The World at Midday

Person walking on the road in the snow during midday; the sky is gray and overcast, the street is rimmed with trees with every branch covered in snow.I spent Christmas Eve with my mom last month for the first time in years. It was unexpected; she was happy and well.

All through the drive to my aunt’s house—Dad at the wheel, Mom turning the music up—my sister and I watched the lights and thought about extraordinary transformations. How anything is possible, though it rarely seems so.

Being with my whole family felt like an amazing gift, like the world had opened up and made itself entirely new.

I keep thinking about how to say things I can’t say. The problem’s not inappropriateness or offense; it’s entrée. Square peg in a round hole and all that, subjects that don’t come up or don’t make sense in the time people have to offer them. Subjects no one wants.

A couple of days after Christmas, my mom was in the hospital for a week after she burned herself with cigarettes, and then she came home and made chili. These things happen.

The day I learned that my mom had been hospitalized, snow fell in icy dendrites. The wind came from the east. The world might have ended; the sun was nowhere to be found. How easily we find ourselves abandoned. [Read more…]

The Abandoned, Broken, and Burned

1950s DishwasherBy the time you read this, inshallah, we will have the new dishwasher purchased and installed in our kitchen.

I’m not holding my breath. It’s been this long, so it is easy to envision a horizon of expectations that continues to recede into the distance a few more weeks or months.

“Oh, come on,” my brother said to me a while back, “what is a dishwasher? $500? $1000? Just buy the thing.” It’s not that we didn’t have $500 lying around to spend—it’s just that there are so many other expenses— private school tuition, church donations, the remainder of our 2014 taxes—to cover, and it is always well to have a little cushion lying around in case of emergencies. (Our cushion is pretty little.)

We are well-paid, middle-class professionals (upper middle class if you look at the average household income for most Americans, though we actually feel pretty working class in our expensive coastal metropolitan area where two twenty-seven-year-old lawyers can easily clear $450,000 a year—First World, problems etc., etc).

So $500-1,000, in our house, is kind of a big deal. [Read more…]

Girl Meets God in the Classroom, Part 2

Rembrandt-The_return_of_the_prodigal_sonContinued from yesterday.

On the first day of my class “Spiritual Autobiographies: Theirs and Ours,” a few students shared that they weren’t “spiritual people.” Why, I wondered, did they sign up for this elective class?

Some of them, I would learn later in the semester, had been deeply wounded by religion. A few said that religion had been forced on them by their parents.

At this moment of emerging adulthood, it was time to turn away, to turn another way. Neither the students nor I realized, as class began in mid-August, that some of their wounds, whether exposed in speech, writing, or—to anyone paying attention—in silence, would become sites of inquiry and that inquiry itself might begin a process of healing.

[Read more…]

It’s Advent and I’m Done Waiting

This is not an Advent post. There are enough of those out there. Writing of waiting, of expectation, of a light entering the darkness, of hope. I have heard them all before. I am done waiting.

In class, we were talking about emotions. I teach English to refugees from East Africa. Per usual, they were quick to talk about what makes them feel joyous, but were silent when it came to the negative emotions.

What makes you feel sad? I asked, not thinking about the great chasms of human experience that separate me from the class. A man who comes every day and sits in the front, quiet and smart and well read, speaks up. His eyes are wide, and his voice is low.

[Read more…]

The Poverty of Language

Another exercise. This one an exercise in seeing deeply, visualization, sketching from memory, and composing a written sketch of a photograph held in memory.

The photograph: Robert Frank’s “Navy Recruiting Station, Post Office, Butte, Montana,” published in his groundbreaking book The Americans.

Here’s what I asked students in my “Contemplation and Imagination” class to do:

1. Look at the photo projected on the screen.
2. Close your eyes and visualize, in as much detail as you can, the photo.
3. Look at the photo again. See if you notice anything new.
4. Close your eyes, paying attention to physical sensation.
5. Sketch the photo. (The projector is turned off.)
6. Look at the photo again.
7. Compose a written sketch of the image. (The projector is turned off.)

After this, I invited the students to talk about their experiences of the exercise. One soft-spoken student said, “the word wood to describe the desk—it misses so much.” [Read more…]