Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why I haven't sold my dulcimer

Ten years ago,  my English 101 professor, Dr. L, told our class that instead of our regular classroom, our last class before Thanksgiving would be meet in the Appalachian Center, a beautiful old house on the Carson-Newman College campus. "I'll bring my guitar," Dr. L said, "Billy can bring his djembe, and Bethany will bring her dulcimer. Instead of rushing through another essay, we'll celebrate Thanksgiving with music."

We made a funny ensemble -- one guitarist, one drummer, a damsel with a dulcimer, and a dozen Baptist-college freshmen. We sang hymns, mostly: "Blest Be the Tie that Binds," "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," "For the Beauty of the Earth," "Amazing Grace," and others. I missed more than a few notes, but in the chorus of voices and drum-beats and guitar-strings, my mistakes didn't ruin the song or lead anyone astray. I remembered all my high-school years in choir, the delight of letting my single voice dwell in a much greater sound than I could produce alone.

Unfortunately, that Thanksgiving sing-along was a unique event. My friends and I did plenty of singing in college--especially on long road trips--but in the years since I have hardly played at all.

I always look back on that first college semester fondly, for it was full of so many things I spent my adolescence praying for: rigorous academics, adventures in the mountains, a group of friends, and, of course, sing-alongs. I do not exaggerate to say that in stepping onto campus at eighteen, I found myself in the sort of place I thought only existed in my daydreams. For a short time, my dulcimer was part of that ponderous and lovely incarnation.

Indeed, for most of the time I have owned my dulcimer, I have felt more guilt than enthusiasm when I think about it. Once every year or two I will buy a new book of music to prod me to practice, but these resolutions haven't lasted long. I like music, and sang in choirs for years, but my other pursuits--writing, knitting, baking--not only bring more immediate gratification, but also come more easily to me.

You might wonder, then, why I haven't simply sold the dulcimer and removed the object of so much guilt. I have enough interesting (even eccentric) hobbies that I don't need the dulcimer to keep me busy or provide a topic for dinner conversation. Even so, I cannot bring myself to give it up. That Thanksgiving sing-along still haunts me with hope--hope that one day my imperfect notes will find a home again within the singing of my friends.

Tonight I tuned my hammered dulcimer for the first time in years. Tomorrow I have a chance to meet with some new friends interested in playing music together, and although I am ashamed at how much I've forgotten, I'm hopeful. I may never be able to play as well as the musician in this video, but tonight, tuning my dulcimer was my of affirming that the world of late-November hymn-sings, the world of discourse-giving-way-music, the world of abandon-the-rushing-for-the beautiful, that this world exists in more than memory.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Exchanging anticlimax for hope

"Anticlimactic."  My fourth-grade teacher used this word to answer a question I posed, with some urgency, when I was ten years old. "What do you call it," I had asked, "when you look forward to something with all your heart, and then it isn't as good as you imagined?"

I asked this question with reference to Christmas. As a child, I would have told you that Christmas was my favorite time of year, but really, I loved everything about Christmas except the actual calendar days deemed "the holiday season." Beginning in July, I would count down the days until December 25, and from the age of six until I was ten or eleven, I recorded multi-hour Christmas "radio" programs on cassette tapes. I pored over children's biographies of Saint Nicholas, read about Christmas customs in foreign lands, and memorized the lyric to every carol I could find. However, the actual observance of Christmas rarely satisfied my hopes for the holiday. I often felt that the Christmas I imagined--a world of starlight and midnight journeys and strange friends--existed in a realm of time that eluded my December 25 countdown. A similar feeling hit me in college, when I realized that I only used the word "home" to designate elsewheres--places I was not.

My Yuletide discontent is hardly unique, but it lies behind the practical decision I decided to share with you all tonight. I have decided, for the first time in my life, not to decorate a Christmas tree.

Oh, it will go up eventually, but I am forestalling my typical Thanksgiving-is-over-let's-have-Christmas customs. Thanksgiving came unusually early this year, so early that the Sunday following is not even the first Sunday in Advent according to the liturgical year. Even if Thanksgiving were later, however, I would be waiting to put up my tree for the sake of experiencing Advent.

For several years I have been trying to understand what Advent means, and how observing it might enrich our celebration of Christmas by curtailing the annual surfeit of trees-lights-films-and-fa-la-la.
No tree yet.

A Baptist born and bred, I first heard of Advent in high school, when I discovered Plough Publishing's semi-annual reader. They published readings from writers throughout Christian history who delved into Advent as a time of expectation and repentance--two essential conditions for joy. (The best of these reading were later published in Plough's wonderful anthology Watch for the Light). It was not until last year, however, that I realized how precious this season of consecrated waiting could be (read those reflections here). I was waiting for job news, waiting to finish my dissertation, waiting to see what vision I might rightfully build for the next season of my life.

This year, I am happy in a wonderful job, finished with my dissertation, and, most days, waiting for nothing more urgent than a letter from a friend. Nevertheless, I am praying for ways to be intentional in my celebration of Advent. Delaying the appearance of my Christmas tree might seem like a small act of defiance, but my hope for this little sacrifice is strong.

I enjoyed the privilege of growing up without Daylight Savings Time (thanks, Indiana), and even after ten years I still despise being jolted from one season to the next with the time changes. I miss the gradual descent of the sun toward the winter solstice, and the slow lengthening of days throughout the spring. In the same way, I do not wish to fling myself from one holiday to another. I still have spiced pork and maple pie from Thanksgiving to enjoy. The pear trees are more intensely vermillion this week than last -- why must I hurry into mass-produced visions of a Currier & Ives December?

And so my window displays no tree -- not yet. I will deck my halls, but slowly, and with care. Next Sunday the Advent wreath will come out, and perhaps I will cut a sprig of holly from the bush outside my office. Then the crèche (but the magi must stay across the room until Epiphany). Then the music: first "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," with triumphant carols waiting just a little longer.

When I watch for Advent in this way, resisting rushed and reckless merriment, Christmas no long disappoints my visions. Rather, attending to Advent reminds me that every day of our terrestrial calendars--including December 25--is part of the universe's long winter, and that all creation still moans, waiting for its full redemption.

Are you from a religious tradition that observes Advent? What, if anything, do you do to make the weeks preceding Christmas a time of repentance and expectation?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thankful: An Ordinarily Absurd Thursday

When I walk out of my office on Thursday afternoons, I usually see something like this: 

This photo is actually a smaller-than-usual meeting of the Thursday Club, a group of students and faculty who meet each week to share poetry we have written or discovered.

Thursday Club is, like many things that happen at a small liberal-arts college, unnecessary. Superfluous. Frivolous.  Financially unprofitable.

Some might see meetings such as this as decadent, or, more charitably, as a luxury enjoyed by privileged people who aren't burdened with more important work to do. That "more important work" could be anything from wage earning to evangelism to feeding the hungry. Such an attitude, however, would miss the point of Thursday Club, and of the countless other absurdly beautiful things that happen at a place such as this.

Because of course we are burdened--with deadlines, with family sorrows, with global anxieties. We have work to do--academic, professional, domestic, missional. We have bills and tests, dependents and superiors, vocations and commissions.

And yet, we remind each other that the study of truth, beauty, and goodness is, in the final sense, not decadent at all. Reading a poem in the cool November air and the bright November sun, we learn to believe the consolation the archangel Michael gives Adam when announcing mankind's exile from Paradise. In Book 11 of Milton's Paradise Lost, Michael assures Adam that

"...this pre-eminence [in Eden] thou hast lost, brought down
To dwell on even ground now with thy sons:
Yet doubt not but in valley and in plain
God is, as here, and will be found alike
Present, and of his presence many a sign
Still following thee, still compassing thee round
With goodness and paternal love..."

I am thankful to work and live in a place where, on an ordinary Thursday, my friend Steve reads an ancient poem--the Old English "Dream of the Rood"--while his student Will plays an Anglo-Saxon lyre they built together. It might seem absurd--it might seem a scandal--but it is very good, and I give thanks for it today.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Thankful to be an only child

"Oh, you don't seem like an only child at all!" All my life, people have been saying this to me as though it were a compliment. From this backward praise, I have inferred that only children have a reputation for being spoiled or, as my grandmother would say, "rurnt."

However, being an only child shaped me in undeniable ways; it was not something I had to overcome or defy by some special act of virtue.

Today, therefore, I am giving thanks for growing up as an only child.

I'm their favorite. 

Before I proceed, let me say that I do not mean to suggest that being an only child is superior to having multiple children. My parents had their reasons for stopping after me; perhaps I will invite them to share those reasons here one day. Indeed, I'm not sure how many children I would like to have or adopt one day. I just know that I am thankful for being an only child in the same way I am thankful for having blue eyes, or for having a surname that begins with "B." This is the life God gave me, and I rejoice in it.

I am thankful to be an only child because mother could (and can) hug me tightly and say, "You're my favorite" without feeling any guilt

.....I was able to accompany my parents nearly everywhere: mission trips, collegiate conferences, late-night Bible studies, and more. I can only remember having a babysitter once or twice. Because I was single and well-behaved, I rarely had to be left behind. This also meant that my mother could spend more time ministering to college students. I firmly believe that God called her to be a minister above and beyond calling her to be my mother, but she has often said that with more children she probably would not have been able to be so involved in the lives of college students.

....I learned to seek kinship and concord beyond my biological family. Alone, the nuclear Bear family could not satisfy my abundant desire for playmates and protectors, and so I turned to others to be my aunts, uncles, elder brothers, little sisters, and more. Sometimes I wished for brothers and sisters, but most of my friends who had siblings seemed to spend most of their time fighting. I decided as a child that I would much rather spend time with people who loved one another, whether they were linked by blood or not.

....I have always loved solitude and silence.  I always had at least one or two close school friends, but I spent an extraordinary amount of my first eighteen years alone, or in the company of people much older than I was. I didn't really start hanging out with people my own age until college. While this solitude may have enhanced my native shyness, it also allowed me to become quite content in my own company. I filled my solitary hours with reading, walking, and writing--habits that continue to serve me well. that solitude, I grew brave. Only recently have I begun to think of myself as brave, but much of the courage I have comes from the self-sufficiency I developed as an only child. Especially as a teenager, I really and truly did not care what other people thought about my faith, my clothes, my habits, or my speech. In ninth or tenth grade, I made myself a bag that said, "Wherever the world is headed, head the other way." While this could lead to being a little too contrarian or self-satisfied, for the most part my "onlyness" allowed me to make choices based on principle, rather than peer pressure.

With the exception of being the "favorite," none of these things are exclusive to only children. Many men and women with siblings love solitude, cultivate kinships, and grow brave. However, in my own life, these blessings were undoubtedly the products of being the only child in the house.

Were you an only child? If so, what did you enjoy about that life? If you have siblings, in what ways are you thankful for them?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Thankful: A Single Girl Needs Married Friends

Today, I am thankful for all my married friends.

I am finally at an age where most of my friends are wed. The shift came a year or two ago, when I realized that in a group of ten friends from church, I might be the only person unmarried. Now that I am in a job where most of my colleagues are married, it is even more clear that my minority position is most likely permanent.

My most recently-married friends. I wrote about their wedding here.

You might think that it has become more difficult to remain content as a single woman among so many married peers, but that hasn't been my experience. As an only child (in a world of siblings), an introvert (in a world of extroverts), and a general nonconformist, I've never really minded being the odd one out. Even more importantly, my married friends are all admirable, adorable, amazing people, and they use their marriages to bless everyone around them, including me. Consequently, the grace I am celebrating today includes all my married friends.

Here are some of the wonderful things they do....

1. They provide resources I don't have.

One of the most frightening things about being single (or, let's be honest: being an adult) is facing difficulties without help. Investigating creepy sounds from downstairs. Dealing with the steam pouring from the engine. Packing for a job interview when I am too sick to sit up. Married couples, simply by being two instead of one, often have twice as many practical resources to share. For example, my friend and neighbor Stephanie would send her husband (and also my friend) Jon to walk through my apartment for me when I was worried about mysterious sounds. This may seem like a little thing, but it had the power to make the world seem far less frightening.

Some of my favorite married people.  Jenn was with us but didn't make it into the picture. (Picture stolen from Stephanie Harris Trevor's Facebook page.

2. They keep me from idealizing marriage. 

My mother often says, "Being single is hard. Being married is hard. They're just hard in different ways." My temperament is more optimistic than my mother's, but I am thankful that my married friends do not hide the fact that marriage--like every good labor--has its difficult days. Recognizing that husbands and wives must practice patience, silence, humility, and submission in ways I can hardly fathom keeps me from pitying the burden of my own state.

3. They keep me from denigrating singleness. 

I have heard some single people complain about their married friends nagging them to date, or no longer hanging out with them.  Thankfully, my married friends do none of those things. In fact, some of the greatest affirmation I have had as a single woman have come from married men and women. They remind me that my state frees me to travel, study, explore, and serve in ways they cannot. I have often roused myself from discontent by saying, "If Julianna thinks my life is beautiful and full, who am I to scorn my own riches?"

4. They have children. 

Children only became interesting to me as my own friends began to bear and adopt them. As a child and teen, I was never particularly interested in younger children. For the last ten years or so, however, children have become marvelous to me. The fact that we can bring new people into the world still strikes me as a deep mystery, and I am thankful to witness this mystery in the lives of my friends. As I near thirty and begin to wonder if I will ever have children of my own, I am thankful for friends who allow me to love their children as a kind of unofficial aunt. I am thankful for little boys for whom I can make castles, little girls who want to play with the little cats I knit, and whole crops of babies to outfit in sweaters.

5. They provide a safe place for mixed-gender friendships. 

If I were to name my closest, share-my-deepest-secrets-wth sorts of friends, the list would be pretty equally divided between men and women. However, maintaining friendships between men and women is much more difficult at 28 than it was at 12, or even than it was at 20. While observers are likely to assume romantic interest in any male-female friendships, those assumptions are much more dangerous than they once were. If someone thought Mark and I were flirting in college, I could simply laugh it off. However, now that Mark is married, I am much more sensitive to how our friendship could look to outsiders. I would hesitate to spend large amounts of time with Mark alone -- not because I don't trust him, or myself--but because it might mislead others. Happily, Mark's wife, Moriah, has become a dear friend in her own right, and their marriage has allowed to me to stay friends with Mark by becoming friends with them both.  As I have discussed elsewhere, I'm not very interested in women-only-events, and I would mourn the loss of my close male friends.

6. They bring me into families. 

Whatever virtues a single life might have (and there are many), it can too easily lack any sense of belonging. Eating alone is nothing like being a part of a family, but then again, exchanging tepid courtesies and fleeting handshakes on Sunday morning isn't much better (in fact, I consider it far worse than honest solitude). However, over the years my married friends have been tenacious and creative in their willingness to invite me into their lives. They have used Skype, meals, guest rooms and houses to make a place for me. They didn't make me demand or beg entry; they invited and celebrated my coming.  These were not casual arrangements, not acts of pity, but decisions made from love. In these actions, my friends showed that they were committed to me--not in the same way they were committed to one another, but with bonds of Christian love that are real and lasting.

With Grant and Jenn at my graduation. May 2012

I've not done my friends justice with this post, but then gratitude, not justice, was my aim.  We all need to people in different stages and seasons of life to temper and challenge us. If I ever do marry, these friends will be my mentors and guides. Until then, or if I never marry, they will remain friends who baffle, humble, and delight me with their oh-so-different, oh-so-common lives.

If you are single, what do your married friends do that make you grateful? If you are married, how are you grateful for your single friends? 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Thankful: Farmers' Markets

Today I am thankful for Famers' Markets and other small businesses. "Small is beautiful," said my favorite economist, and I attempt to live out this principle by searching for small markets and community businesses.  The closer I can be to the farmer, builder, or otherwise creator of the goods I need, the happier I am. I want the learn about heritage breeds of pigs from the farmer who sells me sausage. I want to the lady selling fruit trees to invite us out to her home to see the other trees. I want to reward people who work with dirt and bees and boats and animals all week, then rise early on a Saturday so that I can set a splendid table.

In Texas, the Waco Downtown Farmers Market not only provided me with in-season produce, fresh eggs, local cheese, and humanely-raised meats, but also served as a small festival at the end of many brutal academic weeks. I would see friends from church, or from Foxfire Fridays, or from school. I was so thankful for the clean, wholesome vigor of those markets. They reminded me to pray that my own life would be abundant and rich.

Today was only my second visit to the Mobile downtown market, but it has already rekindled my flagging interest in cooking well and wisely. Even better, it is becoming a place to talk, rest, watch, and listen with friends. Sadly, the market here doesn't run all year, as it does in Waco (come on, Mobile!), but I will gladly attend every Saturday I can. Today I gave thanks for the humor and generosity of the man pictured above, who sold me a bag of "apple persimmons," then spent five minutes explaining how and when to enjoy them. Farmers' Markets remind me that the world is full of honest people like him, and that is reason for thanks indeed.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Thankful: Indiana

Today I am thankful for Indiana. I didn't think much about it for the eighteen years I spent growing up there, but it was (and is) a Good Place: a place with trees, public libraries, farm festivals, gentle hills, red leaves in autumn. Returning to Indiana reminds me that home is not always a place that matches our abstract principles about what-makes-a-good-place-to-live, but is often rooted on something far more concrete and simple: it is a place that allows a wandering daughter to rest in things she could love even before wit and memory gave them names.

What are you thankful for today?

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Last year, I vowed that I would blog each day about gratitude (read the introduction here). I didn't manage many entries, not because I wasn't thankful, but because after scores of job applications and hundreds of dissertation pages, I had few words left. 

I'd like to try again this year. Each day I will post a paragraph, picture, or both that inspires my thanks. I would be so happy if you would join me by naming grace in the comments below. 

Today, I am grateful for things that grow: seeds in community gardens, chrysanthemums by the front door, bread dough, little girls, little boys, friendships, essays, willow trees, students, trust, Narnian lampposts, and laughter. 

Photo by Grace Schuler

What are you grateful for today?