25 Years Ago, Today

25 Years Ago, Today

**This section got edited out of another piece I’m currently working on. Here’s my “Floods of ’93” story. Enjoy.

I spent the summer of 1993 home from college, driving into day after day of heavy rain on my way to work. In the early morning hours of July 11, the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers merged into one watery mass at their convergence, and the water treatment plant, located not far from where the rivers met, went offline. Sam, then not yet my husband, was visiting, sleeping in my room. I was upstairs sleeping on the couch, Walkman by my side. When the power went out around 4 AM, I woke to the sound of thunder and the flash of lightning, put in my earbuds and turned on the radio.

…We’re receiving reports from the city that the water treatment plant is completely inundated. … People living in Des Moines who are served by municipal water are advised not to drink the water coming from their taps…

Half still in a dream state, I listened a few minutes more as the radio news reporters questioned whether there would even be water running in the taps at all by daybreak. I drowsily debated with myself whether or not to wake anyone else. I decided against it. I went back to sleep.

The telephone woke me at 6 am. Mom was already up and in the kitchen. Before I had a chance to warn her not to drink the water or start the dishwasher, my sister, staying with a friend in Ankeny (which still had municipal water service) called to deliver the news and ask whether she should head home right away.

By 6:30 AM, nothing came out of the faucets. Our battery-powered radio, droning in the background with mostly a repeated loop of information we already knew, informed us that the city had decided to shut off the water supply, in the attempt to prevent a bad situation (undrinkable water) from deteriorating into a worse one (disease). What we didn’t know that morning was that the taps would remain dry for twelve more days, and even then, the water delivered through the system was unsafe to drink for about a week.

Around 7AM, Dad returned from an early-morning trip to check on the night crew at his print shop across town with an armload of flashlight and radio batteries, three huge jugs of drinking water, and other various survival supplies gleaned from the office. By daybreak, store shelves all over town were already cleared of batteries, drinking water, paper plates, ice, milk, and bread. We’d been without power most of the night, and would be for the following several days. Neighborhoods near the worst of the flooding but not affected enough to be evacuated (such as ours) were intentionally kept in the dark to prevent people from being electrocuted by stepping in their flooded basements. Where Dad managed to find D and AA batteries even that early in the morning, I have no idea. The jugs of water, of course, came from the stockpile next to the office water cooler. Such are the benefits when your dad is a business owner.

Dad’s print shop remained dry and after a day or two, work went on as usual, unlike at his competitors’ print shop closer to the riverfront. I’m sure he didn’t do it for free, but he offered to make printing plates for them once they got running again, since their platemaking equipment fell victim to the floodwaters. Water trucked in from a farm owned by parents of one of Dad’s employees kept the presses running. We flushed toilets with buckets of rainwater. We ate peanut butter sandwiches on paper plates. We washed our hair with a bucket out on the porch. We drove to a laundromat in Newton to do laundry. But we only did all that for three days.

Three days after most of the city went dark and the taps went dry, my mom and sister and I drove to the airport and flew out of town, as we’d planned, to visit Mom’s parents in Seattle. We laughed at the providence of our timing, while we worried a little for our friends we left behind.

The Heroine’s Return (a journal entry)

The Heroine’s Return (a journal entry)

[something I wrote last fall, but it’s how I’ve felt all week and I just found it this morning again, so here it is…]

This morning, I’m home.

I’ve slid into home after a two and a half year adventure that I wasn’t even close to ready to end. But, it’s ended. And here I am. As my much-younger friends were settling into their dorms yesterday, renewing friendships after summer adventures, I –well, I was at the hospital, contorting myself in front of a digital imaging machine, getting my long-overdue mammogram.

That’s my present reality.

I’m 44 and a half years old, and I just graduated college last year. I don’t have the documented proof, but I’m pretty sure I might be the oldest graduate in the college’s sixty-some year history. Somehow, I figured it’d be a bigger deal than it was, this adventure of finishing something left long undone. But as it was, I managed to weave myself in to the student population better than I’d expected. After a semester, once I’d committed to full-time particularly, I found my place. I was the harmonic component, I think, sometimes the voice of experience, sometimes the alternate opinion, sometimes the confirmation of questioning. Somehow, I learned to fit in.

But this morning, I woke up, got dressed, made the bed, and set in to a cup of tea and the ritual I’m trying to make habit (or is it the other way around?) –three pages of longhand ramble that is supposed to help clear the brain and open a channel to whatever else comes around the bend, creatively.

I’m still a student, but this time, I’m doing it mostly from home, working on my MFA. But I still hope I’m missed in that alternate universe that opened up a part of myself I’d left long dormant. To be honest, I’m more than a little afraid I’ll have the same fade to grey I had the year or so that I stutter-started my way back with one fiction-writing class. I quit, out of fear, and sank into helplessness that I’d never manage to make this dream of mine come true.

But now, it’s done. This morning, I’m simultaneously writing and making a batch of orange calendula soap, stocking up for the two craft shows I have planned in the next couple months. Soapmaking is my side-gig, my way of adding to the grocery budget for now. It’s a meditative process infused with waiting, something that feels like the perfect fit for where I am now. It gets me out of the house every Thursday afternoon, as I pull my table and canopy out of the back of our Subaru station wagon, spread the green tablecloth, and set out the work of my hands. It makes me talk to people, gets me involved in a world outside my home, something I know I need after having two and a half years of close community, a community that I came to love.

Now I’m finding myself having to discipline myself into making a new one. And I’m rather terrible at it. All I want to do after Sunday morning church service is head home to a quiet, empty house and sit –and I know now that is exactly the opposite of what I need to do.

It’s not like I don’t have people. We brought our two younger kids home this year to do virtual school, a move that’s reduced the stress level at our house by half and reduced our expenses by several thousand dollars a year (adding to the reduction in stress somewhat). I have a group of women that I’m in contact with, in person on the Thursdays I’m at market and on facebook. I could probably call at least a couple of them for a coffee date without it feeling too weird. One woman in the group is a closet writer (quickly becoming my favorite type of person).

I’m doing what I choose, what I love, really. I’m not working a mindless job. I’m doing my work this morning with the windows open, the sunshine flooding in, the green smell of late-summer rain-nourished grass wafting in with the cool breeze this morning. My kids –two of them at least—are here, working on their own projects. This house is starting to feel a lot more like home these days.

After moving around for so many years (13 homes in twenty years), we’ve settled here, into our seventh year here in our little town, and our eighth in this neck of the woods. We’ll have been in our house four years in December. Four years of mortgage payments already. I think we’ve settled, and, for now, I feel the peace of something being right. Our bills are almost all paid on time, our budget has a lot more margin than it used to. Yes, there’s some debt (school has a way of doing that), but not without hope of getting it paid. My husband loves his job, I’ve finally found my calling and am equipping myself to do it better, our kids are healthy and for the most part happy.

And yet, I’m finding myself writing this this morning, trying to talk myself into being all here, finding the joy in front of me. Because for the last few years, it was unavoidable, unexpected. It just showed up. And now, I’m having to fight for it a little. To search for it.

I’m thinking of my friends this morning, heading to new classes, starting over, and I really wish I were still there. I don’t feel done. But I am done.

Or am I starting something new? I guess that’s where I am –in transition, and transitions have never come terribly easy for me, however skilled or experienced I am at them. Or maybe I’ve just never quite loved a place like I loved it there. I’m in that disorienting, dizzying place between. The place in the moment of turning your head from the road behind to the road ahead, starting to feel around for hope.

Yes, that’s where I am. I know this place.

Now all I have to do is find my way home.

Found Faithful

Found Faithful

Some time in 1978 or 79, after my parents had moved to Ankeny, Iowa from Omaha, we switched churches. We’d belonged to the United Methodist Church, where I was baptized as an infant, I assume because that’s the church my dad was raised in. That is to say, that is the denomination that held their official membership. Not that we or anyone in my parents’ families really went there much, according to the stories I remember hearing. Still, that was our church affiliation –until we moved to Des Moines.

After the move and a year or two, my parents started driving into Des Moines to go to church on Sunday mornings. We started going to this other, bigger church in Beaverdale, a stately old brick building at the corner of Beaver Ave. and Adams. First Federated Church, it was called. No, not a bank or an insurance company, a church. The church in the late 1970s was in the middle of a huge growth spurt, emerging from its identity as a hippie-friendly congregation with two young pastors into Iowa’s (probably) first megachurch. But this was before all that. Or at least, it was the beginning.

Our Sunday school and children’s church met in what used to be a small grocery store next to the old main church building. That’s where I stumbled into children’s choir on Sunday nights where they were finishing up practicing for Sir Oliver’s Song (I joined too late for that performance, but I got to practice with them) and started going to Wednesday night Awana while my parents went to Navigators’ discipleship classes. Our family climate changed profoundly in those years. God became real to me as a kid somewhere in those years. Church became more than play-dough and Bible stories and became ways to think about the world and things I could do, things I should do because I was a child of God, a kid with Jesus in my heart. We never talked about Jesus being in our hearts or memorized Bible verses at the Methodist church. I remember thinking of that as being very strange once I’d been at Federated a couple years, like the Methodists had hidden something from me. And this church was BIG. Big enough that they bought an old junior high school and remodeled it together to make it into our next church building. January 4, 1980 (yes, I still remember the date), we filed into the “new church” auditorium and dedicated the place. I had no idea then the place this building would have in my heart, because a year or two after that, everything changed.

We moved, back to Glenwood for a few years. We joined a tiny Southern Baptist church plant and went from a Sunday morning with several hundred others and a pastor who didn’t really know our names to a congregation of about a dozen or twenty, depending on the week. There were things I liked about that, but more things I missed. I missed Awana. I missed the Christian school where I spent my second grade year, before we’d moved. When Federated moved into that old school building, so did the Christian school, and that first year there was my first year at Des Moines Christian, 1980-81. I spent about 90 minutes or so on the bus each day commuting –that’s how important my parents thought me going there was, and I loved the school. Loved that our teacher was free to talk about God, that people really seemed to care for each other. But then, like I said, we moved away.

And then, after a few years, we moved back. In the summer of 1985, I joined youth group at Federated, along with a lot of the kids I barely remembered from Sunday school back then. I doubt any of them remembered me. Youth group back then met in the gym, a hundred or so folding chairs gathered and for the first while, the high school and the junior high were together. I can’t remember if it was White Heart (our youth group pastor’s favorite Christian rock band) or Petra on the boom box that morning, but it was very, very different. I felt like I’d crossed into a whole new chapter of everything that morning. Coming back to Des Moines, back to Federated, back to Des Moines Christian felt like a dream come true –and it literally was for me. I found a place in with the youth group kids, maybe even moreso than with the kids in my class at school. They were my closer friends, the people I hung out with on the weekends and Wednesday nights.

And things continued in the vein of explosive growth. This was during the dawn of the Willow Creek megachurch movement, and we, at the time, were Des Moines’ very first megachurch. Our services were televised, our Easter musicals were sold-out affairs. When we built a brand new addition and huge 4,000 seat sanctuary on to that old junior high school, we proudly identified ourselves as the largest church in Iowa. On Easter and Christmas, we put on better-than-community-theater quality musicals, with acting and choreography and contemporary songs and the occasional laser light show or Jesus descending from the ceiling. Our youth choir, in my sophomore year, premiered a brand-new, not-even-in-print musical for a publisher out in California. We students wrote the choreography ourselves, with guidance from our music pastor and a couple talented parents. Our moms sewed costumes. The maintenance crew built sets. It was a Big Deal. Big enough, I learned, that though I hadn’t been in choir in high school for one year, I had enough voice knowledge and musical training to make it into chorale during my freshman year of college on just what I’d learned at church.

More than that, it was where I belonged. I never quite fit in at school, but on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, I knew where I fit. I guess I figured it would always stay that way. That I’d always have that to return to, that we’d bump into each other once we joined the college Sunday school class and married and had kids of our own.

But that didn’t really happen. In my senior year, just after our pastors had celebrated their anniversary of ministering together, just after our church’s 75th anniversary, everything fell apart. Our church split. My family left, ostensibly for other reasons I didn’t understand, not due to the split, but I still felt the ripping. I had friends still at Federated, some who left, some who stayed. But those incredible youth group years were pretty much over for me. I spent my senior year at a church where I had to start over again, and then I went to college, unsure even of where I belonged on the Sundays when I came back home. Federated wasn’t my church home any more, and neither was the church my parents went to, really. And during my college years, like a lot of students, I wound up tearing what I believed down to its foundations and rebuilding it again –stronger. But a lot of what I’d left out were the things that I’d learned at Federated. Still, I always saw those years as important, as foundational. There was a part of that place that would always be home to me.

But then, home wasn’t home any more. My youth group scattered, moved, grew up. Pastors came and left. The church shrank from the 1,000-plus families when I was there in high school to a congregation of a few hundred. That amazing 4,000 seat sanctuary became a burden to those who stayed and had to pay it off. Things fell apart, materially and otherwise. Things got fixed, materially and otherwise. The Christian school, my alma mater, moved across town to a new building.

So many good memories bound up in that place. But the remnant of several hundred as late have decided that the building no longer fits the church that inhabits it, and so, this Sunday, this morning, they held their last service there.

I knew this was coming, and so on one of my last trips home to Des Moines, I drove out to the church, to my old school, and wandered the halls for a little closure, I guess. Nothing, of course, was much the same. Even the smells were different. The smell of pencil shavings and floor wax was gone, now that the school had moved out. Not many people walking around. I was happy to discover that a few classroom doors had been left open, so I could go in and see that the place I remembered really was gone. The “new building,” the part that was added on when I was in high school was shuttered. It was closed off intentionally a year or two ago and left unused due to the expense of heating, cooling, and maintaining the unnecessary square footage. For the last few years, the congregation has held services in the original auditorium, something that alone seems too strange for me to understand.

But, things change. And a little like my husband, whose entire neighborhood in Peru has been turned over to the government and the reclamation of the jungle now that the task of Bible translation is done there, I can’t go “home” there again, either.

Some might call Federated’s history a cautionary tale. I imagine that from what I have heard of the difficult years since I’ve left Des Moines, there might be some for whom a move from that building feels a bit like leaving an old haunted house. I’m sure that for those that remain and some that have left, not all the memories that building contains are happy ones. I remember the theme during that 75th anniversary celebration: “Found Faithful.” I remember thinking even as a teenage kid how proud that sounded. The kind of proud that rings in your head like chewing tinfoil, like something’s struck the wrong note. The split, ironically, happened a couple weeks after that “Found Faithful” celebration. What I think we all discovered after, particularly those who remained, was that it wasn’t we, the congregation, that were found faithful, but God Himself, who carried that church through the years that followed.

First Federated Church as it was, after today, is a part of history. The church has renamed itself “The Mission,” along with this cross-town move to another, smaller building. I can’t go back to the old building and wander the halls again. I won’t be able to show my kids where I went to high school, where I graduated, where I hid during the New Years’ Eve games of hide-and-seek in the darkened building. Oh, and that old building at Beaver and Adams, where I was baptized (again) at age eight –that was hit by lightning in the years we were in Glenwood and burned down. There are apartments there where the old church once stood.

But I have the memories, and I have the building stones of faith that I was given there. Some stones got left behind along the way, some stones have crumbled because life and my walk with God has proven that they weren’t solid. Some have held. Still, the part in my soul that knows that God wastes nothing knows that for all the things I might have had to re-learn or un-learn, the things I learned and experienced in those years were all necessary to bring me along to where I am now. And for that, I am thankful for a God who, unlike his people, is always found faithful.

**The photo at the top is from the original Beaver and Adams church (not sure if it predates that, but it might). It was moved from the old building and remounted on the Franklin Ave. property. Behind the sign is a wall of the old junior high building (the gym, if I remember correctly) and a wall from the new auditorium addition. 

 

 

Unplugged, for a while at least.

Unplugged, for a while at least.

So, I’ve been thinking about doing this for at least a month and a half now. Thought about making a clean break at the beginning of the new year, but I didn’t. Maybe I couldn’t. It’s been sort of a lonely few months anyway, what with the transition back home and without the daily interaction of the classroom. But I still can’t shake the idea that a little time away from social media would do me some good.

Facebook is the only connection I have to some of my people from the last couple years, and the only connection I have to people from my past with whom I’ve reconnected. Would I be able to maintain a connection if I walked away from social media? Likely not, to be honest. I could barely keep up with my pen pals back in the days when letter writing was how we kept in touch. Does anybody use email these days for anything other than brief, productive, essential communication any more anyway (beside me, who still uses it to write like I would in a real letter, I’m sure to the annoyance of the ones who receive them)? …For that matter, does anyone actually READ their email (my teacher husband would say probably not, at least as it pertains to his students…)?

Could I really step away from Facebook and Twitter? Meh. Probably. The times I’ve tried before, though, it’s been more stepping back, of not responding, of not posting. But I still read others’ posts. That’s what I had a hard time letting go –not so much FOMO (that’s “Fear Of Missing Out”), but fear of not finding out something I should know. And in some corners of my world, Facebook is a communal online calendar and newsletter of events.

So, why quit? That’s where I’ve been in this month and a half. Why walk away? Primarily, it’s a concern about the amount of time I spend attached to social media (for me, only Facebook and to a lesser amount, Twitter. I don’t understand Snapchat, and Pinterest lost its glimmer about a week in). It’s a mind-numbing comfort. Reaching for our phones in times of awkward silence or empty moments has become a tic for most of us. I hate how that habit has dulled my ability to pay attention to the world around me. I used to be quite observant, a person who didn’t miss much. Now, though? I think my phone habits are eroding that ability, and if you write, you know that the skill of careful observation is essential to writing well.

I hate that Facebook is such an easy way to craft an alternate identity. I hate that it so often becomes a way of framing my existence, of editing out the things I don’t want to reveal and billboarding every detail that I want the world to know about me (example: do I really look like ANY of the selfies I’ve ever taken? I doubt it). More than that, though, I think it’s weakened our collective ability to have constructive face-to-face discussions on things we disagree about.

Early on, I made a conscious decision to avoid discussing politics on Facebook (that’s more of what I use my Twitter account for, where two-way discourse is a little more concise and, to be honest, difficult). I have seen a handful of occasions where friends have had constructive, civil, even loving disagreements on Facebook. But it’s the exception, not the rule. I decided early on that I prefer to discuss that kind of thing personally, where I can read a person’s tone and communicate my own more clearly, so I use my Facebook account for other things. As they say, that’s JMHO. Just my humble opinion.

I have friends on both sides of the political spectrum, and as I’ve decided where my own politics fall, I’ve found myself limiting how much I see from friends who have a pattern of declaring their allegiance to parties, policies, and politicians I disagree with. And I hate that. I hate that I can control that corner of my online existence with the selection of a box or an addition or deletion to a list. It takes a lot for me to unfriend someone unless I just plain don’t know them, but I’ve unfollowed plenty of people –particularly November before last. It got to the point one week in November of 2016 that all it took for me to start looking for the “unfollow” box was one too many political posts (or, worse, memes) that hit me the wrong way, and you were gone from my feed, at least for a while. It helped, a little, but I hated that I had that much control over the thing, which now is sort of my window on the world some days. I value the fact that my circle of friends is diverse, and the idea that I can sweep through and filter out the opinions I don’t like doesn’t feel right at all.

Back when my kids were very little and I was housebound with them most days, I discovered an online message board of Christian moms. It became my community, and, to be honest, I spent far too much time online, particularly in seasons when I was fighting depression. I stopped reading books. I quit making things, quit making art. I seldom wrote. Cooking and housekeeping became a chore only done when completely necessary, with much internal resistance and unspoken resentment. I lost the joy in completing everyday tasks. This group of moms became my escape -and though they got me through a lot of the tough parts of new motherhood (and for that, I value the experience), I regret the time I could have spent calling someone to go for coffee or take the kids to the park together, like people used to. I regret the times I spent the kids’ naptime on the computer instead of being creative or filling my own (empty) well. Three years ago, I deactivated my account there with significant trepidation. I realized that I’d outgrown the need for it. It took fully two weeks to quit the knee-jerk reflex of typing in the address to the board when I first sat down to the computer, but eventually, I found all kinds of freedom and time that I’d missed. Unfortunately, however, I’ve found that what used to be message board time has eventually become Facebook time, particularly once I got a smartphone and my “friends who live in a lighted box” could be carried with me everywhere. Sure, I read more now, I’m knitting again, I write, and I study, but I still spend too much time in virtual reality.

So, I’m thinking it’s time to step away for a while. Not sure for how long, but I need to pull the plug for a bit, to find my balance again and relearn how to connect with people and watch the world in my spare time and learn to enjoy awkward silences again. I’m resisting even announcing this, because nothing says “self-righteous flounce” like someone who announces they’re quitting social media for good (implied: AND YOU SHOULD TOO).

I’m writing this more to figure out why I can’t let go of the idea that I should quit for a while than to write a manifesto against social media. I’m not saying that it’s not a good thing, mostly. I’m just not sure I’m using it well, myself.

I’m hoping that I’ll relearn how to communicate with more depth, to think before I write in a different way –instead of in a defensive sense (how will people reply to this and who will read it?), in a way that communicates with depth and complexity. Depth that can’t be found in 144 or even 288 characters. Depth that reveals what I want to reveal, but teaches me as I write about even the things I can’t or don’t control. I want my sense of mystery back. I want to talk to someone and not have them reply, “yeah, I read that the other day…” I want silence again. I want a life without so much distraction, and I want, for once, for my friends to be found outside the lighted boxes on my desk and in my pocket.

So, if you need me for the next while, you can find me via email (my name at gmail dot com) and occasionally around here. I just might respond with an effusively wordy, completely obnoxiously wandering conversational reply that you’ll probably ignore anyway.

2017

2017

 

“I am going to make it through this year
If it kills me…”

-“This Year”, The Mountain Goats

 

This was the year that began with a looming new presidency that I wasn’t entirely excited about (to be honest, moderately terrified) and a profound sense of disappointment with my nation. This was the year I went back on Wellbutrin.

This was the year that began with a twist of pain in my heart that I was beginning my final semester at college, and a twist of anxiety in my gut that I was taking a couple classes that I felt were just beyond my comfort zone.

This was the year I had an essay published –on paper, in a magazine that went to more than 100 people—and got paid enough for it to buy my books for my final semester of college.

This was the year I graduated college, twenty-six years after I began. The year I finished my long-postponed dream …and then found I had no idea what next.

This was the year I made a complete change of plans in 48 hours in mid-May about grad school. I took the leap, and by all signs so far, after ten days of summer residency, one fall semester, more than ten books read (I’ve lost count -it’s all on my Goodreads profile…), and about 100 pages of writing and revision later, it’s been worth it.

This was the year we finally went to a U2 concert. Pretty good graduation/anniversary celebration, if you ask me, and a fairly effective balm for that sense of disappointment with my home country.

This was the year that I found myself, in early November, remembering the November before when I sat in class, pushing away the looming question: “where will I be next year?” This November, I sat in nearly the same seat in the same room, overwhelmed with relief and something like joy because I finally had the answer, and it was a good one.

This was the year that we brought the two younger ones home to do school, and decreased our family’s stress level by over half. This year we spent time finding a new normal, a new routine with a cleaner house and more home-cooked meals and probably a little too much time spent at home.

Anno Domini 2017 was a year of dreams granted, blessings overwhelming. If I had to, I think I’d be okay with doing it again, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Soli Deo gloria.

 

Culture, Criticism, and Community

Culture, Criticism, and Community

My tank is full.

I’ve spent the last three or so days back at my alma mater, Dordt College, filling my head with information and conversation and my heart with seeing good friends again. This weekend was just what I needed in the middle of a long semester of writing craft analyses and reading and writing and contact only through Skype and message boards. I miss the classroom, some days more than others, but not having that every-day engagement and conversation has left an empty space. I’m grateful for the ability to continue on with my education without having to upend my family’s normal, but sometimes electronic communication doesn’t hold a candle to the experience of in-person communal learning. I’m not about to change my plans, but it’s something I didn’t quite expect, this sense of distance and disconnect I’ve been feeling a little bit lately. It’s been remedied by some outside-of-class contact with my classmates via Facebook and email, but it’s still… well, just not the same. And that’s as it should be, I think.

The two youngers (who are also doing their schooling from home now) are sort of feeling similarly, but we’ve joined a local homeschooling group, which has helped the isolation a bit, and Amaryah’s been active on the school’s online student center message boards, making some new friends there. I think we’re all glad to be at home, all glad that we can even do this together (grateful for cocoa and coffee available on demand in the kitchen while we study), glad for the time that we’ve all spent on the road getting to school and back returned to our own use, glad for not having to deal with forgetting papers and misunderstandings, glad for the slower pace and the grace of home, but I’m reminded of the importance of intentionally engaging community after this weekend.

So, exactly what did I do this weekend? It took me a bit to catch on to what this whole thing was about. When I read about it at first, months ago, all I had to do was read “Dordt… conference… English department… student discount…” and I was running for the calendar. But I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about until I got a copy of the schedule and actually arrived. I might be reducing the scope a bit, but the sessions and lectures revolved around literary and cultural criticism from a Christian standpoint. How’s that for an abstract concept? So, what does that mean in plain English? It means we spent the weekend engaging with people in the profession of writing, teaching, and making films, music, and art, listening to how they, as people of faith, did what they did in light of being faithful followers of Christ, artists, educators, and writers of excellence, and people in a world and culture(s) impacted by the far-reaching influence of sin and corruption in the world. How do we as makers remain faithful to making good art that honors Christ and challenges our readers and viewers? How do we as readers and viewers discern what is good, powerful art that’s worth our time? How do we faithfully engage issues like underrepresented and oppressed groups (People of Color, other cultures, minority genders, other sexual orientations) in what we consume and create? It was also just a great time of getting together with My People –old friends, former professors, and other reading/writing/art-making people.

So, while I’m exhausted (introvert hangover… it’s a Real Thing), my heart and my tank is full, and I’m ready to tackle the next few weeks of the semester challenged, and reminded of just why I write, beside the plain fact that I do it because I simply can’t NOT write. It’s good to be reminded that there are people who are passionate about this vocation of words and images and story, and it’s just my favorite thing in the whole world to see people doing what they were made to do. That was my favorite part of the weekend, being around people in relentless, joyful pursuit of feeling God’s pleasure in the work they do, whether they were students, educators, writers, or creators. Is there really anything that’s better than that?

A letter, to my friends about to return to college

A letter, to my friends about to return to college

It’s starting to look a lot like late August. The cicadas are humming again, the late-summer sun has that intensity that only happens this time of the year, and –though I could’ve been just imagining it– I happened to catch a tree on my drive yesterday just about to glow itself from green to yellow.

And, for the first time in a couple years, I’m not prepping my car for five-day-a-week long drives, loading my backpack for another semester of studies, buying books for another year. I’m missing the rise of energy inside that always comes this time of the year.

I’m done.

Kind of hard to believe –I mean, yes, I’m still doing grad school, but this year I’ll be studying from home. Granted, I’ve been a card-carrying (mortgage-holding, tax-paying) citizen of the Real World for twenty five years now, so the transition back home shouldn’t be this hard …but it is. So, since I can’t go back, I thought I’d send my greetings and wish you a great year and, true to my character, give you a few things to think about.

If you’ve been through this “going back to college” ritual a few times, you know how it goes. By mid-October, all the magic will have worn off and it’ll be back to the hard work of the every day student. You’ll have adjusted to a new living situation, gotten settled, and you might feel tempted to start to let the days slide into each other.

Don’t.

Whether it’s your first year or your fourth (or more), when your feet hit the floor in the morning, try something different this year: greet the Lord, take a deep breath, and place the next twenty-four hours in His hands. Do it whether it feels silly or not. Because these four years are going to be some of the fastest years of your life. Yes, it’s hard, yes, it’s sometimes amazingly so full of joy you feel like your body can’t contain it, sometimes it’s so full of sorrow you aren’t sure how you manage to breathe –but it goes so fast.

For the last two years, after sending my kids off to school and kissing my husband goodbye, I’ve started my days with a long drive in to school praying over the day ahead, parking my car outside the classroom building –the “old door,” you know if you know campus, the one opposite the President’s house–  walked down the path under the crabapple tree, wrapped my hand around that old broad-shouldered brass handle, pulled the door open, and breathed a silent prayer every morning, paraphrased from Psalm 19:14 –

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight.

I believe that little ritual saved my life a few times. It definitely eased a few difficult days and made me more aware that in every moment, He is present, and the things that seem insurmountable can be taken one moment at a time more easily when you realize this story you’re living isn’t written by yourself.

So, off you go. Have a wonderful year. Know that you are not alone, that the work you do every day matters, whether you “use” that major you’re working on or not. The things you learn here will travel with you through your entire life.

Don’t waste a moment of it. Know that you are loved far beyond the reaches of your fear, and let your voice echo beyond the four years you’re at this place.