935644684_470848756_nI want to claim a different paradigm of worth and meaning and root myself there unapologetically.  I want to gain the strength that would allow me to let the world pass by — at its frenetic, dizzying pace — and proclaim, with Dickinson, the freedom to be “Nobody.”

The philosopher Simone Weir declares prayer to be “absolutely unmixed attention,” which is, she says, the “rarest and purest form of generosity.”

I long for my life to be formed of such prayer.  Such generosity.  Dictated by the deeper things.  By the living water running clear.  By green pastures and a restored soul.

There is river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells. -Psalm 46:4