Bones and Breath: On Faulkner and Faith

After World War I, the United States fell into an economic depression. We could say that it fell into another kind of depression as well. A depression, or spiritual funk, stimulated by philosophical polarities of the day. Indeed, forty years had already passed since the German philosopher Nietzsche claimed it was logical to reason that “God is dead.” There were those supposed inconsistencies between religion and science. Perhaps not in mainstream culture, but perhaps in academic atmospheres and in the classrooms of its universities. Clashes between scientists and religious fundamentalists in the 1920s certainly existed.

The human mind reasoned: how could God be alive? He obviously didn’t have control; man’s advancement had pretty much been obliterated at that point. Humanistic philosophy claimed that man could build and maintain society. And then World War I happened. Engineers pointed to crowning achievements of man’s inventions. And then the Titanic sank. The Roaring Twenties turned into the Great Depression of the ‘30s. Upon whose heels came the terrifying and unimaginable World War II. Man’s ability for progress, once accepted as fact, was now in question.

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Humanity was not asking: Will I prosper? Rather, in fear, it was crying out: Will I survive?

William Faulkner in his 1950 Pulitzer Prize speech addresses this fear.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?”

The thing with which we must come to terms is what a society full of fear produces. Think about the time in which you were most afraid. How did it control your decisions? How did it control your productivity? How did it control your understanding of life?

This fear, I think, has the possibility to produce a hopeless fatalism, which Faulkner must have observed on the earth, seeping from below the ground of modern society. And to that trembling mind, he offers this reminder:

“the basest of all things is to be afraid.”

For, Faulkner reasons, when writers are crippled by fear, they forget “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Faulkner insists that a writer…

“…must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid… Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

Here we notice Faulkner’s expression of mid 19th century Romantic sensibilities in his emphasis on the human heart. But there is his concurrent recognition of modernist skepticism, in which he says that humanity is basically saying: “The meaning of life? What meaning? What life? I’m fighting for my life, for control of my glands!”

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And Faulkner laments the effect of this perspective of survival. If a writer writes “of the glands,” Faulkner says,

“he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. …I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

This message of hope (and concurrent responsibility) certainly retains humanistic undertones. And maybe that is my point.

How utterly human is hope! We always hope even in the most impossible of situations! Why do children in concentration camps write poetry? Why does, as Maya Angelou asks, the caged bird sing?

Have you ignored that basic human emotion of hope? What is your mind’s perspective? What is your voice saying?

Is it fear that guides your voice? Is your voice a raucous squawk, your breath being crushed out of you, your voice simply the rush of oxygen into your lungs, a timid cry, an elemental whimper realizing that today you are, indeed, still alive? Or is your voice that of boredom, like SO MANY voices that we hear today… whether the tintinnabuli of posts, shares, likes, and updates… searching for meaning, trying to create meaning… where there is none?

Perhaps you are like those humans, of which, when contemplating life as if it’s the eternally inspirational sky, say only, “it has been wet… it has been windy… it has been warm.” You do not, as Victorian English art critic John Ruskin puts it, reject apathy against the mundane. Ruskin laments:

“Who, among the whole chattering crowd, can tell me of the forms and the precipices of the chain of tall white mountains that girded the horizon at noon yesterday? Who saw the narrow sunbeam that came out of the south and smote upon their summits until they melted and mouldered away in a dust of blue rain? Who saw the dance of the dead clouds when the sunlight left them last night, and the west wind blew them before it like withered leaves?”

These are the observations only possible through a perspective of hope in the midst of the mundane.

Now imagine this human hope infused with that which is divine, a hope which comes when we release ourselves, allowing our stubborn selves to accept sonship, claiming that we are children of God, and finally accepting the benefits of divine childhood, living in an assurance, and if not assurance, then careful, guarded acknowledgment of the promises of God, those promises which say, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” Or those manifestations of belief: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.”

Faulkner calls for hopeful artists.

Do you have a hope? Do you have a voice?

I pray you shall.

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Things I Didn’t Do in 2015: the Truth about Mediocrity

I’m a fixer. I have little tolerance for poorly-functioning organizations and irrelevant traditions. Yet I want to imagine myself as someone who is not afraid of daily sacrifice and short-term discipline that lead to long-term results. But do you ever get overwhelmed by your idea-bank, that list of things that need to be addressed and that list of ideas you might implement to address the challenges you’re facing? Sometimes, because of my perfectionistic tendencies, I can tend to think too small and only address a few things because I want to do everything perfectly. (Not “perfectly,” per se, but perform things with some level of thought, skill, and professionalism.) But do you ever feel like you don’t have the needed expertise, education, or even the proper personality or social skills needed to address the issue at hand?
Last year, I found myself in this situation only like a HUNDRED TIMES, and I’m learning that even though I’m 26 and supposed to know Stuff, it’s okay to experiment sometimes; I can guarantee you it will lead to important observations along the way.
Don’t be afraid of trying new things. I mean, there’s a possibility that you might learn something, but that’s just a risk you’ll have to take.

Things I did imperfectly in 2015, but at least I TRIED:

1. Motivate my students to get better grades and to enjoy school.
Um. So promising to take kids skiing may not be the best idea ever because, what do I know about organizing school trips that have the potential for breaking bones and being canceled due to the weather?
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Also, due to students’ requests, I organized a trip to a local mosque for visiting a weekly service. What do I know about Jumu’ah, and what should I tell my students about respectful interchanges with Muslims? Despite my lack of experience in these types of exchanges, we went anyway. Unsure what to do when we arrived, I told the boys to just “figure it out,” as they were whisked away to a different part of the building before we even left the parking lot. In the end, I found that doing something that doesn’t follow “my plan” and isn’t especially comfortable for me can be really beneficial to those around me, specifically my students.
This year I also implemented a “Blessing Slip” policy for my homeroom to complement our school’s “Demerit Slip” misbehavior policy. I haven’t implemented this policy perfectly, and I don’t know if it’s working how it’s supposed to (to motivate students to develop good character instead of just pointing out their faults), but it at least SOUNDS like a good idea.

2. Actually cooking.
So I made this salad.
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And a bunch Greek-seasoned meat in my crock pot. And I burned a bunch of salmon. But. I learned that if you don’t know much about cooking and if you don’t have a recipe, you really shouldn’t bother. So. 2016. Year of the Recipe. This is also the year of perfecting my French press brew. (I’m so bad at brewing freshly-roasted beans. But I have 365 days to keep practicing getting it perfect, so… things are looking up.)

3. Celebrating friends and family.
BOOM. Golden birthday this year!
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I spend a lot of time talking to people in their 20s, and one thing that these (single) people talk a lot about is how our social groups aren’t very large or varied and how hard it is to develop community and fellowship for ourselves. Even though many of us do not have the support, friendships, or even church relationships that we always imagined, that does not mean that we shouldn’t celebrate the people we’re surrounded with, no matter how complicated those relationships are. We’re realizing that community is a beautiful thing that should be celebrated in all of its forms.
We are also realizing the immeasurable value of family. And that some of the best celebrations are the quiet, unpublished ones you share with family.

Because, seriously. Aren’t my parents SO CUTE.
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And. Even though the internet is OVERRUN with baby pictures. (Seriously, is that all that is on Instagram these days? Kid pictures?) I’m indulging myself and publishing pictures of MY CHILDREN, my ahDORable nieces.
Sabrina, the impossibly thick-haired infant.
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Cassidy, the incredible smart almost 2 year old, who already excels at imaginary play.
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She loves dollies and measuring spoons and pretending to feed people. She is also extremely gentle, patting her infant sister in the tenderest of ways. Honestly, my favorite memory from Christmas was when we were alone in the kitchen together, and even though I am very self-conscious being with children, I found that jumping as high as I can makes her smile, so I kept jumping and jumping, and it was so ridiculous, and I realized, Oh. This is what is beautiful about hanging out with a child. Letting go of your inhibitions to love them.

4. Exercising safely.
Failing to finish a marathon was one of my biggest disappointments this year, along with suffering a pretty significant running injury that is forcing me off the road for several months. Is it ironic that the year that I’ve focused the MOST on my health is the year that I’ve spent the most time in the doctor’s office? However, I’ve learned a ton about this specific running injury and other aspects of healthy living and healthy exercising.
Also, is it ironic that the year that we have an impossibly warm winter, I’m laid up from all exercise due to strict instructions from my podiatrist, and I’m missing what could have been the most active outdoor winter exercise season ever in my minimalist, gym-less existence? Friends, we will be having a moment of silence for all those missed winter runs.



Sigh. Thing I’m not doing in 2016: giving up on exercising safely. Weight room: I am looking at you. (Staying off one’s foot makes it nearly impossible to exercise (cheaply), but I hope to at least return to cross training soon! Also, to lifting all the [small] weights.)

5. Writing more.
Last spring had flown by, and I, realizing my poor blog had been neglected, quickly typed out a snarky little post and dashed off with friends to celebrate that another year of teaching was in the bag, and that day for the first time Shasta’s Fog BLEW UP with caring and crotchety commenters. While I’m not going to relive the finer points of the things I learned from THAT experience, I think it is safe to say that (1) it happened, and (2) I’m still writing despite.
I’m also occasionally sending pieces over to The Elkhart Truth as a community blogger, and while I’m not nearly as prolific as I want to be as a writer, I’m realizing that even small steps count, and really great things can come out of doing even a little bit, rather than doing nothing at all. For example, there I am, sending occasional pieces to an online county newspaper when Jeffrey Trachtenberg from the The Wall Street Journal reads my summer reading post on the Elkhart Truth page and reaches out to me and ends up quoting Shasta’s Fog in an article about Harper Lee’s sequel Go Set a Watchman! It was a lesson to me that in writing, every little bit of effort counts.

In conclusion, I kind of hate this post, because I hate mediocrity, and this post is pretty much me telling you: it’s okay to be mediocre. But the point is: being mediocre is better than not being anything at all. Living imperfectly and asking for the grace of God to infuse your experiments is better than giving up and saying, “It’s impossible to expect change here.” Demanding small changes is better than suggesting monumental revolution at the expense of relationship. (Hmmm, do I believe that? It remains to be seen.)

I think this year, I’m in the balance. Between shielding blossoms in hope and crushing those growing blossoms, outfitted in rugged hikers, and climbing for higher ground.

In 2016, don’t stop.

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The Post About Fear

My weekend adventuring found me smack-dab between wall-to-wall revelers at Chicago’s 20th annual Christkindlmarkt, an outdoor German Christmas market. Choosing not to brave the crowds alone, I invited my parents and sister to join me Saturday morning at this festive event, held on weekends throughout the month of December. I’ve always wanted to go, and this year I finally made it happen! I warned my family ahead of time about the weekend crowds, but even I was not prepared for the land-locked, stock-still standing in droves, and the bumping, inching, moving, but it was all cool because ALL THE SAUSAGES and ALL THE CHOCOLATE!

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I’ve mentioned before on my blog my crush on Germany (it’s where my parents fell in love) and how tiny bits of German culture have found their way into our family. Needless to say, we all enjoyed browsing vendors of authentic German goods, from nativities, to ornaments, to German Christmas pyramids (a beloved tradition of my childhood), to cuckoo clocks, and other hand-carved crafts. And of course we enjoyed fresh Bavarian soft pretzels, German marzipan, and sausage and sauerkraut! (All in all, a bit kitschy, but a good kitschy.)

Despite the crowds, my family did great! We all agreed that reserved parking was the way to go! (Thank you SpotHero App!) Ahead of time, I was able to procure for us a cheap parking space within one minute walking distance of the festival. (Located beneath the Block Thirty-Seven mall, we also had easy access to public restrooms.)

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These are literally the only three pictures I took. There were so many people, I could barely even raise my arms to get my smartphone in the air.

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But this is the post that’s not about Christkindlmarkt, but rather about fear. Because, honestly, I have to admit that my family was a little nervous about being in a large crowd like that in a major American city, considering recent current events. My family and I mentioned it before we went. Would we be safe if we go? I knew we would be less than two blocks from the location of last week’s Chicago protests (where three people were arrested). And considering other current event headlines… could it be possible that even Chicago could be the location of a terrorist attack at some point? (Normally, I’m not a very anxious person in large cities, but I have to admit that I did think about it before I went.) And the crowded spaces didn’t help either.

Interestingly, though not surprisingly, a piece of music offered a brilliant contrast to these fears and suspicions.

Creeping past yet another wooden food booth offering German sweet dumplings and bratwurst, I tuned into the holiday melody pouring out of the speaker of the tiny stand: Bing Crosby’s rendition of “Faith of our Fathers,” his respectable baritone and cheery orchestra weaving in and around the bobbing bevy of gray hats, black coats, and warm cheeks. My sister and I unconsciously began humming the familiar alto line… And as the lines of humans pushed me up against a wrought iron gate (behind which were free, liberated fat gray pigeons pecking at nothing, really), I thought about the words to that nineteenth-century hymn. Those words spoke to me in the midst of that slow-moving, confining crowd.

It spoke to me and to my questions of: What is the answer to all this violence? What is the hope for humankind? What shall we do for this injured and battered world? (Because I’m living a little heaven right now compared to the people of San Bernadino or compared to displaced Middle Eastern refugees.) What answers do I have for others? What answers do I have, especially in this world of bitter reactions to religious answers? What message do I have for the conflicts that seemingly abound on every front? Where, more and more, religion is aligned with fanaticism? And where fanaticism is aligned with violence, carnage, and death? Or where it seems that one cannot make any claim (especially about the relevance of God in these issues) without getting bitterly struck down?

The hymn spoke of something deep. Of a faith that gives resilience during times of antagonism. Of a love that is stronger than death. Of a love for our fearful friends and also our hostile enemies. Of a faith that gives one courage to follow one’s conscience. Of a faith that sometimes uses words. And of a love that always uses action.

(Interestingly, this hymn comes to us from a rather awkward time in Christian history, during the martyrdom of Catholics by the Church of England, beginning with Henry VIII. Inspired to memorialize these shattering, appalling events, Frederick Faber penned this memorable hymn in 1849.)

I can’t think of a more hopeless history, than of the church fighting with itself. Fighting with itself unto death. What despair these events must have initiated.

Perhaps this hymn has something to say about the multiplicity of conflicts in which we find ourselves today. (I’m thinking of the conflicts of politics, the conflicts of race and class, the conflicts of spirituality and nonspirituality, and the ultimate inner conflict between God and godlessness.) Yet instead of despair, these words offer hope (though it may seem harsh in its solidarity).

Faith of our Fathers! living still
In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword:
Oh, how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene’er we hear that glorious word.
Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith!
We will be true to thee till death.

Our Fathers, chained in prisons dark,
Were still in heart and conscience free:
How sweet would be their children’s fate,
If they, like them, could die for thee!
Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith!
We will be true to thee till death.

Faith of our Fathers! we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife:
And preach thee too, as love knows how
By kindly words and virtuous life:
Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith!
We will be true to thee till death.

This tune floated above the faces of the crowd that slipped past, and as I searched their expressionless, multiethnic faces, I hummed the alto line, and I became strangely proud. Proud to be a Christian. Proud of my faith. Proud that I am celebrating Christmas. Proud that I partake of a faith, that, truly expressed, loves instead of hates. Proud that I serve a God of mercy, Who teaches me mercy (even though I am a slow learner).

It is this faith and perfect love that casts out fear.

And as sour smells of Glühwein and spicy scents of sausages punctuated the air, and as little families formed human chains midst the puzzles of shoulders, as college students laughed raucously, as inexpressive elderly couples munched on potato pancakes, and as strangers pushed and shoved past, this realization of the surety of love casting out fear brought a moment of peace. And I smiled.

Finding Peace for Paris

I spent most of Friday night watching my phone light up with news updates about the Paris attacks. I scrolled through BBC feeds, New York Times articles, and a piece in The Globe and Mail.

And I’m not okay.

I’m really shaken up. I’m torn up. I can’t even go to bed right now because of how disturbed I am.

Which is strange because I’m a small-town Midwesterner, and I don’t know any French people, nor any Parisians.

But I can’t let it go, and I’m sitting up late bugging my roommates with questions like “Why Paris?” “Why now?”

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Doug Sanders in the Globe and Mail article “Attack on Paris an assult on the city itself” makes a statement concerning the locations of the attacks: a legendary concert hall hosting a U.S. independent rock band, a Cambodian restaurant in a bohemian district, and a France-Germany soccer match.

“These do not appear to be symbolic targets. They are not places related to the French state, to the military, to religion or commerce or international affairs. Rather, they are targets chosen, it seems, for maximum carnage: Popular, unprotected, soft targets all on busy thoroughfares with large crowds engaged in popular Parisian evening activities. It was, then, an attack on Paris itself. It is hard to avoid seeing it as an attack on the very spirit of modern, pluralist Paris, on the youthful libertine air that still permeates the French capital.”

Was it, simply, an attack on a modern, pluralist city? If so, what is the reaction to, exactly? Is it related to the Charlie Hebdo incident? Do we know who claims responsibility for the attacks? Are other European nations in danger? We will continue to watch this story unfold in the coming days.

These questions and more swirled around in my mind as I sat on my bedroom floor and prayed.

Yet even though I am asking so many “whys”, I am reminded of the “becauses.” Why do these things happen? Why does evil continue?

Evil exists because people all over the world have evil inside of them. I have evil inside of me.

While I sat on my bedroom floor, sipping tea, staring at empty space, I was reminded of all the times this week that I didn’t choose good. That time when I was irritated and snapped at an annoying student. That time when I was tempted to be selfish with a family member. And I was reminded of all the times this week that I didn’t choose God, the only truly good Being. And I chose my own selfish way instead. (“I don’t really need to read the inspired Word tonight. I can read something else.”) (“Whatever. This thing doesn’t really matter to Him. He wouldn’t really care. So I’m going to do what I want.”) I didn’t choose good this week because I never asked myself, “What can I do to get closer to God this week and grow His goodness in my life?”

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I think that evil grows just a little bit when we live like this. And when it’s compounded to a thousand decisions a day, and multiplied by a thousand people, in my town, and then multiplied by the millions of people in my country, and my country multiplied many times over… … I think this is how tiny seeds of selfishness grow and become the fields we now have of dishonesty, of greed, and of corruption, which always lead to injustice. And where there is injustice, there is violence and death.

I’m reading the book Loving Jesus by Mother Theresa. She writes about a young Sister, just graduated from university, from a well-to-do Indian family who had just joined the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and was required to spend time at the Home for Dying Destitutes. Mother Theresa cautioned her: “You saw the priest during the Mass, with what love, with what delicate care he touched the body of Christ. Make sure you do the same thing when you get to the home, because Jesus is there in a distressing disguise.” The young woman returned after three hours, and Mother Theresa was amazed to find her beaming. She said, “They brought a man from the street who had fallen into a drain and had been there for some time. He was covered with maggots and dirt and wounds. And though I found it very difficult, I cleaned him, and I knew I was touching the body of Christ!”

Reading this book moved me. Because, you see, this week, the evil inside of me (my selfish humanness) really wanted to give a difficult (yet needy) student an earful for her irresponsibility. But my conscience spoke beautifully and loudly to me. “That child is Jesus to you. You must treat her like Jesus.” And I swallowed the lecture, which would have surely wounded, and instead began helping.

These are the moments that breathe life. This is how good grows in the world.

It is very easy for us to read newspaper headlines and point out all the evil in the world. But that’s the point. Anyone can do that. My 12 year old students can do that. But I will tell you what a 12 year old cannot do. They cannot (or at least they find it very hard to) call out and fix the evil within themselves.

We find it so easy to point fingers at terrorist groups, at governments, at nations, and at religions other than our own. But we do not recognize the evil that we carry with us every day. An evil that we refuse to regard. A sinful habit that we ignore. (Which may not necessarily be an overt “sin” other than the sin of ignoring or abandoning God, the bringer of good, which is no less serious.)

I challenge you who want to find peace for Paris.

First, you must find the evil within yourself. And you must recognize it and deal with it. You must make peace in your own home. You must first find peace in your own heart.

Like Mother Theresa says: “It is always so much easier for us to be very kind to the people outside our own circle than to be full of smiles and full of love to those in our own homes… We only have today. If we help our children to be what they should be today, then, when tomorrow becomes today, they will have the necessary courage to face it with greater love.”

This greater love, beginning with each of us, in our own hearts… in your heart and in mine… this greater love is the path to finding peace for Paris.

May you find that peace in the love of Jesus Christ, which is the balm that heals the wounds inflicted by evil in our world. May this balm heal our hearts, so that we may in turn heal our families, our children, and our lands.

O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night,
Come to us with Thy tender love, my soul’s delight.
Unto Thee, O Lord, in affliction I call,
My comfort by day, and my song in the night.

O why should I wander, an alien from Thee,
Or cry in the desert Thy face to see?
My comfort and joy, my soul’s delight,
O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night.

Don’t Read This Blog Post. Read a Book.

Even though most of my days consist of the following: Grammar Grammar Grammar Poetry Grammar Grammar Spanish Grammar Grammar Lunch Grammar Grammar Run Grammar Grammar Grade Composition Grammar, I do manage to get out of my house
a
few
times
a
year.

One evening last week, I decided to take a night off from adulting, and I got all dressed up and went to The Library and checked out Books That I Like. This past week, I’ve been enjoying a fat book of poems (selected by Garrison Keillor) that includes a variety of poems organized around different subjects like “God,” “Trips,” “Lovers,” “Snow,” and my personal favorite category, “Yellow,” featuring the poem: “Elvis Kissed Me.” (?)

In this collection, I stumbled upon this little Dickinsonian gem:

“We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” by Emily Dickinson

We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When Light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye –

A Moment – We Uncertain step
For newness of the night –
Then – fit our Vision to the Dark –
And meet the Road – erect –

And so of larger – Darknesses –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign –
Or Star – come out – within –

The Bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –

Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.

No, but seriously, a poem a day is a good thing.

So is peeling myself away from social media and letting myself be engrossed in a book, like my current classic, Great Expectations, which I’m reading for the first time (I knew I had to after I saw the movie). #lameenglishteacher

I absolutely love it. It’s quite readable, compared to A Tale of Two Cities. And I love the main character, yet despise him. I know him because he is human. He is us.

Halfway through the novel, readers understand Pip’s self-serving nature, and the older narrator laments his convenient behavior that in hindsight so obviously served his selfish desires rather than his fellow man, the product of which is quite dismal in any human.

“All other swindlers upon earth are nothing to self-swindlers, and with such pretences did I cheat myself. Surely a curious thing. That I should innocently take a bad half-crown of somebody else’s manufacture, is reasonable enough; but that I should knowingly reckon on the spurious coin of my own make, as good money! An obliging stranger, under pretence of company folding up my bank-notes for security’s sake, abstracts the notes and gives me nutshells; but what is his sleight of hand to mine, when I fold up my own nutshells and pass them on myself as notes.”

Oh, Dickens.

This weekend I also slipped away to Goshen’s art-themed First Friday event and after browsing works by local artists enjoyed a Nutella mocha at one of my favorite coffee shops. I also bought coffee beans from a girl with blue hair who smiled at me. It is so nice to be smiled at.

And of course we had time to browse my favorite Goshen book shop, complete with old, creaky wooden floors, and tall old bookshelves, where I picked up yet another book but refused to feel guilty about it because it’s a genre I rarely read: contemporary fiction. Actually, technically, it’s contemporary nonfiction, but it reads like a novel. I read the first chapter surrounded by my friends who were arguing about the history of Mennonite women as we sat at a small round table shoved between two rows of bookshelves. In the first chapter, this fifty year old guy marries a sixteen year old girl even though he already has a wife. I bought the book because I was so disgusted (yet intrigued at the same time). How does one begin to understand a culture that foreign? Looking forward to reading The Bookseller of Kabul! (Even though it’s written by a Westerner, and the Afghan man that she wrote about sued her, saying she defamed his character, his family, and his country.) That sounds a little complex. Hopefully, I will read critically.

What are you reading right now? What do you WANT to be reading right now?

On Teaching Leadership: How Twelve Kids Raised $6000 for Syrian Refugees

We do not expect much from our youth today. When our students exhibit the all-too-common irresponsibility of a self-gratifying entertainment-driven society, we nod our heads knowingly. “Kids these days.” As a third-year English teacher, I’ve been around enough teachers to know that, all too often, sarcasm is a way of coping with young people’s lack of earnestness. We complain about their apathy, their lethargy, and their lack of leadership. We roll our eyes at their dispassionate, caffeine-sodden dreary faces. We watch them play their popularity games and wonder if they’ll ever grow up. We sigh, fatalistically, and point to their culture or their parents and roll our eyes. “They’re a bunch of idiots,” I hear us say. We complain about their lack of leadership. We complain. But we do not teach. We expect. But we do not model.

The thing about teaching leadership is that it takes time. I realized this the day that I ran damage control for a junior high student council event, and I found myself dashing about, flinging open windows, desperately shooing out smoke from an overheating cotton candy machine, while the entire school gathered in the parking lot at the behest of squalling alarms blaring their warnings. It was at that moment that I realized that I had two choices. I could blame. Or I could teach.

I could teach leadership.

Over the past two years, I’ve adopted a much more explicit approach to teaching leadership, especially in forming my class’s student council. Before nominations, I remind them what a student council is, and I hint at the possibilities of what I believe a junior high class can accomplish. I remind that they should not vote for their best friends or for whom they think is the coolest. It is not a popularity contest. Rather they ought to think about who is the most creative, who has the best ideas, and who is hard-working enough to carry out their own ideas. I challenge them by saying that no class before has taken me seriously on this point. This makes students perk up.

Last year it was a miracle if I could get my student council to actually fill out my “meeting minutes” templates. (Yes, organization is a part of leadership.) This year I was surprised to find curious, newly-elected student council members asking when their first meeting was. And one young man came to his first meeting with a little box of special notecards labeled “Student Council.” However, I still expected a very normal junior high student council, and I expected them to plan the normal frivolous events, full of indulgent ideas. (We eat a looooot of birthday pizza, that’s all I’m saying.) So I was curious when two student council girls asked to meet during study hall. They came to me a half-hour later asking if they could host a fundraiser for Christians in Iraq being persecuted by ISIS. (!) What a surprise! A glimmer of hope shined above their questioning faces. None of my students had ever done anything like this before. It was outside-of-the-box. And it demonstrated to me a higher-order development in them, because the students would be getting absolutely nothing out of it. Their motivation was purely selfless.

It was certainly a learning experience for all of us. Their youthful zeal wanted their fundraiser and Rome to be built in a day, and we had to talk about the importance of finding a charity first (which takes time), of creating fliers, and of contacting donors. (Okay, I cheated. I created the fliers, loosely based on the hand-written instructions they had given me, but give me a break. This was the first event like this that we’ve ever done. There’s plenty more time to teach 13 year olds layout skills.) Besides, the students used their creativity in other ways, so that besides contacting parents, grandparents, and their local congregations, they also hosted a classroom bake sale, some students baking brownies, others providing Rise & Roll donuts, which high school students hoarded in handfuls while dropping large bills in a glass jar. (I encouraged the students to make our bake sale free, instead seeking “Donations Accepted.”) One eighth grader coordinated with the science teacher to see if she would be willing to sell extra recess and donate the money to our fundraiser. Quite a few junior high students bought ten minutes of extra recess. We received an outpouring of generosity, and in a few weeks, my class of twelve students raised over $6000, which we donated to Christian Aid Ministries’ “Conflict in Syria” and “Terror in Iraq” projects, which provide immediate assistance in the form of food parcels and hygiene items to fleeing Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

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I’m delighted with what my students have accomplished with a relatively simple idea, baked up by two junior high girls one September afternoon. I asked in a class discussion where the idea to help refugees came from, and the council never really said, but one student offered, “Well, they really need our help.” We went on to discuss what it must mean to live in a country that is in a state of war. In a state of anarchy. No government. No infrastructure. Bombed-out buildings. You have to leave your home. You travel with only the things you can carry. Your father and sister are killed. Your mom is taking care of your baby siblings. And there are no clean diapers for days.

And I liked how this fundraiser related to some other conversations we’ve been having in high school English. Conversations about immigration and the migrant crisis in Europe, which are removed from our own American immigration issues, but not very. So when we talked in 9th and 10th about German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the decisions that she and other European nations have to be making due to migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, we talked about this, and how 11,000 Icelanders have offered to house Syrian refugees to help the European crisis, even though their government is technically only required to accept 50 immigrants. And we talked about which international actions better relate to Christ-like attitudes toward those in need. These are passing topics in my classes. Things I insert into boring grammar lectures about colons and semicolons. But you see, there’s a big difference between “I like the following types of ice cream: chocolate, mint, and raspberry” and “Refugees migrating to Germany come from the following countries: Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” Yes, in my classes, grammar is often a cover for discussing current events. And these discussions are not always comfortable as my students often have their own strong opinions about immigration, but I hope to at least broaden the discussion by looking at immigration issues on an international level. Because I would hate for my students to graduate and think that life is made up of the four walls of Nappanee, Indiana, America.

And because leadership must be taught. Leadership is something that is lacking in today’s world. Where are leaders of integrity? Where are leaders who are servants? Where is the lack of bias? Where is the knowledgeable leader? Where is the hopeful leader? Where is the leader who rises above the constant slinging of critiques and instead guides in quiet humility, always pointing to truth, beauty, and goodness?

I’m quite proud of my young students. I’m proud that a few of them selflessly responded to an injustice. And I truly hope that this is just the beginning. To my fellow teachers I say, “Do not give up.” Continue teaching leadership. Expect it. You will reap rewards in due time if you do not give up.

Eyes on the Prize

Hello friends! Just a little update on my birthday-present marathon!

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So this year I turned 26 on the 26th, and following a very magical golden birthday celebration, I planned an even more epic celebration: running a 26.2 marathon!

And this post is announcing that….

Last week, I dropped out.

ALL THE SAD FACES.

Five weeks ago, I suffered an injury in my right foot which I have yet to identify as either a slight sprain or plantar fasciitis. Two days after my 18 mile long run (which I can only describe as exceedingly exotic, one of the most perfect long runs I’ve ever had), I went out for a short run on a route I don’t normally run. Two mistakes: I didn’t stretch out properly, and I was running on uneven ground. The following day I was experiencing noticeable arch pain and bruising on the right side of my foot. I immediately R.I.C.E. ed and quit running for two days. Foolishly, I went out later that week for six miles, running at normal pace. I was able to endure the tightness in my foot. By the time for my next long run, I could barely pound out four miles, and I limped home, collapsing in my laundry room like a tipped-over bucket of tears for my roommates to clean up. Determined not to give up, I resolved to stay off my foot for a solid week and a half. I turned to biking and circuit training to maintain my physical fitness. I wore a brace, iced religiously, and did stretches and therapy daily. (Though I fought the urge to throw in the towel and simply eat copious amounts of baked goods.) Instead of running my last long run of 20 miles, I opted to bike instead, after a morning workout. This was a very low day for me. I was quite upset about not having the chance to run 20 miles. (Yes, I understand not very many people can relate to this!) I slowly returned to running by first walking several miles, then slowly increasing mileage over the next week. My next mistake was thinking I could throw in a longish 13 mile run the same week. I felt the need to run that distance because I had missed my last long run, and I wanted to test myself to see if I could expect to finish a marathon distance in two weeks. I finished 13, but I was grimacing the last three miles. An ice bath and stretching didn’t amend the pain I was feeling in my arch. With two weeks til race day, my hopes were slowly fading. I eased up on running again and focused on stretching, icing, and easy balance exercises. However, the closer it came to race day, and the more reading and research I did, I realized that it was wisest to drop out, heal up, and focus on healthy running, rather than a defiant finish that could have finished my running career forever.

So this weekend, instead of running 26.2 miles, I celebrated four solid months of valuable long-distance training by skipping town with this chica, a running buddy and very dear friend.

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We began our day with retail therapy at IKEA,

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before consuming allllll the steak at a the very delicious Wildfire restaurant in Oak Brook, just west of Chicago.

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I enjoyed the Basil Hayden’s Bourbon Tenderloin Tip with grilled red onions and wild rice, and I will spare you the details, which is really just me saying, “OH MY GOODNESS IT WAS THE BEST MEAT I HAVE EVER TASTED.” The benefit of running is learning to eat good protein, and I’ve certainly branched out in this area due to training.

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The sun shined brilliantly as made our way from shop to shop, leisurely browsing some of our favorite stores, and discovering new favorites (including Anthropologie, which I’ve never had a particular fancy for, until this Saturday, when I found these cunning blue coasters, each one featuring an extra-large, drab bird perched atop an ugly, crooked horse creature.) The find of the day.

It wouldn’t be the end of marathon training without a significant dessert, which I chose to be the Cheesecake Factory’s chocolate tuxedo cream cheesecake, topped off with Starbucks coffee.

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It was a very happy day indeed, despite the disappointment of a missed goal.

I really do hope to run my race sometime. No matter when I finish, it will be significant, but as thethingaboutchange says, “just less poetic.” Yet I refuse to look at this as four months of “wasted” training because I’ve learned so many lessons, and, additionally, I simply just feel great! Yay, fitness goals!

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For now, I can turn my attention back to the classroom, and relish in all those little moments that make my day-job worthwhile. Like pointing out to my students that I actually HAVE descended from a witch (my mother’s maiden name matches that of one of Salem, Massachusetts condemned witches), like watching tenth grade boys laugh hysterically while listening to stories about apostrophes in Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and, at our school’s annual open house, convincing students and parents alike, that, yes, you actually CAN eat cactus, and isn’t it nice, and doesn’t it taste like pickled peppers?

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So long, everyone!