faith, homelessness, logic, marriage

The first day

By late August, summer exhaustion has settled in: all the vacation reading has been devoured, and it’s much too hot to enjoy being outside. Even in Indiana, where I grew up, late summer feels parched and sluggish, bug-ridden and overripe. I feel it now as strongly as I did as a child: it’s time for a new season, a change, time to rouse from the sluggish summer haze. For twenty-six of my thirty-one years, this new season began on the first day of school.

It might even be more accurate to say that every summer of my life has eventually given way to the autumn joy of returning to school. My parents have been parachurch ministers to college students for more than thirty years, and so the rhythms of an academic calendar oriented our entire household. Even as I toddler I began “playing school” with my dolls. I would pull all the thickest books from my parents’ shelves, arrange my classroom, assign impossible amounts of reading, and then end the lesson with a tea party. When I actually began kindergarten, in 1989, I cried at the end of the first week because mama had to tell me that I didn’t get to go back on Saturdays.

For a naturally shy child, the structure of a school day felt secure. There were rules about where to sit and how to play, there were instructions about when to talk to the other children. I loved the order of it all: having a special hook for my backpack, knowing that today was the day for playing with the blocks but not the play-dough. And I was good–really good, I later realized– at the schoolwork itself. Anything related to words and stories came naturally to me, and I had enough curiosity and respect for my teachers to work hard at the other subjects. Little introvert that I was, I even loved the quiet, workmanlike intensity of standardized test days, the feeling of being surrounded by a roomful of friends, hard at work even as I was.

There were, of course, hard days, even years. Graduate school tested my love of school in deep ways, but no matter how stressful or disheartening one semester might be, sometime of my child’s faith in that first day of school lingered. A fresh start. new habits, new goals and hopes. When I finished my PhD and began teaching full-time, the delights of the first day only increased. Now I was able to welcome the hope of a new year not only for myself, but for others. I could bring students into the world I loved, sharing with them the knowledge and practices that I knew had value.

But this year, for the first time since I was five years old, there’s no first day of school. There could have been: I have said no to three part-time teaching positions in the three months since I moved here. According to professional logic or our household budget, this choice makes no sense. It feels risky, even foolish. And yet, I made this choice out of hope. Hopes for a marriage in which my husband and I are deeply involved in one another’s work, rather than supporting one another as spectators. Hopes that I can answer the call to write, both as a scholar and a storyteller, with unprecedented intensity and purpose. Hopes that my skills as a teacher and writer could become a part of what the Community First! Village is doing to revolutionize the church’s response to homelessness. Hopes that I might live the sort of stories I’ve always loved to teach.

Already it has been hard. I am like a child again, unsure of where to sit, timid in the face of the other kids and the games they play. And apparently there are no report cards or degrees, no confirmation that all the work has been worthwhile. And yet — I have brought my hopes to the workshop of this new life. The dreams are half-formed things, and the tools to refine them feel awkward in my hands. I have neither syllabus nor schoolbook to guide my days, but I am wide awake, and there’s work to be done. Today is the first day.

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domestic arts, everyday parables, fiber crafts

The tension and the tedium

“I’ve tossed everything together.”

“I’ve woven everything together.”

What’s the difference between these two sentences? The first suggests haste, casualness, even indifference. The second sentence, on the other hand, connotes order and care, whether “everything” means ideas or paperwork or relationships.

While tossing has its place (salad, anyone?), we tend to use the verb “to weave” when describing things of great value: we speak of “weaving dreams,” or of a new husband and wife being “woven” together through love. Hardly trendspeak, these phrases have shaped language and thought for centuries: the ancient poet Homer, for example, uses weaving as a metaphor for human cunning and wisdom. So while most modern people have never seen anyone create real cloth on a “definite loom” (to borrow John Updike’s phrase), weaving has, for thousands of years, represented wise planning, careful arrangement, skillful execution. Even more, the products of weaving–cloths and fabrics of all kinds–can be emblems of the good things human culture can produce. Both literally and symbolically, then, “to weave” suggests a patterned beauty, a structured strength. It reveals a longing for care, intention, and integration.

When our ancestors first used weaving as a metaphor, they did so with deep knowledge of the processes and products involved. Unfortunately, with inherited language we are always in danger of letting our symbols grow ignorant and vague. Thus, while I can deploy the metaphor “to weave” with great confidence, I am only beginning to learn the wisdom of the literal craft.

Even as a novice weaver, I have already found so much buried in its most basic skills. At first, I was impatient for the exciting part — the shuttle moving from side to side, over and under, each pass building an intricate and beautiful pattern.  I quickly learned, however, that a lot of work must precede that swift and satisfying work. This preliminary process has the ominous name of warping, and it means to stretch a number of vertical threads, under very high tension, from one end of the loom to the other. Even on the simplest of looms, the warping process can be incredibly tedious: some threads must be remain stationary during weaving, while others must be free to go up and down, and these different groups must be attached to the loom differently, thread by thread. At the same time, the weaver must attend to the colors of the threads, and how the vertical hues will interact with the weft (horizontal threads) to create the final pattern. The more complex the loom and pattern, the more demanding this warping process becomes. Finally, once the threads have been arranged in the proper patterns and colors, the weaver must tighten the threads with considerable pressure. If these vertical warp threads are not taut, they will tangle with the weft, creating a slack mess rather than a clear, structured design. If the threads cannot withstand the stress of tensioning before weaving, they will inevitably break during the friction and movement of the weaving itself.

Because I am in a season of so much newness–new marriage, new place, new forms giving shape to my calling–even these elementary lessons in weaving have challenged and comforted me. Do I resent the paperwork involved with moving, changing my name, switching insurance companies, and turning my Alabama home into rental property? Does the anxiety of networking temper my enthusiasm for new enterprises here at the Village? Does the long work of revision feel laborious compared to the thrill of a published piece? To each of these questions, the answer can be yes. Even the most satisfying work has its tedious hours, its stressful encounters and accountability. These tasks can feel like intrusions upon the “real” work, the satisfying heart of our labor. And yet, they form the bones of our crafts, whether that means creating a home, writing a book, starting a business, or weaving a strong piece of cloth. Hurrying through the humble or frightening work now, creates waste and confusion in the long run.

As I look with satisfaction at the first pattern to come from my loom, I resolve not to resent the paperwork or preparation. Rather, I’m learning to give thanks for the time, ability, and courage to do the work behind the cloth. We live in a world of tangled philosophies, careless habits, and shoddy work. Attending to what is difficult or mundane bears witness to another, better form of life, preparing the way for the patterns of God’s hidden kingdom.

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everyday parables, faith, glimpse, marriage, photography

After the rains

As the rains fall, don’t rush to name them, “blessing” or “curse.” Allow yourself to look on nourished fields and grace-green trees, but don’t forget the floods that have washed away homes and hopes.

It is good to cry when it rains, to feel at home with the sky’s weeping, to remember that you are not alone in whatever sorrows have filled your eyes.

But after it rains, dry your eyes. Sew for yourself a skirt the color of Texas wildflowers, and walk down a road you do not know. Ponder the names of the trees, and look out on new fields, wide-open spaces. Don’t be afraid.

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education, life together, marriage, singleness

An Apprentice Lover: The Wisdom of Saying, “Yes”

There are so many ways to tell a story. I could begin in medias res and describe the moment, mid-July, when I stepped out of the shower and announced to God and to my hound-dog, “I want to marry Steven.” Or I could render our tale as an allegory. I would call it, “The Romance of Farsight and Tender-heart,” and there would be a ringing bell, a garden and an ivory tower and a dark but lovely path between the two. Narrating by mere arithmetic might cause a scandal, but the numbers are true, too: he proposed the second time we met face-to-face; I said yes after knowing him for only seven weeks.

I’m over-thinking this task; as usual. Then again, how could I change my entire life, my name, for something that could be easily summarized? This love, this coming covenant, is too much for any single telling.

I’ve always had trouble saying what I want: not because I don’t know, but because I have an instinctual, irrational conviction that being a bother is somehow the worst of all sins. When I was a little girl, six or seven years old, a lady at church came up and asked me if I wanted one of the cookies she had baked for the children in the nursery. “No,” I replied. In fact, I wanted a cookie quite badly, but it seemed greedy to say yes.  As I pondered marriage through my twenties, it felt greedy to ask God for any further blessings. The lines had already fallen in such pleasant places for me. Even more, some part of me felt that desiring marriage would somehow betray all the people who had helped me build such a beautiful single life.

I mention this to emphasize how remarkable it was that I knew so quickly, and so surely, that I want to marry Steven. We met on eHarmony (I had only had an account for a week, and that simply to prove to my aunt that it wouldn’t work), and the messages we exchanged in the first two days delighted and fascinated me: he mentioned both Bonhoeffer  and Anne of Green Gables among his favorite books, one picture showed him with a chicken on his head, and his first words to me were engaging and good-humored. That first weekend, I was checking my email every ten minutes, hoping he had responded to the next set of questions so I could read more about the friends he loved, or his dreams of living in intentional community. By the time we first spoke on the phone–only forty-eight hours after our initial contact–I already knew he was handsome, interesting, hardworking, and funny. By the end of our first conversation, I knew he was smart, visionary, easy to talk to, and far from shy. I said to my mother, “Even if I were a nun, I would still want to meet this guy. I’m just so glad people like this exist!”

When, at the end of our first phone call, he asked if I would meet him in New Orleans two weeks later, and I said yes, I knew that something strange was happening to me. The girl who hates to change her plans, the girl who hates to drive–here I was spontaneously agreeing to drive to a city I do not know to meet a stranger.  New Orleans was a weekend of serendipity and conversation, and the day after I returned he asked if I would like to come to Austin later in the summer. I did, traveling down the last weekend of July. By the end of that weekend, I knew that Steven is a man who loves Jesus and wants to live his life in a way that only makes sense because of the Gospel. I knew that he loves his friends and wants to serve others not only in marriage, but in community with others, and always among the poor that Christ loves. I knew that he can take charge of a situation but that he is not vainglorious. I knew that he can ask questions that provoke and clarify, but also that he longs to be challenged and drawn out, too. I knew that his boss, his friends, and even strangers on street respect him. I knew that he reads wise books and ponders Scripture. I knew that he prays well. I knew that he dreams but also put his dreams in to practice. I knew that he had begun to care for me, and that he wanted my trust, perhaps without entirely understanding why. I knew that each time we were in the car together, I would hope that the ride would be a long one, simply to prolong the pleasure of being near him and talking with him. I knew that I liked his friends, and loved the trusting, sincere way they would laugh or debate together. I knew that I felt safe with him, and that sometimes, when our eyes met, there was a tenderness in his that overwhelmed me.

And so on the last day of that visit, after a long walk in the Texas sun, lunch in a soup kitchen, and a swim in the river, we sat on a bench and he asked me about my fears and hopes for our relationship. He asked if I could see myself in Austin. I said that I felt a strange kind of homesickness — strange because it is longing for a place that is not, and has not been my home. I thought the conversation would continue much longer, perhaps months longer, but I already knew that a season would come when he would ask me to marry him. My heart was abiding in that kairos time, waiting. And yet, in chronos, I was still shocked when I saw him before me, on his knees, asking me to marry him.

“Are you really asking this? Are you really asking this now?” And he was. Then we were standing, I saying, “I want to say yes, I want to say yes, but I need more time.” And clinging to him, as though we were still in the river, battling a strong current. “Bethany,” he said, “I cannot always trust my heart. What I feel right now I may not feel tomorrow, or next month, much as I want to. Feelings come and go, especially when what the heart desires is far away. I cannot trust my heart, but I can trust my will. And my will is this. I want to marry you, to love you, to build a life with you.”

For me it was just the opposite: my heart was there, had been there for weeks, but it was my will I doubted: did I have the strength to say yes, to make such a choice? I do not mean I doubted the strength of my will simply in that moment. I realized that all this time, for so many years, I have doubted whether I have the strength to say yes to something as deep and lasting as marriage at all.

We moved from the bench to the tree, and laid ourselves down side by side. I was silent, wondering, “What more do I need?” Information? Proof of character? Proof of his willingness to commit, to love?” I had these things, and more. I had said weeks before, that I wanted to marry him, had asked God for this. And now it was before me. And so I said yes.

I’ve told this portion of the story (from first meeting to proposal) so many times in the last few months that it has started to feel patterned, even normal. But it is far from normal, and we are now living in a strange time of transition and change, learning to dream together and to bring our stories into concord.  We talk, every night, for two or three hours, and every conversation raises more challenges & hopes. We have so many questions and so much still to learn about one another. As we discuss the work I will do in Austin, our differences in temperament, our hopes for children and community, indeed, as we puzzle through the point of marriage itself, we realize that we have made a choice that is simultaneously wise & reckless.

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In his essay “People, Land, and Community,” Wendell Berry writes that “as a condition marriage reveals the insufficiency of knowledge, [and…] I take it as an axiom that one cannot know enough to get married, any more than one can predict a surprise. […] We can commit ourselves fully to anything–a place, a discipline, a life’s work, a child, a family, a community, a faith, a friend–only in the same poverty of knowledge, the same ignorance of result, the same self-subordination, the same final forsaking of other possibilities. If we must make these so final commitments without sufficient information, then what can inform our decisions? In spite of the obvious dangers of the word, we must say first that love can inform them…”

When it comes to knowledge, I’m something of a professional: PhD, assistant professor, author of such-and-such articles, etc. When I completed my doctoral work, the presiding official at the commencement ceremony said, “By the power vested in me, I confer upon you these doctoral degrees […] and admit you to all their rights and responsibilities.” With those words, I became a Doctor of Philosophy, with the full rights of my craft. The next time someone uses that phrase–by the power vested in me— it will be my wedding day, and the title I receive will be that of a wife. But whereas my degree required that I prove myself more than an apprentice, my marriage will make me an amateur again. Amateur. The word comes to us, via French, from the Latin amare, to love. While a professional works for pay or praise, an amateur works, learns, fumbles, fails, and persists out of love. The greatest masters and professionals, I think, never really lose their love, but at the beginning, just now, it is love, not skill, that I feel in my small and trembling hands.

I began my first blog because I wanted to start conversations about the beauty of single life, and so it seems fitting that I begin this new venture as I learn to practice the new crafts of marriage.  I have called this blog “Lady Wisdom’s Workshop” not because I think of myself as Lady Wisdom, but because if I am going to be an amateur again, I want to be  an apprentice in her workshop. In my marriage, in my teaching, in my writing, and in all the work ahead, I want to echo the cry of Wisdom’s maidservants, who call the simple and the hungry to come and feast at her house (Proverbs 9:1-12).

What, you might ask, have been my first lessons as an apprentice lover? What wisdom have I gained amid the whirlwind of saying yes to Steven? It goes something like this: In the Iliad, a text I teach each fall, Homer describes Aphrodite, goddess of love, as “strong with eternal laughter.” Before this year, I never had much patience for Aphrodite (or Venus, as the Romans called her). I thought her frivolous, far less interesting than the stern virgin Athena. This year, however, I’ve heard that strong laughter echoing in the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31, who “laughs at the days to come,” and–what strange grace!–I have heard it, again and again, on my own lips.

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