Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Season of Waiting

I have been dreading Christmas this year.  My eight-year-old self would be horrified at such blasphemy; my twenty-eight-year-old self is certainly not pleased to admit how grimly I have watched December's approach.  Ever since I can remember, I have exulted in the approach of the Christmas season. Beginning in kindergarten, I began recording Christmas "radio" shows, complete with carols, special guests, and thrilling dramas about motorcycle gangs (yes: motorcycle gangs. Don't ask me why.).

Living on an academic calendar my entire life only enhanced the inherent joys of Christmas. Before I started school, Christmas marked the season when my parents' lives calmed down for several weeks, and once I entered school, the holiday break provided long and blissful days for listening to Orson Wells narrate A Christmas Carol or hosting Christmas tea parties.

Even grad school, so often an enemy to comfort and joy, has never before jeopardized Christmas. I have endured many sleepless nights finishing seminar papers or grading exams, but by the time Christmas itself comes, I have always been able to leave my work alone for a week or two, at least. Christmas has represented a clean break between semesters.

Why, then, has this year's holiday filled with me such reluctance, even dread? Because for once, I cannot pretend that Christmas is my reward for a semester of superhuman activity. Certainly, I have been working hard--painfully hard, unceasingly hard--on teaching, my dissertation, and job applications. My dissertation is coming along well, but job applications have unsettled me far more than I expected.  Whenever anyone asks me how the process is going, I hear a sanguine voice say something about "exciting prospects" and "trusting God," but somehow I don't sound so chipper when talking to myself. I have sent out more than twenty applications, and now I must wait. Many preliminary interviews for academic positions occur at national Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention at the beginning of January, and not knowing whether or not I will have an interview has been overshadowing my eagerness for Christmas.

Waiting for news about interviews reminds me how many other things I am tired of waiting for: I am tired of waiting for a job that does not require every waking moment, for some sense of where I will be at this time next year, for reconciliation with a friend. 
Always waiting
 Only this week have I recognized the root of my discontent: I refuse to welcome Christmas--the feast of the Incarnation--because I am sick of waiting.  I do not want Christmas to come because I am not ready: I have not worked hard enough, it seems, to earn a fruitful and peaceful Christmas vacation.

Despite my reluctance, I began my traditional holiday reading on Sunday--selections from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. The voices the editors of this book gather--from Bonhoeffer, Donne, Hopkins, L'Engle, Romero, and many more--have been my guides toward Christmas for years. Last night, the reading was from Henri Nouwen, and his words made me ashamed of my selfish impatience. After observing that waiting is a very unpopular attitude in our culture, Nouwen writes
...waiting is even more difficult because we are so fearful. One of the most pervasive emotions in the atmosphere around us is fear. [...] Fearful people have a hard time waiting, because when we are afraid we want to get away from where we are. [...] It impresses me, therefore, that all the figures who appear on the first pages of Luke's Gospel are wiating. Zechariah and Elizabeth are waiting. Mary is waiting. Simeon and Anna, who were there at the temple when Jesus was brought in, are waiting. The whole opening scene of the good news is filled with waiting people. And right at the beginning all those people in some way or another hear the words, "Do not be afraid. I have something good to say to you." These words set the tone and the context. Now Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon and Anna are waiting for something new and good to happen to them. (27-29)

This time before Christmas, Advent, calls God's people to wait. Simeon and Anna did not look forward to the coming of the Messiah as something they could accomplish, but as something they waited for God to do. Their role was to wait faithfully and watch carefully, doing the work before them.

I am faithless if I let my own impatience and anxiety deprive me of the joy that comes with Christmas. So I am waiting. So my future is uncertain. So I may not have done "enough." The Word of the Lord has come to dwell among us, and that Word says, "Do not be afraid. Good is coming." Maybe in my life that good will take the form of news about a job interview. Maybe not. Regardless, Nouwen and other messengers-of-the-most-High challenge me to wait in hope, and when Christmas comes, I will remember that this hope is about much, much more than my job prospects or a vacation from school. Freedom from selfishness, salvation from fear, the redemption of all creation--these are hopes much better than anything the MLA could offer.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Young Adult's Guide to an Awesome Thanksgiving
(compiled from four years of wonderful Waco celebrations)

My nook, Thanksgiving 2006
1. Stay where you are. If home is a place we go for holidays, be intentional about celebrating in the place where you live, work, or study.  Celebrations are one way to consecrate a place as home.

2. Be extravagant with your cooking. Buy the best and finest food, and prepare it with care and courage.

3. Invite anyone you can think of who might be alone or lonely. 
Thanksgiving 2011 Photo by Kt

4. Let the kitchen fill up with food and people and merry chaos.
Thanksgiving 2009

5. Serve sweet tea and tamales along with the turkey and dressing.

4. Try to celebrate with an equal number of family members and friends. Introduce your teenage cousins to your grad-school colleagues.  Recognize that the highest bonds of kinship are far above blood, nationality, or common interest.

5. Sing your prayer before eating. "For the Beauty of the Earth" makes a perfect Thanksgiving blessing. Don't be afraid to demand all four verses. 

Thanksgiving 2011 Photo by Kt
6. Go for a long walk after feasting and lingering at the table. Point out beautiful doors and interesting trees in the neighborhood. Say, "Happy Thanksgiving!" to everyone you see.

7. Try all the pies.

 Photo by Stephanie Harris Trevor
8. Give thanks for all the Thanksgivings past. Remember what it was like to sit at the kids' table. Try to name the songs Casey played when he came up from Ft. Hood for Thanksgiving in 2008.  Let Grant and Jenn know how much you appreciated being rescued from a solitary Thanksgiving last year. Laugh at the way Jon never let your wine glass go empty during that first holiday with friends.

Room for more, 2011. Photo by Kt
9. Let yourself be sad for all the miles, years, or hard conversations separating your from people you love. Cry a little if you must, but then imagine that your table is growing longer and longer, and that by the time dessert is served, every seat will be filled with some faraway friend.

10. Write letters to people you are thankful for. Name specific reasons you give thanks to God for them.

Thanksgiving 2008

11. Rest. Don't be ashamed to drift off to sleep as the room fills with low conversations or the buzz of a football game.

12. Don't fret about how or where or with whom you will celebrate next year.  Give thanks for the hope that God will bring you to some glad table, whether as host, guest, daughter, or friend.

Thanksgiving 2008

Thanksgiving 2008 My strangely pinched smile does not do justice to my very real joy at this meal.

Another Thanksgiving, another weird smile. The grad students, Thanksgiving 2011.
Thanksgiving 2011. All is well.

How did you celebrate Thanksgiving this year?

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Treachery of "Enough"

"Enough" masquerades as a humble word, meekly slipping into sentences that suggest humility, restraint, and wholesomeness:
     "No, I won't take another slice of pie. I've had enough."
     "We may not be rich, but we have enough to get by."
     "Time for bed--you should be sure to get enough sleep."

I know better. "Enough" is a traitor. The word ought to connote security, sufficiency: qualities that help form a stable sense of home in a relationship, place, or profession. Some strong-willed speakers (generally of the scientific bent) can force "enough" to behave by applying it to subjects such as "How much Vitamin K is enough for an average adult?" But for some people, "enough" betrays these ideas of satiety by constantly edging out of sight and off of the horizon.

I am one of those people. (Surprised? No, of course not.) I have never feared failure in any dramatic sense: I have always been pretty good at the things I care about, and with the exception of high-school physics and some early culinary efforts, I have always managed to succeed, if not excel, at whatever I put my hands to. But I fear "enough." I fear disappointing the people who believe in me. I fear wasting my talents. I fear suffering by comparison. Ever since leaving college the specter of "enough" has haunted me. As I near the end of my doctoral work, this specter is growing downright ghoulish, interrupting my reading, my meals, and my rest with questions:

Have you read enough books?
Have you applied for enough jobs?
Have you published enough articles?
Have you walked enough?
Have you given enough money away?
Have you attended enough conferences?
Have you thought enough deep thoughts?
Have you prayed enough? 
Have you spent enough time preparing lesson plans?
Have you made enough professional connections?
Have you written enough?
Have you spent enough time with your housemates?

There are, of course, sensible and rational ways to answer each of these questions, and different mentors and friends in my life have often helped me establish these answers in wise and realistic ways. Unfortunately, I am not always a sensible and rational person. I allow fear to tell me that the only way to do "enough" is to work non-stop, forgoing walks, friends, and even proper meals for the sake of doing just a little bit more. Pride, meanwhile, gilds my trembling with a false glory, telling me that I should boast of the number of hours I worked last week, and that the sleep I lost from over-diligence is a sign of virtue.

I have learned that even on days when I am neither sensible nor rational, I can be grateful, and gratitude is one of the best ways to chase away the unattainable idea of "enough." When I remember that everything--from the bread on my table to the thesis of my next chapter--is a kind of grace, my striving after "enough" gives way to something much better: the recognition of abundance. 

Consider this weekend. My dissertation director praised my arguments in Chapter 2. I went to the Farmers' Market with two dear friends, and had money in my pocket for a basket of pears and a bunch of brilliantly-colored swiss chard. I walked through the neighborhoods surrounding our house, and picked up leaves golden and scarlet from the sycamores and crepe-myrtles. My colleagues congratulated me on a forthcoming article.  My students came and discussed their papers with, then laughed with me about the news on campus. Friends came to the house to celebrate my birthday.  I had a part in all of these things, but their beauty required more than my effort, my wisdom, my work. They are more--much, much more--than enough.

How do you decide what is "enough" in your home, work, or relationships?

Friday, November 11, 2011

November Grace, Day 4

 We laughed, still holding hands and keeping our eyes closed.  Tiffany had not intended to make a joke during our prayer, but we couldn't help giggling along with her.  Had we been children, someone might have shushed us, but we are the adults now, and the laughter was too sweet to chide. If anything, it sounded our thanks and our hope in ways words alone could not. Still smiling, I listened as the women in our circle, and the men across the room, continued to lift heavy words into the light: "tests...sickness... essays..."  When silence fell, I began the Lord's Prayer, and everyone joined in.

 Today, I am thankful for my lifegroup.  We are still a fairly new community, having only begun to meet in September (you can read about some of my past experiences with small groups here and here). However, the group is coming together--is being drawn together--in holy ways.

 Tonight, I heard that holiness in our laughter. If "the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Romans 8.26), I wonder if that Holy Ghost ever teaches us to pray with a mirth that defies our heavy hearts and weary days.

Monday, November 7, 2011

November Grace, Day 3

from the OSU Special Collections and Archives
"Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings see what God has done..." I grew up singing this song, but I've never been very good at counting. I am, however, an expert list-maker, and as this new week begins, I am offering the catalog of grace that is giving me hope for this week.

 Today, I am thankful

  • that my amazing mother was able to visit me this weekend
  • that she will be back in two weeks for Thanksgiving
  • for rain
  • for autumn days that are low and rainy and require music such as this
  • for tea
  • for little Texas churches in little Texas towns
  • for a functioning car
  • that I was able to submit another job application today 
  • for fingers that type and knit easily and without pain
  • for leftovers from yummy meals
  • for friends who ask if I want to come study at the library

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, November 4, 2011

November Grace, Day 2

Carroll Science Building, Baylor University
"Miss Bear," she said breathlessly, "have you ever read a book called Mere Christianity?" Those who know me well will understand why this question nearly made me laugh. My parents starting reading The Chronicles of Narnia to me when I was three years old; by the time I finished high school I had worked through almost all of C.S. Lewis's fiction and non-fiction; and even my dissertation is on a man whose writing helped shape Lewis's turn to faith. However, not wanting to interrupt my student's enthusiasm, I simply smiled and said "Yes. Why do you ask?"  My eager freshman began to explain how our class discussion--an analysis of what makes an argument ethical or unethical--had reminded her of a passage from Lewis's book, and her eyes were shining with the delight of making an unexpected connection.

Today I am grateful for my students.  In more ways than they realize, my students have shown me that teaching is my greatest joy and privilege. When I taught my first course four years ago, I was terrified that I was too young and inexperienced to teach a college writing class. My students, however, were unfailingly respectful.  Even though I wanted to giggle whenever they would say, "Yes, ma'am," the fact that they saw me as a capable, competent teacher shaped the way I saw myself. In the semesters since, they have continued to honor me with their honesty, courtesy, creativity, and diligence. College is such a fascinating and urgent time, and I love watching young men and women grapple with questions that may shape their entire adult lives. I live for the days they follow me out of class to discuss our reading or to ask me a question about a book. I treasure their peculiar spirit of levity and earnestnes.

I wish I could say that every class ends with a student chasing after me with questions about C.S. Lewis, but even on the days when all our talk is of thesis statements and paragraph unity, I am profoundly, joyfully, humbly grateful for my students.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

November Grace

Photo by Gisela Francisco
Several years ago, I led a Bible study on grace.  Being a word person, I spent quite a while exploring the history and meaning of "grace" itself. One of my happiest discoveries was the link between the words "graceful" and "grateful."  Etymologically, the words are identical; both come from the Latin "gratia," meaning "beauty," and "favor, goodwill." In English, the words have evolved to articulate the symmetry of grace: to say one is "graceful" means she has received gifts of beauty, strength, or goodwill. To say she is "grateful" means she has acknowledged offered thanks for these gifts.

My favorite definition of grace is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, obsolete.  For a time in English, "grace" referred to "the part in which the beauty of a thing consists." I think this definition is ready for renewal.  As fallen men and women, our beauty does consist only in the grace we have from God: the grace we have of being made in God's image; the grace of the Christ, who restores that image in us; the grace of love, which the Holy Spirit bestows so that we may love one another into beauty. 
For the past several years, I have come to see November as a season for remembering what it means to be full of grace. Thanksgiving is, more or less, a secular holiday, but I have come to celebrate it as the golden day in a holy season of gratitude. Along with many others, I have set aside November as a time to publish the reasons I am thankful.  For the next month, until ordinary time surrenders to the watchful hope of Advent, I will be posting short entries each day on the reasons I give thanks to God.  

I invite you to spend this month naming grace with me.  Only by looking carefully at the gifts we have received can we see how beautiful our lives really are. 

Today I am grateful for peculiar ways of showing love.  Last night, Jenn and I realized that we show love to one another with tea leaves. You see, we drink lots of tea in this house, and rather than tea bags, we usually brew our tea from loose leaves. One advantage to using loose-leaf tea is that you steep the tea more than once. The second infusion, however, is usually weaker than the first. It is a small but real act of service, then, when one of us gives the first-steeped cup to the other.  To someone who does not drink tea, this act of love might go unnoticed. But we notice. Not only I am grateful to live with people I can serve and accept service from, but I am grateful that as a household, as a peculiar little family, we have already developed our own unique ways of showing love. When Jenn offers me the first cup, I accept it with thanks, breathe in the fragrant steam, and take the first sip of grace.   

What are you grateful for today? What fills you with grace?