Thursday, October 27, 2011

Home Sweet Homecoming

October 20. The window panes are cold. My fingers trace ridges and valleys across the dark glass, trying to remember the architecture of the mountains we saw yesterday. Tired and peaceful, I think that tonight could almost be a college night. After a long day on campus, we lingered over a late supper, and now I am working at the computer late at night, a marked-up manuscript on the desk beside me. Lauren and Charlie are just across the hall; Emily and Kevin could hear me if I called their names. Tomorrow we'll meet Eric at First Baptist for church, and Jeremy might join us for lunch afterward.

It could almost be home. The familiarity of this night, this place, is bewildering and consoling all at once because tonight is not, after all, a college night. We are all nearer twenty-eight than eighteen, and instead of a dorm, Kevin and Emily's house is our gathering place. Sharing a meal with these friends is no longer a common joy, but a rare event--it has been years since we were gathered around one table, and it may be years before it happens again. This is not home, but homecoming.

My dear friends Dave and Mandy live here in our college town, and on one wall of their living room, they have painted the words "Home is..." in large letters.  They and their friends have written other words and phrases to complete this sentence all around the wall, and Saturday was my turn. I contributed a curious line from George MacDonald's Lilith.  "Home," I wrote, "is ever so far away in the palm of your hand."

This is the paradox of homecoming. We return to a place and a time that was home, traveling across memory, miles, or both, but we know we have not come to stay.

 Walking in the shadows of familiar buildings on Saturday, I began to catalog all the friends I would need to see walking to the cafeteria, or perhaps headed towards the dorms, before I would feel that I had really come home. This was not mere nostalgia; I don't wish I were eighteen or twenty-two again, and I would not come home, even to my beloved college, to meet my friends unchanged. I want a more-than-Facebook vision of the people they have become, with real voices telling stories about work and ideas and families. I want hugs and handshakes and looking-in-the-eye. I imagined all these friends gathered around Kevin and Emily's dining room table, but even as I indulged in my fantasies of reunion, I could not ignore the distances that were keeping us apart.  For some of the friends who once made Carson-Newman home, finances, jobs, and miles prevented their pilgrimage to the east Tennessee foothills. And there are other kinds of distances that, I knew, would have followed even my dearest friends back to our alma mater.  We might gather, but there would be subjects tactfully avoided at dinner, questions left unasked as we recounted the recent news. Home, I often think, is ever so far away. 

I was prepared for these distances, braced against awkward conversations and tentative reunions. I had resigned myself to any number of tepid "remember whens?"  Instead, I spent all weekend overwhelmed to see the ways in which the virtues that first drew me to Carson-Newman had grown in the lives of my teachers and friends. As a high-school senior, I had my choice of full scholarships to several colleges and universities.  I chose Carson-Newman because everyone I met there invited me, in one way or another, to become the sort of person I longed to be. I was a shy, neurotic, self-absorbed teenager, and by the time I finished high school I was very nearly sick of myself. When I visited Carson-Newman, I met young men and women who were brilliant without pretension, kind without condescension, fun without stupidity. Their confidence, kindness, and service attracted me more than any number of brand-new residence halls or manicured flowerbeds. Returning as an alumna, I realized how remarkable and rare these virtues are. I came home, after all, to friends who plan October picnics of pumpkin stew and ginger tea; who wash up the supper dishes without being asked; who spend their days teaching high school students to love reading or math; who go out of their way to include others in a conversation; who stand up for their convictions about the environment; who train dancers; who raise children to love truth, beauty, and goodness. I came home to the faculty who inspired me to be a professor--wise, compassionate men and women who greet their students with eager questions and hugs after half a decade.

All weekend I found myself wanting to hold on to everyone I met, literally to wrap my fingers around their wrists and to touch their faces. I want to be among these people, I thought. I want to live my life with their courage, grace, and kindness. I felt the same rush of hope and longing that led me to this school. This, I realized, is the reason for homecomings: not to retire from daily strife, not to escape into nostalgia, but to witness and remember what it takes to establish a home. It takes Emily's curiosity. Shannon's enthusiasm. Kevin's steadiness. Jeremy's thoughtfulness. Eric's fidelity. Lauren and Charlie's merry kindness. Dave and Mandy's creativity and convictions. Mari's courage. Mark's lovingkindness. Keith's wit. Rachel's compassion.

 As a student, I always cried at the end of each semester, and my flight back to Texas could have been one of those bittersweet journeys from one home to another. My heart was heavy as a thousand miles unfolded between me and Carson-Newman, but some of that heaviness came from the weight of gratitude. The home I have made in Texas owes so much to what I learned in college. I have no idea where my next home will be, but I will be proud if it, like Carson-Newman, is a place where people become more than they knew they could be. When we find such places, we do not always have the privilege of staying for long, but somehow, our true homes have a way of following us. Through faith, hope, and love, through friendship and imagination and determination, you may be startled to discover that home is in the palm of your hand.

Eric, me, Lauren, Charlie, and Kevin. Home sweet homecoming, indeed.
With Emily, fall 2005
With Emily, fall 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

Come Rest

"Aren't you exhausted?" Jenn asked as I waited for yet another kettle of water to boil.
I laughed, wanly, perhaps, because I had just decided that I was going to begin this post with the line, "I am so tired."

Reckoned simply according to hours, there's nothing unusual about the amount of work I am doing this week, but Jenn's question reminds me that I have good reason to be tired this semester. Two weeks ago I was spent several 15-hour days working on dissertation revisions, and last week, while it brought a break from Coleridge and MacDonald and literary tradition, was soon full of cover letters for job applications and essays to grade.

I don't write this as a complaint. I love my work and know that I am privileged to make my living as a scholar and a teacher. However, Jenn's question has set me thinking about how I work, and how my work habits shape my understanding of home.

As the child of campus ministers, I did not grow up with any concept of a separation between work and home. When your dining room is piled with monthly reports, and students knock on the porch for counsel at 2 o'clock in the morning, being at home is also being at work.  My adult life has also lacked these divisions. Especially when I lived in a two-room apartment, establishing separate spaces for work and rest became very difficult.  As I have moved through graduate school, I have tried to learn how to make home a space for both work and rest. The work part is easy. I come home trailing lesson plans, and my dissertation haunts every bookshelf.

"But how do you do it?" Jenn asked as I poured the now-hot water over the tea leaves. "How do you keep these hours every day?"
This happens at nearly every party I attend.
In college, I had a number of wise and determined friends who made sure that our campus was a place I worked and played. I didn't need to make my own times and sites for rest, because sooner or later someone would kidnap me for a mountain-road drive, or come and demand that I exchange paper-writing for supper with friends. As a proper grown-up, I have to be more intentional about making rest a part of my homemaking.

And I have been intentional. As I tried to answer Jenn, a number of coping strategies came to mind.  I keep Sundays as a Sabbath from any kind of school work or business. If I am working from home, I keep grading and dissertation work in the office, away from my bedroom. I go for walks, do yoga, ride my bicycle. I schedule time with friends. I even indulge in the blissful numbness of television every once in a while.

Some days, however, these things are not enough to give me the joy, peace, and strength that I know are the fruit of real rest.  Although I know it is healthy and humble to stop working at least a little while before bed, I still feel guilty whenever I put my papers or books away before ten or eleven.  Pride and anxiety often compel me to work more than is wise or even effective, and my to-do lists nearly always overestimate the number of hours in a day. As a single person, I can sustain days and days or work because few people think they have the right to demand that I stop and spend time with them. I like to think that when I am done done grading this next set of essays, or done with job applications, or done writing my dissertation, that I will rest. But those are treacherous thoughts. I need to learn to rest now. Matthew 11.28 says, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." I want to know what that rest. I want to surrender to it and find myself renewed. I want to ponder that invitation, to feel the cool smooth weight of it like pearls in my hand.

But that will have to wait for another day. Tonight, I am too tired to think clearly about how to rest well, and there is still work left to do. 

Is a home a place of rest for you? Is resting from work ever a challenge? How do you build rest into your life?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Writing a dissertation, applying for jobs, leading a new lifegroup, preserving time for  friends and  solitude: these are quick and beautiful days, but very, very full. Until I make some time for writing (writing that isn't my dissertation, that is) here are two glimpses of home I'd like to share with you. These pictures should help you understand why I love living with a woman who has an eye for beauty and a heart that ministers to others, and with an an engineer whose quiet sense of humor is one way he cares for his friends and family.

Jenn brought me this rose from one of the weddings she coordinated.
In the middle of making bread, I had to leave for a few hours. When I returned, this is what I found.

Thank you, God, for days that are full of good work, and homes that are full of grace.

What does your home look like this autumn? How are you and yours spending your days?