Words in Glass Jars

glass-jars

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1962, John Steinbeck said that, “Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.” Steinbeck’s approach to literature had always been to expose the unknown truth—the labor camps of the migrant workers during the dust bowl in The Grapes of Wrath, the gritty reality and simple joys of the workers in Cannery Row. He was in a prime position to tell his audience that “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”

Perhaps that is why I feel such responsibility for all the stories told in the English language. I feel deeply responsible. It’s not as if I have a name or a place in history; I have been given the gift of anonymity. I am a nobody. I can quietly write, uninhibited and unafraid. I don’t have people hurling opposite opinions at me, telling me stop generating words. But I feel urgently the need to speak to the topics of my faith and of stories and how they converge. And so I feel responsible for the stories other people generate, for the songs other people sing, and for the movies other people make and watch. I feel as though I must “do something”.

I don’t spend much time on social media anymore. Due to the sort of yo-yo style of communication, it is full of half-truths from ALL fronts. It’s unhealthy and unattractive, like second-hand smoke. I sat in an outdoor Starbucks patio with a friend recently; a man at a nearby table decided to smoke his e-cig very unpolitely. It was a windy day and he shared all of his vanilla smoke with us. Social media feels a lot like that; like nobody is thinking. I don’t feel like I’m “doing something” there; I feel as though I am shouting on an empty prairie, no matter how many comments my remarks may generate.

A story factory—or a corporation that makes stories and entertainment for a living—is going to feed on popular conscience. They always have. Steinbeck was speaking of popular conscience; of keeping it alive and of correcting it. We need middle ground between the prairie full of thoughtless conversations and story-factories–which is why we need smaller voices who have no large corporation to lose. We need people telling stories who aren’t going to speak to everyone else’s conscience OR merely rant. Is that also, dangerous? Well, yes. People think that what I believe is dangerous and subversive, backward and strange. I admit it; it is. Which is exactly why I need to speak.

Stories are powerful. They are how we communicate our deepest beliefs and longings. Stories say what we can’t say outright and penetrate more deeply than the essay or the speech. They can reveal deep-seated truths. Stories scare me; yet, here I am. I’m writing them. It is the scariest thing I can do with my day. That is why, even without completely understanding it, we shield children from some kinds of stories. They don’t need some ideas bonking around their heads at young ages. They shouldn’t have to grapple with the cares that adults have foisted on the world. But I don’t let some ideas have too much platform in MY head, either. I know what I can and cannot handle well. At some point, I can start tempting God with what I put inside my mind.

The modern young intellectual feels much like I do, I think: responsible and desirous to DO something. But “doing something” may often not feel like you’re doing anything at all. My version of “doing something” is going to be different from yours. Here’s what I’m doing:

  1. Writing plays that I have to really, really work to get produced.
  2. Talking to believers and unbelievers about Jesus, as little or much as I can.
  3. Going to work every day and doing my best—even if that means I’m not talking about Jesus OR stories OR even doing what I like. 

These things feel woefully unrelated to anything like “doing something”. But I’m not really big enough or smart enough to know what I can really do; but my God is. In His infinite wisdom, He put me where I am, and He gives me these chances to write and speak. I think speaking to people who want to have thoughtful conversations is “doing something”; I also think that refraining from speaking can be “doing something.”

Before we speak, we should collect our thoughts in clean little glass jars so we can look at them awhile, and then share them only where they will be most helpful, meantime asking for wisdom to do so.

John Steinbeck had a lot of good things to say that day, but at the end of his speech, I have to part ways with him. He said, “I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.” He held to the belief that man, if his efforts were noble enough and his will strong enough, could perfect himself. He went on to say, in his closing line of the same speech that “St. John the apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man—and the Word is with Men.” Steinbeck believed that with the atom bomb, man had wrested the power of God away from God. He believed that the written word could save the world.

Me, too. But not my words. I think God’s words are going to do it.

I believe that only God can go about the business of perfecting man, and no amount of word-smithing on our part can do it. But I do not deny that we need the words; that we need the truth, and that we need to keep striving forward toward that same perfection, a shining goal toward which we long, even if we cannot attain it just yet. “Passion” being a word I object to, I nevertheless do agree that we must “passionately believe in the perfectibility of man.” If we don’t, we won’t try. If we don’t, we don’t believe that God will, someday, fix this mess of ours and that we need to be prepared for it.

Until then, I am doing a number of what seem like very small things. But if they are in obedience to my God, then they are very big things indeed.

Hair in My Coffee

coffee-2

“Hang on, Miss Stewart—you’ve got a hair, here…” And the bouncy Labrador-retriever of a seventh-grade boy who simply cannot tell a verb from a noun reaches up and removes a hair from my sleeve. “Eww! It’s so LONG!” I can’t say for sure at what point in time oddities like that ceased to either surprise or bother me. I think I’d be bonkers by now if they did.

“That’s, right. I shed all over the place. Now, about this verb. To Run. I run today. Yesterday, I —?” He gets it right. He always gets it right when I’m right there. You see, I’m not a teacher. I’m property. I’m their teacher, whether they like me or not—and they announce that preference loudly and often.

I have to occasionally remind them that I need some personal space. My desk chair and my desk and my person need to be mine; otherwise there would be chaos. And still, there are the kids who I shoo out of my chair and off of my desk, pick hair off my sweater, and who inform and comment on my person like no one else in my life.

“Your belt is twisted.”

“You wear glasses? Did you lose your contacts or something?”

“You bought new shoes, didn’t you?”

“You’ve never worn that dress before.”

I don’t mind it; it’s kind of fun, really. And all those things join the list of things that are just not English.

It is impossible to measure or define what goes on in that English classroom. Some days, they quite delight me with their creativity. Some days, they quite amaze me with their remarkably poor choices. Some days, I have to discipline them. And some days, they break my heart.

They write essays about coming home from a friend’s house and finding a note from a dad who says he’s found a new family and he’s not coming back. They tell me what it was like to go to a parent’s funeral. They throw into a class conversation how annoying it is that their parents are always on Facebook with no time for them—and then they ask if anyone else has that problem and half the class raises their hands. They have read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year. I kept with tradition and we’re reading it. And when we get to the part where the ghost of Marley enters and clanks his chains, a girl raises her hand and asks: “So if you die and God can’t decide what to do with you, do you just walk around as a ghost instead of going to Heaven or, you know, the other place?”

This is why I pray for grace all the way to school every morning. (If you think of me and have a moment–?) There’s the kid who happily tells me every day, “You’re a monster.” I don’t actually mind. If he can’t tell that someone making him do his work and tie his shoes and get to class on time is really just loving him—he might someday. It’s tough to be in seventh grade. It’s tough to be in junior high. It’s tough to be human.

People tell me I’m a special person because I chose to teach junior high. Well, that’s bologna. Bo-log-na. I didn’t choose anything. I have the power to choose my socks in the morning (warm and fuzzy, mind you) and that’s about it. I don’t even make the coffee I drink.  I’m doing the job I was given. I’ve had kids’ hair in my coffee, I’ve been sworn at, spat on, lied to, lied about, and have even served as a temporary Kleenex. I’ve joined the ranks of millions of teachers who wish to goodness that the cafeteria wouldn’t serve beans. I’ve accepted homework that attracted flies. You have no idea how sorry I am to enter another zero in the grade book when a kid carelessly hands a paper to me with an “I forgot.” (How do you forget every day?) I didn’t go looking to be a junior high English teacher. But here I am.

And because our God is great, good, and unfathomably perfect, here I’ll stay until He says otherwise.

And I am grateful.

The Only News I Know

blooming-onion

The only news I know
Is bulletins all day
From Immortality.

The only shows I see,
Tomorrow and Today,
Perchance Eternity.

The only One I meet
Is God, -the only street,
Existance; this traversed

If other news there be,
Or admirabler show – 
I’ll tell it you.

~Emily Dickinson

Freak Out Thou Not

img_7382Some months ago, I sat in a room with an assorted group of pastors, their wives, missionaries and church members. It was informal, for the moment, and the conversation, as it so often does, turned to current events. And one after another, everyone in the room took turns expressing their frustration and as far as I could tell, their fear. They shook their heads hopelessly and used words like, “scary,” and “I’m afraid that…” And I won’t kid you—looking around at the pedigree in the room, I felt like they must have been right. I wanted to say something like, “But what about verses like, “Be not afraid”?” I went to Awana and VBS; I learned my verses pretty well. But no one else was saying it—and so I felt like I shouldn’t and the absence felt palpably hopeless and empty. And I’m quite sure that a gathering of Believers in Jesus shouldn’t feel that way. After fifteen minutes of this, one of the pastors gently spoke. He offered God’s promises of security in Him and of His control over the world and its events. And my heart breathed in the promises and settled its feathers.

In the last year, I have several times found myself in conversations with friends who don’t share my faith. And the conversations, as they so often do, would turn to current events. And one after another, everyone would take turns expressing their frustrations and as far as I could tell, their fear. They would shake their heads hopelessly and use words like “scary,” and “I’m afraid.” And I would want so much to say that my God had promised peace to those who believe, but they didn’t want my Jesus and found no comfort in Him.

In both cases, it seemed like speaking fears aloud somehow brought comfort. If we were all politicians and law-makers, maybe our conversations would be practical. If decisions of any kind need to be made, I suppose the expression of concerns would be wise and useful. But otherwise, we’re just sort of spreading the fear around like mud on the clean floor. And it is time to stop making messes.

May I suggest that when we talk about current affairs—be it public restrooms, equality of any kind, or closer to home, your job and your family—that we season our words with grace? If you call the God of the Bible your Father, then you can claim not only peace, but joy. So why don’t we? I’ve been part of too many conversations that left out that seasoning.

I haven’t blogged as much in recent months because I haven’t had much internet. But I haven’t missed it; especially Facebook. If Facebook was a room where all my friends of all beliefs gathered, it would an awfully sorry party. The videos and the articles may be good, but they’re not great. They don’t substitute for those who know joy and peace truly expressing it, and expressing it in person and in voice and in belief. As a former professor of mine put it not that long ago while commenting on world events: “Freak out thou not.”

So as fellow Believers, when we get together to pray, our conversations about the state of the nation should be as faith-filled as the prayers that follow. When we talk about what we hear on the news, perhaps we should talk about our Father’s power instead of encouraging each other to worry. Speaking the truth of our Father gives us the ability to be compassionate with those who are different from us; and believe me, you’ll need it. When we worry aloud about our families and friends, our children growing up in this world, and the complications of daily life, we only prove that our God is not particularly powerful. We are frankly declaring that He is impotent. When we listen to our own voices and our own words instead of speaking His, we prove that we prefer our own. And I don’t know about you, but there is nothing particularly potent about mine.

Someday, we will not have to work so hard to infuse Heaven into our lives. We will have the Word Himself visibly present; we won’t just be quoting He who is present but whom we cannot see. Here, we have to learn and relearn; there, we will wonder why we didn’t “get it”. Heaven is not (God forbid) that place where I get to please myself forever–but the place where I get to AND CAN please him forever. I don’t “get” that. I’m actually a little afraid of it. Afraid—selfishly—that I won’t like it. (Good grief!) But I trust Him that He completes me now and I will better understand that There.

Regardless of the broken place we call our temporary home, we are taken care of. Our Father hasn’t forgotten us.

Freak out thou not.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and forget not all his benefits,

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

~Psalm 103

Getting Ready

Today I mowed the lawn—we hope for the last time this year. I just missed cutting down the late-late autumn violets; they were safe growing in the tiny space between recently-combined corn stalks and the fence row. I mulched a few hundred walnuts—even though just as many were collected a couple of weekends ago. That tree has always produced abundantly; it’s a shame we haven’t a clue what to do with them. I mulched part of the onion patch; it will grow back. The yard now smells of onion and green walnuts.

I rearranged hundreds and hundreds of leaves, nicely spreading them across the yard. They are more organized that way. And they will act as a fertilizer as soon as the first snow falls. As I drove, I watched Dad take the air compressor to the gutters and winterize the garden hose. The last remnants of tomato plants were uprooted and burned. We picked the last of them two weeks ago. We’re still eating them as they ripen in the window sill.

I evicted a few thousand minuscule spiders from their homes. It is, as Dad nicely put it, the time of the spider. I kept combing their invisible webs off my face as I rode along the fence row. But when I reached the far end of the yard and looked west, I could finally see them. Shining silver in the falling sunlight, millions of silky strings lay across the wide side yard. A spider loom. I couldn’t see them as I vacuumed them up, but I knew they were there. My hair crackled later with the sound of breaking silver strands when I combed my hands through to find them. This is not the place to live in the Fall if you are at all finicky about spiders.

The days are short right now; I go to work while the stars are still out and the sun is just thinking about rising. The sun is setting before I finish cleaning the kitchen after supper. I keep expecting it to be quite late as I read or work in the evenings and am always surprised by the clock. I’ll never get used to it.

Even though Fall is the shortest of seasons, it is my favorite. It puts so much effort into something so short. And the whole of it is so…practical. You can smell the “getting ready” in the breeze. Spring is full of promise and the making of plans. Fall is thoughtful. It’s not counting on anything but it’s getting ready for everything. I’ve always loved it for the views, the smells, and the excitement of all that “getting ready.” But I’ve got a lot of respect for Fall. I’m spending more time on the “getting ready” factor of my life. It’s hard to say what for; I’m not planning for anything. And I am. I keep records, I keep organized. I conserve energy so I have it when I need it. I don’t bounce back anymore, so I’m trying to avoid the bounce. I feel like I’m in a continual state of “getting ready.” Fall and I are on the same page.

I’ve been trying to photograph this season for years; I’m always disappointed. The leaves that look so brilliant and orange when wreathed in low sunlight always look brown and flat on the camera. How can you photograph something that needs the sound of rustling and geese and the smell of sharp maple and pine to look right? And it’s not just me; no one else’s pictures of Fall look right, either. So I rediscover it every year. And this year, I am so glad to be in Indiana; it’s the first time in 11 years. And I’ve missed it.

This year, Indiana and I are “getting ready” together.

Opossum and Squash

Squash

I planted a garden this spring; in it were 19 tomato plants (I had big plans) squash, cucumbers, and lettuce. I had been waiting for weeks for a nice Saturday to do it and finally one rolled around that wasn’t raining or sleeting or suddenly 40 degrees or something else equally derailing to gardening plans. Only a few days later, Dad knocked on my door early in the morning, before my alarm had gone off.

“I have some bad news…”

During the night, some malicious critter had uprooted every single thing except the lettuce. Everything. The tomatoes were to all appearances a total loss. The squash were buried under a mound of topsoil and their leaves were stripped away. I couldn’t even find one of the cucumber plants. In addition, the same nasty little critter had uprooted all of my potted flowers on the porch. All. Of. Them. I surveyed the backyard disaster with death in my heart. Whatever had invaded was not going to live through the next night.

Dad set a live trap. That evening, before I went to bed, I decided to check it. A full grown, rather tranquil-looking opossum looked back at me, neatly snugged away in the trap. Dad carried it off into the night to be buzzard food the next day. We had been picking off the opossum family one by one this spring; the adolescents keep wandering boldly into our backyard. I asked the cats to please take care of them. The looked at me like I was nuts. They eat rabbits the size of opossum; apparently, the taste just isn’t the same. So when I see an opossum, I make a racket and Dad helps them to the happy garbage grounds. It’s a pretty good system.

But all that still didn’t fix my garden.

I re-potted and soaked all the flowers and, with the exception of a few whose fate are still up for grabs, they seem to be no worse for the pummeling. I only have one cucumber now, healthy and growing. I’ve started over on tomatoes—all harvests are a gift of grace and this one will be no less.  It’s the squash that give me pause.

I have one plant, now. I didn’t have much hope for it when I propped it back up and pushed dirt around its mangled roots. It’s lovely wide leaves had all been stripped away. It was nothing more than a couple of stalks. And yesterday morning, I walked out into the sunshine to see an enormous blossom just starting to close for the day. It’s blooming.

The darn thing has been uprooted, buried, replanted, and stripped of its leaves and ability to soak in sun and nutrients. It’s root system was chopped in half. It alone survived the squash apocalypse. And it’s not just growing; it’s blooming. It’s gearing up grow some squash. It’s bearing fruit. It’s doing what God made it to do, regardless of circumstances or, apparently, resources. That squash plant is matter-of-factly making squashes as if nothing has happened to it.

I may just be emotionally unstable, but that may be the first time a squash bloom made me cry.

Cricket Munching and Other Sports

One day, two bloggers decided to have a mutual adventure and write about it. Here is one half of the story. To get the other perspective and finish the adventure, click here~The Rewriter

***

There is a certain kind of etiquette observed in public restrooms. Among these unspoken rules is tucked the understanding that it is weird to have giggling fits in the stalls. It just is. But as I watched my sunglasses settle peacefully to the bottom of the toilet bowl, all of the ramifications of this moment occurred to me at once and I really couldn’t help it. I broke the rule. Needless to say, fishing happened. And lots of soap happened. Because I have to have my sunglasses.

Saturday was bound to be full of moments like this. We set out to have adventures, and so that is what we were having. We started off down the road at 11:00 in the morning. EB turned up her music and we drank in the countryside, the sunshine, the cut grass, and the smell of new summer all to Coldplay. I have come to associate Coldplay with her. Even if we weren’t deliberately planning to write about today, it would happen anyway because we log away moments like these for days when we need them to explain something. She is one of the few friends I have who is still writing every time I check in. So as we set off down the road, we share sunshine and a general air of delight. Purdue University is our destination; her home turf. She is driving toward it like we can’t get there fast enough. There are heartaches in the car with us as we ride through the sunshine today. But they are relegated to the backseat. The light is too bright for such things to live long. We drive along Grain Bin Rd. and smile at blue skies and arrive at Spring Fest with lungs full of air and hearts full of sunshine. And because it is lunchtime, we go off in search of sustenance, which also happens to be one of the reasons we came. We find it.

Mealworms

The common meal worm is ingested all over the world. Why not here as well? I’ve been wanting to try them for awhile, and as EB is accommodating, she held the camera for me. She tried them too, but I’ll let her tell that story.

In addition to tasting like popcorn, they also make a nice popcorn seasoning. Who knew?! We then tried chocolate covered crickets. A disappointment. I wanted a cricket with a chocolate glaze, not a gob of chocolate with what may or may not have been a cricket inside it. Oh, well. I did, however, acquire a book title I hope to be trying.

Cookbook

We then sallied forth to find cricket spitting and other lovely things. At which point, EB said she needed to find her friend Sarah, who was meeting up with us. So I hung around, admiring pinned butterflies until she came back. And when she came back, she had a friend who was not Sarah. And friend whose presence I have much missed and have not seen in far too many years. And who, after I stopped squealing and squeezing her and suddenly being transported back to high school, joined our little yellow brick road excursion. EB, The Rewriter, and Coley. It was glorious. I caught the twinkle in EB’s eye at her little surprise.

An elephant ear, two hots dogs and a toilet-bowl-fishing experience later found us alternately poking through an alluring old attic on campus somewhere (I’m not a native to Purdue and couldn’t get back if I tried), enjoying Root Beer floats (at least me and Coley) and eventually wandering down to a lovely, large fountain.

Did I mention that EB gets a little twinkle in her eye sometimes? It occurred to me that this fountain would be perfect for a picture opportunity, seeing as we were documenting today. Lots of kids were there, running through the arching jets. It was really truly warm for the first time this spring. So I handed my phone to Coley and asked her to shoot EB and me. The minute EB started walking toward me, I realized what a precarious position I was in. Something like “I’m going to get wet” and “I hope EB has towels in her car” had enough time to dash through my mind before I suddenly found myself being helped into the jets of water. Friendly gestures such as these must be reciprocated, of course, and so for the second time that day, my sunglasses got a bath.

Other things happened on our weekend adventure, too. I held a horseshoe crab, for instance. (Their legs are really soft.)

Horseshoe Crab

EB placed second in a grain bagging contest. (She did best by far.)

And we tried the Koolaid. Don’t read into that.

We ended the day tired, a little soggy, and full of warm new memories. Days like that are special. We have a new summer ahead of us and we’re filling it up with good things to look back on. Warm things. Happy things. Good conversations with good friends. Sharing thoughts on God and contentment with wet shorts in the sunshine is a pretty great way to start the summer.

Here’s to your adventures, wherever they may take you.

Three smiles