Tag Archives: fear

The World by Alexandria

When I first watched The Fall it was October of 2011 and I was sitting in an upstairs apartment in the dark. My friends had recommended it highly and they sat next to me, across from me, eyes glued to the television. It was beautiful – the red sharp against the desert sand, the ocean a deep tropical blue-green, the feeling of a huge block of ice melting on your tongue.

My reaction to this movie is visceral. I’d rather not try to paraphrase it here – a string of words that means nothing if you haven’t seen it for yourself – but every time I watch the six-year-old Alexandria discover (yet again) that life is not perfect, that evil happens, and that people make the wrong choices every day, I am thrown into a pair of worn-out mary-janes and shocked by the very same things Alexandria cannot accept. The tears pouring down the rounded contours of her cheeks dampen the navy sweatshirt I’m wearing every time.

I watched The Fall again last week. I should’ve warned my friend how I react because I think it was surprising. What strikes me is that I’m not even sure the director or writer intend for me to view their film the way I do. God wasn’t in the picture for them, most likely, but that is what I see.

fall

 

As Roy tells Alexandria the fantastical story of bandits and adventure, he manipulates. He twists the story for his needs. He shakes morphine pills out of a plot line and uses a little girl’s devotion to alleviate his suffering. In the end, as he’s realizing the futility of his own life, he begins to destroy the world he’s built, and as each of the beloved characters dies, Alexandria becomes more and more outraged. Deeply angry, deeply sad, she cries out to him in both the story and real-life,

“This is my story too!”

the fall

She weeps for her friends in this false-reality, but I think she is also weeping for herself. For Roy and his brokenness. For her dead father. For all the things that happened but shouldn’t have, and for all the things that should’ve happened but never did.

All I can think as I am re-immersed in this story is that Alexandria is not alone in her sadness, her anger. When God watches what we’ve chosen, He feels something akin to it, I think.

This is not the way the world is supposed to be. I feel this way when I watch movies like The Fall, when I hear about typhoons in the Philippines, when I read about another gunman.

I feel this when I (yet again) choose comfort and ease over helping another. When I watch students I care about spiral down a path that can only lead to more wrong choices. When I try to love and can’t. When I remember the death of a boy I knew, a boy whose grin is still bright in my mind.

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I know that this might not be what the artists had in mind when they made The Fall. That’s the beauty of art, though, the grappling and insight that comes even when you don’t expect it. I’m grateful for the beauty they created, for the suffering they show, and for the reaction of a little girl who speaks for me in ways I’m not always able.

Good Things #22

Latin. I’ve only been teaching Latin for a year and half, but let me tell you, there are some pretty crazy things I’ve been learning. We had an event at school where parents and potential-parents of students could learn about classical education and what the heck are you doing over there, anyway? So for twenty minutes, I gave a “Welcome to Latin” class to adults – because let’s face it, lots of people wonder…

Here’s the thing: you should see how uncomfortable grown, successful adults become when asked to read a sentence in a language they don’t know.

I started by talking about SATs and the benefits of learning Latin for vocabulary and how Latin helps you learn other languages.

Here, look at our textbook. It’s so cool – it’s all Latin! Even my third graders start right here, page one (or seven, technically). Go ahead, read the first sentence.

Cricket.

I had to volunteer the only parent I recognized in the room. Let me say that the sentence was anything but complicated:

Roma in Italiā est.

(Oh my gosh I can’t believe I figured out how to include macrons in a blogpost!)

What do you think it means?

Yep, Rome is in Italy.

But you should’ve seen the trepidation in their eyes, the slowness in their speech. They looked up at me when they encountered a new word, and they were even less inclined to take a risk than their nine-year-old child.

I was struck tonight by our inhibitions.

We spend so much time trying to hide things that we stunt ourselves. Or, maybe I should say, I do. Or I did. Or I still do, but I’m getting better.

If I walked into an art class right now, I would hardly remember how a piece of charcoal feels in my hand. I’d be embarrassed by my lack of art vocabulary; I’d fear my fellow students’ critiquing eye and vast knowledge.

I’d look up at my teacher with eyes filled with questions, but the biggest one would be:

Can I do this?

That’s what I encounter every day. I’m learning slowly that teaching Latin is so much more than teaching declensions and conjugations, derivatives and study skills.

Really, it’s about answering that question. And hopefully as it gets answered more and more, and each time I’m proven right, my students will be able to stop asking it.

I’d love for the day to come when I don’t need anyone to tell me I can pick up watercolors and paint. I’d love to take a pottery class and create beautiful and useful things. I wish that, in this one lifetime I’ve been given, I could grow enough to stop asking the question.

Maybe someday instead of Can I do this?, I’ll start asking, What will I learn if I try?

What I’m working on right now? Learning to spin wool with a drop spindle (this procedure deserves its very own post). It’s taking longer than I ever expected, and I’m terrible. But I persevere, if only because I want a nice skein of yarn at the end of it.

Tonight, a few unsuspecting parents and I read a whole paragraph in Latin. Not everyone can say that.

[And here’s a song I’ve been loving.]

 

[Photo: Johnny Grim]

What Do You Want Your Story to Be?

I was addicted to stories. I devoured them, one after the other, bending and folding paperbacks with abandon, dog-earring corners, underlining words that were beautiful, words that were true. Young heroines like Emily of New Moon and Betsy from the Betsy-Tacy books taught me how to be spunky and creative. It wasn’t long before I was weaving plots for hours on a 1995 Gateway computer in my bedroom.

I remember wanting other kinds of stories, too. Sitting at the dinner table long after all the food was eaten, we’d beg my father to tell us stories about his childhood. (My mother’d always shake her head when we asked her, saying she didn’t have any stories. I still find this hard to believe.) Dad’s stories often involved fish, foolish things my dad had tried because he was “curious.” The time when he was three and took the goldfish out of the tank “to look at it” is a classic; I can still picture the poor thing gasping on the living room carpet, the victim of an over-active mind and not quite enough supervision.

My mother’s friend from college told us good stories, too. I remember most the one of her throwing cherry tomatoes over the railing and hitting guests. Oh, and the one with blood-engorged ticks (who could erase that memory?!). And the one when the dog ate rising bread dough and its stomach rose with it, waddling proof that dogs do not know what’s best for them.

I grew up on stories.

The voices brought people alive, my great-great-grandfather and his stern Maine-ness. My grandpa whom I’d known but only awhile, breathed again when we talked about his stories of growing up on a fox farm. As I listened and began to craft stories of my own, I realized that one day, I too would have stories to tell my children.

Chatham

What do you want your story to be?

[He asks from the pulpit, and I think, I’ve been thinking about this all along.]

When you write your story, think about how it affects others.

When you write your story, make it one you want to tell.

This is the one sentence that rang through the sanctuary, hanging in the air, making the skin on my arms prickle with its truth.

Even though I’ve discovered the repercussions of writing a life before living it, here I was reminded that sometimes we need to shape the life we’re given. Yes, things happen beyond our control, and yes, sometimes we ache from those uncontrollables. But more often than not, we have choice.

I get to choose what story I’m living, and I get to make it one I want to tell.

~     ~     ~

I will tell about early Christmas mornings, all four of us huddling in one bedroom because we wanted to share it that one day. The lights from the tree bouncing off the mirror in the hallway. About waiting for the cousins to come and longing for the day to never end. They will ask where our traditions come from, and I’ll smile and tell them the story.

I will tell about riding horses in the sun and feeling powerful.

I will tell about discovering Laura Ingalls for the first time, about raising chickens and gardening, the plethora of projects done in the name of sustainable living.

I will tell about late-night summer man-hunts when hormones ran rampant and we didn’t know what to do with them so we ran, too.

I will tell about choosing a college and not being sure but doing it anyway. I will tell about loneliness and fear, about trying hard and singing hard and learning. They will ask about friends and making friends, about trying to love. I’ll tell about walks around the pond where so much got twisted around and sorted out.

I will tell about graduating and reeling in my own mind. About disappointments and mis-steps that, while not destroying definitely left me feeling useless. About dark months in winter when I was learning to trust and hating every minute of it.

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And my most recent stories? They’ll include the discovery of joy. The summer we all lived at home again and spent our evenings on the back porch. Riding with the top down in my car, fearing the day when I’ll have to say goodbye to this lovely little bug that’s taken me so many places. Finding a church that allows me to be the silly, too-immature-for-small-group girl I sometimes am. Growing in friendships that have challenged me, shaped me, and made me think deeper than I ever could have thought on my own.

My story isn’t done, but I finally feel like I am choosing it.

Don’t Touch My Stuff!

I hate sharing.

I hate it like I hate getting up at the crack of dawn.

I hate it like I hate cleaning.

The other day, my brother looked at me and said, “You’re really bad at sharing.”

And I said, “Huh, yeah I am.”

It’s totally true. When I was little, I used to sell sticks of gum to my siblings. “That’ll be 25 cents,” I’d say, and the little naive things would do it because they trusted me. The beginnings of my entrepreneurship stirred even as my parents swiftly ended my first venture.

When whoever I’m with orders something, I get excited because I expect to get a taste. When they assume the same, however, reaching over for my glass/mug/plate, I feel a bristling: Excuse me? Can you ask?, and I wonder where I get off.

~     ~     ~

I started making excuses for myself: It’s because my siblings broke everything when I was little! All my dolls were ruined! We had to fight for the yummiest of everything! I blame my childhood for my current state!

My mom even agreed with me, saying that’s probably where my penurious ways stem from. And I placate myself by saying that I give to my church, I even sponsor a child in India, for goodness sake!

But I have a hard time with the little things, like paying for someone’s coffee or ice cream or movie ticket. I never even THINK to offer these things, and I’m shocked when someone says to me, “Oh, I got this.” I wonder when they’ll expect me to pay them back, and I keep a tally in my head of how much I owe.

Generosity goes beyond money. Am I generous with my time? Yes, far more so than with my things. I am much more likely to make time in my week to see a friend than I am to buy someone a gift. You need help with something? I love helping. You want me to buy you gas? That one’s a little tougher.

I must be afraid of something. Afraid of being taken advantage of. Afraid of getting less than my share.

Maybe it’s about trust.

I want a generous spirit. I want to hold my hands open to those I love, as well as to my church and others in need. I’m sitting at a coffee shop right now, and I’m wondering why I didn’t offer to buy my friend’s coffee. Maybe that’s where it starts? Unsolicited moments of generosity.

Maybe you can train yourself to being generous?

Has someone ever taught you something about yourself? If it was a flaw, how are you working to grow?

Good Things #8: Willing to be Dazzled

[I wrote this post as part of the Love Yourself link-up started by my friend, Anne. It goes beyond loving yourself – it starts by allowing things to dazzle you, and then, maybe, you will dazzle yourself.]

I am sitting at a round wooden picnic table. The sun is blaring hot and it isn’t even 9:00 in the morning. The beach is quiet today after a people-packed weekend – there isn’t a single person on the sand.

For my beach read this summer, I packed Bridget Jones’s Diary. I’ve never read it before, even though I’ve seen the movie, and I thought it was a pretty light book for the ocean. Poor Bridget. I sometimes see myself in her, but most of the time I just wonder: What were you thinking?!

I also brought along some Mary Oliver. My first impression of her was not so grand; nature poets don’t hold my attention as much as they should, perhaps. But every now and then I come across a gem, a piece of honest beauty.

Still, what I want in my life

is to be willing

to be dazzled –

to cast aside the weight of facts

 

and maybe even

to float a little

above this difficult world.

I want to believe I am looking

 

into the white fire of a great mystery.

– The Ponds

This hit me in a gentle strong way. Maybe I can’t help having moments of darkness, but perhaps they are made darker by my unwillingness to be dazzled. Maybe it is this small, simple thing that makes life sharp and pulsing.

Maybe it’s this willingness that sets people apart.

The sun is hot as blazes on my right arm. I’m already sweating. But the sea is sparkling in the light, the grasses on the dunes are waving in the breeze, and there is a calmness to the air that settles me.

Shift your focus and you see differently.

The thing is, not everyone can do that. Or at least, not without help. There have been times when I’ve looked at something straight on, I have known that it is beautiful and good, but I’ve not been able to see it. I’ve known but not experienced. I’ve touched but not tasted.

A lot changes when, for a few months, you think maybe your life will never be the same. Maybe, in fact, it’s almost over. You know you are dramatic, but you also know that no one is above dying.

And later, a year later, you are digging a hole in your garden, in which you will sink a spidery rosemary plant, and you look at your arms and marvel at their strength, at even the swinging motion it takes to dig.

One day, you are driving, and you look at your hand on the steering wheel and think, This is my hand. It is no one else’s. And that is shocking to you.

You see, for the first time, really, the sharpness of green grass against blue sky, and you wonder how you looked at the same landscape for the past twenty years but never really saw.

It is perhaps the first time in your life you can honestly say:

I have rejoiced in my suffering. I have praised God for my discomfort. I have been made weak that His strength would show.

That is how I am willing to be dazzled.

[On Going Back]

We all say the same thing: It’s a flash

and slug.

 

You can’t wrap up time in a pink box

and raise it high in definition. You can’t seal

an envelope with a slow, deliberate lick –

explain the work and love, hate and despair

of four years.

 

What do you say to two shining faces

that’s honest, loving, real?

 

Sometimes, I would forsake all the settledness

I’ve uncovered in these two stretched years

for one day surrounded by the me and yous

of that place.

 

Ponds are dark even when they’re shallow.

The paths around them hold every word

whispered, shouted, proclaimed

until you wonder if the very gravel

has ears.

 

So I tell them: Sometimes, I would forsake

all the settledness I’ve uncovered.

 

Mostly, though, I look with gentleness

at those long-tough times, and I praise God

for not giving me the choice.

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Practicing Fearlessness

Every time I head for my first class after the weekend, I get a little hiccup of fear.

What if I forgot how to teach?

What if the weekend gnomes ferreted away any knowledge or skill I had, and I’m about to walk into a classroom filled with expectant children, and I’ll have nothing to offer them?

I go through this nearly every week. It’s ebbed a little since the fall, as I’ve gained experience and more confidence, but it’s still there. Every week I feel this bizarre fear, and every week I teach my classes. My teaching ability doesn’t seem to atrophy over the weekend, but still, I feel it.

This past week was April vacation, so you can imagine how large this irrational fear has grown in anticipation of Monday.

I can only imagine what it will be like in September, after a glorious summer!

~     ~      ~

Fear has immobilized me before.

I let a chick drown when I was eight because I was too afraid to reach and scoop its down-covered body from the water.

When I was nine, I stood screaming while a dog attacked my hens, tearing at them with his hunters’ teeth.

I felt small and insignificant and stupid when I walked by Richdale. I was in middle school and the boys hanging outside Richdale were in middle school and it was terrible.

When I was sixteen, I wouldn’t dance. My fear of looking foolish – of not knowing how – pinned me to the edge of the dance floor. I watched them spin and laugh and flap their arms and I was filled with envy for their freedom. I had the courage to wear a polkadot dress, but not to let the skirt swirl around me while I shimmied.

~     ~     ~

I was short with my mother as I moved quickly through the house. Throwing stuff in my purse, brushing my hair, making sure I still had money on my Charlie card.

“Do you want me to drive you in?”

No, no I don’t, because I am seized with fear and I can’t be.

Because I’ve worked too hard not to make choices based on this darkness, and I can’t stop now. Because my friend lives there – daily she has seen the results – and I am a child protected by distance and trees.

Because there is a concert I bought tickets for, and I am going.

I got on the train, settled into the seat, and breathed deeply.

The Best Problem

I walked out in the hushed darkness, ready to give my director’s speech. Your children are wonderful. This show is a blast. Thank you, thank you.

But before I could open my mouth, a rush of children flooded the stage, the piano started, and the lights went up. I looked around me, decided “how could I stop this, anyway?” and ran off stage like a frightened child.

Opening night couldn’t have started any better. They were too excited to wait for me. They ran onstage, their eyes shining, their carefully preened hair all done-up, and their songs as memorized as they’d ever be. I stood in the wings a moment to watch, and I looked at my assistant and said, “We did it!”

They did it.

Three shows, three nearly-full houses, and two long months of rehearsal. We taught them some valuable things:

  • Stage Left is actually on the director’s right, and Stage Right is actually on the director’s left
  • Upstage is towards the back, Downstage is towards the house (which is the audience!)
  • Talking about nervousness makes it worse! Don’t do it!

And, I think, the most important part of performing:

  • You are going to mess up. It’s going to happen. And it’s okay. You might forget a line or exactly which way you’re supposed to turn, and you’ll think quickly and keep going. No one will notice, and if they do, they certainly won’t care.

I believe in preparing children for the real stage, for the real world. For the way things are going to be.

That was the way things were. They did make some mistakes. I sat in the back – the proud director – and it was difficult for me not to laugh even harder at the mistakes. They were adorable, caring so deeply for this little show we’d worked so hard on. In the end, when I ran backstage and told them what a wonderful job they did, they glowed.

The second performance, I reminded them to let me give a speech before they ran onstage. They all stood back in the dark and watched me. I was pretty nervous about it, but every word out of my mouth was true, and real, and I meant it.

Your children are wonderful. Thank you for allowing us to work with them. I was supposed to give this speech last night, but their excitement wouldn’t let me. And that’s a wonderful problem to have.

I walked off stage as quickly as I could, and they all stared at me.

“Thank you,” one little girl said, “that was beautiful.”

As though she were shocked I had something so wonderful to say about her.

[They gave me a bouquet of flowers, a gift card, and a lovely little caricature of me and the cast to hang on my wall. I had been so afraid to take this surprise-job. Maybe learning on the job’s the way to go.]

[I might keep writing about this, just because there was so much good in it. Consider this the first installment.]

[Thoughts on Church From a Seasoned Veteran]

I remember sitting in English class in 9th grade and admitting to my teacher that I got most of my ideas for stories while sitting in church. I thought he’d be surprised, maybe shake his head a little, smiling, and tell me that church was for focusing on the Lord.

Instead, he laughed and said, “Me too! There’s just something about being surrounded by the body of Christ that fills me with creativity. Well, that, and when I can’t sleep at night.”

Church has always been a place of mixed emotions. When people ask me about my church life, I think of the little brown church on a busy street where I first encountered God and saw for the first time that God’s love spread even and especially to the disabled. This was also where I discovered music, and I remember counting the rectangular windows while we sang “How Great Thou Art.”

[I was both awed and confused by the extremely heavy vibrato behind me.]

This was also the first place I saw deep relationships destroyed, families betrayed by their own, young children crushed by the meanness of others. I wasn’t exempt from it, either –  I think I may have indeed been one of the mean ones, struggling desperately not to be labeled as “weird” or “different.” There isn’t much worse than this when you’re seven years old.

The next church I think of is the old white church on Main Street, with its green steeple and gravel driveway. I think of Joy Club and youth group and Vacation Bible School. Long Sunday afternoons when we all would play volleyball til our knees were scraped up from diving, and excursions for barbecue down the road when all we thought about was laughing and wiffle ball and perhaps that tiny worry that:

Jesus didn’t mean as much to us as he was supposed to.

This was around the time I started writing in church. Usually it was in my head, long, terrible plot-lines that always involved heroic orphan-girls and handsome boys who lived “in town.” One time I scribbled a slightly-scandalous outline for a story on the back of an offertory envelope; it involved two members of the congregation, and I surely should have been more careful. I did try to pay attention. I succeeded, often. But like my English teacher said, “There’s just something about being surrounded by the body of Christ.” I felt a well of anticipation and ideas whirling around.

[I hopped around from church to church, staying a week, a month, a season. College was too complicated and they demanded too much: “Ministries! Use your gifts! Vocation! Sing! Youth Group! Sunday School!”, so I ran away.]

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[St. Peter’s Church in Salzburg]

I worshipped with my new church on Easter Sunday. It wasn’t what I was used to. In order to worship together in one service, we had to move to the local high school, and suddenly it felt more like a show than church. I was surprised because that’s not how Sunday mornings usually feel here, but I closed my eyes and willed myself to be open.

I have so many set ideas of the way things should be and all too often I let those ideas destroy moments that shouldn’t be destroyed.

So I sang with all my might: “Low in the Grave He Lay,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “In Christ Alone.” The hymns were the same, even if there was suddenly a screen above the pastor. The smiling faces around me were the same as most Sundays. I was grateful to have my family with me, to worship alongside them like we did when were little. I was grateful that God has kept me close to Him, even when church has been such a place of mixed things.

I am slowly getting more involved, with my feet only slightly dragging behind me. There is so much history between me and church, but that’s true of anyone who’s stuck it out and been part of the worshipping church. You can’t take Christ and leave the Church, or at least, I can’t justify it, as much as I’ve tried. Christ came to redeem people, and it’s people that make the Church so difficult.

All I can do is try to be one of the people who makes it a better example of the Kingdom.

6 Steps to Getting Catherine to Apply to Grad School

1. Remind her how much she loves writing. And tell her often, because children and Latin and studying and even good movies can get in the way.

2. Let her know the possibilities it would open up. College professor (because yes, an MFA is a terminal degree). Literary Journal editor (because that would be a lot more engaging than book publishing). Networking (because this is the 21st century and it’s all about who you know).

3. Give her an encouraging and challenging writers’ group. Fill it with smart-thinking, intelligent, well-read people. Make sure they don’t let her get away with anything. Especially heavy-handed sentimentalism.

4. Remind her that she sifts through life with writer’s eyes. This is kind of vital. She’s a singer too, definitely, but it’s with a writer’s mind that she experiences life. Stories. It’s stories that she sings and stories that she writes.

5. Give her professors who care enough to grab coffee and chat. Even after graduation. These people will be vital to making it all feel possible.

6. And parents who think she has something worth sharing. It all started with this one.

March 1st. It came a little too quickly.

I sat staring at the screen until I realized: I could do this forever. Til I die. I would never be satisfied with this application.

So I printed them out, ten whole poems that each were a different part of me. I wrote a personal essay on why I write, why I want to get my Master of Fine Arts, and what I need to learn. I wrote a critical essay dissecting a poem that I have loved dearly since high school (and, consequently, it has come to mean many different things over the years). I ran out during break, over-nighted the hefty sucker, and went back to finish teaching. I was pleased with how easily I fit right back in; I barely thought about the fact that I COULD NOT MAKE ONE MORE CHANGE – it was all done.

Now it’s all about waiting. A few more weeks, they tell me. What if I don’t get in?

Well, there’s plenty of room for assuming I won’t. These are pretty competitive programs, and the thing about all this is yes, it is about talent and ability, but it’s a lot about luck too. Who’s reading my stuff? Will it resonate with that particular person? Cause if not, it’s in the rejection pile I go.

If I don’t get in, I’ll be fine. Probably start a Master’s in Education. Keep teaching Latin. One of the reasons I’m glad I waited a year to apply is that I feel like I’m approaching it with a little more level-headedness; I either get in or I don’t. The only control I had was in preparing the best possible material, and I always have the option of:

Try again next year.