Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hello, Goodbye, Hello

I started this blog to have a somewhat safe place to practice my creativity, and then I avoided using it to do so. I have lots of excuses to avoid writing. Unfortunately, most of them backfire in the end because they are things like, "I'm exhausted from student teaching where I ask my students to write for me and exercise their creativity and become brilliant thinkers." What kind of terrible teacher is terrified of modeling this behavior?


Oops. Well, here I am putting out a new post, trying to erase a bit of my own hypocrisy. And in the vein of reducing hypocrisy, I've got a story to tell. This isn't a creative fiction story though, this is a real life, happening now story. That's the goodbye part of the title. The first hello is that I'm posting again after a long absence. The goodbye is that it's not a creative post like I try to do more frequently. Goodbye, pressure of only posting when I have a narrowly defined creative writing piece. Hello (number two) to a new kind of post that is even more vulnerable than before. Hello to a post about my own life.

I love diagramming sentences. I think it is a fascinating art. Sentence diagrams are like trees. They have a trunk of the simple sentence and beautiful branches that reach out to provide complexity and support the life of a sentence. My love for sentence diagramming began in junior high when my English teacher made us diagram sentences all the time. I mourned the loss of sentence diagramming assignments when I reached high school, but Mrs. Johnson had sparked a desire for me to pursue a career in English with all of those sentence diagramming assignments. She also sparked a desire for me to write. I began writing "creative" stories with friends of mine. I shared them on this beautiful thing called the internet. I am ashamed of my lack of imagination at that time.

But I kept growing. I got to high school, left behind the sentence diagrams, and began to read more. I read beautiful texts that only increased my passion for the language arts. I decided that I wanted to become a high school English teacher. I even worked it out with my own high school English teacher that I would take her job when she retired. I've been on that path ever since. I'm getting my masters degree now, and I'm only months away from graduating with my teacher's license. However, I hit the first snag in my perfect plan less than a year ago. Mrs. Maki told me that she couldn't retire at the end of this year.

I need a job.

I had several people from several different areas of my life just drop the idea of teaching overseas into conversations. I laughed them all off. You see, there is something else important about me that you should know: I have a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe, who happens to be my personal Savior. This is connected to teaching overseas because I've always been vocal about how much I loved Jesus and was willing to go to the ends of the earth for him. The big kicker is that I only said that loudly and frequently because deep down I felt I'd never be called overseas - especially if I was going to take Mrs. Maki's job.

Well, along my journey to take Mrs. Maki's job, I discovered a lot about myself and even more about my Savior. I realized that when the Word became flesh, he made the discipline of literature an avenue to know more about him. I began to seek him out in every text I read. I began to grow closer to him.

Then I started grad school. I was in an education program where I had a year of theory about the American education system, and the things I learned about this behemoth began to wear on me. There is no hope of me fixing this broken system, and I don't even want to try. I just want to teach in a tiny private school in safe, suburban America where I can share my passion about discovering Truth in texts with young, eager minds. God has a sense of humor; I got placed in a tiny rural public school that plays in the same league as my old high school. Many of the kids there are numb to learning, and it's an uphill battle to share my passion about Truth in texts.

I began to become cynical. The year of theory about a broken system had already started to pull me away from my passion of connecting truth in literature to real life, and teaching these kids who didn't want to learn exhausted me. Something was amiss. And to top it all off, people right and left were suggesting to me that I go teach overseas after I graduate. A storm was brewing.

It all came to a head one Sunday at church when I was talking to a girl from the youth group. (I've been a youth leader for years because I want to be a positive influence on young people, and I want to share my love for the Lord and encourage others to passionately pursue him.) This particular student told me she hated youth group, felt like she never learned anything, and thought that she should be teaching the junior high youth. I was sick to my stomach when I heard her words. Whether she meant it or not, her words implied that she had somehow arrived in her faith and rather than needing to be fed and grow more herself, she was capable of passing on some "get out of hell free" advice to younger people.

What appalled me most is that I realized she might be following my example. I'm not that old, and I feel I have the audacity to speak truth into younger people's lives. I don't know nearly enough of Jesus to have the wisdom for that. After months of denial about the call overseas, I got angry. How dare this girl think she's arrived in her faith and doesn't need to grow? More importantly, how dare I think that I can remain in my comfort zone and get enough of Jesus? I had absolutely no right to speak to this girl - or anyone else - again until I wholeheartedly chased after Jesus.

I've grown up in the same town my whole life, and I feel very deeply rooted in my community. I'm comfortable where I am, and I hoped to stay here forever. Moving out of state would be a big deal for me. I tried bargaining with God: maybe I could move to Denver? I have a lot of family and friends there. It would still be a big step, but at the same time pretty comfortable for me. Oh fine, how about Pocatello? I only know a couple people who live there... and one of them is my best friend. No, a different state isn't far enough outside of my comfort zone for me to depend completely upon the Lord.


Woah, that got deep. I hit depression on Wednesday after the initial thrust into this cycle, and it wasn't until Friday when I told the story to one of my closest friends (who had nudged me through the denial phase) what an exhausting week I'd had but that I was finally feeling at peace about that I realized what had happened. Kara named the five stages of grief through my week.

I have a list of schools that I am applying to, and all of them are outside of the United States. I'm terrified. I'll likely be terrified until I've been out of the country for a month or two, but in the terror there is also peace. And in the terror and peace there is also Jesus. What I care about most at this point is Jesus.

Let me add, I care a great deal about the student who made me angry last week, but she is not nearly as important to me as Jesus. I want to make that point abundantly clear: I'm going overseas to seek out Jesus. He gave me a unique set of gifts, some related to reading and writing, and mixed in there is a passion for young people to see and know more of him through my life as an example. I could never look any of my students in the eye again if I did not live what I believe and chase after Jesus. I do not want to set an apathetic example that appears to have arrived in her faith in order to give answers to everyone younger than me. I don't have all the answers. I do know who does, however, and I'm eagerly seeking him out to know more about him and who he has created me to be.

I'd love to come back from a teaching experience overseas and know more about my Savior to share him with the students at my youth group, but that brings me to the last important point I have to share. I'm chasing Jesus, and I care very much about my students. I'm chasing Jesus to a place with new students. It's hard for me to leave the ones here who I know and love, but how can I possibly go to invest in a whole new set of students and anticipate pouring into them as a teacher and abandoning them after a single year? I'm leaving for at least a year to find more of Jesus. I'm chasing him for the rest of my life. I don't know if I'll ever come back to Oregon. I don't know where I'll be in a year, but I know I'll be chasing Jesus. I don't know where I'll be in two years, but I know I'll be chasing Jesus.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Washed by the Water

I sat before another empty canvas and felt empty inside myself. Zosima wanted another. He was so patient with me, and so kind too. I couldn't tell him no. I didn't need the money. Why had I gone and bought this new canvas? Why had I bought the bright aqua colored paint and the deep sea green color? The brightness of the aqua fascinated me; something about the hint of green caught my eye when I had walked down the paint aisle this time. The wide canvas didn't quite fit on my kitchen countertop, but it rested there with the bright aqua and deep sea green bottles of paint resting on top of the canvas. I stared. I didn't like this method of inspiration. I walked away from the canvas and let it sit there for the next two weeks. I had to work around it to make my meals, but I chose to leave it awkwardly in the way rather than to touch it at all. I can't really explain the strange conviction I had when I went to move it aside the first time. I somehow sensed that if I leaned the canvas up against the wall where it was out of the way or if I tucked the bottles of paint into my cupboard with my other three colors, my painting career would be over.
That was a terrifying moment when the words "painting career" flashed through my mind. I still had my job waiting tables, and I wasn't ready to give up my meager paychecks just yet because they came with such regularity. The two checks from Zosima could cover my living expenses for almost a year, but they weren't regular income. There was no promise of another check - and there would certainly be no other check if I moved that canvas off my countertop before I filled it with paint.
I came home after work one night completely exhausted from the eight hour shift on my feet. I had also had a few nasty customers at my table, and I was ready to crash. I dropped my purse and my keys on the single chair in my apartment and looked at the canvas on my countertop. Everything within me wanted to put on my pajamas, brush my teeth, and crawl into bed, but the canvas held my gaze. I felt so angry that the canvas wouldn't let me go to bed, so  I grabbed the aqua bottle of paint and squeezed a massive amount of it onto the canvas. Cool paint covered my fingers as I rubbed them through the pool I had poured on the white space. I roughly pushed the color out to the edges with my open palms; paint oozed all around my fingers. I did it quickly and didn't care to cover every inch of white. Once the bright blue paint was inconsistently stretched across the white with gaps of blank canvas coming through, I picked up the bottle of sea green paint. I didn't even bother to clean the aqua paint of my hand, but flipped open the cap and squirted thin lines of green onto the bottom of the canvas, reaching up at different heights. My bright handprint jumped out from the paint bottle when I set it down, but my attention was now on the green squiggles on top of the still wet aqua paint.
The deep green and aqua didn't quite go together, at least they didn’t to match to me as I looked at them right next to each other on the canvas. The aqua was bright and excited, but the green was weighted and heavy. I couldn't figure out why I had decided to purchase the two colors at the same time, but I realized that I had never learned much about painting, and my first masterpiece was a total accident.
Frustrated with my perception that my talent was untamable, I smashed my left index finger into the first thread of dark green. Sandwiched between the aqua on the canvas and on my finger, a new color was born in a wide, waving stripe as I led my finger through the stream of green. It was still distinct from the blue, but somehow it looked less out of place. That doesn't look so bad, I told myself, Maybe I can do this painting thing. I only half believed myself, but nonetheless, I finished smoothing the next six squiggles of green into the blue background.
The blurry thick strands looked something like seaweed when I was finished. In fact, they looked a lot like seaweed, and I realized that something inside me had thawed enough from my last two paintings to let me paint life thriving in a deep, deep sea. My paintings weren't about regular income: they were reflecting something about my soul; they were telling my story, but I didn't know the end yet. Honestly, I didn't really understand the beginning. My first two paintings had come after powerful visions that I later connected to myself. I wasn't anywhere to be found in this underwater world on my third canvas. When that occurred to me, I realized that I also still needed to sign this new work, so I checked that there was enough blue paint in the lower right corner to allow my white signature to show up in the morning after the paint had time to dry.
Satisfied with that layer of paint on the canvas, I allowed myself to go to bed. That night I slept a deep and dreamless sleep and went to work with more energy than I remembered having in weeks. Before I left for work, I signed the corner of my painting and stuck the canvas in the window. I had a full day at the restaurant, and hardly thought about Zosima until I found the note from him when I got home that evening. Before I even opened the single sheet of white paper stuck in my door, I knew who it was from. When I opened the note I read in his thin slanted script, "I'll return for the painting tomorrow evening at 6pm. Z."
I checked my watch as I tried to remember what time I got off work the next day. It was a quarter to eight, and my shift had ended at seven. I was scheduled seven to four the next day and should be home before five; I would be there when Zosima arrived. A huge sigh left my lungs when I realized this, and I realized that I had been holding my breath since I noticed the note stuck in my door. I was still standing in the hallway, completely wrapped up in the terror of what Zosima's note might say to me. I thought he might be upset with me for not being there when he came. I thought he might have decided not to buy this new painting. I was filled with fear of rejection.
My insecurities in my painting didn't diminish through the next day at work; I still wondered if Zosima would like this one and had hours to anticipate his possible reactions. It would take years for my insecurities to fade away. When I finally did get home that night I spent a good deal of time pacing around my apartment before Zosima came fore the painting.
He knocked at 6:02, and I opened the door just seconds after his first knock. He greeted me kindly as he stepped into my apartment. I smiled anxiously at him before crossing to the window and pulling the canvas out. I carried it towards him facing out, trying desperately to read his facial response to seeing it up close. I'm not the best at reading facial expressions, but something about his look exuded paternal feelings when he looked from the painting to me. I could confirm that years later when I saw the exact same look on his face the day he held his son for the first time, but at the time I could only vaguely tell that he was happy with what I had created. Another thing that I thought I glimpsed in his face was an idea that he knew more about this story I was painting than I did. He had a check ready for me, and we traded his small piece of paper for my massive canvas as he told me, "I look forward to the next one, Abbie Smith."
"Okay." I still wasn't sure how to respond to his statement, but this time I knew there would be another painting. I knew now that I was telling a story as I lived it out, even though I wasn't anywhere to be found in that deep ocean scene. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012


It's difficult to translate it into English, because our culture doesn't have an equivalent. It means slave or bondservant, but those words still don't really capture the idea. You see, the doulos chose their way of life. First century Greeks valued their freedom as much as twenty-first century Americans, and yet they still had this word because there were people who wanted to give their lives in service to another. The doulos was a servant who liked their master enough to choose a life in their service.
The word "slave" has a pretty heavy negative connotation thanks to the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, but in the first century culture, it did not mean you were dehumanized. It was still a human position, just one of humility and servitude.
The word "bondservant" just sounds archaic, but the "bond" part has some credit to it. The root word of doulos is the word meaning "bond" or "fasten," frequently with chains in the biblical contexts. I like the term "bondservant," but it doesn't carry the severity, the umph, in English.
Doulos is a permanent, willing humility to a designated other.
I first learned the word when I was a young and naieve eighteen year old putting together a paper for Senior Bible class. I was fascinated by the concept that James the Apostle, the brother of Christ, chose this title, doulos of Christ, to start his canonical letter. I decided I wanted to be a doulos of Christ too. I thought it'd make a pretty cool tattoo.
But I waited almost six years before actually committing ink to my skin.
A lot has happened in those six years.
A lot.
I just want to highlight a few things here, though. First of all, I want to explain why I chose to tattoo my body. In high school it was a cool thing to talk about doing, but I had the sense enough to think through the implications and potential complications for putting this mark on my body considering the life goals I had. I want to be a teacher at the same school I graduated from, and I know that some of the parents who send their kids there believe that tattooing yourself is a horrendous sin - based on their literal interpretation of Leviticus 19:28. Funny story, Leviticus 19:28 follows Leviticus 19:27. The same people who condemn me for having a tattoo wouldn't bat an eye at a male colleague who shaves. Those two verses are telling us something about the character of God when they're read in context. They are not a list of proof texts to pick and choose from according to our misconceptions of what God wants us to look like which are erroneously rooted in 1950s suburban white American culture.
The key text I had to deal with was not Leviticus 19:28, but 1 Corinthians 8 - meat sacrificed to idols. Paul told the believers that they had freedom in Christ, but they needed to be sensitive to their brothers and sisters who were not used to or yet comfortable with this freedom. If that meant an immature Christian told a mature Christian he or she was eating meat sacrificed to idols, the mature Christian had a responsibility to stop to keep the immature Christian from stumbling. So in my case, I knew I had the freedom to get a tattoo, but I also knew that there were immature parents in my teaching future who would not understand that freedom. Did I have a responsibility to refrain from getting my tattoo just because it would cause them to think I was a sinner?
I honestly had to wrestle with that because I didn't want to be discredited as a follower of Christ for getting a tattoo that labeled me as a follower of Christ… yeah, that happened. It was a big dilemma for me, but I talked to one of my Bible professors about it. He pointed out that Paul never encouraged Christians to pause their freedoms to keep their brothers and sisters immature. My refraining from this permanent and public declaration could be maintaining the immaturity of my brothers and sisters who might condemn me.
So I was going to get it. I wanted to have a permanent and public declaration that I was willingly giving my life to Christ. I asked my friend Angela to go with me, and she set up an appointment for me and asked if I had a picture of what I wanted. I searched online and typed the letters with the Greek font in Word. I even printed out the image I liked best in the appropriate size, but the night before I got my tattoo I realized I didn't want to be branded with those computer generated letters. I wanted a mark of ownership on my foot that represented the personal, loving relationship I have with my master.
Have you ever seen Toy Story? Andy has a personal, loving relationship with his toys, and he marks his ownership of them by writing his name on their foot. I wanted this particular name written on my foot. I didn't want a cattle brand; that's not how Christ works. I spent about half an hour writing and rewriting the Greek letters until I thought they looked perfect, and came up with the handwritten version of the tattoo you can now see on my foot.
It will always be there as a permanent and public declaration that I have an owner who loves me enough to mark me with his ownership and to allow me to be called his own. 

Battle Log: 1,932

This is the longest I've ever gone without communicating to our Command Base.

I was out in the field with some of my troops, but they were attacked and overtaken by the Apathy. I thought I could withstand. I thought I needed to be more concerned with Distraction, but it seems that I've been almost incapacitated by Apathy. It's been dripping in my wake. I discovered my quarters are covered with the fungus, and I've been breathing it in and out for almost a month now. All of my previous work is tainted with the haziness of unclear convictions.
I'm ashamed to say, but I hardly noticed how much time had passed since I had last communicated. I assessed my troops this morning and found that four of my brightest soldiers are completely paralyzed by the disease. I know I cannot revive them without first sterilizing the bacteria within myself. It's a painful decontamination process as the layers of my skin have to be burned off, but I'm anxious to feel the release of weight as the fungus is burned away along with the contaminated skin.

With the Apathy identified and addressed, communications with Command will resume their normal pace, and perhaps even accelerate as I look for ways to cure and keep my soldiers healthy. I can only perform the decontamination on myself, and I need help from the higher authorities to find solutions that can save those under my supervision. Apathy has been a nasty enemy, and I'm sure the battle is far from over. However, I'm happy to have the current culprit identified so that I can adapt my battle strategies accordingly. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Little Talks

"Did you just say the f-word?"
The catchy song continued playing, and I sang every word loudly when the chorus repeated the profanity. We both laughed.
"You know, my life goal is to get you to quote me saying that in a short story."
We laughed again as the quiet green countryside passed by the car windows. It may have been a lazy afternoon outside the old minivan, but inside we were belting out alternative music in between inside jokes and philosophical comments.
"I think I'm going to try to go a month only eating beans, rice, and broccoli."
"Why broccoli?"
"Well, I know in a lot of other countries people survive on beans and rice plus some local veggies. I figure broccoli is one of the healthiest, so I'll choose that one. Plus, I think I could eat that every meal without getting sick of it. I mean, it's so delicious, you know."
She laughed at my broccoli comment so hard that we swerved on the narrow highway.
"Watch the road!" I shouted, "Broccoli's not worth dying for!"
We laughed again and turned our focus to the cliffs rising up on either side of us. The highway created the flat black bottom of a vibrant green ravine. Every couple of miles we caught a glimpse of a tiny waterfall dripping down against the rock exposed among the foliage.
"This drive is so gorgeous."
"Let's go on a road trip every weekend."
"But seriously," I said after a pause, "Broccoli's got to be one of the best vegetables to choose if you're only going to eat one for a month."
"Why do you only need to eat one?"
"Well, it seemed like a good idea if I was going to cut out all other food other than beans and rice. It'd be kinda like a cleanse, but also a bonus because it's super cheap. With my savings, I'll take a creative writing class and write that story you're dreaming of - the one where you shout profanities. I can see it now, you're running through a meadow and shouting them with glee."
"You can't shout profanity with glee; you've got to use it appropriately."
"I'm sorry, you did not provide that parameter in your life goal."

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Love Note

Greg strutted from the grocery store with his fresh six pack of beer and unlocked his flashy street car parked in the handicapped spot. The six pack sat in the front seat next to him as he roared out of the parking lot, making his engine rumble the whole mile back to his house.

The neighborhood was eerily quiet once Greg silenced his engine. He slammed the driver's door after he got out, unaware of the peace he was disturbing. He swaggered up to the front door and turned the handle hard to let himself in. He was surprised to find the door locked. Sheila usually left it unlocked for him when he came home in the evenings. The beer bottles clinked in one hand as he fumbled for the keys in his pocket with his other hand. Once he got the door opened, he called out Sheila's name.

There was no response.

"Where are you?"

His booming question received no response.

For the first time Greg could hear the silence. There were no kids playing outside, no dogs barking, no lawnmowers running, and no wife making dinner. Greg made his way into the kitchen and looked around. Everything looked clean and put away. Even the table was cleared of its usual clutter except for a conspicuous envelope with Greg's name on it.

He snatched up the enveloped and opened it to find Sheila's wedding ring and a note inside. He didn't need to read the note to guess the message, but he watned to know any details as to the reason Sheila had left him.

I love you. Your behavior towards me has made it clear that you do not feel the same way towards me. I'm going to find somewhere I can be loved.

Greg sank into the closest kitchen chair and reread the note a dozen times. It didn't make any more sense to him the twelfth time than it did the first, but he kept rereading because he couldn't think of anything else to do.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Hush Up

Look up! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's not moving, so it can't be either of those. It's up above, and it's making sound. Let's listen in to hear what it has to say...

Speaking changes everything. The act. The words. The power. I wonder, do you know what your course words have done? Do you see how words brought up an Empire that brought down a Generation? Once we opened the gates of Auschwitz, how could we ever open our mouths again? Words are guilty of such horrors.

How can I steward them well, then? Carefully, I suppose. But, hush, can you hear? There's something lingering in the silence. Over there. Behind here. It's between the words. Listen close. It's soft; it's soothing. It cools the heat of the burning words.

Burning words, white hot words. What's the verb of that sentence fragment? Do you see how they still carry power? Did you hear the verb whispering in between the lines?

Go. Do. Think. Be. Create. Do you see how they command? I cannot command much of an audience, but what audience I do have I must speak to responsibly. I have these words, and I cannot toss them around lightly. They carry power and authority. I, the one who bears them, must do so thoughtfully. Can you imagine the ramifications if I threw words around with reckless abandon? Shirts would get printed with the word "wreckless" on them. Incidentally, this has already happened. I saw it on Wednesday. I saw a shirt that said, "Young and Wreckless." Absurdism begins to make sense in the face of these atrocities.

I wanted to cry.

Instead, I stewed on the idea that spelling is actually important. Grammar is actually important as well. When I'm tempted to use poor grammar, I think of Picasso. Have you ever seen any of his earliest works? The man was phenomenal in traditional art forms. He could paint in realism, impressionism, or pointillism  beautifully. After demonstrating proficiency in these recognized art forms, he broke free and began to paint outside the boundaries of accepted art. Virginia Woolf did something similar with the sentence. I am not Picasso or Woolf. I ought to demonstrate an exceedingly high level of proficiency with the English language before I attempt to break free from the bonds of grammar rules.

Do you know what the purpose of grammar and syntax is? The purpose of grammar and syntax is to facilitate effective communication. It's wise stewardship of words. Forming sentences well allows one to communicate most effectively. I'm not saying that every sentence should always be grammatically correct; I have a great deal of respect for Picasso and Woolf. Those great artists and writers, however, demonstrated an ability to communicate effectively inside and out of traditional boundaries. They were not breaking rules out of laziness; they created something new with intentionality.

But this blog was about silence to begin with. (Never start a sentence with a conjunction. Never end a sentence with a preposition.) Wasn't it?

Where do we go from here? Words have been abused. Grammar and syntax have been abused to the detriment of clear communication. Where do we go from here?

We go forward. We reclaim the words, and we use them responsibly. We craft our sentences with silence and intentionality. We complete our paragraphs, and we communicate thoughtfully.

Hush, did you hear something here?