On Failing to Accomplish Work

Wednesday, Dec. 6th. 

No, I accomplished no work today.
Other than a handful of blogposts graded,
a handful of comments typed,
a single class taught.

I accomplished no work today.
Despite the proximity of finals,
the growing pile of ungraded projects
making their home upon my desk,
the dwindling number of days
in which to complete these necessary
tasks.

I accomplished no work today.
But I sat with one student while she cried
and another while she talked.
And I wonder what Mr. E. thinks
of this new habit his students have acquired:
skipping 6th period (who needs AP Lit,
anyway?) to come lie on my floor and stare
at my ceiling and let their grief — frustration —
anger — pool into puddles by their feet.

I accomplished no work today.
But I attended a recital
in which a former student made
her violin sing as though it were an angel,
and I partook of tea and Christmas
cheer, and spoke to a colleague
at some length, and braved the art
studio for all of 30 minutes, and ran
3.14 miles (another half hour conquered),
and wrote my daily words.

I accomplished no work today.
But I am sitting on my couch,
in an apartment all my own, drinking
krest from a handmade glass,
and eating the remnants of an
Ethiopian feast (shared this weekend
among friends).

I accomplished no work today,
or yesterday, or — lets be honest —
in a while. And my hope for tomorrow
isn’t very high. But I climbed this week,
and maintained my 750 streak,
and watched Survivor, and slept
barely any hours, and shared a devotion
with my bosses, and hosted
my Covenant group girls, and prayed
with students, and Skyped my cousin,
and lived my small piece
of a large and messy life.

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Mary, Mother of God

An Advent Sunday at St. Julian’s.

Sunday morning
in the chapel on the hill,

he sat among the children —
while the candles blazed
and small hands wove threads
with clumsy fingers,
listening ears —
and spoke of strange
and awesome sights.

Of a young girl
working with cloth,
with wool, with a gift
from sheep she knew,
as the midday sun warmed
the world outside her door
and she hummed herself
a half-forgotten song.

There was a second
(there must have been) of in-
between. A breath of space
when the world was just
as she had always known
it, before the walls grew
thin and the air grew strange
and the radiant being proclaimed
a great and terrible joy.

There was no returning
once the message was proclaimed
like burning coals upon her lips,
like flame engraved upon her heart:
Blessed are you, 
favored of the Lord.

Did she ever wish,
in the years ahead, that he had left
her at her sewing and found
some other maid to carry
the living, dying, Lord?

If so, we do not know it.

We only know her words,
echoed in a garden where her
child cried tears of blood
and all the friends were nowhere
to be found: May it be to me
according to your will.

Surely she was the mother of God.

*I meant to post this yesterday, for the second Sunday in Advent. But it’ll have to do for this Advent Monday instead. 

A Daily Walk with Death

In honor of the first Sunday in advent and this season of hope and waiting — of the now and the not yet, of the light and life that is coming into the world — here is a poem I wrote in October. 

“We die daily. Happy those who daily come to life as well.” -George MacDonald

Recently, I have been dead.
Mostly dead, or perhaps all dead —
it’s hard, sometimes, to tell.

It came to my attention
while watching the beginning
of a YA sobstory — she’s dying, he loves
her, the typical.

But what caught
my interest in the midst of too long
pauses, and awkward stares, was her life.
The one she was still living. Her house of white
furniture, her bookshelf of stacked books,
her time spent writing, and building, and thinking,
and growing.

Simultaneously, Rainer Maria Rilke
has been speaking to me
from my beat-up ipod, via a dead
poet he once wrote to — telling
me to take my sadness and let
myself inside it. The suffering, the solitude,
the mystery, the life.

Saying to trust to time,
to the slow work of living. As long
as one is living.

But I have spent so much
time learning not to live.
Learning to hide myself inside
the worn pathways of my thoughts.
The stories I retell inside my brain,
turning and turning them
until they, too, are dead. Burying
my discomfort in that airless
room where no breath of wind
can rustle it.

I used to be alive. I know this. I remember
this. Remember (though it grows vague, muted
by time and inattention) what it was to be
a child. To have skin so thin the light shone
through. To have the world always
present to one’s senses. To have nowhere
to hide from the bigness of life, of solitude,
of joy, of pain. To have everything
mean so much.

How do I find my way back
to that beginning? Only when
dry bones dance, and children
are reborn, and petrified hearts
return to flesh —
only then could such a thing
be. And so we say, Come
Lord Jesus, come.

Five Manifestations of Joy

Yes, yes, I’m aware that it’s December. And yes, I am aware I haven’t written since the spring.

There have been some significant life developments since then: For one, I went skydiving. For another, I turned thirty. I also ran a half marathon, spent a week in silence at a Jesuit retreat center, took my first art class since the 8th grade, and decided not to renew my contract. Oh, and I got a tattoo.

So yeah, some changes in the air.

I hope to revisit some (many?) of those topics in the future, but this post isn’t about any of that. Instead, it’s about November, and giving thanks, and the places in my life where I am finding joy (ordinary, beautiful, life-sustaining) at this particular moment in time. So here are five snapshots of my life right now.

1. NaNoWriMo

I spent most of November writing. Or, if not writing, thinking about writing.

Some of you may be aware that November is National Novel Writing Month. When one falls off the writing-wagon, there’s nothing quite like this particular challenge to whip one back into shape. I spent October trying to warm up for the endeavor, following a former professor’s advice to write at least 250 words a day. Even that felt like a challenge (though there was some unexpected poetry to show for it).

I have to admit that while I have won NaNoWriMo on my own (the year I spent in the U.K.’s Lake District), I have only undertaken the challenge, while teaching, as part of a co-writing endeavor with one of my close friends. This November was our third such undertaking, and our third successful completion. While sharing the burden may sound like a cop-out, and is certainly less impressive than writing 50,000 words individually, if you think writing a minimum of 1,000 words a day, while teaching full time, is easy, then I invite you to try it.

The discipline of daily writing is alternatively exhilarating and mind-numbingly frustrating (not to mention exhausting), but also consistently satisfying. And I’m reminded, whenever I undertake it, that stringing words together into sentences and paragraphs seems (even now) to be a central part of who I am. Of what brings me to life and gives me joy. I still don’t know if I really have anything to say — any words of beauty or truth to lighten the darkness or bless others on their way. But exploring the possibilities of language and story certainly lightens my darkness and blesses me on my journey, and, for now, that will need to be enough.

2. Climbing

I think fall 2017 may always be associated in my mind with the discovery of rock climbing.

I’ve had a free membership to a climbing gym, here in Nairobi, for the past two years, and always meant to give it a try. Realizing I was leaving at the end of the year finally forced me into action. I have several friends who climb regularly, so I started inviting myself along, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it’s been life-transforming.

I have a long history of struggling with stress and anxiety, and learning to care for my mental health has become a top priority these past few years. Exercise is, of course, an important (and effective) way to combat stress, which was a significant motivation for becoming more serious about my running last year. However, as an over-thinker, running still leaves quite a lot of room for mental noise, and quieting my mind is a consistent battle (one I rarely win).

Climbing, however, leaves no room for noise: it requires my complete presence, both physical and mental, on the climbing wall. (Looking back, I wonder if this is one reason ballet played so significant a role during my teenage years and why I was willing to give up sleep to row while I was at Oxford.) Climbing is exercise, but it is also meditation. And since I go with friends, and one has to rest between routes, it also provides room for community.

Needless to say, I am loving it.

3. Community

I grew up in a family that deeply valued community. I shared my room, off and on, with young women who lived with us for months or years at a time, and my parents modeled what it meant to share life with others — to work, minister, and play together, to rejoice and mourn, learn and grow.

Community is probably one of my deepest longings and highest values — and one of the central reasons I find teaching so difficult.  As a single adult (now in my thirties), community is not forced upon me by the demands of family, rather I have to seek it out, cultivate it, choose it. And this takes effort and time (not to mention energy) — all of which teaching leaves me little by way of reserves. Learning how to cultivate balance — how to leave room for life, and not just work — has been another ongoing battle, and while I’ll never claim to have mastered the struggle (in fact, my choice to move away from teaching next year is due — in large part — to not having mastered the struggle), this has been a year of growing in my sense of belonging. Of knowing and being known. Mostly due to my awesome Bible study group and Netflix’s Stranger Things. (If you want to know how Stranger Things can help cultivate community, I suggest you make some food, buy some drinks, light some candles, and invite over some friends to watch the show. Repeat the process once or twice a week until you’ve successfully consumed both seasons in each other’s company.)

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My lovely Bible study ladies at Sunbird Lodge on Lake Elementaita.

4. Students

I struggled intensely last fall over the decision of whether or not to renew my contract for another two years. I finally compromised by negotiating a one year contract, and if this year has done anything, it has confirmed, over and over and over again, that I meant to be here, at this time, for these students.

Students who brighten my life, every day, in a million tangible and intangible ways. And sometimes bring me poems, just because.

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5. Magnus Joy

This, right here, is my nephew, born November 21st. Need I say more?

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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.

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.