Writing Trouble

Since I wrote Sunday’s blog post about my recent experiences taking Cosentyx, I’ve heard remorse humming through my being.  I mean, why do I always have to go ahead and say it all?  Why can’t I stop saying EVERYTHING.

A few weeks ago we were at a family reunion and one of my nephews sat down next to me with his son and a paper plate covered in various colored cubes of finger jello. Because I love his son, and him, I said, “Mmmmm, jello!”

My nephew, who with his son was consuming bite after bite of the jiggly treat, said to me, “Yes, but you don’t like jello, do you, Aunt Kristin?”

“No, I am not a fan.” I answered truthfully, as I seem always compelled to do.

My nephew grinned as he recalled a time, some years ago, when he said I had gone off on a ‘rant’ about how jello has “no nutritional value whatsoever.”  As he said it, I could hear myself on just one of my many diatribes.  He, and another of my nephews, also now a father, watched me for a reaction. When I said, “Man, sometimes I wish I could just shut my mouth,” they both laughed out loud.

I am that aunt.  Ok, let’s get real. I am that human.

I am compelled — yes, driven — to fill in the empty spaces with (so many) words.  And, guys, it can be embarrassing.

How many times riding home from an event with my husband have I said, “did I talk too much? did I say anything offensive or that I need to apologize for?”   In recent years, my husband has answered with a kindness, “Kristin, just be you.”

I, in case you don’t know me, am a person for whom no number of words, it seems, is ever too many words. I love to read them, listen to them, write them, and speak them. This week, the first in my self-imposed month-long preparation for fall classes, I have read literally thousands of words every day.  I have jotted notes to myself on stickies. I have listened to podcasts. I have had multiple conversations,  both virtual and in person, about language and pedagogy.  I’ve asked questions, made lists, and edited syllabi. At the end of these long text-filled days,  you would think I would be ready for a break.  Nope.  This word-nerd then watches Wheel-of-Fortune and Jeopardy, plays Words with Friends, and then reads for pleasure for an hour or two before sleeping.

I guess the fact that I love words and language so much is a blessing since I have made the teaching of English, especially writing, my career. However, sometimes my compulsion to put so many words — particularly those that expose my struggles — on public display, causes me to feel anxious, regretful, and downright insecure.  Why can’t I be one of those people that moves through social situations with a calm reserve?  Why can’t I listen to the conversations of others replying simply, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

More to the point of this blog, why can’t I stick to topics that are uplifting, that celebrate God’s faithfulness, that don’t expose my struggle, my weakness, my — gasp — troubles? This mantra, this hum, has been trying to distract me all week.

“Write a follow-up. Write a retraction. Go back and edit.”

Be quiet, I say. Can’t you see I’m trying to plan my courses?  Can’t you see I’m trying to focus on best practices for teaching others how to write? 

“Yeah, why don’t you go ahead and teach them since you’re so good at it?” the snide voice replies.

Hush. 

And then, this morning in the middle of a text on writing theory, I saw this:

“Trouble is the engine of the narrative.”*

I stopped in my tracks.  Wait, who said that?  Jerome Bruner, noted educational psychologist, and apparently also, for me, a voice calling out in the wilderness of text.

“The trouble is a violation of the legitimate, the expectable, the appropriate.  and the outcome of the story depends upon seeing legitimacy maintained, restored, or redefined.” *

Suddenly, in the middle of my study and preparation, I felt like I was in church.  Indeed, all of life is a grappling with the “violation of the legitimate” and the longing to see “legitimacy restored or redefined.”

The legitimate, expectable, and appropriate of my life — and surely yours — has been violated time and again — sometimes by circumstance, sometimes by others, often by my own doing.   My story includes troubles such as divorce, eating disorder, chronic illness, and myriad poor choices and betrayals.  Yours might include any of a variety of other troubles.  Together, we are all walking through troubles of many kinds, and as Ann Vosskamp says,

“More than anything, [we] don’t want to feel all alone in [our] unspoken broken.”**

And that, I have to confess, is what compels my incessant need to share.  I hate to admit that this self-proclaimed soldier longs to feel connection with others who are also struggling — who also have troubles.  But I do.  I long for it.  And I do experience it.

Sometimes I am able to find that connection over a cup of tea with a girlfriend.  We share our troubles and our victories.  We are honest, and in that honesty, we find community, support, connection. Other times, I need the luxury of words in print — the time that it takes me to type each letter, think through each sentence, and delete two or three false starts.  I need to process the trouble through text; that’s just who I am.

Its an unexpected bonus that sometimes my need to type out my troubles results in a forged bond with someone with whom my words resonated — a person who also, more than anything, doesn’t want to feel alone.

We are not alone. We are all broken.  We are all longing for restoration, and when we see it, we celebrate it. As we wait for it, if we are willing to expose our wounds, our brokenness, we are often surprised by the blessing of connection with other wounded broken souls.

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:2

*as cited in Graham,  Steve, Charles A. Mac Arthur, and Jill Fitzgerald. Best Practices in Writing Instruction. The Guilford Press, 2013.

**Vosskamp, Ann. The Broken Way. Zondervan, 2016.

 

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Glimmers of Brilliance

For the past month or so I have been consuming print as though my life depended on it.  This happens at the end of a semester for all instructors, but particularly for those who teach English, and even more so for those who teach writing.

A couple weeks ago, I stood in the doorway of the office of a seasoned English professor with another colleague.  All of us were bleary-eyed from days and days of reading stacks and stacks of papers.  We were grumbling, of course, because our charges hadn’t heeded every single word that we had breathed over the course of the semester. The nerve!  Hadn’t we told them how to frame a thesis? Hadn’t we told taught them about depth that goes beyond surface observations?  Hadn’t we expected them to sustain an argument? And what had we received for all our labors — a few glimmers of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity.

And isn’t that our life, a few glimmers of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity.

After long days with students, I come home at night and read more.  Recently, I’ve been reading Ann Voskamp and Shauna Niequist. They write in ways that I imagine I might one day write if I keep at it.  They pour their truth onto the page as I do, but they make it so,…so beautiful.  I often have to pause and take a photo of a line or a paragraph because I am so captured by the words themselves — how they are arranged on the page — and also by the image that they conjure in my mind — what they arrange in my head. For Mother’s Day, one of my children sent me a book of essays by David Sedaris — a pioneer in this way of writing that I find myself compelled to follow.  His Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is, in the first few chapters I’ve read, like a home movie that has been painstakingly crafted into vignettes that illustrate the truths that his childhood taught him. And that’s really all I am trying to do here.

My writing is all about finding the glimmers.

I sit down in the morning and I take a look at the film I have captured since the last time I wrote — that image of me standing in the doorway with the two professors, a still of me bent over a stack of papers at my desk, a clip of me in the front of a small lecture hall demonstrating how to integrate a source into a line of text, and a close-up of me lying in bed at night using my phone to snap a photo of a paragraph.  I move these images around on the desktop of my mind in an effort to find some little glimmer of meaning. Why, I ask myself, do I spend so much time with words?

Guys, I spend so. much. time. with words!  I mean, it’s 9:30am and I have already read posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  I’ve played several rounds of Words With Friends.  I’ve given feedback on two essays.  I’ve texted two daughters. And, now, I’m writing.  In a couple of hours I will be in my car listening to a podcast or two, then later today, I will tutor a student in English grammar and writing to help her prepare for the ACT.  After all that, I will curl up in bed and read some more.

Why? Why do I spend so much time with words? Well, of course I have more than one reason.  I love the way words fit together like miniature puzzles; when each piece is put just where it belongs,  an image appears out of nowhere!

eaigm becomes image!

I love that!

I love the way words can be arranged and rearranged in sentences to alter their meaning.

Kids love moms. Moms love kids. Kids moms love.

Isn’t that fun!?

But mostly, I love the way that words manipulate the brain.  Even as I write this, the clips of film are rearranging on my desktop.  I am seeing how the reading I do at night informs what I say to my students in the front of my class. What I say in the front of my class impacts (even if I don’t always see evidence of it) the writing of my students.  The writing of my students inspires my conversations with my colleagues.  The conversations with my colleagues motivate my desire to read and write more.

And the realization that each aspect of my life is somehow connected to every other aspect of my life reminds me to be present in each moment, to keep my camera rolling, to record what I see so that I can later review the tape and see the connections, to not wish any moment away, but to look for the glimmers of brilliance in every great sea of mediocrity.

And that, my friends, is why I spend so much time with words.

Isaiah 45:3

I will give you hidden treasures,
    riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who summons you by name.

 

 

 

 

Becoming Bi-lingual

I started re-reading the Gospel of John last Sunday.  I had read most of it last year with my small group in our home on Monday nights.  I have found, though, that each time I read a passage of Scripture, I see something new, something different.  One of my Bible teachers over the years made me memorize Hebrews 4:12, “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any double edge sword.”  I believe it.  

So, I have been fumbling through John, again, with the disciples, shaking my head and thinking out loud, “what is he talking about!”  But today, the living and active word clarified itself for me.  In Chapter 8, Jesus is having a discussion with the Jews who believed in Him.  They are having trouble understanding Him. (I know, right!) He’s telling them they are slaves and that they need to be ‘set free’.  They don’t get it, they were never slaves!  Then he explains that they don’t understand because they have a different father — Satan, the father of lies.  (Oh, no he didn’t!) He says that Satan’s native language is lying!!  And remember, Jesus is full of grace and truth — his native language is the truth of God, full of grace! 

We don’t understand Jesus because we are learning His language. Because I was born in sin, my native language is sin. Since my baptism as an infant, I have been trying to acquire the language of Christ, sometimes more fervently than others, but let’s be honest, I really like to speak my native language the most. 

I saw this in my international students in St. Louis.  They had come to the United States to study in English to prepare for American universities.  We had a rule that while they were at school, they could speak ‘English only’.  However, it was very common to see Chinese students walking down the hall together, obviously speaking Mandarin.  It was more comfortable, more accessible, more familiar.  It felt like home. Speaking in English, for them, was often hard work.  It was foreign, new, and hard to understand.   I can’t count how many times I told students from China, Korea, or Vietnam, “the more you use it, the easier it will get.”

Sometimes I am such a slow learner, I amaze myself. 

I am just like my students.  I like to speak my native language.  It just rolls off the tongue.  Sure, a few people get hurt by the sharpness of my words, but man they feel good to say.  And, really, they aren’t lies.  I told you, I tell the truth…at least my version of the truth.  And, to be honest, reading the Bible is difficult.  I often don’t understand what Jesus is trying to say.  He speaks in parables and metaphors. I know, I know, I’m an English teacher, I should love that stuff.  But, I don’t get it all the time.  

“The more you use it, the easier it will get.” Sigh. 

Last Sunday I heard the challenge to spend more time in God’s truth, to become more familiar with his grace.  I am going to stick with it.  “The more I use it, the easier it will get.”  I really do want to be fluent in truth and grace.   

 

 

 

What is He talking about?

Did you ever think that Jesus was difficult to understand? Sometimes, ok, most of the time, I read the red letters and I think to myself, “what is He talking about?” I mean, I have been going to church and Sunday school since the 1960s and learned the Bible stories on flannel boards and through Veggie Tales.  I know what other people think He means, but seriously, did you ever just look at the words?   

“if you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

“God is spirit,  and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

He said all of this to the Samaritan woman at the well.  If I was her, I would have been thinking, “what is He talking about?”  

He seems kind of cryptic to me.  What is all this talk of water and spirit.  I know what I learned in Sunday school, and confirmation class, and Christian dogmatics (seriously, I am a professional church worker, I should not be sitting here shaking my head like this).  I know the tenets of the Christian faith and even the theology of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  But seriously, Jesus is difficult for me to understand. 

This creates a problem.  If Jesus is the Word, and the Word is Truth, and I want to learn more about grace and truth, I am in trouble.  I feel like there is a language gap.  

I have this sense that if I met Him at the well, or say, Starbucks, and I looked in His eyes, like the Samaritan woman did, I would know what he meant.  But what am I thinking? The disciples walked around with him for three years and they still didn’t get it most of the time.  I have seen Jesus in the Bible several times shaking his head at the disciples, thinking to Himself, “why don’t they get it?!”  He even says it out loud, “I told you all this, and still you don’t understand!”  

And every time he has that kind of interaction with the disciples, I think to myself, “shoot, I don’t get it either!”  If he told me he was going to “knock down the temple and raise it in three days,” I would have thought he was crazy.  If he said, “I am going away to prepare a place for you, yeah, I was dead, but you can see that I’m alive now, and I am going to heaven now to be with my dad, and I’ll come back for you.”  I would have thought he was waiting for the little white van to show up with the straight jacket. 

And yet for close to half a century, I have put my faith in the saving grace of Jesus Christ. I am counting on His saving grace.  I am a mess without Him. I need Him every minute of every day.  

I don’t understand why God would create us, knowing that we would not be capable of understanding His love, His Son, His purpose.  Knowing that we would daily decide that we know more than He does.  Knowing that we would totally deny His grace and His truth. 

I don’t understand it at all.  But I believe it. I believe that God is God and I am not.  I believe that Jesus came to save me.  I believe that the Spirit dwells in me.  I don’t understand why all this is true.  But, I know that God is full of grace and truth. 

Phillipians 4:7

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 

Grace and Truth

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father,

full of grace and truth. John 1:14

I have often said that my spiritual gift is truth-telling.  As a matter of fact, when my students dedicated last year’s yearbook to me, they said in the inscription that I was known for being brutally honest. It’s true.  I have a pretty quick tongue that often shoots out the truth, brutally, before I have a chance to temper it with grace.  It can be painful.  I often have to backpedal. 

The good news is that if you want to know what I think, just ask me, and I will tell you the truth.  In fact, if my words don’t tell you what I think, my face will betray me every time. 

“Mrs. Rathje, what do you think of this thesis statement?”

“Well, it doesn’t really say anything.” 

“Oh.” 

Yeah, I guess I could’ve said that more gently.  

“Mom, what do you think of this dress?”

“Well, I guess it looks ok,” (face not matching words).  

“Mom, just tell me if you don’t like it!”

So, the good news is, I don’t lie well.  I tell the truth.  But not always with grace. 

When the scripture was read at church this morning, I heard Jesus described as full of grace and truth.  I thought to myself, ‘they have to coexist’.  We cannot handle the truth unless it is partnered with grace.  

Truth: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 

Grace: God loved the word so much that He sent his one and only Son. 

Truth: I sin. 

Grace: Jesus saves. 

Jesus gets the balance right every time.  Me? Not so much. I try to say things like, “You’ve got the right format for a thesis, let’s try to make your purpose more clear.”  “This dress is fine, and the other one is even more flattering.”  But, you know, that takes a lot of energy and intentionality. And those are the easy conversations.  

Conversations get much more difficult than that, don’t they? “You can forgive and even love your father, even though what he did was very wrong.”  “God does forgive you and love you, even though you made a huge mistake.” “I am very angry with you, I no longer trust you, and I continue to love you, in spite of those facts.” 

I am very quick to point out the truth, but not so quick to add the grace.  Thankfully, when I turn to His Word, I always see both.  I always see that He is God and I am not.  I always see his perfection and my brokenness.  I always see His provision for my inadequacy. 

I heard a challenge this morning so spend more time in His truth, so that I will be more familiar with His grace.  I am up to that challenge. 

Psalm 95:7

…today if only I would hear his voice.

 

 

Challenge Accepted

With all the bravado that’s been oozing from my blog the last couple of days, I was bound to be challenged.  A friend posted on my Facebook page ’21 Actual Analogies used by high school students in English essays’ and commented ‘any chance you can string a few together in your next blog?’  Now I realize she was probably joking, but I can’t just let a challenge pass me by, can I? 

Besides, I am due for a little fun.  Life can’t be all about battles, and transitions, and illness, and such.  We do need to laugh. 

I actually love to laugh, and I have been told on numerous occasions that I have a rather loud, obnoxious laugh, one that makes my children blush when they can hear it across a crowded room.  However, It has never been described as, a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up*. 

I have been told on several occasions, though, to quiet down; I shouldn’t laugh so loud.  But what am I supposed to do, hold my laughter in?  No can do. I love that feeling of laughing until I can’t breathe. So, I’m sorry if I am embarrassing you, or making you uncomfortable, I can’t hold it in or Joy [would fill my] heart like a silent but deadly fart fills a room with no windows*. (I am not making these up.)  My kids always said the silent-but-deadlies were the worst. 

Speaking of farts, not really, just kidding. 

I can see the assignment now, “Write a five-paragraph essay using the strategies you have learned for using similes and metaphors.  Include at least three analogies in your essay.”  I can imagine the students staring at their blank screens, scratching their heads, coming up with gems like, [I] was confused; as confused as a homeless man on house arrest*.  Or, The lamp just sat there, like an inanimate object*.  The poor teacher.  She had written her plan, crafted her assignment.  They had practiced, they had done in-class exercises.  They had seen numerous examples in that catchy YouTube video.  But still, her students were coming up with stuff like, The sun was below the horizon, like a diabetic grandma easing into a warm salt bath*. (Ok, you gotta admit, that one did create a pretty graphic mental picture.) 

Aren’t words fun?  The reason I am not a very good English teacher is because if my students wrote analogies like these, I would be laughing so hard, I would forget to teach them that the tone of their image has to match the tone of their message.  It should not create tension like this: Their love burned with the intensity of a urinary tract infection*.   I should, in the classroom, say something like, “The intensity of love has positive connotations while a urinary tract infection has negative connotations.  Using an analogy like this creates dissonance, boys and girls.   Our analogies should create consonance, agreement, harmony.”  But instead, I would be laughing as hard as someone who is about to become a spokesman for Poise pads. (Yeah, that one’s mine.)  I wouldn’t be able to pull myself together enough to give the true meat of the lesson.  

But we would have fun.  And we sure had fun.  

Job 8:21

He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, 

and your lips with shouts of joy. 

*All bold statements are lifted from the original post my friend shared with me.