Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Poetry Corner: "Happiness"

Because it's been rainy outside and this poem has been coming to mind. 

by A.A. Milne

John had
Great Big
Boots on;
John had a
Great Big
John had a
Great Big
Mackintosh --
And that
(Said John)

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Wilkommen in W--

After a month in country, we finally moved into our new home this week! While I'll be moving to Munich for the next year (and who knows where after that), and Charlie is still in college, this is our family's home base for the next three years. And what a place. Welcome to W--. (See that dash? That's is me both emulating Jane Austen - because who doesn't want to do that - and preserving our privacy.) We'll start with the town.

The Town

For what appears to be a small town, there's a lot going on in W--. There are several restaurants, an Eiscafe (aka ice cream less than 5 minutes from the front doorstep), lots of little shops, and two churches (Catholic and Protestant). Our house is on one of the main streets, so we are only moments from all of these places.
The churches are right down the street from each other: these two photos were taken in the same spot. 

This marsh is just around the corner from the churches. There also used to be a synagogue, but it was destroyed in 1938. There's now a memorial museum commemorating W--'s Jewish community.

None other than the illustrious Napoleon Bonaparte was greeted with great fanfare in this square. Twice, no less - once in 1807 and once in 1808.

Bookstore! Over a hundred years old, and just around the corner from our house. 

This is the eiscafe, which not only serves yummy ice cream, but also hosts the German-American Stammtisch that is held once a month to connect Americans and Germans in this community.

Everywhere you look in this town is something photo-worthy. These are only the highlights.

The House

This is the front and back of our house. It's orange! It's a very happy house, not only because it's orange, but also because the landlord (who is also an architect and designed it himself) loves light. The windows are glorious, and the house is situated to capture as much light as possible at all times of day. For example, my room faces west, but there is a skylight in the loft above it that faces east, so I get amazing light both in the morning and in the evening. 

This is the view from my parents' room.

And this is the view from the laundry room. If the rest of the house wasn't so amazing, this would make the laundry room my favorite room.

The house feels kind of weird right now - the only furniture is what Dad had in Korea. While that covers the basics - living room, dining room, bedrooms - a lot of our knickknacks and furniture are still missing. This means the house is in flux.

Not pictured: the many empty cardboard boxes at the bottom of the stairs, Charlie's room, which is currently the holding place for anything random that doesn't yet have a place, and other sundry corners of the house that are not yet in a photo-safe state. Like I said, we are very much in flux.

Proof of this: the vignette on the right has since disappeared because Mom wanted these things elsewhere (the globe is now on display above one of the cabinets in the kitchen). But I like the picture so I'm including it anyway.

See the pottery dish between the lamp and the sink? That's where bio goes - organic waste that savvy gardeners would compost, but which also has its own separate trash can in Germany. We're happy to separate it out, but fruit flies are also happy to munch on it. We are currently experimenting with traps  composed of apple cider vinegar, water, and dish soap, with modest success.

This is my room. LIGHT, people. I love it. 

The next thing on my to-do list after finishing this post is to start putting up all the clippings that make a space my own.

The stairs lead up to a cool loft space. But we don't know quite what to do with it because 1) the stairs are so steep that it would be hazardous to try to take any furniture up them, and 2) you bump your head on the sloped eves at the top of the stairs. But I'm sure we'll come up with something ingenious. 

This is the evening view from my room...It's amazing every. Single. Night.

Speaking of views, this town is in the middle of a stunning area of the German countryside.

The Countryside

W--. It's a good place to be.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

the liminal space between desire and fulfillment: how do we wait well?

Freshly-cut sunflowers are so happy.
We've been in Germany just about a month. It's been a crazy month, and I've finally adjusted to the rhythms of this season of transition: some days are filled to the brim with to-do lists and running around and exploring, while other days are quieter. During those quieter days I have been hunting for apartments online, reading everything I can get my hands on, and thinking.

Among the many things I've been thinking about, one keeps rising to the surface: waiting.

It's not something I've devoted a lot of thought to before, but since graduation waiting seems to be the overarching theme of my life. And not just mine. So many of my dear friends are waiting for something - tangible things like a job, an apartment, or community; but also intangible things - waiting upon the Lord's direction, waiting to see if treasured dreams will be fulfilled or taken away, waiting for healing and vision and hope.

If you, friend, are waiting for something - and I think we all are - then I'm writing this post for you. Not because I think I have new things to say on the subject, but because I have found encouragement as I read and think and wait, and because I once heard a pastor say that the things the Lord uses to encourage one person are often meant to be shared to encourage others.

~ ~ ~

Emily Freeman wrote a post last week titled How to Wait Well. In it, she makes a helpful distinction between two kinds of waiting (actually, she talks about four, but there are two that really hit home for me).

The first kind of waiting is the one where we know that results will come with enough patience. Like waiting for Christmas or summer or housing. She says:

This waiting is a function of time and time will always pass.

But there's a second kind of waiting. The kind where you have no idea if what you are waiting for and desperately want will ever actually come to pass. How do we live well with that kind of wait? How do we find contentment as we long for something uncertain?

~ ~ ~

Last month I was talking about this with my aunt.

She shared about a season of waiting - we're talking about years, here - that involved a lot of discouragement and questioning.

A mentor told her - "It's ok to remind God of His promises." And he pointed her to a specific verse:

The LORD God is a sun and shield;
    No good thing does He withhold from he that walks uprightly. ~Psalm 84:11

She began to pray: "Lord, if it is Your will to grant this good thing, then thank you. And if it is not, please remove this desire from my heart. I pray for Your will in Your timing."

~ ~ ~

The beautiful thing about Psalm 84 is that this is a Psalm about dwelling in the presence of the LORD. 
How lovely is your dwelling place,
    Lord of hosts!
 My soul longs, yes, faints
    for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
    to the living God.
 Even the sparrow finds a home,
    and the swallow a nest for herself,
    where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
    my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house,

    ever singing your praise! Selah
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
    in whose heart are the highways to Zion.[b]
 As they go through the Valley of Baca
    they make it a place of springs;
    the early rain also covers it with pools.
 They go from strength to strength;
    each one appears before God in Zion.
 Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;
    give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
Behold our shield, O God;

    look on the face of your anointed! 
For a day in your courts is better
    than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
    than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;

    the Lord bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
    from those who walk uprightly.
 Lord of hosts,
    blessed is the one who trusts in you!
Whatever good thing I'm waiting for - whatever things God sees fit to grant or to refuse - He has already given the greatest good that surpasses everything else: the gift of walking through life in His presence. Whatever else we think we need, this is enough. 

~ ~ ~

~ ~ ~

But what does it look like to wait well?

What does it look like to honestly, deeply long for something without becoming discontent or bitter when it doesn't come when we want it or how we want it or maybe at all?

How do we live in that tension?

In literature classes we talked a lot about liminal space, meaning an in-between space. Occupying a liminal space is like standing in a doorway (the word liminal is derived from the Latin word for threshold) - you have a foot in each room, but don't really belong in either of them.

Waiting is occupying the liminal space between desire and fulfillment.

How do we occupy that space without being in a discombobulated state of limbo? Especially when waiting could last for months or years on end, how do we not waste that time?

I have jotted in my journal something from a podcast:

The Lord offers Himself to us in the waiting. In the liminal spaces. In the silence before then answer.
Am I willing to receive Him?

Also in my journal:

She brings her waiting into the presence of the Lord. Is that true of me?

What does it look like to practice waiting well?

I have found my answer in Psalms 37:3-5.

Trust in the LORD and do good;
    dwell in the land, and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the LORD,
    and He will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the LORD;
    trust in Him, and He will act.

Waiting well means committing my way and my desires to the Lord and then trusting Him to act in, for, and through me. But this waiting doesn't mean inactivity. It means actively trusting the Lord's faithfulness, doing good, dwelling - truly being - where I am instead of wishing I were somewhere else.

It means choosing to delight myself in the Lord and center my life on Him rather than on the thing I'm waiting for.

It means trusting Him and taking the next step.

This applies to everything from waiting for Him to provide a job or an apartment to waiting for Him to allow the secret seed of a dream to grow into reality - or never see the light of day.

Easier said than done.

But learning to wait like this is the key distinction between joy and bitterness, between growth and withering, between trusting the Lord and crippling self-dependence.

Waiting like this lays the foundation for a healthy response when what we ask for is granted - or refused.

"Lord, Your will in Your timing."

Waiting is never really over. As soon as I finish waiting for one thing, another thing begins to loom on the horizon. Sure, some waiting may be more acute than others, but I'm always waiting for something.

Emily Freeman says, "to live is to wait."

Beneath all the specific things we may be waiting for, the life of faith is a life of waiting. The author of Hebrews writes "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for" - and to hope for something is to wait for it - "the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).

In faith we are waiting for the fulfillment of Christ's Kingdom. It is already here, but not yet fully realized. And although we are confident that it will be realized, we have no idea when or even how.

So we wait.

What sustains you in the waiting?

Monday, July 10, 2017

Poetry Corner: "Poetics of Faith"

I found this poem during a rainy-day perusal of a new volume of poetry - Denise Levertov's collection The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes. I love how she uses the form of the poem to make waves with her words. It's also a good one to read aloud. 

Poetics of Faith
by Denise Levertov

'Straight to the point'
             can ricochet,
Circumlocution, analogy,
             parable's ambiguities, provide
                       context, stepping-stones.

Most of the time. And then

the lightning power
             amidst these indirections,
                       of plain
unheralded miracle!
              For example,
                        as if forgetting
to prepare them, He simply
             walks on water
                       toward them, casually -
and impetuous Peter, empowered,
             jumps from the boat and rushes
                        on wave-tip to meet Him -
a few steps, anyway -
              (till it occurs to him,
                        'I can't, this is preposterous'
and Jesus has to grab him,
            tumble his weight
                        back over the gunwale).
Sustaining those light and swift
              steps was more than Peter
                         could manage. Still,
years later,
              his toes and insteps, just before sleep,
                         would remember their passage.

Friday, June 30, 2017

10 things I learned this month

And just like that, June is over. Inspired by Emily Freeman, I'm continuing the practice of sharing things I learned this month here.

1. I’m distantly related to the pirate Pierre le Grande. The things you learn at family get-togethers. My relatives were talking family history, and they firmly announced that having an ancestor from Baltimore does NOT make that ancestor a yankee. They then happily discussed the connection with good ol' Pierre. Takeaway: it is better to be related to a pirate than to a yankee. Oh, the South. 

2. Not having a picture of something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I know, I know, this is basic, but remembering this afresh has given me the freedom to leave my devices at home and just enjoy whatever is happening rather than trying to document everything or (worse) staring at a screen when I have a minute to spare. I hiked, square danced, and made s’mores without distraction because I decided that was more important than having photos. 

3. God doesn’t often act quickly, but He acts suddenly. I came across this line in a book and it stuck with me. Often it seems like I am waiting on God forever with no sign of Him acting anytime soon, and then BOOM things start to happen. (This goes along with something I learned last month: God is seldom early, but He is never late.)

4. Wise words from my aunt for hard times: 1. It’s ok to cry. 2. Thank God for something anyway. 3. Don’t cry too long. The Lord gave her these words for her children when my uncle was deployed, but they apply to any tough time. 

5. A good teacher makes it possible for students to change their opinions without shame

6. We all write in the margins. A blog post that compares life to marginalia and interpretation (he actually uses the Hebrew term midrash here) is definitely my kind of post. I discovered Casey Tygrett's blog through another blogger I follow, and I'm loving it.  

7. Singapore airlines is a dream to travel onI had such a great experience on my flight - excellent service, and the stewardesses wear lovely dresses. (Yes, appearances matter.)

8. There is a rooftop lounge with free access for all in Terminal 5 of JFK airport. Travelers, take note! This place made my 8-hour layover a pleasure rather than a chore to get through.

9. Moving to Germany is significantly different from traveling to Germany. Hehe. Significantly more stressful, but also filled with unique joys. I had fun writing this post.

10. Putting up my own things in a hotel room makes a world of difference for my mood. Particularly when I'll be staying in this room for a month until we move into our new house. Quick transformation from generic room to my own space. (Three cheers for washi tape!)

What did you learn this month?

Sunday, June 25, 2017

first day in Germany: alternate realities

It is 6:53 pm, the evening of our first day in Germany, and I'm still awake. We'll see if I can make it to my goal time of 9. I'm pretty confident I can.

Y'all. I am not just here for two months to help my parents move, but for a whole year with the Fulbright (more on that in posts to follow). I am so glad to be back - it's good for my third-culture-kid soul. The only thing missing is Charlie. It's been a happy day, and as we went through it I realized that there are very marked differences between one's first day in Germany on vacation and one's first day in Germany during a military move. Both can be very good days, but I was chuckling to myself as I came up with the list of comparisons.

Any time you go to Germany: you start getting excited the moment you hear German spoken in the airport in the States, and then cannot stop grinning when you actually get to the German airport. (Fun story from today: at passport control my passable accent as I said "Guten Morgen" and the fact that I was born in Wiesbaden led the guard to ask me - in German - if I had a German passport also. No...but I wouldn't complain if I did.)

The first day on vacation: you have The Sound of Music soundtrack stuck in your head all day because that's what you watched on the plane.

The first day of a move: you have "How Far I'll Go" stuck in your head all day because you finally watched Moana on the airplane and all the tck (third culture kid) vibes are resonating strongly (island home/ocean -> American home/Germany).

The first day on vacation: you don't have a rental car, so you take the train from the airport to the city center and then buy a transit pass that you figure out how to use as you go.

The first day of a move: you can't pick your car up until tomorrow, so someone from post comes and picks you up, throws all 8 pieces of luggage for you and your parents in the government minivan, and drives you to military lodging.

The first day on vacation: you have to stay awake all day, so you spend hours wandering around the beautiful old city center, ooh-ing and ah-ing over the architecture and cobblestones and atmosphere of the place.

{Munich 2015}
The first day of a move: you wave at the stunning German countryside as you whiz past on the autobahn - you won't see it again for the rest of the day since you have no way to get off post once you're dropped off. You still have to stay awake all day, so you spend the hours wandering over post, feeling totally at home among the old military housing (if you've seen one post, you've seen them all) and exploring the PX/BX (Post/Base Exchange - aka a shopping mall). You leave with polish pottery and an inexpensive cell phone.

The first day on vacation: you purchase food from the local grocery store, marveling at how inexpensive Camembert cheese and good bread is.

The first day of a move: you know that you don't actually have to do a big grocery shop since you'll get the car tomorrow, so you run into the Commissary to purchase the bare necessities. Dad goes for milk (for coffee) and bubbly water; Mom goes for yogurt, ramen, and chocolate; and you go for tea (black for the morning and peppermint for evenings) and apples.

The first day on vacation: you spend the evening hanging out in the lobby of the youth hostel with your traveling companions, figuring out wifi to contact family members and chatting with the hostel staff.

The first day of a move: you spend the evening in military lodging, either putting up with cramped army guesthouses (the last time we moved), or marveling over how spacious and pristine air force lodging is (this move). It's no secret that the air force is cushy, and while you take pride in your tough army status, it sure is nice to enjoy that pampered air force life to ease the transition. While your parents lay out a plan of attack for the dizzying logistical challenges of in processing, picking up the car, and finding a home preferably within 5 days (wishful thinking much?), you revel in your lack of responsibility and write blog posts.

Any first day in Germany: you spend the day in a confusing haze of euphoria, loopiness from jet lag, and increasing difficulty staying alert and cogent. You instantly recognize the distinctive song of the Amsel (the European blackbird), which you haven't heard in years and yet would know anywhere because it is a sound of your childhood. You enjoy the feel of the air and the way the windows open and the sound of the language and all the memories of little things from years ago that you thought you'd forgotten. You keep your eyelids propped up as long as you possibly can and then sleep like a log all night because you refused yourself the tempting instant gratification of a nap earlier.

{Munich 2015}

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Poetry Corner: "Questions of Travel"

Sharing poetry is a deeply-ingrained habit in my day-to-day life that has occasionally spilled over onto the blog. As of today, I'm planning to share some of my favorite poems more frequently on this platform. As I live in limbo between places and ponder an itinerant lifestyle, this one has been on my mind. I love it for the questions and the imagery. Enjoy! 

Questions of Travel
by Elizabeth Bishop

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
- For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
- Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
- A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.

- Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr'dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages
- Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
- And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

'Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there... No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be? ' 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

6 things I learned in May

I always look forward to reading Emily Freeman's  "Things I learned this month" (recently changed to "Things I learned this quarter") posts, so today I'm linking up to share a handful of things I learned in May.

1. Death by cow is more likely than death by shark. 
A friend just told me this. I was a little incredulous, but it's true. Sharks kill on average 5 people per year worldwide (1 per year in the US), while around 20 people per year are killed by bovine attacks. Who knew cows could be so lethal? The funny thing is, this has zero effect on my love of hiking through picturesque alpine cow pastures or my trepidation when it comes to swimming in the ocean. Check out more interesting shark stats here and here.

2. I love road tripping solo on backroads with no GPS and only a road atlas to guide me.
I visited Liza at her new home in small town South Carolina a couple of weeks ago, and while I loved spending time with her, I also loved the adventure of the road trip. South Carolina is gorgeous, and I enjoyed myself listening to music and following signs from one quaint town to the next. I only got lost twice, and I much prefer getting lost in a relaxed sort of way to having an aggravating GPS telling me what to do every two minutes.

3. "Acting is telling the truth under imaginary circumstances." 
I stumbled across this quote by Emma Watson last week, and it has provided much food for thought. Not only is this true of acting, but of what good literature accomplishes as well.

4. Someday I want to name my house.
I've always thought that would be cool, but I'm horrible at coming up with names for things. But names are important, and where I live is important, so I wherever I settle will probably end up with a name. Montreat, the tiny community in the Appalachians where my grandparents live, is gifted with residents who know how to name their houses. Some of my favorites: "Nooks and Grannies," "Cram a Lot Inn," "Windy Wildflower," and "Aslan's Pause."

5. I have separation anxiety from my books.
I went on a couple of weekend trips this month, brought several more books than I actually opened on each one, and regretted not bringing others as soon as I headed out of town. My dad bought my whole family kindles years ago, exasperated by the weight all of our books added to the load on family trips, but I forget that the kindle exists most of the time and hands-down prefer hard copy. Which is kind of a problem, what with my family's itinerant lifestyle.

6. "The Lord's timing is seldom early, but He is never late."
Someone mentioned this in conversation, and it's a truth that I have been holding on to and seeing proved true recently.

What have you learned this month? Share in the comments below!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"trust Me, and take the next step"

During my time at Wheaton, I experienced some seasons of intense growth and others of quiet contentment.

I thought that my final season at Wheaton would be one of the quiet contentment variety. I expected to focus on strengthening old friendships and finishing strong academically, but I did not anticipate anything particularly noteworthy.

I thought wrong.

My last month at Wheaton was filled with the most concentrated and specific outpouring of the Lord's encouragement and preparation that I have ever experienced. This outpouring came on so many levels - through classes; through conversations with old friends, new friends, and total strangers; through well-loved poems and poems I encountered for the first time; through Scripture; through quiet assurances of the Lord's love and steadfast faithfulness.

This outpouring was multi-faceted. The Lord confirmed things I had known for a long time and revealed things I had never thought of before. He at once broadened and sharpened my vision and doused it with a double helping of wonder. I was alive to His presence and guidance and overwhelming grace.

To even begin to go into specifics would take a ridiculous amount of time. I spent the first week after graduation journaling all this and only finished after writing around 13,500 words. (By hand.) I will spare you that. But there was a common current in this flood of encouragement.

In some ways it all started one week that I had been uncharacteristically agitated and preoccupied. I finally came before the Lord in prayer, ready to lay my laundry list of worries and what-ifs before Him when He stopped my thoughts in their well-worn tracks.

"Be still and rest."

He gave me these words, and He gave my distracted soul the ability to be still and rest before Him. He recentered me in His presence. In the midst of my fretting, He reminded me of another time that He had spoken as I prayed.

Basically, He reminded me to trust Him. 

All year, as I figured out what to do after graduation, the Lord had been teaching me to trust Him and take the next step. That evening in March, He reminded me that this attitude applies not only to major life decisions but also to every moment of every day. I'm not supposed to know how a conversation will pan out. I don't need to figure out why I'm supposed to be in a given place at a given time. I don't need to overanalyze or be ready with a detailed plan of action for the best-case scenario, the worst-case scenario, and every scenario in between. 

As difficult as it is for this planner to admit, my job is not to know what the next step will lead to. My job is simply to take the next step as the Spirit leads and trust the Lord to provide the next step after that when He sees fit.

"Trust Me, and take the next step."

It seems so simple, so basic. 

It changed everything. Being tethered to the Holy Spirit, taking almost literally every step of every day in dependence on Him, led to unequaled freedom and confidence. (Paradox, yes; surprise, no.) 

It was this that opened my heart for the Lord to speak to me on so many profound levels as I walked through my last weeks at Wheaton. It is as if He said: "You think you're finished, but I still have more for you here - more joy, more fellowship, more growth. I'm not finished with you here." 

Not only was that season deeply life-giving at the time, but I know that it will be a source of consolation as I face a challenging year of transition. The Lord is faithful. Always. Faithful when He is pouring out encouragement and life by the bucketload, and faithful in the times when everything seems dry. I know that the changes He worked in me even in my last days at Wheaton will draw me closer to Him for a long time to come. I'm only beginning to learn what it looks like to truly trust Him and take the next step.

So as I rejoice in the Lord's work in and through me at Wheaton, as I grieve that my time at Wheaton is over, and as I step into my upcoming adventure in Germany, I'm resting in the Lord's faithfulness and eager to receive whatever grace He has for me. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

of stories and vision and wonder

A few weeks before I graduated, I was one of four seniors asked to share reflections on my time as an English major with the students, faculty, and staff of the English Department. I want to share those reflections with y'all as well. 

~ ~ ~

     The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
              Outside the open window 
The morning air is all awash with angels.

     Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear 
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

     Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet 
That nobody seems to be there.
               The soul shrinks

     From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every bless├Ęd day,
And cries, 
               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

     Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors, 
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

     “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves; 
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
              keeping their difficult balance.

~Richard Wilbur

~ ~ ~

When Dr. Coolidge asked me to speak for department chapel, I knew I had to read this poem by Richard Wilbur. Keep it in mind, because I am going to talk about it more in a few minutes. But before I do that, I want to share some advice that directly relates to why this poem is so important to me. This advice comes from Mary Oliver, another poet that I love. Her  “instructions for living a life” are “pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” This is how we are called to live, to “always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder,” as E.B. White says. 

There’s a problem, though: it’s really easy to get stuck in the rut of routine and stop truly seeing. We approach the world pragmatically rather than enjoying the gift that it simply is. We become blinded by familiarity instead of seeing the world with the vision of wonder. I, for one, am always looking for ways to re-vision - ways to see the world with fresh eyes. My go-to aid for that is literature. 

This is one reason I love the above poem. It’s called “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” I love that Wilbur wrote a poem about laundry - a quotidian chore that is not in the least poetic to most people. He takes something familiar that we rarely pay attention to, defamiliarizes it, and asks us to reconsider how we see commonplace things. He uses ordinary imagery as an entry point into profound meditation.

I’d be willing to bet that many of you are English majors because you love the way that literature helps you engage with the world in new ways. Salmon Rushdie says that “Literature is in part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality.” In studying literature, we receive new eyes to see what Dickens calls the “romantic side of familiar things.” 

One of my favorite moments as an English major was during sophomore year. It was fall, and one of the trees near my dorm was aflame with spectacular color. I’d been enjoying this in solitude for several days, when one day I encountered a friend en route between the dorm and cafeteria. I grabbed her and said, “Rachel! Finally someone who will understand!!! Look at that tree!!!” We stood there gazing at the tree, rejoicing in its glory and beauty. 

The next day in Victorian Literature we discussed Hopkins’ poem "God’s Grandeur". Dr. Colon talked about how Hopkins uses the techniques of inscape and instress as tools to help us recognize the “treeness” of each individual tree. She said, “most people look at a tree and think, it’s just a tree. But Hopkins tells us - GUYS! It’s not just a tree. It’s a TREE.” Rachel was in that class with me, and we just looked at each other and telepathically said “well, that was perfect timing.” 

One thing great authors do so well is study commonplace things that everyone else ignores in order to rediscover their beauty and power. But there is more to it than that. Good literature doesn’t just reveal the deep beauty of this world: it also reveals its deep brokenness, which is often equally easy to ignore. Great authors force us to come face to face with the pain that permeates the world. A good example of this is Toni Morrison’s recent novel Home. It is the narrative of an African American Korean War vet returning home to Georgia. Through it, Morrison pulls the scab off the 1950s, which we usually remember as a happy-go-lucky, leave-it-to-Beaver time. She explores with precision and poignancy the problems of systemic racism. Morrison refuses us the luxury of crafting an image of reality that isn’t true and instead uses her work to force us to face deep-seated brokenness.

The question then remains, as English majors, how do we use the renewed vision that literature gives us? Do we get to read the stories, close the books, and continue as if nothing had happened? I don’t think that’s adequate. Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick, write that “a credible idea makes people believe. An emotional idea makes people care. And the right stories make people act.” Stories make people act.

We have a responsibility to act on the vision that literature gives us. This dovetails with our calling as Christians to see the world for what it truly is. We know that the world is good, because it was created by a good God as an expression of love. We can see goodness and beauty in places where other people see only the mundane. We are called to cultivate that beauty so other people can see and respond to it. On the flip side, we know that the world is deeply broken as a result of the fall. And we are called to see the world’s brokenness, wade into it, get our feet muddy, and begin the work of restoration that will culminate in the Kingdom of Christ. This is our calling - to cherish the world’s beauty and to rebuild the world’s brokenness. But in order to do that we have to have the kind of vision that can see beauty and brokenness. Through my time at Wheaton I have learned that literature is one of the most powerful tools there is to mold our vision. And vision leads to action.