Recently, my boyfriend and I were having a CS Lewis-inspired gender discussion. (Like you do.) We were really on a roll, knocking down gender stereotypes while still upholding a Biblical understanding of what it means to be men and women, when suddenly he said, “I love what Proverbs 31 says about women.”
My thoughts came to a grinding halt. Part of me wanted to agree with him, because of course he was right. But part of me was throwing my metaphorical Christian woman hands on my metaphorical Christian woman hips and rolling my metaphorical Christian woman eyes. Proverbs 31 woman--bleh. My response was so automatic and so gut-deep that I was grounded. Why on earth was this my reaction to someone who was only affirming scripture?
My boyfriend was confused too. “It seems like a feminist passage, almost,” he said, trying to understand. I tried to organize my thoughts, tried to understand my own reaction. Because clearly this should not be my reaction to a representation of woman that God himself penned. I should be wholeheartedly embracing it.
But I don’t think I’m alone in this response. If I had to guess, I would wager that most women in my age group who grew up in the church are all rolling their own metaphorical eyes at the mention of this passage. I think part of it is due to the simple fact that this passage has been watered down, simplified, and spoon-fed to girls in youth groups by leaders who have mishandled it. And yet it goes deeper than that.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that at its core, it is a question of how women are perceived. This is such a complicated issue, and it’s even more complicated in the church where many women affirm that yes, there are differences between men and women. It’s a fundamental truth for women (Christian or not) that much of our life is spent thinking about ourselves in relation to how men perceive us. It’s part of being the “other”—the non-man, which is how the world has treated women since the beginning. Women seldom feel that they are their own entity, able to fully disassociate themselves with how men see them. Our fallen culture was built for men; therefore women are constantly being measured against how they are different from men, rather than simply who they are.
This grows more complicated yet when Christianity enters in. Women who believe in gender differences and roles affirm that there is something inherent to women that desires to be cherished and pleasing to men—some impulse that is naturally servant-hearted. As a woman who spends a lot of time thinking about feminism and women’s issues, I don’t think it’s dehumanizing or anti-feminist to affirm that women have this fundamental difference from men. Men often tend to be very individualistic, very opportunistic. Every human is different, and there are exceptions on both sides of the gender divide, but in general I am comfortable saying that women tend to be more aware of how their actions affect others. (Some would probably say it’s nurture, and not nature. Different discussion.)
All this to say, when Proverbs 31 was brought up all these subconscious thoughts united in my mind and I began to feel that slow, resentful feeling I get when I think a man is only viewing me in relation to himself. Because what does the Wife of Noble Character do? Serves her husband. Feeds her kids. She does it all, man. And coupled with the baggage of years of misinterpretation and sinful cultural stereotypes laid overtop of it, I automatically associate this passage with men who view their significant other as nothing but a shiny trophy of stereotypical Christian womanhood.
There is also, of course, the not-small issue of my own sinfulness, and the struggle of how I see myself. For most people—and Christian women especially—the idea of role and equality is a huge one. I spend so much time worrying about whether I’m getting what I deserve, and being all I can be, and not getting shorted, that of course when presented with a passage that speaks mostly about service, I rebel against it. But this is where the Lewis passage that started it all comes back in. He has a beautiful chapter in his book The Weight of Glory titled “Membership,” and it cut me to pieces. (Really, you should just stop reading this and go read that instead. It’s brilliant.) He has this idea that equality is a necessary evil—that really, we’re all supposed to function as completely unequal but fully valued, but we’ve had to introduce the idea of equality to protect ourselves from our own sinfulness. I’m a little bit afraid that if I start quoting from the chapter I’ll end up quoting the entire thing, but I’ll just share this one beautiful bit of truth:
Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live. Even in the life of the affections, much more in the body of Christ, we step outside the world which says “I am as good as you.” It is like turning from a march to a dance. It is like taking off our clothes. We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct. It delights me that there should be moments in the services of my own Church when the priest stands and I kneel. As democracy becomes more complete in the outer world and opportunities for reverence are successively removed, the refreshment, the cleansing, and invigorating returns to inequality, which the Church offers us, become more and more necessary.
It occurred to me, during our gender discussion, that it had been at least ten years—and probably more like fifteen—since I’d actually read the passage in Proverbs. Which, first of all, is embarrassing because it means I’ve been picking and choosing pretty severely in my personal Bible-reading. But I flipped open to Proverbs 31 (which apparently twelve year-old Ruthie decided to underline in its entirety #thanksyouthgroup) and read it again. And I will be honest: I cried. Some of what I felt was, I think, due to the fact that I’ve been discovering and growing a lot recently in my understanding of what it means to be a woman, and settling deep into those realizations. But some it was just honest conviction.
It is an incredible passage. It is a beautiful picture of a strong, passionate woman who, even in a time when women were traded and bartered for, worked steadily and confidently. But it wasn’t her independence, and the feminist themes that are present, or even the impressive amount of work that she accomplishes and the fact that everyone likes her that got me. It was the way she is able to just be. She’s not fighting herself, or her society, or her husband. She’s not worrying about whether she’s getting as much respect or independence as she deserves. She is her own unequal piece of the puzzle, and she is joyful.
I don’t think the point of Proverbs 31 is to empower women to be whatever they can be, and I certainly don’t think the point is to make women feel guilty about all the things they’re not able to accomplish. This passage is a lifeline directly to the stressed-out heart of women, and it is telling us to breathe deeply and be who were created to be. For some of us, it will be doctors and lawyers. For some of us, it will be artists and teachers and mothers. But for all of us, we are not defined by who we are in relation to our male counterparts, or whether we are as smart as them or as driven as them or as powerful as them.
Let us leave those discussions for another day, and let us be free.
I turned 27 last week, and with that milestone, I’ve been experiencing a lot of clarity in my life. Some of it has to do with my career, as I spoke about in my last post, and with that very large piece of my life coming into perspective, it makes sense that other things might follow. And yet, as the days go on and Spring seems just around the corner, teasing us with her Winter-speckled dance, I can’t help but think that it might be the other way around. My career and my goals in life may be falling into place because of what I have recently realized about myself.
Every year on my birthday I write down a prayer. Not something of the moment, but rather a prayer that can be the theme of my year. It began, in infamy, on my 19th birthday when I asked the Lord not to “be gentle with my heart.” That was the year that, among many other things, I discovered that I have to be very careful what I pray for, because the Lord may just decide to answer my prayers.
Since then every year has been different. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost ten years of prayers—prayers for pride, prayers for compassion, prayers for prayer, even. Every year when I open up my journal and look back on my entry from the previous year, it’s amazing to see what God has done in answering it. Some years it’s so clear how he answered it. Some years it’s more nuanced. But every year I can look back over the previous twelve months of my life and see that he’s been at work.
This year I wasn’t sure what I was going to ask for until the day before my birthday. There were a few prayers rattling around in my heart. I even considered praying again for the previous year’s prayer. But then I found something out about myself. Something that, I’m afraid, has been the root of many of my prayers over the years, though it hid in the background out of sight. Something that makes no sense, but has had a chokehold on me for a long time. I found out that I have allowed myself to become eaten up with self pity.
I wonder, in our current culture of fear-mongering and the looming threat of Trumpism (which seems like it should be a joke, but is in fact not at all a joke) how much we all wrestle with self pity. How much of the rhetoric is about what we deserve, and what we’re missing out on? How often do we look online and see the carefully curated online images of our friends and colleagues, and allow ourselves to slide right into what-if and why-not-me? I know in my own life it’s entered subtly into so much of my internal monologue. Well of course he’s not interested in me. Well of course they’re asking me to do this. Well of course I got another rejection.
Which is, on so many levels, total bullshit. If I take one clear, hard look at my life I can see—as can many of us—that what I have is abundant. The opportunities I’ve been given, the people who love me, the person I am. It is selfish beyond belief for me to demand more than what I have, when I have so much.
But the thing about humans is that as creative as they can be, they have an inability to fully understand something that they have not experienced. This Fall I learned what it means to be truly grateful for rest, only because I was working so hard during the week. Because of the way I’ve always lived my life, it’s really difficult for me to get to a place of mental thankfulness, and it’s getting harder the older I get and the farther the reach of social media extends. Plus, humans have terribly memories. Even if I can get there in one moment, in the next, I’m guaranteed to forget all about my gratefulness.
But the really amazing thing about all of this is that none of this even matters. Nothing I have makes any difference at all, if what I profess to believe is true. And that encapsulates both the absurd impossibility of Christianity and one of the reasons why it’s definitely true. Because nobody could make this stuff up. A religion that asks humans to make this impossible leap has to be divine. (And I do mean impossible. It is actually impossible to believe or act on the tenets of Christianity without the supernatural work of the Spirit. It doesn’t even compute.)
This is one of the things that has—praise the Lord—become so blindingly clear in the past few weeks. I have been conscientiously forcing myself to stop pitying myself when something doesn’t go as I have trained myself to believe it should, in the big things and the small, and as a result I am seeing just the tiniest corner of a beautiful world opening up. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t get that job, or that I’m not dating anyone right now, or that I don’t live in that city. Because this is my story. This is the story that has—according to what I profess to believe—been written on the hands of the eternal God, and yes, I know how insane that sounds, praise the Lord, I know. I hope it never stops sounding insane to me that a being so large and incomprehensible could choose to create a world with something like electrical plugs and florescent lights. Who knows why the menial was created. Who cares. It all rolls into something so profoundly life changing that I am not sure why I don’t fall down on my knees every moment of the day.
It must be that horrifically short memory of human beings. Or perhaps it's the reinsertion of the menial; I think maybe the knowledge deep in our blood that we were meant for more gets warped into our inflated sense of self pity. We know we shouldn’t quite be doing whatever it is that we’re doing, and we were meant for more, but then we get distracted by looking around us for whatever that “more” might be, and we conclude that it must be whatever everyone else has. But even the biggest book deal or the largest English garden or whatever else I can imagine could never stem my flow of self pity, or my hunger for more. I know that, now. I know that I am a queen, and I have been treating myself as a pauper. I have twice as much to be thankful for, because even in this life that will fade away, I have been given much. But even if I had nothing—and I stretch my imagination to say this, because I have no conception of this—I would still be a queen.
I love the great hymn Before the Throne of God Above. It has several verses, and each is magnificent and has spoken to me at different moments in my life. I have been meditating on the first verse, as I’ve been pondering all of these things. It sums up in brilliantly simple terms the type of assurance we have:
Before the throne of God above I have a strong and perfect plea
A great high priest whose name is Love, who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is graven on his hands; my name is written on his heart
I know that while in heaven he stands no tongue can bid me thence depart.
No tongue. Not a single one—not even the high king of heaven himself. It’s hard, because we are tangible, moment-to-moment creatures, but why on earth do I care about how many likes my most recent post got or whether I was rejected from a job when I know that beyond this very good creation, there waits a heaven and earth that will smash my expectations into a million pieces and rebuild them anew. This life is beautiful, and I’m not trying to say that it means nothing. We have real concerns and real pain and real trouble. But we’ve got to put it in perspective, especially when so many of us in this country truly have nothing to complain about.
And I hope, if this climate of fear should actually spell changes to come, that it is not our self pity that will rule us, but our strong and joyful hope. We have not been promised happiness. We have not been promised wealth. But we have been promised life, and I want to live it fully, both in this life and the next.
If we are in Christ, we are kings and queens. Let us not live like paupers.
Today I attended a professional development workshop dedicated to creating Shakespeare curriculum, and as I sit in the airport waiting for my delayed flight, I’m full of all kinds of exciting ideas and plans. I know that when I get to work tomorrow and start planning my lessons for next week I’ll find my way back to the reality of how overwhelming it is to teach 300+ students, but for this moment, I’m feeling pretty excited about the future.
I’ve been noticing this excitement growing, over the past few weeks. After surviving my first semester as a full time teacher, I came back from Winter Break not exactly dreading my job (which was a huge improvement on how I felt about it before the break.) After February Break, I came back to my classes with some really fantastic ideas about future curriculum—not quite excited about teaching, but definitely not dreading it. And after the advent of my upper school acting club last week and the dawn of my school-wide devising project, I would say I’m actually bordering on looking forward to classes. (Which is a big deal.)
But what is an even bigger deal, I’ve realized over the past couple of weeks, is that for the first time in my entire life, I am thinking about my career. This might seem like a pretty odd thing for someone with a masters degree to say—why get the masters if you’ve never thought about a career, one might ask. Of course I’ve thought about a career in a theoretical way; in the misty, cerebral way that all millennials think about these things, wandering from decision to decision because we’re not quite sure what else to do with ourselves. But this year I am finally seeing my path laid out in a way I can realistically follow.
This has caused me to start simultaneously questioning, and also receiving assurance. I spent a large part of the last few years searching for roots. I remember saying, “I’m just tired of not putting down roots—I want to know where I’m supposed to be, and what I’m supposed to be doing.” I think I always thought that roots meant a place—a city or a house that was mine, that I could invest in, that I could belong to. And of course a husband and potentially a family to go with it. But over the past months, and especially the past few weeks, something has changed in me, and I realize that I have begun to grow some roots. It’s just that the roots are not at all what I expected. Instead of being a place, these roots are a seed of creativity—opportunity and expertise in something I love, and a way to map out the journey.
Looking back, I can see that the Lord led me to pursue the things I love, because I certainly didn’t do it intentionally. All of the decisions that led me into theater education were practically unintentional, in my blind wandering. It wasn’t until I was actually in grad school that I suddenly realized: OH, I’m good at this. The first time I knew I had real, tangible intelligence was while talking with my advisor at NYU. I know how crazy that sounds, but life is a trajectory not just of opportunities, but also of self-esteem and self-confidence. And, like in many things, I was a late bloomer.
But back to this idea of roots. Maybe it’s crazy, but it just occurred to me—tonight—that perhaps, right now, my roots are not in my home, but in my career. Which probably sounds scary, like I’m about to be that insane loner career woman who isn’t open to relationships because they’ll slow me down (and I’ll probably get a phone call from one of my siblings telling me that I shouldn’t shut myself off from relationships just because I don’t happen to be dating anyone right now. Don’t worry, sibs, that’s not what I mean.) I think a “calling” simply means the place where one is, and the place where I am right now is a place where I have the opportunity, the energy, and the inspiration for some pretty exciting teaching and arts adventures.
Of course I’m still invested in the people around me, and in my church, and in my family. But as I am about to turn 27, I have begun leaving behind much of the unsureness that accompanied me up till this point, and instead trusting my training and my instincts. I am growing excited about the opportunities and the dreams springing up. For the first time in my life I know what I want for my career and I know how to get there--and that is very exciting.
Every now and then I run across someone waxing eloquent about who Jesus was, saying that Christianity today has warped his commands. The argument usually goes something like: If only Christians would stop creating divisions, and focus on the fact that Jesus himself preached love. Jesus was a great teacher who taught his followers to turn the other cheek and not to judge anyone.
Yesterday the sermon text at my church was John 6:25-59. Here is an excerpt:
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” (53-57)
From time to time I come across a passage that knocks me right out of my Christian lingo comfort zone and reminds me of the absolute absurdity of what I believe. I don’t mean absurdity in the sense that it isn’t true—I mean that if it’s not true, it is completely absurd. The words above are not the words of a great teacher: they are either the words of the Son of God, or an insane man. There is no in-between.
Others have said it before me, but Jesus left no room for in-between on purpose. As CS Lewis said in Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall as his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
A friend of mine recently posted a blog in which he spoke about how he was coming back to his roots as a Christian after a long time away, and starting to get interested again in the person of Jesus. I read his post eagerly, excited to read his musings. He spoke eloquently of Jesus’ work as a theater artist (all those parables make me thrill to be walking in the footsteps of the greatest artist of all). But as I continued reading, this friend began the old claim: that Jesus was a great teacher who told people to humbly be nice to each other. I wanted to throw my head back and groan, because that is death; to patronizingly agree to write Jesus off as a nice guy. It's just not possible. Not if you really know what he said.
I could spend some time talking about how Jesus actually spoke about Hell more than any other person in the Bible, or recount all the times he intentionally confused those listening to him and rebuked both his friends and strangers. But what actually struck me most, in thinking through both the sermon text and the phenomenon of this whole nice-guy-Jesus thing, is just how attractive Jesus was. Utterly, bewilderingly attractive. So much so that the people to whom he said all these things about eating his flesh actually got in boats and chased him across the sea to find him. So much so that not just his band of devoted followers (who were getting nothing out of it except sleeping in hostile towns and eating grain from passing fields), but also tens of thousands of people constantly followed him around like hungry dogs. So much so that the leaders of the land trembled at the power Jesus displayed.
The only way to reconcile the utter devotion and awe people felt toward Jesus with the insanity and knife-like sting of his words is his crucial blend of truth and love. It appears over and over and over, proving that Jesus may not have been nice, and he may not have been gentle, but he was sure as hell honest (pun intended), and his honesty both destroyed and healed people all in one fell swoop. He told the woman at the well about her sins, and while her cheeks were still flaming scarlet he told her that her sins could be forgiven if she drank of his life-giving water. He asked Peter three times if he loved him, and while Peter was standing there hating his own cowardly guts, Jesus gave him both forgiveness and work to do: to feed his sheep. Every single word in the gospels—and in the arch of the Biblical narrative as a whole—rips wide our desire to pretend we can categorize Jesus as a great (read: benign) teacher and simultaneously presents us with the alternative truth.
It’s good for me to be reminded of this often. I have known Christianity my whole life, and the absurdity of the Biblical claims gets lost on me. I think it’s good for us as Christians to stop trying to defend our faith, once in a while, and be honest about the fact that if Jesus is not God, we’re screwed. We want to defend ourselves by dressing up our religion in a wardrobe of banality, so that it might be socially acceptable. But it’s just not. The man who said, “the one who feeds on me will live because of me,” had better be God, because otherwise he was an insane person who was making some kind of weird cannibalistic claim that is actually pretty creepy.
Let yourself feel the full weight of that panic bordering on horror, today. If your Jesus is simply a nice teacher, he can’t carry the death that this world reeks of, and he certainly isn’t the God of the Bible. We believe incredible claims, friends. We serve a God who loved us enough to be honest and terrifyingly mysterious. Don’t ever forget it.
(Artwork: "Alpha and Omega," by Gerald Ivey)
During this time of year I am especially aware of what it means to be embodied. As I meditate on the mystery and horror of a God who became flesh—with all the humiliation and pain it involved—I am ultimately brought back to its glory. Eventually, despite the flesh’s embarrassing weakness and, worse than that, its debilitating plainness, this time of year brings me close to the reality of the veiled beauty and utter mystery of the union between body and soul.
My ninety year old grandmother, who is frail and bedridden, asks me to cut her fingernails almost every time I go over to visit. She has been asking me to do this for her for close to eight years now, and I have to admit that my willingness has gone through many stages. It’s not always easy or pleasant to cut her nails. For many years, I almost dreaded the task. But recently, I have developed a new willingness, and even eagerness to do this for her. Her mind is often very distant, and as her conversation skills have diminished, it’s become harder to connect with her on an intellectual or emotional level. But there is something that remains in the simple act of physical touch. Something that I can’t identify or exploit, but remains constant nonetheless.
As I crouched next to her today, breathing with her, that constant came unbidden. Holding her papery hands in mine I felt the brush of her trembles, and my own body felt young and strong beside hers. The aroma of the room and the slow clip of the nails framed us. I was closer to her in that moment—her brittle nail clippings falling into my skirt—than I’ve been for a long time. We said nothing, and we needed nothing said. The reality of the body is that quite often, it is capable of bearing that communication even better than the words I might form, especially with a grandmother whom I love but don’t know how to talk to anymore.
So much of my world is intangible—speaking with my parents and siblings over the phone or by text, watching friends’ photos slide by, entering the virtual world of a movie. I forget how my physical self hungers for nearness until I am reunited with those I love most, and then I want only to be in their presence. Just to look at them and watch their lips move fills the lost part of me that I often set aside. I know there is no real magic encircling our physical bodies, but it feels like magic sometimes to listen to my mother’s heartbeat or touch the shiny softness of my cousins’ hair. To sit beside my brothers or beg a friend for a back massage.
I think often about the distance I place between myself and those I long to be near. I treat the distance like it is inconsequential, and content myself with the fact that I have the capacity to stay in touch over long distances. But it’s not the same. It’s the difference between the way it feels to watch a good movie and to move in a room full of actors who are listening. One is the best kind of voyeurism; the other is life itself.
I have not lived very long, but I’ve lived long enough now to know that God will take me wherever he wants, and my work is to find those close by, as well as far off, who will make up this winding adventure. The balance on my hands is not just one of work and pleasure or joy and grief, it is also one of body and soul, intellect and instinct. The longer I live and the more I long for the physical presence of those I am no longer near, the more I take comfort in the promise not just of soul but of body as well.
Because how could we be if not for the frail and embarrassing reality of this union? Only the divine could come up with something so simple and paradoxical. Connected by something as inconsequential as nail clippings—what grace is found in that.
More than once, over the past five months, I’ve stepped into my shower at 5:45am and said to myself, “Calm down. Take a breath. Be thankful.”
It was sometime in November—supposedly the hardest month of a new teacher’s year—that I began praying for strength just for the next moment. Not for the next day, or the next week, or to get me through until Christmas break—no. I found myself needing to make it bite-sized, in order to be able to swallow it. Strength just for the next moment.
And now I am here, on Christmas break, having survived the first semester, and I realize that I have been learning not just to focus on the next moment during difficult tasks, but also to focus on the next moment of joy. That, I have found, is even harder than the former.
I started realizing the necessity of this early in the semester. Overwhelmed by my students and all the tasks I had to complete, I found myself spending weekends with the anxiety of the coming week looming over me. It was difficult to enjoy my time off because I was worrying about when I would be back in school, anxious that I wasn’t prepared, even though I’d done my work. By October I knew it had to stop. I had to find a way to compartmentalize, or I would let anxiety overtake me.
So I started asking myself a simple question. How are you right now? I asked myself on a Saturday morning, sipping coffee. The answer was obvious: Pretty good. Warm, relaxed, content. Over the next months I continued asking myself that question, forcing myself to take the days moment by moment, focusing on either what I needed to do right then and there, or being thankful that nothing was required of me.
And then the question crept into more stressful moments. How are you right now? I’d ask myself as I got into the car to drive to school. The answer still came back the same: Pretty good. What was required of me in that moment was simply to drive to school, nothing else. How are you now? I’d ask myself on my lunch break at school—one of my most anxious times. Pretty good. Taking a much needed breath. And then, even, How are you now? as I stood before a classroom full of students. Pretty good. Keeping the students’ attention or not, having to discipline or praise them, the answer always came back the same. There was strength enough for every moment.
As I have an extended chance to catch my breath, during these two weeks, I am taking a deep dive into thankfulness as I remember what last Christmas was like. I had just graduated from my masters program, and I had absolutely no job prospects. Leaving to go back to NYC after Christmas took a whole different kind of courage, and I will always keep those cold winter months with me—months of waiting, and scraping by, and being poor and thankful. My thankfulness was at an inverse to the money in my pocket; the more God provided when it didn’t seem possible, the more I felt paper-thin in his abounding grace.
That prayer was answered, but the distinctive thing about God is that he doesn’t stop teaching, ever. He took me out of the frying pan of unemployment and cast me into the fire of this high pressure job. He bent me double in learning to trust his provision, and in the same year he has slowed my heart to the steady pace of moment-by-moment. And through it all, he is fixing my eyes on the promise of just enough strength for the next task.
It’s a lesson worth learning. Even when this job is over, and I move into something that is (hopefully) a little less intense, this way of living is life-giving. I don’t need strength for next year, or next week, or even the next hour. I am not there yet. I need it only for the next moment. I pray that as I enter this new year I will continue to move slow—my emotions and prayers washing through me—as I continue to learn how to calm down, take a breath, and be thankful.
This December marks the fifth anniversary of Carved to Adorn. In celebration of our blog, we've compiled a list of our favorite and most liked blog posts!
To Post of Not to Post: The Great Facebook Lie
On Confession, Predestination, and Living Inside the Question Mark
God With Us
Fear of the Label: Being a Christian and An Artist
Let's Talk About Sex
Cynicism: The Way to a Girl's Heart
Dear Middle Schoolers
The Unnaturalness of Goodbye
Mother's to Daughters: "I am Beautiful"
The Dangerous, Threatening Search for True Beauty in the World of Australian Ballroom Dancing
When I Fell in Love
Thoughts on Cinderella: What is Strength?
The Grief of Singleness, the Grief of Marriage
Returning: Prayer in the Face of Suffering
Let's Talk About Sex: Part 2
Heaven and My Female Body
The Five Year Question
More Thoughts on Calling
Pandora's Curiosity, Eve's Willfulness, and Spiritual Misunderstanding
A great man died.
And yet, though my tears have been falling all day, part of me doesn’t quite know why I’ve mourned him so much. Brett Foster, one of my writing professors at Wheaton College, was a beloved teacher and a kind man. Still, I did not know him well.
I want to memorialize him with my words, but I don’t think he’d mind at all if I used this opportunity also to be self-reflective. In fact, I think he’d be amused. If he could, I think he’d sit down next to me at the kitchen table, look over my shoulder, and say, “Huh. Yes, why is that so?” He’d chuckle softly while my fingers tap lightly on the keys. And he’d probably take a sip out of one of his mugs (because, at least as long as I knew him, he never used a thermos.)
It’s fitting that the death of this man who taught me everything I know about poetry (which, by no accident of his own, is still not very much) should drive me to write. It’s fitting that the man who, along with the team of other soulful and soul-filled literature professors at Wheaton opened my heart and my mind not only to words but also to work, should bring me back to words.
And I say it again: I did not know him well. Other than the class I took with him, the office hours of encouragement, the every now and again hello on campus, and the almost five years since I left that place, I have nothing. My grief feels almost voyeuristic—as if it does not belong to me, and I have little right to the tears that keep coming. I don’t even remember his words. In memory, all I have of his classes and his person is an impression and a feeling. And the desire to create.
It’s there, in the center, that I find my grief. I didn’t need to know him well for him to have an impact on me. I am a teacher now (though I never would have believed it) and I am already starting to understand that it is not the words you say that they will remember, but the way in which you said them. It is not the point you are making, or the facts you spout, but the way they feel about the work. B Fost, as we lovingly called him, was the perfect example of this. Sometimes, in class, he would be mid-sentence when I suddenly realized I had no idea what he was saying. His words and his point were so convoluted that the thread was knotted somewhere long since tripped over, and the class was lucky to catch up to him and pull him back to the present. On papers and poems, his writing was so cramped and hard to read that half of it was lost to the netherworld.
But all I ever wanted to do in that class was try. His enthusiasm was infectious. Half the time I had no idea what I was doing, but I did it anyway. And, tripping over his threads and my own, I found in his energy a lifeline to my own interests. I shot from that class into other classes, encountering both professors and authors I liked more. He smiled and nodded, and asked me how I was doing, and asked me to stay in touch.
More than anything—more even than the curiosity of his own BMX past that kept freshmen audiences interested—the man could write poetry. Poetry that both met you where you were, and nudged you gently forward. Just as he himself did.
All I can claim is the memory of empowerment, and the introduction to something new. My grief is nothing to the grief of those who truly lost a friend and family member. But in the wake of his passing, Dr. Foster has reminded me that there is no limitation on sorrow, and the roots of a life go deep, and they go far. This man, this poet, this great friend of a theater ensemble I love, gave me a gift of knowledge that I will always cherish, and if he gave it to me, who took only one class with him, I can only imagine how many more received far greater gifts from his life.
As he wrote in his own poem, Isaiah 43, he certainly went out singing.
I don’t understand why there is a shoe in the middle of the girls’ bathroom. Just one single shoe. Who’s wearing the other one? And I don’t understand why someone is chipping away at the window frames. It’s your bathroom. The teachers have their own, so if you make a mess on the floor or overflow a toilet, you are the ones who will have to get your feet wet while you pee. I guess I understand that your brain might not yet be capable of comprehending that.
I don’t understand how you can make faces and refuse to listen, but then come up to me at dismissal and tell me that you love my class. I don’t know why the twenty-eight of you can’t figure out that if you would just shut up and listen, we’d be able to get up and play games. I don’t know why I can trust you to work together for four minutes at a time, but not five—never five—or the entire room unravels and you lose your minds and jump on top of tables and hang from pipes.
I totally get that this is all about relationships; you have to like me to listen to me. I’m sorry I’m so bad at hitting the Quan.
I’m sorry I still don’t know all your names. I’ve decided that my brain can only hold 200 names, and I might just never learn the other 120. To be fair, some of you still can’t remember mine, and you only have eight teachers.
I don’t understand how I can have so much love for a bunch of kids who drive me crazy. I think it has something to do with the fear I see when I look into your eyes—underneath all the attitude, and the giggles, and the bravado, I see that first introduction to fear curled up behind your retinas. Sometime in the last year or two you figured out that there are things in the world that you can’t control, and your parents (if they’re around) can’t control, and even your teachers can’t control. It terrifies you, and for the first time ever, you’re trying to figure out how to avoid or cover over or disguise that fear. I have bad news for you, my scared little ones: that fear is going to be with you forever.
I know you can’t cope with the fear. I know you can’t cope with whatever is happening in your homes, or with your friends. So I will cope for you. We may not learn advanced acting techniques, or achieve all of my lofty educational goals. You won’t learn how to be an amazing artist in my class—you have high school and college to discover that. But you will know two things for sure: that you are safe in my class, and that you are loved. And that is the starting place, as storytellers and as artists. I will teach you to open your hearts and to be joyful, and if that means we watch “What Does the Fox Say” at the end of class, then so be it.
This is middle school, which means I’m catching you at a time when your hands can still be pried open, and no matter how much you pretend to hate your life, you’re still listening. I know you all secretly want that super star artist of the day award. I know that for some of you, school is the safest place in your entire world.
I can remember what it was like to be thirteen, and to have a great reason for every stupid thing I did. I remember the complicated relationship I had with my parents and teachers, and I remember what it felt like to be so young and yet feel so old. Hang in there for another ten years. It gets better.
Being a teacher is so much messier than I thought it would be. But so is anything worth doing. And if you have to be down here in the mess, I’m glad I’m here with you.
I’ve been putting off writing about my transition to teaching, mostly because I just didn’t know where to start. There have been so many changes—moving cities, starting work full time, being thrown headlong not just into teaching but into teaching high risk kids—that my head has been spinning and hasn’t really stopped since I began this adventure on July 30th.
I realized today that I needed to get something written, though. At some point it’s more important to just put fingers to keys than to have the perfect blog. And then I realized: that idea pretty much sums up my life right now. Throughout the last two months I’ve been learning, more than anything, that sometimes life hands you a season in which you just have to learn how to survive.
I mean that in the best possible sense. So much about moving to Boston and beginning my teaching job has been wonderful. I love the city of Boston, I love my new apartment and roommate (and dog!), and I love the pace of life in this city. I love the school I teach for, my fellow teachers and administration, my students, and I know I should be doing what I’m doing. And yet I also recognize that this is the hardest thing I have ever done.
Some of it is a natural exhaustion—teaching so many students every week, while creating my own curriculum, is overwhelming already. But what I wasn’t anticipating was the lack of buy in—many of my students are still unconvinced about why theater is important to them and whether or not they’re going to enjoy my class. They are pushing back, and often going into school in the morning feels like going into battle, me standing alone against 180 students. Overdramatic, of course. But an accurate summation of my feelings.
This will change. Every teacher says that the first year is the hardest, and that the first two months are the worst. Students are pushing back against all their teachers, testing boundaries, and mine are especially skeptical because this is a new program. I am confident that this will not be my teaching experience forever. Even yesterday, one of my fifth graders stopped me at dismissal and said, a big smile on his face, “Miss Snoke, I LOVE your class.”
And I’ve seen the lightbulb in some of my students’ eyes. Students who started the year combative or morose, trying their hardest to tell me with their actions that they didn’t want to be in my class will suddenly watch me with interest, raise their hand and open up about their experiences. Take a risk to stand in front of the class or play an improv game. I try to treasure these moments and recognize them, try to hold them against the weight of the feeling that I’m taking one step forward and twenty steps back.
It occurred to me just this morning that I am in the midst of a micro-metaphor for life. The unfortunate thing about the head and the heart is that no matter how clearly I know something in my head, I cannot force my heart to feel it. The unfortunate thing about going through something hard is that even if you know it will not be hard forever, you still have to do the hard thing. The effort of daily silencing the cacophony of doubts, fear, and plain old distaste is monumental, and it’s exhausting.
But that is what life is. Thank God that there are seasons of life that are less effort, but it remains true that life itself is difficult and hard and requires the reminder that it cannot and will not last forever. Just as I know these months—or perhaps this entire first year—will end, making way for something better and more beautiful, I know that this season of life is a reminder to me that what I see in this world is not the only reality present, and that I have to take it on faith that the efforts and the pain and the stickiness will eventually give way to something much better. The beauty and difficulty lies in finding the balance. I am grateful for the moments of joy, when students suddenly buy into my class, or tell me how much they like it, while always keeping in mind that the hard reality of teaching these students is not all there is. In the same way, I think we are called to fully invest and delight in the ups and downs of this life, while also remembering that this is not all we were created for.
I know in my spirit what it would be like if all of my students wanted to be in my class—if all of them were engaged, and working together, and building trust. We see pieces of what this world should be like, and it’s right to mourn the fact that we don’t see it as a reality. It’s okay to admit when something is hard, and it’s essential to recognize that we alone are not enough. But I rejoice through the difficulty because I look forward with confidence, even when all I can do is put one foot in front of the other. Perhaps that’s what I should be doing more often, because it reminds me that I am only one person. I am here not to singlehandedly change the world, but to play my part faithfully. In the good, in the bad, daily living through the grace of waiting until my head and my heart both know the joy of a reality I was created to desire.
- Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton
~ My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman
~ The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton