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.

 

 

 

 

Swan-dive to Mundane

I was sitting in the waiting room of my physical therapist’s office yesterday morning, thumbing through a People magazine.  I was early for my 8:15 appointment, so she was still moving around me, tidying the office.  She greeted me, of course, and I continued to “read” meaningless celebrity “news”.

“Have you done any blogging lately?” she said out of nowhere.

“No,” sigh, “I’ve been kind of in a funk.  Writing would probably get me out of it, but I just haven’t found my way there in a while.”

“Yeah, it really centers your spirit, doesn’t it?”

Man, we haven’t even started my PT yet and she’s already getting at the core.  How does she do that?

The last time I blogged, I was sitting in Jerusalem.  Today I am sitting, still in pajamas, on the futon in my office in my little house by the river. Then, I was floating high on the experience, the relationships, the food — have I mentioned the food?  Today, I am back in the mundane — classes, laundry, tax preparation, and the like.

It’s a lot easier to write about the fantastic, isn’t it?  It’s lovelier to live in the beautiful. However,  we do most of our dwelling in the ordinary, so coming down from the extraordinary sometimes involves a crash landing. And crash I did.

Some of the crash was circumstantial.  I went from touring brilliantly-farmed land lush with oranges, strawberries, and figs to trudging across frozen tundra.  I transitioned from touring on a bus full of enthusiastic learners who scored one another’s jokes, sang together, laughed together,   and cried together, to spending a lot of time on my own sorting receipts, preparing for class, and putting away suitcases.

Some of the crash was self-inflicted. My doctor had recommended before the trip that I do a 21-day elimination diet to see if any foods were causing my pain and/or inflammation.  I postponed it until after the trip (yes, the trip where we ate like kings three times a day), but started immediately when we got home.  For the past three weeks, in addition to not eating gluten or dairy (both of which I have avoided for three years), I also eliminated soy, corn, citrus, peanuts, pork, and it seems like most everything else.  Oh, and at the same time I finished weaning myself off Zoloft.

Yeah, I’m nuts. I mean if you’re going to come off the mountaintop, you might as well swan-dive, right?  The thing about swan-diving, though, is that you can go pretty far down pretty darn quickly.

The casual observer might not detect the shift in position — from mountaintop to deep, dark valley.  The physical therapist?  The husband?  Oh, they saw the shift.  I did, too.  I could feel the snark, but I couldn’t shake it.

It probably didn’t help that we came back right before the presidential inauguration and all the virtual “noise” that ensued , because I certainly have difficultly not engaging with all of that.  And, rather than turning to my writing, which I know is an outlet for my emotions, I instead turned my gaze to the other things that need my attention — grading, a project I started for my in-laws a year ago, unfinished tax prep — and I thought to myself, it would be pretty selfish of you to sit down and blog for an hour right now.  You have other people depending on you.

And I believed that voice.  I muted the truth that says, “Oxygenate yourself first.”  I forgot that “in repentance and rest is my salvation; in quietness and trust is my strength.”  I trudged onward, avoiding my need for self-care, while attending to tasks that preserved the facade — cleaning the house, preparing for teaching, ironing clothes, cooking…anything but taking the pause that refreshes and centers my spirit.

So, after a sermon on Sunday about suffering and the encounter with my physical therapist who noted that my body is “all over the place,” I give up.  I turn to the keys.  I am honest.  I’ve been struggling, but I’m turning, guys.  I’m turning.  It might take a minute, but I’m turning.

Psalm 30:1ff

I will exalt you, Lord,
    for you lifted me out of the depths
    and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
Lord my God, I called to you for help,
    and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
    you spared me from going down to the pit.

Resolving to Return

My daughter and I spent yesterday morning together at a “Breathe out 2016, Breathe in 2017” yoga class and afterward talked briefly about resolutions — the positive thrust toward change and the set-up for unrealistic expectations and imminent failure.  The yoga instructor, intentionally or not, seemed to suggest that we could will good things to come to us by just opening our arms and our spirits to them.

Oh, that it were so.

Last night, at a New Year’s Eve worship service where my husband was filling in for local pastors away for the holidays, we sang the words, “Christ has done away with sadness,” and my daughter turned to me and cheekily said, “has He really done away with sadness?”

Oh, that it were so.

Truly, we don’t need to look far to see sadness. Every day we witness hatred, violence, murder, poverty, chaos, and, yes, sadness.  Just last night in Turkey, thirty-nine people were senselessly murdered as they attempted to ring in the new year.  The past year has had more than its share of sadness.  Indeed, the coming year will not be immune.

So what are we to do? Wear sackcloth and ashes? Walk around wringing our hands and gnashing our teeth? Shall we shake our fists at God in anger, demanding that He do something?

Nah.

We should do the same thing He’s been telling us to do since the Creation of the world — return to the Lord our God.  That’s all.  Our salvation is not in losing our holiday weight, in getting our finances in order, or in building a better portfolio.  It’s in recognizing that God is still God even when He hasn’t done away with sadness.

When my husband asked the congregation last night to write down one way to connect with God in the coming year, I wrote down the same thing I wrote down last year: return to daily Bible study, return to daily prayer, return to regular writing.  I had to write it down again this year because, as we have established, I am bent on turning away and am in constant need of returning.

The world, which is full of sadness, needs Jesus followers to immerse themselves in the Word and in prayer, because when we do this, we can’t help but reflect His mercy and His grace.  We become beacons when we allow His light to take residence within us.  We point to our Source of Hope and spread love rather than fear.

Will you commit with me to return to the Lord and allow Him to use us to shine His love into the lives of those around us?   Imagine a 2017 that is filled with hopefulness that comes from Christ’s light shining in the darkness.

Isaiah 43:19

Behold I am doing a new thing…

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

 

 

How Many Times do I have to Tell You?

“How many times do I have to tell you?”

I’ve said it to my children.  “How many times do I have to tell you to rinse out your dish and put it in the dishwasher?”  “How many times do I have to tell you to hang up your wet towel?” “How many times do I have to tell you to call me when you get there?”

I’ve said it to my students. “How many times do I have to tell you that MLA format requires you to double space and use 12 pt. font?”  “How many times do I have to tell you the due date?” “How many times do I need to tell you to document your sources?”

But today I am hearing the words myself, “How many times do I have to tell you?” But while I growl my words in exasperation at my children and my students, I am hearing the words spoken gently into my heart as my chin is lifted tenderly by gentle fingers that draw my eyes upward.

How many times do I have to write the same blog?  How many times do I have to admit that I am “bent on turning” and that I did it again, I turned and went my own way.  In this very busy semester, I went back to what I know — soldiering.  Ok, fine, it has been a milder version of soldiering.  My regimen now includes daily doses of rest, reading, and recovery.  It mandates several repeats of yoga and walking.  It requires completing responsibilities to family such as laundry, cooking, and bill paying.  On the surface, it looks pretty healthy.  But it’s subtle soldiering.  Want to know why? Because I’ve been relying on myself and listening to the voices in the trenches.  How do I know? Because I’m surly.

There, I said it.  I’ve been surly.  Again, it’s a subtle surly.  I’ve been able to be fairly pleasant to the people in my life, but my internal monologue is grumbly and negative.  That’s part of the reason that I didn’t blog last week or the week before.  I sit down to type and the interior pops onto the page. It’s the only thing my fingers know how to do. I mean, they try to produce a positive message, but it ends up sounding saccharine — not at all genuine.  And I can spot fake from about a mile away.  Even when it’s coming out of my own fingers. Yuck.

So, today I’m waiting for student papers to come in.  I’ve graded everything that’s in my possession. I have nowhere to be today.  I’ve got the day to myself.  Yes, I plan to do some baking, but I feel the pull to my Bible and prayer journal.  I feel the need to catch up on my YouVersion reading plan — I’m about three days behind.

Being my surly self, I got diverted several times on my way to my reading, but finally I plunked down on the futon and opened the app on my phone.  Yes, I know, even getting caught up on YouVersion is a bit like soldiering…shhhh…it got me there, ok?

I was scrolling through the daily readings…blah, blah, blah,….fine, Isaiah, I see you. I kept reading and scrolling, reading and scrolling, Isaiah, my friend, you have so. many. words. Like a true soldier, I continued to read and scroll, gonna get caught up, you know. But then something happened.  My soldiering self sat down when I heard a voice that I recognized.  It wasn’t a voice from the trenches.

It wasn’t saying “do more, be more, get more;” it said, “he will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.”

It didn’t say, “be the greatest, prove your worth;” it said “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.” (Hop. Flit. Jump.)

I’m tired of hopping and jumping, I thought.  And almost immediately I read, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”

What must that be like, I grumbled weakly, to not grow weary?  And I read, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God.”

Oh, yeah.  I’m not alone, am I?  The world does not spin because I’m trying so hard. “Fear not, I have called you by name; you are mine.”   I am His.  I don’t have to prove my identity through my performance.  “I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember my sins.”  Really?  You don’t remember that I was just blogging about my propensity to turn and here I am again, confessing to the same exact sin?

“I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like a mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.”

I hear you.  I’m turning. How could I not?  You are speaking directly to me.  How did you manage to do that through the Bible reading plan on my phone?

“I call you by your name.” Yes, you sure do.

“I name you, though you do not know me.” You’re right.  I haven’t been acting like I know you.

” I am the Lord your God. I am God and there is no other.”

Yes, yes you are.  And let’s just get it out in the open.  I’m bent on turning, so you’re probably going to have to tell me again.

“Fear not, I am the One who helps you.”

Isaiah 40-44, selected verses

It is Written

My blog has been silent for a few weeks.  It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say; I just haven’t had anything I wanted to put in print.

Think of the flood of stimuli my brain has been processing — in addition to the madness that we will call the election of 2016, my husband and I traveled to South Africa for a week, came back for a week, and then went to Austin, TX for four days.  Oh, and we’ve also been holding down our day jobs — he’s the dean of students at a small university and I am an adjunct professor of English and a private tutor.

I’ve really wanted to write more about what we observed in South Africa and how that has informed the ways in which we see our community, but when we got back, we saw things in our community that were very unsettling — so much posturing and name-calling, blaming and shaming. We, or perhaps I should switch now to I, I reeled.

While in South Africa, we were in a unique position to just observe.  For as long as I can remember, my husband and I have been in positions of leadership, so being free to observe with no responsibility for others was very unusual.  We met people, heard their stories, were inspired by their dreams, saw their struggles, and shared their joys.  We didn’t really do anything other than bear witness to their lives.  And then, about a week later, we were put in a similar position.  In Austin, although my husband had minimal responsibilities, for the most part, we were again observers.  Seeing.  Listening. 

Is it too egotistical of me to imagine that God crafted these experiences so that we could come back and observe what has been happening in our very own community, in our very own country?  Because I really think that is what happened.  For the last two weeks, we have been watching and listening.  We  debrief with one another in the evenings, of course, and I’ll admit, I’ve shared a bit on social media, but for the most part, we have tried to position ourselves in conversations in which we can hear what people are saying.  We want to understand how a country can be so divided.  We want to be able to speak peace into the hostility.  But how?  People are positioned.  They are sunk in.  Nobody seems to want to move.  Where do we start?

So, yesterday, when I walked into church and saw who would be our pastor for the day, I hugged him and said, “Yay, we’re going to get a good word!”  I was joking around with him a little, because he’s a dear friend, but I think I was really speaking my hope that God would speak a good word through him.

And guys, He did.

Now, let me just give my standard disclaimer.  I am very distractible in church.  My husband often asks me about his sermon — did his main point come through?  What did I think about a particular illustration.  I want to be generous to myself and say that 50% of the time I can give him a meaningful response.  My mind often takes tangential journeys away from the sermon.  So, I won’t mention the pastor’s name or try to claim what he actually said.  I will tell you what I heard.

Jesus reigns. Over everything. Period.

No political candidate reigns. No political party reigns. No particular country reigns.  No particular church body reigns.  I don’t reign.

Jesus reigns.

It has been rather tempting over the past days, weeks, months to become aligned with a particular ‘side’, hasn’t it? I have heard Christ-followers on both sides (myself included) claim that certainly Christians “should” feel this way or that.  And we’ve been making these claims waving our fists in the air at each other.  We are passionate, are we not? We are passionate about politics, but are we just as passionate about our True Leader?

I gotta admit, I’ve been misdirected.

My friends in South Africa showed me what it looks like to be passionate about the One who reigns.  They worshipped — I mean singing, dancing, clapping, marching worship — for almost three hours!  They breathe thankfulness and reverence as they walk through their days.

Me? I’ve been grumbly and judgmental. It’s almost as if I’ve forgotten that Jesus reigns over everything.   Will he stop reigning if we turn and go our own way? Nope.  We’ve seen story after story written in His Word about generations who have turned away to idols and godlessness.  Yet, He reigns.

We’ve heard stories about how God has worked among peoples who are oppressed and disadvantaged.  We know that He is a God who steps into difficult places and makes a way for His people.  Will He stop now?  No.  He will continue to reign.

So, should I stand idly by?  No. However, I want to be careful that what I speak gives honor to the One who reigns.  I want to, as someone recently said, “speak Truth to crazy.”  The only way I know to speak Truth, is to look at what is written.  I can’t rely on myself right now.  Not in this emotionally-charged environment.  I need to turn, once again.

So what has been written?

“Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Yes, even that neighbor.

“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” Ouch.

“Be devoted to one another.  Honor one another above yourselves.”

“Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.”

How about if we start there? What if Jesus-followers across the country and around the world just saw and loved the people in front of us? What if we stopped shaking our fists and really cared about individuals in ways that showed we were devoted to them?  What if we cared about the widow, the fatherless, and the foreigner?  What impact would that have?

I’d like to find out.  Wouldn’t you?

“It is written; Christ is risen. Jesus, you are Lord of all.”

Stronger, Hillsong Worship

 

 

 

Experimentation

Ladies and gentlemen, I am about to participate in an experiment.  After two years of limited part-time employment, I am gearing up for the next level of engagement.

As you may be aware, from 2005 to 2014 I was a full-time teacher and administrator at a small private high school in St. Louis, MO.  For at least seven of those years I was a very hard-charging,  responsible faculty member who worked long hours both at school and at home.  I managed that position while being married to a seminary student turned mission-planting pastor and parenting three teenagers.  It was a very busy life full of challenges and rewards.

When chronic illness started to impact my effectiveness in that position, my husband and I began to watch and pray for God to open a path to something different.  This blog began when God answered our prayers and transplanted us in Ann Arbor where he has been serving as the Dean of Students at a small Christian university for the past three years.

When I joined him two years ago, I rested for six months and then began to experiment with different levels of employment.  I started with occasional private tutoring.  I added a summer ‘internship’ at an educational agency before transitioning to adjunct instruction coupled with private tutoring.  I’ve been doing well for the past year balancing those two positions.  I have taught a few hours a week in the classroom while supporting several private students that I meet in homes, in libraries, or in coffee shops.  I’ve loved this combination.  So, I’m continuing it this fall — at the next level.

Starting next Monday I will have three sections of college composition. (All the writing instructors in the room just gasped.) Now, to be fair, two of those sections are small at just 12-13 students each.  The third section is a more average-sized class of twenty-one. So, do your math and you will find that I am going to have 46 composition students.  That’s a solid load.  Most English teachers would say, “That’s fabulous!  What a joy to have forty-six writing students!” (My last year in St. Louis, a staffing issue created a situation where I had about 80 writing students!)  And, indeed, I am thrilled.  I am also thrilled that entering my second year as a private tutor, I have a solid student base that easily yields 8-10 hours of tutoring per week.  God has indeed engineered a sweet gig for me.

However, I am a little anxious. My health is more stable than it has been in close to four years.  With the help of my medical team I have eliminated biologic and anti-inflammatory medications.  That’s right; I take nothing for pain!  I am also currently weaning off the anti-depressants that I started taking seven or eight years ago.  I walk, do Pilates, practice yoga, and get in the water regularly. I see a physical therapist and a chiropractor,  avoid gluten and dairy, and am following my doctor’s instructions for taking homeopathic and nutritional remedies. I’m doing all the things, yet I still have a measure of pain in my hips, neck, and back.  I still have psoriasis. I still have chronic eye issues. I still get knocked down if I do too much.

So how much is too much?

That’s why this fall is an experiment.  Can I teach forty-six students in the classroom and meet with a handful outside of the classroom without spending every weekend in bed? Will I still fit in exercise? physical therapy? time with friends?  time with family? What will happen if something unexpected pops up — an out-of-state emergency, a family crisis, a family celebration? I don’t know.  Have I created a schedule that allows for these variables?  We’ll see.

I do know that the success of this semester is more likely if I continue to practice the disciplines that I have re-discovered in this time of stillness — Bible study, blogging, prayer.   It seems I struggle to fit them in, when in truth, they are the most impactful moments of my day.  Writing the prayer reminders on my mirror and my fridge is a help, but I still need to choose to act on those prompts and actually pray. My devotional materials sit out in plain sight, but I have to move toward them and take the time to engage each day.  My blog is constantly percolating in my mind and begging to be let out through my fingers, and when I allow it the space and time, I become aware of all that God is working inside of me.  When I do these three things — prayer, Bible study, and blogging — I feel centered and purposeful.  I feel at peace.

So, on Monday, I’ll step feebly forth.  I won’t try to kick any butts or take any names, I will just show up and see what God has in store in this next chapter.

Luke 12:32

“Do not be afraid, little flock,

for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

Students of the Months

So it’s been a while, guys. If you’re my friend on Facebook, you may think I haven’t been writing simply because I’ve been putting together a particularly difficult 1000 piece puzzle.  That’s not really the reason.  The puzzle is my forced stillness in the midst of a pretty crazy summer lifestyle.

In addition to visiting family in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio this summer, I have also had the opportunity to work with quite a few students.  While some of my regulars from the school year take the summer off, a handful have continued their lessons.  I have a Korean brother and sister who are transferring from a public school to a fairly rigorous private school this fall.  We are sharpening skills to ease the transition.  I have an Indian brother and sister who are entirely bi-lingual and whose parents choose to have regular English lessons to ensure that their English skills for academic purposes rival those of their native-speaking peers. I have a Romanian woman whom I’ve been working with for eighteen months now — we’ve done everything from grammar to pronunciation to reading to writing to nursing school assignments to spelling. I work with a young man, also bilingual, who has challenges in comprehension.  He and I work on vocabulary, test prep, and life skills including interviewing for jobs.  These ‘regulars’ are officially adopted into my heart and have become part of my the larger body I call “my kids”, but they aren’t my only students.

For a willing teacher, the summer also provides some temporary liaisons — opportunities for just a ‘touch’.  This summer I chose to be part of a program called Summer Discovery .  In this program, students from across the country and around the world, move to a university campus for 2-5 weeks to live in a dorm, experience campus life, interact with other students, and take some classes.  They don’t all take English.  In fact, of the hundreds of students who are attending the program at the University of Michigan, here in Ann Arbor, only 18 have chosen to take my “Essay Writing Workshop”.  I mean, they had over forty options — including  architectural design, business management, exploring medicine, sports management, and even a cooking class at Zingerman’s!   So, you can probably imagine that the seven students I had during the first three weeks of Summer Discovery and the eleven students I am working with during the last two weeks are pretty serious about improving their writing.  Most of them have one thing on their minds — completing and even perfecting the college essay that they will use in the admissions process this fall.

Although they have that goal in common, in many ways they are quite diverse.  I have met a competitive horse back rider from Chicago, one boy and one girl from Manhattan, a Japanese boy who happens to actually live in Switzerland, a Chinese boy who goes to high school in Korea, two IB school students — one from Turkey, one from Memphis, a poet from Southern California, a hippie from New Hampshire, and a bantam-weight Korean-American defensive lineman from Kansas City.

Our task?  Each needs to identify a dominant characteristic that he or she wants to convey through the college essay.  One chose ‘hard-working’, one chose ’empathetic’, one chose ‘creative’, etc.  Once each student has determined which characteristic to convey, he or she then has the job of creating a written ‘highlight tape’ in the form of a college essay that just happens to respond to one of five prompts required by the Common App.  Easy? Nope.  Possible? Absolutely.

Today, as part of our class, I invited students to read their first completed essay out loud to the class.  Keep in mind that we have read many models, we have examined the prompts, we have brainstormed and pre-written together, we have drafted, we have participated in peer review, and we have had opportunity for revisions.  Also keep in mind that ALL of these kids are high achievers.  They are planning on attending selective universities.  They have high expectations of themselves.  I just wanted them to read out loud the 500-650 words on the page in front of them.  I had a few volunteers, but most were reluctant.

I pulled out all the stops — I gushed over volunteers.  I gave specific praise.  I offered targeted tips to those who had taken the risk to read out loud.  And then the classic Rathje showed up, “I LOVE reading your essays.  On Monday you walked in eleven strangers that I would get to interact with for ten days, but as I read your writing, I get the inside view!  I get to see who you really are!”

I don’t know if they care, but I LOVE doing this!!  I love the privilege of meeting students from different backgrounds.  I love hearing their stories — of growing up in a family where everyone is taller than 5’10”, of organizing a fund-raiser to benefit children with autism, of interviewing Kevin Durant for a school newspaper, of the challenges of having one Arabic and one Jewish parent, of growing up in Puerto Rico where half of the classes are in English and half are in Spanish, of  experiencing prejudice, health issues, language barriers, and success.  Their stories, though very different from one another, remind me of what is common among humanity — the desire to be seen, the desire to be heard, the desire to be accepted, the desire to be loved.

For a teenager, these desires can feel like desperation.  Imagine the courage it takes to travel to a place you have never been, to live there for several weeks, to put yourself onto a piece of paper, and then to read it out loud in front of people you’ve known for just a short while.  For any of us that would daunting.  For a teenager, it can be terrifying.  Yet today, five students out of my eleven dared to expose themselves, because of that, they had an opportunity to be seen and to be heard, and quite possibly the opportunity to be accepted and loved.

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind and compassionate to one another.

Writing

Over the last several weeks I have been thinking about writing and writing instruction.  In a little over a week I will be leading two groups of high school students through a summer course in essay writing.  In the fall I will be teaching three sections of freshmen the fundamentals of writing at the college level.  With these courses in mind, I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I’ve also got Axelrod and Cooper’s Concise Guide to Writing 

I spend a lot of time reading, writing, and talking about writing.  I know it’s not as important to everyone else as it is to me, just like I know that some people care more about balancing their checkbook than I do.  (Like everyone.)  I try not to make every single conversation about writing, but all of my conversations are inextricably linked to my writing process.  It’s like I’m carrying a giant Santa-bag full of words over my shoulder.  In conversations, I am able to off-load some of the words in my sack, but at the same time, the words of others are crawling up the sides and into the mouth of that same sack. They mingle in there, all those words.  They jumble; they bump against each other.  They smooth each other’s edges. They rearrange and form ideas that I hadn’t thought of before.

All that shuffling and processing goes on and on…then I sit down to write, and stuff comes out of my fingers in ways that I had never imagined.  I start picturing, for instance, that my words are kept in a giant Santa-bag, but that other  people carry all of their words, at least the ones that they want to share, in an attractive little Coach bag neatly slung across their body.  I can’t even imagine that!  I am constantly stumbling along, wielding this enormous load of words — they are continually falling out, even when I try to close the top of the bag or shove it in the trunk of my car.

This is why I write. I write to use up some of the words in that bulky sack.  I write to allow the newly formed ideas some space to express themselves.  I write to protect you, my friends, from the fire hose of words that would come streaming out of my mouth uncontrollably if I did not temper the flow by putting 500 to 1000 words on the page in a day.

I teach writing because not everyone is as obsessed about the written word as I am, but almost everyone has to find a way to put their words down in print for one reason or another. Some people, I’ve found, want to improve their writing so that their work emails won’t be misconstrued.  Some have to improve their writing so that they can be admitted into a college or program.  Others are quite proficient in writing in another language but struggle to convey their meaning in English.  And occasionally, a student wanders into my class, stumbling through the door, trying to find a space to cram his extra large Hefty bag full of words.  He looks desperate.  His eyes search my face pleadingly.  I smile knowingly, show him where to sling his bag, pull out a chair, and tell him to start writing it all down.

He’s overwhelmed, of course.  How could he possibly put it all down?  Have I seen that bag?  I nod compassionately and show him my Santa bag sitting outside the window of the classroom — it no longer fits through the door.   He swallows hard, opens a blank notebook, and looks up at me.  I nod and urge him on.  His pen starts moving across the page.  He doesn’t notice the other students filling in the chairs around him.He doesn’t look up when I start class. He doesn’t realize, either, an hour later when they’ve all left to go to their next classes.  He’s still bent over his notebook.

So, I sit down, too.  I open my notebook and pick up where I left off.  We sit there and put our words on paper until they stop streaming out of our pens…or until we are exhausted or famished.

Then quietly we push back from our desks, shove our notebooks into our bags, and notice that they are a bit more manageable to carry.  Our steps are a little lighter.  We nod silently at one another and each go our own way.

For those moments and so many more, I am thankful for writing.

2 Corinthians 12: 4-6

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Returning

No, I did not fall off the planet.  No, I did not abandon my blog.  Yes, I did stay away from it fro the longest stretch of time since I started writing it two years ago.  And, just like everything other discipline, the longer you stay away, the harder it is to get back on track.

When I was in high school, my band director said that we should practice every single day, even if only for 10-15 minutes.  He impressed on me the idea that every day I did NOT practice would take two days to get back to my current level of skill.  I think he wanted to scare me into consistent practice, and his method worked for a while.  However, it had an unintended consequence.  After I left the high school band, and didn’t play my flute for several months, I considered his math and decided that I didn’t have enough time in my life to get back to the level of skill I had currently enjoyed.  I mean, if I hadn’t played for 180 days, it would take me 36o days of consecutive practice just to get back on track!  I was exhausted just thinking about it!  I haven’t played my flute in years.

Exercise is similar, isn’t it?  I used to be a distance runner.  I completed two half-marathons and several 5K and 10K races.  It was typical for me to run 3-5 miles 5-6 days each week with occasional longer runs.  In fact, at one point, three miles felt like an “off” day — like I hadn’t really run at all.  I was in excellent physical condition.  At that point, I could not run for several days in a row (although that rarely happened) and still have the capacity to easily run five miles.  In fact, sometimes a break of three or four days would make me crave that run. When I finally had the time and opportunity to put on my running shoes, I would burst out the door with a ridiculous grin on my face, thrilled to be back at it.  However, now that illness has limited my ability to run, and I haven’t run three miles in  over three years, the idea of getting back to that level of fitness is a bit daunting.

I have a mixture of feelings as I sit here today.  I am thrilled to be back at my blog after a long absence, but I don’t really know how to get back to where I was.  What thread should I start with? health? work? teaching? writing? I’ve been wanting to post all week, but I keep finding other things to do — cook, clean, meet a friend for coffee, see a student, work on a puzzle, weed the garden.  This morning, I determined that I would finally sit down and write, but I wandered around the house a bit first.  What am I going to write about?  Where do I begin?

It took me a moment to remember my practice — my routine.  Drink smoothie. Check. Drink green tea. Check. Brew black tea. Check. Sit down, Kristin, sit down. Open your Bible study. That’s right.  Read it.  Turn to the Word. Psalm 107:20: “He sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave.”

Yes, yes He did.  He sent forth his Word and rescued me from the grave. Let’s start there today.  It’s not difficult to go back to God’s Word, even after a long absence.  You don’t have to build stamina.  You don’t have to get back to a former level of performance.  “Behold, He makes all things new.”  He breathes His breath of life into us each moment that we turn to Him.

We give ourselves all kinds of laws and expectations, don’t we? I’m going to eat healthfully, exercise five times a week, blog every day, etc. Our intentions are good, but often, when we don’t meet our expectations, we beat ourselves up with the shoulda coulda woulda messages.  These messages have unintended consequences.  Instead of propelling us back to positive disciplines, they bury us in shame and prevent us from doing what we want to do most.

So, today I turn.  I turn back to His Word.   I turn away from self-blame and self-shame and embrace the God who healed me and rescued me from the grave.  “His mercies are new every morning,” and my mercies can be, too.

Lamentations 3:23

Great is your faithfulness.

Marvel with me

No wallowing today. Period. I declare this a day of marvel.  Want to marvel with me?

First, I got out of bed after only 40 minutes of wakefulness today!  Woo-hoo!  And what did I find after I had maneuvered from horizontal to vertical?  A fresh blanket of snow reflecting a beautiful sunny day.

Second, having gone to bed without a lesson prepared for my 1pm class today, I woke to purposefulness, started with the end in mind, and prepared a process-oriented lesson that will allow my students some practice in critical analysis.

Third, while I was preparing this lesson, I heard from a couple of former students. One young man who I spent several years trying to convince of his giftedness shared a link to his recent appearance on an AOL sponsored webcast in which he brilliantly articulated the power of technology as a platform for young black voices (Here’s his link.); similarly a  young woman who was in my first high school class in Missouri shared her Christian maturity via social media. I get to know these brilliant young people!

Fourth, I found a forgotten gift card I received for Christmas and purchased two new pillows online.

Fifth, I discovered that a savings bond that we received as a wedding gift over twenty-five years ago will more than cover the cost of passports for me and my husband.

Six, I was offered a position teaching composition to high school students in a summer program at the University of Michigan.

Seven, I get to teach college students in just a couple of hours.

Eight, I get to work with two middle school students later today.

Nine, when I sat down to write, I first read a blog post by another former student. She reminded me that although I am prone to wander, my wandering never satisfies. Here’s her blog.

I read my devotion this morning and it reminded me that just as I have been blessed with following in the footsteps of many faithful believers, I am granted an opportunity to leave some footprints of my own.  I’d hate to spend all of those footprints on the path to wallowing.  So, I’m taking the opportunity, once again, to turn.

My life is rich. I am blessed. I’m just going to marvel at that today. Hope you’ll join me.

Psalm 71:17

Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.