Category Archives: adulthood

Two Homes

The wooden holy family rests on a stack of old grammar school primers. I remember wandering the cobbled streets of Salzburg, how I picked it out as a gift but then couldn’t part with it once I reached Stateside. Next to it is the delicate hand painted teacup from my old Sunday School teacher. It’s almost too fragile for me to own, so I am trying to enjoy its beauty for as long as I can.

IMG_0301I pounded some nails into the wail to hang my sign and “Alice in Wonderland” caricature from my days of directing. I taped up postcards and photos above my bed, and I’m hoping to buy Christmas lights to string between the windows.

I’m trying to make this home.

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My routines transferred easily to this new place. I still get up and grind coffee beans, boil water, fill the French press. I still pack (or forget to pack) a make-shift lunch my coworkers have deemed “college-student-worthy.” I wipe down the bathroom every once in awhile, put the dishes away, and I’ve even swept the floor twice. My domestic side is not exactly thriving, but she is growing.

When my apartment mate plays James Taylor and Paul Simon.

I cut my bangs leaning over the bathroom sink. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. Some routines have transferred easily, others are newly acquired.

When we sit in the living room, some with a book, some with a computer, others chatting, and all of us with wine.

I bought bright blue glasses, and my students said I looked like a hipster. And then my family said I looked like a hipster. I’m wondering how many times it takes before it’s true.

When I walk down the street to a friend’s apartment, and she shows me the best place for falafel.

For the first month, I tossed in my sleep, afraid I would get a parking ticket in this ticket-happy town.  I still haven’t parked in the wrong spot and it’s been six weeks. I only believe in spending $50 on worthwhile things.

When my sister or friend comes down to the city, and we make tea and sit in the shady park.

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A book club friend and I went into the thrift shop, and I came out with a sequined top. Not just sequined but fully sequined, with swishes and bright colors. “Oh my gosh, I love this top!” the cashier said. “I’ve been eyeing it since we got it.” I’m waiting for a good dancing night to christen this vintage beauty.

When writers’ group is about to start up for the year and I’m itching and waiting to read and write.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t feel so much like home. Like when I hit more potholes than my little car can handle and the wheels get all misaligned. Or when I open the fridge and realize, Shoot, I didn’t go grocery shopping, and it’s hardboiled eggs and crackers and hummus for dinner. Again. Or when I climb the steps to my front door, feel eyes on my back, turn around to see a rough man leaning out of a large white van, staring, watching me enter my house. Or when I google search for a new church to visit, and I slip in quietly, worship alone surrounded by strangers, and slip out.

When I spend a Sunday afternoon making applesauce from Dad’s bruised apples, listening to a sermon on what it means to be sanctified, and starting the next baby sweater on my knitting list.

I am moved by poetry in the fall. My soul is played out in Chopin and Debussy in October.

I am in love with this poem by John Holmes right now, even though it’s not the first time I’ve read it. Maybe it’s being so close to him, to where he taught, where he wrote. Maybe it’s experiencing these two towns.

Read it slowly. The end is worth it, and the beginning makes the end matter.

Map of My Country

I

A map of my native country is all edges, 
The shore touching sea, the easy impartial rivers
Splitting the local boundary lines, round hills in two townships,
Blue ponds interrupting the careful county shapes.
The Mississippi runs down the middle. Cape Cod. The Gulf.
Nebraska is on latitude forty. Kansas is west of Missouri.

When I was a child, I drew it, from memory,
A game in the schoolroom, naming the big cities right.

Cloud shadows were not shown, nor where winter whitens,
Nor the wide road the day’s wind takes.
None of the tall letters told my grandfather’s name.
Nothing said, Here they see in clear air a hundred miles.
Here they go to bed early. They fear snow here.
Oak trees and maple boughs I had seen on the long hillsides
Changing color, and laurel, and bayberry, were never mapped.
Geography told only capitals and state lines.

I have come a long way using other men’s maps for the turnings.
I have a long way to go.

It is time I drew the map again, 
Spread with the broad colors of life, and words of my own
Saying, Here the people worked hard, and died for the wrong reasons. 
Here wild strawberries tell the time of year.
I could not sleep, here, while bell-buoys beyond the surf rang.
Here trains passed in the night, crying of distance,
Calling to cities far away, listening for an answer.

On my own map of my own country
I shall show where there were never wars,
And plot the changed way I hear men speak in the west,
Words in the south slower, and food different.
Not the court houses seen floodlighted at night from trains,
But the local stone built into house walls,
And barns telling the traveler where he is
By the slant of the roof, the color of the paint.
Not monuments. Not the battlefields famous in school.
But Thoreau’s pond, and Huckleberry Finn’s island.
I shall name an unhistorical hill three boys climbed one morning.
Lines indicate my few journeys,
And the long way letters come from absent friends.

Forest is where green ferns cooled me under the big trees. 
Ocean is where I ran in the white drag of waves on white sand.
Music is what I heard in a country house while hearts broke. 
Not knowing they were breaking, and Brahms wrote it.

All that I remember happened to me here. 
This is the known world.
I shall make a star here for a man who died too young.
Here, and here, in gold, I shall mark two towns
Famous for nothing, except that I have been happy in them.

On Saying “I Love You”

IMG_1638“I love — ” he shouts from behind me, his voice stopping just short of “you.”

I turn around and see the surprised, embarrassed look on his face. I make a split-second decision.

“I love you,” I say with conviction, because if you don’t say “I love you” and mean it, you shouldn’t be saying it at all.

I smile big so he knows I don’t feel uncomfortable. I leave these three children I’ve been babysitting in the kitchen as I head down to my car. Saying goodbye at the end of the summer is never easy.

He stops short of saying “I love you” for a few reasons. First, he’s a thirteen-year-old boy, and everyone knows we teach our children (boys, in particular) that expressing love or affection is not cool. He desperately wants to be cool. He wouldn’t let me post a picture of us sipping iced tea because he was afraid of what his friends would think, so I didn’t. I understand ego, even if I have a slightly different perspective. Second, I’m his babysitter. I am not his mom or his aunt or his grandma. If our young boys do express affection and care, it is almost always in the context of family, and I am not that. I can imagine his struggle as he tried to figure out what was going on: Do I love her? How can I? She’s 26 and not related to me. But what is it, then? It’s definitely not a crush. Because that is reason number three: he didn’t want to be misunderstood and have his care confused into something it wasn’t.

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[My face most of the summer. They loved stealing my phone and leaving me photographic surprises.]

It’s the last day of summer, and I know deep down it’s my last summer with them. There’s a time and place for a babysitter who takes you to the Museum of Science, the beach, mini golfing, the Museum of Fine Arts, even to Funtown Splashtown, USA. But then you start to feel itchy, like it doesn’t quite fit anymore, and both you and your mom and even your babysitter realize it’s time for a change. You don’t really want it – you do love her, in some strange, mysterious way – and when you hug her, you don’t let go right away because you’re not sure when (or if) you’ll see her again. Will you ever ride the train to Boston again? Or try new things like bubble tea or yoga or hiking Mount Pawtuckaway? You’re excited for eighth grade and high school, but you’re missing your best friend who moved across the ocean, and your grandparents who moved to Florida, and even though you know it’s time, you’re wondering what next summer will look like without this strange loud singing buddy you’ve had for so long.

At least, this is what I imagine is going through his head. I know it’s probably not nearly as spelled out as this, or as worry-filled (because these tendencies come later in life), but I can’t help thinking about his voice in the hallway. How the words flew out of his mouth and he had to stop himself. How many times I’ve done that myself — felt an overflow of emotion that had to be expressed, but my words got strangled in my throat because of fear. We don’t have enough words to express what we feel. No wonder he feels strange saying he loves me; it doesn’t fit our paradigms of love, but there is no other word. And so I say it back to him because it is true, but also to show him that it’s okay to say.

I wonder what he thinks as the screen door closes behind me. I wonder if I embarrassed him. I hope he is able to get past that initial feeling of discomfort because someday, I hope he doesn’t stop short of saying it. I want him to be able to hug people and not let go too soon. I want him to be able to say “I love you,” and to receive that same love back. I want him to be free from coolness and uncoolness, debilitating fear and self-preservation, because when you’re able to let go of these things, love comes a whole lot easier. I wish I could be there to watch him grow into this, but just like my students who graduate every spring, he has to go this one on his own. All I can do is help him see that caring for someone is good and telling them is important. Maybe someday I’ll run into him, all tall and grown. I hope he isn’t afraid to give me a hug.

Six at Heart

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When I was five years old, my father told me I had until I was six to move out. I think we were in the kitchen, and my mother must not have been there because she never would have let me believe that. As it was, though, I spent the next few months awaiting January 11th, a date which used to mean joy and pancakes and a few gifts at dinner. Now it was the first day of living on my own.

I don’t remember being very afraid. A little, probably, because I couldn’t drive, but what I remember most was the planning. If I had to be on my own, I’d do it in style.  I emptied my ballerina bank on my bedroom floor and counted the coins and few dollar bills, somewhere around nineteen dollars. Okay, that should get me pretty far. I had my journey all laid out: first, I would walk down the street to the Calabros’ house. They were kind and would understand. After resting up there for the night, I’d walk a few towns over to where my mom’s friend lived. She lived alone and surely she’d take me in for a little while. From there, I would use the phone to call my grandfather, and I had no doubt he would rescue me from my wandering. I’m not sure why I didn’t call him from the neighbors’ house. Part of me thinks my five-year-old self wanted at least a bite-sized adventure.

I don’t remember the night before my birthday, but the next morning is engraved in my memory. I got up, got dressed, and packed my backpack with my favorite outfits and my toothbrush. I tucked the nineteen-ish dollars in the front pocket and headed down the stairs. I said goodbye to my parents and I walked down the street.

My dad came after me, laughing.

“Catherine! Catherine, come back!” he said, catching up to me right before I reached the Calabros’.

I was confused – hadn’t he been saying I had to leave? It was January 11th, I was sure, and I’d made all these plans…

It’s a story my parents still like to tell, my mother with a little more embarrassment than my father, but with a good laugh, anyway.

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Twenty years later, and I’m in those same few months, awaiting a big move. My Dad learned his lesson pretty well that first time, and he’s never even tried to kick me out since. He’ll tease occasionally – “How can I miss you if you never leave?” is one of his favorites – but I know that moments around the dinner table and evenings of Jeopardy are times he would never trade for twenty long years of empty-nesting.

But I’m twenty-six, and the time has come to be out on my own. I won’t lie that it’s a bit later than I expected, that it’s taken longer for me to get my feet under me. The strange thing is, though, that I sometimes feel as shocked as that little girl.

What? I need to move out? Are you sure?

I mean, I’m pretty little.

I am getting better at holding two emotions in tandem, and this is one time where that skill is vital. There are times when my mom is talking to me, and I have no idea what she’s saying because I’m so preoccupied with September first. With renting a U-Haul and getting the day off and finding a gym membership. I am so excited for this move that I daydream while driving about not driving and being able to walk to a coffee shop or to get a good beer. I imagine having friends over for wine and cheese and crusty bread, and there are times when I can’t wait.

And then, there is the morning I woke up and the birds were singing. I took my coffee out to the herb garden and sat by the pond and thought this is what I’ll be missing – this morning sun and the sound of the breeze through the birch tree. What am I thinking, leaving?

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I wrote an essay my senior year of college about graduating. I wrote about how I didn’t know where I would live: would I move to Cambridge as Kayla and I dreamed? Or would I go home to my parents, pay back my student loans, settle in? I desperately wanted to move away, but the truth was I knew if I went home, I’d never want to leave. I knew the longer I stayed, the harder it would be to pack that car and say goodbye.

That was four years ago. Year after year, things have not lined up, people have not shown up, and I’ve chosen home. But this year, suddenly, my eyes lit up with talk of an apartment. Was it possible that I might get to live with two of my favorite people? I held my breath while decisions were made, and then they were made. Then we found a place. Then we signed the lease. Then, it was real, I wrote the check, and we started talking about couches and parking permits and laundry.

I have 25 days until I load the U-Haul and head forty-five minutes south and a world away. That’s 25 mornings to brew coffee and drink it while honeybees pollinate tall purple flowers and a hummingbird dips its beak into hollyhocks. And 25 nights to lie in my girlhood bedroom and remember all the dreams I’ve had. I’ll get to sort through them, sift out the ones I want to keep, and push the rest off on a flaming dory into the dark sea.

On September first, I’ll wake early and start loading the car. I’ll probably be manic because change can make me that way, I’ll forget to eat, and I’ll drink too much coffee. We’ll move quickly past each other, joke as much as possible, and begin to imagine a different life.

I’ll head for the car, take out my keys, and look behind me, a little part of me hoping to see my Dad running after me.

Funtown Deathtown, USA

photoSo I’m sitting on the roller coaster and the bar comes down. A. looks at me, her eyes wide, and she leans in to whisper, “Catherine, I kind of have to go to the bathroom.”

“Ha, well that’s terrible timing,” I say, hoping the need is fear-induced.

Suddenly we’re making the ascent, the boys looking back at us with big grins because they know how much I am about to scream. Most people are putting their arms up high in the air, getting ready for the zip, but I clutch the bar instead. This is only my second roller coaster ride, after all.

At the very top is a sign that reads “Absolutely No Standing,” and I barely have time to wonder why in the world they would need that sign before we are careening down the steep wooden coaster and I am screaming like a little girl.

Unlike the little girl sitting next to me. She barely makes a peep, just flings her arms around and looks at me once in a while to see how I’m doing.

I wonder for a minute why I do this to myself.

Why we do this to ourselves.

What is it about adrenaline that is so addicting?

Oh, right, it’s a brain-thing.

As we zip around the corners and I hear the wheels crunching and turning, I’m proud of myself for getting on. For allowing myself to be buckled in. For choosing to feel like my stomach was going to fly out of my mouth.

Because they’d begged me to go on the ride, and I knew for some reason this was important to them. They wanted to share the fun with me, I think, and a little bit of them wanted to hear me freak.

But it had a little bit to do with love, too.

I’ve been thinking about love a lot these days, as I ponder how best to love my family after I move, how to be a good friend, how to care for my students. This might sound far-fetched, but I was loving those kids by getting on that ride.

I was telling them making them happy was more important to me than not dying.

I was telling them that making myself uncomfortable was worth seeing joy in their eyes.

And most of all, I was showing them that sometimes you do things you wouldn’t normally do because you care.

I’m sure they aren’t thinking about this stuff at all – that they are just glad they’d convinced me to get in line and that there’s no turning back now.

But I still want to show them what it looks like to stare an old wooden roller coaster in the rickety rails and say:

Bring it.

It brings it. My ponytail falls out and my hair’s flying and we all stagger a little bit when we get off.

I didn’t die.

She looks at me with her big eyes and says, “Okay, now I really have to go to the bathroom.”

Lost Letter

photo 1I found it a few days ago, tucked into a book as an impromptu marker. I’d used one of my favorite notecards and I remember writing the letter in February, sitting in the little white chair in my bedroom.

I’d meant to send it, like any letter, but somehow it’s been hidden for the past five months.

I toyed with sending it now, but my curiosity got the better of me. I tore it open, read the words I’d meant for a friend. A time capsule, this letter that was never meant for my June-self, contained not only comfort, but truth.

I had no idea the difficult conversations I’d be having over the next few weeks, nor the “change” (really, changes) I felt coming. All I knew was what I read, what I felt, and how beautifully scripture pairs with Mary Oliver in a handwritten letter.

“For I am the Lord your God,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar –
The Lord of hosts is his name.
I have put my words in your mouth,
and hidden you in the shadow of my hand.”
-Isaiah 51:16

Dear K,

This was part of my Lenten devotional – good ol’ Henri Nouwen! – and it struck me for a few reasons. The biggest one, though, is that God’s words fill our mouths – God fills our mouths with his words. There is so much power in that but the number of times I do not feel God’s words coming out of my mouth would seem to disprove this fact. So in those moments when we are most afraid, most vulnerable, most ready to throw our hands up and despair, that is when the power of God’s Word (God’s words) can lift us out of ourselves.

But hand-in-hand with this power is God’s protection. I think it was this combination of truths that brought this verse so deeply into my heart. Because as little as I feel God’s strength and power within me, I would say I feel his protection even less. Sometimes I feel I march through the gates of whatever “righteous” battle I’m waging at the time, but despite God’s power, I am left unprotected, easily hurt, and most often very confused.

I think perhaps there is a little bit of your New York in that: full of strength in the beginning, a sense of extreme vulnerability, and a feeling of no protection afterwards.

I feel on the cusp of some “great change,” and I don’t necessarily mean factual, physical, geographical. I think this Lenten season holds a mystery for my discovery, and when I woke up and read my devotional, writing to you became the first step in that pursuit of quiet, of rest, of opening up to hear God speak.

Morning Poem
by Mary Oliver

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches –
and the ponds appear

like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead – 
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging  – 

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted – 

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
wether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

Love,
Catherine

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The Commencement Address I Didn’t Give

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Today as I sat at my students’ high school graduation, I thought: I hope I never have to give a commencement address.

It doesn’t matter how engaging the speaker, how moving his or her message. Really, what we want to see is that student’s name called, watch her walk across the stage, get the diploma, move her tassel to the left, and throw her cap in the air.

We want to witness that smile that can’t be stopped because the work is done. Finally.

Only so much wisdom can be digested in moments of anticipation.

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This was the fifth graduation I’ve been a part of – whether as a student or as a faculty member – and I remembered my own high school graduation. Eight years ago.

I remember singing a song that was entirely inappropriate for a graduation because I’d been asked to sing and I didn’t have a lot of repertoire.

No one wants to hear “Pur di cesti, o bocca bella” when their children receive their diplomas.

And I have yet to see a flattering mid-singing photograph.

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I remember the strangest things about that day. I remember being so happy, driving my bug with the top down. I remember crunching a row of baby turtles on my way to school and crying because I couldn’t believe I’d been so careless.

I remember hardly believing high school was over and I remember being terrified of what September would bring.

I remember eating a celebratory lunch at Striper’s restaurant and overlooking the river.

But mostly, I remember feeling very grown up.

~     ~     ~

I don’t think I will ever be asked to give a commencement address. I’m more of the pep-talk teacher, the one who encourages in one-on-one conversations.

But if I did give one?

If I did try in ten minutes to bestow some sort of wisdom on young minds which couldn’t bear to handle one more ounce of wisdom?

I’d probably say the following:

Chill out. Please.

I know you think you are grown up. And you are, sort of. But not really. And by the way, I haven’t met many people who feel it and are.

I know you feel sexy in those five-inch heels, but trust me, you look far more elegant in flats and confidence.

People tell you “don’t have any regrets.” I tried that – I tried living in a place of denial, in a place that said, “I did everything right and I wouldn’t change a moment.” This place does not really exist. You will have regrets. It’s about what you do with that regret that matters.

You are full of ideas and dreams and expectations. (I still am – I hope I always am.) But wait. You might study music and never sing at the MET. You might get your dream job and loathe your existence. It might end up that college isn’t the road you should take. Don’t be embarrassed that you were wrong. Embrace the second chance.

Do not be surprised when you learn the same lesson twice. Or three times. Do not think you are dumb or naive. Sometimes it takes more than one experience to hammer in a new idea, a fresh lesson in growth. Let yourself be imperfect, but don’t let yourself stay exactly the same imperfect.

And this one might be the most important:

Choose without knowing the future. Take action without waiting for lightning. Make the best possible decision with the knowledge you have, and when you look back, give yourself grace. Do not chastise your past self for making the best possible choice with limited sight. This will paralyze you.

~     ~     ~

In May of 2016, I will walk across the stage and receive my Master’s diploma. There will be a commencement address. I will try to listen. I will strain forward or sit back with the ease of taking it in.

But my mind will be filled with life – my past, my future – and most likely, I will be feeling exactly the way my seniors did today: excited, a little afraid, but mostly hopeful.

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An Offering

IMG_1467I am walking along roads I know well – well enough to anticipate dips and turns without thinking. I am walking in the slanted light of morning, and the air smells like spring.

I pass an older woman in purple slacks. She carries a purse, so I know she isn’t out on a leisurely stroll like I am. She has a purpose, a place. I have a purpose too, but it’s not quite so tangible.

There aren’t many places I feel closer to God than when I am walking. Walks are my response to uncertainty, to fear, to wrestling. I walked around and around on 9/11, and again the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. I walked as graduation approached and I mourned the loss of my little life at college, and I walked the day I realized I would not be able to take that job with AmeriCorps back in 2012.

As I go, I talk to God. I slip in and out of actual conversation with him and conversations with others in my life. I shape thoughts and how I feel and how best to convey these things to other people. But God listens the whole time, and I feel his shaping of my words, too.

I stop by the stream and sit on the crooked cement slab, watching the water flow from under the road. It foams and swirls and swirls together, one floating foam into another, until they converge and slip over the rocks and down the stream.

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I think about how we are all “others” and how this is scary.

That seeing and accepting another’s otherness is what community is about.

No one drives by to see me in my striped hoody by the stream, and I know what waits for me on my return home: Bonhoeffer and YA literature, a couch made soft with blankets and the sound of the neighbor children racing their bikes in the street.

I sit for a moment longer, and I want to sing to the Lord. I want to sing a song of trust and faith, a faith that covers and holds up all the brokenness and sadness I sometimes feel.

I want to sing, but no song comes. I wait. I am open.

I want to sing.

But there, by the stream on that quiet road, with birds chirping in the weeping willow, no song comes.

At first, I am concerned. Where is my song? I want to have an offering, but my hands – my throat – are empty.

And then I think that maybe my offering is too much me and not enough listening.

Too much sound and not enough quiet.

Too much struggling for answers and not enough allowance of questions.

And so I sit a moment longer, get up, walk home.

An offering of listening.

Two Months Out

It’s only a hiatus from home, and that’s okay. Living with an old college roommate is even better when you both have a job. There’s a lot of freedom in a paycheck; you can buy as much whole bean coffee as you want, and inviting friends over for dinner goes a lot further than constantly eating out. This time we haven’t encountered any gigantic bugs, and there’s nothing like that first day in a foreign country.

It helps that we learned our rhythms in Austria. I wonder if studying abroad makes you more open.

This was only a short month ago. I tried to focus on the sunset, but really all I saw was the snow.

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We have simple tastes, but they’re good: dark chocolate, red wine, peanut butter, oatmeal, apples, bananas, bacon and eggs.

We sit laughing after dinner because we’re weird and things are funny, but maybe not that funny. We wonder if there can be such giggling with men? When you’re married, do you laugh this much?

On Sunday, we walked in the second day of sunshine. We read a poem in the cemetery and openly told my brother later, just so he would make fun of us. German sounds good in a graveyard, and Rilke’s Elegies leave so much to discover, even if you read them over and over. This one leaves me sad with unnamed darkness.

We made chili with hot sauce and cheddar cheese. I wish I could say I’ve become a serious Betty Crocker.

Not the case.

But I have made a stir fry – jointly and imaginatively – and I have mastered the art of steel cut oats in the morning.

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Last night, after work, I threw on jeans and a hoodie. I needed a book for class (reading Avi for Adolescent Lit…), so I walked to the library. The sun was setting and there was baseball practice on the common. The boys were shouting but the fathers shouted louder. A little girl scootered right up to me (scooter is a verb, right?), and it was my landlord’s daughter. She wore a tank top in honor of the warmish weather, and she, her brother, and the neighbor girl were adorable in their desire to talk.

I got my book at the library, walked around town, and down the street that goes over the stream. I threw a stick in the stream, wanted to see a muskrat but didn’t, and then I saw them – three children on various moving toys – barreling towards me. A post-dinner walk with the family and dog, and I loved that for a few moments we could talk reading, soccer, and school.

In a few weeks, I’ll move back home. Spring will be well underway and we’ll put the seedlings in the ground. We’ll have dinner on the porch and play cribbage. I’ll be working towards summer and babysitting and ESL.

But for right now, I’m enjoying this little place and its two twin beds across from each other.

A Thank You Note

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I’m standing in a living room filled with fancy strangers. I’m wearing my new black dress and a string of pearls. I’m standing in the rosy-soft lighting, and I’m about to sing. I’d been asked to perform at a fundraiser for a local theater company, and as I look out at the faces I don’t know and the few I do, I wait to sing.

~     ~     ~

The day before, I sat at the piano teaching a voice lesson, and I was trying to get my student to become the character. She was singing Eponine’s “On My Own,” and I kept asking her questions, trying to pull the character out of her imagination instead of handing it to her from mine.

What are you thinking about?
Why are you singing?
Are you sad? Angry? Lonely? Anxious? Disappointed?
WHY ARE YOU SINGING?

She was a good sport, my student, and she started to craft her character. It was harder to get her to open her mouth, though, to support the higher notes, to let go of her fear.

I said, “You’ve got to just trust yourself. Just let it out. Think about Eponine and her feelings, not the note or the pitch. Just sing the story.”

And it hit me – right there in the tiny practice room with the twinkly Christmas lights and art I’d hung on the walls in September – that I’m a little bit of a hypocrite. I’m pretty good at encouraging other people; I see their potential and I push them and help them and tell them not to give up. There are times, maybe, when I push too hard, but more often than not, I’m right and they can.

Then there’s me. There are the nerves that I haven’t felt since early college right before a performance. There’s the fear that I’ll mess up, and – because everyone knows I studied voice in college – the judgement will be harsher, sharper, like a final indictment.

I pushed my student to embrace her character and let go of her fear, and I sat on the piano stool clutching to mine.

My student looked me in the eye, shook her head with determination, and sang through the entire song. I sat there, listening, but also a little bit ashamed.

I’d be singing this same song the next day, but would I be able to sing the story? Would I be able to get over myself? Would my student be proud of me? Or would she wonder where I got off, chastising her for not having courage while I floundered exactly the same way?

When she stopped singing and stood there for a moment in silence, the last moments as Eponine, I saw on her face a little hint of transformation.

“Beautiful,” I said, quietly, because both of us know that we get emotional when we sing this song.

“Beautiful,” I said, because there was a part of me that envied this 8th grade singer who is slowly discovering her voice.

~     ~     ~

As I start to sing, I know I am too quiet, and that I’m letting my fear take a stranglehold on my voice. I release. I open up. I become Eponine. For me, though, this is a tricky balancing act . So often becoming a character leads to too-strong emotion, and there is nothing worse than a performer experiencing deeper emotion than the audience. I become Eponine, but I restrain myself. I feel her pain but at a distance. I see the hopes and dreams of lights on the river and mist and moonlight, but I do not let myself settle in too comfortably.

I forget a few words but it’s okay because I sustain one word through the line and it’s smooth enough and maybe two people realize.

And as I get to the last page of the music, the part where she’s lonely and broken and loving emptily, I take my time. Because that’s what it’s all about, really, taking time. Resting in silence and resting in the soft suspension of song.

As I stand for a brief moment as the piano finishes and I release Eponine into the room and out of myself, I wish my student were sitting there, just so she could see what a work she has done in me.

Henri Nouwen and a Broken Lent

I begin the Lenten season with gusto. Perhaps gusto is not the right word, because it’s more like a settling in – a settling into the rhythms of 5:30AM and Henri Nouwen and prayer. I am not so good at this getting up and reading. My eyes cross. The words bleed together and I struggle to read through again, hoping this time to catch the nuance, the challenge, the peace.

I attempt to bring some of this contemplation, this observation, to my 8th grade homeroom. They get better at listening and at least looking at me as I try to spin words that reach them. Prayer requests usually revolve around upcoming tests, but once in awhile, I am struck by their depth of care for this hurting world.

We drive home from Maine and the sun is bright pink and as I catch it between the metal arms of the bridge, I feel sadness. Sunday is over, the next week spreads before me, and I focus more on the setting of the sun than the the brilliance of it against the gray sky.

I take a picture.

photo

It doesn’t even begin to capture the beauty, and I wish for once I could bask in glory instead of mourn an ending.

I hear stories of birth – moments that should be joy and laughter – but instead end in deep pain. But Miss Hawkins, I didn’t think that happened anymore. I didn’t think mothers died. But they do and they leave behind babies and husbands and mourners on multiple continents.

I try to navigate being a Christ-follower and being a student-leader and the sometimes waking in the middle of the night with the secret voice that says Just run. Nobody needs you anyway. Italy still looks good, and think of the writing you could do. You’ll never save all of them, so run away and stop trying.

Then I wake up at 5:30. I grind the coffee beans, put the tea kettle on, settle in under my nine-patch quilt.

I read Henri Nouwen, a passage from the Bible, a prayer. I tell God in full honesty that I do not know how anyone gets through this life without Him.

I drive to work in the sunlight across the marsh. I pour another cup of coffee from a co-worker’s ever-full coffeepot. I ask for prayer. I smile at everyone.

This, I guess, is the place I should be. This place of “What would I do without you, Lord?” I know that it is in this place that good work is done.

 

So many terrible things happen every day that we start wondering whether the few things we do ourselves make any sense…Here the word “call” becomes important. We are not called to save the world, solve all problems, and help all people. But we each have our own unique call, in our families, in our work, in our world. We have to keep asking God to help us see clearly what our call is and to give us the strength to live out that call with trust. Then we will discover that our faithfulness to a small task is the most healing response to the illnesses of our time.

– Henri Nouwen