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Last night, I started re-reading The Little Princess. I had finished The Wind in the Willows and My Antonia, and have a stack of library books, but was just falling asleep and wanted something softer. As in A Secret Garden, Hodgson Burnett’s young heroine is returning to her parents’ England after an early childhood in India. The narrator captured some of what I’m feeling as she mused, in her eight-year-old brain:

“Principally, she was thinking of what a queer thing it was that one time one was in India in the blazing sun, and then in the middle of the ocean, and then driving in a strange vehicle through strange streets where the day was as dark as the night.”

In cool Ontario, I read, swim, drink wine, and generally partake of the luxuries of a green, lush, well-tended and underpopulated world. Already it is hard to remember what was so daily and striking only last week.

*

I am tired of talking about the Burning Place. When people want to know, I now want to say, “Here is something I wrote about it once.” I don’t want to try and describe it, I don’t want to hear the “Gross,” or “Real bodies?” or “That’s so unreal.” I don’t want to try and use up the memories to help others understand; I fear that the more words I try to use to describe, the more actual pieces of the memory will disappear. The experience becomes what I say; I don’t want to forget the heat, the dry ashes as they fell, the torn garland in the water, the gravity of all around.

You know how if you talk about a memory, repeatedly, the memory itself becomes what you have said about it, and not what you actually experienced.

If you think about your high school prom, for example, you will remember the things you’ve talked about while talking about it all these years. The smaller things—the pollen from the stamen of your lilies falling onto the dusty velour of the car seat between you and your date, the awkwardness of seeing your gym teacher’s bra strap in her dress-up dress, the strangeness of driving to school as the sun sets, and parking in a familiar place, but in utterly unfamiliar clothes…

If I keep trying to talk about the Burning Place, I will lose the actual impressions. Like wet tissue paper pages—once color-saturated, they will dry up and leave me with rasping slips of brittle blank paper.

*

I kind of like being sunburned. Not on the tender parts, like my shoulder and that soft doughy bit between my swimsuit strap and my torso—that’s too much pain. But my legs, my feet. I like feeling the discomfort, the constant reminder, as I move my feet inside the sheets. It’s like: I can still be reached by the sun, even all this way away.

*

I still find myself working to keep water out of my mouth when I swim or wash my face. I keep forgetting that the water here—all of the water, every drop of it—is safe and will not make me sick. This is incredible.

I went to church last Sunday, an Anglican parish in small town Canada. It was an outside, casual service, the kind I hate. Lawn chairs, a jocular sermon, kids wearing baseball caps. No processions.

And even still, I needed it and loved it. The great thing about the BCP is that even in a lackluster service, you hear these prayers and phrases that gild the whole thing. It’s like seeing a red thread that you’ve previously only seen against green velvet, and here it is against denim: look how red and strong it is. Feel how inspiring and comforting the words. And so once again, I received the Body and Blood, and tried to use the tiny sliver of silence during the Prayers of the People—I have so many prayers. Of thanksgiving, of names of all those I wish to remember, to be thankful for, to send God’s Grace and Presence and Care to, for forgiveness (for privileges known and unknown, privileges seen and unseen.)

Bells from all over town are background for the readings. I keep my hands open, as if to receive, as I did so many times in India, and pray that I might keep my posture of openness just a little bit longer.

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Flowers and freedom

My run in a dramatic adaptation of The Great Divorce ended last night. An amazing book, an amazing play. It’s a really quick read, and I recommend it for anyone with Lent coming up… a really rich opportunity to reflect on free will, God’s mercy and compassion for us, the nature of human choice, and heaven.

Here are some snaps of little bouquets I made out of the flowers I received:

Gorgeous arrangement Matt chose for the color of the roses, in a teapot.

Tiny vases on the shelf above our kitchen sink.

Giant lily overtaking a creamer on our dining table.

One for my vanity top, with unmade bed in the background.

Mini arrangement on Matt’s dresser.

Milk glass and matryushkas in the bathroom.

Finally, here is a chunk of my dialogue– at the end of the play, as the Teacher, I’m telling the Traveler (who has experienced many vignettes about the nature of human love, choice, anger, and free will) about the difficulty of understanding things from our limited perspective in time… and yet, the necessity of seeing it that way, for now, in this life. The Traveler wants to know if it is possible to ask about the end of all things.

“…all answers deceive. If you put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain.

The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.

But if you are trying to leap on into eternity, if you are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so you must speak) then you are asking what cannot be answered to mortal ears.

Time is the very lens through which you see–small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope–something that would otherwise be too big for you to see at all.

That thing is Freedom. Yes, Freedom–the gift whereby you most resemble your Maker and are yourselves part of eternal reality.

But for now you can see it only through the lens of Time. A little picture of one moment, following another, following another…and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise.

The picture is but a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of time destroys your knowledge of Freedom.”

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I’m a month into my studies. I’m thankful I’m a quick reader… I’m ahead (touch wood) in my readings for two of my three classes.

It feels strange to only have three classes, and only have my job at the journal. No teaching, no Sunday school, no babysitting.  No fitting in editing, phone calls, and e-mails between teaching, or on a subway, or right before kids come running to me. I am thankful to do one thing at a time.

This time around, I also purchased many of my books. At Union, I got all of them from the library– I never bought a single book in three years there, unless it was a workbook for language study.  The books for these classes were cheaper, and often available used on Amazon. The history books I read at Union were thick, rare, and expensive. I just used the inter-library system and got them from as far away as Yale or Harvard.

I didn’t really think about the convenience of writing in my own book, or marking pages. I used to dog ear pages that had something I would need to or wanted to remember, and then fill up my notebook with quotes and page numbers. Now, having all of my books (mostly), I don’t have to spend that time doing the “second” step of writing things down.

Luckily, I also have a pretty good memory. I would often remember much of what I read, and even the chapter and location, without writing it down. So even in a seminar, I could make a point, and say, “Pelikan brings this up in the ninth chapter? I think early in the chapter, maybe two pages in?” without having the book.

I much prefer having the books, though. And I wonder how much mental energy I’ll now use for other things instead of having to instinctively memorize content I might not need.

I’ve continued my old, old practice of writing “new words” in the margins of my book or notebook as I read. I’m a stickler for always going back and defining the terms. For me, at this point, a new word is a term or phrase that I couldn’t use confidently on my own. For example, I can accurately guess what “positivism” means from reading it in a sentence, but wouldn’t know it well enough to use it myself.

New phrases from this week. I have not yet found definitions for them yet… I think I’m going to have to read articles in Google Scholar that use them.

disembedded cogito

other-oriented induction techniques

interpretive ethnography

New words for which I have learned the definitions include: sequential analysis, actus purus, Tonglen practice, positivism, alterity, noumenal, militates, and non-teleological.

Places I study: on our balcony in the sun, in the library on our campus in deep leather couches, and at the grad school library further into town. I’m mostly only reading at this point, but keeping a running list of names, curricula, books, and programs I need to research or follow up with for future papers and projects.

One of the best things I’ve read so far is a book called, Children, Youth, and Spirituality in a Troubling World, by Mary Elizabeth Moore and Almeda M. Wright. It’s a collection of essays documenting the voices, struggles, and expressions of young people– they include discussion of Disney’s Princesses and their charismatic power, young adults who survived the war in Bosnia, eyelid surgery and young women in Asian-American communities, the power of testimony in African-American communities, liturgies designed by incarcerated teen girls, and questions about God from queer youth.

Every single one of the essays has made me underline furiously, read sections aloud to Matt, wish I was still teaching, and revealed something about the world I didn’t know. This is a great place to be for early October, surrounded by not-yet-read books and pages of notes.

sample of notes– and note, I’ve had this pencil and used it nearly daily since 2001

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I found this passage a few months ago, in a wonderfully luminous and arresting short story by my friend Lee.  I haven’t been able to get it out of my head; the images continue to stay with me.

You know how you have a feeling all the time, but don’t know if anyone else ever does– an interior feeling, in your own private landscape? And then you read an articulation of it– so sudden and electrifying, that way fiction can reach out its lightening finger and brush you under your chin. There!  This story, “Tom in Siena,” by Lee Houck, did that for me– in this passage, the strange– what is the opposite of recognition?–opposite of nostalgia and realization that Tom feels… I have this feeling often, sometimes even in places I’ve been all my life. I think maybe we all do?

One beautiful thing about the story is that Houck gives voice to people that can only be real. “Only” because they also have interior landscapes, inside realizations and fears and nostalgia that I recognize. How can a writer do that, create it all wholecloth?  It’s kind of a miracle, when you think about it, to find recognition, memorable and immediate, in fiction.

I keep thinking about this story, including this scene, and Houck’s description of Tom’s out-of-timeness.  You should read the entire story for yourself; that’s how good it is.  Come on, don’t you need some imagery and unexpected recognition you didn’t know you needed today?

“He remembered his first trip to Europe—eleven years old, a school choir trip.

They sang all over Paris in school auditoriums for small audiences made up of students who were happy to be distracted from their lessons, but surely weren’t interested in ‘Sing a Song’ or ‘For the Beauty of the Earth.’  They clapped, nonetheless, and he felt like a good singer.

He remembered the drastic shrinking of scale—in buildings, in cartons of orange juice, in cars.  He remembered the language written on signs and storefronts—handsome words with too many vowels, covered in little chalet hats, and squiggled marks.

Later, when he was in high school, there was another school trip to Paris, and this time he had a few years of French behind him.  He was disappointed to learn that what earlier had seemed so magical was nothing more than the banal advertising of every city on the planet: Magazines, Newspapers, Candy, Cigarettes.

Tom wanted it to say ‘Solutions, Remedies, Incantations, Portals.'”

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I’m Mrs. White

December 23 – New Name Let’s meet again, for the first time. If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why? (Author: Becca Wilcott)

I found my baby book while home for Christmas, mostly unfinished, or half finished. The old photographs were wonderful, as was the tiny tuft of golden-colored hair, taped into place three decades ago. One of the pages prompted my parents to write in nicknames for me, cute names people called me. The list included, “Steppenfetchit, Stessie Rae, and Lori.” I went by “Lori” in kindergarten because my first name was too long to spell, and I had a hard time holding a pencil.

When I was in grade school, I thought the most exotic and glamourous possible name was “Egypt,” and named all of my Barbies that.  When my sister was born, I lobbied hard to name her “Rainbow,” but my parents didn’t go for that. My Cabbage Patch kids were named, “Joey,” (born/arrived “Linus Donovan”), “Elva Francis,” (the name she came with), “Gretchen,” (a doll from Germany with all papers in German, and my Grammy told me “Gretchen” was a German name), and “Sally,” (an astronaut doll I named after Sally Ride.)

I loved playing school (with my dolls, my stuffies, and my baby sister), and began every session of play by creating a class roster. I had to have at least 20 names, a good mix of boys’ and girls’ names, and everyone had to have a first and a last name.

I had a full set of Uncle Arthur’s books for children when I was little, and got lots of good ideas for names for my students from those books. The books were a bit old-fashioned even then, so children in those books had names like “Agatha,” and “Millicent.”

I don’t think I would change my name. I had a classmate in graduate school who created a stage name for herself, first and last names based on inspiring characters, one from a book, one from a movie. I thought that was a bit much.  But then, I like my names, all of them. I like writing them, and saying them, and hearing people I like saying them.

Our students have a thing where they declare many, many circumstances, “Racist!” They cry it out, accusing each other and various situations: “That’s racist!!!”  Matt especially, as their humanities teacher and advisor to several of them, tries to help them understand what that word means, and what situations it correctly describes, and what it does not.

Also, our students think it’s shocking and hilarious when I reference my own race, like if I say, “I’m a white woman.” It practically makes them fly out of their seats. I’m not sure if it’s because I am the only white woman in the room, and the obvious is always kind of funny, or because it’s funny to say things like that out loud, or because they’re a bit uncomfortable.  Sometimes, if they’re describing a classmate to me, they might say, “No, not that Joel– the black Joel. No racist!” So I have to explain that identifying what race someone is is not racist. I am white. That’s my race. I am white, I have blonde hair, and blue eyes, and I am a woman. Those are all facts.  Stating that isn’t racist.

The other day, a particularly wound up kid was careening about the hall, declaring someone to be racist. I said to him, “R., just because she said he’s black doesn’t mean she’s racist.  That’s just a fact. She was describing him only.  Right? Like, I’m a white woman. Right? I’m a white woman.”

I realized that one of the students standing nearest me on line speaks no English, so I said to her, “Yo blanca senora.”

She and her bi-lingual friend giggled. I said to her friend, “I just said, ‘I’m Mrs. White,’ didn’t I?”  F. giggled again and nodded yes.

Our school has added ninth grade this year, as it’s grown a year up every year since its founding. One of the privileges of the high school students is that they may call their teachers by their first names, if the teacher invites them to do so. I did welcome my students to call me “Stephanie,” or “Ms. V-H,” or by my full last names. It’s funny, though– the ones who do call me “Stephanie” still put a “Miss” in front, so it becomes “Miss Stephanie,” which basically sounds like I’m their Sunday school teacher.

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December 14 – Appreciate What’s the one thing you have come to appreciate most in the past year? How do you express gratitude for it? (Author: Victoria Klein)

Thanks to reading Lee’s blog, I can no longer just write about one thing.

1. My husband’s family. I think about them nearly every day, thanks to the Facebook. And being with them at holidays, and feeling surrounded by their love and _acceptance_ at our wedding is such a blessing.

2. Health insurance.

3. Being able to teach drama. Not by sneaking it in to an ELA curriculum, but outright, whole-heartedly, full on.

4. Working with Matt. Sharing students is wonderful, but also: when he hasn’t had time to do his share of dishes, I know it’s because he’s been working like crazy at school. It’s so easy to appreciate his time and the things that wear him out.

5. The nuns. They give me so much support–written, phone calls, e-mails, little postcards and prayer cards and notes. Just today I picked up a postcard Sr. Cyril Marie had sent in the midst of my certification troubles, and it re-inspired me. My Dad says the nuns are like the Elves in Rivendell. Not like us, and not of this world, and fading out of this world. Fewer and fewer women are entering the novitiate, so they tend to be old… and they are certainly not of this world. Some of them, they mystics, the ones who do not live in the world or even in the larger community: when they look you in they eye, you _feel_ their closeness to that close place.

6. Cable TV and DVR. Honestly: sometimes, I just want to watch _Law & Order_, and only _Law & Order_. It’s a comfort.

7. Our neighborhood: great fresh Mexican food, outdoor shrine at St. Lucy’s, public library in walking distance, seeing our kids and their families, Botanical Garden and Zoo in walking distance…

8. Living within our means. Having a good relationship with my student loan lenders, not having consumer debt, working on a budget and being mindful about what we have and don’t have.

9. Cooking with Matt: we complement each other, we take turns, we chop or clean up for each other.

10. Fiddle lessons!  I’m actually starting to learn things. I can play two tunes.

11. Baths. Reading in hot baths until I’m falling asleep.

12. Broadway UCC. This is the year I came to think of it as my church home. I have been fed and supported there.

13. My growing Sunday school there. There were years where I only had two small chickadees, some weeks I had no one. But they believed in keeping me around, and I believed– I could visualize, someday, Children’s Sermons on the chancel steps, full of kids, and so: it happened. It is joyful to see them and be with them.

14. Christmas songs. Oh, I love so many of them. Nothing beats singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” I know the harmonies, and can sing without looking at the hymnal– allowing me to gaze about whatever space I’m in.

15. New clothes. There were a few years where I couldn’t afford to buy new clothes. This year, with working full time, and with losing weight, I’ve been able to buy some new things. Buying new pants was so much fun! Having some new options is exciting, and I so appreciate it.

16. Daily Puppy.com  I can’t tell you how many times those puppy photos have helped me wake up of a morning, or in the middle of the night. Cuteness = serotonin, which helps anxiety.

17. How Facebook helps me keep in touch with some of my favorite friends, and hear their voices, and see photos and videos… I love feeling connected to in that way.

18. Getting manicures. They’re affordable in this neighborhood. I don’t quite get them weekly, but it is so luxurious to have freshly painted, colorful, unchipped nails. No dry, raggedy cuticles. Pleasing, glossy, candy-colored fingertips.

19. My Christmas stocking. My Grandma made it; I think there must have been a year when she made them for all of us grandkids who were born by that year. She did our names in glue, with red glitter. You can tell my name is a little too long, or maybe she didn’t plan for it well, but the end is kind of scrunched in. And some of the glitter is chipping away. There was a time in my early adulthood when I was ashamed of it. It looked kind of cheap and white trash-y. The mother of the guy I was with at the time got me (as a replacement) an embroidered one from Neimann Marcus. I don’t even know where that one is anymore.

20. How Matt knows me well enough that he can check out a stack of library books for me, and I will love every one.

21. The weddings of beloved friends. Inspiring, fun, gorgeous.

22. My own wedding. One of the happiest, most fun, most exciting days of my life. I fell in love with my friends, and with Matt, and with our families, and with my church, and with flowers and song and food… over and over again.

23. Knee socks. Last winter I discovered that knee socks are fantastic. And that I could wear knee socks under leggings under pants, on the coldest days, and be completely warm and comfortable.

24. Canada. My first trip there with Matt was sheer heaven. I only want to go back there again and again, and there is a whole subset of things I appreciate in Canada: pie, hammocks, water, swimming, stars, cooking with family, tiny Anglican church services, painting, reading…

25. The written word. I get so much: pleasure, excitement, learning, truth, perspective, connection, ideas, inspiration… from reading novels, posts, scripture, essays, articles. I am so grateful I can read and write.

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I’m here at my first AAR conference. I could never afford to go as a grad student, and feel giddy and blessed that the journal has enough funding to pay for me to be here this year. Josh and I are presenting a panel tomorrow, along with several of our esteemed board members, on the “promises and challenges of inter-religious dialogue.”

Earlier today I saw a preview of the film Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer. Dr. McGuckin was my advisor when I studied Byzantine history, and I was honored to get to hear stories of these monastics and desert fathers in person. The film looks so good– it’s hard to believe, especially having flown from NYC to Atlanta, that there is, for example, an entire island where only male monastics live, eating what they grow, cut off from the modern world, and praying day in and day out as they have for hundreds of years.

Then, I went to a panel discussing the work of Rita Gross, who I had only read in school. In fact, I had only read nearly everyone on the panel, except for Professor Paul Knitter, who is a favorite of mine.

Here are some notes I took during the panel:

“dialogue is not about at arriving at homogenized views”

the teacher presents each religion empathetically…teacher should be committed to what is most life-giving…so that the students can come to their own evaluation

empathy is aligned with accuracy

regarding Gross as an editor: “…once she made a decision, she never wavered”

Rosemary Radford Ruether on feminism: resistance of scholars to pay attention to the ways half of humanity participates in religions

androcentrism–bias toward elite male; assumption that he is the “normal” human being = bad empiricism

Max Miller: “to know only one religion is to understand none”

Matt arrives late tonight. I’m hoping to bring him along to a morning session, a panel talking about the impact of Serene Jones’ book Trauma and Grace. I interviewed Jones earlier this week about her participation in a seminal Muslim/Jewish closed door conference. She briefly mentioned some of the work around this book in a panel on Monday night, and I couldn’t keep up with the notes I wanted to take.

There are some art museums and old churches nearby, and Matt has a new camera, so I’m hoping we can walk and explore around lunch time, before getting ready for my panel in the early evening.

I’ve never been to an academic conference, and was a bit nervous beforehand. During the Gross panel, though–especially after hearing Knitter speak, which made me feel right at home as a student–I realized that it is like being a student. You choose presentations that appeal to you, you listen attentively and get excited, note-take furiously, and ask questions. You meet people that have similar ideas, or excitement, or questions. Instead of asking which hall they live in, you exchange business cards.

I was surprised when two different people saw me walking around afterward the Gross panel  and struck up a conversation beginning with, “I really liked your question.”

I’m looking forward to another day of questions that have never even crossed my mind.

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