"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

14 December 2018

Birds in the Rain

Looking out my study window, I saw

          a flock of robins,
          at least seven bluejays,
          at least four cardinal pairs,
          one dove,
          assorted finches and sparrows,
          two wrens,
          a woodpecker.

They were never still.  They'd flit to the bird feeders or to the seed on the ground, then flit into the trees.  They'd light on the sidewalk and search its borders.  They'd soar from tree to tree.  One male cardinal chased another through the trees and across the street, then returned calmly to his browsing of the lawn.  The rest seemed content to eat in harmony.  

I watched for at least twenty minutes.  All at once, in a flurry of wings, every bird swooped up from the ground and the lower branches into high branches of the trees or into the wood across the street.  A predatory bird above them, a cat or dog nosing its way toward the yard?  I saw nothing, but something had alerted them all at the same time and they were gone.

A lovely twenty minutes on a grey day with rain, rain, rain sprinkling down seemingly never-ending.  

Thanks to God for beauty in the world.

24 November 2018

On Dictionaries: A Musing on Serendipity, Awe, and Precision

I am currently immersed in Alan Jacobs' essay collection Wayfaring.  I have admired his work for years, since I first encountered it at The New Atlantis.  One of my favorite nonfiction books ever is his A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, which challenged me greatly since I know so little of philosophy, but blessed me greatly both because of the challenge and because of the subject.  Wayfaring contains short essays on a mix of subjects from Harry Potter to Kahlil Gibran to trees to Christian faith and living to . . . dictionaries.

Jacobs is no Luddite.  However, he has wisdom and discernment, and he is properly thoughtful about new technologies and their possible unintended effects.  In "Bran Flakes and Harmless Drudges," he explores the history of dictionary making and dictionary use.  Toward the end, he considers advantages of the online dictionary and its disadvantages; to my mind, and I think to his, the latter outweigh the former by quite a lot. 

"[T]he exhibition of sheer potential embodied in every dictionary," he writes, "only happens, it seems to me, when the dictionary actually has a [physical] body.  Surely every user of dictionaries or encyclopedias can recall many serendipitous discoveries: as we flip through pages in search of some particular chunk of information, our eyes are snagged by some oddity, some word or phrase or person or place, unlooked-for but all the more irresistible for that. [. . .] The great blessing of Google is its uncanny skill in finding what you're looking for; the curse is that it so rarely finds any of those lovely odd things you're not looking for.  For that pleasure, it seems, we need books."

Later, Jacobs notes that someone has said that the linear text of books "narrows and impoverishes" our views (as opposed to hypertext).  However, he objects, "it turns out that, when it comes to dictionaries anyway, it's hypertext that narrows and impoverishes.  The simple fact that I cannot pick up a [physical] dictionary and turn to the precise page I wish, or even if I could do that, focus my eyes only on the one definition I was looking for -- the very crudity, as it were, of the technology is what enriches me and opens my world to possibilities.  Only when I hold the printed book can I be ushered into the world of sheer fascination with proliferating language that people like Maria Moliner and Samuel Johnson inhabited, and encourage us to inhabit."

I am reminded of a story one of my high school teacher friends once told me.  As they were working in the library one day, a student asked her what a word meant, so she referred him to the print dictionary in the reference section.  After a bit, she looked over to see him staring at it with a look of awe.  "I never knew there were so many words," he murmured to her.  

And the fewer of those words we know, the less able we are to think and talk and write precisely and well about our world.  I am constantly taken aback at complaints about how hard my college students found certain readings because of the vocabulary, when it is often nothing I and my peers had not encountered well before entering college.  And then the resistance to learning those new words . . . as if they are too impatient to learn, to know, as if they are content to stagnate at age 18.  

I am more of a Luddite than Jacobs and than most people I know, but certainly I acknowledge the benefits of much modern technology and use a fair amount of it.  However, I've often thought about what we lose in our rush to embrace every new wonder, because losses there must be.  Awe before the remarkable gift of language, the serendipity of discovery, precision -- these are losses, and, since language is our means of knowing and thinking about our world, one has to wonder how much loss we dare incur.  

03 September 2018

On Seeking a Net to Catch the Days

A distinctly rambling consideration of the use of time when others are no longer telling me how to use each minute.

In Chapter Two of The Writing Life, Annie Dillard contemplates the place of routine in our lives, noting that it "defends from chaos and whim":  

"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.  What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.  A schedule defends from chaos and whim.  It is a net for catching days.  It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.  A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order -- willed, faked, and so brought into being; it a a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.  Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern."

I have had such a schedule for some 35 years now as a teacher of college literature and writing.  The semesters form the underlying structure, with their predictable beginnings and endings and breaks, and the days themselves move hour to hour, five days a week precisely scheduled from class to meeting to class to prep to class to grading to class to conferences . . .   Then summers to recuperate a bit and prepare for another year.  Day after day, semester after semester, year after year indeed blend into one another in a pattern both blurred (individual details must be sought within the pattern; they don't stand out immediately) and powerful (this was a good life; it held meaning every moment of every day).  

Now what?  If schedules keep our lives productive -- and if the family genes hold true I may have a significant span of life left to me -- how shall I form a schedule that allows me the peace and rest that I need while creating a new pattern that will lend significance to what I do?

I am finding that being able to sleep until my body tells me it is ready to get up has already made a difference -- I still tire easily (I tired easily when I was a child), but I do not begin every day utterly weary and drag myself through each week never feeling well.  So part of my new schedule will not be "arise at X time every day."  Nor will it be "go to bed at X time every night" -- chronic pain is better or worse on any given day and largely dictates when it is likely I'll be tired enough to fall asleep without hours of tossing and turning.  Nor will I avoid naps if my body cries out for sleep; rest during the day often helps control pain.  This is the greatest boon of retirement: beginning to find physical rest far more often than has been my wont.  (That and not grading papers.)

I let myself have this summer to simply live moment by moment.  I had tasks on a list, but I never planned on accomplishing them more than a day in advance, and I didn't hold myself even to that plan; maybe my husband would suggest an outing, or I'd be in more pain than usual, so I'd let it go.  But the tasks, clearly in mind and needing to be done, have mostly been accomplished.  (We can find things in the kitchen cabinets and drawers now, for example, without having to take everything out.)  There's a bit more of this kind of thing to be done, but there is no urgency to it; it will get done as I am ready (probably when I wish to procrastinate from something else . . .).

And I finished a special cross-stitch project recently, just awaiting a frame to be sent to its destination.  I learned one new minor technique in the process, and I'm looking forward to designing more projects and learning more techniques I've admired for years.

Other than that, it has mostly been reading -- visiting new novels I've had on my list forever, and re-visiting dozens of old favorites.  I've not challenged myself a great deal -- except that every time I read, even books I've read a dozen times, I am finding something new about the characters, the plots, the themes . . . I read for pleasure, but not mindlessly, because the understanding alongside the storyline is what makes reading most pleasurable for me.

I've started turning to the more challenging books now -- Roger Scruton, Matthew Arnold's prose, Josef Pieper, Alan Jacobs.  I have to re-attune my mind to this level; exhaustion for the last several years has kept me lazy for this kind of reading.  But the benefits of course will be more than I will ever be able to explain.  

I've not done a great deal of writing yet, but am easing myself back into it.  The problem is not lack of ideas; the problem is far too many, and being unclear as to where I want to focus my energy.  I can count four very different directions without thinking, and more with a little contemplation.  But all I've done so far is revise a short essay about my friend who died in the spring, write a short review of a book new to me, start an essay in response to questions someone posed, and work on a presentation I'll give in a colleague's class next week.  And some journaling along the way.  All very different forms and subjects.

 I hear so many people say they are bored when they retire.  And so many of my colleagues kept asking me, "But what are you going to do when you retire?" as if life is made up of grading papers.  My problem is the opposite: I have so many things I want to do I can't settle into them.  I'm not concerned about this yet; I'm still recovering from the past few years of physical and mental exhaustion and I'm fine with that for now.  But it's time to start figuring things out, and I'm wondering what kind of schedule might help me do that.

Domestic tasks, needlework, reading, writing, rest.  I like being able to take off with my husband when he appears at the study door and asks if I want to go here or there with him, so I don't want to schedule myself out of spontaneity.  I intend to take care of my need for rest, so hourly schedules are going to end up as mostly mere suggestions anyway.  I've been told that I must act in retirement as I've always done, with a schedule to keep to as if it were imposed from outside -- but that seems counterproductive to my greatest needs.  But the need for rest cannot take over the need to give -- to keep learning and growing and to offer what I can to my neighbor.  

14 August 2018

Cliffs of Fall: Remembering Christopher

(Christopher left us on 9 February 2018; this is how I was at Easter.)

Cliffs of Fall

On a rainy Saturday morning in early February, I decided to take just a quick glance at my college email.  Moments later my husband appeared at the door of my study, concerned, and I realized my repeated refrain – “no, no, no” – had raised from a bare whisper to an outraged cry.

“It can’t be true,” I managed to tell him.  “They say Christopher’s killed himself.”

Christopher:  my advisee, my friend, just a few weeks from graduation with highest honors, one of those few students genuinely loved by all on campus.  It wasn’t until I encountered his absence from the hallways on Monday morning and his empty seat in my Hopkins class that afternoon that I really believed I wasn’t trapped in a nightmare.

The beret, the bowties: eccentricities to be sure, but not, it became clear, for the purpose of garnering attention – it was just a style he enjoyed.  (And still my fingers want to type “is” and “enjoys.”)  A committed student:  if I arrived at my office by 7:00 or even earlier, Christopher was sure to be somewhere about, reading, writing, preparing for his day, often greeting me with a new book or a new insight.  Brilliant:  already on his way to seminal work in ancient philosophy in both his senior theses (a double major, of course, in classical studies and philosophy).  Curious and eager: I had to order him to stop reading so that he would have time to actually write and edit his thesis on Heraclitus before term’s end in the fall.  Caring: “how are you?” meant he really wanted to know, and his popularity rose no more from his quirky, fun-loving ways than from his ability to listen, to encourage, to speak truth.

He came to our small Christian college a believer, but not fully satisfied.  My course on Gerard Manley Hopkins played into his seeking, and he converted to Catholicism during that first semester of his sophomore year.  He loved the Church as he loved his Lord, and he taught us much about his new-found home – which he was studying and living with typical whole-hearted enthusiasm – and reveled in filling the gaps in our Protestant-driven ignorance as we tried to understand the theology that drove Hopkins’ life and work.  He had been retaking the class as an audit in this senior year, for fun as well as to deepen his understanding of the poetry, and I had been relying on his articulate explanations of Catholic theology and life.

We knew he struggled with depression.  He knew our hearts, and our time, were always open to him.  Yet none of us had any idea how deep the darkness lay, and on Monday the campus itself felt heavy with sorrow, anger, and confusion, as we met each other in hallways and classrooms with aching hearts and weeping.  My own frustration turned from Christopher (why did you do this!) to those who seemed to demand that there be a specific, clear, easy-to-articulate answer to that very question, wanting to blame his circumstances or his pride.  “I’ve been there,” I kept telling them; “there is no answer that will satisfy you.”  And I quoted Hopkins again and again:  

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall 
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap 
May who ne'er hung there. 

And inside I was crying out, O Christopher, why couldn’t you hold to the hope that your beloved poet showed you even in his own darkest moments!

In chapel, the gospel was preached alongside the memories.  There, thankfully, no one tried to explain, only to offer hope, for Christopher, for us all.  At some now-forgotten word spoken by one of his other faculty mentors, I doubled over in near-physical pain – because in that moment, I suddenly realized the awful pain we were feeling as only the tiniest pang of all the pain of all the world, and images flooded my mind: the horrific torture and killing of believers in the Middle East; the degrading enslavement of women and children to the lust of evil men; abortion and the genocide of those with Down’s Syndrome; murders on the streets, and in hospitals where the elderly and the infirm are discarded like so much trash; the suffering and death of multitudes from disease and injuries; destroyed marriages, rebellious children, abusive or absent parents; the suffering of those like Christopher – so many, too many – trying to find peace and somehow missing it . . .

I literally could not breathe. 

The moment passed, but I have held to it since, wanting always to know that the brokenness I see is the barest image of the brokenness that is.  One can’t think of it too often, much less feel it – we mortal beings aren’t made to bear the whole world’s burdens – but it was good to catch that tiny glimpse of what our Lord sees and bears every moment of every day, the brokenness we have brought on ourselves in our demand to be like Him.  In some manner that I cannot explain, that moment of horrific darkness strengthened my hope in His light to illumine our way.  If He died for all that, if He carries all that every day . . . then He must love us indeed.

And yet, despite that hope, the rain continues to dog us even as April begins with its Easter resurrection.  And that empty chair in my Hopkins class . . . that chair is so empty. 

photo credit:  Celeste Damiani at Flickr, Creative Commons licensing

07 August 2018

The Squire's Tale

Hunting for something new at McKay's the other day, I ran across a series by Margaret Frazer -- the Dame Frevisse Medieval Mysteries -- in which a nun in a medieval convent solves crimes.  It looked intriguing, and a quick glance showed the writing to be good, so I decided to try it out and bought The Squire's Tale.   

It's a quiet, slow-paced novel, allowing the reader to get a sense of character, setting, and context without leaping into the criminal action.  In fact, the murders to be solved don't even occur until nearly 3/4 of the way through.  Yet I didn't find myself wondering when we would get to that point; I felt that the development warranted it and merely kept wondering which character it would be, given the dynamics among them.

Dame Frevisse interests me very much.  She is a woman of faith, who loves God and the worship of God, who gives willing obedience to her superior in the convent, who goes about her tasks with a generally willing and cheerful spirit.  When her tasks are not to her liking, she takes herself in hand, bites back uncharitable words and thoughts, and gets on with it.  When a matter is none of her business, she curbs her curiosity and turns her mind elsewhere.  At the same time, she notices all that goes on around her and remembers it when she needs it.

Not that she is a doormat, not at all.  When the abbess proposes that she wear an expensive cloak (a gift from her cousin which she never wears because of her vow of poverty) on her journey, she points out that the other sister has no such cloak and it would look out of place for one to be richly dressed, the other not; the abbess accepts her assessment.  When the lady of the house she stays in for a time acts the fool, Dame Frevisse rebukes her calmly and firmly and does not give in to her pleas for undeserved pity.  When the men of the household demur at her asking questions, she simply asserts the authority given her by the master of the house and persists.

Perhaps because the murders occur so late in the book, I did find the resolution a little too quick.  It wasn't unprepared for; I had suspected the culprit now and then though without certainty.  But we hadn't been as well prepared for the motive as I would have liked.  (I also felt that one of the principle characters should have done a bit of penance before being rewarded, though the reward is just.)  However, for me these were minor flaws.

Especially refreshing: no foul language; no explicit sex or excessive gore; unashamed discussion of sin, repentance, love of God, right and wrong; characters who struggle with sin and desire to live righteously; a main character who is willing to obey God and man yet without being limply subservient and while upholding the claims of justice.  In other words, I found it realistic without giving in to certain modern sensibilities which I find wearying at best.

I'd put this novel on a par with Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn series and plan to gather others as I can.  An enjoyable day's read, and, if you like character development and quiet pacing, definitely worthwhile.

29 April 2018


We proclaim Him . . . teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ (Col. 1:25).

I was never going to teach.  It was not even at the bottom of a list of possible paying vocations I’d ever considered.  But when the time came that circumstances forced me into the workforce to support our family, it was the quickest way to that end – so here I am, some 35 years later, about to grade my last projects, my last finals, and I cannot imagine any work that would have been better.

There is so much to be grateful for:  my own teachers who prepared me so well for such a time; the literature itself which shaped me, grew me, even at times saved me;  my colleagues over the years who have taught, challenged, and encouraged me; my students who have so graciously allowed me to be part of their lives in and out of the classroom. 

Still, so often through the years, discouragement would strike, and many were the days I dragged myself home wondering if I’d ever done anyone any good, if the work had been worthwhile that day or ever.  And so today I want to give a special thanks to those who went to great lengths to show me, in this final semester, that my work has in fact not been in vain, that this “Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood” has, in Him and Him alone, done the only work I ever hoped to do.

The Academic Office put on a reception for the two of us retiring this year (the other being the matchless, beloved drama teacher/director “Mr. B” – Bernie Belisle).  My thanks to Kevin, Rhonda, Audrey for your work in arranging the event (including AJ and the luscious cake and excellent catering service).  Your thoughtful gift to me is one I will always treasure – the beautiful leather journal and the silver pen inscribed with the Bryan motto, “Christ Above All.”  Thank you to all of you, to President Livesay and the Board and the rest of our administration, for all the years of encouragement, assistance, and loving friendship.  You have always made me feel at home in a place where Christ is indeed held above all.

My peerless colleagues in the English Department – Ray, Whit, Daniel – made the week all the more special with a personal gift of Victorian-themed embroidery tools (scissors, needle-holder, etc.).  You have come to know me well, not just as a colleague but as a friend, and so you know my various plans and loves and I appreciate your showing your love for me in this sweet way.  You are my friends and my brothers, and I thank you for all you have meant to me over the years, all the prayers and  laughter, and the shared tears and sorrows as well.  You are the best.

But they did so much more.  Ray arranged an opportunity for our students and alums to shower me with appreciation, gathering cards and printing off emails from them to fill a lovely handcrafted keepsake box.  Dozens of the precious ones I have taught over the years took the time to send such kind and humbling words; thank you, my dear colleagues, for arranging such a special gift.

To those who wrote (and those who have written at other times with similar words, whose letters and emails will also go into this box):  how can I ever thank you.  You were always the reason that even on the darkest days I could find a smile and see the beauty both in the work itself and in your eager eyes.  The specific conversations and classes and even off-hand comments you remember show me the power of our Lord to work – through literature, through writing, through a mere teacher trying to do her best by all three – to work His truth, His beauty, His goodness into all our lives.  Thank you for that gift.

And thanks, too, for a candy tree growing out of unicorn mug, for a lovely hand-crafted necklace, for an adorable crocheted pet, for a stunningly crafted blown-glass kingfisher which will catch fire in my eastern window, and for the endless hours of shared laughter, tears, failures, and victories, conversations silly and serious about literature, about writing, about life.  You are God’s blessings to me.

I deserve none of this and no credit:  all is His work and His glory.  Live for that, dear ones.  Act in God’s eye what you are:  “Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his  / To the Father through the features of men's faces.”  And know always that you live in my heart as ones who have shown Him to me.

28 July 2017

Goldfinches and Echinacea

The echinacea are dying, but the goldfinches have arrived to harvest their seeds and offer sunbursts of color to replace the fading purple.  The ladies, too, in their dusky yellow dresses create a lovely complement to their mates.  As we stood watching from the window, one flew like an arrow through the echinacea across the yard and straight up to the glass as if to say hello.  How sweet she looked, how bright her mate on the flowers, on this drab rainy day.  Beauty everywhere if we only pause to look.