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
every morning,

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


photo 4

Things I’ll Miss


I spent the last three months in a house with wind chimes. I woke up in the middle of the night to the music of them in the breeze, and there was an eeriness to it. I had to grow accustomed to its sound.

But I did grow accustomed, and soon I will miss the music of wind in glass.

I have never awaited summer with less anticipation.

[She hugs me, tucking her head in like a child, and her face is red. “It’s just hitting me now,” she sobs into my shoulder, “everyone is leaving.” I take her hand and say, “I know this is hard, I know. But you’re going to have a wonderful summer, and next year, the first day of school will be just as exciting and fun as every other first day of school. It’s just hard right now.” And I try to get her to act – to put on the performing persona she does so well in homeroom – but the pictures are proof that hiding pain only works for so long.]

Good evening, my name is Catherine Hawkins, and I am an Upper School Latin teacher.

I hand out awards one after the other. I try to speak slowly because I rush when I want to be done. I pass out two Perfect Scores on the National Latin Exam; I clap for a row of students so long it has to loop around the stage.

I jump into a class photograph – right in the middle – but I do not tear up once the entire evening.

Someone has to hold it together.

And we all know Jim wouldn’t be able to [cough, cough, no-emotion-man].

I have never awaited summer with less anticipation.

[“Magistra, I will spit out my gum every morning at my new school in honor of you.”]

photo 2

I packed up my room. It is hideous and you would never imagine such learning and fun and difficult conversations happened here.

I am not even leaving forever – I’ll be back in September – but there is something about this year that was precious to me. Too dear, maybe, in a way that could not be sustained.

Good thing I have a good memory. Good thing they have left me better than the way they found me.

~     ~     ~

The past few months, I have questioned my work in a way I have never done before.

Is it valuable?
Is it challenging enough?
Is it the easy way out?
Is it glorifying to God?

This past week, tear-stained cheeks, awkward middle school goodbyes, and a gift I will proudly hang on my wall prove that this is valuable work I do.

[“Catherine, he’s been working all day to make you something special.”]

photo 1

I grew accustomed to saying the same few names over and over in class: Refocus. You need your textbook, not your workbook. Sit down. That’s hilarious, but NEVER DO IT AGAIN.

I grew accustomed to these faces, these voices, these antics that – on my more tired days – were not quite as endearing as they’d hoped.

I grew accustomed to being their Magistra, but now, as many of them move on, I will forever be their Swagistra.

[Photo: Rie H]

The Commencement Address I Didn’t Give


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.


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.


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.


Flat Magistra Goes to D.C.


So I’ve been a little busy chaperoning my 8th graders’ D.C. trip.IMG_3129


I haven’t been answering my emails.


I’m loving this spring weather. And eating at a restaurant right next to where Lincoln was shot.


I have a thousand text messages, but I’m just too busy checking out national monuments to reply.

IMG_3280 IMG_3282My coworker loves showing me around. We’re really bonding.IMG_3147And I’ve been eating super healthy on this trip. I’m determined to come back thinner than ever.


The kids are getting a little tired of looking at my pigtails that look like piglet-ears from Winnie the Pooh, but I forgot a hairbrush, so they’ll have to do.
IMG_3138I’m Jim’s righthand-man, and he loves posing for pictures with me. I’m the bad-cop in our co-teacher relationship: “You’re out of dress code! Spit out that gum! You’re late for homeroom again! Give me your cell phone!”

IMG_3140All these 8th graders really know how to brighten my day. There isn’t a moment when I’m not wearing the same exact smile on my face this entire trip.

IMG_3158So, if you’re looking for me, I’m a little busy hanging with the coolest almost-high-schoolers ever.

[Fear not – permission was obtained before posting these pictures.]

Lemongrass and Music


You’ve got to do things that make you happy, Cath. It’s okay to take care of yourself.

So I brew lemongrass-ginger tea in my little brown teapot.

I curl up on the couch and knit a blue sweater with white whales on it.

I ask for book suggestions on the sovereignty of God, on the unknown. I start to read Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God, Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, A. W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy. There is comfort in these words.

I journal in haphazard ways, round and around with no goal. I think about making sure I burn all my journals before I die.

I sit beside my roommate as she sings me this song. I sit and look out the window while she plays the guitar.

I buy a few too many dresses for the weddings and other occasions this summer. I wear the mint-green one to work.

I drive with the top down and feel the sun on my winter-skin.

I listen to all the music I love: The Lone Bellow, Ivan and Alyosha, Ray LaMontagne, Josh Garrells.

I sit at the piano and play hymns. We used to sing them with my great-grandmother in the living room, and now they are as much a balm to my soul as they are an offering to the Lord.

I preoccupy myself with apartment searching. I go a little crazy, a little manic. I apologize to my friends profusely, but it pays off. September first will find us moving into a city-apartment that I never thought we’d find.

I re-read old poems, old blog entries. My past self speaks to my present self, and I try to believe her and not feel like I’ve let her down.

I sit by the lake and sip a Dunkin iced coffee. My feet dangle like I am happy, but really it’s just because I’m short.

I imagine teaching my new courses next year. I make a list of books to read, activities to do. And then I stop when this feels overwhelming.

I think about our annual trip to the Cape and the ocean and the fact that the ocean is still there.

It’s been there all along.

So I do these things that make me happy, and I practice patience and trust. Risk involves not knowing what will happen, I know this. Time will tell, they say, and it will.

Give thanks in all circumstances. Like I wrote almost a year-and-a-half ago, we do not know how to praise God because we do not know all that he has spared us from.

Dry Bones

11370681625_89acf77bfa_oWe are sitting in the darkness of a church I don’t attend. We sit silently, and it is now that I feel communion – we do not need to talk, we only need to be.

Scripture after scripture goes by, and the candles are lit slowly, the light progressing through the sanctuary. I am restful, but my skin prickles with anticipation: with the light comes the end of darkness, and I wait.

It comes, as I knew it would, because that is the beauty of the liturgy.

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

Tears spring to my eyes. I listen as the familiar words are read, and I think back to the winter of darkness when my friend said over the phone, “Cath, you know that dry bones passage in Ezekiel? I can’t get it out of my mind.” And I remember reading it after we hung up and being caught up in the redemption of Israel.

The redemption of all Creation.

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”


All I can think about is how bizarre it is that God should choose to breathe life into my dry bones.

He does choose to, though; once, at a specific moment in history, and again, daily, hourly, every moment. As He chooses to breathe life into me, I become more and more my Creator’s creature.

The real man is at liberty to be his Creator’s creature. To be conformed with the Incarnate is to have the right to be the man one really is. Now there is no more pretense, no more hypocrisy or self-violence, no more compulsion to be something other, better and more ideal than what one is. God loves the real man. God became a real man.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

This passage reverberates in my brain, and I feel released from the pressure to reach perfection. God loves the real man. Now there is no more reason for self-violence, for self-hatred, for shame.

And I raise my hands in song. I open them with gratitude.

2322385287_affab4fe5b_oSo I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Most of the time, I interpret myself into those dry bones. It is my brokenness that is healed. It is my redemption I see.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

For the first time, though, I wonder what it would be like to be Ezekiel. To hear from the Lord this impossible command: Prophesy to these dry bones!

I’m sorry, Lord, but that’s crazy.

There is no redemption here.

There is no hope.

I know what the possibilities are, and life is not one of them.

 “I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life...Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

Lord, do you know what you’re saying? These people, this person, this situation, this destruction cannot be redeemed.

It is broken beyond repair. The bones are dry.

I cannot prophesy because I do not believe.

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.  I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

How can Ezekiel believe that God would revive the brokenness of Israel? His belief is just as unfathomable to me as the sinews and tendons stretching over these newly formed bodies.

I am as in awe of Ezekiel’s faith as I am of the living and breathing bones.

Not only am I walking, breathing evidence of God’s redemption, but I am called to be Ezekiel.

I am called to speak hope.

I am called to look at the dry bones in my life — in the world — and speak truth over them.

I am both the dry bones redeemed and the bringer of the news of redemption.

Lord, help my unbelief.


[Scripture from Ezekiel 37:1-14]

[Painting: Leptit Monde]

[Photo: Anjan Chatterjee]

[Photo: Bill Liao]

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.


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.

photo 2

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.

photo 4

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

Image 7

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?

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.


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