From All the Possible Shapes | Words of Wednesday

For it feels as if I was made — from all the possible shapes a human might take — not to prove myself worthy but to refine the worth I’m formed from, acknowledge it, own it, spend it on others. –Mary Karr, Lit


Sorry for disappearing for a while. I’ve been traveling (cheering on my dad as he ran the Boston marathon and visiting my younger brother in Redding, California), which is part of my excuse, but probably the greater truth is that writing is on a bit of a back-burner at the moment. After months of stretching my pennies and desperately trying to hustle up work (and figure out how to hustle up work), I’ve actually had more on my plate these last few weeks than I really know what to do with (which doesn’t mean I’ve moved beyond the penny-pinching phase, just that I finally have leads, and lots of catch-up to play as I figure out how to balance my exacting perfectionism against realistic time constraints — in case you didn’t know, The Chicago Manual of Style is large, y’all). And given that I’ll be moving on from Santa Cruz come June, getting that part of my life (the income generating part) locked in, and under control, has become a rather pressing priority.

Nevertheless, I’m rather bummed that I let two weeks go by without a Words of Wednesday post — I mean, how hard can it be to post a quote, after all? But the truth is I never want to just post a quote. I want to talk about it. Want to ramble about what I’ve been reading and thinking — why I care and why I think you should care. So posting a Words of Wednesday without any accompanying commentary feels like its own kind of defeat. (You probably don’t need to be my therapist to realize that I have a problem with an all or nothing mentality.) 

But I’m trying to combat that way of thinking. Trying to remember that something is better than nothing. That done is better than perfect. And that even when I haven’t had a chance to process, mull-over, write, and revise to my heart’s content . . . maybe, even then, I still have something worth saying. Even half-formed, in-process, uncertain . . . maybe there’s value to words even then. Maybe there’s value to me even then. 

Mary Karr’s Lit is a rather meandering memoir, starting, as it does, pre-college, and ending with Karr as a woman in middle age — a divorcee, a sober alcoholic, a writer, a mother, and a Catholic. The text hardly lends itself to clear threads or easy themes, yet the impression it left on me was one of becoming. This is a text about a woman growing up — not a coming of age story about the experiments of adolescence (perhaps Karr’s Cherry, which I have not yet read, covers that ground), but a story about the slow, meandering road to healing and acceptance. To the kind of maturity and adulthood that John Cacioppo references

Karr may have been a published poet fairly early in her life, yet she manages to make her road “home” feel as winding, confused, frustrated, fear-filled, and grace-touched as most of our roads seem — in truth — to be (perhaps even more so). As someone who lives with a constant sense of time running, slipping, lunging past me — of all that I haven’t yet done, and probably never will do — I found Karr’s book a powerful celebration of process. (Can I call it a “celebration” when so much of this book felt so bleak to me? I think, somehow, I can.) A reminder that even those of us who go slow cannot go too slow for grace.

There is deep magic at work here. A holiness to existence. Even in our brokenness and imperfections — even now, at this moment — all things are being made new. Aware, or not, we are in the hands of God. And God is growing us up, one step, one moment, at a time.

Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

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Everything Belongs | Words of Wednesday

One always learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence. –Fr. Richard Rohr

Pulling out the chair
Beneath your mind
And watching you fall upon God–
There is nothing else for Hafiz to do
That is any fun in this world!
–Shams-ud-din Mohammed Hafiz, Muslim mystic (1320-89)

First there is the fall, and then there is the recovery from the fall. But both are the mercy of God. –Julian of Norwich, Christian mystic (1342-1416)

It seems that we Christians have been worshiping Jesus’ journey instead of doing his journey. . . . If your prayer is not enticing you outside your comfort zones, if your Christ is not an occasional “threat,” you probably need to do some growing up and learning to love. . . . God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so we should not waste too much time protecting the boxes. –Fr. Richard Rohr

Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, more than we are, and less than we are. Only when we live and see through God can “everything belong.” All other systems exclude, expel, punish, and protect to find identity for their members in ideological perfection or some kind of “purity.” The contaminating element always has to be searched out and scolded. Apart from taking up so much useless energy, this effort keeps us from the one and only task of love and union. –Fr. Richard Rohr


I started Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs today (and all the above quotes come from its pages).

Father Richard Rohr (a Franciscan friar) is one of my father’s favorite authors, and someone I’ve been intending to read for a long time. Winning Rohr’s book in our extended family’s Christmas book exchange seemed like a good reason to stop putting it off. I’m only one chapter in, but there’s already a lot to wrestle with and meditate on. There’s certainly a lot here that resonates with my recent exploration of Thich Nhat Hanh’s work. The mystics in every tradition seem to echo the same message — a message that often leaves the rest of us feeling rather unsteady on our feet, desperately trying to redraw the lines.

Probably the most challenging statement in Rohr’s book thus far is this one: 

We do not know what it means to be human unless we know God. And, in turn, we do not really know God except through our own broken and rejoicing humanity. In Jesus, God tells us that God is not different from humanity. Thus Jesus’ most common and almost exclusive self-name is “The Human One,” or “Son of Humanity.” He uses the term seventy-nine times in the four Gospels. Jesus’ reality, his cross, is to say a free “yes” to what his humanity finally asks of him. It seems that we Christians have been worshiping Jesus’ journey instead of doing his journey. The first feels very religious; the second just feels human, and not glorious at all.

This is a message I can imagine Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, embracing. But a Catholic priest? No matter what our dogma (“fully God and fully human”) we are so wary of Jesus’ humanity. So uncertain of what it means to reconcile those truths, that paradox. Surely, Jesus’ incarnation can’t mean that we, too, are meant to embrace our humanity, are meant to find our salvation there. 

Can it?

Will “liv[ing] and fully accept[ing] our reality” really bring us into the presence of God, as Rohr suggests? Will “the edges of our lives — fully experienced, suffered, and enjoyed — lead us back to the center and the essence”? 

The saints say, yes, and I’m inclined to believe them.

So may this year, 2019, be a year of “bearing the mystery of God’s suffering and joy” in the midst of our holy, ordinary moments. May we be fully human, as Christ was, embracing this life we have been given, even as we submit it to the One who made it, and us, and called it good.  

May we find God right where we are.

The Sacrament of Choice

During a ten day silent retreat on the outskirts of Nairobi, a Jesuit priest stood before our group of retreatants — a community linked by silence and prayer, the communion of shared meals, the mundane kindness of a passed pitcher, a proffered mug, a quiet smile, and the holy mystery that is the Eucharist — and told us that to be human is to choose. To choose, and to accept the consequences of one’s choice.

It was the day of the feast of St. Ignatius (the man who founded the Jesuits upon principles of discernment), and four months later the priest’s words still echo in my heart and mind: to be human is to choose.

We live in an age ripe with decision fatigue. Where many of our foreparents were expected to live the lives set for them — by circumstance, by parental authority, by God — we are expected to choose our own. To forge our own paths: what to study; where to work; who to marry; where to live; when, and if, to have children; where, and if, to worship. Few of us have either the restrictions, or the comfort, of the seemingly ordained.

Yet I have chased that sense of destiny across continents, longing for a sense of calling that would put doubt to rest. Wanting to relinquish control (and responsibility) with the cry, “It wasn’t me, it was God.” Not my choice, not my fault, not mine, not mine.

I’ve never liked the weight of control. The responsibility of driving a car that could cause injury. The possibility of starting something only to see it go wrong. The culpability of saying “yes” and risking someone else’s heart. I’d rather be a passenger, called to the holy work of submission. Of finding contentment in the midst of a life handed to me, rather than forged through my own action and choice (with all the potential for getting it wrong).

And certainly we are called to that holy work: for we are not, will never be, truly in control. And there is great freedom to be found in accepting, and embracing, that fact. As Emily P. Freeman writes in her book Simply Tuesday, “Unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This day belongs to the Lord. And he has set out craft paper and Play-Doh. . . . He invites me to come sit at his table and pull up a chair made for small legs. He invites me to surrender myself to his agenda and trust that he intends good things” (134).

But the call of God is complicated and paradoxical. And even a child, invited into a preschool playroom, must choose where to start, where to focus, what to do. (Children, however, seem to lack the fear that paralyzes — trusting all choices as good, they inhabit the fullness of their moment without mourning the loss of what they did not choose. If only I, too, could embody such trust and fearless embrace!)

Perhaps I take choice too seriously. Rather than seeing it as an invitation to playful encounter, a way to explore the world God has placed before my feet (trusting always in his presence to comfort me in the bumps and bruises attained along the way), I dread choice because I recognize too much room for error. Certain choices preclude others, and how can I choose the best, when I know myself short-sighted, lacking in wisdom, ignorant of the future, blind to variables? When I know, in short, that I am not God?

Yet perhaps that is the point. That knowledge — recognition — of my limitations. That moving forward in a fear and trembling that is nothing if not faith.

I’ve been reflecting recently on grace. On what exactly it is (and isn’t). Within protestant traditions, we have a tendency to think about grace in the widest possible way: an unmerited gift. And don’t get me wrong, I love that definition. The breath in my lungs is grace, as is the strength to get out of bed this morning; the colors of last night’s sunset; my nephew’s smile when I walked into the room. I have done nothing to earn any of this, and the more I recognize the gift inherent in the details of my life, the more my soul is set free to worship. To exist in a state of wonder and awe not unlike that of which Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Mindful“:

It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.

Yet that is only one definition of grace. The more specific one (what Catholics usually mean when they refer to it) is “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.”

The significance of this difference, in my mind, is that it helps us recognize — with gratitude — that which does not manifest as obviously as “gift.” Under this definition, much is grace that is also painful, difficult, and heartbreaking. As Cowper declares in his hymn,

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense.
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

In fact, if the great human rebellion lies in determining to be God — to exist in ourselves and for ourselves, immutable, self-sufficient, and in control — then grace is precisely that which awakens us to our limitations. That which reminds us that we can’t, in fact, do it alone. That we are not — cannot be, will never be — God.

Choice, then, is not simply an oft-dreaded, ever-present, and inconvenient reality of my 21st-century life. It — like marriage (that joyous and painful winnowing ground) and singleness (a furnace all its own) — is a sacrament: an external reality through which grace enters the mundane, sacred details of our everyday lives.

My brother and I have discussed this subject often this fall, as we’ve walked through the fields around Santa Cruz or driven the hours to L.A. and back. Regardless of one’s best intentions, it seems transition cannot help but raise questions about the future. About all the unknown paths and the choices that must be made between them. As I’ve fielded questions (my own and others’) about those choices, my brother has been there to remind me that, while I might theoretically prefer a world in which the future was set and all I had to do was face it with humility and love, that is not my calling — is not the life I was born to.

My calling (the life I must strive to submit myself to) is this messy reality of choice. This is the sacrament I must accept with open hands. The tabernacle in which I am invited to meet with God.

The church calendar begins anew in two weeks (with the first Sunday in Advent). As we go forward into this new year, readying our hearts once more for Christ, may we face our choices with the courage, faith, and awe that Mary demonstrated in accepting her own sacraments — a pregnancy and marriage not of her own choosing. May we know the truth of Christmas in the deepest places of our being: we are human, we are frail, we are limited, but Christ is with us; we are not alone.

A Simple Tuesday

“But here, on our ordinary Tuesdays, is where we make our homes and learn to be human.” –Emily P. Freeman

I startled a deer today. (Well, to be accurate,
Magnus startled the deer, arms waving in a frantic joy,
calling out, in recognition, one being to another, in wonder,
in celebration, in the ecstasy of living. Do you see me? I’m here,
world, I’m here.) It raised its delicate antlers, eyes serious and calm,
the curve of its nose, its ears, its flank, somehow gentle
in their outline, a peaceable wildness in our midst.

Earlier this morning, I sat on a bench, traced words
onto brown paper, the patterned cloth of my Kenyan notebook
smooth against the inside of my palms. The wooden bridge before me
unfolding beneath a canopy of trees (Magnus sings them songs, these trees,
so tall and straight and heavenbound), as the dappled sunlight
filtered onto my pages, into my hair, between my fingers,
and Magnus studied the outline of a long sleek pen,
and wrote no words at all.

Later, I’ll crawl into my bed and nap,
papers strewn across my room’s brown rug
(Magnus’s fingerprints on each and every one), and
later still, I’ll walk beneath a rose-edged sky, wondering
about these moments, and what it means to live them well.
I’m here world. Do you see me? I’m here. A deer grazes
peacefully as I pass. Overhead, the sky darkens
towards dusk, and the first planets blink
into existence. I blink back.

Magnus and Deer

Thoughts While My Students Write

As September marches on, and I prepare myself for what I hope will be a year of words — while wrestling with the implications of having given up my classroom (and all that was both lost and gained with that choice) — here are some thoughts composed while my students worked.  

14 Jan. 2015

For Global Lit.

What is poetry?
It is the muscle and sinew
of words:
The leaping
and the dancing,
The burning and
the breaking,
The place where
truth and beauty meet
with no veil between —

no place to run and hide
from the blazing
brightening face of God.

17 Sept. 2015

For AP Lang.

The sun on this grass,
these leaves,
a thousand shades of
brightness — of dancing
gold. My students
in the world,
thinking, writing.
And I want to gift
them this — wholeness,
wonder. “Pictures that shimmer.”
The world grown deep
and clear,
mysterious and living.

If we chase this brightness
always, will we find that we
have long pursued
the very face
of God?

Can we drink this cup?
Dare we? And what if I —
if we — find ourselves
too frail a vessel
for this gift?

Then cover me —
cover us all —
in grace.

On Mortality: A Lenten Reflection

As Lent begins to draw to a close, and we find ourselves moving towards Easter, I have been doing some reflecting on the paradoxes of this season.  This time of self-examination, repentance, prayer, and fasting. This time of preparing one’s heart for the cross.

Lent begins with the words, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Yet as the cross is traced in ash upon one’s forehead, there is a powerful irony in the words: for we are dust no more. The living breath of God has been restored to us. Christ became dust for our sake — became a mortal formed from clay, destined for death — so we could know life. Yet we are still poised in this space of in-between. Caught between the cross and the resurrection.

Lent calls us back to our mortality. Reminds us of our frailty. But does not do so in order to imprison us there. Rather, we are reminded so we might turn and be healed. When Christ declared that he came not for the healthy but for the sick, he was not implying a dissonance between those who had need of him and those who did not. Only that there were those who refused to acknowledge that need, for only those who know themselves sick will seek a physician’s care. As I have written elsewhere, I am coming, more and more, to believe that salvation through faith is not about being saved by faith — by one’s ability to believe passionately enough — but in fully submitting to the reality that one cannot save oneself, and in ceasing to strive to do so.

And perhaps it is that striving, that insistence on a closed, stubborn, self-sufficiency — a pride that demands we earn our own place in the world — that is, in itself, at the heart of our sickness. I doubt it was Eve’s longing for knowledge that brought death into the world, but perhaps it was a demand for that knowledge on her own terms — not a relational knowledge (and perhaps the knowledge of good and evil can only ever be relational if it is not to be destructive) but an independent, self-sufficient knowledge. The right to declare truth for herself and by herself. Give me my inheritance, demands the prodigal. I can do this on my own. But can such self-reliance ever be aught but a rejection of love? And can life exist where love does not?

The journey back to the Father, as Henri Nouwen reminds us in his The Return of the Prodigal Son, is simply (and not so simply) about allowing ourselves to be found by the love that has been pursuing us all the days of our lives.

Yet here, too, is irony and tension, for what lies on the other side of a closed, stubborn, self-sufficiency but a vulnerable, broken, openness? Nouwen writes, “It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering.” And so we are brought back to the cross and the life that is somehow found on the other side of death. In this upside-down economy, where the first are last, and the last first — where one must lose one’s life to save it — it would seem that to be whole one must choose to be broken, for Christ bears his scars even on the right hand of the Almighty, and if love wears the face of suffering, then, in wearing that face, one wears the face of God.

Do we have courage enough to root ourselves here? In an open, vulnerable, brokenness? To choose to reject the temptation of self-protection and the illusion of control? To recognize that only God can be perfect and sufficient in God’s-self, yet even God has rooted that perfection within relationality, and chosen the dependence, vulnerability, and heartbreak of relationship over an independent self-sufficiency?

Is it possible we’ve misunderstood, from the beginning, where strength, wholeness, and life truly lie? Misunderstood what it means to be like God?

Whatever the case, Lent reminds me that coming home isn’t about striving for perfection, but accepting imperfection, embracing my humanness (and the death that comes with it), and allowing God to meet me there with the love she has been speaking over me since the day I was born.

God did the work, all I must do is allow myself to be found. 

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountain and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Lessons Learned in Failure and Grace

489

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.

004

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.

014

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.

To Write of Evening

I walked home today in the dusk.  The bright of Kenya’s greenery stark against an overcast sky.  Walked home in the knowledge that the year is almost done.  Home in the relief of exams graded.  Of a to-do list shrunk to an odd assortment of final bits and pieces: more textbooks to collect, a graduation to attend, some portfolios to grade.  And then it will be Friday, and I will be closing the book on this particular chapter of this particular story.  This particular combination of weeks, and months, and essays.  Of students and lessons and whiteboard markers.  Of all the odds and ends, victories and defeats, joys and exhaustions, that make up a school-year.  Make up the life of an English teacher.

Ipod Pics 055If this was the year of any one thing, it was the year of AP Language and Composition.  The year I spent every Saturday, without fail, grading at Dormans — the quietest of the local coffee shops.

The year my students wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

A week ago (much less a month) I could not quite imagine today.  Could not quite see over, or around, the terrible to-do list that demanded that particular day’s attention.  Couldn’t think past the scattered, frantic, fullness of my brain.

And, even now, I know that pressing just beyond the borders of this coming Friday, and the boundaries of my teaching responsibilities, there are other lists demanding my attention.  Travels to plan, emails to write, details to take care of.

And, most terrifying of all, in two short months, it is time to start all over again.

But I cannot think about that tonight.  Tonight is not for beginnings.  That is what the morning is for.  The morning, with its sun tipping over the horizon, and spilling brightness new-born into the world — restoring hope to all new things.

Tonight is for endings.  Tonight is for finish-lines crossed and mile-stones reached.

Tonight is for all of those words read.  All of those papers graded.  All of those comments written.  Tonight is for remembering.  For setting aside a moment to acknowledge what my students and I did this year, what we created, in that awkward space that exists between the quest for perfection and the acknowledgement of failure.  That space where all living happens.

Sometime in July the College Board will let me know what my students achieved.  Sometime in July they will pass on their judgement.  But I really don’t care what the College Board has to say.  Because I know what we achieved.  What we strove for.  What we overcame.

I have read words birthed in fire, and I am content.

And so I will leave you with an evening poem.  A poem for tonight — for the gathering dusk, for the dark.  A poem for endings, and for the grace that undergirds all things.

Let Evening Come
by Jane Kenyon

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

“Let it come, as it will, and don’t / be afraid.  God does not leave us / comfortless.

* And yes, this post does include a link to every one of my AP students’ blogs.  And no, I’m not sorry.  Not even a little bit.

To Write Of Grace

It’s happened again.

The semester has gotten the better of me, moving at a pace I can barely maintain, hardly a moment to pause, or ponder, or write.

No matter how strong the intentions I begin the year with — intentions of early morning rising and daily writing — they always seem to dissipate like so much summer dreaming.  And thus it is that my calendar declares Aberderes 027October nearly over and the semester halfway through, and yet my last blog post was in August.  Cultural Field Studies came and went without comment, as did Spiritual Emphasis Week, and a September camping trip to the highlands of the Aberdares.

I am very good at preaching a discipline of writing.  And very poor at practicing it.

And I know that this is my life.  That if I cannot discover a way to incorporate the writing I long to do into my days, and nights, as they are, then I never will.  The ideal working environment — the hours free to ponder words at my own pace — will never happen upon me.  And though I certainly may return to school one day, to pursue my own studies, I will not discover writing waiting for me there, like some long-suffering and ever-patient friend.

There are muscles in the brain — in one’s writing fingers — the same way there are muscles in an athlete’s arms and legs.  Fail to use them, and they will atrophy. Unnurtured, discipline goes the way of all good things: it dissipates, and fades, and turns to so much useless gelatin.  So much unhelpful weight.

Which is why I am returning to NaNoWriMo this November — not to purge some burning story from within me, but simply to remind myself that writing is a choice, a discipline, and one that I am capable of making.

And why I am writing today.  Because one must begin somewhere.  Must choose to pick up the pieces (for the thousandth time) and start again.  There is tenacity in continuing on when one has momentum behind one.  Tenacity in choosing not to stop, not to slow, not to quit.  But there is also a kind of tenacity — a grittier kind, perhaps — in choosing to start again when one has slowed, stopped, failed.    Choosing to stoop to pick up the balls when one has dropped them; choosing to put them back up in the air, fairly certain one will drop them again.

For better or for worse that’s my life these days.

And I am trying to learn to recognize this process, this continually growing awareness of my own weakness, as an opportunity rather than a failure.   An opportunity to remember that I am not God.  That I was never meant to be God.  Which is also a reminder to fix my eyes on the one who is God.  The one who has the strength I do not.  The one who does not slumber or sleep.  The one who watches over my bedside.  The one who can lift me up on wings like eagles.  What does the Lord require of me, a frail and failing mortal?  To seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the shadow of the Almighty.  All of these tasks require me to take my eyes off myself — to release my desire for perfection — and to care about bigger things.  More important things.

I am fascinated by the Old Testament story of Moses.  The prince who tried to save his people, and failed.  And who, crushed by that failure, disappeared into the wilderness until his very identity had been all but purged from him.  When God spoke to Moses, at last, out of a burning bush, utterly gone was the cocky prince, ready to make decisions about what was right and wrong.  Ready to be the arbiter of justice and the working arm of God.  And in his place, a man humble in his own weakness, empty of his own greatness.  Like Gideon’s three hundred, here at last was a smallness God could use.

I think God is busy making me smaller, so God can be greater.  And I am trying to embrace the lesson.  To lean back into the foundation that is not, and Aberderes 042never has been,
my own strength. The water I draw from the well of my own identity, discipline, courage, faith, will always, ultimately, run dry.  Which is why I need to draw on a different source — why I need to return, daily, to the water of life, the water capable of turning me into a vessel cracked, but overflowing.

In the words of Rumi:

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

If this is not the message of grace, I don’t know what is.

Week One of Thirty-Seven

I finally (after much rigmarole) regained access to this blog.  So I’m transferring this post from Dreaming Spires.  It was written on August 15th (and posted on August 21st, because, well, this is Africa and the internet is not always guaranteed).

I sat in the garden tonight, and watched the stars come out.

I suppose it was my celebration of sorts. For surviving the week. My first week as a Rosslyn teacher.

We talked about the intellectual virtues today,* and, for me, teaching has always been about courage. About doing hard things.

You see, I don’t like talking in front of people. (My words, in air, disconnected from paper and pen, from keyboard and screen, jumble and squirm and become something utterly unmanageable. An approximation, an imprecision, and, at times, a wandering, gluttonous, slovenly mass, without meaning or sense.)

You see, I find strangers frightening. (I’m not frightened of them, precisely, but frightened of being shown, in their presence, to be wanting. Uninteresting, blasé, with nothing particularly valuable to contribute or impart.)

You see, I’m a perfectionist who doesn’t want to do it at all if I can’t be guaranteed to do it right. (Doing things right is how I define my identity and my worth. That teaching can only ever be a process of approximation – of doing things better, of trying one’s best – nearly destroys my sense of value and self.)

You see, I’m terrified of failing. (And failing, I’m afraid, is guaranteed. On at least one of the 180 days I teach, during at least one one of the 900 classes those days will contain, I will be sure to get it wrong. Probably more than once. Definitely more than once.

I don’t teach – have never taught – because I find it easy. I teach because, when I teach, I’m at my most vulnerable, my most broken, my most scared, my most challenged . . . and it’s there, in that uncomfortable space, face to face with my failings, my short-comings, my desperate need for grace, that I am most capable of growth.

At least, that’s why I think I teach. Why I think God keeps bringing it back into my life. Because teaching is not one of those things I can do on my own strength.

And so I’m forced to fall back on faith. Faith that God has brought me here. Faith that God brought me here because I can do this. Because I do have something to offer. Faith that God has worked through my teaching in the past, and can do it, will do it, again. Faith that, if I keep pressing into him, he will use me to be a blessing, in his way, in his time.

This week was hard. I was often conflicted; often disheartened; often discouraged; always exhausted. So many new faces and new names. And I miss the old faces. The old names. The old ways of doing things. The classes and students and colleagues I know. And, more to the point, the classes and students and colleagues who know (and value) me.

But I’m reminded by Parker Palmer that my desire to be known is the same desire shared by each and every one of my students. And I am not here to be known so much as to know. To know them. To see them. Their beauty, their potential, their fears and joys. Their passions. To call out of them that of God in them. To read meaning in the texts of their lives, and help them read that meaning too. In short, I’m here to love them. And that is more important, surely, than even teaching well.

* “The development of God-honoring thinking habits that result from an earnest pursuit of truth” — the intellectual virtues include Intellectual Courage, Intellectual Curiosity, Intellectual Humility, Intellectual Honesty, Intellectual Fair-Mindedness, Intellectual Tenacity, Intellectual Carefulness.