Thursday, August 23, 2012

Homecoming (A Poem)

Yesterday I received a brochure for Carson-Newman's 2012 Homecoming celebrations, and that put me in mind of the entry I wrote after attending Homecoming last year (read that entry here; it is one of my favorites). At the same time, a friend invited me to attend UM's "Thursday Club," in which students and faculty gather to read and write poetry. This was my offering today: 


This time we’ll not chase fireflies to fill our jars with short-lived lights,

Nor burn our candles at both ends and crowd the walls with shadow-play.

Instead we’re seeking oil for our trimmed and polished lamps.

Our waiting is a pilgrimage: we have not come to stay.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Office Sweet Office

For the first time since 1989, I am not beginning this school year as a student. Instead, I am learning what it means to be faculty, to be full-time, to be "assistant professor of English."

One thing it means is having my very own office. I treasured my office-mates in grad school, but there is a special thrill that comes from seeing one's name on a door, even if that door (so I'm told) used to open to a snack closet.

It takes more than a nameplate and a set of keys to make a place feel like home. In just three days, however, this little space has become dear to me because...

...when I sit at my desk, I can hear bells tolling the hours.

I'm pretty sure the bells come from this chapel. 

...when I open my door, I catch glimpses of the sky.

...words on the walls remind me why I am here.

I pulled this out of a college brochure more than ten years ago,
and it has gone up on nearly every wall I've had since then. 

Holy marginalia from a friend's notes on my dissertation, a happy print of my two favorite verbs,
and a dose of Celtic wisdom. 

...I can see the faces of people I love. 

...there is so much work--good work--to do already, and this is a place dedicated to that work. 

...students and colleagues stop by every day, several times a day. They sit down, pull books from the shelves, demand poems, spend words, practice hope. 

This is the newest of my little homes, and it is good.

Does your workplace feel like a home to you? Why or why not?

Monday, August 20, 2012

God shows up at girls' night

Yesterday, I realized that I harbor a strange prejudice against women's events, and I'm trying to understand the origins of this feeling.

Last night, one of the churches I have been visiting had two special programs, one for men and one for women. Each event had its own speaker. I went because I thought it would be a good way to meet more people from the church. However, as I sat at the table, I was distracted from my desire to make friends by waves of sarcasm.  Before the speaker was even introduced, I had made up my mind that it was probably going to be overly emotional and focused on something that was not particularly relevant to me. Apparently I need to start resting from snarkiness on the Sabbath.

As it happened, the talk was on a subject I've lamented is usually neglected in churches--friendship.  The speaker's message (dare I say, sermon?) was deep and compelling and challenged me to re-examine a painful and confusing division I have had from one close friend.

My pride was wholesomely wounded over the course of the evening, and I repent of my bad attitude. Today, I'm trying to understand why I am so ill-disposed towards events like that. I have always had strong female friendships, and although I have never planned anything called a "girls' night," I spent almost every Sabbath last year sewing and knitting with Katie. And I've never been a tomboy -- if I could, I would wear silk blouses and pearls to work every day for the rest of my life. I've even been to excellent programs for women, including two women's retreats with my church in Texas.

So what is my problem?

Maybe I'm uncomfortable with these events because they seem in danger of making generalizations about women and/or gender roles? Or perhaps I am still worried that the boys are getting to do something more interesting, like Greek? Or maybe (and this might be nearest the truth), I have been scornful simply because I don't see the point of women-only events. I'm not denying that there are issues women might best discuss with other women, but I'm not sure what those are for me. I'm not sure if this is because I am willing to discuss more things in mixed company, or because the questions that really haunt me are such that I would be slow to discuss them with anyone, male or female.

This realization is so fresh that I don't entirely understand it myself. Whatever the cause of my disdain, I want to use my fresh humility to keep an open mind about women's events in the future. If I truly believe that it is presumptuous to say whom God can and cannot speak through, then I should be ashamed to doubt that the Spirit of the Living God will show up at a girls' night.

 What about you? Do you like church events that are geared for a specific gender? Am I missing something in my lack of appreciation for them? 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Living Alone

Tonight I had a long, wonderful Skype date with my former housemates, Grant and Jenn. We talked about everything, from recent trips to Colorado to recipes for shrimp and grits. I felt joyfully broken-hearted as we talked face to face for the first time in two months. I miss them.

Near the end of our talk, Jenn asked, "How does it feel to be living alone again?" I've been pondering this question ever since I moved. Coming to Alabama has been very different from the move I made to Texas six years ago. In one of my first-ever blog entries, I wrote about the deep and bewildering loneliness of living alone for the first time (you can read that entry here). I felt that living alone took all the fun out of being introvert: solitude became a tedious glut, rather than a precious and refreshing draught.

My experience this time has been far less dramatic (or traumatic) for many reasons. I'm stepping into a job I already love instead of an uncertain and harrowing course of study; I have old friends who already live here and have made new friends quickly, especially at work; I spent several months preparing my heart for this move; and my time in Waco ended with celebration and blessing and intentional goodbyes.

Nevertheless, I am still adjusting to living alone again.  Some aspects of a one-person household are satisfying:

* I like having complete and total control of things, like the kind of soap in the kitchen, and whether or not we wear shoes in the house (we don't).
* Over the last year, I have been rediscovering the beauty of silence, and having two small rooms to myself allows me to find silence often.
* If I don't feel inclined to talk to anyone (especially after a long day of pretending to be an extrovert), I can be quiet without worrying that I seem rude.
* I can work on gifts without having to hide them from people who will one day receive them.

On the other hand, there are many things I miss about living with others:

* Talking about how our days went over a shared meal
* In-house hugs
* Spontaneous trips to the grocery store or park "just because"
* Daily exercise in "submit[ting] to one another out of reverence for Christ"
* Reading aloud together (though I'm working on that here)
* Overhearing their favorite music while they wash dishes or study
* Regular meals (I had forgotten how bad I am at feeding myself. Tonight I had almonds for supper).

I'm thankful that during this move, I have been peaceful enough to step back and consider both the gains and losses that come from living alone. I'm neither miserable nor lonely, although I do often feel like I'm putting my foot down on a step that has vanished.

When I think about the future, I look forward to living arrangements that would allow me to live with other people again. I am praying that God will give me a vision for what kind of life that might be -- a rambling old house with rooms I can rent to international students? A small cottage that is on the same block as friends?

At the same time, I know that physical proximity does not guarantee a rich communal life. I've seen roommates grow apart, rather than together, while they inhabited the same space. I also know that I can share a deep life with my friends even as I live in solitude. I've been here just over month, and already I've stayed up late watching movies with Adele;  I've taught Doug's boys to crochet; I've felt one of Steve and Grace's little girls fall asleep in my arms.

In many ways, living alone is analogous to being single (and no surprise, since the two often go together): I may need to be more intentional in the ways I live my life for and with other people, but I also have the chance to ponder, question, and pursue what others may take for granted.

Have you ever lived alone? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to living alone? 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sing like never before

As an unredeemed six-year-old, I disliked all the music that happened in church. I could happily scribble during a sermon, but when it came time for singing, my mother would haul me to my feet, forcing me to exchange pen and crayons for a cumbersome hymnal.

I didn't like the music because it compelled me to participate in what was happening around me, interrupting my plans.  Years later, on the other hand, I discovered other teenagers who knew the hymns I had grown to love, and this shocked me into a deeper understanding of what it means to have a common faith. (You can read an account of that discovery here.)

The beauty of music can be a testimony to God's grandeur, consolation to a grieving spirit, or a way to express joy that passes understanding. At the same time, it is worthwhile to consider how strange it is for any number of grown people to gather in a room and sing. Most people, religious or not, listen to music as performed by professionals, and some people join choirs or bands because they enjoy making music. However, the practice of regularly gathering in a large group to sing is one of many unusual things Christians do on Sunday mornings.

Singing makes me feel particularly vulnerable among strangers, and yet I have found myself in this new city, week after week, making music alongside people I hardly know. Why would I do such a thing?
I haven't had a voice lesson in years, I may not like the instruments this church uses, or I might grumble to see  a PowerPoint screen instead of a hymnal. And yet I sing.

Yesterday I visited yet another new church. Unfamiliar building, unfamiliar people, unfamiliar song. But the strange song soon grew precious: common faith, shared hope, one Father.

For amateurs and aliens, singing doesn't make much sense. But it can help make a home.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A letter to my future husband

Dear Sir,

I hope you'll pardon the formal salutation. I don't mean to be stuffy, but as far as I know, we haven't been properly introduced yet, and I am a stickler for decorum. For that matter, I'm not convinced you actually exist, and it would be forward to call an imaginary fiancé "darling." Therefore, for the time being, "sir" you must remain.

I feel a little silly writing this letter at all. If you have read my blog, you may have guessed that I haven't spent much time or energy looking for you. This summer, however, you've been more-than-usually on my mind.  I'm not sure what it is about Alabama, but my marriage prospects seem to be a very interesting topic of conversation down here. From mortgage lenders on the phone to missionaries at the churches I've visited, all sorts of people have brought up the topic of my getting married. My Mississippi-bred mother says this is an example of people in the Deep South being "in your business" in ways they aren't in Texas, and certainly are not in the Midwest where I grew up. These conversations have baffled and amused me; I certainly don't mind if people ask me whether or not I am going to marry, but they all seem much more interested in the question than I am.

Despite my laughter, these conversations have made me curious. Who might you be? Brilliant and introverted like the guys I have dated? Extroverted and funny like so many of my male friends? I hope you know that whatever your virtues, you're up against some pretty high standards. I have grown up around amazing men, including my father, his students, and my own beloved brother-friends. These are men who build houses and non-profits, men who play the piano and plant gardens, men who can put a whole room at ease with a few words, men who stay late to clean up after everyone else has gone home; men who listen and challenge and laugh and pray. Having loved such a strong company, I have learned that when it comes to suitors, my affections rise easily--I will come to care for you quickly--but my respect and admiration are much more difficult to earn. This means, dear sir, that if you're not already doing something good, beautiful, and true with your life, you'd better start today.

This is a strange time for me -- having just finished the first great work of my adult life, I'm embarking on new seas, praying each day for a vision that will guide me in the coming years. That vision might include you, or it might not. There is joy in it either way, but you should know that if we meet and if we wed, I won't be surrendering my vision -- I'll be looking for shared lodestars and common beacons. I've often wished that both husband and wife would change their names upon marriage--that would seem the best possible sign of this mysterious becoming-one-ness I hear about. I will not be absorbed, or purchased, or won, but I could be called, invited, and challenged to exchange this precious single life for something new with you.

I don't need you, my dear sir, and I hope you know that you don't need me either. If we cannot find our deepest joy in Christ and his Church, we have no business trying to find any happiness with one another. And yet,  there may come a day when I want to keep you around. If that day comes, I hope you'll be patient with me, because the thought of linking my life with someone else, of changing my long-loved name, of sharing my bookshelves --well, these things terrify me far more than specters of loneliness.

That's probably enough of my profound musing on the nature and possibilities of marriage. It is, I admit, a subject I know nearly nothing about. More mundanely, I should warn you that while I cook well, I don't do it terribly often. If you're the sort of person who wants supper every night, you'll need to be patient at first.

So ends my first (and perhaps only) letter to you. I write merely out of courtesy; you should have some sense of what you could be getting yourself into. Again, I have my doubts as to your ontological weight, but the people here speak about you as though you could be real. I should also note that for more than twenty years my father has said he prays for you. If you don't exist, I hope God has redirected those prayers to some flesh-and-blood spouse making his ancient and wonderful vows.

Should you choose to reply, I remain

                                                                                                                  sincerely yours,


P.S. If any of those mortgage lenders, missionaries, or other new friends happen to read this, please know that I really don't mind talking about marriage; I just don't have much to say on the subject yet. Furthermore, if you happen to have an inkling as to the whereabouts of my dear sir, do let me know. I've often thought that arranged marriages would save everyone a great deal of time and trouble.

Friday, August 3, 2012

To the Ones Who Demanded Stories

Dear Friends,

When people challenge me to explain the value of literature, I have a number of cogent defenses on hand. It is in my professional interest, after all, to demonstrate that reading, writing, and discussing stories are worthwhile pursuits. I fit my arguments to my audience, waxing philosophical with some, and offering "practical" evidence to others. No matter what shape my defense takes, however, I see your faces as I talk. I still remember the night Rachel and Keith sat down on either side of me and said, "If you're going to be studying fairy tales for your honors thesis, you really ought to share some of them with us." Thus began Story Time, one of the happiest traditions of my very happy college days. Each night, I would read you a story -- at first just to Keith and Rachel, but soon Jeremy and Eric became regulars, too, and many nights Hannah, Mark, Shannon, Brittany, and others would drop by.

Photo made at

Just as my earliest encounters with literature came while snuggled against my mama or daddy's side, our college readings reminded me that good stories can bind listeners together through laughter, hope, curiosity, and consolation.

None of you were English majors. In fact, the most faithful listeners were students of chemistry or biology. You never asked me to explain why I was studying literature, why it was important or profitable. Rather, you showed that I was spending my time well simply by demanding, again and again, for a tale before bedtime. Perhaps you enjoyed the break from organic chemistry or anatomy, maybe you liked the fantastic elements in the tales I would choose, or perhaps you, like I, looked forward to the ritual of gathering with friends each night.

As I learned that I had something of value to share with you, I began to think about what I might gain from your disciplines. When Rachel began to work on her own honors thesis, cataloging wildflowers in the east Tennessee hills, I would tag along, learning to recognize Dutchman's Breeches, Quaker Ladies, and bloodroot.  No plenary address on interdisciplinary research has ever inspired me as much as those hikes.

Since college, the demands for stories have come in different forms.  Lauren writes each Christmas to make sure I'm going to record a story or two for the silent nights of that holy time. Annie Laurie would ask for a story as she practiced walking, and we would spend a morning striving against her cerebral palsy with tales of pirate queens. This morning, four-year-old Andrew called to thank me for some books I sent him. "Read them to me, " he said. "Now you must come home."

I'm trying, sweet boy. With every story I share, whether at a bedside, on the road, or in a classroom, I'm trying to bring us home.


P.S.  The proximity of college is a thing of the past, but there are still so many stories I want to share. Tonight, I hope you will take a few minutes to enjoy this one: a story called "The Lute Player" about a woman who takes a dangerous journey to bring someone she loves home again. You can download "The Lute Player" by clicking here.