Tag Archives: vocabulary

Saving Up Stories

Photo: Dana VanderLugt

This blog post was originally published on The Twelve

My grandpa passed away last winter. One of the things I miss most is saving up stories for him.

My family still gathers around grandma’s table every Sunday, and most weeks my husband, kids, and I are there. My Grandpa was never one for much small talk, for casual conversation – but he loved stories, especially those told around that well-worn, oak table, and especially when the table was extended to its full length with a mismatch of chairs pulled up around it. As I grew, I was trained to be attentive, to watch and listen for captivating moments, to save up stories for Sunday and for Grandpa because I knew he would want to hear a good one, and that he’d probably re-tell it over and over to each person who visited that week.

For the past month, I’ve been gathering with a handful of people at the local pub on Monday nights, reading through the New Testament together. We sit around the table with the text open, exploring the story. We read the verses – some of which I admit I’ve read only in isolation in a greeting card – in context. We talk about what surprised us, what we struggled with, what convicted us, what gave us hope. We have better conversation than I’ve had in a church setting in quite awhile – because we’re just talking about the story. We are trying to come to some sense of understanding and allowing lots of space for questions.

This week in one of my classes we were discussing a novel just before I introduced the next writing assignment. One student’s hand suddenly rose. “Does this paper have to have a thesis?” she asked. “Do we have to come right out and tell our reader what our main point is? Because I love reading and discovering it myself, just like in this book we’re reading; I like when the author lets me figure it out rather than telling me what I’m supposed to think.”

Doesn’t it seem that sometimes stories work when arguments fail? That stories have power that facts and statistics can’t hold? That parables, anecdotes, and real-life accounts often make more room for questions and complexities than a 5-point lecture or pages and pages of statistics? As a teacher, I find myself scavenging for good stories, for examples, because facts, figures, and tricky vocabulary often can’t close the gap.

There is no doubt I’ve been fed physically around my grandparents’ table throughout my life – buttery rolls fresh from the oven, ham garnished with horseradish, apple crisp made with Cortlands from the family orchard. But words have filled me there, too. It’s where I learned my voice, learned how to spin a tale – what details mattered and what might be better left out. I grew up on a steady diet of familiar fables, of images and lines worth repeating. Those stories shaped me and gave me an appetite for more. Stories nourish; they fill us up in a way that arguments don’t. They introduce us to new flavors, new ideas, different ways of seeing the world. There’s space and mystery in a story – it’s not all given to us; there is not one right answer. Stories provide a way back to each other – and make room for the rough edges of life.

When life is complicated, when there is wrestling and uncertainty, when there are disagreements with those across the aisle – or the dinner table – stories are the sound of chairs moving and of making room for each other.

Photo: unsplash.com

 

Middle

Definition: (Adjective) At an equal distance from the extremities of something

 Synonyms: Center or Midst, suggesting that a person or thing is closely surrounded or encompassed on all sides, especially by that which is thick or dense; such as the midst of a storm.

Photo credit: unsplash.com; Alex Jones

When I tell someone I teach in a middle school, the most common reaction is a wince followed by a comment such as, “I hated middle school.” People say things like “I’m sorry,” or “Those were the worst years of my life.” I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I really wish I could go back and re-live eighth grade.”

I teach the years most people try to forget.

“An equal distance from the extremities” — that’s what it feels like a lot of days — that those of us who teach the middle are wading through the messy, inmost pieces. We are teaching lessons to brains mid-developed, grading essays that are half-finished, trying to counsel and guide people who are only able to partially listen.

There’s no hiding the realities of these places — students try so very hard to appear to have it all together, but pull it off very poorly. Even those who appear the most composed are doing their best to stay that way. It’s a place where an untidy vulnerability hangs heavy in the air.  Everything seems a little shaky, a little fragile, when so many are trying to hard to look the right way, say the right thing, and be the right version of themselves. (This is also exactly why I feel anxious at bridal showers.)

Oh, and on my warm days, my classroom smells like puberty. (When prepping him for “the” video to be shown in his 4th grade classroom, my oldest son said,  “I don’t know what this puberty thing is, but it sounds disgusting.”) The aroma on May afternoon serves as very tangible reminder that this stage of life is often awkward and uncomfortable. 

Wander through a middle school cafeteria and you’ll see it — how hard it is to be truly confident, truly funny, truly smart, truly anything (but trying).  It’s a microcosm for the world — a place where self consciousness and hurt intermingle with curiosity and a joyful innocence.

But in the middle, magic can also happen. There is a reason so many books that have become classics are coming-of-age stories. (If you hated To Kill a Mockingbird when you were assigned to read it in high school, can I beg you to try it again? You weren’t ready for it then, but you are now.)

 There is a single account in the Bible of the adolescence of Jesus — when he was 12 years old and left behind in the temple while his parents traveled three days back home before realizing in panic that their boy was missing. (Doesn’t this make you feel better about your parenting skills, too? If it happened to Mary and Joseph…)  Upon their reunion, we see this God-as-a-boy stopping to ask his parents, “Do you know what matters to me? Didn’t you figure out where I would be?” The process of figuring out identity, a gentle moving toward things that matter, is not a clean and simple process.

I’m slowly figuring out that the only way through is through the middle, through the midst of it all.

Adolescence is one inevitable “middle” in life, but it’s not the only one. During most of our lives, we’re wading through middles — we’re offshore, swimming through (or treading the waters of) parenting, faith, friendships, family intricacies, marriage, illness, tragedy, pain.  

We can try to ignore the hard stuff, try to push it out of our minds, try to leap over it, but we have to wade into it first. The “middles” of our lives are not shiny, easy, or non-stop fun. Many moments don’t make our social media highlight reels. This looks much more like wading in mud than in shimmering waters. Most middle moments involve little more than showing up and trying our darndest to do the next right thing. Or sometimes, taking a nap.

Redemption can be found in running out onto the other side, but much of the time, redemption looks more like crawling out, a clumsy stumble onto dry land, with months and years before we can make any sense of it.

When life gets overwhelming, I find a strange comfort in knowing that I am just a pinprick on this planet, just one player in God’s greater story — a story much, much bigger than I can see.  We are all confused adolescents in the noisy cafeteria.

We are loved, we are chosen, but we are not alone, and everyone else is loved and chosen, too.

Do you know of the Russian Matryoshka dolls? The wooden dolls that nest one inside the other? My days nest one inside another, adding up into phases and seasons (some harder than others), adding up into a lifetime, but still nesting inside a bigger story.  And as much as I may try to work and prove my worth, I am already resting — being held safely — inside that larger space. I’m not going to earn my way in or out of that safety, God’s nest. I am in the middle, but I am secure. I am imperfect and flawed and irritable — but I am loved anyway.

Photo credit: pixabay.com; jacqueline macou

I wonder if my time spent in the middle — inside my 8th grade classroom; inside that car ride with the kids when the word “Mom” whined one more time makes me feel this close to snapping; inside the hospital waiting for word from the surgeon about Dad’s surgery — could remind me to stop trying so hard and just rest in the mess with assurance that I’m nestled inside a larger story.

The magic of the middle may be that though life’s messiness cannot be comfortably navigated, we are, in fact, “closely surrounded, encompassed on all sides.” We’re not crushed in the middle, but held safely in the “midst of its storms.”

Walking each other home

“We’re all just walking each other home.” — Ram Dass

Nestled back in the corner of my basement storage room are boxes of letters.  Letters my cousin and I wrote back and forth weekly as children. Letters from camp counselors and cabin mates with whom I promised to never lose touch. Letters from my grandma (probably stained with homesick tears) sent to me in Switzerland when I was working as an au pair after college.

I rarely open the boxes. I rarely pull out a letter to read. It’s just enough to know they are there. It’s enough to know the words are safe and available if I’d need them.

I’m a collector — not of stuff, so much — but of words and images. I fill my walls with books and pictures. I refuse to throw away old notes, tattered bookmarks, or elementary school yearbooks. A bedside box is filled with years of half-full notebooks and journals. I take pictures almost compulsively. I nearly made it to the car with a box of old CDs to donate, but found myself sneaking back into the house to hide them in the closet in the spare bedroom instead.

Since I was a small child and started my first scrapbook, I’ve had a longing within me to capture moments, to find some way for language to explain the unexplainable, to find a way to pluck and store an ounce of time before it keeps drifting away. I desperately want to make sense of the world around me — to give it some order by paying closer attention, by attempting to catalog its events.

While I could research and name dozens of the ills and slipperiness of social media and our technological age, one of the gifts is the collective story we tell. It’s the logging and sharing of moments, the articles friends post that I never would have found, the images that connect me to places I’m not, and it’s the way it helps to keep a log of our own lives, too.

I’ve been struggling with writing for a public audience for awhile. Because while I’m a sharer, I want my motives to be good ones. It’s easy for me to become a little too aware of who’s reading. A little too addicted to feedback. A little scared of what’s okay to put out there.

But I want to step out in grace here in this space, stumbling toward grace, really. I want to share and write with you, not for your approval, but to try to name and understand our experiences because our stories are a little less overwhelming when we’re telling them together. My friend, Theresa, says the biggest compliment you can get as writer is someone saying, “Me too.” And isn’t a room of whispered “me too’s” stronger and more powerful than applause? At a writing conference I recently attended, Shauna Niequist said she writes, “As an offering, not a performance.” And that’s what I want, too. Performing is scary, an offering for a community — an authentic one — is imperfect and broken, but fun. Compassion beats comparison and mercy beats scrutiny.  

I love the landscape of vocabulary and images that surround us, and I want to keep writing and showing up, not because it’s easy or it makes sense, but because it’s one of the best ways I know to keep walking each other home.

longing within me with tractor